Her Ladyship's Curse
As I dragged myself from my flat the next morning, I couldn’t help thinking I’d have been happier to learn that Harry had been a practicing mage, or even a fete teller.
I stopped at a corner teacart I frequented and bought a cup of Irish red and a sticky bun. As the tealass tipped her never-empty pot to fill the mug I’d brought with me, she nattered on in a friendly fashion about the comings and goings she’d seen.
“Three poshers near bought me out yesterday,” she said as she added a dollop of milk-thinned cream to my mug. “Tried to pay me with brown. Lucky for me, one of his mates had proper coin.”
“Probably straight off the ship,” I said.
“I’ve seen brown notes before, course, but . . .” The gel leaned over and lowered her voice. “Strange-marked they were, miss. Red-inked all over, and a slice in the middle over the H.M.’s poor face.”
I frowned. “Did they speak English?”
“Only the one with the coin said anything,” she said, “and then to say ‘Grassy.’”
Grazie, the Talian word for “thank you.” “If they come back and try to give you any trouble,” I said, “best blow for the beater.”
“Had it ready in me other hand the whole time,” she assured me, raising her left hand to show me the tin whistle dangling from her wristlace. “You want a ’fresher, Miss? You’re looking beat today.”
“Restless night.” I offered her a wan smile before I surrendered my spot to a new customer and moved on.
I made myself eat the bun, which helped loosen the knot in my belly a notch and made me feel a little better. I’d worked hard and made a new life for myself here in Rumsen, and the prospect of losing it terrified me. The unfairness stung, too. If the truth about Harry ever came out, I’d be judged over something that had happened before I’d been born.
The anger boiled up inside me again. The blood in my veins might be tainted by my mother’s unfortunate birth and my grandfather’s foreign blood and domestic betrayals, but I didn’t deserve to have my situation stolen from me for a second time. No matter what sort of traitorous bastard my grandfather had been, he’d done nothing for me, nor had I profited from his spywork. Everything I owned in this world I’d worked for and earned by myself.
I tossed the last crust of my bun in a rubbish bin outside the Davies Building and emptied the lukewarm dregs of my tea in the gutter. Harry White or Weiss or whoever he’d been be damned; I wasn’t going to cower in fear or give up and run. He was a ghost; perhaps no more than an echo of a life that was over now. Whatever evil Harry had done in the past had nothing to do with me. Rumsen was my home, and I was Torian. I’d earned the right to live and do business here.
“Excuse me, miss.”
I jumped a little and turned to see a heavily cloaked figure standing behind me. A hat and heavy veil disguised her face, but I recognized the reddened, callused hands.
“The nearest apothecary is one block over,” I told Lady Walsh’s chambermaid. “But his pain powders are mostly chalk dust.”
Betsy looked around before she stepped closer. “Milady asks that you attend her, miss.”
“Indeed. You can tell your lady she can—” I stopped myself, knowing any insult I offered would be passed along verbatim. “Find another distant cousin.”
“You don’t understand, miss.” Betsy followed me into the building. “My mistress is in terrible danger.”
I paused at the foot of the stairs. “Then go to Rumsen Main Station and ask for Inspector Tom Doyle. He works the Hill.” I glanced back at her. “I don’t anymore.”
Betsy didn’t give up easily. She trailed after me up the stairs and down the hall, assuring me that her mistress had been most insistent that I come to her aid and that no one else would do. It gave me a healthy amount of pleasure to close my office door in her face, but I didn’t bolt it, so as soon as I moved away from it, she came in after me.
“Are you deaf?” I inquired as I took off my wrap and hung it on the coat stand. “Or simply daft?”
Rather than beg me to reconsider, Betsy went on the attack. “This is your doing, miss. All of it. If milady hadn’t brought you up to the house, none of this would have happened.”
“Oh, of course not.” I folded my arms. “So what’s happened?”
Betsy sniffed. “I’m sure I can’t say. You’ll have to hear it from milady.”
“Have her write me a letter. I’ll read it when I get time.” Maybe sometime around Christmas, when I was feeling a bit more generous.
The maid followed me into my office and planted herself in front of my desk, where she tried to stare me down. I collected my morning post from the tube and began sorting through it.
Betsy broke first. “If you don’t come to see her and do something, miss, she’ll be ruined.”
“I told you, I don’t work the Hill anymore,” I said flatly. “Now run along, or I’ll call for the beater.”
She didn’t budge. “You’ll want payment in advance, I suppose.” She took out a pitifully small purse out of her reticule and dropped it in front of me.
I picked up the purse, which had been fashioned from a piece of felted wool, now shiny at the seams from long use. From the weight of it, it contained a paltry few pounds in small coin. I glanced up at her. “This is your money.”
“I’ve been putting a bit aside for a place of me own someday.” She lifted her chin. “It should be enough, but if it isn’t, I can get a little more from me beau.”
I held on to the purse and sat back in my chair. “Now why would you hand over your life savings to me?”
Betsy looked ready to burst. “I’m not daft,” she snapped. “Milady is a decent, fair mistress. She never shouts or hits, or gives the maid staff more work than we can do. She sees to it that we have enough to eat, proper clothes, time to go to Church and to visit our families. We sleep safe in our beds. We would do anything for her.” She gave me a defiant look. “Even pay the likes of you.”
I got up and came round the desk to shove the purse into her hands. “I’m not taking your money, Betsy.” Before she could protest, I added, “I’ll see your lady one more time, for free, but not on the Hill.”
“She don’t want you to come round the house,” the chambermaid told me with some satisfaction. “She’ll see you at her dressmaker’s, the Silken Dream, today at one o’clock sharp.”
“I’ll be there.” I let her get as far as the threshold before I added, “You may think the world of your mistress, Betsy, but being treated fairly is your due. Your right.”
“Is it now?” She gave me a contemptuous look. “And here I thought you said you worked the Hill.”
If Rina had seen me steeling myself to stroll into the Silken Dream that afternoon, she’d have laughed herself into a cramp. There were few things I despised or avoided as much as dressmakers, and now I had to enter the establishment of one Madam Desiree Duluc, the grandest of the gowners, the incomparable Arachne who dressed the wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers of the most important men in Rumsen.
I’d never been inside the shop during business hours, not that I could ever afford to shop there. Nothing I owned, not even the very fine burnout silk shawl Rina had given me for my last birthday, could equal in quality the simplest pair of gloves under Madam Duluc’s roof. Nor did I care to put on the airs or dress of a fashionable lady; even if I had the coin to buy such creations and wear them, I’d have betrayed myself the moment I spoke in my Middy accent or removed the gloves from my unpampered hands.
No one came to the front room to toss me out on the street; I was left to stand between two semicircles of gown forms draped with the latest fashions. From the number of pure-white frills and bows and draped sashes adorning Madam’s goods, the latest fashion for ladies appeared to be swishing about in as much frippery as possible, like marriage cakes with legs.
A thin, sharp-nosed woman in a dove-gray gown minced her way across the front room to join me. “Good afternoon, miss,” she said in a low, soft tone. “How may we serve you?”
Not the reception I’d been expecting. “I’m looking for Lady Walsh. She asked me to meet her here.”
“May I ask your name?”
“Kittredge.” I found a card in my reticule and handed it to her.
“Lady Walsh has not yet arrived for her fitting, Miss Kittredge.” The seamstress tucked my card under her cuff and gestured toward the back rooms. “Would you care to wait?”
I had nothing better to do, so I nodded and followed her back into a small, elegant private room already set up with a tea cart and a waiting maid.
“Sarah will serve you today, Miss Kittredge,” the seamstress said. “I will return when Lady Walsh has arrived.” She curtseyed deeply and withdrew.
Sarah and I exchanged a look. “Is she always that nice?” I asked on impulse.
The gel nodded. “All Madam’s ladies are.” She grinned. “The tea is first-brewed, miss, and the crumpets come straight out of the oven.”
I gave the gleaming cart, something I could never afford even if I tripled my rates, a wistful look. “Of course they do.”
I let Sarah serve me tea and would have slipped her a crumpet for herself if another lady had not stepped in. This one was dressed in an emerald satin ball gown and had her silver-streaked red hair bundled untidily atop her head. At least twenty glass-headed pins pierced the edge of her bodice, and from her sash dangled a marked length of measuring tape. The esteemed proprietor herself.
“So this is what one might make from the flour sacks,” Madam Duluc said in a frightfully snooty French accent as she stared at my skirts. “Bonjour, mademoiselle. I fear you have made a tragic mistake to come here. Are there even three pounds in your reticule?”