No one could get the duke to take more than the smallest sip of water. The last real drink he’d had had been during that brief period of sanity when Finchley tried the chess gambit.
“It’s chess,” Finchley said to Mrs. Ferrers. “It’s the only thing that speaks to him. Listen!”
Sure enough, the duke, voice cracked and hoarse from talking all night, said, “That’s two pawns in return for the sacrifice…” His hands waved pieces in the air: they had to give him chess pieces or he plucked them from the thin air, and that was so ghoulish that Mrs. Ferrers said it quite gave her a turn.
“I’m going to fetch the duchess,” Finchley stated.
“The Duchess of Beaumont? I thought as how you said that the master would never forgive you for letting the duchess see him in this condition.”
“No more he will,” Finchley said, looking at his master. Villiers’s hair was all sweaty again, his face red and pinched. “But he’ll die soon. I have to try it.”
He took the duke’s own carriage, and stamped up the steps to the town residence of the Duke of Beaumont. But it wasn’t all clear sailing. “I won’t have that,” the Beaumont butler, Mr. Fowle, said, on hearing his request. “The duke has enough to plague him without his duchess calling on Villiers at his home. Half of London is already thinking that they’re on their way to a tryst.”
“He’s sick unto death,” Finchley said desperately. “No one could think that.”
“Don’t be a fool,” the butler replied. “You know perfectly well Villiers could be a corpse in that bed, and the stories will have him doing a lively dance in the sheets. The only thing is to speak to Beaumont himself. Because if the duke accompanies the duchess, why then there’s nothing to it.”
“Do you think he would?” Finchley said. “You know that Villiers and Beaumont aren’t the best of friends.”
Mr. Fowle drew himself up. “His Grace may not approve of Villiers’s actions, but he would never desert a man in need.”
No more would he. A moment later Finchley’s story was tumbling out before the duke.
“Damn these duels,” Beaumont said. “And damn Gryffyn for challenging Villiers in the first place. Bring me my greatcoat, Fowle.”
“The duchess?” Finchley asked.
“The duchess has retired to bed,” Beaumont said. “If Villiers needs to play a game of chess, I’ll play with him.”
“He must drink water,” Finchley said, feeling desperate. “I tried to play chess with him, Your Grace. It’s not just that he needs to play chess; I’m afraid that no one but the duchess will do. Please, could we rouse her? Please?”
Beaumont looked at him for moment. “You’re a good man,” he said. “If I don’t have Villiers drinking within the hour, I’ll drive back here myself and cart my wife over to the house. Will that be sufficient?”
Finchley bowed. “Yes, Your Grace.”
It was only a few weeks since Elijah had watched Villiers’s grand entrance to Jemma’s party. But now Villiers’s eyes seemed to have sunk into his head. There was a horrible lividity around his forehead that made the red spots in his cheeks burn brightly.
The duke walked forward, pulling off his greatcoat and throwing it behind him. Villiers was holding a rook in the air and as Elijah cocked his ear, he heard him mumble something about a backward queen’s pawn.
“I’ll try,” he had told Finchley. But he couldn’t talk to Villiers, not with a footman bathing Villiers’s forehead, and Finchley breathing heavily to his right, and the house keeper peering in from the stairs. “I’ll ask you all to leave.”
Finchley started to say something, so Elijah hit him with the look he gave recalcitrant legislators in the House of Lords.
Once the room was quiet, Elijah pulled the chair closer. “Villiers,” he said.
There was no appreciable response. “Your Grace!” he said more loudly. “Villiers!”
“His white queen is being smothered,” Villiers said. He didn’t even glance in Elijah’s direction, just waved the rook in the air.
Elijah picked up a glass of water and tried to bring it to Villiers’s lips, but the rook struck the glass and he almost dropped it onto the covers.
“Smothered,” Villiers said hoarsely. “It’s being…” His voice died into a cracked mumble.
He’s going to die, Elijah thought. Villiers—Villiers, who’s that? They hadn’t really spoken in years, but this was no Villiers. This was Leopold, his oldest, dearest friend. Somewhere under that mop of sweaty hair and reddened eyes was Leo, the first person he had ever loved in the world.
He put down the glass and snatched Villiers’s rook. That got a response. Leopold’s reddened eyes swung about and he said, “Black is desperate. He has no more checks.”
“Leopold,” Elijah said, using his most forceful voice. “Leopold, I’ve come to play a game of chess with you.”
Villiers tried to pull the rook away.
“That’s my rook,” Elijah said. “I always play white, don’t you remember?”
For the first time, Villiers’s eyes fixed on him. “Who are you?” he said.
“Elijah,” he said. “I’m Elijah.”
“Elijah,” Villiers said dreamily. And then: “Oh no, Elijah’s a duke now. He’s married to a duchess.”
“You are a duke too,” Elijah said firmly. “I’m come to play chess with you.”
Villiers struggled to sit up, so Elijah hauled him up on his pillows. “First you must drink some water. Then you may make a move.”
There was something different about Villiers now; he was inhabiting his own body again. Elijah avoided his eyes and picked up the chess board, swiftly putting the pieces in their places. Then he picked up the glass of water and put it to his lips. Villiers was staring at him over the glass, but he opened his cracked lips—and drank.
“Who are you?” he said suddenly.
“Elijah. The Duke of Beaumont.” Elijah smiled a little. “Jemma’s husband.”
“Jemma doesn’t have a husband,” Villiers said.
Elijah moved a pawn to Queen’s Four.
Villiers reached out his hand but Elijah stopped him. “Not unless you drink.”
Villiers took a gulp and then picked up a black pawn. His hand trembled, but he managed to move his pawn to Queen’s Four as well.
Elijah took out a knight. Once prompted, Villiers drank and then, his hand shaking terribly, managed to move a pawn to Queen’s Bishop Four.
“Jemma is not married,” Villiers said, when the glass of water was almost gone. “I know she’s not married because she doesn’t look married.”
“How does she look?” Elijah asked with interest.
Villiers gulped the last of his water and held out his glass. “I seem to be unaccountably thirsty.” He moved his queen forward.
Elijah found it rather vexing to realize that he was playing a man who was verifiably out of his mind, and yet that madman was spinning a pretty web around his queen. “Why do you say that Jemma doesn’t look married?” he asked again.