The Fall of the Phoenix by Nene Adams ©2003 - All rights reserved
Nor shall this peace sleep with her: but as when
Rhiannon looked up from her needlework, a small smile curving her lips. "What problem are you wrestling with, love?"
Lady Evangeline St. Claire fluttered the letter in her hands and scowled. "I wish all cat owners to the Devil!" she exclaimed. Lina was sprawled full length on the sofa opposite Rhiannon's chair, long legs overhanging the scrolled padded arms. Dressed casually in a battered green robe that matched her eyes, Lina's black hair was down, her feet were bare and she resembled a Bohemian maiden rather than a wealthy woman of breeding and intellect. "Another tear-stained request to locate a lost moggie, my dear. Bah! I wonder if Holmes is forced to put up with such odious insults!"
Rhiannon's grin grew more mischievous. "Don't tell me you're going to start searching for misplaced pussies!"
"Hardly, my dear," Lina drawled, screwing up the offending letter and tossing it over her shoulder. "Why should I seek other pussies when I have a perfectly serviceable one at home?"
Rhiannon blushed furiously and giggled, causing her lover to raise an eyebrow.
"You know I am referring to Muggins, the kitchen cat!" the dark-haired woman said with mock severity, although her eyes twinkled with suppressed glee. "Alas! Such deception. Mistaking her for a lady, I wed a guttersnipe. Woe is me! What will the upper crust think?"
Rhiannon hurled a cushion with deadly aim.
"Now I am subjected to physical abuse? This is not to be borne!" Lina sat up and pushed her hair out of her eyes. "I am almost certain that pillow fights were not in our wedding contract."
For answer, Rhiannon carefully laid her needlework in a willow basket, stood up, put her hands on her hips and stuck out her tongue.
Lina could not resist. "Is that an invitation, my dear?"
Both women dissolved into giggles.
When Lina finally caught her breath, she looked at her partner and love with appreciation. She grows more beautiful every day, the lady thought. I do not know how or why I deserved to win such perfection, but I thank God for it with every beat of my heart.
Rhiannon was dressed in a simple, unstructured Liberty's silk dress of cream and navy stripes which complemented her fine turquoise eyes; an embroidered design of strawberries and leaves around cuffs, collar and hem provided a colorful touch. Her red-blonde hair was twisted into a pair of school-girlish braids that swung freely to her waist, framing a kitten-pretty face.
"Why are you staring at me?" Rhiannon asked. "Has my nose turned green?"
"No, but I imagine that the sun has become the very color of envy, since you, my dear, far outshine its brightness."
The smaller woman blushed again. "So poetic!" She poked at the fireplace with the poker; although it was early spring and had warmed up considerably, there was still a little touch of frost in the air. "I'm famished, love. Do you want tea?"
"I offer her burning verse and she prefers scones! Is it any wonder I am undone?" Lina exclaimed dramatically, flinging herself back down on the sofa. "Very well, ring for Jackson. I am certain he will be able to satisfy your appetites where I cannot."
Rhiannon leaned over and kissed her partner tenderly. "While I am fond of scones, I love you more."
It was Lina's turn to flush gently. "To be perfectly truthful, I am feeling a mite peckish myself." She brushed Rhiannon's cheek with the knuckles of her hand. "Summon our gallant butler, my dear. Let us see what delectable delights await us on the tea tray."
While her partner pulled the tapestry cord vigorously, Lina reached over and snagged another letter from the pile on the hearth. "Hmmm..." She slit the envelope open with a knife, brows creasing in a frown as she read to the end. The expression on her face grew more thunderous by the moment. She read the letter a second and third time. When tea was delivered, Lina mumbled a refusal, her face beginning to turn a searing shade of crimson.
Rhiannon was happily consuming a scone slathered with clotted cream, oblivious to the danger signals. A shouted exclamation of heartfelt profanity from the sofa nearly made her choke.
"Hell and damnation!"
Rhiannon swallowed with an effort, coughed and took a sip of tea. "Whatever is the matter, love?" she asked in a slightly strangled voice.
"This!" Lina held the letter as if it were a poisonous viper. "The sheer effrontery! The positive nerve!"
"Another inquiry after a lost cat?"
"Worse!" Indignation positively crackled off the lady. "Much, much worse!!"
"Well, for goodness' sake! What on earth's got you in such a state?" Rhiannon said with a touch of annoyance, dabbing a blot of spilled cream off her sleeve.
Lina scowl grew blacker still. "It is the end of the world as we know it," she pronounced heavily. "It is our doom."
Rhiannon resisted the urge to grab her taller partner by the ears and give her a good shaking. "Stop playing silly buggers and tell me what's in the letter!"
The lady sighed, "I can hardly bring myself to subject you to such..."
"Very well, my dear. You have been warned." Lina rubbed her suddenly aching temples and wished fervently that she hadn't given up strong drink. "It is... a letter from my mother. My mother, who disapproves of me so strongly we have not spoken five civil words to one another in years. My mother who would rather suffer the death of a thousand cuts than be seen in the same room as her disgraced daughter. My mother, the grand Duchess, who would no more acknowledge our relationship than fly to the moon. This same woman is inviting us to Inishglen. Both of us. You and I. For a week. She actually uses your name in this missive, my dear. Astonishing! The purpose of this mind-boggling exercise is to meet my deceased father; it seems the pater familias has not accepted his Heavenly reward quite so promptly as might be desired."
Rhiannon came close to choking again.
"Mother is spouting a load of spiritualist claptrap. She used to be a sane woman," Lina mused. "Could it be entropy of the womb that has caused this hysterical madness? Good Lord, I hope not. Insanity runs in families, you know."
Rhiannon picked up her tea with a shaking hand and took a big swig. This was just too impossible a thing to believe before dinnertime.
In fact, it was damn near terrifying.
"There's nothing else to argue about, Lina," Rhiannon said firmly, folding another dress and putting it into the trunk. "Of course we're going." She had gotten over her initial misgivings and was actually looking forward to seeing her partner's childhood home, if not her formidable mother.
Still, the Duchess did invite me by name so I don't think she's going to throw me into the dungeon as soon as we arrive, Rhiannon thought. And besides, I'm beginning to be intrigued by the hints in her letter. Has she really got a tame spiritualist calling up the restless dead in her drawing room?
"My dear, you do not know what fresh hell awaits you in Ireland," Lina said mournfully, sitting down on the side of the bed. "Imagine an ancestral castle whose depths have not been plumbed since it was built in 1690 by a relative with considerably more cash than taste. The interior is a Gothic horror which would give the most even-minded individual nightmares for a fortnight. Leering gargoyles, empty suits of armor, groaning floorboards, squeaking doors, spiderwebs thickly coating forgotten corners..."
"Sounds like the Castle of Otrano," Rhiannon replied, putting a shoe bag into the trunk. "I thoroughly enjoyed that book."
Lina shuddered. "You have rather low tastes in literature. Have I mentioned that the indoor plumbing is barbaric at worst, willfully recalcitrant at best?"
"That sounds adventurous. Should I pack extra bath salts, do you think?"
"Inishglen is situated in the backside of nowhere. The nearest neighbors are literally miles away."
"Well, I imagine we could both do with a peaceful holiday."
Lina grasped her lover's wrists, feeling thick scar tissue under her fingers, a legacy of the woman's suicide attempt almost two years ago. It had taken her considerable effort to stop flinching at this reminder of failure. My fault, my grievous fault, whispered the ghost of guilt, still alive after all this time, and Lina pushed the thought away. "Do you really believe this nonsense about the spirit world?" she asked. "Can the dead live again?"
Rhiannon's half-closed eyes were a mere glimmer of blue beneath long lashes. "I think people believe what they wish, not necessarily what is true," she replied carefully. In her opinion, only desperately unhappy people sought solace in spiritualism but she wasn't going to tell Lina that. "I don't know if this Madam Bahzanova is a real medium or whether she's deceiving your mother. Either way, we'd better find out."
In the face of this logic, Lina had to surrender. "Very well," she said, releasing her partner and springing up from the bed. "Be sure to pack sufficient evening dresses, my dear. Mother is notorious for insisting on formal attire when we dine." Lina busied herself with another trunk; their maid Solange was taking a holiday in Paris, so they had been left to their own devices. She was not going to argue anymore; experience had taught her the futility of denying Rhiannon something she really wanted.
I suppose I must accept defeat with good grace, Lina thought. I hope that Mother will behave herself during our visit. If she attempts to dredge up that 'daughter of a thousand earls' nonsense and treats Rhiannon badly, or puts on those superior airs... well. They say one should respect one's parents but I will not allow such behavior. A single cutting remark or thinly veiled reference to 'common blood' and we will leave the Duchess to her fate.
Respect is one thing, the bonds of affection another. I will not make my love a martyr to my mother's inflexible notions of respectability and class.
"Have you ordered the 'Princess Bride' brought up?" Rhiannon asked. They would be taking their private, sumptuously appointed railcar as far as possible before catching the ferry to Ireland, and then by coach to Inishglen.
"Jackson has made the arrangements." Lina held up two gowns at arms length, shook her head, and shoved them back into the wardrobe, heedless of creases. "Cook has packed sufficient picnic baskets to feed an entire regiment. The footmen have been dispatched to the station to clean the car and fill the watertank before our arrival. A quantity of clean linens, soaps and scents, dishes, towels, dressing gowns, glasses, wines, blankets and other sundry items have also gone ahead. And before you ask, my dear, the answer is no."
"No?" Rhiannon contrived to look puzzled. "Whatever are you talking about?"
Lina swung a finger in the direction of the fireplace. A huge shaggy beast lay on the hearth, its muzzle split in a good natured but toothy grin. Fyvie, an Irish wolfhound, had been adopted after the tragic events in Scotland that had ended with Rhiannon inheriting a fortune of her own.
"We are not taking this hairy appetite to Inishglen," Lina said. "My mother breeds delicate, highly strung pugs and would certainly object to her little friends being bitten, bullied or consumed by Fyvie."
As if answering Lina's accusations, the wolfhound rolled over and showed her belly, paws flapping ridiculously at the air in a show of, see how harmless I am? Rhiannon laughed. "Well, shall we ask Holmes to act as nanny during our absence?"
The mere mention of her dear friend's name made Lina grimace in annoyance. "I fear Holmes is not available, my dear. I received word from him this morning. Having put paid to a number of minor criminals, he is off to Switzerland in hot pursuit of Moriarty - the so-called Napoleon of Crime. No further details were forthcoming. Blast the man! He clutches secrets to his bosom more tightly than a miser's gold."
A pair of stockings fell from Rhiannon's suddenly nerveless fingers. "Is... is..." She licked her lips and tried again. "Is Victoire with him? Her father, I mean?" Her blood seemed to be threaded with flame. Victoire... Moriarty's illegitimate daughter. Author of so many horrible sins, so many unspeakable torments, so much pain.
Lina quickly tossed aside a shoe and wrapped the smaller woman in an embrace, stroking her back soothingly. "Please, my dear. Do not fret. It has been a long time since Egypt..."
"Not long enough! And she escaped her cell six months ago!" Rhiannon shuddered but it was from anger, not fear. "There's been no trace, nothing. Victoire murdered two guards and God knows who else. She could be anywhere! I know you have spies searching but I wish you'd killed her then, Lina. I really do."
Lina felt helpless and furious, all at the same time, but made an effort to control herself. "If Victoire Rousseau is with Moriarty, rest assured that Holmes will deal with her. If not..." Her fingers tightened around her lover's shoulders. "The moment that blonde bitch comes within ten miles of us, all the mercy in the world will not be sufficient to spare her life again."
Rhiannon glanced up at the feral expression on Lina's face... and her lips stretched in a savage grin of her own.
"Good. This time, I get to help," she said.
Fyvie whimpered in canine dread, sensing her mistress' dark thoughts.
Lina cleared her throat. She knew Rhiannon was capable of violence if necessary - a far cry from the terrified, fainting lily she'd been in the beginning of their relationship - but the depths of the woman's ferocity surprised even her sometimes. "I will be sure and pack a firearm," she said, giving Rhiannon a final caress. "Just in case it is needed."
"Don't forget the ammunition," the strawberry blonde said, pulling away and taking a stack of hatboxes into her arms. "If nothing else, you can use the gargoyles for target practice." The anger was fading... for now. She would love nothing so much as to dance on Victoire's grave, preferably in canary yellow satin. Still, not wanting to dredge up the hurtful past anymore, she made a light jest and pretended to be less concerned than she actually was.
Lina chuckled and felt some of the tension melt away. Not all of it, however. "My dear, do you really think this trip is a good idea?" she asked anxiously. "My mother can be difficult."
Rhiannon shrugged. "So can everyone's mother, I suspect. It's about time I met your Duchess. I'm sure she isn't nearly as bad as you make her out to be."
This confident and completely incorrect pronouncement took Lina's breath
away. Her lover took advantage of the temporary stunned silence to add,
"Oh, and Fyvie is coming with us, since Holmes won't be available to take
care of her and Solange is on holiday. You know how she pines when she's
left alone. I'm sure our sweet doggie won't find Pugs that tasty, especially
without sauce, and even if she does eat one or two, I'm sure your mother
won't notice." Rhiannon winked at the wolfhound and
On the hearth, Fyvie thumped her tail and yawned while Lina struggled to formulate a reply.
By the time one came to mind, it was too late.
With a sigh, Lina went down to the kitchen to arrange food for Fyvie
who, it appeared, was coming with them after all.
They arrived at Inishglen on a beautifully crisp but sunny morning. Rhiannon caught her breath as she descended from the coach. The castle walls of pearly gray stone gleamed in the brilliant light, and a crimson and black flag bearing a phoenix crest fluttered from the top of the battlements, indicating that the Duchess was in residence.
Inishglen was a huge, sprawling monstrosity of a building, with turreted towers, gargoyle rainspouts, Gothic arched windows bristling with carved ornaments, and an iron studded door that seemed wide enough to accommodate a chariot battalion. There was something ancient and brooding about Inishglen, a suggestion of burly shoulders hunkered down in anticipation, of bloody axes and screams in the night, of cackling fiends and rattling chains. Rhiannon pulled her paisley shawl closer and threaded her arm through Lina's.
She stared at the castle... and for a moment, she could have sworn that it stared back, and found her wanting.
The front door opened and the Duchess emerged, followed by a paunchy man with thinning brown hair whom Rhiannon assumed was the butler. ''My dearest Vangie, oh my precious pet!'' the Duchess trilled, skipping down the path to fling her arms around her much taller daughter. ''Welcome home, pet! Welcome home!''
Lina rolled her eyes, clearly embarrassed, and released Rhiannon to hug her mother. "I am glad that you invited us to stay. It has been a long time."
The Duchess was dark haired and green eyed, but there the resemblance ended. She was tiny and petite, giving the impression of an expensively delicate porcelain doll. Her wealth of jet-black locks was liberally sprinkled with gray around the temples and a few lines had settled around her eyes, but her bones were sharp as knives beneath the firm skin of her face. This was a woman who would go on being astonishingly beautiful even after she'd reached great old age.
"Mother, pray allow me to present to you Rhiannon Moore. My partner,
lover and soulmate. The woman I adore absolutely and utterly. My wife,
spouse, co-mate and helpmeet, the other half of my heart." Lina was burning
all her bridges at once, having a fairly good idea of how her mother would
react. She decided to add one more stick of dynamite to this provoking
statement. "We sleep in the same bed as well. Have you noticed our wedding
rings? I hope you have made arrangements to
If worse comes to worst, the coach is still here, she thought, waiting for the explosion of disapproval. There was more than one bone of contention between mother and daughter, but Lina's preference for the female sex was a subject that the Duchess preferred to pointedly ignore when she wasn't vilifying it at length. At least we have not unpacked yet.
The Duchess looked Rhiannon up and down, wrinkling her nose as if in thought. "How do you do, Miss... er, Moore, is it? Or shall I call you Mrs. St. Claire? How delightful to make your acquaintance at last." Her voice, while not exactly warm, was certainly several degrees away from frozen.
Lina almost fell over in astonishment. True, this was not exactly a welcome with open arms but! She wondered once more if her mother had gone mad. Or am I delusional myself?
Rhiannon rose valiantly to the occasion. "How do you do, Your Grace?" she said with a smile and a curtsey. "Please, call me by my Christian name, as it appears we are related."
If the proud Duchess was insulted by Rhiannon's presumption, she didn't show it, although her smile grew a trifle fixed. "Rhiannon... that is Welsh, is it not?" Without waiting for a reply, she came closer and offered her cheek, taking both of the girl's hands in her own.
The Duchess' palms were cool and dry; when Rhiannon politely pecked the proffered cheek, careful not to blot the sheen of pearl powder that overlaid the woman's skin, she noticed her perfume was strong, the heady odor of rose attar mixed with a strong musk that was nearly overpowering.
Dressed in soot-black crepe, the high bodice and full skirts glittering with jet beads and ebony fringe, a huge mourning ring weighing down the middle finger of her right hand, it was clear that Her Grace, the Duchess of Inishglen, Mary Caitlin Dinsmore, still grieved for her lost husband, dead these many years.
Perhaps that is why she wants to believe in spiritualism, Rhiannon thought compassionately. I know if that if Lina were gone... well, I would give anything to be close to her again, even if it was from beyond the grave.
The Duchess released Rhiannon and turned again to her daughter, the faint expression of distaste on her face fading into one of placid good will so quickly that Lina wondered if she'd imagined seeing it there at all. "Do come inside, Vangie dear, and bring this sweet child with you. It's so dreadfully cold today. I want to introduce you both to Madam Bahzanova, as she has agreed to join us for tea. A singular honor; Madam rarely indulges in such displays of material appetite, preferring to subsist on etheric vibrations. We should not keep her waiting."
Gathering up her billowing black skirts and bestowing faint smiles all around, the petite woman swept back up the path, leaving a surprised and puzzled Lina behind.
The butler opened the door for his mistress, summoned a pair of waiting footmen with a crook of his finger, and began supervising the removal of luggage from the carriage.
Lina's mouth closed with a click. She stalked over to the butler, taking each step as carefully as if she tread on a thin sheet of very brittle glass. "Grenville, has Her Grace been ill recently?" she asked, brows drawn together in worry. Rhiannon moved to her side and put an arm around her waist.
"No, my lady," Grenville replied. His face was deeply scored with lines and creases; bluish pouches beneath his eyes and the wobbling jowls that hung over his starched collar reinforced the sad impression of a basset hound. "Her Grace enjoys most excellent health. I have noticed a recent aversion to cold, necessitating fires in all the rooms despite clement weather. Perhaps a touch of moodiness. Nothing beyond what one might expect in a lady of a certain age."
"Can you tell me anything about this Madam Bahzanova? Mother is not exhibiting her usual behavior; in fact, I would venture to say that if I did not know better, I would swear the woman who greeted us is most emphatically not the one who gave me birth."
Grenville's melancholy expression took a downward turn. "I fear, my lady, that I am unable to assist you in this matter. Her Grace has not allowed the rest of the household any contact with the Madam since her arrival." His manner was respectful but stiff; Rhiannon sensed that Lina's questions were making him uncomfortable.
"What? Come now, Grenville... do you not remember the days when I would sneak into your pantry after lessons, to be regaled with weak tea, forbidden sweets and equally forbidden nuggets of belowstairs gossip? I thought we were friends, at least. Surely there is some mite of information you can offer," Lina said with a coaxing smile.
The butler swallowed, waved the footmen inside, and trained his gaze on the far horizon. He said formally, "My lady, I deeply regret that in the matter of Madam, I cannot assist you in the usual way." His emphasis of these words made Lina's eyes widen briefly. He went on, "If you and Miss Moore will follow me inside, I shall show you to your rooms. I am sure you wish to refresh yourselves after the long journey, and tea will be served promptly at four o'clock."
Rhiannon looked back towards Inishglen... and sucked in a shocked breath.
Standing in the doorway was the most grotesque creature she had ever
seen. It could not be human; Rhiannon's first thought was that it must
be some strange kind of ape. Less than four feet tall and distinctly crooked
in its posture, it was clad in an unusual costume that was strongly reminiscent
of the gilded Elizabethan age. Wide farthingale skirts of navy blue satin,
heavily frogged in pearl studded brocade and flashing gold knots, were
joined by a stiffly starched ruff of lace framing its simian
The creature held a long walking stick in its hand - ebony topped by a cloudy sphere and wound about with ribbons, the staff was a good two feet taller than the one who bore it - and when the apparition opened its wide slash of a mouth and piped in cut-crystal English, "Good day, mistresses," Rhiannon felt suddenly sick.
It seemed that Inishglen harbored demons after all.
"What the Devil is that?" Lina asked, leading Rhiannon towards the door.
Grenville stopped and gave the creature a small bow. "Allow me to present Madam's esteemed assistant, Her Highness the Royal Princess Annastasiia, widow of the Great Prince of Russia, Simeon Ivanovich." There was a trace of sarcasm in his voice but only someone who knew the butler well could have detected it. "Your Highness, may I present Lady Evangeline St. Claire, the Duchess' daughter, and her companion, Rhiannon Moore."
Rhiannon gaped at the hunchbacked dwarf. Well tutored in European history by her father, she recognized the names as belonging to 14th century Russian nobility. "Surely this can't be right! That would mean... oh!"
"It is my great pleasure to make the acquaintance of such vibrant beauties," Annastasiia said in impeccable English. Her mild brown eyes were nearly hidden beneath overhanging brow ridges, adding to the simian impression. "My benefactress, Madam Bahzanova, will also be greatly pleased."
Lina nudged Rhiannon. "What is it, my dear?"
"If you are really the widow of Simeon Ivanovich, that would make you over five hundred years old," Rhiannon said flatly to the so-called Princess, ignoring her partner's question. "That's impossible!"
"Ah, has it been so long?" Annastasiia patted a stray curl into place and gave Rhiannon a wide smile. "One does tend to lose track of the years. After one reaches the age of three hundred or so, months and days fly past too swiftly to keep track!"
Lina cleared her throat and looked down at the dwarf. She had had enough of this ridiculous posturing. "I beg your pardon for interrupting your inventive recitation, but my companion and I are quite weary from our long journey. Perhaps we can continue our conversation at another time." Snatching Rhiannon's hand, the taller woman led her into Inishglen, brushing aside the dwarf in the doorway with brusque care.
Annastasiia's coarse, unsuppressed sniggers followed them inside.
The foyer was overwhelmingly grand. Black and white marble floors in a checkered pattern dazzled the eye, leading it to the grand staircase that wound its way sinuously to the upper floors; a huge ormolu chandelier hung from the ceiling like an ornate spider, the curled arms dripping with crystal drops and swags of cut-glass chain. Portraits took up much of the wall space from ceiling to floor; the castle ancestors seemed to judge Rhiannon with jaundiced eyes and sour expressions.
Why is it that the people in family portraits always look so terribly bad tempered? Rhiannon thought. No one ever smiles or laughs; they all look like they've just eaten bad partridge and are about to execute the cook. It's enough to give the casual viewer a raging case of dyspepsia herself!
"I have taken the liberty of assigning you and Miss Moore to the Perdita Suite," Grenville said expansively. "I have also assigned my niece Flora to act as your ladies maid. I hope these arrangements meet with your approval."
Lina nodded. "That will do nicely. Please give our excuses to my mother; Rhiannon and I require a few hours to freshen up before we are presentable to company. I trust dinner is still served at nine o'clock?"
"Yes, my lady." The butler hesitated. "Her Grace is expecting you and Miss Moore to attend tea within the hour."
"I fear we must disappoint. Kindly have trays sent up to our rooms, Grenville. That will be all." Without another word, Lina led the way up the staircase to the fourth floor.
The Perdita Suite was decorated in quiet greens and creams with a minimum of floral fuss. A shared bath connected the two rooms - a bedroom and a sitting/dressing area, not the separate bedrooms Rhiannon had anticipated. It seemed her status as Lina's lover was being discreetly acknowledged, and she wasn't sure if that fact made her feel relieved or more apprehensive. The big tester bed, a massive walnut monstrosity, was draped with tapestries and required a set of steps to climb inside.
Rhiannon frowned. "When will you be sending for Fyvie?" she asked. "I'm sure she's very lonely on the Princess Bride with no one but the engineer to play with."
Instead of answering immediately, Lina snatched off her hat and sent it skimming across the bedroom. "I am still not sure if we should stay or leave immediately," she fumed. "I do not like this, my dear. I do not like this at all!"
"What's wrong, love?" Rhiannon removed her own straw bonnet, smoothed the ribbons and placed it on top of the dresser. "The Duchess hasn't exactly welcomed me as a daughter but the meeting didn't go as badly as we feared."
"And that is precisely one of the oddities about this business that makes
my skin crawl." Lina sat down on the chaise lounge and put up her feet.
She looked very weary all of a sudden, as if some burden she carried had
suddenly trebled in weight. "You do not know my mother. Thrusting our
intimate relationship beneath her nose should have caused a dignified
explosion and immediate dismissal. Is it possible that she has been drugged
into complacency? Perhaps I should send for Fyvie after all;
"You wouldn't dare!" Rhiannon exclaimed. "If Fyvie was poisoned, it would break my heart and you know it."
"A small jest, my dear. I assure you that I would rather swallow arsenic myself than allow any harm to come to that great shaggy beast you so adore." Lina gave her partner a small smile. "Well, I admit myself flummoxed for the moment. We shall stay and see what clues present themselves."
Rhiannon gave her partner a wink. "By the way, my wolfhound isn't the only beast I adore."
Lina's smile grew wider and more brilliant. "Perhaps you would consent to delaying the inevitable for an hour or so, my dear? I happen to know that the door locks are uncommonly strong, the walls thick, and the bathtub wide enough to accommodate a pair... providing they are very close indeed."
Rhiannon tapped a finger against her teeth. Her turquoise blue eyes sparkled with mischief and affection. "Hmmm... I'm not sure, love. Are you sure we're that close?"
"O dearest, sweetest, loveliest and most desirable of women," Lina replied, rapidly rising from the chaise lounge and sweeping a squealing Rhiannon off her feet. "I am quite positive."
Sometime later, Flora arrived to help the women unpack and prepare for dinner. She did not resemble her uncle Grenville in the slightest; the maid was blonde, her figure angular rather than curved, and her movements quick, almost bird-like.
She didn't speak much, even when pressed; Lina's questions about the Duchess, Madam Bahzanova and Annastasiia were met with monosyllabic answers that provided no useful information whatsoever. Finally, Lina dismissed the girl, realizing that she had been intimidated or frightened into silence.
"And that tells me a great deal, my dear," Lina said when Flora had safely gone. "It is one thing to gain a servant's discretion by bribery, and quite another when threat has clearly been applied. Yes, something is rotten in Inishglen, and I would wager my fortune that this blasted medium has much to do with it."
Rhiannon slotted a pair of sparkling sapphire earrings through her earlobes before replying, "That could very well be, love. On the other hand, perhaps Flora is naturally shy or in awe. After all, you are the Duchess' daughter. "
"Bah!" Lina shook out the skirts of her claret velvet gown and surveyed herself in a cheval mirror, tweaking the lacy cuffs that fell over her hands. "I tell you that woman passing herself off as a medium is a blatant fraud and she has some kind of hold on my mother and the servants. Or do you believe in the existence of five hundred-year old Russian princesses?"
"Of course not!" Rhiannon smoothed her hair; the red-gold locks were arranged in coils that were piled high on her head, with a few stray curls allowed to hang on either side of her face to soften the look. "That poor deformed woman is obviously demented."
"Or cunning as a fox." Lina walked over to her petite partner and began to button up the back of her peacock blue dress. "The supposed princess is a heavy-handed piece of stagecraft, my dear. A misdirection intended to draw attention away from Madam Bahzanova."
Her emerald eyes met Rhiannon's in the mirror. "We must be discreet," Lina cautioned. "This Madam must know that we are skeptical, even hostile, to her plans. Until we have uncovered all the facts, my dear, we should play our cards closely."
"Do you really think the danger is so terrible?" Rhiannon frowned, worried; her lover reached out to smooth the line between her brows with a finger.
"To my mother, certainly. To us... I do not know." Lina hugged Rhiannon and kissed the top of her head. "Be watchful and cautious. We are dealing with the unknown, my dear, and even I cannot predict the outcome."
Rhiannon felt a chill run down her spine, and she shivered in dreadful anticipation.
At dinner, an enormous bristling floral display obscured Rhiannon's view of her partner and made all conversation with Lina impossible. Princess Annastasiia was placed next to Lina, directly opposite Rhiannon, and all too visible across the expanse of tablecloth.
The hunchbacked dwarf was perched on a number of piled-up cushions; her legs kicked and dangled like a child's in a highchair. The Princess was dressed in another fantastic costume, still Elizabethan in style with ruff, puffed sleeves and wide pannier skirts, but the material used was black bombazine, which absorbed light rather than reflected it. She had also donned a hideously false, tightly curled red wig that was slipping over to on one side and looked in danger of tumbling into her plate any moment.
Good Lord! It looks as if our Princess has a dead poodle perched on her head! Rhiannon thought, strangling a chuckle when Annastasiia flashed her a gimlet-eyed glare.
The table was elaborately set, a feast of glittering crystal, shining silver, china, blazing candelabras and what seemed to be a veritable acre of pristine white cloth. White-wigged footmen in formal livery stood at attention around the walls, their knee breeches, stockings and red velvet coats lending an aristocratic air to the proceedings. When the first course of soup was served, Rhiannon cleared her throat and attempted some light conversation with her sole neighbor, the Duchess.
"Lina has told me that there are castle ruins near Inishglen. That must be fascinating."
The Duchess nodded to Grenville to pour the wine before replying. "It was called Inishowen. There are a few books in the library detailing the history of the place, although no doubt my daughter can supply you with all the information you might require." Her tone was neutral and she kept her eyes focused on her plate.
This was the most polite rebuff Rhiannon had ever received and she took the hint, allowing the fish and game courses to be completed before trying again. "Please forgive my curiosity, Your Grace, but how long have you been Madam Bahzanova's patron?"
A flicker of fear crossed the woman's face... or was it a trick of candlelight? Recovering in an instant, the Duchess smiled beatifically. "My dear Miss Moore, I am not the Madam's patron." Her voice was pitched to carry. "Indeed, the Madam has graciously consented to be my guide to the etheric regions. I am but her humble student, her privileged servant."
The footmen had finished spooning vinaigrette beans and chicken mayonnaise onto their plates before Rhiannon replied. It was obvious that Her Grace had meant her earlier words to be overheard by Annastasiia. In response, Rhiannon raised her voice as well. "I understand that the Madam has been successful in contacting the spirit of your late husband?"
"Oh, yes!" The Duchess suddenly became quite animated, making a broad gesture that nearly knocked over her wineglass. Her calm facade slipped entirely and her green eyes glittered with manic intensity. "The Madam has been most generous in sharing her gifts with me! Her wisdom is ineffable, I assure you. Perhaps the Madam will graciously consent to allowing you and Evie to attend the seance this evening...?"
She glanced nervously at Annastasiia, as if seeking consent. Rhiannon thought the Duchess' behavior was more than a little odd. She acts like someone who's been rigidly controlling herself for ages, but now the facade is beginning to crack under the strain. From what Lina's told me, her mother doesn't seem the frail type to dissolve into hysterics at the drop of a hat. I don't like this at all.
Annastasiia nodded once, the horrible red wig slipping another notch, and began to shovel food into her mouth with little decorum.
The Duchess smiled brilliantly but her hands were shaking so hard she nearly dropped her knife. She had touched very little of her dinner. "It really is too bad that you were unable to meet Madam this afternoon. She was quite disappointed. I have been boasting of my bluestocking daughter and her pretty companion for simply ages."
"I am sorry we weren't able to attend tea. Our journey was so exhausting and I'm afraid we weren't at all fit company."
"Well, no matter. It isn't as if I'll be put on the rack for Evie's failure, will I?" The Duchess laughed, a brittle giggle that threatened to spiral out of control. Annastasiia gave the woman a sharp look and the laughter ended with shocking abruptness.
Rhiannon frankly stared, her fork poised before her mouth.
After dabbing her temples with a napkin, the Duchess continued with forced conviviality, "I believe you and Evie will thoroughly enjoy the seance tonight. I have taken a great deal of comfort in knowing my poor, late husband is happy and content with the angels in Paradise. The enlightening messages he conveys to me from beyond have lifted my burden considerably. How wonderful it would be if the Madam was able to give you the same joy, Miss Moore."
Out of the corner of her eye, Rhiannon observed the Princess was paying particular attention to her conversation with Lina's mother. She replied, "I'm sure you know that my mother has been dead for years. I miss her dreadfully."
"Of course you do. Perhaps the Madam can contact her for you." The Duchess' gaze slewed around to Annastasiia and again the simian creature nodded. "Do tell me about your late mother, Miss Moore, if you think it would not distress you unduly. I find myself very curious about your antecedents."
Rhiannon knew precisely what these tactics were meant to accomplish. The Duchess wasn't the least bit interested in her background. She was acting under orders. Whatever details were revealed would undoubtedly appear in the seance as a way of making the manifestations seem genuine - a common tactic used by unscrupulous frauds, or so she'd learned from Lina. Accordingly, she decided to use this opportunity to her advantage and set a trap for the spiritualist who seemed to have a powerful hold on Inishglen and its occupants.
"Mother was tall and very beautiful. She passed away when I was very young - one of those terrible influenza epidemics - and I don't remember very much about her except that she was kind and always smelled of lavender." Rhiannon spun this tissue of lies with deliberate vagueness. "She wore white a great deal and was fond of flowers, particularly lilies."
Actually, her mother had been small, petite and fine boned, adored the color blue, and vastly preferred roses to lilies.
The Duchess patted her hand. "Your mother sounds like a very lovely woman. I am truly sorry for your loss." She paused and added, "Where does your father live, Miss Moore?" One of her hands strayed to her arm. She scratched absently, nails digging through the black satin sleeve.
"He died in another epidemic about five years ago." This was a lie as well. Rhiannon's father, a private tutor, had committed suicide following his beloved wife's death.
"Oh, you poor girl! How tragic, to lose both parents in such melancholy circumstances!" Suddenly noticing that she was scratching, the Duchess stopped. Despite the soft candlelight, she suddenly appeared old and very tired.
"Yes," Rhiannon answered, pitying the woman. "I am an only child and have no brothers or sisters to comfort me. Lina is my family now."
"Well, my poor dear child, I have such hopes that the Madam may be able to contact your loved ones on the other side." The Duchess gestured, a genteel napkin flutter that brought a footman scurrying to her side to pull out her chair. "Now we shall withdraw to the drawing room for coffee and dessert. You will find the Princess' tales of court life in medieval Russia quite a fascinating after-dinner entertainment, Miss Moore, I assure you. Afterwards, we will retire for an hour to refresh ourselves before the seance begins."
Rhiannon rose hastily and caught Lina's eye, giving her a private look that meant, we need to talk.
Her raven-haired partner nodded in silent reply.
After the necessary business of society in the drawing room - an interminable affair, punctuated by the Princess spinning blatant lies about court life in medieval Russia, with particular emphasis placed on her fictional romantic affairs - Rhiannon was at last released to seek solitude upstairs. She dared not say a word to Lina until they were in private.
Grenville was waiting at the staircase with a lit candelabra. It was late evening, just past eleven o'clock, and a shadowy gloom had settled over the castle. Fat candles speared on iron stands were scattered around the hallway, barely puncturing the velvety shadows that smothered Inishglen like a blanket. The butler's deeply creased face and loose jowls were lit from below, giving him an eerie appearance.
"My lady," he said to Lina with a nod, "you and your companion are expected in the the Gray Lady's sitting room in forty-five minutes. Shall I have one of the maids summon you at the appropriate time?"
"No, thank you," Lina said, taking the candelabra. "The Gray Lady's room, did you say? How peculiar. I thought that part of the castle was closed off after great-grandmother's death."
"Her Grace has reopened that wing, my lady," Grenville said stoically, "although Madam Bahzanova's renovations were confined solely to the sitting room in question... which is kept locked. Madam has the only key."
"I see." Lina put her free hand on her hip and stared at the butler with a speculative gleam in her eyes. She turned to go up the stairs, stopped, and asked casually over her shoulder, "Was there much structural work involved? Walls, ceilings, that sort of thing? Or was the Madam's work confined solely to furnishings and the like? I seem to recall that the west wing was in rather a state of disrepair."
"I cannot say, my lady." He stared straight ahead, unblinking. "The laborers were not locals. I believe they were Italian. The servants, particularly the gardeners, were not allowed near that part of the castle while work was being done. It was understood that the business at hand was intended as a surprise for Her Grace the Duchess."
Lina shrugged and smiled. "I suppose my curiosity will be rewarded shortly. Tell me, old friend... has the Gray Lady herself given the sign of approval?"
Despite the definite chill in the air, a bead of sweat dripped off the end of Grenville's nose. "I cannot say, my lady. Servant's gossip, coming from the overwrought imaginations of the lower classes - the boot boy and parlormaid in particular - can never be rewarded by attention from a sensible man."
"True, true. Well, we have dawdled long enough. Come along, my dear... let us not keep Mother and the Madam waiting." Lina led the way up the stairs, holding the candelabra high.
Once safely in their rooms with the door shut and locked, Lina began pulling off her evening gown, heedless of damage to the claret velvet. "Grenville is so clever, I am fit to burst with pride. In such an innocent conversation, he has managed to give me a wealth of information!"
Rhiannon wriggled out of her own dress, laying it carefully over the back of the chair to avoid the garment being crushed, and swiftly pulled on a loose gown of cream and aqua striped silk. "I have news as well, love," she said, buttoning the wide, upturned cuffs. "Do you want to tell first or shall I?"
"By all means, my dear, unburden yourself this instant." Clad only in petticoats and camisole, Lina leaned against the dresser and lit a cigarette, blowing a cloud of swirling smoke in the direction of the window. "I was able to overhear some portion of your conversation with my mother, as the Princess rarely stopped chewing long enough to grunt in acknowledgment of my overtures. I never knew you were such a skillful liar!"
Rhiannon blushed. "The Duchess was pumping me for details. I didn't think it wise to tell her the truth."
"Quite right, my dear! An excellent test for our so-called medium."
"Did you notice that Annastasiia was practically controlling Her Grace at dinner? Lina, your mother is terrified of that creature!"
"I think not. Rather, Mother is frightened of the puppet master behind the Princess. I refer to Madam Bahzanova, of course." She crushed out her cigarette in a porcelain dish and took a lavender gown from the wardrobe. Made in the unstructured aesthetic style of Liberty's silk, it featured a round lace collar, swags of ribbon trim on the full skirts, and most convenient of all - deep side pockets.
As she pulled on the loosely fitting dress, Lina continued, "Do you remember what I have told you of the art of stage illusion, my dear? The trickeries practiced in the name of legerdemain?"
Rhiannon put her jewels away in a leather box. "Magicians rely on misdirection to fool the audience into believing the impossible by directing their gaze away from the true business at hand. "
"Precisely. Keep that in mind and act accordingly, but with utmost discretion." Lina took a small key from the dresser drawer, pulled a squat steel container from underneath the bed, and opened it, withdrawing a small revolver.
"Oh! Do you really think that's necessary?" Rhiannon slipped a pair of comfortable slippers on her feet and made a face. "Are you planning on turning the seance into a wild west show?"
"Merely a precaution, in case matters take a turn for the worst." Lina loaded the revolver with five bullets and slid it into her pocket. "Now, before we attend the gathering below..."
"Yes, please. You were saying something about the butler passing you information?"
"Grenville is a true gem, my dear. Based on his discreet comments, I believe the sitting room in question has been altered to allow someone to assist the Madam in perpetrating her illusions whilst remaining virtually invisible. False walls or ceiling, sliding panels, secret passages, I know not what, all contrived by Italian workers imported for the purpose." Lina leaned her hip against the dresser and continued with a faraway look in her emerald eyes.
"The west wing of Inishglen has long been believed to be haunted by the spirit of an unfortunate bride from the time of Charles II. Her name was Marguerite; the legend tells us that she was very young, barely budded, and quite beautiful. On her wedding day, she disappeared during a game of hide-and-seek, and was never seen again. Foul play being suspected but never proved, the erstwhile bridegroom waited for an appropriate period before re-marrying. Marguerite's ghost, known as the Gray Lady, began appearing several months later, most often in the sitting room of the west wing, weeping and apparently lost."
Rhiannon shivered, the small hairs on the back of her neck struggling to rise. "How horrible!" she exclaimed. "Does anyone know what happened to poor Marguerite?"
"I fear not." Lina smiled faintly. "Speculation ran riot and a stablehand, William Journey, was suspected of terrible deeds but nothing came of it. At any rate, great-grandmother - who suffered from a nervous disposition - made it a condition of her will that the west wing be rendered inaccessible."
"So the Madam somehow persuaded your mother to allow her to make changes to the room. That's incredible! Surely Her Grace had to have been the least bit suspicious!"
"My mother is a strong willed woman. Whatever hold Bahzanova has over her, it must be cursed strong!. Since the workers presumably spoke no English and had no local ties, their business has been kept secret for what can only be a dastardly purpose. I do not like this, my dear... I do not like it at all!"
Rhiannon narrowed her eyes in thought. "What was it that Grenville said about the Gray Lady?"
"He has as much admitted that two of the servants have seen her. Which makes me wonder..."
"You think Marguerite's spirit disapproves and is making herself known?"
Lina shook her head. "I must wonder if this phenomena is phantom or flesh. There can be more than other explanations for a haunting than supernatural means."
"Madam's helper, you mean!"
"Precisely, my dear. What better way to ensure anonymity and little risk of discovery than to impersonate a well-known spirit? Servants would flee from the merest whisper of your dusty draperies. It would not be the first time that an unscrupulous person has used superstition and fear to their advantage."
"Hurry and put your slippers on, love. It's nearly midnight." Rhiannon grabbed a fringed shawl and wrapped it around her shoulders. "What should I do if I spot any false play?"
"Say nothing. Be discreet. Stay watchful and alert, but do not reveal our hand." Lina shoved her feet into crewel-worked house slippers and patted her pocket, feeling the reassuring weight of the revolver. "I do not want to risk a confrontation with the medium just yet, not until we have ascertained all the facts in the case."
"And your mother? What about her? She's absolutely terrified and it's beginning to show. She was nearly hysterical at dinner, poor woman."
Lina sighed. "I believe that when we have exposed Bahzanova and company, Mother will revert to her usual self. Expect glowing coals of ingratitude and disdain to be heaped upon our heads when this affair is concluded. Expect scanty thanks and studied insults. The Duchess is the most prideful, spiteful and selfish woman on earth. It will not take her long to get over her fright and begin to spout acid instead of honey. Despite the fine trappings, my mother is a true bitch at heart."
"That's awful! How can you say that?!" Rhiannon was shocked.
"I can say these things because I am her daughter, my dear," Lina replied mournfully. "I am her daughter."
The west wing was comprised of a long hallway, leaded windows on one side, closed doors on the other. Bronze sconces in the shape of eagle claws were fixed to the walls; candles burned fitfully, flames guttering in the constant breeze that whistled through cracks in the plaster and brick.
Rhiannon clutched her shawl and followed the Duchess, taking heart from Lina's solid presence directly behind. Their soft shoes made scarcely a sound on the black and white marble tiles. A few scattered paintings of long dead ancestors stared down from gilt frames that were slowly turning to dust; she suppressed a shudder and walked a little faster to avoid their scornful stares.
The Gray Lady room was located at the extreme end of the hallway. Coming inside, Rhiannon was immediately struck by the lavishness of the decor, bordering almost on the absurd. The walls were not painted or papered but hung with masses of rich red velvet that puddled on the floor like congealed blood. Antique Persian and Turkish carpets lay thickly underfoot, muffling all sound. The coffered ceiling, framed in dark timbers, was painted a flat dark blue that made it seem much lower; each inset square was decorated with vaguely occult signs and pentagrams.
The few items of furniture - chairs, candle stands, a small table shoved to one side of the room - were so thickly gilded as to appear solid gold. Against a wall stood a tall, mahogany box that resembled a confessional; it was covered with carvings of leering satyrs, prancing nymphs, grimacing demons and other gruesome figure, some picked out in silver, copper or glass beads. A twisted silver stand held a huge clear quartz ball, the size of a child's head. A rectangular table in the center of the room was nearly hidden beneath a long fringed cloth of Bohemian embroidery and lace.
Rhiannon had the impression of being trapped in a candy box, smothered in riches, suffocating under a great, gilded weight of extravagance.
At one end of the rectangular table sat an extraordinary figure. This must be Madam Bahzanova, Rhiannon thought, studying the medium from beneath her lashes.
The woman was huddled in a Bath chair, muffled in so many layers of shawls, from cheap woolens to expensive China silks, that she resembled an untidy heap of laundry. Blue spectacles covered her eyes; one side of her face was marred by a large port wine stain that spread over cheek, brow and chin. A hairy mole was nestled against her nose; her teeth were yellow as butter, spaced widely apart, and seemed far too large for her mouth. Her hair, a muddy shade of brown and patently false, was pulled to the back of her neck and the heavy bun skewered by a jeweled hairpin.
Much to her embarrassment, Rhiannon couldn't tear her gaze away from the dark stain that disfigured the medium's face.
Lina marched up to Bahzanova and stared down at her. "How do you do?" she asked coolly. "I am Lady Evangeline St. Claire. No doubt you have heard of me."
"Good evening," the woman said, tilting her face up and smiling beatifically. "Yes, your mother and I have talked about you many times." She spoke with a thick Russian accent, sounding as if she was gargling a mouthful of potatoes. "It is good you have come. I am pleased."
The Duchess hurried over. "My dear Madam," she said humbly, bending her knee in a deep curtsey that made Lina's lip curl. "You know my daughter is an unbeliever. I hope this will not disturb the vibrations tonight..."
"Bah!" Bahzanova slashed a hand through the air. "Only the weak need fear an unbeliever. My power is strong enough to overcome." She glanced around and spotted Rhiannon. "Ah, come closer, child! Do not fear! The dead are all around us. Your dear mother and father, they are here as well. We shall open the way for them, yes?"
Princess Annastasiia stepped out of the carved confessional box. She had changed her dinner costume for a loose satin robe of shining black, belted with a scarlet cord. A stiff lace ruff framed her simian face. "It is time, mistress," she intoned theatrically. "The midnight bell doth toll."
The Duchess rose from her curtsey. "Shall we take our places, dear Madam?" Her face was pale and although the room was cool, even chilly, her cheeks and brow shone with sweat. She shivered nonetheless, and canted an arm behind her back to scratch.
"Da." Bahzanova looked up at Lina again. "And you, little one... what do you seek?"
Lina's face was expressionless. "The truth," she replied bluntly.
"Oh, pet, you really must keep an open mind," the Duchess said with a worried frown. "Please forgive my Vangie, dear Madam. She is so stubborn, so set in her little ways..."
"An open mind is a good thing," Bahzanova said, tilting her head to one side and making a show of examining Lina's tall frame minutely. "Remember, many scientific processes, well-understood today, were once thought to be a product of demonic interference. Alchemists were considered sorcerers and burned at the stake."
"So were witches."
"Vangie!" The Duchess was clearly horrified. She stopped scratching and continued, "Please, Madam, I beg your forgiveness on behalf of my daughter. If I had known she would be so insulting..."
Bahzanova laughed, a surprisingly deep and resonant sound. "Ah, gracious lady, perhaps we will give your stubborn child a glimpse of God's work this night, yes? Even a closed mind may be opened if the merciful Father wills it. Now, all will take their places, thus and thus, and so we shall begin."
The seating arrangement positioned Rhiannon and Lina on opposite sides of the table, with the medium on one end, her dwarf assistant and the Duchess sitting side by side on the other. Everyone was instructed to lay their hands on top of the cloth, palms down, fingers spread apart but not touching. A single candle in a jade dish burned in the exact center of the table, adding a small spark to the mellow golden light that filled the room but failed to pierce the shadows that lurked in every corner.
"Now it begins," Bahzanova hissed through her teeth, throwing her head back with a groan.
Rhiannon felt simultaneously chilled and excited. She looked across the table at Lina, who winked in response.
Then the other candles in the room blew out one by one, as though extinguished by an invisible breath, and the seance had truly begun.
The room was almost completely enveloped in darkness; only a lone candle on the tabletop shed any light at all, and that was concentrated in a small circle centered around the sitters' themselves. It did not penetrate farther. Rhiannon's nerves were wire taut, almost buzzing, as she literally sat on the edge of her seat and waited for what was to come.
The medium was moaning, tossing her head back and forth, gabbling incomprehensibly in the throes of what appeared to be a violent trance. Once, when Bahzanova paused to suck in a deep, indrawn breath, Rhiannon thought she heard a faint scraping noise, just on the edge of perception, coming from overhead. At the same time, the table jerked upwards, rearing like an unschooled pony, startling her and breaking her concentration.
Rhiannon glanced through her lashes; both Madam and Princess Annastasiia had their hands clearly visible on the lacy cloth, palms down, fingers spread apart. They could not be causing the table to bump up and down - or so it seemed.
Remembering the stealthy, scraping noise she had heard before, Rhiannon sneaked a quick look at the ceiling. Although entirely swathed in impenetrable blackness, was there a perfectly square section that seemed lighter somehow, as though the tiniest shred of grayish light was peering through? She was not able to continue her observation uninterrupted, however. The table suddenly shot upwards, rising so far that her arms were stretched above her head, although the long cloth kept her from seeing underneath, and just as quickly fetched back down again with a thump that made her hands tingle.
Bahzanova gasped and shook. "Give us a sign!" she called in her accented English. "I know you are here, travelers from beyond the veil! Yes, yes... show yourselves and give us a sign!"
A trumpet, glowing with an unearthly greenish light, appeared overhead and began whirling around and around in a dizzying pattern, although it never dipped beyond the darkness above the table. A second luminous instrument appeared - a violin - and then a madly jingling tambourine swooped and twirled energetically.
A serious of knocks sounded loudly; Rhiannon could feel the vibrations through the table and took her eyes away from the flying instruments for a second. When she lifted her gaze once more, they had vanished as quickly as they had appeared. More strong raps reverberated and the medium cried, "Who is here? Who has braved the journey to our physical plane?"
The strawberry blonde nearly jumped out of her skin when a woman's voice replied softly, calling her name, "Rhiannon, Rhiannon, Rhiannon..."
The triumphant expression on Bahzanova's face was unmistakable. "Is that the mother of this dear child? Is this the loved one who passed over many years ago?"
An almost overpowering, sickly sweet scent of lilies bloomed in the air, making Rhiannon feel slightly queasy. The strange, whispery voice, very hollow as if the owner was speaking from the bottom of a well, sounded again. "Yes." It seemed to come from everywhere at once. "Oh, yes. My darling baby girl. I have missed you so. Do you remember your mother, dearest? Do you remember me?"
Rhiannon's mouth was so dry she had to swallow several times before she could answer. She knew it had to be a trick - the stench of lilies was very revealing - but for one second, she found herself desperately wanting to believe. "Yes," she replied softly, then more loudly, "Yes, mother. I am here. I remember you."
Lina nodded at her imperceptibly, trying to give encouragement and support.
A tinkling melody began to play, a common lullaby sounding as if it were being played on crystal chimes. The woman's voice continued, "I am very happy here, dearest, very happy with the angels. I am at peace."
Despite her suspicion that she was being manipulated in the most heartless manner possible, Rhiannon felt tears well up and she struggled to control her emotions. "I miss you, mother. I miss you so much."
"Do not mourn me, darling. Do not grieve. I will always be with you. Always..." The voice faded, as did the melody, and the Madam Bahzanova sighed.
"Annastasiia, take me to the spirit cabinet," the medium commanded. "It is very dangerous to cross the veil, but I will attempt an etheric manifestation."
The dwarf Princess slid out of her seat, went to Bahzanova and grasped the handles of the Bath chair. "For the sake of the Madam's sanity and health, do not attempt to touch or interfere with the entity in any way. Such rashness can have dire consequences. Do not leave the safety of the circle for any reason at all," she commanded.
Rhiannon asked, "Is it so very dangerous?"
"Yes, Miss Moore," the Duchess answered in a slow, dull voice. "The Earl of Kinslainne's wife, Jessica, had a most distressing accident when she attempted to snatch the spirit of her departed boy, Edward. She was overwrought and I fear the incident proved too much for her to bear. Her heart failed at this very table."
"Indeed, Mother," Lina said casually. "When did this terrible accident occur?"
"Only a fortnight ago." The Duchess watched the medium being wheeled into the spirit cabinet and added quietly, "It is indeed fortunate that other friends whom I have urged to participate in Madam's activities have not endangered themselves that way."
"Dare I assume that your intimates have been suitably impressed by the Madam's powers?"
"Oh, yes. Lord Hugh Fitzgerald, Lady Dorcester, Baroness DeLisle... even the Marquis of Ramsbrook has been exceptionally generous in his praise."
Rhiannon listened to this inter-play between mother and daughter curiously. There was an underlying meaning to the seemingly unimportant exchange. She assumed that all the personages named by the Duchess had also attended seances, probably in this very room. But how did Bahzanova benefit from her game?
As Annastasiia drew a curtain across the front of the cabinet and rejoined them at the table, Lina whispered, "How generous, Mother?"
The Duchess choked out, "Five thousand pounds," and covered her reply with a coughing fit. Annastasiia clambered back into her chair and helpfully pounded the woman on her back until the Duchess waved a handkerchief, catching her breath with a sob.
Rhiannon's eyebrows shot to her hairline. Five thousand pounds? A pretty fortune by anyone's standards!
As soon as the coughing fit had ceased, Annastasiia wrinkled her simian face and said, "I remind you all again - do not attempt physical contact with the etheric manifestation when it appears. Remain in your seats at all times. No matter what you see or hear, no matter how distressed you may become, do not disturb Madam in any way. Her life depends upon your obedience."
She closed her eyes and started to sing a hymn very softly. The Duchess took her hand, motioning for the other two to follow suit. Lina clasped her partner's fingers, squeezing slightly. Rhiannon was startled when the tinkling, crystalline melody she had heard before began to play, the notes apparently drifting in from nowhere. Suddenly, the candle blew out, leaving them in total darkness.
Annastasiia cried, "The spirit comes! I feel it! Prepare yourself for wonders!"
A tall, thin figure exited the cabinet, swathed in a blur of luminous draperies from head to toe. It was impossible to tell if it was male or female. Rhiannon jumped, gasping, and felt Lina squeeze her fingers even harder.
"Who are you?" Lina asked loudly.
"In life, I was Sir Edward Leigh, Duke of Inishglen. Your father," the spirit answered in a hollow voice. There was a distinct smell of pipe smoke that grew stronger. "I dwell in Heaven now, surrounded by angelic beings and light. Oh, my poor doubting daughter... will you not now believe?"
"Father..." Lina sounded dubious. "How do I know you speak the truth?"
"Do you remember when you were six years old, and broke your arm falling from an apple tree? I was there, my darling. I read your favorite stories. I brought you jellies and cakes. I soothed your fevered brow. Do you not know me?"
The Duchess let out a strangled sob, quickly silenced.
"Yes, I remember the injury," Lina replied.
Rhiannon gritted her teeth and clutched her partner's hand convulsively. A warm breath blew on the side of her face. Rhiannon turned in that direction but could see nothing in the darkness.
The dully glowing spirit came a few steps closer. Its face was difficult to make out behind layered veils. "Your first pony was named Lancelot. I bought it for you when you were five. Such a sweet little creature. You loved him dearly."
Lina let out a trembling sigh. "I do not believe that souls can return from the dead." Her tone was wavering, uncertain. "This is pure poppycock. I will not stand for it anymore."
"Do you trust your own eyes?" Sir Edward's ghost turned and opened the door of the cabinet. A candle stub flickered within. By this feeble light, everyone could see the form of Madam Bahzanova, slumped in her Bath chair. He closed the door, plunging the room back into darkness. "Do you now believe, daughter?"
Rhiannon blinked, momentarily dazzled. She had glimpsed the medium, but had also taken the opportunity to flash a glance at the other occupants around the table. Her immediate impression was that Lina appeared to be under a hideous strain. The Duchess looked frightened. And Annastasiia... well, an obscene kind of gloating is the way I'd describe her expression.
"I must depart now, but I urge you to listen to Madam Bahzanova. She has only your best interests at heart." Sir Edward became stern. "Mary Caitlin," he said to the Duchess, "you also must trust in the Madam and continue your generosity towards her. She will take good care of you, my darling wife."
"Yes, Edward," the Duchess answered thinly.
With a dramatic flourish, the spirit withdrew back into the cabinet. The eerie music stopped. Rhiannon waited in the darkness for what seemed an eternity before a lucifer match scratched, and Annastasiia re-lit the candle on the table. "I must see to Madam," she said, dropping down out of her chair. After a few moments, she wheeled Madam Bahzanova out of the cabinet.
The medium appeared a bit disoriented. "Was the manifestation successful?" she asked.
"It was," Annastasiia replied. "Sir Edward Leigh appeared, although Lady Evangeline is reluctant to admit the fact."
Madam Bahzanova focused her eyes on Lina. A shaft of light fell across her face, illuminating the grotesque port wine stain and throwing the rest of her features into shadow. "You see, yet you do not believe!" A hand covered in a knit glove banged the armrest of her chair. "Foolish girl! The spirits do not have infinite patience. You put yourself at risk. Nay, you put your own life and the life of your companion in the most terrible danger!"
"I do not respond kindly to threats." Lina rose slowly, until she towered above the chair-bound medium.
"You mistake me, my child. I have only the utmost concern for your welfare. It is well known that angry spirits can wreck great havoc."
Lina snorted. "Are you suggesting my own father would do me harm?"
"Not at all. However, when one opens a door, who knows what uninvited guests may come inside?"
The two glared at each other, Lina's jaw was thrust out stubbornly. Finally, Rhiannon broke the tension. "I'm feeling a little unwell," she said, pressing a hand to her forehead. This was not far from the truth. "If we might be excused, I'd like to lay down."
"I shall order you a brandy," the Duchess said hastily, also rising in a rustling of ebony satin. "Vangie, do take poor Miss Moore to her room. It has been a trying evening for all of us." She was trembling; spasms rippled up and down her frame. Sweat stood out on her brow. "I will attend to Madam Bahzanova."
Lina broke off her confrontation with the medium, turning first to Rhiannon, then to her mother. "Are you well?" she asked
"There is nothing wrong with Her Grace that a nice rest won't cure," Annastasiia said, before the Duchess could answer. "I suggest we all retire for the evening. Good night, my lady. Pleasant dreams, Miss Moore."
The unpleasant way the dwarvish woman said 'pleasant dreams' made Rhiannon shiver slightly.
"Very well, mother. If you are certain that you do not need..." Lina began, but the Duchess interrupted her.
"For God's sake, Vangie!" she cried, pressing both hands to her abdomen and covering a wince. At her daughter's astonished stare, she added more softly, "I'm fine. I apologize for shouting. My nerves are a trifle overwrought." She essayed an artificial smile. "Good night, darlings."
Lina opened her mouth, closed it, and offered an arm to Rhiannon. "Good night, ladies."
She escorted her partner out of the room. It was not until they were away from the west wing, up the staircase, and in the Perdita bedchamber that the peer spoke again. "How did you find the seance, my dear?"
"Unnerving." Rhiannon began tearing off her gown. "Horrible. I feel as if I need a bath to get clean. Or perhaps a good cry." She stopped what she was doing. "I knew it was a fraud, but still..."
"I know." Lina enveloped the smaller woman in an embrace. There was a long silence before she continued, "Rational thought and logic aside, all of us want to believe, even if we never admit it. When a loved one dies, it leaves a hole in our hearts that can never be filled again. Madam Bahzanova preys on that vulnerability."
Rhiannon pressed her face into Lina's bosom. "I miss my mother," she said in a very small voice.
"I miss my father, dearest. Although when he was alive, he was infinitely more concerned with politics and social reform than his children." She kissed the top of her lover's head and held her closer. "Somehow, I doubt even death could alter his obsession. I imagine him in Heaven, giving speeches to St. Peter and the assembled saints, deploring conditions in Purgatory."
"I saw something..." Rhiannon wanted to change the subject. She described the ceiling in the seance room, and how she'd felt there was an opening there. "I can't be entirely certain what I witnessed, but it seemed that way to me."
"Remember the alterations that must have been made," Lina mused. "Manipulation of objects via a telescoping rod, used by a secret accomplice. A common trick, an illusion meant to convince us that spiritual power can make musical instruments fly."
"The table tilting? Both Madam Bahzanova and Princess Annastasiia had their hands in plain sight."
"But not their feet. Nor, I would imagine, the flat pieces of wood or metal they had up their sleeves." Lina released her partner, picking up a shoehorn. "A little short, but it will do for the purposes of demonstration." She thrust the short end of the horn up her sleeve, and laid her hands on a nearby table. The projecting bit shoehorn was wedged underneath the edge. When she raised her arms, the table followed, albeit a bit wobbly. "Simple enough if there are two working in concert. I did not fail to notice how the seance table was covered in an oversized cloth for further concealment."
"And that eerie music... a musical box played by an accomplice." Rhiannon reached for a silk robe and put it on, cinching the belt around her waist. "But what about the breath I felt? I'd swear there was no one near me."
"Hmph." Lina's black brows knitted together in a frown. "Obviously our accomplice."
"Who was also playing the part of your father's ghost at the time. We both saw Madam Bahzanova in her chair, sitting in the spirit cabinet."
"Did we?" Lina's cryptic comment was interrupted by a knock on the door. She opened it, allowing Grenville to enter. The butler was carrying a tray.
"Your brandy, Miss Moore. And I took the liberty of bringing a second for your ladyship." His normally haggard features seemed more woeful than ever. He put the tray down on a console table, hesitating.
Lina came to his side, using the crystal gasogene he had brought to add a splash of soda water to her glass. "What is it, man?"
"Your mother called me into the west wing, my lady." He looked at Lina, a haunted expression in his eyes. "She is... unwell."
"Should we call a doctor?" Rhiannon asked, joining them.
"I do not think that would be prudent, Miss Moore. Her Grace has specifically forbidden physicians." He squared his shoulders. "I apologize for the intrusion, as well as the impertinence, my lady. I should not have spoken out of turn. With your permission, I shall bid you both good-night."
Lina glanced at him keenly, but the man stared back calmly, having clearly decided to say no more. ""Very well, Grenville," she said. "Good-night."
The butler left, closing the door gently behind him.
"He looks like he's seen a ghost," Rhiannon commented.
Lina took a sip of her brandy-and-soda. "Perhaps he has, my dear. Perhaps
The next morning, Rhiannon and Lina went down for breakfast around nine o'clock. They were both surprised to find the sideboard bare. There was no sign of servants. The house was too quiet, almost as if it had been deserted.
"Let us repair to the kitchen, my dear," Lina said. "Something is afoot."
The partners found Cook sitting at the kitchen table, drinking sherry straight from the bottle. When she saw Lina, the plump woman said sadly, "It's Mr. Grenville, my lady. The boot boy come across 'im this morning, cold as a herring in his pantry. Apoplexy, Dr. Whitstable says. Well, I know what I seen last night. 'Twas the Gray Lady that took 'im."
"Oh, the poor man," Rhiannon said, putting a sympathetic arm around her partner's waist. My poor darling, she thought. This must be a terrible shock.
"Did you see the Gray Lady yesterday evening?" Lina asked with an odd intensity. She did not appear to be saddened by the news, but angered. "At what time? Where?"
Cook took another swig from the sherry bottle. "I've given my notice," she said, ignoring the peer's questions. "I won't work in an haunted 'ouse. Her Grace has taken to 'er bed and left the two of them in charge. Hah! I won't be ordered about by foreign trash, either. I'm well out of it."
The grinding of Lina's teeth was audible. Shaking off Rhiannon, she grabbed Cook by her meaty arm. "Damn your notice!" she cried. A vein throbbed in her forehead, and her cheeks were flushed. Her emerald eyes flashed fire. "Answer me, or by God, I will wring it out of you!"
"In the kitchen last night," the terrified woman said, dropping the sherry bottle. It shattered on the flagstone floor. The pungent aroma of spilled alcohol filled the air. "She was here, I tell you. Walkin' plain as you please in her veils. 'Round about midnight, I should think."
"What did you do?" Lina ground her fingers into Cook's flesh, deep enough to bruise.
"I went to bed, it being too late to summon the vicar. I'm a God-fearing Christian, my lady." The woman jerked her arm out of Lina's grasp and attempted to regain her dignity. "What would you 'ave me do? There's been tales of the Gray Lady afore. I just didn't expect 'er in my kitchen. If she wants to be here, thought I, then I'll leave 'er to it. I'll have no truck with them meddlin' spirits. T'ain't good for the soul."
Rhiannon asked, "Where is Dr. Whitstable?" She cast a worried glance at Lina, ready to intervene. She had rarely seen her lover so angry before.
"Gone back to village, I should think, and took Mr. Grenville with him. As for me, I'm for London." Cook got ponderously to her feet, avoiding broken glass. "My sister's in service there. Good day to your ladyship. Her Grace knows my address." She left the kitchen in a dignified waddle, her nose thrust into the air.
"Damnation!" Lina balled up a fist and smacked her other hand with it. "I will not allow her to get away with murder."
"Are you certain it was murder, love? The doctor did say apoplexy."
"Dr. Whitstable was practicing in Inishaye village when I was born," Lina answered. "He is an honest man, but I would not expect him to be capable of noticing subtleties. I must examine Grenville's body myself."
Rhiannon took her hand, and kissed the fingertips. "Is that wise? You were fond of Grenville, and you've already had one shock today. Please don't add to it."
"My dear, it is true that I have great affection for my family's butler. He was a friend of my lonely youth. Although he never overstepped the proprieties between servant and master, Grenville could be counted upon to give advice, cheerful stories, a cup of milky tea, a sympathetic ear, and occasional pocket money when required. I owe it to him to uncover the truth."
"I know better than to argue when you're like this." Rhiannon sighed. "Is this connected to last night's events? The seance, the threats..."
"I do not know, but I am determined to find out. I shall begin with the butler's pantry. Perhaps a clue has survived the trampling feet of curious by-passers and elderly physicians."
"Actually, you'll begin by having some tea and toast in a few minutes. And you'll take a tray to your mother, who is probably in a state of nervous collapse. In my experience, highly-strung ladies don't take kindly to losing both butler and cook in the same day." Rhiannon found an apron, tying it on over her dark green dress. "I'll start by putting the kettle on, and sweeping up this mess of broken glass before someone steps in it."
"Thank you, my dear." Lina went to the pantry door, which was at one side of the kitchen. "My examination will not take too long."
She went inside, experiencing a nostalgic pang. The interior of the pantry - a cramped space made even smaller by a small table and comfortable chair - had not changed much in the years since she'd left Inishglen. A can of silver polish and rags stood on a shelf, accompanied by a box of cigarettes, matches, and empty laudanum bottles. Dog-eared novels and yellowing magazines were stacked neatly in a corner. The family plate was stored in a big iron safe beneath the shelf. This was Grenville's inner sanctum. Entering it took her straight back to childhood.
I spent many hours in this place, Lina thought. A distant mother, a distracted father... nannies and governesses and tutors determined to make me into a proper young lady. I took refuge in books, study, and a kindly man who pitied the lonely girl.
Her lips tightened. She glanced around, seeking anything out of place. The chair was pushed away from the table, which sported a damp stain. Closer examination and a cautious sniff made Lina mutter, "He vomited before dying. Poison, perhaps?" She prowled around the tiny space, getting on hands and knees to peer into corners. At last, she got up, dusting her knees off.
"Any luck?" Rhiannon called from the kitchen.
"Not as yet," Lina replied. As she turned her head, she caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of her eye. On the inner doorframe was a smear of some whitish substance. She touched it with a finger, then touched her fingertip to her tongue. Lina screwed up her face at the bitter taste.
"Tea's on the way, so is toast... do you want marmalade to go with it?" Rhiannon came to the door. "What on earth are you doing?"
"Ingesting paint, my dear." Lina cupped her hands around the smear. It glowed faintly. "Luminous paint, at that." There were also a few threads of muslin or linen caught in the wood.
"The Gray Lady has more substance than ectoplasm. You suspected as much."
"Now I have verification of my hypothesis." Lina permitted herself a small smile, which quickly turned into a frown. "Sitting in that chair, he would have had his back to the door. Easy enough prey for a silent assassin." She dusted off her palms. "My dear, as soon as we have broken our fast, we will be making haste to the village, Inishaye. I have a special task which only you can perform."
"Fetching Fyvie from the train. We will need her particular services tonight... when we hunt a killer in spectre's clothing."
Lina took a tray up to her mother's bedroom. Balancing it on one palm, she rapped her knuckles gently against the door. "Mother? I have a bite of breakfast for you." A yapping chorus was her only reply. Letting herself in, Lina was surprised to find the room gloomy, the curtains still closed.
A half-dozen curly-tailed pugs leaped from the bed. The little dogs were panting, yipping, and jumping around her feet. "Have you had your morning constitutional?" Lina asked, trying to navigate the mob without stepping on anyone or falling on her face.
"Come here," the Duchess said. It was unclear at first whether she was speaking to the pugs or to her daughter. Nevertheless, the dogs made a concerted dash back to the bed. Their bulging eyes gleamed as they lay, tongues lolling, on the satin coverlet. "Never mind, Vangie. My maid has already walked them around the grounds."
"There is tea, toast and a soft-boiled egg," Lina said, putting the tray down. She went to the windows, drawing the bronze curtains briskly. Sunlight flooded the room. "I assume you are au courant regarding Cook's notice."
"Yes, and it's a great pity. Her consommé was excellent, although her hollandaise sauce tended to curdle." The Duchess' voice was weak, filled with exhaustion. "I shall have to find a replacement as soon as possible."
Lina turned to regard her mother. The woman lay in a huge oak bed, a doll dwarfed by her surroundings. She was pale, her complexion washed out and sickly. "You should eat," Lina said, crossing her arms over her chest. Alone in her mother's company for the first time in many years, she felt strangely awkward and nervous. "You have grown quite thin since I was last at Inishglen."
"I have such a small appetite these days." The Duchess winced. "Would you be so kind as to close the curtains? This brightness is somewhat painful."
Lina did as she was bid. "I have business in Inishaye this morning. Shall I see if a new cook is available? On a temporary basis, of course."
"Yes, Vangie. Do as you please."
"Mother... is there anything amiss?" Lina walked to the side of the bed. From this distance, even in the gloom, she could see that her mother's pupils were mere pinpoints. Nor did she miss the scabby wounds and bruises concentrated on the woman's soft inner arm. "Are you ill?"
The Duchess yanked down the sleeve of her lace robe. "Not at all, Vangie dearest. I wouldn't want to keep you from... whatever it is you're doing today. I'll be fine." She pulled a pug into her lap, stroking it absently. "Do go on. Would you ask Grenville to bring me a whisky and soda? It's early, but I feel in need of a restorative."
Lina couldn't believe her ears. "Did no one tell you?" She sought a way to break the news gently, but her mind was a blank. Finally, she said as gently as possible, "Grenville died last night. Dr. Whitstable's diagnosis was apoplexy."
"Oh! Oh, yes." The Duchess accidentally pinched the pug in her agitation. At the creature's yelp, she pushed it away. "Don't look at me like that, Vangie. Good Lord, is it any wonder I'm perturbed, with the dreadful commotion in this house? I can scarcely avoid complete distraction. If I didn't know better, I'd swear you were conspiring to drive me mad." She stopped, out of breath. After a moment, she said huskily, "Go tell Madam Bahzanova that I need my medicine. Her room is down the hall. I beg you, Vangie, be polite."
Lina had seen enough. She nodded brusquely, not trusting herself to speak aloud. Rage, sorrow, horror and profound fury struggled inside her mind. Once she was clear of her mother's bedroom, she marched to Madam's chamber. "Her Grace is in need of medicine," she said loudly. "Would you be so kind as to attend to it at once?" Receiving an affirmative answer - though muffled by the door - Lina went back downstairs where Rhiannon was waiting.
"My dear, I am not fit company at the moment," Lina snapped, avoiding her lover's eyes. "I must think. Let us go to Inishaye immediately. I will have the driver drop you off at the railroad yard, and we can meet later in town."
Rhiannon nodded, not at all offended. She knew Lina's moods very well indeed. If they had been at home, the dark-haired women would have been confined to her study, smoking cigarettes and brooding. She usually fell into this sort of funk when contemplating a particularly difficult case. It cannot be easy, when the investigation involves family. Rhiannon remembered her aunt's death, and how difficult that had been.
Accordingly, she did not argue when Lina impatiently helped her into her coat and whisked her outside to the waiting carriage. On the drive to Inishaye, they were mostly silent. Lina stared out of the window, emerald gaze flat, directed inward. When the carriage reached the railyard, she opened her mouth just long enough to say, "There is a small tea room beside the post office. I will meet you there as soon as I have concluded my business."
Rhiannon touched her partner's cheek. "Be careful, love." She got out with the driver's assistance, and stood watching until the carriage disappeared from sight.
Having fetched Fyvie from their private car (the wolfhound had been well looked after by station employees - Rhiannon made sure to tip them generously), she walked the dog towards Inishaye. The village was very pretty and retained much of its old-fashioned charm, sporting Tudor-style beamed buildings with thatched roofs. Rhiannon held Fyvie's leash in her gloved hand as she paused here and there, glancing into shop windows. The huge shaggy beast garnered a few stares, but Fyvie behaved herself beautifully. Once, when an obviously drunken man approached her mistress, Fyvie yawned at him, her narrow muzzle split in half to display razor-sharp fangs. He quickly stumbled elsewhere.
Rhiannon bought a posy of rosebuds from a street merchant, then went into a goldsmith's shop, emerging with two packages in a short time. She examined the medieval church, purchased some postcards, and declined numerous invitations for village tours from young men. A woven reed bonnet was found at the milliner's. There was still no sign of Lina.
At last, she made her way to the tea room in the early afternoon. Fyvie stationed herself beneath the table. Although their waitresses did not seem to appreciate the big dog's presence, she did not object openly. Declining a menu card, Rhiannon ordered a pot of Darjeeling tea, to go with a selection of sandwiches and other dainties.
"Will someone be joining you, miss?" the waitress asked. She was a big-boned girl in a black sateen uniform, with white paper cuffs and a lace cap perched on top of her head. "I mean, will you be wanting full service or plainer fare?"
"Full service, please," Rhiannon answered, removing her gloves.
It wasn't long before a teapot, complete with knitted cozy, was placed on the table. Joining it was a three-tiered plate stand overflowing with seed cakes, scones with strawberry jam, salmon and cucumber sandwiches, lemon tarts, sharp Irish cheese and pickle, slices of cold spiced beef and tongue, bacon and egg pie, and buttered crumpets.
Fyvie woofed softly. Rhiannon gave her a piece of beef, then dug into her own meal with excellent appetite. When Lina arrived, more than half the feast was consumed. "My dear, I had no idea you were so hungry!"
She's in a much better temper. "Toast is all very well," Rhiannon said, "but a grown woman needs more sustenance to survive."
"I could not agree with you more." Lina ordered another pot of tea, and tucked into a huge slice of bacon and egg pie. She said between bites, "It has been a busy morning. After sending a telegram to Scotland Yard..."
"Yes, I am consulting Lestrade since Holmes is not available. The man is capable of performing a simple inquiry, at least."
"And what is the subject of that inquiry?"
"Spiritualist mediums. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, fraudulent mediums. The Madam is too experienced at her game not to have played it before. Lestrade has been asked to provide me with a list according to certain criteria which I have provided. In particular, mediums of Russian or Eastern European origin. I believe that Madam's accent is the one thing about her that is not faked."
"I was forced to brow-beat our good doctor into allowing me to examine the body, but my initial suspicions are confirmed. Grenville did not die from natural causes. He was helped into Heaven by an injection. I cannot fault Dr. Whitstable, however. The site was devilishly difficult to locate - on the back of the neck between the second and third vertebrae."
Rhiannon noticed the waitress hovering close-by, a fascinated expression on her face. "Must we discuss such gruesome subjects while dining?" she asked, hoping her partner would take the hint.
Lina reached for a sandwich. "Further examination revealed advanced atrophy of the liver. I fear Grenville would not have lived much longer in his condition. He must have been in great pain, hence the laudanum bottles in his pantry."
"That's fine, love, but..."
The waitress crept closer, mouth agape in awe.
Mistaking Rhiannon's look of embarrassment for squeamishness, Lina patted her hand and said, "Do not dwell upon it, my dear. I did not find it easy, assisting the doctor with his knife, but I comfort myself with the knowledge that Grenville would have approved, should the evidence aid in capturing his killer."
The waitress whirled on her heel and fled. Rhiannon sighed. "News of his murder will be all over this village by nightfall," she said, dabbing her lips with a napkin. "And no doubt the story will include an exaggerated account of your ghoulish activities. You'll be dubbed the 'Vampire Lady of Inishaye.' Children will be terrified into fits. The vicar will sprinkle you with holy water. A torch-bearing mob will descend upon Inishglen, to drive out the demonic Duchess and her depraved daughter."
Lina shrugged, pouring tea. "You have a rich imagination, fueled by those dreadful novels of yours. There is already a lady vampire living in the region. It is called neamh-mhairbh, the undead. And she lives in a burial mound near the lake. Are you going to eat that seed cake?"
"You're a horrible woman." Rhiannon deliberately took the last cake and fed it to Fyvie.
"That is only the smallest portion of my charms." Lina smiled. "Do not fret, my dear. By this evening, I will have gathered more evidence in my case."
"How do you plan on doing that?"
Lina finished her cup of tea and stood, picking up her lover's packages. "By examining the spirits of the dead," she replied enigmatically.
Rhiannon rolled her eyes and sighed.
An inquiry at the village pub produced Mrs. O'Hara, a stout and severe widow who agreed to cook for the Inishglen household until a more permanent replacement could be arranged. She agreed to come up to the house at once. Rhiannon was somewhat unsure - in her experience, wealthy ladies preferred to choose their own staff members and resented interference from outsiders - but Lina was adamant.
"My mother is incapable of such decisions at the moment," she explained as they left the pub. "Mrs. O'Hara will do for the nonce. Our previous cook kept a generous larder, so I doubt we will suffer starvation." Lina had neglected to wear a hat into town; her raven tresses, worn woven into a coronet on top of her head, gleamed with iridescent highlights in the sun.
"Is your mother truly ill?" Rhiannon stopped, and was nearly dragged off her feet by Fyvie, who continued walking.
Lina grabbed the dog's collar with her free hand, bringing Fyvie to a halt. "Be still, you hairy beast," she commanded. Fyvie obediently sank down on her haunches. "Now, my dear... what was it you were saying?"
Rhiannon pushed red-gold curls out of her eyes. "Is your mother ill?" she repeated.
"Yes, she is." Lina released the wolfhound. An errant breeze billowed the skirt of her aquamarine gown around her feet. The air smelled of peat smoke, apples, and the promise of rain. "She is very ill indeed."
"Should we send for a doctor?"
"No, not yet. When this is over..." Lina's voice trailed off. She shook her head. "Decisions will be made when the time comes. For now, I want us to concentrate on the singular matter of Grenville's death and the mysterious Gray Lady."
Rhiannon could tell from her partner's tone that further pressing would only send Lina back into ice-eyed brooding. I love her, but Lord! She could try the patience of a saint sometimes. "Very well. I won't pry. I warn you, however, that I do expect an explanation soon. Otherwise..." She left the threat unvoiced.
Lina hastened to reassure her. "I have no intention of leaving you in the dark. In fact, you are quite crucial to my plan. All will be revealed in due time. You have my oath on it."
"I'll hold you to that promise, Lady St. Claire," Rhiannon said. After a quick glance around to be sure there were no witnesses, she tilted her face up for a kiss. Her lover complied with such enthusiasm, both women were quickly out of breath. Fyvie whined, not wanting to be left out. The wolfhound reared up, putting oversized paws on Rhiannon's arm. Lina steadied the smaller woman.
"So many depend upon your love," Lina observed, tracing the curve of Rhiannon's jaw with her thumb. "Yet your heart is big enough to encompass us all."
"Get down, Fyvie!" Rhiannon shoved the dog away; she was trying to lick her face with a tongue roughly the size of a washcloth.
Lina chuckled. "I see that I share your affections with another. Should I be jealous?"
"Will you help me?" Rhiannon spluttered. "Down, Fyvie! Down!"
Although burdened by packages, Lina managed to drag the big dog back down to the ground. "Naughty beast," she admonished lightly. Suddenly, she stiffened. "Quickly! Behind the tree!"
Rhiannon obeyed, joining the mad scramble to get out of the lane and into concealment. "Why are we doing this?" she hissed.
"Shhhh!" Lina eyed the sadly crushed rosebud posy, lying in the open. "I saw someone... there she is."
Inishaye village had a single carriage for hire, a dog-cart drawn by two old bays. It came rattling down the gravel lane, coming to a halt outside Dr. Whitstable's surgery. By sheer coincidence, the two women were hiding directly opposite.
Princess Annastasiia sat upright on the passenger seat. She had left off her bizarre Elizabethan finery for a sensible green gown, ostrich-feathered hat, and fringed parasol. The doctor himself came out to greet her.
Rhiannon strained to hear their conversation, but it was useless. They spoke for perhaps half a minute before Dr. Whitstable handed Annastasiia a small package, receiving money in return. As soon as their transaction was completed, the driver snapped the reins, sending the horses on their way. The princess' parasol bobbed in time to the dog-cart's jouncing.
Lina waited until it was gone before bounding out of hiding. The box containing Rhiannon's new bonnet, as well as the goldsmith's packages and her postcards, fell unnoticed into the dirt. "Come, my dear! The game's afoot!" She scurried across the lane, waving at the silver-haired doctor..
Rhiannon picked up her abandoned property before joining her partner. Fyvie strained at the leash, but a sharp command from her mistress made her subside. She arrived in time to hear Whitstable say, "...the same amount every month."
"Are you certain?" Lina asked intently.
"Of course. I keep records, my lady. I've not yet succumbed to senile dementia, despite your opinion to the contrary."
The peer protested, but Whitstable shook a gnarled finger in her direction and continued, "Bah! I was practicing medicine before you were born. Please do not attempt to advise me at my trade, and I will afford you the same courtesy. 'Tis true, I assumed Mr. Grenville had died of an apoplectic seizure. You cannot deny the manner of his demise was in keeping with that unfortunate disease, eh? I thought not."
But he was far from finished with his lecture. "My lady was correct in one aspect - it appears that the Mr. Grenville did receive an injection of some kind shortly before his death. Murder? Perhaps. I have reported the matter to the proper authorities. Let them deal with it. Furthermore, I must say that in all my years of practice, I have never permitted a member of the weaker sex to intrude upon my patients - living or dead. Your insistence this morning upon attending a post mortem examination was indelicate, most indelicate indeed! Were your father still alive, I dare say he would not approve..."
"I beg you, sir, enough!" Lina said, holding up both hands. "Pray, let us leave this particular subject and attend upon my immediate inquiry."
"Very well." Whitstable drew himself up, the picture of affronted dignity, jamming his thumbs into the pockets of his waistcoat. Steel-rimmed spectacles flashed in the sunlight. "If you insist..."
"I fear that I do." Lina appeared equally offended.
Rhiannon attempted to make peace between the two. "Dr. Whitstable, it really is good of you to assist in our inquiries. They are of the greatest importance, you know." She leaned forward, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "National importance, if you comprehend my meaning."
The doctor was taken aback. "Oh, aye?" He rubbed his whiskers. "But surely, ladies need not be involved..."
"Desperate times require desperate measures," Lina interrupted solemnly. Turning her face so that Whitstable could not see, she winked at her partner.
"I see." Whitstable adjusted his spectacles. "Well, then, if it's that way..."
"I assure you, sir, only the highest purpose could force me to behave in such an unlady-like manner."
Whitstable examined her up and down, trying to detect the slightest sign of sarcasm or ridicule. Lina stared back, owl-eyed. At last, he seemed satisfied. "Since the matter is of such importance, I will tell you what I can. The woman you saw departing just now... she is Mrs. Ivanovich, nurse-companion to a wealthy lady who is staying anonymously in the area. I understand this lady is Russian in origin, a distant relative of the Tsar."
"Do go on," Rhiannon gently urged.
"Each month, Mrs. Ivanovich has arranged to pick up a quantity of heroin for her mistress. The lady suffers cruelly from heart palpitations, nervousness, pelvic hyperemia, and hysteria of the womb. Heroin, as you know, is an excellent analgesic. Not as addictive as pure morphia."
"I am familiar with its use," Lina said. There was a certain tension around her jaw. "Why did you not mention this to me earlier?"
The doctor was astounded. "My lady, what has one thing to do with another?"
"Nothing," Rhiannon said quickly. Whitstable could not possibly know there was any connection between the mysterious 'Mrs. Ivanovich' and the so-called Princess Annastasiia. "Thank you, sir. You have been most helpful."
Lina shook Whitstable's hand. "Indeed. I shall not fail to mention your contribution to our superiors."
"Perhaps even in the ear of a certain monarch, eh?" The doctor insinuated delicately.
"We shall certainly take your suggestion to heart when next we are in the royal presence. Good afternoon, sir." Lina took Fyvie's lead and walked away, followed by Rhiannon.
As soon as they were out of earshot, the red-head asked, "Is that how Grenville died? An injection of heroin?"
"I believe so." Lina paused, catching sight of their carriage coming down the lane. "I know how. I know who. And I believe that I also know why the man had to die."
Rhiannon thought back to the previous evening, when Grenville had brought brandy to the bedchamber. "He saw something he shouldn't in the seance room," she deduced.
"Precisely. Come, my dear. Let us pick up Mrs. O'Hara and thence to home." Lina pulled Fyvie short, when the wolfhound would have gone forward. The carriage was drawing abreast of them, the driver tipping his hat with a flourish. "There is work for all of us tonight, and we must rest before our labors begin."
It was not until after a luncheon of mutton broth and boxty potato cakes (ably prepared by Mrs. O'Hara) that Rhiannon had a chance to show Lina her purchases. The Duchess remained in solitude. Madam Bahzanova and her grotesque assistant requested trays in their bedchambers, so she and Lina had the dining room to themselves. After eating, the partners retired to the Perdita Suite for what Rhiannon termed, 'a council of war.'
"Which reminds me," she said as they entered together, "I had the Devil's own time bargaining with that goldsmith. He seemed to be under the impression that as I was not Irish, I must be a fool."
"Goldsmith? Good Lord, my dear, what have you been doing?" Lina kicked off her slippers and turned around, a mute invitation for her lover to undo the row of tiny buttons that marched down the back of her dress. "I hope you were not cheated."
"I don't think so." Rhiannon finished the unbuttoning, and presented herself to the taller woman for the same service. "I'll leave it for you to judge."
They changed into loose Liberty silk gowns, in matching shades of cream and chocolate brown. Rhiannon fetched the two packages, putting one into Lina's hands. "Open it, love."
"Oh!" Lina tore off the brown paper wrapping, revealing a flat velvet box. Inside was a pretty bangle bracelet in enameled gold, set with jewels. She immediately put it on her wrist, admiring the flash and sheen of multi-colored gems. "It is very pretty. Do you have one as well?"
"No, I bought earbobs." Rhiannon showed her a pair of filigree earrings. "Look at the stones on your bracelet, by the way. Does their arrangement suggest anything to you?"
"Ruby, emerald, garnet, amethyst, ruby, diamond... REGARD." Lina gave her partner a resounding kiss. "A clever acrostic, and a beautiful sentiment from the most beautiful lady in the world."
"I thought you might like it." Rhiannon returned the embrace. A warm feeling of contentment and happiness flowed through her veins. "I love you so much..."
"And it is returned a hundred-fold," Lina replied. "I wish we had gone to Venice or Monte Carlo," she suddenly burst out, clutching her partner more tightly. "There is hideous danger in this house. Promise me one thing, my dear."
"Give me your word that you will not leave my side for an instant. These are unscrupulous people who do not hesitate to kill. Besides Grenville, I suspect they had a hand in one other death."
"The Earl of Kinslainne's wife! Your mother said she suffered a heart failure," Rhiannon said.
"More likely she was killed for trying to expose their fraud, albeit unwittingly. She is said to have snatched at the 'etheric manifestation' of her late child's spirit. Lady Jessica was not a woman noted for intelligence or common sense, but this slight threat against the conspirators was enough to seal her doom. Therefore, we must stay side-by-side. I insist upon it. Should the Madam and her cohorts make an attempt on your life, I will not be responsible for my actions." Briefly, Lina's lips drew back in a snarl.
"I'll be very careful, I promise," Rhiannon replied a little breathlessly. Lina's fierce embrace was squeezing her ribs in a painful fashion, but she would have suffocated before complaining. "We've faced other dangers in the past."
"I know, and the merest thought of losing you gives me nightmares." Lina shivered. "Nevertheless, as you have indicated your unwillingness to be protected from criminal folly..."
"We are not going to have that argument again." Rhiannon extricated herself from Lina's arms. "I share equally with you in all things, including your investigations. I refuse to stay wrapped in cotton and thrust upon a pedestal for my own good. Unless you've now decided that I'm more a hindrance than a help?"
"God forbid!" Lina blurted this in such a heart-felt manner, Rhiannon was instantly pacified.
"Good. Now, explain to me what we'll be doing tonight." Rhiannon sat down in a chair, motioning for Lina to take the settee. She had found that her partner tended to think best when she was in a recumbent position.
And that's not all she does well laying down, Rhiannon thought wickedly, and immediately banished the surge of lust that followed. Not now. This is too important, and she doesn't need distractions. But later... ah, later... There would never be a time when she did not desire the woman who was her world.
"We will be exploring the west wing, and the seance room in particular." Lina did as she was bid, stretching her long length out, head pillowed comfortably on her hands. "Madam Bahzanova has the only key, but that should pose no real problem. There are secrets to be ferreted out, and I can think of no better device than Fyvie's nose to sniff out the truth behind the facade."
"Secret doorways and apertures, most certainly. A murdering ghost, most likely." The peer narrowed her eyes to gleaming emerald slits. "Or I should say, a gang of murdering frauds. I sent some telegrams before joining you in the village. I hope to have an answer by tomorrow morning. If not, we will wait."
"What about your mother?"
Lina sighed. "Heroin, my dear. Diacetylmorphine - that demonic concoction of opium and acetic anhydride which can be created by any chemist of moderate skill. My mother is caught in the grip of a habit similar to Holmes' former cocaine use. I saw the injection marks on her arm. Have you noted the energetic periods followed by melancholic weariness? Itching, muscle cramps, weight loss, a considerably dimmed appetite... the signs are all there."
The implication struck Rhiannon like a blow. "You mean that Madam Bahzanova has deliberately addicted Her Grace with heroin?"
"Yes. That is her method of controlling Mother. If she does not obey, Bahzanova withholds the required dose."
"But Dr. Whitstable said it was less harmful than morphia."
"The good doctor is mistaken." Lina's mouth twitched. "You will grant that I have some experience in matters of addiction."
Rhiannon was sickened. Years before they met, her partner had struggled with alcoholism, eventually being forced into a treatment asylum to save her life. Yes, she knows what her mother is going through. How much more terrible is that knowledge, than if she had been ignorant of suffering herself?
Lina continued in a clipped voice, as if giving a lecture, "Withdrawal symptoms include increased nausea and agonizing contractions, vomiting, melancholia, inability to sleep... the worst part will be the craving. That clawing hunger that will not be denied, only controlled by exercise of will." She took a breath, let it out slowly. "I have heard that heroin is less painful to quit than alcohol. At least she will not be terrified by hallucinations, phantasms of the brain, as I was."
"Why are they doing this to her?"
"Look around you, my dear. Inishglen is a fortress ruled by a respectable wealthy widow who has many friends in the county. I do not know how she was chosen, or by what means Bahzanova attained entrance. Once established, however, the spiritualist most likely began giving Mother injections - perhaps disguised as a homeopathic remedy. It would not have taken long to reduce Her Grace to a subservient state. From what little we have gathered, I suggest that Mother was instructed to persuade moneyed acquaintances to attend seances here, for the purposes of extracting generous fees."
"The Duchess mentioned five thousand pounds from the Marquis of Ramsbrook."
"A princely sum! Who has not lost a loved one at some time? Who would not give everything in their power to see and speak to that lost love again? Everyone is vulnerable to cruel machinations that play upon their softest feelings. With the Duchess herself as advocate and protector, Bahzanova has been able to gull a privileged audience. I do not doubt that Mother has also supplied vital information for the fraud - witness her interrogation of you at the dinner table! She cannot do otherwise."
"No wonder she seems terrified."
"Yet some spark of will remains." Lina sat up, and clasped Rhiannon's hands in her own. "She took a great risk inviting us to Inishglen. I told you at the time that I had grave misgivings, mainly because her behavior was so out of the ordinary. Before the seance, she attempted to warn us of the consequences of interference. Her story about the Earl of Kinslainne's wife was not casual conversation, nor was her mention of Ramsbrook's generosity. No, Mother has called upon us as a last, desperate attempt to break free of Bahzanova's influence. She is unable to communicate directly - they keep her too closely monitored for that - but she is trying her best."
Rhiannon felt a great deal of pity for the Duchess. Whatever her past sins, no one deserves such hell. "We must help her," she said. "We must!"
"And we shall." Lina let out a soft chuckle. "My father never gave me a pony. He never nursed me after a broken arm. My governess did that, with grim Christian fortitude and watery custards. Mother knows that. She must have told deliberate lies to Bahzanova in the hopes of getting my attention."
"She succeeded. What I don't understand is why the Madam would permit Her Grace to summon you at all."
"Bahzanova can have little idea about the true state of relations between my mother and myself." Lina let go of Rhiannon's hand to rub a palm across her temple. "Having been told that I am a widow of independent means, living with another woman whose fortune is not inconsiderable, it would take a stronger character than her's to resist the bait. I have been playing at stubborn disbelief."
"Your facade seemed to crack a bit last night."
"'Seemed' is the key word, my dear. I must not put my mother in any more danger than she is already in. If I show signs of believing her spiritualist claptrap, Bahzanova will feel no need to cut her losses or Mother's throat. One hint that a trap is closing might prompt her into further violence. I cannot risk that, not until we are fully prepared."
"So it all depends on what we discover tonight." Rhiannon's turquoise gaze mirrored her partner's determination. "When do we begin, love?"
Lina's lips curved in a slow grin. "I think the witching hour is most appropriate. Do you agree?"
"Absolutely perfect for a ghost hunt."
The two women stared into one another's eyes, knowing that each felt
the sudden catch of breath, the glow of promised excitement to come.
The Duchess was very animated at dinner that evening. Diamonds sparkled on fingers, ears, wrists. A magnificent collar of blue-white fire encircled her neck, brilliant against her black velvet gown. She did not touch Mrs. O'Hara's veal roast, but she did drink several glasses of wine. As the seating arrangements were the same as the night before, the Duchess chattered exclusively to Rhiannon. Most of the time, she did not make a great deal of sense.
Princess Annastasiia had reverted back to farthingales under yards of puce satin, caught up at the front to reveal a crimson petticoat, and a huge starched ruff. Her wig was platinum blonde, fat sausage curls ornamented with red bows. She concentrated on eating, shoveling food into her gaping mouth and chewing noisily, her simian face shiny with grease.
Lina and Rhiannon did their best to appreciate Mrs. O'Hara's cooking, but it was difficult. Knowing the Duchess' condition, neither had much appetite. By the time dessert was served, the Connemarra tart and carrageen pudding seemed too rich to tolerate. When the footmen offered coffee and sherry, Lina declined. "I am quite exhausted, Mother. Would you take it amiss if we retired early this evening?"
"Not at all, Vangie darling." The Duchess waved her glass, slopping sherry over the sides. She did not notice. Annastasiia snorted and helped herself to more tart.
Shortly after midnight, Rhiannon found herself walking into the west wing, with Fyvie pressed closely to her side. The wolfhound padded silently, long muzzle questing the air. Lina was behind them, clad in trousers and softly laundered man's shirt, her slippers making a whispery sound on the floorboards.
Rhiannon, too, had adopted men's costume, although her trousers were wide-legged enough to pass for skirts. In her pocket, she carried her little mother-of-pearl handled pistol, a present from Sherlock Holmes - just as Lina had brought her own larger revolver.
The only sources of illumination they had were a small bull's-eye lantern, which her partner held, and moonlight streaming in through the tall leaded windows. The ladies dared not light the sconces on the wall, for fear of attracting unwanted attention, or providing a warning to their prey. Cold air seeped thinly through cracks from the outside, making Rhiannon shiver. She wished she had thought to bring a shawl, then dismissed the thought as impractical.
Fyvie stopped before they reached the end of the corridor, snuffling at the floor. Lina knelt down and examined the spot. "Marks in the dust," she murmured. "A confused number of footprints and... ah, dragged draperies. What is this?" She picked up a slender piece of glass, holding it to the light. "Marked with measuring lines, do you see? Part of a hypodermic syringe, I believe."
She took a handkerchief from her pocket and placed the shard inside, wrapping it up carefully before replacing the cloth square. From her other pocket, Lina removed a morocco leather case. "Do you hold the lantern, my dear." She scooted to the door of the seance room, which was locked.
The morocco case proved to hold numerous skeleton keys and slender picks. Rhiannon guided the lantern's light as directed while Lina peered at the lock. "Hmph. What they spent on deceptive frills might have been better served in obtaining a decent lock. This would not tax the ingenuity of a child." It took only a moment before the door was opened.
They went inside, Fyvie scampering ahead. The room was quiet, oppressive, all sound muffled by the thick carpets and velvet wall hangings. The air seemed stale. Rhiannon glanced around nervously. "Where should we start?"
Lina snatched a handful of the wolfhound's ruff. "Let us be guided by Fyvie." She took the dog into the spirit cabinet and allowed her to sniff the walls and floor. "Now follow the scent," she commanded. "Go on, beast. Do as you have been bid." Fyvie gazed at her sidelong with those yellow eyes, tongue lolling out of her mouth, and sat down. "My dear, if you would be so kind...?" Lina sighed.
Rhiannon suppressed a giggle. "Fyvie... seek!"
The shaggy wolfhound bounded out of the cabinet, tail whisking, nose working.
"There are times when I swear that beast deliberately tries my patience for her own amusement." Lina folded her arms across her chest and attempted to look severe. "You are turning an interesting shade of crimson, my dear."
"I can't help it." Rhiannon tried to keep her voice down. "Lady Evangeline St. Claire, foiled by a wee doggie."
"Wee doggie?" Lina's eyebrows shot to her hairline. "Have you seen the monthly butcher's bill? Not," she added hastily, "that I begrudge a single morsel that passes Fyvie's lips. She did save your life in Scotland. For that alone, I hold her dear, if somewhat exasperating."
"I know you only brought her here to please me," Rhiannon said.
"Frankly, we could have searched the room by ourselves, but I felt obliged to release the creature from durance vile. I did agree to bring her, and she should have an opportunity to be useful."
Fyvie pawed at a puddled length of velvet. Lina made haste to push the fabric aside. "Excellent," she purred, staring at the concealed doorway. The room beyond was dark. "Bring the lantern." She pulled the revolver from her pocket. Before she could stop her, the wolfhound slunk through the hole and into darkness.
Rhiannon came forward hastily, pushing past her partner. "Fyvie! Come here... oh my God!" The screech was cut off abruptly.
Lina leaped through the opening, cold fear-sweat congealing on her body, heart in her throat. The first thing she saw was Rhiannon's face in a circle of amber light, a hand clapped to her mouth. Her lover's turquoise eyes were wide, filled with horror. Swiftly, Lina looked this way and that, revolver at the ready, searching for the threat. "What, where?" she demanded.
In answer, Rhiannon pointed mutely towards a corner. Lina peered in the indicated direction. Huddled in the shadows, barely visible, was the figure of Madam Bahzanova. The woman's head was bowed, arms and legs a-spraddle.
"Is she dead?" Rhiannon whispered hoarsely.
Lina took another look, then laughed. "Hardly, my dear." She went over to the horrid thing and lifted it up easily. "A life-sized doll. Now we know how the good Madam performed the miracle of being in two places at once. With this inside the spirit cabinet, she was free to wander as she pleased."
Further exploration of the room revealed a bundle of telescoping rods, a bag filled with luminous muslin, perfumes and oils, musical instruments with loops of black thread tied strategically. An old table held music boxes, jars of glowing paste, wigs, false teeth, waxed mustaches - many of the accouterments of stage actors.
Now over her fright, Rhiannon walked around the large room, softly rapping her knuckles on the walls. Suddenly, she remembered something. "Where's Fyvie?"
"Has the cursed beast disappeared?" In another corner, opposite the place where they had found the dummy, Lina found what she was looking for. "Come out at once," she ordered the dog, who seemingly reappeared from a dark place much too small to have concealed her. "I expected something of the sort."
Rhiannon buried her fingers into Fyvie's fur. "What?"
"An excavation into the room behind this one." To Rhiannon's dismay, Lina's upper half vanished into the dense shadows. "Most interesting, my dear." Her voice was muffled.
"I'm glad to hear it," the smaller woman said, a trifle acidly. "As much as I admire your backside, would you please come out of there and speak to me?"
"You will find this most interesting. Come and look." Lina made a gesture with her free hand.
Telling Fyvie, "Stay!" Rhiannon walked over to her lover. Unable to resist the target thus displayed, she gave Lina's bottom a swift smack, making the other woman jump.
"Pray tell, was that necessary?" Lina complained.
"Quite. I can't be expected to avoid temptation when it's practically thrust into my face." Rhiannon squirmed in beside her, shoving the lantern close to Lina's face. Someone had knocked out plaster and lathe in the corner, providing entrance into another room behind the seance chamber. She could see the back of the spirit cabinet. "So Madam goes inside the cabinet, the front door is closed. She hurries out through the back, substitutes the doll in her place, and quickly applies the necessary art to counterfeit a ghost. If anyone looks into the cabinet, it appears that she is still there. No one would suspect a chair-bound cripple of trickery."
"An impression that Bahzanova takes pains to cultivate. I suspect she is no more handicapped than I am." Lina craned away from the lantern. "Do be careful, my dear. I should look a perfect fright with my nose burned off."
"I'm sorry." Rhiannon put a caressing hand on her partner's back. "There must be other exits and entrances hidden behind the velvet hangings. Oh! There's a hole in the ceiling just over there, and a ladder."
"By which means our accomplice gains access to the space above the coffered false ceiling." Lina's complexion seemed drained of color in the wavering light. Her lips quirked. "Your morbid taste in literature is apparently shared by the criminal classes. Madam and her partners must have gotten their idea from some sensational novel. A crumbling country home, perched atop windswept cliffs, riddled with secret passages and priests' holes... bah! Should we discover a madwoman in the attic, I would not be overly surprised."
"There are no windswept cliffs in Inishglen," Rhiannon said. "Now you're being silly and melodramatic."
"Perhaps I am merely being observant."
Lina backed out of the corner, and Rhiannon followed, saying, "Madam has two accomplices - one playing the part of Princess Annastasiia, the other disguised as the Gray Lady and hiding somewhere in the house."
"I suspect at least one of those is a child."
"A child!" Rhiannon was horrified. Her involuntary exclamation brought Fyvie to her side. The wolfhound pressed close to her skirts, whining softly.
Lina continued, "Of course, the deduction is based on our so-called Princess' stature. Even allowing for the device she wears to mimic a spinal deformity - more of this silly misdirection, I believe - Annastasiia cannot be above four-and-a-half feet. A dwarf would be too fantastic, hence my conclusion that she must be young enough not have attained her mature growth. But I do not wish to mislead you, my dear. Annastasiia could be male or female; I have detected no obvious signs of either. Unless one is permitted to make an examination of the subject in an unclothed state, those cursed Elizabethan gowns hide a great deal. Furthermore, if Annastasiia is a young boy, his cheeks will be smooth for a while yet."
"And the Gray Lady?"
"I cannot be sure, but I can make a conjecture. Do you recall the smear of luminous paint I found on the door of Grenville's pantry? There were also threads caught in the wood. I believe the 'ghost' must have brushed against the frame, most likely with her shoulder as she entered. If one deduces that much, then the conclusion drawn is that whoever plays the Gray Lady is of normal stature. Approximately your own height, my dear. I cannot go any further without evidence."
Fyvie suddenly growled. Rhiannon glanced over her shoulder. The dog was stiff-legged, ruff bristling, tail held low. Lina quickly extinguished the lantern, but not before holding a finger to her lips. Rhiannon whispered, "Fyvie, hush!" and held her breath. Her free hand sought Lina's; their fingers intertwined tightly.
A scuffling noise came to them, originating outside the secret chamber, in the seance room itself. It sounded like slippered feet moving across the floor.
Lina released her hand and glided away, leaving Rhiannon alone in the dark. She could feel Fyvie pressing against her legs. Rhiannon blinked; her eyes were straining to capture any image in the syrupy blackness. She reached into her pocket, drew out her little mother-of-pearl handled pistol. She did not dare fire, not unless she could see her target - the last thing Rhiannon wanted to do was shoot Lina by accident - but she took comfort in the solid feel of the gun in her palm.
There was a louder scuffling, a soft grunt, and a muffled thud.
Every muscle in Rhiannon's body was rigid. She gripped the pistol tightly, her nerves on edge and screaming for relief. Just when she reached the breaking point, about to burst from frustration and suspense, she heard Lina's voice.
"Can you light the lantern, my dear? It should be somewhere near your foot."
Rhiannon blew out a breath and replied somewhat acidly, "The lucifers are upstairs." She was trembling all over, and feeling very irritated by Lina's sense of the dramatic. "Shall I rub two sticks together? Assuming I can find any sticks in this gloom."
Rhiannon heard Lina walking away; the other woman was making no effort now to conceal her movements. After a moment, there was the scritch of a lucifer being struck, then a wavering pinpoint of light. Lina reappeared, holding a candle she had found. "Oh, you may put your toy away," she said. "The danger has passed."
"What danger?" Rhiannon shoved her pistol back in her pocket. "If you don't explain yourself immediately, Evangeline St. Claire, I'm going to scream!"
"We have had a visitation. Do not take on so, my dear. All is well. When I spoke of 'danger,' I did so facetiously."
Rhiannon muttered, "Someday you will drive me mad," but she followed the other woman out into the seance room.
On the floor was a heap of dusty gray veils that glowed faintly, a greenish luminescence that reminded Rhiannon of the flying objects she had seen during Bahzanova's seance. Lina prodded the fabric with a toe and scowled.
"I very nearly had our Gray Lady in hand," she said, "but whoever it was managed to escape my grip and disappear. There is no use looking for footprints, and I have no wish to rouse the household."
Rhiannon knelt down and picked up a piece of muslin. "This work is very crude," she commented.
"But manufactured well enough to fool someone already primed to see ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night." Lina set the candle down on the floor. "As I said before, any servant who glimpsed the 'Gray Lady' from afar would make haste to get out of the way. Do not forget Cook's example! I doubt they would pause to ascertain the apparition's credentials first."
"True. Do you think this person was listening to us?"
"I doubt that very much. The Gray Lady has a veritable elephant's tread, far too heavy for subterfuge. She could not have been more obvious in her approach if she had been wearing hobnailed boots."
"But when Madam learns that her accomplice has been unmasked, will that not put your mother in grave danger?"
"I do not even know if the accomplice can identify me as her attacker. It was dark and I can be quiet when I choose." Lina looked down at Rhiannon, a faint smile wreathing her lips. "Have no worries that she will tittle-tattle to Madam. For all she knows, she interrupted servants having a tryst and received the brunt of someone's panicked flailing. No, I believe we are quite safe. Madam will not abandon such a lucrative scheme so easily."
Rhiannon stood up, shaking out her skirts, then bent over to blow out the candle. "In that case, we had better return to our room before the Gray Lady comes searching for his veils."
"An excellent plan, my dear."
Fortunately, they did not meet anyone on their way back to the Perdita
The next morning, Rhiannon was brushing her hair when Lina returned to their bedroom, brandishing a bunch of flimsy telegram papers. "Lestrade has come through magnificently, my dear. I believe our Madam is, in fact, a villain named Vasily Ivanovitch Tatev," she said with a huge grin.
"Oh?" Rhiannon put down the brush and turned to face her partner. "And what other information has Lestrade given you?"
"Vasily Tatev - his surname is an Old Russian diminutive for 'thief' - has plagued England since he came into this country three years ago, bringing with him a history of theft and confidence work. He ran a very successful spiritualist game in London that gulled no less a personage than the Countess of Andover." Lina sat down in a chair near the window. "Needless to say, when Tatev was found ultimately exposed as a fraud, the scandal was hushed up. Finding London too hot, he fled to ply his trade in the country. I believe my mother is not his first victim."
"Why hasn't he been arrested?"
Lina sighed and tossed the telegrams onto a nearby table. The window had been opened to allow a breeze to freshen their room; the thin papers trembled, then fluttered to the floor with sighs of their own. "Because he targets wealthy peers, my dear. The upper class cannot bear a scandal. Imagine the horror, to see one's name in the newspapers, to hear one's folly whispered and tittered about at every social occasion! Not to mention the appalling notion that urchins may taunt one in the streets. No, anyone who fell prey to Tatev's machinations would think themselves well off that they lost nothing more than cash."
Rhiannon's eyes widened. "He is a murderer, too. Could that be so easily hushed up?"
"Tatev is not a common cutthroat; he is ruthless and clever. He kills only when he deems it necessary, and employs methods that may be mistaken for natural death."
"Injections of heroin."
"Or a hatpin thrust into the base of the neck. Either would leave very little trace. An ordinary physician, untrained in criminal examinations, would be hard pressed to verify the cause of death. Even if murder was suspected, there are ways of hushing up suspicions, particularly if they involve the so-called noble class."
"Why don't you call the police? At the very least, they'd arrest Tatev for fraud!" Rhiannon had a sudden vision of Lina, cold and dead, sightless eyes staring into eternity. A chill ran down her spine. She stood up and walked to her partner's chair.
"That is hardly a consideration." Lina's emerald eyes glittered. "There are deeper waters here than you know. Few realize Tatev's true colors, and you will not find many of his former victims or criminal confederates willing to testify against him in a public court. Now suppose one did accuse that clever scoundrel of murder and bring him to dock. Can you imagine the scene? Tatev might say that the Duchess is a hopeless drug addict, whom he kindly but misguidedly agreed to shield from scandal. Paint himself as the protector of a woman who had abused her late husband's memory by engaging in intimate relations with a servant, only to have that same servant threaten to expose her. When she could no longer tolerate the situation, she took steps to eliminate the cause of her distress. Do you understand my fears?"
"You think Tatev will accuse your mother of Grenville's murder? My God!"
"He could make a tolerably plausible case. I do not say it will happen, only that it can. Do not forget that Tatev is capable of swift thought and swifter action when under pressure. Recall the poor Duchess of Kinslainne! Snatching at a ghost one moment, dead of an apparent heart attack the next. He might not have the opportunity to kill my mother, but I have no doubt that he would attempt to destroy her in any fashion he could."
"But who would believe a proven fraudster?"
"Oh, his word would not be enough to see Her Grace convicted; she is, after all, a noblewoman and wealthy in her own right. But her fascination with spiritualism would count heavily against her, as far as judging her mental state - especially with the subtle taint of sex and murder hovering about the case. Do you not recall the days when spiritualist mediums were sent to the asylum by their own husbands, persecuted for their beliefs which others thought were un-Christian and therefore lunatic? That was a bare two decades ago. The judge would have my mother committed in an instant, 'for her own protection,' he would say. Actually, he would do it to avoid a trial which might damage the peerage. It would take years of litigation to get her free again."
Rhiannon hugged her. "I'm sorry, love. I thought you were being..."
"Indulgent? Lord knows I can be. And yes, I admit a certain fondness for theater, which has so often caused you aggravation. I care nothing for my own reputation, but I will not stand aside and let my mother be an unwitting accomplice to murder, no matter how much she despises me. Nor can I expose the woman to a court of law, not in her current state of health. The stress of a trial may very well kill her. Yet Tatev must pay, if for nothing more than depriving my friend of his life."
Lina sounded so sorrowful that Rhiannon embraced her more tightly still. "What do we have to do?" Rhiannon asked.
The raven-haired woman looked out of the window for several long moments. At last, she turned her gaze back to Rhiannon. "My dear, there is dangerous work afoot. If I thought you would heed my wishes, I would send you back to London at once."
"But you know that I will not leave you."
"Indeed. Therefore, I have formulated a plan to deal with Tatev, but it requires placing you in the most hideous peril. I will do everything within my power to keep you safe, except I cannot guarantee your life with absolute certainty." Lina clutched one of her lover's hands and groaned, "If anything happened to you... if only Holmes were not taking a Swiss holiday, curse the man... oh, what a damnable situation!"
Rhiannon gently removed her hand from Lina's grip, bent her head and kissed the other woman's brow. "Just tell me what I must do," she replied, her expression containing not a trace of fear.
"If you feel that you cannot place yourself at such a risk..."
"Stop that, you silly goose! I'm your partner. It's about time you acknowledged that I'm capable of more than being decorative and warming your bed."
Lina stared at her, shocked into momentary speechlessness. When she recovered herself sufficiently, she said, "My dear, I have never denigrated your physical prowess or your mental agility. I realize that my protective instincts have remained a point of contention between us..."
Rhiannon interrupted by laying a finger across Lina's lips. "I may not be Sherlock Holmes but I can protect myself quite handily when required. Life is full of risks, my love. I could be run over by a cart in the street, or drop dead from a fit, or be stricken down by a falling star. Of course, I hope we will both live to a ripe old age and continue to scandalize all and sundry. My point is that we're partners. We share joy and laughter, tears and sorrow, love and passion, and whatever dangers your chosen profession may bring. All I ask is that you simply trust me, the way you would trust Holmes to take care of himself without a nursemaid present. Does this meet with your agreement?"
Lina swallowed hard. She would never forget Rhiannon's suicide attempt two years ago, brought on by her torture at the hands of that madwoman, Victoire Rousseau. Guilt for that incident and its aftermath still haunted her to some extent. She could not contemplate life without the woman who was the mate of her heart, mind and soul. Nevertheless, Rhiannon had a point. If they were to remain together - and that was fervently to be desired - then Lina would have to trust her to take care of herself. It was difficult, and Lina would never be blithe about placing her partner in danger, but it had to be done.
After a pause, Lina replied, "I admit myself chastised, and apologize for reviving such a distasteful subject. However, I do not exaggerate when I say that if my plan fails, you may end as Tatev's latest victim of murder. There. That is plain enough. Not a cart or a fit or a falling star, but death at the hands of a ruthless killer. If this proves to be the case, he will not, of course, survive you very long, my dear. And before you take offense, let me state that I would give Holmes the same warning."
Rhiannon smiled slightly. "But not, I think, the same promise of vengeance."
"I love Holmes dearly, but not as much as I cherish and adore you." Lina's brows drew together in a frown. "At least you must promise me to exercise every caution. Keep your pretty little pistol loaded and at hand. Do not hesitate to shoot if you believe your life is in danger."
"You have my word."
Lina drew a deep breath to steel herself for the ordeal to come. "You must see, as I do, that the only way to stop Tatev is to catch him red-handed before a credible witness. In order to capture a predator, one requires irresistible bait. We must first lay the groundwork of our trap. Here is my plan..."
When the dark-haired woman finished speaking, Rhiannon thought, She was right. The peril is considerable. However, I won't run away to London and leave her alone. If I cannot face this, I don't deserve to be called her partner.
Aloud, she said, "When shall we begin?"
"Today, my dear."
"Very well. Today." And Rhiannon leaned down to kiss Lina once more.
Madam Bahzanova had installed herself in a a guest chamber called the Violet Room. Furnished with heavy rosewood pieces in the Baroque style, it also boasted a mural that ran around every wall, depicting an Italian fantasy landscape complete with satyrs and nymphs and white marble ruins. The drapes at the windows were kept permanently drawn; illumination came from a myriad of candles that were left ablaze day and night.
Rhiannon entered this sanctum, escorted by the grotesque Annastasiia. Madam Bazhanova - Vasily Tatev in horrid disguise - was waiting for them, huddled in a nest of shawls in his Bath chair, which stood next to the fireplace. "You wished to see me, my child?" Tatev said in his thick and oily accent.
"Yes. I believe it would be best if we were to discuss this important matter alone," Rhiannon replied, staring down at the port wine-stained face, the yellowed teeth, the absurdly large and hairy mole. Misdirection, she recalled. Stagecraft designed to prevent one from seeing the truth that lies beneath. Even though she knew that Bazhanova was the infamous Tatev in disguise, it was impossible to get any idea of what the man looked like sans make-up.
"Indeed?" Tatev raised his brows. His eyes were shielded behind blue spectacles, but Rhiannon could feel his gaze penetrating her almost to the bone. "And why do you wish such a thing, eh?"
Rhiannon leaned over, so that her face was on the same level as Tatev's. "I think it would be in your best interests to grant me a private interview," she said, in tones low enough to exclude Annastasiia from eavesdropping on the conversation. "The matter involves money. A great deal of it, in fact."
Tatev's eyebrows shot up to the hairline of his wig. His fingers, weighted with rings, twisted together in his lap. He hesitated a moment before snapping, "Your Royal Highness Annastasiia, please go at once and see to the comfort of our beloved Duchess. I believe it is nearly time for her medication."
"But..." Annastasiia looked from Tatev to Rhiannon, and back to her master, "I thought that you..."
"Go!" Tatev waved a hand in emphasis. "Get out!"
With ill grace and a poisonous glare at Rhiannon, the false princess took her leave. As soon as Annastasiia was gone, Tatev said, "Now, Miss Moore, we are alone. How may I serve you?"
Rhiannon sat down in a chair, arranging her turquoise colored skirts neatly; the shade matched her eyes. "I was very affected by my dear mother's message from the Other Side. Death can change someone so greatly, they are virtually unrecognizable."
"Whatever do you mean, Miss Moore?"
"Frankly, that you are a damnable fraud." Rhiannon made this pronouncement with cool confidence. "The information I related to the Duchess was false; a test to see if what I suspected was true. You see, I was in the service of the Countess of Andover, Madam... or should I say, Mr. Tatev?"
The medium clenched his fists. "You play a dangerous game, little one."
"I recognized your stage-craft. Not as subtle as some - to be honest, Mr. Tatev, your act reeks of third-rate theater - but I'll grant you it's effective enough to fool those with more money than intelligence."
As Tatev made a grasping movement towards her, Rhiannon pulled out her pistol. It was a dainty thing but lethal at such close quarters. "Keep very still, Mr. Tatev. If you frighten me, I might shoot you in the face."
Tatev froze, then leaned back in his Bath chair. "As you wish, Miss Moore. I'm in your power. What do you intend to do?"
"I have expenses that my lover knows nothing about." Rhiannon kept the pistol trained on him. "Certain tastes which are difficult to gratify without the necessary cash. I don't think it's necessary to go further than that. What I need, Mr. Tatev, is money. Pounds sterling, to be precise. You are in the fortunate position to give me what I need."
"Or?" Tatev raised his brows delicately.
"Or I'll expose you and your scheme to the authorities. I hardly need remind you that your activities in London left a nasty taste in a great many powerful mouths. You might not live long enough to be brought to trial. Indeed, to avoid revitalizing a scandal, inconvenient persons have been known to disappear while swimming in the Thames."
"I do not take your meaning."
"It is difficult to remain afloat when one is wrapped in heavy chains and fastened to a brace of cannonballs. Mark my words, when it comes to protecting their own interests, the peers of the realm are cruel as cats and equally heartless. Anything can be arranged if one has the connections."
Tatev shrugged. "If you expose me, you also expose the Duchess. I will accuse her, yes? Of terrible things."
"Do your worst." It was Rhiannon's turn to shrug. "I care nothing for the bitch. As for Lina... well, it would be a blessing in disguise, wouldn't it? She'd inherit Inishglen and all that lovely property, and I'd be right there enjoying it with her. If you have a better threat up your sleeve, make it. Otherwise, don't waste my time."
"I see." Tatev steepled his fingers together; the gemstones in his rings flashed and glittered. "I am a business man, Miss Moore. We can do business, I think, as long as you understand that the well is not inexhaustible."
"You'd kill me if my demands became too unreasonable, so here is my proposition - you will pay me fifty thousand pounds, in cash. You may be sure that I'll count every shilling."
"I would expect no less," Tatev said, his voice laden with irony.
Rhiannon kept her icy gaze fixed on him. "After I've received the payment, I'll encourage Lina to travel. A leisurely Continental tour that will keep us out of England for at least three months. That should be enough time for you to finish picking Ireland clean and move on to more prosperous ventures."
"So... you will not know where I am or what guise I am operating under, and exposing my scheme in Inishglen will mean nothing once you return. You'll be unable to continue blackmailing me. Very good, Miss Moore. I'm impressed. But how do I know that you'll not simply take my money and then turn me over?"
"You have my word."
"Honor among thieves? Oh, little one, what a romantic notion!" Tatev chuckled, then frowned. "Unfortunately, I am not a romantic man. I'll require more assurance than that."
"What will ease your fears?"
Tatev's smile was very unpleasant. "An equal hold over you."
Alerted by some inner instinct, Rhiannon turned her head. What she saw made her start to leap from the chair. Princess Annastasiia was behind her, a hypodermic syringe poised in her hand, an evil grin on her wrinkled simian face.
The needle plunged forward, straight towards Rhiannon's throat.
Twisting around, Rhiannon blocked the syringe with one hand and with the other, flourished her pistol in Annastasiia's face. Her finger tightened on the trigger. "Don't be too clever!" Rhiannon warned. She gave Tatev a sidelong glance. "Stay in your chair, unless you want to die."
Tatev spread his hands apart. "My apologies for Her Highness' presumption. Annastasiia, come here!"
With much grumbling, the princess went to her master, carefully side-stepping Rhiannon and her dainty pistol.
Rhiannon kept her expression fierce, although inwardly she was shivering at the close call. "Is this how you treat all your business partners, Mr. Tatev?"
"As I said, Annastasiia was not acting under my orders."
"Then I suggest you control her more efficiently." Rhiannon sat back down, keeping the pistol trained on the wizened dwarf and the medium huddled in his shawls. She bent over, still watching the pair, and picked up the syringe. "Shall we continue our discussion?"
"Indeed." Tatev took hold of Annastasiia's arm and jerked her down to sit on his knee. "Fifty thousand pounds is a petty fortune. I understood that you have private financial means, not dependent upon Lady Evangeline."
"True. I had a tolerably good legacy. My debts soon exceeded my income."
"And your lover knows nothing of this? I wonder why."
Rhiannon snapped, "Because I haven't told her. There are certain clubs in London. Special places, you understand, for persons who require discreet entertainments of the sort that polite society frowns upon. Drugs, gaming, the company of young ladies who provide satisfaction for jaded appetites."
Tatev blinked behind his blue spectacles. "You hardly seem the sort, Miss Moore."
"I was corrupted long before I met Lina. Surely you know, Mr. Tatev, that I was once a prostitute myself. That scandalous tale has been making the rounds for years. It can hardly be surprising that I sometimes crave less mannered company." Rhiannon eased her tension on the trigger but did not take her finger off it entirely. "And I am fond of cards and dice. They, however, are not so fond of me as to permit a winning streak."
"Is that all?"
Rhiannon pursed her lips. "Not entirely. I've written letters - indiscreet letters - to other women. Lina means well, but she is sometimes very boring company. I crave a little more excitement at times."
"And were these letters returned to you?"
"Of course not! But I could provide you with a list of my inamorata. They're common girls; a few pounds would be enough to tempt them into betraying me. If Lina knew of these indiscretions, she would toss me out, bag and baggage." Rhiannon pushed a stray lock of red-gold hair behind her ear with her free hand. "Do you consider this an equitable exchange?"
"Perhaps." Tatev kept his grip on Annastasiia's thin arm. "Yes, I must consider this."
"Don't take too long. Lina wishes to return to London within a few days and I must have your answer."
"You will have it very soon. Good day, Miss Moore."
"Good day, Mr. Tatev."
Rhiannon rose and made her way to the door, proud that her hands were not shaking, and that her expression did not betray the chill that turned her blood to ice in her veins. As she opened it, she caught a glimpse of Tatev's face. He was staring at her with the dispassionate gaze of a scientist examining an insect in the killing jar.
Perched on his knee like a pet monkey, Princess Annastasiia glared with pure hatred and the promise of death in her dark eyes.
Rhiannon left the Violet Room, an uneasy feeling making the hair on the back of her neck stir and threaten to rise.
Meanwhile, Lina burst through the front door of the castle. Her skirts were muddy to the knees, her ink-black hair had come loose from its pins and was hanging in wild disarray down her back. "Quickly!" she shouted at the stunned servants. "An overturned coach in the road!"
After making this shocking pronouncement, Lina turned tail and raced back outdoors, pelting down the drive with her ruined dress flapping around her ankles. Although the servants lacked the guidance of a butler's authority since Grenville's death, two footmen were galvanized into action by the new cook, Mrs. O'Hara. The unflappable matron had been drawn from her kitchen by the commotion. She made the sign of the cross to avert bad luck, and sent word to the stable to ready a horse, in case a doctor had to be fetched from the village.
The footmen returned in short order, bearing between them a woman. They were carrying her with utmost care as Lina supervised and fussed like a hen over a single chick. The victim of the accident was quite stout; the bodice of her tobacco-brown dress strained over an impressively swelling bosom, and gloved hands rested on top of a plump belly. The extraordinarily long brim and heavy veil of a coal scuttle bonnet, decades out of date, obscured her face, but a few straggling locks of hair fallen down at the sides were silvery-gray. It was obvious that she was old but solidly fleshed, for the footmen were sweating and panting as they staggered into the hall.
"Take her up the stairs," Lina directed, ignoring the footmen's florid wet faces and rolling eyes. "Mrs. O'Hara, be so kind as to have one of the maids make up the Ophelia Room."
"Will you be needin' the doctor?" Mrs. O'Hara asked, trying to catch a glimpse of the old lady behind her veiled bonnet without being too conspicuous about it.
"I think not. Mrs. Murdle is suffering from shock but no actual injury. She was on her way to visit a relation when the carriage overturned." Lina broke off her explanation in order to shout at the struggling footmen, "The poor lady has suffered enough without being bowled down the stairs! Do be cautious!"
Mrs. O'Hara's brow creased in a frown. "There's no Murdles hereabouts, mum, or I'd've heard of 'em."
"She is most likely a maiden aunt or widow of some kind," Lina said. "I did not have time to ascertain her precise connections, Mrs. O'Hara. Now, the carriage driver - one of those hired fellows from the rail station - is taking care of the horses. Should he require assistance, I have informed him that Inishglen's resources are at his disposal. Mrs. Murdle will be our guest this evening. She needs rest and is not to be disturbed. Perhaps you will be so good as to prepare some invalid's victuals - calf's foot jelly, blancmange, that sort of thing."
"Aye, mum." Mrs. O'Hara cast a final suspicious look at the footmen, reeling up the stairs with their burden, and went back to the kitchen, muttering to herself.
The other servants, who had been dawdling in the corridor within earshot, began to drift away. A maid darted up the stairs, the ribbon of her starched apron fairly snapping, her arms loaded with clean linens. Lina waited until the footmen had gained the landing and were puffing towards the Ophelia Room before she followed them.
Rhiannon was waiting at the top of the stairs. Lurking behind her was the bizarre figure of Princess Annastasiia, her simian face framed by a huge cartwheel ruff. The princess did not seem happy; her expression was like a thundercloud. Every time she glanced at Rhiannon, her fingers twitched.
"What happened?" Rhiannon asked, ignoring Annastasiia.
Lina explained the carriage accident, ending with, "Someone will have to stay up with the poor old dear in case she takes a bad turn during the night. After supper, I will sit with her until midnight. Will you take the second shift, my dear? I fear that with the recent troubles, none of the servants would be trustworthy enough."
"Of course." Rhiannon took Lina's arm and allowed herself to be escorted away.
Annastasiia crumpled her satin skirts in a fist then darted to the Violet Room, her footsteps pattering urgently on the carpeted floor.
As soon as it was safe to speak, Rhiannon said, "Mrs. Murdle?"
"Tasty bait, my dear." Lina risked a peek over her shoulder; the door to the Violet Room was ajar but there was no sign of Annastasiia. Nevertheless, her voice was barely above a whisper. "Our little fishies will gulp it down tonight and, with any luck, become thoroughly hooked.."
"Fishies? Call them sharks instead." Rhiannon showed her the empty hypodermic syringe. "The princess very nearly drew my life's blood with it."
Lina's cheeks paled. "Were you injured?"
"No." Rhiannon chuckled at the horrified expression on her partner's face. "Don't worry, love. I know the venture has its risks and I'll be on my guard."
"Very well." Lina said with a sigh of resignation. "And other than an attack upon your person, how did you fare with Tatev?"
"I think he believes me, at least to the extent of promising another interview."
"I will take this," Lina said, plucking the syringe from Rhiannon's hand, "and compare it with the shard we found in the west wing. It seems a common enough device, so my result will not be conclusive evidence. However, every shred will aid our case."
Rhiannon nodded. "Is there anything else I can do until tonight?"
Lina grimaced. "Do not wander about the grounds without an escort. Avoid balconies, parapets and roof-tops. Eat and drink nothing that you have not seen prepared with your own eyes. Remain alert, my dear."
"I will. I love you."
"I love you, too." Lina gave the smaller woman a hug. "I must see how Mrs. Murdle fares. Will you look in on my mother? I have not seen her this morning and wonder if she is indisposed."
"Of course." Rhiannon squeezed Lina's ribs tightly enough to make her catch her breath, then made her way towards the other end of the hall, in the direction of the Duchess' bed chamber..
The Duchess of Inishglen was hard at work at her writing desk when Rhiannon came into her bedchamber. The pugs were not in evidence. "My darlings are taking a little constitutional with the maid," the Duchess explained, signing a letter with a flourish. "I hope she prevents them from digging up the rosebushes again."
"How do you feel, Your Grace?" Rhiannon asked.
"Tired, dear girl. Taking care of an estate requires intelligence, energy, vast organizational abilities, and more patience than a saint." The Duchess swiveled around in her chair. Although it was afternoon, she was wearing a loose fitting morning gown of black lace, and her gray-flecked dark hair was pulled back in a simple braid. "Do sit down."
Rhiannon settled down on a chair near the fireplace. "Thank you."
"Miss Moore... Rhiannon," the Duchess said, "it may seem to you that I am a cruel woman, because I have avoided participation in Vangie's life since... well, since she decided to abandon conventionality..."
"Actually, Your Grace..."
"Please permit me to finish." The Duchess held up a hand. "I want to explain my position to you. This house - this great estate of Inishglen - belongs to me, not to my late husband. Specifically, the title can only be inherited by a female of direct descent from the founding line. An unusual state of affairs, to put it mildly, but one which I have no desire to change. When I die, Vangie will be the new Duchess. I hope that she will live here and be happy."
"I'm sure she will, Your Grace. And I'm sure it won't be for a long, long time."
"My concern is not for Vangie, however, but for the next generation," the Duchess continued, as if she had not heard Rhiannon's remark. "If Vangie dies without issue, Inishglen will devolve upon some cadet branch of the family. A stranger. One who has no regard for the proud traditions of this house. Can you understand my grief? The depth of my concern? I do not reproach her for myself - God knows, my daughter is strong-willed, and her reputation is her own to destroy - but for the sake of Inishglen. I must remind her of her duty, no matter how distasteful she finds it.
"When Vangie's poor husband died, I hoped..." The Duchess paused delicately, and went on, "Well, it became clear that she was not with child from that brief union. I waited patiently, even throughout that terrible period when her drunkeness seemed on the verge of destroying her life. You know about that, I suppose?"
"Yes, I do. She blamed herself for the death of a lover, who later proved to be alive." Rhiannon's mouth drew into a thin, disapproving line. "Sherlock Holmes was her best and only friend at that time. He saved her life. She had no one else."
"I could not approach her. I dared not. The feelings between us were too hurtful. But whatever she may think about me, I love my daughter. I will be frank, Rhiannon, and hope that I do not shock you with my bluntness." The Duchess leaned forward, propping her elbow on the arm of the chair. Black lace cuffs fell back, exposing scabs and bruises on her thin arm. "I do not care if Vangie takes female lovers. Discreetly or blatently, it makes no difference to me. Her romantic relationships are her own concern. However, if she does not have an heir, all that I and the other women of Inishglen have worked hard to achieve will be lost. Let her make a marriage of convenience to someone - anyone! Commoner or nobleman. Any man will do, as long as he is capable of creating healthy offspring. One female child is all that I ask. She need not even raise it herself. I can arrange matters so that she is not in the least inconvenienced."
Rhiannon blinked. She had no idea that this was the issue that lay between mother and daughter.
The Duchess went on, "I realize that on her own, Vangie will never marry. But she must! Surely you can see that."
"I don't... I can't tell Lina what to do, Your Grace."
"Ah, but you can. I've seen the way my daughter dotes upon you. If you were to plead my case, Vangie would listen to you. Please help me. Don't destroy the heritage of Inishglen because of selfishness."
Rhiannon had started to take the Duchess' hand; now she jerked back, frowning. "Selfishness?"
"She has a duty to the next generation. So do you. Ignoring that duty is selfish and self-indulgent." The Duchess stood up, shaking out her skirts. "Vangie chose to separate herself from this family when she took up with that French woman, Victoire. It broke her father's heart. It nearly tore mine to pieces, yet I have never ceased to remind Vangie of her duty in the hope that someday, she may return to her senses and stop all this tribade foolishness."
"You presume to tell me my duty?" Rhiannon was beginning to understand why Lina disliked her mother so much. "Your Grace, I do not have such an easy command of Lina as you obviously think. I am not her master, and she is not my slave. We love each other. We have a partnership of equals. Lina has never discussed having a child, but if she did - or if I did, for that matter - it would be because we wanted to share the joys of motherhood, not to fulfill an inheritance requirement."
"I knew it!" The Duchess threw her hands into the air in frustration. "You're no better than that French tart! Concerned only with yourself, determined to steer my Vangie to disaster! You won't share her with a man. You're afraid that she might leave you to pursue a normal life. That's the truth. Admit it!"
Rhiannon stood up, too. "I am an English tart, not a French one." The reference comparing her to Victoire made her angry. Neverthless, she made an effort to stay polite. "And I won't dignify the rest of your remarks with any answer except this: Lina's life is her own. I could no more command her to obey you than I could command her to fly to the moon."
"You refuse me, then?"
"Ungrateful hussy! After all of the consideration I've shown you! You, hardly better than a woman of the streets..."
"It was a filthy tribade that corrupted my daughter in the beginning. Now you complete her ruination, and the ruination of a heritage that has stood for centuries. Are the proud shades of Inishglen to be destroyed without regard?" The Duchess' eyes were feverishly bright.
"Lina is her own woman. I refuse to help you reduce her to a... a... a brood mare!" Rhiannon spat out the last words.
"You are nothing better than a parasite, sucking the life's blood from my daughter. When she has no more money, will you give her one last kiss before you find a new victim to drag down into the gutter?"
"It may surprise you to know, Your Grace, that I have an independent income." Rhiannon's tone was freezing. "Before you ask, it was inherited from my aunt. There. Now you have one less accusation to make. Do you wish to continue insulting me? You might take exception to the color of my hair next."
"Now I must be frank, Your Grace. I love Lina. She loves me. We are both filthy tribades, and enjoy our intimacy to the fullest. It may interest you to know that Lina corrupted me, not the other way 'round. I had only the faintest idea of what love between two women could be like before I met her. Of course, we've both learned a lot since then."
"I do not have to listen to this." The Duchess pressed a hand to her bosom, her face gone pale.
"But you should." Rhiannon made an effort to calm herself. "Do you honestly believe that I - who love Lina more than life - would do anything to harm her? If Lina wanted a child, I would help her, support her in any capacity she would allow. God help me, but if Lina fell in love with anyone else, man or woman, and wanted to sever our ties... I would let her go. Her happiness means everything to me. You accuse me of holding her back, of making her something she is not, forcing her to choose. You couldn't be more wrong. Where she leads, I follow - to the end of my days and beyond, if possible. We're not merely lovers. We're mates of heart and soul and mind. You can choose not to believe that if you wish, but you will never hear a more honest answer."
Rhiannon cocked her head and added, "If you've said these terrible things to Lina herself, as you've said them to me, then I don't wonder that she resists you so strongly. Why should she do anything to please you, when all you do is insult the one she loves? No one likes to hear such things."
"Even if they happen to be true?"
"I can't prove anything to you. Love doesn't come with legal documents and signed papers with wax seals. You can't counter it with logic or demands. It just is." Rhiannon pushed a stray lock of hair behind her ear. "Instead of ordering Lina around like a servant, try talking to her. Persuading her. Use honey instead of vinegar. I can't promise that she'll agree - in fact, I'm fairly certain that she does not have the patience for motherhood, or the inclination - but if it means that much to you, she might listen."
The Duchess sat down abruptly on the edge of the bed. She looked exhausted, as if every ounce of energy had been drained from her body in an instant. "You don't know what it's like," she said. "Vangie is a widow, but hardly a respectable one. Even here in the country, one hears tales. I'm almost mad with worry sometimes. Her life is a scandal. Bad enough that she pursues a man's trade, but when it comes to me that she's taken up with a common woman... that they're lovers... well, it is easier to think the worst of a stranger than of one's own child."
"If it helps, Victoire deceived Lina most cruelly. Please excuse my language, but Victoire was not a tart - she was and is a bloodthirsty bitch of the first water, and if I get the chance, I'm going to thrash her within an inch of her life. And then I'll take that inch!" Rhiannon did not resume her chair, but continued to stand. "I think that the problem has less to do with Lina's heir than with the way she chooses to live her life. If she was married - even a marriage of convenience - and her affairs were discreetly conducted, there would be no public scandal. Am I correct?"
"I do care about Inishglen. But you're right, much as I hate to admit it." The Duchess gave her a tired smile. "I push Vangie because I'm terrified of what I'll hear next. She pushes back, and the cycle continues."
"Oh, we've had our share of comments, but most people stay silent to our faces. Polite society simply does not acknowledge our bond. What's said behind our backs doesn't need to be acknowledged. You're a Duchess. You don't have to listen to what anyone says. You can simply walk away."
"The gossip is terrible. It drives me to distraction. Consorting with thieves and murderers, getting involved in police matters... I was going mad. Every bit of news was worse than the next." The Duchess eased back into a stack of pillows, swinging her feet up onto the bed. "My friends told me the most outlandish things. Vangie was hardly forthcoming when I asked her if the rumors were true. I assumed the worst. It is hard to admit that one's daughter is... that she does not have normal appetites."
"Talk to her," Rhiannon urged. "Lina has been suffering for a long time because she believes she doesn't have her mother's love. She may act indifferent, but I assure you, the pain is real however she may conceal it."
"I know. Just as I knew she would come if I asked it of her."
"How did you make the acquaintance of such a creature as Bazhanova?"
The Duchess pinched the bridge of her nose and grimaced. "She came to me with letters of introduction from the Countess of Andover. I haven't seen Georgina since my husband passed away, but one can hardly ignore a request from one's peer. Georgina gushed about the Madam's extraordinary spiritual skills. It seemed difficult to believe."
"Yet you've recommended the Madam to your friends. The Earl of Kinslainne, for example. You must have been impressed."
"I was, at first. Since then, I have been living in an inescapable nightmare." The Duchess motioned Rhiannon closer. "I am watched day and night. If I displease them, they withhold my medicine." She reached out a scrawny arm and grasped Rhiannon's wrist; her fingers were like claws, her eyes burned with a feverish light. "I must have my medicine. Do you understand that? Tell Vangie. Make her understand!"
Rhiannon patted the back of the woman's hand. "I'm sure that Lina will do her best for you."
"I loathe Madam Bahzanova," the Duchess said, "but I must have my medicine. Vangie must be made to know that. You will tell her."
"Don't worry, Your Grace." Rhiannon was becoming concerned by the Duchess' sudden surge of energy. "Have you eaten breakfast? We missed you downstairs."
The Duchess let out a heavy sigh and fell back onto the pillows. "I have no appetite today."
"You should try to eat something."
"Leave me alone! You are not yet mistress here, nor will you ever be!"
At that moment, the maid returned, a half dozen panting pugs at her heels. The little dogs swarmed upon the bed, threw themselves down next to their mistress, and stared at Rhinnon with liquid black eyes. Princess Annastasiia followed, bearing a slender wooden case under her arm.
"Are you my nurse now, as well as Vangie's whore?" the Duchess asked Rhiannon spitefully, her voice laden with venom. "Get out, Miss Moore. I would command you to leave Inishglen entirely if I thought you might obey."
Rhiannon rose slowly. Two spots of vivid color burned in her cheeks, but she forced her anger down. Lina's mother was ill, enslaved by addiction and fear. They had connected for a brief moment, joined by their love for one person. It seemed that their brief understanding was over. Rhiannon curtsied formally to the Duchess and took her leave.
As the door closed behind her, she caught a glimpse of Annastasiia hovering over the Duchess' prone form. It reminded her of a malevolent vampire and its helpless prey, caught in the grip of unimaginable horrors. Rhiannon found herself feeling sorry for the Duchess, despite her insults.
Soon, she thought. Soon your nightmare will be over, Your Grace.
And then she recalled how the Duchess had villified her. How adamantly she had insisted that Lina be wed - if only a sham wedding - to produce an heir. How much she resented Rhiannon for preventing her daughter from doing her duty.
And when your nightmare ends, shall mine begin? Am I selfish to want to keep her for myself? In spite of my brave words, I don't think I could stand sharing Lina with someone else.
Troubled, Rhiannon walked slowly down the corridor. She somehow felt as if she was being disloyal to her lover by merely considering the situation. Guilt began to eat at her. Rhiannon's stomach gave a kind of hiccup and unshed tears burned in her eyes.
From things that I've heard, the Duchess has been reminding Lina of her duty for a long time. After years of refusal, why would she suddenly change her mind and abandon me? Has she ever given me cause to believe that she might be unfaithful? Has she ever, by word or deed, made me think she might leave?
Of course not, came the sensible reply. Her behavior is entirely the opposite. You know Lina dotes upon you. How can you doubt it? Has she not shown you in a hundred ways how much you mean to her? She nearly died when you left her in Egypt. Stop being so morbid, girl! You have an important task and no time for distractions.
And yet her doubts lingered, like a ghostly taste of foulness on the tongue.
Rhiannon met Lina coming out of the Ophelia Room. "How is Mrs. Murdle?"
"Damning calf's foot jelly and milk toast and gruel with language rarely heard from ladies of her advanced years," Lina answered cheerfully. Noting her partner's expression, she continued, "What is the matter, my dear? Has Mother been horrid to you?"
"Lina, your mother is very concerned about Inishglen. You're her heir and..."
"Oh, dear Lord!" Lina groaned. "What nonsense! I had not supposed you would be so susceptible to such poppycock..." She took a closer look at Rhiannon and exclaimed, "But you are!" and swept her into an embrace.
Rhiannon's sigh was muffled against her taller partner's bosom.
"My dear, you should not take on so. My mother has her own ideas of duty and her own concerns. I have no objection to giving her aid when required, but I will not permit her to dictate my life. I love you with all my heart and soul. Nothing will change that."
"Haven't you ever considered it? Having a baby, I mean," Rhiannon said, tilting her head to look into Lina's face.
"Not particularly." An arm still wrapped around Rhiannon's waist, Lina led her to the Perdita Suite and closed the door. "My dear, it was never my wish to have children. Most unwomanly of me, perhaps, but I have never felt that tender yearning."
"What will happen to Inishglen?"
"To the best of my knowledge, the estate and title will pass onto a cousin when I am cold in my grave and beyond petty mortal concerns. It matters naught to me. But you must not allow Mother to upset you."
"I'm sorry, love. It's just that she was so very desperate!"
"And so very insulting," Lina added with a knowing grin. "Her Grace has peppered me with the ammunition available to a mother's arsenal - guilt, blandishments, cajolements, outright commands - all without success. I have not yielded before; can you truly imagine that I will yield now, when I have you by my side? The one who is my life, the other half of my soul! No, my dear. Mother has no hold over me. She has no hold over you, either. Did she appeal to your sense of duty? Did she make mention of your selfishness in refusing to give me up into a man's embraces?"
"Yes, all of that, and she called me a tart, to boot." Rhiannon's lips tugged into a smile, then the expression faded into a frown. "Her Grace reminded me of Victoire. She was very bitter about it."
"Ah, yes. Not my first defiance, but my greatest," Lina said.
"Your mother still loves you."
Lina's emerald eyes flashed. "In spite of my appalling lapses into scandal?"
"Her Grace is worried about you."
"Are you acting as my mother's apologist?" Lina paused at Rhiannon's stricken look. "No, my dear. I should not have snapped at you." She sighed and sat down in a chair. Her jade cigarette case was on a table at her elbow. She extracted an Egyptian cigarette and lit it with a lucifer. This operation concluded, she said, "I will be glad when this affair is done."
Rhiannon opened the window a crack. "So will I."
"I wonder how Holmes is getting along on his Swiss holiday? When we return to London, we must call upon him in Baker Street."
"Yes, I would enjoy seeing Mr. Holmes again." Rhiannon settled down in chair opposite her lover. She knew her partner was trying to change the subject. "Lina, this thing between you and your mother has never been settled."
"Nor will it be, my dear." Lina crossed her legs and slouched elegantly in the chair, wreaths of cigarette smoke framing her beautiful face. "My mother is strong-willed; moreover, she is used to having her own way and is not accustomed to being defied. I am equally stubborn and determined to live my life the way that I choose, not a dull pseudo-existence designed to please the Duchess of Inishglen. Mother feels that her reputation is besmirched by my so-called scandalous behavior; this is the crux of her distress, not the disposition of a moldy old castle many years after she has gone on to her Heavenly reward. She wishes me to have a normal life as defined by the dictates of a small-minded and narrow thinking society. I refuse to do so. We cannot reach a happy compromise. Here endeth the matter."
"That's very sad, love."
"Not particularly. Mother and I were never friends. When I was a child, I was treated hardly better than a servant, expected to obey her every command and bow to her every whim. I was never a dutiful daughter, my dear. The flame of rebellion burned too brightly to be extinguished. The last time I succumbed to her blandishments, I married a much older man and was widowed on the wedding night. This gave me an independent fortune - for which I am profoundly grateful - but the marriage simply confirmed to Mother that my unnatural tendencies were a passing fancy."
Rhiannon moved in a rustle of silk skirts towards the dressing table. "Can't you make some kind of peace with her?"
"As long as one of us breathes air, I fear it is not to be." Lina rose and flicked her cigarette out of the window. "My dear, I beg you will not dwell too heavily on the Duchess. Dismiss her from your mind." She drew closer to Rhiannon, reached out and stroked her cheek. "My affection and regard for you are not changed, nor will they ever be diminished, in this life or the next. I want no other but you. I love no other but you. Do you believe that?"
"Yes," Rhiannon said softly. She turned to face Lina and a smile curved her mouth into an enticing bow. "But what will the proud shades of Inishglen think?"
"The shades of Inishglen can go to the Devil," Lina murmured, bending her head for a kiss.
Afternoon sunlight slanted through the windows, fell upon the tester
bed with its heavy hangings and the two women who lay there together,
tangled in sheets and drowsy with love.
Evening came to Inishglen. A blaze of magenta set the sky afire, then the flame of sunset was swallowed up by dusky violet shadows. The gardens were muffled in darkness. Within the castle, dozens of candles were lit to provide pools of light against encroaching nightfall.
Mrs. O'Hara served a plain dinner of lamb and potatoes and peas. Regardless of the cook's unimaginative fare, an excellent bottle of claret was opened and shared; even the Duchess, who had been sullenly uncommunicative during dinner, acquiesced to a glass. Rhiannon enjoyed it immensely, as well as the imported chocolates that were produced at the end of the meal. Princess Annastasiia turned up her nose at wine and chocolate, and demanded champagne.
After the table had been cleared, Lina went upstairs to sit with Mrs. Murdle, leaving Rhiannon alone with Annastasiia.
As Rhiannon had nothing to say to the simian creature, she retired with a book to the Long Gallery. It was nearly ninety feet long, sporting a massive marble fireplace, blue carpeting and leaded-glass windows with Gothic arches. In contrast to the impressive size of the room, the furniture was delicate, all papier-mâché and mother-of-pearl, painted with pastel flowers and bows. Rhiannon found a chair, pulled it closer to the fireplace, and began to read. She decided it was relatively safe here; there were only two doors, one at each end of the Gallery, and no one could approach her without being seen.
Rhiannon curled up with her book and was soon entranced. She remained dimly aware of the snap and crackle of the fire, the scratching of rose bushes against the windows. In deference to social custom, she had put up her hair; a long curling red-gold lock had come down from the pins, and she absently twined it around her finger while she read.
The door at one end of the Gallery suddenly banged open and she was startled out of her trance. Rhiannon fumbled in her pocket for her pistol, but subsided when she recognized the angular figure of Flora, the maid. She rose, her book dangling from one hand.
"Her Ladyship wishes to see you in the Ophelia Room," Flora said. The maid's eyes were red and swollen, her face blotchy with tears. She was still mourning her uncle Grenville's passing.
"I'll go up this minute," Rhiannon answered. As she passed Flora, she put a hand on the maid's thin shoulder. "I'm sorry for your loss. Do you have other family in the area?"
Flora sniffled. "Aye," she said, and paused. She glanced around the Gallery in a theatrical manner, then leaned closer to Rhiannon and said in a trembling whisper, "Be careful, m'lady. There's dark doing's afoot."
"Thank you," Rhiannon replied, careful to keep her tone as serious as the maid's. "Do you have any particulars?"
Eyes rolling, Flora shook her head, lips compressed into a tight line.
Rhiannon gave her what she hoped was a reassuring smile and left the Long Gallery.
She met no one going up the stairs; the servants were in their quarters for the evening, although some thoughtful soul had left a candle burning in a holder on a table in the hall. In the gloom, the ancestral portraits seemed to take on a more sinister air, as though the old masters and mistresses of Inishglen had been transformed by moonlight in the manner of werewolves and other terrifying creatures of the night. The eyeslit of a suit of armor held mysterious glimmerings in its shadowy depths. Every rustle, every sigh of air, was charged with evil intent.
Rhiannon suppressed a shiver and continued on her way, though not without looking over her shoulder from time to time.
The Ophelia Room had watery green paper on the walls, watery green satin on the furniture, and watery green panes in the single window. A rose bowl on the dresser emitted the faint scent of lavender; a bundle of dried flowers, tied with a purple ribbon, hung on the bedpost. The ceiling had been painted with a mural of streaming weeds and swirling waterlilies - the view one might expect if one were drowned and lying at the bottom of a stream. Rhiannon found the decoration rather horrid despite the artificial cheer of chintz on the bed.
"'There's rosemary, that's for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there's pansies, that's for thoughts. There's fennel for you, and columbines. There's rue for you, and here's some for me. We may call it herb of grace o' Sundays. Oh, you must wear your rue with a difference. There's a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died. They say he made a good end,'" Rhiannon quoted under her breath, staring at the bedspread which bore brightly woven representations of the mentioned flowers.
Mrs. Murdle was an anonymous lump under it, with just the crown of her lace ruffled nightcap visible.
Lina smiled and said quietly, "'But long it could not be till that her garments, heavy with their drink, pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay to muddy death,'" she said, also quoting Opheila from Hamlet. "This room used to give me nightmares as a child. A distinct lapse in my grandmother's otherwise excellent taste, I fear. Well, my dear, are you ready?"
"I am." Rhiannon patted her pocket with her free hand.
Lina gestured towards the bed, where a sonorous snoring could be heard. "Mrs. Murdle is sleeping. Will you be alright alone?"
"I'm sure it will be fine." Rhiannon took Lina's place in a chair next to the bed; her back was to the bedroom door. "Is there anything that needs to be done?"
"I think not. Be careful, my dear." Lina bent down and kissed her. "I will be in the Perdita Suite should you need me. 'And of all Christian souls, I pray God. God be wi' ye'," she continued with another quote.
"Good-night, love. Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."
Lina left the Ophelia Room, shutting the door behind her.
Rhiannon sighed and turned back to her book. Called A String of Pearls, it was all about the demon barber of Fleet Street, Sweeney Todd. Despite the lurid passages, she could not recapture the literary magic that had held her spellbound in the Long Gallery. Bored, she found a some out-of-date ladies' magazines in the drawer of the writing desk and perused them for a few minutes, accompanied by Mrs. Murdle's snores.
The candle burned low, but Rhiannon was feeling too lazy to replace it. Her limbs were heavy, her eyelids weighted with iron. A warmth infused her body, lulling her with the promise of sweet oblivion. The effort to remain awake was too much. Sleep beckoned, an irresistible temptation that could not be denied. She yawned hugely, the muscles in her jaw stretching to an uncomfortable limit, and subsided into the chair, her thoughts drifting. At last, she fell asleep.
She would never know what waked her - a soft scuffling footstep on the carpeted floor, a breath of air against her neck, a creak from the door - but it was enough to rouse Rhiannon from sleep, though not completely. There was a foul taste in her mouth. She blinked, somewhat confused at finding herself in total darkeness. Rhiannon's back and shoulders were aching from her unnatural position in the chair. One of her legs had gone completely numb, with prickling pins and needles in her toes. She tried to sit up but could not find the strength; her muscles were flaccid, reluctant to respond.
Making a supreme effort, Rhiannon rolled her head to one side and focused. There was a faint greenish shimmer in the air, a glowing form that slowly evolved into that of a woman dressed in veils and floating gauze. Rhiannon could not make out her face. The woman glided across the floor slowly, her movements as stealthy as a hunting cat's. In her hand was a hypodermic syringe. The steel needle glittered like a streak of green light, reflecting the luminescence of the woman's costume.
Rhiannon forced her hand to move, trying to reach the pocket of her dress. Her pistol was inside, the little mother-of-pearl handled gun that Sherlock Holmes had given her. She gritted her teeth, ignoring the throbbing headache in her temples. Her fingers refused to obey, scrabbling feebly and without purpose. Frustration and fear boiled within her as the figure came closer.
She tried to scream, but her tongue was swollen, her mouth too dry for any sound other than a croak. Beads of cold sweat prickled her skin; her stomach felt cold and hollow. Desperately, Rhiannon tried to find something - anything - to use as a weapon. The only object she could locate was the book she had been reading, which was still in her lap. Her arm was too paralyzed for movement, but she was able to use her wrist.
The woman came closer, a few steps at a time. Her veils seethed about her form, emitting a dim and sickly light that was reminiscent of grave mold. Had it not been for the all-too-human arm, upraised with its chosen weapon in hand, the figure might have been that of a wandering spirit from beyond the grave. She stalked nearer, gauzy skirts whispering a soft susurration that was more blood-curdling than a death knell.
Summoning up all of her strength, Rhiannon grasped the book between her fingers and tried to heave it at the bed. To her dismay, the volume did not fly far, but fell clattering to the floor near her foot. The needle loomed larger in her vision as the veiled woman reached her. A hand fastened itself in her hair and pulled her head forward. Pins pattered down to the carpet. Rhiannon gasped, trying with all her might to struggle, emit some sound, defend herself against the loathsome foe that sought her death. Her pulse throbbed loudly in her ears; every heartbeat shook her ribcage until it seemed amazing that no one else could hear the deafening roar.
A cold point touched the back of her neck. Rhiannon tried to twist away but was prevented by the cruel hold on her hair. Her scalp was on fire. The pain was nothing next to the knowledge that she was about to die. Lina! she shrieked inside her mind. Lina, where are you? Her feet pushed feebly against the floor. Lina! I need you!
There was a clock on the mantlepiece, a gilded French fantasy of half-clad nymphs and gleaming swans set in a green marble case. It suddenly played a glassy tinkling tune that startled her attacker; the woman jumped, cruelly twisting Rhiannon's hair, and the needle withdrew. The clock chimed the hour with three strokes of its bells. Rhiannon managed to get up a hand and grab the woman's wrist. Her grip was weak but she dug in with her nails, gouging and clawing. She felt skin tear and flesh break; the hold on her hair was withdrawn. Savage triumph welled up in Rhiannon's breast. She had marked her murderer and wished she could do more than that. If only she could get her pistol! If only Lina would come...
A fear more horrible than that of dying made Rhiannon nearly choke. What if Lina had been attacked earlier? What if the woman she loved was laying dead in the Perdita Suite? Stabbed, or perhaps poisoned or strangled? Or bludgeoned to death, that beautiful oval face made into a gory ruin, sightless emerald eyes open forever in silent apology. The very thought made Rhiannon's blood boil.
Renewed determination and absolute fury lent some measure of strength to her. When the faintly glowing hand came close to her face, Rhiannon fastened her teeth into it. She ground down with all the power in her jaw, deliberately doing as much damage as possible. Delicate bones splintered; she tasted the rusty iron tang of blood in her mouth. Her attacker let out a shriek and stabbed her with the syringe. The needle broke off against her clavicle but Rhiannon was too far gone to feel it. A fist landed hard against her cheek, momentarily dazzling her, and the woman pulled her wounded hand away. When the stars had faded from her vision, Rhiannon could see dark blobs and splatters on the woman's skirts and veil, and she grinned. It was blood, the normal crimson color turned black by green luminescent paint on the gauze.
Veils trembling, the woman took a step backwards and spat out an oath that made Rhiannon's eyes widen.
Her attacker was not a woman at all. The voice belonged to a young man, and it was not Tatev!
"You bitch!" he whispered viciously. "You dirty little bitch! You'll pay for this."
Rhiannon spat out a shred of flesh - his flesh, she thought smugly - and tried to reply, but the blood she had swallowed made her throat even drier.
The man approached again, cradling his torn hand against his chest. "I'm going to kill you slowly," he said, his voice barely audible but chilling nonetheless. "Inch by inch. There are places in this castle where no one will hear you."
He placed the glass syringe against the bedpost and deliberately applied pressure until it broke in half. Holding up the jagged end he still held, he said, "I'll take your eyes first, bitch. Tatev won't care. Then we'll have some real fun."
And try as she might, Rhiannon still could not scream.
Rhiannon managed to heave herself out of the chair, falling heavily on the floor with a useless arm beneath her. Her head banged against the side of the bed with enough force to make her see stars again, a whole galaxy blossoming against the blackness behind her eyelids. Bile rushed to the back of her throat and she retched, a spasm that threatened to tear her apart.
The veiled young man swooped down and roughly turned her over. He pressed the sharp edge of the broken syringe just below one of her eyes, a spike of pain that made every muscle in her body tighten. Involuntary tears welled up and spilled over. The young man let out a breathy chuckle.
"Not yet, bitch. No crying. I want to enjoy your tears in private."
Rhiannon put every ounce of her hatred and defiance into a glare that she hoped he could see.
There was a scritching sound and a lucifer match flared beside the bed, a pinpoint of light that was startling in the darkness. The young man jumped up and paused. Standing there was a tall gentleman, clean-shaven, with sharply angular features. In one hand he held the match; in the other, a large pistol which was pointed at the veiled figure. Rather ridiculously, he had on a ruffled woman's nightcap - the same that Mrs. Murdle had been wearing - and was wearing a cotton nightdress of the kind normally donned by respectable old women. His lean shanks poked out of the bottom and his feet were bare, but his dignity was unassailable.
"Put it down, boy," he said. There was a candle on the nightstand; he lit it and shook out the lucifer.
The young man hesitated.
"I said, put it down!" the man thundered. His voice had a trace of the musical Irish accent. "You killed my wife, you disgusting little craven, and I will not hesitate to shoot. 'Twill save the hangman the trouble."
The broken syringe fell to the floor and rolled beneath the bed. From her prone position, Rhiannon could see it laying there an arm's length away. She could also see a veritable army of dust balls lurking in the shadows. Ridiculously, her mind fastened on a thought - if the Duchess knew how slovenly her upstairs maids were, she would probably let the lot of them go. A giggle bubbled in her chest; she began to cough and then to retch again. The man squatted down and used his free hand to turn her over on her side before she could choke. His pistol never wavered from the veiled figure.
When Rhiannon's vomiting had subsided, he stepped over her and, without hesitation or changing his expression, neatly clubbed the young man on the side of his head with the butt of the pistol. The would-be murderer collapsed, gauze skirts puffing out around him. The man returned to Rhiannon.
"Connor, Earl of Kinslainne," he said, introducing himself with a slight air of apology, as though he had committed a social breach while attending a hunt ball. "My apologies, Miss Moore. Evidently my supper gruel was drugged. I ate only a few mouthfuls but it was enough to slow my wits for a time."
Rhiannon rolled her eyes at him. She ached all over; her bruised cheek was a screaming mass of pain and the cut under her eye was burning like a fiery brand. Her headache had trebled and she thought her skull might explode. Her concern was not for herself, however. She worked her mouth, trying to say Lina's name.
At that moment, the door to the bedroom burst open and Lina staggered inside, clutching at the frame. Her face was as pale as ashes, even to the lips. The skin under her wide green eyes appeared bruised. Her glance swept the room, fixed on Rhiannon's legs - the only portion of her partner's body that she could see. A low scratchy moan escaped her. Lina took a step into the room, clearly staying upright only by dint of an extreme effort. Her fingers curled into claws as that burning gaze sought and found the unconcious veiled figure. Pure incandescent fury blazed forth in her expression. Had the young man been awake, he might have died of sheer fright on the spot. There was the promise of death, and more than death, in Lina's face.
"Miss Moore is alive, Lady St. Claire," said the Earl coolly. "Slightly injured and suffering from the effects of a drug but very much among the living."
Rhiannon inhaled sharply and tried to call her lover's name. It came out as a forced whisper. Sweet relief caused more tears to trickle down her cheeks. She could not see Lina, but knowing she was there and unharmed made her want to thank God as fervently and sincerely as possible.
There was a thud and Rhiannon's heart skipped a beat. She looked up at the earl, who shook his head. "The vapors, b'Christ! I never thought I'd live to see the day."
Rhiannon sighed and hoped that she would regain the use of her limbs in time to apply smelling salts and lavender water.
Evangeline St. Claire - perhaps for the first time in her life - had fainted.
The Earl, now dressed in a more normal suit of clothing, took charge of the proceedings. Under his able command, Tatev and Annastasiia were rounded up by a gang of beefy footmen and placed under lock and key in the scullery. Although there was some initial hysteria - Flora, for example, was frightened nearly out of her wits and had to be restored with a generous application of brandy - the Earl of Kinslainne proved to the master of the situation. His orders, delivered with the sort of self-confidence only a nobleman could achieve, came as a relief to the servants. The Earl did not, however, summon Inishaye's village constable to deal with the miscreants. Instead, following Lina's wishes, he sent a telegram to the District Inspector of the Royal Irish Constabulary, calling upon that worthy to attend the proceedings.
Rhiannon's injuries were minor, although digging the broken needle out of her collarbone had cost her no little pain. The wound was dressed with sticking plaster but she had refused similar treatment for the small cut under her eye. Nevertheless, Lina insisted on cleaning it, wincing visibly each time the other woman made a sound.
"The drug was in the claret, my dear," Lina said, carefully applying a cream to the area beneath Rhiannon's eye with a bit of cotton. "A sedative of some kind. I should have known. Since our arrival, I have seen the so-called princess consume vast quantities of spirits without delicacy of any kind. Quantity rather than quality appears to be her motto. At any rate, her refusal of claret at dinner should have been a warning signal to me, had I not been so preoccupied with other matters."
Her partner sounded so guilty and woebegone, Rhiannon laid a soothing hand on her shoulder. "It's alright, love. None of us knew."
"But I should have anticipated this!" Lina straightened abruptly and slammed the small medicine pot on the table with enough force to crack it. "My error nearly cost you your life. Had it not been for the Earl..."
"It was your idea to bring His Grace into Inishglen," Rhiannon pointed out. Suddenly, she giggled. "How on earth did you convince him to don that disguise and pretend to be Mrs. Murdle?"
Lina shrugged. "Once I explained to Connor that his wife's death most likely owed more to cunning design than nature, he was determined to do everything within his power to bring her killer to justice. Disguise was the only method of introducing him into the household without arousing Tatev's suspicions. He did have to shave off his mustache, though. Poor Connor. It was a magnificent example and I believe he parted with it quite reluctantly."
"I'm grateful that he doesn't like gruel, otherwise..."
"My dear!" Lina interrupted, suddenly falling to her knees at Rhiannon's feet. Guilt had been eating at her and she could keep it concealed no longer. "You placed yourself in hideous danger and were nearly killed by my incompetence. I underestimated a dangerous enemy. Oh, when I think how I have made you suffer! Every bruise is a reproach that sears me to the core."
"When you didn't come, I was just as worried about you," Rhiannon said.
"I should have been watching as we agreed. Instead, I fell asleep!"
"We were drugged, love. That wasn't your fault."
"I should have known!" Lina's face was contorted with grief.
"Listen to me." Rhiannon stood up, torn between comforting her lover and giving her a good smack. "I'm a grown woman, Evangeline St. Claire. More to the point, we're equal partners. I knew there was a risk and I took my chances. I'm still alive and, apart from some soreness and a headache, I'm fine. I wish you would stop acting like a tortured martyr every time I get a bump."
Tears sprang into Lina's eyes. She look so much like a hurt child that Rhiannon almost relented. Almost. Instead, she crossed her arms over her chest and did her best to seem severe.
After a long moment, Lina finally replied, "Your point is well made and taken to heart, my dear. Yet you must allow me some small portion of blame."
"As long as you don't start wearing hair shirts and brooding all the time. You aren't an almighty, omniscient goddess. Villains aren't always considerate enough to comply neatly with your plans. I accept that and so should you."
"Very well. I will endeavor to keep that in mind."
"Get up, you idiot." Rhiannon held out her hands but Lina rose of her own accord. As soon as she was on her feet, the taller woman embraced her partner tightly.
"I am so grateful that I did not lose you, my dear."
"I feel the same." Rhiannon smiled against Lina's bosom. "Now we had better go and see about your mother."
"Ah, yes, indeed. My mother." Lina pulled away and looked down into Rhiannon's face. "Can we not run away instead?" she asked plaintively.
Rhiannon shook her head. "I'm afraid not, love."
Lina frowned and squared her shoulders. "Very well. Let us beard the lioness in her den, my dear. Procrastination will likely make things worse." Her eyes were hard as green agates. "I do not have a resentful nature, however it is about time that Mother faced some home truths, and I will be the one to deliver them."
Rhiannon almost felt sorry for the Duchess.
As they walked along the hallway towards the Duchess' room, they could hear the shrill yapping of pugs. Halfway there, the two women met the Duchess' maid, stumbling along with a pack of the little dogs swirling around her ankles. The maid had a worried expresssion on her face.
"What's the matter, Margaret?" Lina asked.
Margaret gave her a grateful look. "Her Grace is very ill, my lady. I wanted to fetch a doctor but she refused."
"Leave it to me. Take the dogs outside where they won't disturb anyone. And Margaret? My mother will be fine."
"Thank you, my lady." The maid, seemingly relieved to have the responsibility taken off her hands, swept down the stairs with her curly-tailed charges bounding behind her.
Lina continued on her way to the Duchess' bedroom door. She did not bother to knock but barged straight inside with Rhiannon coming smartly on her heels. The door was shut and bolted before the Duchess could react, but when she did, it was with unmistakable wrath.
"What do you think you're doing, Vangie? How dare you!" the Duchess said in her most freezing tones.
"Be quiet, Mother," Lina said, ignoring the shocked look on the older woman's face. She spoke firmly and to the purpose. "I know that your 'medicine' is heroin and the Madam - or should I say, Vasily Tatev - is your supplier. You dare speak to me of honor and duty? You dare take umbrage against my life? You dare insult my dearest love, who risked herself to save you? Faugh! Mother, you dare for more than I have ever contemplated!"
While the Duchess was staring at her with wide disbelieving eyes, Lina continued, "You did whatever Tatev asked of you because you needed your medicine. Allowed your friends to become victims of a vicious, heartless criminal who used their grief to his own financial advantage. That is not the worst of it. No, do not speak! You will listen until I am finished."
"Am I to be abused in my own home by my own daughter? Considering the company you keep, I'm not surprised," the Duchess sniffed disdainfully.
"Be silent!" Lina roared, advancing on the bed. Her emerald eyes flashed with ire. "Do you condemn me for consorting with unsavory types while you, yourself, have played accomplice to murder?"
"Murder?" The Duchess shrank back into her pillows. In the uncertain early morning light, she looked older, more vulnerable, tiny as a doll in the huge old bed. "You are mad."
"Am I? Have you forgotten Jessica, wife of the Earl of Kinslainne? She was killed by Tatev and his accomplices."
"Her heart...," the Duchess faltered.
"No, Mother. She was killed, just as Grenville was killed, because she saw too much."
"Grenville? Of course." The Duchess plucked at the bedclothes. "He came in after the seance. He saw the other one."
"You mean the young man who played the Gray Lady?" At the Duchess' weary nod, Lina grimaced. "Grenville died to preserve Tatev's secret."
"I did not kill him!"
"You are just as morally responsible, Mother. Allowing Tatev to remain here, luring your friends into his clutches, obeying his orders, becoming his slave. Do you know how Grenville and Lady Jessica were killed? A needle to the backs of their necks. Rhiannon would have been his next victim."
"I am not to blame," the Duchess whimpered.
"The guilt does not rest solely upon you. Nevertheless, without your compliance, Tatev could not have remained in a position where he could take innocent lives."
"I cannot be held responsible."
"Why did you ask me to come here, Mother?" The anger had faded from Lina's voice. She sounded neutral, as though she was suppressing an emotional storm by force of will.
The Duchess began to scratch her arms. "I was trapped. I knew Tatev was a criminal. The longer he remained, the more likely it was that he would be found out. My reputation would be ruined by the scandal."
"Your reputation," Lina said. "This was all that concerned you?"
"I thought my own daughter would be discreet!" the Duchess flared. "After all the humiliation you've caused me, Vangie, was it unreasonable to suppose that I could seek help from you?"
"No, Mother. I try to aid those who require assistance, whether they are pauper or prince."
"Tatev did not know we were estranged. He had heard of you, of course. Your little escapades in London and abroad are, I suppose, general knowledge among the criminal classes."
"Ah, now we come to the meat of the matter." Lina rubbed her temples, then dropped her hands and confronted the Duchess. "Was it Tatev who suggested that you summon me here? Naturally. I have been a fool many times over. It was not your idea at all, Mother. You did not want me to come. He forced you to write that invitation. Why?"
The Duchess hesitated, biting her lip. Finally, she said, "I don't know. I overheard him once... I think he must have been under orders from someone else. There were telegrams from London."
Rhiannon, who had sitting quietly in a corner, burst out, "Moriarty!"
"A reasonable assumption," Lina said. "Why would Moriarty wish me to be occupied away from London? It must have to do with Holmes."
"Oh, will you kindly refrain from mentioning that man's name in my house?" the Duchess said irritably. "He is too common for words!"
Lina pressed on. "So Tatev was ordered to bring me to Inishglen, and he passed those orders down to you. He dictated that letter you sent. Did he also tell you to drop hints to me, to keep me tantalized and in place long enough for his master's business to be completed?"
"Vangie, I feared for my life. He threatened me, made me wait for my medicine unless I did his bidding. I wrote the letter as he told me. I obeyed him. He said that I must do whatever was necessary to keep you at Inishglen for seven days. But once you were here, I thought you might help me. I couldn't be overt. He would have noticed." The Duchess trembled. "His punishments are terrible. Terrible!"
"You hoped I would act to preserve your precious reputation. At the same time, you gave the appearance of obeying Tatev's directions. That was unexpectedly clever of you, Mother."
"I had no choice!"
"There is always a choice," Lina replied. "And Tatev, in his turn, seized the opportunity to attempt to extract more money from myself or Rhiannon for his spiritual services. Well, greed has brought more schemes to disaster than any other cause. What I fail to understand is what he hoped to accomplish by killing Rhiannon. Surely he must have understood that such an action would result in his own demise!"
"Unless Moriarty ordered it," Rhiannon said. "How well does Tatev really know you, love? He's hardly a member of your social circle."
"A possibility worth considering. Holmes is in Switzerland, pursuing the Napoleon of Crime. This must all be part of Moriarty's plan, if only I could see it through."
"Where is Tatev now?" the Duchess asked, a shade too eagerly. She continued to scratch her arm absently, her nails making welts on the tender flesh.
"He is in the scullery with his two accomplices. Do you know their names?"
"Bert and Sebastian Gowan. I know nothing else about them except they are twins. One played Princess Annastasiia; the other remained hidden in the West Wing and only went out dressed as the Gray Lady."
Lina glanced at her mother keenly. "Are you feeling well?"
"As a matter of fact, no." The Duchess grimaced. "I need my medicine."
"Are you privy to any other details of this case?"
"No! Oh, where is my medicine? Please give it to me."
"In a moment, Mother." Lina's brow was creased in thought. "I believe that Tatev's attempt on Rhiannon's life was not part of Moriarty's ultimate plan. He was supposed to delay us." She turned to Rhiannon. "When you threatened him with blackmail, my dear, Tatev responded in the only reasonable manner he knew. I counted on that reaction to trap him. He counted on that blasted sedative to avoid a struggle. I underestimated his intelligence as, I believe, he underestimated mine."
"Vangie! My medicine!"
"My dear, I believe you will find a case inside Tatev's room," Lina said to Rhiannon. "Please be so kind as to fetch it."
Rhiannon's gaze was questioning. Lina sighed. "What must be, will be. For now."
Lina waited until her partner had left the room before saying to the Duchess, "There is a place in Vienna. An asylum. The doctors there can help you."
"I don't want help," the Duchess said through gritted teeth. "I want my medicine."
"It is not medicine, Mother." Lina let out another weary sigh. "You will be going to Vienna as soon as I can arrange it."
"I will not!"
"Yes, you will. Otherwise, I will be forced to reveal your part in these appalling proceedings to the authorities. You will probably be committed to a lunatic asylum." Lina could not resist adding, "Would that not mar your precious reputation beyond repair or recovery?"
"I hate you," the Duchess spat, writhing on the bed. "I wish you had never been born!"
"You have charged me a damnably high rent for nine month's tenancy," Lina replied with a trace of bitterness. She sat down on the edge of the bed and took her mother by the shoulders. The bones were thin and light, as fragile as a bird's. "I understand addiction. I understand the craving, the pain, the demon within. There was a time when I would have broken every Commandment, committed any vile and degrading act, for a glass of whiskey. Your situation is the same."
"Leave me be, Vangie."
"Friends and family mean nothing to you. Every ounce of your will is focused on a single thing - your next injection. You have no other desires. To receive that 'medicine' you crave, Mother, you would betray your nearest and dearest."
The Duchess curled up into a ball, shaking as spasms wracked her frame. "I tried to warn you," she moaned.
"On Tatev's orders. You have not been concerned with your reputation in some time. Nothing concerns you anymore except your medicine. Let us have no more lies, Mother. No more coy hints and evasions. I will have the truth from you."
"They were watching me. I had to do it."
A muscle beside Lina's mouth twitched. "Did you know that Tatev planned to kill Rhiannon? Did you know he drugged the claret at dinner?"
The Duchess gazed at her daughter, eyes half-closed. Finally, in a small voice that was barely audible, she said, "Yes."
"And did you know he had Lady Jessica killed because she unwittingly discovered his fraud?"
"Yes. Yes! I knew it all!" The Duchess pushed herself up with her hands, locks of hair straggling over her pale, thin face. "He enjoyed telling me everything. Gloating over his triumphs while I begged for my medicine."
Lina leaned forward. "Tatev was told to bring me here by any means necessary. You knew I would come if you played your part correctly, out of curiosity if nothing else. Once at Inishglen, I was kept occupied. Spiritualist clap-trap, my mother in danger if I did not act with discretion, a possible murder and then a real one for me to investigate. A puzzle whose pieces were made to hold me in place." Her expression hardened. "You knew about the threat against Rhiannon and said nothing."
"He wasn't supposed to kill your whore. Bert was going to inject her. She wouldn't have been harmed."
"Except Burt lost his temper, and Tatev did not know that I had introduced the Earl of Kinslainne into the household." At her mother's grimace, Lina continued, "Yes, Connor is here. He has sent a telegram on my instructions. Tatev and his accomplices will be arrested here and charged with the attempted murder of Rhiannon Moore."
"I won't testify against him."
"There is no need. As much as it pains me to admit, I cannot allow Tatev to face justice for the murders of Lady Jessica and Grenville. To do so raises certain issues which do not bear close scrutiny. I refer to your part in the business, Mother. Do you understand the seriousness of your actions? No. I think you are fully aware of the consequences but no longer care."
Just then, Rhiannon entered the room bearing a slender wooden case. The Duchess' dull gaze lit up at the sight of the box. She pushed up her sleeve eagerly and lay back on the pillows.
Lina opened the case and glanced at the gleaming contents. "How much?" she asked her mother in a clipped tone, removing a syringe.
Rhiannon interrupted, "Do you know how to do this?"
"I have seen Holmes with his cocaine. The injection is easily accomplished," Lina said, preparing the hypodermic according to the Duchess' muttered instructions..
The Duchess' scrawny arm was dotted and scarred with pinpricks, the flesh bruised and unhealthy. Lina chose a likely looking place and thrust the needle home. Within a few moments, the deed was accomplished. The Duchess sighed, eyes rolling back in bliss, and sank down into the bedclothes with a dreamy smile,
Rhiannon shuddered. "This is horrible."
"I know, my dear," Lina replied, putting the implements back into their box. "However, there is no help for it. Until Mother is safely in Vienna, her addiction must be kept pacified. I will engage a nurse, a woman with experience in such matters, to look after her once the travel arrangements have been made. Perhaps Dr. Whitstable knows someone suitable."
"Can she be cured?"
Lina grimaced. "The fiend never dies; it merely sleeps." She gazed at her mother with a spark of sadness in her eyes. "I have no great affection for the woman who bore me. We are not friends. She would have killed you with her own hands to satisfy the demon within. I can never forgive that. However, she is still my mother. I owe her a little consideration for that fact. It is my duty to save her from herself, if I can."
"He will pay for something, my dear. I will see to that." Lina laid the wooden case on the nightstand and rose to her feet. Her fists were clenched and her gaze burned with emerald fire. "He may not be hanged for murder, but by God, he will pay."
Made uneasy by her partner's harsh tone, Rhiannon followed Lina out of
the Duchess' room, closing the door behind her.
As they were going down the stairs, there came the sound of a shot, followed by two more.
Lina swept up her skirts and began to run. Rhiannon came along behind her, prudently removing her own pistol from her pocket. At the bottom of the stairs, the two women pushed through a crowd of footmen and maids. Spotting Mrs. O'Hara, Lina barked, "Well? What is it?"
"In the scullery, my lady," Mrs. O'Hara replied, bobbing her head in the general direction.
They went through the dining room, along the service corridor and into the kitchen. Connor, Earl of Kinslainne, was standing near the open scullery door, his pistol in his hand. Beside him was the maid, Flora.
There was an awful suspicion in Lina's eyes. "What have you done?" she asked the Earl.
"Tatev was trying to escape," he replied calmly.
"From a locked scullery?" Lina's gaze traveled to Flora. "Were you listening at the Duchess' keyhole, Flora? Yes, I think you were."
The maid raised her chin and stared back defiantly, saying nothing.
Rhiannon shoved her pistol back into her pocket. "What happened?"
"Flora overheard me tell Mother that Tatev could not be charged with the murders of Lady Jessica and Grenville," Lina said. "She hastened to inform Connor, who took matters into his own hands."
"The murdering bastards - pardon my language - were trying to escape. I fired a warning shot. When they did not comply, I did what had to be done."
"I heard only three shots," Lina pointed out.
In answer, Connor aimed his pistol at the ceiling and pulled the trigger. The sound of the shot was near deafening. Plaster dust rained down, coating his dark hair with gray powder. "Now you have heard four," he replied.
Lina stepped forward, shouldering him aside, and peered into the scullery. When Rhiannon would have approached, Lina held up a hand to stop her, then relented. "At least it was humanely done. Come and see if you will."
Rhiannon ducked under her partner's arm. Tatev was sprawled on the floor, a bullet hole in his center of his forehead. His limp body reminded her of the dummy they had found in the seance room in the West Wing, the one that had caused her a fright. Deprived of his disguise, sans port wine stain and blue spectacles, Tatev was an ordinary looking man with short-cropped black hair and a growth of stubble on his face. Rhiannon felt a slight thrill of astonishment that the hairy mole nestled against his nose was real and not a theatrical misdirection.
His two accomplices were more pitiable. The Gowan brothers had also removed their bizarre disguises. Like Tatev, they had been shot once between the brows, but the boys retained the innocent appearance of youth. They were small and slender, with faces like angels, pouting lips barely parted, cheeks smooth and tinted with pink. Only the scorched black holes in their foreheads spoiled the pretty picture of two cherubs sleeping peacefully.
Rhiannon put a hand to her mouth; her breath hitched and she said with tears in her eyes, "They're just babies."
"One of those 'babies' was planning to torture you to death, my dear," Lina said with clinical detachment. "Bert and Sebastian Gowan were nearly adults. I suspect that as very young children, they were put on a starvation diet to retard their growth. It is fairly common occurrence among the criminal classes of London. A small-boned and slender person can more easily be lowered down a chimney in order to burglarize a home. There are other reasons, of course, and none of them are good. Believe me, those boys would not have had an ounce of pity if you had fallen into their hands. Spare yourself any grief you may feel on their behalf. This is, perhaps, a kinder ending than they would have received had they continued their careers."
Rhiannon shuddered, then took a closer look, fascinated despite herself. "How did... I mean, Princess Annastasiia was a hunchback."
"Likely a special corset that twisted the spine and altered the posture. The hump was false. We will make a thorough examination of the Ophelia Room later and see what may be found." Lina turned to confront the Earl. "You have deprived the Crown of justice," she said.
"Have I?" His brows met as he grimaced. "Did not my poor Jessica deserve justice? Now her spirit is satisfied, and so am I."
Flora sniffled. When Lina glanced at her, the scrawny maid colored but stood her ground. "He killed my uncle," she said softly, staring down at the floor. "Uncle Alastair didn't deserve that, m'lady."
"True." Lina heaved a sigh and rubbed a hand across her face. "Very well. I cannot change what has already been done. I suppose you had no choice but to fire, Connor, when the criminals attempted escape and ignored your warning. I will testify to hearing four shots, if you wish."
"That is most kind of you, Evangeline." The Earl turned to Rhiannon. "There will be no need for you to suffer the indelicate attentions of the police, Miss Moore. I shall make it clear that you were not involved."
Rhiannon did not know what to say, so she merely replied, "Thank you."
Lina gave the Earl a little bow and left, motioning to Rhiannon to follow.
When they were alone in the service corridor, Lina's shoulders sagged. "Good Lord!"
"I wouldn't have expected the Earl of Kinslainne to be so..."
"Tidy?" Lina smiled at the dumbfounded expression on Rhiannon's face. "My dear, it would have taxed my ingenuity to have Tatev brought up on charges that would lead to his imprisonment. At best, we might have been able to have him sent up for ten years for attempted murder, but he was deucedly clever. I have no evidence that he was the one guiding the so-called Gray Lady. At worst, Tatev might have avoided being charged altogether and left his accomplices to take the blame. He could have gotten off scot free."
"And you approve of murder?"
"No, I do not." Lina shook her head. "However, I did not see Connor shoot those three men in cold blood. I cannot prove that he committed murder any more than I can prove that Tatev did the same."
Rhiannon did not feel very happy about the situation She had not liked Tatev and wanted him to receive his just desserts. On the other hand, Lina was right. The Earl had provided a practical solution to a sticky problem. She decided to drop the subject since there was nothing she could do about it.
Back in the entrance hall, Mrs. O'Hara was waiting, beefy arms folded below her ample bosom. "I'll not step foot into yon kitchen till a priest's been in to bless it," she announced.
"The scullery is off-limits for now," Lina said. "Send someone to the village for cold meat, bread and cheese and the like. A priest can be invited at the same time."
Mrs. O'Hara scowled. "I'd better go myself. This lot," she continued, jabbing a thumb at the other servants clustered together in the hall, "haven't an ounce of sense between 'em."
"Do as you wish. I must compose some telegrams; please collect them before you leave. As for the rest of you, kindly resume your normal duties," she said to the waiting servants. The footmen and maids slowly separated and left the hall.
Rhiannon took Lina's arm. "Come upstairs and lie down, love. You look completely fagged."
"When my business is concluded, my dear, I shall rest. Until then, duty calls." Lina kissed Rhiannon's bruised cheek gently, barely grazing the swollen surface with her lips. "Do go on and enjoy a nap. I will join you when I can."
"All right but don't be too long about it." Rhiannon smiled, then winced as her bruises protested. Blowing a kiss at Lina, she went upstairs, her cream-colored skirts trailing behind her.
With a sigh, Lina went to look for writing paper and a pen.
Much later in the day, some policemen arrived to take charge of the bodies. They were members of the Royal Irish Constabulary, come up from their barracks in Leeford, a town that lay about an hour's train journey to the south of Inishaye village. The District Inspector, Adair, accompanied them. He was a bluff, hearty gentleman with an impressive handlebar mustache, bristling beard and muttonchop sidewhiskers that brushed the collar of his dress tunic.
Adair spent a full five minutes questioning the Earl - or rather, fawning upon him and assuring the peer that the matter would be handled quietly. Adair also sampled the finest crusty port from the Duchess' cellars and smoked one of the Earl's cigars. Lina was present during the interview; she found Rhiannon later and told her all about it.
"There sat a man with more hair than intellect," she said, gesturing to indicate the size of Adair's beard, "puffing on a cigar that was worth more than his week's wages, nodding his head and swallowing Connor's story as if it was the tastiest morsel he had ever consumed. It was, 'Yes, Your Excellency,' and 'No, Your Excellency,' and 'Naturally, Your Excellency.' He did not ask me a single question, my dear. Indeed, Mr. Adair did not deign to notice my existence."
"What will happen now?" Rhiannon asked.
"Mr. Adair will remove the bodies from Inishglen, write one of the reports so favored by policemen in general, and be able to dine out for years with his tale of doing a service for the Earl of Kinslainne. Bah!" Lina threw her hands up into the air. "Perhaps I am being ungrateful, my dear. I should thank God for Mr. Adair. He has saved me the trouble of making potentially awkward explanations. Nor has he evinced any curiosity as to why the Duchess of Inishglen would harbor a criminal like Tatev in her own home. Adair is a markedly unimaginative man. He asks no questions, nor does he seem interested in evidence. As far as he is concerned, Connor acted most bravely and gallantly, saving 'the puir womenfolk' from dastardly criminals. There will be no further inquiry."
Rhiannon smoothed a loose dark curl back over Lina's ear. They were sitting side-by-side on the tall bed in the Perdita Suite. "Did he say anything about the money?"
"I did not see fit to reveal that bit of information." Lina grinned unpleasantly. "Our search of Tatev's room was very fruitful. Over thirty-thousand pounds, and Connor has promised to return it discreetly to those who donated the cash to our false spiritualist. Madam Bahzanova's escapades will remain a dirty little secret among the neighbors."
"And your mother?"
"I have heard from Dr. Hertzog at the asylum in Vienna. He sent a telegram informing me that Mother could be admitted at any time. And Mrs. O'Hara took a note to Dr. Whitstable, who is sending a nurse this evening. Mrs. Ballantyne is experienced, capable, iron disciplined and once worked as a prison wardress, so I have high hopes that she will not permit Mother to run amok on the way to the Continent."
"I'm very sorry about all this, love." Rhiannon snuggled closer, putting an arm around her partner's waist and leaning on her shoulder. "I had hoped that you and your mother might come to an understanding."
"We understand one another all too well, my dear," Lina replied. She paused for a moment, then continued, "I wish that I had been able to question Tatev before Connor shot him. There is still the question of Moriarty's ultimate plan that remains to be solved."
"Well, whatever it was, he didn't succeed."
"No?" Lina's eyes were pools of lambent green, made darker by some private concern. "We shall see, my dear." She blew out a long sigh and fell back onto the bed, pulling Rhiannon down with her. "I want to go home."
"So do I."
Lina turned her head and smiled at her lover. "Do you suppose that Holmes' Swiss holiday has been more pleasurable than our own?"
"I'm sure it has, love. I'm sure it has."
Three days later, Dr. Whitstable and Mrs. Ballantyne had taken charge of the Duchess; she would be traveling to Vienna in the grandest style possible, along with her maid, a mountain of baggage and the pack of pugs. The West Wing had been closed up again, much to the servant's relief, and Mrs. O'Hara was left to supervise while the mistress was away. Once all the details had been worked out, Lina and Rhiannon left Ireland and returned to England.
Lina had not spoken to her mother again, except for a brief and painful good-bye. The Duchess' supply of heroin had been assured by Dr. Whitstable - at least until she arrived at the asylum. She had hardly noticed that her daughter was leaving, so intent was she on the syringe being prepared by Mrs. Ballantyne. Lina walked out of Inishglen without a backward glance.
Rhiannon knew that her lover wished for solitude, and left her alone throughout the journey. She read her book and paid a great deal of attention to Fyvie, which made the wolfhound slobber with delight. Back in London, Rhiannon greeted the sight of their house in Grosvenor Square with heartfelt relief.
Lina went inside first, acknowledging the greeting of their butler, Jackson, with a curt nod. Used to her moods, he did not take offense but instead presented a silver salver heaped with telegram envelopes. Lina took them and retired to her study, strewing her coat and hat on the floor behind her. Rhiannon followed, giving Jackson a warm smile to make up for her partner's rudeness.
The study was cold and musty; no one had lit fires while Lina was away, and there was a thin layer of dust on the mantlepiece and desk. She did not notice this lapse in housekeeping. As Rhiannon entered, she waved a telegram at her. "From Watson!" Lina called, seeming more cheerful. "News from Switzerland, I suppose."
"How many are there?" Rhiannon asked, eyeing the yellow flimsies on the tray.
Lina suddenly frowned. "Eight in all. A most unusual happenstance. Let me sort them through by date... ah, here we are. Let us see how Watson and Holmes are getting along. Perhaps they require our assistance in a case. A pity we were in Ireland, as it is possible that the case has already been solved."
She tore open the envelope and extracted the message. As her eyes darted over the lines, the blood drained from Lina's face. She staggered back, catching her knees on the sofa and sitting down hard. Lina appeared so dazed that Rhiannon was alarmed.
"What is it?" she cried.
Lina did not answer, merely stared ahead, her lips moving soundlessly.
Immediate action was required. Suppressing her curiosity, Rhiannon went to a cabinet, located the brandy decanter, and poured a generous amount into a glass. She pushed it into Lina's hand and urged her to drink. Only when the glass was half empty did Rhiannon carefully take the telegram and read it herself.
As the dire message flashed through her brain, Rhiannon groaned, "Oh, God!" and let the telegram fall to the floor.
It had read, "Lady Evangeline St. Claire - Holmes dead at Reichenbach Falls. Also Moriarty. Come at once. John Watson."
Rhiannon swayed and caught herself on the arm of the sofa. Holmes was dead! This news was so shocking, so unexpected, that she felt a hollow roaring in her ears. Her belly clenched and tears sprang to her eyes.
Holmes was dead!
As if in a dream, she opened the other telegram envelopes and read the messages. Most were variations of the first, urging Lina to come to Switzerland as soon as possible. The final one read simply, "Returning home. No body found. Will meet in Baker Street soonest. Watson."
Lina let out a choked gasp that sounded more animal then human. When she looked at Rhiannon, the raw grief in her expression was like a blow. "Holmes!" she wailed, her face crumpling like a child's. "Holmes!"
Rhiannon threw herself down and took Lina in her arms. The other woman's body was spasming; she sank her fingernails into Rhiannon's arm and cried hysterically.
Jackson opened the door to the study and peered inside. "My lady?"
"Go at once and fetch a doctor," Rhiannon said, stifling her own grief. Lina was completely devestated by the news and needed her to be strong. "At once!"
"Yes, miss." Jackson shut the door and his footsteps could be heard hurrying down the hall.
Rhiannon stroked Lina's hair and made soothing noises while that awful wailing continued.
Holmes was dead!
And she knew that her precious Lina would never be the same again.