Near Honfleur, France
Guy Trevelyan, Earl of Helsford, stopped short at the sharp smell of burning flesh. The caustic odor melded with the dungeon’s thick, moldy air, stinging his eyes and seizing his lungs. His watery gaze slashed to the cell’s open door, and he cocked his head, listening.
A sudden scrape of metal against metal. A faint sizzling sound followed by a muffled scream.
He stepped forward to put an end to the prisoner’s suffering but was yanked back and forced up against the dungeon’s cold stone wall, a solid forearm pressed against the base of his throat.
Nearly the same size as Guy, the Viscount Danforth wasn’t an easy man to dislodge. He knew that fact well. They had tested each other’s strength since they were boys.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” the viscount whispered near his ear. “We’re here for the Raven. No one else.”
He stared into Danforth’s shadowed face, surprised and thankful for his friend’s quick reflexes. What would have happened had he stormed into the cell to save a prisoner he knew nothing about, against odds he hadn’t taken time to calculate?
Something in the prisoner’s cry of pain had struck deep into his gut. His reaction had been swift and instinctual, more in line with Danforth’s reckless tendencies than his own carefully considered decisions.
“Leave off.” Furious with himself, he pushed against Danforth’s hold, and the other man’s arm dropped away.
He had to concentrate on their assignment, or none of them would leave this French hellhole alive. Their mission: retrieve the Raven, a female spy credited with saving hundreds of British lives by infiltrating the newly appointed emperor’s intimate circle and relaying information back to the Alien Office.
Guy shook his head, unable to fathom the courage needed to pull off such an ill-fated assignment. The ever-changing landscape of the French government ensured no one was safe—not the former king, the Ancien Régime, the bourgeoisie, or the commoner. And, most especially, not an English secret service agent.
Although Napoleon’s manipulation of the weak and floundering Consulate stabilized a country on the brink of civil destruction, the revered general-turned-dictator wasn’t content to reign over just one country. He wanted to rule all of Europe, possibly the entire world. If his enemies didn’t unite under one solid coalition soon, the bastard might achieve his goal.
Another muffled, gut-twisting cry from the cell drew his attention. He clenched his teeth, staring at the faint light spilling out of the room, alert for movement or any signs of what he might find within.
Sweet Jesus, he hoped the individual being tortured by one of Valère’s henchmen wasn’t the Raven. In his years with the Alien Office, he had witnessed a lot of disturbing scenes, some of his own creation. But to witness the mangled countenance of a woman…the image struck too close to the fear that had boiled in his chest for months—years—giving him no respite.
On second thought, he hoped the prisoner was the Raven. Then he wouldn’t have to make the decision to leave the poor, unfortunate soul behind, and they could get the hell out of this underground crypt posthaste.
“Are you well?” Danforth asked, eyeing him as if he didn’t recognize his oldest friend.
Guy shoved away from the stone wall, shrugging off the chill that had settled like ice in his bones. Devil take it. What did the chief of the Alien Office expect him to do? Walk up to the prisoner and say, “Hello, are you the Raven? No? What a shame. Well, have a nice evening.”
Only one person knew what the agent looked like, and Somerton had not offered up those details before ushering them off to France. Why? It was a question he intended to ask as soon as they returned to London, assuming they survived this mission.
“I’m fine.” He jabbed his thumb over his shoulder. “Cease with the mothering and get behind me.”
He barely registered the fist connecting with his arm, having already braced himself for Danforth’s retaliation. Some things never changed. Inching toward the cell door, he tilted his head and concentrated on the low rumble of voices until he was close enough to make out individual words.
“Why do you force me to be so cruel?” a plaintive voice asked. The Frenchman spoke slowly, as if talking to a child, which allowed Guy to quickly translate the man’s words. The gaoler continued, “All you have to do is provide my master with the information he seeks.”
A chain rattled. “Go to the devil, Boucher,” a guttural voice whispered.
Guy’s jaw hardened. The prisoner’s words were so low and distorted that it was impossible to distinguish the speaker’s gender. Every second they spent trying to solve the mystery of the prisoner’s identity was a second closer to discovery.
The interrogator let out a deep, exaggerated sigh. “The branding iron seems to have lost its effect on you. Let me see if I have something more persuasive.”
An animal-like growl preceded the prisoner’s broken whisper. “Your black soul will burn for this.”
Boucher chuckled low, controlled. “But not tonight, little spy. As you discovered, I do not have the same aversion to seeing you suffer as does my master.”
Something eerily familiar about the prisoner’s voice caught Guy’s attention. He glanced back at Danforth for his reaction and found puzzlement etched between his friend’s brows.
Guy turned back, the ferocity of his heartbeat pumping in his ears. His stomach churned with the certain knowledge that what he would discover in this room of despair would change his life forever.
He steadied his hand against the rough surface of the dungeon wall, leaned forward to peer into the cell. A wave of fetid air struck his nose. The smell was so foul that it sucked the breath from his lungs, and he nearly coughed to expel the sickening taste from his mouth and throat.
The cell was twice the size of the others they had searched. Heaps of filthy straw littered the floor caked with human waste, blood, and God knew what else. Several strategically placed candles illuminated a small, circular area, leaving the room’s corners steeped in darkness. In the center stood a long wooden table with a young man strapped to its surface by thick iron manacles.
A young Englishman. Disappointment spiraled through him. He glanced at Danforth, shook his head, and evaluated their situation. The corridor beyond the candlelit chamber loomed like a great, impenetrable abyss.
The intelligence Danforth had seduced from Valère’s maid revealed the château’s dungeon held twelve cells. If the maid’s information was correct, that left four more chambers to search. Would they, like all the others but this one, be empty?
He ignored Danforth’s warning tap on his shoulder and peered into the young man’s cell again. The prisoner’s filthy legs and arms splayed in a perfect X across the table’s bloodstained surface.
A few feet away, with his back to the prisoner, stood a slender man dressed in the clothes of a gentleman, his stark-white head bent in concentration over an assortment of spine-chilling instruments.
Guy watched the man assess each device with the careful attention of an enraptured lover, masterfully prolonging the young man’s terror. Give a victim long enough, and he’ll create plenty of painful scenes in his own mind so that the interrogator need only touch his weapon to the prisoner’s skin to elicit a full, babbling confession.
He couldn’t walk away from the poor soul struggling on the table, nor could he cold-bloodedly put an end to his misery. The young man was a countryman, not his enemy, and he would never leave one of his own in Valère’s hands.
With great care, he withdrew a six-inch hunting knife from his boot. He heard Danforth curse softly, violently, behind him, then a rustle of movement. His hand shot out to stay his friend, and a brief struggle ensued. Their roles now reversed, Guy whispered in Danforth’s ear, “There’s no way around this cell, and I’m not leaving him here.”
“We don’t have time—”
“I’m. Not. Leaving. Him.”
After a moment, Danforth gave a sharp nod and settled into the rear support position once more, anger dripping off him in waves.
He couldn’t blame his friend for wanting to press on. Evil penetrated every crack and hollow of this place. Even with his vast experience with the darker side of human nature, Guy felt trapped and edgy and desperate.
Guy shifted his attention to the prisoner just as the young man’s head swiveled toward the open doorway. Bleakness and terror etched his swollen, blood-encrusted face, but something more blazed behind the young man’s steady gaze—strength, fortitude, and determination.
He was a fighter, a warrior entombed in too small a body. A rush of fury mixed with a healthy dose of respect surged through him. How did one so young get involved with the likes of Valère?
Candlelight flickered over his youthful features, highlighting his blue-green eyes—or eye, as one was little more than a bloated slit.
Familiarity washed over him again.
An unusual color he had seen only once before. His muscles contracted. A wave of frigid heat swept across every inch of his skin, and nausea twisted in his gut.
He knew those eyes.
The young man wasn’t a man at all. But a damned woman.