The Absinthe Earl
Chapter 1: Fog and Spirits
“You must suffer me to go my own dark way.”
—Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Dublin — 1882
Tendrils of fog, thick and viscous, wended in off the moor on the edge of that midwinter night. I suppose that in Ireland, a moor is more properly a bog, but “bog” is a clumsy sort of word, lacking romance.
It’s not a night for romance, I reminded myself, studying the more uniformly dense mass of fog rising from the River Liffey, on my right. I’d never examined the nuances of fog so minutely, but then, I’d never been to Ireland. And in truth, I was stalling—a behavior I had a strict policy against.
“Get on with it, Ada,” I murmured, disregarding another of my policies. A young woman traveling alone—one with a head of prematurely silver hair—did not need to give anyone reason to think her queerer than they most certainly already would.
I cast my gaze to the left, lifting my chin to study the sign above the door of Dublin’s most popular house of absinthe. “The green fairy,” many call the heady spirit, and this establishment had styled itself the same. The emblem painted on the sign was a Venusian beauty in a filmy green drapery, her mass of Irish-hued curls heaped on top of her head. She displayed an ample measure of milky white flesh in the form of softly rounded shoulders and belly and an almost entirely exposed bosom. In her outstretched hand, she held a gracefully curving goblet one-quarter filled with bright-green liquid.
Come hither, she seemed to say.
And so I must.
I’d been in Dublin four days now, poring over books on Celtic history and mythology at Trinity College by day and visiting houses of absinthe by night. The first three I visited had been cramped little establishments, each containing a half-dozen regulars. Shabby men and women so weighted down by life, or perhaps addiction, that their chins brushed the rims of their glasses as they spoke to me. They took their alcoholic spirits as watered down as those residing in their earthly forms, because that was what they could afford.
In the end, their talk wasn’t much good to me. They told me what I wanted to hear—stories of recent fairy sightings, by either themselves or their neighbors—and I offered them a few coins for their trouble.
I had read of a possible connection between absinthe consumption and such sightings, so you might wonder at my skepticism. It was the feverish desperation in their eyes, and the outrageous nature of the stories, as if by showmanship they might persuade me. Moreover, I was disposed to believe them, which is a mental state every researcher should guard against.
In the Green Fairy, I expected to find a more privileged class of patrons. Not that I believed the wealthy were any less likely to succumb to addiction or low emotional states—in my experience, it was common enough—but the Green Fairy was reputable. A place anyone might stop in for a drop of spirits or a more substantial draught of the dark and frothy national drink. In short, the Fairy’s patrons were less likely to want something from me. Less desperation on the part of the patrons also made it less likely I’d need to test my mastery of the ladies’ defense techniques that had been part of my physical education requirement at the Lovelace Academy for Promising Young Women. Even so, I kept my umbrella—with its sharply pointed steel tip—close by my side.
Touching the edge of my hood out of habit—it was going nowhere, as I had pinned it to my coiffure—I reached for the brass knob and pulled open the door.
Warm, anise-scented air washed over me, and I stepped inside.
Only a few gazes took note of my entrance, and as I closed the door behind me, shutting out the damp December night, they quickly returned to their glasses and companions. It was a proper Irish pub, with dark wood paneling, leather upholstery, and gas lamps fixed at regular intervals along the walls. The decor, like the sign outside, was a tribute to la fée verte. She appeared in all shapes and sizes, from rustic beauties to Morgan le Fay temptresses.
The place was as popular as rumored, though this could be due to the season—Christmas was only five days away. A strange time for vacationing in Ireland, you might observe. “Inhospitable weather” did not do it justice. But I was on break from the Academy and determined to make progress on my thesis, “Anthropologic Explanations for the Exodus of the Daoine Maithe”—the “gentlefolk,” as the Irish referred to fairies out of respectful wariness. Even had I not been behind on my studies, I had no family to spend the holidays with.
There appeared not to be a single empty table, but I balked at the idea of approaching the bar. It wasn’t a thing a young miss did—not even an orphan whose parents had left her enough inheritance (just enough, mind you) to render her unconcerned about the opinions of others. My courage was failing me when I noticed a small table at the back of the room, at a companionable distance from a blazing turf fire. It appeared to have been recently vacated, as an empty reservoir glass and absinthe spoon rested on the tabletop.
Gathering my skirts and traveling cloak in my hands, I made my way toward it.
It was a cozy corner and a perfect place for observing the room while keeping quiet and anonymous. The only problem was the heat. Perspiration slid between my shoulder blades, and I decided that if I was to avoid a soaking, I must either relocate or remove a layer of clothing.
“For you, miss.”
I glanced up as a man placed before me the funnel-shaped glass preferred for serving absinthe. I locked gazes with the stranger, who wore round, green-tinted spectacles, and it gave me a shock. I don’t mean that I was surprised, though in fact I was. I mean that I felt it like a sudden, powerful discharge of static electricity.
My gaze dropped to the glass he’d placed before me. The drizzling-water-over-sugar part of the absinthe ritual had apparently already been conducted, and the glass was nearly full of a clear green liquid.
“Sir,” I began, “I haven’t ordered—”
“No,” he interrupted. “I’ll declare myself outright: it’s intended as a bribe.”
I lifted my eyebrows, though of course he couldn’t see this, due to the depth of my hood.
“I do not wish to molest you or suggest anything improper—”
“Disclosures that begin in that way,” I interrupted in my turn, “typically prove to be exactly the thing they were advertised not to be.” My reply edged on rudeness, but as a young woman traveling without a chaperone, I received my share of unwanted attention. I found it best to quell their enthusiasm right out of the gate. “I had intended to order tea, sir, so please bestow your generosity on someone more receptive.”
A chilly reply was usually enough, but the man continued to regard me, amusement now mingling with curiosity.
“I believe you’ve mistaken my intention, miss. I only wished to beg the favor of claiming your unused chair—if it is indeed unused—so I might rest my feet on the grate.” I could not but notice he was a darkly handsome man and spoke a velvety Irish brogue. “I’ve ridden up from the harbor and I’m soaked through, and there’s not an empty seat in the house.”
His black hair was tied back from his face, but one stray lock was plastered to his wet cheekbone.
“I’m happy to fetch your tea,” he continued.
“No, please.” I gestured to the empty chair across from me. “It’s not necessary, and I’m too warm as it is. I apologize for my rudeness.”
“My thanks to you, Miss …?”
He lifted the chair, angling it toward the fire. “Mr. Donoghue, at your service.”
He removed his coat and sank down with a relieved sigh, stretching his boots in front of him. Soon, steam was rising from his garments. His dress marked him as a gentleman—jet overcoat and dove-gray waistcoat cut from fine cloth, and a silver watch fob dangling from his waistcoat pocket. Though he wore his hair longer than was currently fashionable, it was trimmed to shoulder length, and neatly pulled back but for the strands worked loose by the weather. He’d missed his appointment with the razor for perhaps two or three days, and dark hair softened the strong jawline. His appearance had a blown-in-off-the-bog quality that—studious and unromantic though I was by nature—I found most alluring. I fancied he had a story to tell of himself that would be well worth hearing.
Aware that I was staring—an unsettling habit of mine, I’d been told by schoolmates—I dropped my eyes to the glass before me. So far, I had abstained from partaking of the drink so popular with my research subjects. My work required a clear mind. But it had sometimes occurred to me that by so primly distancing myself from their experience, I might be limiting my effectiveness as a researcher.
Certainly, a taste could do no harm.
Raising the glass to my lips, I just wet my tongue. It had a delicate licorice sweetness that mingled pleasingly with a slight herbal bitterness. I immediately understood its appeal.
“Is it up to par?” asked my new acquaintance. Apparently, he had been studying me as well, though his spectacled eyes were still fixed on the fire.
“I couldn’t say,” I replied to his profile.
He turned then, arching an eyebrow. Afraid I might have given offense—for I am hopeless at small talk—I explained, “It’s the first time I’ve tried it.”
“Ah. And how do you like it?”
“Very well,” I replied, pushing the glass a few inches away. I found the drink refreshing, and that was precarious in my current overheated state. Better to remove my traveling cloak and hope that I was tucked too tightly into the corner to attract much notice.
“Are you a wanted woman?” asked Mr. Donoghue, ducking his head to gaze deeper into my hood. The lines of his full lips were firm, but mirth sparkled behind the rounds of green glass. I was suddenly curious to know the color of his eyes. “Or perhaps embarking on an elopement,” he continued to speculate, his gaze ranging around the room. “Your bridegroom is late.”
“I’m a woman sitting alone in a house of absinthe,” I replied. But I unpinned my hood from my hair and unfastened the cloak. Then, holding my breath, I shrugged free of the garment, letting it fall over the back of my chair. “You can understand why I might prefer to avoid drawing the attention of others.”
“Certainly, I …” He trailed off as his eyes widened, catching on the silvery locks that had tumbled down around the edges of my face. “I beg your pardon. For a moment, I took you for a dame twice your age.”
Had I a shilling for every time I’d heard those words, I could have hired a research assistant to wander the wilds of Ireland in the cold dark of December. “And have you revised your opinion, sir?”
“Indeed,” he said with mock gravity. “I see that you’re a youngish lass. One who has perhaps been swallowed up and spat out by a storm off the Atlantic.” He was amusing himself at my expense, but I perceived no malice behind it. He continued, “Or was it some shock in early life that wrought this change?”
“While those are imaginative theories, Mr. Donoghue, I—”
“I have it,” he said, his gaze brightening. “Miss Quicksilver, was it? An inherited trait, then. Your family produces prematurely silver-haired offspring.”
“Exactly so,” I said, pleased at not having to repeat an explanation I’d given many times. It was my mother, in fact, who had handed down the name Quicksilver, due to a centuries-old legal exception granted to preserve the name. No one in my family seemed to know why the exception had been granted, but there were many imaginative theories on that score as well.
“Here you are, Lord Meath.”
A young man with a ruddy complexion and stained apron set a glass on the end of the table opposite me.
“My apologies for the delay, sir. We’re that busy, what with the holiday bearing down on us.”
“Not at all, Michael. Thank you, and happy Christmas.”
Michael ducked his head to my companion. “Happy Christmas to you, Your Lordship. And to you, miss.”
Michael moved away, and it was my turn to raise an eyebrow. “‘Your Lordship,’ is it?”
My companion made a disgruntled noise and extended his hands toward the fire. “Please don’t start calling me that. My family name is heavy on the tongue, just as ‘Your Lordship’ is on the nerves. You may call me Meath if you like, Miss Quicksilver. Most do.”
I understood a thing or two about ponderous names. “As you like, sir. As for myself, ‘Miss Q’ will do.”
He ducked his head and raised his glass. “It’s an honor to make the acquaintance of such a unique young lady.”
I raised my glass. “And it’s an honor to meet …” I tried to think what his title might be, and then recalled that Dublin was in County Meath. “… the earl of Meath—have I got that right?”
He inclined his head slightly. “Since my father died, two years ago.”
Our glasses clinked, and I took the tiniest of sips before replacing mine on the table.
“You haven’t much of a thirst this evening,” he observed.
“I’m not used to it,” I explained. “I lead a sober existence. Studious by nature.”
He gave me a dubious smile. “Despite all evidence to the contrary.”
I reached again for my glass as an occupation for my nervously active fingers but caught myself and folded my hands in my lap. “Things are not always what they seem, sir. I’ve come to Dublin on a research trip.”
“Research! You are full of surprises, Miss Q. May one know what you are researching?”
I straightened in my chair. I mustn’t lose this opportunity over a sudden and uncharacteristic case of nerves.
“I’m composing my thesis on the disappearance of Ireland’s gentlefolk. I hope to find a few souls here who know stories or even have firsthand experience.”
Watching him closely to see whether he would scoff at this, I noticed when a shadow passed over his countenance. But he was smiling when he replied, “Well, I daresay you’ve come to the right place. I’d wager there are many here who have had visions. Of fairies and bogeys, to be sure. Also lions, monkeys, and possibly peacocks.”
“My dear sir,” I replied, suppressing my own smile, “I believe you are laughing at me.”
Then he did laugh. “Forgive me, Miss Q. I’ve only just left a naval appointment, and I haven’t enjoyed the company of a charming young woman in longer than I care to remember. Don’t be angry with me for having a bit of fun.”
The casual flattery affected me more than it should have. I dropped my gaze to my glass and released the smile I’d been holding back. “No, sir. I’m not so miss-ish as that.”
“That is a relief.” His voice softened slightly as he said this. It was a subtle change, but my heart noticed—and fluttered. “In all seriousness, a house of absinthe seems an unlikely place to conduct research, if I don’t offend by saying so.”
The earl appeared to have sloughed off the chill. He had angled his chair somewhat away from the fire and folded his sleeves to just above the elbows. He was not quite sitting at my table, but he’d rested his half-consumed drink there.
“I’m sure it seems so,” I replied. “Over the past decade, there have been a handful of reports in Paris, London, and Dublin newspapers that suggest a potential connection between consumption of absinthe and the ability to see fairies.”
The earl’s amused expression had given way to a contemplative one. “You refer to realsightings? Not absinthe-induced hallucinations?”
I lifted my hands, turning them out in a gesture of uncertainty. “Who can say? One might argue that they are hallucinations, encouraged by the nickname the spirit has earned.”
He nodded. “One might.”
“Or … one might argue that the nickname was earned as a result of the spirit’s effects.”
Another nod, slower this time. “But if the sightings are real, would that not mean the fairies have not departed at all?”
I smiled, pleased at his quick intelligence and his interest in the topic. “Precisely. That, or their new country somehow overlaps our own, and absinthe—or perhaps one of its component herbs—creates a sort of gateway between the two.”
“Intriguing.” He was staring into his glass now, perhaps seeing the spring-colored liquid in a new light. “And you don’t wish to test the theory yourself?”
He glanced up at me, and I shook my head. “I’d make a biased subject. I might see only what I wish to see.”
“And what is it you would wish to see?”
I frowned, considering. It was an interesting question, and I wasn’t sure of the answer. Inspired by his joking manner, I replied, “Anything that might bring me closer to finishing my thesis.”
He laughed and drank again from his glass.
“How about you, my lord? Have you ever seen a fairy?”
I stared at this striking woman, frozen by her question. For all that she was ladylike, mild-mannered, and on all accounts charming, her wit was direct and incisive. Her question was not complicated. It required a simple yes or no, and yet …
Dare I tell her the truth? That at least in my case, absinthe did cause the most troubling hallucinations—though it had never occurred to me that there might be anything real about them—and that only the spectacles kept me from going mad? Yet absinthe was the only thing that staved off the nightwalking, which was far worse. Rising in the morning to find bloodstained bedclothes, the flesh of my body torn and bruised as if I’d done battle with a host of demons.
Yes, the absinthe was necessary, and the spectacles limited the green apparitions to the edges of my vision.
But I could share nothing of this with her, however compelling I might find her.
“First of all, Miss Q,” I replied, “I’ve asked you to call me Meath.”
She gave an apologetic smile. “I know that you have, but I find myself unequal to addressing a virtual stranger—especially one with a station so much higher than my own—in such a familiar way. Might you be willing to compromise if I promise to avoid ‘Your Lordship’?”
It was a very pretty feminine plea, which, of course, I was powerless to refuse. I’d spoken only the truth when I said I’d been too long outside the society of women, and what’s more, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d found myself so captivated by such society.
“If it will allow us to continue our discourse, then so be it,” I replied.
She gave a gracious nod. “Will you then answer my question?”
I eyed her over the rims of my spectacles. The lady’s eyes were very close in hue to the undiluted spirit so popular in this establishment: an uncommonly light shade of green. Her lips were dark, nearer plum than pink. She could not be called classically beautiful but had rather an impishness to her features—narrow eyes and arched brows, high and defined cheekbones, and a chin more pointed than round. Not to forget those plaited and piled waves of silver, with loose curls that softened any sharpness in the lines of her face.
Together, it created an effect that suggested a way out of the corner she had so innocently backed me into.
“Indeed I have, Miss Q.”
In fascination, I watched the flurry of fingers and wrists that produced a notebook and writing implement seemingly out of thin air. “You’ve seen a fairy?” she replied eagerly.
I nodded. “I believe one sits before me now.”
Her gaze took a turn around our fireside nook before returning to my face. She crossed her arms on the table, her pursed lips punctuating the understanding in her expression. I fought a losing battle not to stare at the mouth shaped like a little mauve heart.
“You’re laughing at me again, Lord Meath,” she said, a hint of vexation in her tone.
“Not at all,” I assured her. “I only meant to convey that you yourself are the most otherworldly creature I’ve met.” Strictly speaking, this was true, but I did not much like myself for the flimsy evasion.
She set down her writing implement, the lines of her mouth softening into a self-deprecating smile.
“According to my grandmother, an Irish ancestress of ours was kissed by a fairy. All the most interesting family legends have Irish roots, you see.”
“Might it not be true?” I couldn’t help but ask. “If you accept their existence, why might it be a stretch to believe what your grandmother told you?”
She frowned, and an inch-long wrinkle kissed the spot a Hindu would call the third eye. “It’s a fair question, Lord Meath. Do you accept their existence?”
I shifted slightly in my chair, finally closing the gentlemanly distance I’d preserved between myself and her small table. “I make it a practice never to disbelieve a thing I cannot disprove.”
The brightness of her gaze—the almost childlike pleasure in her countenance—caused a swelling in my chest. “Then we have something in common, sir,” said she.
I detected motion in my peripheral vision—a swirl of green mist, the hallmark of the otherworldly visitations, which I could never quite ignore. I raised my hand to nudge the spectacles closer to my face and so managed to block my view of the visitor with my hand.
But it did nothing to diminish the shrill cry that pealed like a nightmare across my consciousness. I squeezed my eyes closed. Of all the absinthine visitors, the bean sí was the worst. And they hovered over sailors and ships like great flocks of spectral geese. It had been close to driving me from my commission when Queen Isolde recalled me to attend to affairs of state. But I knew I would return to the Royal Navy when I’d fulfilled my obligation to Her Majesty—I had no desire to remain at my ancestral seat, wasting away my years tormented by mental disease and with an increasing dependence on the infernal remedy. I had to at least remain active, and the sea air soothed my fevered brain.
“Are you well, Lord Meath?”
I opened my eyes to find the lady eyeing me with concern.
“I am, thank you. Just a slight headache.”
The banshee had drifted to the other side of my head, her wild rippling tresses and cobweb garments trailing behind. I could not hear the lady’s reply over the sudden blast of another shrill death warning.
“One moment,” I murmured to my companion, removing my spectacles.
I blinked as my eyes adjusted to the change in light. The barrow woman, having free range of my vision at last, swooped and swirled in the air between us before coiling around the torso of my new acquaintance and whispering into her ear.
“Miss Quicksilver!” I cried in reflexive warning.
The lady suddenly stood and bent toward me with alarm. I felt her cool fingers press the back of my hand.
“My lord, what can I do to help you?”
I locked gazes with the wide-eyed hag at her shoulder and, in desperation, gave a nod of acknowledgment. With another shriek, the banshee soared away from my companion and straight through the ceiling over our heads, leaving a trail of green vapor that curled like fog around Miss Q’s soft pile of silver hair.
Returning my spectacles to their original position, I looked into the lady’s anxious face.
Were I to accept what she had moments ago suggested—that these visions of mine were more than vapors, that they had real substance—I must also accept that I had just been warned of the lady’s impending death.
Blue. The gentleman’s eyes were a light, clear blue. They were striking in contrast to his black hair, which could mean he was at least partly descended from the Spanish sailors shipwrecked near Galway in the time of Queen Elizabeth. The lovely and half-mad Irish queen, Isolde, was said to be descended from those same castaways, and I wondered whether there might be some relation.
Lord Meath replaced the spectacles, and at last he spoke. “Forgive me, Miss Q. I am well now.”
I resumed my seat.
“I’m sorry for your headache, sir,” I said, and I meant it. He had a kind and gentlemanly manner, and I was little more than a tourist on this island, without family or even friends here to ease my feelings of isolation.
He was a handsome, intelligent young nobleman, and I doubt many ladies would fail to appreciate the gift of his time and attention.
He shook his head. “It is nothing. But I must ask you something.”
I lifted my eyebrows, uneasy about the sudden somber quality in his tone. “Yes?”
“Have you family in Ireland? Or a friend, perhaps?”
It was as if he’d been listening to my thoughts. The more intimate nature of this question surprised me, and I failed to immediately formulate a reply.
“I don’t mean to be impertinent.” He touched the base of his glass with the tips of his fingers but didn’t drink.
He gave a thin smile that constrained whatever true feeling had moved him to ask the question. “I’m only concerned for your welfare, traveling alone and unprotected.”
“I appreciate your concern, sir. But I’m afraid—well, I’m an orphan, you see. As such, I’m accustomed to managing my own affairs and am more self-reliant than perhaps I may appear. I assure you, there’s no cause for concern on my behalf.”
It was perhaps unwise for me to be so honest about my situation. What did I know of him, to be revealing to him just how alone I was in the world? Yet despite my strong suspicion that he was hiding something, my instincts assured me he meant me no harm.
He acknowledged my explanation with a nod. “Do you mean to remain in Ireland over the holidays?”
“I do, sir.”
“And then you’ll return home?”
“I plan to travel into the countryside after Christmas, until I’m expected back at school. I wish to visit some of the small villages and churchyards. Talk to the people who live there.”
His countenance darkened with every word I spoke. “Is there something wrong, Lord Meath? Are you feeling unwell again?”
The corners of his mouth relaxed. “Not at all. But I have a proposition for you.”
I stared at him with some surprise. Had I misjudged him after all? “Indeed, sir?”
“Nothing improper, I assure you. Though if you agree, you’ll have to trust me as your companion for a few days.”
My mouth fell open at this, and I closed it again without replying.
The earl shifted in his chair and again stretched his legs before the fire. I breathed a little easier with his gaze directed away from me, and I studied his profile as he continued. “I was called to shore by Queen Isolde, who, in addition to being my sovereign, is also my cousin.”
So he was a relation of the queen’s, and as an earl, he would by default be a member of parliament. Ireland’s government was much the same as Britain’s, right down to both countries’ independent and strong-minded queens. However, Ireland’s monarch had the absolute support of her military and had been known to run roughshod over the Irish parliament. Despite this rather regressive state of affairs, Isolde had raced well ahead of the English queen in advancing reforms aimed at improving the condition of women in the country. For this reason, I had felt easier about embarking on a research trip here than I would have at home.
Even so, I waited with some trepidation to hear the rest of the earl’s proposal.
“While I was at sea,” he continued, “a ruin of some sort was discovered on my tenant’s farm, inside an ancient fairy mound called Brú na Bóinne. The queen believes it is important, and has asked me personally to inspect the site, photograph and secure it, and report back to her.”
I don’t know what I had thought he’d say, but this was far from anything I might have imagined. Brú na Bóinne, on the River Boyne, not far from Dublin, was a site of great mythological significance. It was associated with two of fairy lore’s most beloved figures: the warrior Diarmuid and his foster father, Angus, both members of an ancient fairy race, the Tuatha De Danaan.
“What sort of ruin, sir?” I asked, heart racing at the possibilities this suggested.
“It is believed to be a tomb of great antiquity. Perhaps a place of ritual or worship. Little is yet known. Its construction likely dates back thousands of years, I am told. Due to the nature of your research, I thought it might interest you.”
“Indeed!” I could hardly contain myself.
“Let me show you.” He reached for his overcoat then and fished inside one of the pockets. He soon produced a box, rectangular in shape, with a drum attachment, and a winding lever on one side. He wound the gears—visible at the back of the device—several turns and then scooted his chair close to mine.
“Are you familiar with stereoscopes?” he asked, and I shook my head.
Raising it to eye level, he asked, “May I?”
I held my breath and nodded.
The box had a goggle-like viewing attachment, which he pressed gently to my face. His fingers tickled the hair at my temples, sending shivers down my neck and across my shoulders.
I heard a loud click and then a series of softer, more rapid ones as a light flickered on inside the box. A succession of photographs began to unwind. The images appeared to have movement and depth, and I gasped at the ingenuity of it. The first series depicted the rolling Irish countryside, and soon a grassy hill slid into view. The next series showed an opening in the side of the hill. The door was framed with stone slabs, its shape very much resembling the dolmen that had been erected in antiquity in County Clare. Beneath the base of the opening was another stone slab, this one carved with spirals. A rocky footpath curved down the hill around the opening and into the photograph’s foreground. Beyond the opening, all was in shadow.
“Extraordinary,” I said breathlessly. “I wish we could see inside.”
“We can.” He lowered the stereoscope.
I stared at him, my cheeks warming in response to multiple stimuli. “You are suggesting that I accompany you?”
“I believe your academic background makes you far better suited than I to evaluate its importance.”
I pressed my hands into my lap, struggling to rein in my excitement. “I have studied anthropology, history, and folklore,” I said. “But I am no archeologist, Lord Meath.”
He waved his hand, dismissing this argument. “Archeologists are at the site already. But you’ve interested me with your theories, and I’m eager to hear what you make of it.”
I stared at him, shocked out of sensible speech. “I hardly know what to say, sir.”
“Why, ‘Yes,’ of course,” he said with an easy laugh. “But hold—I haven’t told you all yet.”
I raised my glass, steadying myself with a sip of absinthe while I waited for him to continue.
Removing the spectacles again, he said, “You asked me a question earlier, which I evaded. If you accompany me to Brú na Bóinne, I shall answer it truthfully.”
There’s an old Irish tale of a white trout that, when caught, transforms into a beautiful woman. No trout was ever netted so prettily as Miss Quicksilver. Fortunately for her, the fisherman had no intention of devouring her.
“Lord Meath, I …” Her breath was short, so excited was she at the prospect, and I confess that what had earlier seemed to me a great bother grew more appealing in the light of her enthusiasm. “When do you intend to make the journey?”
“I should have my arrangements made in two days’ time. Would that suit you?”
“And how would we …?” Her hands moved restlessly in her lap, and I understood her discomfiture. A battle was being waged within her. It was a highly irregular invitation from a stranger, which she should unequivocally refuse. And yet such a perfect trap for this particular trout. It had the ring of fate, were I a man to believe in such things. But neither did I disbelieve.
Finally, she asked outright, “What would those arrangements be, sir?”
“We shall travel together, but I shall arrange separate rooms, of course.”
Her gaze floated around the room in an absent way as she considered. “I would insist on paying my own way.”
I shook my head. “As your employer, I would expect to pay your way, and a salary for the work that I’ve asked you to do.”
“I would insist on paying my way,” she repeated more firmly. “But I will accept a small fee for the work. I’d rather not, as it is you who would be doing me the favor. But for propriety’s sake.”
“As you like, Miss Quicksilver.” I raised my glass and drained the last drops, covering the relief I felt, and rose to my feet. “Now, I’ve kept you until a late hour, and if you’ll forgive me for insisting again, I’ll escort you to your lodging. I cannot permit a visitor to our dark, foggy city to walk the streets alone at this time of night.”
She glanced around her again, and I saw her start as she discovered we were two of only a handful of patrons remaining in the Green Fairy.
She rose to her feet, and I lifted her cloak from the back of her chair and wrapped it about her shoulders. “I thank you, sir,” she said quietly, glancing up at me through eyes that narrowed further as she smiled. “I have enjoyed your company and lost track of the time.”
“And I yours,” I replied, noting the slight trembling of her frame beneath my hands. Conscious of an adolescent wish that this had somehow to do with my person rather than my proposal, I gestured toward the door, indicating she should precede me.
In the cobbled street outside, she again raised her hood, and we walked in silence until we reached her modest boarding house.
At the door, I said to her, “Shall I call on you tomorrow afternoon and provide you with the details of our journey?”
She eased her hood back far enough to let me see her face. “Thank you, sir. I’m spending the day at Trinity College tomorrow, but I shall make a point of being in by teatime.”
“Good night, then, Miss Q.”
“Good night, Lord Meath.”
I waited until she’d roused her hostess and gone inside before crossing the street to the boarding house opposite and taking a room for this night and the next. I confess I used my station to secure the room of my choosing, and the hostess was surprised when I expressed my wish for one of the small rooms in the front, facing the street.
I’d climbed into bed—without my final nightly dose of la fée verte, as I hoped to sleep lightly—before it occurred to me that while preoccupied with appreciating my own cleverness, I’d managed to lose sight of the fact that the prophesied death of Miss Quicksilver might, in fact, be related to her acquaintance with me.
End of Chapter 1.