Kiss of Steel Page 4

By the time Lena returned, the coughing had stopped. Honoria rocked him gently, stroking the silky strands of hair off the back of his neck. It was day now and his skin was feverishly cool, almost pallid. At night he would twist and sweat, his teeth grinding together for hours.

“You’d best be going,” Lena said, holding the glass for Charlie. “Or you’ll be late. Again. You know what happened last time.”

Mr. Macy had given her a lecture about tardiness with the implied hint that he’d dock her pay next time. “I won’t be late. I’ll run if I need to.”

“In that?” Lena’s eyebrows shot up.

Honoria clenched her jaw. The dress she wore was her finest, with a cream-colored, floral brocade overdress and a flounce of cream pleats. Against the dull brown wool of Lena’s homemade gown, the dress looked beautiful. It was also a point of constant contention between them. Honoria’s job relied on keeping up appearances. Lena’s did not.

“Yes,” she snapped. “In this.”

“Don’t,” Charlie muttered hoarsely, grabbing her hand. “Don’t fight.”

The two sisters looked down at him.

“We’re not fighting,” Honoria said instinctively. She stroked her hand through his hair, tipping his chin up. “We’re…” And then she stopped.

“Charlie?” she whispered.

There was blood on his lips. His glassy eyes met hers. “What?”

“Oh, my goodness.” Lena sat up. “Oh no! Your dress!”

Honoria looked down in shock. Her shoulder was stained bright vermilion. Charlie touched his mouth, then stared at the blood on his fingertips.

“It’s nothing,” Honoria blurted. “You must have bitten your tongue. Lena, stop being such a…such a…” The blood was slick between her fingers. His condition couldn’t have gotten as bad as it had so swiftly. She’d been rigorous with Blaud’s iron pills and the injections of colloidal silver. Poor Charlie’s arm looked like a pincushion.

He gazed hypnotically at the blood. “There’s rather a lot of it,” he said. His little pink tongue darted out, licking at his bloodied lips. Something, some flash of darkness, swam through the pale blue of his irises.

“The rag!” she ordered, gesturing at a piece of stained flannel near the washstand. She snatched his hand and held it down, wiping the blood off with the rag Lena gave her. “There. Nearly done.”

“Honor. He’s…” Lena’s whisper died away.

Charlie was staring at Honoria’s bloodied shoulder. Hungrily.

“Lena.” Somehow her voice was cool and composed. Inside she was shaking like a leaf. “Run and fetch Doctor Madison. Tell him Charlie’s had another turn.”

“I can’t leave you with him—”

“Go,” Honoria commanded. “And send a lad to Mr. Macy’s to tell him Charlie’s ill again and I can’t make it in today.” That would be another shilling to send the message. And more for the doctor, on top of what they already owed. But it couldn’t be helped.

Lena spun on her heel and bolted in a flurry of skirts.

“Charlie,” she said in a low voice. “Charlie, look at me.”

His gaze lifted slowly.

“Stop it.” The hard, flat tone had never failed to work before.

His nostrils flared. “I can’t…” Suddenly he buried his face in his hands. “Can you go? Just go away a bit so I can’t smell it.”

Each step back from him felt like a weight settling on her shoulders. “Is this better?” she asked, staring at him from across the room. His face was almost as white as fresh snow. He looked so small against the bed, a little bloodied figure lost in the tangle of bed sheets. Seeing her brother in this condition was harder than anything she’d had to do before.

Charlie nodded, then erupted into another coughing attack.

Honoria could do nothing as another bloodied rain landed on the sheets. Heat burned behind her eyes. It wasn’t fair. Why wouldn’t fate simply leave them alone?

***

“Hmm.” Doctor Madison thumbed Charlie’s eyelid back.

Honoria hovered. “Well? Is he going to be all right?”

Madison stepped away from the bed and wrung his hands. “If I could trouble you for some tea, Miss Pryor?” He gave her a piercing look.

Honoria pasted a smile on her face. Inside, her stomach plummeted. “Of course, Doctor. If you’ll join me in the kitchen?” Leaning closer to Charlie, she tucked the sheets up over him and kissed his cool forehead. “Get some rest. I’ll bring you something to eat.”

“Not hungry,” he said in a quavering voice.

“Some of that nice stew Lena made the night before last,” she said, as though he hadn’t spoken. “I’ll soak the bread in it too so that it’s easy to get down.”

Getting it down didn’t seem to be the problem. Keeping it down was.

She closed the door behind them and crossed to the small stove and kettle. She’d sent Lena to work. There was no point in both sisters hovering over Charlie, and they needed the money.

“You know,” she said in a quiet voice, concentrating on stoking the stove. “When Mama died, I promised her I’d look after them. Charlie was so sweet. So small…” Her hands fell to her sides and she stared through the stove, seeing Charlie’s pink face and the tuft of silky blond hair on his head.

“How long has he been like this?”

“The coughing? Three weeks and five days. There hasn’t been any blood before—”

“Not the coughing, Miss Pryor.”

Though it was said gently, the words felt as though they’d taken her feet out from under her. “Five months. Five months since the first symptoms started showing up.” There. She’d said it.

The doctor’s eyebrows rose. “You’ve known what was wrong with him?”

She shook her head. Then nodded. “I know what the craving virus looks like, Doctor Madison…But it’s impossible. Charlie shouldn’t be able to…” She stopped then. More words that she didn’t dare speak aloud.

“Shouldn’t be able to?” he prompted.

“I simply can’t believe this is happening.” She smiled weakly and poured him a cup of tea.

The doctor gave her a look of fatherly concern, sipping at the tea. “You’d best be on your guard. I noticed the cot in his room. I don’t think either of you should be staying in there with him in these circumstances.”

“He would never hurt us.” And yet the way Charlie had looked at her, at the blood…

“He might not be able to control himself,” the doctor replied. “The monster inside him—”

“He’s not a monster.” But was that not what a blue blood was? What she’d always believed?

“Of course not. I meant only that Charlie might not be able to stop himself.”

Honoria sank into a chair. She—more than anyone—knew what the craving virus turned a person into. She had taken her father’s notes and helped him with the gentler patients at the Institute. There was even a scar on her shoulder where a young girl named Daisy—a sweet, mild-mannered girl before Vickers infected her—had gone for Honoria’s throat with her bare teeth one day when Honoria hadn’t kept her guard up.

If Charlie lost control—if he went after Lena—Honoria would never forgive herself. The infection was growing worse. If she didn’t find some way to stop it soon, it would be too late.

“I’ll move the cot. And I’ll lock the door when we’re asleep.”

The doctor squeezed her shoulder. “I’m sorry. I’ll have to report this.”

“No.” She surged to her feet. “No, please. They’ll take him away. They’ll kill him if he can’t control it, or if he does, they’ll lock him up and make him into one of their slaves.” She’d seen the mindless brutes the Echelon kept chained, displaying them on leashes as though they were the latest accessory. And those were the ones who survived.

Tears burned in her eyes. “Please,” she whispered.

“You have a month. It’s the best I can do. I would advise you to stay away from him as much as possible. Perhaps sucking on some raw meat might assuage his hunger. If he becomes violent, then restrain him.” The doctor hesitated on the doorstep. “There’s no charge for today.”

Honoria dashed at her eyes. “That’s not necessary. I can pay you—”

“I won’t be coming back, Miss Pryor. God have mercy on you.” Then he slipped his bowler on and hurried down the steps into the alley.

Chapter 3

A light shone in the window. Blade stalked through the fog that clung to the ground, swirling about his thighs. He couldn’t see a blasted thing, but he knew the cobblestones beneath his feet like he knew the back of his hand. It had been fifty years since he’d staggered into the ’Chapel, bleeding from a dozen stab wounds. He had decided then that this would be his home and that nobody—not even Vickers—could take it from him.

Blade’s war with the Echelon had been short but bloody. The metaljackets hunting him had the numbers, but the terrain was perfect for the kind of guerrilla warfare that Blade excelled at. Vickers might have taken him from the gutters, but Blade had never forgotten them. In the end, he had knifed more than twenty of the elite Coldrush Guards and destroyed at least fifty of the metaljacket drones with them. The Echelon had withdrawn, ceding him the rookeries.

Running a hand over the cold iron banister, he climbed the steps to the peeling, pea-green door. She hadn’t come. Miss Honoria Todd had reneged on their bargain. A kinder man might have asked why. But his first instinct was to work out how much advantage he could take from this.

Reaching out, he rapped sharply at the door. Three streets over a dog started barking. Blade smiled. He could smell Will trailing him over the rooftops as he’d strictly forbidden him to do. Rip and Will were like a pair of bleedin’ nursemaids. The lad was good, almost invisible, in fact, but sometimes he forgot that Blade’s senses were as finely tuned as his own.

Footsteps sounded from within. And a faint mutter as someone tripped over something. He leaned his palm against the doorjamb as the three locks were slipped.

The door cracked open an inch. A pair of liquid-dark eyes stared out then widened.

Blade examined his watch with exaggerated theater. “I coulda sworn I said ten.”

Honoria clapped a hand to her mouth. Dark circles swam under her eyes, and the shawl around her shoulders barely disguised the indentation of her collarbone. She opened the door just enough to slip out, shutting it behind her. “I’m so sorry. I completely forgot.”

Blade didn’t back away. Honoria was forced to look up at him, her back pressed against the door, with just an inch between them. She cleared her throat a little and tugged the shawl tighter. The movement drew attention to her slim hands. It softened what he’d been about to say.

“You forgot?”

“My brother isn’t well. We’ve had the doctor in. My visit with you completely slipped my mind.”

He couldn’t take his eyes off her wrists. Or the fine bones of her face and the gauntness of her cheeks. Honoria was slowly starving herself. He’d seen enough of it to think himself unaffected. But somehow he found himself stepping back, giving her space. “Come. Walk with me.”

Her face paled. “I can’t.”

“That weren’t an invitation.”

“I can’t leave my sister alone.”

Blade rapped on the door—with the pair of crossed daggers carved into it that morning. The mark of the Reapers gang and a sign of his protection. “Ain’t nobody crossin’ this threshold.”

That was the benefit of his protection for those who accepted his price. Slasher gangs, murderers, thieves, or just the odd drunken lout, it didn’t matter. He had a reputation to uphold. Cross him, or his, and Blade would come knocking.

Because of Blade, some said Whitechapel was as safe as the city proper these days.

Honoria chewed on her bottom lip. “I’ll just tell Lena where I’m going.” She had a hand on the door when she paused. “Where are we going? What time will I be back?”

“For a walk,” he replied, reining in his frustration. Honoria had been gently reared. A brief stint in the rookery hadn’t yet taught her that he was master here. He could afford to be patient. “’Bout an hour. Mebbe.”

She slipped inside and shut the door in his face. Blade splayed a hand over the coarse bricks of the doorjamb. Bloody woman, shutting the door on him. Anyone would think she was ashamed of having him here at her home. With his eyes narrowing, he leaned closer to listen.

“…where? Walking out with whom?” a young girl hissed.

“No one. Just…a man,” Honoria replied. “I’ve locked Charlie’s door. Don’t open it. I’ll be back as soon as I can get rid of…as soon as I can.”

“I see. Well, at least make sure he pays for it.”

Silence descended. Then the familiar, icy-cold whiplash of Honoria’s voice. “Don’t you ever speak to me like that again.” A chair squealed. “I’ll be back.”

Blade jerked back as he heard Honoria’s footsteps stalk toward him. He caught a glimpse of the room beyond as she opened the door: a table with three mismatched chairs, a pair of hideous brown curtains at the kitchen window, and a young girl with a pile of mending in front of her. She looked up, and he immediately saw the resemblance. Their dark eyes were the same, though the girl was marginally prettier, with plumper cheeks. Maybe eighteen. He couldn’t tell with her small frame.

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