Her Ladyship's Curse
“She has more arrests than any three men in the station,” he told me. “And trust me, you wouldn’t want to go up against our Mary in some dark alley. Last time someone did, we needed three whitecarts.”
“Stop that, Tommy, you’ll frighten the lass,” the warder scolded. To me she said, “I’ve had some scuffles with snuffmages, and they’re not a pretty bunch. What can you tell me about them?”
“They didn’t kill me,” I said.
She chuckled. “I meant, what did you notice about them?”
“There were two, a bruiser and a dink,” I said. “Dressed head to toe in dark red. They threw snuffballs filled with dirt at me, and then went for their daggers. Neither said a single word.”
“They don’t put dirt in snuffballs.” Mrs. Harris thought for a moment. “Sounds like rogue partners—ex–guild members who hire out their services to very bad men,” she tacked on when she caught Tommy’s frown. “They work in pairs to insure the killing’s done. The one who escaped, was he the dink?” At my nod she sighed. “It’s the little ones you always have to mind; they develop their spellcraft a bit more to make up for their lack of stature and muscle. The local guild master’s a head shorter than me.” She glanced at Doyle. “Speaking of the little pest, he’s waiting for a word with you, Tom. Expect he wants to protect the guild by disavowing this lot.”
Tom took my keys from my reticule and handed them to the warder as he gave her my address. “She’ll need a full sweep, Mary. Do take Caldwell and Nelams with you.”
“Nicholson as well, I think. Lovely to meet you, dear.” Mary left before I could reply.
“You know where I live?” I demanded.
“I know where you live, and that you bought the entire building for a pittance,” he said. “I also know you live there alone, that you are very good friends with Madams Eagle and Duluc, and that you’ve banked a modest sum, some of which you use now and then for home improvements.”
I coughed. “You have been busy.”
“Your business has also made you a fair number of enemies among the magic community.” He cocked his head. “Would you like to know what they say about you?”
“I’m a demoness sent from hell to plague them,” I said dutifully. “An evil harpy who feeds on magic. Satan’s strumpet, Beelzebub’s bawd, Houdini’s whore . . .” I stopped and sighed. “The names change occasionally, but the whining never ends.”
“One of them might have sent those snuffmages after you,” Doyle said. “Or perhaps it was someone from the Hill.”
“Magical assassination. You’d think they’d save a few quid and simply have me run down in the street.” I sipped the tea, which was horribly sweet but settled my stomach. “There’s no need to go to all this fuss. I’ll be fine.”
“You’re an unprotected woman operating a dangerous business, tramping about the Hill and offending the tonners right and left, and now someone’s tried to snuff you.” He folded his arms. “It’s not anyone’s definition of fine, Kit.”
I tried to stare him down, but it was impossible. “I hate being female.”
“I rather like that you are.” He astounded me by bending down and pressing a quick kiss to my dirty brow. “Now be a good gel and have a nap.”
Inspector Tom Doyle hadn’t charged me with murder (a great relief) but had treated me like a wayward younger sister (a great pity)—and he didn’t trust me. I discovered that as soon as I tried the door and found it locked. Bars covered his window from the inside, and they were padlocked.
I wasn’t going anywhere until the canny sod released me, so I trudged over to his leather couch. The stiff-looking cushions felt like clouds under my weight, and I curled up on one end, propping my hurt arm against my side.
I’d made enemies of any number of charlatans, but they’d never attacked me. The few I’d confronted had muttered uncomplimentary things about my virtue and my supposed allegiance with the forces of darkness, but for the most part I’d scared them off. Gert was the only persistent one, but she couldn’t afford a half sack of bruised fruit, never mind snuffmages. I’d always thought my disbelief in their nonsense had frightened most of the magic peddlers; this because they depended so heavily on faith in their abilities to pull off their tricks. That and I’d exposed too many of them too easily.
Magic has no effect on you.
It had no effect on me because it had no effect, period. It was all daft words and colored rocks, harmless powders, useless runes, and worthless . . . something. Despite the fact that I never napped, I was suddenly so tired I couldn’t even open my mouth to yawn. My eyes closed on their own, my body went lax, and then I was out like a wick in high wind, drifting into a memory of the last man I wished to think of.
I’d met Dredmore at the home of a merchant named Wiggins, one of Rina’s regulars. She’d brought me to the nice old gent’s to look at a collection of bacco boxes, which Wiggins claimed had been bespelled. I’d just begun my examination when Dredmore had swept in.
I’d taken in the swirling greatcoat, mirror-polished boots, and impossibly intricate weave of his cravat before I resisted the urge to bob and looked directly into his dark eyes. I expected to see the languid contempt of a tonner, but he showed no emotion at all. I might have been gazing into silverblacked mirrors. The experience should have left me cold, but I made the mistake of looking at his mouth, which had been fashioned for all manner of intimate sin. My mouth went dry, and when I met his gaze a second time, I saw something fierce and hungry looking back.
Mr. Wiggins’s voice shook as he performed the quickest of introductions. “Such an honor to have you here, milord,” he added. “I’ll leave you to get acquainted with Miss Kittredge and Mrs. Eagle, then.” He scurried out of the room.
“Ladies.” Dredmore made it sound like an insult. “I am here on behalf of Mr. Wiggins’s business partner.” He looked down his nose at me. “Doubtless you have little real experience in dispelling enchantments, Miss Kittredge, but you and your friend may remain and observe.”
Normally I didn’t mind being patronized by a member of the ton. They were raised from birth to believe anyone without money or connections was beneath their notice. He likely assumed I’d feel flattered to be personally addressed by him, theatrical arrogant ponce that he was.
But something about the man put my teeth on edge, and I reacted accordingly.
“How generous of you.” I set down the box I was holding so I wouldn’t chuck it at his head. “As it happens, milord, I have a vast amount of experience in exposing charlatans who convince the ignorant to believe in enchantments. Perhaps you should leave.”
He stiffened. “Are you calling me a fraud?”
“Dear me.” I feigned dismay. “Did that shoe fit?”
“We should go, Kit,” I heard Rina say.
She sounded nervous, and since no man ever made her that, I eyed the intruder again. “Why? We were here first.”
“I am a deathmage, Miss Kittredge,” he informed me, his voice all midnight and silk. “Those who cross me do not live to regret it.”
All manner of mages swindled the cits of Rumsen—heartmages hawking love potions and marriage spells, birthmages who chanted over new mothers and infants, even painmages who pretended to cure headaches, sore backs, and the like—but none trifled in the business of death. I’d heard only a handful had ever been licensed to practice the blackest of the dark arts, and then only under very specific circumstances.
“Oh, so you’re billing yourself as a thoughtful, magical killer.” I ignored the strangled sound Rina made as I nodded agreeably. “Thriving market for death curses these days, what with the economy waffling about and so many pockets to let. Do you scare old tonners to the grave exclusively, or are you chasing after whitecarts as well?”
“Kit,” Rina almost shrieked.
“You have said quite enough, madam.” Dredmore took a step toward me and held up a stone. “You will be silent and do exactly as I say.”
Now Rina looked ready to murder. “You leave her alone.”
I eyed the blue pebble he held in his hand, clutched the front of my throat, and made a strangled sound. As the first glimmer of triumph appeared on his face, I dropped my hand and laughed. “Oh, dear, that didn’t work out very well, did it? Bad luck. Want to give it another go?”
“Jesu, Kit.” Rina dropped into a chair and covered her eyes.
“You’re still speaking.” Dredmore peered down at me as if I’d grown a second head. “What manner of protection do you carry?”
“A brain, you dolt.” I went back to the bacco boxes. “I don’t believe in magic, charms, curses, or any other supernatural power, which is why you can’t scare me into holding my tongue. So leave off.”
“He might cut it out, though,” Rina muttered, before grimacing at Dredmore. “Not a suggestion, milord.”
“Quiet now, both of you.” I turned over one of the boxes, produced my magnifying lens, and closely examined the felt. “Interesting. Mr. Wiggins said these boxes are solid silver and as old as he is, which should make them all at least a hundred years old. Yet this felt appears to be quite new.”
Dredmore came to stand beside me. “I sense no spell at work here.”
“Oh, brilliant.” Carefully I peeled back one corner of the felt, revealing the metal base. Although the top and inside of the box were dull silver with a very convincing patina, the base was a bright, rosy color. “As I expected. Made of copper.”
Rina joined us. “It’s a fake, then?”
“Yes, and not a very good one.” I went to the door and called for Mr. Wiggins. When he came in, I brought the box to him. “Is this one of the boxes that popped in and out of your collection?”