Miss Ada Quicksilver, a student of London’s Lovelace Academy for Promising Young Women, is spending her holiday in Ireland to pursue her anthropological study of fairies. She visits Dublin’s absinthe bars to investigate a supposed association between the bittersweet spirit and fairy sightings.
One night a handsome Irishman approaches her, introducing himself as Edward Donoghue. Edward takes absinthe to relieve his sleepwalking, and she is eager to hear whether he has experience with fairies. Instead, she discovers that he’s the earl of Meath, and that he will soon visit a mysterious ruin at Newgrange on the orders of his cousin, the beautiful, half-mad Queen Isolde. On learning about Ada’s area of study, he invites her to accompany him.
Ada is torn between a sensible fear of becoming entangled with the clearly troubled gentleman and her compelling desire to ease his suffering. Finally she accepts his invitation, and they arrive in time for the winter solstice. That night, the secret of Edward’s affliction is revealed: he is, in fact, a lord in two worlds and can no longer suppress his shadow self.
Little does either of them realize that their blossoming friendshipand slowly kindling passionwill lead to discoveries that wrench open a door sealed for centuries, throwing them into a war that will change Ireland forever.
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About the Author
Sharon Lynn Fisher writes stories for the geeky at heartmeaty mash-ups of sci-fi, fantasy, suspense, and romance. She lives where it rains nine months of the year and is mom to two lovely tweens, two huge dogs, two ridiculous goats, an orange cat and orange mare, and a fluctuating number of poultry.
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FOG AND SPIRITS
"You must suffer me to go my own dark way." — ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
DUBLIN — 1882
Tendrils of fog, thick and viscous, wended in off the moor on the edge of that midwinter night. I suppose that in Ireland, a moor is more properly a bog, but "bog" is a clumsy sort of word, lacking romance.
It's not a night for romance, I reminded myself, studying the more uniformly dense mass of fog rising from the River Liffey, on my right. I'd never examined the nuances of fog so minutely, but then, I'd never been to Ireland. And in truth, I was stalling — a behavior I had a strict policy against.
"Get on with it, Ada," I murmured, disregarding another of my policies. A young woman traveling alone — one with a head of prematurely silver hair — did not need to give anyone reason to think her queerer than they most certainly already would.
I cast my gaze to the left, lifting my chin to study the sign above the door of Dublin's most popular house of absinthe. "The green fairy," many call the heady spirit, and this establishment had styled itself the same. The emblem painted on the sign was a Venusian beauty in a filmy green drapery, her mass of Irish-hued curls heaped on top of her head. She displayed an ample measure of milky white flesh in the form of softly rounded shoulders and belly and an almost entirely exposed bosom. In her outstretched hand, she held a gracefully curving goblet one-quarter filled with bright-green liquid.
Come hither, she seemed to say.
And so I must.
I'd been in Dublin four days now, poring over books on Celtic history and mythology at Trinity College by day and visiting houses of absinthe by night. The first three I visited had been cramped little establishments, each containing a half-dozen regulars. Shabby men and women so weighted down by life, or perhaps addiction, that their chins brushed the rims of their glasses as they spoke to me. They took their alcoholic spirits as watered down as those residing in their earthly forms, because that was what they could afford.
In the end, their talk wasn't much good to me. They told me what I wanted to hear — stories of recent fairy sightings, by either themselves or their neighbors — and I offered them a few coins for their trouble.
I had read of a possible connection between absinthe consumption and such sightings, so you might wonder at my skepticism. It was the feverish desperation in their eyes, and the outrageous nature of the stories, as if by showmanship they might persuade me. Moreover, I was disposed to believe them, which is a mental state every researcher should guard against.
In the Green Fairy, I expected to find a more privileged class of patrons. Not that I believed the wealthy were any less likely to succumb to addiction or low emotional states — in my experience, it was common enough — but the Green Fairy was reputable. A place anyone might stop in for a drop of spirits or a more substantial draught of the dark and frothy national drink. In short, the Fairy's patrons were less likely to want something from me. Less desperation on the part of the patrons also made it less likely I'd need to test my mastery of the ladies' defense techniques that had been part of my physical education requirement at the Lovelace Academy for Promising Young Women. Even so, I kept my umbrella — with its sharply pointed steel tip — close by my side.
Touching the edge of my hood out of habit — it was going nowhere, as I had pinned it to my coiffure — I reached for the brass knob and pulled open the door.
Warm, anise-scented air washed over me, and I stepped inside. Only a few gazes took note of my entrance, and as I closed the door behind me, shutting out the damp December night, they quickly returned to their glasses and companions. It was a proper Irish pub, with dark wood paneling, leather upholstery, and gas lamps fixed at regular intervals along the walls. The decor, like the sign outside, was a tribute to la fée verte. She appeared in all shapes and sizes, from rustic beauties to Morgan le Fay temptresses.
The place was as popular as rumored, though this could be due to the season — Christmas was only five days away. A strange time for vacationing in Ireland, you might observe. "Inhospitable weather" did not do it justice. But I was on break from the Academy and determined to make progress on my thesis, "Anthropologic Explanations for the Exodus of the Daoine Maithe" — the "gentlefolk," as the Irish referred to fairies out of respectful wariness. Even had I not been behind on my studies, I had no family to spend the holidays with.
There appeared not to be a single empty table, but I balked at the idea of approaching the bar. It wasn't a thing a young miss did — not even an orphan whose parents had left her enough inheritance (just enough, mind you) to render her unconcerned about the opinions of others. My courage was failing me when I noticed a small table at the back of the room, at a companionable distance from a blazing turf fire. It appeared to have been recently vacated, as an empty reservoir glass and absinthe spoon rested on the tabletop.
Gathering my skirts and traveling cloak in my hands, I made my way toward it.
It was a cozy corner and a perfect place for observing the room while keeping quiet and anonymous. The only problem was the heat. Perspiration slid between my shoulder blades, and I decided that if I was to avoid a soaking, I must either relocate or remove a layer of clothing.
"For you, miss."
I glanced up as a man placed before me the funnel-shaped glass preferred for serving absinthe. I locked gazes with the stranger, who wore round, green-tinted spectacles, and it gave me a shock. I don't mean that I was surprised, though in fact I was. I mean that I felt it like a sudden, powerful discharge of static electricity.
My gaze dropped to the glass he'd placed before me. The drizzling-water-over-sugar part of the absinthe ritual had apparently already been conducted, and the glass was nearly full of a clear green liquid.
"Sir," I began, "I haven't ordered —"
"No," he interrupted. "I'll declare myself outright: it's intended as a bribe."
I lifted my eyebrows, though of course he couldn't see this, due to the depth of my hood.
"I do not wish to molest you or suggest anything improper —"
"Disclosures that begin in that way," I interrupted in my turn, "typically prove to be exactly the thing they were advertised not to be." My reply edged on rudeness, but as a young woman traveling without a chaperone, I received my share of unwanted attention. I found it best to quell their enthusiasm right out of the gate. "I had intended to order tea, sir, so please bestow your generosity on someone more receptive."
A chilly reply was usually enough, but the man continued to regard me, amusement now mingling with curiosity.
"I believe you've mistaken my intention, miss. I only wished to beg the favor of claiming your unused chair — if it is indeed unused — so I might rest my feet on the grate." I could not but notice he was a darkly handsome man and spoke a velvety Irish brogue. "I've ridden up from the harbor and I'm soaked through, and there's not an empty seat in the house."
His black hair was tied back from his face, but one stray lock was plastered to his wet cheekbone.
"I'm happy to fetch your tea," he continued.
"No, please." I gestured to the empty chair across from me. "It's not necessary, and I'm too warm as it is. I apologize for my rudeness."
"My thanks to you, Miss ...?"
He lifted the chair, angling it toward the fire. "Mr. Donoghue, at your service."
He removed his coat and sank down with a relieved sigh, stretching his boots in front of him. Soon, steam was rising from his garments. His dress marked him as a gentleman — jet overcoat and dove-gray waistcoat cut from fine cloth, and a silver watch fob dangling from his waistcoat pocket. Though he wore his hair longer than was currently fashionable, it was trimmed to shoulder length, and neatly pulled back but for the strands worked loose by the weather. He'd missed his appointment with the razor for perhaps two or three days, and dark hair softened the strong jaw-line. His appearance had a blown-in-off-the-bog quality that — studious and unromantic though I was by nature — I found most alluring. I fancied he had a story to tell of himself that would be well worth hearing.
Aware that I was staring — an unsettling habit of mine, I'd been told by schoolmates — I dropped my eyes to the glass before me. So far, I had abstained from partaking of the drink so popular with my research subjects. My work required a clear mind. But it had sometimes occurred to me that by so primly distancing myself from their experience, I might be limiting my effectiveness as a researcher.
Certainly, a taste could do no harm.
Raising the glass to my lips, I just wet my tongue. It had a delicate licorice sweetness that mingled pleasingly with a slight herbal bitterness. I immediately understood its appeal.
"Is it up to par?" asked my new acquaintance. Apparently, he had been studying me as well, though his spectacled eyes were still fixed on the fire.
"I couldn't say," I replied to his profile.
He turned then, arching an eyebrow. Afraid I might have given offense — for I am hopeless at small talk — I explained, "It's the first time I've tried it."
"Ah. And how do you like it?"
"Very well," I replied, pushing the glass a few inches away. I found the drink refreshing, and that was precarious in my current overheated state. Better to remove my traveling cloak and hope that I was tucked too tightly into the corner to attract much notice.
"Are you a wanted woman?" asked Mr. Donoghue, ducking his head to gaze deeper into my hood. The lines of his full lips were firm, but mirth sparkled behind the rounds of green glass. I was suddenly curious to know the color of his eyes. "Or perhaps embarking on an elopement," he continued to speculate, his gaze ranging around the room. "Your bridegroom is late."
"I'm a woman sitting alone in a house of absinthe," I replied. But I unpinned my hood from my hair and unfastened the cloak. Then, holding my breath, I shrugged free of the garment, letting it fall over the back of my chair. "You can understand why I might prefer to avoid drawing the attention of others."
"Certainly, I ..." He trailed off as his eyes widened, catching on the silvery locks that had tumbled down around the edges of my face. "I beg your pardon. For a moment, I took you for a dame twice your age."
Had I a shilling for every time I'd heard those words, I could have hired a research assistant to wander the wilds of Ireland in the cold dark of December. "And have you revised your opinion, sir?"
"Indeed," he said with mock gravity. "I see that you're a youngish lass. One who has perhaps been swallowed up and spat out by a storm off the Atlantic." He was amusing himself at my expense, but I perceived no malice behind it. He continued, "Or was it some shock in early life that wrought this change?"
"While those are imaginative theories, Mr. Donoghue, I —"
"I have it," he said, his gaze brightening. "Miss Quicksilver, was it? An inherited trait, then. Your family produces prematurely silver-haired offspring."
"Exactly so," I said, pleased at not having to repeat an explanation I'd given many times. It was my mother, in fact, who had handed down the name Quicksilver, due to a centuries-old legal exception granted to preserve the name. No one in my family seemed to know why the exception had been granted, but there were many imaginative theories on that score as well.
"Here you are, Lord Meath."
A young man with a ruddy complexion and stained apron set a glass on the end of the table opposite me.
"My apologies for the delay, sir. We're that busy, what with the holiday bearing down on us."
"Not at all, Michael. Thank you, and happy Christmas."
Michael ducked his head to my companion. "Happy Christmas to you, Your Lordship. And to you, miss."
Michael moved away, and it was my turn to raise an eyebrow. "'Your Lordship,' is it?"
My companion made a disgruntled noise and extended his hands toward the fire. "Please don't start calling me that. My family name is heavy on the tongue, just as 'Your Lordship' is on the nerves. You may call me Meath if you like, Miss Quicksilver. Most do."
I understood a thing or two about ponderous names. "As you like, sir. As for myself, 'Miss Q' will do."
He ducked his head and raised his glass. "It's an honor to make the acquaintance of such a unique young lady."
I raised my glass. "And it's an honor to meet ..." I tried to think what his title might be, and then recalled that Dublin was in County Meath. "... the earl of Meath — have I got that right?"
He inclined his head slightly. "Since my father died, two years ago."
Our glasses clinked, and I took the tiniest of sips before replacing mine on the table.
"You haven't much of a thirst this evening," he observed.
"I'm not used to it," I explained. "I lead a sober existence. Studious by nature."
He gave me a dubious smile. "Despite all evidence to the contrary."
I reached again for my glass as an occupation for my nervously active fingers but caught myself and folded my hands in my lap. "Things are not always what they seem, sir. I've come to Dublin on a research trip."
"Research! You are full of surprises, Miss Q. May one know what you are researching?"
I straightened in my chair. I mustn't lose this opportunity over a sudden and uncharacteristic case of nerves. "I'm composing my thesis on the disappearance of Ireland's gentlefolk. I hope to find a few souls here who know stories or even have firsthand experience."
Watching him closely to see whether he would scoff at this, I noticed when a shadow passed over his countenance. But he was smiling when he replied, "Well, I daresay you've come to the right place. I'd wager there are many here who have had visions. Of fairies and bogeys, to be sure. Also lions, monkeys, and possibly peacocks."
"My dear sir," I replied, suppressing my own smile, "I believe you are laughing at me."
Then he did laugh. "Forgive me, Miss Q. I've only just left a naval appointment, and I haven't enjoyed the company of a charming young woman in longer than I care to remember. Don't be angry with me for having a bit of fun."
The casual flattery affected me more than it should have. I dropped my gaze to my glass and released the smile I'd been holding back. "No, sir. I'm not so miss-ish as that."
"That is a relief." His voice softened slightly as he said this. It was a subtle change, but my heart noticed — and fluttered. "In all seriousness, a house of absinthe seems an unlikely place to conduct research, if I don't offend by saying so."
The earl appeared to have sloughed off the chill. He had angled his chair somewhat away from the fire and folded his sleeves to just above the elbows. He was not quite sitting at my table, but he'd rested his half-consumed drink there.
"I'm sure it seems so," I replied. "Over the past decade, there have been a handful of reports in Paris, London, and Dublin newspapers that suggest a potential connection between consumption of absinthe and the ability to see fairies."
The earl's amused expression had given way to a contemplative one. "You refer to real sightings? Not absinthe-induced hallucinations?"
I lifted my hands, turning them out in a gesture of uncertainty. "Who can say? One might argue that they are hallucinations, encouraged by the nickname the spirit has earned."
He nodded. "One might."
"Or ... one might argue that the nickname was earned as a result of the spirit's effects."
Another nod, slower this time. "But if the sightings are real, would that not mean the fairies have not departed at all?"
I smiled, pleased at his quick intelligence and his interest in the topic. "Precisely. That, or their new country somehow overlaps our own, and absinthe — or perhaps one of its component herbs — creates a sort of gateway between the two."
"Intriguing." He was staring into his glass now, perhaps seeing the spring-colored liquid in a new light. "And you don't wish to test the theory yourself?"
He glanced up at me, and I shook my head. "I'd make a biased subject. I might see only what I wish to see."
"And what is it you would wish to see?"
I frowned, considering. It was an interesting question, and I wasn't sure of the answer. Inspired by his joking manner, I replied, "Anything that might bring me closer to finishing my thesis."
He laughed and drank again from his glass.
"How about you, my lord? Have you ever seen a fairy?"
I stared at this striking woman, frozen by her question. For all that she was ladylike, mild-mannered, and on all accounts charming, her wit was direct and incisive. Her question was not complicated. It required a simple yes or no, and yet ...(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Absinthe Earl"
Copyright © 2019 Sharon Lynn Fisher.
Excerpted by permission of Blackstone Publishing.
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