Authors: Gwyn Cready
“Go” was easier said than done, and Michael trudged toward the house with black shutters with the bishop, who had begun to murmur. If he had to carry the guy much longer, he wouldn't have to pretend he had a limp.
Before he slipped into the alley behind the house, he stole a glance over his shoulderâwell, over the bishop's headâat Undine. The man who'd called out to her wore a blue brocade frock coat with gold rope at the sleeve and finely polished boots. She didn't look especially pleased to be talking to him. On the other hand, in Michael's experienceâwhich admittedly was limited to the last two hoursâshe hadn't yet looked especially pleased to be talking to anyone. He'd decided it was part of her unusual charm.
The bishop lifted his head, and Michael froze. If the man woke up, how would he explain the fact of him being bound, naked, strapped to a stranger's back, and on his way to a whorehouse? The only thing worse that could happen would be someone spotting this limping beast with two heads.
The bishop laid his head back down and sighed. Michael relaxed. The man's hot breath gathered like summer humidity on Michael's neck. His back hurt; his sandals pinched; he had a man's balls pressed against his back. A friar in the eighteenth century was not stacking up to be the role of his dreams.
Michael reached the passageway behind the building, which couldn't be called a proper alley, as it was barely wide enough to accommodate a man on horseback, let alone a cart or carriage, and gazed at the building's dirty daub exterior.
The place didn't look like a whorehouseânot that Michael had a clear idea of what a whorehouse should look like, other than the petticoat-filled bordellos above whiskey bars in the American Westerns his great-aunt Morag used to watch. It looked more like a tea shop, he thought, and then an odd frisson ran down his spine. He turned his gaze to the river, visible down the street, and back to the building.
a tea shop! Or at least it will be in a few hundred years.
This was the shop Auntie Morag had taken him to on that miserable visit to Coldstream so many years ago. They'd driven down from Peebles, boring enough in its own right, in her ancient Morris to visit the Coldstream Historical Museum. He'd sat in the front window of this very building; he remembered the view of the water clearly. They'd eaten blackberry jam biscuits and lukewarm tea with no sugar (“Bad for your teeth, Mikey. Might as well floss with licorice whips.”), while he'd squirmed on the uncomfortable chair listening to her describe the afternoon of “fun” they'd be having at Coldstream's biggest attraction.
Christ, he could hardly be still now thinking about the place. Bloody boring bits of pottery and faded pictures of farmers with plows that had seemed to him from the Pleistocene Epoch. He'd actually looked for James IV in the photos, hoping to catch sight of his bloody, fifteenth-century battlefield death at nearby Flodden Field, the only thing that would have made the interminable visit worthwhile.
Well, he thought with some amusement, wouldn't Auntie Morag have been surprised to find out they'd been sitting in what had probably been the parlor at Coldstream's favorite whorehouse.
“The door's open, you ken,” said a plump, middle-aged woman with graying hair standing behind him in the alley. She held a large basket of green and purple cabbages. “Ye need no' be shy.”
“Are you, erâ”
“Aye. Come in, come in.”
She gave his habit a quick up-and-down and shook her head. “I guess nothing should surprise me anymore,” she said, and put the basket on a table in what was clearly the kitchen. A variety of pots hung by the unlit hearth, and the scent of cheap, flowery perfume hung in the air. A bright-red handbell stood on a shelf.
“Do you have a preference, Father?” she said. “Fat? Thin? Gold hair? Brown? We even have a girl with six fingers, but she's extra.”
“Oh God, no,” Michael said, horrified.
The woman shrugged. “The men like her because she canâ”
“Thank you, no,” he said firmly. Why wasn't Undine here to navigate this medieval house of horrors? “I'm waiting for someone. A woman,” he added helpfully.
She turned and crossed her arms. “Father, I ken ye must be new to this, but ye canna bring your own woman here. You must use one of ours.”
He shook his head. “Sorry. I know this is confusing, but I'm here”âhe lowered his voiceâ“with a
She offered no sign of recognition.
He jabbed a thumb toward his hump. “Rothwell. He needs a room.”
“He has a
?” She moved her hand closer to the bell.
“Of course he has a name. What do you mean?”
The bishop farted, and the woman glared at Michael.
A younger woman in a close-fitting leather coat stepped in and looked at Michael. “Are you Kent?”
Before he could answer, the sounds of an argument came in from the street. Michael stepped to a window. The man who had stopped Undine had a hand on her sleeve, and even at this distance, Michael could see Undine was irritated. Michael jerked the ropes under his cloak loose, and Rothwell toppled to the floor.
“I hope you canâ”
“Go,” the woman in leather said. “We'll take care of him.”
Michael sprinted down the street before remembering his former “afflictions.” He slowed to the pace of a speed walkerâa speed walker with a limp.
The look in Undine's eyes warned him away, and he stopped, but he wasn't willing to leave entirely so remained at a slight distance.
“You're the one who told me she'd abandoned me,” the man said loudly. “It's your duty to tell me how to win her back.”
The man was drunk. Michael could see that now. And a few of the inhabitants of Coldstream were slowing to watch. The man's grip on Undine's arm was tightening into a lock hold. Michael looked for a sign from Undine.
“Give me a potion,” the man begged. “Tell me what she's thinking.”
Undine had remained silent until this point, though the unexpurgated disdain in her eyes would have cut Michael's ego to shreds had it been aimed at him.
“You want to know what she's thinking, do you?”
Though he'd known Undine only a short time, Michael knew the answer to that question should be a resounding no.
“Aye, I do,” the man said, “ye white-fanged witch.”
Her gaze traveled to the man's hand on her arm. The onlookers fell silent. Two beats, three beats, four. The man loosened his grip and released her.
“She thinks of you often,” Undine said, brushing the remains of his touch from her person.
“Oh, aye. You gave her a bracelet. Emeralds, perhaps?”
The man nodded.
“She rarely removes it. Her husband can't quite place it. He thinks he might have given it to her before their marriage.”
A buzz ran through the crowd. “An adulterer,” someone whispered. The man licked his lips, mildly unnerved to have his secrets aired on the streets of Coldstream, but the onlookers were his inferiors and thus invisible to him. He stood straighter.
“She wears it even in bed,” Undine said.
An older man in the crowd grabbed his wife and hurried away.
“'Tis there she thinks of you most.”
The man stood rapt. His breath quickened. If Undine had been paid to tell the man the story he most wanted to hear, Michael thought, she couldn't have picked a better one.
“What does she think?” he said in a choked whisper. “Tell me.”
“If I were you, I would take what I've told you and treasure it till the end of your days. She won't leave her husband for you. That you already know, and I told you as much the first time you came to me.”
“Tell me,” the man demanded. “Who are you to decide what I should and shouldn't hear?”
“I'm the person who makes it possible for you to know anything, sir.”
“Tell me, you bloody witch.”
Undine grew stock-still. “She thinks if you'd been half the lover her husband is, she'd have stayed with you long enough to allow you to drape her neck and ears in emeralds as well.”
The women in the crowd tittered. Cold fury filled the man's face.
Michael stepped into his line of sight. He hoped the presence of a man of God, or at least of one who appeared to be of God, would cool the man's temper.
No luck. The man reared back, but Michael moved faster. He caught the man's arm before it delivered its slap and swung him off his feet.
“Seriously?” Michael said, dropping a knee into the man's solar plexus. “Did your mother not teach you manners?”
The man's eyes bulged. “What happened to your hump?”
“Would you like to try an apology?”
“What sort of a cleric are you? Who is your bishop?”
Michael felt the touch of Undine's finger on his shoulder, but when he turned, she had faded into the crowd, watching the melee as if she were one of the onlookers. He hopped to his feet, brushed off his habit, and offered his hand to the man on his back, who shook his head.
Michael shrugged and slipped through the gaping crowd, remembering to bend and limp only after he was halfway across the road.
“I'll find you, you poxed blackguard!” the man shouted.
“Nicely done,” Undine said as she hurried ahead of him down a side street. “You've assaulted Berwickshire's highest-ranking judge and now half of Coldstream can identify you.”
“Oh, you think
caused this? You're the one who dressed me in a hump! And I was most certainly
the person casting aspersions on the man's bedroom prowess.”
“Like all men, he places far too much importance on the mechanics and not nearly enough on the moments leading up to them.”
men? Your certainty extends that far? Not a single rice farmer in China? A bureaucrat in some Moscow bank? A reindeer herder in Nordic Jutland?”
“There are, perhaps, a handful of men in Great Britain who could be called tender lovers.”
! Well, I suppose we should be grateful there are any of us at all”âhe heard her snort at his use of “us”â“and such a delightful concentration right here in the British Isles! You Englishwomen must be celebrating your luck.”
“I'm not an Englishwoman.”
“Right. Nor a Scot. Tell me, how are the lovers in Fairyland?”
She gave him a devastating sidelong look. “English prig.”
“Is that what I am? What if I told you I wasn't English?”
That's right. Maybe you don't have everything down pat.
“I'd say you were probably lying.”
The promotion from flat-out liar buoyed him.
Somehow, they'd arrived at another door in another dreary Coldstream passageway. The whole town couldn't have held more than fifteen buildings, and yet Undine's twists and turns had made it seem like they were traversing half of London. She knocked twice, paused, knocked again and opened the door.
The woman in the leather coat stood at a counter, her back to them, in a heavily curtained room that smelled of strong perfume and burned oatmeal, and Michael realized that even though they'd entered through a different door, they were in the same whorehouse/tea shop he'd been in before.
The woman waved them on without turning, and Undine slipped through a hidden door, pulling Michael behind her. They descended a set of thickly carpeted stairs and a moment later the other woman joined them.
“Is heâ¦one of yours?” the woman asked. She was a Scot with dark hair and an imperious gazeâeven more imperious than Undine's.
“One of her what?” Michael said.
“Colleagues. We use this place as a base. My friend is helping,” Undine said, adding to the woman, “Aye, unfortunately. He's been recognized.”
“In that?” She tilted her head toward the habit. “I'm not surprised.”
“I didn't dress him.”
“Dressed myself,” Michael said, holding up his hands proudly. “Have been doing it since I was a lad.”
“Has the bishop been secured?” Undine said.
“Aye. Snoring like a polecat.”
“Bridgewater is making arrangements for a confidential delivery. We don't know what it is or who it's for. Someone from his solicitor's office will serve as the go-between. He's arriving from London tomorrow.”
“Not if he's going through Wooler,” the brunette said. “The river's overrun the banks there, and the ferry's out. He'll have to wait there or travel west all the way around to Jedburgh. Either way, it'll take him at least two more days.”
“Bridgewater will not be pleased,” Undine said with a grim smile.
“Aye. 'Tis a shame.”
“In case anyone cares,” said Michael, who was growing tired of them talking around him, “I was the one who made the discovery regarding the confidential delivery.”
The brunette pursed her lips and gave him a once-over. “He's a bit older than your usual.”
“An unfortunate necessity,” Undine said. “He's entirely untested. I make no claims regarding his abilities.”
“Actually,” Michael said affably, “I'm quite well tested. In factâ”
“He needs a disguise, though,” Undine said. “He caused us some trouble in the street.”
The brunette snagged a shirt hanging on a peg and handed it to Undine. “Will a sark and plaid do?”
“Can you contrive a Scots accent?” Undine asked, finally addressing him directly.