The scrap of paper that Miss Permilia Deering clutched in her black satin glove instructed her to cross the street, go to the door with the little brass plaque in the shape of two playing cards--aces, a heart and a spade--and to pull the bell and wait. It was only the second to last clue in the intricate riddles she'd followed to find the Two Aces, the most notorious club in all of London.
Now, all she had to do was lift her foot and cross the street.
It was easier thought about than done, a fact she wished she would have considered before she'd hired the taxi that had taken her first to the park to meet her friend, Miss Cecilia Watson, who had handed over the paper only after looking this way and that to be sure she was not watched.
"You must not tell anyone where this came from. I can't even tell you how I got it. But I won't have my name mentioned in even the same conversation as that place." She'd actually blushed as she'd slipped the instructions into Permilia's hands. "I think you are making a very grave mistake."
Permilia had not argued with her, for it would have been a waste of time, just as Cecilia had known that further argument with her friend would have been pointless, as well. Permilia had been obsessed with the club since the first time she'd heard of it at Lady Covington's summer ball. Le mot du jour had been Monsieur LaQuebec's circling of the globe by airship, a pioneering feat in aethernautics that had been much cause for celebration. Lady Covington, feeling quite painless late in the evening, had remarked, "What marvelous things they're building these days! Monsieur LaQuebec's flying machine, the marvelous inventions of those fiends at The Two Aces..." and her speech had been promptly cut off by Lord Covington while ladies tittered and gentlemen had smirked. After that, it had been as though Permilia's ears had been permanently attuned to the words "two" and "aces" in any sort of proximity in a sentence. And after she'd learned exactly what people had been talking about behind their hands, playing cards had become positively distracting.
The Two Aces was a debauchery club.
From the stories she had overheard and the information she had deliberately sought out, she'd learned fantastical things. Men and women engaging in marital congress right out in the open. People tied up and left at the whims of club patrons. And machines.
Oh, the machines. She'd heard of machines that could give a woman pleasure no man was capable of, machines that ran on steam and aether batteries and were designed to tease and delight their users--and those who used them on others. She had tried to imagine what such machines would look like, over and over again as she'd lain in her bed at night, slowly stroking herself beneath the covers. One day, she hoped she would go to the club herself, to see what all the fuss was about.
When she'd become engaged, Permilia had redoubled her efforts in finding the club. She felt rather guilty about the whole thing, but what was to be done? She had come this far, and there was no turning back.
Now all she had to do was cross the street.
She took a deep breath. In a few weeks, she would be married to Mr. Wallace "Cold Fish" Sterling, lying beneath him as he grunted politely throughout their perfunctory intercourse. If she did not ring the bell now, she might as well resign herself to feeling nothing below the waist ever again, and that was a predicament reserved for married life.
It wasn't that she desperately wanted to be married. It was simply expected. She knew it and Wallace knew it, though they had never explicitly spoken of it. But that had to be the reason they had agreed to marry. He certainly showed no interest in her otherwise.
She stepped off the curb and hurried across the street, taking a path between the glowing auras of the street lamps. Once at the door, she checked and double checked the instructions on the paper, the placard on the door. Two aces, a heart and a spade. This was the place. She wiped her hands against her skirt, then, remembering that she wore gloves, rolled her eyes at her own nerves. She had to appear confident. At ease. She had to act as though she belonged there. She reached for the bell pull and yanked the thick velvet rope once, then twice, then paused for a space of two heartbeats, then rang again.
A slot opened in the door, and eyes, one covered with a brass monocular, scrutinized her.
"Peppermint," she stammered, then bit her lip.
The door slid closed. Permilia waited a few moments, hoping to hear the click of a bolt of the creak of the hinges. But there was nothing. She looked down at the list in confusion. Why, the paper didn't say peppermint at all! It said pepperpot. Cursing, she gripped the bell pull. She rang once, twice, then waited two heartbeats and pulled the rope again. But no one responded, even when she stood on tiptoe to get her mouth near the little slot and yelled, "Pepperpot! I meant to say pepperpot!"
She cursed under her breath and turned away, resolved not to think of it as defeat, but a minor setback, when she caught sight of a figure crossing the street. He wore a long, leather coat that slapped at his legs as he walked, a tricorn hat so terribly out of fashion that it was positively arcane, a leather bandit's mask over his mouth, nose and chin, and a pair of brass goggles that obscured the rest of his face. He looked alarmingly like one of the clockwork men that had become so popular around the ton. The man slowed when he saw her, then came to a stop. It unnerved her to be watched when she could not see his face. She couldn't even be sure he was watching, but something low in her abdomen told her that he must be. She felt so naked under his gaze.
The mask over his mouth obscured his voice, but he spoke clearly enough to be understood. "They've changed it."
"Excuse me?" Permilia found that her mouth had gone very dry. The man's broad shoulders and his confident stance made her feel very confused. Then she realized that he had overheard at least a part of her exchange with the impassive door. "Oh, no, I wasn't--"
"It's daffodil now, but they won't let you in tonight, now that you've already gotten the password wrong." He walked towards her slowly, or perhaps he walked toward the door. Without seeing where his gaze fell, she did not know.
"I wasn't interested in..." she flushed. "I was just curious."
"You could ask another member to vouch for you," he continued, ringing the bell once, twice, then waiting for the space of two heartbeats and pulling it again.
She knew her cheeks must look freshly slapped, from the way they burned. "I don't know anyone. I don't know those kinds of people."
"You are those kind of people," he responded, sounding bored. The slot in the door opened, and the eyes went from her to the stranger in the leather coat. "Daffodil."
The door opened at once, and the man swept his arm before him grandly. "After you, miss--"
"Ophelia." Why had she picked a doomed mad woman? Was it a sign?
"Are you coming in tonight, Ophelia?" the stranger asked, perhaps a bit impatiently.
This was the moment she could choose to follow the stranger and perhaps ruin her reputation, or go home and strive to forget any nonsense about pleasure and debauchery and writhing, naked flesh and--
She stepped through the door.