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Authors: C. S. Quinn

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BOOK: Fire Catcher
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Chapter 19

Charlie had forgotten how beautiful Lily was. She looked out of the carriage for only an instant, and then the curtain was back. Charlie had to force himself not to stare at the blank window. Instead he pitched into the swelling crowd, and began beating his way towards the carriage. Even the blinkered horses were twitching with nerves. Charlie plotted a course wide of their back legs.

He reached the large wheels of Lily’s coach after a sustained effort. Taking advantage of the thick crowd, he slid underneath the carriage. Charlie had learned in his boyhood to stow under carriages for sport. The trick was to fix your feet into the front planks and hold on to the axle. It was harder now he was nearly six foot and scared of horses, but he managed it.

The carriage gave a sudden spurt and he found himself looking up between the gaps in the planks, directly at Lily. Her dress was the kind worn by courtesans. Red silk stretched low and tight around the body. It was low cut, displaying a mass of necklaces. And from his angle he could see indecent flashes of white underclothes. The wide skirt was embroidered with large gold flowers.

Up close he could see Lily’s skin was toffee-coloured, plump against sultry dark eyes with a rosy pout which was exotic rather than beautiful. The kind of face that would do for a mistress but not a wife.

Charlie manoeuvred for a firmer position. A button from his long leather coat ricocheted against the carriage. Lily looked down. Charlie ducked back, but when he glanced through again he saw she held something. A handkerchief.

The way she was holding it caught his attention. Lily’s knuckles were white and her hands were trembling. Something about this handkerchief frightened or angered her.

From the underside Charlie could only see the back of the stitches – clusters of faded thread. They made a fish tail shape. A mermaid, he thought.

He was struck with a sudden certain knowledge that he’d seen the mermaid before.

There was something so . . .
familiar
about her. Charlie stared, wondering where he might have seen the handkerchief. Nothing came to mind, which was unusual. Usually his memory was perfect.

The mystery of it taunted him. How came Lily to be holding a handkerchief he’d seen before?

Her brown hands turned the cloth. Charlie spotted a ruby among the cheap rings which adorned her fingers.

She chewed her lip, toyed with a mass of charms and pearls at her throat, then stuffed the handkerchief in her dress, wiping at her eyes angrily. She’d been crying, Charlie realised.

The carriage began to turn a corner, and Charlie felt his feet begin to ease out of the creaking planks. He looked back to see there was now a knife in Lily’s hand. She seemed to wield it as naturally as fingers, tapping her chin with the blade, and using the tip to absent-mindedly scratch her arm.

The carriage swayed to a halt before turning towards Crutchfriar’s and Charlie took a chance. He dropped from the underside of the carriage and glanced up to assure himself the driver was preoccupied with nudging the horses forward into the thick traffic. Then Charlie straightened, opened the door of Lily’s carriage and stepped inside.

Lily looked up in alarm. In an instant her knife was at his throat.

‘I’m no robber,’ said Charlie, impressed at her speed.

Lily’s eyes flicked to the front of the coach and her knife held firm.

‘I have something of interest to you,’ he said.

She hesitated, looking him over. The knife pressed a little firmer.

‘I remember you from Fetter Lane,’ she said, her eyes resting on his key. ‘You’re not wealthy enough to buy my time,’ she added, glancing at his bare feet. ‘So what could you have of interest?’

‘Information,’ said Charlie, ‘from your boy on London Bridge.’

The pressure of the knife eased and she sank back a little into her seat.

‘So tell me quickly. Before I change my mind. The driver is employed by the Earl of Amesbury and fought at the Siege of Colchester,’ she added, nodding to the front of the carriage. ‘So don’t think to cross me.’

Charlie drew out the round robin he had intercepted. Lily’s eyes widened and she went to snatch at it, but Charlie was too fast for her. He tucked it back inside his coat.

‘I took it from your messenger,’ he said.

Lily sucked her teeth in annoyance. ‘That is mine,’ she said.

‘Yours by right of having stolen it?’ retorted Charlie. ‘Then it is just as much mine.’

She moved to open the carriage door and Charlie raised his hands.

‘Hold. I will give you the paper.’

He held it out and she snatched it up triumphantly under Charlie’s glaring gaze.

‘A few minutes of your time,’ said Charlie, ‘is all I need.’

Lily smiled, relaxing back slightly. The knife rested in her palm like a snake ready to strike.

‘The paper bought you entry to the carriage,’ she said, tucking it into her dress. ‘My time costs money.’

Charlie paused, and her eyebrows raised.

‘I’ve no money,’ he admitted. The knife twitched and her expression darkened.

‘But perhaps we could come to an arrangement,’ he added quickly, as her eyes glanced back towards the driver. ‘You play at cards?’

The smile twisted sideways and Charlie knew he had struck the mark. It was often a weakness of card sharps that they could not resist a gamble.

‘What do you propose?’ she asked, failing to keep the glow of interest from her eyes.

‘Three tricks,’ said Charlie. ‘Whatever game you choose. If I win best of three, then you tell me what you know.’

‘And if I win?’

‘If you win, I tell you what I know about this key.’ He lifted it, watching her expression carefully.

She hesitated. Her eyes followed the shape of it.

‘Double sided,’ she said, watching his expression. ‘A foreign key?’ She was staring at the shape at the head now. The crown looped with knots.

Charlie was silent. Lily watched his face and he knew she hadn’t discerned what she’d hoped from his expression. She turned the cheap rings on her fingers, considering his face.

‘That’s not enough,’ she decided. There was a pause as she considered. ‘If I win, you give me that key.’

Chapter 20

The Earl of Clarence blinked against the rising steam. Floral fragrances wafted gently from inside the bathhouse. Rose and saffron, he thought. He eyed the King’s fashionable silk clothing which hung jauntily outside. His Majesty’s wig was new. Jet-black, elaborately curled and the size of a small sheep. Barbara Castlemaine’s influence.

Next to it was Amesbury’s military cloak, sturdy and worn from the years.

Slowly Clarence shrugged off his elaborately jewelled coat. He hesitated then pulled down his silk breeches, revealing aged legs mottled red with veins.

Clarence’s portly belly swelled out beneath his shirt. His hand rose to his snowy wig. A servant waited patiently to take it, but Clarence baulked at the last moment. Without expensive clothes his wig was the last sign of his authority. He batted away the servant rudely and stepped into the bathhouse.

‘Clarence!’ The King’s disembodied voice hailed him from the steam. ‘Come tell us of the fire,’ he called.

Clarence shuffled forward. The bathhouse had been styled like a Roman marquee. An old stable interior had been tented with white linen and decked with fragrant flowers. A glass pitcher of white wine sat on a bed of ice. Clarence bristled. He’d spoken against the expensive ice house in Parliament.

For a moment Clarence could only see the Earl of Amesbury. The old general was seated with scarred elbows rested on muscular thighs. Shirtless, his chest was bull-like, latticed with war wounds. Amesbury had retained his heavy breeches, thick boots and sword.

There was a quick movement and Clarence saw Amesbury’s pet monkey flit from view. The old general had acquired it in the colonies and claimed not to notice when it bit people.

A cloud of steam cleared and the naked royal body came into view. King Charles was sat on a bench with his legs splayed forward. Without his wig the monarch’s strong features were even more prominent. Heavy black brows arched over dark eyes and a well-groomed little moustache framed his wide lips. It was a striking, well-made face. Though his large rounded nose dwarfed all.

‘As you can see,’ observed Amesbury, nodding to Clarence. ‘His Majesty is every inch a King.’

Clarence realised he had been staring and blushed furiously.

‘What news of the fire, Clarence?’ asked Amesbury. ‘We hear Catholics throw fireballs.’

‘Your Majesty,’ began Clarence, trying to look anywhere but the impressive royal groin, ‘I represent Parliament. The fire is under control. Your Palace at Whitehall is safe.’

Amesbury sat up. Sweat had plastered his greying hair across his forehead, but he didn’t seem to notice the heat of the bathhouse. His scarred torso rolled with perspiration.

‘Are you mad, Clarence?’ said Amesbury. ‘The wind whips it to a frenzy. You must pull down buildings and quickly.’

‘A man’s property is his own,’ said Clarence. ‘Londoners won’t give permission for their homes to be levelled.’

‘So I hear,’ said Amesbury testily. ‘But the King can overrule them.’

Clarence raised a hand. ‘Asserting your rule wouldn’t be wise, Your Majesty. The political situation in the city . . .’

‘London burns,’ stormed Amesbury. ‘We must act and quickly.’

Clarence eyed Amesbury and then the King. ‘Amesbury is bred in a time of war,’ he said. ‘No one doubts his military brilliance. But this is not a military matter. A little fire is all.’

‘And the fireballs?’ asked Charles.

‘A rumour,’ said Clarence firmly.

‘Be careful, Clarence,’ said Amesbury easily, ‘that your quest for parliamentary advancement doesn’t endanger the city.’

‘A warning from a military turncoat?’ spat Clarence waspishly. ‘The man who seeks only the winning side.’

‘A wise man sides with me then,’ said Amesbury, rubbing a line of sweat from his forearm. ‘How many marriages did it take for you to avoid battle?’

Clarence’s face turned, outraged.

‘I suppose it takes courage of a kind,’ added Amesbury. ‘Having seen your wife.’

‘My services to the Crown were noted,’ spluttered Clarence. ‘How dare you imply I shirked war duties!’

The King held up a tired hand. He considered for a long moment.

‘Amesbury,’ he said, ‘use what people you have in the city. Discover if fireballs are being thrown. But I fear Clarence may be right about troops,’ he added, signalling a servant to refill his wine goblet. The King plucked a grape from a platter, crunched it noisily, then spat pips.

‘What, then, do you propose, Clarence?’

‘Do nothing,’ said Clarence. ‘Any action will incite the people to riot.’

‘Better they riot than London burns to the ground,’ said Amesbury.

There was a rustle of fabric and a breath of cool air wafted through the humid bathhouse.

‘Clarence,’ said a low female voice. ‘How nice to see you in my bathhouse.’

Clarence twisted in horror to see Barbara Castlemaine.

His eyes widened in alarm. What was she doing here?

The King’s longest serving mistress was in a state of utter undress, her thin white shift plastered to her curving body by sweat. Patches at her breasts and groin were completely transparent but a huge swathe of jewelled necklaces afforded rudimentary modesty. Behind her came two maids dressed in flimsy open-shouldered shifts.

With effort Clarence drove down his fury. Things were slotting into place. Meeting in the bathhouse. It was her doing. She wanted to impact on policy. The damnable woman had engineered this scenario to wrong-foot him.

‘A bathhouse is one way to spend His Majesty’s allowance,’ said Clarence, trying not to stare at Barbara’s shapely form.

Amesbury roared with laughter.

‘You see, Barbara,’ he said, ‘Clarence is always the politician.’

Barbara strode over to the King and planted a lingering kiss on his mouth. The necklaces dangled forward tantalisingly and
he reached for her. But she retreated and reclined on the cushion
-
strewn floor of the bathhouse. Her maids knelt and began massag
ing perfumed oils into her bare legs. Charles leaned forward for a better look. His previous pensive expression had melted away.

‘Lady Castlemaine is here, but not your wife?’ said Clarence to Charles with a brittle laugh.

‘The Queen was much sheltered before her marriage,’ said Barbara. ‘Portuguese Catholics are
very
proper and won’t set foot in the bathhouse.’ She gave the King a disarming smile. ‘But they understand their husbands must have some pleasure.’

‘Lady Castlemaine designed this bathhouse as a present for me,’ said Charles, watching the women caress Barbara’s naked thighs. ‘The flowers and jewels,’ he gestured vaguely to the elaborate swags of pearls and fresh flowers which ornamented the tented ceiling, ‘were her idea.’

Sweat broke out on Clarence’s upper lip. His eyes switched to Amesbury. How was the heat not bothering him? He wished desperately he had dispensed with his wig.

‘Lady Castlemaine is very generous,’ said Clarence archly, ‘to share herself with your two advisors.’

Charles tipped back his head and laughed.

‘That’s exactly what I like about her,’ he said. ‘Why should I care who sees, Clarence? She’s my mistress, not my wife.’ He peered forward for a better look. ‘A man should always have a pretty view,’ he concluded.

‘Your Majesty,’ Clarence said, wrestling for control of the situation. ‘I will convey it to Parliament then, that you will leave the firefighting to us.’

‘Are you sure that’s wise?’ asked Barbara lazily, lifting her head slightly. ‘There is talk the fire may ford the Fleet river and head for Whitehall.’

Clarence held up his hand.

‘The soft hearts of women,’ he said, treating Barbara to a patronising smile, ‘would see us endanger His Majesty’s throne. Fire cannot cross water. Whitehall is safe.’

Barbara lifted her pretty eyebrows and flipped on to her belly. The maids began working her lower back. She gave a cat-like smile of pleasure.

‘Since the Civil War,’ she said, ‘many old soldiers keep gunpowder in their cellars. My understanding is only a woman’s kind. But I hear black powder can send flaming materials some distance.’

There was a pause as this sunk in.

‘The Royal Barge hasn’t had an airing in a few weeks,’ Barbara observed casually. ‘Perhaps a trip along the river, Charles. Just to see the blaze for ourselves. Amesbury should come,’ she added generously.

‘The King has already agreed . . .’ began Clarence, his mouth a slim line of rage.

‘The river would be a good place to view,’ said Charles, lifting a thoughtful hand. ‘Perhaps we should at least see the blaze.’

‘Lady Castlemaine’s fine dresses will be stained with smuts and smoke,’ said Clarence desperately.

Barbara gave a musical little laugh.

‘Oh you mustn’t worry about my fine dresses,’ she said. ‘You’ve said it yourself, Clarence. I am so rarely in them.’

Clarence turned to the King.

‘Your Majesty, I must advise strongly against Lady Castlemaine’s fancy to see the fire. Your barge on the Thames could cause alarm.’

But the King was hardly listening.

Barbara twisted her head over her shoulder to where the nearest maid was massaging across her naked buttocks.

‘Be sure to work deep between,’ she said, eyeing the King. ‘His Majesty is particularly keen I am to be oiled there.’

She moved her eyes to Clarence and winked.

Clarence’s hands were balled in fists of rage. He wiped away a fresh crop of sweat from his red face. Barbara Castlemaine may have won this battle. But Charles’s bastard son, Monmouth, was responsible for the Royal Barge. Monmouth was spoiled and difficult. And he hated Barbara. Clarence would have some sway yet. He would win the war.

BOOK: Fire Catcher
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