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The gruesome murder of a young French physician draws aristocratic investigator Sebastian St. Cyr and his pregnant wife, Hero, into a dangerous, decades-old mystery as a wrenching piece of Sebastian’s past puts him to the ultimate test.
Regency England, January 1813: When a badly injured Frenchwoman is found beside the mutilated body of Dr. Damion Pelletan in one of London’s worst slums, Sebastian finds himself caught in a high-stakes tangle of murder and revenge. Although the woman, Alexi Sauvage, has no memory of the attack, Sebastian knows her all too well from an incident in his past—an act of wartime brutality and betrayal that nearly destroyed him.
As the search for the killer leads Sebastian into a treacherous web of duplicity, he discovers that Pelletan was part of a secret delegation sent by Napoleon to investigate the possibility of peace with Britain. Despite his powerful father-in-law’s warnings, Sebastian plunges deep into the mystery of the “Lost Dauphin,” the boy prince who disappeared in the darkest days of the French Revolution, and soon finds himself at lethal odds with the Dauphin’s sister—the imperious, ruthless daughter of Marie Antoinette—who is determined to retake the French crown at any cost.
With the murderer striking ever closer, Sebastian must battle new fears about Hero’s health and that of their soon-to-be born child. When he realizes the key to their survival may lie in the hands of an old enemy, he must finally face the truth about his own guilt in a past he has found too terrible to consider....
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C. S. Harris has written more than twenty novels. Why Kings Confess is the ninth book in the Sebastian St. Cyr mystery series, following What Darkness Brings, When Maidens Mourn, and Where Shadows Dance. Harris is also the author of the C. S. Graham thriller series coauthored with former intelligence officer Steven Harris, including The Babylonian Codex, The Solomon Effect, and The Archangel Project, and, writing as Candice Proctor, is the author of seven award-winning historical romances, including Beyond Sunrise and Midnight Confessions. A respected scholar of nineteenth-century Europe, she is also the author of a nonfiction historical study of the French Revolution entitled Women, Equality, and the French Revolution. She lives in New Orleans with her husband and two daughters.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
St. Katharine’s, East London Thursday, 21 January 1813
Paul Gibson lurched down the dark, narrow lane, his face raw from the cold, his fingers numb. There were times when he wandered these alleyways lost in brightly hued reveries of opium-induced euphoria. But not tonight. Tonight, Gibson clenched his jaw and tried to focus on the tap-tap of his wooden leg on the icy cobbles, the reedy wail of a babe carried on the night wind—anything that might distract his mind from the restless, hungering need that drenched his thin frame with sweat and tormented him with ghosts of what could be.
When he first noticed the woman, he thought her an apparition, a mirage of gray wool and velvet lying crumpled beside the entrance to a fetid passageway. But as he drew nearer, he saw pale flesh and the gleaming dark wetness of blood and knew she was only too real.
He drew up sharply, the dank, briny air of the nearby Thames rasping in his throat. Cat’s Hole, they called this narrow lane, a refuge for thieves, prostitutes, and all the desperate dispossessed of England and beyond. He could feel his heart pounding; the stars glittered like shards of broken glass in the thin slice of cold black sky visible between the looming rooftops above. He hesitated perhaps longer than he should have. But he was a surgeon, his life dedicated to the care of others.
He pushed himself forward again.
She lay curled half on her side, one hand flung out palm up, eyes closed. He hunkered down awkwardly beside her, fingertips searching for a pulse in her slim neck. Her face was delicately boned and framed by a riot of long, flame red hair, her lashes dark and thick against the pale flesh of her smooth cheeks, her lips purple-blue with cold. Or death.
But at his touch, her eyelids fluttered open, her chest jerking on a sob and a broken, whispered prayer. “Sainte Marie, Mère de Dieu, priez pour nous pauvres pécheurs . . .”
“It’s all right; I’m here to help you,” he said gently, wondering whether she could even understand him. “Where are you hurt?”
The entire side of her head, he now saw, was matted with blood. Wide-eyed and frightened, she fixed her gaze on him. Then her focus shifted to where the black mouth of the passage yawned beside them. “Damion . . .” Her hand jerked up to clutch his sleeve. “Is he all right?”
Gibson followed her gaze. The man’s body was more difficult to discern, a dark, motionless mass deep in the shadows. Gibson shook his head. “I don’t know.”
Her grip on his arm twisted convulsively. “Go to him. Please.”
Nodding, Gibson surged upright, staggering slightly as his wooden peg took his weight and the phantom pains of a long-gone limb ripped through him.
The passage reeked of rot and excrement and the familiar coppery stench of spilled blood. The man lay sprawled on his back beside a pile of broken hogsheads and crates. It was with difficulty that Gibson picked out the once snowy white folds of a cravat, the silken sheen of what had been a fine waistcoat but was now a blood-soaked mess, horribly ripped.
“Tell me,” said the woman. “Tell me he lives.”
But Gibson could only stare at the body before him. The man’s eyes were wide and sightless, his handsome young face pallid, his outflung arms stiffening in the cold. Someone had hacked open the corpse’s chest with a ruthless savagery that spoke of rage tinged with madness. And where the heart should have been gaped only an open cavity.
Bloody and empty.
Friday, 22 January
The dream began as it often did, with the sun shining golden warm and the laughter of children at play floating on an orange blossom–scented breeze.
Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, moved restlessly in his sleep, for he knew only too well what was to come. The thunder of galloping horses. A shouted order. The hiss of sabers drawn with deadly purpose from well-oiled scabbards. He gave a low moan.
Laughter turned to screams of terror. His vision filled with slashing hooves and bare steel stained dark with innocent blood.
He opened his eyes, his chest heaving as he sucked in a deep, ragged breath. He felt his wife’s gentle fingertips touch his lips. Her face rose above him in the darkness, her features pale in the glow of the fire that still burned warm on the bedroom hearth. “It’s a dream,” she whispered, although he saw the worry that drew together her dark brows. “Just a dream.”
For a moment he could only stare at her, lost in the past. Then he folded his arms around Hero and drew her close, so that she could no longer see his face. It was a dream, yes. But it was also a memory, one he had never shared with anyone.
“Did I wake you?” he asked, his voice a hoarse rasp. “I’m sorry.”
She shook her head, her weight shifting as she sought in vain for a comfortable position, for she was nearly nine months heavy with his child. “Your son keeps kicking me.”
Smiling, he placed his hand on the taut mound of her belly and felt a strong heel grind against his palm. “Shockingly ill-mannered of her.”
“I think he’s beginning to find it a wee bit crowded in there.”
“There is a solution.”
She laughed, a low, husky sound that caught without warning at his heart, then twisted. As much as he yearned to hold this child in his arms, thoughts of the looming birth inevitably brought a sense of disquiet that came perilously close to fear. He’d read once that more than one in ten women died in childbirth. Hero’s own mother had lost babe after babe—before nearly dying herself.
Yet he heard no echo of his own terror in Hero’s calm voice when she said, “Not long now.”
He felt the babe kick one last time, then settle as Hero snuggled beside him. He brushed his lips against her temple and murmured, “Try to sleep.”
“You sleep,” she said, still smiling.
He watched her eyelids drift closed, her breathing slow. Yet the tension that thrummed within him remained, and he found himself wondering if it was the coming babe that had sent his unconscious thoughts drifting back to a time he wished so desperately to forget. A cold wind stirred the heavy velvet drapes at the windows and banged an unlatched shutter somewhere in the darkness. There were nights when the high, arid mountains and ancient, stone-walled villages of Spain and Portugal seemed a lifetime away from the London town house sleeping around him. Yet he knew they were not.
He was still awake when an urgent message arrived in Brook Street from Paul Gibson, asking for Sebastian’s help.
· · ·
The woman lay in a narrow bed in the front chamber of Gibson’s Tower Hill surgery. The room was small and plain and lit only by a single candlestick and the enormous fire that roared on the hearth. Piles of blankets covered her thin frame, yet still she shivered. Between the blankets and the thick bandage that swathed the side of her head, Sebastian could see little of her face. But what he could see looked ominously pale and bloodless.
“Will she live?” he asked quietly, pausing in the chamber’s doorway.
Gibson stood beside the bed, his gaze, like Sebastian’s, on the unconscious woman before him. “Difficult to say at this point. There could be bleeding in the brain. If so . . .” He let his voice trail away.
Sebastian shifted his gaze to his friend’s gaunt face. He was looking unusually haggard, even for Gibson, his cheeks hollow and unshaven, his green eyes sunken and bloodshot, his wiry frame close to emaciated. He was only in his early thirties, yet streaks of gray already showed at the temples of his dark hair.
The two men came from different worlds, one the son of a poor Irish Catholic, the other heir to the powerful Earl of Hendon. But they were old friends. Once, they’d both worn the King’s colors, fighting from the mountains of Italy to the fever-racked swamps of the West Indies and the stony uplands of Iberia. As a regimental surgeon, Gibson had learned the secrets of life and death with an intimate familiarity rarely matched by his civilian peers. When a French cannonball tore off the lower part of one of his legs and left him bedeviled by chronic pain, he had come here, to London, to share his knowledge of anatomy at the teaching hospitals of St. Thomas’s and St. Bartholomew’s, and to open this small surgery in the shadow of the Tower of London.
“And if there is bleeding in the brain?” Sebastian asked.
“Then she’ll die.”
“How can you know?”
“Only time will tell. And then there’s the risk of pneumonia . . .” Gibson shook his head. “Her body temperature was dangerously low when I found her. I’ve packed flannel-wrapped hot bricks around her, but there’s not much else I can do at this point.”
“What was she able to tell you about the attack?”
“Nothing, I’m afraid. She lost consciousness when she learned of her companion’s death, and she’s yet to come around again. I don’t even know her name.”
Sebastian glanced at the bloodstained gray wool walking dress and velvet-trimmed spencer tossed over a nearby chair back. Both were worn but, other than for the new stains, clean and respectable. This was no common woman of the streets.
“And the dead man? What do you know of him?”
“He’s a French physician named Dr. Damion Pelletan.”
Gibson nodded. “According to his papers, he registered as an alien just three weeks ago.” He raked his disheveled hair back from his face with splayed fingers. “The fools who pass for the authorities in St. Katharine’s are convinced the attack was the work of footpads.”
“St. Katharine’s is a dangerous place,” said Sebastian. “Especially at night. What the devil were you doing there?”
Gibson’s gaze drifted away. “I . . . I sometimes feel the need to walk, of an evening.”
Sebastian studied his friend’s flushed, half-averted face and wondered what the hell would drive a one-legged Irish surgeon to wander the back alleys of St. Katharine’s on one of the coldest nights of the year. “You’re lucky you didn’t fall victim to these footpads yourselves.”
“Footpads had nothing to do with this.”
Sebastian raised one eyebrow. “So certain?”
Gibson nodded to the middle-aged matron who dozed in a slat-backed wooden chair beside the fire. “Keep an eye on the woman,” he told her. “I won’t be long.”
To Sebastian, he said, “There’s something I want you to see.”
At the base of the frost-browned, unkempt yard that stretched to the rear of the surgery stood a low stone outbuilding where Gibson conducted both his official postmortems and the surreptitious, illegal dissections he performed on cadavers filched from the city’s churchyards by body snatchers. Of one room only, with high windows to discourage the curious, the building had a flagged floor and was bitterly cold. At its center stood a granite slab with strategically placed drains and a channel cut into the outer edge.
The body of a man, still fully clothed, lay upon it.
“I haven’t had a chance to begin with him yet,” said Gibson, hooking the lantern he carried onto the chain that dangled over the slab.
It sometimes seemed to Sebastian as if every suicide, every bloated body pulled from the Thames, every decaying cadaver that passed through this building, had left a stench that seeped into its walls, their muted howls of anguish and despair echoing still.
He took a deep breath and entered the room. “If St. Katharine’s authorities are convinced he was killed by common thieves, I’m surprised they agreed to an autopsy.”
“They weren’t exactly what you might call enthusiastic. To quote Constable O’Keefe”—Gibson puffed out his cheeks, narrowed his eyes, and adopted a decidedly nasal accent—“‘Wot ye want t’ be botherin’ wit’ all that fer, then? Sure but any fool can see wot killed him.’” The lantern swung back and forth on its chain, casting macabre shadows across the slab and its grisly occupant. He put up a hand to still it. “I had to promise I wouldn’t be charging the parish for my services. And I paid the lads who carried the body here myself.”
Sebastian studied the slim, slightly built man upon the surgeon’s slab. He was young yet, probably no more than twenty-six or twenty-eight, with a pleasant, even-featured face and high forehead framed by soft golden curls. His clothes were of good quality—better than the woman’s and considerably newer, fashionably cut in the Parisian style and showing little wear. But what had once been a fine silk waistcoat and linen shirt were now ripped and soaked with blood, the chest beneath hacked open to reveal a gaping cavity.
“What the hell? He looks like he was attacked with an axe.”
“It’s worse than that,” said Gibson, tucking his hands up under his armpits for warmth. “His heart has been removed.”
Sebastian raised his gaze to the Irishman’s solemn face. “Please tell me he was already dead when this was done to him.”
“I honestly don’t know yet.”
Sebastian forced himself to look, again, at that ravaged torso. “Any chance this could be the work of a student of medicine?”
“Are you serious? Even a butcher would have been more delicate. Whoever did this made a right royal mess of it.”
Sebastian shifted his gaze to the dead man’s face. His eyes were large and widely spaced, the nose prominent, the mouth full lipped and soft, almost feminine. Even in death, there was a gentleness and kindness to his features that made what had been done to him seem somehow that much more horrible.
“You say he was a physician?”
Gibson nodded. “He was staying at the Gifford Arms, in York Street. The constables brought round a gentleman from the hotel—a Monsieur Vaundreuil—to identify him.”
“Yet he couldn’t identify the woman?”
“Said he’d never seen her before. He also said he’d no notion what Pelletan might have been doing in St. Katharine’s.” Gibson rubbed the back of his neck. “I should mention that, along with his papers, the constables also found a purse containing both banknotes and silver.”
“Yet they’re convinced he fell victim to footpads?”
“The theory is that the thieves were interrupted.”
“I certainly didn’t see anyone. But then . . .”
“But then—what?” asked Sebastian.
Gibson colored. “I was rather lost in my own thoughts.”
Sebastian watched his friend look pointedly away but remained silent.
Gibson said, “If he were English, the circumstances might be strange enough to prod even St. Katharine’s authorities into taking action. But he’s not; he’s a Frenchman—a stranger—which makes it all too easy to simply dismiss the murder as the work of footpads and forget it.”
Sebastian lowered his gaze to the pallid corpse on the slab between them. For some reason he could not have named, he knew a faint, unsettling echo of that night’s troubled dream and all the unwanted memories it had provoked. For two years now he had dedicated himself to achieving a measure of justice for murder victims who would otherwise be forgotten. And it occurred to him, not for the first time, that those far...
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