Excerpt: Her Majesty's Necromancer
Book 2 : The Ministry Of Curiosities
London, autumn 1889
“Put your arm around me,” I told Lincoln Fitzroy.
He did, and as with every other time he touched me, my blood responded with a throb and my skin tightened. Imagine how I would react if he touched me with desire and not violence.
I hooked my fingers onto his forearm, dropped so that he suddenly held most of my weight, and spun toward his elbow, uncurling myself from the headlock he contained me in. I stepped away and beamed at him. He scowled in return.
It was the first defensive move he’d taught me, and after two months of daily practice, I’d finally succeeded in getting free from his grip. I probably could have managed it a month ago if my opponent had been an unsuspecting thug and not Lincoln. The element of surprise would work in my favor. It might even be my best weapon. Despite fattening up a little since moving permanently to Lichfield Towers, I was still on the small side. Any man would expect to defeat me if he attacked, but I was better equipped to defend myself now, thanks to Lincoln’s training.
“That was adequate.” Lincoln—I no longer referred to him as Fitzroy in my head—signaled that the session had ended.
He snatched up his waistcoat from the shrub he’d cast it across and marched off toward the house. As usual, his mood had darkened during my training. No matter how even-tempered he was at the beginning of the three-hour sessions, he always ended them by either snapping at me or not speaking at all, then storming away to his private chambers. It wasn’t fair. I hadn’t done anything to deserve his terseness. Buoyed by my success, I wasn’t going to stand for it any longer.
“Adequate?” I called after him. “I got away from you for the first time, and the only thing you can say is ‘adequate?'”
“You left yourself open to another attack. You should have run off.”
“Or pulled out the knife hidden up my sleeve, but we weren’t practicing combat, only getting free from your headlock.”
“Weren’t we?” He stopped and I almost ran into him. His face wasn’t the least flushed from our exercise, whereas my skin felt damp and hot, despite the cool autumn air. Dusk had settled quickly, but there was enough light left for me to see that his features were set hard. “You have a knife strapped to your forearm?”
“Not at the moment, but I would if I were wandering about the city alone.”
He walked off again and I trotted beside him to keep up with his long strides.
“‘Well done, Charlie’ would have sufficed,” I said. “Even a simple ‘good’ is better than ‘adequate.'”
He took the front steps two at a time and reached the door before me. He held it open even though he was entitled to enter first, being my employer. I didn’t enter, but stopped in the doorway, blocking his entrance. We stood so close that we were almost touching. I tilted my head to peer up at him. He took a step back, crossed his arms, and watched me through thick black lashes.
“You require praise.” He didn’t pose it as a question, but I nodded anyway. “Very well. You have improved. You were always fast, but now you understand how to apply what strength you possess to greatest effect, and how to use your size to your advantage.”
“Yet your skills are merely adequate. You might be able to escape from the average man who attacks you precisely in the manner we’ve employed in your training, but that’s all. There is much to be done, if you want to fight off an opponent who is smart and strong, or one who uses dirtier tactics.”
He waited as I thought through my response. In the end, I decided to focus on the positive. He’d not told me anything I didn’t already know anyway. “Thank you. Your praise means a lot to me. However, you have a great deal to learn about being a good teacher. Indeed, I’d say you’re merely adequate. For one thing, you need to learn when a student requires praise, and when they need to be told their deficiencies. This was a time for praise.” I patted his arm. “Don’t worry. You’ll learn with time and practice.”
His eyes tightened. “You’re mocking me.”
“I wouldn’t dare, sir.”
The eyes tightened more as they usually did when I called him sir. It was the only sign he gave that he hated me referring to him in the formal manner, even though he’d told me it was one of two acceptable ways to address him. The other was Mr. Fitzroy, which I usually used. I only said sir when I did indeed want to tease him, something I rarely did. We had few opportunities outside of training to speak. I was always too busy with my maid’s duties, and he seemed to go out of his way to avoid me. I never called him Lincoln to his face.
“Same time tomorrow, then,” I said, walking ahead of him into the house.
I stopped, and so did my heart. The uncertainty in his voice intrigued me as much as worried me. He was not usually a hesitant man. “Yes?” I asked, sounding a little breathless.
Several beats passed, in which he continued to watch me from beneath his hooded lids. “Have Seth or Gus bring up tea,” he eventually said, before striding across the tiled entrance hall to the stairs. He took those two at a time too and was quickly gone from sight.
I remained at the foot of the staircase, blinking stupidly. Had I said something wrong? He was such a difficult man to read that I wasn’t entirely sure if I’d heard uncertainty in his voice at all now. I wish I had the courage to ask him what he’d really wanted, but it felt too awkward between us. Ever since he’d noticed my infatuation with him, as he’d called it, we’d grown more distant. Our only communication involved him giving me orders.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” said Seth, approaching from the service area at the back of the house.
“Oh, I…no. Not today.”
He winced. “Apologies. I spoke without thinking.”
I smiled. “No ghosts, just a master whom I suspect stops himself from saying the things he really means.”
“Death?” He glanced up the staircase. “Are you sure? He always seems to say exactly what he means to me. Then again, I’m not a pretty young woman living under his roof.” He winked and grinned.
“Ha! I hardly think that’s the problem.” On the few occasions when I’d thought Lincoln did see me as a woman, and one he would want to know intimately, he would do or say something that made it clear I was mistaken.
“Perhaps he needs his undergarments mended and is too embarrassed to ask you,” Seth said.
“That’s more likely. Perhaps it’s best not to tell him that you pass on all needlework to me.”
Whereas I performed the housekeeping duties, Seth and Gus took care of Lincoln’s personal needs—except the mending. They even took turns cleaning his rooms. He’d refused to allow me in them, these last two months, even to deliver his meals. The only other employee at Lichfield was Cook, and between the four of us, we managed to keep the house organized, if not perfectly clean. If Lincoln ever decided to host a dinner party, however, we would be in all sorts of trouble. Fortunately, he disliked company. Our only guests were Ministry of Curiosities committee members, who paid calls from time to time. Mostly it was either General Eastbrooke or Lady Harcourt, and once Lord Marchbank had dinner with Lincoln. Lord Gillingham hadn’t come at all in the last two months, thank goodness. I might have been tempted to tip the gravy in his lap if he had.
“Come into the kitchen.” Seth beckoned me with a jerk of his head, sending his fair hair tumbling over his forehead. The tousled locks made him look even more boyishly handsome. “We’ve got a surprise for you.”
“For me? Why?”
He didn’t answer so I dutifully followed him. Cook and Gus stopped what they were doing and all three men broke into applause.
“What’s this for?” I asked, laughing.
“For beating the master, fair ‘n’ square,” said Gus. His broken-toothed grin was so broad that the deep crows’ feet wrinkles swallowed the scar at the corner of his right eye.
“We sometimes watch from a window,” Seth said, with a shrug of his broad shoulders.
Cook had disappeared into the adjoining pantry and now emerged with a small round cake. He handed it to me. “Sponge,” he announced. “Your favorite.”
“You didn’t have to bake me something special.”
“Didn’t. Baked ’em to have tomorrow, but you can eat that one now.” He winked one of his lashless eyes at me. “It’s only small, so won’t spoil dinner.”
Gus snorted. “Probably fill her up, the way she eats.”
“I eat well now, thank you.” Far better than when I first came to Lichfield from the slums. That didn’t stop the men from always encouraging me to eat more, however. I suspected I would never eat enough to satisfy them.
Cook returned to the range where his face and bald head soon became shiny from the heat, and I sat at the central table and ate my cake. Gus sat alongside me, mending a broken garden tool, while Seth prepared plates and cutlery for the meal. Doing chores didn’t seem to bother them, even though they weren’t actually footmen. Perhaps they were bored and the jobs gave them something to do. No one at Lichfield liked to be idle, not even Seth, a gentleman born and bred who must be used to servants doing everything for him. If he resented his lowered position here, he didn’t show it. I wasn’t yet certain what had led him to work for the ministry. He’d been living in reduced circumstances before Lincoln employed him, and was grateful to have a roof over his head and food in his belly. I understood how he felt. Lichfield Towers was a vast improvement over my previous living quarters of a damp, stinking basement shared with a dozen boys.
A loud knock on the back door echoed through the house. We all stopped what we were doing, but for a moment, no one moved. Who would be making deliveries now?
“I’ll get it,” Seth said. Gus and I followed him out of curiosity.
We met Lincoln striding along the service corridor. Ragged twists of damp hair framed his face, softening the hard planes but not the sharp gaze that locked with mine. For a moment I thought he was going to order me to remain hidden. My necromancy had made me a target for a madman two months ago, but he was dead now, and few outside the ministry knew what I could do. Nevertheless, I still felt vulnerable, and Lincoln was perhaps aware of it. He did not ask me to leave, however, as Seth opened the door.
The Highgate Cemetery head groundsman stood on the courtyard stoop. The crooked-backed fellow with bulging forearms and long black beard eyed each of us in turn then quickly removed his hat when he spotted Lincoln.
“Good evenin’, sir.” He bobbed his head and screwed his hat in his hands. “Sorry to bother you, sir.”
“You have news, Mr. Tucker?” Lincoln asked.
“Aye, sir. I been keepin’ an eye out for them filthy robbers, ever since you reported seein’ ’em, sir.” Tucker sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve. “Ain’t seen hide nor hair of ’em until just now.”
Seth fell back to allow Lincoln to face the grounds man. “They stole another body?” Lincoln asked.
“Aye, sir, real late this afternoon it were. They took a corpse from the East Cemetery.”
“Was it a recent burial?”
“Did you get a look at them?”
“No, sir. I was doin’ the rounds, as I do every day since you reported the last robbery, and saw the dug up grave. I came here directly, sir, as you asked.”
“Had it definitely been dug up today?”
“Aye, sir. In the last two hours.”
Lincoln suddenly walked off and headed back along the corridor. We all stood and watched, as if we expected him to return any moment, but he didn’t.
“Thank you, Mr. Tucker,” I said to the groundsman. “Mr. Fitzroy is very grateful to you for notifying him immediately. If you’ll wait here, Gus will fetch you something to show our employer’s appreciation.
Gus didn’t move until I elbowed him in the ribs, then he scuttled off, back toward the kitchen.
“Is there anything else you can tell us about the body snatchers?” I asked Mr. Tucker. “Any clues as to their identity?”
“None, miss.” He shrugged an apology.
“Who do you think would do such a thing?”
“Doctors. Ungodly fellows, if you ask me.” He hawked up a glob of saliva and spat it on the stoop. It would be my job to clear it away. Ugh.
“Amen,” Seth muttered.
“Most doctors are good men,” I said to them both. Just because Dr. Frankenstein, my real father, had proven to be a madman, it didn’t mean they all were.
“Ain’t nothin’ good about a man who wants to chop up a dead body, miss, and they all want to do that, if you ask me.”
I shivered. Frankenstein had chopped up bodies, only he hadn’t been doing it to understand anatomy. “It’s for the advancement of science,” I said, shoving aside the awful memories of Frankenstein’s monsters. “Their intentions are good, mostly.”
Gus returned with something wrapped in a cloth. “Ham,” he said as he handed it to Tucker. “That do?” he asked me.
Tucker’s face lit up as he accepted it. “I think it will,” I said. “Thank you again, Mr. Tucker. Take care.”
He bobbed his head as he backed away. I sighed at his glob of spit before closing the door.
“Why do you think Fitzroy walked off like that?” Seth asked.
“He’s going to the cemetery.” I didn’t return to the kitchen, but headed up the service stairs to the second floor. I emerged from the hidden doorway in the corridor and knocked on Lincoln’s door.
He opened it and pushed past me. He was dressed in long black coat, boots and gloves but no hat. With his dark hair, he wouldn’t need one to blend into the night, and it would only hinder him if he needed to give chase.
“You’re going to investigate,” I said, trotting after him since he’d not stopped to speak to me. When he didn’t respond, I added, “I’d like to come with you.”
“No.” At least he spoke to me.
“There’s no need.”
“I could try to raise a spirit who can help identify—”
He rounded on me. “You are not to use your necromancy, Charlie.”
“It’s dark now. No one will see.”
“No.” He strode off again, with more determination in his step than ever. It was as if he were trying to get far away from me as quickly as possible. “Besides, unless the spirit was present at the time of the robbery, they couldn’t have seen anything. They would need to be very recently dead, and not yet crossed to their afterlife, to be of use to us.”
I followed at a rapid pace behind him down the stairs. “You would think a cemetery would have a few new ghosts floating about, ones who haven’t yet crossed for one reason or another.”
“Ghosts that remain to haunt are confined to the place where they died, not where they were buried.”
“Yes, thank you, I have read the books in your library on the subject. I only thought…” I sighed. “Never mind. It would seem my necromancy will be of no use to you. How about my keen powers of observation, instead?”
“Stay here. It’s warm and there’s food.”
I pulled a face at his back, only to have to quickly school my features when he glanced over his shoulder. He speared me with that dark gaze of his and then looked forward once more. The man had an uncanny intuition sometimes, which made his lack of empathy all the more baffling.
“There’ll also be warmth and food upon my return,” I told him, as he opened the front door.
“Do not make me you lock you in your room again.” He shut the door before I even had a chance to gasp at his response.
I marched back to the kitchen. “Of all the ill-advised things to say!” I waved away Seth’s questioning look and accepted a plate from Gus.
“Did I hear the front door?” Seth asked.
“He’s gone out.” I spooned peas onto my plate. “To investigate the robbery.”
Gus accepted the bowl of peas from me. “What’s he expect to find in the dark?”
“P’haps he’s expectin’ another robbery tonight,” Cook said as he placed slices of beef on our plates.
“It’s been two months since the last one,” I said. “I doubt there’ll be two in one night.”
We ate and waited patiently for Lincoln to return. Or rather, I ate little and my heart leapt at every noise. The men finished their meals, and mine, then collected the plates.
“Told you the cake would ruin her appetite,” Gus said, heading toward the scullery.
I helped with the washing up, then tried to play cards but couldn’t concentrate. I lost my share of the dried broad beans we were wagering with and removed myself to the library to wait for Lincoln. From there, I could see the drive and front lawn. The moon glowed faintly behind a bank of clouds and haze, providing little light to see by. I didn’t bother with candles or lamps; I knew I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on a book. I wasn’t sure why I felt anxious. Lincoln was more than capable of taking care of himself. Perhaps it was simply because Lichfield had been so quiet and calm of late that a part of me hadn’t expected it to last.
Despite my worry, I must have fallen asleep. I awoke to the sensation of something brushing my cheek. When I opened my eyes, Lincoln crouched in front of me.
“You’re awake.” He stood and placed his hands behind his back. Someone had lit candles and the light flickered across his cheeks only to be swallowed by his eyes. They seemed blacker than ever.
“What time is it?” I smothered a yawn and uncurled my feet from beneath me.
“Early hours of the morning. You should be in bed.”
“So should you. Did you see anything at the cemetery?”
“The robbers didn’t return, and it was too dark to look for clues.”
“You mean you can’t see in the dark? And here I thought you were capable of anything.” When he didn’t respond, I mumbled an apology. It would seem he didn’t like my teasing and I needed to remember that my position at Lichfield was a precarious one. The committee members had wanted me removed from the country altogether. Only Lincoln had wanted me to stay and only then because he thought the nation was safer where he could keep a close eye on me. He could change his mind and have me sent away at any moment. No one would gainsay him.
“Can I get you anything?” I asked, rising. “You must be hungry.”
He dismissed my offer with a wave of his hand. I bobbed an awkward curtsy—something I didn’t usually do but felt I ought to every now and again—and was about to walk away when his hand on my arm stopped me.
“Charlie.” He let me go and resumed his military stance. “I want to apologize for my joke earlier.”
“You made a joke? Was I present at the time?”
His jaw hardened. “About locking you up again.”
“That was a joke?”
“I can see now that it might not have been taken as such, considering the circumstances under which you were first brought here.”
“I see. Thank you. I appreciate you seeking me out to say so.”
Without another word, he strode past me and disappeared in the direction of the service area. I sighed and extinguished one of the candles. I grabbed the other to light my way upstairs. I thought about going to him in the kitchen, but since I wasn’t sure what to say, perhaps it was best to avoid him. Every conversation we had of late just widened the gap between us. I wished I’d never let him see how much I desired him.
I waited for the rain to stop before heading to the cemetery. It was Saturday, my morning off, and I wanted to visit my adopted mother’s grave.
“You haven’t been there in two months,” Lincoln said when I informed him. He liked to know when I was heading out, and I had no objection to telling him. I had no secrets, and he was simply worried, after what had happened with Frankenstein.
“Then it’s high time I go.” I fastened the glove at my wrist and pulled on the other. “I do think of her as my mother still, and she did care for me.”
He rested his hand on the doorknob then after a brief hesitation, he opened it for me. “Of course.”
I half expected him to announce he was coming with me, but he didn’t. He seemed to believe that my calling upon my mother was entirely innocent and had nothing to do with looking for clues as to the grave robbers’ identities. I was able to fool him easily when I put my mind to it.
The damp air curled the ends of my hair before I’d even reached the estate’s gates. My hair had grown a little but it was still short at the back, skimming my collar. I wished it would grow faster.
I quickened my pace and reached the cemetery’s grand stone entrance a few minutes later. I headed for my mother’s grave and spent a few moments thinking of her as I stared down at her headstone. She might not be my birth mother, but she’d loved me—and I her—when she was alive. She’d been the first spirit I’d raised, and her death had sparked my banishment by the man I’d thought was my father, Anselm Holloway. Yet I couldn’t be angry with him—or her. I would never have ended up at Lichfield Towers if my necromancy hadn’t been reviled and feared by Holloway. Lichfield was where I belonged. I knew that to my core.
I muttered an apology to Mama about seeking out my real mother, even though I knew I had no reason to feel guilty. I’d made little headway, anyway. None of the orphanages I’d visited so far had records of an adoption by a couple named Holloway. But there were still more orphanages to visit, and I’d not given up hopes of finding something. All I had to go on was my mother’s first name—Ellen—and that she was a necromancer like me.
I removed one of my gloves, kissed my fingertips and touched the headstone. With a sigh, I turned away and went in search of the robbed grave. It was easy to find, as a pile of soil marked the empty hole. I half expected to see Lincoln there, having anticipated my real motive for going to the cemetery, but there was no one about.
The ground near the grave was scuffed up and boot prints headed away from the site. There was nothing special about them. They were of average size and could have belonged to Tucker or one of the other groundsmen.
There were several other graves nearby, all of them quite new. Lincoln was probably right about the spirits not knowing anything. They needed to be present to have seen anything, and according to the books and what I’d already observed, spirits parted from their bodies at the time of death, not at their burial. Besides, the thought of raising the dead chilled me to the bone. I only wanted to do it as a last resort and preferably when I wasn’t alone.
But I wasn’t alone. A man watched me from beneath a tree, where he leaned on a rake. When he saw that I’d noticed him, he quickly continued to rake up leaves.
“Excuse me,” I said as I approached. “Do you work here?”
He turned his back to me and continued raking a patch of earth that was already clear. Well, that was rude.
“My name is Charlotte,” I said. “They told me my uncle’s grave was robbed last night. Do you know anything about it?”
Since he made no effort to look at me, I skirted his pile of leaves to face him. He was a young man with a port wine birthmark covering one cheek and a squint that made his eyes all but disappear. He removed his cap and scrunched it in his hand.
“Is it your job to tidy this area?”
He nodded into his chest.
“But you weren’t here last night when the grave was robbed.”
“I was, miss,” he mumbled. Thank goodness the man could talk. I was beginning to think he’d have to write his answers in the dirt.
“But Mr. Tucker didn’t mention a witness.”
“I didn’t see anything, miss.”
“That’s a shame. I hoped you could tell me something about the men who took the body of my uncle.”
He glanced at me then down at the ground again. His hand tightened around the rake handle while the other continued to scrunch the cap. He seemed quite agitated.
“Is there something you want to tell me?”
“Let me see if I understand you. You were here, you know something, but you didn’t see anything.” I gasped. “Did you hear them?”
He nodded again. Finally, I was getting somewhere. Shyness was one thing, but I didn’t have all day to coax the answers from him.
“What did you hear?” I prompted.
“One was called Jimmy.”
He shrugged. “Jimmy said the body was heavy. I mean, your uncle was heavy. Pardon, miss.” What little I could see of his face colored. He placed his cap on his head again, pulled the brim down, and resumed raking.
I suspected he had more to say, but his sudden flare of embarrassment had caught his tongue. If I wanted answers, I had to make him feel comfortable. I fetched the empty wheelbarrow from beneath a tree and wheeled it over to him. He stopped raking and actually met my gaze with his own. I smiled gently.
“Did you learn the other man’s name?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“Did they say where they were going?”
This time he gave a half-shake before he stopped and frowned. I encouraged him with a broader smile. “They mentioned The Red Lion,” he said.
“The one in Kentish Town?”
“In what context did they speak about it?”
“They had to be there by nine to meet someone for a game of dice.”
I tapped my finger on the wheelbarrow handle. The Red Lion tavern in Kentish Town wasn’t too far. I knew the area well, having lived in a gang there a few years ago.
“You going to tell the police?” he asked.
“Yes,” I lied.
He looked relieved. “I thought about telling them…”
“There’s no need for you to do so now,” I assured him. “I’ll pass on everything you told me.”
He dipped his head and continued to rake.
“Thank you,” I said. “You’ve been very helpful.” I didn’t admonish him for not speaking up to Tucker, Lincoln or the police. Being confronted by authority figures must have been daunting for such a shy man.
I thanked him again and headed out of the cemetery. The costermonger who often parked his cart near the entrance eyed me from beneath the brim of his wide hat. The man’s scrutiny unnerved me. I’d been arrested because of him, and he’d told Anselm Holloway where I lived. Both incidents had almost ended badly for me. Those dangers had passed, so why was he taking such an interest in me now?
I hurried home to tell Lincoln about the link to The Red Lion, but decided to wait when I saw Lady Harcourt’s carriage at the house. She mustn’t be staying long, or the driver would have taken the horses and coach around to the back. Still, I didn’t particularly want to see her. While I liked her on the whole, she’d been distant toward me since I’d become a housemaid at Lichfield. Perhaps she felt I’d snubbed her after she offered a similar position to me in her own household—before she’d agreed that banishment from London would be better. Or perhaps she didn’t want to associate with a mere maid. I shouldn’t be surprised. She ought not to even notice me now. I was privileged to get a nod in greeting from her whenever she visited.
I walked around to the servants’ entrance and hung up my coat and hat on the hook inside, by the door. Cook and Gus looked up as I entered the kitchen. Gus greeted me by handing me a tray with teapot and cups.
“Now that you’re back, you can serve ’em,” he grumbled. “Your pretty face will be more ‘preciated than mine.”
“Is something wrong?” I asked. “Where’s Seth?”
“Out. He gets to run errands and I get stuck here serving tea. It ain’t fair.”
“Tell that to Death,” Cook said with a grunt of laughter.
I carried the tray to the parlor and was just about to enter when I overheard Lady Harcourt mention my name. An eavesdropper hears nothing good, so Mama once told me, but I couldn’t help myself. I hugged the wall and inched closer to the doorway.