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Authors: Masquerade

Susan Carroll

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Masquerade

By Susan Carroll writing as Serena Richards

Copyright 2012 Susan Carroll

Smashwords Edition

 

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Chapter One

 

The iron bars across the window cast their
shadows upon Lady Phaedra Grantham's face as she paced the confines
of her cell. She raked her fingers through tangled masses of
red-gold hair, her dark-fringed green eyes darting from the grate
in the heavy oak door to the window far above her head.

The distance between the dingy plaster walls
seemed to grow smaller each day, and the room closed in on her like
the jaws of a trap. She knew it was all a trick of her imagination,
the result of staring too long at the black beetles as they
scuttled through the cracks to freedom-a freedom she might never
know again.

Phaedra shivered, rubbing her arms. It was so
cold in this place. She pulled the ragged remains of a blanket over
her lawn nightshirt as her bare feet trod ceaselessly back and
forth on the wooden floor. The thin cloth afforded small protection
against the wind that blew through the broken glass beyond the
bars.

Had the gnarled branches of the trees shed
the last of their brittle leaves? She had no way of knowing. She
had lost track of the days. All she could see of the world beyond
was a patch of October sky, a pale wintry blue-the same color as
his eyes. The man she had known as Armande de LeCroix, the Marquis
de Varnais.

The thought of him made her breath come
quicker, and she clenched her fists. Something stirred inside of
her, like tiny wings fluttering deep within her womb.

Phaedra stopped and leaned against the thick
door. Cradling her hands across the slight swell of her abdomen,
she forced herself to relax. She must not upset herself again. She
must remain calm-if not for her own sake, then for the sake of the
child.

This resolution was forgotten when she heard
the scratching sound on the other side of the door. A blood-soaked
arm shot through the small opening of the grate. Phaedra bit back
her scream as she shrank away from the sticky red fingers pawing at
the air.

A shrill laugh trickled along her spine like
the icy blade of a knife. "Have you forgotten me so soon, my dear?"
a voice crooned. “I came to tell you I've escaped."

Phaedra lowered her trembling hands from her
mouth. Through the grate, violet eyes gleamed at her. She saw a
thicket of blond tresses framing a young girl's face that once
perhaps had been beautiful, but now was gaunt, ravaged by such
horrors as Phaedra refused to contemplate. She whispered, "Marie?
Is that you? Dear God! What have you done to your wrists?"

The woman giggled behind her hand like a
child hiding a secret. "I told you these Russians could not hold an
Austrian princess captive. My bones are too delicate for their
clumsy shackles. I wriggled free. And when I tell my brother-.

The violet eyes clouded. "My brother," she
repeated as if searching for some elusive remembrance. An
expression of haunting sadness crossed her features, only to be
quickly replaced with her familiar, childlike smile.

"Yes, I've told my brother, the Emperor Franz
Joseph, all about you-"

She broke off as Phaedra heard a rough voice
shout, "There she is. Seize her."

With another hysterical laugh, the woman
disappeared from view, followed by the sound of running feet. As
Phaedra buried her face in her hands she heard a heavy thud, and
then a series of shrieks.

What were they doing to the poor creature?
Since the first day of her imprisonment, Phaedra had refused to
look through the grate into the main gallery beyond. She knew too
well what horrifying scenes waited on the other side of that
door.

But as the woman's screams were choked off,
Phaedra could bear ignorance no longer. She had to know what was
happening. She flung herself at the grillwork, clutching the rusted
iron.

The woman Phaedra knew only as Marie
Antoinette jerked spasmodically on the straw-covered floor as a
burly guard lashed her hands behind her.

"Stop it," Phaedra cried. "Leave her alone,
you fool! Can you not see she needs a doctor?"

"Shut your mouth. Or you'll need one
yourself!" The guard grabbed Marie by the ankles and hauled her
away: heedless of the blond head banging against the floor.
"Scrawny little bitch. I told them we needed smaller manacles."

"The poor thing is mad, damn you!" Phaedra's
fist smashed against the grate, scraping the skin from her knuckles
while tears of anger burned her eyes. "Have you no pity?"

"Have you no pity? No pity! No pity!" Her
words were taken up by other voices, until they echoed around the
hall, swelling into an indistinguishable howl. Against her will,
she stared at the occupants of the large chamber. What Phaedra saw
was like a scene from Dante's Inferno-twisted limbs writhing
against their chains, mouths issuing forth sounds unheard of
outside the regions of hell. Scores of vacant eyes stared at her,
empty reflections of the beings whose souls had been stolen from
them ages ago.

All hope abandon, ye who enter here. The
poet's verse pounded through her brain. How had Dante, writing
centuries ago, imagined a place like St. Mary of Bethlehem Hospital
in London? The poet had been expressing his visions of hell. Hell
... Bedlam. They were one and the same. How long before Phaedra's
captors reduced her to the same broken state as those poor wretches
on the other side of the door? How long before she became as mad as
her captors claimed?

"Someone will help me," she whispered,
dashing aside her tears. Jonathan? No, he was her longtime friend,
but he was too weak, incapable. But if Jonathan could find her
cousin. Only Gilly was bold enough to find some way to save her.
Where was he?

He should have returned to London by now
unless his Irish temper had gotten the better of him, and he had
challenged the man known as Armande de LeCroix. She shuddered as
the image of that aquiline face forced its way into her memory. The
sable-brown hair that flowed back from his brow, the eyes that
could be so cold with hate, they burned. Skilled with a sword, the
blade became an extension of Armande's own lithe and ruthless
strength.

Surely Gilly would not be so foolish as to
provoke Armande. No, Gilly was too clever for that, Phaedra
reassured herself. As she started to withdraw farther into her
cell, a flash of movement in the gallery caught her eye. Peering
through the grate, she saw figures grotesquely out of place in the
ragged company of lunatics. The pink satin of the fop's knee
breeches and waistcoat stood out as brightly as the purple silks of
his lady friend. As they progressed lazily through the hall,
Phaedra sensed that they were headed toward the door to her
cell.

"Dear God, not again," she murmured.
Retreating to her cot, she sat down, gripping the edge of the
mattress, hoping she might be spared the humiliation just this
once. But her prayers went unanswered. The key chinked in the lock
and she heard the false syrupy tones that her gaoler, Belda,
adopted for visitors.

"And in here, m'lord, m'lady, is the treat I
promised your worships. One of the finest spectacles Bedlam has to
offer. "

Belda's bewhiskered face appeared in the
doorway, sneering at Phaedra as she entered, balancing a tray of
food against her drooping bosom--one of the few features of Belda's
bulky person that indicated her sex.

"Come in, come in," she called over her
shoulder to the visitors as she set the tray down on the stool.
"There's naught to fear."

The dandy stepped inside, his long nose
sniffing the air with distaste as he leveled his quizzing glass at
Phaedra. His lady clung close to him, shaking out the polonaise
loops of her gown and ducking her head so that her powdery mountain
of frizzed hair did not brush against the doorframe.

"Oh, Danny," the creature wailed, blanching
beneath the layers of rouge. "This one's not even chained."

"Perfectly all right, miss." Belda grinned.
"She's quiet most of the time, though she's been known to get wild.
But I'm here to see she behaves herself, ain't that right,
dearie?"

The matron prodded Phaedra's arm with one
pudgy finger. "Say good morning to the nice lady and
gentleman."

"Go to perdition," Phaedra said, her fingers
clamping down harder upon the mattress.

"Naughty, naughty." Belda pinched Phaedra's
chin until her eyes watered. "Mind your manners. We wouldn't want
to have another session in Dr. Crowley's tranquilizing chair, would
we?"

No, we wouldn't, Phaedra thought as she
yanked her head aside. She would not let Belda goad her into a
display of temper this time. Too often, she had provided the
spectacle visitors craved, throwing herself forward to beg for help
or railing at them for their heartlessness in coming to gawk at the
unfortunate inmates. It was worse when she recognized her visitors,
as she did now. The foppish man was Lord Arthur Danby.

He and the lady stood just inside the door,
looking her over as if she were one of the animals in the Royal
Menagerie. Her tray of food was within reach. How would those two
white-powdered heads look with some of Bedlam's gray stew dripping
down into their ears?

Out of the corner of her eye, Phaedra caught
Belda's malicious grin. No, that was just the excuse the matron was
looking for. Phaedra gritted her teeth and forced her hands to lie
folded in her lap.

Lord Arthur Danby swung his quizzing glass by
its string. "Well, she's hardly worth having paid an extra shilling
to see."

His companion pouted her agreement, unfurling
a painted chicken-skin parchment fan before her face.

"I liked that skinny man downstairs much
better."

"The one who kept exposing his privates?
Charmelle, you nasty gel." They both went off into a fit of
giggling which Belda interrupted by seizing Phaedra's hair and
forcing her head back.

"But look. This one is a famous noblewoman,
Lady Phaedra Grantham. The demented thing tried to take her own
life. Threw herself into the river."

Phaedra pursed her lips to keep from crying
out. It’s a lie. I was pushed. Someone tried to kill me. Such
statements only ended with her being bound and gagged until the
"mad humor" had left her.

"Phaedra Grantham?" Danby stepped forward for
a closer inspection.

"Oh, Danny, do be careful," Charmelle cooed.
"Her green eyes look so wild."

Lord Arthur scratched at his neck beneath the
edge of his wig. "But stap me, Charmelle. I believe I've met this
woman somewhere before."

Of course you did, you fool, Phaedra thought
as she glared up into Danby's vapid face. The cloying reek of his
orange flower-water scent made her stomach chum. You passed out on
the floor of the Gold Room the night I first suspected Armande of
trying to destroy me, using you as his tool. But I daresay you were
too drunk to remember.

Danby scowled as if she had spoken the words
aloud, then shrugged as if the effort of memory was too great for
him. "Bedlam is full of attempted suicides. I see nothing so
interesting about this one."

Belda released Phaedra's hair and rolled her
eyes piously heavenward. "Ah, but her wickedness goes beyond trying
to throw her own life away." The matron tugged Phaedra's gown tight
against her frame, revealing the slight swell of her stomach. "She
tried to kill her poor babe, too."

Phaedra wrenched her shift out of Belda's
grasp, the heat of anger flooding into her cheeks. Belda's large
breasts shook with her chuckle. "Aye, a babe and this fine lady's
husband long in his grave. So you know the child be none of his
getting, unless her high-and-mightiness found some way of lying
with a corpse."

Charmelle shook her head behind her fan.
"Tsk, tsk."

"Get out of here. Get out of my room, you old
hag, and take these dolts with you." Phaedra leaped to her feet,
her hands balling into fists.

Belda tapped a finger significantly to her
temple. "Thinks she's still back at her estate, playing grand lady
of the manor."

All three of them stared at her, waiting as
if for the curtain to go up on the farce at Drury Lane. She heard
Belda snickering under her breath. The laugh reminded Phaedra of
her grandfather, Sawyer Weylin.

"Your passions will be the ruin of you,
girl," the old man had been wont to tell Phaedra. "The flame of
your hair burns clean through your scalp, setting your brain
afire."

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