Shadow of the War Machine (The Secret Order) (7 page)

BOOK: Shadow of the War Machine (The Secret Order)
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“Papa!” I called into the darkness, and ran to him. His eyes were hidden behind dark goggles. He embraced me without saying a word. “Where were you?” I asked. He didn’t answer, his expression stony. I had to see him, to know it was really him. I lifted the goggles from his face.

His eyes had been sewn shut like a corpse’s.

I stumbled backward and fell into a deep dark hole. A lid closed over me with a loud boom. I pounded against the lid, kicking against the dark box, a coffin. Heavy thumps banged against the coffin from falling shovelfuls of dirt. I knew I would die, buried alive.

I screamed as I woke, feeling confined and restricted. Suddenly I tumbled, and hit the floor hard. I was in the parlor, though the fire had gone cold in the grate. I was still dressed, and tangled in a thick blanket.

“Goodness, Miss Whitlock. Have you hurt yourself?” Mrs. Brindle’s granddaughter, Molly, came in from the front of the shop.

“Molly, what are you doing here? I . . . I don’t know what happened,” I stammered. I looked back up on the seat for Will, then glanced in a panic around the room, but he was nowhere in sight. A dried thistle rested near my stack of letters. Thank heaven. Suddenly the image from my dream tormented me, and I wished he were there.

It was irrational, I knew, but I wasn’t fully awake and was still shaken.

“Lucinda sent for me. She said there was some trouble, that someone had tried to break in. She thought you might need help setting things right, but I see you’ve already done it.” Molly reached down and helped me up. “Goodness, did you work all night? No wonder you’re so exhausted. I rekindled the fire in the stove. There’s boiled eggs with toast and tea in the kitchen.”

“Thank you, Molly. I’ll be ready in a moment.” I took
several deep breaths and tried to slow my racing heart. It took me most of the morning before I felt I had regained my composure.

With the shop restored I was able to open to patrons in spite of the broken window. Having the shop full of customers kept me distracted until tea. Molly and I took tea in the narrow kitchen. I was too exhausted to insist on anything formal. Toast, cheese, and jam at the worn table in the corner was enough.

“This note came for you,” Molly announced as she placed it on the table. I recognized the badger’s head of Peter’s seal at once. I quickly ripped the note open and read.

Meet at midnight at the Lion’s Gate.

Excellent. Hopefully I would find the answers I was searching for.

It wasn’t until I had shut down the shop and Molly had returned home that I realized I had no way of getting to Peter’s house. It was very late and bitterly cold outside. I didn’t trust hailing a cab at so late an hour, not on my own. It simply wasn’t safe.

I had to reach Peter’s house somehow. I didn’t have time
to waste. My grandfather was out there, and Rathford had probably known where he was. I buttoned my heavy coat and secured my bonnet, then wrapped a thick shawl around myself. I wished I could hide my silhouette to avoid attention from men in the street, but I couldn’t dress myself as a man, so I had to hope that the dark and cold would keep most people off the streets between the toy shop and St. James.

I decided to take a chance.

With my keys in hand I pushed through the door and turned to lock it. A hand grasped my shoulder.

I spun and screamed at the man behind me.

“Easy, Meg. It’s me.” Will stood there, though he looked much less Scottish without his kilt. Instead he wore simple dark trousers and a heavy coat.

“Oh, thank heaven.” I embraced him, then quickly locked the door. “Scare me like that again, and—”

“And you’ll what?” Will smiled, full of mischief.

“Never you mind. Trust that my revenge would be swift and horrible.” I cuffed him on the shoulder. “Did Peter send you a note as well?”

“Of course,” Will said as we started off down the street. During the day the wide avenues and shop fronts had been bustling with people and the spirit of holiday cheer. Now
that the deep part of the long winter night had settled over Mayfair, the cheer was gone, and a sense of desolation and cold misery set in that the holidays could not quell. Will stepped closer to my side. “I had intended to visit the shop so we could make a plan, but Lucinda mentioned she had sent Molly to help you, and I didn’t want to rouse any suspicion.”

I let out a breath that turned to mist and curled around my face. “I’m glad you’re here now,” I said as I wove his fingers with mine.

A bony old horse with a low-hanging neck and a deeply swayed back pulled a knacker cart. The driver looked equally bent as he listlessly snapped the reins and the horse plodded forward with weary steps that rang against the street. The image from my dream still haunted me. Over the course of the last year, I’d found myself in danger more times than I could count. Will had almost lost his life on several occasions, and the thought had the power to stop my heart cold. A year ago I hadn’t thought of the consequences. Now they invaded my mind even in sleep.

And in spite of all that, I was still glad he was with me.

As we entered St. James, we walked beneath the tall London plane trees, with their branches dusted in a fine white snow. Occasionally the muddled conversation of a
holiday party would escape the confines of the elegant homes with their high garden walls, and reach the street.

Finally we arrived at a large townhome surrounded by a thick stone wall. On either side of the gate stood bronze lions with glistening black eyes. One lion peered at the street, the other watched the courtyard. I knew of the device within Rathford’s workshop that allowed him to see through the eyes of the lions. Perhaps Peter was watching for us. I waved at the statue facing the street, but the house remained quiet and still. Peter had told me he had intended to tinker with the lions to increase their function as a security device. Perhaps he could hear us now.

“Peter?” I called. “Are you there?”

The lions remained motionless.

“Now what?” Will asked, gazing in through the wrought iron gate.

“We could always scale the wall,” I suggested, even though it would be nearly impossible for me in my dress.

“And contend with those spikes? We’re not desperate yet.”

And so we waited, and we waited, but time kept slipping by, leaving us shivering in the cold, and there was no sign of Peter. “What time is it?” I asked Will through clenched teeth to keep them from chattering.

He glanced at a pocket watch. “A quarter past one. Something must have happened.”

“Well, I refuse to stand out here like a frozen ninny any longer.” I inspected the gate. It was locked. We’d have to climb. “Give me a lift up.” I found purchase on the foot of a lion, then climbed up onto his knee and found a handhold on a curl of mane behind his ear. If I went over the masonry of the wall closest to his shoulders, I could avoid the black iron spikes along the top of the stone. I didn’t wish to get a hem of my skirts caught on one of them.

I turned back toward Will, keeping hold on the frozen bronze. My hands were numb with cold in spite of my gloves. “Are you going to help me or not?”

“I’d call you mad if it weren’t a foregone conclusion. We’re resorting to burglary?” He folded his hands together even as he said it, and allowed me to place my foot in his palms.

“It’s not burglary if we don’t intend to do any burgling. This is merely a social call at a very inconvenient hour.” I looked back up at the head of the lion as Will lifted his hands, launching me up onto the lion’s neck. I folded over the top of it and struggled to gain a hold before sliding my body around over the mane, and scrabbling for a foothold on the other side.

I lost grip on the lion’s ear and slid down over the curved
back of the beast. I hit my chin and pushed off from the statue out of some sense of self-preservation, the way one throws oneself from a dangerous horse. Though I tried to catch myself, I landed hard, and my momentum carried me backward until I rested on my bum in a pile of snow.

Will clambered over the lion and jumped effortlessly down on the other side. He offered me a hand.

Boys.

“Let’s hope no one notices that dainty impression,” he said to me, chuckling as I took his hand and he lifted me to my feet.

“That’s not amusing,” I said, brushing the snow from my backside. I removed my bonnet so I could shake it out, and I tucked it into the pocket of my coat. While functional, I didn’t like how the brim limited the range of what I could see. “Now how will we get into the house?”

“Do you know how to pick a lock?”

I stared at him. “Do you?”

He shrugged. “Let’s test the doors. We’re going to have to be careful not to wake anyone.”

I looked around the familiar courtyard. It seemed like only yesterday that I had stood here on a snowy night much like this one and found the courage to enter the carriage
house. It rose above us like a quiet sentinel, with icicles dripping from the roof and the dormant ivy.

Wait, that was it. “We don’t have to go into the house at all.”

“What are you talking about?” Will said as he rubbed his own arms for warmth.

“There’s an entrance to Rathford’s workshop in the carriage house.” I immediately headed toward the tall stone building, but Will clasped my hand and held me back.

“No, there isn’t. I lived in that carriage house, remember?”

“Neither of us could have imagined a secret society just beneath our feet. Of course you wouldn’t have noticed a hidden entrance. It would be well concealed.

“When I first discovered Rathford’s workshop, I had to walk down a spiral stair, then through a long narrow passage. That passage must have connected to the foundations of the carriage house. Rathford had pieces of machinery that could never have fit down that stair. There has to be another way in, and I believe we’ll find it in there.” I pointed at the large door.

Will hesitated, unwilling to yield. If I hadn’t known any better, I would have thought he was afraid.

That was when I realized what was wrong. “You’re not
trapped there anymore,” I said gently as I stepped closer to his side and squeezed his hand. “You have a new life now.”

He looked down at me, then lifted our hands to his lips and placed a sweet kiss to the back of my gloved hand. “Thanks to you. We’d better go through the back door. The hinge isn’t as loud.”

We crossed the snowy courtyard, staying in the mush of the paths that had been well trod through the winter. We reached the back door, and Will tested it. It opened easily, and we quietly slipped inside the stable area of the carriage house.

Everything within the stable was completely still and shadowed with silvery shards of moonlight slicing through the narrow windows.

Warmth enveloped me, washing the cold out of the layers of my clothing and waking my frozen hands and feet. I immediately ran toward the old stove in the corner and held my hands as close as I dared to the fat iron belly. They stung as they came awake.

A piercing neigh broke the silence, and I let out a squeak as I jumped back. Old Nick, the sweet brown gelding that Will used to care for, stretched his neck over the door of his box, reaching out for his former groom.

Will crossed to the horse in a flash and enveloped the horse’s
large face in a loving embrace against his chest. “Quiet, boy. There’s nothing to fuss about,” he whispered to the horse as he scratched Old Nick’s ears and rubbed his face. The horse nickered in loving greeting and let out a heavy sigh.

The second horse, Little Nancy, had woken and was reaching her head around for affection as well. She squealed in indignation, then tried to nip at Will’s sleeve.

Something thumped directly above me. The timbers of the ceiling groaned as footsteps from the small groom’s quarters in the loft made their way toward the old wooden stairs to our right.

“Will, hurry,” I whispered. He backed into me, and together we turned the corner into the large room that had held Lord Rathford’s old landau coach. A more practical calash was standing beside it, but the large landau was still there, only it had been covered with a set of large white sheets that hung nearly to the floor. The horses cried in protest as we left, their voices ringing off the stone with such a sharp pitch, it hurt my ears.

“Under there.” I ran to the coach and Will scrambled under the cover. I dove down to join him, but my skirts made crawling impossible. Will grabbed my hands and pulled me to him.

We lay flat on our stomachs beneath the coach, trying to make our bodies as still and small as possible. I didn’t dare move as the heat from Will’s breath curled over my ear and the side of my neck. There was still a gap of a foot between the sheet and the floor. If we weren’t careful, we could be seen.

“Easy, easy,” a deep rumbling voice called over the cries of the horses. “What has gotten into the two a you? Wakin’ the dead at this hour.”

The cries of the horses settled somewhat. Meanwhile our hiding place seemed tenuous at best.

A flare of light stretched over the floor and illuminated the sheet. I froze as the swinging glow from a lantern slowly patrolled between the two carriages. “Something spooked you good,” the groom mumbled half to himself as I watched his thick boots pass by the spokes of one of the wheels.

He rattled the latch of the large door at the front of the carriage house. Satisfied it was secure, he turned back toward us.

I felt a tap on my shoulder. Shifting as silently as I could, I perched up on my elbows and glanced at Will. He had placed a finger to his lips, and now pointed to one of the stones only a foot or two in front of us.

Amid the rectangular stones that paved the floor of the
carriage house was one singular round stone, not much wider than the width of Will’s palm. Three holes had been bored into it. Will placed his fingers in them and lifted up. The stone gave way. It was only perhaps an inch thick. Will placed it to the side without a sound.

I craned my neck forward as far as I could.

The light from the lantern shifted, illuminating the shallow round pit.

The dim light revealed the seal of the Amusementists.

BOOK: Shadow of the War Machine (The Secret Order)
4.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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