a short while. She hates to be fussed over. Her fantasy that she knows all kinds of state secrets and terrible things about the private lives of archdukes and so on is complete imagination, you know. The few people who call on her are quite aware of that. It pleases her to daydream in that way, and it does no harm. No one believes her, I promise you.”

Vespasia wondered if that was true. In the past, thirty or forty years ago, Serafina had certainly known all manner of things about the planned rebellions within the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire. She had been part of some of them. She had dined, danced, and very possibly slept with minor royalty-even major, for all Vespasia knew. But that was all long ago. Most of them were dead now, and their scandals were gone with them, along with their dreams.

Nerissa smiled. “It is kind of you to care, but I cannot limit Aunt Serafina’s visitors. It would leave her terribly alone. To talk to people, to remember, and perhaps romance a little is about the only real pleasure she has. And it is generous of you to consider another servant, but that is not the answer. I don’t wish to tell Aunt Serafina, but it is not economically wise at present.”

Vespasia could not argue with her. It would be both impertinent and pointless. She had no idea as to Serafina’s financial situation. “I see.”

“I hope you will come again, Lady Vespasia. You were always one of her favorites. She speaks of you often.”

Vespasia doubted it, but it would be ungracious to say so.

“We were always fond of each other,” she replied. “Of course I shall come again. Thank you for being so patient.”

Nerissa walked with her across the parquet floor toward the front door, and the carriage waiting at the curbside, the horses fretting in the wind.

Victor Narraway was already extremely bored with his elevation to the House of Lords. After his adventure in Ireland and his dismissal from Special Branch-which had stretched him emotionally far more than he had foreseen- he wanted something to occupy his time and his mind, a position that had use for at least some of his talents.

But for Narraway to interfere in Special Branch now that Thomas Pitt was head would imply that he did not have confidence in Pitt’s ability; it would undermine any action Pitt took, not only in Pitt’s mind, but also in the minds of those he commanded and those to whom he reported. It would be the greatest disservice Narraway could do him, a betrayal of the loyalty Pitt had always shown. Pitt had trusted in Narraway’s innocence in the O’Neil case when no one else believed him and his guilt seemed clear-indeed, it was morally true that he was partly at fault. Still, Pitt had refrained from blaming him for anything.

So Narraway was left bored, and felt more acutely alone than he had expected to; able to watch but unable to participate.

Not that there was much to participate in; in the months since Pitt had been in charge, nothing out of the ordinary had occurred, nothing to challenge the imagination or the nerve.

Narraway had considered foreign travel as an option, and indeed had taken a late autumn trip to France. He had always enjoyed its rich countryside. He had walked around some of its older cities, reviving his half-forgotten knowledge about them, and adding to it. However, after a while it became stale, because he had no one with whom to share it. There was no Charlotte this time, no one else’s pleasure to mirror his own. That was a pain he still preferred not to think of.

He had had the time to attend more theater. He had always enjoyed drama. Comedy was, for him, profoundly bereft without the presence of Oscar Wilde, who had been stigmatized for his private life, and whose work was no longer performed on the stage. It was an absence Narraway felt with peculiar sharpness.

There was always opera, and recitals of music, such as that of Beethoven or Liszt-two of his favorites. But all these pursuits only stirred in him the hunger for something to do, a cause into which to pour his own energy.

He sat in his book-lined study with its few small watercolor seascapes, the fire burning and the gaslamps throwing pools of light on the table and floor. He had eaten a light supper and was reading a report of some politician’s visit to Berlin; he was looking desperately, and without success, for a spark of intrigue or novelty in it. So he was delighted to be interrupted by his manservant, announcing that Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould had called.

He sat upright in his chair, suddenly wide awake.

“Ask her in,” he said immediately. “Bring the best red wine.”

“White, sir, surely?” the manservant suggested.

“No, she prefers red,” Narraway replied with assurance. “And also bring something decent to eat. Thin brown toast, and a little pate. Please.”

“Yes, my lord.” The man smiled, rolling the title around on his tongue. He was inordinately proud of his master. He did not say so, but he thought Narraway was a great man, underappreciated by his government, a trespass for which he did not forgive it.

Vespasia came in a moment later. She was wearing a deep shade that, in the gaslight, was neither blue nor purple but something in between-muted, like the night sky. He had never seen her in anything jarring; though she was always dressed subtly, when she was in the room, one looked at no other woman.

He considered greeting her with the usual formalities, but they knew each other too well for that now, especially after the recent fiasco in Ireland, and then with the queen at Osborne.

“Good evening, Victor,” she said with a slight smile. She had taken to using his Christian name recently, and he found it more pleasing than he would have admitted willingly. There was no one else who called him by his first name.

“Lady Vespasia.” He looked at her closely. There was anxiety in her eyes, though she maintained her usual composure. “What has happened? It’s not Thomas, is it?” he asked with sudden fear.

She smiled. “No. So far as I am aware, all is well with him. It is possible that what I have to tell you is nothing of importance, but I need to be certain.”

Narraway indicated the chair opposite his own. She sat with a single, graceful movement, her skirts arranging themselves perfectly without assistance.

“You would not come unless it mattered to you,” he replied. “I have not made my boredom so obvious that you would come simply to rescue me. At least, I hope not.”

She smiled with real humor this time, and it lit her face, bringing back all the grace of her beauty and the sharp realization of how radiant she could be.

“Oh, dear, I had no idea,” she murmured. “Is it that dreadful?”

“Tedious beyond belief,” he answered, crossing his legs and leaning back in his chair comfortably. “Nobody tells me anything of interest. Either they assume I already know it-and very possibly I do-or else they are afraid they will be seen talking to me and people will assume they are passing me dark secrets.”

The manservant reappeared with the wine and food. He served it with only the barest questions as to its acceptability, and then retreated.

Narraway waited as Vespasia sipped her wine.

“Do you know Serafina Montserrat?” she finally asked, in a quiet voice.

He searched his memory. “Is she about our age?” he asked. That was something of a euphemism. Vespasia was technically several years older than he, but it was of no importance.

She smiled. “The manners of their lordships are rubbing off on you, Victor. It is not like you to be so … oblique … toward the truth. She is somewhat older than I, and considerably older than you.”

“Ah. Yes, I have heard of her, but only in passing. Mostly in reference to certain European matters, those brief sputters of revolution in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy,” he replied.

“She would not like our efforts to be referred to as sputters,” Vespasia observed drily. There was amusement in her eyes, but also pain.

“Indeed. I apologize. But why do you ask? Has something happened to her?” he asked.

“Time,” she replied ruefully. “And it has affected her rather more severely than it affects most of us.”

“She’s ill? Vespasia, it is not like you to be so evasive.” He leaned forward uneasily. “What is it that concerns you? We know each other well enough not to skirt around the truth like this.”

She relaxed slightly, as if she was no longer bearing her great tension alone.

“She is becoming very severely forgetful,” she said at last. “To the point of slipping back into the past and

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