Lord Eugenides’ arrival prompted murmurs throughout the ballroom.
Perhaps this was because of his appearance: he might have been a dandy with the immaculate and close-cut line of his coat were it not for the fact that he eschewed the usual sober navy or black for a glowing golden yellow that set off his dark complexion. He wore his loose hair longer than was fashionable, and high-heeled shoes. Perhaps it was because of his reputation as a dissolute who occupied the gambling halls and disreputable clubs of London. Perhaps it was because of his noble birth, which rendered his behavior even more outrageous.
Whatever the reason, he certainly caused a stir. Lady Helen, only daughter of the late Duke of Eddis, watched his arrival with amusement. As her closest and dearest cousin, Eugenides’ behavior was intimately familiar to her. Any party that included him was bound to be amusing at least, and Helen had reached the age where she was thankful for any amusement she could get at these functions.
He made his meandering way around the room to her, and bowed over her hand.
“Lady Helen,” he said, with a meaningful look at her outfit.
“Lord Eugenides,” she said mildly. She knew her gown didn’t become her; few of her gowns did. Not to say there was anything objectively wrong with it, it was deep green silk, well-tailored and covered in delicate embroideries; she had paired it with a cream shawl and pearls—a perfectly acceptable combination for a lady of her rank. It was simply that her shoulders were too broad for the delicate capped sleeves and square neckline and her stocky build unsuited to long, draped lengths of silk. Helen didn’t mind. She had wealth, status, and a lack of vanity which rather made up for any need or desire to make herself up as a beauty.
Besides, Eugenides hardly had room to speak, not when his gold-threaded waistcoat alone could blind an incautious observer.
“How surprising to see you here,” she remarked.
"I think it falls within the bounds of my eccentricity to attend a ball once in awhile," said Eugenides, his eyes dancing.
Helen twitched her fan shut, folded her hands together, and waited.
Without losing his smile, Eugenides stepped minutely closer. Keeping his tone as light as if he were making polite conversation about the weather, he spoke.
"Someone is trying to get my attention," he said softly. "Wherever I go, I have been hearing tell of a rough man with a twisted lip, tall and broad, dressed as a seaman."
"How very sinister," said Helen. "It sounds like something out of a bad novel. Has this thug made his intentions clear?"
"Not as such. Only that he has been inquiring about me and my whereabouts all over town. So here I am, visible as can be for anyone who wants to make themselves known.”
“As plans go, that seems a foolhardy one,” said Helen.
He ignored this and continued as if she hadn’t spoken.
“In addition, the old Duke of Sounis' solicitor had a visit last week from a certain Lord Akretenesh," Eugenides said, smiling and nodding at a passing guest. "Which I cannot manage to think of as a coincidence." Not since there had not been a scrap of news about the previous heir in more than five years—and not for lack of search on Eugenides’ part.
Helen's heart thumped, and she took a silent breath to calm herself.
"You think Akretenesh will make a play for the title?"
"No," said Eugenides. "I think he's making a play for the estate right now. With the Magus gone in Alexandria this is the best chance he’ll have." He smiled, a dangerous, quicksilver thing. "Akretenesh might encounter some unforeseen obstacles, however."
"Eugenides," said Helen reprovingly. He looked at her. She couldn't argue, not against the ever-shrinking possibility that Sophos might still be alive. "Be careful."
He raised an eyebrow.
"When am I not careful?" Before she could answer, he offered her his arm. "We've talked for too long. Will you do me the honor of a dance, Lady Helen?"
"Very well," she said, and allowed him to lead her onto the floor. "I can always spare a dance for my dearest cousin."
Even after several years, Helen was not a very accomplished dancer. Eugenides was a skillful and considerate partner, however, and steered her easily. He could be charming when he put his mind to it, and again she wondered that he seemed to go out of his way to avoid it.
Suddenly, he stiffened, his eyes caught by something over her shoulder. She knew without turning what--or rather, who--it must be. Eugenides had come late, and so had not been around to hear the Dowager Duchess of Attolia being announced. Helen had seen her come in, resplendent in a low-cut gown of bronze gold with a black shawl of Spanish lace—shocking and dramatic for a woman just out of mourning.
“Eugenides,” said Helen in warning. “Don’t.”
“She is cold-hearted and self-interested,” said Eugenides, leading her into a neat twirl.
“She is my friend,” replied Helen. She still counted it to be true, though she and Lady Irene had not exchanged more than pleasantries in several years.
“I doubt she has the human feeling to be bothered by me,” said Eugenides.
They finished their dance in silence and he led her off the floor, giving a courteous bow over her hand. Helen could feel Gen's attention oriented toward Lady Irene like a needle toward the north. Her heart ached for them both.
Duchess of Attolia was engaged in polite conversation with Lieutenant Ormentiedes, recently home from service and one of the few people in the ballroom who would not snub her implicitly or outright, when she saw the man coming toward her from across the dance floor. For a frozen moment she wanted to run.
This was ridiculous. He could be best classified as a former acquaintance. They hadn’t spoken in several years, and even before their acquaintance had been passing at best.
Besides, she was Attolia. She did not run.
Lieutenant Ormentiedes must have seen something on her face, because he murmured something politely and retreated with a bow over her hand.
She noted as he approached that he had matured in the intervening years since they had seen each other. He was still shorter than her, but he no longer had the air of an ill-proportioned youth. Now he seemed to occupy the whole of his slim frame with the confidence of a dancer. His dark eyebrows and mobile mouth gave his face a rakish cast. He was, in fact, handsome. This made her uneasy.
“Lord Eugenides,” she said coolly, hoping to discourage extended interaction. To her dismay, he did not seem discouraged.
“Your Grace,” he said. “You look lovely tonight. This color becomes you.”
It was a compliment, the kind of compliment that was expected in the ballroom, and he said it with all the appearance of sincerity. There’s no reason it should feel mocking.
“Thank you,” she said, and purposefully let the thread of conversation drop. He remained unperturbed.
“I never did extend my condolences for your loss.”
“That’s quite alright.”
His eyes twinkled.
“What, won’t you give me a chance to rectify my error?”
She frowned repressively. She couldn’t shake the feeling he was laughing at her.
“Go ahead, then.”
“My condolences for your loss."
He put his hands in his pockets, apparently content to continue the conversation all evening.
“I was just discussing with Lady Helen how unfortunate it is the late Duke passed away when he did. In the prime of his life. A hunting accident, was it?” He paused, as if expecting her to say something. She would not rise to the bait. “Not to mention all those debts…a hard burden for a young widow such as Your Grace.”
She felt her face go frigid.
“What exactly,” she said softly, the words dropping with a hiss in the silence between them, “do you mean to imply?"
“Only that rumor has it you’ve had quite the Mede shadow lately. Is Lord Nahuseresh as handsome as they say? Personally I think he sounds a bit dandyish. But,” he continued thoughtfully, “I suppose his wealth makes up for his other shortcomings.”
She felt herself on the precipice of fury, one teetering step away from letting loose all the rage packed tight and sharp inside her. She was ready to ream him out and be damned with the consequences when she caught sight of Nahuseresh across the ballroom. He was facing away from her, but he might turn around at any moment.
“How fascinating,” she found herself saying instead, distant and frosty as a January wind. “If you’ll excuse me, Lord Eugenides, I feel a bit fatigued. I think I may sit down a while.” Without waiting for his response, she turned away and made her way blindly from the ballroom to an empty sitting room. All the way she could feel his eyes on her back.
How dare he. How dare he insinuate—how dare he imply—how dare he act like he knew anything, when he was just an—an impertinent, arrogant youth! She bared her teeth in a silent snarl, pacing up and down the room like a caged animal. So this was to be his revenge. She should have guessed that no man would be content to let that kind of insult lie. He aimed to crush her pride like she crushed his, rubbing her nose in her mistakes, in her late husband’s shortcomings, in the debts.
What atrocious timing. She was truly in the lion’s den now: her accounts were running low, drained by the payments to her husband’s creditors. Nahuseresh, with the tempting offer of Mede gold, was pressing his suit with increasing urgency. She could not afford to have all her work undone by some empty-headed, petty young man bent on avenging his wounded honor. It was imperative that she keep out of the way of Lord Eugenides.
Eugenides must have sparked a trend, because she was invited to dance three times afterward. It was a mark of her not inconsiderable fortune that she was still considered eligible despite her advanced age, she thought wryly, as she breathlessly made her way to the gardens for some fresh air.
Her host had a pleasant garden, spacious and well-tended, and Helen was content to stroll through the lanes enjoying the evening breeze and the solitude. She had become accustomed to the social scene in the years since she made her debut into society and had shouldered the responsibilities of a grown woman without much fuss, but sometimes she missed her younger days. It had been easier with Irene by her side.
As she turned a corner, she was surprised by a rustle in the bushes. Up until that point she would have said the garden was quite desert, but now a startled movement and the glow of a lit cigarette told her she wasn't alone.
"My apologies,"she said, startled into speech. "I didn't see you there. I do hope I'm not interrupting."
The man—it must be a man, with the broad frame and the cigarette—spoke. He had a nice voice, tinted by some accent or other.
"Oh, it's quite alright. You weren't to have known I was lurking in the bushes," he said, sounding strangely humble for a man of his size. "I ought to have said something, I'm still not used to polite company." Before Helen could properly note this odd remark, the man stepped forward into the pool of light provided by a hanging lantern.
Helen froze. The light caught the man's profile as he moved into it, illuminating the distinct bulge of a broken nose and a mouth split at the sides by a scar that made one lip curl up.
Too late she noted the man's coloring—fair—and his clothes, which, while genteel, looked to be about ten years out of fashion and somewhat moth-bitten, not suited to a ton ball.
Her mind raced, going first to the locked cabinet of guns kept at her country house, and then to Eugenides, both of which were no good to her here. Gods curse Eugenides. She could scream, and people would probably come running from the house. But she had only Eugenides' word about this man. Better to bluff it out. She stepped into the light as well, and spoke.
“I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced. You are?”
The man was silent for a long moment. She noticed with unease that he was staring at her as if she were a ghost. Finally he spoke in a queer, choked voice.
The Duke of Sounis waited in the dark, his shoulders tense and his stomach a ball of nerves. It was true he didn’t feel very ducal and didn’t look it either. But a duke he was, by right and by law, even if he was currently skulking in the bushes outside of a party he hadn’t been invited to, holding a cigarette he wasn’t smoking and wearing a coat that didn’t belong to him.
The cigarette was in case anyone happened to chance upon him in the garden, he could offer a plausible excuse to his presence. The coat was bought secondhand. His everyday clothes were of work-roughened twill, stained with salt and tar. The secondhand coat was old, but it had probably belonged to a gentleman once and was at least of passing quality to disguise him as a guest.
He took a deep breath to calm his nerves. Maybe he had been wrong about all of this. He didn’t know what kind of man Gen had become in the five years since they’d known each other. But if he was anything like he remembered, Gen would figure it out. He had to trust that.
So engrossed in his thoughts was he that he was completely taken aback by the sound of footsteps. He started, dropping his cigarette.
"My apologies," said a woman's voice out of the darkness. "I didn't see you there. I do hope I'm not interrupting."
He had a brief moment of panic. For a moment, he was fifteen again, quiet and bookish and awkward in company. His recent years contained more experience scrubbing decks and climbing masts than making polite conversation with eligible women.
"Oh, it's quite alright," he said hastily. "You weren't to have known I was lurking in the bushes. I ought to have said something, I'm still not used to polite company." He stepped forward, ready to hurry past her and make his escape. To his dismay, the woman came out of the darkness to meet him.
“I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced. You are?”
Oh, gods. How was he going to get out of this? He cast about for something to say, mind racing. And then stopped, as he looked at her, really looked at her.
She was wearing a formal gown and gems at her ears and around her neck like any wealthy lady, but she stood with her shoulders square. Dark curls were piled on her head and threaded through with gilt ribbon.
He knew as soon as he saw her face, with its large dark eyes and crooked nose from where she broke it in a fight with her brothers as a child.
His heart dropped out from his chest, and he heard his own voice as if from far away.
Helen stared at the man in surprise. The only people who addressed her untitled were Eugenides and her brothers and father when they had been alive. She was “Lady Helen” to everyone else, even her cousins.
There had been one other.
It couldn’t be. This hulk of a man bore no resemblance to the gentle scholar she had known. This man had the fair coloration, it was true, but he had been burnt brown by the sun and he had a breadth in his shoulders that could only come from hard labor. His hair was unfashionably long, in a sailor’s queue. But the eyes...she could believe it from his eyes.
He smiled, and ducked his head, so familiar a motion that she suddenly had no doubt at all.
“Sophos,” she breathed, tears pricking her eyes.
“Hello, Helen,” he said. “You look beautiful.”
She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
“Sophos, we thought you were dead! Eugenides scoured England for you!”
His face sobered.
“Yes,” he said. “When I was attacked—” He stopped and shook his head, frustrated. “I don’t have time to explain everything now. I can’t let anyone see me. Akretenesh—”
“I knew it!” said Helen. “We thought he must be involved.”
“Yes,” said Sophos hurriedly. “My mother and sisters—are they well?”
“Yes, perfectly,” she assured. “There is a worry about your sisters’ dowries—your uncle’s inheritance, but they are well.”
“Thank the gods. Listen,” he said urgently. “Can you give a message to Gen? Tell him to look for me at the docks—my vessel is the Spartan Queen, arrived from the Indies.”
“Yes, certainly,” she managed to say. “Certainly I’ll tell him.”
“Good,” he said. “I should go now. I’ll--I’ll see you again.” He made as if to leave, then, turning back, he took her hand and pressed a kiss it. She felt his touch burn even through her glove. Then he was gone, and Helen was left breathless in the dark with far too many questions and far too few answers.
Irene forced herself to stay till almost the end of the ball and socialize as if nothing had happened. Lord Eugenides did not reappear, for which she was thankful. She wasn’t sure she could take a second encounter with him. She returned to her great London townhouse late from the ball, but the household was awaiting her with its usual efficiency. In short order she was undressed by her lady’s maid, given a cup of chamomile and a hot water bottle, and sent to bed.
Her days were one long bitter charade, and frequently she was so exhausted with the effort of silent battle that she slept soundlessly through the night.
Not tonight. She tried to sleep—it was important she be well-rested and have her wits about her to deal with Nahuseresh. But instead, mercilessly, she lay wide awake in the dark, endless worst-case scenarios spinning in her head.
She threw back her covers. She wasn’t sleeping anyway. She lit a candle and fished out a key on a chain from underneath her nightdress. Her study was a converted dressing room adjoined her bedroom—or rather, the bedroom she had moved into when her husband died. It gave her comfort to be able to access all her personal correspondence at any hour of the day. Now she unlocked the door and opened it silently, lighting only enough candles to she what she was doing.
As she entered, she saw a slight movement, and her heart jumped in her throat before she realized it was just the curtains shifting. Setting down the candle, she went over to the window and firmly latched it.
She sat at her desk and unlocked the drawers that held her account records and bankbook. Everything seemed exactly as she left it. Shaking her head impatiently, she relocked the drawer. She was being a fool. She had the only key to this room. There was no way for anyone else to get in.
She snuffed the candles and was returning to her bedroom, somewhat quieted, when all her quietude left her body.
The window was open. It had been closed when she left, as the night was chilly. With a further start, she saw the gleam of something pale on the table by her bedside. She sat, weak with confusion, and picked it up.
It was a torn-off slip of blotter paper, folded in half with her title scrawled across it in lead pencil. She unfolded it.
A word of warning—
His Highness’ government knows the treachery of Nahuseresh. He won’t succeed in what he attempts. Be wary of getting too close, lest you get caught up with him.
Dawn found Helen wide awake, fitfully pacing the length of dressing room. Her lady's maid, a cousin named Agape, found her there.
"Has Eugenides returned?" she said, before Agape could say anything.
"No, Lady Helen," said Agape. "Not that I know of." They were both familiar with Eugenides' habit of sneaking in and out sight unseen.
Helen rubbed her temples. What a time for him to disappear.
"If he returns, tell him I need to speak to him immediately," she said. "He can find me in the library."
Eugenides finally sauntered into the library a few hours later, looking distracted. Helen rose from where she had been trying fruitlessly to concentrate on some text or other.
"Where have you been?" she cried. "I've been looking for you all morning!" She stopped, peering at him. "Gods above, what have you done to your face?" He was sporting a vicious purple and greenish bruise around his eye. She shook her head impatiently. "Never mind, I don't want to know."
Eugenides was looking at her with increasing concern.
"Helen, what's wrong? Did something happen?"
"Yes," she said. "Sophos is alive."
Sophos saw Eugenides' approach from all the way down the pier. From somewhere he had acquired a sailor's loose shirt and trousers, and with his dark coloring and long hair he could easily be any common seaman. He had the same loose confidence that Sophos remembered, transmuted by years into the easy saunter of a man fully settled in his body.
He approached the Spartan Queen and halted in her shadow to speak to one of the boys standing guard. Sophos was on the verge of calling out to him, but then a sudden surge of mischief overtook him and he ducked belowdecks as Eugenides was brought on board.
He could hear voices approaching as Sophos' first mate, Ion, crossed the deck demanding to know what was going on. Sophos grinned to himself and let the chaos continue for a minute or two before straightening his jacket, putting on his most captainly expression, and striding above decks.
"What's this, Ion?"
Ion turned, looking skeptical. A crowd had gathered and one of the midshipmen had Gen by the arm. Trust him to make a ruckus wherever he went.
"This ruffian claims he knows you, Captain."
Sophos nodded solemnly and fixed Gen with a look.
"Eugenides," he said.
The reaction was perhaps not as gratifying as Sophos had hoped, but he supposed he couldn't complain.
Gen looked him up and down, then looked around at Sophos' assembled crew, at the sprawling decks of the Spartan Queen, and burst out laughing. Sophos felt his own face relax into a smile and he gestured at the crew to release Gen.
Gen was shaking his head, overcome by some last wheezes of laughter.
"Oh, Sophos," he said. "I have missed you."
"And I you," said Sophos, and they embraced. He pulled back to drink in the sight of Gen. "Good gods, what happened to your face? You look like you've been brawling."
Gen cast his eyes heavenward.
"Why does everyone assume it was my fault?" he queried to the sky. "Maybe I was simply an innocent bystander."
Sophos snorted, and Gen turned a glare on him.
"Like you have room to speak," he said. "You drop off the face of the earth for five years, and turn up after all this time looking like a professional brawler, captaining a crew of pirates—" Sophos winced. He should have known Gen would notice. "—on a ship named after my cousin." He paused. "Which, by the way, the Spartan Queen? Really?"
Sophos fought down a blush and ducked his head. The naming of the ship had seemed like a good idea at the time, when he was far from England and half-certain he would never see Helen again.
"I was going to change it," he explained, "but the men said it brought good luck."
"It certainly did," said Ion. "This ship brought us through a West Indies typhoon unscathed. She's a queen if I ever knew one."
"A typhoon," said Gen in disbelief. "It seems you have a lot to tell me."
Sophos' good humor fell away somewhat.
"Yes," he said. "You had better come to my cabin."
Sophos' voice was hoarse by the time he had finished relating the tale of his abduction from his family's country home, his journey across the Atlantic and his years in the Indies, and finally his acquisition of the Spartan Queen. Gen listened solemnly, only asking questions to clarify the narrative.
When he had finished, Gen rose to move around the cabin--to Sophos' slight annoyance, he was entirely unbothered by the slight rocking of the ship. He moved like he had been born for sea travel. It had taken Sophos weeks to gain his sea legs. How typical of Gen, Sophos thought as he poured himself a brandy.
Finally he spoke.
"Alright," said Eugenides. "Here is what I propose." He straddled a chair and propped his chin on the back. "You are going to turn this ship around and sail back out of London harbor."
Sophos stared at him for a moment. He seemed completely earnest in appearance.
"Gen, I have sailed here across the Atlantic Ocean, by my reckoning around four thousand miles, to reclaim my uncle's estate. I did not come all the way here to turn tail and run away again."
"No, no," said Gen, shaking his head. "That's only the first step. You see, right now we need two things. We need to ensure the safety of your mother and sisters without raising Akretenesh's hackles. That will be easier without you here. Then, we need to ensure your claim to the title. For that, you'll need an ally. Where you're going you'll get there as fast as a letter anyway, and you can do your convincing in person. So what we are going to do is this."
And he explained the rest of the plan, which Sophos had to admit did make more sense in the whole. He was coming to terms again with the fact that Gen was much cleverer than him, it was simply that Gen came at problems in such a roundabout way that his approach seemed nonsensical. However...
“It may take some time,” said Sophos dubiously. “I have not many connections in London, and without letters from the consulate we may not be able to secure a berth.”
Gen waved a hand.
“Inconsequential, I’ll take care of it.”
Sophos raised a skeptical eyebrow.
“Gen, I have not been in London long but from what I have heard I doubt even you can persuade the Admiralty to hasten where they are not inclined.”
“Dear Sophos,” he said, his eyes twinkling. “You underestimate me. I think perhaps I know of a way that I can.”
He said it.
Sophos stared, then reached for his glass and drained it.
“I suspect you are the luckiest pirate in the history of the high seas,” said Gen, amused. “Really, it is extraordinarily fortunate that you have my assistance.”
Sophos recovered himself.
“Rather than luck, I expect you arranged things deliberately,” he said. “Really, Gen? Could the situation be any more to your advantage?"
Gen seized his head and planted a rough kiss on his hair.
“We shall turn out fine, Sophos, you will see,” he said fondly. “Now I must be on my way if we are to get things started. I shall stay in touch.”
Sophos acquiesced, and they put the cabin back in order.
“One more thing,” said Gen as he turned to go. “About my cousin."
Sophos had feared this was coming, and braced himself.
“I won’t presume on our acquaintance,” he assured Gen. “I have no intentions towards her.”
Gen, for the first time, looked completely befuddled.
“What in the gods’ names are you talking about? It’s obvious to anyone with a brain that you’re just as cow-eyed for her now as you were when we were young.”
Sophos flushed. He didn’t think it was that obvious.
“Surely her husband would not appreciate my attentions,” he said stiffly.
“What husband?” said Gen. “Sophos, you big lunk, she never married. Did you receive a knock on the head while you were off roaming the high seas?”
“Oh,” said Sophos, rather faintly. “I just assumed--”
Gen threw back his head and laughed, which Sophos felt was a little mean.
“Of course you did, you honorable idiot,” he said fondly. “You know what? I’m changing the plan. Come with me, we’re going on a visit to my tailor.”
Irene’s solicitor sat back in his chair with a troubled expression. The anonymous letter Irene had received sat on the desk between them like an unsheathed knife.
“You haven’t the slightest suspicion who may have sent this?”
From anyone else, Irene would not tolerate such a question. But she knew Relius, and his strength lay in thoroughness and caution. He would consider every angle, no detail too trivial. It was why he was so valuable.
As her father’s only surviving progeny, Irene was entitled to everything he owned. As a female, she would receive next nothing until she married and bore a son. Yes, her father had provided for her, left her a dowry. But the title of Duke was reserved for her future husband. Control of the estate had passed into the hands of her father’s solicitors with his death; their main priority was to see her married off as quickly as possible to one of their ilk so they could keep lining their pockets with her money. Relius had only been a clerk at that time, with the look about him of a man who was determined to succeed despite the opinion of many people that he wouldn’t.
He also happened to be the only one that spoke to her like a human being.
Within six months she had dismissed all her father’s solicitors and put Relius in charge of her affairs. He had been her staunchest ally ever since.
“I can think of a great many people who might send such a letter,” she said, honestly, “but none who would claim themselves to be a friend of mine.”
“Well, they have certainly gone to lengths to draw our attention to the involvement of His Highness’ government,” said Relius. “I am not sure I look well upon that, such information rarely comes without price.” He sighed. “The way I see it, Your Grace, there are three problems. The identity of your correspondent, how they managed to deliver the message unseen, and how much of it is the truth. I am not sure at the moment we have enough information to answer any one of those questions.”
“How closely is the government watching Nahuseresh?” asked Attolia. “Is is possible they have evidence on him?” If they did, then all her planning had been for naught. And it was unlikely, to say the least, that there would be someone highly ranked enough in the Foreign Office to speak up for her.
“There are individuals that have a definite interest, I think. I can make some inquiries. In the meantime…” He hesitated, but knew she would prefer the truth head-on. “Your Grace, I think we must consider the possibility that the note was left by someone familiar with your household.”
Irene breathed out in a long controlled stream. She had been trying not to think of that. It was a daunting possibility. She had gone to great lengths to make sure her household was absolutely trustworthy. From her lady’s maids to the butler and the footmen to the cook and the scullery maid, Irene had personally approved every one of them. The idea that the careful fortress she’d built up around herself had been somehow penetrated...it chilled her to the bone.
“Yes,” she said, through the tightness in her chest. “I agree.”
She had to take her leave of Relius after that. Nahuseresh, with a proprietary condescension that makes her teeth crawl, had been making increasing demands on her time. He seemed to take it for granted that she would agree to riding, or a stroll in the park, or some other outing. She had managed to beg off that morning, but was committed to a card party in the evening.
She had her carriage take her back to the townhouse to change for the evening, but when she got there her butler was waiting with a pinched expression.
“There is a...young man waiting in the small drawing room,” he murmured as a footman took her cape and reticule. “I was quite clear that Your Grace was unavailable but he insisted upon waiting. I assumed Your Grace would want to deal with it directly…?” This last trailed off delicately into a question.
“Thank you, Philologos,” said Irene, stripping off her gloves. “Should anyone else arrive, I am at home to visitors, but the small drawing room gets such poor light this time of year. The front parlor is far more handsome and spacious."
He nodded, and she could see in his eyes his understanding. With that, she swept off toward the small drawing room.
As she half-suspected, he was there. It would be too much to hope that he would leave her be after what had happened the previous night. By the time she had the door open, he was lounging on a sofa like he’d been there all along, but her spine crawled with the knowledge that he had probably run his hands across everything in the room.
“Your Grace!” He stood up, and gave an elaborate bow.
“Lord Eugenides,” she said, and paused. Someone with considerable skill in fisticuffs had blacked his eye. The mottled purple and green was vivid against his skin, highlighting the delicate arch of his eye socket and his sharp nose. “What a very unexpected pleasure. What brings you here today?”
“Only the desire for your company,” he said, without an ounce of guile in his tone. “Would Your Grace do me the pleasure of accompanying me riding tomorrow?”
“How kind of you to offer,” she said. “Unfortunately I believe I am previously engaged.”
He raised an eyebrow. It was such a deliberately mocking mimicry of her own habit that she wanted to grind her teeth.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Are you previously engaged for the whole day?”
He didn’t lose his smile. He was mocking her.
She leveled her gaze at him.
“Well,” he said carelessly, “I detest riding anyhow. But perhaps something else suits your fancy? I have heard great things about the newest exhibition at the National Gallery.”
“You flatter me with your offers, Lord Eugenides,” she said. “But I fear it would not be appropriate to the memory of my late husband.” She cast her eyes downward. “I rejoin society only reluctantly, you see, and still I feel it may be too soon. I hope you understand my position.”
He studied his fingernails.
“I think I understand it very well,” he said. “I think you prefer to lay your attention where it will net the most monetary gain. Mercenary behavior for a woman of your quality."
She’d heard the sentiment in whispers and gossip before, but never so directly. Mainly it made her feel cold and dead inside.
“If I were a man I should call you out,” she said. “But perhaps that is why you choose to insult a woman, because she cannot avenge the insult.”
“You may call me a coward if you wish, but you seem to have avenged yourself on your late husband very well indeed.”
She slapped him, not even thinking to do it but driven by the cold pit in her stomach. As her vision cleared, she took a deep breath to calm herself. Her palm stung, and she curled her hand into a fist.
"Get out," she said. He raised his eyes to hers, hand pressed to his cheek. He had not made a sound, which surprised her. "I said get out," she said again. He stared her down, letting the silence drag out.
"As Your Grace wishes," he said finally, half-mocking. The mark of her hand was visible even on his dark skin. He bowed once, and sauntered out of the room without haste.
"Would that he stays away," she thought grimly. Somehow, though, she wouldn't wager on it.
When she finally received a note from Relius indicating that he had information to share, it took her some time before she could get away to meet him. In the end, she had to wait until Nahuseresh took himself away on some business that he carefully did not tell her the details of. She let him go without pressing the matter; let him think he was preserving some measure of secrecy. She waited until he was safely away and took herself to Relius’ office, modestly dressed and in a closed carriage.
A clerk greeted her at the door and showed her in and bowed out, closing the door behind him. She waved off Relius’ bow and sat.
“I made inquiries at my club,” he said without preamble. “And among some contacts at Whitehall. All of the Foreign Office necessarily deals with the Mede threat, but as to those to have a special eye, it seems to be Lord Ornon has been especially dispatched by the Foreign Secretary to hunt Mede traitors. If anyone were to go after Lord Nahuseresh, it would be him. I have some names of possible contacts in his office, but no idea yet as to who your correspondent is."
"Ornon," said Irene thoughtfully. "That name sounds familiar. Did he serve with Captain Teleus?"
"I don't believe so. No, he is, ah, the first cousin of Lady Helen, heiress of Eddis." He watched her closely as he said the name, certainly aware of her history with the woman.
"The first cousin of—" Irene stopped. Breathed out. Breathed in. Of course. Why didn't she see it earlier? She closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger, feeling a headache coming on. To think that just the other day she had been hoping he would stay away.
She opened her eyes, noting Relius looking at her with concern.
"Thank you, my friend. I think I know how to proceed from here. I'll be in touch in the next few days." With that, she rose and left, aware she was being abrupt but much too angry to care.
Gods preserve her, she was going to find the little rat and slap the arrogant smirk off his face.
She drove directly to Lady Helen’s townhouse, hoping to the gods the lady was at home to visitors. If she wasn’t, Irene supposed she would try the gambling halls for a more direct shot at her prey, and damn the scandal.
“Her Grace the Duchess of Attolia, to see Lady Helen,” she announced in her most cold and imperious tones as she got to the door. She flicked out a gloved hand. “My card.”
Lady Helen’s butler seemed surprised to see her, but to his credit he covered it well and at least had the native wit not to try and put her off. To her relief, Lady Helen was in and within minutes she had been divested of her cloak, and settled in the rose parlor, where the most respected guests would be entertained.
She arranged herself on a settee and settled in to wait. It wasn’t long before another footman showed in Lady Helen herself.
All her life, Irene had striven to maximize the effect of her appearance. Her dress, her manners, her speech were all carefully constructed to make her the perfect lady: poised, elegant, commanding of respect. She had shaped herself to be everything a duchess should be.
Yet somehow Lady Helen managed to surpass all her efforts wearing a simple linen day dress, with her hair unstyled.
“Your Grace,” she said in greeting, “what a lovely surprise!”
Her tone was light and courteous, but she had an unnaturally open face, even after all these years, and so her concern and confusion were writ clear on her countenance. Perhaps that was how she commanded the easy respect and affection of all those who knew her—because there was not a trace of guile in her face.
“Lady Helen,” said Irene, rising in greeting but not moving to embrace her. “I must speak to your cousin with all haste. We have—business.”
Lady Helen did not try her patience by asking which cousin. Instead, she turned to her footman.
“Antonios, fetch Eugenides from the library, if you please,” she said. “Tell him his cousin requests his presence in the rose parlor immediately.”
The footman murmured an assent and bowed out, leaving the two women alone.
Irene sat again and folded her hands on her lap. Lady Helen looked at her for a minute with open concern, before she arranged her features to normalcy and sat as well. After a moment, she spoke.
“If Eugenides has done something to offend you, I feel I must sincerely apologize for his behavior,” she said earnestly. “He can be a brute when he wishes.”
Irene glanced at her sidelong.
“I am not sure an apology will be sufficient in this case,” she said. Lady Helen but her lip and did not respond.
There was a perfunctory knock at the door, and then Eugenides burst in. In plain shirtsleeves and waistcoat, with loose breeches, he seemed an entirely different animal than the dandified and cultured young man who occupied the gambling dens and clubs. Irene supposed that was rather the point.
“Helen, is this a matter of importance?” he cried. “I am rather occupied at the moment with the affairs of your beau, and if you want him to have a penny to his name—” This last was said petulantly, and then Irene saw him register what was going on.
“Close the door, Eugenides,” said Lady Helen. He did, with a queer expression on his face.
Irene noted that he seemed surprised to see her. Unless that was an act as well.
"I hope," she began, without preamble, "you are quite pleased with yourself, Lord Eugenides of of the Foreign Office. I'm sure this little charade was very amusing to you."
Both his eyebrows shot up.
"I don’t strictly work for the Foreign Office," he began, but the look on her face made him stop.
"You have done a marvelous job of making a fool out of me," she said. “I believe I’m owed an explanation for your frankly insulting behavior.”
He at least had the grace to look abashed.
"The Crown is concerned about your connection to Nahuseresh," he admitted. "To have one of the most loyal duchies of the realm suborned to the Mede could not have been born, it had to be stopped at any cost. The only question was whether you were traitorous yourself, or merely being manipulated by him. I was to find out, and to distract you from my task.”
"And you figured I would find you distracting?" This last she hissed, too angry to care.
He looked evasive.
"I discomfit you," he explained. "If it had been anyone else, you would have been able to keep your presence of mind perfectly well. But you're distinctly uneasy around me." He shrugged. "I've been told I'm uniquely irritating."
Irene was so breathless with anger at this piece of audacity she had to take a moment to compose herself.
"And you couldn't have told me outright instead of playing silly games?" she said coldly.
"I did," he countered. Of course: the note.
"Do I take this to mean you are convinced I am not a traitor?”
He laughed, though Irene could not see what was funny.
"Yes," he said. "Thoroughly."
She took a deep breath, with served to calm her not at all.
“Very well,” she said. “Say I accept all these ludicrous explanations. There is just one thing: was it absolutely necessary to sneak into my bedchamber at night like some—some common thief?” Gods above, she was shouting like a fishwife. The servants could probably hear every word. She moderated her voice to a furious murmur. “Or was that just in the nature of revenge?”
Here, at least, he winced, and she was viciously glad to have scored a point.
It was Helen, who was still in the room. She spoke quietly, but with authority.
“I apologize for taking you away from your work. May I have a few moments alone with Her Grace?”
Eugenides visibly struggled with this for a second, but in the end he gave a jerky bow and retreated, closing the door slightly louder than was polite.
Helen sighed briefly, pressing her fingers to her closed eyes. Then she gathered herself and squared her shoulders.
“I think I will ring for tea,” she said. “You don’t have to stay, of course, but I hope you will.”
Saying so, she went and rang for the tea while Irene struggled with herself. In the end, though, she found she couldn’t just walk out the door. She sat silently on the settee again and attempted to calm herself.
Helen did not attempt to initiate conversation until after the tea service was laid out, and even then she didn’t attempt to press.
“I hope black tea is to your liking,” she said, pouring two cups. “Milk? Sugar?”
Black tea was Irene’s favorite. Knowing Helen, she certainly remembered this, and how she took her tea.
There was a moment of silence as they both sipped. Finally, Helen sighed.
“Well, I will not prevaricate and say I did not suspect. Gen never said anything outright, but he didn’t have to. He has had his eye on Nahuseresh for quite a while now. I don't mean to pry,” she said delicately, “and of course you have no obligation to tell me anything you don't want to, but what he revealed about the situation was...oblique. And I've seen so little of you since your father died."
Not for lack of trying, Irene knew. Helen had attempted to call on her many times since her father's funeral; but Irene, cold with a strange sort of grief and wrestling with the burden of the estate, with her father's lawyers, with suitors who saw only a convenient potential bride, had persistently ignored her overtures. When faced with Helen's surety, the fact that she had a father who left ample support for his only heir and a supportive uncle who could be trusted to handle the estate; Irene was left with nothing but a deep and painful resentment.
Eventually, avoiding Helen had turned to habit, once she was married and associated mostly with her husband's odious friends.
Despite their distance in the intervening years, Irene recognized this for what it was: an outstretched hand, a way to bridge the gap that had stretched between them. But it was up to Irene whether to accept or not.
"I had better begin at the beginning, I suppose," she said finally. Because it was still a tad too painful, she only sketched out her father's death and her own courtship in a few sentences. She described, as briefly as possible, how her marriage had began to go wrong and her own realizations about the kind of man her husband was.
"I had assumed my husband was just a fool who didn't know how to manage money. It was only after he died that I began to suspect he was a traitor as well. It turned out payments from the Mede emperor sponsored his gambling, among other things."
"About how he died..." began Helen delicately. In another woman, Irene might have taken the question as mean-spirited. But Helen was only worried.
"It was an accident," said Irene, levelly. "An unfortunate accident. He liked to hunt, but he was careless with the weapons. He didn't clean them as he ought to have done. The gamekeeper did his best to keep things in order, but the poor man was busy that day. He had to oversee a controlled burning on the opposite side of the estate. He heard the shotgun discharge, but by the time he got there, it was too late."
"How tragic for the late Duke," Helen said after a moment, "but I must confess I'm mainly relieved he didn't hurt anyone else with his carelessness. The poor gamekeeper, or yourself."
"He liked me to go with him hunting," Irene found herself saying, without entirely intending to do so. "Only I happened to have a bad headache that day." She bit her tongue before she could say anything else.
Helen didn't flinch, but looked Irene steadily in the eye.
"Perhaps that was for the best," she said. "I shudder to think what might have happened."
Irene relaxed minutely without realizing she had tensed up. She took a steadying sip of tea, breathing in the warm steam and the comforting scent, and resumed her narrative.
"I had no proof that my husband had been plotting against the crown, only suspicions from what I saw in the accounts. Things that became clear in hindsight. Then Nahuseresh came calling, and when it became clear he sought to win both my sympathies and my influence to his cause, I saw an opportunity. If I obtained proof of Nahuseresh's activities and turned him over to the king’s justice, I could rid myself of him with reputation intact and perhaps repair some of the damage my husband had done.”
“Yes,” said Helen, “about that.”
Irene looked at her.
“Yes, I know,” said Helen. “But I really feel I must bring it up. I know you find yourself wary of Eugenides, and certainly I understand the sentiment. However, I quite think he would be able to help you if you’d let him.”
“I am…” Irene stopped. “He has given me no reason to trust him. Certainly I have given him no reason to want to assist me. I think...I think he despises me.”
Helen took a sip of tea.
“The thing about Eugenides,” she began, “is that he seems the type to let his temperament rule his head, but when push comes to shove I have never seen him go after someone solely because of a slight. For other things, yes, but never solely for that. I will not pretend he has any notion of gentlemanly behavior; certainly he would not consider ruining a woman to be beneath him. He can be quite ruthless in that respect. But in this, I think, you can trust him.”
She must have seen Irene’s hesitation.
“That is all I can promise,” she said. “I know it’s a leap of faith. I think perhaps it will help once—that is, if he sees us on good terms once more.”
Irene was on the verge of inquiring why on earth renewing her acquaintance with Helen would make Eugenides any more sympathetic to her—he certainly had cause to resent her on his own behalf—but Helen was looking at her, expectant.
Helen had never quite mastered the impassivity of expression that Irene had been forced to adopt and so her feelings were quite clear on her face. Right then her features were schooled in polite anticipation, but behind it Irene could see hope and anxiety writ clear as day.
“I would,” Irene cleared her throat delicately, feeling as if she were inching one slippered foot across a dark and yawning abyss that she had been too weary and afraid to try crossing. “I should like that, I think.” Another step, trembling with the effort. “These past years I have oft missed the pleasure your company. In truth, you are a friend of rare quality, loyal and true.”
Helen’s delighted smile carried her the rest of the way over the gap, and she found herself wondering why it had seemed so insurmountable in the first place.
The decision made, Helen summoned Lord Eugenides back in and, after a brief concerned look at Irene, left them alone in the parlor. He settled on the sofa across from her, dark eyes intent and serious.
"Helen says you may have some information that would be advantageous to the Foreign Office," he said simply.
"Yes," she said, and sketched out what she had told Helen, briefly and dispassionately, omitting the details of her husband's death. "Nahuseresh courts allies in England, and he is well-funded. He has been generous with his gifts to ensure my support, and I believe I am not the only one he is funding. He targets those who are heavily in debt or who are too fond of the gambling halls, and plies them with the Emperor's money."
Lord Eugenides nodded.
"I have seen him about. He is quick to provide a sympathetic ear when some young buck is on a losing streak. Do you know if he has a list of these collaborators?"
"I have had his rooms searched," she said, looking him in the eyes and daring him to comment. "Discreetly. It turned up several bags of coin and one letter in cipher, but no list. It is possible he carries such a thing on his person."
"The ciphered letter—"
"I had my man make a copy," she said. "It's in my personal safe."
"Can you have another copy sent to this address? I can take it to the cryptographers at the Foreign Office."
She inclined her head. He fell silent, jiggling his leg, swiping a thumb over his mouth.
“The letter and the coin might be enough to net Nahuseresh, but I need the names of his collaborators.” He looked up at her. “Can I count on your cooperation in this matter, Your Grace?”
She did not particularly want to be around him for longer than necessary. Helen had seemed so sure of him, however, and if he were to set himself against her she would likely be finished.
She met his eyes.
“You have my word.”
“Your Grace? One of the tradesmen downstairs brought a special delivery.” It was her lady’s maid, waiting in the doorway.
Helen looked up from her papers. It took her a moment.
“A tradesman? Oh—oh, yes. Thank you Agape.” She rose and replaced her pen, smoothing her dressing gown.
She took the back stairs down to the kitchen entrance, receiving respectful bows and curtsies from the staff, who knew her well enough not to be alarmed by her presence.
Sophos was waiting in the servants’ kitchen in clothes of a rough cotton, being fussed over by her cook. She had been with Helen’s family for years, and had known Sophos as a child. Helen paused in the doorway, watching him duck his head and smile that uneven smile, bashfully accepting a mug of chocolate.
Just then her cook turned and noticed her.
“Lady Helen! I didn’t see you there. You’ll have some chocolate, won’t you?”
“Yes, thank you, Cook,” said Helen, and sank into a chair across the table from Sophos, feeling queer in the stomach suddenly.
She had seen it over Cook’s shoulder. When he saw her walk into the room, his whole face had lit up like the morning sun across the fields and oh, she wasn’t sure she could do this.
She took a deep breath to steady herself.
“How are you?” she said, aware as she said it how inane it sounded.
“I’m—well,” he said. “My mother and sisters?”
“Still in the countryside, no sign that Akretenesh has approached them.”
He gave a sigh of relief.
“Thank the gods.”
They were silent for a moment. Helen sipped her chocolate.
“I, um.” Sophos paused and flushed. “Gen told me that you never married.”
“Ah. That’s right.”
To her relief, her voice sounded steady. She wrapped her hands around her mug, and without prompting her words tumbled out.
“When I was younger—when I first came out, everyone was bent on convincing me to marry because of my position. I had a number of unscrupulous suitors, and others who cared only for my father’s title and the prestige it would bring them.”
Sophos’ uncle, the late Duke of Sounis, had been one of them. He had not been an unkind man, or a particularly unjust one, but he had been very used to power. Helen had been wary of placing herself in his hands.
“I see,” he said. “But—as long as you remain unmarried, you cannot inherit the estate in your own name, correct?”
She smiled a tad wryly.
“Yes. Though I am my father’s only heir, I am still Lady Helen, not Eddis. My uncle, Eugenides’ father is duke in name. I am in a better position than most,” she admitted. “My uncle is extremely scrupulous, my father was clear in his will that once I came of age I should be well-acquainted with the running of the estate. So I have been putting off marriage, but I cannot avoid it forever. I have no illusions of love, I hope to merely find someone of the right status who I am compatible with.”
Saying this, she felt herself heat, and hoped it wasn’t visible in her complexion. It wasn’t a lie—the most she had hoped for in a husband was a partner to share the duties of the estate with, someone with whom she might converse and whose company would be tolerable. But that was before Sophos had reappeared, now handsome with his firm jaw and bright blue eyes.
“Ah—” he cleared his throat, and she shook herself internally and turned her attention back to the conversation. “Well, in that case—I suppose this is rather premature, since we’ve no idea if Eugenides’ plan will work, but if I am to become Duke, I will be the last of the line unless one of my sisters marries and bears a son. I shall need an heir as well, and more than that, I shall need an ally with ample knowledge of a Duke’s responsibilities.” He ducked his head bashfully. “I know more about rigging sails than about sitting in Parliament. We are well-matched in status, and—I like to think we are compatible. Would you be amenable?”
It was as good a proposal as she could ever hope to get. She thought of the look on his face as she came in. He looked like a man now, it was true, but sometimes childish infatuation could last into adulthood.
“Certainly I feel we should well-suit,” said Helen as lightly as she was able. “But you have not even been in society for years, and there are plenty of eligible young women of noble birth and considerable intelligence.” Young women who were younger than her, and more beautiful. “Any one of them could be a good match for you, and while true love matches are rare, you might find someone of whom you are truly fond.”
His face twisted, confused and somewhat hurt. She reached across the table and laid a hand on his.
“Sophos, I would be honored to be your wife. I am only saying that you ought to take a season to explore your options. Rushed marriages are rarely happy ones. Either way, should you need a friend and ally I would be more than happy to fill the role.”
He looked as if her were about to protest, then shook his head.
“Of course,” he said. “I am honored by your friendship.”
It took them a week or so to get ready, in which Sophos was forced to visit the tailor another two times, which made him rather feel like he was a boy again, getting measured for his first set of dress clothes. Finally, however, The Spartan Queen sailed with the tide, carrying a load of woolen and cotton cloth bound for the Levant by way of Egypt, and a nearly full complement of crew; Sophos' second mate stayed behind in London, bearing a bundle of mail from the crew to mail to their various families and sweethearts.
Sophos had a bundle of letters to deliver himself: one for the man he was delivering cargo to in Alexandria and one for the passenger he was engaged to pick up there. Eugenides had managed to secure him papers that identified him as affiliated with the British consulate in Alexandria, which would smooth their passage.
He also had a letter from Helen. He had read it twice already, and it sat snugly in the breast pocket of his waistcoat. Despite the difficulties that certainly lay ahead, he couldn't help but smile as he surveyed the workings of the ship. There was a brisk northerly breeze catching their sails that, with any luck, should carry them a good way south around the coast of Portugal to the Straits. The sun was shining, and Sophos had a task ahead of him.
He would do his part, now it was up to Gen and Helen to carry out their part of the plan in London.
Summer was in its peak and talk of the Ton was beginning to turn longingly towards autumn fashions and hunting parties when Eugenides found Helen in the library. She was putting the last few lines to paper when there was a knock at the door and he sidled in, wearing a set of shabby stableboy’s clothes. The bruising on his face had faded somewhat, but there was still a mottled purple ring around his eye. He looked like nothing more than a street ruffian.
Helen raised her eyebrows at him.
“I thought you were leaving town,” she said. “Or else why has my household been in an uproar all morning trying to move the not insignificant quantity of luggage you are taking with you?”
“I am leaving town,” he said. “I am most emphatically leaving town. I am overcome with the summer heat and have been seized with a desire to take the waters at Bath, which, as you might recall, is significantly west of London. As I must travel in style befitting of my station, it will take me several days to get there. I expect I will have to stop along the way.”
“Taking my best carriage, no doubt,” said Helen mildly, beginning to see the shape of the thing he was describing.
“Your Grace indulges me kindly.”
“Who is going really?” said Helen, abandoning pretense.
His lips twitched.
“Auleus and Bagus,” he said. “I have no doubt they will enjoy bandying my name about in every hamlet along the route and making me out to be the most airheaded noble prick this side of the Channel.”
“Which is no better than you deserve,” she said, highly amused.
He sketched a quick bow in acknowledgement.
“May your humble servant take the mail, Your Grace?”
She handed him two letters, both sealed in wax with her stamp. One was a set of instructions to her housekeeper at the estate, the other a thicker packet of more personal nature. Both were important, and she could not risk them going astray in the royal mail.
“I will return when my task is done,” he said.
“Go safely, then,” she said, “and godspeed.”
He kissed her hand, and was gone.
Irene heard of Eugenides’ noisy flight to Bath from the town gossips. She did not mark it overly, except to idly remark that while she had always found public bathing rather vulgar, it was intolerably hot in London lately. With a limpid flick of her wrist, she summoned a maid to bring her a cool damp handkerchief and her ivory-handled fan. The heat was so taxing, one had trouble even rising in the morning.
“My dear, perhaps a week-end in the country would do you some good,” said Nahuseresh, solicitously guiding her to a seat. “You have been looking a bit drawn lately, it could be just what you need to bring you back to yourself.”
Irene looked at him doubtfully, tilting her head to look up at him through her lashes.
“Do you really think so?” she said. “I hate to leave London at this time of year—one has responsibilities, after all.”
“Oh, do not worry about that,” he said kindly. “I shall see to it all here. You can write me if you need anything?”
“Really?” said Irene, with what might have been a touch too much insipid gratitude, and allowed herself to be persuaded.
As a result, it was only a few days later that she and a light complement of servants were ensconced at the great house, where she was welcomed graciously. Predictably, several invitations arrived once it was known that she was in residence, but there was only one that she paid special attention to.
So it transpired that one fresh and dewy morning she set out on leisurely ride across the fields without her maid. As always, being on the estate calmed her. The people of the estate and the surrounding towns knew her, and she was on good terms with the local gentry. While she might be invited to a card party or two, the social pressure was nothing like London at its peak. That day, though, she fostered a certain amount of trepidation. She did not let it affect her handling of her mount, a handsome bay stallion who was fond of Irene but ornery towards most others. She urged him into a canter and then a gallop, letting him burn off energy across the fields. When she approached some more sheltered copses of trees, she slowed to a trot and then a walk, picking her way through the undergrowth.
Lord Eugenides was waiting for her in the clearing, lying on the ground with his hands behind his head. Beside him, a placid-looking grey mare was grazing contentedly. He sat up when she entered. Out of the flamboyant clothes he wore in the city and dressed in plain homespun riding clothes he looked like an entirely different person: younger, softer, like a mischievous boy.
She was beginning to grasp the way that he slipped between identities like they were sets of clothes. It made her uneasy.
Irene dismounted and tied the reins around a tree, letting her mount drink some water out of her cupped hand.
“I thought you said you despised riding,” she said.
“I do,” he said, and gave an elaborate shudder. It was as if something had shifted beneath his skin: gone was the businesslike man she had talked with in Helen’s parlor as well as the country boy, and in his place was the fashionable young buck who graced the gaming hells. “Horses are monstrous creatures. Have you seen their hooves? They’re the size of dinner plates.”
“And yet you seemed to have managed all right.”
“At a slow walk the whole way, I assure you. Why, do you suspect me of concealing a previously undisplayed talent with horses?”
She did not want to say that she was trying to figure out how much of him was genuine and how much was a carefully constructed facade. Certainly for an intelligence officer the persona of a wealthy, amusing trickster would come in handy. It was disarming and harmless. He meant to be disarming and harmless, and he used his harmlessness like a knife.
“Never mind. Shall we discuss our business?”
“Certainly,” he said amiably, and patted the ground beside him. She narrowed her eyes at him. He looked back innocently.
“I do not know how long our discussion will take,” he said. “I only think of Your Grace’s comfort.”
This, she conceded, and so reluctantly sat on the ground beside him, primly drawing her feet up under her, and listened while he explained his plan.
“It might help if there were someone credible to speak against Nahuseresh,” he said finally. “The more witnesses there are against him, the better.”
“Captain Teleus,” she said. “His reputation is impeccable, and he has standing in the army.”
“I had a different role in mind for him,” he said. Irene pursed her lips and considered.
“Lieutenant Ormentiedes,” she said finally. “He grew up on my estate, I know his family. I sponsored his entry into the army, and Captain Teleus speaks highly of him.”
Eugenides’ lips twitched. She gave him a level look.
“I believe him to be trustworthy,” she said. “Is that a problem?”
He gave a cough that sounded like stifled laugh.
“Well, possibly,” he said. “Lieutenant Ormentiedes doesn’t like me, you see.”
Irene raised an eyebrow.
“How shocking,” she said flatly. “Whyever in the world not?”
Eugenides flushed a little. “Well,” he said, “I paid him insult, you see, and he blacked my eye in return.”
So that was the source of the injury he had been sprouting a few weeks past.
“Should I even inquire as to the nature of the insult?”
For some reason, this seemed to strike Eugenides as amusing. He was swallowing a grin. He had such a curious mouth, soft and pliable and capable of those long sideways smiles. His lips were red for a man, as if he had put stain on them.
Her neck felt hot all of a sudden, feverishly warm beneath the high collar of her riding dress, and she forced herself back to what Eugenides was saying.
“I insulted the object of his affections,” he said. “A black eye was the best I could hope for.”
She had not known Ormentiedes was seeking a match. It was reasonable, however. He was well-respected in the regiment and if he kept on he would make captain someday. Many gentlemen's daughters would view him as a good prospect. No doubt one of the current crop of young ladies up for the Season had caught his eye.
“I admit to not seeing the reasoning behind insulting some undeserving young lady out for her first Season, but no matter. It is done. I am sure in your ingenuity you can find a way to smooth things over,” said Irene.
Eugenides opened his mouth to answer, then paused a moment and cocked his head, studying her. She stared him down, not to be discomfited.
“If you permit my curiosity, what are your feelings on the Earl of Erondites’ younger son?” he asked finally. She was thrown by the abrupt change in subject, but it seemed a trivial enough question.
“He seems a tolerable young man,” she said, “with a head more for music than business, but such things are permitted in a younger son. He attends balls more frequently that his father or brother, and I have spoken to him, but we have no standing acquaintance. I suppose I do not know him well enough to presume an opinion.”
“I see,” he said finally. His lips were twitching. “I wonder how he would feel about that assessment.”
Irene narrowed her eyes.
“Why should he feel anything about it?”
“No reason, I suppose, other than any young man might care what a beautiful woman thinks of him.”
Irene felt herself stiffen.
“And what,” she said coldly, “do you mean by that?”
“Why, nothing other than what I say, Your Grace,” he said, wide-eyed, the picture of innocence. He stood and bowed with exaggerated courtesy, but did not offer her a hand up, for which she was grateful. “I shall seek out Lieutenant Ormentiedes, at your behest.”
“You will need to go back to London to do that,” she pointed out, rising and brushing off her skirts.
“I shall be there and back in a twinkling,” he promised, with what seemed to her unwise confidence for someone who claimed to despise horses. “I am but a slave to the vagaries of love.”
She stiffened, and he looked at her sidelong.
“Do I offend, Your Grace?”
“I will not stand to be mocked,” she said coldly.
“I do not mock,” he said, halfway to anger. “I speak my genuine feeling, and if it is couched as jest then it is for no other purpose than to make you laugh. I may laugh at my own expense but at least I do not do so at the expense of others.”
She flushed, and hated herself for it.
“Lord Eugenides,” she said quellingly to cover the twisting shame in her stomach. “I think it is best to keep the past in the past in this case. I am His Highness’s loyal subject and I am cooperating fully with this scheme. Anything else is irrelevant.”
He looked at her for a minute.
“As you say,” he said without inflection. Without another word, he led his mount out of the clearing.
Irene took her time riding back to the manor. She bathed and changed into a modest day dress, letting her maid put her hair up in a loose chignon, and settled down to work. There was much to be done with the handling of the estate. She could spend all her time dwelling on Lord Eugenides. For now, with Nahuseresh safely ensconced in town she could act more freely than she would under his eye. Best of all, he thought it was his own idea. Of course, he might be struck with the urge to come down and visit her for a day, but that was all the more reason not to tarry.
To all outside appearances, she was enjoying a leisurely stay in the country. She let herself spotted riding in the morning, and she entertained the occasional visitor—the vicar and his wife, a number of minor gentry from the area. On Sunday she made appearance at church in her family’s pew, decorous in white gloves and bonnet, where she made a handsome contribution to the collection.
In reality, she was quite busy. Her husband may have been quite content to squander her money on gambling while shirking his responsibilities, but Irene had no such compunctions. Contrary to popular belief, it was not simply her lavish lifestyle that required her to borrow heavily against her assets in kind. The manor must be provisioned, and its servants must be fed and clothed. She was relied upon to contribute to the upkeep of the parish; when the church had a cracked roof beam after the previous winter, it was she who had paid to replace it. She paid out pensions those retired soldiers who had served the king or, in many cases, their widows. As much as she was able, she helped fund the dowries of many village girls—including young Thalia Ormentiedes, sister of the Lieutenant—or helped them find a respectable place with her reference. In the winter, children needed shoes and coats. Each family got a basket with a Christmas ham during the holidays, with maybe an orange or two and some horehound for the children.
Her father, for all his faults, had at least understood this responsibility. Her husband had not. Nahuseresh certainly did not. She had made the mistake once already of letting the estate into the hands of a man who only saw it as a well of money for him to plunder. She would not again.
After weeks-end, Irene returned to town much improved, with color in her cheeks. Nahuseresh remarked on this when he called on her to go riding around the park.
“You look much improved, my dear,” he said. She did, she knew. She had exchanged the last of her mourning clothes for an embroidered pale green muslin and a ivory silk shawl. “The country air agrees with you.”
“It does, you were quite right. It was just what I need to get away from things for a while.” She seemed full of vigor and her tone was light and brisk. “I am feeling quite refreshed. You know, I think I may even throw a dinner party. Perhaps in another couple weeks, I shall need time to organize. In truth, I have felt quite gloomy since my husband’s passing, but I think now I may be up to it again.” She laid a hand on his arm. “May I count on you to be my guest? You would do me great honor.”
He took her hand and kissed it.
“Do not even think to ask, Your Grace. It is you who do me honor. You may be certain of my attendance.”
Sophos was on deck when he heard the shout from the crow’s nest. He knew what it must be, there had been a fresh, damp breeze blowing their way, and there were low clouds on the distant horizon. He took his spyglass from his inside pocket and raised it to his eye.
A smile split his face. Sure enough, there were the white cliffs of Dover in the distance, hovering between sea and sky. He snapped the spyglass shut. Ion came over, no doubt having observed the same thing.
“We’re making good time, Captain,” he said. “We can be in Portsmouth in a day.”
Sophos shook his head.
“Our passenger must hasten to London with all speed,” he said. “The crew will not like that, I know.”
Ion lifted a shoulder.
“You are Captain,” he said.
Sophos grinned, invigorated by the prospect of being so close to his goal.
“That I am,” he said agreeably. “Still, an extra grog ration tonight, I think.”
“That might help,” said Ion, and raised his voice. “On to London, lads! Captain’s orders, and an extra ration tonight to speed our way!”
There was a message waiting for him when the Spartan Queen made port two days later—a couple scribbled lines signed with what seemed to Sophos unnecessary flourish. When they docked, Sophos sent his passenger on ahead to his lodgings, with two cabin boys to assist him with his luggage. With that dispatched, Sophos left Ion to see to the ship and took a hackney to the address indicated on the note.
Within minutes he was wonder whether he’d misread Gen’s atrocious handwriting, because rather than heading to some hideout, he was taken to a club in the heart of London. It was not a name he recognized as one his uncle had frequented, and from that he guessed that it was at least halfway disreputable.
This impression was confirmed when he presented himself at the door and the footman who received him did not so much as blink at his appearance. He mentioned Gen’s name and was shown upstairs to a private room. Gen was waiting for him inside, wearing spotless breeches and a well-tailored coat in a shocking shade of green. His cravat looked like a feat of architecture in itself.
“Good gods,” said Sophos, startled into blasphemy at the shine of Gen’s boots. “Is this how you dress?”
Gen raised an eyebrow and for a second Sophos was afraid he had taken offense, but then his mouth twitched.
“My dear idiot,” said Gen. “This is how gentlemen dress. We can’t all be sailing the high seas in filthy breeches. And anyway, wait till you see what you’ll be wearing.”
“My breeches are fine,” said Sophos mildly. “The Spartan Queen is a working ship.” He paused with a sense of dread. “What I’ll be wearing?” Then he noticed there was a suit of clothes laid out on the bed, in the old-fashioned style he remembered older men wearing in his childhood. The coat looked vaguely military, perhaps of the gold braiding on the hems. “Good gods,” he said again.
I’ll have you know it’s the height of fashion,” said Gen. “Notice the cut, the fine weave,” he said rhapsodically. “Dignified, yet modern, and a touch daring.”
“It will make me look like I am at a costume ball,” said Sophos.
“No,” corrected Gen. “It will make you look like your uncle. Especially with your hair long like that. With a powdered wig and tricorn, you could be his spitting image.”
“Does everyone think you’re like this?” he said finally. Gen’s face shifted, changing to be more the Gen that he knew, the sharp-eyed man who wouldn’t hesitate to get his breeches—or his hands—filthy even if he would complain about it the whole way.
“I have something of a reputation,” said Gen agreeably. “You’d be surprised at how people underestimate one when one puts about that one’s only cares are fashion and gambling.”
“You must work very hard at making people underestimate you,” said Sophos.
“I daresay you don’t know the half of it, my dear,” said Gen. “By the by, you got here just in time. Irene has been putting off her party as long as possible, but she finally had to settle on tomorrow night.” Then his face shuttered, as if he’d said something he hadn’t meant to.
“Who the devil is Irene?” he demanded, then something sparked in his memory. “Wait—Lady Irene? Her Grace’s friend?” Helen and Lady Irene had been inseparable friends in their first Season together; Sophos remembered her as a tall and slender figure in comparison to Helen’s stocky and short build. She had been lovely, he supposed, with pale skin and shining dark hair, but Helen’s easy warmth had been far more appealing. Intelligent, though, and Helen had always admired her.
“Did you make a match with her?” he said. It would make sense, Helen’s closest friend and Helen’s favorite cousin. “Should I have asked if you were married?” He meant it half as jest, but then he saw the expression on Gen’s face. “Ah—”
Gen waved him off, looking very tired all of a sudden.
“A slip of the tongue,” he said. “I was, of course, referring to Her Grace the Dowager Duchess of Attolia. But never mind, that is my part, not yours. Your part is, first, to get a shave and a bath. Then you’re to be at White’s tomorrow evening in those clothes.”
White’s had been his uncle’s club, the most selective and prestigious of all the London clubs.
“Will they admit me?” said Sophos.
“As my guest, certainly.”
“You’re a member?” said Sophos incredulously. Gen waved an airy hand.
“I am a member on the strength of my father’s name,” he said. “But I do not burden them unduly with my presence and so peace is maintained. But more importantly, Akretenesh is a member and I have it on good authority he will be there tomorrow.”
Sophos grinned, and felt it become wolflike.
“Good,” he said. “I look forward to it.” His smile fell off his face. “Gen, I do apologize if I inadvertently gave offense—”
“Never mind, my dear,” he said with studied casualness. “It is not worth another mention.” He stood. “I must go now, but do not forget: tomorrow at White’s.”
“As if I could forget,” said Sophos lightly, embracing him, instead of demanding to know what was wrong. Gen may have changed in manner in the intervening years, but he was still the same man underneath that he had been: prickly and guarded with his secrets, so that not even wild horse could drag a thing out of him.
It was the night of the dinner party, and Irene was sitting at her dressing table when there was a brief knock on the door.
“Enter,” she called, assuming it was her lady’s maid and so not bothering to turn around. Many lady’s maids were chosen for their sense of fashion and skill at styling hair. Irene’s maid was chosen for her discretion and sense of propriety.
“Your Grace,” said a male voice, and Irene whirled around, silver-backed hairbrush at the ready.
It was Eugenides, soberly and unusually dressed in a black evening coat and silk breeches of immaculate cut. She bit back a curse and took a moment to get her breathing under control.
“What the devil are you doing here?” she hissed, heedless of her language. “What if you had been seen?”
He was eying the hairbrush apprehensively.
“I wasn’t seen,” he said, with a total confidence that would have been irritating except that it had the ring of truth. “I just wanted to speak to you once before the curtain rises, as it were.”
“There’s no need,” said Irene stiffly, relaxing her clenched grip on the brush and turning back to the mirror. “I am clear on my part.”
“Also, I was instructed to deliver these,” he said, pulling a small velvet bag out of his pocket and placing it on her dressing table. She glanced at him, then took up the bag, pulling it open.
Two ruby and gold earrings of old-fashioned cut tumbled out onto her palm. Fine work, expensive work. Indeed, they might be taken as a lover’s gift.
He forestalled her questions in an easy tone.
“My cousin’s,” he said. “She wishes that you borrow them, something about suiting your gown.” Irene’s gown was indeed a deep red, and they would match admirably. She stared at him, assessing, but he seemed perfectly genuine.
“Give Her Grace my thanks,” she said finally, turning back to the mirror and putting the earrings in. “Is that all?”
“Yes, I’ve got to dash off to White’s now, but I’ll be back before the dessert course.” He slipped out of the room as quietly as the best servant, closing the door behind him without a sound.
Irene affixed a final pin in her hair and rose to do battle.
Sophos met Gen outside of White’s, trying not to shift uneasily in his new clothes. He felt like a boy wearing his father’s clothes.
“Don’t fidget,” said Gen out of the corner of his mouth as they strode up to the door. Sophos held his breath, but the footman seemed to have no problem, and ushered them in.
“Welcome back, Lord Eugenides,” he said. “And you, sir?” This was directed at Sophos.
“My guest, Mr. Zecush,” said Gen with such an air of regal and arrogant unconcern that Sophos felt a little cowed even though he knew it was an act. The footman bowed.
“Welcome to White’s, sir.” Apparently satisfied, they were waved forward into the spacious sitting room. Men were clumped in the armchairs and low tables, talking over drinks or around pipes. A few heads came up as they walked in, but they didn’t draw overmuch attention. There was even one gentleman in the corner who was so buried in his newspaper that it didn’t so much as twitch in front of his face.
“Lord Eugenides,” said a voice that sounded vaguely familiar. It was a man some years older than both him and Gen, with the same broad open face and dark complexion as Helen. He was dressed neatly and conservatively.
“Cousin,” said Gen merrily, and stepped aside to reveal Sophos. The man stared.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said softly. “Here I didn’t believe you.” He extended his hand to Sophos. “Lord Ornon, Your Grace. A pleasure.”
Sophos shook his hand, embarrassed.
“Is our mutual friend here?” said Gen is a low voice. Lord Ornon shook his head.
“Not yet,” he said, equally quietly. Then, louder, to Sophos. “My cousin tells me you’ve spent time in the West Indies. I would be honored to hear your experiences, sir. Won’t you sit and have a drink?”
“I believe I will, thank you,” said Sophos, letting Gen herd him toward a group of armchairs. Despite the fact that his muscles were tensed as if he were about to enter a brawl, he forced himself to sit back in his chair as Gen named all the people in the room for him in a soft voice. The more he listened, the more impressed he grew. These were the highest lords of the realm, the most respected barristers and judges, men with influence and the ear of the Prince Regent. Gen couldn’t have picked a better stage for him to challenge Akretenesh.
As if summoned, Sophos saw a familiar bearded profile framed by the door as it swung open. He waited a moment to be sure, but in truth there was no doubt. It was Akretenesh.
Sophos stood. Across from him, Gen stiffened like a hound scenting blood and rose as well.
“Lord Akretenesh!” Sophos called it across the room, purposefully drawing the attention of its occupants. Akretenesh turned, an expression of polite inquiry on his face. “You’re a hard man to get ahold of. I believe you and I have some business matters to discuss.” He stepped forward into the light of a lamp, letting Akretenesh get a good look at him.
The look on his face, Sophos reflected, almost made the whole thing worth it. To his credit, the man made a valiant attempt at recovery.
“I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure of meeting before,” he said, with an air of puzzlement. “Mr…?”
Here Gen interjected, in a insolent and disbelieving tone.
“Lord Akretenesh, do you mean to say that you don’t recognize Lord Sophos, only heir to the dukedom of Sounis?”
“Lord Sophos has been missing for years,” said Akretenesh. “This man is an imposter.”
They had attracted somewhat of an audience at this point, and there were some murmurs at this. A white-haired gentleman that Gen had pointed out as a high-ranking barrister spoke up.
“This is a serious claim,” he said. “If this young gentleman is adamant about his claim then it must at least be investigated fully. One must admit that he does look extraordinarily like the late Duke.”
“Due to the circumstances of my departure from England I have no credentials but my own memory,” said Sophos. “But I am sure I can answer any question set to me. I can give you the names of my mother’s family, my schoolfellows at Eton, I can tell you what I studied—”
“All this information could be obtained by anyone committed enough,” said Akretenesh. “The fact remains that there is no one to vouch for this imposter.”
Gen spoke up from where he was perched on the side of an armchair, booted leg swinging lazily.
“I vouch for him,” he said haughtily. “We played together as children, and I am one of those schoolfellows at Eton Lord Sophos spoke about. I am quite certain that this is he.” He flashed a quicksilver grin at Akretenesh that had a hint of teeth. “On my honor as a gentleman.”
“On your honor as a gentleman—” exclaimed Akretenesh, but he was cut off by a stout grey-bearded gentleman.
“That is all very well, Lord Eugenides,” he said. “But, how shall I say, you are known for your levity, and this is a very grave matter.”
Gen’s expression didn’t change; not a flicker in the bored droop of his eyelids.
“Certainly,” he said. “You wish a witness of character, then? Preferably someone well-acquainted with the family?” He snapped his fingers. “I have it! The late Duke’s Magus.”
“My esteemed tutor, and a man who knew my uncle’s business intimately,” he explained, as if it needed explaining. “Is that acceptable, gentlemen?”
Akretenesh shook his head.
“Impossible,” he said, with a hint of triumph. “The Magus is lately on an expedition to North Africa, and it is not known when he will return.”
There was another murmur at this. The white-haired barrister’s eyebrows drew together in confusion, and he was not the only one.
“Why, my lord,” he said finally, adjusting his spectacles. “You are behind the times. The esteemed gentleman arrived back only yesterday. In fact, he is staying at this very club.”
Sophos allowed himself one triumphant smile as Akretenesh stared in astonishment. The barrister turned his head and called over to the gentleman in the corner who was absorbed in his newspaper.
“My lord,” he said. “You seem to be uniquely qualified to be the arbiter of a very peculiar dispute. Would you mind weighing in?”
“Certainly not,” said the Magus, setting aside his paper and rising. He was dressed again in the clothing of an English gentleman, rather than the native robes he had been wearing when Sophos found him in Alexandria, and Sophos felt a lump of fondness rise in his throat. “But you shall have to summarize for me, it has been so long since I saw an English paper that I found myself quite engrossed. I am sure I haven’t heard a word that’s been said.”
The barrister glanced to Akretenesh briefly, but the man still seemed to be speechless.
“This young gentleman,” he said, indicating Sophos, “claims he is the lost heir of the Duke of Sounis.”
The Magus took a long look at Sophos, letting the pause stretch out theatrically.
“Certainly this is Lord Sophos,” he said. “I can be quite sure, on account of lately having spent a two-week sea voyage in his company.”
“Great Scott!” said the barrister. “Sir, you were aware of this?”
“Only beginning two weeks ago,” said the Magus, and clapped Sophos on the shoulder even though he had to reach up to do so. “I have been scouring England for this young man since he vanished, but I can say that I never expected him to come to me! Imagine my astonishment when he called on me in Alexandria.”
“In Alexandria!” To Sophos: “Sir—my lord, I mean, how did you come to be in Alexandria all these years?”
“In actuality, I spent most of my time abroad in the West Indies,” said Sophos, “and as to how and why, it may behoove you to ask my lord Akretenesh.”
Akretenesh, who had been silent, started at this as heads turned to face him.
“Lord Akretenesh, never tell me you were aware of this as well?”
“Not only aware, but complicit,” said Sophos. “This man had me kidnapped, press-ganged, and shipped to the Indies aboard a Navy vessel and now he tries to claim my estate as his own.”
“This is slander!” said Akretenesh furiously. “My claim was in good faith!”
“Careful, Akretenesh,” drawled Gen. “My cousin here holds a position in the Foreign Office, where they take a dim view of foreign nobles undermining the English peerage.”
Lord Ornon looked annoyed, probably as he would have wished to remain somewhat incognito.
“I take offense at your implications,” said Akretenesh through gritted teeth. “If you continue to insult me in this manner I shall ask that you answer for it.”
“Gentlemen,” said Sophos through the hubbub, using his best imitation of his uncle. “A moment, if you please. I would speak to Lord Akretenesh alone.” He waited until they were a good distance away, murmuring among themselves, and stepped closer to Akretenesh. The man eyed him warily.
“I was a gentleman’s son once,” he said conversationally. “I was a scholar. I studied the classicists and the naturalists, and had no great talent for sport. It was expected that perhaps I would study the law, and become a barrister. Not a glamorous profession, to be sure, but a worthy one. Then you happened, Akretenesh, and my plans changed. It’s a harsh life at sea, perhaps you thought I wouldn’t survive. But I did survive, and believe me, it wasn’t easy. The Indies are unforgiving and so I learned to be as well.”
He let the coat Gen had tailored for him fall open, revealing the long flintlock pistol, battered and deadly, strapped to his hip.
“You have stolen a lot from me, Akretenesh,” he said quietly, watching Akretenesh’s eyes flick from his face to the gun. “Now, ask yourself: would you rather I remain a gentleman, that you may throw yourself on the mercy of the law? Or will you take your chances with the pirate? Because I swear to you on my family’s name that if you call me out, you will not walk away unharmed.”
After that there was the tedious business of wrapping up. Instead of calling the Bow Street Runners, Lord Ornon accompanied Akretenesh down the back stair of the club to a carriage he had apparently had waiting. Sophos was left to deal with the assembled noblemen and what seemed like an endless string of questions.
There was a light touch at his elbow. Sophos turned.
“Gen,” he said in relief. Gen grabbed his head and pulled him down to plant a kiss on his forehead.
“You did marvelously, Sophos,” he said. “I am sorry to abandon you, but—” he checked his watch before snapping it shut and slipping it back in his waistcoat pocket “—it is certainly past the dessert course by now. I’ve got to go.”
“Dessert course? Go where?” said Sophos, but Gen was gone.
The dinner was going well, or as well as it could under the circumstances. Irene entertained her guests with infinite courtesy, shepherding them from the drawing room to the dining hall; throughout the soup, fish, and meat courses. The meal was served in the Mede style, and her guests were effusive in their praise of her chef. She received the compliments with a nod and murmured thanks. While the meal was nominally in honor of Nahuseresh, her illustrious Mede guest, it also marked her as being on the very edge of fashion—and, of course, it drew out the meal for longer, keeping Nahuseresh safely contained until Eugenides arrived.
If he arrived, that is. Irene kept her face in a polite mask as she rang for the dessert plates to be taken away and did not glance at the clock on the wall. After the table had been cleared, she rose and laid her napkin aside, a signal for the ladies to retire to the drawing room and for port and cigars to be brought for the gentlemen. She was loath to let Nahuseresh out of her sight, but she had drawn the meal out as long as possible and it would be a shocking breach of propriety if she were to remain in the dining room with the men. She had to reassure herself with the thought that Captain Teleus was present and would keep an eye on things.
Ensconced in the drawing room, she entreated one of the younger ladies to play on the spinnet so she would not have to endure conversation and sat with her back to the door. Finally, finally, there was a knock on the door and one of her footmen entered.
“Your Grace,” he said, and bent and murmured in her ear, “Lord Nahuseresh has received some news which puts him in mind to leave prematurely. He is presently out in the hall.”
“Excuse me, ladies. I am a poor hostess to abandon you like this, but I find this matter requires my attention. I shouldn’t be but a moment.”
The ladies professed their understanding, and Irene swept out of the room. Nahuseresh was indeed in the hall, pacing back and forth with poorly suppressed impatience. She made her rustling way to him, the silken skirts of her gown swishing around her ankles.
“Lord Nahuseresh! I am told you mean to leave my dinner early. I feel I must at least ask why; have I been such a poor hostess?”
She stopped, in theatrical reaction to his troubled expression.
“Why, dear sir,” she said. “Whatever is the matter? You look so pale.”
Nahuseresh visibly gathered himself and took possessive hold of her arm.
“We need to speak in private, my dear,” he said, leaning in to murmur in her ear. “Have you a place?”
“Why certainly,” said Irene, privately seething. As always, his touch made her skin crawl. But he would pay for his familiarity soon enough. “Come into the library.”
She closed the door of the library behind him, and crossed to the sideboard. Only one lamp was lit, leaving them in a circle of light in the corner of the room. Nahuseresh paced about the room, twitching back the heavy curtains to look out on the darkened street below.
“May I fix you a drink?” she called.
“A brandy, my dear,” he said absently, and settled himself on the sofa. She poured two brandies, and seated herself next to him.
“Now, dear sir, what makes you so distressed?”
“The heir to the duchy of Sounis had returned,” said Nahuseresh, with a swallow of brandy. “And Akretenesh has been taken away by the Foreign Office. They will likely be on my trail soon as well.”
Irene raised an eyebrow.
“Will not your status serve to shield you? You have the ear of the Emperor, do you not?”
“That will do little if the Foreign Office has enough to charge me with espionage. It is imperative that they not find any evidence against me, or I will be hanged as a spy.”
“Is there such evidence?” inquired Irene, and then paused. “My lord, if my name is set down anywhere—”
“Do not worry, my dear,” he said. “I have some records in my personal satchel, and I keep all names on my person. It can all easily be burned, but I shall need your help to leave the country.”
“Excellent,” said Irene. “I understand.” She cleared her throat delicately. “Have you heard enough?”
She kept her eyes on Nahuseresh’s face as Lord Eugenides and Lieutenant Ormentiedes stepped from the shadows, and took private pleasure in the way his face shifted from puzzlement to shock to rage as he realized what was happening. Eugenides, as easy as if he were at his club, put his hands in his pockets and gave a boyish smile while Lieutenant Ormentiedes in starched neckcloth and dress coat folded his arms and glowered.
“Oh, it seems to me to be plenty,” said Eugenides sunnily. “Especially if the contents of that satchel turn out to be as interesting as promised.” He turned to Nahuseresh. “What do you think, my dear sir?”
Nahuseresh gaped for half a moment, then stood and rounded on Irene.
“What the devil have you done?” he said. “You empty-headed goose, have you forgotten how many of your husband’s debts were paid by my emperor’s gold? You are as complicit as I!”
She rose, drawing herself up to her full height. She had perhaps half a head on him, but had downplayed that until now.
“On the contrary,” she said. “My name is attached to nothing treasonous. You were too busy courting me to realize that my professed sympathies never translated into action.”
“The Foreign Office was very interested when Her Grace approached us with her suspicions,” said Eugenides. “And the army was interested enough to send Lieutenant Ormentiedes here. They are quite curious to know whether you are the source of some...information problems they’ve been having.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Irene saw Lieutenant Ormentiedes’ face twitch slightly at this, unsurprisingly, since it was a total lie. But Nahuseresh wasn’t looking at Ormentiedes, he was looking at Irene. Irene stared him down.
“You imagined that I would be a biddable female,” she said. “You imagined that with your money and your charm you could ingratiate yourself with me and make yourself duke. You were wrong, and I am afraid you will pay dearly. I am not a sheep to be led. I am the Duchess of Attolia, and you would do well to heed that.” She gave a sharp nod to Lieutenant Ormentiedes. “We’re done. Take him out through the back.”
Ormentiedes snapped his mouth shut, and marched over the door. He opened it to let in Captain Teleus, still in evening dress but now carrying both sword and pistol.
“The Lieutenant and I will be your escort to Whitehall, my lord,” he said. His tone was courteous, but his hand did not stray from his sword hilt, and Nahuseresh could see that clearly. “The gentlemen there should be awaiting you by now.” He turned and bowed to Irene. “Your Grace.”
“I thank you for your assistance, Captain,” she said.
“You are most welcome, Your Grace. I will be in touch.” With that, he led Nahuseresh out and closed the door behind him.
Irene let out a breath and picked up her scotch glass from the table, taking a long swallow, savoring the feeling of victory as much as the liquor’s burn on her tongue.
“You’re mistaken,” said a voice, and she looked up to Eugenides standing there, looking amused. “Sheep aren’t biddable, or easily led. They’re just thickheaded and bad-tempered. For myself, though, I much prefer goats, who are the most ornery creatures on this green earth.”
This kind of rambling talk usually annoyed her, but her shoulders felt light with the dissipation of weeks of worry and stress. Not even Eugenides could ruin her mood tonight.
“I had not realized you were an expert on goats,” she said.
“Oh, I have some trifling knowledge,” he said modestly. “I am a simple country lad at heart after all.” He caught her disbelieving look, and aped a wounded countenance. “Your Grace offends me with your disbelief! I grew up on my cousin’s country estate. The goats taught me to climb trees.”
That could be true for all she knew, she had no idea. Certainly it seemed likely he would climb trees and get up to mischief. She didn’t remember much of him from when she and Helen had been in their first Seasons together. He had been at Eton then. In her memories he was just a small dark figure towing a smaller and plumper blond figure—who grew up to be the Duke of Sounis’ heir, she supposed. Mainly she remembered the easy, tolerant affection with which Helen had spoken of him, this younger cousin with whom she shared companionship without regard for status. Irene had not been able to imagine viewing a family member in such a way.
He was looking at her with pleasure and surprise, and she realized with a start she was smiling. She schooled her face back into imperviousness and started toward him. He did not retreat or drop his smile, even when she was quite near to him. Feeling loose with triumph, she cupped the side of his face in one hand and was gratified to see a faint flush in his cheeks. He stilled under her touch, bright-eyed, like a rabbit caught in a snare. Up close, she could see his eyelashes, long and dark like a woman’s.
She was aware of the intimacy of their position all of a sudden, her skin seeming to prickle and burn when it came in contact with his, and she was overcome by the urge to pull away. The only thing that stopped her was the feeling off his pulse fluttering beneath her palm. His expression didn’t betray it, but his heart was beating fast.
His tongue flicked out, licking his lips unconsciously, and just like that her lips ghosted against his and she was kissing him. She had to bend downward at an uncomfortable angle, and it was hesitant, awkward, like the first few stumbling steps in the dark before one’s eyes adjusted. But then his hands, small and warm, were on her waist. Heat flared in her chest and squirmed down into her belly. She opened her mouth a little, and he was there, biting gently on her lower lip. A noise of pure pleasure burst out of her, halfway to a moan.
And she stopped, frozen for a second. Eugenides pulled back immediately, looking at her with concern. She recollected herself.
“Get your hands off me!” she snapped out, past the cold knot of dread and fear in her chest.
He removed his hands with alacrity and stepped back, keeping his posture loose and open.
“Your Grace,” he began. She cut him off. She was afraid of what he was going to say, and did not want to hear it.
“Stop,” she said. “I cannot, that is, I--” She was babbling. She was a fool, to show herself vulnerable to him.
“No need,” he said. “Say the word, I will leave.”
She took a deep breath and made herself look him in the eye. His expression was inscrutable.
“Yes,” she said. “I think that would be best.”
He gave no protest, simply bowed and was gone.
She did not regret making him leave. She did not.
Nightfall found Helen was sitting at her dressing table in her nightshirt and dressing gown, attempting to write up the day's events in her diary and not having much success. She knew from the gossip of guests at the dinner she attended that Akretenesh had been successfully dispatched and that Sophos had moved to a room in White’s to await his inheritance of the estate but she had not heard from Irene or Eugenides all night.
As if summoned by her thoughts, there was a quiet knock at her door and Eugenides slipped in, still wearing a dark evening coat and breeches.
"I feel obliged to remind you that it is not appropriate to be in a lady's bedchamber at this hour, Eugenides," she said. "Not that you will let it stop you, I suppose."
Eugenides made the face that said she cared far too much for the rules of propriety. Perhaps she did, but Helen had discovered one could only flout convention so much. They could not all be Eugenides, who made a career of letting the rules apply to him only as he chose.
He settled crosslegged on the bed, like they were still children, and raised an eyebrow as if daring her to make him leave.
“Nahuseresh is dealt with,” he said perfunctorily. “No doubt the Foreign Office will be searching his belongings as we speak.” He seemed oddly subdued, with none of the childlike triumph she might have expected after such a coup.
“Did everything go as planned? Is Irene all right?”
“Oh yes,” he said. “She will come out of the whole thing with reputation intact, probably better off than she was. Her sense of strategy cannot be faulted; and she has nerves of solid iron to be sure.”
Helen let this sink in, anxiously tapping her pen against her inkwell.
"I should have done more," she said finally. "For Irene. Instead of just letting myself believe she had cast me aside. If only I had not been so cowardly, perhaps she would not have had to suffer that horrible man for so long."
Eugenides gave a bark of laughter.
"I think I am worse than you on that front," he said. "Far from being cowardly, I was naive instead. It’s no wonder she barely tolerates me."
Helen looked at him in surprise. She had never heard him express any particular feeling towards Irene other than dislike. She had assumed, with some embarrassment, that it was dislike on her behalf. Eugenides had always been protective, sometimes to the point of proprietariness, and would have been young enough when she and Irene had drifted apart to take offense at it.
“I asked her to marry me, you know,” said Eugenides. “Some time ago.”
Helen nearly knocked over her ink pot in surprise.
“Surely even you are aware that asking a woman to marry you when her husband is is fresh in the ground is in bad taste,” she said, to cover her astonishment.
Eugenides blinked for a moment and then laughed.
“You misunderstand. This was years ago, before she married her cad of a husband.”
“Before,” said Helen, disbelieving. “But you would have been—“
“A boy, yes. Not yet out of school. She laughed in my face and reminded me I was a beardless youth.” He said it in a tone of light reminiscence, but Helen knew him too well. A picture was completing itself in her mind, of a year where he had come down from Eton over the holidays full of energy and mirth, only to spend the rest of the vacation sullenly sequestered in the library. It was like the last piece to a puzzle she didn’t know she was missing.
“Oh, Gen,” she said.
“Indeed,” he said wryly.
A suspicion formed in her mind.
“Eugenides,” she said, and her tone must give him some warning, because he looks up guiltily. “did anything...occur between you and Irene tonight?”
All the artifice dropped from his expression and his face crumpled. He looked so utterly unguarded that Helen’s breath caught in her throat.
“Don’t ask me that,” he said. “Please...just...not tonight.”
“Oh, Gen,” said Helen. She got up and crossed to the bed. He made a perfunctory noise of protest when she put her arms around him, but still buried his head in the crook of her neck easily enough. After a moment he drew away and rolled over to lay on his back on the bed. She lay on her side, facing him, like they had done so many times when they were children.
“Will you marry Sophos?” he said. She drew breath.
Some of her feeling must have come through in her tone, because he looked surprised.
“Is it that difficult of a decision? You suit extraordinarily well, and he has always idolized you.”
“Yes,” said Helen. “I fear that’s rather the problem.”
“Ah,” said Eugenides. “I see. Well, as unqualified as I am in matters of the heart, I think you ought to talk to him. More than anything, if you are this anxious about it, then perhaps it is worth taking a look at your own feelings.”
She was still thinking about Eugenides’ words the next afternoon as she was in the parlor taking visitors. She was not in the most fashionable circles and did not get nearly as many callers as she had when she was younger, but she had enough acquaintances from her charity work and from the London scene that her afternoons were full.
“His Grace the Duke of Sophos, to see you, my lady,” said her footman, opening the door to the parlor. Helen very nearly upset her teacup and only had time to rise from her seat and reflect irritably that between Eugenides and Sophos she’d likely expire of shock before she was old before Sophos was shown in.
He was resplendent; brushed and washed and shaved with waves of golden hair falling around his shoulders. He was wearing a coat of deep navy and superfine breeches with polished Hessians, looking every inch the noble gentleman.
“Wh—where on earth did you get those clothes?” she said, dumbfounded and apparently devoid of wit.
He looked abashed.
“Oh—Gen had me visit a tailor before I left to fetch the Magus,” he said.
“Of course he did,” said Helen, indignantly. “Gen is a bloody sneak!”
Sophos’ eyes widened, and he ducked his head, looking slightly plaintive.
“Do you not like them?” he asked, and she winced, realizing how her words must have sounded.
“No, no!” she said hastily. “No, they suit you to perfection. I was only startled.”
They lapsed into a somewhat stilted silence, and Helen realized to her slight mortification that he was still standing because she was still standing.
“Please sit,” she said. Somehow she was fumbling all the usual social niceties like she had never been in society before. Gods above.
“I should offer my congratulations,” said Helen. “From what Eugenides said, the plan was carried off to perfection. Have you sent word to your mother and sisters yet?”
“Yes, and I should thank you for delivering my letter to them. I could not let them suffer unease on my behalf a minute longer than necessary. I aim to go to them immediately, in fact, but I…I wanted to come see you first.”
“Ah,” was all Helen, eloquently, could say.
He set his jaw and looked her in the eye.
“Helen, I am willing to do as you suggest and wait a Season but first you should know—that is, I should like to say that my regard for you has always been—that is to say that you have always been the only one for me,” he said determinedly, face pink up to the hairline. “Seeing you after all these years only confirmed what I always knew in my heart to be true. You would make me a happy man if you would do me the honor of considering my intentions. Not just for convenience’ sake, but for the sake of—of love.”
Helen stared at him, distraught for reasons she could not name. She had been cautious with her heart for many years, but she found to her surprise that she did not feel like being cautious now.
She stood and crossed to him.
“Sophos,” she said, unable to keep the tremor out of her voice. “I think you ought to kiss me now.”
He blinked as if he couldn’t believe his ears, then burst into a smile.
“May I really?” he said.
She saved him the trouble of answering by leaning down and covering his mouth with her own.
She had kissed other men before, and other women as well, but that had been a long time ago when she was still a girl. This was different. This was Sophos, not a boy barely out of the schoolroom as he was but a man, all grown. She could feel the evidence of it under her fingers; the broad planes of his back, the stubble on his jaw.
When he pulled her down into his lap, she fit in the circle of his arms like she was always meant to be there.
Three days after that Irene arrived at her door, looking outwardly composed as usual, but Helen fancied she could see a hint of distress hidden in the other woman’s features. She rang for tea and confined the conversation to trivial topics—the weather, an amusing story she had heard the other day. Finally, Irene delicately cleared her throat.
“I hear you are to marry the new Duke of Sounis,” she said.
“Yes,” said Helen. “Once everything is settled.”
Sophos had gone to the countryside to see his mother and sisters like he said, he would be back soon. There was much work to be done: making the the London house suitable for habitation, establishing his position with the solicitors, not to mention dealing with the onslaught of invitations he would be inundated with once word got out of his dramatic return. Regardless, he had agreed to accompany her to the opera next week and once the flurry of the Season was over...well, then they would have time enough.
Irene smiled, just a twitch at the corner of her mouth.
“I think you will suit. He had eyes only for you when we were younger.”
“Did everyone know?” said Helen.
“Anyone who saw the two of you together,” said Irene. “Helen, I am happy for you.” It was said earnestly, but she looked down as she said it.
“Thank you,” said Helen. Then, with infinite care: “Have you spoken to Eugenides?”
At Eugenides’ name, Irene’s composure quietly broke.
“I have not—I have not seen him since that night. He has been making himself scarce.”
It was the first time Helen had seen her like this, all colt-like nervousness. Her usual composure was gone, her brows knit and her lily-white hands restless on the handle of her fan.
“He will not come to you,” Helen said gently. “If you have sent him away definitively, then he will not impose upon you further. If you want him, you must go to him. It must be your choice.”
Irene worried her lip, looking like she did not know she was doing it.
“I suspect I have hurt him deeply,” she admitted. “I would not be surprised if he hated me.”
“I am not surprised she barely tolerates me,” said Gen in Helen’s memory and her heart ached for these two wounded, dear people circling around each other like wary animals. She leaned across and grasped Irene’s hands in her own.
“Please,” she said. “Promise me you will at least try.”
Irene made a small noise of distress.
“I am scared,” she said, like it hurt to say.
“I know,” said Helen, and seized her forehead and kissed it.
Irene took a deep breath in as if centering herself, and Helen, knowing her signal to retreat, busied herself with the tea set to give Irene some privacy. Eventually Irene cleared her throat delicately, and spoke again.
“I ought to return your earrings,” she said, pulling something out of her reticule. “I am indebted to you for the loan.”
“Earrings?” said Helen, frowning in some confusion.
Irene’s eyebrows rose.
“Indeed,” she said slowly. “You had your cousin deliver them on the night of the ball.” She opened a small velvet bag to reveal a pair of earrings that Helen had seen before many a time and knew well, but they were not hers. For a moment she was speechless, and considered whether she ought to lie, whether the truth would hurt Irene even more.
“Those are Eugenides’ mother’s earrings,” she said finally. “They are from a set of rubies that came into the family as part of her dowry. She had the coloring for it, you know,” she said inanely. “That honey-colored complexion. Most of the set was divided to dower her daughters, Eugenides’ sisters, but she left this pair to Eugenides. They were...intended for the woman he married,” she said gently. “My dear, I think this is the answer to whether or not he despises you.”
“Yes,” said Irene slowly, her eyes very far away. “I suppose it is.”
Helen gave her the address for Eugenides’ London townhouse.
“It is perhaps the best place to find him,” she had said with a shrug of exasperation. “I never know where to look, he simply turns up when he is wanted.” She frowned. “Or does not. He has been making himself scarce lately.”
Irene gave herself a day to steel her nerves, but all too soon she was dismounting her carriage feeling as if she were heading for battle. He opened the door himself, even though Helen had said that he did nominally employ a valet and footmen. It was an unpleasant surprise, she thought to have more time to prepare.
His face was expressionless.
“May I come in?” she said. He bowed.
“Your Grace is always welcome,” he said politely and held the door open for her. “I apologize for the reception, the servants have their day off today.”
“That’s quite all right.”
Instead of having a parlor on the ground floor like a typical townhouse, he lead her instead to a handsome library, well-lit. There was a desk scattered with papers by the window, and only then did she notice the ink stains on his fingers, his rolled-up cuffs.
He sat her with elaborate courtesy on a settee.
“I have been remiss in my lack of apology for my behavior the last time we spoke,” he said. “I felt perhaps that Your Grace might prefer that I don’t attempt to press the incident.”
“I am not here for an apology, Eugenides,” she said, softening her tone as much as she was able. It was strange and discomfiting to see him so stiff and polite, unlike his usual irreverent self. “I am only here to ask your honesty, and if given it I can promise a measure of honesty of my own in return. I am aware there is much between us.”
He held her gaze for a moment.
“What I can honestly give Your Grace, I will,” he said. She let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding.
“Were you very angry when I turned you down?” she asked. It was too blunt a thing to say.
His lips quirked despite themselves, and he cast his eyes downward.
“Tremendously,” he admitted. “I sulked for the whole winter about it and spent an embarrassing amount of time thinking about about the best way to make you see that you had been wrong in rejecting me.”
As she expected, she thought wryly.
“And what was your conclusion?”
He raised his eyes to hers.
“That you were right. What use would I have been in managing the estate—could you imagine my taking a seat in Parliament? What would society say about you had you married a mere boy, a beardless youth? I didn’t think about your position, I only thought that my obvious regard for you would make up for anything I lacked. But you didn’t need a boy who loved you, you needed a man who could be Duke.”
She blinked away her astonishment and found her voice.
“And yet it seems my choice in that was rather poor as well.”
“Even so, you did what you had to. I would not have you change a thing for all the world.”
Irene felt as though the breath had been knocked out of her. Distantly, she recognized the feeling as the beginning of a sob. How absurd. She had never cried for her mother, for she barely knew her. She had not cried for her father, nor for her husband.
“How absurd,” she said, out loud this time.
Eugenides’ gaze held hers with an intensity she had never seen on him.
“I don’t think it’s absurd.”
She had her answer, then; no reason to beat about the bush any further.
She folded her hands.
“You say that I did not need a boy who loved me, I needed a man who could be Duke. And yet it seems to me…it seems to me that against all odds I have found both in the guise of one.” She paused. “Helen explained to me about your mother’s earrings, you see.”
It was the only time in their acquaintance so far that she had rendered him entirely speechless.
He swallowed, and she watched his throat bob. Paradoxically, his nervousness made her calmer.
“I—” he began. “I did not intend the earrings as a way to force my feelings on you. I—I wanted you to have them, is all.”
“Yes,” she said, a statement of acceptance, and waited.
“In all sincerity I have no great desire to be a duke,” he continued. “If you have not heard, I am a dandy with no ambitions who is perfectly content to live off of my cousin’s wealth.”
She inclined her head in understanding, not offering persuasion or argument.
“Not to mention the small matter of you despising me.”
This, at least, she could give him.
“I do not despise you,” she said. It was an understatement, and she struggled to put her feelings into words. “You…”
There was no easy way to describe the gamut of things she felt for him. She wanted to pin him down, peel off that smiling face of his and see what he hid underneath. She wanted his clever, knife-sharp mind for her own. She wanted him in her bed. He would look uniquely good in her bed, bare, with his whole slim body on display. The force of her own desire was wholly unfamiliar to her.
“You unsettle me,” she said finally. It was not what she meant to say.
He looked up at her sharply, agitation forgotten, and she could feel a flush creep up her neck. He studied her for a minute and she fought against the suspicion that all her feelings were writ plain on her face.
“So, in the interests of clarity, this would not be a marriage where we sleep in separate beds and I find consolation with a mistress?”
“Take a mistress and I’ll shoot you myself,” she snapped without thinking, and was instantly horrified at herself. But he was laughing. A knot eased itself in her chest. She allowed her shoulders to come down, and delicately adjusted her shawl. “Brat,” she said coolly. “You know it would not be a marriage of that sort.”
His eyes were twinkling.
“Your brat,” he said.
She cupped his cheek. Still beardless, she noted wryly.
“My duke,” she corrected. Her inflection was steady, with no hint of uncertainty in her tone, but the question was there nonetheless. He leaned into her hand, pressing his lips to her palm. The warmth of his open mouth on her skin sent a shiver through her, and he glanced up at her wickedly through his lashes.
“Your duke,” he agreed simply. “All yours.”