Duke of Pleasure(9)

By: Elizabeth Hoyt

There was no reason at all to link this to the Lords of Chaos.

And yet he could not quite banish the suspicion from his mind.

Hugh grimaced and silently left the bedroom.

In the hall he turned and made for the stairs again, climbing this time to the floor above—the servants’ quarters. He walked along the long corridor, lined with doors on either side, passing a startled scullery maid, and then tapped on one of the doors on the left before opening it.

Bell shared a room with two of the younger footmen. Both of the footmen’s beds were empty, for they would already be up and about their work at this time of the morning, but Bell’s tousled brown head just peeked beneath his blankets.

Hugh winced at the sight, hating to wake the boy so soon after sending him to bed, but this couldn’t wait. He touched Bell’s shoulder.

The boy woke at once. “Your Grace?”

“I have a job for you,” Hugh said. “I want you to find a St Giles informant for me. His name is Alf.”

Chapter Two

No one could remember why the White Kingdom hated the Black Kingdom, nor why the Black Kingdom loathed the very mention of the White Kingdom’s name. The beginnings of the war were lost to time and suffocated in blood. All anyone knew was that the war was endless and without mercy.…

—From The Black Prince and the Golden Falcon

Alf strutted down a street in St Giles an hour later.

When she was a little girl, running with a gang of boys and hiding her sex from all but Ned, he used to instruct her on how to act like a boy. Walk with your legs wide and with a long stride, he’d tell her. Pretend you own the street. Look strangers in the eye like a little tough. They might cuff you for your cheek, but they won’t think you a girl, and that’s the important thing. That’s the thing that’ll keep you safe.

Now it was second nature, like a skin she drew on in the morning: the disguise of Alf the boy. He was younger than her real age—only fifteen or sixteen—and even though she’d lived all her life in St Giles, no one seemed to notice that Alf the boy hadn’t aged in the last half-dozen years or so. Alf smirked to herself. But then one more cocky boy making his way in the world alone in St Giles wasn’t something of note.

She turned onto Maiden Lane, shivering a bit. She’d stuffed her coat with rags and wore a pair of fingerless gloves, but her ears were cold despite her hat. Up ahead the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children stood out from the surrounding buildings, simply by being clean, straight, and new. She ducked down a narrow alley and around the back to the kitchen door, where she mounted the steps and knocked.

A pretty blond woman in a mobcap opened the door.

Nell Jones, the home’s head maidservant, eyed her and pursed her lips. “Morning, Alf. I’d ask you in, but I know it’s no use.”

Alf shrugged. She disliked taking charity, and if she stepped in the home’s kitchens she’d be offered breakfast. No point in getting too close to people, Ned had endlessly repeated. They always wanted something from you sooner or later. Best to do things for yourself rather than rely on another and be disappointed. “Can I see ’er?”

“Of course.”

Even before Nell finished speaking, Alf could hear Hannah’s running footsteps.

“Is it Alf?” The little redheaded girl peered around Nell’s skirts and Alf couldn’t help the curl of her lips at the sight.

Hannah was six now, freckle-faced and plump, but when Alf had first met her, almost two years before, the little girl had been thin, frightened, and unsmiling. Hannah had been taken by the lassie snatchers—a gang that put little girls to work in slave shops, laboring over the making of stockings. Alf had rescued her with the help of the then Ghost of St Giles and had brought Hannah to live at the only safe place for children in St Giles—the Home.