This Duchess of Mine Page 66

“I might as have met him,” Grindel said. The sword seemed sure to pierce his throat, especially when Grindel swallowed nervously. He added: “He sends me a boy now and then.”

“For what purpose?”

“Nothing debauched! Nothing like that around here. There’s them as has boys for shameful purposes, but I ain’t one of those. I run a clean house and I’ve always said so. You ask the Watch. They don’t—”

“Juby says that the Watch never does a thing to you because you give them coin for it,” the boy said. He was clearly delighted by the unfolding drama.

Villiers looked sideways at the boy. He had a miserable mouselike face, streaked in dirt. “Fetch Juby for me, would you?”

The boy took off promptly.

“I can’t think what you want that boy for,” Grindel said. “It’s shameless, the way that you swells use boys for depraved purposes.”

Villiers smiled, and then exerted just a trifle more pressure. Grindel’s eyes bulged as the tip of the sword bit his skin. “I’m not the depraved one. No more surgeons? And how much money did you accept from Templeton for Juby’s schooling?”

“Naught even a shilling!” Grindel squealed. “I takes boys as a bit of charity work. Because otherwise they’d be in the poorhouse and the parish’d have to pay for them. You can ask any of the parish constables hereabout. They know what work I do. I pay the boys fair and square for what they get too. I might give ’em as much as three pence a day. That’s over a shilling a week.”

Villiers withdrew his sword so suddenly that Grindel nearly lost his balance.

A single drop of blood made its way down his throat, but Grindel didn’t bother to swab it. “I know your kind. You’re having a charitable moment, aren’t you? Thought you’d come out here and rescue a poorhouse boy, make him into a decent citizen. I wish you luck with that. Juby is a born criminal with a mind like a sewer. He’s as corrupt—”

Villiers’s smile seemed, unaccountably, to frighten Grindel into silence. “I would expect no less.”

“Why?” Grindel demanded.

“This poorhouse boy? The born criminal with the mind like a sewer?”

“What of him?”

“The boy you insisted that you knew nothing of? The boy whom you clearly were forcing to work for you under merciless and cruel circumstances?”

“Say what you like.” Grindel’s jaw jutted out again. It resembled the jawbone of a wild animal.

“My son,” Villiers said. He took out a beautifully embroidered handkerchief and delicately wiped the blood off the tip of the blade. With a shudder he dropped the cloth on Grindel’s table. “I expect you can get at least eight pence for this. That’s Belgian lace.”

Grindel didn’t even spare it a glance. “Your son?”

Villiers dropped his sword back into its sheath. “I’m taking him, of course.” Making a lightning-quick decision, he said: “I’ll be taking all the other boys as well.”

“You are a depraved son of a—”

“It’s for your own good,” Villiers said sweetly. “You said yourself that you dislike boys. They’re so messy underfoot. It would do you some good to go rooting in the mud; you might lose that belly of yours. It seems that you, at least, have had plenty to eat.”

Grindel would have lunged from behind his desk, but he was afraid of the sword. Villiers saw it in his eyes, just as he saw the raw hatred trembling in his fingers.

“I might add that Templeton seems to have run off to a rat hole somewhere. If I find him, his next residence will be the Clink. For life, Mr. Grindel. For life.”

“Dear me,” he said, knocking over another basket with one swift kick. Coals rolled across the floor.

“What a mess. I apologize for my clumsiness.” In short order he upended four or five more.

The floor was littered with chunks of coal. They cracked under the feet of the boy who entered.

He was indescribably dirty. And there was a smell. But Villiers took one look at the boy’s nose and his lower lip and knew. The facial details weren’t even important: it was in his walk, and the unyielding tilt of his chin. Juby walked straight over to the desk and cast a cold eye on Grindel.

“You’ll pay for Fillibet to go to the doctor,” he said, “or I’ll have the constables on you, you fat sodding excuse for—”

Definitely his son, albeit with a greater concern for humanity than he had ever managed to summon up.

Villiers just watched for a moment. Juby was so thin that he would give Ashmole a run for his money as the resident vulture. But his shoulders were held back firmly. Villiers could see the wings of them, poking through his ragged shirt.

He cleared his throat.

The boy gave him a look out of thick-lashed eyes. “Where’s your sword stick?” he demanded, by way of greeting. “Toad said that a nob was here and about to cut the throat of this disgusting grubber.”

“Here you, watch who you’re calling names,” Grindel said, glowering at him. His fingers were twitching as if he longed to deliver a blow across the table.

The boy laughed at that—and in his laughter was the final evidence, if Villiers needed it. Grindel actually flinched at the sound.

“You don’t dare strike me again, Grindel, remember?” His face was positively alight with glee. “After what happened last week?”

“Take him,” Grindel said, spitting on the floor. “The city is full of lads who’d be more than glad of my rates and my hospitality, as any of the boys will tell you. I’m known for my fairness, I am.”

“I’m taking all of them,” Villiers said again, speaking for the first time since Juby had entered the room.

“Fetch all his boys,” he said, meeting his son’s eyes.

“Who are you to say so?” the boy asked, jutting out his jaw precisely the way Grindel did.

Grindel barked with laughter. “You got more than you bargained for there!” he said, his voice suddenly buoyant.

The boy slanted another glance at Villiers from under his thick lashes. “What do you want us for?” he demanded.

“Not for that.”

“We’re not good for much. And you don’t look like the type to be looking for an apprentice.”

“Is that what you’d like to be?” Villiers felt as if he were operating outside his own body, watching himself speak to this boy who was a shadow of himself, a weedy, nasty, evil-tempered version of Leopold Dautry, Duke of Villiers. The only real difference being that he himself was muscled rather than skinny.

But the boy wasn’t going to give an inch. “We ain’t got nothing you would want.”

“Stay with me, son,” Grindel said, chuckling like a maniac. “I’ll treat you right. I’ll even pay for Fillibet’s doctor if you ask me pretty-like.”

Villiers found himself in the unusual position of being unsure of what to say.

“I forgot Fillibet,” the boy exclaimed, turning around. He jerked his chin at the smaller lad, who was waiting outside the door. “Fetch all the boys.” The child ran.

Then he turned back to Villiers. “If you’re one of those with a taste for the nasty, you will regret the moment you met me.” His eyes were as cold as a November rainfall. Villiers knew those eyes; he saw them reflected in his glass every morning.

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