Authors: C. S. Quinn
Lily was assessing his reaction like a practised card sharp. Charlie affected nonchalance but knew in his heart she’d seen through it.
‘You don’t know what my key opens,’ he said. ‘How could it be of value to you?’
‘The key is my price.’
Charlie assessed his options.
‘I’ll wager the key,’ he agreed after a moment, ‘but the winner of each trick gets to ask a question. Three questions in all.’
‘You shouldn’t test me,’ she said, pointing to the front of the carriage, ‘I can take the key anytime I choose.’
‘Maybe, maybe not,’ he said, smiling. ‘I’m stronger than you.’
Charlie shrugged. There was no harm in letting her think it.
‘So take it,’ he said, ‘but you wouldn’t know how I came to carry it.’
This time he had struck gold. A tiny muscle in her cheek twitched.
‘Very well,’ she said. ‘If you wish to lose at cards then so be it.’
She drew a pack of cards from her skirts. Charlie took a seat opposite hers.
‘We play at fours,’ she said, handing him the cards.
He smiled. All Fours was a classic choice for a card sharper. It involved a dizzying set of rules and the kind of memory and attention which slipped after a few drinks.
Charlie sorted the pack, and made a show of checking for spots and marks which would allow her to cheat. She watched him, seeming amused.
‘I’ve no need to cheat,’ she said easily. ‘I’m too good.’
‘Even the best players lose sometimes,’ said Charlie.
‘Not unless they mean to.’ She took back the cards and began dealing.
Charlie took up his six cards. She fanned the top cards of the pack, and he realised she was testing him to see if he knew the more complicated rules of play.
He debated pretending not to notice, but decided she was too astute for that. Best let her think him good, but not realise how good.
‘Trick rules,’ he said. ‘If you deal like that one of us could count cards.’
She nodded and swept the cards to the bottom of the pack without a word, though there was a glimmer of admiration in her eye.
They played in silence, both assessing the other. Charlie hadn’t reckoned on how good she was. He watched her carefully. It all hinged on whether she was holding a Jack. With so little experience of seeing her play, he could not yet be sure of reading her expression.
‘Why did you take the ring?’ he asked.
She glanced up at him.
‘The purse and candlestick were a feint,’ he said. ‘You took them to disguise yourself as a thief. It was the ring you really wanted. Why?’
She pursed her lips and he thought he detected annoyance. No Jack in her hand, he decided.
‘Tell me what your key guards,’ said Lily.
‘You haven’t won the hand yet.’
Without answering, she laid her cards. There was the Jack. The smile on her face was maddening.
‘Papers,’ he said, trying not to let his surprise show. ‘My key unlocks a chest containing papers.’
‘What kind of papers?’
‘I . . . My reading is not good,’ he said. ‘I only saw them for a moment. There was a marriage paper among them. For Thomas Blackstone and Teresa Blackstone.’
He scrutinised her reaction but she was so hard to read. Each time he thought he’d seen a tell, it slid away like a snake in long grass. It was infuriating and fascinating at the same time.
Lily shuffled and re-dealt.
This time Charlie had learned enough of her play and the cards in the deck to better her. Combined with a lucky hand, he took the trick and was gratified to see a wave of frustration pass over her face.
‘I win,’ he said.
‘So you do,’ she said, looking as though she could not quite believe it. ‘You may ask me your question then and I will answer truthfully.’
‘Show me the handkerchief you were looking at,’ he said. ‘Before I got into the carriage.’
‘You were watching me?’
‘From beneath the carriage,’ he admitted. ‘A street rat trick to steal a ride.’
‘I shall have to learn that one,’ she murmured. ‘But you may not see the handkerchief. Your win grants you a question only.’
Charlie paused to be sure of his question.
‘What do you know of the symbol on my key?’ he asked finally.
Lily pursed her lips.
‘It is the sign of the Sealed Knot. They were a group of nobles formed during the war,’ she said. ‘The cleverest and most deadly men. Their purpose was to protect the King. But they fought, and some of them broke away. Travelled to Holland. They consorted with mystics. When they returned, they were said to have powers.’
‘One question is all you won.’ She re-dealt.
The questions were firing through his head at such speed that he hardly noticed when Lily laid her winning hand.
‘You have lost,’ she said, with a slightly disappointed smile. Then she held out her hand for the key.
Slowly, Charlie unwound it from his neck and handed it over.
Her fingers closed on it victoriously, watching his face.
‘This key is very dear to you,’ she decided. ‘Perhaps you think to find me and take it back.’
Charlie said nothing.
‘Have you ever been inside the fumigation house?’ continued Lily. ‘It is a maze. Once I am inside, you will never see me again.’ But she sounded less confident now.
‘I will,’ said Charlie, and was pleased to see a flicker of disquiet in her face.
Lily slipped in beside him. It was a novel sensation to have the swathes of silk pushed up against his body. He could smell her rosewater scent as she leaned in close.
Then he felt a sharp pain against his ribs.
‘Feel that?’ said Lily. ‘I hold a knife at your chest.’ Her voice came low. ‘Come looking for me again, Mr Sealed Knot, and I will carve out your heart.’
‘That might work on your lordly men,’ he said easily. ‘I grew up in Cheapside where the women would have your pretty guts for garters. Besides,’ he added. ‘You told me you will be impossible to find.’
Lily holstered her knife, looking furious.
‘So I will be,’ she said.
She slipped out of the carriage and vanished into the fumigation house. Charlie watched her go. Then he smiled. It had been easier than he thought to trick a trickster.
During play he had scented the playing cards with lavender oil – a favourite thief-taking subterfuge that had never failed him yet. Whichever door Lily touched in the fumigation house would be marked.
It never did to overplay your hand.
Blackstone eyed the Wax Chandlers’ Guild on Lothbury Street. The heat from the flames could already be felt. But the thick stone walls offered protection.
Candlemakers were running in and out of the Guild Hall, ferrying boxes of half-dipped candles. Two clergymen from the nearby church were staggering past with a six-foot candle elaborately carved with scenes of the crucifixion.
Blackstone smiled and moved towards the entrance. He turned the bottle in his cloak. Bringer of Death.
The candlemakers were only adding fuel to his pyre.
Men were digging a pit to bury goods and Blackstone’s stomach lurched. He was remembering a different pit. A different time.
‘Your sister?’ asked the gravedigger.
Blackstone nodded impassively. He let the body drop by the open grave. The head fell back revealing blackened features.
Blackstone could see the gravedigger thought him heartless. He didn’t care.
Too much had happened for him to grieve for this death. Soldiers had come. He’d heard his father’s screams. When they started on his mother Blackstone knew. He would become a soldier and take his revenge.
‘Burned after death?’ suggested the gravedigger slowly. ‘She didn’t move her arms to keep the flame from her face.’ He crossed himself. Witches made spells by burning corpses.
Blackstone’s eyes flicked up sharply. He was thinking of his wife. Beautiful Teresa and the thirteen blessings. All burned to ash.
Blackstone forced his thoughts back to the present. The torture of plague had burned through his body, sending thoughts and memories spooling into inaccessible corners. Something about the fire in the city . . . It seemed to be bringing them back. But erratically. In sudden snatches.
‘Hold,’ said an agitated-looking guard as Blackstone approached. ‘Guild members only.’
He was eyeing Blackstone’s rosary in obvious dislike.
‘I bring a message from the King.’ Blackstone showed his seal.
‘Even so,’ said the guard, ‘only guild members are allowed in the building. We have secrets to protect. Our brotherhood has sacred practices.’
Blackstone pressed his index finger to his chest in the secret sign.
‘Truth is light,’ he said, ‘light the way.’
The guard glared suspiciously.
‘I don’t recognise you from the guild dinners,’ he said. ‘Where are your wares sold?’
‘I supply the King’s household,’ lied Blackstone. ‘I’m often away from the city.’
The guard seemed disappointed by the reasonableness of the explanation.
‘I’ll need to search your cloak,’ he said. ‘We can’t be too careful. There’s rumours of Catholics throwing fireballs.’
He gestured Blackstone should open his cloak, and pulled at his hanging pocket roughly.
‘What’s this?’ asked the guard.
‘A little lead is all,’ said Blackstone, ‘for making pigment.’
The guard rubbed it against his lips, tasted the metal and returned it.
‘And this?’ He drew free the bottle and peered at the dark liquid inside.
‘Wine from Italy. You may try some.’
The guard thrust it back at Blackstone.
‘I’m an Englishman. A good Protestant. I don’t drink foreign filth,’ he said, eyeballing Blackstone aggressively.
‘As you wish,’ said Blackstone good-naturedly.
The guard looked as though he would have liked to say more. He stepped aside muttering ‘
’ under his breath.
Blackstone took in the high carved-wood ceilings of the hall. Candles winked from every corner. Rolls and slabs of beeswax had been carefully stacked in one corner, etched with their owner’s mark. Boxes of fine candles in straw were stacked all over.
It could hardly have been more perfect.
The fumigation house had once been a medieval manor. But the rickety half-timbered building had since been engulfed into the wider city by a patchwork of buildings and lean-tos. Now it was part of a grimy, meandering alley consisting mostly of brothels.
A tented porch had been erected around the doorway to protect the identity of arrivals. As Charlie watched, a sedan chair sidled to a halt outside it. A guard stepped out and hastily drew the porch curtain around the entire sedan. The chair lurched as it off-loaded its mystery passenger into the mercury-laced corridors beyond. Then the doorman uncovered the vehicle and the carriers ushered it away.
Charlie had already decided there was no point trying for illicit entry. Mercury was expensive. The fumigation house was heavily defended against burglars.
Reaching into his coat, Charlie fashioned himself a makeshift nose-covering from string and a spare piece of hessian and made purposefully for the entrance. The guard stepped forward, noticed the nose covering and fell back a little.
‘Mercury starts at a guinea,’ said the doorman, casting a suspicious eye over Charlie’s bare feet and weathered coat.
‘I won at the bear pits,’ said Charlie, deducing from the doorman’s accent that he lived south of the river. ‘Old Samson went down yesterday.’
The doorman’s mouth twitched. ‘I heard of that,’ he said after a moment. ‘Wish to God I had bet. My cousin won enough to eat meat for a month.’ He opened the curtained porch.
‘Shame you’re not as lucky with the pox as you are with money.’ And he laughed loudly at his own joke as he waved Charlie along.
Charlie stepped through the dark tented porch and into the manor. Inside was a wood-panelled corridor lit by gently fuming braziers. Ahead were three wooden booths, of the kind used in Catholic confession. But instead of decorative panelling, each had an artistic woodcut of a syphilis treatment.
One showed an unnecessarily graphic representation of a lotion being applied. Another depicted four men next to a fuming amphora. The third had a smiling man sat in a tub with flames underneath. Prices were chalked on the wood. He was expected to select a treatment and pay inside the relevant booth.
The middle booth was occupied. As Charlie watched, a nervous-looking young man emerged. He was clutching a wooden token and made his way morosely to a set of stairs at the end of the corridor. Waiting a moment, Charlie followed.
The man vanished up the stairs and Charlie paused again. Above the stairwell hung a tapestry map of the building. Each floor echoed the payment booths with pictures of amphoras and fuming braziers. It seemed the higher you climbed, the more expensive the treatment.
Checking the man ahead was out of sight, Charlie lowered his head to the bannister. There it was. Lavender.
Lily had passed this way.
Ascending the stair Charlie reached the first floor, where a wood door barred the way. He bent and checked the handle, but there was nothing. The bannister upwards bore the oil. So he kept climbing.
At the second floor he was rewarded with a clear scent. The stairwell opened on to a wide landing with a multitude of doors beyond. This seemed to be the mercury bathhouse level. There was a row of large doors leading to a fuming room. Next to each was a small cupboard, in which mercury could be fumed through.
An eerie sound of crackling flames and groaning men echoed along the corridor. There was a distinctive scalding aroma.
After seven doors, Charlie’s detective work was rewarded. He sniffed again to be sure. This was it. The room Lily had entered. Charlie made another check along the corridor, and moved to peer through the keyhole.
Shuffling closer he strained to see further into the room. It looked as though someone might be moving around on the other side, but it was difficult to see. He caught a flash of red silk and his heart beat faster. Righting himself, Charlie eyed the adjoining fuming cupboard. It was linked to the larger room by a grill. As silently as possible, he slid the latch and eased himself inside.