imagining she is young again, and in the midst of all manner of intrigues with people who are no longer alive-or, if they are, are long since sunk into decent retirement.”

He was still not sure why this would trouble her so much. So he waited, watching the firelight on her face.

She took a slice of toast and spread pate on it, but did not eat.

“She is afraid that she will accidentally betray some secrets that still matter,” she told him. “Do you think that is possible? Her niece, Nerissa Freemarsh, feels that Serafina’s talk is largely fancy. She did not say so in so many words, but she implied that Serafina is creating a daydream to make her essentially tedious life more exciting than it is. And it is true that she would not be the first person to embroider the truth in order to gain attention.”

She lowered her gaze, as if she was ashamed of what she was about to say. “In her circumstances it would be easy enough to understand. If I were bound to my bedroom, alone and dependent upon others for virtually everything, and those others were far more concerned with their own lives, I might well retreat into memories of the days when I had youth and strength, and could do what I wished and go where I pleased. No one likes to be constantly obliged, and to have to plead where they used to command.”

Narraway nodded. He also dreaded such a fate; he was still in excellent physical health and his mind was as sharp as it had ever been, but here he was becalmed in a professional backwater. Perhaps a slow decline into complete obscurity was what awaited him, and eventually even the helplessness Vespasia spoke of with such pity.

“What would you like me to do?” he asked.

She considered for only a moment. “I know something about Serafina, but what I know has mostly to do with the revolutions of ’48, and of course the Italian unification and freedom from Austrian rule. But we have met seldom since then, and when we have spoken, it has been without details. I know she fought hard, and was physically extraordinarily brave, far more so than I. But does she really know secrets about anything that could matter now? Those revolutions were so long ago. Does anyone care anymore who said or did what at that time?”

Narraway thought about it for several minutes before answering her. The coals settled in the fire and he took a pair of delicate brass tongs to replace them.

“Politically, I doubt it,” he said finally. “But if she knew of some personal betrayal … people’s memories can be long. Although, as you say, most of the people from that time are gone. But I can ask a few discreet questions, even if it is just to set your mind at rest, and to confirm that there is no one left whose life she might jeopardize. I’m afraid that is the best I can think of to do, at present. I wish I knew how we might persuade her that it is 1896, rather than whatever year she believes it to be.”

Vespasia smiled at him, gratitude warming her face. “Thank you. It will be a beginning, and perhaps all we can do.”

“Is she afraid for her own safety?” he asked.

The question startled Vespasia. “Why, no. I don’t think so. No. She’s concerned that she might unintentionally betray someone else, not being fully aware of who she is talking to or where she is.”

He looked at her steadily across the low table with its tray of food. The firelight winked on the dusty glass of the wine bottle.

“Are you sure?”

Her eyes widened. “No,” she said very softly. “I thought it was the confusion of not knowing that frightened her most, the dread that she might betray all that she has been in the past by speaking too much now. But maybe you are right. Perhaps she is afraid of someone trying to ensure her silence for some reason, even at the cost of her life. But why would she worry about such a thing?”

“I don’t know,” he admitted, picking up a slice of toast. “But finding out will give me something worthwhile to do. I shall be in touch with you as soon as I learn anything beyond what you already know.”

“Thank you, Victor. I am grateful to you.”

He smiled. “I can do nothing tonight. Have some more wine and let us finish the pate.”

The following morning Narraway began to search for any reference he could find to Serafina Montserrat. In the past he would have had access to Special Branch files. Or-even more simply-he could have gone to his predecessor and asked him for whatever information he could recall. But now he had no authority, no position from which to ask anything, and-perhaps more important-no ability to demand that whatever he said be kept private.

He could have gone to Pitt, but Pitt had enough to be concerned with in his new command. Moreover, he certainly would know nothing himself; he was far too young. He had been a child at the time of Serafina’s activities.

Narraway began at his club on the Strand, approaching one of the oldest members quite casually. He learned nothing at all. A second inquiry gained him exactly the same result.

By midafternoon he had exhausted the obvious avenues, which were certainly few enough. He did not want to raise interest or suspicion, so he had kept his questions very general. He simply asked about the times and places that concerned Serafina, but mentioned no individual people. The answers had been interesting: memories of a year that had contained a brief hope for freedom, a hope that remained elusive, even now. Vespasia’s name had come up briefly, but not Serafina’s. If indeed she had known anything of danger or embarrassment to anyone, she had kept her own counsel quite remarkably.

By late afternoon it was growing colder, and he was beginning to believe that Serafina’s imagination was a great deal more colorful than the reality had been. Walking briskly across Russell Square under the bare, dripping trees, he accepted that he would have to go to a more direct source and ask his questions openly.

He smiled at his own inadequacy. He should have more sympathy with Serafina Montserrat, especially if she had been as dynamic as Vespasia had said. To lose power, he thought, is like watching yourself fade away, pieces of you slipping out of your control and vanishing so that you grow ever smaller and more helpless, until there is nothing left of you except a tiny heart that knows its own existence, but can do little to affect anything else.

He should have more pity for the old, treat them with the same dignity he would have given someone more powerful than he. He made the resolution then and there to do so, hoping he would always be able to keep it.

He came out in Woburn Place and hailed a passing hansom. Giving the driver his home address, he climbed in with some relief.

The next day he telephoned Lord Tregarron at the Foreign Office, an acquaintance from his days at Special Branch. He arranged to call upon him that evening. Tregarron’s father had been dead some years now, but he had been an expert on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He had spoken both German and Hungarian, the predominant two of the twelve different languages spoken among the mass of peoples and nationalities that had been loosely joined in the empire.

Narraway spent most of the day reading in the library of the British Museum, reminding himself of the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the last fifty to sixty years, the empire that claimed to be the descendant of the Holy Roman Empire of medieval Europe, heir of the might and influence of Rome itself. He read about the various rebellions of each of its constituent parts, their passion to gain more autonomy.

Serafina was Italian. Venice and Trieste were swallowed up by Austria, losing their ancient culture and their ties to their own people. Venice had regained its freedom, but Trieste and its surrounds had not yet done so.

But he found little mention of Serafina’s name, and even when he did it was oblique. Was she in fact making up her knowledge of dangerous secrets, as Vespasia half feared, to color in retrospect a life that was rapidly slipping away from her?

It was after dinner when Narraway reached Tregarron’s house in Gloucester Place. He stepped out of his hansom into the first scattering of freezing rain. The footman showed him immediately into the oak-paneled study, where rows of bookcases were filled with leather-bound volumes, and pictures of Cornish seascapes hung in the panels free for such decoration. Tregarron himself came in a moment later.

“Evening, Narraway,” he said cheerfully. “Can I offer you something? Brandy? A decent cigar? It’s a miserable night. It must be a matter of some importance, to bring you away from your own fireside at this hour.” He waved toward a large leather chair, indicating that Narraway should be seated.

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