Her Ladyship's Curse
“But it is, as you see.” She sniffed. “Now do you believe it’s a curse, Miss Kittredge?”
“No.” I held on to one hand as she tried to pull away. “Be still.” I took my magnifying glass out of my reticule and held it just above the skin. Examining one hand turned up nothing, but on the other I discovered a tiny fragment of dark red clinging to one of the fine hairs of her skin. When I gently nudged the fragment with my fingernail, she made a pained sound. When I plucked it off, the hair came with it.
“What are you doing?” Lady Diana demanded.
I carefully transferred the fragment to a bit of paper and folded it up. “Collecting evidence.” I pointed to one of the padded benches. “I have to go and consult with someone on this. If you want to know the truth, you’ll wait here for me.”
Bridget generously provided me with her carri, which I drove back to my office building. I left it parked at the curb and dashed down to the Dungeon, making my way through clouds of steam as I shouted for Docket.
“Hold on to your hatpins, gel.” The old man emerged from the steam, wearing but a towel wrapped around his skinny hips. “Come back later, Kit. I’m having a soak.”
I glanced at the contraption behind him, which resembled a giant teakettle. “A soak, or a boil?”
“That’s just the collection chamber.” He pointed to some hastily rigged pipes hanging over it. “Steam comes down from there, and the gap between me and the pipes cools it enough to make it tolerable. It’s a heathen practice. I’m calling it the Waterless Bathe.” He grimaced. “Haven’t worked out what to do about soap, though.”
I shook my head. “Get some clothes on, mate. I need you to look at something under the scope.”
Once he was decent, Doc brought me over to one of his workbenches fitted with a large vertical tube standing in an adjusted bracket. “Let’s have it.” When I gave him the folded paper containing the fragment I’d removed from Lady Diana’s hand, he opened it and gently placed it under the tube.
As he looked through the gogs he’d fitted to the magnifying tube, I explained where I’d found the fragment, and what had been done to Lady Diana. “She claimed the cuts didn’t hurt, and she never found any blood on her nightdresses or linens.”
Doc grunted. “I’ll wager all the wounds vanished within a day of her finding them as well.”
“How did you know?”
“She wasn’t cut, love.” He moved away from the scope, searched through some jars on a nearby shelf, and then handed me a jar of thick, dark-red liquid. “Wound paste. They made it out of animal blood mixed with a strong resin. My guess is someone used this to paint the words on her and scored the lines as they dried to make them appear like real cuts. You need a solvent to remove it or it acts like a new scab. If she tried to pull it off herself, she’d bleed.”
I’d never heard of such a thing. “Who uses this stuff?”
“Anyone with the know-how, I suppose,” he admitted. “It’s an old soldier’s trick. Cowards resort to it to prevent being sent into battle.”
“Sometimes I need an extra week or two to pull together the rent.” He ducked his head. “Me showing the landlord a wound that’s temporarily laid me up usually does the trick.”
And here all this time I’d been bartering with him. “Can I borrow this?” When he nodded, I took the jar and gave his shoulder a squeeze. “The next time you need help with the rent, mate, you come to me.”
By the time I got back to Bridget’s, Lady Diana had worked herself into a frazzle.
“Where have you been?” she snapped as soon as she saw me. “How could you leave like that? Nolan expected me home an hour ago. He’ll be furious.”
“Hang Nolan,” I said, and held up the jar of wound paste. “This is what was used on you.”
I repeated everything Doc had told me, and with every word Lady Diana’s face grew pinker. Once I’d detailed how the paste simulated wounds, I told her the rest of what I’d worked out.
“Your assailant assumed you would hide the wounds from your family and deliberately placed them on portions of your body that could be easily covered. By removing them the next night, he could make you think you were under the influence of a malignant spell. Or perhaps . . .” I wasn’t sure I wanted to complete my other thought.
“Tell me,” she urged.
I chose my words carefully. “Perhaps to tamper with your wits.”
“No one could be that evil.” She pulled on her gloves. “I am a devoted wife and stepmother. I treat our servants well. I have never inflicted harm on another person in my life. Why would anyone take such horrible vengeance against me? I’ve done nothing.”
I thought of the words that had been written on her skin. “You and your family profited by your marriage to Lord Walsh, which was arranged so that he might obtain another heir. To someone in your household, that makes you a greedy slut.”
Her head snapped up. “You will not speak those words to me,” she said through white lips.
Oh, now she was putting on airs. “Would you rather your husband say them in open court?”
“He will not, if you would come to dinner on Friday and tell my husband how you discovered the panel.”
I stepped back. “You’d do better to take the wound paste with you, milady. That will explain—”
“Nolan will think only that I used it on myself. You, on the other hand, can attest to my true motives, and how you were the one to discover the panel under the bed.” Tears sparkled in her eyes. “You are my only hope now.”
She really had no idea of how much trouble she was in. “I’m a commoner, milady. As such he’ll believe I was paid by you to lie to him.”
“Have you no one to vouch for your personal integrity?” Before I could answer, her expression brightened. “You are acquainted with Lucien Dredmore, are you not? He has much influence.”
I could imagine what Dredmore would demand in return for such a favor. My body and spirit on a silver platter, at the very least. “The gentleman and I are not the best of friends.”
“If Nolan is granted a divorce on grounds of adultery, do you know what will happen to me?” Her voice was rising to a shriek. “To my family?”
“How would I, milady? I’m just a gel who works for her living,” I reminded her. “One your butler reported to the police as a blackmailer.”
“Mother of mercy.” She closed her eyes and then pulled out her skirts.
Watching her drop to her knees turned my stomach. “Lady Walsh, please, don’t do that.”
“If this is what I am reduced to, so be it.” She bowed her head. “I humbly beg you to take pity on me, Miss Kittredge. I beseech you to come to speak to my husband and save me from the ruin of my life.”
As I looked down at her, I thought of the day I’d left Middleway. I’d never begged anything from the men who had stolen my life. I’d known what they would have done to me if I had.
I took Lady Diana by the arms and pulled her up from her knees. “Betsy.”
The chambermaid darted inside. “Yes, miss?”
“Take your lady home.” I looked into hopeless eyes and managed a smile. “I have much to do if I am to dine with her and Lord Walsh on Friday.”
Lady Walsh threw her arms around me and held me like a beloved sister. “You are the kindest creature in all of Rumsen.”
The kindest, or the daftest. “He’s likely having you watched, so I’ll go out the back. Have Betsy sleep in your chamber until Friday, and then we’ll sort all this out at dinner.”
Betsy cloaked her lady before whisking her away, while I went to the workroom to bid my friend farewell.
“Lady Walsh will be unable to have her fitting today,” I told Bridget, who was undressing behind a screen. “What does one wear to dinner on the Hill?”
“Nothing in your wardrobe.” She handed the emerald ballgown off to Nance and pulled on a simpler dress styled to resemble the gray uniforms her ladies wore, but made of pure silver silk. (Charles had vowed she would never wear anything else.) “Or what you’d find in the collection of a professional lady’s, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“Can one rent a dress for two and six?” I wondered out loud.
“From the rag pile at the tin shop, perhaps.” Bridget muttered something rude as she came out from behind the screen. “Louise, has Lady Richmond settled her account with us?”
“No, Madam,” a gel hemming purple taffeta skirts said through a mouthful of pins. “She offered a bracelet in trade, but it proved to be paste.”
Bridget gave me a critical look. “Set aside the blue evening for mademoiselle. She will be back on Friday in time for us to dress her for her dinner with Lord and Lady Walsh.” Before I could protest, she tapped my cheek. “It’s a gift.”
“My birthday isn’t until January, Madam.”
“Christmas, then.” She gave me a steely look, leaned close, and whispered, “Or I can sew your stubborn ass into that emerald satin, if you like.”
I gave in gracefully. “Madam is most generous. Now, can someone direct me to the back door?”
Bridget personally escorted me to the trade entrance, but she didn’t lecture me along the way. She only stopped me at the door. “Charlie’s mother told me that she’d had a mage enchant all his suits to ward off women before he left France. She was afraid of him picking up something nasty from a strumpet.”
I sighed. “You can’t make suits female-proof.”
“Can’t you? He never looked at another woman, that whole trip, until he sat down next to us in the park. No, truly, I asked him. Said he never felt a spot of interest.” She took my hand. “I know how you feel about magic, Kit, but there is something about you. I don’t know what, but I feel it. Everyone does. If you hadn’t been with me that day . . .” She shook her head. “Don’t let the Walshes take advantage. You’re too good for them.” She kissed my cheek. “Now be off with you. I’ll see you here Friday noon, not a minute later.”