Victoria’s Children

Jack Draper stood on the hotel’s balcony and watched bright streaks of tracer fire arc across the evening sky. Clouds promised much-needed rain that never fell. Black smoke rose to join them. London was burning. Three years of peace was too much to ask.

The Vatican had offered him double his going rate for this job. That had been after the Carthaginian naval blockade, but before the bomb in Buckingham Palace. Jack now thought he should have asked for triple.

He took a pull on his cigarette and attempted a smoke ring, but it was not a skill he’d yet had particular luck with. The smoke dissipated in a moment, though the air was still and close as death.

A young woman dressed in mourning clothes stepped out onto the balcony, fanning herself. She wore a black silk dress and a heavy crape veil of the sort guaranteed to shed dye and irritate the eyes. She traveled alone, without even a lady’s maid, which was scandalous, but, given the circumstances, the company seemed inclined to forgive her.

It was mildly scandalous that she appeared in company at all, given her apparently recent widowhood. Jack had overheard two of the hotel’s matrons discussing this in light of an article in Harper’s Bazaar that suggested mourning could be overdone and that the heart should not be sacrificed for propriety. The matrons reached no conclusion. Their talk had turned instead to the rumor that she was the widow of a murdered Prussian duke.

Jack had read the same article, for there was little he didn’t read or wouldn’t read, and what he read, he remembered. He remembered other things, like the way a lady walked, or a middle-class woman held her hands, or the way a whore would grin at anyone. He noted differences: between one printed bible and another, between silver tea from India and silver tea from China, between two oranges from the same tree.

He was, like God, a noticer of small things, of falling sparrows and pavement cracks and the thousand details that made a woman in English society distinct from a woman in any other society. Mrs Merriweather Ashmore had none of those thousand things about her. It had taken Jack most of an evening’s observation to determine that this was not because she was French, or Italian, or Russian, or even from the American colonies. It was because she was not a woman.

Jack had meant to set out for Buckingham Palace at nightfall, but Ashmore had drawn his attention. He could not say why, but he had learned to pay attention to his attention. He turned toward her as his cigarette and London reduced themselves to ash.

“Mrs Ashmore.” He nodded to her. “Tea for dinner again. I can’t say I approve.”

“For myself, I do not mind it, Mr Weston, though it is a lapse of standards. I find it difficult to contemplate more than sandwiches.”

This, at least, appeared to be true. The man posing as Mrs Ashmore was in his mid-twenties and ought to have been capable of putting away far more than one small heart-shaped sandwich of walnut-mayonnaise and cucumbers and one quarter of a serving of coffee jelly. Jack had eaten more than he, and Jack’s body at rest did not require over much in the way of fuel.

It was difficult to discern marks of either grief or illness through the veil. Perhaps it was not lack of appetite, but merely a practical measure to ensure he continued to fit into his corset.

“Was it a recent loss?” Jack asked.

The young man dropped his eyes, but Jack read more relief than modesty in his stance and the regulation of his breath. It was always a relief to deliver a long-prepared lie.

“It was, and so sudden. At least one of our staff had gone bad, and after my dear Robert–” He extracted a handkerchief from somewhere about his person and clutched it to great effect. “He was murdered. In his own bed. I found him in the morning–” The handkerchief disappeared under the veil.

“And you didn’t know whom to trust. It must be difficult, managing on your own.”

He smiled. “Some of the buttons are rather tricky, I admit.”

“Well, you will find more civilized conditions in France, I’m sure. Is that your final destination?”

“No, I have family in New Amsterdam. I wrote to them yesterday, a tube message, and I’ve received their reply this morning. Costly, but it is a great comfort to me to know I have a place awaiting me. I don’t know how one could send a message like that by telegram. Husband murdered, stop. Superfluous relative arriving 12 October, stop.”

It startled a laugh from Jack, who was not used to laughing. “Just so. We’re lucky to have the transatlantic tubes now. My business would be impossible without them.”

“And what is your business, Mr Weston?”

Jack gave him a bland smile. “Vatican business.”

“Oh! Then you will be evacuated with the rest of us? I was concerned. You sound– I am sorry, I should not make such personal observations.”

“I sound English because I am, though I hail from the colonies. But yes, the Jesuits will take me. Vatican travel papers. And you, since we are making personal observations?”

“My husband’s family is from Prussia, though he was brought up here.”

Raised voices made them turn toward the door to the balcony where a French bishop held court. He raised his hands to the little crowd around him. “Please, calm yourselves, my friends. They will come. A few more days at the most and we will see the black ships cutting through the smoke.”

He was wrong. The Jesuits would never make it up the drought-depleted Thames. The best those on Foreigner’s Row could hope for was a quick Carthaginian victory.

Preventing that was Jack’s secondary objective if his primary proved impossible. A rumor said the new heir, Prince Leopold, had been killed in the bombing, only a week after his older brother. The blockade was impassable. The Queen and royal family had fled to Balmoral. Carthaginian victory seemed plausible, but Jack did not share the Vatican’s fear that it would be quick.

London was a hard city. He found it more likely that everyone in this hotel would either burn or starve while the battle dragged on around them. He might have said so to Mrs. Ashmore, but that would’ve ruined the plan now forming in his mind.

Jack let him spin more yarns about his fictional husband’s family until the bishop came to offer the young widow a sherry to keep her strength up. Jack took the opportunity to slip away.

Ashmore might have a bit of difficulty finding out his room number, but Jack had no doubt that it was within his capabilities. With the bait of a set of Vatican travel papers, almost anyone might manage it.

The bed was turned down, and the gas mantle lamps were lit. Jack took the papers from his code-box and set them on the writing desk. He added his gloves, tossed carelessly, and examined the effect. It would do. He whistled as he stuffed pillows under the bed clothes and rumpled them appropriately. When all was ready, he turned the lights low and stood behind the door to wait.

Ashmore was certainly English, just as certainly had no Prussian husband, and therefore no place on the black ships, even if they did arrive. If he did not jump at the chance of acquiring Vatican travel papers, he was a fool, and Jack did not think him a fool. What he might be instead remained to be seen.

Jack was good at waiting, but, four hours later, he was beginning to think his patience was for nothing. He had heard the other guests retire to their rooms, heard the hotel staff moving about, retreating downstairs, cleaning up. Then silence.

He took a deck of cards from his coat pocket and shuffled, cards moving smoothly from hand to hand. One more hour.

There it was: the sibilance of bare feet on wood. Any sensible person would do his sneaking about in bare feet if his only other option was fashionable, hard-soled ladies’ boots. Jack put away his cards and took up his sword cane. He touched the butt of his revolver under his coat. Everything in place, everything just so.

The door opened soundlessly. Jack stood still behind it. Ashmore looked to the bed with its apparently sleeping occupant, looked to the desk with the papers in plain sight, and stepped into the room. He made a greedy rush for his prize. Jack shut the door behind him just as he reached it.

“Turn up the lamp,” Jack said. “And give me your proper name, sir.”

The revolver was not needed. There was a moment of frozen stillness and then a defeated slump from his quarry. Ashmore turned up the flame until the mantle glowed white hot. He turned to face Jack. Stripped of mourning veil and wearing only a nightdress and robe, he was less convincingly female, more angular, more drawn in the face than might be expected of someone only feigning grief.

“Please,” he said. “Help me.”

“Your name. Your story. Then we shall see.”

“But you’re from the Vatican, you have to–”

“I am currently employed by the Vatican. I’m not their dog. Give me your name.”

“It’s Harry Morton, sir.” He made a confused movement, equal parts curtsy, bow, and forelock tug. “Please may I sit down? I don’t feel well.” He did look pale.

Jack nodded his permission.

Harry Morton made as if to pull the desk chair out and then picked it up and bashed it against Jack’s side. He wrenched the door open, slammed it into Jack’s hip, dove through it, and was away down the hall.

Jack was up and after him in a moment, mouth stretched into a grin, making mental plans for the moment he was caught chasing a respectable widow in her nightdress through one of the finer hotels in London. Paying attention to his attention had paid off once again.

The name Harry Morton meant nothing to him, but the man’s face, now that Jack had got a proper look at it, did. Jack dredged up the memory of a certain photo from a newspaper article several years back. Prince Leopold and his brothers walking in the garden, a young man in the background, slim and poised with long, dark hair. The caption had identified him as Prince Leopold’s personal secretary. It seemed to Jack that such a man might very well know where to find what he was looking for.

Ahead of him, Harry skidded to a stop and pounded on the bishop’s door.

Jack punched him hard in the kidney, and Harry folded up into his arms just as the door opened.

“I found her passed out in the hall,” Jack said to the bishop. “Can you stay with her while I fetch the doctor?”

Of course he couldn’t. A bishop alone in his room with an undressed woman? It didn’t matter how good the reason; there would be rumors. An upwardly mobile career in the Catholic Church was one unmarred by rumors. The bishop went to fetch the doctor.

Jack laid Harry out on the bed and shook him, once. “Will you come with me or stay here and let the doctor examine you? Decide quickly.”

“You’re a bastard,” Harry wheezed. He clutched his side. Kidneys were sensitive things.

“You didn’t have to try pinching my travel papers. Are we going?”

“I must get my bag.”

They were both right in it now, which was how Jack liked it. They collected a bag from Harry’s room, the papers and code-box from Jack’s, and climbed out the window. Harry tried to run as soon as they hit the ground, but he was still winded and besides which hampered by the boots he’d stopped to put on.

Jack collared him easily. “Get some clothes on and let’s get moving.”

Harry gave him a resentful look. He ducked behind a pile of crates and struggled into a corset and black travel dress.

“What did you plan to do when the Jesuits arrived?” Jack asked. “Throw yourself on their mercy? They have none.”

“What about you? You’ve got perfectly good travel papers, so why aren’t you back in your room waiting for them?”

Jack watched his drawn face in the wavering light from the gas lamps. “The river’s too low. If they come at all, they won’t come further than Greenhithe.”

Harry’s expression crumpled slowly. He sank down into a squat, back against the wall. “That’s a day’s walk. And Lord knows what I’d meet on the roads.”

“And that’s assuming they’ll take you if you get there. Or you could come with me.”

“What for?” Harry said, eyeing him with appropriate suspicion.

“I’m looking for something. In Buckingham Palace. Given that you were Prince Leopold’s personal secretary, I expect you will be useful in locating it.”

Harry gaped. It was not unattractive. He had a very sweet mouth. “How in blazes did you know that?”

“Does it matter?”

“No, because I’m not going back there.” Harry looked across the river. He wrapped his arms around his knees. “It’s Hell. That’s what Hell is like, and I’m not going back.”

Jack surveyed the city, laid out in points of light and flame. The big glass lantern projection screens were either dark or broken, all but one. Shadowy images moved stiffly across it, spelling out last week’s news and advertising bloomers. Tower Bridge was burning.

“Help me retrieve what I need, and I’ll get you to Greenhithe and onto a ship. I’ll guarantee your safety. All the way to Rome if you like.”

Harry looked up at him, still wary. “What are you looking for? You know they took the jewels with them?”

“I’m not interested in jewels. I’ll tell you when we get there. Yes or no?”

“What happens if it’s no? You showed me the carrot, now where’s the stick?”

Jack squatted down to put their eyes on a level, more interested in Harry Morton than he had been a moment ago. “You are certain there is one?”

“A man like you? You’ve always got a stick.”

Jack had a dozen. He always did, but in this case he didn’t need even one. “No stick, Harry. I’ll leave you here. That’s all.”

Harry dropped his gaze. “That’s enough, isn’t it? You might as well shoot me dead, as much chance as I’ve got of making it to Greenhithe on my own.”

“So come with me.”

“Into Hell?”

Jack held out his hand, judging the moment right for such a gesture. “And out the other side.”

Harry looked back up at him, more weary than hopeful. “Is that a promise?”

“It is. Come with me, render what help you can, and I will see you safely out of England. You have my word.”

Harry took his hand and let Jack pull him to his feet. “I think your word’s worth a pierced penny and we’re both going to die, but fine. Since I haven’t got a choice.”

“Leave the bag,” Jack said, but Harry clung to it stubbornly.

“It’s all I’ve got now. I’m not dumping everything I own in a stinking alley.”

Jack considered this. His thoughts ran thus: Even if Prince Leopold was dead, his secretary would have a place with the royal family in Balmoral. Instead, here was Harry Morton, disguised as a widow and attempting to flee the country. He had either stolen something or been given something. That something might be what Jack needed.

The treaty Jack had been sent to retrieve would bring Russia into the war on England’s side. It had been signed in secret only weeks before Carthage sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar. Russia had done nothing. That was the problem with a secret treaty.

Jack could empty Harry’s bag to search it. He would have to cut the seams as well. If that failed, he would have to search the clothes, Harry’s person, the lining of his dress, the boning of the corset. All this, Harry would resist. Jack would have to hurt him, perhaps badly. At the end of it, he might find only a pearl necklace or a diamond brooch, and Harry would not help him get into the palace or find the treaty except under extreme duress.

Or Jack could simply wait. Harry would come to trust him. That was what people did when given no obvious reason not to. He would help and perhaps, in the end, hand over the prize of his own accord.

“Don’t think I’m going to carry it for you,” Jack said.

“Wouldn’t let you,” Harry muttered. “You’d toss it in the river first chance.”

That would take some doing at the moment. The Thames had shrunk away from its banks in the heat. It was low tide, and the foreshore stretched out far beyond its normal margin. The green slime of the exposed riverbed had baked to brown.

The bare mud extended under the whole first arch of London Bridge. Jack had spent the past week walking along the banks of the Thames and watching a number of factions fight for control of that meagre shelter. The gangs of feral children, being by far the most vicious and determined, had won. It was in this direction that Jack led Harry

Jack disliked children. They were not properly human yet and had therefore none of the levers he was used to pulling. One might as well appeal to a wolf’s sense of duty, a fox’s mercy or tenderness. They stared at him, bright eyes in dirty faces. A few held knives. Many more had stones or broken bottles. Harry edged back behind him, but made no attempt to run.

“Are you hungry?” Jack said to them.

A girl stepped forward. She had a knife, and she looked to be the eldest, perhaps thirteen. Her hair was cut short, and she wore trousers and a feral snarl. “Hungry enough to eat you,” she said.

Her stance was good, and her grip on the knife spoke of experience. Amateurs tried for an overhand stabbing motion, but experts knew that up and in with a twist was the way to go. The quickest way to any heart was through the stomach; otherwise the ribs got in the way.

“We need to cross the river.” Jack squatted down and balanced on the balls of his feet. It put him a few inches below her eye level, made him less threatening and a smaller target. “You’ve got a boat.”

“Have you got gold? Bank notes ain’t no good now.”

“I have better than gold.”

“Jewels?”

“You can’t eat jewels.”

She squatted down as well. Her pale brows drew together in a frown. “What are you offering then?”

“Buckingham Palace.”

One of the boys laughed, a high, thin sound. He lunged at Jack with a broken bottle. Jack swatted him aside, tumbled him to the ground, and stuck his face a patch of particularly foul river muck. The boy scrambled up and looked ready to go for Jack again.

“Hiram! Leave off,” Bet said sharply. She held the boy’s eyes until he slunk away a few feet and squatted down in the mud. She turned back to Jack. “Explain.”

“The palace is mostly abandoned since the bombing. I know a way in that no one is watching.” A lie, but surely Harry could find them one. “All the food you want, clothes, shoes, a place to sleep…”

“You’ll hand us over to the guards the second we get there. Try again.”

“I won’t. I’m going there to steal something.”

She pressed the flat of the blade against her lips. “You’re lying.”

Jack shrugged. “I am or I’m not. Want to flip a coin?”

“Have you got one? I haven’t.”

“I’ve got a bullet.” He shifted, and his coat parted. It was only a token threat. He couldn’t shoot them all.

She retreated to confer with Hiram and a few others, ages roughly nine to eleven. Jack rested his hands on his knees. Harry stood behind him, skirts raised to keep them out of the mud.

“Isn’t there an easier way to do this?” Harry said.

“Perhaps. Not a faster one. The bridge is guarded, and you saw the Tower Bridge.”

Harry sighed. “Three days ago I was sorting the prince’s correspondence and waiting up for him to get back from a family dinner with her majesty.”

“You enjoyed that, I suppose.”

“It was a good life. My father was a pig farmer.”

“You don’t sound like the daughter of a pig farmer.”

“Funny, aren’t you?”

“I mean the way you speak. Like a gentleman. Or a lady.”

“I went into service at thirteen and listened to the butler and the valets. Practiced in private. When I went for the next job, at a bigger house, I talked like that from the beginning, wore the clothes I’d saved up for. That’s all it is. Clothes and manners and how you talk. I can read and write better than the half the royal family, you know that?”

“Better than Leopold?”

“No. Not better than him. He had a brain. A better one than I do.”

Harry fell silent, and the only sounds were of dripping water and the susurrus of the children’s high-pitched whispers.

When the girl turned back to them, her knife was sheathed in a bundle of rags tied to her thigh. “We’ll take you,” she said. “I’m Bet. This is Hiram and Pleasant.” She jerked her head, indicating the boy who’d had ideas about his bottle and Jack’s face, and another, perhaps seven years old, caked in mud up to his waist and with muddy stripes painted on his bare chest.

“Jack. And my friend, Henrietta.”

Bet had no questions. Jack guessed she simply didn’t care why a woman in mourning dress was traveling with a self-proclaimed thief across a burning city and into the heart of its trouble. Hunger was always an effective remedy for curiosity and conscience, and she might’ve had neither to begin with.

The children produced three coracles made of mud and reeds, bits of wood and cork and bottles, anything that would float.

“Me and you in the first,” Bet said. “Hiram and your woman in the second, and Pleasant will come behind.”

“I should prefer to take her across myself.”

“Sure you would, and ditch us I guess, but you can’t. These won’t hold the two of you together, big as you are, and they steer like a drunk lech in a whorehouse. You’d never make the other side.”

“Then I will go with Hiram. You take my woman.”

Harry kicked his ankle, quite hard. Jack did not allow his expression to change, though he would’ve liked to smirk.

Bet shoved her hair back and put her hands on her hips. She stared at him. After a moment, she nodded sharply.

It took some time to get Harry settled in a coracle with all his skirts pulled close about him. Jack was thankful fashions had shifted away from the immense hoop skirts of a few years ago. Harry’s bag went with Pleasant. Harry let it go easily enough, but his eyes lingered on it. Jack stepped into Hiram’s boat and crouched there. There was no proper room to sit. It was a balancing act between them, and the coracle bobbed and shimmied across the sluggish current of the Thames.

“Gonna kill you,” Hiram muttered.

They both bent forward to keep the little boat from tipping to far to either side, and his words were warm and stinking on Jack’s face. His oar was a stick with a bundle of rags tied to the end, but he kept them on course.

“I believe you mean to try,” Jack said.

“That was smart, making your woman go with Bet. She would’ve been easy. But I’ll get you still. You struck me.”

“And I will do it again if I need to.”

“I’ll cut your throat and take every last stitch off you and sod your corpse. You’re no fine gentleman.”

“No. I am not.”

Jack had a number of things in his inner suit pockets for emergencies. One of them was a packet of dried meat strips. He took one out now and ate it slowly and licked his fingers clean. By the time they reached the opposite shore, Hiram’s cunning was lost to anger. It didn’t make him less dangerous, but it would make him easier to predict.

The heat and smoke increased the closer they came to the opposite bank. When they disembarked, Harry latched onto Jack’s arm with a grip that was more suggestive of panic than acting. “This is mad,” Harry hissed at him. “That boy you’re with has eyes like a rat’s, and the other one’s clearly mad, he’s going to steal my things. They’re going to murder us and leave us to rot and my mum will never even know why I stopped writing. She gets the priest to read the letters out. I’m supplying the entirety of Dorset with royal gossip, I can’t just–”

Jack cut him off with a soft kiss. “Hush, boy,” he murmured against Harry’s lips.

Harry trembled. He was silent a long moment, and then: “How did you know I’m…that way inclined?”

Jack hadn’t. He’d only meant to shock him. It was an interesting development.

The children were watching, Bet disinterested and impatient, Hiram murderous, Pleasant blank as he hefted Harry’s bag onto his back.

“Never mind,” Jack said. He cupped Harry’s cheek and kissed him again, let his tongue skate across his lips. “Don’t worry. I’ll look after you.”

Harry’s body leaned into him and went soft and easy at every point of contact. It was fascinating. People formed attachments with such ease and had levers and switches in the oddest places. Jack wondered if Leopold had looked after him like this.

They set out. Bet sent Hiram ahead, which meant she knew his intentions and, for the moment, disapproved. That might change once they reached the palace. Harry stuck to Jack’s side like a penny stamp, which was not ideal, but it left his right hand free for his revolver. It was workable. Pleasant went just ahead of them with the bag, whistling something that now and then almost managed to be a tune. Bet brought up the rear.

Three times they were challenged by other bands of ragged children. Hiram launched into the first with broken glass and fury, and they fled amid accusations of madness and disease. The second was smaller, and Jack saw them off quietly with his revolver.

The third shadowed them, just on the edge of sight. Jack caught movement and the flash of eyes, but that was all. Bet drew their little party closer.

“I count at least four,” Jack said.

“Six,” Bet said. “The rooftops.”

Jack looked up. Half the houses along this street were burning from the inside. He had discounted the rooftops for that reason, and it had been a mistake. He could pick out one smoke-blackened face against the darkness on their right, and from above and to the left came a shrill ululating cry.

Harry gripped his arm harder. “You can’t kill them. They’re only children.”

“I said I’d look after you, didn’t I?” Jack felt his face pull into a grin and turned away to grab Pleasant. “Stay with her,” he said to the boy, and pushed them both into a charred doorway as other voices joined the first.

Jack stood back to back with Bet and Hiram in the middle of the street, waiting. The smoke was choking. He couldn’t see more than thirty feet. The heat from the fires combined with the wet heat of the air burned his lungs. His mouth tasted of ashes. Figures circled them, drawing closer and then dashing back into the smoke.

The first rush broke them apart, and Jack found himself barreled over by a girl older than Bet. She fought with teeth and fists and such ferocity that he was concerned only with getting space between them for the first seconds. He shoved her back hard with both hands, but she clung to him, slammed her forehead nearly into his nose. He turned away just in time, but the impact still left his ears ringing. He clubbed her with the butt of his revolver and drew the blade from his cane as she tumbled back.

He would’ve made sure she was done for, but another one was nearly on him, a boy in his teens. Jack whipped his face with the flat of his blade and skewered him. The blade sunk into a wooden crate when it came out his back, and Jack lost precious seconds freeing it. Someone came at him with a yell. Fire sliced down his spine.

He turned and saw Hiram’s face, saw the knife blade that reflected the murky red glow of the sky. He dived aside, but too late. It sank into his shoulder. The cobblestones came up to hit his back. His head bounced off them and left him dazed. He couldn’t keep his grip on the revolver, and it skidded out of reach. Hiram knelt over him and raised the knife in a two-handed grip. Overhand. Always a bad way to hold a knife.

“Stop it!”

Bet stood behind Hiram with the revolver pressed to the back of his head. Hiram was not going to stop. Jack closed his eyes. Getting blood in them was painful and tended to cause infection.

In the silence after the roar of the revolver, Bet said, “He was always making trouble.”

Jack wiped his face and took the revolver gently from her hands. She stayed where she was, looking at the cobblestones slightly to the left of Hiram’s body. Above them, the gas light burned like a torch, casing gone but for a ring of glass teeth at its bottom.

Harry, when Jack found him, was turned toward the wall with his hands over his face. Pleasant sat cross-legged in front of him, apparently sharpening a newly acquired knife on the cobblestones. Or perhaps merely wiping the blood off. Two bodies lay nearby. Jack stepped past them and around Pleasant to tug Harry away from the wall and into his arms.

“I’m sorry,” Harry said. “I never liked fighting, not even pub brawls. I don’t like getting hit, nor going about armed. My birthday’s next week. I want to go home. Not home. Somewhere with less pigs than home.” He gripped Jack’s coat hard with both hands.

Jack stroked his back. His own back was sticky with blood, but it was a shallow cut. The one in his shoulder was deeper, bleeding more freely. It would need attention soon, but this had to come first. Otherwise, Harry would bleed guilt all over him from now until they parted company. Immensely tiresome. As if staying out of a war you had no chance of winning were something shameful. Generally speaking, Jack preferred it when people kept out of his way during a fight.

He smoothed his hand down Harry’s back, tracing the ribs of the corset with his fingers. He was looking forward to taking it off.

“I’m sorry I’m such a coward,” Harry said.

“Everyone’s something.” It was a favorite phrase of Jack’s mother, one he felt he’d never truly understood, but it was useful for diffusing tension.

Harry laughed, a little choked sound. “I suppose that’s true.” He hugged Jack closer and gasped as his hands encountered blood. “You’re hurt.”

“Yes.”

Harry turned out to be a competent patcher of wounds, which made Jack all the more curious about his life with Leopold. He asked Pleasant for his knife to cut up one of his petticoats. To Jack’s surprise, and apparently Bet’s as well, Pleasant handed it over at once.

Harry bandaged Jack’s shoulder tight to control the bleeding. “It should be stitched up. I can do it when we get to the palace.”

“Hidden talents,” Jack said.

“I was with his highness at the Battle of Gibraltar.”

“Quite a place for a man not fond of violence.”

“I stayed below decks,” Harry said shortly. “The ship’s surgeon let me help with the wounded.” He gave Pleasant back his knife and ruffled the boy’s mud-caked hair as he were any ordinary village child.

Pleasant picked up his bag and watched him with unblinking attention. Jack got to his feet. They hurried on.

“We’re almost there,” Harry said, as they entered St James’s Park. “Hold on.”

He sounded concerned, which struck Jack as odd. Jack was unlikely to die of this wound, and moreover had all but kidnapped Harry, dragged him through fire and blood back to the place he’d fled days ago. Attachment. It was baffling. Jack’s mother had cried when he left home, even after all that had come before.

Jack stumbled and caught himself against a tree. Harry took his arm and urged him on. Pleasant went ahead now, and Bet came behind. The night was taking on colors, swirls of red and green, blotches of light where there could logically be none. Jack shook his head and then pounded at it, but it didn’t help.

“You will have to find us a way in,” Jack said. “I may lose consciousness.” He thought a moment. “You should have my revolver.”

He would trust Harry’s attachment before Bet’s. Killing for a man created attachment as well, but Bet was probably sensible enough to put her own interests before his. Harry certainly was not.

“I don’t want it,” Harry said.

“It’s a good weapon if you don’t want to fight.” Jack coughed. The lights grew brighter. “It’s all over in an instant.”

He pushed it into Harry’s hands. Harry tucked it away somewhere, and then the lights got very bright indeed, so bright Jack had to close his eyes.

There were sounds, continued colors, voices, the smell of cordite and then of lemon. Jack never quite blacked out, but neither was he able to integrate his perceptions into anything that it was reasonable to think of as reality. Eventually, he was laid out on something reasonably soft, and the world started to weave itself together around him.

“We’re in Princess Vicky’s room,” Harry said. He held a glass of water to Jack’s lips and helped him drink. “Leopold said all this could’ve been avoided if she’d just married Frederick William as she was meant to. And they were so in love, too, you ought to have seen them together. I don’t know what happened. I’ve sewed you up.”

Harry had his sleeves pushed up to his elbows, but he was still wearing black silk, heavily muddied at the edges, ripped, and sagging on one side where he had clearly shredded still more petticoats to bind Jack’s wounds.

Jack touched one ragged edge and looked a question at Harry.

“The bandages I found weren’t what you’d call clean,” Harry said. “Dust and so on from the explosion. I found a bottle of iodine unbroken though. I think you’ll be all right.”

“You wear her highness’s mourning clothes,” Jack guessed.

“Yes. From when Albert Edward was killed. They were just being unpacked again for Arthur’s funeral. I was helping one of the maids when the bomb went off. Of course I ran down when I heard it. I knew Leopold was in the gardens.”

“Did you find him?”

The great mirror across from the bed was covered in black cloth, but that was the only sign of Arthur’s recent passing. The roses in the great crystal vase had not yet begun to wilt.

“Yes.” Harry folded his hands in his lap and looked down at them. “Half his leg was off, and his chest had been crushed by falling stone. He didn’t even call for help. Knew there was no helping him, I suppose. I stayed with him until he stopped breathing. And a little way after.”

“Your grief was genuine. That’s why you were so convincing.”

“I miss him,” Harry said. “He was a good man.”

Soft sheets slid against Jack’s skin. His wounds pulled, but the pain was tolerable. He reached for Harry and yanked him down. Harry’s breath went out in a rush, warm against Jack’s face. Jack slid a hand over his waist where the corset pinched it in.

“You should take this off.”

Harry gripped the sheet until his knuckles went white. “Will you loosen the laces for me?”

“Get rid of the dress.”

The sound the dress made when it hit the floor was akin to leaves falling all at once in a strong wind. Jack pulled back the covers. Harry lost his bloomers as well and slid in next to him. Jack pushed him over onto his stomach, and Harry turned his face away, one hot cheek pressed to the sheets. His ass was round and looked all the fuller for the contrast of the black silk corset. Harry had laced it tight, and it bit into his skin. Jack ran a finger along the edge, but could not slide it under. He pulled at the skin, pushed at the fabric, and revealed a hard red line.

“Does it hurt?”

Harry shifted, feet arching into hard points. “It’s uncomfortable. But I don’t have the proper waist otherwise.”

“No, of course.” Jack sat up and ran his hands down from the counterfeit curve of Harry’s waist, over his ass, across his thighs and down to mud-speckled calves. He bent one leg and brought Harry’s foot up to kiss his ankle.

“Do you want to fuck me?” Harry whispered. He worked the leg not in Jack’s grasp out to the side and drew his knee up. Jack could see the shadowed shape of his balls. “I’m hard.”

“Have you done it before?”

Silence.

“Harry?”

“Do you prefer virgins?”

“I prefer accurate information. Always.”

“Well. I’ve done it rather a lot, then.”

Jack pushed his thighs wider and knelt between them. “Did you do it with Leopold?”

“Lord, no. Him, with a servant? He would never. He’d think he was taking advantage. I would have though. There’s – On the nightstand. Princess Vicky’s hand cream. If you like. I can do without.”

Jack’s shirt was gone already, and now he struggled out of his trousers. The cream smelled of mint and lavender and tingled when he coated his cock with it. That was all the preparation he bothered with, and a thin coating at that.

“The corset,” Harry gasped.

Jack wanted abruptly to lace it tighter, to listen to Harry’s desperate snatches of breath as Jack fucked the air out of him. He gripped the laces. They dug into his fingers as he pressed the head of his cock against Harry’s hole.

“Please, please–” Harry sounded breathless already.

Jack’s shoulder throbbed along with his cock as he pushed in. The cream was barely enough. The friction built heat on heat, and Harry was already burning up inside. Jack groaned as he sank deeper.

“Ah– You–” Harry grabbed the pillow and twisted it. His thighs were taut, and his toes dug hard into the mattress. “That’s big,” he whispered, and his body clenched hard around Jack’s cock.

Jack held himself up with one hand, held tight to the lacings with the other, and drove into him again and again, sharp thrusts to hear Harry gasp. Harry moved under him, pressed back and took him deeper still. His back arched, and he leaned forward, head down, ass up, on display and poised at just the right angle for Jack to ride him hard.

Jack reached around to explore Harry’s cock and found it stiff and wet. Harry thrust against his touch shamelessly. “Oh, yes, Christ,” he moaned, and rutted against Jack’s palm.

The air was thick and wet. Both of them were covered in sweat. The smell of it warred with sex and smoke and the more timid scent of clean linens. Jack’s head swam, and he ached from head to balls. He licked sweat from Harry’s spine and neck. Each thrust seemed to unwind him, until he was slowing, resting in Harry’s body for long seconds before he pulled out again. With just the head of his cock inside, the air felt cooler on his shaft, and he paused there too.

“Fuck,” Harry said. “Weston! Don’t take all day about it!”

“Jack.”

“What?”

“My name.”

Harry reached back, grabbed his left buttock, and squeezed hard. “Jack. Stop day dreaming, and fuck me.”

Jack grinned down at the curve of Harry’s back and watched as it was partially obscured by the bright spots and colors of earlier tonight. He was sure he’d never smiled so widely while also being so close to passing out. He thrust in hard to hear Harry’s moan. It was too much effort for someone who’d lost so much blood, and he needed to see his shirt, to judge just how much that was and how long he might take to recover and–

Harry came in hot spurts against his palm as Jack’s hips shot forward again. Jack kept stroking him, focused now, feeling himself get closer, watching the lights get brighter and eat away at his vision. Worth it. He laughed and yanked at the corset lacings and came to the feel of Harry’s nails digging into his hip.

The last thing he saw was his fingers working at the bow until it came loose.

*

Hearing returned first. Harry was yelling at him.

“Jack! You ratbag, wake up!” There was a light pat on Jack’s cheek, which turned out only to be a warm up. It was followed by a stinging slap.

Jack got his eyes open. Harry’s face was pale and very close to his own.

“Thank the Lord,” Harry said, and dropped his forehead to rest against Jack’s. His hair brushed Jack’s skin. The corset was gone, and he was entirely naked now.

“You have a lovely body,” Jack said. He was smiling again, or still. The pain was less pronounced. He felt dozy and nearly drugged.

Harry smiled in return and kissed him. “You’re absurd. Don’t do that again.”

He rolled onto his back and left Jack gazing up at the canopy above. It was heavy, cream colored lace in a pattern of thistles, shamrocks, and roses. Something nagged at him. Oh, yes. His job. The treaty.

“What did Leopold say to you before he died?”

Harry was silent. Too blunt? Too soon? Jack couldn’t judge. His brain felt like it was being boiled slowly in a kettle, and he only wanted to sleep.

“Are you really on Vatican business?” Harry said.

“I am. They sent me to find something.”

Harry sat up and bent over his knees. His hair hid his face.

“You know what it is, don’t you?” Jack said.

Still Harry said nothing.

“Leopold trusted you. He couldn’t know who had set the bomb. Using the wrong messenger would be fatal. And so he told you where to find the treaty and asked you to deliver it safely into Vatican hands. Yes?”

Harry nodded slowly. “I didn’t know what you were after, not for certain. And I didn’t trust you.”

And you do now? Some of the disbelief must’ve made it into the questioning lift of his eyebrows.

Harry smiled. “You’ve kept your word so far. Through Hell and out the other side. You saved my life.”

And you saved mine. Jack couldn’t get the words past his thick tongue. Sleep came for him, and he couldn’t resist.

Scraps of conversation wove in and out of his dreams.

Bet: “Here. Bread and cheese and some old wine. The bottle’s all dusty.”

Harry: “No problems getting it?”

Bet: “It’s all like it was on the way in. Quiet as the grave. I don’t think there’s anyone left but the guards at the gates.”

Jack dreamed of watered wine on his tongue and a wet cloth on his face and neck. He dreamed a sunrise and a sunset.

When he woke, Harry was gone.

“Back with us?” Bet said.

Jack reached for the glass she offered him and drank half of it before he could answer. “How long?”

“All day.”

“Have you brought your troops in to feed?”

“I told Pleasant to go back and fetch them. He wouldn’t. He’s attached to your friend.”

“You didn’t go either. Who are you attached to?”

“My own hide. My full belly. My mum said, attach yourself to a gentleman if you want to better yourself.” She bared her teeth. “She meant a butcher or a baker or a seller of cloth. Suppose I attach myself to you?”

“I don’t fuck children.”

“All the better as I suppose you’re attached to your prick.”

Jack made a show of considering it, but in truth he’d hoped for this. He would be saddled with Harry all the way to Rome. If they missed the black ships at Greenhithe, it would be a dangerous journey. Bet had already proved herself a good fighter, and she would be trustworthy as long as their interests lay in the same direction.

“You’ll have to wash. And find clothes fit at least for a maid. Pleasant too. And shoes.”

She folded her arms over her chest. “We’re to be your servants?”

“Learn to speak and be what you like. Harry can teach you.”

“Huh.” She rose. “I’ll think about it.”

She met Harry in the hall. Jack couldn’t hear most of what they said, but he heard the last part.

“He’s a liar, a thief, a killer, and a spy,” Bet said. “You’re a fool to trust him.”

Harry glanced past her and met Jack’s eyes. “Everyone’s something,” he said.