Welcome to the 2nd installment of my online novel. I’m still not certain of the title for this particular story, but the series is called The Order of the M.U.S.E.
His Grace, the Duke of Camden, has recruited (some say ‘coerced’) gifted individuals from all strata of society to join his Metaphysical Union of Sensory Extraordinaires. Their purpose is to protect the Crown from arcane weapons of a psychic bent. The duke fears that one such malicious object may have slipped by them and is responsible for King George III’s periodic descents into lunacy. There may be no help for His Majesty, but Camden intends to see that a similar fate doesn’t overcome “Prinny,” the Prince of Wales.
If you missed the opening of this story, click HERE to read Chapter 1.
“A secret panel in the room reserved for séances does suggest skullduggery afoot.” Edward St. James, His Grace, the Duke of Camden, prowled the perimeter of his sumptuously appointed parlor. He considered himself a man of moderate temperament and would have been surprised to learn that his intensity made even his friends liken him to a wolf stalking the weakling to be culled from the flock. “Then it is your considered opinion that the self-proclaimed medium in Cornwall is a fraud?”
“As much a fraud as the notion of Cornish society.” Garrett Sterling lounged with one knee hitched over the arm of the leather wing chair as if he weren’t in the presence of one of the most powerful peers in the realm.
Sterling did not count himself among the duke’s friends. If Camden was the lead wolf, Sterling was the wary stray on the fringe of the pack who hadn’t yet made up his mind whether to join the group or challenge the ruling authority.
Camden glared at Sterling’s booted foot. Camden House wasn’t a courtesan’s salon, after all, but he resisted the urge to order Sterling to conduct himself with more decorum. Though the duke would have no qualms about dressing down a member of the House of Lords with whom he quarreled, Garret Sterling required special handling. Camden had high hopes for him and his considerable gifts.
Besides, a reprimand to Sterling would have all the effect of waving a red flag before a bull.
He’d come to Camden’s attention one night at a dinner party. From nowhere, the outlandish idea of stripping off all his clothes and going for a swim in Lord Fairbank’s deep fountain lodged itself in Camden’s brain. Since the duke sensed a release of psychic energy nearby, he realized the thought was not his own. He traced it immediately to the commoner seated at the far end of the long table and knew he’d found another soul to add to the Order of the M.U.S.E, the Metaphysical Union of Sensory Extraordinaires.
Not that Sterling came willingly. He was quite content to invade the secret core of others and imprint them with his own brand of mischief. However, once Camden offered to help him harness his other, more unwieldy gift, Sterling was sullenly brought to heel.
“Make a note regarding the Cornish medium, Bernard,” Camden said as he continued his circuit of the room. Walking always helped him think and now that yet another medium had proven a fake, he needed to boil away some frustration as well.
“Very good, Your Grace.” His steward’s sagging jowls and bushy white brows always put Camden in mind of the breed of mountain dog whose name Bernard shared. However, the trusted servant was far too dignified for Camden ever to share this observation with him. Bernard scratched notes of the Order’s meeting at the small escritoire beneath the Palladian windows.
“Next time you decide to send me to the hinterlands, Your Grace,” Garret said with considerably less deference in his tone than Bernard, “I beg you to lace my port with arsenic instead.”
“Poison is a woman’s weapon.” The small voice came from the girl in the far corner. She took a handkerchief from her sleeve and dusted the side table with it. “His Grace would never stoop to such methods.”
“Thank you, Miss Anthony. Your support is roundly appreciated.” Then Camden frowned at her. “Confound it. Will you cease your infernal cleaning?”
“Yes, Your Grace.” Stricken, she shoved the cloth back into her sleeve and dropped a stiff curtsey. “I’m ever so sorry, I’m sure.
If Sterling took Camden’s rank too lightly, Meg Anthony was all but undone by it. The duke forced what he hoped was a welcoming smile to his lips and moderated his tone. “Please have a seat, my dear.”
Her pale eyebrows shot skyward at the scandal of it. “Oh, I couldn’t. T’wouldn’t be proper.”
“Nonsense,” Camden said. “If I order you to be seated, you may be assured that makes it proper, but I’d rather not give that order. I want you to realize your own worth and take your seat by right.”
“An order within the Order simply isn’t the done thing, you know,” Sterling drawled. “However, if His Grace asks us all to stand on our heads, you’d be correct in assuming he expects you to do it and with a smile on your face, Meg.”
“She is Miss Anthony to you, Sterling. You may not address her so informally while the pair of you bide here.”
Garret shrugged and looked away. Camden stifled the urge to swear.
He’d persuaded Meg Anthony that with enough tutelage, she might adopt a lady’s persona so she could move smoothly in the circles he planned for her. If he ever hoped to convince her that her special gift made her fit to be a lady, Camden had to act the gentleman. And see that the rest of his household did, too.
“If you please, Miss Anthony.” Camden indicated the wing chair opposite Garret Sterling. To his relief, she crossed the room and perched on the edge of the chair. Her knuckles whitened when she laced her fingers on her lap, but at least she was seated. “Now then, Bernard, where are we on the matter of the ASP?”
“Nothing more has been discovered on how those holding it intend to smuggle the item into the country.” His steward leafed through the weekly reports from other members of the far-flung Order. “Our cell at Brighton thought they might have had a lead, but it turned out to be a false alarm.”
“Are we certain this ASP, whatever it may be, even exists?” Sterling asked.
“It does,” Camden said. “My French counterpart assures me of it.”
Bonaparte languished on the Isle of Elba, but that didn’t mean there still weren’t those on the Continent who wished the English Crown ill. Now that military measures had failed, Britain’s enemies had turned to other, less easily defended against methods—arcane weapons of a psychic bent. Camden and his Order had already intercepted three objects of malicious intent en route to the court of their mad king. The duke still wondered if perhaps one had sneaked in beneath their notice and was responsible for George III’s periodic descents into lunacy.
“If we only knew what the ASP is, perhaps I could find it for you,” Miss Anthony said.
“No doubt you could, but the one thing we do know is that it is not an actual snake. You’d have found it otherwise. No, ASP is code for something we may safely assume is quite lethal. And according to all the intelligence we’ve gathered, the next metaphysical attack is going to be directed at the Prince Regent.”
Camden stopped pacing for a moment, his gaze caught by the portrait of his wife above the mantel. Mercedes had sat for it during the weeks when she discovered she was increasing with their first child. The artist had captured the glow of impending motherhood as it softened and enhanced her already lovely features. Even now, at night in his solitary bed, Camden fancied he could sometimes feel her silken skin under his fingertips. A shadow passed over his heart and he jerked his gaze away from the painting.
“Oh, and Miss Anthony,” he went on, hoping no one had noticed his momentary distraction. “His Highness the Prince wishes me to convey his thanks to you for discovering the whereabouts of his diamond studs. They were exactly where you said they’d be.”
Meg ducked her head in shy acknowledgement.
The door to the parlor burst open and Vesta LaMotte swept in. Bedecked with ropes of matched pearls and swathed in a red velvet wrap trimmed with white fur, she was a glittering feast on neatly shod feet.
“So sorry I’m late,” she said as she breezed around the room. “It’s deucedly difficult to pry myself away from the theatre sometimes and Drury Lane was doing a rather better than passable As You Like It, too.”
Even though she was a good ten years his senior, Garret Sterling leaped to his feet to give her gloved hand the homage that was beauty’s due. Vesta granted him a voluptuous smile and then astonished Meg Anthony by clasping her hands and kissing the air by both her cheeks.
When she finally turned to Camden, he saw that her artfully rouged lips were poised to call him “Edward,” but she changed her mind at the last moment. Instead she sank in a curtsey worthy of an operatic diva and rose slowly, allowing her gaze to travel the length of his body with possessive boldness. He roused to her despite himself.
“Good evening, Your Grace,” she said with a naughty twinkle in her eyes. “You’re looking remarkably . . . fit.”
“Down, girl,” Sterling said. “You’ll be drooling on the rug in a moment. If you were a spaniel, His Grace would have to smack your bum with a newspaper.”
“Oh, you wicked man.” She turned on Sterling and flicked her fan at him, but her smile widened. “How did you know a little smack on the bum is sometimes just what I need?”
Garret Sterling laughed but Meg Anthony looked as if her eyes might pop right out of her head. Camden needed to redirect the focus of the meeting and quickly.
“Vesta, I asked you here this evening because I believe there is someone in London who possesses the same ability you enjoy.”
“Only one ability? Impossible, Camden.” Vesta draped herself over the settee, allowing far more of her sweetly turned ankles to show than she ought. “You know perfectly well that I possess many gifts.”
Camden set his mouth in a reproving line. A few lucky men of wealth and distinction had succeeded Camden as Vesta’s protector, but he hadn’t been her lover for years. Not since he conceived of the Order and set its operation in motion. In light of the critical work they did together, it wouldn’t be appropriate for them to continue their white-hot liaison.
Besides, Vesta LaMotte had the tendency to so possess a man’s mind that he was good for nothing but slavering after her. Camden would not allow himself to be ruled by his passions.
“I meant there is a neophyte fire mage on the loose,” he said. “We need your help.”
“Well, you might have said so plainly before I shocked poor Miss Anthony yet again.” Vesta flicked her fan in the direction of the cold candelabra on the Broadwood grand pianoforte and flames suddenly danced on every wick. Miss Anthony flinched at the display of power.
“Honestly, my dear, you’re nervous as a cat.” Vesta pursed her generous lips. “We ought to find a man for you. Or better yet, two!”
Miss Anthony blushed to the tips of her ears. “Do you know the name of the new mage, Your Grace?”
“No, but I’ve narrowed down the releases of power to the home of Sir Henry Darkin.”
“You said a neophyte, Camden. I assume you believe the power is new to the bearer. Does the gentleman have children?” Vesta asked.
“He does. Two daughters. Both unmarried, though one is recently engaged,” Camden said. “But the fire mage might as easily be one of their household staff.” He shot an approving look at the former lady’s maid. “Miss Anthony is proof that the aristocracy has no monopoly on this sort of power. The essence is unmistakably feminine though.”
“Oh, lovely,” Vesta said. “I so adore it when another woman comes into her own.”
“I doubt the young lady sees it that way. I suspect she’s bewildered by her abilities. Possibly afraid,” Camden said. “Each time power has been released the field is stronger and more erratic.”
Before Camden finished speaking, a glowing ball of warmth flooded his chest. He sensed more psychic energy had radiated with intent into the universe. The duke closed his eyes and reached out with his mind, trying to discern the identity of the new mage. Raw waves of force surged through him, licking at his limbs and caressing his skin in hot lashes. He gasped and clutched his chest.
The new mage was formidable. If she wasn’t taught to harness her gift, London might see another fire like the disaster that nearly destroyed it in 1666.
A wall of flames descended on his vision, searing everything with wavering heat. Camden held his breath. His skin prickled. The energy was unfocused, but if the mage had been trained to protect herself from psychic probing, Camden might well have emerged from this vision with watery blisters and fresh burns.
When Camden came to himself, he found Vesta had left her comfortable seat and taken position under his arm to support him on one side while Sterling propped him up on the other. It was always thus when he discerned the awakening of a new power. The raw bursts of energy from an untrained psychic sometimes rendered him insensate, but at least his sensitivity gave him ample warning when another Sensory Extraordinaire arrived within his sphere of influence.
“Careful, Your Grace,” Sterling said as he eased Camden into the wing chair he’d vacated. Camden drew a shaky breath, testing the air for remnants of smoke and heat.
Vesta knelt by his knee. “What did you see?”
It was never a question of seeing as much as it was feeling. When searching for a name, Camden had to completely open himself to the tantrums of the newly empowered. It was rather like standing by while a toddler played with a lightning bolt. He couldn’t interfere fast enough to suit him in order to bring the new Extraordinaire into his fold.
This time however, two names were imprinted on his consciousness. Either both the Darkin sisters were fire mages or one was very near the other at the time she released her gift.
“Daphne.” Camden sipped air in short gulps. “Or Cassandra. I can’t be sure, but it’s definitely one of the two sisters.”
“Daphne Darkin or Cassandra Darkin,” Meg Anthony repeated. Her eyes rolled back in her head and her entire body went rigid. She trembled for the space of several heartbeats. Then her eyelids fluttered closed and she slumped in her chair. After a moment, Meg blinked twice and sat up straight. She dabbed at the corner of her mouth with her handkerchief where a small amount of foam had gathered.
“Both the Darkin sisters are at Almack’s this evening,” she said in a whisper.
“Bloody hell,” Camden said wearily, forgetting not to swear before Miss Anthony. “I haven’t a voucher. You’ll have to go, Sterling.”
“What makes you think I have a voucher?”
“I’m sure you haven’t, but I also know not being invited has never kept you from going anywhere you wished. Use your gift if you must, but gain entry and find out which of the Darkin sisters is our new fire mage.”
“How am I supposed to do that? Upset her and see if she immolates me?”
“I wouldn’t advise it,” Vesta said in all seriousness. “If she’s new, as Camden says, it means she’s only recently lost her virginity. And the fact that she’s expressing her gift without training means she’s less than pleased about it.”
“Hmph! Then my money is on the newly engaged one,” Sterling said. “She wouldn’t be the first bride-to-be to anticipate her nuptials. Or be less than pleased with her betrothed’s bed skills.”
Vesta frowned at him. “Tread warily. It could be either young lady. If she’s manifesting, she’s already angry. She likely won’t be charmed by your rakish manners, Mr. Sterling. At least”—she allowed herself a small smile—“not until she learns how she can use a man of your talents to help put the fire out.”
“That still leaves me wondering which sister we need,” Sterling said.
“Take Westfall with you,” Camden suggested.
“Westfall? What possible good could he do?” Sterling said. “It’s only been a few days since he was released from Bedlam.”
“And in that short time, he’s applied himself with diligence. Something you’d do well to emulate. He’s making remarkable progress with the mental exercises I’ve given him,” Camden said. If Sterling was a universal dispenser of unwanted thoughts, Westfall was a human receiver of the secrets rattling around in other people’s heads. “Unfortunately, Viscount Westfall still hasn’t learned how to filter out the silent chatter going on in the minds around him. However, he might be able to focus well enough to hear something of use. I believe he’ll be a help to you in identifying our new mage.”
Sterling rolled his eyes. “All right. Where is he? In a straight jacket someplace, I hope?”
“Lord Westfall is not restrained. He’s in the conservatory, Mr. Sterling. Plants are restful, he says.” Bernard replaced his quill pen and stood. “Shall I fetch him for you, sir?”
“Yes, Mr. Bernard, do,” Meg said as a delayed tremor rolled over her frame, a sense of urgency making her disregard the fact that it wasn’t her place to give orders. Then she turned haunted eyes toward Garret. “And please, Mr. Sterling, whatever you do, you must hurry.”
That’s as far as we’ve gotten on this story. I’ll entertain suggestions on what you think should happen next. Maybe you have a great idea for a title. What do you think of blending psychic elements with historical romance? But whatever you do…