“After luncheon, we’ll go to the parade ground, and I’ll explain the general order of drills. That’s why you have drills and discipline; the men must be in the habit of looking to you at all times, of following your orders without hesitation. And then,” he said, rather diffidently, “perhaps we might take a little supper. Your rooms are convenient to the parade ground, I believe. If you did not mind…we might fetch a bit of bread and cheese and eat there.”
Percy’s face lightened, the frown of concern replaced by a slow smile.
“I should like it of all things,” he said. He coughed then, and took up another subject.
“What was Melton saying to you during your bout? About a conspiracy of sodomites?” There was a hint of incredulity in his voice. “A conspiracy to do what?”
“Oh…create scandal, subvert the public morality, seduce children, bugger horses”—he smiled blandly into the face of an elderly gentleman passing, who had caught this and was staring at him, pop-eyed—“you know the sort of thing.”
Percy made snorting noises and pulled him along by the arm.
“I do,” he said, still snorting. “I grew up Methodist, remember.”
“I didn’t think Methodists even admitted the possibility of such things.”
“Not out loud, certainly,” Percy said dryly. “But why is your brother concerned with this particular affair?”
“Because—” he said, and got no further. A man jostled him rudely, shoving him into a wall so hard that he staggered.
“What the devil do you—” He put a hand to his bruised shoulder, indignant, then saw the look on the man’s face and dodged. He hadn’t seen the knife, but heard the scrape of it as it dragged across the brick wall where he had been standing an instant before.
The man was already recovering, turning. He kicked at the footpad, aiming for the knee, but got him square in the shin, hurting his own foot. The man yowled nonetheless, and drew back. Grey seized Percy by the sleeve.
Percy ran, Grey after him, and they pelted down the street, ducking hot-chestnut stands, orange sellers, and a throng of slow-moving women who shrieked and scattered as the men plowed through them. Footsteps rang on the pavement behind; he glanced back over his shoulder and saw two men, burly and determined, pursuing.
He’d left his rapier at the salle des armes, God damn it. He had his dagger, though, and ducking aside into an alley, ripped open his waistcoat and scrabbled frantically to get hold of it. He had no more than a second before the first of the men rushed in after him, reaching for him with a gap-toothed grin. Too late, the footpad saw the dagger and dodged aside; the point scored his abdomen, ripping his shirt and the flesh beneath. Grey glimpsed blood, and pressed the attack, shouting and jabbing.
The man danced backward, looking alarmed, and shouted, “Jed!”
Jed arrived promptly, popping up behind his fellow with a blackthorn walking stick. He slammed this across Grey’s forearm, numbing it, than bashed it at his hand. The dagger spun away into the piles of refuse. Grey didn’t wait to look for it.
He dodged another blow, and ran down the alley, looking for egress or shelter and finding neither.
They were both after him. He’d no time to wonder where Percy was. The brick wall of a building loomed up in front of him. Dead end.
A door—there was a door, and he threw himself against it, but it didn’t yield. He banged on it, kicked it, shouting for help. A hand grabbed his shoulder, and he swung round with it, striking out with a fist. The footpad grimaced, drew back, slapping at him like a baited bear.
Jed and his frigging stick were back, wheezing with the run.
“Do ’im,” said the first footpad, falling back to make room, and Jed promptly seized the blackthorn in both hands and drove the head of it into Grey’s ribs.
The next blow got him in the balls and the world went white. He dropped like a bag of tossed rubbish and curled up on himself, barely conscious of the wet cobbles under his face. He realized dimly that he was about to die, but was unable to do anything about it. Kicks and blows from the stick thudded into his flesh; he barely felt them through the fog of agony.
Then it stopped, and for a moment of blessed relief, he thought he’d died. He breathed, though, and discovered he hadn’t, as pain shot through him, sudden and searing as the spark from a Leyden jar.
“It is you,” said a gruff Scottish voice from somewhere above. “Thought so. Are ye hurt bad, then?”
He couldn’t answer. Enormous hands grabbed him beneath the armpits and sat him up against the wall. He made a thin breathy noise, which was all he could manage in the way of a scream, and felt bile flood his throat.
“Oh, like that, is it?” said the voice, sounding resigned, as Grey bent to the side and vomited. “Aye, well, bide a wee, then. I’ll fetch my jo wi’ the chair.”
The very young apothecary squinted earnestly at Grey’s forearm and prodded it gingerly.
“Oh, bad, is it?” he said sympathetically, at the resulting hiss of breath.
“Well, it’s not good,” Grey said, ungritting his teeth with some effort. “But I doubt it’s broken.” He turned his wrist very slowly, tensed against the possible grating of bone ends, but everything moved as it should. It hurt, but it moved.
“Tellt ye it wasnae more than bruises.” Rab MacNab shifted his bulk, uncrossing his arms and leaning forward from his post against the wall. “Agnes wouldnae have it but we get a doctor to ye, though. Tellt her ’twas a waste of money, aye?”
Despite his words, the big chairman cast a fond glance at his diminutive wife, who sniffed at him.
“I dinna mean to have his lordship die on my premises,” she said briskly. “Bad for business, aye?” She nudged the apothecary aside, and bent to peer earnestly at Grey’s face. Bright brown eyes scanned his battered features, then creased with her grin.
“Enjoy the ride, did ye?”
“I was much obliged to your husband, ma’am,” he said. While he was naturally relieved to have been discovered and rescued by an acquaintance, being thrown into MacNab’s sedan chair and carried at the trot for a mile had been very nearly as excruciating as the original injury.
“My congratulations on your new premises,” he added, wishing to change the subject. He struggled upright and swung his legs off the divan, forcing the young apothecary—the boy couldn’t be fifteen, surely—to let go of his arm.
“Thank ye kindly,” Nessie said, looking gratified. He couldn’t help but think of her as “Nessie,” as he had first met her under this name, before her apotheocis from whore to madam—and wife. She patted the respectable white kerch that bound her mass of curly dark hair, and looked contentedly round the tiny salon. It was furnished with a few bits of ramshackle furniture, all showing signs of heavy use—but it was scrupulously clean, and a good wax candle burned in a solid brass chamber stick.
“Small it is, but a good place. Three girls, all clean and willing. Ye’ll recommend us to your friends, I hope. Not but what we’d be pleased to accommodate your friend here gratis,” she added, turning graciously to Percy. “If ye’d care to pass the time, until his lordship’s fettled? Janie will be free in no time.”
Percy, who had been listening to the noises behind the wall—presumably involving Janie, as the gentleman with her was panting that name repeatedly—with patent interest, bowed to Nessie with grave decorum.
“I do appreciate the offer, ma’am. I’d not wish to tire Mistress Jane unduly, though. Surely she must have some rest.”
“Och, no. Go all day and night, oor Janie will,” MacNab assured him proudly, though he seemed relieved at Percy’s further polite refusal.
“I’ll be off, then. But shall I come again?” the chairman inquired, straightening up. “To carry his lordship home, once he’s fit?”
“No, no,” Grey said hastily. “I believe I am quite recovered. Mr. Wainwright and I will walk.”
Percy’s brows rose, and everyone in the room looked askance at Grey, causing him to think that the damage to his face must be worse than he’d thought.
“You really should be bled, my lord,” the apothecary said earnestly. “’Twould be dangerous to go out into the cold without, and you injured. A terrible strain upon your liver. You might take a chill. And the bruises on your face—a good leeching would do the world of good, my lord.”
Grey hated being bled, and disliked leeches more.
“No, I am quite well, I assure you.” He shoved himself to his feet and stood swaying, brilliant dots of light blinking on and off at the corners of his vision. A chorus of dismayed exclamations informed him that he was falling, and he put out his hands just in time to catch himself as he plumped back down on the divan.
Anxious hands grasped his shoulders and eased him down into a supine position. Cold sweat had come out on his forehead, and a gentle hand wiped it away with a cloth as his vision cleared.
To his surprise, the hand was Percy’s, rather than Nessie’s.
“You stay and be bled like a good boy,” Percy said firmly. One corner of his mouth tucked back, repressing a smile. “I’ll go and find a coach to take us home.” He straightened up and bowed to Nessie and MacNab.
“I am so much obliged to you both for your kind assistance and hospitality. Do allow me to take care of this gentleman’s fee.” He nodded at the apothecary, his hand going to his purse.
“That’s all right.” Grey groped for his coat, which someone had folded tidily and put under his head. “I’ve got it.”
“Ye do?” MacNab’s heavy brows rose in surprise. “I made sure yon thugs would ha’ made awa’ wi’ your purse.”
“No, it’s here.” It was; so far as he could tell, everything was still in his pockets that should be.
“Errr…” The apothecary had reddened, casting an agonized look at Nessie. “That’s all right, gentlemen. I mean—my fee—that’s—”
An ecstatic shriek burst through the wall beside Grey’s ear.
“I promised him an hour wi’ Susan,” Nessie said, looking amused. “But if ye’d care to cover her fee, your lordship…”
“With pleasure.” He fumbled his purse open and extracted a handful of coins.
He looked at the apothecary, now a bright scarlet.
“Could I have Janie instead?” the boy blurted.
Grey sighed and added another florin to the coins in Nessie’s hand.
It was only as he lay back and allowed the apothecary to fold back his sleeve that it occurred to him to wonder. He, too, had assumed the motive of the attack to be robbery. But it must have been plain to the footpads that he was incapable of resistance after that second blow. And yet they had not rifled his pockets and run—they’d beaten him until MacNab’s timely appearance frightened them away.
Had they meant to murder him? That was a thought as cold as the fleam pressed into the bend of his elbow. He grimaced at the sting of the blade and shut his eyes.
No, he thought suddenly. They had a knife. The first attempt had been with a knife; there was no mistaking the grating of metal on brick. If they’d meant to murder him, they might have cut his throat without the slightest difficulty. And they hadn’t.
There was a feeling of warmth as the blood welled and trickled over his arm; it felt almost soothing.
But if they had meant only to administer a beating…why? He did not know them. If it was meant as warning…of what?
What with one thing and another, it hadn’t occurred to Grey to wonder what his mother’s response to his misadventure might be. If it had, he might have expected her to peer at him in sympathy, pour him a stiff drink, and leave for a play. He would not have expected her to go white as a sheet. Not with fear for his well being—with anger.
“The bastards!” she said, in a tone barely above a whisper—a sign of great fury. “How dare they?”
“Rather easily, I’m afraid.” Grey was sitting—gingerly—in her boudoir, examining himself in her enameled hand glass. The apothecary had been right about the leeching; while his jaw was sore, the swelling was much reduced, and only a faint blue tinge of new bruising showed, circling one eye and extending up into his temple. There was a cut on his cheek-bone, though, and a trickle of blood had run down his neck onto his neckcloth and the neckband of his shirt. There was also a sizable rent in his coat, to say nothing of the filth from rolling in the alley; Tom would be annoyed, too.
“Did you recognize them?” The countess’s hands had been clenching a chair back. The first shock receding, she let go, though her fingers curled convulsively, wanting to strangle something. Hal got his temper from their mother.
“No,” he said, laying down the looking glass. “Your ordinary ruffians. It’s quite all right, Mother. They didn’t even manage to rob me.” He pulled the cuff of his coat down a bit, hiding his right hand, which, not having been leeched, looked much worse than his face.
Her lips pressed together, nostrils flaring. Motherlike, unable to attack the miscreants who had harmed her offspring, her annoyance was shifting itself to said offspring.
“Whatever were you doing in Seven Dials, John?”
He started to raise an eyebrow at her, but it hurt and he desisted.
“Hal and I took Percy Wainwright to the salle des armes. He and I were on our way to luncheon.”
“Oh, Percy Wainwright was with you? Was he hurt?” Her fair brows drew together in concern.