Smite rubbed his hand along his chin and found unruly stubble. “I became a magistrate because I wanted to help those who most needed it. Over the years, I’ve needed to remind myself of the cost of justice. I have used the…memory of my own experiences.”
He’d held onto them with both hands.
“But my own experiences are limited. There is much that I haven’t seen or understood. And that is where you will come in. People, I am told, talk to you. Tell me what they say. Bring the good in your mother’s organization out into the open. Rid yourself of the need for threats and false imprisonments.”
Mrs. Blasseur frowned at that. “How?”
“Start by choosing a new set of constables, intended for Temple Parish alone. Find new men, who can serve as magistrates—men who really will listen. Take what is good from what the Patron offers. Do you think you could help with that?”
Jeremy gave a short, jerky nod.
“There we are, then.” Smite raised his eyes to Mrs. Blasseur. “There has been some good in what you’ve done. I shouldn’t want to see it discarded entirely. But the days of justice funded through burglary and enforced by murder are over.”
His hands were growing cold. If he was beginning to go numb, Mrs. Blasseur, frail as she was, must be freezing. But she made no sign that she felt the cold. Her eyes simply bored into his, knowing what he had not yet said.
“Can it be that easy?” Jeremy asked, his voice shaking.
That hint of compassion touched Smite again, fleeting as butterfly wings. He shut his eyes. “No,” he said softly. “It won’t be easy.”
“What do you mean?”
That was Jeremy’s question, but it wasn’t Jeremy that Smite faced. It was Mrs. Blasseur. “You are hereby placed under arrest.” He spoke softly, but his words seemed to expand to fill the vast open space of the Floating Harbour. The snow was beginning to stick on the ground, and it blanketed everything he said with chill. “You will be held in custody until such time as the numerous charges are laid against you. If charged—and you will be charged—you will be held in a cell alone, isolated from those you care for.” He paused. “It is consumption that afflicts you, is it not?”
“Then I doubt you’ll live to see the Quarter Sessions. In all probability, you’ll die alone in a cold cell. That is the price you must pay. Your organization will survive in some form; you cannot.”
“Can there not be the smallest bit of mercy for her, then?” Jeremy asked.
“No dear,” his mother answered. “There is no room for mercy. That is what it means to take charge. You can show no weakness, no compassion. I know what it means to fill your shoes, Lord Justice. If you have any sense at all, you’ll bind my wrists and march me to the station at this moment.”
“March you?” Jeremy said, anguished. “You can scarcely walk!”
Mrs. Blasseur was taken by another fit of coughing. When she finished, she looked up with a resigned smile. “Don’t you see? He can’t show any mercy for me, or nobody will believe me defeated. He needs to drive me before him in the snow to prove I’m no longer a threat. That his…his regime will replace mine.”
Jeremy shook his head.
“He’s right.” There was a bitterness to her voice. “Only one of us will survive this night. And if I try to make it me…”
Jeremy choked. “There has to be a better answer.”
“There cannot be. There is no escape for me. If this is the way I get what I’ve built to survive in some manner… I haven’t long to live, in any event. Promise me that you won’t make a fuss. Whatever he has to do—promise you won’t interfere. Don’t help me if I fall. Don’t—”
He felt a curious kinship with the woman. She didn’t deal justice—not truly. But like him, she’d tinkered with the machineries of death. She saw the people she helped as human and real. Maybe, without the benefit of the law behind her, she had gone just a little mad.
“Mrs. Blasseur,” Smite said. “I had not thought to drive you to the station like cattle.”
She stopped and frowned at him. “No? Well, I suppose it might turn ugly if I couldn’t make it.”
Smite didn’t push aside that moment of sympathy now. He embraced it, let himself feel the sorrow that Jeremy did. And then—because it had to be done, because there truly was no other choice…he let that moment of wistful regret dissipate and he met Mrs. Blasseur’s eyes. “Under the circumstances,” he said, “I had rather thought I would carry you.”
“It turns out,” he said, “that my duty dictates only what I must do. There is no mercy in the what. But there is room for it in the how.”
THEY MADE A SOLEMN, silent procession as they made their way to the city center in a column. The men Mrs. Blasseur had brought with her had vanished into the night. Ghost trailed the remaining folk almost somberly. Mrs. Blasseur weighed almost nothing in Smite’s arms. She didn’t tremble. She didn’t fight. She scarcely even breathed.
Halfway through the walk, the snow turned back to slush, and from there to a hard, cold rain that drummed against him relentlessly. The streets were deserted.
But when they arrived at the station, it was lit brightly. Smite pushed open the door to see a throng of blue-uniformed police officers standing near the front. A corporal was giving out orders; to his side stood Ash, watching the proceedings with a grim determination.
“We have reason to believe,” the corporal was saying, “there is a large group of armed men there. Do not hesitate to use force if it should prove warranted. Assume that nobody means you well—not women, not even children.”
Smite gently let Mrs. Blasseur down on her feet. Ash hadn’t seen them enter yet; he was watching the corporal with a hard, fierce look in his eyes.
“This is an insult to the city of Bristol that must be answered with force,” the corporal said.
“On the contrary,” Smite called out. “Force will not be necessary.”
As he spoke, Ash turned to him. A spectrum of emotions played across his brother’s face—fear changed to surprise, followed by a heart-stopping emotion that Smite could put no words to.
It took a few minutes to calm the crowd and to allay their worries. It took another few moments for Mrs. Blasseur to vanish into the holding cells. Ash slowly drifted across the room to him.
“Smite.” Ash reached out and clasped his hand. His brother’s fingers were warm against Smite’s chilled flesh.
“I had this notion for years that I would need to be the Duke of Parford to make things right for you. I thought—” he choked, then stopped. “Damn you, Smite. I must have aged ten years tonight.”
p; He grabbed Smite’s shoulder with his free arm and then pulled him into a fierce hug. Smite only stiffened for a second before he hugged him back.
“You know, Ash,” he said, before he could lose his nerve, “I love you.”
Ash pulled back and looked at him quizzically.
“And you will need to be the duke for me,” he said. “I made some rather egregious promises tonight. We’re going to need more constables—and you’re just the man to fund their salaries. Not to mention that we’ll need more magistrates; I’m weary of being the only one here who listens.” Smite gave his brother a tired smile. “Parliament will have to handle that. I’m hoping you’ll help me out.”
Someone else might have blinked an eye at that. But Ash simply shrugged his shoulders. “There,” he said. “You see? I was just saying that I needed to consider more charity.”
IT WAS ALMOST DAWN by the time Smite brought Miranda home—home to the house he’d bought for her. The rooms seemed too quiet to her; the servants, not expecting her to return, were in bed for the evening.
He brought her up to her bedchamber, helped her strip off clothing made sodden and cold. They rubbed each other dry with towels, then slipped into wrappers that should have been warm.
A fire in the bedchamber upstairs didn’t help. Huddling under the covers brought no warmth. The rain beat against the roof, hard at first, and then more softly. It was only when he drew her to him that Miranda stopped shaking. He pressed his body full-length against hers, and Miranda began to warm.
But even though he stroked her skin, he did not attempt anything so tame as a kiss. It was just warmth they shared: nothing more. He’d not tried anything more since…since that night in the inn. It seemed so long in the past. It was the only time he’d actually spent the night with her.
Through her window, the gray sky tinted first pink, then orange. The rain stopped and the clouds drifted apart, letting through ragged strains of early morning sunlight.
Smite sat up beside her. His gaze focused on some far vista. Just beyond the flotilla of masts on the Floating Harbour she saw a rainbow. It glimmered ephemerally, and then disappeared.