Chapter 18: A Skulk of Beasts
“Here we are, my Lady,” the coachman said with a nervous strain in his voice. “Are you sure you want to be in the slums at such a late hour?”
“Yes, I’m certain,” Carina replied as she stepped down from the hansom and took in the dark alleyway that stood between her and the Fox Den. She pulled the cape’s hood over her masked face and passed the driver his coin. “Thank you for your concern. I should be back in less than an hour.” He smiled and nodded, but the fear in his eyes made her uneasy.
“They’re a lot of people been going missing around here, my Lady,” he explained. “And many young ladies such as yourself. Are you sure I can’t take you somewhere with—a bit more light?”
By light, he meant the streets of the capital, which were patrolled at night by the Lafeara’s Capital Knights.
“If I’m not back in forty minutes, you’re free to leave and fetch the knights if that will make you feel better,” Carina replied.
The coachman nodded, but he didn’t look happy. He tied down his reigns, pulled out his pipe, and muttered to himself.
Satisfied that he wouldn’t abandon her, Carina headed to her destination.
The selection being moved up had shortened her timeline considerably. She had hoped to give Ghost a few more days to think over her offer, assuming the Master of the Fox Den had passed on her message, but now she was officially out of time.
The doorman in his fox mask started when Carina appeared out of the mist. Then he held his lantern up to her face and muttered, “Hell’s Teeth! And here she is.”
“Excuse me?” Carina tilted her head sharply. “Is something the matter?”
“Nah, nothing’s the matter,” the doorman replied, “In fact, the boss is upfront waiting for you.”
A warning went off in Carina’s gut. Her head and legs told her to run, but she held out her hand for the rabbit mask he offered. “Upfront?”
“That’s right. We closed down the bar today for a—private matter.”
He slid around her and let out a shrill whistle as he headed to the front of the bar. Carina stared at the rabbit mask in her hand as the hairs on the back of her neck prickled. She turned just as a shadow moved across the alleyway behind her.
‘No going back then.’
With little choice, she donned the mask and followed. The front of the bar was quiet, though candles still gleamed behind the boarded-up windows.
Two thugs in fox masks stood at the door and straightened as they approached. Carina felt their gaze as the doorman whispered to one of them. The thug went inside ahead of them, and a foreboding sense of doom coated the back of Carina’s mouth.
She swallowed as the doorman turned with a gruff, “Follow me then, Lady Aconitum.”
‘Why the fuck does he know my name? So much for anonymity.’
Carina shook away her unease and stepped through the door. There was no turning back now, and if need be, she had her magic.
‘No risk, no reward, right?’
Carina surveyed the bar room with its disorganized tables and chairs empty of customers, except for thugs in masks. Counting the doorman, two thugs at the door, and the five scattered around the room that made eight formidable obstacles.
‘Not great odds, but where was the Fox Master?’
Her gaze settled on a man seated in the corner of the bar room. Carina froze as she recognized Sir Bryson’s pale face. His chair was propped against the wall, his hands, bound behind it, dripped blood into a bowl on the floor.
“Lady Aconitum!” The Master of the Fox Den appeared behind the bar with a bottle of spirits and an empty glass. “Well, well, if I’d known you were coming, I’d have tidied up the place.”
There was nothing remotely friendly in his tone, but Carina ignored him. Instead, she headed towards Bryson, shaking off the hand of the doorman when he tried to stop her. A quick check of his pulse and the ghost of a breath from his swollen and cracked lips relieved her first concern.
He was still alive—for now.
“Hmm, he’s had a rough afternoon,” the Fox Master said as he filled his glass. “You found yourself a loyal one there. That’s a rare quality in a lawyer.”
Carina continued to check Bryson for wounds. His face was severely mangled but no apparent broken bones except for perhaps his nose. The blood on his chest appeared to be the splattered aftermath of the beating his face had taken.
Then she saw his hands, and the bowl of blood below where several ragged, oddly shaped flakes floated against the thick dark claret surface.
No. Not flakes, fingernails.
Bile rose up the back of her throat as Carina averted her gaze. “I take it you were looking for me?” she asked as she turned to the Fox Master.
“Yes, and here you are to spare us the trouble.” The Fox Master raised his glass in a mocking toast. “It does seem a shame now. All that effort, gone to waste—well, not completely.”
“He needs a doctor!”
“And we need to chat.” The Fox Master smacked his glass down on the bar and pointed to an empty stool. “Sit.”
“Untie him and bandage his wounds.”
“Sit your ass down, kid. Don’t make me use force.”
The doorman stepped up behind her, and Carina scoffed. “Because striking a child is too much for a man who would torture a defenseless person?”
The Fox Master tilted his head and snapped his fingers.
The doorman grabbed Carina’s shoulder firmly and pushed her towards the bar stools. She offered no protest other than a sharp glare over her shoulder when he did not remove his grip. The Fox Master waved him off, and the doorman left to join the other masked thugs at a nearby table.
Carina watched the Fox Master refill his cup and noted the bloodstains on his rolled-up sleeves. Bryson’s blood. A cold fury burned within her chest as she reached up, removed the rabbit mask, and tossed it onto the bar before taking her seat.
The Fox Master took a drink and then, unexpectedly, removed his mask as well.
He was middle-aged, forty maybe, clean-shaven, with wisps of silver in his leather-black hair, and a face that might have been handsome if not for the sizeable X-shaped scar, which crossed between his eyes.
The same coal-like eyes that burned into Carina with deadly curiosity. She looked away first. “You wanted to find me, well, here I am.”
“Not just me,” he replied with a hint of unease. “But don’t worry, our mutual friend will be joining us soon.”
Hope and terror flickered down her spine as Carina took in a slow breath.
“I’m Alex,” he said with a sudden smile and held out his hand.
‘First his face, now a name. What are the odds of me walking out alive at this point?’
Carina stared at his hand; there was still blood under his fingernails. She gave him a stiff nod but avoided his hand and his gaze.
“Not going to give me your name? Your real one that is.” he pressed.
She glanced towards Bryson, still unconscious in his chair, and turned back to face Alex.
“Maura, my name is Maura.”
“Yes, that’s the one.” Alex snapped his fingers and picked up his glass. “Lady Maura, daughter of Lord Josiah and Lady Helena Turnbell.”
‘So, Bryson gave me up completely.’
Carina sighed and removed her own mask. “You forgot to mention bastard,” she muttered as she squashed the mask against her lap to hide her trembling hands.
His eyebrow arched with what might have been amusement or surprise. Then he tilted his cup towards her in a strange sort of acknowledgment. “To Bastards,” he said.
“To Bastards!” the thugs behind her repeated with enthusiasm.
‘Great, so I’ve got that in common with this group of cutthroats.’
“Where is Ghost?” she asked. “And how long is this going to take? Sir Bryson needs medical attention. At the very least, let me bandage his hands and stop the bleeding.”
Alex lowered his cup. Not once had his gaze left her face, and his stare was beginning to unnerve Carina. He shifted his gaze abruptly as he straightened.
“Darwin, get the lawyer to Stitcher. Make sure he keeps him alive.”
“Right, Boss,” the thug replied and tagged two others to assist him.
“Stitcher?” Carina repeated uncertainly.
“He’s our in-house specialist,” Alex replied as he finished off his glass. “Real good at cutting and stitching up bodies. Alive or dead, doesn’t matter. Though he does have a rather odd hobby of collecting men’s pe—” He cut off and cleared his throat. “Ahem. But no worries, he’s a certified physician. He’ll set your friend right.”
“That’s—comforting.” Carina shook the disturbing image from her mind.
“Boss!” A thug charged through the front door. He was shoved aside by a man dressed all in black with a ghoulish blue mask that covered his face.
The infamous assassin strode towards the bar. The black eyes of his horrifying yet familiar mask focused intently on Carina.