The regency romances, p.36
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       The Regency Romances, p.36

           Laura Kinsale
 

  A harsh cry made him jump. A seagull sprang into view, exploding up from the deceptive crest as if it had been shot from some hidden cannon. It hovered at eye level, wings kinked, and then tilted and fell away, disappearing with a swoop that sent queasiness rippling through his body.

  Perhaps he should call out the garrison and let them storm the place after all.

  Perhaps he should walk up and knock on the front door.

  Perhaps he should go home.

  Forget the whole thing.

  He put his hand over his eyes. It still shook a little. He clenched it into a fist to stop it, curling the other around the handgrip of his sword.

  He took a deep, slow breath.

  All right.

  Keeping his back firmly to the wall, he twisted until he’d worked off his coat. He settled the rapier across his lap and slid a few inches in the direction of the edge. He craned a little. Beyond the whipping grass, he could just see the hazy horizon, where the blue-gray of the sky shaded to the deeper bluish-silver of the sea.

  He took another breath.

  He moved as far as the corner of the wall. Keeping his hands firmly in contact with the ground, he peered around the angle.

  Vertigo flooded him.

  He clutched at a root, blinking rapidly. A yard past the corner, the wall ended, hanging by some insane concatenation of stone and mortar a full foot beyond the cliff itself. The undercut face fell away, a blaze of white rock beneath the dark olive vegetation and the stones and towers that sprawled in magnificent ruin across what was left of the jutting peninsula. Down and down and down, the cliff wall finally met the shore at a beach of silver and ebony shingle, in a sheer drop that made his eyes water and his stomach heave.

  There was a particular pebble far below on the beach: oddly shaped, yellow and green against the more natural black ones. With wind tearing at his hair, he squinted down at it.

  It looked like a pebble. It was a fishing boat. He swallowed and moaned softly, clinging to the root.

  Merlin’s crimson banner flew free and slapped back against the stone. She expected him. She needed him. Her life depended on him.

  He felt like being sick.

  The seagull soared up from below again, startling him with a raucous cry. It looped on the wind and pitched downward, drawing his gaze with it. His fingernails dug into the bark.

  He closed his eyes and wrenched them open, breaking the fatal fascination of the bird’s lift and plummet. On the opposite cliff, a faint line of vegetation descended gradually across the chalk face, disappeared from his view, and then reappeared, emerging as a narrow track just beneath the overhanging end of the stone wall where he sat.

  Ransom stared at the footpath miserably. It was only what he deserved, he thought. God had been going easy with him, lulling him, leading him inexorably to this point where he would have to pay for all the sins he’d committed in a wickedly sinful life. He could hear the celestial snicker now.

  Carefully, Ransom transferred one hand from the root to his sword. Then he sat for a moment. He gathered himself, mind and body, and carefully inched his heel toward the bare spot between two tufts of grass, where the path emerged onto the hill.

  He kept his eyes resolutely on the ground. By the time he had his boot over the brink far enough to feel the ledge beneath, the root to which he clung was slippery with his sweat.

  He leaned into the wind, trying without loosening his hold to see around the corner. The path dropped down to clear the curtain wall, and then rose again, curving out of sight. What he could see of it looked to be about half an inch wide. But it was a path: right beneath his feet were the indentations of sheep or goat prints, cut into the soft chalk.

  Transferring his slick grip to a solid hummock of grass, he said a brief prayer and stood up. Wind buffeted him. His sword—on the inside—caught, held, and broke free with a little jerk that sent him forward in a stumble. The grass tore beneath his clutching grasp. He scrambled and swayed wildly, twisting, coming up with both hands braced above him on the rough overhang of the wall and his heart clamoring for mercy.

  He leaned his cheek on his sleeve and thought of abandoning the rapier. Not rationally, but rather with the intention of tearing off the awkward sword belt and the two pistols and tossing the whole rig into the sea below.

  The only thing that prevented him was the notion that this insane clinging to terrifying cliffs would be wasted if he did so. He’d not be likely to save Merlin from her captors bare-handed.

  He kept his eyes rigidly ahead on each inch of path as it appeared in front of him. The gull kept swooping in and out of his vision, tormenting him with mocking cries. The wind blew, pounding at him, plastering him against the cliff until an instant’s abeyance in the gale made it seem that he was swaying suddenly outward. He scrabbled at the rock. The wind resumed. He put one foot ahead of the other in his painful shuffle, never lifting his eyes from his boots.

  He came to where the cliff face retreated into the deep bite. The path narrowed. The cliff itself had an undercut slant, the top hanging farther out than the path. He inched himself around until he faced the stone, and leaned sideways to look ahead.

  Wind hit him, howling in the opposite direction. It billowed out his shirt, eddied, changed to push him from behind and changed again. He snatched back from the corner and pressed his forehead to the chalky wall, his fingers working in a futile search for security.

  He stood there, eyes screwed shut, the rock jagged against his face, and counted to ten. Then he counted to twenty. He considered the merits of counting to forty-five million. He wondered if anyone would find his skeleton, hung there a hundred years from now.

  He could still go back. He could inch his way up the path, under the wall and onto safe ground. He could slink through the bushes and mount his horse and go home.

  The chalk beneath his spread fingers crumbled a little. He moved his hand, and then his foot, and began shifting by degrees into the wild play of wind around the corner.

  He learned, in those moments, what limestone looked like at eyeball range. It scraped his cheek and his chest and his thighs as he slid forward. The wind tugged at him, pushed: one way, the other, and all the time behind him was the fall, that unthinkable drop into empty space.

  When the curved face seemed to flatten and the wind eased, he ventured a look forward. He was around the corner, into the bite. The path widened a little. Looking up at him from a few yards ahead was a startled, black-faced sheep with a stalk of dry grass protruding from its mouth.

  Ransom closed his eyes. Oh, thank you, God. Thank you very much.

  He rested a moment. He eyed the sheep. “Back off,” he muttered. “Or I’ll kick you off.”

  The sheep gave a few quick chews on the stalk of grass.

  Ransom pressed his cheek to the cliff. “I swear I will,” he shouted.

  The beast suddenly seemed to take his meaning. It rolled its eyes, bunched itself, and made a neat reversal. An unkempt, woolly rump bounced up the path. He watched it until the animal came to a stop at the apex of the ravine, looking back at him.

  “All right,” he said, looking down at his boot again. “We’ll discuss it when I get there.”

  He crept along, and was almost upon the sheep again before he looked up and found it was still ahead.

  “Hup!” he barked.

  The sheep tripped forward and sprang into a leap, landed, and hurried on up the path. Ransom paid it no attention as it disappeared above. He was staring at the crevice the animal had jumped.

  He swallowed. He wet his lips.

  It was a shadow in the white glare, with no other way around. Ransom began to breathe faster. He inched forward to the edge, and allowed himself a glance downward.

  Stupid. Oh, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid.

  He twisted back and pressed his face against the stone. Oh, Merlin, he thought. I can’t.

  He stood with his shoulder jammed against the cliff, the sword hanging awkwardly between his thigh and
the rock, and looked again at the plunge before him. The cliff and the sky and the sea below began to make a slow, tilting spin around his head. With every breath, he heard himself make a hollow, desperate, huffing noise, like a horse driven past endurance.

  He set his jaw, gripped the sword, and jumped.

  Chapter 23

  “Yes, of course, The Matilda will fly,” Merlin said. “You built her from my plans, didn’t you?”

  The little man rocked up on his tiptoes. “Now, see here! Not entirely! I did draw heavily on your plans, yes, but it’s quite another matter, building a machine that will carry two persons.”

  “Why, Mr. Pemmican—”

  “Pemminey.”

  “Mr. Pemminey, it is the same design, right down to the last strut! Only larger, and with steel cable.” She bent over the paper on which she’d been scribbling. “I wish I’d thought to use wire from a pianoforte. There were several at Mount Falcon that would have done quite well.” She flourished her pen. “In any event, I think these equations you’ve done to enlarge the scale are perfectly valid. But wheels for landing…really, are you quite sure?”

  The sound of someone pounding up the stairs interrupted her, but Mr. Pemminey ignored the noise, plunging into a defense of his wheels. “I suppose you will say that they will not take the stress, but I assure you that I have calculated spoke and diametric ratios down to the fraction.”

  The oaken door shook under a heavy blow. The bolt crashed back, and the barrier swung open.

  “Merlin!” Ransom shoved into the room, kicking the door aside. He was all in white: shirtsleeves and waistcoat and pale breeches. Even his face and his boots were marked with chalky dust.

  “Hullo!” She stood up. “Here you are.”

  He looked quite wickedly frightening, with a drawn sword in his hand and pistols at his waist. His dark brown hair was windblown, powdered with white. He strode toward her. “Are you all right?”

  “Oh, yes, of course; I’m quite well. Did you get my hedgehog footprint?”

  The hand he placed on the curve of her throat was trembling. He jerked her toward him, his grip pressing painfully into the back of her neck. He kissed her harder than he’d ever kissed her before. She whimpered under the brutal pressure.

  He let her go.

  “Are you all right?” She frowned at him, touching her bruised lips. His movements were odd and temperamental. Beneath the white smudges, he looked as pale as he had after he’d been shot.

  “Oh, God,” he said, wiping at a streak of sweat with his sleeve. “Don’t ask.”

  “Good day, Your Grace,” Mr. Pemminey said politely, and then added with a trace of reproach, “We thought you would arrive yesterday.”

  Ransom looked at him.

  “Never mind that,” Merlin said hastily, unnerved by the expression on Ransom’s face. “Can we go now?”

  “Instantly.” He hefted the sword in a graceful sweep. “Stay behind me.”

  “You’re going to rescue Mr. Pemminey, too. Is that all right? He really didn’t know his new servants were the French.”

  Ransom was already at the door. “Look sharp, then,” he ordered without turning around. “I’m not coming back for anybody who isn’t on my heels. I say stop, you stop. I say go, and you go. No questions.”

  He was gone down the spiral staircase almost before Merlin had a chance to grab her bandbox. She heard Mr. Pemminey come panting behind her.

  She reached the bottom just as Ransom hissed, “Stay back!”

  Merlin stopped, but Mr. Pemminey ran into her from behind and pushed her out into the octagonal room at the base of the tower. She sucked in her breath. The large guard was silhouetted in the doorway with a sword sliding noisily out of his sheath.

  Ransom stood still, balanced over his toes, his weapon at the ready. He snarled something that sounded vaguely to Merlin like “Ah, guard,” which seemed an unnecessarily obvious remark. The point of his blade circled. The other man lifted his longer, heavier weapon. Just as he lunged, Ransom moved, lightly and fast. Metal clashed, and the guard’s sword went flying.

  Merlin blinked in astonishment. She wanted to ask how Ransom had done that, but he was already closing in on the guard with an intent that looked murderous.

  At the last moment, he swung his sword point aside and brought his knee up to drive it into the man’s abdomen.

  “I ought to turn you on a spit, traitor.” He pressed the point of the weapon on the back of the prostrate man’s neck. “Who do you work for?”

  The guard was holding his stomach, heaving for breath. “No—” he gasped. “What d’ye…mean…” The sword point drew blood. The guard jerked. “Not a traitor!” he yelped.

  “Who?” Ransom demanded.

  “English. English.” The man took a deep breath. “Call him…Mr…Bell. I’m not a traitor!”

  “Just a common bandit,” Ransom sneered. He looked up at Merlin. “Go. Outside; turn left. Wait for me behind the rocks.”

  “Oh, yes,” Mr. Pemminey said. “Are we taking the shortcut into town?”

  Ransom glanced at him distractedly. “What?”

  “Along the cliff. You came that way, I presume? A most scenic stroll when the weather is so mild, don’t you agree?”

  Ransom looked at Mr. Pemminey as if he had lost his mind. “I told you to go. You—Pemminey—take that sword. Carry it if you can. Throw it over the edge if you can’t.”

  “Oh, no, no, no!” Mr. Pemminey scurried across to lift the guard’s weapon. “That won’t be necessary. It’s not at all heavy. I used to carry twice this much on my way back from market day.”

  Holding the rapier in killing threat, Ransom watched his two charges hurry obediently out the door. He looked down at the kneeling guard.

  “Forgive my poor manners,” he said, and swung the sword in a hard reverse, using the handle to deliver his blow. The man slumped. Ransom moved away fast, sorry there was no way to tie him. He wouldn’t be unconscious long.

  Merlin and Mr. Pemminey were waiting as Ransom had ordered, where the head of the footpath was hidden by a pile of stone rubble.

  “You first,” he ordered Merlin. “Go slowly; face the cliff. Don’t be afraid, and don’t look down. I’ll be right behind.” He watched her skirt nimbly around the rocks in his ink-stained, stolen breeches. “And for the love of God, be careful!”

  She disappeared. He had a sudden, wrenching fear that he would never see her again. That cliff…oh, God, that cliff…

  He shoved the thought away and turned to Pemminey. “You next. No, get rid of that damned sword—Christ, do you know where you’re going, man? You’ll never make it with that!”

  “Oh, I know the way perfectly well, I assure you. Since I was a babe in arms.” Mr. Pemminey turned, lifting the sword like a walking stick, and strolled after Merlin.

  Ransom looked back toward the tower, and then the gatehouse. There was no sign yet of alarm. They were damnably lazy and sure of themselves, these fellows. It made him uneasy. He sheathed his sword and moved between the rocks.

  Wind shoved at him. The cliffs came into view, white rock and dizzying fall. He put out his hand, grabbing at a stone face. The path descended in front of him, with Mr. Pemminey a short distance ahead, moving slowly and comfortably along it. Merlin was far away already, at the apex of the ravine. She wasn’t following Ransom’s orders at all. She moved quickly, casually, carrying her bandbox under one arm and not even touching the cliff with the other.

  The seagull swept up from below, hovering beside her an instant. She stopped, leaning out, and held up her hand as if to offer a perch. The bird fell away, swooping outward, soaring below Ransom to become a speck against the towering white cascade of the cliff.

  Without hesitation, Merlin turned back to the path. She took a little running step and cleared the crevice.

  Ransom looked down at his feet. He ordered one to move.

  It did not. Only his fingers shifted, clutching harder at the rock.

  He cough
ed to clear his throat. His heart was beating so hard that he could not hear the wind. He put up his free hand, as if to shelter his face from the glare, but the blinder was so comforting that he held it there, turning his face aside.

  He tried to let go of the rock. He stood there, not quite shaking, looking at the back of his hand.

  A diversion, he thought suddenly.

  That was what he ought to be doing. He ought to be creating a diversion. It wouldn’t do to have the guards discover Merlin and Pemminey exposed on the cliff.

  A feeling of vast relief jolted through him.

  “Pemminey!” He put both hands on the stone, leaning hard against it. Careful not to look outward, he called after the old eccentric again.

  Pemminey was only a few yards down the path. Ransom waited, braced against the stone, until the other man had worked his way back.

  “Here—” Ransom wrenched at his right hand, pulling off his gold signet. “My horse is hidden down the hill. Leave my wife in East Dean. Take this to Colonel Torrance at the Eastbourne encampment. Tell him to get back here with a detachment on the double.”

  “Your wife?” Mr. Pemminey tucked the sword handle under his arm and examined the ring. “Oh, you mean Miss Lambourne, I expect. She did say she was a duchess. But pardon me—I thought you were coming with us?”

  “No. I mean to hold them off until you get away.”

  Pemminey blinked, looking around nervously. “Hold who off?”

  “The guards.” Ransom backed up a step.

  “Oh dear. Have they seen us? I thought we’d quite slipped away.”

  “Go on. I’ll take care of it.”

  “But they have weapons. Guns. Shouldn’t you just come along with us?”

  “No,” Ransom said.

  “And aren’t there rather a lot of them? Ten or twelve, I believe. And only one of you. Really, Duke, I think you might consider coming now.”

 
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