|Even now in his own house, Jasper jumped at that. The memory of the pillory was in him at all times; he would never forget that he was vulnerable, that his fellow men were cruel, or that one wrong word to the wrong person could ruin his life. “I pray you, do not say that so loud.” |
“Hah,” Lady Artemis reached up and toyed with the golden anchor that hung from a chain from the ship that surmounted her piled wig. She was a great benefactor of the poor, and Jasper had wished to be on friendlier terms with her, but now was the first time it had seemed that his ambition might succeed. “I forget sometimes that you are not a great man in yourself—so close are your ties with young Charles. He would not let you come to harm, surely?”
Jasper’ spirits, never terribly robust these days, dipped. It must have shown on his face, for the lady grabbed her cup of punch in one hand, his arm in the other and hauled him into the smaller solar—now abandoned, as it was the middle of the night.
A great desire for council came over him, and there was something about her that had even him wishing to spill his secrets. Which was odd, when he thought about it. Something like a compulsion. Perhaps she had put something in his glass? But no, he hadn’t yet sipped. His eye caught the jewels in her ears and saw the spell carved in the green jade—oh. A fellow dabbler in the arcane, and one who already knew what he was.
“I’m not sure how sturdy my relationship with Charles is,” he said, the words pouring out of him in a tide. “He cheated on me, and I cannot forget or forgive it. I keep trying, and at times I think I’ve succeeded, but it comes back. Every time it comes back.”
“Cheated?” Artemis scoffed. “What, are you two married? Have you made declarations of fidelity? What nonsense! Do you not know that a man of Charles’s stature would never give fidelity to his wife, let alone—if you will pardon the expression—a man of a certain nature. You ask too much!”
Jasper knew it, but it wasn’t pleasant to hear. In his nightly fretting, he had considered that the problem was not Charles at all, but his own unwarranted jealousy. “Yet, because I am not married, what is to prevent any of these flings from becoming more important to him than I am?” That was the crux of the matter. “I want him to be in my life permanently. I want a commitment from him, so that no matter where his affections lead him, I am always his partner and at the very least his friend.”
Jasper had not known this about himself before. He’d supposed that marriage was a noble thing, a melding of two into a single flesh, and had not seen its practical application as a legal contract which could be relied on when human nature failed.
“You must find some other contract,” Lady Artemis said as though she was reading his mind. Her sharp little eyes were embedded in rolls of fat—her figure was ample and her face one of those moon-round visages with high cheeks and heavy brows. But her eyes were extraordinary, a gold that gleamed even in their shadowed recesses. “Buy a house with him. Doubtless it frets him to dwell here in your ancestral manor, as though he was a penniless guest. Having somewhere of his own will tie him down.”
“I had not considered that,” Jasper admitted. He had supposed Charles would enjoy being out from under George’s thumb, but if that meant putting him under Jasper’s perhaps it was no improvement. “Yet anywhere else in the country we would come into too much scrutiny, living together.”
“Not in London,” Lady Artemis pointed out. “London does not pry into people’s business if they are discrete, and if they keep those in the know happy. In London you could find more purchase for your talents—you are ghost hunters I believe, and solvers of murderous crimes?”
Jasper laughed. It was true enough, and their reputation was spreading both among Charles’s friends and among the esoteric underworld that he frequented. But she had a point. Why not go to London—sell the Admiral’s house and pool the money with whatever inheritance Charles was entitled to, then buy somewhere that would truly belong to both of them? The deed of ownership would be more binding than a common man’s marriage. It would make for something—some tangible proof that he was more important to Charles than anyone else.
Speak of the devil. Charles flung open the door of the solar and ran in. His blond hair was dishevelled and his pink coat seemed to be smoking at the hems. When he caught sight of Jasper a kind of impatient gladness flashed across his face, followed at once by irritation. “Your daughter is setting fire to the curtains again.”
Jasper nodded curtly to Lady Artemis and took off running. His ‘daughter’ was having troubles these days. He had supposed it was due to his own troubles with Charles, but the sinister bent of her outbursts continued whether they were speaking or not. He would not like to confess it to anyone, but there were at times moments when he wished he had not told her he would look after her.
He skidded into the library, to find that Lily was standing next to the great drapes. Her face was full of Satanic evil, and flames enveloped her tiny form– now the size of a girl of five. She was sweet and open-faced when she was in her normal mein, as a silvery apparition with bows in her plaited hair. But today her eyes were all black, and a flame seemed to dance in the centre of them even as it did around her ethereal body.
“Lily,” Jasper urged her, fighting his own desire to back away, “Come now, tell me what the difficulty is. What has made you so very angry?”
“I am in hell!” she cried, and pitiably he saw her own expression on the swollen, feverish face. “Help me, daddy. They won’t let me go! Help me! YOU ARE A FAILURE AS A FATHER AND A SINNER WHO DESERVES TO BURN.”
That was not her voice. Jasper staggered back and collided with Lady Artemis who had entered the library behind him and stood wheezing with the effort of having climbed the stairs.
“Oh goodness!” she said, her gaze very clearly fixed on Lily. This was confirmation of the suspicion Jasper had had when he saw the esoteric designs on her earrings. The lady was a witch. She could see Lily, at least, because she went down on one knee and held out a hand to her as a man might try to coax a snarling dog. “Come now, pet. Can you tell the nasty man to go away? Do that for your daddy, can’t you? He is getting very concerned.”
“He doesn’t care,” Lily said, turning half away. Her small voice was her own again, and as they watched, her normal pearly lines emerged from the flames as though water had been poured on her. “He’s too busy worrying about my cousin. Because my cousin is a Latham, and the Lathams can’t control their bestial urges.”
“Pshaw!” Charles said, sounding very like his brother. He ran past Lily to beat the flames out of the curtains and prevent them from setting alight to the books. “I never had a bestial urge in my life.”
Jasper shook his head. He did love the young idiot. But he wished he could reach out and wrap Lily in his arms and hold her away from all things that might harm her.
“I’m so sorry, Lily,” he said instead, also going down on his knees. “I thought this was you, being angry. I had no idea something on the other side was working through you. I am going to find a way of making it leave permanently, you’ll see. You shall not endure this alone any more. I am with you.”
Charles shook his head and reached down an imperious hand, which Jasper caught without thinking about it. “We are with you, Lily,” he said. “But we also have a party going on. Do you think you could avoid setting fire to the house or the guests until they’re gone?”
“I suppose.” There were no tear tracks on Lily’s shining face. Jasper had discovered over the last year that her emotional range was narrower than that of a living child. There had been nothing but calm acceptance or rage from her, and sometimes a wisdom that seemed unnatural. “Promise you’ll save me?”
“I promise, Jasper said, watching her disappear with the words. God, it was an evening of vows, wasn’t it?
“How extraordinary,” Lady Artemis said, fingering the scorch marks on the curtains as if to prove they were real. “I didn’t know you had a ghost child, Charles.”
“It’s not something I drop into casual conversation,” Charles scoffed, still rather frazzled. “Nor something I honestly know how to deal with.”
“She called you ‘cousin.’”
“It’s a long story.”
Lady Artemis snorted. “I’ll bet. Well then, what do you propose to do about this?”
Jasper had been wondering that himself. It seemed to him that the ghost child inhabited an afterlife in which other more sinister presences also dwelt. She was like a little conduit through which they could insert themselves into the world. “We should close the conduit,” he said, trusting Charles at least to follow. “I mean, we should deny this other presence a right of access to her—body, for lack of a better word.”
“How exactly do you propose to do that?” Lady Artemis said, “I have never heard of such a case.”
“She was killed in her mother’s womb,” Jasper explained. “This life after death of hers is an extraordinary circumstance in itself. But I think we must start with a baptism. God knows what unholy things might be able to batten themselves onto her, given that she is un-baptised and her mother for so long was interred outside consecrated ground.”
“Well,” Lady Artemis gave her supremely unconcerned shrug again. “I may not like Catholics but I will admit that their rituals are efficacious. Perhaps you will indeed be able to clear it up so simply. But I fear it is far more complicated than that, and I have to say, rather you than me. I don’t think I will visit again until this is finished. One way or another. Good luck! You will need it.”