Where magic has never died...
Lady Jasmina Karlyle snuck into her mother's bedroom like a thief. To her dismay, she realized that she was getting quite skilled at breaking and entering. Jasmina ignored the illusion of slobbering, snarling wolves that her mother had set to protect the chamber from intruders, and began to search the contents of several bandboxes.
She carefully set aside a lovely bonnet decorated with iridescent feathers, a lacquered fan painted with swans, several lace-trimmed handkerchiefs, and a beaded reticule. A glitter of red caught her eye, and she scrabbled for it, scowling with disappointment when she held it up and realized it was only a jeweled button.
She put everything back into the bandbox and opened the lid of another. It was astonishing, really, how clever her mother could be when she set her mind to it. Illusory boxes were interspersed with the real ones, so that her collection looked double. Fortunately, Jasmina had searched her mother's belongings often enough that she knew where the real items were stored.
The door rattled and Jasmina spun guiltily, waving her fingers with the absent-minded habit she'd developed whenever she cast a spell. She couldn't quite make herself invisible, but her spell would cause whoever entered the room to overlook her presence.
Despite being her mother's maid for forty years, dear Nanette took one glance at the snarling wolves and slammed the door shut again.
Jasmina smiled and continued her search. Nothing in the larger boxes! She moved her search to the smaller, decorative boxes that littered Mother's chiffonier. She shook her head with frustration. There was still the wardrobe to search, and the washing stand cupboard, then beneath the canopied bed-and she hadn't even checked Mother's dressing room yet.
And all for an ugly brooch that looked exactly like-
Jasmina blinked. Nestled among other jewelry, in a pretty box decorated with tiny abalone shells, lay the Duchess of Hagersham's brooch. Her instincts had been correct. Last evening at the Hagersham dinner, her mother had been admiring the duke's new gift to his wife with a little too much avarice.
Jasmina held the brooch up to the candlelight, and the large garnet in the center of the piece danced with reflected light. The jewel itself was quite stunning, but the silver figures carved around the sides of it leered grotesquely at her. Ugly little creatures with the most shocking anatomically correct details.
Whatever had possessed her mother to "borrow" it?
Jasmina froze. She could hear the pounding of her heart and realized that the snarling of the wolves had stopped, which could only mean-
"Lucy." Aunt Ettie's voice carried through the closed door. "Are you getting ready for the ball so soon?"
Mother answered, but Jasmina didn't hear the reply. Jasmina shoved the brooch into the pocket sewn into the seam of her dress and sprinted across the room as quickly as her petticoats would allow. Her mother always noticed her, no matter how strongly she cast her spell. She slipped inside the connecting door to Mother's dressing room just as the bedroom door opened, and sighed with relief. Her mother hadn't caught her, thank heavens, which meant she wouldn't have to bear another scene with Mother weeping excuses.
Jasmina crept out the main door and into the hallway and around the stairwell to the safety of her own bedroom. She collapsed on her bed, fighting for breath against the confines of her corset, and dissolved her spell.
A soft tapping on her door, and Aunt Ettie entered. "Well, were we right?"
Jasmina nodded, staring into emerald green eyes that matched her own. But the resemblance stopped there, for Aunt's features were sharp and intelligent, whereas Jasmina's matched those of her mother: soft and innocent.
"Oh dear." Aunt settled her skirts over the arms of the dressing table chair. "My silly, foolish sister. I don't suppose we should tell your father this time?"
Jasmina rose and smoothed the wrinkles from the counterpane before she carefully rolled it to the foot of the bed. "We have been over this before." Even Aunt Ettie sometimes forgot that Jasmina's doll-like features hid a keen intelligence and a will of iron. "Father wouldn't have the slightest idea how to handle the situation, short of locking Mother away. And it's a woman's duty to keep a man's house a refuge against the rest of the world. Since Mother is unable to do so, that task falls to me."
"I just wish I could do more." Aunt tucked a stray lock of prematurely gray hair back into her severe coiffure.
"Dear Aunt Henrietta, you have already given up all of your prospects to keep our family secret safe. And my magic makes it so much easier to handle the situation."
"I suppose you're right. But it means you shall miss the queen's ball tonight."
Jasmina shrugged and presented her back to her aunt, who began to unbutton the back of her gown.
"If only my sister weren't so..." Aunt left her thought unspoken and pushed the bodice of Jasmina's dress forward. "She insists she's only ‘borrowing' from people, and that she has every intention of returning the item right away. She just forgets to."
Jasmina tugged at her sleeves, hearing the frustration in Aunt's voice. She had tried talking to Mother about it as well.
"And then somehow," continued her aunt, "she turns it around and makes me feel guilty. As if it's all my fault, and I'm being quite vulgar for even mentioning it."
"I just think it's something she can't control, and it frightens her," replied Jasmina. "That's why she needs me." Jasmina gasped with relief as the stays of her corset were loosened. "All that matters is keeping Mother and Father happy."
"But you, Jaz. I'm afraid that you'll sacrifice all of your happiness for their own."
"On the contrary. Can you imagine our social standing if Mother's... eccentricity was known?"
Aunt sniffed. "That wasn't quite what I meant."
The door flew open and the subject of their discussion sailed into the room. Mother looked stunning in a pale green ball gown that matched the color of her eyes. Her blonde hair, a shade darker than Jasmina's, was decorated with diamond-studded pins that matched the elegant necklace around her throat. A natural pink blush complemented her smooth complexion, and she'd used only a hint of illusion to smooth the wrinkles from around her eyes. "Jasmina, dear, what are you wearing to the..."
Jasmina stepped out of the puddle of her dress and petticoats and staggered over to her bed, the back of her hand pressed to her forehead.
Mother's full lips puckered in a charming frown. "Whatever is the matter, dear?"
"My head... hurts dreadfully." Jasmina collapsed onto the bedding.
Aunt Henrietta raised a brow at her from behind Mother's back. Jasmina coughed to hide a smile. Mother backed up a step. "I hope it's not catching. You know how susceptible I am to the slightest thing."
"I'm sure it's nothing serious, Lucy," replied Aunt Ettie. "But it seems wise to keep Jasmina at home this evening."
Mother looked crestfallen. "Do you think so? This is quite the ball of the season. I would so hate for her to miss it. Now, whatever did I come in here for? No matter. Henrietta, you must hurry and get dressed."
Aunt Ettie frowned. "Perhaps I should stay home with Jaz."
"Certainly not. There's no reason for both of you to miss the ball. I will send up her maid with some bitters."
Mother swept out of the room and it felt empty with just the two of them left in it. Mother had that kind of presence.
Jasmina leapt out of bed and knelt in front of her wardrobe, opening the bottom drawer and pulling out the black clothing she'd purchased from a chimney sweep.
"You've become quite the actress," Aunt Ettie said.
Jasmina shuddered dramatically. "Perish the thought." She pulled the rough material of the shirt over her chemise. She barely winced in shame when she pulled on the drawers before stepping into the trousers.
She smeared ashes from the fireplace over her face and surveyed her appearance in the cheval glass. The cap! She pulled it from the pocket of the trousers, stuffed her side curls up into it, and checked her appearance again.
She'd never pass as a boy. She had too much of her mother's features for that. But she wanted to make sure that if a stronger wizard saw through her illusion, he wouldn't recognize her. A chimney sweep walking the streets of London at night wouldn't hazard a second glance, but a woman alone... heavens!
And after all, she planned on sneaking into a duke's house, and her spell didn't make her invisible.
"You look dreadful," pronounced Aunt Ettie. "Why can't we just find some excuse to call on Duke Hagersham tomorrow?"
Jasmina transferred the brooch from her dress to her trouser pocket. "Because it's safer to return it before anyone knows it's missing. Besides, you were caught returning that ring to the baron." Even though the scandal had died down, the rumor that Miss Henrietta Forster was a thief had ruined her chances of marriage.
"But this is entirely unladylike. Not to mention dangerous."
"I've done it before," Jasmina said, "and will most likely do it again. But I don't enjoy it. Please don't make me feel any worse."
Aunt Henrietta sniffed elegantly. Jasmina found it endearing. It was difficult to sniff with elegance; she knew because she'd tried.
Jasmina splayed her fingers, then shook them. Her aunt leaned forward expectantly, her narrow chin jutting out, a look of fascinated attention on her face. Truly, Jasmina didn't need all the hand gesturing or poetry to cast a spell, but it disappointed Aunt if she forgot it.
Besides, it wasn't easy to create an illusion of oneself. She'd use all the props she could get.
"Twin of me,
I create thee,
For the night,
You shall be."
Jasmina made a face. What a horribly dreadful rhyme. But Aunt looked impressed...
The air wavered as a ghostly shape took form. Then Jasmina's hip suddenly burned, a crack of thunder shook the walls of her bedroom, and her body tingled all over.
Aunt Henrietta clapped her hands with delight. "Well done!"
Jasmina smiled weakly and glanced out the window. How odd. No sign of rain. No lightning followed that room-shuddering sound to explain the current that had run through her body. She had never crafted a spell with such... flair. But her illusion looked perfectly created, down to the ribbons on Jasmina's favorite nightgown.
Jasmina took a step forward and looked into her twin's eyes. They stared blankly back into her own. Hmm. Everything seemed fine. "Get into the bed," she instructed. "And go to sleep. If anyone should wake you just mumble and roll over. Can you manage that?"
The illusion didn't answer, of course. It couldn't really think; it just followed her orders.
Aunt Henrietta shuddered. "Truly, Jaz. If you both were in the same room I couldn't pick the real one."
"A royal could. And of course, a baronet-since they're immune to all magic. But my maid won't know the difference, will she?" Jasmina bent over the sleeping woman. Aunt was right, though; she'd done a grand job of duplicating herself. "You will stay in this bed until I come to wake you."
Her illusion smiled sleepily and rolled over.
"Well, I shall require several maids to dress me for the ball this evening," said Aunt Ettie, her mouth curled into a conspiratorial smile. "Shall I make a fuss now?"
Jasmina fumbled in the back of the wardrobe again, pulled out several items, and stuffed them in her pockets. "Yes, if you don't mind."
Aunt Henrietta gave her a wink, then sailed out of the room in a good imitation of Mother. Jasmina waited until she heard the bellpull and the scurrying of servants running up the stairs before she crept down to the kitchen. She paused for a moment at the stairwell, listening for any sounds coming from the room.
But Aunt Ettie had done a superb job of rousting them; except for Cook humming in the scullery, the basement was utterly silent.
Jasmina's fingers waved and she threw on a don't-notice-me spell. Her hip tingled and she frowned, remembering the burning sensation she'd felt before. She quickly slipped into the pantry using her household keys, then made herself comfortable in the corner of the room. Surrounded by their best china and silver, she settled in to wait for the best time to sneak out. In a few hours, most of the gentry, including the Duke of Hagersham, would be at the queen's ball, and she could navigate the streets of London without being noticed.
For a moment Jasmina wished she were her illusion, safely snug in bed. She dreaded to think how drained she would be after tonight; it would take her months to build her magic reserves again.
If she dared make a light, she would take the opportunity to do an inventory of their tableware. Jasmina hadn't done so in a while; running a household took more effort than one would think. She'd been doing it since the age of ten, when she realized Mother had no head for it and needed her help.
When it grew late enough to venture from her hiding place, she created an illusion of a cat with a wiggle of her fingers, her hip tingling again. Heavens, what was causing that sensation? She dug in the pocket of her trousers and pulled out the contents: her handkerchief, a worn pair of gloves, her household keys, and the duchess's brooch.
The closure of the pin on the back of the brooch had come open, and she realized it had probably been poking her for some time. She refastened the catch before stuffing it back in her pocket.
Jasmina opened the pantry door, made sure to lock it behind her, and glanced around the room. The fire glowed softly, banked for the night, but it provided enough light for her to see that the table and floors had been scrubbed clean, the range had been freshly blackened, and the clotheshorse had clean laundry drying on it.
She smiled with pride on her well-ordered household. She had been taught that the cleanliness of a home showed the moral character of its occupants, and certainly no one could dispute hers.
Jasmina padded over to the hallway that led to the male servants' rooms and made her illusionary cat let out a yowl. She cocked her head, waited another breath, and made it yowl again.
Finally, one of the footmen opened his door and cracked an eyelid open towards the floor. "They fergit to let ya out again, heh?"
Jasmina kept to the shadows, making her illusion curl around his feet, a rumbling purr accompanying the cat's flirtation. When the footman made as if to pick up the animal, she shied it from his reach and toward the kitchen door.
He shuffled toward the back door, Jasmina and her illusion following. He palmed the medallion that released the warding spells protecting the house against magical intrusion and let both her and the cat out. She waited to make sure he put up the wards again and then made her way across the cobbled courtyard, past the mews, and into the alley. She dispelled the cat illusion but continued her don't-notice-me spell.
Jasmina squashed down the feeling of alarm at being alone in the streets at night. She rarely left the house without a chaperone. If it hadn't been for the necessity of learning her way around London to return her mother's borrowed goods, she doubted she'd know anything more than the direction to her favorite shops and park. Indeed, her best friend Ellen had once commented that a lady only needed to know her destination, since her escort or coachman would take her there.
Jasmina shuddered to think how shocked Ellen would be to see her now, skulking through alleyways in a chimney sweep's clothes. Of course, her friend would be even more shocked to learn that Jasmina's mother borrowed things... It was always a choice between two evils.
Jasmina squinted, checking the fingerpost of the street she'd just entered. Mandrake Street wasn't large enough to warrant gaslights and so she took it, keeping to the shadows, grateful for the fog that made her almost invisible. Grateful that the duke lived close to her home in Gargoyle Square.
Not too long ago, she'd had to take a horse out of the mews without waking the stable servants and cast spells over them both. She'd been so exhausted from working that much magic, she'd slept for two days afterward. Tonight she kept to the back streets, eventually coming upon Hagersham House by the rear entrance. The Gothic architecture of the mansion made her feel guilty, with all its church-like ornamentation and stained glass windows of dancing angels.
Jasmina recast the cat-illusion spell and her hip burned quite badly. She wondered if the clasp on the brooch had come open again. She gritted her teeth at the sheer impropriety of her current state.
And then sighed and got on with it.
Her cat yowled at the door for almost an hour. If she employed such inconsiderate servants, she'd have them dismissed. What if they didn't open the door? How would she ever get past the wards a duke kept around his home? Unlike earls and marquesses, a duke had the ability to change actual matter. So his wards wouldn't just make you imagine a thousand bees were stinging you-they might actually be doing so.
Jasmina made her cat yowl louder. A curious dog came from the direction of the mews and began to bark at her illusion. He barked louder when the cat ignored him, and finally getting angry at the insult, charged with jaws open and fangs gleaming. She made the cat larger and it snaked out a paw with claws the size of butcher's knives, swiping at the dog's snout.
The dog believed her cat to be real, so he felt the rake of its claws and let out yip-yip-yips of such pain that he set off the rest of the dogs in the neighborhood. Still, Jasmina felt shocked to notice the blood that welled from the dog's nose. Her illusions weren't usually that strong.
Finally someone opened the kitchen door. The butler, by the look of him, his haughty expression twisted with aggravation. "What's going on out here?"
Jasmina had already shrunk her cat back to normal size, but widened its eyes to huge pools of misery.
"Dogs after you, eh? All right, so what are you waiting for, an invitation?"
He opened the door wider, wide enough for Jasmina to get her body through, and both she and the illusion entered the kitchen. The butler shut the door, palmed the warding medallion, and sleepily went back to his room without a backward glance.
Jasmina waited for her eyes to adjust to the gloom, noting that the duke's kitchen wasn't nearly as tidy as her own, and headed up the servants' stairs. If by some chance Duke Hagersham or his wife hadn't gone to the ball tonight, she'd be more likely to encounter them on the grand stairway, and so she used the less conspicuous paths of the servants.
She hesitated at the ground floor, wondering if she should leave the brooch in the dining room, where the duchess had last worn it. But the servants would already have done a thorough cleaning of the room, especially if the duchess had noticed it missing.
Jasmina crept up the stairs to the first floor, went into the drawing room, and pulled the brooch out of her pocket. The fireplace had been cleared. The only light shining into the room came from the gaslights outside. Even so, the gem glowed with a bloodred shimmer in its depths.
She shuddered and stuffed the brooch between the cushions of the settee, wondering again why her mother had chosen such an ugly piece of jewelry.
The sound of muffled laughter made her pause as she stepped out into the hallway, and the wavering light of a candle made her retreat back into the room. Jasmina ducked behind the settee just as a man and woman entered the room.
She recognized the voice of the duke, but the low laughter of the woman sounded nothing like the tittering of his duchess.
"I'm missing a queen's ball for you, my dear."
More soft laughter. "I'll make it worth yer while."
Jasmina heard wet, hungry sounds but resisted the urge to peek around the edge of the settee. Her heart froze at the thought that the duke might see past her spell and disguise.
Jasmina took a silent breath and reassured herself that he wouldn't notice her as long as she didn't draw his attention.
Duke Hagersham gasped, and Jasmina wondered what on earth the woman could be doing to make a man moan so oddly. She heard cloth slithering to the floor and chided herself for her foolishness.
Why else would a man stay home with another woman? She wondered which servant the duke was having an affair with. She wondered how long it would take them to do... well, whatever they were going to do.
Jasmina couldn't risk sneaking out of the room with the duke in it. She tried to plug her ears against the sounds they kept making, but curiosity kept warring with propriety until she finally gave up the battle and dropped her hands.
Her eyes caught the flicker of movement on the wall, and she realized the couple stood in front of the candle. She could clearly see their shadows. The duke stood with his back to the adjacent wall; she recognized the outline of his hawkish nose and his half-open mouth. The woman knelt in front of him, her hands fumbling with... something. And then it sprang free, and Jasmina could clearly see the outline of its shadow on the wall.
Well, she knew men had them. She'd just never seen one before-and she wasn't now, she reassured herself over the pounding of her heart. It was just a shadow. The woman tilted her head back, the duke trembled, and Jasmina watched as the woman opened her mouth.
Her head moved forward and back until the duke groaned and pulled her up by the arms. Their shadows merged for a moment. Then the woman turned her back to him and bent over. The duke pulled up her skirts, making a lump of shadow over the servant's back, and Jasmina could make out the round curves of the woman's bottom.
The duke's shadow lunged forward and the woman strangled a scream.
Jasmina's heart lurched into her throat, a rush of... something flooded her veins and in blind panic she leaped over the settee. She sprinted across the room. Her eyes met those of the duke's for a fleeting second, and then she was tumbling down the stairs, out the door and into the alley before she even registered the expression on his face.
She'd never seen such a look of utter rapture before.
Jasmina didn't pause in her flight until she reached the safety of her own courtyard. She panted and trembled, confused and outraged. No proper woman would behave in such a fashion. No wonder men constantly took up with servants.
She refused to think about the wetness between her thighs-or to acknowledge that she had run only because she'd throbbed and ached when the duke had plunged himself inside the woman.
Jasmina gathered the remains of her magical strength and created the cat. The same footman promptly let it into the house, and she decided to raise his wages.
It seemed like forever, but it had only been a few hours since her family had left for the ball. They wouldn't be home until dawn, and she certainly had no intention of waiting up for them. When she crept into her room, her maid sat snoring in a chair, and Jasmina was so exhausted that she didn't notice the bed was empty until she lay in it.
Her illusions had always lasted until she returned. Perhaps that crack of thunder had interfered with her concentration, and she hadn't created the spell as strongly as she usually did. Thank heavens her maid had fallen asleep and hadn't noticed Jasmina's absence. Or rather, that of her illusory double.
It was the first time her twin spell had failed her, and Jasmina felt a trickle of alarm, trying to think what might have happened. And then another thought struck her: Why hadn't she set off the duke's wards when she'd run out of the house? But erotic shadows kept dancing through her thoughts and carried her into sleep.