If it’s Thursday, it’s time for another taste of Any Wicked Thing. When we first meet Sebastian Goodard, the future Duke of Roxbury, he is a wicked twenty-one-year old fresh from an eye-opening trip to the Continent. He thinks he knows everything and has seen everything, but his jaded sensibilities are just beginning. Here is how the second-worst night of his life begins, at a costume party hosted by his father:
The castle was ablaze with candles. Sebastian wondered how much of his patrimony was tied up in tallow. People had taken his father’s intentions to heart, and were arrayed in a variety of absurd costumes. The duke’s authentic mail vest and spurs clinked every time he moved about the banquet hall, which had had been set up as in days of yore, its usual dining table dismantled and a dais built at one end of the room. Plain wooden benches and tables were set in rows; plain wooden trenchers served as plates; plain wooden goblets held mead and ale. His father had commissioned local carpenters to make all this useless stuff, at what cost Sebastian could only imagine and cringe.
“What do you think? Isn’t it marvelous?” Freddie was at his elbow at one of the lower tables, wearing an unfortunate pink velvet dress that looked very much like a discarded curtain. With one hand, she balanced a pointed hat on her head, its veil falling over half her face. The other half was obscured by a pink silk mask, but Sebastian would know her anywhere.
“I think it’s ridiculous.” He grabbed a whiskey from a passing footman. At least he was not forced to drink the medieval swill. “What’s your pleasure, Freddie?”
She squinted through her veil at the tray. Impatiently, Sebastian snatched the hat from her head, so that she was now merely covered by what looked like a linen bandage wrapped around her hair and chin. The waiting footman averted his eyes in pity.
“Freddie, you haven’t moved from this spot in hours. You haven’t even been able to cut your meat one-handed. The hat is a disaster. Admit it.”
“You have no idea how long it took me to make it,” she said crossly. “A woman was not permitted to wear her hair uncovered. It was considered a sin.”
“It’s a sin in this day and age to adhere to such silly rules. Take the rest of that stuff off.”
Muttering, Freddie unwrapped the linen to reveal a rumpled coronet of braids.
“There! Much better. Now. Champagne or ratafia?”
Freddie rubbed her hands in nervousness. “I don’t know. I’ve never had either.”
“What! Impossible. You really have led a sheltered life. Hm.” He tapped his chin. “Champagne is apt to go straight to your head on an empty stomach. I’d advise the ratafia.” He took two glasses and set them in front of her.
Freddie took a suspicious sniff. “Apricots.”
“Yes, fruit. Good for you. How can one abstain? Drink up. I can’t believe you’re still sober. I know I’m not.”
“As does everyone else. You’ve been quite rude tonight.”
“Oh, don’t go all governessy on me, brat. Bad enough the old man is giving me the eye. What’s next on the agenda now that we’ve eaten the wild boar?”
“It was only Farmer Easton’s pig. Two of them, actually.”
“You never touched your bream and eel pasty.”
Freddie shuddered. “I have more enthusiasm for the wardrobe of the Middle Ages than the menu. The frumenty wasn’t bad. You can’t go wrong with honey and raisins.”
“Porridge by any other name. And impossible to eat with a knife. Just like my father to forgo the bloody forks for us peasants.” Sebastian set his elbows on the table handling his . “I’m afraid I’ve had enough, Freddie. Of the food and the company. Oh, not you,” he said quickly, seeing her hurt expression. “You’ve been an amusing dinner companion, for all you didn’t eat your dinner. But I’m for bed. Care to join me?”
Freddie blushed as brightly as her hideous dress. “Not if you were the last man on earth. And there’s to be a scavenger hunt. You won’t want to miss that.”
“How old are we? Eleven?”
Just then his father tapped his crystal goblet at the dais and the room fell still. No wooden drinking vessel for the Duke of Roxbury. Sebastian leaned back as the duke rambled on about Goddard Castle through the centuries. He was so long-winded Freddie drank both her glasses during the speech, so Sebastian flagged down another footman for her. Her cheeks were rosy and her eyes gleamed in the candlelight. The poor little thing was getting drunk for the very first time.
He stumbled up when the talk got around to the scavenger hunt and its rules. Sebastian always broke rules when he could, and the quest for a mock unicorn held no interest for him. He whispered to Freddie that he was leaving, and she waved him away. She sat transfixed at his father’s nonsense, an odd smile on her face.
When faced with the four stone walls of his little room, he had a desire to escape. He changed into an elegant striped robe, a souvenir from a grateful Italian widow, stashing his comforting brandy flask in a pocket. He made his way through the Byzantine halls of the castle by flickering candlelight, carrying a tooled leather case with his smoking utensils inside. Precious balls of poppy resin mixed with headache powder rattled around between the implements, promising peace.
His father had warned the guests about the north tower. It was unsafe, therefore off-limits for the foolish revelers. There was a rope with threatening signage blocking the steps, which Sebastian cleared easily even though he was more than a bit drunk himself. Soon he would be entirely at one with the universe. A universe where his father was in a different galaxy altogether.
He gave up counting the steps, but there were many. They were worn and slippery beneath his bare feet. Once he reached the top, he found himself in an odd-shaped room with half its ceiling gone. The black Yorkshire sky was sprinkled with stars winking down on him, cementing his idea he was rather insignificant in the grand scheme of things. He swept away some rubble and settled in the window alcove, or what would have been a window if it was still intact. A pleasant summer breeze swept through the space, nearly clearing his muzzy head. That would not do.
With the sort of patience his father would apply to reconstructing a medieval document from fragments, Sebastian opened his case and heated his metal needle, turning a pea-sized lump of opium into a cone. Holding his pipe over the flame, he warmed it, then placed the cone into the bowl. Some of his friends skipped all these laborious steps and simply wrapped the opium in rice paper and inserted it into their rectums, but Sebastian respected the traditional way. The ritual was nearly as compelling as the smoke. He inhaled deeply.
Heaven. Or hell. Opium was highly addictive. He felt the need for it more urgently every day, especially since he was now subject to his father’s disapproval. His supply was limited, and not apt to be replenished in Yorkshire. He could fob himself off with drink or hashish for a time, but this was his greatest, most sinful pleasure.
He took the flask from his pocket and drank, feeling the heat of the brandy dance with the cool detachment of the drug. Sebastian no longer felt insignificant but invincible now, like a prototype of mankind. He removed his robe, rolling it up under his head, and stared at the night sky. So many stars, so far away. How many men had seen the same grouping of constellations since the world began? Perhaps as many as the stars themselves. He sipped and puffed until the stars spun.