She cursed his caution as she trudged across the forbury to the abbey ruins. He’d made her swear not to bring a lantern, saying fire would defeat his purposes.
She wouldn’t mind walking in the dark if not for these boots — that was his other condition. She must borrow a set of clothes from a stable hand at her father’s manor, tie her hair up under a hat, and wear ghastly big boots that made her clomp like a lame horse.
“As unladylike as possible, dear Caroline,” he’d told her. “For there shall be nothing ladylike about the evening’s proceedings.” Everything he said to her had this sly, conspiratorial air about it, like each word was a private joke built up over a thousand summers, instead of four chance encounters over the course of a season.
She’d liked him immediately. He’d sidled up to her at Lady Bailey’s garden party, dressed all in purple, and whispered in her ear, “Doesn’t her ladyship look rather like a toad?” She’d never seen it before, but as soon as he said it, she could not deny the resemblance. He disappeared before she could laugh. She spent the rest of the party trying to find him.
She never dared ask after him. It would ruin her father to hear of it. No one ever formally introduced them, so she had no notion of his standing, and in any case, her older sister needed to marry first. But she looked for him all the same.
He appeared to her three more times, always when she was just out of earshot of anyone else. Everything he said felt like a revelation from some profane oracle, dangerous and new. So when he proposed they meet in secret at the ruins on a particular night, and assured her that her no one would notice her absence from her father’s house if she followed his instructions, she could not help but believe him.
Only after she’d agreed did she think to ask his name.
“You already know what I am,” he said. And she did. He was Walter. Of course. He could never be anything else.
Just then she noticed Walter walking alongside her with that hang gallows look of his. She’d been so busy cursing her ungainly footwear that she’d hadn’t heard him approach. He held a finger to his lips, took her hand, and led her to the ruins in silence.
He had prepared a meal, of sorts. Caroline supposed it might have passed for some fine fare on a hunting expedition — little sausages, hard cheese, rolls from the day before — but she found it all tough and exceedingly salty.
“Now then,” he said, leaning back as if to admire her in the moonlight. “Shall we begin?”
“I’m not quite sure what you mean,” she said.
“Miss Marsack, I must ask you a delicate question, and you must give me the unvarnished truth of the matter,” he said.
“I don’t know what you mean,” she protested.
“Have you known the touch of a man?”
Caroline wanted to play the uppish fair lady out of habit, but perhaps the question wasn’t out of line under the circumstances.
“Never, I swear it.”
“Then stand up. I want to show you something.”
He led her over to the east wall and began counting stones. He paused, having found the correct spot, and gingerly prodded a brick until it turned, revealing a small compartment in the abbey wall. He reached in a pulled out a pebble.
“I’d like you to meet his majesty, King Henry, first of his name,” Walter said. “Vandals scattered his remains after the abbey’s dissolution. But some of him remained interred here, and with some unconventional help, I located a small piece of his kingly person, namely a knucklebone.”
“What does a King’s finger have to do with me?” she asked.
“We don’t have long before the planets are out of alignment so I’ll speak bluntly: I’ve made inquiries and ascertained from a great secret. Your father is actually the bastard son of Prince Fredrick, making him the King’s own half-brother — and a direct descendant of Old King Henry here. The finger of a king holds terrible power. But this one lay disturbed for so long that it has somewhat forgotten its origin. I need the virginal blood of one of his descendants to wake it up.”
Caroline took a step back.
“No, no nothing as ghastly as all that,” he said, laughing as if they bumped elbows at the dinner table. “I only need a little. We can take the blood from your heel, where none will think to look for a wound. And in return, I promise you a most astonishing gift.”
Disappointed, but desperate to salvage the adventure, she lay down on the blanket and thrust a booted foot in the air, granting him access.
He worked with businessman’s air, as though he spent every evening harvesting blood from maidens in ruined abbeys. He collected a thin stream of her vitae, catching it in a goblet. He immersed the bone in it and began to chant in a strange language, then he fell silent and placed the bone in a silver box.
He dressed her wounds, then bade her stand. She felt very tired all of a sudden, but she still wanted to make him happy, even after all this. She rose, and he produced a garland of woven orchid vines from some unseen pocket. He tied it about her wrists in a knot so tight it dug into the skin.
“Do you want to marry? Not me, but someone?” he asked, staring into her eyes.
“Yes!” she exclaimed. “But not one of my father’s horrid friends. Someone suitable. And kind.”
“So you shall,” Walter told her. “And children? Would you have those as well?”
“I think not,” she said, surprising herself even as she did. But it was true.
“Then you shall never conceive, no matter the weather, and your husband shall not mind, and no gossip of it shall ever reach your ears. This I swear,” he said, his eyes still locked with hers.
Then the vines vanished, leaving no marks on her skin, and he walked her to where she’d left her horse.
“Will I see you again?” she asked, sensing the foolishness of the question.
“No,” he said with a little laugh. “You see this stone?” He pointed to the pale blue gem adorning the pin in his cravat. “I visited a cave in Ceylon filled with such things. I lacked the power to hold the place before. But I think tonight rather changes that. I shall build quite the world of wonders there.”
And then she on the horse again, riding hard for the bridge back to her father’s house in Caversham. Had Walter said goodbye? Had she? The more she tried to think about the evening, the sillier it seemed. How had she gotten that cut on her foot? Oh, she hadn’t the slightest idea. The world was a sharp place, after all.