Behind the Mask (House of Lords)

BOOK: Behind the Mask (House of Lords)
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Behind the Mask

Meg Brooke

 

Kindle Edition

 

Copyright 2012 Meg Brooke

 

 

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Behind the Mask

 

Meg Brooke

ONE
  

 

August 25, 1834

 

The sun was just rising over the roofs of Brussels when Lord Colin Pierce reached the offices of Baron Stockmar, chief advisor to King Leopold, in the Royal Palace. Outside the Royal Palace, the
Paleizenplein
was still quiet and empty, and he saw almost no one as he passed through the elaborately decorated halls of the palace itself. But there was a buzz of activity in Stockmar’s offices, where it seemed there was always someone working. Colin suspected that there was a room hidden somewhere where Stockmar’s aides slept in bunks so that they could be on call at all hours of the day and night.

A fresh-faced young man greeted him and knocked softly on the door of Stockmar’s private office. “Enter!” came the call from within, and Colin was shown inside.

Stockmar stood before the windows that looked out on the Palace of Charles of Lorraine, a piece of paper held very close to his face. There was a single lamp on the desk, its faint light clearly not bright enough for the baron to read whatever was on the paper. Colin had to fight not to smirk at the little economies Stockmar enjoyed.

“My Lord,” Stockmar said, not looking up from the paper. “I have a letter here from the Princess of Leiningen. She says that it is not possible for the Princes Ernest and Albert to visit this year, as her daughter is going on another progress.” He crushed the paper into a ball and tossed it onto his desk. “That woman will be the death of me,” he growled, but he was grinning wryly. Secretly, Colin knew, King Leopold’s chief advisor enjoyed sparring with his master’s sister, who also happened to be the Duchess of Kent and the mother of the heir to the British throne. But the duchess had been gleefully thwarting her brother’s attempts to arrange for his nephews, Ernest and Albert, to become better acquainted with their cousin, who was, as yet, free from any romantic attachments. An alliance would provide Leopold with a direct line not only to the British monarch but also to the man at her side, both highly desirable connections.

“Princess Victoria is young,” Colin replied in flawless German, the language Stockmar generally preferred. “There is time for her to get to know her cousins. King William will not die this year.”

Baron Stockmar raised one eyebrow. “Are you certain of that?”

Colin shrugged. “As certain as I can be.”

“Well, it is as may be, I suppose. Will you take some tea or coffee?”

“Coffee would be most welcome,” said Colin, who had been at the Duchess of Wittelsbach’s salon until nearly four. He had been looking forward to snatching a few hours’ sleep when he had received Stockmar’s summons.

As the coffee was being wheeled in, the baron took a seat behind his desk, and Colin dropped gratefully into a chair across from him. “Mount Vesuvius is erupting in Italy,” Stockmar said idly.

“Is it?” Colin asked, glancing over as the servant departed. Stockmar must be waiting for something, or he would not waste time with this useless chatting.

It was only a few moments until he discovered what that something was. There was another knock at the door and Sir Robert Adair entered.

Colin rose to greet the king’s ambassador to Belgium. “Sir Robert,” he said.

“Good morning, Lord Pierce,” Adair replied, helping himself to a cup of coffee. As he did so Colin considered the implications of His Majesty’s Ambassador being here so early in the morning. Something was very wrong.

“Shall we sit?” Adair asked. Colin reclaimed his chair and Adair took the one next to him. At a nod from the ambassador, Stockmar fished another document from a pile on his desk. He slid it across. Colin scooped it up and read it carefully.

“Has this been verified?” he asked, looking from the ambassador to Stockmar and back.

Adair nodded. “Three agents have testified to its veracity. The assassins left Algiers on the sixteenth of August. We think they will put ashore in Ormesby or Gorleston by the thirtieth.”

“And the Princess Victoria’s progress?” Colin asked, understanding now why Stockmar had told him about such a seemingly useless piece of trivia.

“Suffolk and Norfolk,” Adair said.

Colin groaned. Both the towns Stockmar had named were in Norfolk. “Which houses will she visit?”

Stockmar rummaged for another paper. When he produced it he stared at it for a moment. It never failed to amaze Colin the amount of intelligence that lay in the piles on the man’s desk. “She is already at Rundle Chase. After that she goes to Middleton, then Hafeley and Sidney Park.”

Colin nodded grimly, glancing down at the letter from Stockmar’s informer again. There was a plot to kill the heir to the throne of England. The assassins meant to strike as she made her trek from great house to great house at the instigation of her mother and that snake Conroy, and they meant to do it in little more than a week. “What can I do?” Colin asked.

Adair sipped his coffee idly, as though they were discussing an upcoming hunt and not the death of a future monarch of England. “Do you know anyone in any of those houses?”

Colin nodded. “Lord Rundle is a friend of my father’s,” he said, “But he is an old military man. He has had Rundle Chase crawling with guards for a week, you mark my words. If I were going to choose any of those four houses, it would be Sidney Park. It is in a low wooded valley in the Broads, an area of rivers on the east coast of England, very secluded, and not very heavily populated. It would be easy to reach stealthily, and the grounds are not protected by walls or fences. Also, it would give them the most time to prepare their operation, since it is her last stop.”

“And the lord of Sidney Park?”

“Viscount Sidney?” Colin asked. He tried to picture the man, an old, stodgy Whig whose best days were behind him. But then he remembered that
that
Viscount Sidney had been dead six years, since just after Colin had left England for the Continent. The new Viscount Sidney was... “Yes, I know him,” Colin said, only realizing it as the words came out. “He and I were at Cambridge together, though he was a year my senior.”

“Do you think you could secure an invitation to Sidney Park?”

Colin thought for a moment. He knew that Leo Chesney, Viscount Sidney, sat in the House of Lords, and that the session had only ended last week. With any luck he would not yet have journeyed into Norfolk. “Perhaps,” he said carefully. “What would I be allowed to tell him?”

Adair glanced at Stockmar. “Tell him that it is a matter of national security that you be included in the party traveling to Norfolk. You may explain who you are looking for, and why, but only to Lord Sidney unless circumstances arise that make it necessary for you to reveal your purpose to others. You understand?”

Colin nodded. That would have to be enough. “I will leave as soon as I can.”

“Good,” Stockmar said. “I think it best that you travel from Dunkirk to Dover. You can catch the ferry if you depart within an hour. There will be a packet ready for you when you leave Brussels.”

Colin stood.

“Good luck, young man,” Adair said.

“Thank you, Sir.”

 

Colin’s small apartment was only a two-minute walk from the Royal Palace. He had no servants and no valet—in his line of work, it was simpler to avoid those sorts of complications. There was a woman who came in twice a week to clean, some relative of his landlord’s, but she would not be surprised to find him absent. Once he had had a secretary, but the man had turned out to be a French spy, and Colin had trusted no one with his work since. He had managed to stay largely in the good graces of his superiors for six years working for the Foreign Office, and he planned to continue on a good while longer. Entanglements only complicated things, which was why he also did not keep a mistress or engage in liaisons with the many lonely widows of Brussels, as some of his counterparts and even his superiors did. He had made that mistake once, and he would not repeat it. Adair had been keeping a Flemish count’s widow for two years, and though both of them were circumspect, Colin privately believed that the attachment was the reason Adair had had such difficulty negotiating the cessation of hostilities between the Flemish and Dutch troops last year.

Colin preferred simplicity and ease, and so it did not take him very long to make himself ready to depart. In the last six years he had become quite adept at making quick escapes. Within half an hour he was back at the Royal Palace, and twenty minutes later he was on the road to Dunkirk.

Four hours and two changes of horse later he arrived just in time to catch the afternoon ferry. When he had found a private corner he at last opened the packet that had been tucked inside his coat since leaving Brussels.

Inside there were four thin sheets of paper. One listed the official and unofficial communiqués that had passed between the Belgian, French, Greek and British spies working the vast network that stretched over the whole Continent. From it he learned that the plan to assassinate the Princess Victoria had been in place for at least two years, and that the assassins who had been sent to England were the second group, the first having been intercepted and killed in Spain back in February. That group had been three men; the Foreign Office and Stockmar’s spies concurred that there would likely be four or perhaps even five men this time, and that they would have greater support behind them, perhaps even one of the leaders of their organization.

The second sheet contained concise descriptions of the three men from the Foreign Office who would be acting as Colin’s assistants. They all sounded horribly green, though Colin supposed that none of them were younger than twenty-three, which was the age he had been when he had first gone to the Continent in the service of the Foreign Office. Before that he had done exactly what these young men were now doing. It had not been easy work, acting as a secret agent in England, trailing foreign dignitaries and learning to read four different languages simultaneously. But it had prepared Colin for the work he was about to do. As he perused the final two sheets of paper he felt the familiar thrill of excitement at finally having something to
do
after months of listening to cryptic conversations in the drawing rooms of Brussels. He knew the two years he had spent in Belgium had been a punishment for what had happened in Vienna, and that he deserved to be chastised. Still, the tedium of reporting to Stockmar each week, of parsing the Princess Victoria’s every move before they were relayed to King Leopold, of actually having to discuss which of the king’s nephews he thought the princess would like better, had nearly driven him mad.

BOOK: Behind the Mask (House of Lords)
2.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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