As she played a country air, Master Winthrop’s expression began to soften. His body swayed when she followed with a sad ballad. Before long, he and Madeleine were dancing to an Irish reel, both of them collapsing with laughter on the bed.
“Well,” Madeleine said finally. “Shall we move on to a history lesson?”
“No!” Winthrop snapped, grabbing the tin flute. “Teach me!”
She raised an eyebrow.
He smiled meekly. “Please?”
Who would have thought Master Winthrop had a jot of Jane?
To Madeleine’s surprise, he was a wonderful musician, a natural. Which played right into her plan. She would stage a recital. Luke could not help but be impressed with her skills as a governess!
One week later she stood before the king, Luke, and assorted courtiers.
“M-may I have your attention, lords and l-ladies.” Madeleine shook as she looked around the music chamber. She eyed the tin flute. Gideon’s ring still covered the hole. In a fit of nervousness, she had tried to remove it, but Master Winthrop had screamed at her. He’d claimed the flute sounded “odious” without it. And young Winthrop did not take no for an answer. “We h-h-have a very s-s-special musical p-p-performer —” she continued.
Master Winthrop yawned loudly, twirling the tin flute. Madeleine prayed the ring stayed on. She vowed to remain calm about it. After the recital, the king would surely allow the court to buy a new tin flute. And she would pocket the ring again. “M-may I p-present the very talented Master Winthrop Cahill!” she declared.
The king clapped his beefy hands.
As Winthrop began playing, Henry VIII smiled sleepily. Luke stared at his son with intensity.
What is he feeling? Madeleine couldn’t tell. Luke looked at everything the same way. Like a viper eyeing its prey.
As the recital ended, the king shouted, “Bravo, boy! Excellent!” Master Winthrop took a bow, and another, and another.
By then, even Luke was smiling. The expression softened his face, made him look more Cahillian than ever. But as the court all gathered to praise the boy, no one said a word to Madeleine. Not even a curt “thank you.” Not even Luke.
She bowed, exited the room, and sat on a banquette in the corridor, waiting for Master Winthrop to emerge. This was not what she had planned.
She was a nobody here. To break through to her brother, she needed to be a presence. She closed her eyes, trying to picture Olivia’s face. Guide me, she thought.
A moment later, a gangly, sooty-faced young man came skittering down the hall. He leaned toward Madeleine, panting. His breath smelled of goose liver. “Bobbitt?” he said, sending a rotten blast that nearly made her gag.
“Please keep a gentlemanly distance,” Madeleine said. “And it’s Babbitt.”
“Oh. Right.” He lurched forward, taking her by the arm.
“I beg your pardon!” Madeleine cried. “Unhand me or I will call for Luke Cahill.”
The man grinned and tightened his grip. “The Lord Luke’s what sent for me! I’m under personal orders to escort Madeleine Bobbitt meself!”
“Escort?” Madeleine said. “Where?”
“Where do you fink, mum? The royal counting-‘ouse?” The man laughed hysterically. “Come along — you are under arrest!”
Madeleine hadn’t expected King Henry’s prison to be so like her maid’s quarters. The big difference was the metal bars, the unearthly stench, and the granite bench that numbed her rear end.
No one had given her an explanation for being here. She could barely understand the guard’s accent. Was it something Master Winthrop had told them, some dreadful lie?
It took her hours to fall asleep against the cold stone. She dreamed longingly about the horsehair bed.
The voice of Luke Cahill jarred her awake. “Well, who knew my little boy had such a gift for music?” he rasped in the darkness. “My compliments on the tutoring.”
Madeleine sat up with a start. She shivered as his silhouette drew closer, lit from behind by the guard’s lantern. Dressed in a full-length fur coat, he resembled some kind of ghoulish beast, half man and half bear. The day’s events rushed over her — the bruises, the unfairness. “This s-s-seems an unlikely form of g-g-gratitude.”
Luke sat next to her, his features inches away yet mere shadowy blots in the darkness. “Well, then, you will no doubt have a satisfactory answer to this question: Where did you get the ring?”
She felt the blood draining from her face. “You — you know about it?”
“My father wore it every day. I would tease him about it. Such a crude thing. It was one of a kind, he said. That was all.” Luke leaned closer. “He died in a fire. Everything he had — his clothing, his jewelry, his life’s work — destroyed. And yet, his ring appears on a tin flute.”
As Maddy Babbitt shrank in fear, Madeleine Cahill sized up her brother. She had to remain calm. To follow through in her plan despite the setback. “May I see the ring?” she asked.
“Do you think I would be so idiotic as to have it with me?” Luke snapped. “Perhaps you can begin by telling me who you are, and why you had it!”
Madeleine’s heart sank. He had probably put it in a safe place, or given it to one of his trusted courtiers. They all lived in fear of him and would do whatever he asked. He was too cagey to carry it around.
Which meant that Promise Number One — Keep the ring safe — had been broken.
Her only hope was to force Promise Number Three.
She could no longer wait to win his trust. She had to reveal her identity. The reuniting of the Cahills must begin. Now.
“B-b-before you fled,” she said carefully, “your mother had neglected to mention something about her c-c-condition.”
Even in the dim light, Madeleine could see the knife-sharpness of his glare. “I will listen to you for precisely one minute. I advise you — no nonsense.”
“Luke …” Madeleine took a deep breath. “My name isn’t Babbitt. Mother was with child on the last day you saw her. I was that baby.”
Luke did not move for a good twenty seconds. She tried to read the expression on his face but couldn’t. Then, slowly, he reached out and cupped her chin gently in his hand, moving her face right and left.
“’Swounds …” he said. “Good grief, yes … the resemblance …”
This close, she could see the icy veil over his eyes disappear, as if Olivia herself were peering through. In a flash, Madeleine sensed that her long trip — through fear and sickness, disguises and lies — hadn’t been a waste after all.
She wanted to throw her arms around him. But it was too early for that. The bond was new and fragile. One step at a time. As tears streamed down her cheeks, she felt herself laughing, overcome with joy and relief. “I — I have so much to tell, my brother.”
“I know you do.” Luke took her hand and stood.
Where to begin? She would save the sad news of Mother’s death till the end. There were nearly two decades of catching up. “Mother and I … we were living in exile. Under invented names. Babbitt — can you imagine? Not even a name with a bit of … flash, such as, I don’t know, Ravenwood. Or Lancelot! I had to become quiet, to deflect attention. Like a scared little mouse! Anyway, Mother secretly trained me all my life for this final mission—”
“Shhh, my dear,” Luke said. “Please. Don’t rush. It is an emotional moment, I can see. I will give you time to put together your feelings and your story. But if it comforts you any, please know I have heard it all already.”
Madeleine wiped a tear. “You have?”
“Oh, yes, many times.” Luke chuckled. “The details are different, but the broad story is the same.”
“I — I’m afraid I don’t understand …” Madeleine stammered.
Luke stood at the door, signaling the guard to open it. “I daresay you’re far more talented than the last one who claimed to be a sibling. My long-lost brother Nigel — lived in hiding under a false identity and so forth. And before him was sister Gladys, aunt Puff, and cousin Quincy —”
“But — there is no Nigel Cahill, or any of the others!”
“Or Maddy Cahill!” Luke’s voice was more of a slap than a sound. “Why did you display the ring? What on earth is your plan?”
“I did it to p-p-plug a hole!”
Luke turned in disgust. “No matter. If you have other agents in this palace, they will be routed. If you have thought to flush me out by the sight of this ring — if you are planning an ambush — your people will find nothing on me. Before long, your employer will know that after all these years, his plans have failed. And revenge will follow.”
“Employer?” Madeleine shrank back into the cell. She wasn’t understanding a word of his rant.
“Do not take me for a fool. Only one person could have had possession of this ring. The one who watched my father die. The one whose blindness and greed have just ensured his own defeat.” Luke turned to the guard. “Simon, prepare the prisoner for public execution in two days. Send an invitation far and wide, and be on the lookout for a man named Vesper.”
“Vesper?” Madeleine said. “How can you possibly think —?”
“I shall send for the hangman right away!” Simon replied.
“Not a hanging,” Luke replied with a slow smile. “I would prefer a slow burning at the stake, and a front-row seat.”
“CCCHHHH ... HELP!”
At the noise, Simon fell off his chair, ending a blissful dream. “Whaa? Szzzzm? Oh, for the love of ’Enry …”
The choking was from the new prisoner. The young girl. Bobbitt. The spy. He shook himself awake and rose.
Lighting a lantern, he approached the cell. “Wha’ then?” he called out. “Roast pheasant caught in yer froat?”
He snickered. The prisoners always liked a bit of humor.
But the choking now sounded like vomiting, which made the guard blanch. Last time that happened, the prisoner died before he could have a proper beheading. And there went an honest day’s pay. “’Old yer puke, will ye, and I’ll fetch somefing to drink.”
He returned to his station, a hard seat by the hallway wall. On the floor was a chamber pot, a spittoon, and a jug of cheap beer he’d been sipping for hours. All day long he’d been confusing them. “S’pose it don’t matter which …” he murmured to himself with a chuckle.
The jug of beer smelled a bit off, but he brought it down the hallway and fumbled with the key. “’Elp is ’ere!” he said, opening the gate.
Simon felt a tiny sting in his neck. And all went black.
Madeleine tiptoed past the guard. He was fast asleep.
She managed a smile. The sleeping potion had worked, and the dart had held just enough of it to knock him out.
“I enjoy rainy days …” Simon said. “And I miss my little doggie….”