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Authors: Cate Cain

The Jade Boy

BOOK: The Jade Boy
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For my husband, Stephen, and my dad, John

The single candle beside the curtained bed flickered and a tall shadow moved on the panelled wall beyond. Just for a moment the shadow appeared to be that of a horned creature. The little flame danced madly then it sputtered and died, leaving the room in complete darkness.

“Now, tell me, what do I need?” The man’s voice was soft, sibilant and oddly cracked.

Silence.

The man spoke again, his voice laced with something that sounded like amusement. “Tell me, Lady Elizabeth. I command you. I don’t need to tell you, of all people, how I found you, do I? Or what I might do next?” The last words were spoken slowly and very deliberately. After a moment a young girl answered, but as she spoke, her light voice deepened and seemed to echo in the blackness. Gradually the girl’s voice became that of a grown woman – a woman chanting from somewhere far away.

“Oak grove burns and old stones sing

Old stones sing for green blood

Green blood flows in old veins

Old veins fill with new life

New life born as oak grove burns.”

When the chanting stopped there was a rustling noise and an odd halting, thumping sound as if something lame moved across the creaking boards.

“Thank you, my lady. That was most illuminating.”

A jangling sound. A key fitted to a lock.

Just before the door opened, the woman’s voice came again, this time so distant and faint that it was impossible to catch every single word, although the last sentence seemed to hang and sing in the air like the ghost of a peal of bells.

“You must seek the boy of Jade…”

CHAPTER ONE

London, February 1666

“Oi! Yer spindle-shanked, thieving gypsy! If I find one more of them pies missing, I’ll skin yer alive and turn yer miserable carcass on a spit over the fire until yer eyeballs pop!”

Jem ducked as a heavy ladle clanked down the long wooden table towards him, narrowly avoiding a direct hit.

Pig Face was having one of his bad days.

Muffled sniggers from a couple of smut-faced scullion boys over by the hearth accompanied the fat cook’s display of temper. When Pig Face turned his attention back to the huge side of beef turning on the spit, they screwed up their pinched little faces and waggled their tongues at Jem.

Pig Face lifted another ladle from a pot bubbling away beneath the meat and poured dollops of golden fat over the fragrant roast.

Jem was momentarily fascinated by the map-like pattern of sweat and grease covering the grey cloth
stretched across the man’s ox-broad shoulders.

As if he could sense Jem’s stare, the cook spoke again, his voice surprisingly thin considering the mountain of flesh from where it came.

“An’ don’t think I ain’t counted them syllabubs in the cold store, yer pimple-cheeked beggar. If just one of ’em goes missing I’ll hack yer fingers off with a meat cleaver!”

The scullions sniggered again and one of them flicked an old chicken bone at Jem’s head.

Jem bit down on his anger, squared his shoulders and rubbed furiously at the huge silver object standing on the stone floor in front of him. He knew better than to protest his innocence. After all, no one would believe him. He was an outsider among the servants in Ludlow House and was never allowed to forget it.

As the boy worked away at the blackened silver with a rag, a reflection began to appear in the bulbous stem of the candelabrum. First a pair of dark eyes that burned like embers stared angrily back at him, then a long, straight nose above a wide mouth set into a grim line appeared. Finally, a handsome face topped by a mop of thick black curls was revealed. Whatever Pig Face might say, Jem wasn’t pimply at all, but his olive skin – golden now, even in the
depths of winter – was enough to mark him out as an oddity among the whey-faced servants.

‘Gypsy’ was the least offensive of their insults.

Jem pushed the hair back from his forehead and shifted uncomfortably on the stool. Despite the roasting, it was gloomy and freezing at this end of the kitchen and his hand was cramped from all the polishing. He’d already worked on eight of the metal monsters – there were still four more to go.

George, the Seventh Duke of Bellingdon and Jem’s employer, was determined that tonight Ludlow House, his ancient London home, should outshine the court at Whitehall: King Charles himself was visiting.

Everyone was preparing for the great feast and nowhere was busier than the kitchens. Pig Face was bad tempered on the sunniest of days, but this last week his mood had been blacker than the stinking water in the midden pits at the back of the yard where the servants emptied the household chamber pots.

Above stairs, the housemaids and the footmen had been scrubbing for days. Each morning brought new deliveries of splendid carpets and magnificent hangings intended to disguise the old walls and patched floorboards.

The duke was out to impress his royal guest and no expense was to be spared. Even the hallway was to be lit by twelve magnificent candelabra, each bearing a score of costly bees wax candles. Ludlow House was to be made fit for a king, but before he arrived Jem had a lot more polishing to do.

The boy stretched his fingers and blew on his hands. He reached up to the narrow band of cloth tied around his neck and scratched at the skin beneath. The livid red birthmark he took such pains to conceal always itched when he was angry.

“Scratchin’ at the Devil’s stamp, are ye?”

Old Susan, the laundry woman, was watching him from her grubby, rag-piled corner. Her tiny eyes twinkled with malice as she raised her hand and brought her thumb and index finger together to make the sign of the evil eye.

She blew sharply at Jem through the gap and hissed, “May God’s holy wind carry ye far from this place. T’ain’t right that one pricked as Satan’s own should live among decent Christian folk.”

Jem was aware of more muffled laughter from the scullions and a bloody chicken foot flew through the air, landing at his feet. He kicked at the gristly object and it skittered across the flagstones, rattling under
the table to the feet of Simeon, the youngest and smallest of the house servants.

The thin-faced boy gave a yelp of surprise and took a step back, tripping over the ladle Pig Face had hurled at Jem. As Simeon fought to stay upright, a towering decorated cake – a work of confectionery art on which the moody cook had lavished many curses and painstaking hours – wobbled dangerously on the platter he was about to carry up to the banqueting chamber.

Simeon’s eyes grew round with horror as he zig zagged backwards, fighting to stay on his feet and keep the cake on the platter in his hands. The kitchen was suddenly silent as everyone watched the inevitable calamity unfurling. Only a matter of seconds passed, but to Jem it felt as if the seconds had slowed to hours.

Jem sprang to his feet, knocking over the great candelabrum, where it bounced off the stones and clanged like a tolling bell. He vaulted over the table and deftly grabbed the platter from Simeon’s hands, just as the boy finally lost his balance and toppled to the floor.

With the cake safe on its silver platter, Jem looked down at Simeon and winked. The terrified
boy scrambled to his feet – and everyone let out a great breath of relief that quickly turned to mocking laughter.

As Jem placed the platter back on the table, Simeon tugged his sleeve and whispered, “Thank you.”

Jem, who was no stranger to punishments in Ludlow House, didn’t like to think about what the consequences might have been if Pig Face’s masterpiece had been destroyed. He knew better than most what would happen to the small serving boy. “No harm done, Sim. Look, there’s not a sugar flower or a marchpane figure out of place,” he said loudly.

“I’ll be the judge of that.” Pig Face lumbered over and squinted at the cake. Little drops of sweat plopped from his brow to the table as he scrutinised every inch and every curl of sugared icing. After a moment he made a harrumphing noise that almost sounded like disappointment.

Spinning around remarkably swiftly considering his bulk, the fat cook clipped Simeon sharply round the ear before turning on Jem.

“There’s no time for chatter in my kitchen, brat. And I’ll warrant that silver is dented after the way yer flung it to the stones. There’ll be a fine for that.
Well, what are yer standing there gawpin’ fer? On with it!”

Jem gritted his teeth and returned to his stool. Lifting the heavy candlabrum upright, he concentrated on the tarnished silver, rubbing with such a burst of fury that he caught his knuckles on the metal ridges and they began to bleed.

If Sarah, his mother, were here, Pig Face wouldn’t dare to talk to him like that, Jem fumed inwardly.

Unfortunately, Sarah rarely ventured down to the kitchens at Ludlow House. As wardrobe mistress to the duke’s wife, Mary, her place was above stairs and many of the kitchen servants viewed her and, consequently, her son, with jealous suspicion.

Even worse, when Jem tried to talk to Sarah about his treatment, she always seemed anxious and eager to get away from him. Just last week, when Old Susan had passed on yet another malicious lie about his conduct, Sarah had lectured him.

“I don’t want to hear stories about you from the under-servants. Do you understand me, Jem? You undermine my position in this household – and your own.”

Jem had watched his mother swish angrily away down the panelled corridor. And not for the first
time, he had found himself wondering just what his position in the household actually was.

Jem stopped polishing for a moment, winced and clenched his fist. He wiped specks of blood from his ragged knuckles on his coarse breeches. That made them hurt even more.

Thwack!

Jem yelped with pain and clamped his hand to his left ear. Another sharp blow rapped across his stinging knuckles.

“So, Jeremy Green is a lazy sluggard as well as a pie thief, I see.”

The words were sharp and clear. Everyone stopped working for a moment and stared.

Wormald, the duke’s steward, was standing just behind Jem’s stool. As usual, he’d appeared from nowhere. He always wore felted slippers to muffle the sound of his tread, which made him a silent but deadly menace.

Curtains of lank grey hair hung from the centre of Wormald’s head, brushing the stiff white collar he wore over his dusty black doublet. With his prominent, beaklike nose and sharp grey eyes, the duke’s steward resembled a bird. Certainly, he was vicious as a hawk.

The man appeared to be quivering with righteous anger, but Jem also sensed pleasure. There was nothing Wormald enjoyed more than punishing Jem – mainly because he regarded Sarah as his arch enemy. While the duchess relied on Jem’s mother, the duke relied on his steward and as the duke and the duchess had not been on good terms for many years now, the two servants were themselves bitter rivals. Unable to hurt Sarah, Wormald contented himself by torturing the next best thing – her son.

Wormald swept the kitchen with a steely gaze, making sure that everyone was watching, before continuing, “We will discuss a suitable punishment for your idleness later, boy.”

Then the steward bent lower to ensure that his next words were for Jem alone, “You can leave off that. The duke is calling for you. Now.”

Jem was confused. Surely there must be some mistake. Why would the duke call for him?

The steward’s eyes narrowed as they took in Jem’s bloodied knuckles and grimy jacket.

“You’re wanted in the great salon, boy, so you’d better smarten yourself up. And you can take this to the duke while you’re about it.”

Wormald handed Jem a pewter jug filled with
aromatic wine. Jem noticed that the man looked furious – his thin lips were pursed into a tight line of cold disapproval.

Aware that twenty pairs of eyes were locked upon him, Jem rose uncertainly. He wiped his fingers and pushed his untidy hair back, before dusting down the dark green velvet jerkin made for him by his mother. It had been her gift at his last birthday and he was painfully conscious that already the sleeves were too short. At twelve years old, Jem was a head taller than most of the other kitchen lads.

“Look sharp now. His Grace isn’t one to be kept waiting.”

Wormald jabbed Jem in the back with a bony finger. Jem was too used to Wormald’s cruelty to give the man the satisfaction of another yelp. But as he crossed the flagstones of the kitchen and carried the wine carefully up the winding stairs leading up to the upper part of the house, Jem was a little afraid.

The duke had only ever called for him once before, two years ago. He had been made to remove his shirt and stand, shivering, in the centre of the great salon while the duke had examined him with detached interest. He had felt like a curiosity, like some new object the duke had bought to impress his friends.
Most particularly he had examined Jem’s birthmark, which itched and glowed under the scrutiny. And all the while Sarah had stood to one side, wringing her hands.

At the time, Jem thought that she looked as if she’d been crying too. It had been a horrible, humiliating experience. What if it was about to happen again?

He stumbled on the stairs and spilled some wine. He tried to scuff out the stain with his foot, terrified that Wormald would see it.

Wormald!

Jem’s stomach gave a little flip, Wormald would be furious that he was being singled out for special attention by the duke.

“I’ll pay for that later, too,” the boy thought gloomily as he entered the great hall.

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