Theft of Shadows
Trouble already, and Gabriel had only just reached dry land. He brushed his traveling cloak away from the hilt of his sword. What had begun as a sunny afternoon walk from the Southampton dock to his inn had evidently become something else.
Four drunk and reeking sailors glowered at him, blocking the street in a loose semi-circle. He recognized the men from the boat that had brought him to England. On board, they had been mere faces among the crew. Now they looked like a selection of the Deadly Sins out for a stroll.
Gabriel looked around with a grimace. The twisty, cobbled maze of streets was suddenly deserted, the dockside folk evaporating at the hint of a brawl. He was on his own.
“We meet again, Frenchie,” said the leader.
Gabriel shrugged. “A logical outcome, since you’ve been following me.”
The man had been hovering nearby when Gabriel gave directions for his trunk to be sent from the dock to the coaching inn. He had been somewhere in sight ever since, moving closer bit by bit. Why?
Robbery would be the simple answer. Slowly, Gabriel’s hand closed on the sword-hilt. There was no way to look casual about reaching for his weapon, but he still wasn’t eager to strike the first blow. Chopping British tars into spoon-sized gobbets was hardly how he wanted to renew his acquaintance with England.
“Aren’t you going to teach us some manners, Frenchie? Strike a blow for the garlic-eaters?” The man and his friends took a step forward. Gabriel took a step back, turning down a street that was a bit wider. Sword work took space, and he was careful to leave himself enough room.
“I am not your enemy. I do not fight with the French army. I am not at war with you,” he replied, trying to sound reasonable.
“Doesn’t he talk pretty?” said another of the sailors. “Almost as good as an Englishman.”
They were closing in, herding him backward. A lethal calm cleared Gabriel’s head. Even the miasma from a rocky voyage was gone. Imagine—the threat of violence was apparently an effective cure for sea-sickness. One learned something new every day.
“Of course you’re at war with us, Frenchie,” said the leader, spitting at Gabriel’s feet. “Should have thrown you overboard last night.”
“Perhaps you shall regret that oversight.”
The leader took another step, and Gabriel drew his blade with the harsh swish of steel on leather. The bright flash of sun on the metal was blinding.
Gabriel glanced around. He could probably kill all four of these men, but he didn’t want to. There had to be an escape route he could use to simply disappear.
Wrong. Behind him was a dead end. Trapped.
He sighed. Some things never changed. His luck was one of them. Gabriel raised the sword en garde.
The lead man pulled a nasty-looking knife from his belt, and Gabriel swore. A sword had more reach, but a throwing knife presented another set of problems.
With the rattle of an iron latch, a door to one of the houses opened. His stomach lurched as he waited for some hapless child to bolt into the midst of the scene. Rather, an auburn-haired man in rumpled shirtsleeves lounged against the weathered doorpost. Given the narrowness of the street, Gabriel could have grabbed the dainty cup and saucer the young man balanced in his fingers.
“Are you in need of assistance?” the interloper asked in the politest of tones.
“Perhaps.” Gabriel fought to keep the sarcasm from his voice.
“You do seem a trifle outnumbered.”
The leader of the sailors looked from Gabriel to the man in the doorway and back. “Mind your own business, guv’nor.”
In reply, the man simply raised his eyebrows. Two of the louts shuffled their feet, as if wondering whether it was time to bolt.
Gabriel shrugged, unsure whether the man was an ally or an idiot. “Eh bien, I can skewer at least two before one lands a decent blow.”
The other took a sip from the cup. “Hardly a good way to begin the afternoon.”
“Alas, what is a poor wayfarer to do?”
“Allow me.” The man turned away from the door and Gabriel heard the chink of china being set down. When he reappeared, the man was holding a brace of pistols. He aimed both at the sailors. “Bugger off, you lot.”
The leading sailor drew back, his face drooping with dismay. Taking a chance, Gabriel sheathed the sword, signaling the end of the stand-off.
“Get inside,” said the auburn-haired man. Now his manner was crisp, used to authority. “I’ll see these merry fellows on their way.”
Something rang false in the man’s voice. Cautiously, Gabriel stepped past his intercessor and across the threshold of the tall, whitewashed house. The other stood in the doorway for a long moment before he lowered the pistols and closed and latched the door.
“There,” he said. “Now that’s taken care of, may I offer you refreshment?”
Gabriel looked around the modest room, suspicion blossoming. There was a small table, two chairs, and not much else. Through an interior doorway, he could see the edge of an unmade bed. It had the air of a place rented by the week. “Bien sûr, I will have some of your tea as long as it is garnished with a grain of salt.”
Gabriel folded his arms, a low simmer of anger heating his gut. “I return to England for the first time in many years, but I have sufficient history in this country that there may be those who remember my name. Naturally, I am wary.”
“Four seasoned seamen confront me within minutes of coming ashore. It is very strange that brawlers like that do not attack a single man but instead herd him into a blind alley. Further, here you are, standing in your doorway like a cuckoo in its clock, ready to rescue me from these buffoons.”
The man sat in one of the chairs and struck a weary pose, his head propped in his hand. “Which means what, pray tell?”
“If you wished to speak with me, a note sent to the coaching inn would have sufficed. I am a polite and reasonable man. I do not need a charade to lure me into conversation.”
A cat-like smile curved the man’s mouth. “It was too much?”
Gabriel sank into the other chair. “I think the English are mad.”
“Quite. Thomas Hanson, Viscount Farnwell, at your service.” The man put out his hand. “I don’t use the title most of the time because, really, I’m an actor.”
“Gabriel d’Aubrigny, Chevalier de Lesgardes. I don’t use the title most of the time because people keep trying to kill me.”
“So I’ve heard.” Hanson rose and took down another cup from a shelf above the fireplace. “If you would prefer something stronger than tea, it can be arranged.”
“Tea is fine.” Gabriel felt a wave of impatience with the peculiar conversation. “If your ruffian friends were in on this ruse, you must have recruited them instantly. We have not been on shore long.”
Hanson poured from the pot on the table. “Arrangements were already in place. Sir Alaric sent your escort to find you months ago. They had orders to bring you to my door.”
Gabriel stiffened. Hanson had dropped the name of the king’s secret spymaster as casually as one would that of a tailor.
Hanson set the cup in front of Gabriel. “I am one of the Master’s men. You can speak freely.”
Gabriel felt his pulse quicken. Sir Alaric Fitzwilliam, the Master, was rather like fire: handy to have as an ally, but never to be entirely trusted. “I knew nothing of this. He knew when and where I would leave the Continent? That I would return to England at all?”
For the first time, Hanson looked uncomfortable. “He has unusual abilities.”
Gabriel said nothing. The Master’s interest in the occult was not a conversational thread he cared to follow.
Hanson went on. “Sir Alaric has been watching you. You worked for him and know a great deal about his associates, where information is gathered and who does it.”
“I have never shared this knowledge. Why does it matter now?”
“There’s the war with France, you see. The point is, some of the aristocracy has returned to Paris and begun to make bargains with the new regime. They are trying to recoup what they lost in the Revolution.”
And you think I will do the same. Gabriel took a deep breath, controlling his temper. “So that is why the Master sent those fools to shepherd me here? To prevent me from making a trip to Paris to sell his secrets? What would have happened if I changed my mind half-way here and started for France instead?”
Hanson colored, the red flush clashing with his auburn hair. “To jump to the end of my narrative, the Master is happy you have returned to English shores.”
“The better to watch my every step.” Taking nothing for granted, Gabriel smelled the tea and touched his tongue to the liquid before taking a swallow. The brew was strong and growing cold, but not obviously poisonous.
A moment passed. Acutely, Gabriel felt every inch the stranger. Politics, language, and dress all marked him as foreign. He did not even look like his host. Hanson had fiery coloring and broad bones, Gabriel the dark, fine features of his countrymen.
Hanson folded his arms. “If I were you, I would have stayed abroad. You realize the English government will always follow your movements with interest.”
“I do not plan to be interesting.”
“Yet you come and go from our shores. Who is to say what information you take with you?”
“I left here only to reconcile with my father.”
“That was six years ago.”
“He is a difficult man. It took some time.”
Hanson hesitated, obviously not sure what to say next.
Gabriel waved a dismissive hand. “My father plans to live out his days in Austria. He is still loyal to the kingdom that fell with the Bastille. I have friends in England, and I will make a quiet life for myself. Neither my family nor I am a threat to anyone.”
Hanson’s green eyes studied Gabriel. “Sir Alaric said you would say as much. Surely you want to know why he arranged that I speak with you.”
Gabriel set down his cup, managing to make the sound derisive. “Indeed. If Sir Alaric is unsure of one’s loyalties, his usual response is execution. I wonder why he spared me.”
“He has a bargain for you.”
The mild words were a blow. Gabriel closed his eyes. “Merde.”
One welcomed Sir Alaric’s bargains when standing on the gallows, but regretted the price as soon as the noose was out of sight. Gabriel’s last contract with the spymaster had endured eight years, and then it had taken a royal pardon to set him free. There was no way he would deal with that devil once more.
Hanson gave his feline smile. “This piece of work is simple. A fine horse and a purse of gold for a month’s labor. Observation only. Next to no risk. No obligation past month’s end.”
On the surface, it was tempting. Gabriel had nothing but his sword and the money in his belt purse. Still, he knew better than to trust the offer.
Apprehension drove him to his feet. He paced from one end of the cramped room to the other, feeling the weight of Hanson’s cool gaze. “After Sir Alaric has taken such care to bring me here, am I even permitted to refuse?”
He felt a jolt of surprise. “Then I say no!”
“I promise it is an interesting task.”
“Non. I am done with espionage. If this assignment holds such fascination, you take it on.”
Hanson shrugged. “I don’t have your experience. It would need one with your special touch.”
Gabriel gave a smile that was more a baring of teeth. “My touch? Do you mean forgery or picking locks? I have so many useful talents that I would like to forget. I am an honest man now.”
Folding his hands behind his head, Hanson leaned back in the chair. “Since you aren’t interested, it doesn’t matter what Sir Alaric needs you to do.”
Pressing his lips together, Gabriel silenced a retort. He was being baited. “Very well.”
Hanson studied the ceiling. “The horse is yours, though. A gift. She’s a splendid mare bred from Lord Redfern’s stables. She comes with a saddle, holsters and pistols, the lot.”
Gabriel stared, frowning. “A gift? Why?”
“In the Master’s own words, you were the cleverest of the lot of us. In his own way, he appreciated that.”
Surely, this was a trick. Gabriel briefly recalled stories of the Trojan horse, and wondered what could actually be stuffed inside a live mare. Probably not much he wanted to know about.
Without moving, Hanson turned his eyes to Gabriel. “It would be ungracious to refuse.”
“Then I accept the horse, if not the bargain,” Gabriel said. The simple truth was that he needed a mount. At the same time, a voice in his head whispered that he would regret taking the mare. With Sir Alaric, there was always a price. “But there is one thing I do not understand.”
Hanson sat up, folding his arms across his chest. “What?”
“If Sir Alaric went to such lengths to put this proposition before me, why let me go so easily?”
Hanson shook his head, spreading his hands in a gesture of confusion. “That is something we would both like to know.”
Anne Tremaine sailed through the air and crashed to the heath in an ungainly sprawl. The hard landing made her bite her tongue, and blood flowed, coppery and revolting, into her mouth. She remained still for a long moment, winded, her stomach still lurching with the jolt of the fall.
Where her ear rested on the grass of Hounslow Heath, she could hear the retreating hoof beats of that thrice-damned roan. She usually hired a mount from one of a dozen stables when she went out on business—varying her routine was one tactic she used to obscure her identity—but a strange horse did add an element of unpredictability. This one had bolted for no reason, probably heading straight back to his stall. Stupid beast.
Alone and at night. Not the best time for an accident. Experimentally, she shifted her legs. No bones were broken. As she moved, the numb spot where she had landed flooded with pain. Her rear would be black and blue by morning.
It took a moment to untangle her cloak from her spurs and then to get her scabbard out from between her knees. At least she was wearing breeches and not a cumbersome skirt.
Anne staggered to her feet, feeling every muscle and sinew of her tall, lean frame. The leather of her boots creaked, sounding to her imagination like her abused bones. The ground was damp, and now so was she. Grass and muddy grit stuck to her clothes and worked down inside her boots.
She limped to where her hat had rolled and pulled it over her coiled braids. Now what? Even if her sore body would tolerate walking miles back into London, she hadn’t even begun her night’s work.
She unsheathed her sword and examined the blade, moonlight sliding down the edge of steel. Thankfully, the scabbard had protected the weapon during her ungainly tumble. Then she checked the priming of her pistol. It was time to gather her wits and move forward. It was still a fine night for highway robbery.
She sucked a breath deep into her lungs, steadying herself. This would be so much harder without a mount. Maybe she should just walk home and try again the next night. It was hard to be threatening when one was on foot and one’s victim was on a nice, tall horse. But, even if she hurried, she would not see her bed for hours.
Stiffly, she resumed the route she had been following before her horse had made other plans. The moon, just past full, lit the ground well enough for her to walk without stumbling. All around, the heath lay like a rough blanket, the occasional bushes and trees lurking like shadowy beasts. Moisture clung to the grass, shimmering in the starlight. Spring was fading, but the night air was still crisp and cool.
Anne neared a bend in the main road sheltered by a cluster of elm trees. She approached warily. It was a popular hiding spot for thieves, including her.
So distant it nearly escaped notice, she heard the sound of a horse trotting behind her. She turned, expecting to see the roan wandering the road. Instead, there was the dark shape of a horseman in a heavy cloak. Feeling vulnerable on foot, she withdrew into the stand of elms, crouching behind a knoll.
As the traveler approached, she tried to make out telltale details. Was he wealthy? A man of quality with a well-filled purse? She could make out little, but his horse moved smoothly, like a beast of the first water.
An idea, one she immediately knew carried risk, formed in her mind. Nervously, she fingered the hilt of her sword. Strong and skilled as she was, Anne was careful.
Terror was a thief’s chief weapon, she reasoned. If taken by surprise, most travelers gave up their purses without a struggle. In Anne’s experience, few victims chose to strike back, not even men with weapons of their own. The secret lay in freezing her mark at gunpoint before he had a chance to react.
Did this horseman look like a fighter? He seemed tall, but it was too dark to guess more than that. Temptation wooed her.
The matter was simple. He had a mount, and she wanted it. She needed it. Did she dare try to take it?
Fortune favors the brave. She pulled the flintlock pistol from her pocket, feeling the solid heft. She checked the priming one last time, her fingers caressing the octagonal barrel. The familiar routine was a ritual. The pistol was the only thing she had from her father, and she had it because she stole it from him long ago.
Slowly, Anne rose from her crouch, her muscles stiff and painful. Gulping air, she forced down a sudden urge to retch with fear. For a moment, the lure of an easy mark warred with doubt. Did she dare?
With a loud cry, she leapt from the clump of trees and bushes into the road. The horse reared, startled. As she had planned, the man had all he could do to keep his seat. His hands were too busy with the reins to reach for a weapon.
Perfect. In a heartbeat, she was close, her pistol aimed at his heart. She planted her feet wide, one hand cupping the other to brace against the firearm’s ferocious kick.
“Stand and deliver!” she shouted, her voice harsh.
“Sacre Dieu!” the man swore.
The raw fury in those words sent a shudder down Anne’s spine. This was no coward. Before he could recover, she pushed her advantage, taking another stride forward.
“Get off the horse!” she barked, spooking the mount into another sideways dance.
With another curse, the rider sprang down, but on the horse’s right. Bad—that put the creature’s bulk between him and her line of fire. Worse, the odd dismount sent the horse into another fit. Anne had to spring back to avoid stamping hooves.
Damnation! After losing one mount already that night, she wasn’t letting this one bolt. Wasting no time, she grabbed for the bridle. The horse reared, nearly taking her arm with it until she let go.
At the same time, she heard the “snick” of a pistol being cocked behind her.
“Drop your weapon and step away from my horse.” The voice was velvet edged with ice.
He had circled around the beast and come up behind her as she had tried to catch the reins. She felt the press of the weapon against her shoulder, a demonstrative nudge.
As if that would frighten her into surrender. Anne wheeled, thrusting the muzzle of her pistol into the vulnerable flesh under his chin. “Don’t touch me unless you mean to keep me.”
The man jerked up at the kiss of the metal, his eyes wide with surprise. “Madame!”
“Monsieur,” she mocked. “If you want to live, then stay right where you are.”
Anne took a deep breath, steadying her heart beat. Events were moving in her favor now, but her knees trembled with a strange mix of terror and exhilaration.
“I could have killed you,” he said. “I don’t kill women.”
“Dangerous oversight. I am utterly cold-hearted.”
“You are insane.”
“Perhaps. That’s your misfortune.”
“As you say.” The man held his arms away from his sides, his pistol hanging loose in one hand. She could see his face now, the moonlight showing clear, fine features. A perfect nose. The kind of liquid, dark eyes that gave Continental lovers their vaunted reputation.
No doubt women swooned like green girls when he smiled. She fought an irrational urge to shoot him on principle.
“Put your pistol on the ground.” She cleared her throat, embarrassed to hear her voice growing husky. “Do it slowly.”
“I aim never to disappoint.”
“And I don’t care for witty repartee. Move.”
He complied, his movements efficient, graceful. He straightened, his hands raised in surrender.
“Now your money.” She nodded the barrel of the pistol toward the heavy purse at his belt. She wouldn’t have seen it, but the position of his arms raised the front of his cropped riding coat.
A flash of the raw fury crossed his face. She gripped the gun tight, refusing to let it tremble. “Hand it over.”
“It is all the money I have in the world.” The words were spoken like a curse.
“With a horse like that? I don’t believe you.” She shifted her grip on the trigger, making a show that she was ready to shoot.
He jerked the purse from his belt and threw it at her feet. It landed with an emphatic chink of coin, sliding off the toe of her boot. There was enough money there that the force of it actually hurt.
His eyes locked on her face, waiting for her next move. Anne could feel the heat of his rage. One miscalculation and she was in deep trouble.
“Back away.” The pistol was growing heavy. She fought to keep it level.
He made a reluctant move, barely a shuffle.
“Now. All the way to the trees.”
More unwilling steps. When he stopped, he merged with the shadows, nearly invisible. The man had the stillness of a hunting cat.
Anne felt like a faltering bird. Without taking her eyes off him, she picked up the purse and the pistol he had set on the grass.
Time to go. The horse had finally quieted, wandering off only a few yards. Anne backed toward it, never dropping her guard.
When she finally swung into the saddle, she could feel cold sweat running down her sides and between her breasts. With a thrust of her heels, she urged the horse back to the road and sped toward London. Long after, she imagined she could feel the man’s angry stare boring into her spine.
Anne thanked Heaven the horse was every bit as fast as it looked.
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December 27, 2008