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Authors: Amanda Quick

Mystique (6 page)

BOOK: Mystique
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“Not only will I help you find the crystal, sir, I will go one step further.” Alice leaned forward to emphasize her next words. “I shall agree to relinquish my claim to it.”

“A claim that I do not accept.”

Alice started to frown. “My lord—”

“And in exchange for this magnanimous offer?” he interrupted calmly. “What is it you would ask of me, Lady Alice?”

Alice braced herself. “In exchange, my lord, I ask two things. The first is that, two years from now, when my brother is old enough, you will arrange for him to go to Paris and, mayhap, Bologna, so that he may attend the lectures given there. I would have him become proficient in the liberal arts and particularly in the law so that he may eventually obtain a position of high rank at court or in the household of some wealthy prince or noble.”

“Your brother wishes to pursue a career as a secretary or clerk?”

“It’s not as though he has a great deal of choice in the matter, my lord.” Alice tightened her fingers. “I was not able to protect his rightful inheritance from our uncle. Therefore, I must do the next best thing for Benedict.”

Hugh studied her speculatively. “Very well, that is your affair, I suppose. I am prepared to finance his studies in exchange for getting my hands on the crystal.”

Alice relaxed. The worst was over. “Thank you, my lord. I am pleased to hear that.”

“What was the second thing you would have of me?”

“A very minor request, my lord, of no real consequence to one in your position,” she said smoothly. “Indeed, I daresay you will barely take notice of it.”

“What, precisely, is it, lady?”

“I ask that you provide me with a dowry.”

Hugh gazed into the brazier coals as though he saw something of great interest there. “A dowry? You wish to be wed?”

Alice chuckled. “By the Saints, whatever gave you that notion, my lord? Of course I do not wish to wed. Why on
earth would I want a husband? My goal is to enter a convent.”

Hugh turned slowly toward her. His amber eyes gleamed intently. “May I ask why?”

“So that I may continue my studies in natural philosophy, of course. To do so, I shall need a large library, which only a rich convent can provide.” Alice cleared her throat delicately. “And to get into a fine religious house, I shall naturally need a respectably large dowry.”

“I see.” Hugh’s expression was that of the hawk that has sighted its prey. “That is unfortunate.”

Alice’s heart sank. For a moment she simply stared at him in open disappointment. She had been so certain that he would agree to the arrangement.

Desperately she rallied her arguments. “My lord, pray think closely on this matter. The green crystal is obviously very important to you. I can see that you obtain it. Surely that is worth the cost of my dowry.”

“You misunderstand me, lady. I am willing to provide a bride price for you.”

She brightened. “You will?”

“Aye, but I’ll want the bride to go with it.”

“What?”

“Or at least the promise of one.”

Alice was too stunned to think clearly. “I do not comprehend, my lord.”

“Nay? ‘Tis simple enough. You shall have a portion of what you want of me from this bargain, Lady Alice. But in return I demand that you and I become betrothed before we set out after the green crystal.”

H
ugh would not have been surprised to learn that this was the first time in her entire life Alice had been rendered speechless.

He contemplated her wide green eyes, her parted lips, and the stunned amazement on her face with some amusement and not a little satisfaction. He doubted that there were many men gifted with the ability to bring the lady to such an abrupt halt.

He prowled the room as he waited for Alice to find her tongue. What he saw did not astonish him. Unlike most of the rest of Lingwood Hall, this chamber was dusted and well swept. The air was scented by fresh herbs. He had anticipated as much.

Last night, while dining on such delicacies as sturgeon dressed in spicy cold green sauce and finely seasoned leek pie, he had been greatly impressed by Alice’s talent for household management. This morning he had quickly learned that whatever magic she had worked for the banquet had not been applied to the rest of Sir Ralf’s household, except for the chambers in this wing. Alice had obviously claimed these rooms for herself and her brother.

Here, all was spotless. Signs of efficiency and order
were everywhere, from the carefully placed tapestries that hung on the walls to limit drafts to the gleaming floors.

The new light of day had revealed a different scene in the rest of Sir Ralf’s hall Odoriferous garderobes, un-swept floors, tattered carpets, and an odor of dampness in many of the chambers made it plain that Alice had not bothered to exert her wizardry outside her own small world.

Here in Alice’s study chamber Hugh discovered not only the cleanliness he had expected, but also a variety of interesting items. The chamber was filled with a number of strange and curious things.

Some well-worn handbooks and two fine, leather-bound volumes occupied the place of pride on a nearby shelf.

A collection of dead insects was displayed in a wooden box. Bits and pieces of what appeared to be fish bones and an assortment of shells were arranged on a table. In one corner a metal bowl was secured above an unlit candle. There was a chalky residue in the vessel, evidence of some past experiment.

Hugh was intrigued. The collection bespoke a lively mind and an inquiring nature.

“My lord,” Alice finally managed to say, “what in the name of the Cross are you talking about?”

She was not responding well to the notion of marriage, Hugh acknowledged. He determined to pursue a less obvious route to his goal. He was skilled at stratagems. He saw no reason why he could not apply that talent to securing himself a wife.

“You heard me. I have need of a lady whom I can claim as my own.”

“But—”

“Temporarily.”

“Well, you cannot claim me, sir. Find yourself another lady. I’m certain that there are any number of them scattered about the countryside.”

Ah, but none such as yourself
, Hugh thought.
I doubt if there is another female such as you in all of Christendom
, “But you are so very convenient, Lady Alice.”

She bristled very nicely with outrage. “I am no man’s
convenience, sir. Pray, inquire of my uncle just how
convenient
I am. I believe that he will disabuse you of that notion. He finds me a great trial.”

“No doubt because you have deliberately set out to make yourself one. I am hoping, however, that you and I can do business together as colleagues rather than as adversaries.”

“Colleagues,” she repeated cautiously.

“Associates,” he clarified helpfully.

“Associates.”

“Aye, business associates, just as you, yourself, suggested last night when you declared that you wished to strike a bargain with me.”

“This was not quite what I had in mind. Mayhap you had best explain precisely what you mean, my lord.”

“Mayhap I should do just that.” Hugh paused beside a complicated instrument composed of a set of circular brass plates and a siting rule. “Where did you obtain this very beautiful astrolabe? I have not seen the like since I was in Italy.”

She scowled. “My father sent it to me. He found it at a London shop a few years ago. You are familiar with such instruments?”

Hugh bent closer to the astrolabe. “It is true that I have made my living with my sword, lady, but it would be a mistake to assume that I am a complete fool.” Experimentally he moved the siting rule that angled across the metal plates, shifting the position of the stars in relation to the Earth. “Those who have made that error in the past have generally paid a price.”

Alice jumped to her feet and hurried around the edge of the desk. “‘Tis not that I thought you a fool, sir. Quite the opposite.” She halted beside the astrolabe, frowning at it. “The thing is, I have been unable to determine the proper workings of this device and I know of no one who has any knowledge of astronomy. Could you teach me how to use it?”

Hugh straightened and looked at her intent face. “Aye. If we seal our bargain today, I shall undertake to teach you the proper use of the astrolabe.”

Her eyes lit with a degree of enthusiasm that could
have been mistaken for passion in another woman. She blushed. “That is most gracious of you, my lord. I discovered a book in the small library of the local convent that describes the device but there were no instructions for its use. I vow, it has been most frustrating.”

“You may consider the instruction a betrothal gift.”

The glow faded quickly from her huge eyes. It was promptly replaced by renewed wariness. “About this betrothal, my lord. As I said, I would have you explain yourself.”

“Very well.” Hugh wandered over to a table holding a large array of stones and crystals. He picked up a chunk of reddish stone and examined it. “I regret to say that I find myself the victim of a most annoying curse, lady.”

“That is no doubt your own fault, my lord,” she said crisply.

He glanced up from the stone, surprised by the asperity of her tone. “My fault?”

“Aye. My mother always said that diseases of that sort came from frequenting brothels, sir. You will no doubt be obliged to take a dose of theriac and have yourself bled. Mayhap you should undergo a good purge while you’re at it. In my opinion, ‘tis nothing more than you deserve if you have been hanging about such places.”

Hugh cleared his throat. “You are an expert in these matters?”

“My mother was very skilled with herbs. She taught me a great many things concerning their uses in adjusting the balance of the bodily humors.” Alice glowered at him. “However, she always said that it was infinitely wiser to avoid certain ailments in the first place rather than to attempt a cure after the damage has been done.”

“I do not disagree with that principle.” Hugh looked at her. “What happened to your mother?”

A shadow flickered across Alice’s face. “She died three years ago.”

“My condolences.”

Alice heaved a small sigh. “She had just received a shipment of strange and unusual herbs. She was very eager to conduct experiments with them.”

“Experiments?”

“Aye, she was forever concocting potions. In any event, she mixed some of the new herbs in a recipe she had recently discovered. It was supposed to be good for treating those who suffered from serious pains of the stomach and bowel. She accidentally drank too much of the concoction. It killed her.”

A cold feeling seized Hugh’s gut. “Your mother took poison?”

“It was an accident,” Alice said hastily, obviously alarmed at his conclusion. “I told you, she was performing an experiment at the time.”

“She experimented upon herself?” he asked, incredulous.

“She frequently tried new medicines on herself before she gave them to the sick.”

“My own mother died in much the same manner,” Hugh heard himself say before he stopped to consider the wisdom of imparting such a confidence. “She drank poison.”

Alice’s lovely eyes filled with quiet sympathy, “I am very sorry, my lord. Was your mother a student of strange herbs and such?”

“Nay.” Hugh tossed aside the reddish stone, angry at his lack of discretion. He
never
discussed his mother’s suicide or the fact that she had deliberately administered the lethal poison to his father before drinking it herself. “‘Tis a long story that I do not care to repeat.”

“Aye, my lord. Such matters can be very painful.”

Her sympathy irritated him. He was unaccustomed to such sentiment and he had no wish to encourage it. Sympathy implied weakness. “You misunderstood me, lady. When I said that I was the victim of a curse, I was not referring to an illness of the body.”

She gave him a quizzical look. “Surely you do not mean a magical curse?”

“Aye.”

“But that is utter nonsense,” Alice scoffed. “By the Saints, I have no patience with those who believe in magic and curses.”

“Nor do I.”

Alice seemed not to have heard him. She was already
setting sail on a new course. “Mark me, I am well aware that it is quite the thing for learned men to travel to Toledo these days in search of ancient secrets of magic, but I’m certain that they waste their time. There is no such thing as magic.”

“I happen to agree with you about the foolishness of magic,” Hugh said. “But I am a practical man.”

“So?”

“So, in this instance I have concluded that the quickest way to achieve my own ends is to comply with the requirements of an old legend, which is, in part, a curse.”

“A legend?”

“Aye.” Hugh picked up a bit of clouded pink crystal and held it up to the light. “The good people of Scarcliffe have endured a variety of masters during recent years. None of them have endeared themselves to the local folk. And none of them have lasted long.”

“You intend to be the exception, I take it?”

“Aye, lady.” Hugh set the pink crystal down, leaned back against the table, and rested one hand on the hilt of his sword. “Scarcliffe is mine and I will hold fast to it while there is breath in my body.”

BOOK: Mystique
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