Captives of the Night

By: Loretta Chase

Acknowledgments


Several themes in the story, both artistic and detective, are based on my undergraduate studio art courses with Professor Donald Krueger, who also provided some of the most useful historical resources for Regency era crime and justice, and numerous details on artistic methods and materials of the period. Lesli Cohen, administrative assistant in the same Clark University academic department, provided additional technical guidance, as well as her usual generous and enthusiastic moral support. Both, however, must be absolved of blame for errors, excesses, and/or inadequacies, factual or fictional.





Prologue


January 1819

Twilight had fallen over Venice, to plunge the marble corridors of the palazzo into gloom. The sound of unfamiliar masculine voices made seventeen-year-old Leila pause at the top of the stairs. There were three men, and though she couldn't make out the words, the rhythms of their low-pitched speech told her they weren't English.

She peered down over the elaborately carved balustrade. As her father emerged from his study, one of the men moved toward him. From her lofty vantage point, Leila could see only the top of the stranger's head, shimmering gold in the light of the open study doorway. His voice was an easy, friendly murmur, smooth and soft as silk. But Papa's wasn't smooth. The edginess she heard in his tones made her anxious. Hastily she retreated round the corner and hurried back down the hall to her sitting room.

With shaking hands she took out her sketchbook and forced herself to focus on copying the intricate woodwork of the writing desk. It was the only way to take her mind off whatever was happening on the floor below. She certainly couldn't help her father—if he needed help, and perhaps he didn't. He might simply be vexed by the interruption at teatime. In any case, she knew very well she was supposed to keep out of sight. Papa's work for the government was difficult enough. The last thing he needed was to be worrying about her.

And so, left to her usual companions—her sketchbook and pencil—Leila Bridgeburton awaited the arrival of the tea tray, sadly aware that today, just like yesterday and the day before, it would contain only service for one.

The man with the shimmering gold hair was Ismal Delvina, twenty-two years old. He had recently arrived in Venice after a most unpleasant voyage from Albania. Since he'd spent most of that journey recovering from poisoning, he was not in particularly good humor. His angelic countenance, however, evinced only the sweetest amiability.

He hadn't noticed the girl above, but his servant, Risto, had heard the swish of skirts and looked up an instant before the girl retreated.

As they followed Jonas Bridgeburton into the study, Risto softly mentioned the discovery to his master. The master's infallible instincts did the rest.

Ismal smiled at his unwilling host. "Shall I send my servant upstairs to ascertain the girl's identity?" he asked, making Bridgeburton start. "Or would you be so kind as to spare him the trouble?"

"I haven't the least idea—"

"I pray you will not tax our patience by pretending there is no girl, or that she's merely a servant," Ismal smoothly interrupted. "When my men become impatient, they forget their manners, which are not so elegant in the first place."

Bridgeburton glanced from the huge Mehmet, leering down from his six-and-a-half-foot height, to the dark-featured countenance of the smaller but more openly hostile Risto. The color draining from his face, the Englishman turned back to their master. "For God's sake," he croaked, "she's only a child. You can't—you won't—"

"In short, she is your child," said Ismal. With a sigh, he dropped into the chair behind Bridgeburton's untidy desk. "A most unwise father. Given your activities, you should have kept the girl as far from you as possible."

"I did—she was—but the money ran out. I had to take her out of school. You don't understand. She doesn't know anything. She thinks—" Bridgeburton's panicked gaze shot round the study, from one pitiless countenance to the next. He glared at Ismal. "Damn you, she thinks I'm a government agent—a hero. She's no good to you. If you let these filthy bastards near her, I'll tell you nothing."

Ismal merely flicked a glance at Risto. As the latter moved to the door, Bridgeburton lunged at him—but Mehmet moved in the same instant and dragged the Englishman back.

Ismal took up a letter from the heap on Bridgeburton's desk. "You will not alarm yourself," he said. "Risto goes to administer laudanum, that is all—merely to ensure there will be no interruptions while we complete our business. You will not make any unpleasantness, I hope. I prefer not to make you childless, or the little girl an orphan—but Risto and Mehmet—" He gave another sigh. "They are barbarians, I regret to say. If you find it difficult to cooperate quickly and fully, I fear it will prove impossible to soothe their turbulent spirits."

Still perusing the letter, Ismal sadly shook his head. "Daughters can be so very troublesome. Yet so valuable, are they not?"

Leila remembered waking—or dreaming she was waking—and the prompt onset of sickness. There was movement, and a man's voice. It was reassuring, but it wasn't Papa's. And it couldn't calm her churning stomach. That was why, in the night of the dream or the actual night, the carriage had stopped and she had stumbled out and fallen to her knees. Then, even after the retching stopped, she had not wanted to get up again. She had wanted only to stay there and die.

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