Despite what polite society thinks, a true gentleman is made. Not born.
-The School of Gallantry
Late evening, March 29th 1830
A bone-penetrating glacial breeze whistled in through countless shattered windows, sending snow whirling across a cavernous lobby of a hotel that hadn’t seen the bustle of people since Catherine the Great. Cracked marble floors heavily stained by weather and neglect, stretched out into an echoing darkness.
Maybe he was at the wrong address.
Konstantin Alexie Levin paused beside a glowing lantern that swayed from a rust-crusted hook. Then again…maybe he wasn’t at the wrong address. Someone appeared to be here.
Stripping his well-worn leather glove, Konstantin reached out and dabbed a finger against the glass. It was still cold to the touch, indicating it had been lit barely moments before his arrival. It was a good thing he’d brought his blade. He only hoped these men weren’t looking to propose something illegal. Because he was done with that.
Pulling his glove back on, he scanned the darkness beyond the dim light. Except for the rustle of dead leaves scraping the floor and the distant roar of the wind lashing snow against the bones of the building, everything else in the blurring darkness was eerily quiet.
Digging into the inner pocket of his heavy winter coat, he dragged out his father’s watch and flipped open the silver lid. The click of resisting metal from the latch resounded as he leaned toward the lantern to better see the hour.
Midnight. On the tick. How serendipitous.
He shifted his unshaven jaw and snapped the lid of the watch shut. Grazing a gloved finger across the fading words etched into the tarnished casing, Konstantin let out a breath that frosted the air and shoved the watch back into his pocket.
Strange things were known to happen to a Levin at midnight. He referred to it as the Midnight Bane. It had hauntingly commenced back in 1792, when his father, an upper class gentleman with debts brought on by heavy gambling, had met a respectable British spinster at the festival of Maslenitsa, whilst church bells gonged at midnight. Her name was Miss Bane.
His father had hired an expensive tutor so he could master the British language and then romanced Miss Bane beyond his financial means until the two fell in love. In honor of their engagement, his father had presented her with an amethyst ring he couldn’t afford and she had presented his father with a silver pocket watch she herself could not afford. ‘Eternally Yours at Midnight’ was etched on the back of the silver casing in English in honor of how they had met. Miss Bane tragically died in a horrific carriage accident days after their betrothal and was barely identified by the amethyst ring on her finger.
His father had never recovered and abandoned the last of his respectable name by becoming part of a powerful criminal organization to avoid going to debtor’s prison. Even long after the man had married Konstantin’s mother, whilst becoming one of the most respected and feared criminals in Saint Petersburg and Moscow, his father not only carried Miss Bane’s watch, but could often be found sitting with it in silence, opening and closing its casing as if communicating with Miss Bane.
Though most would call it superstitious rubbish unworthy of a blink, Konstantin could not ignore the repeated connection between the etching, the hour and the watch. His father had only ever conducted business at midnight. The man had survived everything, each and every time. And then…barely a decade ago, at exactly midnight, his father, who had been battling consumption, took his last breath. Miss Bane’s watch slipped from his father’s hand and fell against the floor beside the bed, shattering the glass casing within. The watch had ceased ticking right along with his father. It was a sign from beyond.
Blinded by his own grief during a wake attended by every influential criminal in Russia that offered their condolences (and work), Konstantin had tried to clasp that broken watch into his father’s limp hands, but his mother wouldn’t permit it. She insisted the watch be pawned. Konstantin couldn’t do it. He knew what that watch meant to his father and was struck by the hour of the man’s departure. His father and Miss Bane were finally together. After his poor mother died, years later, Konstantin had a clockmaker repair the damaged watch and had kept it in his own pocket since.
It was like an old friend who always nudged him at midnight.
And tonight was no exception.
Something told him he had to be here. Something.
Heavy, booted steps suddenly scuffed against the floors of the vast lobby behind him.
Konstantin yanked the dagger from his leather belt and spun toward the sound. He rigidly angled the blade toward the darkness beyond the lantern and called out, “I do not appreciate being summoned to an abandoned hotel as if it were your mother’s parlor.” He wasn’t even going to mention the hour.
Two men emerged from the shadows and into the dim light. They paused shoulder to shoulder, expensive, thick fur coats tightly bound around their hefty bodies.
“We apologize for inconveniencing you, Mr. Levin,” the taller one said. Slowly grinning, he exposed crooked but clean teeth. “I am Boris. ‘Tis a pleasure to meet you.”
“And I am Viktor,” the shorter one offered, inclining his head with an equally charming disposition. “We appreciate you meeting us at this hour with the weather being what it is.”
Despite those overly warm smiles and what appeared to be friendly conversation that even offered actual birth names as opposed to formal ones, Konstantin knew better than to put away the dagger.
The one on the left, Viktor, resembled an oil-painted gentleman. From that tonic- drenched blond hair that shone like glass, to a smoothly shaven face. Only vain bastards insisted on fully shaving their beards during the winter in Russia, because everyone knew facial hair protected the goddamn face from all the wind, ice and snow.
The other one, Boris, looked like most Russians, poor bastard. His dark, shaggy hair touched the large shoulders of his fur coat and his bushy, black beard with its tendrils of grey still held clumps of stew from a late supper he hadn’t properly wiped away.
Konstantin lifted a brow. “Your missive indicated this matter was of unmitigated importance.” He refrained from tapping his blade against each of their foreheads. “I have no idea what this is about, or who you represent, but I am on the straight path and have been for three full months. I am working alongside a butcher.” For measly pay, but it was legal.
Viktor eyed the blade, then slowly reached into the inner pocket of his fur coat and withdrew a folded parchment. “Should you confuse our visit with your family’s sordid past, we wish to assure you that we are here on behalf of Duc de Andelot. Forgive the location and the hour but he insisted we call on you outside of prying eyes given the nature of our news. You are being asked not to discuss the details of this meeting with anyone. For your safety.”
Konstantin paused. Duc de Andelot? He didn’t think he’d ever hear from that one again. Andelot was third cousin to the King of France. Or what had once been the King of France. During the storm of the revolution, the man’s face had been heavily marred, forcing him into wearing a black velvet mask. No one had ever seen him without it.
Every year, Andelot donated thousands of rubles to the poor, and during harvest, and despite his age of five and sixty, the man stripped down to a linen shirt and trousers, with his mask still in place, and went out into the fields with a scythe to muddy his own boots alongside his own laborers.
The man was a legend in Moscow.
Everyone revered the duke.
Three months earlier, Konstantin had been approached by an anti-aristocratic criminal organization to abduct Duc de Andelot and deliver the man into their hands so they could kill him. They believed the duke was a threat to their organization because the peasants liked him too much. What they didn’t know was that Konstantin had always secretly admired the duke and that despite bearing his father’s well-known name, he, much like his father, wasn’t quite the brute everyone thought he was. Konstantin only took the assignment because he was determined to stop the hit. The night before the appointed abduction, Konstantin was almost killed trying to deliver a secret missive to the duke informing him of the plot. Konstantin sustained a bullet to his shoulder and lost some blood but survived. All of the men involved were arrested within six short hours and sent to Siberia.
It made Konstantin realize whose side he had been on all along.
The duke, in vast appreciation, had invited Konstantin into his grand home for a lavish meal and billiards. Not being able to see his face beyond a mask was a touch unnerving, but as the evening went on, Konstantin felt like they were old friends. The duke, in between casual billiard shots, had eventually asked Konstantin what he wanted in return for saving his life. Konstantin kept it simple and only asked the man for respectable work so he could become the gentleman his father once had been before criminal life had erased the Levin name. The duke had eyed him with piercing blue eyes and had told him he would be rewarded with something far better. But then a day later, the duke quietly left Russia to go to London to resolve a private matter. That was three months ago.
“I am listening.” Konstantin tried not to sound too agitated. He hadn’t saved the duke’s life to be rewarded, but he didn’t appreciate being led on, either. “What can I do for him that I haven’t already?”
Boris set his mutton-like shoulders. “The stars have decided to shine brightly for you, Mr. Levin.” Konstantin lowered his chin. “Metaphors belong to poetry I only write for women. Now get to the point. What does he want?”
Boris folded his arms over his chest. “The duke has officially declared you one of three beneficiaries to his estate. He made the decision whilst in London. You would not be able to inherit his title, as that privilege only passes from blood to blood, but also, according to France’s law of 1808, his particular title no longer exists amongst the titles Napoleon had re-instated. But you would be able to inherit a portion of the funds tied closely to his name. We were sent to deliver the news to you in person at an undisclosed location so that you were not put into any immediate danger given the amount involved. You are to receive an equal sum of one hundred thousand pounds. Not rubles. Pounds. Unlike the other two names stipulated in his will, your portion of the estate will be delivered into your hands in the next three months. He is, after all, in excellent health and wishes to reward you now, rather than later. You are therefore being mandated to leave Russia and go to London to collect the entire sum of one hundred thousand pounds.”
Konstantin almost choked on his own spit. One hundred thousand?! Holy— This had to be a joke. It had to be. “And where is your proof either of you actually represent the duke?” He angled his five inch blade toward their faces. “I want to see it.” He knew better than to trust people on their word. He’d seen people killed for less.
Viktor hit Boris in the shoulder. “Give him the proof he requires.”
Boris puffed out a breath, unfolded his arms and patted his fur coat. From an inner pocket, he withdrew a velvet pouch which he unstrung. Digging into the pouch with gloved fingers, he removed a gold signet ring with a crest used for legalizing documents. He held it up, angling it toward Konstantin. “His seal. We are sworn to only use it upon his command and destroy it upon his last breath.”
Konstantin stared at the seal, his eyes widening. It was indeed the duke’s. He’d seen a similar ring emblazoned on the duke’s hand when he had dined with the man three months ago. Stunned, Konstantin lowered the dagger. “The duke intends to give me one hundred thousand?”
Boris slid the ring back into it velvet pouch. “Yes.”
“Without any stipulations or provisos?”
Viktor nodded. “Yes.”
Konstantin waved the dagger about in disbelief. “Why?”
Viktor glanced toward the blade. “Is that necessary, Mr. Levin?”
Realizing he was waving the blade a bit too close, Konstantin cleared his throat and sheathed the dagger into the scabbard slung around his hip. “Forgive me. I am still adjusting to…respectable life.” Which was an understatement.
Viktor promptly held out the parchment he’d taken out earlier. “His Grace asked that we deliver this letter into your hands.”
Strange things were known to happen at midnight and this was proof of it. Konstantin slowly tugged the letter from Viktor’s gloved hand and turned it over.
Breaking the jet-black wax seal, Konstantin unfolded the parchment and angled it toward the sliver of light emitted from the glass lantern hanging beside them. He paused. Similar to the conversation they had shared over a meal and billiards, it was in English.
Konstantin read the letter.
After our long night of billiards, and after getting to know you in a personal way, I have decided you are entitled to a more suitable reward for the risk you took in saving my life. My reasoning behind giving you such a sum goes beyond appreciation. Your sordid upbringing has made it difficult for you to erase your past and start anew. Which is why I intend to gift you with an opportunity to become the man I know you to be. The one your father and Russia had not allowed you to be. I hope we will continue to be good friends. I have very few acquaintances I trust, but you have earned your place amongst those few for life. Please find me at my new home at 32 Belgrave Square in London. I look forward to seeing you again and apologize for having left Russia without informing you of it. A matter of great importance needed my attention.
Duc de Andelot
Konstantin glanced up and continued in Russian, “This is real.”
“The duke is never known to be anything but.” Pulling out a leather satchel, Boris tossed it at him.
Konstantin caught its weight with a free hand, coins tinkering within.
“It will cover your travelling costs,” Boris explained. “Be frugal with it. You will not see anything more until you arrive into England. He suggests taking a boat out of Saint Petersburg by way of the Baltic Sea. It will get you to London faster.”
Konstantin slowly pushed the satchel into his pocket and tightened his hold on the letter. This was actually happening to him. He was going to be disgustingly wealthy. If only his father could have breathed in this moment with him. The man would have been proud knowing he’d earned thousands by…doing the right thing.
Lowering his gaze back to the letter, he let out the breath he didn’t realize he was holding. No more trying to cover the holes in his boots with polish. No more drinking vodka that might make him blind. No more cleaver swinging at a butcher shop and inhaling acrid meat for mere rubles a week in order to get respect. Life was going to be whatever he imagined. With a hundred thousand, the possibilities were limitless.
His father had always wanted to go to London. It was where Miss Bane had been born and raised. It was a sign. And yes, he was superstitious and believed in things no man should. To him, it was real. As real as this.
Slowly folding the parchment, Konstantin tucked it deep into his pocket. “Whilst I genuinely question the duke’s sanity, tell him I am beyond grateful and that I will travel to London to see him at once.”
Boris dug out a calling card from his fur coat. He flicked it out, holding it between two thick fingers. “Should you have any other questions or concerns before leaving Moscow, please call on us in a manner that would not bring attention to your circumstance. We ask that you not discuss the amount you will be receiving from the estate. For your safety.” Konstantin took the card. “I will say nothing. Thank you.”
“Good-night, Mr. Levin. We will inform the duke of your response.” Both men smiled, inclined their heads and turned. Their heavy footfalls echoed on their way out before disappearing out into the wind and snow.
Silence reigned again in the abandoned building.
Konstantin exhaled a frosty breath, letting tension seep out from his chest. It was the strangest midnight he’d ever known. And something told him, this was just the beginning.