The Serpent PrinceBy: Elizabeth Hoyt
Thank you to MELANIE MURRAY, a wise and wonderful editor, and to my agent, SUSANNAH TAYLOR, for always watching out for the details.
MAIDEN HILL, ENGLANDNOVEMBER 1760
The dead man at Lucinda Craddock-Hayes’s feet looked like a fallen god. Apollo, or more likely Mars, the bringer of war, having taken human form and struck down from the heavens to be found by a maiden on her way home. Except that gods rarely bled.
Or died, for that matter.“Mr. Hedge,” Lucy called over her shoulder.
She glanced around the lonely lane leading from the town of Maiden Hill to the Craddock-Hayes house. It appeared the same as it had been before she’d made her find: deserted, except for herself; her manservant, puffing a ways behind her; and the corpse lying in the ditch. The sky hung low and wintry gray. The light had already begun to leak away, though it was not yet five o’clock. Leafless trees lined the road, silent and chill.
Lucy shivered and drew her wrap more closely about her shoulders. The dead man sprawled, naked, battered, and facedown. The long lines of his back were marred by a mass of blood on his right shoulder. Below were lean hips; muscular, hairy legs; and curiously elegant, bony feet. She blinked and returned her gaze to his face. Even in death he was handsome. His head, turned to the side, revealed a patrician profile: long nose, high bony cheeks, and a wide mouth. An eyebrow, winging over his closed eye, was bisected by a scar. Closely cropped pale hair grew flat to his skull, except where it was matted by blood. His left hand was flung above his head, and on the index finger was the impression where a ring should have been. His killers must’ve stolen it along with everything else. Around the body the mud was scuffed, the imprint of a boot heel stamped deep beside the dead man’s hip. Other than that, there was no sign of whoever had dumped him here like so much offal.
Lucy felt silly tears prick at her eyes. Something about the way that he’d been left, naked and degraded by his murderers, seemed a terrible insult to the man. It was so unbearably sad. Ninny, she chided herself. She became conscious of a muttering, drawing steadily closer. Hastily, she swiped at the moisture on her cheeks.
“First she visits the Joneses and all the little Joneses, snotty-nosed buggers. Then we march up the hill to Old Woman Hardy—nasty biddy, don’t know why she hasn’t been put to bed with a shovel yet. And is that all? No, that’s not all by half. Then, then she must needs call round the vicarage. And me carting great jars of jelly all the while.”
Lucy suppressed the urge to roll her eyes. Hedge, her man, wore a greasy tricorne smashed down over a shock of gray hair. His dusty coat and waistcoat were equally disreputable, and he’d chosen to highlight his bowlegs with scarlet-clocked stockings, no doubt Papa’s castoffs.
He halted beside her. “Oh, gah, not a deader!”
In his surprise, the little man had forgotten to stoop, but when she turned to him, his wiry body decayed before her eyes. His back curved, the shoulder bearing the awful weight of her now-empty basket fell, and his head hung to the side listlessly. As the pièce de résistance, Hedge took out a checkered cloth and laboriously wiped his forehead.
Lucy ignored all this. She’d seen the act hundreds, if not thousands, of times in her life. “I don’t know that I would have described him as a deader, but he is indeed a corpse.”
“Well, best not stand here gawping. Let the dead rest in peace, I always say.” Hedge made to sidle past her.
She placed herself in his path. “We can’t just leave him here.”
“Why not? He was here before you trotted past. Wouldn’t never have seen him, neither, if we’d’ve taken the shortcut through the common like I said.”
“Nevertheless, we did find him. Can you help me carry him?”
Hedge staggered back in patent disbelief. “Carry him? A great big bloke like that? Not unless you want me crippled for sure. My back’s bad as it is, has been for twenty years. I don’t complain, but still.”
“Very well,” Lucy conceded. “We’ll have to get a cart.”
“Why don’t we just leave him be?” the little man protested. “Someone’ll find him in a bit.”