Her Ladyship's Curse
“The islanders worship a fire god who they believe dwells in their volcano,” he said instead of answering. “Every year before planting season they take a young virgin up to the edge of the crater and toss her in. Her sacrifice pleases the god, who then provides a bountiful harvest.”
“For burning a gel to death.” I tried to sit up. “How delightful. How do they celebrate the harvest? By setting little babies on fire?”
“They feast on the fruits of their labors.” He tugged me back, tucking my head against his neck. “It’s not as grim as it sounds. According to legend, courageous virgins are given eternal life as the god’s handmaidens.”
“There’s a bloody fabulous reward for you.” I felt him touching my hair and snapped my head away. “Trapped to serve forever the bastard who killed them. Where do I sign up for the next sacrifice?”
“Perhaps they love their god so much that they don’t mind,” he suggested.
“I wish you’d . . . stop . . .” My voice died and my neck cricked as the coach came to a stop.
The cliffside manor was not a heap of rubble but a magnificent edifice that seemed to be growing out of the very ground. This effect came from the cliff stones, which had originally been an enormous pile of black and white granite boulders hewn and squared at the topmost peaks to form the great house’s foundation. Other, identical stones had been quarried and brought to build atop them, creating a manor that soared some five stories above the cliff’s edge.
Dredmore’s driver opened the door, blocking it when I tried to scramble out.
“I have her, Connell.”
Somehow Dredmore managed to hoist me under his arm as he maneuvered me out of the coach, and he carried me like that across the drive.
“I’m not a sack of turnips. Put me down.” I struggled to get my head up to see where he was taking me. “Dredmore.”
He flipped me over so that he held me like a new husband about to cross the threshold with his bride. “Welcome to Morehaven, Charmian.”
Dredmore carried me into his lair as if it were my new home, and for a moment I wondered if it would be. As solitary and standoffish as Dredmore was, he wouldn’t have brought me here for a nightcap or a friendly chat. No, I had the feeling I was headed straight for some underground torture chamber or filthy cage.
Dredmore had no enemies, it was said, because he disposed of them before they could become known as such. As a licensed deathmage, he had the Crown’s blessing to kill whomever he deemed needed to die, but I’d always thought the threat a better deterrent. Why would anyone cross a man who could legally murder you?
Other than me, naturally.
“What are you doing?” I asked as he carried me over to a dimly lit staircase and began ascending. “The dungeon is downstairs.”
“I have no dungeon.” He turned and went up another flight before stepping into a hall. “I have guest rooms.”
I tried not to gawk at the magnificent paintings we passed, but the place was like a bloody national museum. “You are obliged to kidnap people in order to have gues—My God, is that an original Raphael?”
“I do what I must, and yes, it is.”
I glanced over the railing to see Connell carrying the satchel into one of the rooms downstairs. “What did Walsh put in the bag? Some leftover pheasant? Can I have some? I’m feeling peckish.”
“Of course you are.” He stopped in front of a door, and a valet opened it from the inside.
“Help me,” I told the manservant in my best terrified, helpless tone. “I’ve been brought here against my will.”
“That will be all for tonight, Winslow,” Dredmore said as he carried me into the chamber.
“Yes, milord.” The valet bowed and left.
I listened for the latch of the lock but heard nothing.
“He doesn’t seem too worried about me,” I said as Dredmore halted in front of a roaring fire. “Have you trained your servants to ignore your captives? How do you go about that, by making threats on their lives, or dropping a few more coins in their monthly wage packets?”
Dredmore held on to me. “I’m going to put you down now, Charmian, so that we may talk. Don’t run.”
I sighed. “Really, Lucien, you must stop reading so many romantic novels. I’m very happy that you abducted me. I’ve wanted to see the inside of this place for ages. You should really allow the tour companies to put you on their rounds. They’d pay you heaps to let a few nosy old ladies shuffle through here every week.”
“Morehaven is not a curiosity shop.” He lowered one arm and set me down on my feet. “Don’t run.”
I held on to him until I found my balance, and smiled up at him. “Why would I run from you?”
“You hate me,” he said. “You want me dead. If I walked in front of your carri, you’d run me down in the street.”
“Is that what you think?”
“It’s what you’ve said you’d do,” he reminded me, “along with shoving a spell scroll down my throat, using a rusted blade to relieve me of my manhood, setting my coach alight with me locked in it, and oh, yes, my personal favorite, hiring a thug to toss me over my own cliffs.”
“Lucien, Lucien.” I kept beaming as I stroked my hand up his arm and curled it around his neck. “Have you no understanding of women?”
“Let me show you exactly what I’ve always dreamed of doing to you.” I pulled his head down toward mine, and as soon as his eyelids drooped and his mouth parted, I clutched his neck and rammed my knee into his groin.
Dredmore shifted to deflect my blow with his hip, which I had expected, and tried to shove me to the floor, which I had not. I curled over under his weight, spun on my heel, and got out from under it at the last possible moment. He landed on the floor; I ran.
Connell, who was standing guard at the end of the hall, ran toward me and tried to seize me, but I dropped to my knees and slid between his legs, leaping up on the other side to hurl myself at the banister. I hoisted up my skirts, put a leg over, and took a long, perilous slide down to the next landing, where I jumped off and took the steps to the first floor two at a time.
I saw the front entry and knew I was going to make it. I was going to best Lucien Dredmore, and I was never going to let him forget it, either.
A figure stepped out of the shadows to block my path to the door, and I gaped at Dredmore’s face.
I whipped my head back to glance at the stairs. He hadn’t followed me down; I was sure of it. “How did you do that?”
He smiled a little. “Guess.”
The only thing that could have gotten him downstairs so instantly was magic. What if he could do all that they said he could? Cast spells, exorcise spirits . . . kill with a touch . . .
I whirled, hauled up my skirts, and ran in the opposite direction. I didn’t hear Dredmore shout or footsteps behind me and looked frantically for the chute or tube he had used to get to the first floor ahead of me. I found nothing, not even a bucket-waiter. All the windows and doors I stopped at to try wouldn’t open.
I made it to the kitchen and hurried toward the first weapon I saw, a thin-bladed boning knife left sitting on a cutting block. Did I want to stab Dredmore in the heart? Many times. But could I actually do that? As I reached for the blade, my hand trembled, and I stared at it, suddenly and completely terrified out of my wits.
Not yet, something whispered inside my head. Hang on.
“Are you finished?” Dredmore asked me from where he stood, just inside the kitchen. “Or would you like to scamper around the house a bit more?”
I drew my hand back from the knife, and glanced at a cook’s stool sitting by the banked hearth. Every door in the kitchen was locked, but the one leading out to the garden had a long panel of glass in the center.
I grabbed the blade, turned, and threw it at a spot on the wall beside Dredmore, who instinctively ducked. That gave me enough time to get to the stool, pick it up, and hurl it through the doorglass.
Jagged shards tore at my arms and hips as I stepped through the opening and out onto a pavilion. I shook bits of glass from my sleeves as I hurried down the steps, looking this way and that for a path leading away from the manor.
“Charmian.” Dredmore sounded angry now.
No path appeared, but a formal garden formed neat beds of flowers around a dark spiral maze of rose hedges almost twice my height. I trampled innumerable posies, violets, and zinnias as I rushed into the maze.
There were no helpful gaslamps and no way to navigate through the fragrant darkness; the only way I knew I’d taken a wrong turn was when I ran into a thorny wall of canes, too densely packed to let me squeeze through them. I stopped to catch my breath, think, and listen.
“Stay where you are,” I heard Dredmore say from some point in the maze to my right.
“Eat dirt,” I called back.
“You’re wounded,” he said. “I can smell your blood.”
“Leeches always can.” I went left and nearly knocked over a pedestal bearing a marble bust of, who else, Lucien Dredmore.
The cold stone chilled my hands as I tried to lift and toss it, but it was too heavy to move. I settled for picking up a handful of the ornamental pebbles surrounding the base of the pedestal. They weren’t large enough to inflict any serious damage, but with a good hard throw one might blacken his eye or knock out a tooth.
I couldn’t see the tops of the rose hedges, so I had no idea if I was heading in the right direction. The tonners loved hedge mazes, as did Rina, who always regretted that living in the city had prevented her from planting one.
“Not one of those dull old branching mazes, either,” she’d told me once. “I like these new island mazes. There are so many wrong turns and corner traps that you can send someone into them and not see them again for days.”
Travallian Castle had been built by one of Lucien’s ancestors at the turn of the last century; it would be safe to assume the maze was branching. That meant that there was only one path to the center, and one path out.