Edward Lane's Argosy, Chapter Two: The Ape In The Jar

by Ian Ironwood
Chapter Two: The Ape In The Jar

Edward had never had mixed feelings about anything so strongly in his life as he did concerning the prospect of returning to Tudley House. He had not only been “made”, as his Uncle Pete would have said in underworld jargon, but his “mark” had his real name – and knew what he was about. It was scant comfort that Lady Trey could not identify him from a proper police line-up. He knew with certainty she would be able to finger him the moment he opened his mouth. He had been lucky, he knew, to escape at all – much less after such a pleasant and unexpected sexual encounter. To return was folly of the highest sort, the kind of misadventure only gullible fools would indulge in and seasoned professionals would shun. As he paced his small room in the village inn the next afternoon, he knew going back to Tudley House was the quickest route to ending his professional career – not to mention his liberty – before he had truly hit his stride. Best to catch the next train back to the city, or perhaps the Northlands, or even deplete his meager savings for the first airship headed to a foreign land.

And yet . . .

The mystery of the amazing silver hand beckoned to him, a tantalizing enigma. What odd occurrence had cost Lady Trey both her limb and her sight? There was a tale there, he knew, and his mind would not let go of that. All promise of reward or plunder aside, Edward’s curiosity was piqued in a way it had never been. Even if he boarded a stratoliner bound for the Americas, and spent the rest of his life as a cobbler in some Godforsaken wasteland, the mystery would haunt him.

On the horns of a dilemma, he mentally summoned his best counselors in such matters. First, he tried to imagine what his Uncle Pete would say. While utterly pragmatic in how to break a house or crack a safe or any number of other skills essential to his trade, Pete was a Celt, and prone to lapsing into mysticism about such choices. Edward could just see him, broad unshaven face bleary with drink, nodding thoughtfully, weighing the situation carefully . . . and then finally pronouncing that a man who speaks to strange ladies is bound for adventure, riches, and an early grave, or something equally as helpful. Pete might have been a professional, but he ran his personal life with all the class of a crooked game of cards. Fortune had often made him Her fool, and he’d suffered accordingly.

That led him – briefly – to what his late, unlamented father might advise. That was much harder for him to visualize, owing to his short acquaintance with the man, but Edward could easily imagine the Brigadier would have long disowned him in shame for his turn in life. Something as complex as a blind noblewoman with a mechanical hand, a lusty nature and a mysterious secret would hardly be an issue. Nor would his Mother have anything useful to contribute, out of disinterest and lack of comprehension.

That brought him back to what his closest friend from school, Gideon Becker, might advise. Gid had befriended Edward their first year at college, and the two had been the nucleus of a popular knot of students for years. Gid was dashing, in a way Edward aspired to be but always feared he just couldn’t manage; handsome, rich, adventurous, and damned with the best luck in the realm. His father, the Earl of Warrenton, held a strong interest in a number of air and ocean shipping companies, munitions, and a substantial amount of property, none of which Gid cared the slightest about. He was as happy passing out drunk behind a dockside brothel as he was sleeping in luxury.

In a way he was as much a vagabond as Edward. Only instead of turning to petty crime in the face of poverty, Gideon had rebelled against his family’s aristocratic life and turned to crime that was anything but petty. He had used his honorary commission as a Captain in the Warrenton Fusiliers – a purely ceremonial title – to secure for himself the same rank in one of the mercenary armies that plied their trade in Africa, Asia, and the Americas for – and sometimes against – the interests of various Empires.

He had used the proceeds of his booty, and the sale of an estate, to purchase at auction an old airship liner from his father’s own company, and then had converted it into a ship of war. The last time Edward had gotten a letter from his chum, a year ago, the rogue was part of a rag-tag airship squadron in some squalid civil war in the Americas. Gid was born to adventure and danger – but he was also born to a substantial fortune. He would have been the first to encourage Edward to return to Tudley House – if for no other reason than the adventure of taking another man’s wife. The intrigue and the mystery would have quite overwhelmed him.

Edward continued to ponder his decision through tea, which he took by the river at a quaint little stand, through half of the Bridgeport Standard which he found abandoned there, and well on into supper (roasted lamb with potatoes and rosemary) at the inn – after which he informed his host of his desire to check out on the morrow, and paid the shot in advance.

Dusk found him near the train station, but as the Evening Star made a rare appearance in the clear autumn sky he was walking briskly through the moor towards the manor, the tools of his trade packed in a leather messenger bag on his shoulder. Whatever came, he was as prepared for it as he was able to be.

He watched and waited for almost two hours until the maid and groundskeeper retired, then slipped in the back door as he had the night previous. As he did so he could not help but feel as if he were headed into a trap – a conclusion, his reason insisted, that had no ready evidence to support it. There had been no signs of additional population at the manor, no police carriages or gangs of vengeful villagers outside. Edward reasoned that an attempt to capture him would entail something like that, and he was reasonably certain that nothing of the sort had occurred. Tudley House was as quiet as a tomb.

Of course, he had been reasonably certain that Tudley House was deserted the night before, too, and he did not forget how that had played out. A burglar lived and learned, or he didn’t live free for long.

The back door opened silently, and Edward took one last deep breath, fought a war with his doubts one last time, and then ventured boldly into the darkness – and directly into a chair the maid had apparently left near the back door. The resulting shout of surprise and string of curses that followed was only eclipsed by Edward stumbling into the pantry table and upsetting several large metal pots and pans. Stifling any further curses, he produced a torch from his bag and proceeded in a more dignified fashion.

“Considering your lack of stealth, Mr. Lane, I’m amazed you chose the profession you did,” Lady Trey said dryly when he entered the parlor. Unlike the previous evening, the fire was well-stoked, and Lady Trey had managed to light a single candle for his benefit from it. Instead of being swaddled in quilts this evening, she was dressed in a stunning silk and satin gown in emerald green – which complimented her lovely hair perfectly – with a large emerald stone set within a silver necklace around her graceful neck. Her silver hand held a silver goblet as gracefully as any ingénue.

“When I’m planning to rob a house, I tend to be quieter,” he conceded. “When I come to bed a lady, I am usually preoccupied with other things than stealth.”

Touche,” Lady Trey said, amused. “And I must pass along the gratitude of my maid. Someone has mysteriously oiled the hinges on the back door, which she has been after my groundskeeper to do since I came here.”

“Household chores are a specialty of mine,” Edward chuckled, embarrassed.

“Well, I certainly have a few chores that need tending to. A little wine, first, perhaps? You must think me a horrible lush, after witnessing my disheveled state last night.”

“You were not expecting callers,” Edward observed. “You can hardly be blamed for that. If I were in your situation . . .”

“You would drink yourself to death as well?” she finished. “Do not be so certain, Mr. Lane. Such adversity brings out depths hidden within your soul. You can find reserves of courage you never knew you had, and feel despair in a manner you never dreamt possible.” She took another sip, and then felt her way along the mantle until she found the wine bottle. “You will have to fetch your own goblet, I’m afraid. I do not often use the crystal. My unfeeling hand has a tendency to crush such delicacies.”

Edward found the sideboard and located a beautiful crystal goblet only slightly covered in dust. He fished out his handkerchief to clean it, then took the bottle from Lady Trey’s hand and poured a healthy amount. While he fetched it, he took the opportunity to startle her by stealing a kiss from her mouth while he poured.

“Oh, my!” Lady Trey said, sighing, when he broke away. “You startled me. I am . . . unused to such things.”

“That, my lady, is a tragedy,” Edward said, sincerely, sipping his wine without tasting it, then repeating the kiss with more deliberation and feeling. Now that he was not about to be arrested by surprise, and had received such a gracious welcome, he was warming to the Lady Trey. She was, indeed, very beautiful, and well formed. He had explored her body in intimate detail until dawn last night, and apart from her infirmity she was passing lovely. More, she proved intelligent, witty, and – her misfortune notwithstanding – a generally agreeable person, as well as a passionate lover. That fact alone, quite apart from the stimulating danger of bedding another man’s wife (and an aristocrat, at that) in his own home before stealing his valuables, had lent Edward an unaccustomed feeling of boldness this evening.

Lady Trey embraced him fully as their lips collided, pressing her body against his intimately until he could feel every button of her gown pressing against his chest, so tightly did she hold him. Her lips sought his with a feverish passion, nearly overwhelming his more languid approach to the matter. They kissed as such for many, many minutes, and each tick of the clock on the mantle seemed to enflame her passion that much further. At last she broke her face away from his, an uncomfortable demeanor coming over her.

“I . . . I must apologize, Mr. Lane,” she said, quietly. “It has been years since anyone has kissed me at all, much less with such ardor.”

“As I said, a tragedy,” Edward repeated, putting his arm around her head and pulling it into his chest. “You are a beautiful flower which has not only been kept in the darkness, but deprived of the life-giving water of love, as well. It is my pleasure to at the very least relieve you of your boredom and sate your lusts.”

“Say not that you are moved from pity,” she said, warningly.

“Pity?” he asked. “No. A sense of lovingkindness, on the one hand, and a far more . . . base urge on the other. If pity I feel, it is for your poor husband who has voluntarily deprived himself of the pleasure of your company.”

“Speak not of him, either,” Lady Trey said, hoarsely. “I would not ruin such a beautiful moment.”

“Then let him be banished . . . and let you, my lady, be ravished. I am yours to command, this evening, and will indulge you in every embrace my poor skills can muster.”

“Then let me sit, good sir,” she said, beaming breathlessly, feeling her way to the settee, “and if you indeed obey me as you say, then you will lick me splendidly, until I spend myself to oblivion!”

As she sat she sensuously pulled her skirts past her ankles, revealing soft dancing slippers of green, past her shapely calf and lovely knee, past her beautifully-shaped thighs until it came to rest well around her waist, revealing all of her feminine glories for him. Edward in haled sharply – last evening’s tryst had deprived him of this enchanting view due to circumstance, but tonight he drank in the erotic effect while he finished his wine.

“Divine,” he whispered, his trousers painfully confining his rampant prick. “Simply divine. The goddess Venus did not have the gracefulness of your limbs, Lady Trey.”

“Nor did Homer have your skill with words, Mr. Lane,” she said, seductively. “Yet I pray you will use your mouth in its superior capacity – come, I am dripping a torrent! I have abused my poor button mercilessly since last evening, on top of our lusty coupling. I ache for you, Mr. Lane. Come sooth my pain, I beg you!”

Edward fell to his knees before her, finding her dampened cunny open and inviting. She convulsed as his breath disturbed the delicate strands between her thighs, and he took a moment to repeat the effect by blowing warmly against it, sending the thatch of golden hair flying gently and the spine of the woman it belonged to writhing enticingly. Grinning to himself he buried his face in the crux of her limbs and began an adamant lapping that inspired long, lusty moans from his hostess.

She had bathed today, he knew by the softness of her skin and the sweet scent that wafted up from under her skirts. Lavender and oleander, and something herbal, fresh and clean. It was enchanting and heady when mixed with her own feminine musks, and he licked her slit from bottom to top in long strokes of his tongue to enjoy every intoxicating breath. Lady Trey could not contain herself under the force and fury of his ministrations, and forced her fanny farther into his face by pushing her bottom forward on the seat, while drawing her feet up to steady herself. That gave Edward unimpeded access to the entirety of her fundament as well as her sweetly weeping womanhood. He brought his hands into play, squeezing her bottom firmly and passionately as his tongue danced across the ship of her lust from stem to stern.

“You are driving me absolutely mad!” she declared lustfully, her flesh-and-blood hand entwining in Edward’s dark hair, pulling his lips to embrace her clitoris. “Do not torment me further, Sir – I have been waiting for this long enough!”

Smiling into her pussy, Edward did as he was bidden and suckled her clitoris hard between his lips, employing his tongue to great effect over the engorged surface of her magical button. He maintained a steady pace, increasing the frequency gradually in proportion to how hard she pulled his hair. He drove her to a screeching crescendo of pleasure, until she was making more animal sounds than human. When she had reached her peak Edward allowed her to calm down for a moment before returning to his pleasant duty, and then began the process again. Five times did he take her to climax, until she was coated with a sheen of perspiration that matted her lovely hair to her forehead.

“Such bliss,” she gasped, after the fifth climb to heaven, “you must stop, you must, if only for a moment.”

“As you wish,” Edward chuckled, rising to his feet. “But you, madame, have your own duties to attend to . . .”

“Yes, yes, give me your cock to suck!” she hissed, excitedly. “All day I have longed to feel it stretching my lips, gliding past my tongue. Such a deliciously dirty pleasure, you must think me a libertine!”

Edward wasted no time in withdrawing it from his flies, although its stiffened state made it difficult to maneuver. He put his hand on Lady Trey’s shoulder and nudged her forward, and once again her hot, wet mouth enveloped his member and brought him instantly to a state of absolute pleasure.

For a woman newly come to the art, Lady Trey was proving an avid fellatrix. She suckled him roughly, passionately, consuming his cock as though it were lust incarnate. Edward gamely allowed her to persist despite the occasional brush with her teeth, for such dangers are gladly suffered by a gentleman in the pursuit of pleasure. When he found himself rocking his hips forward, throwing his shaft as deeply into her throat as the lady was capable of bearing, he slowed to a stop and, regretfully, withdrew.

“Our first fuck shall be here,” he said, hoarsely.

“Take me, I am ready!” Lady Trey directed, spreading her thighs eagerly.

Instead of mounting her directly, he flopped onto the settee himself and covered her neck and mouth with kisses, relishing in the soft, supple state of her lips after such play. She, in turn, hungrily devoured her own sweet nectar from his lips, moaning with great urgency. She was near to begging for him to mount her when he instead pulled her over to face him, forcing her to swing one leg over and impale her soft, wet cunny on his enraged spear in one motion.

Lady Trey’s head shot back and she howled like a wild creature as Edward’s staff filled every inch of her. Her sightless eyes were wide with surprise and delight as he placed his hands upon her hips and forcefully encouraged her to start the gyrations that were essential to the production of all human life. While obviously new to the sport, she took to the positioning with great enthusiasm, placing her hands upon his shoulders to balance while she plunged her randy cunt up and down on him.

“I— I never – I never considered-ed this-s . . . position,” she said, heaving and panting, her hair flying wildly like some forest nymph’s. “Your cock is so deep within me . . .”

“And this way I can molest your gorgeous bubbies properly,” Edward said in a growl of lust. He pulled down the front of her gown as far as he was able, revealing both of her beautiful breasts down to the perfectly pink nipples. As good as his word, he drew them into his mouth to such and chew upon them ferociously, inspiring pleas and cries of pleasure from Lady Trey as she rode his pole towards climax. When he had satisfied his lust for her breasts, he released them, wet with his saliva, into the cool night air, causing them to crinkle and contract anew. Then he blew gently on them while moving his hands to Lady Trey’s hips, where he contrived to pull her and push her about to his own satisfaction.

The noblewoman did not seem to mind the direction – indeed, she was beside herself with rapturous moans of pleasure as Edward ground her clitty between their pubic bones like a grain of wheat in a mill. When she had taken as much of his passion as she could stand, he redoubled his efforts – by standing solidly upright, impaling her dripping pussy on his fleshy spike and fucking her in the air.

Such variations on the arts of love were foreign to Lady Trey’s understanding even before her accident – but Edward’s sudden and unexpected move, and the sensation of being utterly free of support (save Edward’s proud cock) was unnerving – and exciting at the same time. She squealed like a kitten getting her tail stepped upon for the first time, clinging to Edward’s neck tightly as she writhed her soaking pelvis brazenly against him.

Edward found her a slight burden – despite her metal hand, she was light as a feather, and he took advantage of her slender build to pump her madly in mid-air, to their mutual delight. While a little unnerving to have her cling to him so tightly, her silver hand clasped over his shoulder, she also reacted splendidly to his vigorous pounding. Her randy crevice seemed to beg him to fill it over and over again, and he was inclined to oblige it. Lady Trey was singularly tight and snug around his cock, and every spasm she was subject to clenched her muscles tightly around his length in a glorious manner.

When his straining legs and knees could take the imposition any longer, he fell back upon the settee suddenly, impaling Lady Trey quite soundly with the force of her own petite mass. Quite to her amazement, he manipulated her body to turn facing away from him, without unseating her from his cock. The new angle and freedom of movement inspired the lady to whole new levels of delight as she bounced her bottom up and down gloriously, swallowing his cock with her cunt like it was a hot sucking mouth.

Finally, he could take no more, and grabbing Lady Trey’s hips once again he fucked her savagely until he released his fountain of creamy foam deep within her neglected pussy. Sated, he collapsed, his new lover curled up about him upon his lap, where they both drifted into a dreamy state.

* * *

Afterwards, as they curled up on the settee before the fire in languid repose, sipping the last of the wine, Edward stroked her face and shoulders and arms until he came upon her prosthesis. He had barely noted it during their fevered coupling, but now he had the opportunity to admire the device up close. He was fascinated by its complexity as well as its utility, and he knew that the precious metal, alone, would have cost nearly a thousand pounds to fashion. The whirring mechanism within must have cost ten times that.

“So, my lady, are you ready to share your story?” he asked, softly. “I cannot contain my curiosity any longer – now that my lust is sated for the moment.”

“Do you really wish to know?” she asked, an edge to her voice. “Or are you merely indulging me for the sake of my charms . . . or my fortune?”

“Apart from your beautiful charms, I have thought of little else since we parted at dawn,” he assured her.

“Then come with me,” she said, pushing him firmly. “Let us retire to the library, and I will tell you the entire sorry tale.”

Following his hostess through the darkened halls, his torch in hand and his clothing restored to a semblance of order, Edward was led to a very large room – far larger than his flat in the city – where books lined the walls from ceiling to floor. There were several tables within the room covered with books and papers and apparatus that he was unfamiliar with, and they in turn were covered with dust.

“I rarely enter here,” Lady Trey said, sadly. “This is where my husband conducted his research, when he still had a mind to take a wife.”

“He’s a scientist, then? A philosopher?”

“He is a fool,” she said, bitterly. “While he proclaimed his love for me often, when I was young, beautiful, and gullible, the only thing he truly adores is his research. Lord Reginald Trey, you see, is enthralled by the innermost secrets of Nature, herself. He focuses his efforts on the arcane realm of Biologia, the Science of Life. And within that sphere he pursues an obscure course of study: for he pretends that all life is scored like a musical symphony, from the smallest atomi to the largest of creatures – Man among them.”

“That has been a popular theory,” agreed Edward, carefully. “Some Austrian monk made some observations . . . something about peas?”

“I know not the details of the heresy,” Lady Trey said, shaking her head. “I was interested, at first, because my new husband was. But he discouraged my interest as interference in masculine affairs and frequently forbade me to join him in his researches, contending it was not a proper pursuit for a lady. I cannot tell you of the ungodly things he kept in the cellar – monkeys, apes, dogs, creatures from all parts of the Earth. Here he would take just the barest sample of them and make assays with some contraption he had constructed – a bizarre structure with many great glass jars and bottles and such. And he would dissect them to study their entrails like some pagan fiend, or subject them to all manner of tortuous trials while yet living.

“While he forbade me entrance here, I took it as my wifely prerogative to intrude – it was my home too, after all – and try to glean what, exactly, Lord Trey was doing. I loved him, you see, even if he paid me scant attention in return for my loyalty. A devoted wife properly takes an interest in her husband’s work. I cared not what it was – only that it fascinated my new groom, and I wanted to understand it. Biologia has never been a passion of mine, so the study was . . . challenging. I’ve always been more partial to ancient history, legends, and lore, subjects somehow ‘more suitable’ to my sex’s sensibilities.

“But I persisted. Reginald had actually made some intriguing discoveries, employing all manner of advance apparatus, and he frequently called upon his peers in the sciences to join him here to inspect his work. For nearly a year after we wed this old hall was alive with students, philosophers, technicians, and attendant tradesmen. I, myself, was quite proud of him and his accomplishments. He was particularly fascinated by the wide diversity of creatures on certain island chains, and strove to collect samples from all over the world for close inspection. I did my best to be a good wife and gracious hostess, and I asked every question I could to inform myself more completely in these matters.

“Then one night after I had retired — alone, and not for the first time — I heard noises emanating from this very room. Horrible noises, as if some savage beast were being slowly ripped to shreds. Reginald was not in bed – he often worked late into the night, claiming that his experiments were too critical to leave for the night. I indulged him – he was my husband, why would I not? As frustrated as I was with his vocation, I would never try to deprive him of it, no matter if I, myself, was already suffering from inattention.

“But that night I ventured forth, concerned. I had clutched a foil in my hand, as I had practiced with the weapon in my youth and had been marked an accomplished fencer by my master and my brothers. Betwixt the horror of the clamour and my sleep-addled mind, I suspected something foul was afoot.

“When I reached the door to the library, it was ajar, and I essayed within to determine the nature of the commotion, my impotent toy held forth resolutely. It was here,” she said, feeling for the edge of the largest table in the library, “Right here, upon this very table, where a large glass vat half the size of a man was sitting. There was a liquid inside, one that bubbled evilly, and it was open at the top but usually covered. A vile odor issued from it, and filled the room with acrid fumes. I had always wondered at its utility, but Reginald could never bring himself to explain. Everything was always ‘too complex’ for my feeble female mind. But this night I saw with my own eyes for what use it was employed.

“Floating within a massive bottle made of glass was a half-dead ape, a large and brutish creature from Asia. It was submerged up to its shoulders within the tank, leaving only his head protruding. It made the most hideous, pitiful moans, and as I was a Christian I took pity on its pain, though it only resembled a human being. Indeed, it’s animal nature made it’s plight all the more unbearable. I cannot abide to see a creature suffer needlessly, and it became apparent just why Reginald was so reluctant to include me in his research. If that be science and progress, then it is built on suffering most foul!

“But that evening,” she continued, “I came in here and saw it. And it saw me. And when it saw me, it issued the most lamentable keening – which disturbed my husband. He and a nineteen year old . . . ‘student’ from London were engaged in a tryst in the far corner. At the time I do not know what horrified me more – seeing them there in a position that only I, by rights, should bear in relation to him, or knowing that they carried on thus while that poor creature was dying in pain in the same room. In my shock and disgust my foil fell to the floor, alerting my philandering husband to my presence, over the keening of the ape. Regardless, my shrieking upset the creature, and our combined clamour summoned my husband and the poor girl in a disheveled state.”

Lady Trey hung her head in bitter regret as she continued. “I know not what happened, only that there was an accident – one of us upset the balance of the table, and the massive glass crock came crashing down. Unfortunately, the girl and I were both in its path, so when it shattered asunder, we bore the brunt of the fall. I was the . . . lucky one. The liquid engaged my eyes and destroyed my sight, and the shards of glass cut off my hand as they fell, but I was not otherwise scarred. The girl was not so fortunate. A large sliver of the jar passed through her throat, killing her instantly. The last things my eyes ever saw were my distraught husband, standing half-naked, over the bloody body of his lover, the dying form of the miserable ape, and a million speckled shards of glass illuminated by the firelight. Then all was black. And so has it been, evermore.”

Edward did what he could to comfort the woman, but the depths of Lady Trey’s misery were profound, and no mere physical embrace could lessen them.

Eventually she waved him off, dried her tears, and steeled herself to continue. “He was wracked with guilt, of course,” she said, in a gasp. “The girl’s family was paid a substantial sum, and my infirmity was told off as a regrettable ‘laboratory accident’. He never did admit his infidelity, though it was the last thing I witnessed with my eyes. Instead he made me ‘comfortable’, vacating this dreary old estate for his foreign lands, imprisoning me in a cage of cold stone and gold. The servants were mine to command, he said. Nothing I desired would be refused. Reginald even commissioned the most adept clockworkers to fashion this hideous replacement,” she said, raising her silver arm in the gloom. “Then he abandoned me. “

“How could a man not be moved to pity from such a tale?” Edward murmured.

“Stay your pity, sir!” Lady Trey hissed. “I did not tell you my woes to inspire pity. No, I told my tale to you because you must need understand my situation to appreciate the urgency of my desires. I have a commission for you, Mr. Burglar. After four long, dark, weary years, you are to be my deliverer.”

“How so?” Edward inquired, cautiously.

“Quite simply: I wish something burgled. And I’m willing to pay handsomely for it.”

“My lady—” Edward began, the protest already on his tongue.

“Stay!” Lady Trey insisted. “Do not protest your innocence. Nor your abilities. Nor your character. By Jove, if a woman cannot judge the depths of a man’s character after taking him abed, then she is a fool. And after four years of darkness, I am a fool no more. You are an honest thief, Mr. Lane. And just the sort of man I need.”

“What is this bauble you covet so highly as to pretend you are in need of a housebreaker?” Edward asked, carefully. Uncle Pete would have been proud – there was a way among the criminal fraternity to ask such delicate questions without seeming to do so – and without admitting anything admissible before the crown magistrate.

“A stone,” she answered, simply, making a gesture with the fingers on her living hand, “about so big. A mere stone, milky white, like quartz or marble, but of a feel more like jade . . . or so it is said. Two and a half inches long, two wide, and no thicker than your finger. Smoothed by time and some river bank – the Styx, itself, if legend is to be believed.”

“Now that is intriguing,” Edward acknowledged. “My Lady, that name is filled with ill omen.”

“As I told you, Mr. Lane, I favor the Classics, the ancient legends and lore, over the novelties of Science. Before my sight was stolen, I was quite a different person, I assure you. I read Latin and Greek, French and Italian. I had the same tutors my brothers did, and they schooled me in all of the curriculum, including the aristocratic arts. I used to be a fine judge of horseflesh, for instance. And I was more adept than my brothers at fencing and archery. But the stories and myths of the ancient world, they intrigued me the most.

“I do not remember the day, nor even the book, but I do recall being fascinated with the Stone of the Fates. Have you heard of it?”

“I’m assuming it’s oval, milky-white, about two inches by two and a half,” Edward suggested.

“Indeed it is,” she nodded, smiling into the darkness. “And it enjoys many other names. But the reason it was known in Constantine’s time as ‘the Stone of the Fates’ is that it was pillaged from an Egyptian tomb by the Arab, brought to Egypt from the farthest shores of the Black Sea in antiquity as a gift to the royal court. Legend says that the stone was the ‘eye’ the three blind Fates used in the story of Perseus. Are you familiar with the myth?”

“Somewhat,” Edward admitted. “They had but one eye and one tooth between them, correct?”

“Indeed. From what researchers can determine, the Graeae were indeed three priestesses of some dark and ancient god, in some ancient, forgotten village near the shores of the Black Sea, long before the birth of the Nazarene. Blindness was a prerequisite for the position, and the sisterhood was seen as a powerful oracle in ancient times. The stone, you see, had special properties. When held to the forehead of someone whose eyes were closed, they are able to sense the world around them as if they had sight. Better than sight, perhaps. At least, that was the legend.”

“And who has this mythical stone now, Lady Trey?” Edward asked.

“After the Saracens removed it from the temple, it was spirited away to Morocco, where many a Mohammedan sage studied its properties. Al Mansour of Toledo wrote about it in 1435,” she recalled from memory. “A Moorish prince used it to sneak through the Christian lines in the dark of the new moon, thus gathering intelligence on the Castillians and managing a rout the next morn. The Stone next appears in 1499, in the possession of Count Diego de Arbol Y Sol, who claimed it as spoils after looting the palace of one of those Moors exiled to the New World by King Ferdinand. He bequeathed it to his daughter, who married a minor Russian noble. It was inherited by her son, Ivan, and passed down within their family for a few generations. Then their family fell out of favor at court and was sent to exile themselves. The present owner is one Count Piotr Ivanov Cherensky, who lives in Paris.”

“For a moment, I though you were considering sending me to Russia,” Edward said with obvious relief. “Is the Count aware of the stone’s properties?”

“Indeed,” she nodded. “As a youth he would blindfold himself, utilize the stone, play at swords with up to three opponents at once, and best them all. But he saw the stone only as a curiosity, not the tool it . . . could be.”

With such a stone, Edward knew, some of the misery Lady Trey bore from her infirmity might diminish – he could see why she would pursue such an artifact so resolutely – and with such desperation. “I will give you money to prepare, and far greater reward upon your triumphant return, should you accept the commission. But I cannot impress upon you adequately how madly I burn for this magical bauble!”

“Have you any detail on where and how it is housed?” he asked, in a low voice. “Purely for the sake of professional interest.”