A Death in Sheffield
I believe this wretched ball is worse than the Siege of Burgos, thought Artemis; at least there was no mystery as to who was the enemy, at Burgos.
She was stationed at her aunt’s side, doing her best not to appear self-conscious whilst the woman engaged in a very civil argument with the Portuguese Ambassador, who’d asked permission to dance with her. Artemis observed that the stout little man had beads of perspiration lining his upper lip, which was no surprise; he was no doubt uneasy in his unaccustomed role as abductor of young maidens. He’d never make a reconnaissance officer, she thought with some scorn; he’d start at his own shadow.
Artemis’s Aunt Stanhope replied with finality, “I’m afraid Miss Merryfield is promised to her cousin for this dance, Excellency, and he should be along at any moment.”
“Matters are pressing,” the man insisted in an urgent undertone, glancing over his shoulder. “Droughm has lately arrived.”
Artemis’s aunt regarded the man from beneath hooded lids. “Has he indeed?”
The Portuguese Ambassador lowered his voice. “He cannot be allowed to interfere with her.” With some firmness, the diplomat tugged on Artemis’ elbow. “Come, Miss Merryfield—we will dance, yes?”
“You shall wait for your cousin,” countered her aunt, her gaze never leaving the Ambassador’s.
“I am not one for dancing,” Artemis explained to the combatants in an apologetic tone, “having never learned.” On the other hand, she was adept in the loading of musketry, but this particular skill seemed irrelevant—or at least not relevant as yet, depending on whether she would be called upon to shoot some or all of the other persons present. It was beginning to seem as though this was not entirely beyond the realm of possibility.
“Then I shall walk with her on the terrace—he will not look for her to be with me,” the Ambassador insisted, meeting her aunt’s gaze with a hint of exasperation. “Come, madam; we both wish that she should avoid Droughm.”
Aunt Stanhope made no response, but allowed her calculating gaze to sweep the room in a rare display of wariness.
Oh-ho, thought Artemis with great interest. She is indeed contemplating a strategic retreat; that the unknown Droughm has the ability to shake my formidable aunt can only be regarded as an excellent omen.
Pressing his advantage, the man offered his arm to Artemis. “I will take your niece out to take some air—she is a bit faint from the heat and the crowd, I think.”
Artemis, who had never been faint in her life, slid her gaze back to her aunt to await the next counter-parry.
But instead the woman bowed her head in reluctant acquiescence. “Very well; but Torville will join you when he arrives—he must be seen to dance with her.”
“You presume,” the other said in a clipped tone. “Matters are not yet settled.”
“We shall see,” replied the lady, her gaze unflinching.
It is so very provoking—to be treated as though one does not exist, thought Artemis as she curtseyed prettily. “Obrigado,” she said to the Ambassador, and took his arm.
The man stared at her in abject horror, as well he should. Earlier in the evening she’d stood near the windows, listening in as the honorable Ambassador covertly identified her to his young and handsome attaché. Whilst her Portuguese was not good—having mostly been gleaned from curse words and military terms—Artemis had managed to followed the alarming gist of their urgent conversation. I probably should not have let him know I understood what he said, she thought, observing his reaction; I’d not make much of a reconnaissance officer, myself.
As he steered her toward the terrace doors, the Ambassador drew his mouth into what he obviously hoped was a reassuring smile. “I was not aware, Miss Merryfield, that you spoke my language.”
“You live and you learn,” Artemis noted piously.
“I was upset earlier, you must understand—your aunt—”
Artemis soothed, “Pray do not concern yourself; I understand that tempers are short, the circumstances being what they are.”
“Exactly.” He bent his head to hers, adding in an urgent undertone, “I wished to ask—you have heard nothing from your uncle, Miss Merryfield—nothing?”
“No—I’ve had no word from Sheffield.” Artemis firmly quashed the memory of the last time she’d seen Uncle Thaddeus, watching solemnly as the flames ignited around her feet. I very much fear I am running short on time and strategy, she thought; an ally is needful, and with any luck he has indeed lately arrived in the form of the dreaded Droughm.
With barely-suppressed urgency, the Ambassador led her from the overheated ballroom and onto the terrace, which overlooked a beautiful formal garden—a rarity in crowded London. Hanging paper lanterns were strung between the trees and the effect was magical; Artemis would have liked to stand and admire pretty gardens, but she was preoccupied with plotting out a potential retreat route.
“Your aunt; she is a very hard woman,” her companion continued, his tone bordering on the peevish. “She does not listen to reason.”
“I have been saddled with a very strange assortment of relatives,” Artemis agreed. “Small wonder the Colonel never mentioned them—he was probably too busy, what with fighting the French at Torres Vedras, and Corunna.” The reference to the besieged Portuguese towns was deliberate; the Ambassador did not seem to appreciate the sacrifices made by others in the defense of his country, particularly if he was truly planning to abduct the daughter of a fallen hero.
The man had the grace to look a bit ashamed, and patted the hand on his arm in a conciliatory gesture. “Believe me, Miss Merryfield, if there was any other option I would gladly leave you and your aunt alone. I have no other choice in the matter.” Nervously, he glanced over his shoulder.
“Why are you all so afraid of Droughm?” She glanced up at him, genuinely curious. “He appears to feature as the bogeyman, in this tale.”
“It is nothing to concern you,” the man replied in a curt tone, his temporary contrition gone in an instant. “Now, come along and we shall meet up with Marco—he is very taken with you, he tells me.”
They navigated across the terrace, the Ambassador practically tugging on Artemis’ arm as he urged her down the far steps and into the dimly-lit garden. Almost immediately, they encountered the young attaché who’d listened to his superior’s musings about potential abductions, earlier in the evening.
As he bowed, the dark-eyed young man rendered a charming smile, his teeth flashing white against his swarthy skin. “Good evening, Miss Merryfield.”
“Ela pode falar Portugues,” the Ambassador warned his cohort.
Without missing a beat, the attaché offered his arm and invited her to walk with him in his own language, his head bent to hers and his attitude deferential. Artemis acquiesced with her own shy smile, after deciding that her best strategy was to behave as though her head had been turned by her handsome escort. Taking his arm, she pretended not to notice the significant glance the two men exchanged. I was indeed safer at the Siege of Burgos, she concluded, as she contemplated the ground in a show of maidenly shyness; and certainly better informed.
“You are very beautiful tonight,” the attaché murmured, his head bent close to hers. “Your eyes, they are the most extraordinary color—”
“My father,” Artemis responded abruptly, her mouth pressed into a thin line. “I have my father’s eyes.”
Thrown off by her tone, her companion glanced at her for a moment, then recovered and continued with his flirtation. “Shall we admire the lilacs? Come—no one will miss you.”
Foolish man, she thought; every man jack has been watching my every move since I first set foot in this miserable city. “With pleasure.” She smiled up into his admiring eyes and concluded that he was probably trying to maneuver her toward the back gate—it was dark and deserted over there, so it was well-suited for an abduction. I’ve half a mind to let him take me away from my horrible aunt, she thought, as she allowed him to lead her toward the corner gate; he is a handsome fellow, and I imagine he receives a fine stipend from the Portuguese government.
Hard on this thought, she paused and bent as though to retrieve something she’d dropped on the ground. When her escort immediately stooped to assist, she grasped his head with both hands and brought her knee to his forehead with as much force as she could muster. With a grunt, the handsome Ambassador’s attaché slumped to the ground.
Walking briskly, Artemis retreated down the graveled path back toward the terrace, smoothing out her gloves and breathing in the heavy scent of lilacs. Suddenly, the figure of a man rose before her, and she came to an abrupt halt, as the strains of the orchestra could be heard floating out from the terrace. Although they’d never met, she could guess the gentleman’s identity, and awaited events.
“Miss Merryfield.” He bowed.
“Mr. Droughm.” He was tall, and—although it was difficult to see his features with his back to the torches—his hair was very dark. We would have dark-haired children, between us, she thought dispassionately, and belatedly realized that she should have curtseyed.
He tilted his head. “I’m afraid it is just ‘Droughm’.”
“Ah.” He was a peer, then—it wanted only this. “I beg your pardon.”
They regarded each other for a silent moment. “I thought perhaps you might require some assistance.”
“No,” she responded, and offered nothing more.
“How old are you, Miss Merryfield?” She noted that he spoke in an abrupt manner—he was not one for roundaboutation, it seemed.
She let out a breath and admitted, “I am turned seventeen.”
He put his chin to his chest, thinking over this unfortunate fact. She gauged him to have perhaps thirty-five years in his dish, perhaps more. “Do they know you are not yet eighteen?”
“I am afraid I confessed to my age before I knew what was afoot.”
This remark made him raise a dark brow. “Do you know what is afoot, then?”
“I’ve a good guess,” she countered. “Perhaps you will be kind enough to fill in the particulars.”
“We may have to marry,” he announced in his blunt manner.
“Yes—or at least pretend to marry,” she temporized. It made her uneasy that he held a title; he was probably overly-proud of his exalted ancestors, and such. “And speaking of which, what have you done with my cousin Torville—have you killed him?” This last asked in a hopeful tone.
She had the brief impression he was amused. “Torville has been unavoidably detained, I’m afraid. Has he offered you insult?”
She could be equally blunt. “Daily, since I’ve arrived. I keep the ʼtweenie in my room at night.”
In a grim tone, he assured her, “Such measures will no longer be necessary; I will see to it.”
Lifting her chin, she regarded him steadily. “I’ve no doubt of it—you terrify them. They are all rolling their eyes like green recruits under fire.”
If she’d hoped to hear of the nature of his involvement in the mysteries that abounded here in London, she was to be disappointed. Contemplating her thoughtfully, he said only, “They have engaged with very dangerous people, and are becoming desperate.”
This was of interest, and spoke of unseen forces at work. She probed, “The Ambassador is no danger, surely—you could fell him with one blow.”
“Indeed.” It was evident from his ironic tone that he had witnessed her own blow to the attaché.
Crossly, she defended herself, “It is no easy thing to be an heiress, I assure you—I’d rather face the French.”
With mock-humility he bowed his head. “You misunderstand—I would not be so impertinent as to question your actions.”
Ignoring the mockery, she pointed out with exasperation, “That is the problem exactly—I am at an extreme disadvantage because I must not ask impertinent questions of my betters.”
But he was unmoved, and pointed out reasonably, “Unfortunately, there is no other kind of question; not to one’s betters.”
“You are of no help.” She made a wry mouth, because he was going to make her laugh, despite her best efforts to resist. “There are such goings on—am I supposed to say nothing, and be as mild as milk?”
She flashed him a look, aware that he was enjoying himself at her expense. “Why do they fear you?” He had avoided an answer, before.
“That,” he noted, “is an impertinent question.”
“You are provoking,” she chided, cross again. “I am tempted to reject your suit out-of-hand.”
“Do not, I beg of you—I think we will have much to say to one another.”
Artemis met his level gaze for a long moment, there, with the scent of lilacs hanging heavy in the air, and the lamplight flickering off his profile, and found that she could make no reply, impertinent or otherwise.
“You had best return. I will ask you to dance.”
“I do not dance,” she admitted, rather wishing that she did.
In his brusque manner he declared, “You will dance with me, regardless.”
She blinked, and decided he was rather appealing, in his autocratic way. “You will put the cat among the pigeons,” she cautiously advised. “Mayhem is the certain result.”
“You terrify me,” he replied, unperturbed. “Go.”
Thoughtfully, Artemis sidled back through the crowded room as she returned to her aunt’s side. It did seem—at long last—that matters were looking up. But I must watch myself, she thought; he sees far more than he ought, this one, and I must discover why he wields such power.
“Why, Artemis,” said her aunt, her thin brows raised in surprise. “Where is your escort?”
“He was unavoidably detained,” she replied, deciding that she approved of Droughm’s phrase. She then looked about her with feigned surprise. “Heavens—has my cousin Torville not yet made an appearance?”
“Not yet arrived.” Her aunt’s eyes narrowed as she canvassed the crowded room again. “I am rather vexed with him—he spoke with such enthusiasm of partnering you tonight.”
“A very dutiful nephew,” Artemis agreed, and earned a sharp glance from her aunt. Aunt and Uncle Stanhope were childless, and Torville was her Uncle Stanhope’s eldest nephew. The extant scheme was to marry Artemis to Torville, thus keeping her Uncle Thaddeus’ mining operations in the family. Artemis could scarcely blame them for this scheme; she was an unexpected heiress without protectors, and their only other alternative was to be hanged for treason.