Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, stood at the river steps below Westminster Bridge, his worried gaze on the turgid ice-filled expanse of the Thames before him.
Never in anyone's memory had London seen a winter such as this. Beginning in December and lasting for more than a week, a great killing fog had smothered the city with a darkness so heavy it could be felt. After that came days of endless snow that buried the entire Kingdom beneath vast drifts said in some places to run as much as twenty-three feet deep. And then, yesterday, a brief, sudden thaw sent massive blocks of ice from up the Thames spinning downriver to
be carried back and forth by the tide, catching in eddies and against the arches of the bridges, where they crashed into one another with a series of echoing booms that reminded Sebastian of artillery fire. Now, with this evening's plunging temperatures and new snowfall, the city had turned into a strange black-and-white world of bleak windblown drifts cut by a ribbon of darkly dangerous ice-filled waters. And still the snow fell thick and fast around him.
He was aware of a strange silence that seemed to press down on the city, unnatural enough to be troubling. Twenty years of war combined with falling wages, soaring prices, and widespread starvation had already brought England to her knees. There was a very real worry that this vicious, killing winter might be more than the country could—or would—bear.
He glanced back at the ancient stone walls of the Houses of Parliament, which rose just beyond the bridge. They seemed so strong and invincibly enduring. Yet he knew they were not.
" A familiar shrill cockney voice cut through the icy silence. "Gov'nor!"
Sebastian turned to see his sharp-faced young groom, or tiger, slip and almost fall as he took the icy footpath curling down from the bridge. "Tom? What the devil are you doing here?"
"I like t' never found ye, yer honor," said Tom, almost falling again as he skidded to a halt. "A message jist come to Brook Street from 'er ladyship."
"Yes, I heard she's been delayed in Clerkenwell."
"Aye, but this is a second
message, yer honor. She's at the Queen's 'Ead near the Green, and she says you'll be wantin' t' come right away. Somebody close to Princess Charlotte's been murdered, and 'er ladyship done tripped over the body jist alyin' there in the street!"
He found Hero beside a roaring fire in the private parlor of a ramshackle old inn at the base of Shepherds' Lane. She stood lost in thought, her hands held out to the blaze. Her wet, rich dark hair lay plastered against her face; the skirts of the elegant black gown she wore in mourning for her dead mother hung limp and sodden.
"Devlin. Thank heavens," she said, turning as he entered.
"I'm sorry it took so long for your message to find me." She was one of the strongest people he knew, determinedly rational and fiercely brave. But as she came into his arms and he held her close, he felt a faint shudder rack her tall Junoesque frame. "Are you all right?"
"Yes." She drew back to give him a lopsided smile, as if vaguely embarrassed by that brief display of vulnerability. "Although more shaken than I'd care to admit."
"Anyone would be shaken."
"Not Alexi. She's gone off to treat the cook's frostbite."
Sebastian grunted. He wasn't sure anything could shock that enigmatic fiery-haired Frenchwoman. But all he said was "Tell me what happened."
He drew her back to the fire's warmth while she provided him with a crisp, calm summary. "A couple of the parish constables are guarding the body," she said. "But I made certain they sent word directly to Sir Henry at Bow Street rather than to the public office here at Hatton Garden."
"That was wise," said Sebastian. Violent deaths connected in any way with the royal family had a tendency to present the officials involved with a Faustian dilemma. And the magistrates of Hatton Garden had in the past proven themselves to be far from reliable. "Does anyone else know yet?"
"Not to my knowledge."
Sebastian nodded, his gaze meeting hers. There was no need to give voice to what both were thinking. "Good."