The smothering velvet curtains were shut against the night, but Thomas Hyde, Lord Varcourt, could feel the darkness pressing against the edges of the crowded parlor, tightening around the silk-shaded gaslights and dimming them from yellow flame to orange.
The coals glowed sullenly in the grate as the chill of an early autumn sank deep into the old stones of the city. Debate raged in Parliament's new limestone palace, already damp and lichenous where it crouched beside the stinking Thames, and so the season limped on, with the endless rotation of dinners, dances, operas, and soirees, accompanied as always by the constant, grating murmur of politics and gossip, marriage and legislation, secret cabals and open scandals that took place in the myriad stifling rooms.
Thomas stood apart in a corner of the Rushworth parlor, watching the currents in the room. Jewels glinted in the muffled lights, on swan necks and wrinkled wrists alike. Shadows in superfine and linen, the men moved among the wide skirts of the ladies, stooping to murmur in a delicate ear or pulling aside a hoary one for a moment's stern exchange. The world was made and unmade in rooms like this, and already, Thomas could begin read the threads that went into its making. Soon enough, he would have enough gathered into his hands that he could pull them and watch men dance...
Bright laughter rose above the subdued murmurs with the suddenness and clarity of a shattered wineglass. Thomas' twin sisters, ever oblivious to any nuance they did not care to notice, stood by the piano with Mrs. Christopher Radcliffe. They were a false focus in the room, as insignificant as the bustling the servants. Of more interest to Thomas was the presence of Lord Edgington in one corner of the room; the men around him shifted uncertainly, uncomfortably, for the staunchly Tory if wildly libertine family reputation had been shattered a year ago with Edgington's defection to the Whigs.
It was whispered that perhaps some portion of Edgington's political shift was due to his marriage to the utterly unknown Margaret King two years before. Thomas did not discount it. That tiny woman sat in a chair directly in front of him, her thick black coils of hair framing her delicate face, as silent and unreadable as an exquisite sphinx.
Only one other woman sat as quietly as she — and more still, for Thomas at times wondered if she had breathed since the gentlemen had rejoined the ladies after their postprandial cigars. She wore a dress in a red so dark that it was almost black, a filmy veil of jet lace cascading from a golden comb on the top of her head to fall in folds across her face.
Esmeralda, she called herself, though God only knew who she really was or from whence she came. She was the newest accessory for the fashionable parlor, one of a thousand charlatans who now pretended unnatural powers for the credulous admiration of laborer and monarch alike, a mass continental insanity that Thomas had instantly despised and suspected. It was an unpredictable element. A corruptible element. A potentially useful element, to be sure, but far too fickle to be trusted.
As Thomas watched, his mother, Lady Hamilton, paused by the spiritualist's chair and touched one of the woman's gloved hands that rested upon its carved arm. The veiled woman bowed her head slowly with a mechanical grace and then straightened again, freezing back in position as if she had never moved.
Esmeralda heard the dead, she claimed, and saw visions — and collected the secrets of the noblewomen who confided in her like pearls. Now, a mere year after her abrupt introduction into Thomas' circles, it was a poor party that did not boast of her presence as a statue in the corner, declaring the hostess' connection to worlds invisible.
Whom was she watching, from behind that veil? Whose tool was she in this game of empires? And how many of the women present, in addition to his own mother, had already been drawn into her thrall? Not even Edgington, with all his spies, had been able to find out. Not even Thomas, with all his ability to coax out confidences.
Lady Hamilton passed on, rubies glittering in her ears in utter disregard to the dark lilac of her dress and her bold new necklace: the mark of her captivity to this Esmeralda. Rubies guarded against harmful thoughts, the woman taught — emeralds against envy, diamonds against the spirits of the other world, and topaz against ills of the spirit. Thomas' gut clenched, but as long as his father clung to both life and the title, there was nothing he could do about his mother's preoccupation with mediums and spirit-guides, who promised to reunite her with the son she had lost some ten years before. The son that many in that very room thought that Thomas had a hand in killing.
Lady Hamilton's hand fluttered self-consciously at her neck. She had been playing with her new necklace all evening, all but flaunting it in front of the other guests. Thomas wondered cynically what charms Esmeralda had said over it, or if her visions had led his mother to a certain jewelry shop where the spiritualist coincidentally knew the owner.
Lady James Ashcroft intercepted his mother as she passed near Thomas without acknowledging him. The countess gave the necklace a near-convulsive jerk, and Lady James' eyes obediently slid downward.
"What a brilliant new piece that is!" Lady James exclaimed, her own hand rising to the heavy jewels hanging from her neck and ears, relics of the Indian mines that had made her husband so rich. "It is so deliciously medieval. Please do tell me whom you had make it."
"It wasn't made," Lady Hamilton said in tones of deepest mystery. "It was found. Esmeralda has been possessed of visions concerning it for weeks, and though she told me the import of each, none of it made sense until she saw what I recognized as a peculiar stone in the round garden behind Hamilton House. I ordered it pulled up, and beneath, in a little casket near rotted with age, was this extraordinary necklace!"
Even as those light words elicited the proper admiring noises from Lady James, Thomas' felt a chill cut through him. The necklace — found, not bought? If that great pearl was real, the necklace must be worth three hundred pounds, at least. Where had Esmeralda come up with it? Who had induced her to plant such a treasure in their back garden, and for what purpose?
Lady Hamilton turned to display the necklace to its best advantage as she expounded upon the story in answer to Lady James' inquiries. Its glitter seemed to mock Thomas. It had to be a ruse, a beautiful millstone to tie about his mother's neck in order to drown his family. There could be no good hidden in such a carefully woven plot.
Thomas wanted the thing gone — and with it, Esmeralda. He stood, silent and immobile, as he waited for Lady James to move off so that he could confront his mother alone.
Lady James launched into the tale of another of Esmeralda's prescient insights — this time about her own youngest daughter, whom she had hoped would be wooed by a gentleman who, as it turned out, had been in the midst of a secret and passionate affair with a married lady. With Esmeralda's delicate hints, the signs had been clear enough for anyone to see, and Lady James had driven off his first tentative overtures toward the young Flora.
Thomas suppressed a bitter smile. He knew whom Lady James must mean: Lord Gifford, and the prediction that the earl's son had a married lover — or two, for that matter — was no prediction at all, from what Thomas knew of the man's predilections.
Lady James was distracted by her eldest daughter's signal from across the room and soon left in a miasma of rosewater to whisk the shrinking Flora from her care and press the unpretty girl upon the nearest suitable man. Thomas took the opportunity to intercept his mother.
He stepped forward, taking her elbow in his hand. Lady Hamilton started when he touched her, and her tamped down a surge of anger against the statue-like form of Esmeralda.
"Madam," he said quietly, "you did not tell me that Esmeralda had given you that necklace."
His mother looked confused, the dark painted lines of her brows drawing together. "Given me it? No, I had the gardener dig it up — "
"Nevertheless." Thomas cut her off. "It is a gift. Her visions led you to it, you say — how easy would it have been for her to keep silent about them and keep the necklace for herself? No, she wanted you to have it, and I mistrust her reasons."
Her face grew stony. "You are simply speaking from your prejudices."
"I simply do not trust a stranger who has no reason to be generous and may have motivations you know nothing of," he returned, forgetting in his annoyance to pander to the illusion that the spiritualist possessed supernatural gifts. "Did it not occur to you that the piece might be stolen? Imagine the damage it would do to your husband in Parliament if our family were connected to a theft. Madam, I would ask you to remove the necklace and to conceal it until we reach home. Then put it away and pretend it was never found." He looked down at her, ruthlessly exploiting the uncertainty in him that Esmeralda had fanned into fear. "Do not wear it — or even refer to it — until that spiritualist is gone."
The color drained from her cheeks, and with it went the traces of her girlhood beauty. "You are punishing me," she whispered. "For not getting rid of her as you told me to."
Thomas stretched his lips in a smile he didn't feel. "No, madam. I am trying to save you." And with that, he let her go, praying that she would accede to his demands.
He turned to face the woman who sat so still across the parlor, who had been sending shadows for him to duel for the better part of a year and who had insinuated herself so fully into society that her presence had become well nigh inescapable.
He had never spoken to her. Never acknowledged her, knowing that she would, in time, be tossed away like last season's fashion in hats. That had been a mistake, for society had not tired of her quickly enough — a mistake he would commit no longer.
He closed the space between them, weaving between belling skirts and the archipelago of chairs. The air was heavy with the sickly sweet scents of sherry and sweat, cologne water and drooping flowers, the stench of tobacco hanging upon the coats of the men who had indulged themselves over the supper table after the ladies had retired.
Esmeralda did not stir in her corner, though he would have sworn that her eyes were fixed upon him as he drew near. He stopped so close to her chair that his boot tips creased the stiff dupioni of her dark crimson skirts. He could tell almost no more about her from that vantage than he could from across the room, for she was still just as motionless, the fabric of her veil revealing nothing but a hint of the shape of her face beneath. Her high-necked dress ended far beneath its edge, her tight sleeves coming down over her wrists to meet her short black gloves. She was slender but tall for a woman — he had seen her rise from a chair and use that height and her eerie quietness to silence a room. She could be any age, any woman, really, beneath the armor of silk. If it were not for the small movement of her chest as she breathed, echoed by a flutter of her veil, he could almost believe that she was not even alive.
But she did breathe — and he could feel the tension radiating from her body as he stood over her, looking down.
She said nothing, so neither did he. Instead, he walked slowly, deliberately around her until he stood in the gap between the corner of her chair and the wall, directly behind her left shoulder and out of her peripheral vision.
"We need to talk, Esmeralda," he said, saying her name like an insult. "I think I should like to have my palm read." He put a hand on her shoulder. He could feel the muscle over her collarbone, rigid through her silk dress.
"I do not read palms," she said. It was the first time that he had ever heard her voice, and it sent a shock through him, for it was neither the exaggerated gypsy accent nor the cronish cackle he had expected. Instead, it was low and melodious, with the merest trace of an accent that he could not place. "I read souls."
Thomas tightened his hand upon her shoulder. "You lie."
"You sound so sure." The reply was swift, practiced — she had met doubters before.
"I am sure," he countered. "If you could read my soul, you would be trembling now."
She gave a swift intake of breath — whether it was a gasp or a kind of laugh, he could not tell. "Reading souls is not as simple a matter as seeing a face."
Thomas refused to continue to be drawn along that track. "You have been giving audiences all evening long. I ask for one now."
"In private." He detected an unmistakable tremor of fear.
He leaned on her shoulder slightly, deliberately. "Most assuredly."
"And if I refuse?" she asked, unbending even though the fear still lay there, underneath her words.
He bent so that his mouth was level with her ear. "How mysterious do you think Esmeralda shall be once she has been unveiled?" He wound the fabric of the veil around his hand.
"I will come." The words were unhurried, but he felt for the first time that he had found a weapon to use against the knives of words she wielded.
"I am pleased," he said, and he shifted his grip so that he held her arm, half lifting her from her chair. "Do lead the way. I will follow."
The veil was smothering her, and the man's hand on her arm felt like a vise. Em forced her breathing back under control, willing her racing heart to slow. She had watched the exchange between Lord Varcourt and his mother — had watched Lady Hamilton's hands flutter at the antique necklace at her neck, had seen the terror on her face as her son stalked toward Em. Stalked — not the vain, preening walk of a peacock but the deliberate movements of a predator.
She had now seen him exactly six times. The first had been when he had thrown the door open in the midst of a séance at Hamilton House, causing half the women present to emit faint shrieks and reach for their smelling salts. Then, he had simply called from the doorway — "My lady mother. Mary. Elizabeth." And the giggling twins had been instantly silenced, following their ashen-faced mother from the room.
That had ended that afternoon's session, but she had received a letter — and a payment — the following week to continue to meet more privately with Lady Hamilton alone. Em had been glad enough, for large shows were only good to entertain an audience. It was only the small sessions in which her skills were put to best use — and her patron could be convinced most thoroughly of her powers. Still, whenever Em mentioned any sense that she had received from the events following Lord Varcourt's interruption, Lady Hamilton would grow pale and nervous and would bring the subject firmly around to her dead son Harry.
At first, Em had given her the usual palliative communications, feeding the poor woman a constant stream of reassurance about her son's happiness beyond this vale of tears. After that scene, though, a sense of self-preservation and a bone-deep dread had caused her to let doubt about the countess' surviving son seep in to her communications, how much out of fear for herself and how much out of a genuine concern for her patroness, she didn't know and preferred not to consider.
Since then, Em had only seen Lord Varcourt across a parlor or a dinner table, as she had begun being included in social invitations during the past two months as a kind of joint entertainment and curiosity. When he had looked at her, she felt the animosity of his eyes boring through her, and she had grown cold inside to think that those eyes might have been the last things that his brother had ever seen. And now she was walking beside him, her arm in his hard grip as everyone in the parlor stilled to watch the two of them — the spiritualist and the skeptic — leave the room together.
No one asked whether she was going willingly. It would not occur to anyone that she was a being whose will meant anything at all.
The man walked foot behind her so that she could not look at him without turning her head, and that she refused to deign to do. She could feel him, though, behind her, a massive shadow that seemed to dim the gas lights as he passed.
They stepped out of the parlor. The footman inside shut the door behind them, leaving them alone in the shadowed dining room, the broad, polished table dully gleaming in the light of the single sconce that burned upon the wall. Em stopped.
"Go on, then." Lord Varcourt demanded. His voice was rich and mellow, which somehow made it far worse than if it had been monstrous.
"I can give your reading here," Em said, knowing that he would reject the possibility as soon as she offered it but making the attempt, anyway.
His hand tightened on her arm. "We shall hold our session where you held your others — in the library."
Em closed her eyes for a moment, swallowing hard. She had chosen to hold the few sessions she had done that evening in the library for precisely the reason that the idea of it now sent a chill of terror through her. It was the farthest public room from the parlors and the dining room, the most insulated from the lights and sounds of the party. He cannot see your face, she reminded herself. Control your voice. Read his tells. All shall be well. But her own body was strung so tightly that she could spare no attention to read the subtleties in his.
Without speaking, she stepped forward.
Toward the library.