by Lynn Vieh
I saw the door shudder in its frame as someone on the other side bashed against it. “Lucien—”
“Shut up. When they are finished, it will be on you to put an end to it.” His grip turned bruising. “This thing will occupy my flesh, but my spirit will go where it can never touch me. I understand now. I will be where Harry has been, all this time. Now swear to me that you will kill it. Kill my body.” As I remained silent, he shouted it again. “Swear to me.”
“Lucien.” I saw the terror in his eyes, and it shocked me into agreement. “I will. I swear it.” And then, because I simply couldn’t help myself, I said, “I love you.”
The door gave way, thrusting Dredmore against me. I held him as long as I could, my throat too tight now to speak.
“So touching.” Montrose looped the rope round Dredmore’s neck, dragging him back out of the way, and forced him to his knees. I started after them, but the Talian got hold of me again and marched me toward the door.
The knife at my throat kept me from struggling. “I’d like to stay, if you don’t mind.”
“We cannot have you in the room,” he told me. “Nothing can interfere when the warlord takes possession.”
“Zarath, like we said.” He grinned exactly as a child let loose in an unsupervised sweets shop would. “Do not worry. Soon you will come to know him very well.”
He guided me into the next room, the furnishings of which were oddly arranged in a half circle facing the wall. I saw an unframed oval of glass, through which I saw into the room where Dredmore was being held by the Walshes. I vaguely recalled seeing a mirror of the same shape on the other side.
“You trust them so much you have to watch them in secret?” I asked as the Talian shoved me down in one of the chairs.
“Be quiet.” He moved to stand behind me and placed the knife under my chin.
I heard Lord Walsh’s voice, and glanced down to see where it came from: a small grate at the base of the wall.
“—my intent from the beginning,” Walsh was saying. “Your assaults on Lady Walsh have been entertaining, but I cannot fathom why you settled on her as a method of getting to me.”
“I never touched your wife, you daft prick.” Dredmore gritted his teeth as Montrose tightened the rope round his neck. “The Tillers will know what you’ve done. The moment he begins casting, they’ll come for you. My only regret is that I will not be here to watch your carcass being dragged from the river.”
“My dear Dredmore.” Walsh’s face stretched into a broad smile. “The wardlings that hang about almost every neck and door in the city have hearts of dreamstone. I know because our Talian friends forged them. The Tillers won’t even know we’re here.”
I didn’t know what dreamstone was, nor did I think Dredmore could be duped by anyone, but from the look on his face Walsh had done the very thing.
“I take it you lot are Reapers?” I asked the Talian.
“For a stupid skirt, you know much.” Celestino didn’t sound as if he approved.
“Women in this country have always been vastly underrated.” My throat tightened as Walsh took a gleaming red stone from a white velvet pouch. “Lord Dredmore is insanely wealthy, you know. If I could convince you to intervene on his behalf, I can guarantee he would see to it that you would never have to dirty your hands again with this sort of nonsense.”
“Oh, miss.” He chuckled. “For this, Zarath will make me king of my country.”
I saw Walsh drop the stone in Dredmore’s hand before he took the pistol from his son.
I reached out to touch the surface of the two-way glass. “Lucien.”
As if he’d heard, Dredmore turned his head to look directly at me, put the stone in his mouth, and swallowed. At the exact same moment, Lord Walsh placed the pistol at his own temple and pulled the trigger.
Someone screamed—me, I think—and I gripped the knife at my throat with my fingers and wrenched it out of the Talian’s hand. The blade cut deep into my fingers as I ran out and into the room where Lord Walsh’s body lay on the floor, and his son gagged as he swiped at his father’s brains, which were all over the front of his fancy jacket as well as the wall behind him.
I switched the bloody blade to my left hand, ready to use it as I stepped between the men and Dredmore. I stepped back until I could reach him. “Lucien, we’re leaving.” I reached out and grabbed his sleeve, but he didn’t move. “Lucien.”
This time the red streaks of light came out of Lord Walsh’s body, first from his slack lips, and then in a burst out of the hole in his head. They flew past me, surrounding Dredmore, who had doubled over, choking and heaving. The red lights swirled, closing in on him until his entire body glowed. At last he stopped fighting it and slowly stood, and the lights were sucked into the darkness of his eyes, dwindling until they were two tiny red glints.
“Dredmore.” I told myself it had been a trick, one of his ridiculous illusions. “Say something.”
He said nothing, but held up one hand and turned it over, as if he’d never seen it before. Then he smiled, his face changing into something beautiful and terrible, his eyes taking on a horrid red glow. I didn’t even resist as the Talian took the knife from my hand and forced me down on my knees.
“Ecco, sovrano mio,” Celestino babbled as he dropped down beside me. “Sia benedetto il compagno oscuro.”
Dredmore looked round the room, and then spoke a single word. “Rieccomi.”
His voice rang out, clear as church bells, and the wrongness of it set my skin to crawling. But the man had just been forced to swallow a rock; couldn’t have been easy on his throat.
I was sure I could keep telling myself lies like that for as long as was necessary.
“Dove sono capitato?” Definitely not Dredmore’s voice, yet it came from Dredmore’s mouth.
“Il continente Victoriana, sovrano. La Cittá di Rumsen.”
“If he doesn’t speak English,” Montrose grumbled, “how are the rest of us supposed to understand him?”
“Chiudi il culo,” the Talian said, smacking the younger man in the back of the head.
Dredmore spared Monty a glance. “Who do you think gave you your tongue, boy?” He took a step, looked down at his legs, and then pressed a hand to his chest and arm. “Strong. Young. You chose well, umano.”
“My wife knew this body would please you, Master. Especially after you were forced to wait so long in . . .” The Talian gestured vaguely at Nolan Walsh’s corpse. “Our ships will be arriving at dawn with your army. We will meet them at the docks, and once you have marshaled them, we can move against the city.”
“Dad never said anything about blowing his brains out,” Montrose muttered. “And I still don’t see how one man can control armies and cities just by thinking it.”
“I am not a man.” The thing in Dredmore’s body eyed me. “I am Zarath, warlord of the Aramanthan Scourge.” He ran the tip of his tongue from one side of his mouth to the other.
That decided it for me. The thing had admitted what it was, and Dredmore would never lick his lips in such a repulsive fashion.
Celestino cleared his throat. “My lord, forgive the boy for speaking out of turn. Young Lord Walsh is much beloved by my wife, who in return for the sacrifice of his father’s flesh humbly asks that you heal him.”
“So I will. Later.” Dredmore ignored Montrose altogether as he reached down to take hold of my chin and lift my face. It was like being touched by a corpse. “And this flesh? It too serves me?”
Montrose snickered. “Not bloody likely.”
“Do you even know whose body you’ve stolen?” I asked Zarath. “Lucien Dredmore is a deathmage, and Grand Master of the dark arts. He can slice a man in half with one blow.” I shoved a finger into his chest. “Get out of him, this minute, or he will see to it that you suffer a long and ugly death.”
No one said anything, and then Celestino began laughing. “Oh, miss,” the Talian wheezed between guffaws. “The Araman
than do not die as we do. They have lived for thousands of years here in our world as well as the netherside.”
Zarath peered down at me. “The spirit of this body, this Dredmore. He was your lover.”
“Is,” I insisted. “He is.”
“His spirit has fled from his flesh, woman. Even if it were somehow to return, it could not take this body from me.” His black eyes took on a scarlet sheen. “What your lover is, is dead.”
I could hardly hear him for the roaring in my ears, and then I heard nothing at all.
* * *
Big, gentle hands cradled my face, brushed back my hair, and checked my pulse. I knew that touch as well as the voice, but I didn’t want to deal with Inspector Doyle just now. No, what I wanted was a nice room at Morehaven where I might sleep for a thousand years. That way I wouldn’t have to think about magic, which I knew now to be real, spirit stones, or the man I loved being possessed—his soul eaten—by an immortal monster. I had to face it: Dredmore was dead, and I might as well be.
“Should I send for a whitecart, then, ’Spector?” someone asked.
“No,” I answered for Doyle, my voice a rasping ruin. “I’m not injured.” I struggled upright and looked past the man holding me. Tommy’s beaters were searching through the wreck of an expensive-looking hotel room and coming up with nothing. I lay on the floor beside the bed, my arms and legs tightly bound with curtain cord. It was not the room where Lord Walsh had killed himself, either, for there were no brains on the wall.
“The concierge called the station,” Doyle told me. “Everyone on this floor heard a woman screaming for help.” He held up a bit of torn cloth, and his angry expression grew especially fierce. “You chewed through this.”
Small wonder my throat felt lined with cotton: it actually was. “I missed my dinner bucket.”
One of the beaters chuckled and earned a glare from the chief inspector.
“How can you joke about it? No, hold still.” Doyle took out a pocketknife and sheared through the cords binding my wrists together before he chafed my hands to restore the blood flow. “Who did this to you, Kit?”
I could tell him the entire sorry tale, most of which I still didn’t believe, and go quietly after. Not all the asylums in Rumsen were horrid. Wherever they sent me for treatment, Doyle would bribe one of the loon herders to look after me.
“Don’t you tell him the truth.” Harry materialized behind the inspector, and his mostly transparent eyes fixed on mine. “Say you hit your head, and that you can’t recall. Now, gel.”
“I can’t recall.” I looked at the glitter of white and blue stones scattered about the bed on the floor. “I hit my head.”
“Lucien Dredmore paid for this room,” Doyle said. “He told the concierge that you were newlyweds before he carried you up here.”
“Agree with him,” Harry said.
I nodded. “Yes, he did.”
One of the beaters made a scoffing sound, which he quickly turned into a fake cough as he moved to search the corner farthest from his boss.
Against his trouser seams Doyle’s fingers knotted into fists. “Dredmore was also seen abducting you earlier from a brothel called the Eagle’s Nest.”
“That was a ruse, to protect Carina and her gels from Walsh’s men.” I watched Harry throw up his hands in disgust and felt a dismal satisfaction. “I want to go home, Inspector.”
“You don’t have a home. Your property and monies have been seized by the Crown.” Doyle studied my face. “You’ve the clothes on your back, Kit. Now do you want to tell me what the bloody hell happened here?”
The door to the adjoining suite opened, and Lord Lucien Dredmore swept into the room. His cloak swirled with imperial elegance, and the points of his snowy neckcloth stood in stiff relief against his dark skin. In his eyes I saw a dreadful shadowy presence, as if the evil demon inside him were looking out of them like windows.
“I can tell you,” the thing pretending to be Dredmore said as he strode forward, his gleaming boots thumping on the floor as the beaters scattered from his path.
“Lord Dredmore.” Doyle’s features took on a decidedly bland cast as he inclined his head just enough to suit courtesy. “You witnessed something?”
“Yes.” He lifted his hand and pointed at my face. “This woman murdered Lord Walsh.”
In the five seconds of astounded silence that followed, I noticed that Harry had vanished again, Dredmore had acquired a faint Talian accent, and Doyle appeared ready to commit murder himself. Then, without devoting much thought to it, I relieved the inspector of his blade and launched myself at Dredmore, only to be hauled back by a strong arm.
“Kit.” Doyle wrestled the knife from my hand before he shoved me away. “Have you gone mad?”
“That is not Lucien Dredmore. Before Walsh killed himself, he forced the spirit of an evil warlord into Dredmore’s body.” I told Doyle the rest of it as quickly as I could, and added, “He calls him Zarath. He and the Talians have come to take over Toriana and go to war with the Crown. He’ll use Lucien’s power to do it.”
Dredmore smiled. “Such an entertaining tale. You should have become a novel writer instead of murdering fine gentlemen.”
Now I would have no trouble at all killing him. “Give me back that blade, Tommy.”
“You see?” The thing wearing Dredmore’s body cupped his fingers and snatched at the air. “She is on the rampage.”
“Give us the room,” Doyle said to the beaters, who hastily filed out.
“You must take her at once to prison,” Dredmore told him, “before she kills again.”
“Is that right.” Doyle glanced at me. “I imagine I will, milord, but first I’d like you to answer two questions.”
“Of course,” the monster said. “Anything.”
Doyle watched him. “If Miss Kittredge murdered Lord Walsh, then how did she end up bound and helpless in this room?”
“Obviously she arranged to be found so,” the monster replied. “It would make anyone believe her innocent of the crime she has committed.”
“You put me here after you killed Walsh and Lucien, you evil ass.” I tried to dodge round Doyle again, but he caught me and held me fast.
“Right. Just one final question, then, milord,” Doyle said. “What’s Miss Kittredge’s given name?”
Dredmore’s eyes blinked. “I don’t understand what you say.”
“You’ve known her for several years,” the inspector said. “You’ve paid to have her investigated, harassed, and even snatched from the street a time or two, or so I’ve been told. Tell me her given name.”
“He doesn’t know.” My smile turned acid. “Because he’s not Dredmore.”
The thing lunged at Tommy, punching him in the gut and then the face, so fast his movements became blurred. The inspector flew across the room, hit the wall, and slid to the floor.
I braced myself for the same, but before it could touch me, Harry materialized between us. In his hand he held a pale stone that gave off beams of light. “Never even think it, spirit-eater. This child carries my blood.”
Zarath reared back, lifting his hands to block the light, and cursed viciously in Talian as he backed away.
“That’s right,” Harry said, following after him. “Get out.”
I went to Doyle, who lay groaning and hugging his middle, and checked him over. Blood streamed from his nose, and I found a huge knot on the back of his head, but otherwise he was all right.
Suddenly the door to the room slammed shut and one of the beaters came in. “He’ll be fine,” he told me as he pocketed the pale stone. He was the beater who had snickered at me, but he wasn’t laughing now. “I’ve sent the other coppers downstairs to clear the hall. Now, you’re to leave Rumsen, this very minute. Get as far from the city as you can manage before dawn.”
I eyed him. “I thought you were arresting me.”
“Oh, for the love of Victoria—it’s me, Harry, Charm.” The beater kne
lt down and looked over Doyle’s bloodied features. “Blind me, this is Arthur’s grandson. Fancy him becoming a Yardman. Ah, well.” He tried to pull me away from him. “You’ve little time left before the sun rises. I’ll help you procure—”
I slapped the beater’s broad cheek. “Why didn’t you come to help us? Why didn’t you stop them from hurting Lucien?”
“I couldn’t.” He winced and probed the reddening side of his face. “Did you have to smack me so hard?” When I curled my fingers into a fist, he said quickly, “I couldn’t stop them or help them. I’m not part of this war. I can’t be.”
“Oh, so you’re a coward as well as a traitor.” I turned my back on him. “Why didn’t you say so?”
Light blasted me from behind, and when I squinted over my shoulder I saw the beater floating six inches above the carpet and glowing like a cop-shaped sun. At the same time everything in the room began to blow about as if in a high wind.
“You dare insult me,” Harry said, his voice booming so loudly the windows rattled. “With the power I command, I could banish you to the netherside with a single thought.”
“Is this how you generally behave toward family?” I sniffed. “And you wonder why my mother wanted no part of you.”
The light vanished, and the beater’s feet dropped down on the floor. “My apologies,” Harry said meekly. “My temper sometimes gets the better of me.”
Doyle stirred, groaning a little.
“Help me with him,” I said.
“I can’t be a part of this conflict,” he said as he moved to the door. “Good-bye, Charm.” Out he went.
“Harry.” I rose to go after him, only to be yanked back down by a strong hand. “Doyle, let go of me. He’s getting away.”
“Yes, and you’re not.” With another groan he shoved himself upright and staggered to his feet, still gripping my wrist with an iron hand. He bellowed out two names, and a pair of his beaters rushed into the room. Neither of them appeared to be possessed by my grandfather.