Eleanor, Duchess of Haverford, feels a strong sense of obligation to today’s caller. Not that she will say so. Her Grace has engineered a dozen meetings in the past five years, and not once has Miss Virtue raised the connection between them. Perhaps she is unaware of it? No, surely not. But if she wishes to ignore it, then the duchess will comply. The young lady is entitled to her privacy.
The butler escorts Miss Virtue into the conservatory, where Her Grace and her guest can enjoy the autumn sun and the splendid views of the gardens without suffering the chilly breeze. The duchess rises in greeting.
“Miss Virtue. How kind of you to come.”
Her caller curtseys gracefully, without comment, and seats herself when the duchess invites her to do so. For a few minutes they discuss courteous nothings: the weather, the number of people in Town, the War on the Continent, how Miss Virtue would prefer her tea.
But once she has a fine bone china cup in her hands, Miss Virtue cuts directly to the point in the way the duchess has come to expect and admire. “But I do not wish to take up too much of your valuable time, Your Grace. How may I be of service to you.”
Her Grace suppresses a sigh—will the child never trust her? “I have a commission for you, Miss Virtue, if you are free to undertake it. My godson, the Earl of Penworth, appears to have gone missing…”
Prue Virtue is a spy for the Crown, but occasionally undertakes freelance commissions. The following excerpt is from The Prisoners of Wyvern Castle, a novella in my free book Hand-Turned Tales (click here for buy links). Prue, disguised as the nurse Miss Tyler, is here on the duchess’s errand, looking for the Earl of Penworth. She finds that he has acquired not only a prison but also a wife.
Prue is also the heroine of Revealed in Mist, coming in December 2016.
Several minutes passed, and all remained quiet. This might actually work! First, she needed to find a boat small enough for her to handle. Hugging the walls, keeping to the shadows, she began to circle the courtyard toward the deeper darkness that signalled the passageway through the walls. Beyond, the road led down to the docks.
She was nearly there when a woman’s voice spoke behind her. “Do not be alarmed, Lady Penworth.”
Madeline spun around, one hand to her chest to hold her pounding heart in place.
“Who is it?” She could see a vague shape in the darkness, but no details.
It was not Lady Wyvern, nor—from the accent, which was aristocratic—one of the servants. As she froze, trying to decide whether to run or speak, she heard footsteps and voices approaching from the other end of the passage.
“Quick. This way.” The woman took her hand and pulled her through a doorway, into the room beyond. Just in time. Pressed against the wall inside the door, she could hear them clearly: several men arguing in hushed voices.
“It was the White Lady, I tell you.”
“She was coming out that window. I saw her with my own eyes. It was like a long coil of smoke, twisting in the wind.”
“A long coil of smoke. Listen to him. Next, you’ll be telling us she’s off to join her husband in the dungeon.”
A chorus of guffaws.
“You’ve heard what the islanders say, same as me,” the first voice insisted.
“Yes, and right fools they are, too.” The speaker pitched his voice in a falsetto. “Ooooh! Moaning in the dungeon. It must be the ghost!” Then, reverting to his own low rumble. “Silly tossers. A good thing Her Ladyship sent the whole lot of them packing.”
The first voice began, “If you ask me…”
Another man interrupted. “You can stand around talking about ghosts all night if you want. I’m for the kitchen and a tot of something hot and strong. Securing those boats was cold work.”
She could make out no more. They were across the courtyard and… yes, they had gone down the steps into the servants’ area Rupert had pointed out from their window.
“Come,” her companion said. “Lord Wyvern is awake and wishes to speak with you.”
“Let me go,” Madeline pleaded. “Now, while the courtyard is clear.”
“I will help you, my lady. That is why I am here. But first, we need to share information. Come with me and see Lord Wyvern.”
“Who are you?” Madeline asked, but the woman gave her no answer, just moved away, surefooted in the dark.
After a moment, Madeline followed her. They climbed the stair until they reached the room where Lord Wyvern lay, propped up on pillows, looking—by the light of the lamp at his bedside—more alert than he had earlier in the day.
The light allowed Madeline to recognise her companion. “You are the nurse. Miss Tyler. You work for Lady Wyvern.”
“I work for Lord Wyvern,” Miss Tyler corrected. “I am here to rescue him, and you and the earl.”
“Lady Wyvern took the earl away. I don’t know where.”
“Dun… jin,” Lord Wyvern said, and Miss Tyler nodded. “They were keeping Lord Wyvern in the dungeon when I was brought here to care for him. I expect that is where they have your husband and the other two men.”
Lord Wyvern was a frail shadow of the hearty man Rupert had described, and pale enough to have been in a dungeon these six months. Madeline didn’t understand how his own servants could have allowed such a thing.
“Why did your people let it happen?” she asked him, but it was Miss Tyler who answered.
“His Lordship had an apoplexy. Lady Wyvern saw her moment and removed anyone who might object to her regency while he was ill. Then, when he began to recover… well, she made sure to keep him bedridden. And she hid him, so those loyal to him would not know what she was doing.”
“How could the Ice Dragon hope to get away with it?”
Goodness. She was so used to Rupert’s name for his sister that she said it without thinking. But Lord Wyvern was laughing silently, and even the nurse was smiling.
“A good name for her,” Miss Tyler said. “She is an arrogant woman, Your Ladyship. She makes her plans and assumes the rest of the world will fall into line. She must have been horrified when the King sent Lord Morpeth to see what was happening here, but she and Sir James decided to bully their way through.
“They sent most of the islanders away, to keep complaints and rumours from reaching Lord Morpeth’s ears. That may yet work to her disadvantage, since they are now on the mainland and will be talking to all their friends and relatives. Word will reach the ears of the gentry sooner or later, and people with authority will start asking questions.”
“I cannot wait for that,” Madeline said. “I need to rescue the earl now.”
“Plan?” Lord Wyvern asked.
“Yes, my lady. What was your plan? Do you have a helper? Somewhere to go?”
Madeline shook her head. She and Rupert had no one to help them. But they had a plan, of sorts, and she intended to carry it out.
Miss Tyler saw her hesitation. “Lady Penworth, you are wise to be cautious, but you can trust us. Lord Wyvern, as you know, is as much a victim of the conspirators as you and your husband. And I have been sent by the earl’s godmother to find out what is happening and help if I can.”