Excerpt: Duke of Pleasure
Book 11: Maiden Lane
Hugh Fitzroy, the Duke of Kyle, did not want to die tonight, for three very good reasons.
It was half past midnight as he eyed the toughs slinking out of the shadows up ahead in the cold alley near Covent Garden. He moved the bottle of fine Viennese wine from his right arm to his left and drew his sword. He’d dined with the Habsburg ambassador earlier this evening, and the wine was a gift.
Firstly, Kit, his elder son—and, formally, the Earl of Staffin—was only seven. Far too young to be orphaned and inherit the dukedom.
Next to Hugh was a linkboy with a lantern. The boy was frozen, his lantern a small pool of light in the narrow alley. The youth’s eyes were wide and frightened. He couldn’t be more than fourteen. Hugh glanced over his shoulder. Several men were bearing down on them from the entrance to the alley. He and the linkboy were trapped.
Secondly, Peter, his younger son, was still suffering nightmares from the death of his mother only five months before. What would his father’s death so soon after his mother’s do to the boy?
They might be common footpads. Unlikely, though. Footpads usually worked in smaller numbers, were not this organized, and were after money, not death.
And thirdly, His Majesty had recently assigned Hugh an important job: destroy the Lords of Chaos. On the whole, Hugh liked to finish his jobs. Brought a nice sense of completion at the end of the day, if nothing else.
“If you can, run,” Hugh said to the linkboy. “They’re after me, not you.”
Then he pivoted and attacked the closest group—the three men behind them.
Their leader, a big fellow, raised a club.
Hugh slashed him across the throat. The leader went down in a spray of scarlet. But his second was already bringing his own club down in a bone-jarring blow to Hugh’s left shoulder. Hugh juggled the bottle of wine, seized it again, and kicked the man in the balls. The second doubled over and stumbled against the third. Hugh punched over the man’s head and into the face of the third.
There were running footsteps from behind Hugh.
He spun to face the other end of the alley and another attacker.
Caught the descending knife with his blade and slid his sword into the hand holding the knife.
A howling scream, and the knife clattered to the icy cobblestones in a splatter of blood.
The knife man lowered his head and charged like an enraged bull.
Hugh flattened all six foot four inches of himself against the filthy alley wall, stuck out his foot, and tripped Charging Bull into the three men he’d already dealt with.
The linkboy, who had been cowering against the opposite wall, took the opportunity to squirm through the constricted space between the assailants and run away.
Which left them all in darkness, save for the light of the half moon.
He didn’t have to worry about hitting his compatriots in the dark.
He rushed the man next in line after the Bull. They’d picked a nice alley, his attackers. No way out—save the ends—but in such close quarters he had a small advantage: no matter how many men were against him, the alley was so cramped that only two could come at him at a time. The rest were simply bottled up behind the others, twiddling their thumbs.
Hugh slashed the man and shouldered past him. Got a blow upside the head for his trouble and saw stars. Hugh shook his head and elbowed the next—hard—in the face, and kicked the third in the belly. Suddenly he could see the light at the end of the alley.
Hugh knew men who felt that gentlemen should never run from a fight. Of course many of these same men had never been in a real fight.
Besides, he had those three very good reasons.
Actually, now that he thought of it, there was a fourth reason he did not want to die tonight.
Hugh ran to the end of the alley, his bottle of fine Viennese wine cradled in the crook of his left arm, his sword in the other fist. The cobblestones were iced over and his momentum was such that he slid into the lit street.
Where he found another half-dozen men bearing down on him from his left.
Fourthly, he hadn’t had a woman in his bed in over nine months, and to die in such a drought would be a particularly unkind blow from fate, goddamn it.
Hugh nearly dropped the blasted wine as he scrambled to turn to the right. He could hear the men he’d left in the alley rallying even as he sprinted straight into the worst part of London: the stews of St Giles. They were right on his heels, a veritable army of assassins. The streets here were narrow, ill lit, and cobbled badly, if at all. If he fell because of ice or a missing cobblestone, he’d never get up again.
He turned down a smaller alley and then immediately down another.
Behind him he heard a shout. Christ, if they split up, they would corner him again.
He hadn’t enough of a lead, even if a man of his size could easily hide in a place like St Giles. Hugh glanced up as he entered a small courtyard, the buildings on all four sides leaning in. Overhead the moon was veiled in clouds, and it almost looked as if a boy were silhouetted, jumping from one rooftop to another…
Think. If he could circle and come back the way he’d entered St Giles, he could slip their noose.
A narrow passage.
Another cramped courtyard.
They were already here, blocking the two other exits.
Hugh spun, but the passage he’d just run from was crowded with more men, almost a dozen in all.
He put his back to the only wall left to him and straightened.
He rather wished he’d tasted the wine. He was fond of Viennese wine.
A tall man in a ragged brown coat and a filthy red neckcloth stepped forward. Hugh half-expected him to make some sort of a speech, he looked that full of himself. Instead he drew a knife the size of a man’s forearm, grinned, and licked the blade.
Hugh didn’t wait for whatever other disgusting preliminaries Knife Licker might feel were appropriate to the occasion. He stepped forward and smashed the bottle of very fine Viennese wine over the man’s head.
Then they were on him.
He slashed and felt the jolt to his arm as he hit flesh.
Swung and raked the sword across another’s face.
Staggered as two men slammed into him.
Another hit him hard in the jaw.
And then someone clubbed him behind the knees.
He fell to his knees on the icy ground, growling like a bleeding, baited bear.
Raised an arm to defend his head…
Someone dropped from the sky right in front of him.
Facing his attackers.
Darting, wheeling, spinning.
Defending him so gracefully.
With two swords.
Hugh staggered upright again, blinking blood out of his eyes—when had he been cut?
And saw—a boy? No, a slight man in a grotesque half mask, motley, floppy hat, and boots, battling fiercely with his attackers. Hugh just had time to think: Insane, before his defender was thrown back against him.
Hugh caught the man and had another thought, which was: Tits?
And then he set the woman—most definitely a woman although in a man’s clothing—on her feet and put his back to hers and fought as if their lives depended on it.
Which they did.
There were still eight or so of the attackers left, and although they weren’t trained, they were determined. Hugh slashed and punched and kicked, while his feminine savior danced an elegant dance of death with her swords. When he smashed the butt of his sword into the skull of one of the last men, the remaining two looked at each other, picked up a third, and took to their heels.
Panting, Hugh glanced around the courtyard. It was strewn with groaning men, most still very much alive, though not dangerous at the moment.
He peered at the masked woman. She was tiny, barely reaching his shoulder. How was it she’d saved him from certain, ignoble death? But she had. She surely had.
“Thank you,” he said, his voice gruff. He cleared his throat. “I—”
She grinned, a quicksilver flash, and put her left hand on the back of his neck to pull his head down.
And then she kissed him.
Alf pressed her lips against Kyle’s lovely mouth and thought her heart might beat right out of her breast at her daring.
Then he groaned—a rumbling sound she felt in the fingertips on his nape—and tried to pull her closer. She ducked away and out of reach, skipping back, and then turned and ran down a little alley. She found a stack of barrels and scrambled up them. Pulled herself onto a leaning balcony and from there shinnied up to the roof. She bent low and tiptoed across rotten tiles, some broken, until she was nearly to the edge of the roof, and then lay flat to peer over.
He was still staring down the alley where she’d disappeared, daft man.
Oh, he was a big one, was Kyle. Broad shoulders, long legs. A mouth that made her remember she was a woman beneath her men’s clothing. He’d lost his hat and white wig somewhere during his mad dash away from the footpads. He stood bareheaded, his coat torn and bloodied, and in the moonlight she could almost mistake him for a man who belonged in St Giles.
But he wasn’t.
He turned finally and limped in the direction of Covent Garden. She rose and followed him—just to make sure he made it out of St Giles.
The one and only time she’d met Kyle before this, she’d been dressed in her daytime disguise as Alf, the boy who made his living as an informant. Except Kyle had wanted information on the Duke of Montgomery, who had been employing Alf at the time.
She snorted under her breath as she ran along the ridge of a rooftop, keeping Kyle’s shorn black head in sight. Insulting, that had been—him thinking she’d inform on the man paying her. She might not be a lady, but she had her honor. She’d waited until he’d bought her dinner and outlined what he wanted to hire her for—and then she’d turned the table over into his lap. She’d run from the tavern, but not before thumbing her nose at him.
She grinned as she leaped silently from one rooftop to another.
The last time she’d seen Kyle, he’d worn potatoes and gravy on his costly cloak and an angry expression on his handsome face.
Down below, his stride was increasing as they neared the outskirts of St Giles, his boot heels echoing off the cobblestones. She paused, leaning on a chimney. There were more lanterns set out here by the shopkeepers. She watched as Kyle crossed the street, looking warily around, his sword still in his hand.
He didn’t have need of her to see him home to whatever grand house he lived in. He was a man well able to look after himself.
Still, she crouched there until he disappeared into the shadows.
Ah, well. Time to go home to her own little nest, then.
She turned and ran over the shingles, quick and light.
When she’d been a child and first learned to scale buildings, she’d thought of London as her forest, St Giles her wood, the roofs her treetops.
Truth be told, she’d never seen a forest, a wood, nor even treetops. She’d never been out of London, for that matter. The farthest east she’d ever traveled in her life was to Wapping—where the air held the faintest hint of sea salt, tickling the nose. The farthest west, to Tyburn, to witness Charming Mickey O’Connor being hanged. Except he hadn’t been, to the surprise of all that day. He’d disappeared from the gallows and into legend like the wondrous river pirate he was. But wild birds—free birds—were supposed to live in forests and woods and treetops.
And she’d imagined herself a bird as a child on the rooftops, free and flying.
Sometimes, even as a world-weary woman of one and twenty, she still did.
If she was a bird, the roofs were her home, her place, where she felt the safest.
Down below were the dark woods, and she knew all about the woods from the fairy tales that her friend Ned had told her when she’d been a wee thing. In the fairy-tale dark woods were witches and ghouls and trolls, all ready to eat you up.
In the woods of St Giles the monsters were far, far worse.
Tonight she’d fought monsters.
She flew over the roofs of St Giles. Her booted feet were swift and sure on the shingles, and the moon was a big guiding lantern above, lighting the way for her patrol as the Ghost of St Giles. She’d been following the Scarlet Throat gang—a nasty bunch of footpads who’d do anything up to and including murder for the right price—and wondering why they were out in such force, when she’d realized they were chasing Kyle.
In her daytime guise as Alf, she had a bad history with the Scarlet Throats. Most recently they’d taken a dislike to her because she refused to either join them or pay them to be “protected.” On the whole they left her alone—she stayed out of their way and they pretended not to notice her. But she shuddered to think what they would do if they ever found out her true sex.
Letting a lone boy defy them was one thing. Letting a woman do the same?
There were rumors of girls ending up in the river for less.
But when she’d seen the Scarlet Throats chasing Kyle like a pack of feral dogs, she’d not thought twice about helping him. He’d been running for his life and fighting as he went, never giving up, though he’d been far outnumbered from the start.
The man was stubborn, if nothing else.
And afterward, when their enemies lay at their feet, groaning and beaten, and her heart was thumping so hard with the sheer joy of victory and being alive, it’d seemed natural to pull his pretty, pretty lips down to hers and kiss him.
She’d never kissed a man before.
Oh, there’d been some who’d tried to kiss her—tried and succeeded—especially when she’d been younger and smaller and not so fast, nor so swift with a kick to the soft bits of a man. Even then no one had gotten much beyond a mash of foul tongue in her mouth. She’d been good at running even when little.
No one had touched her in years. She’d made sure of it.
But the kiss with Kyle hadn’t been like that—she’d kissed him.
She leaped from one roof to another, landing silently on her toes. Kyle’s lips had been firm, and he’d tasted sharp, like wine. She’d felt the muscles in his neck and chest and arms get hard and tight as he’d made ready to grab her.
She’d hadn’t been afraid, though.
She grinned at the moon and the rooftops and the molls walking home in the lane far below.
Kissing Kyle had made her feel wild and free.
Like flying over the roofs of St Giles.
She ran and leaped again, landing this time on a rickety old half-timbered tenement. It was all but fallen down, the top story overhanging the courtyard like an ancient crone bent under a big bundle of used clothes. She thrust her legs over the edge of the roof, slipped her feet blind onto one of the timbers on the face of the building, and climbed down into the attic window.
If St Giles was the dark wood, this was her secret hidey-hole nest: half the attic of this building. The sole door to the room was nailed firmly shut, the only way in by the window.
She was safe here.
No one but she could get in or out.
Alf sighed and stretched her arms over her head before taking off her hat and mask. Muscles she hadn’t even realized were tensed began to loosen now that she was home.
Home and safe.
Her nest was one big room—big enough for an entire family to live in, really—but only she lived here. On one wall was a row of wooden pegs, and she hung up her hat and mask there. Across from the window was a brick chimney where she’d left the fire carefully banked. She crossed to it and squatted in front of the tiny hearth—a half moon not much bigger than her head, the brick blackened and crumbling. But this high up it drew well enough, and that was the important thing. She stirred the red eyes of the embers with a broken iron rod and stuck some straw on top, then blew gently until the straw smoked and lit. Then she added five pieces of coal, one at a time. When her little fire was burning nicely, she lit a candle and stood it on the rough shelf above the fireplace.
The half-burned candle gave a happy little glow. Alf touched her fingertip to the candlestick’s base and then to the little round mirror next to it. The mirror reflected the tiny candle flame. She tapped her tin cup, a yellow pottery jug she’d found years ago, and her ivory comb. Ned had given her the comb the day before he’d disappeared, and it was perhaps her most precious possession.
Then she picked up a bottle of oil and a rag from the end of the shelf and sat on a three-legged stool by the pile of blankets she used as a bed.
Her long sword was mostly clean. She stroked the oiled cloth along the blade and then tilted it to the candlelight to check for nicks in the edge. The two swords had cost her most of her savings and she made sure to keep them clean and razor sharp, both because they were her pride and because in the dark woods they were her main weapons as the Ghost. The long sword’s edge looked good, so she resheathed it and set it aside.
Her short blade was bloodied. That she worked on for a bit with the cloth, humming to herself under her breath. The cloth turned rust red and the sword turned mirror bright.
The sky outside her attic window turned pale pink.
She hung up her swords in their scabbards on the row of pegs. She unbuttoned her padded and quilted tunic, patterned all over in black and red diamonds. Underneath was a plain man’s shirt and she took that off as well, hanging them both up as she shivered in the winter-morning air. Her boots she stood underneath the pegs. Her leggings, also covered in black and red diamonds, hung neatly next to the shirt.
Then she was just in her boys’ smallclothes and dark stockings and garters. Her shoulder-length hair was clubbed, but she took it down and ran her fingers through it, making it messy. She bound her hair back again with a bit of leather cord and let a few strands hang in her face. She took a length of soft cloth and wound it around her breasts, binding them flat, but not too tightly, because it was hard to draw a deep breath otherwise. Besides, her breasts weren’t that big to begin with.
She pulled on a big man’s shirt, a stained brown waistcoat, a tattered pair of boys’ breeches, and a rusty black coat. She put a dagger in her coat pocket, another in the pocket of her waistcoat, and a tiny blade in a thin leather sheath under her right foot in her shoe. She smashed an old wide-brimmed hat on her head and she was Alf.
Because this was what she was.
At night she was the Ghost of St Giles. She protected the people of St Giles—her people, living in the big, dark woods. She ran out the monsters—the murderers and rapists and robbers. And she flew over the roofs of the city by moonlight, free and wild.
During the day she was Alf, a boy. She made her living dealing in information. She listened and learned, and if you wanted to know who was running pickpocket boys and girls in Covent Gardens or which doxies had the clap or even what magistrate could be bought and for how much, she could tell you and would—for a price.
But whether the Ghost or Alf, what she wasn’t and would never be, at least not in St Giles, was a woman.