Here’s a sneak peek at the first chapter of Ghostlight!
Trevelyan Shield knew Arabella Trent was trouble the moment he laid eyes on her that spring morning.
He was a trifle foxed, staggering home from the Plush Purple Peacock through streets filled with a pale golden haze. A happy fog occupied most, but not all, of his head. He could never quite turn off the watchful part that was currently keeping him from embracing a street lamp and attempting to waltz with it. Trey couldn’t quite understand why, but he was sure he’d be grateful for it later.
In the meantime, he had to navigate the early morning rush, a task that was more than usually difficult today.
Carts laden with milk and eggs trundled past him, pulled by dray horses who showed their pegasus heritage in vestigial wings and feathered hoofs. Their drivers shouted and cursed as the traffic inevitably snarled. Housewives on their way to market hurried down the footpath, jostling passersby with their large baskets. The pungent smells of spoiled milk and horse dung hung in the air.
All Trey wanted was his bed so he could block out the entirety of Lumen for a few blissful hours. A few hours to forget his life and his work, the dull heartache that still hadn’t eased, and the weight of the viscount’s title that he had never wanted.
And then he saw her.
Arabella Trent hesitated at the corner of Chipping Hill and Holgate, plainly waiting for an opening in the traffic. She wore a shrine cloak of traditional gray, its hood slipping off her head to reveal a riot of dark curls.
But it wasn’t the cloak that caught Trey’s attention, nor the curls. Neither did her large, lustrous eyes, nor her dainty nose, nor her slender figure—nor, indeed, any of the other considerable charms that Miss Trent possessed.
Rather, he was arrested by the way the sunlight shone through her translucent form.
Trey closed his eyes and counted to ten. Surely the apparition was a figment concocted by his exhausted mind and an excess of the Peacock’s excellent brandy. When he opened his eyes, she’d be gone.
He cracked an eyelid.
She was still there.
Trey considered a strategic retreat. He’d go home, send a message to the Office about the spirit, then fall face forward onto his bed.
After all, he had just spent half the night exorcising a particularly pernicious haunt. Dealing kindly and gently with a debutante was a trying exercise for him at the best of times. In his current state, it would be nigh on impossible.
The ghost of Arabella Trent turned and saw him. Pleased recognition lit up her eyes. She tilted her head at him in a way that invited, if not outright commanded, his help.
Trey struggled briefly with himself. Generations of good breeding won over selfish desire. With a mental farewell to his bed, which had retreated further and further away from him, he crossed the street to the young woman.
Her aethereal substance, he noted, gleamed with the luster of a pearl.
A relieved smile spread across Miss Trent’s face as he approached. “Lord St. Ash,” she greeted him with the title that still didn’t fit, “good morning.”
She had to have dimples, thought Trey darkly. Charming ones.
Miss Trent faltered at his expression. Trey knew just how forbidding it was, having cultivated it in front of his mirror as a boy.
“Miss Trent,” he said without preamble, “what are you doing here all by yourself?”
She looked stricken. Trey winced. He had just accused her of gross impropriety.
He was no good with very young women like her, dead or alive. He had never bothered to temper his blunt speech or aloof demeanor around them. At least he had never made Miss Trent cry. Not to his recollection, anyway. Still it’d be best to fetch Hilda who was far better at this…
The realization hit him like a bucketful of cold water, washing away the last mists of inebriation, leaving only a throbbing ache. Hilda wasn’t here anymore. Nor were so many of the other phantasmists. Not after the Incursion.
He had to do this on his own.
Miss Trent’s hands fluttered as she explained. “Oh! Of course I wasn’t here by myself. My friends and I formed a party to visit Shrine Park at dawn.” She gestured at the screen of yews behind her. “Somehow I was separated from them, and now I cannot seem to cross this street at all. I’m so glad you came, my lord! I was beginning to think I had turned completely invisible.”
You have. Trey bit down on the words, unable to say them with Miss Trent’s eyes meeting his with frank amusement.
Instead he looked over her shoulder to where Shrine Park brooded behind its barrier of evergreens and stone walls. The massive wrought-iron gates warned away rather than welcomed in. It was like another world in there, quiet and weighty, cut off from the life of the city. Had this young woman died there? He found that hard to believe, not with the monastic orders keeping watch over the place.
“I didn’t know people still visited shrines during the Vernal Rites,” he remarked. High society was generally glad to leave religious obligations for Holy Week, which would begin in three days. “I thought it had fallen out of fashion.”
“Well, I am decidedly unfashionable.” Even as a ghost, Miss Trent was more animated than most people managed while being alive. Her eyes fairly danced with enthusiasm. “I came to Lumen late last autumn, and I want to see and do everything, no matter how rustic people think me. My friends were kind enough to indulge me by visiting the shrines today, but I have stupidly misplaced them and caused them trouble.” Faint frown lines appeared between her brows, a detail that wasn’t lost on Trey.
She must be very recently dead.
He was starting to feel sorry for her. It was a dangerous emotion, especially in his occupation. Apparitions often transformed from piteous victims to murderous specters with alarming rapidity.
But since this oblivious ghost showed no signs of growing fangs and attacking him, he merely said, “Then let me take you home, before your guardians are needlessly worried about you. You live with the Elliots, do you not?”
“Yes. Aunt Cecilia is my father’s sister. We reside on Crescent Circle, in Bottleham.”
“Come, then.” Trey caught the eye of an oncoming carter, gestured imperiously, and strode into the road. With a baleful glare, the driver reined in his horse. Behind him, other carters halted their own vehicles, cries of “Make way for the gentleman!” going down the whole line.
Miss Trent squeaked, gathered up her cloak and white skirt, and scurried after him. Her incorporeal feet made no sound on the dusty street, but she didn’t appear to notice.
She gave him an appreciative look as they stepped once more onto pavement. “Well done!”
“For managing to cross the road without being flattened? I thank you,” said Trey dryly.
His tone did nothing to dampen her merriment. “When I made the attempt, I was attacked by geese and almost run over. That is why I’m so impressed.”
Trey was tempted to explain that almost being run over was the least of Miss Trent’s troubles. But he settled for, “No geese in sight. You’re safe, Miss Trent.”
“Indeed.” She matched his longer strides with quick ones of her own, not complaining at the pace he set. “I can see you are one of those competent and useful sort of men. I’m glad you came along!”
Trey wasn’t. A headache pounded in his temples. However, he could hardly tell Miss Trent that he was contemplating the least bothersome way to send her off into her afterlife.
Pedestrian traffic gave way before Trey the same way the carters had. Maybe it was his air of unconscious authority or the hum of magic that surrounded him.
Or perhaps it was that he projected a formidable vexation.
Whatever the reason, the flow of laborers and housewives parted around him, giving him wider berth than was strictly necessary. Trey considered this to be for Miss Trent’s benefit—even an oblivious ghost like her could hardly fail to notice if she walked through a basket of mackerel. She certainly wouldn’t appreciate a close encounter with the fish’s silver scales and round eyes.
They proceeded in silence for a while as the crowds thinned out around them, before Miss Trent spoke again. “To be candid,” she confided, “I had always thought you a trifle aloof.”
“I thought you were being candid,” remarked Trey. “I think the word you’re looking for is disagreeable. Or maybe toplofty. Haughty?” He examined the pale sky above some chimney pots, weighing the word. “Yes, haughty would definitely do.”
“If you say so, my lord.” Dimples peeped in her cheeks again. Her hood had slipped off her glossy head, so he could clearly make out her expression with a quick glance. “I recall you displayed a lack of enthusiasm when you danced with me at the Holmsteads’ two weeks ago.”
“It was in self-defense.”
“From me?” Her brow furrowed.
“No.” He gave her a sideways look and grinned. “I have been battling all of society’s matrons for years. You were unfortunately caught in the crossfire.”
“Oh?” She looked intrigued and amused. “What is the nature of this conflict, my lord?”
Trey shrugged. “It is simply that I am young, unattached, and of good birth. It is my duty, according to society, to be available to even out numbers at a supper party or make a fourth at cards.”
“Or partner a lady who would otherwise have to sit out a dance,” Miss Trent put in. She sidled past two barrels some chandler had seen fit to place outside his shop. The stench of tallow filled the air.
“Precisely.” Trey’s lips twisted in a self-mocking smile. “I admit I have little use for social niceties, so I do my best to discourage hostesses from thinking of me when making up their guest lists. But perhaps I should not have told you.”
“I’ll take your secret to the grave,” she vowed in mock-seriousness.
A chill went over Trey. Out of habit, the fingers of his left hand curled, seeking a sword hilt.
Miss Trent gave him a slight, puzzled frown. She went on, less brightly, “For an instant back at the park, I was afraid you would turn on your heel and leave me to my fate on the street corner.”
“I almost did.” His own honesty startled him. Was it Miss Trent herself who invited confidences, or her circumstances? After all, as a ghost she no longer counted as a member of the polite society Trey kept at arm’s length. He pushed on. “So you see, Miss Trent, your first impression of me was the correct one. I am quite disagreeable.”
She didn’t answer. Glancing down at her, Trey saw a look of serious sympathy on her face. The expression sent a frisson of recognition through him, though he couldn’t remember why.
“It gets lonely, doesn’t it,” she said softly, “holding the world at a distance?”
Before he could respond, Miss Trent’s attention shifted. With a muffled exclamation, she darted ahead to where a cart stood in the street, surrounded by interested onlookers. “Stop it! Stop mistreating that unfortunate child at once.”
She hurried past the spectators, not noticing how the large right sleeve of her cloak dragged through the arm of a small man in a leather apron.
The brutish man in work-stained clothes did not, in fact, refrain from cuffing the cringing boy he held by one ear. Miss Trent’s vehemence was entirely wasted on him. Trey thought he’d better intervene before her wrath turned her into some grey-skinned hag with bat wings.
“You there!” Trey hailed the man. “What are you doing to that unfortunate child—I mean, that boy?”
The man craned his head towards Trey in bug-eyed surprise. “’E’s a thief, mister,” he said self-righteously. “Snatched an apple off me cart. I’s got to disc’pline ’im, see. Right useless piece of work, ’e is.” He shook the unlovely child who howled something to the effect that Tommy made him do it, it wasn’t his fault, and other details Trey had no interest in pursuing.
“Discipline!” exclaimed Miss Trent, flushed with indignation and still showing no signs of growing fangs. “That’s not discipline; it’s just taking his own nasty temper out on the boy!”
“Put the boy down, man. I can hardly hear myself think above his yowling.” Pain throbbed behind Trey’s eyes. He glared at the gathered onlookers and asked in a glacial tone, “Don’t you people have somewhere else to be?” At which point, they remembered several pressing appointments and dispersed, some in haste, others reluctantly.
The carter released his captive, who looked as if he would take to his heels. Trey prevented this by putting a hand on the urchin’s thin shoulder. The boy’s sharp-featured face was pinched under the grime.
“Hungry, are you?” he asked.
A wary look crept into the urchin’s eyes. His gaze flicked from Trey’s face to focus on something beyond his shoulder—
He was looking at Miss Trent. He could see her. Trey’s hand tightened and the boy yelped.
“Answer the gent, you!” The carter raised his hand to smack the boy, only to be stopped short by Trey’s cold glare.
“Yes! I’m ’ungry, sir,” said the thief in a rush. “’Twas only one apple, sir, and ’alf-rotted, too.”
“Now look ’ere,” roared the carter, anger suffusing his face at these aspersions cast on his fruit.
“How much?” snapped Trey.
“Beg pardon, sir?”
“Never mind,” muttered Trey. He fished in his pocket and came up with a copper coin. He tossed it at the carter. “Take this for your trouble. I’ll deal with the boy.”
The carter stared, first at Trey, then at the coin. Then he shrugged, as if washing his hands off the whole business and turned to his cart.
“My lord,” Miss Trent broke in, “I think we ought to—”
“Just a moment, Miss Trent!” said Trey. “I believe I’ve just volunteered to deal with this boy.” Just like I made you my problem, he thought ruefully.
It must be the effects of the Peacock’s brandy. He was normally not so quixotic.
Trey looked down at the urchin whose gaze was flickering back and forth between his two benefactors, eyes full of alarmed suspicion. “What’s your name, boy?”
“Jem, sir.” The boy straightened to attention.
“Well, Jem, I’m not in the habit of bailing out thieves, no matter what their age. But I’ll give you a chance to earn your keep. Lying and stealing won’t be tolerated, you will submit to a bath, and you’ll have to work. But in return you’ll get a warm place to sleep and food to fill your belly. What do you say? Be quick about it—I haven’t the time.”
Indecision warred in the boy’s expression. Trey waited. Finally, the urchin took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. “Aye, sir. I’ll do it.”
“Good boy.” Trey released his grip. “First thing, go to Hopechurch Street. You know where it is?” At the boy’s nod, Trey took a piece of paper from his pocket. He brought it to life with a touch. A strand of aether, shimmering gray, coiled itself into a series of runes, sinking into the fibers. Trey folded the missive into a complex shape, pressed his thumb into the place where the folds met. A sizzle and the Shield insignia appeared in fiery colors, holding the message shut.
“Golly!” Jem’s eyes went wide. Miss Trent, ghostly and glimmering and hovering a few inches off the pavement, looked on with interest.
“You know the Quadrangle?”
Jem blanched. “That place where they muck about with dead people and ’venging sp’rits and such?”
“That’s the one.” Trey’s grin was malicious. “Take this message to a man named Morgan who works there. You’ll have no trouble getting someone to point him out.”
“What then?” The boy’s expression was suspicious.
“Then you do as Morgan says. Congratulations, Jem. You are now a civil servant, the God-Father help us all.”
“You didn’ say that at first!” squawked the boy.
“Changing your mind?” Trey arched his eyebrows.
“’Course not. You said warm bed and full belly, right?” Jem snatched the message and stuffed it down his ragged shirt. “I’ll be there.” He glowered at Trey. “’Sides you got yer hands full ’ere, dontcha?” He ran off before Trey could say anything else.
Trey eyed the urchin’s departing figure, wondering if he would regret this. Morgan would give him an earful, no doubt, for saddling him with the boy. But people who saw apparitions were rare to begin with. It wasn’t every day you ran into a seer.
Boy disposed of, he turned to face his bigger problem.
Miss Trent favored him with a long-suffering look. “I was going to say,” she remarked, “that Lady Holmstead’s new orphan house might be a good place for Jem.”
“Not for such a streetwise brat,” Trey countered. “Believe me, Morgan will do Jem a sight more good than all of Lady Holmstead’s matrons.”
“And here I thought you agreed that her orphan house was a most noble endeavor. You listened to me prose on about it for fully a quarter of an hour at her supper!”
“Did I? I was probably thinking of something else.” Trey resumed walking Crescent Circle-wards and Miss Trent fell in beside him. She didn’t appear to notice—or mind if she had—that he hadn’t offered her his arm.
“I hope you have also not forgotten your promise to donate a hundred pounds to the charity.”
Trey frowned. “I have a vague recollection of vowing such a thing to stop the prosing.”
Her dimples peeped again. “Yes, I do have a knack for acquiring large sums of money from our donors,” she said complacently.
“What a conniving chit you are,” Trey remarked without heat. “Was this your revenge for my lack of enthusiasm in dancing with you?”
“I would never.” The twinkle in her eyes belied her statement.
Miss Trent kept up a bright stream of chatter, mostly centered around her delight at the spring festivities in Lumen, which culminated in the grand assembly at Merrimack’s tomorrow night, followed by a procession to the Keep the morning after.
Trey listened in silence, partly because he didn’t want to be seen talking to empty air and partly out of bemusement. Most of the apparitions he encountered were decidedly insane. They certainly didn’t hold conversations about social events while he tried not to notice their long lashes or slender hands.
Miss Trent didn’t attract the notice of any other seers, though he couldn’t say the same for stray elementals. An undine rose from a muddy puddle to stare at the ghost out of silvered eyes. A flock of sylphs, mere diaphanous glimmers, darted above their heads before flying off to torment a sleeping tabby cat.
“And I have always wanted to see the Mirror of Elsinore up close,” Miss Trent finished. The Mirror, the centerpiece of the Procession, was a national treasure guarded zealously by the government and removed from its hiding place only once a year.
“You can’t,” said Trey crushingly. “They call it the Viewing, but no one’s allowed into the solar save for the Guardians. Revitalizing a priceless magical object that protects our borders is not a public spectacle.”
“Another time then,” said Miss Trent, uncrushed.
They were in Bottleham, a quiet genteel neighborhood of terraced houses in red brick rather than the white-washed stucco and gray stone of more modern architecture. A milkman’s cart and horse rattled by, two maids beat rugs on a stair railing, and an elderly gentleman took the air, followed by his gnome servant. Trey received some curious looks; no one else appeared to notice Miss Trent.
“It’s the house just up ahead, with the yellow door. Uncle Henry grumbles about the color, but I think it’s sunny and cheerful.” Miss Trent paused, her attention on the hackney pulled up to the house in question.
A tall, thin man, black bag in hand, sprang up the steps and was admitted inside.
“That’s Dr. Barkley, my aunt’s physician.” Miss Trent’s brows drew together.
A pair of girls, arms around each other, emerged from the house. Both looked pale and shaken, their heads bowed, not paying attention to anything else.
Which was good because Trey, with an inward sigh, recognized one of the two. Charlotte Blake—known to all her family as Charlie—was the younger sister of a college friend. The large, rambunctious Blake family had somewhat adopted him during those years; he’d spent many of his holidays in their rather ramshackle, but always lively, household.
And now he felt beholden to help the friend of a girl he fondly considered a younger sister.
“And those are my friends! Why, what has happened?” cried Miss Trent. She started forward, her feet rising a few inches from the ground.
“Miss Trent!” Trey added a compulsion to his command; Miss Trent turned to him, her feet settling back onto the ground.
“Is someone ill, my lord?” she whispered. In the stronger light, she looked more insubstantial than ever. “Or… or… is it…?”
Trey wished again he could hand this off to Hilda, who’d mothered everyone and had always known the right thing to say. But it was Trevelyan Shield who stood here now. He ran his hand through his already tousled hair. And it was still only Thursday.
Best get it over with.
“Miss Trent, raise your hand and look at it.”
“What?” She stared at him as she lifted her arm. “What’s wrong with—?”
Miss Trent glanced at her hand and froze. Her eyes grew wide. Her mouth rounded.
“You’ll have to forgive me, Miss Trent. I’m not at all good at breaking things gently.” Trey made a complicated gesture as she started to scream.
Miss Trent’s form glowed blue, collapsed into itself, and winked out.
Trey stared at the Elliots’ sunshine-yellow door.
It was, he knew, going to be another long day.
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