Below is the prologue to the in-production sequel of Rogue Elegance
The palace morgue is cold and still. The pithy plunk of water droplets persists without so much as an echo, keeping in time with the quiet chattering of rats. The clinging grey of the pressing stone walls leech the warmth out of the skin of the lord and lady that stand, huddled and dark, at the far end of the oblong room. Donned in black cauls of mourning, they perch uncomfortably in the open archway, their red-rimmed eyes blinking in unison as they stare at the slender mortician that idles in the shadows before them.
“Do come in,” the mortician croaks pleasantly, not for the first time. A watery smile appears on the lower half of his face and he sniffles audibly, gesturing for the idling nobleman and his wife to move farther into the stifling grey of the buried room.
The lady, a narrow, elderly woman with placid blond hair the color of her ashen skin, lets out a gasp like a shuddering sob. Her fingers, long and smooth and unsullied by labor, draw over the stretched red of her trembling lips.
“I don’t think that I can,” she whispers. Her eyes widen as she appears to consider this, at last shaking her head so fervently that wisps of silvery locks escape from her brow. “I most certainly can’t,” she confirms, drawing back a step.
Her husband, a broad-shouldered man with very few wisps of curling silver atop his gleaming scalp, remains rooted to the stones. His dark brown eyes study the smiling mortician with growing dislike evident in his gaze. Before him, the mortician balks mildly, his watery smile stretching uselessly across his face like a wound.
“It must be difficult,” the mortician says unsympathetically. “Quite difficult, I would imagine, Lady Anderson, to lose both your sons in so short a period of time.”
“What do you know of it?” Lord Anderson booms, the deep tenor of his voice pealing out through the twisting dark of the dripping mortuary. He takes a step towards the center of the room, effectively concealing his wife from the mortician’s view. He is starkly aware—although he does his level best to ignore it—of the unmoving shape upon the low laying table at the mortician’s back. The shape, the body—the corpse of his son—is concealed beneath a crisp, white shroud.
He hems his throat; averting his gaze as his stomach does an uneasy flip.
“What do you know,” he begins again, his brows dipping low, “of losing a child?”
“Precious little,” the mortician relents, patting idly at the feet of the corpse. “Precious little, my Lord, I admit, but—”
Lord Anderson cuts him off, surging forward several steps into the darkness. “No father should live to see the death of his sons,” Lord Anderson cries, his voice hoarse.
The voracious look in the mortician’s eyes extinguishes and Lord Anderson feels a flicker of satisfaction rush through him as the slender man finally develops the good sense to look less than delighted. His watery smile evaporates, leaving a placid grimace in its place.
“I—” he begins, falling into silence as Lord Anderson pushes past him and approaches the looming white shroud upon the table. The lord places a shaking palm atop the cloth, a tinge of green coloring his cheeks.
“I would like to see him,” Lord Anderson mutters. “I would like—I would like to confirm, to know for certain.”
“Of course,” the mortician says. He teeters upon the balls of his feet for a moment before jumping to action, rushing over towards the table and grabbing hold of the white cloth. “Of course you want to see him,” he repeats eagerly. His eyes glimmer like jewels in the dark.
Gingerly—slowly—the mortician lifts the shroud back from the corpse. There is a sharp intake of breath and Lord Anderson falls back a step upon the stone underfoot. He stares down into the face of the body before him, his lower lip trembling profusely.
“It’s him,” he whispers. “It’s my boy—it’s Edwin.”
A quavering wail comes from the doorway, and the mortician watches as Lady Anderson falls against the curving frame of the entrance, her knuckles pressed between her teeth.
“Cover him up,” snaps Lord Anderson. “I don’t—I can’t look at him like this. Cover him at once.”
The mortician obeys, replacing the fluttering fabric over the body. For a moment, he stands still and silent as he watches the broad shoulders of the lord rise and fall beneath his doublet.
“My Lord,” he mutters at last, his fingers itching upon the shroud. “My Lord, if you will permit me—I must begin the preparations.”
For a frightening moment, Lord Anderson glowers dangerously at the mortician over the body. The mortician draws back a step, his shoulders hunched and drawn—his lips pressed together. His fingers interlock before him, emitting a series of snaps and pops as the bones of his knuckles crack.
“Yes, right,” the nobleman says at last, drawing himself to full height. “Do what you must.”
The mortician nods, that permanent, watery smile tugging at the corners of his lips. “Allow me to escort you and your lady wife back up to the bailey,” he says. He maneuvers around the corpse and the corpse’s father, careful to give the imposing lord as wide a berth as possible. At the far end of the room, Lady Anderson continues to let out a series of breathy sobs.
“Come,” he urges her, patting her lightly on the shoulder. She shirks back from his touch, drawing nearer to her husband. The mortician gives a cursory glance over his shoulder before disappearing through the door. There is a beat of silence—a whisper of hesitance—and the lord and lady follow suit.
The body is alone. The room is dark and empty. Even the rats have absconded to brighter places. The source of dripping water has run dry. The mortuary is encased in impenetrable silence. For a long moment, nothing happens. And then the corpse sits up straight upon the table.
The white shroud falls away from the figure, revealing the ashen face of Edwin Anderson, eldest son of the Marquess. He sits erect, his shoulders unmoving. His grey face is carved from stone. His eyes are pools of lifeless brown. He stares around at the room, studying the empty shadows before him. Slowly, and with ample effort, his hands rise up before his face and he studies the lines of his palms. He opens and closes his fingers into trembling fists, a small flicker of amusement tugging at his lips.
And then he begins to laugh.