The Duke with the Dragon Tattoo (Victorian Rebels, #6)

The Duke with the Dragon Tattoo (Victorian Rebels, #6)

Kerrigan Byrne

To Staci Hart - A new, old friend

And his eyes have all the seeming, of a demon’s that is dreaming.

—The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe


Newgate Prison, London, Autumn 1858

“I’m going to hurt you,” Walters warned in a cockney inflection graveled by pipe tobacco and East End coal smoke. He could have passed for a much older man if one never marked the almost infantile features supported by a neck the width of a mooring post.

“I rather find I like the pain.” Even as he said it, the boy wondered if he’d ever mean it. In Newgate Prison, if one did not make friends with his pain, it became nothing but a constant tormentor. There was no escaping it, so the boy and his mates had learned to invite it in, study its effects, and then mete it out with vicious efficiency.

The boy was almost a man. Indeed, at the age of eighteen, he was a leader of men. Walters, likely the largest brute of his acquaintance, did his bidding without question. Everyone did. Some because they liked and respected him. Others because they owed him. More yet, because they feared him.

Well, if he was being honest, they all feared him.

Because he was an agent of pain.

“Just get on with it, will you?” he ordered.

Walters’s meaty fingers wrapped around the sharpened quill, which he proceeded to dip into the ink.

Such delicate motions, the boy thought, for such a large and unwieldy man. This precision of movement probably made Walters the best forger in the empire.

Or had, before his incarceration.

In prison, Walters became an artist of a different kind. A man had to do what he could to stay busy behind these gray stone walls. To stay sharp. Either to stave off madness, or monsters.

For every kind of torment lurked in the shadows of this place.

“Where’d you say you got this again?” Walters gestured toward the dingy leather scrap upon which intriguing lines forked in black ink, weighted by the ancient sigil etched into obsidian.

“From the first blighter I killed,” the boy lied. “A pirate.”

A man was as good as his reputation. As true in prison as it was on the outside. The boy had never been one to let the truth get in the way of a good story, especially if it made him appear more dangerous.

Truth was, he’d filched the map and sigil on the day he’d been arrested, from a kindly but impoverished Danish historian who’d boarded with his mother.

That had also been the day they’d pulled Caroline Morley’s corpse out of the Thames.

Swallowing emotion he’d considered as dead as the beautiful golden-haired girl, he found the first sting of the quill a distracting relief as it broke the thin skin on the underside of his forearm.

An easier pain to bear than that of Caroline’s death.

The boy made calculations in his head as Walters worked. Plans. Contingency plans. Failsafe plans. Infinite estimations.

What if he pulled this off? The Blackheart Brothers could rule the empire by the time they turned twenty.

Controlling the excitement palpitating in his chest, he did his best to keep the quivers in his belly under control. The last month inside this hell on earth would be nothing less than excruciating. Like the tattoo, the moments of pressure before the skin broke caused the most discomfort.

He just wanted it over with. He wanted to breathe in the night air again. To enjoy food free of maggots. And drink water that didn’t taste of piss and smell of rotten eggs. He dreamt of a bed of fresh straw but would settle for a blanket against the cold.

Just one soft thing. One kind word. One beautiful sight.

In his years at Newgate, he’d forgotten such pleasures existed.

Except in his dreams. He’d always had such vivid dreams.

“Tell me again what this pirate said,” Walters encouraged, rubbing away wells of blood from the boy’s flesh with a tattered cloth. “Talking will help keep you still and pass the time.”

The boy nodded, recalling that the historian, Johan Sandergaard, had enthralled him and his mother with the story over dinner one night. The usually sedate man’s glacial blue eyes flashed with the fires of conquest he’d inherited from his ancestors.

“Legend has it that approximately fifty years after Christ was killed, Claudius, the first Roman to successfully invade Britannia, wrote in his personal journals that he found something here so astonishing it would make him wealthier than any emperor had ever been. Because of the wars with the vicious native tribe, the Trinovantes, he was unable to bring whatever it was back with him. Desperate to claim it, he sealed it up, and left it guarded by the Sigil of the Scythian Dragon, the banner of the Roman Cavalry. And do you know what dragons protect?”

“Everyone knows that dragons protect treasure.” Walters dipped the quill once more, wiping the trails of blood down the boy’s forearm. The repetitive abrasion over the fresh wounds inflamed the skin. Resisting the urge to grind his teeth to nubs, the boy bared his teeth in the semblance of a smile.

“Exactly,” he validated through a jaw that wouldn’t unbind. “Claudius was poisoned before he could ever return to Britannia, and the only clue he left was this sigil.”

Both men gazed down at the seal. The figure of a serpentine dragon with four claws and a tongue snaking between fearsome teeth snarled beneath the etching of two words. NIGRAE AQUAE.

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