It's June 1814, and the royal families of Austria, Russia, and the German states have gathered in London at the Prince Regent's invitation to celebrate the defeat of Napoléon and the restoration of monarchical control throughout Europe. But the festive atmosphere is marred one warm summer evening by the brutal murder of a disgraced British nobleman long thought dead.
Eighteen years before, Nicholas Hayes, the third son of the late Earl of Seaford, was accused of killing a beautiful young French émigré and transported to Botany Bay for life. Even before his conviction, Hayes had been disowned by his father, and few in London were surprised when they heard the ne'er-do-well had died in disgrace in New South Wales. But those reports were obviously wrong. Recently Hayes returned to London with a mysterious young boy in towa child who vanishes shortly after Nicholas's body is discovered.
Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, is drawn into the investigation by his valet, Jules Calhoun, an old friend of the dead man. With Calhoun's help, Sebastian begins to piece together the shattered life of the late Earl's ill-fated youngest son. Why did Nicholas risk his life and freedom by returning to England? And why did he bring the now-missing young boy with him? Several nervous Londoners had reason to fear that Nicholas Hayes had returned to kill them. One of them might have decided to kill him first.
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Somer's Town, London
Thursday, 9 June 1814
Alone and trying desperately not to be afraid, the child wandered the narrow, winding paths of the tea gardens.
Ji could hear laughter and the voices of other garden visitors in the distance. The day had been hot-unusually so for June, the child heard people say. But the sun was beginning to sink in the clear lavender blue sky, lengthening the shadows beneath the arbors and hinting at the chill of coming evening. The scent of roses and peonies drifted sweetly on the moist air, stirring unbidden memories of the shady walkways and placid canals of the Hong merchant's private gardens. A wave of homesickness washed over the child, bringing a painful lump to Ji's throat, and the sting of threatening tears.
Ji swallowed and pushed the dangerous thoughts away.
Ji had grown up hearing tales of the faraway misty islands of Britain, and somehow in the child's mind the British Isles had blurred with the Garden Islands of the Eight Immortals. Ancient Chinese legends told of island palaces made of gold and silver, where there was no pain or winter, where the rice bowls were always full, and those who ate the fruit of the enchanted trees would live forever.
"Britain's not like that, child," the man called Hayes, his face taking on a pinched look, had warned Ji. "It's not like that at all."
"Then what is it like?" Ji had asked. "Is it like Canton?"
"No. It's not like Canton either."
A gust of wind rustled the leafy branches of the lime trees overhead, jerking the child back to the present. Ji fumbled in the pocket of the strange clothes Hayes had insisted the child wear ever since that wretched day when they'd rowed out to the ship in Canton's harbor and sailed away from everything Ji loved. Everything familiar and beloved except for Hayes.
"Give me until seven," he'd said after they'd eaten a dinner of thinly sliced roast beef and hot bread and butter in one of the tea gardens' boxes.
"How will I find you? Or know what time it is?"
"Stay close to the pond," he said, handing the child his watch with a smile. "I'll find you."
The child hadn't been worried. Not then. But now Ji flipped open Hayes's watch and saw it was nearly half past seven.
Where was he?
Something dangerously close to panic bubbled up within the child. Ji began to walk in ever-widening circles around the tea gardens' ornamental pond. Past the bowling green, past the river, where late patrons lingered at the tables and chairs set out beneath the row of willows. Then a high brick wall loomed ahead, forcing Ji to curve back around.
It was there, in a small clearing not far from the wall, that the child found him. He lay facedown in the grass, one arm curled up at his side, his blue eyes open but staring blankly.
And from the torn, blood-soaked cloth of his coat protruded the work-worn handle of a sickle, its sharp, curving blade buried deep in his back.
Half an hour later, in the exclusive part of London known as Mayfair, Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, sat cross-legged in the middle of his elegant drawing room floor. The heir to the powerful Earl of Hendon, he wore formal knee breeches, a white silk waistcoat, and a cutaway dress coat, for he and his wife, Hero, were planning to attend the Prince Regent's reception for the visiting Allied Sovereigns later that evening. But they always tried to devote the hour before dinner to their sixteen-month-old son, Simon.
"Where's the watch?" Sebastian asked the boy, bringing two closed fists from behind his back.
Golden eyes sparkling with anticipation, Simon pointed to Sebastian's left fist, then squealed in delight when Sebastian uncurled his fingers to display an empty hand.
Simon tapped Sebastian's right fist. "D'ere!"
Sebastian opened another empty hand, and the baby laughed so hard he fell over backward.
"Isn't that cheating?" asked Hero with a smile.
"Not a bit of it. It's teaching him that things aren't always where you expect them to be."
"I think it's teaching him that his father sometimes cheats."
"Another valuable lesson," said Sebastian as the child scrambled behind his back to pounce on the missing watch.
"He's going to chew on it," she warned.
"It won't be the first time."
A warm breeze shifted the curtains at the open windows, drawing Hero's attention to something in the street below. As Sebastian watched, a faint frown creased her forehead.
"What is it?" he asked.
"There's a child out there, by the lamppost. He's been staring at the house for the past five minutes or more."
Sebastian pushed up from the floor and went to stand beside her. The streets of London were filled with children, many of them ragged, barefoot paupers eking out a precarious existence. This boy looked to be perhaps eight or nine, but he was no beggar or street sweeper. His clothes were those of a tradesman's son or shopkeeper's apprentice, sturdy and respectable. As they watched, he took a step forward, only to stop, then lean his back against the lamppost and throw an apprehensive glance around.
Hero said, "Have you ever seen him before?"
As if sensing their attention, the child looked up, the brim of a round hat lifting to reveal delicate features and wide eyes. It was a haunting, vaguely exotic face, and there was something about the child's troubled expression that caught at Sebastian in a way he couldn't have explained.
"Whoever he is," said Sebastian, "I think something's wrong. Perhaps we should-"
He broke off at the sound of the kitchen door opening below. As they watched, Sebastian's valet, Jules Calhoun, climbed the area steps toward the child. A slim, lithe man in his thirties with even features and straight fair hair, Calhoun had been with Sebastian for almost three years now. At the sight of the valet, the unknown lad's chest jerked with what looked like a sob and he threw himself forward.
Sebastian heard Calhoun say, "Ji, what is it?" But the child's answer was lost in the rattling thunder of a passing brewer's dray drawn by a team of six stout shires.
Uncomfortably aware of inadvertently witnessing something personal, Sebastian went to retrieve his watch from his teething son. But a few moments later a quick step sounded on the stairs, and Calhoun appeared in the drawing room doorway with an apologetic bow.
"I beg your pardon, my lady." The valet's normally cheerful face was uncharacteristically serious, his voice tight with strain. "If I might have a word with you, my lord?"
Hero came to scoop the baby into her arms. "I'll take Simon upstairs to Claire. It's nearly dinnertime." Her gaze met Sebastian's, but all she said was "Tell Papa good night."
"We saw the lad outside," said Sebastian as Hero turned toward the door. "I take it he's brought a message?"
"He says there's been a murder up at Somer's Town, in Pennington's Tea Gardens. The victim is Nicholas Hayes, the youngest son of the late Earl of Seaforth."
"Nicholas Hayes?" said Sebastian in disbelief. Nicholas Hayes had been a legend in England for nearly twenty years, his life a cautionary tale used by alarmed parents as a dire warning to curtail the wayward behavior of their rebellious offspring. It wasn't often an earl's son was convicted of murder and transported to Botany Bay. "I thought he'd died ten or fifteen years ago."
"Reports of his death were . . . premature."
"Evidently. The message came from Bow Street?"
"No, my lord. The lad found the body himself. Unless someone else has reported it, the authorities have yet to be informed."
Sebastian remembered the child's relief at the sight of the valet, and Calhoun's quick Ji, what is it? "Why did the boy come to you with this?"
"I . . . It so happens I was somewhat acquainted with Hayes."
Sebastian studied his valet's guarded face. "And the boy knew this?"
Calhoun blew out a shaky breath and nodded.
"Did he see the murder?"
"No, my lord. He says Hayes had arranged to meet someone in the gardens, but Ji-that's the boy-doesn't know whom. By the time Ji found him, Hayes was dead. Someone stabbed him in the back with a sickle."
"Good God. And what is this child to Hayes?"
"They came together from China."
"Yes, my lord."
"The boy is downstairs in the kitchens?"
"He is, my lord."
"Best bring him up right away."
"Yes, my lord."
But when Calhoun went back downstairs, the child was gone.
Hero watched Devlin toss a black silk cape over his shoulders. "You're going to investigate a murder dressed in evening clothes and a chapeau bras?"
"I am. I know your father is expecting you at tonight's reception, so please go ahead without me, and I'll catch up with you there later if I can."
"You've sent a message to Sir Henry?" Sir Henry Lovejoy was one of the Bow Street Public Office's three stipendiary magistrates. Not so long ago, when Sebastian had been on the run for a murder he didn't commit, Lovejoy had been responsible for bringing him to justice. But in the years since, the two men had grown to both respect and like each other.
"He's meeting me up in Somer's Town."
"You haven't had dinner."
Devlin adjusted the tilt of his black bicorn hat. "I'll live."
She crinkled her nose at him. "Can it really be Nicholas Hayes?"
"Calhoun doesn't seem to have any doubts."
"How does Calhoun know him?"
"He didn't say."
She went to stare out the window at the gathering darkness. "You think the little boy went back to the tea gardens?"
"I hope so. Because if not, then where the hell is he?"
The area known as Somer's Town lay just to the north of Bloomsbury. Home to artists and writers and the middling sort of refugees from the revolution in France, it was the site of market gardens, brickfields, and several different tea gardens. The gardens were close enough to the densely crowded streets of London to make them an easy walk for young apprentices and seamstresses as well as the families of tradesmen, artisans, and shopkeepers. For sixpence, one could spend the day enjoying the fresh air of the country and listening to music while drinking tea or ale and eating roast beef and cakes.
And maybe getting stabbed in the back with a sickle, thought Sebastian as the carriage rolled through the hot, darkening streets of the city.
He shifted his gaze to the valet on the opposite bench. "So, are you going to tell me how you came to be acquainted with an earl's son transported to Botany Bay eighteen years ago?"
Calhoun brought up tented hands to cover his nose and mouth, then let them fall. "I knew him before that-before he was accused of murder but after he was disowned by his father, the Earl. He had a room at one of my mother's inns."
"Ah." Calhoun's background was unusual for a gentleman's gentleman. The son of an infamous underworld figure named Grace Calhoun, he'd grown up hanging around the most notorious flash houses in London. "The Blue Anchor?"
The valet gave a faint shake of his head. "The Red Lion."
"Good God." Situated in a back alley near Smithfield, the Red Lion was a known resort of thieves, cracksmen, blacklegs, and beau-traps. "What the devil was he doing there?"
"To be honest, I think he came there planning to kill himself." A faint smile that hinted at old, fond memories lifted one corner of Calhoun's mouth. "He changed his mind."
"How long was he there?"
"Nearly six months. Shortly before he arrived, my mother had hired an ancient, broken-down valet to teach me how to 'act and talk flash,'as she put it. But my sixteen-year-old self was less than impressed with the dotard, and I didn't want any part of her scheme. Then I met Hayes."
"How old was he at the time?"
"Twenty, or thereabouts. My mother let him stay for free, hoping he'd succeed where the dotard had failed-teach me to dress, walk, and talk like a gentleman. She had ambitions of me becoming a confidence man, you see. Near broke her heart when I decided to take everything I'd learned and become a valet instead."
"No doubt," said Sebastian, who had met the formidable Grace Calhoun. She was the kind of woman a wise man didn't turn his back on-or cross in any way.
Calhoun's smile faded as he shifted to stare out at the shadowy streets flashing past, his body swaying with the motion of the carriage. "If it hadn't been for Hayes, I'd probably have been hanged long ago."
"I was under the impression he'd been transported for life, without eligibility for parole."
"Yet he came back to England?" For a man transported for life to return to Britain without a pardon was to court a death sentence. "Why?"
"I don't know."
"But you've seen him since he came back?"
"Why did everyone believe he'd died in Botany Bay?"
"He told me they had a flash flood on some big river out there that swept him away from the chain gang he was on. When he came to, he was lying next to a dead man of about the same height, build, and hair color. The fellow was a freeman who'd once been a soldier, and he'd obviously spent some time in irons and been flogged, because his body was scarred. Hayes changed clothes with him, took his papers, and bashed in the dead man's face with a rock until he was unrecognizable. And then he seized the first chance that offered to get away from the colony."
Jesus, thought Sebastian. "And went to China?"
"Why did he contact you?"
"He said he might need my help, and he wanted to know if I'd be willing to give it."
"Your help with what?"
"He didn't say."
"And what did you tell him?"
The valet met Sebastian's gaze, and held it. "I told him yes."
"Dead bodies in my gardens?" muttered Irvine Pennington, sweating heavily as he led the way along a central allée of pleached hornbeam underplanted with low-clipped hedges of boxwood and waves of purple allium. "It's an insult, it is, even to suggest such a thing. An insult!"
The owner-manager of Pennington's Tea Gardens was a short, stout man in his middle years, with heavy jowls, a long upper lip, and bushy side-whiskers. They'd arrived in Somer's Town to find that the tea gardens closed early on Thursdays. Pennington had resisted Sebastian's request that he reopen the gardens for them and scoffed loudly at the idea that one of his patrons might be lying dead somewhere within. But at the magical words "Bow Street," the garden owner's opposition evaporated. Leaving one of his lads at the gate to await the magistrate and constables, he insisted on personally accompanying Sebastian.