Duke of Pleasure(11)

By: Elizabeth Hoyt


She nodded to Jim the ragpicker, jerked her chin at Tommy Ginger-Pate, the leader of a gang of street sweeper boys, and stopped to help old Mad Mag, who’d dropped her basket of whisks and brooms. Mad Mag either cursed her or thanked her when the basket was picked up. It was hard to tell because Mag had most of her teeth gone and talked in a strange country accent no one hereabouts could understand.

Alf smiled in any case and went on her way, whistling through her teeth. She turned on Hogshead Lane, jumped the reeking, half-frozen puddle standing just round the corner, and came to the One Horned Goat. Up over her head swung the wooden sign showing a mean-looking goat, no horns on its head but a big ugly prick between its legs.

She pushed open the door to the tavern.

Inside, the place was quiet. Most were either already awake and gone about their business for the day or sleeping off last night’s drink, depending.

Archer, the tavern keep, didn’t bother glancing up as Alf entered. He poured a tankard of small beer, skewered a sizzling sausage from the fry-pan on the hearth, and slapped it on a slice of bread. Alf sat just as the tavern keep set the lot down on a table in front of her.

“Ta,” Alf said, shoving five pennies at the keep. She took a gulp of the beer. The One Horned Goat’s beer was warm, sour, and well watered, and there wasn’t a better wake-me-up in St Giles.

Archer grunted and tilted his greasy head, his bulging eyes rolling to the corner of the room. “Lad as says ’e ’as a message for ’e.”

Alf took a bite of the tasty sausage and stale bread and chewed, glancing at the corner. A boy sat there, his legs spread wide, his face defiant and a little scared. He looked about thirteen, maybe fourteen. She’d never seen him before. He might be new to London. He was definitely new to St Giles.

She got up, still chewing, her tankard in one hand, the bread and sausage in the other, and walked over.

The boy’s eyes widened as she neared.

Alf smirked at him. She hooked a foot around a chair and sat across from him, then took a swig of her beer and eyed him as she swallowed.

“Alf.”

The boy just stared at her. He had big blue eyes and curling brown hair he’d tried to slick back into a tail, although it hadn’t quite worked. Pretty wisps of hair curled at his temples and at his nape and ears. One glance and she could tell that he hated his curls. He needn’t have worried, though. Right now his ears and nose and chin were all too big. They matched his hands and elbows and, for all she knew, his feet as well—he was at that age when he was growing all out of control. But in a couple of years, when he had reached his full height? Then, then he’d have to worry.

Because then he’d be handsome.

And in the dark woods of St Giles handsome made you either the monster or the little boy who’d lost his way.

Right now, though, he was only a gangly lad still staring at her.

She stared right back and took a big bite of her bread and sausage and chewed slowly.

With her mouth open.

He frowned.

She swallowed and sighed. “Got a moniker?”

Spots of bright pink bloomed on his face. “Bell.”

She nodded. “’Eard you gots a message for me.”

Bell leaned across the table as if he had the King’s secrets to impart. “My master ’as a job for you.”

“’Oo?”

“The Duke of Kyle,” he said, sounding proud.

“Yeah?”

She took another bite, thinking and making damned sure her face didn’t show anything. A duke. She’d not known Kyle was a duke. But more importantly, why was he calling for her so soon after last night? Had he somehow recognized her under her Ghost mask?

She could feel a jittering under her skin as she asked, “What kind of job?”