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Chapter 1

January 1820

“Mummy! There’s a sword missing.”

Mélanie Lescaut Rannoch set down her pencil and looked up from the manuscript of her first play, which was set to open in five days. Dear God. Only five.

Her six-and-a-half-year-old son Colin was in the wings of the Tavistock Theatre, bent over a basket of props, studying the contents with the same intensity with which she’d seen his father scour a crime scene for clues. “It must not have got put away after the rehearsal, darling. See if you see it lying about anywhere. Can you help, Jessica?”

“Right away!” Three-year-old Jessica ran across the stage, feet pattering on the boards. Mélanie watched her children for a moment, marveling at the miracle they were, then glanced back at the script balanced on the arm of her seat in the front of the pit. Covered with scratches and marks of words she was still trying to get right. She was about to embark on an adventure that in its own way seemed more perilous than her years as a Bonapartist agent. Even the years in which she had been spying for the French while married to a British agent. Or the years after she had stopped spying when she’d lived in fear that the husband she had come to love would learn the truth of her past. Her husband, the father of her children. She watched Colin and Jessica, scouring the recesses of the stage. The same stage on which Malcolm had confronted her two years ago when he’d worked out the truth of her past.

The theatre had been quiet on that might too. In those moments, on this dusty stage where her children now exclaimed with glee in their sword hunt, she’d been sure her life as she knew it was over. That the best she could possibly hope for would be not to lose the children who would always be the center of her world.

Even after she and Malcolm had miraculously managed to rebuild their marriage, the risks had hardly gone away. They’d faced exile and battled both government agents and a shadowy group called the Elsinore League. Not to mention investigating more than one murder and the odd assassination plot.

Even in her quieter moments as a political and diplomatic hostess, she juggled situations where a misjudged seating arrangement or a failure to smooth over a contretemps could destroy an alliance or end a career.

She touched her fingers to the printed pages before her. Arguably any of those adventures had been more perilous than the one she now faced. She was not risking life and limb or liberty or threatening her marriage. But she knew how to conduct herself on a spy mission. The dangers to watch for, the steps to take to protect herself and her colleagues and those she loved. So often success on a spy mission simply rested on remaining quiet and observing. And perhaps taking the odd paper. Which she’d also been known to do in the midst of a quiet dinner party.

There was nothing quiet about her present adventure. And the papers involved concerned words she had written. Words that a quite wonderful cast of actors would breathe to life on the stage before them. The risks one might say were less. Scandal, though her husband assured her social position didn’t concern him for all his work as an MP. Critical failure, which surely she could withstand after everything else she had endured. And, harder to define, a sense of herself. A pride in having created something quite on her own, perhaps for the first time in her life.

She breathed in the air. The dust from the canvas flats, the oil from he rehearsal lamps, the gas from the new lighting system, the lingering smell of the oranges sold in the aisles during performances. This was her world. A world to which she had been a stranger for many years, but the world she had grown up in as the child of actor parents. A world that had nothing to do with the intrigues she’d been thrust into through war and destruction.

“Sword over here.” Three-year-old Jessica’s voice sounded from deeper in the wings on the opposite side of the stage.

“What’s it doing there?” Colin asked.

“It must have got left there after they were practicing the sword fight earlier.” Mélanie made another note on the script. “Can you bring it back, darling? I’m almost finished and then we can walk home. Daddy should be back from the House soon.”

She heard a clatter and then a muffled exclamation from Jessica. “Someone’s sleeping here.”

Mélanie sprang to her feet. One of the stagehands must have drunk too much at the pub across the street and fallen asleep instead of returning home. But even as the thought occurred to her, so did another. She hiked up her merino skirts, vaulted onto the stage, and ran across the boards, catching up with Colin as he darted across from stage right.

The light from a rehearsal lamp caught Jessica in the wings on stage left, sending her shadow flickering over the boards far higher than her small person. She was staring at a dark blur in front of her, head cocked to one side. She took a half step forwards.

“Don’t, darling.” Mélanie called out as she got closer and the blur resolved itself into the dark figure of a man sprawled on the boards. Mélanie caught Jessica up in her arms.

The light angled over the face, giving a name to the figure. Lewis Thornsby, a young man about town who had ben dangling after one of the younger actresses in the company. Mélanie would see him vividly at rehearsal this afternoon, leaning forwards from a seat in the pit, not far from where she had been sitting just now, high shirt points framing his eager young face. Now he was sprawled on his back, his head at an awkward angle, his expression frozen,  his face half-obscured by one of those shirt points and his Byronically cut hair. Without going closer, Mélanie was quite sure he was dead.

“Should we wake him up?” Jessica asked.

“I don’t think he can wake up,” Colin said in a small voice.

“Yes, I think we’d best–“

Mélanie broke off as footsteps sounded on the stairs from the cellar. More frightened than she’d have admitted to anyone, even to her husband (especially her husband), she spun round, Jessica at her hip, her free arm round Colin, every sense evaluating what weapons might be to hand.


Relief shot through her at Julien St. Juste’s familiar accents. “Up here.” She had no idea what Julien was doing in the theatre. But then when did one ever have an idea what Julien St. Juste was doing anywhere?

Julien came into view, pale hair catching the light from the rehearsal lamps. His gaze went from Mélanie to the dark figure in the shadows. “It’s Lewis Thornsby,” Mélanie said. “Hetty Blanchard’s beau.”

“He’s asleep,” Jessica said.

“I think it’s worse,” Colin said.

Mélanie met Julien’s gaze for a moment. Julien gave a quick nod, knelt beside Thonrsby, shook his head. “You should look at him.”

He walked towards them, his smile designed to reassure the children, and oddly just the sort of smile that would do just that.

“Darling, stay with Mr. St. Juste.” Mélanie put Jessica into Julien’s arms. Dear God, not many months ago the very thought of ever trusting Julien with either of her children would have horrified her. Now she was conscious of a great relief that had someone there she could trust. She gave Colin a quick smile and squeezed his shoulder, then knelt beside Thornsby. His skin was cold, his body beginning to stiffen.

“It’s been some time,” she said. “I suspect whoever is responsible is long gone. We should send to Jeremy Roth at Bow Street.”

“And to Daddy,” Colin said.

“Excellent thought, darling. He’ll still at the House.”

“Tom’s outside,” Julien said. “One of the link boys who’s used to doing my errands. He can find one of his friends to help with the messages.” He flashed a quick smile at the children and then at Mélanie. “Just a precaution. Better we all wait together, I think.”

For once Mélanie agreed. She wasn’t about to leave until Malcolm and Jeremy Roth arrived . There was no one she could safely send the children home with, and they’d probably be more frightened if she sent them away in any case. Thornsby had been dead for some time. Killers didn’t tend to linger. But the idea of being alone in the theatre with the children was not an appealing one. She dropped down on the edge of the stage, Jessica in her lap, Colin beside her.

“I should have known,” Colin said.

“What?” Mélanie asked, settling Jessica against her.

“That something would happen. It always does with you and Daddy.”

Colin couldn’t know the echoes his words would have. Mélanie reached out and touched his hair.

“And you always manage it,” he said.

“We try, sweetheart.”

“Right.” Julien reappeared a few minutes later. Ridiculous how relieved she could be to see him. “Malcolm and Roth should be here soon.” He vaulted up onto the edge of the stage. “Any bets on who will be first?”

Colin frowned in concentration. “Bow Street’s closer. But it depends on who gets the message first. Of course, Daddy can probably get a hackney faster.”

“A good point. Rannoch knows how to employ the tricks of a gentleman when it’s helpful.”

“Did you tell Auntie Kitty?” Colin asked.

Julien’s eyes widened slightly, but he didn’t deliver the protest Mélanoe expected about his relationship with Kitty Ashford. “Yes, I told her I’d be ho–back late.” He tweaked one of Jessica’s curls.

“Do you think there’s anyone else in the theatre?” Colin asked.

Julien exchanged a look with Mélanie. Most likely the killer was long gone. But under normal circumstances they’d divide forces and search to be safe. The children changed the calculus. There was no safe place to leave them during a search and searching with them risked taking them right into danger. Julien seemed to grasp that as well as she did. Which perhaps, given his relationship with Kitty Ashford and her children, wasn’t as surprising as it once would have been.

“I shouldn’t think so,” Julien said. “I was downstairs and didn’t see anything. Best we all sit tight until Roth and your father get here. What do you say we make shadow puppets while we wait? I imagine Princess Jessica would like that.” He exchanged a look with Colin which suggested Jessica could use the distraction. Colin sprang to attention.

They were in the mist of a story involving dragons, dogs, a princess, and a unicorn when Colin suddenly went still.

“What was that?” he asked.

Mélanie had heard it as well, and she could tell Julien had too. Footsteps on the stairs again. She put her arms around the children. Julien got to his feet with his usual languid ease. At the same time every line of his body said he was braced for action.

“Mélanie. I didn’t know you were still here.” Simon Tanner walked onto the stage and stopped in his tracks. “St. Juste?”

Simon didn’t sound as surprised as he might have done. After all, Julien more or less counted as a friend of the family these days and Simon certainly was as well. In addition to managing the Tavistock Theatre and co-owning it, he had gone to Oxford with Malcolm.

“Some unexpected developments, Tanner,” Julien said. “Perhaps Mélanie can explain while we finish the shadow puppet performance.”

Mélanie got to her feet, drew Simon aside, and quickly told him about Thonrsby. Simon stared at her. Mélanie pulled him into the wings where he could see the body.

“Good God,” Simon said.

“When did you last see him?”

“At rehearsal this afternoon.” Simon scraped a hand over his hair. “Why would he have come back here?”

“I don’t know. I saw him leave. He must have come back in while the children and I were having supper at the coffee house with Manon. Manon and I came back after supper to go over some changes to Act III, and then she went home. I was just finishing up some notes and then the children and I were going to leave as well.” Mélanie  looked up at Simon. “I didn’t realize you were here.”

“I stopped by to go through some boxes in the cellar. Accounts for MR. Ford. I must have come in before you. I didn’t see Thornsby.” He cast another glance at Thornsby. “Christ, if he was lying here–“

“If he was lying here when you came in, he was probably dead already.”

Simon nodded, though his gaze lingered on Thornsby, his brows drawn. “What’s St, Juste doing here?”

“A very good question.” Mélanie cast a glance at Julien, who was kneeling between Colin and Jessica, then looked  back at Simon. When she’d married Malcolm–an outsider even aside from the fact that she’d been a French spy–Simon had been one of her first allies in her husband’s alien aristocratic world. The son of a painter and an artist’s model, the grandson of a Northumbrian brewer, he was a outsider like she was. And because he loved another man–an earl’s son and heir at that–like her he was condemned to live a secret life. It was some years before he’d learned her secrets, but she always thought he’d understood a great deal before he learned the actual truth.

“Excellent denouement. Try out some new puppets and we’ll work on a signal after I speak to your mother and Tanner.” Julien pushed himself to his feet and strolled over to join Mélanie and Simon. “I wouldn’t ask in the general run of things, but was Thornsby a Leveller?”

Simon exchanged a quick look with Mélanie. The Levellers were a group of young Radicals whose activities flirted enough with sedition that Mélanie’s MP husband Malcolm made it a point to know as little as possible about them. Despite the fact that he was in sympathy with them and had friends among their number. Including Simon.

“Why do you ask?” Simon said in a neutral voice.

“It wouldn’t be surprising, given the number of actors and supporters of the Tavistock who are part of the group. But as I said, I wouldn’t ask. If I hadn’t had a look through Thornsby’s pockets. I found this.”

He held out a paper. “You’d best decide what you want to do about it before Roth gets here. Or even Malcolm. I’ll play it however you both wish.”

Mélanie stared down. It was a sketch of the theatre,  most specifically of the boxes from the perspective of another box. The box that was the focal point was the one reserved for royal guests.There were lines and mathematical calculations drawn pointing at the royal box.

“What is this?” Simon said, though his tone told Mélanie he already suspected.

“It looks a bit amateurish to a professional’s eye, but I’d say it appears to be a plan for how to aim a rife to shoot someone in the royal box.”

Simon stared at Julien. “That’s absurd. We aren’t–“

“You’re opposed to the government.”

“If you think that equates to assassination, you’re sounding very like Carfax for the rational man I took you to be.”

Julien gave a faint smile. “I’d hardy say it equates to assassination. But I’ve rarely found any group to be entirely in agreement over tactics. Even some people who are very close aren’t, as I’m sure Mélanie could attest. On the other hand, as you allude, it would suit men like Carfax very well to have your friends labeled assassins.”

Simon glanced down at Thornsby’s still face. “Are you suggesting Thornsby was a mole reporting to Carfax?”

“Possibly. But just because I found the note on him doesn’t mean it was there when he died.”

Mélanie drew a breath, but it was Simon who said, “Are you suggesting Carfax had Thornsby killed?”

“It’s convenient to blame Carfax for things. Convenient and very often accurate. But others could have wanted the Levellers tarnished. Or it’s possible an agent of Carfax’s made use of the fact that Thornsby was already dead.”

“How many people do you think broke into the theatre tonight?” Simon asked.

“Quite a number in any case.” Mélanie regarded Julien. “You still haven’t told me what you were doing here.”

“Following up on a lead for Bertrand. [Xyz]

It made a sort of sense. It didn’t begin to account for everything. Like her husband, Mélanie was wary of coincidence.

Simon glanced down at the paper again. “We have to tell Malcolm. And Roth. As Malcolm always says, withholding any information can  play havoc with an investigation. Not to mention if there really is an assassination plot, the authorities need to know. And if there isn’t and Carfax is behind this, we’re not revealing anything he doesn’t already know.”

Mélanie nodded. “I agree.”

“Sound thinking,” Julien said. “You also might have been playing right into his hands. But you’re going to bring a lot of attention down on yourselves.”

“We have that already.” Simon glanced at Thornsby. “We’ve known for over a month we had a mole in the group reporting to Carfax. The things is, based on the information we had it couldn’t have been Thornsby. So either he was being set up. Or there’s more than one mole.”

“Either way, your first mole is an obvious suspect,” Julien said.

Simon regarded him. “Would you have kept quiet about a plot like this?”

“You mean would my love of Crown and County have compelled me to speak? If you’re suggesting that you know me less well than I thought. I used to play the role I was hired to play. Now I play the role I choose. I’ve never owned any particular loyalty. But I would rather cavil at turning friends over to the authorities.”

Simon returned his gaze steadily. “And Mélanie’s your friend.”

“You could call her that. You could call you that.”

“You’re a good fellow, St. Juste.”

“If you choose to call me that it’s quite your own affair. All things considered, though, I’m just as glad we aren’t lying to Roth and Malcolm. That could strain even my abilities. Even Mélanie’s, I imagine.”