By Megan Chaudhuri

The tense conversation stopped when Lydia slipped into the office, trailing the stench of old blood, ocean brine, and the cheap cigars favored by London’s Watch. The sudden heat and light from the crackling fire struck her like a blow. For one dizzying moment, the room’s familiar bookshelves and battle maps blurred with the seated figures of Mrs. Lincoln and a well-dressed stranger. The void left by their choked-off conversation filled with the drip-drip of water from Lydia’s overcoat onto the Hindustani carpet.

Lydia swayed. Her sisters would faint if they knew that she came to a job like this–that she needed a job–

Bugger it, she thought. Taking a deep breath, she curtseyed smartly. Mrs. Lincoln smiled but the stranger frowned and clutched closer a leather case.

“Mrs. Bexley,” Mrs. Lincoln said, tilting the teapot over a third cup. The scent of fresh bergamot didn’t quite mask Lydia’s odor of pickled death. “Thank you for coming on short notice. I hope we were not interrupting…?”

“La!” Lydia said, shrugging out of the overcoat. She sat with a flounce to hide her shaking knees. “I am at your disposal, madam.”

But Mrs. Lincoln clearly saw through the saucy words, and Lydia looked down. The body wasn’t his. She sipped the tea to hide her expression. Just another poor sot dredged up by the Watch that wasn’t my husband.

Which meant she might still get to kill the runaway bastard.

Or bring him home, a voice whispered, to you, and Bennie.

“Capital,” said Mrs. Lincoln, her expression still sharp. “Now, my dear, this is Mr. Clarke, who works for an old and–important friend.” Her gaze touched the 1813 portrait of King George behind Lydia. “Mr. Clarke, my Mrs. Bexley solves problems like yours–”

“Madam,” Clarke interrupted, his thumb fussing with the case’s clasp. “There has never been a problem like mine. Nor one demanding more speed, superior understanding, and, hmmm,” he glanced at Lydia’s muck-smeared gown, “greater discretion.”

His obvious contempt bruised Lydia’s nerves, tender still with thwarted grief. The corpse’s crab-gnawed face had had none of her husband’s fine bone structure. But she could not afford spiting this Mr. Clarke. The demands of Bennie’s maintenance; her need for a new, better-smelling gown…

Lydia forced a smile. “What do you need understood, sir?”

He ignored her. “Surely, madam, there are other professionals…?”

“There were other professionals.” Mrs. Lincoln rested her elbows on the French battle maps covering her desk. “Fast, clever, discrete. Men.

Something passed between them, an echo of the tense conversation Lydia had interrupted. Clarke looked at Lydia. The fire snapped as a log crumpled to lifeless ash.

“She’s to his taste,” Clarke said grudgingly. “According to the wife.” He unclasped the case. To Lydia’s surprise, he drew out a silk towel and handed it to her.

Not a towel. It slithered open, revealing an old-fashioned corset that weighed less than silk and shimmered brighter than steel. Lydia brought it close to try to discern the weave.

“Whatever is this made of?” It didn’t feel or look dyed–but the gold color had a green cast, like verdigris on copper. Her nose prickled at its strange, metallic scent.

“That,” Clarke said, “is what we need understood. Hmmm. Try tearing it.”

With a glance at the silent Mrs. Lincoln, Lydia grasped the corset and tugged. Pulled. Yanked until her brow dampened with sweat.

Clarke looked unsurprised–no, contemptuous. A sentiment Lydia was too acquainted with, from those terrible months after Bennie was born and her husband had disappeared. Those terrible months when she’d eaten her sisters’ charity and drank their contempt.

Scowling, she bit the cloth; it had the salty, metallic taste of a cheap mercury tonic. Her teeth left no mark–but something else had.

“What happened here?” Lydia said, touching the pucker near the seam.

“That is where its owner, Mrs. Banks, was stabbed by a seemingly common mugger after she left her husband, Thomas Banks, a dealer in fine cloths.”

An understandable response to spousal abandonment. She looked closer. “But there’s no blood stain.”

“Yes. The knife only, hmmm, bruised Mrs. Banks. This curious cloth turned the blade as if it was steel plate.” His eyes dropped to the maps on the desk, the recent battles inked in the bright red of arterial blood.

No wonder Mrs. Lincoln’s ‘friend’ is interested.

“If Mrs. Banks survived,” Lydia said, “why not ask her about the material?”

“We did,” Clarke said. “She knew nothing about its components, but was happy to relate how her husband gave her the cloth years ago. And has been selling more to, hmmm, persons of interest.”

“How lucrative for him,” Mrs. Lincoln said.

“He desires to purchase back the knighthood his father lost, for smuggling,” Clarke said, taking back the cloth. “We also know from Mrs. Banks and the–first professionals who looked into this matter, that more information about this material must be at his manor in Kent, where his sick sister lives. Possibly even stores of it. So Mrs. Banks believes, but she always lived in their Town residence.” Clarke closed the clasp. “Which is why we need a young lady,” he cleared his throat, “capable of getting, hmmm, close to Mr. Banks and obtaining this knowledge.”

Close to Mr. Banks. Clearly, Clarke thought she had one trick. But the insult receded as Lydia rubbed her forefinger and thumb together, longing for another moment with silk that was like steel. Covetousness–a sentiment her sisters loathed–fanned at her heart.

But then her fingers paused, as if caught in an indentation left by a knife. In her mind, her sisters formed a Greek chorus of disapproval: What if she was also killed? Who would pay for Bennie’s board and tuition?

“You should understand, Mrs. Bexley,” Mrs. Lincoln said, her expression shrewd, “that I ask this of you because it is… necessary.” She refilled Lydia’s teacup. “Mr. Clarke also has promised to compensate well, for your troubles.”

The mental chorus fell into shocked silence when Lydia hurled guineas at it. In her mind’s eye, her hands were covered in golden silk gloves, her hair with a saucily feathered bonnet, her bosom by the most fashionable gown. And Bennie would read at Oxford. Oh, if that bastard husband could see them now!

Her grin faltered when she noticed Mrs. Lincoln. Despite the woman’s mask of confidence, her eyes were narrow and her lips were thin.

Lydia took a breath of brine and bergamot. Picking up her teacup, she smiled at Clarke. “I am certain I shall find them no trouble at all, sir.”

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A young lady capable of getting close to Mr. Banks. Clarke’s words seeded a thought–the thought sprouted into a plan–and two days later, the desolate seaside was darkening around Lydia as clouds thickened overhead. Her riding skirt snapped and her rented horse snorted as salt-scented winds lashed against them. Lydia scanned the darkening landscape, unease burbling in her belly. Behind her stretched an overgrown dirt road; ahead, just visible on the cliffs above the ocean, loomed Banks’ manor.

But where was its master? Some judicious bribery at the last town’s stables had revealed that Banks was expected home this afternoon. But now it was growing storm-dark–and where was Banks so she could throw herself into his path, crying for aide–

A red-tinged light winked in the distance.

Lydia twisted. A carriage light?

Impossible–the carriage would flounder there amidst the waist-high grasses.

Smugglers? This desolate coastline was supposedly infested with them.

The light flared again–but in the opposite direction. And closer.

Lydia was reaching for her dagger when the horse snorted. Then she heard it: the heavy creak of a well-sprung barouche, the clop-clop of more horses than most smugglers could afford. She hastily smoothed her skirts over the dagger strapped to her thigh and pinched her cheeks to a glow.

When the barouche drew level with her, its driver and footman had their pistols drawn. Raindrops glittered on the bright barrels; teardrops glittered on Lydia’s eyelashes.

“Hold right–” The footman’s words choked off as his lantern illuminated Lydia.

“Please, sir!” Lydia cried, bosom heaving. “I am so frightfully lost!”

The barouche rocked.

A beast’s–no, a monster’s–head thrust over the edge, all yellow fangs and blood-red mouth and spider-black eyes.

The horse started. Lydia yanked his reins one-handed, her other hand going for the pocket hole over the dagger–

“Back, damn you!” The bellow accompanied the fleshy sound of a blow and the monster’s–dog’s, Lydia realized–head disappeared. A man’s replaced it, as gaunt as a skeleton’s, topped with a powdered wig last fashionable when her dear, dead mama was a girl.

Lydia stared. This antiquated lout was Banks?

“Who the devil are you?” he exclaimed.

Must be. Lydia kicked the horse forward, crying, “Thank God you are here!” His eyes dilated as she leaned forward. “I feared you might be bandits–”

The words froze in her mouth. The blood congealed in her veins. Another head had shot up in front of Banks.

This one had fashionably tousled hair above a handsome face.

A handsome face Lydia knew better than her own.

Oh, Lord! She was numb–numb like those dreadful moments after a blow has landed, but before the pain is felt.

He gaped at her, his face as bloodless as when they had wed nine years ago.

“You’re blocking my view, Carter,” said Banks, pushing him aside.

Carter? Lydia swayed, grabbing the pommel.

Carter. He was incognito, the bastard. Just like her.

Carter. She’d have to risk it. And maybe the chance would present itself, for her to draw her dagger and…

Lydia let her eyes roll up. It wasn’t hard.

“Richard!” exclaimed Banks. “She’s going to faint!”

With perfect timing, Lydia slid into the surprised footman’s arms.

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She kept limp even though every muscle wanted to shiver when ‘Carter’ spoke. She held her eyes closed even when the barouche stopped and the footman picked her up. Carter. Nausea roiled her gut. What in God’s name was he doing here?

The footman’s breathing grew labored as he carried her across what sounded like marble, then onto thick carpet. He dropped her onto a sofa that smelled of wet dog. The room itself stank so much of dusty books that Lydia nearly shuddered at the unpleasant memories of her book-loving father.

“Have care, man!” said Banks. “Fetch Doherty.”

A growl from the monster-dog undercut his words. Carter’s fast breathing was audible. The fan case in her real pocket was jabbing her; she focused on that, using one of Mrs. Lincoln’s tricks to calm the trapped rabbit that was her mind.

The footman retreated. Heeled boots approached. Sour breath puffed against her face.

“Do you recognize her, Carter?”

Her heart lurched.

“Vaguely.”

Oh, Lord!

“She seems more a lady than your usual tastes.”

“She’s dressed more for whoring than riding, Banks.” Bastard.

“She’s dressed more for dancing than riding, man.” Only Mrs. Lincoln’s training kept Lydia still when Banks laid a cold hand on her arm. “Miss?”

Carter cleared his throat. “I do recall–”

Lydia moaned.

Footsteps. A mutter from Banks, inaudible beneath the patter of rain on windows. The grating sound of something ceramic being unscrewed.

The urine stench of smelling salts burned her nose and lungs.

Lydia choked, her eyes flying open to a gentleman’s library. Involuntary tears blurred together its occupants and furnishings. The dog’s growling ceased and its toenails clicked away on the marble.

“She’s awake, sir,” said the servant hovering over Lydia. Lydia lifted a hand to dash away her tears but the servant–Doherty, presumably–seized it, pressing a pear-shaped bottle into her hand. The ammonia scent prickled Lydia’s nose. “Use this if you feel faint, madam.”

Lydia sat up, breathing through her mouth. Doherty backed into a corner, replaced at the sofa by Banks. Behind him, her erstwhile husband affected lounging against a mantelpiece beneath a large genealogical diagram.

“Oh, sir!” Lydia looked up at Banks. “Where am I?”

“My manor,” Banks said, his voice unctuous. “I am Sir Thomas Banks, Miss–?”

He styles himself a knight still. Her eyes flickered from him to the genealogy to–Carter, she must think of him as Carter, to prevent a fatal tongue slip. A new scar furrowed the bloodless skin of his jaw and nearly touched his jugular.

“Hatfield,” Lydia said, yanking her eyes from the scar. A shame the attacker had missed the vein. “Miss Harriet Hatfield. Oh, Sir Banks, thank you for rescuing me!” Noting where his rheumy eyes strayed, she straightened, to better the effect of her heaving bosom. Invite me to stay and recover, you lout. “I set out to visit my cousin whilst on my way to Town, and got dreadfully lost, and a storm was coming!”

Reassurances of her safety flew from Banks, punctuated with glances at her figure. Lydia would have felt tolerably secure–if not for the anger radiating from Carter.

If not for Carter.

“Surely, Banks,” Carter said, staring at Lydia, “we don’t wish to detain Miss–Hatfield. She can take the barouche back, once her nerves have settled.”

“Oh!” Lydia pictured Carter’s head on a pike. “What if I faint on the road, Sir Banks?” She widened her eyes. Invite me to stay, damn you!

Carter scowled. “You have your salts.”

“Good God, man,” Banks snapped, turning on him. Carter’s expression quickly turned amiable. “There’s no call for such rudeness to a lady of good breeding.”

Behind Banks’ back, Lydia mouthed, ‘Carter?’

But Banks turned back quicker than she expected, and she hastily rearranged her features.

‘Hatfield?’ her husband mouthed.

One pike wasn’t enough–

“Ah!” Banks said. Lydia and Carter jumped. “I see you are admiring my life’s work, Miss Hatfield.”

“Oh, yes!” Lydia said, wrenching her attention from that runaway bastard and trying to figure out what the deuce he was talking about: Horses. Manor. Library–oh, Lord, did he read books? “I am impressed.”

“Indeed? Few understand it, beyond myself and my sister. Carter actually mistook it for my family tree!”

Lydia blinked, and then peered at the diagram over Carter’s head. Now that her vision was clear, she saw that the names were…strange.

And that Banks’ ancestors never lived more than fifteen years.

Lydia glanced at the door left ajar by the dog’s flight. The loathsome beast must be ‘Fitzroy (1811 –     )’.

“Are you familiar with Lamarck, Miss Hatfield?” Banks said, the gleam of a devotee replacing lust in his eye. “When I was a boy, our nurse–the granddaughter of a natural philosopher–introduced me to his brilliance. I have since applied his principles, and permitted only the strongest hounds to sire–”

His words clipped off. Startled, Lydia followed his eyes to the strange woman in the doorway.

She was stouter and shorter than Lydia, wrapped like an invalid in a heavy blanket. Her dark gaze was focused on Banks, its glittering sharpness as unnerving as if a spider’s eight black eyes had looked up from a baby’s face.

The ripe scent of unwashed human wafted into the library.

“Cassie!” thundered Banks. “What in nine hells are you doing up here?”

Surreptitiously, Lydia opened the smelling salt vial.

“You are too loud, brother,” Cassie said tonelessly. “Everyone is disturbed, running to and fro. I cannot do my work.”

With surprising speed, Banks closed the short distance between them. But before he could seize–or strike–her, a gloved hand emerged to pluck at the blanket’s edge.

Banks leapt back as if struck. Lydia twitched and immediately regretted it when the vial’s lid slipped, letting more ammonia vapor escape. She looked up with watering eyes to see Banks turn. His fear was gone–had she imagined it?–and his face was set in a scowl. A scowl which, except for the gray whiskers and red eyes, perfectly mirrored the many disapproving scowls Lydia had received from her siblings.

Perhaps that was why she stood and, to her surprise, curtseyed. “Miss Banks! What a pleasure to meet my savior’s sister!”

Brother and sister fell silent. Lydia had the impression that Cassie only now realized others were present.

“Ex-excuse me, Miss Hatfield,” Banks said loudly. Cassie winced. “My sister is–not well, and unaccustomed to company.”

“Nor to loud noises,” Lydia said, noticing the wince. “You do not know your strength of voice, sir.” She managed to turn her tone up at the end, transforming her words into a compliment on his masculine tenor.

It worked. Banks loosened his grip, just as a flushed Doherty darted forward and tapped Cassie’s arm. The servant curtseyed–Lydia noted how her eyes bulged with fear–and then they were gone.

There goes one with little love for Banks. Mistreated servants were worth their weight in gold, thanks to their knowledge about their masters’ secrets. But, oh–she must stay to pry it from Doherty!

“La, Sir Banks!” Lydia hooked her arm through his, brushing herself against him. All men–including the pale one glaring at her–liked that sort of thing. “You must be a fine singer to have such a powerful voice.”

For a heartbeat his eyes were on her face, shrewd and sharp. But then they dropped to where their bodies touched. Her breath caught in her throat: Invite me. Invite me. Invite me.

“You must stay, Miss Hatfield,” he said. “At least until the storm clears.”

Air rushed back into Lydia, smelling of sweat and tasting of triumph. She squealed her thanks even as her skin prickled beneath her husband’s glare.

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The bedroom given to Lydia for her toilette before supper was opulent and old, its oriental décor and crumbling fireplace dating to when Mama had been a girl. Closing the door, Lydia dropped her damp overcoat on a chair and staggered to the bed. She clung to one of its posters like a drowning sailor to his ship’s mast.

Damn him! Her husband’s face–menacing, alluring, knife-scarred–lingered in her vision. Damn him! Lydia pressed her face against the poster’s wood, her mouth pursed as if kissing, her teeth grinding as if she had him caught between them. Damn him!

Where had he been during those crushing years after Bennie’s birth, when she passed from one grim-faced sister to another? Where had he been when humiliation drove them to London, when she had cut purses to keep out of the workhouse?

A knock shattered her thoughts. Lydia whirled. She glanced at the toilette table’s mirror: her face was as mad and intent and inexplicable as Cassie’s.

And beyond her madwoman’s reflection, through the rain-streaked window, flashed a red- light.

“Lost peasants,” she breathed, trying to calm herself. “Signaling to one another. Or smugglers. Or–” French agents.

The knocking grew louder. Taking a deep breath, Lydia opened the door. Doherty entered, her head bent over a ewer of steaming water.

Lydia caged her whirling thoughts. She couldn’t let this opportunity go wasted.

“Oh!” Lydia beamed. “I am so glad you are here! I am so hopeless at undoing my clasps–I tear them like a child!”

This girlish confidence received a curt nod. Doherty set down the ewer and turned towards Lydia’s overcoat.

A bruise blackened her jaw.

Good Lord. Was it from the bumbling brother–or the mad sister?

But before she could speak, Doherty picked up her overcoat. The contents of its pockets clanked.

“Oh, don’t mind that!” Lydia flapped her hand. “It’s my–face paint.”

She swore at her thoughtlessness when Doherty’s face darkened with disapproval. Owning to face paint was like confessing to whoredom, in these backwaters.

Silently, the servant went around Lydia and began yanking out her hairpins.

Lydia forced herself not to flinch when Doherty attacked her hair with a brush. “I hadn’t expected”–the brush scraped her scalp–“such a well-trained lady’s maid this far from Town. Do you serve Mrs. Banks?”

The brush paused. “I serve Miss Banks.”

Clever answer, Lydia thought. “Is Sir Banks unmarried?”

The brush clanked on the bureau. Lydia’s head snapped back as Doherty began plaiting her hair. “Why’d you care, madam?”

The insolence was as unpleasant as the hairdressing. She thinks I’m pursuing him.

Several more yanks threatened to tear off her scalp, and then Lydia felt her gown loosen as Doherty undid its back buttons, apparently intending to press it.

“Oh, do the jewelry first,” Lydia said. “Sir Banks must do well at his cloth business, to maintain his sister and manor both.”

There was a pinch as her ears were freed of their heavy gold bobs. “Nobody said nothing about cloth.”

Damnation. She was rattled still by Carter.

“Oh! Sir Banks did,” Lydia lied. “Does he do business on the Continent?”

“I know nothing about his business.” Cold fingers wrestled with the clasp to Lydia’s necklace.

Lydia mentally pirouetted, circling about Doherty like a duelist searching for an unguarded point.

“Is Mr. Carter also a cloth merchant?”

No reply.

“How long have he and Sir Banks been friends?”

Only the distant rumbling of thunder answered her.

Lydia puffed her cheeks, feeling like she had brought a rapier to a pistol duel. It was time, as Mrs. Lincoln would say, to change tactics.

The clasp opened. Before Doherty could set down the necklace, Lydia turned and caught her wrist, smiling.

“That one always gives me trouble, but you opened it so easily–why don’t you keep it for yourself?”

Doherty’s eyes met hers, as dark as the bruise on her jaw.

The necklace clanked when she set it down.

Oh, bugger.

She waved off Doherty’s surly offer to press her gown, claiming a desire to rest briefly. The woman left but her disapproval lingered like a bloodstain on good satin. Lydia paced, her thoughts matching the rain’s staccato beat.

Charm had failed.

Bribery had failed.

But she had an hour alone, upstairs, while everyone downstairs believed her to be preening or napping.

Lydia halted. Lightning flashed, throwing the room into white brilliance. Her hand closed on the fan case in her pocket.

With one last glance out the window for the red light, she slipped out of her shoes and into the hallway.

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The floor in the dark hallway was ice-cold, but Lydia moved slowly. The soft creak of the floorboards was swallowed by the downstairs clatter of servants doing whatever it was servants did before supper.

Her hand found the large door at the end of the hall. The faint light of a damped fire glowed beneath it. Lydia pressed her ear to it: all she heard was the muffled boom of the ocean and the beat of rain.

She squatted to examine the lock. Not a Bramah lock, thank God–simply an old-fashioned pin tumbler.

A locked pin tumbler. Lydia held her breath, listening to the sounds of storm and house and ocean. She opened her fan case.

The faint firelight glittered along the pick’s slender length and flashed off the L-shaped torsion wrench. Smiling slightly, she lined the tools up to the tumbler’s face.

“Feeling well-rested, Miss Hatfield?” murmured her husband behind her.

She whirled, the edge of her hand aimed for his knee. But he dodged, as light as the fine dancer she knew he was. His hands were behind his back but she couldn’t tell if he was mocking her with an insouciant pose–or hiding a weapon.

Lydia stood, training the pick’s fine point on him. Spine straight, chin up, knees shaking, she met his dark eyes.

“Don’t you ‘Miss’ me!” she hissed. “What are you doing here, Mr. Carter?” Even as she said it, Lydia felt the saucy words tilt the battlefield in his favor. Felt like she was sixteen again, a pampered virgin, just meeting a dashing rake with dozens of notches in his bedpost.

“Still Mrs. Wickham, then?” he said, ignoring the question. “Why haven’t you divorced me?”

Damn the shadows: darkness hid the flicker of an eye, the shift of a stance.

“I should have!” Her voice was shrill. “You–you left me, and your child, you bastard!”

His mouth opened. Closed.

He shook his head. “Then allow me to assist you back to your toilette, as a husband should.”

Lydia stared. He sounded just like her husband: smooth, confident, at ease. But how had he learned to move so silently?

And what was he doing up here?

And–oh, Lord!–where was Banks?

But it was with her sixteen-year-old voice that she said, “La! And if I don’t?”

“Our host, I must say, is rather vindictive towards women who defy him.”

“How did–” Lydia stopped. He might not know about the attempt on Mrs. Banks’ life. But he had seen how Doherty cowered–and perhaps witnessed her beating. “Our host, I must say, is aiding the French.”

She had the pleasure of his surprise. He stepped close enough to dance a reel with her, but Lydia, conscious of the locked door behind her and Banks downstairs, had never felt less like dancing.

“When did you acquire this love of king and country?” Carter said in a whisper like a knife through silk.

King. She seized the thought. “You must let me go, G-Carter, or–or the king will be displeased.”

“‘The king will be displeased.'” He snorted disbelief. “You must do better than that, Miss Hatfield.”

She shifted, her cold toes grasping for purchase. He shifted with her.

“Where is Banks?” she said, raising the pick. His eyes flickered between its point and her face.

He shrugged. “Visiting his mad sister. Hopefully convincing her to bathe.”

“For how long?”

“Long enough for me to escort you back.”

He stepped forward. Lydia could smell his painfully familiar scent of smoke and claret.

The door behind her was implacable as his advance.

“I’ll give you a third,” Lydia said quickly. “Of what I’m…promised. For this.”

That stopped him. His eyes sharpened–with curiosity, with suspicion–but what he said was, “Three-quarters.”

“La!” Lydia tossed her head. “Half.”

“Three–”

“I must maintain Bennie.”

He fell silent for two great booming heartbeats of the ocean. The pick was slick with sweat in her hand, the dagger strapped to her leg far, far away.

“Curious,” he said, his gaze sweeping her, “how much his maintenance involves satin gowns. Very well. Half.”

“Good.” Lydia exhaled. “Now, you m-must help me get into Banks’ room.”

“The king pays you to sneak into men’s bedrooms?” Before she could retort, he continued, “Or is it this strange cloth that Banks is so exalted about?”

“You know about that?” Lydia bit her lip. Damn him for still being able to ruffle her!

“Aye,” he said, shifting. His face was fully shadowed. “We have become like brothers, after I saved him from being robbed by a pack of cutthroats and smugglers. I am content to advise him on young ladies”– she was briefly glad his expression was hidden–“and he is quite generous with the money gained from selling his cloth. At least, what’s left over from attempting to buy back his title.”

“Do you know where he’s getting it?”

“No.” His jacket rustled as he shrugged. “Why should I care?”

“La!” Lydia automatically said, thinking. “Well, it doesn’t matter to me what you care about. You must distract him.”

“For how long?”

“An hour.”

She heard another cloth rustle–brought the pick up–but he only bowed. Turned. Left.

His footsteps were faint as a cat’s down the stairs.

How did he learn to move so quietly? She half-fell and, with shaking hands, inserted the pick and wrench into the lock.

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Rain was beating against the windows when Lydia slipped through the bedroom door. She re-locked it and and pocketed her tools.

The banked fire glowed just enough for Lydia to make out a high-ceilinged room dominated by a massive bed. A low door opposite promised to be the dressing room. Wardrobes and drawers leaked the scents of cedar and perfume.

Lydia reached for a candle on the mantelpiece and saw how her hand was shaking. She made a fist; her teeth began chattering.

She had just bought a promise from a man whose word–to friends, to the militia, to her–was worthless.

She had just minutes, before he told Banks.

She lit the candle and set about her frantic work.

Wardrobes: nothing but formerly fashionable clothes. Lydia slid her hand along the sides and felt only cedar panels. Drawers: combs, wig powder, a prophylactic, the sheep’s intestine stiff with age. No hidden alcoves. The bed: a quick check under and over and into the mattress unearthed nothing but goose down.

She paced, listening for telltale creaks in the floorboards. She tapped the walls, listening for revealing echoes. Her unfruitful circuit ended at the low door in the corner.

Behind it was a dressing room, of course. Wind rattled the room’s small window against its lock. Closing the door, Lydia ran her hand over the walls, ducking around the hanging clothes.

Her eyes narrowed: one coat hung oddly. Banks had worn the garment earlier when he ‘saved’ her, and it hung more heavily than a tailcoat of worsted wool should.

A pocket within a pocket yielded a worn book. The candle lit the words Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies. She ignored the sister chorus that sang out in disapproval–especially when Lydia recognized it to be quite dated. Few Garden ladies likely still matched Harris’ descriptions of their eventful youth.

But the oddness of keeping an outdated survey of aging prostitutes made Lydia open it. When flipping through Kitty Fisher’s description, she found the folded sheets of paper.

She skimmed them. The first was a half-composed letter to a tailor, apologizing for a lateness in paying to be attributed to his sister’s illness, &c &c.

The second was torn from another book. Faded ink covered it in a hand so precise it could have been typeset. Strange, incoherent phrases leapt at Lydia: … their product’s strength is associated, through some unknown mechanism, with their venom’s potency… one in four possess such traits…permitting only these to breed, as dictated by Lamarck.

Lamarck again! Lydia snorted and turned to the last sheet.

It was printed through with columns of abbreviations and numbers. Fresh ink circled one set of numbers.

A cipher. Lydia’s stomach clenched. Ciphers were not her strength; they demanded too much sitting with dreary books. But she forced herself to look closer, if only for Mrs. Lincoln’s sake, and realization slipped past the mental crowd of sisters still worked up over the Covent Garden ladies.

A tide table. Her finger tracked the circled date and time to the abbreviation for the nearby coast.

Tomorrow. She inhaled: Banks had business tomorrow–on the coast facing France–which required him to know the tides.

And still she knew nothing of his silk!

She almost dropped the book when the bedroom door unlocked. Through the dressing room’s door, she heard a man’s heavy tread and the ominous click of Fitzroy’s claws.

Lydia snuffed out the candle, praying that the wisps of smoke would go unnoticed in a room with a banked fire.

Only a low, thin door stood between her and doom outside.

Unbidden, the memory of the dagger-distorted corset bubbled up. The image burst with the echo of George’s–Carter’s–words: Our host is rather vindictive towards women who defy him.

The claw-clicking grew louder.

Damn Carter! And damn her for trusting him again!

She heard a snuffling sound. The door wobbled.

Fear galvanized her. Silently, she folded the papers back into the book and tucked the book back into the coat.

She heard a muffled growl.

With her handkerchief, she stifled the lock’s protesting squeal. Rain hammered Lydia’s face and soaked her gown as she leaned out.

A narrow ledge and gutter, thick with frothing water, ran five feet below. Thirty feet beyond that, the ground was a mass of wet shadows. And beyond that–

Distorted by the rain, a distant red light flashed with the rhythm of a dance: one-two-three, four; one-two-three, four.

And from the windows below answered the same pattern.

Oh, Lord! Water flattened her ringlets and ran coldly down her neck. There were no more light flashes; only thirty-five feet of rain-slick stone wall, and someone who answered mysterious signals in the night.

Lydia shuddered. She could stab Fitzroy and flee Banks; but neither fight nor flight worked against gravity or unknown French agents.

She retreated inside, latched the window, and sank into a crouch.   Cold and fear shook her limbs; anger clenched her teeth.

She almost yelped when the bedroom door open again.

“–Carter wants–with you–” said a servant girl’s voice.

Lydia gaped. Bless him.

“–up the damn fire, it’s freezing in here,” replied Banks. “And send Richard to lay out my clothes for supper. Come, Fitzroy. I said come, dammit!”

A growl from Fitzroy. Their footsteps receded beneath the scrape of a poker stirring the fire.

Damn him. Richard would enter the dressing room and discover–a thief? A whore?

Either one would be gleefully savaged by Fitzroy.

Shuddering, she smelled fresh smoke.

The sister chorus started chanting. Thief! Whore!

Thief!

Whore…

Her head snapped up, flinging water from her soaked ringlets, as her mind began to race.

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The servant girl dropped the kindling when the dressing room door opened.

Lydia stalked out, her gown tossed over one arm, her chemise barely covered by Banks’ dressing gown. Her hair was tousled as if she had spent an energetic (and horizontal) half-hour. Her bare feet padded confidently as she approached, holding an unlit candle.

The girl stared.

“Light this, won’t you?” Lydia said.

“Y-yes, ma’rm.” The girl touched its wick to an ember. Light sparkled in her astonished eyes.

“That’s a good girl,” Lydia purred. She sashayed out, closed the door, snuffed the candle, and ran like the devil was after her.

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Lydia darted back into her bedroom. She dropped the gown beside her overcoat and clutched the chair, drawing in great gasps that nearly burst her chemise’s seams.

Carter had kept his word–had helped her.

But she couldn’t indulge in reflection. Not with the clock ticking and the waves booming below, bringing Banks closer to his rendezvous.

Lydia drew out the contents of her overcoat’s pocket: lead sticks, a container of cheap rouge, several hairpins.

Weapons for a battle she had hoped to avoid.

She’s his sort. Clarke’s words echoed as she sat at the toilette table.

A woman’s duty, Mama had called it. But it had never been a duty before–not with George, nor any after. And it was never required by Mrs. Lincoln. Let other professionals use crude seduction–Lydia accomplished ten times more with her wits and masterful flirtation!

But bribing Doherty had failed. Tossing over Banks’ room had failed. And she had until tomorrow before the man went to the coast facing France, and waited for low tide.

Lydia picked up the lead sticks.

She thought of her son: his maintenance at school, the hope it bought him for a safer life than hers. To fail was to fail him.

She thickened her lashes with lead powder. Setting down the sticks, she picked up the rouge.

She thought of her sisters: their scorn for her hasty marriage and pregnancy. They took her in–but they would never forgive. To fail was to return to them.

Lydia powdered her cheeks, chin, bosom. Brushing off her hands, she took up the hairpins.

She thought of Mrs. Lincoln: of that day seven years ago, when Lydia had stolen Mrs. Lincoln’s pocketbook on the London streets. Of the next morning, when the woman had tracked Lydia to that room behind the tanner’s and, pistol in one hand and nosegay in the other, offered Lydia a new line of work. To fail was to fail the only person who gave her a chance.

The hairpins slid like rusty rapiers into her hair.

Lydia pulled on her gown. She adjusted the neckline. The damp cloth clung to her fetching plumpness–and brought to mind the new, tightly-fitted bodices she couldn’t afford.

Yet.

With a toss of her head, Lydia entered the hall, shoulders back and spine curved to amplify her natural charms. To fail was to fail herself!

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Lydia’s slippers struck the marble like it was a marching drum as she strode down the great hall. The dining room was a fire-lit maw waiting to swallow her, where silverware clanked like sabers and rich foods stank of burnt blood.

A furious shout silenced the clanking silverware and punctured her marching drum. Lydia froze. The servants told him about the bedroom–

“– for this, Cassie!”

A muted reply.

“For Christ’s sake, Miss Hatfield has no interest in this…Doherty!” screamed Banks.

He sounds terrified. What was his sister doing? And–oh, Lord!–what did Cassie want with Miss Hatfield?

Two shapes emerged from the dining room, backlit by candlelight. Lydia hastily composed herself as Doherty jerked Cassie towards her.

Lydia’s nose wrinkled at the stench of sweat.

Cassie’s arms protruded from her draped blanket. Her hands were cupped together with Doherty’s hands clamped around them. The weak light drew angry, fearful lines onto Doherty’s face. Tears glittered on Cassie’s cheeks.

Aside from Doherty’s fear, it was a perfect tableau of how Lydia’s sisters had yanked her away from handsome gentlemen.

Sympathy bent Lydia into a curtsey. The curtsey brought her nose close to Cassie. Beneath the unwashed body odor lurked a metallic scent.

Lydia looked up. Cassie stood before her, resisting Doherty’s tugs. The candlelight glinted like gold on the cloth covering her from shoulder to cupped hands.

Those hands flew apart when Doherty jerked too hard and lost her grip. Tiny emeralds dropped from Cassie’s hands. They rolled–scuttled–across the marble.

Doherty gasped. Snatching up her skirts, she stamped on the spiders. Carapaces crunched against the marble.

“No!” Cassie cried, but Doherty blocked her.

“How often have you been told–!”

Oh, Lord–Doherty even sounded like Lydia’s sisters, defending their frigid propriety!

A bellow from the dining room. “Take her back!”

“Yes, sir!” Doherty’s fear-stricken face turned towards the shout. Which was likely how she missed the last spider.

It limped towards Lydia. She scooped it up. It clung lightly to her as Lydia extended her hand to Cassie.

Doherty turned back. Her face contorted with horror.

Stupid wench. Lydia tossed her head. She never feared such little things–and neither did Cassie, whose gloved hand slid like water across Lydia’s, coaxing back the spider.

This close, Lydia saw how the spider’s emerald green matched the undertones in Cassie’s silk glove. Like a patina of verdigris on copper.

And then Doherty yanked Cassie away.

Lydia stared at the green smears, barely noticing the sounds of the women descending the stairs, the distant slam of a door.

Her thumb and forefinger rubbed together, teasing out the memory of the corset Clarke had shown her. Of the strange green tones to its golden, silky cloth. The same tones that had sparkled in Cassie’s gloves; the same silkiness that had flowed over Lydia’s hand.

Lydia sniffed her hand. It smelled like she had been clutching a dagger, blade-first.

Barely a minute later, when he descended from his own toilette, her husband found her transfixed there.

Her fingers still rubbing together, Lydia looked up at his handsome face and carefully-ruffled hair. Some comment died on his lips when he caught her expression.

“It’s not Mr. Banks I should have been after,” Lydia whispered. I couldn’t smell it because of Cassie’s odor–and those damn smelling salts.

His dark eyes glittered. “No?”

“It’s Miss Banks,” she said.

Bribery hadn’t worked. Sneaking hadn’t worked.

A simple courtesy–from one misunderstood sister to another–had worked.

Triumph and surprise warmed her body. She looked up at her husband, the bastard, the scoundrel, the handsome wretch who had ruined her and left her.

But he had done what she asked in the hall.

But he had backed off when she’d argued for money to maintain Bennie.

But she had no one else.

And his hair was tousled the way she loved it.

“You must help me.” Lydia pressed her hand to his cambric shirt. “I’ll go after Miss Banks and the silk. You get my horse and one for yourself. Tell the groom you’re–”

“I’ll deal with the groom,” he said, eyes narrowing.

“Yes! And meet me–oh–”

“There’s a hillock three miles north that blocks all view from the manor.”

She listened to his harried directions, her fingers digging into his cravat. His handsome face was so close she could see how the blade had parted the skin of his jaw.

The scar was rough beneath her fingers when she tilted his face towards hers.

A chair scraped in the dining room. They leapt apart.

Banks’ gaunt silhouette appeared in the dining room’s firelight. “Carter? Miss Hatfield?”

Lydia’s eyes met her husband’s. Buy me time, he mouthed.

He turned away. “I find myself needing rest more than food, Banks. You and Miss Hatfield enjoy the meal.”

“What–oh, yes, Sir Banks!” Lydia said, pirouetting. “A tête-à-tête, so I may know my savior better.” Her mind, drunk on her proximity to the silk and her husband, whirled madly: How to escape how to escape how–

Her husband’s footsteps faded, leaving her alone with a man who had wanted his own wife dead. A man she was armed to seduce–but who she must now distract, evade, and rob.

Drawing in a deep breath of air stinking like burnt blood, Lydia sashayed towards Banks, her lips pulled into a blood-red simper.

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Between the fire and the storm humidity, the dining room was as hot and fetid as Fitzroy’s mouth. The monster-dog prowled about the room, his eyes moving with Lydia’s body. His master stood still, watching her with a lidded gaze.

The table was set for three. Footmen hovered, ready to carve and serve. Lydia hadn’t eaten since breakfast, but the rich scents nauseated her.

She forced herself to advance. I’ll pretend to be ill and excuse myself to–

“Out!” Banks barked. Lydia jumped. The footmen fled.

Sheer willpower kept her moving towards a chair, but Banks did not draw it out for her. Lydia looked up, scrambling for a teasing comment.

The words died in her mouth. His expression was sharper than any she had seen the whole day–except for that second before she’d coaxed an invitation from him.

She jerked when he sat.

Miss Hatfield,” he said. “Perhaps you might indulge my curiosity.”

“Anything for my savior, sir!” Lydia sashayed forward and squeezed his shoulder.

His shoulder was tense. His gaze roved frankly over her. Shrewd. Assessing.

She heard a low rumble. Not thunder. Growling.

Fitzroy’s lips were drawing back from his teeth.

“I find myself wondering,” Banks said, “how a young woman came to be traveling across the countryside, alone?”

“Do recall, sir, that I was calling on my cousin–”

He interrupted, “Calling on a cousin, in the countryside, while carrying face paint and dressing so impractically?”

She is dressed more for whoring than riding, Banks, her husband had said.

“You are perceptive, sir!” Lydia forced a giggle. “I must own my share of the sin of vanity.”

In the silence stretching between them, Lydia heard a faint patter.

Saliva was dripping from Fitzroy’s teeth onto the floor.

Oh, Lord…

Distracted, she only jerked when Banks lunged and yanked her onto his lap. His arms were like bone stays about her torso.

“No, Miss Hatfield.” His breath was hot in her ear. “That is not your sin. Whose whore are you?”

One of his arms detached–Lydia tried to twist free–and then his hand grabbed her thigh.

His fingers froze. “Wha–”

My dagger.

Lydia slammed her heel down, raking his shin and crushing the top of his foot.

She felt the blow lance through him and ripped free, falling to the ground and rolling away.

“You goddamned whore!” Banks wheezed, stumbling upright. A dining knife glittered in his hand. Lydia scrambled backwards on her elbows between the chairs.

Through his legs, Lydia saw Fitzroy advancing. She reached for the dagger but her skirts had tangled–

Banks lunged.

Fitzroy leapt.

Lydia kicked a chair. It spun and crashed in front of her.

Banks dodged–but then Fitzroy crashed into him, toppling them both over the chair. There was the crack of human bone. Banks screamed.

Lydia scrambled up. Gasping, she ran into the hall.

She reached the stairs that led down, her ears ringing with Banks’ cries for aide.

Her cover was blown–the house was roused against her–her sisters screamed for her to flee.

But the blood pounding through her screamed back, thrilling to the chase, the fight, the knife’s edge balance between life and death, failure and success.

Lydia grabbed the banister and hurtled downstairs.

One, two, three flights of stairs brought her to a landing outside what looked like a cellar door. Barrels gathered dead flies in the corners. Gasping, Lydia smelled the ocean-salted-earth that surrounded her at this depth.

Footfalls and shouting echoed above. And–oh, Lord!–the scuttling of hard nails on marble.

Lydia grasped the doorknob.

It was locked.

She grabbed her pocket, fumbling past the smelling salts for the fan case. Pulled free the pick and wrench. She would crack the lock– subdue Doherty–and then–

And then she heard the staccato rattle of claws descending the stairs.

Lydia pirouetted, sweeping out with the pick, but a heavy weight caught her inside the strike. The pick flew out of her hand and skittered across the floor.

Nails like knives raked her legs and arms and torso. A massive body crushed the dagger’s sheath into her leg. Instinct threw her arm before her throat as Fitzroy lunged, teeth bared and tongue spraying saliva.

Fitzroy’s teeth closed on her arm. The wrench clattered on the floor. Pain screamed through her as he began to shake her arm, the bone twisting in its socket.

Mama! Lydia cried soundlessly. He’s going to tear my arm off!

Don’t say such things, my dear, her long-dead mother replied. With my nerves, you’ll make me faint.

Faint

Faint.

Blackness shadowed her vision. Lydia moaned and fumbled one-handed for her pocket.

The pear-shaped bottle slipped into her hand.

Lydia closed her eyes and slammed the bottle against Fitzroy’s head. The ceramic shattered. Cutting shards slashed her skin and the air turned to ammonia-fueled fire.

Her arm dropped against her throat. Choking, Fitzroy leapt off her. His nails clattered up the stairs, the worst of the ammonia-stench disappearing with him.

Lydia crawled away from the lingering vapor. Her savaged arm screamed pain; blood and saliva ran down her front.

You deserve this, Lydia! cried her sisters. Banks will find you here and–

“–t’s going on out there?” Doherty’s voice, muffled by the door.

Her sisters switched tactics. Doherty will find you here and–

Lydia cracked open her eyes. The ammonia found them and her vision clouded.

“Hello? Hello!” Doherty shrilled.

Her eyes stinging slits, Lydia crawled behind a barrel. Cradling her arm, she dry-heaved and, in a raw voice, cried, “Oh, ma’rm!”

“What? What?”

Lydia wheezed, “You’re needed ‘mediately upstairs!”

She curled tighter, the movement pulling open her slash-wounds.

A door bolt scraped. Hinges squealed.

Doherty gasped. “What in God’s name…!”

Gagging, the woman pounded up the stairs.

The door squealed as it began swinging shut.

Lydia leapt for it. She caught the handle and its massive weight dragged her before halting an inch from the jamb.

Black and red spots scuttled like spiders across her vision. Lydia pulled the door open and staggered through. It fell shut behind her, cutting off the lingering stench of ammonia.

Lydia threw the bolt and sank to her knees, drawing in great lungfuls of air that smelled of the ocean and tasted of daggers. A grey netherworld–as oppressive as the Hertfordshire mists of her girlhood–threatened to envelop her. Clutching her fang-torn arm, Lydia fought it off.

With her good hand, she tore free her gown’s gaping front. Clenching her teeth, she wrapped the cloth about her wounds.

Pain meant she was alive.

Lydia stood, each slash bone-deep bruise protesting. She wiped her stinging eyes and flung the tears onto the stone floor.

She was alive. Lydia turned in place. A single candle lit the cave-like room and the entrance to a low tunnel. Diagrams and papers spilled from a narrow bed, the writing so precise it could have been typeset. Skeins of raw, metallic-smelling silk gathered in piles that hinted at some unknown classification. In the corner, a complicated loom was strung with half-finished cloth, its weave too fine to discern.

Sisters be damned, she was alive. Lydia drew her dagger. A light glowed in the tunnel. Crude stairs ran down it.

From the tunnel rushed the great heartbeat of the ocean’s waves. And beneath the ocean’s roar chattered a strange sound–like many voices.

Or many feet.

Her eyes and dagger trained on the glow ahead, she descended.

The metallic smell grew stronger–stronger–stronger.

But it was nothing to the sight that greeted her.

Lydia halted at the glow’s edge, her stunned senses unable to manage another step. The sting of her wounds faded, her eyes too overwhelmed for her to process any other sensation than shock.

The cavern arched overhead. Cold, fresh air buffeted small flies against her in time to the sound of waves. The air’s briny stench overlay the scent of decomposing wooden barrels and rotting rowboats.

Lydia stared. The cavern was draped–festooned–infested with spider webs. Ancient, frail webs clotted every crag; new, sturdy ones stretched across columns of stalactites; and closest to Lydia, webs as fine as gossamer glinted gold and green in the light of a dozen oil lamps.

Spiders moved purposefully among the webs, glittering like emeralds set into gold. And moving just as purposefully, encased from head-to-toe in cloth of emerald and gold, was Miss Cassandra Banks.

The woman prodded a fresh web with a metal cane. Its spider leapt aggressively onto the cane as the web stretched. Nodding, Cassie carefully returned the spider to its remarkably intact home.

When she moved, her foot knocked several rocks. One clattered to a stop near Lydia. In the lamp light, she saw that it was a time-yellowed human vertebrae.

Her eyes flickering between the spiders and Cassie, Lydia squeezed the dagger.

She nearly screamed when Cassie suddenly struck out with the cane. Crushed spider glistened wetly. Its web snapped as Cassie twirled the strands about her cane.

Mad. Lydia shuddered. All that she sought–that the French smuggled and the king coveted–came from a madwoman’s pet spiders.

Not that Clarke would believe her. Even Mrs. Lincoln might doubt her.

She needed proof: web. Silk. Spiders. But Cassie showed no signs of leaving.

Lydia took a miscalculated step and knew it instantly. Her slipper knocked the damned vertebrae into a stalagmite.

Cassie whirled. Crushed spider and destroyed web dangled from the cane. The light shimmered on the golden veil across her face.

Cassie advanced, brandishing the cane like a rapier.

Oh, Lord! Lydia brought the dagger up, twisting to shield her savaged arm.

But Cassie halted. She swayed as she regarded Lydia.

“You saved my baby,” Cassie said.

Lydia stared. Baby?

That spider. The one she saved from Doherty and returned to Cassie.

“Y-yes.” Lydia swallowed. “I did.”

Without another word, the woman turned, opened an oil lamp, and thrust the web inside. It burned with a scent like hair kept too long on a curling iron and then was gone.

Lydia appreciated the frustrations of motherhood–she loved Bennie while thanking God for boarding schools–but this seemed rather extreme.

“Why, er,” Lydia said, “did you destroy that ‘baby’?”

“Its web wasn’t strong enough,” Cassie said. “And it was too green.”

Lydia stared. The philosophy of Lamarck, she thought, applied to spiders.

Strange thought, but her pulse was steadying now that the cane was pointed elsewhere.

“Do you dislike green, Miss Banks?” Lydia said, advancing. The cavern loomed overhead, glittering with chattering spiders.

“What I dislike is irrelevant.” Cassie’s now-cool cane tested more webs, sending spiders fleeing. Her words echoed about the stone cavern. “Green correlates with their venom’s strength.”

Lydia froze. Her mind stepped back from the scene, plaiting this thread of knowledge into the others she had gathered.

Cassie, covered in spider silk impenetrable to daggers–and, presumably, to spider fangs.

Doherty’s terror when Lydia had picked up the spider bare-handed and given it to Cassie.

The human vertebrae at Lydia’s feet.

She thawed when Cassie’s cane cracked against another stalactite.

“M-miss Banks,” Lydia said. Don’t stutter. She took a breath. They’re just venomous man-killing spiders. And she’s grateful you saved her ‘baby’. “If you don’t need the greener ones anymore, perhaps I could have several?”

Lydia swallowed. Kindness–both given and received–had an unfamiliar taste. “Please?”

The cane halted mid-swing.

“The bite of one itched me maddeningly, when we first discovered this place after Father died,” Cassie said tonelessly. “Two sting horribly. Three bit my brother, and he never comes here anymore. Four will kill. It was my brother who realized Father used them to keep his men in line, but it was my idea to use them for my life’s work.”

Lydia looked down at the vertebrae. She saw now that the cave’s sand was dotted with more old bones.

She looked up at the spiders, spinning and feasting and waiting and mating, glittering like jewels on their webs.

Then she looked at Cassie, and drew a deep breath. She was in a nest of death with a brilliant, monomaniacal woman whose research was benefiting the French.

But Lydia suspected Cassie neither knew what her brother did with the silk, nor did she care. My life’s work.

“I’ll take three,” Lydia said, drawing out her fan case. “Please.” The case’s insulated inside would keep them–and her–safe.

Cassie took the case. Her gaze flickered among the spiders. With practiced ease, she swept three into the case.

Lydia swallowed: the largest spider carried an egg sac. Real babies.

The case snapped shut. Lydia took it, conscious of the faintest increase in weight. Her fingers whitened as she tightened her grip.

“Thank you, Miss Banks,” Lydia said, sincerely.

But Cassie was already turning away. The cane resumed its restless testing of webs. Lydia had the distinct sense that, for Cassie, she was no longer an object of interest.

But for her brother–

Lydia glanced up the stairs. The servants, Fitzroy, and Banks waited out there.

She looked deeper into the cavern, where indigo water lapped at bones. Darkness loomed ahead, as riddled with death and the unknown as the maw of some terrible dragon–

“Bugger that,” Lydia muttered. Tucking her gown up into her chemise’s waistband, she clamped the fan case between her teeth, picked up a lamp, and waded into the bloody cold water.

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“–and this groom met you at the appointed place with your horse?” Clarke frowned at Lydia.

Lydia set down her teacup. The sweet scent of bergamot wafted up as Mrs. Lincoln poured more. The fire crackled, throwing flattering light over her new gown and the shawl draped over her bandaged arm. Mrs. Lincoln had graciously advanced Lydia the necessary funds, given her success.

Ribbons tied the fan case shut. It lay on the desk by Clarke’s hand.

“Yes,” Lydia said, taking the teacup. “He–”

            (–was there, with just her horse. The wind tousled her husband’s hair. Moonlight pierced the storm clouds and illuminated his face. She saw the man Bennie would become: tall, graceful, handsome.

            “Did you get it, Lydia?” he said, setting down an unlit lamp. Taking off his jacket, he draped it over her wet, bruised shoulders.

            Lydia, she thought. It had been so long since he’d said her name.

            “I did, George.” She held up the fan case triumphantly.

But here was more than solicitousness in his expression; there was open greed.)

“–kept his word.”

Clarke’s frown deepened. “Quite a risk, trusting a man who, hmmm, took bribes to turn against his master.”

Mrs. Lincoln stirred. “We often take such risks. Mrs. Bexley did nothing extraordinary there.”

Lydia swirled the tea in her cup. “But it is true, madam. I did take a risk, trusting–”

            (“–you!” she exclaimed. “You used me –you wanted the silk, too!”

            “Aye,” George said, his hand like a vise about her arm. “But Lydia, this is our chance! My companions don’t know we’d–“

            “Your ‘companions’?” Lydia exclaimed. But the word slotted into place and, taking a mental step back, she could see the puzzle to which it belonged: The new scar on his jaw. The flashing lights in the night–lights the same red as the glass panes, she now saw, of George’s unlit lantern.

            George knowing about the cloth.

            George helping her.

            “You’re a–a smuggler! A swindler!”

            “Aye,” he repeated like he did not care. He drew her near; she felt his hot breath on her face, the hard lines of his body. “No one knows we have it. We could sell it, get Bennet from that damned school, and the three of us could live a grand life together.”)

“–him,” Lydia said.

“What happened to him?” Clarke said, poking at the fan case. “Did you tell him what you were stealing?”

The tea was over-steeped. Lydia shook her head when Mrs. Lincoln moved to refill it.

“I told him I worked for the estranged Mrs. Banks,” Lydia said.

She looked–

            (–up at him. And she saw the man Bennet would become, raised by fugitives whose greed and lust meant they could not keep their word–not to their comrades, not to their employers, and not to each other.

            And she saw the woman she would become, in thrall to a man who had been like opium to her since she was sixteen.

            “No, George,” Lydia said, pulling against his grip. “Not this time.”

            His fingers dug into her shoulders. She cried out but he grabbed her damaged arm, his grip like fire on her fresh wounds. His other hand tore the fan case from her.

            “No!”

Without her grip the case opened. Three green jewels spilled into the moonlight and onto her husband’s skin.)

–down as Clarke played with the ribbon’s knot on the fan case. Something rustled; but Lydia could not tell–

            (–if he was still conscious. His screams had faded to gasps when Lydia coaxed the last spider back into the case.

He lay at her feet, weak and unprotected.

The man who had ruined her.

Betrayed her.

Given her Bennie.

            The horse was skittish after the tumult, and saddled for a man. Lydia used a hair ribbon to tie shut the case; then, with several awkward attempts, she managed to get astride, her skirts hiked up to show an indecorous amount of leg.

            Her husband’s pained, incredulous gaze met hers.

            “You’ll live,” Lydia said curtly. She drove her heels into the horse and the beast took off like a shot.)

–whether the rustle was from Clarke’s sleeves, or inside the case. A rustle mere inches from the fingers of this man who looked at her with contempt so strong Lydia could taste it, as bitter and familiar as her sisters’ faces.

She looked down at her tea, swirling its dregs. “I should be careful playing with the fan case, sir.”

Clarke frowned skeptically. But his fingers went still when he looked at her face.

“One bite will itch,” Lydia said, over the soft scratching sound and the memories of the dark, damp cave. “Two sting horribly. Three cripple a man with pain. Four will kill.”

She set down the cup, its last bitter swallow untasted.

___

Copyright 2016 Megan Chaudhuri

A toxicologist by training and a writer by inclination, Megan lives near Seattle with one husband and two cats. Her science fiction has been published in Analog and Crossed Genres, while her science non-fiction has appeared in Slate under her maiden name, Megan Cartwright. Her website is http://sciencebasedwriting.wordpress.com.