The Hollow Crown
The Crosspointe Chronicles, Book Four
The Hollow Crown
Roc (June 2010)
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After the murders of the king and queen, the island empire of Crosspointe is on the verge of chaos. The ruthless Lord Chancellor has taken the throne and made slaves of most of the royal family. Now, in order to save the country they love, the king’s heirs are determined to rally whatever allies they have left and overthrow the Lord Chancellor- before the Jutras invade.
Praise for The Hollow Crown:
“Francis has crafted an original world, real people, and high-stakes intrigue and adventure. Great fun.”
—New York Times Bestselling Author Patricia Briggs
Margaret had no intention of dying today, though her pursuers had other ideas on the subject and, just at the moment, the odds were in their favor.
She ran down a flight of steps, taking three at a time. Her skirts tangled her legs and she snarled silently as she lost her footing and twisted her ankle. She fell against the wall and pain spun around her leg in rings of fire. She bit down on her cry, tasting blood, then plunged onward, clutching her satchel tightly to her stomach. She could hear the voices of the Crown Shields too close behind. Their armor clanked and their booted feet echoed.
At the bottom of the stairway she paused, trying to quiet her gasping pants. She peered around the corner. The long gallery was empty but for a scattering of pedestals holding bronze and marble statuary, a line of plushly cushioned benches along the left wall, and a series of doors recessed inside pointed archways marching along opposite. Margaret rubbed her knuckles across her tense lips as she glanced over her shoulder. Her mind raced.
She couldn’t afford to hide and wait for the Crown Shields to give up the chase. Not that they would. The mother-cracking regent would tear the castle down stone by stone to find her. And to add insult to stupidity, she’d let them herd her into the sovereign wing, which left her precious few escape routes.
But while she was out of time, she wasn’t helpless. In an instant she settled on her plan. She fled purposefully, threading her way through the gallery as fast as she could manage on her throbbing ankle. Her back itched as she listened for the guards to thunder down the stairs and find her.
She reached the other side before they spilled into the gallery. The noise of their arrival echoed. There was a crashing sound as a statue shattered on the parquet floor. Margaret ducked into a narrow cleft artfully concealed behind a display of lacquered Chaturakian armor. She went quickly to the door at the end and slid through, pulling it firmly closed behind her.
She paused in the shadowed corridor, listening. While the gallery outside had been deserted, the servant hallways were much more likely to be busy, no matter what time it was. She breathed a sight of relief. No one was lurking, thank Chayos. Licking her dry lips, Margaret turned right. Her plan was insanely risky, but she had little choice. She was trapped.
This passageway had plain wood walls and a rough slate floor worn smooth by hundreds of years of scuffling feet and trundled carts. Sylveth sconces lit by majick cast a dim yellow glow every thirty feet or so. Several tall cupboards lined the narrow space, with three plain doors interspersed between. Margaret tried the handles. The doors were barred from within, and a tingle in her fingers revealed they were also protected with powerful wards. Each led into the opulent quarters of the regent—formerly the lord chancellor—and his wick-sucking wife. Just months ago these rooms had belonged to the king and queen. But both had been murdered.
Margaret slammed the shutters on the memories before they could surge up and overwhelm her. She couldn’t afford the distraction, especially with the Crown Shields breathing down her neck. But one day, she promised herself again, she would find out who was responsible for killing her parents and cut them into tiny little pieces. Starting with the regent.
She tensed, hearing the murmur of voices and the soft metallic clink of armor and weapons. She edged to the corner of the cross-corridor and peered around it. A full squad of twelve Blackwatch stood in a cluster on the right side, talking avidly together in low voices. Margaret drew back out of sight, biting hard on the insides of her cheeks. She’d expected—no, she’d hoped—there would only be a pair. Even with a bad ankle, she could have handled two without undue trouble. No one ever thought anyone so small and fragile-looking could possibly be a threat. They would let her approach, and then she’d scratch them with one of the poisoned rings she wore. They’d died within grains.
Margaret drew a deep breath. She had counted on the regent sending his personal guard running after her instead of the Crown Shields. He trusted the Blackwatch more and as much as he wanted what she carried, it should have been a safe assumption. But apparently he was feeling too nervous to risk trusting his safetly to the men and women who’d served the man he murdered. She turned and started back the way she’d come. But it was too late. Light wedged into the passage through the door she’d shut so firmly behind her.
She slid into the shadows beside a tall cabinet, pulling her skirts close. Her chest tightened and her hands clenched on the leather strap of her satchel. There was nowhere left to run. She was going to be caught. Quietly she lifted it over her head, and stretched up on tiptoe. The cabinet was too tall. She dropped her arms, tucking the strap beneath the top flap, and then lifted it high again. She rested it against the wood, and then gave a leap, thrusting hard with her fingers at the same time. The satchel jolted and dropped out of sight behind the tall molding.
Margaret froze. But the soft thud went unnoticed over the sounds of the Crown Shields and Blackwatch. Sooner or later they would find it, but it would mean a little delay and she wasn’t going to make anything easier for the cracking regent to get his hands on it if she could help it.
She drew a breath. She’d known in sneaking into the castle this time that there was a better than good chance she’d get caught. Her brother had forbidden her to try.
Margaret smothered a cynical snort. Ryland was younger by five seasons and still wet behind the ears when it came to the dirty work of politics. Never mind that he was the crown-appointed prelate and supposedly the regent’s equal in the regency of Crosspointe. Just like every other member of the royal family, he was in hiding with a price on his head. The regent had always been a greedy, ambitious bastard and he planned to keep the throne for himself, even if it meant destroying Crosspointe. Besides, she knew what had to be done and she wasn’t going to sit around and wait for her baby brother to give her permission, especially on anything so crucial.
She twisted her rings around her fingers. Each one held at least one poisoned needle. A flick of her thumb or a pressed gem was all that was required to pop them free. They were the best first defense against a superior force. Margaret could take out two or three attackers before they knew what was happening. She touched the six short throwing blades tucked into her hair. Her entire body bristled with weapons. She would not be taken easily. Her teeth clenched. These were the same men and women who should have been protecting her and her family. She felt no guilt about killing them. In fact—she smiled with predatory anticipation—it was good to finally make a stand.
The Blackwatch squad must have heard the Crown Shields entering the corridor, but they were too well trained to desert their post. That, and the two forces despised each other. The Blackwatch would never deign to acknowledge their rivals, thereby crediting the Crown Shields with being any sort of threat. But it still left Margaret trapped between the two, and the Blackwatch would come running at the sound of a scuffle. She’d be chewed between their jaws.
Boots scuffled as the Crown Shields organized themselves. At the same time, Margaret came aware of the rumble of a trundle cart coming from the north side of the cross -passage. The voices of the Crown Shields and the Blackwatch broke off suddenly. The jolting grumble of the cart drew closer. Margaret pressed herself into the triangle of shadow between the wall and the cabinet, knowing it was futile. Whoever was pushing the cart could not help but see her.
“Halt! Name yourself,” a Blackwatch soldier demanded.
From up the corridor, the sound of the wheels stopped and a husky feminine voice answered the Blackwatch’s challenge. “I’m Ellyn. Mistress Alanna sent me to fetch refreshments.”
There was a note of annoyance in her voice, as if she thought her interrogator should have known that. Margaret’s mouth twitched.
“Get on with it, then,” answered the brusque voice.
Ellyn didn’t answer, but the cart began to rumble forward into the intersection of the passages. Her blond head turned curiously, her gaze settling almost instantly on Margaret. There was a slight widening of her eyes and then her attention flicked away to the Crown Shields.
Margaret tensed, waiting for the lady’s maid to scream an alarm. But unbelievably, Ellyn continued on without a word. She disappeared and the Crown Shields rustled to life again, shifting instantly into a businesslike march.
They started past her, none looking to the left or right. Swords swung on their hips as they marched two by two. Some were armed with crossbows, others with pikes. Each wore chain shirts, helmets, plate gauntlets, and greaves. The first three pairs passed before a sudden wave of force rippled through the cross corridor where the Blackwatch were stationed.
Margaret’s ears popped painfully as wild brambles of majick lashed her skin from head to toe. She gasped and tears burned her eyes at the sudden pain of the majickal attack. Her head knocked against the cupboard loudly as she jerked backward. But there was no escaping it. The Crown Shields shouted and thrust apart as thorny majick whipped across them. Purple welts rose on their skin. One dropped to her knees, screaming and grabbing her eyes. Another clutched his cods and moaned as he collapsed unconscious. Margaret sucked in a sharp breath. She wasn’t the target—or at least, not the only one. Who was the majicar and what did he want?
But she had no time to consider the question. There were ten Crown Shields left, and three had already seen their prey. Ignoring the flailing majick, they closed on her. She pressed back with artful fear, letting her mouth fall open and raising trembling hands. She let tears roll down her cheeks and made a little whimpering sound. More majick struck and she flinched dramatically. They lowered their weapons and moved closer.
She didn’t lunge. She waited for them like a spider in a web. The sylveth lights flickered and dimmed, then flared brilliantly and faded to sparks, casting the corridor into murky darkness. She released the needles on three rings. When the first Crown Shield grabbed her wrist, Margaret shook and staggered, letting her knees buckle as if overwhelmed by pain. Her twisted ankle made her performance all too real. An arm came around her and she grasped it as if to balance herself, then pressed her hand to the shoulder of one and gripped the hand of the other. The poison was quick and ugly. The two Shields spasmed and dropped to the floor in convulsions. They were dead within grains.
The chaos and the dying lights kept anyone from noticing. More majick snapped, and now she smelled burning flesh and hair. She didn’t waste time. As more Crown Shields moved into range, she poisoned them. Each movement was calculated and methodical. When there were only two left, she snatched a dropped crossbow and snapped away a bolt. It burrowed through the throat of the taller man. That left one.
He turned, searching for her. Blood ran from wounds in his scalp and face, and even in the gloom he looked shaken and angry. He leveled his pike and strode toward her over the bodies of his fallen comrades. Margaret pulled a throwing knife from her hair. The light sputtered and brightened for a moment. She saw the curved gleam along the edge of the pike’s blade and a flickering shine on the Crown Shield’s breastplate. His eyes were black holes in a rectangle of shadow. Her fingers flicked with practiced ease as she flung her blade. It bit deep into his right eye. He dropped with a clatter.
She scanned the carnage, rubbing her hand absently at a tickle on her cheek. Her palm came away sticky and wet. Blood. It trickled freely from a wound that ran from her eyebrow almost to her chin. Suddenly it burned like fire. Her mouth tightened and she wiped her hand on her skirt.
A husky female voice from the cross corridor startled her. “You’d better come quick if you plan to get away.”
Margaret spun to face the maid who stood in the opening. “Who are you?”
“I’m a lady’s maid for Mistress Alanna. Are you coming?”
“What did you do to the squad of Blackwatch? Hit them with pillows?” Margaret asked. Ellyn might be a lady’s maid, but that wasn’t all she was. The explosion of majick had come from somewhere and there was no other likely culprit.
“Yes. That is exactly what I’ve done,” Ellyn said with breezy insincerity. “But we’re wasting time. If you want help to get away, now is the time. Otherwise I should be about my business. M’lady Alanna will want her feet rubbed.” She made a face.
“Why would you help me?”
“Perhaps because I would do anything to avoid touching M’lady’s revolting feet. Who knows? I may be hoping to earn a splendid reward, Princess Margaret.”
That Ellyn knew who she was should have startled Margaret, but it didn’t. Something about the other woman told Margaret that she knew a whole lot more than she ought to. “I wouldn’t count on it. The regent has made paupers of the entire royal family.”
That was met with a disbelieving snort, but Ellyn didn’t argue. “Then I must want to help you out of loyalty to the crown, don’t you think?”
No, Margaret thought. I definitely do not think. But she was running out of time. Whether or not she accepted Ellyn’s assistance, she had to get moving. Did she dare grab the satchel? But the real question was whether she dared leave it behind. The answer was unequivocally no. There would be no chance to ever come back and get it, and those documents were needed now.
She glanced again at Ellyn. Taller than Margaret by several inches, the woman had a gamin face with a narrow chin, dark sunken eyes, and long blond hair she wore wrapped in a tail down her back. She held herself balanced and taut in the way of a predator. She wore an air of untiring patience and contained ferocity. A wolf in lady’s maid clothing. She said nothing, a faint smile curving her lips as if she knew Margaret’s dilemma and was both entertained by it and indifferent to the outcome.
“Crack it,” Margaret muttered and turned to face the cabinet. She leaped up, ignoring the shooting pain in her ankle. Gripping the top edge, she pulled herself high enough to reach behind and grab the satchel. She smothered a yelp of pain when she landed; then, lifting the strap over her head, she started picking her way toward Ellyn over the bodies of the Crown Shields.
The Blackwatch squad lay crumpled in front of Ellyn’s cart. Their bodies were mangled and torn as if they’d been through a butcher’s grinder. Blood splattered the walls and seeped and puddled on the floor. It matched the splashes on Ellyn’s apron and the red rim around the bottom of her shoes.
“Messy,” Margaret said. Unnecessarily so. She flipped a needle open on one of her rings. Ellyn was clearly a majicar, and she just as clearly enjoyed killing. That made her more dangerous than Margaret could live with.
The other woman scowled at the bodies. “It shouldn’t have happened like that. Something’s wrong with the majick in Crosspointe. Has been since the Kalpestrine fell.”
Margaret hesitated. The day after her father was assassinated, Merstone Island had simply collapsed. The craggy mountain that had contained the majicar stronghold—the Kalpestrine—had fallen in on itself without warning. Seawater had drowned the crater it left behind. Most of the majicars had been on the mainland, but rumor had it that majick had not been working right since. Some reports said it was driving the majicars insane. So maybe Ellyn’s spell had gone wild and killed the Blackwatch squad.
Or maybe she just liked carving people to shreds.
“Trust me or not, you’ve got to go if you want to escape,” Ellyn murmured. “If I don’t come with you, I’ll have to raise the alarm.”
“Is that a threat?”
“It is reality. I must rub M’lady’s feet, or I must go with you and be generously rewarded. If I go to her, I will have to mention the bodies in the corridor, or else they will think me a conspirator in the murders.”
“What are you up to? What do you want from me? What is a majicar doing serving as lady’s maid to the lord chancellor’s wife?” Margaret demanded.
Ellyn cocked her head. “Do you really want to waste time on that now?”
“How do I know you aren’t just leading me into another trap?”
“I saved you.”
“And I’m grateful for it. But that neither makes you friend nor ally. I am not a stupid woman. You want something. What is it?”
“I want to help you get out of the castle safely.”
“Then we’ll have more time to talk without worrying about getting killed.”
Margaret glanced again at the bloody Blackwatch squad. “With you at my side, how can I not worry?”
Ellyn’s lips curved. Her smile was bitter and her eyes ancient. Margaret knew that look—she’d seen it in her mirror a thousand times. It was the expression of someone who lived by the blade—an assassin and a spy.
“Would you rather be caught by the regent? He’s all too eager to put a chain around the neck of every member of the royal family. He would no doubt offer me a rich reward for you.”
Bile rose on Margaret’s tongue. The regent had set about enslaving her family and anyone he thought might be a Rampling ally. She would never have thought her people would stand for it, but many had dragged the new slaves away in chains. For these people she risked her life.
She pushed the thought away. “Regent Truehelm would. More than I can give.”
“But I do not think he can give me what I want.”
“And you think I can?”
“Then you don’t want money.” It wasn’t a question. A majicar lady’s maid in the regent’s service was certainly looking for something far more valuable than dralions. But Margaret had no idea what, except that it was likely a price she couldn’t afford to pay. Neither could she afford not to find out exactly who Ellyn was. It was the sort of mystery that could only come back to bite Crosspointe in the ass. “I make you no promises,” she said at last. “Except that I will hear what you have to say.”
“Good enough,” Ellyn said. “Let’s go.”
True to her word, Ellyn helped Margaret get out of the castle. Margaret hid in the belly of the trundle cart and Ellyn wheeled her into a storage closet. Margaret exited the cart and donned a mob cap and an unbloodied apron, hiding hers behind a stack of sheets. She hoped the spatters of blood on her sleeves would pass as food stains. She next pulled up her skirts and belted the satchel to her waist. She took up two baskets from a shelf, then hunched her shoulders and limped after Ellyn, clutching the stained handkerchief she found on the floor and sniffing loudly behind it at regular intervals.
Maids in the service to lady’s maids were by definition, beneath notice. Margaret muttered and snuffled so that she could not escape attention and, as a result, was summarily dismissed as being exactly what she appeared to be—an arthritic, querulous servant. As Ellyn strode imperiously down the serving passages ahead of her, other staff dodged out her way. Ellyn’s status as a lady’s maid to Alanna Truehelm put her among the elite in the hierarchy of castle servants.
Twice they were stopped by patrols of Crown Shields, but the guards asked only desultory questions of Ellyn and ignored Margaret altogether. She watched them sharply. Were they simply incompetent? Or had they decided that chasing a Rampling princess was against their oath of loyalty to the crown? Hoped sparked in her breast that perhaps she wasn’t risking her life for people who cared nothing about her family after all.
Each time they were halted, Ellyn explained their middle-of-the-night venture into the city as a whim of her mistress, rolling her eyes and heaving an exasperated sigh as she spoke. “She’s got a sick headache and a bitter stomach, and wants a tisane blessed at the Maida of Chayos. I’ve been up all night, rubbing her feet and putting cold cloths on her forehead.” She grimaced and bent toward them conspiratorially. “Her feet are scaly and they smell like spoiled cheese.” The entire squad snickered. Ellyn straightened, making a sudden fearful look and glanced around like they were being watched. “I had better hurry.”
After each performance, the guards gestured for the two women to move along. The second time, one of the men groped Ellyn’s ass as she passed by. She started and giggled flirtatiously at him, then hurried away.
They made the city center just as the sky was beginning to lighten. There Margaret had turned to her. Her ankle had been been so sore and swollen that she could hardly stand on it, and their progress had been slower than she liked. At least majick still worked well enough to heal.
She’d see about that very soon.
“This is where we part ways,” she told the majicar firmly.
Ellyn frowned, her gaze turbulent and dark. “You said that you would listen to me.”
“I have no time now,” Margaret said. Exhaustion was dragging at her. She’d been awake for nearly two whole days. Her body shook with the leftover pain of Ellyn’s majickal attack and she needed to get the satchel somewhere safe.
Margaret eyed her narrowly. “You’re awfully eager.”
“I am,” Ellyn said sincerely.
Truth be told, Margaret wanted to hear whatever it was that Ellyn had to say, and to know what she was doing working as a lady’s maid to Alanna Truehelm. She couldn’t afford to walk away without some answers. She thought rapidly. “Meet me in three days at the Spotted Lace Teahouse. I’ll be there at the ninth glass.”
“Three days?” Ellyn repeated dubiously.
“I cannot promise sooner. I have obligations.” In fact, she didn’t know if she’d be able to get away in three days. Everything depended on what was in the satchel. She’d opened the vault in her father’s—or rather, the regent’s ill-gotten—office. It was hidden beneath the rug under the regent’s desk chair. To everyone it appeared to be nothing more than a solid parquet floor. Unlocking it required the proper words, chanted with the right intonation and cadence, as well as wearing the right bit of jewelry.
Every Rampling born on the right side of the blankets was given a cipher at birth. The pendant was hung on an unbreakable necklace that could not be removed and it offered some protection against majickal attacks. The white sylveth drop in the center of the its compass rose had turned black upon the death of the Margaret’s father and would not turn back until a new king or queen sat on the throne. Without the cipher necklace, it would be impossible to unseal her father’s vault. But with majick acting so erratically, she feared that those protections would not last much longer and she was afraid of what the regent might discover inside.
She’d not taken the time to examine what she took, merely snatching up everything and stuffing all into her satchel. She’d resealed the vault and had begun to leave when she’d noticed the papers littering the desk. Geoffrey Truehelm’s personal correspondence. She’d cleared the desk and rifled through the drawers, taking everything that looked important.
She glanced at Ellyn, waiting for her reply.
The other woman pursed her lips and then gave a short, ungracious nod. “I have no choice. I will be there. Do not be late.”
Margaret arched one brow. “Or else what?”
“I’ll find you.”
“Will you, now. And what then?”
The majicar’s smile was slow and predatory. “I’ll do what’s necessary.”
Ellyn turned and walked away, disappearing with an uncanny swiftness. She didn’t use majick; she faded into the shadows like a thief. Margaret stared after her. Who was she? What was she?
Suddenly making that meeting seemed of paramount importance.
Margaret’s first stop after splitting with Ellyn was to find a safe place for the satchel and get some sleep. She would find a healer in the evening before she took the contents of the satchel to her brother Ryland. Her mouth thinned. He was going to be very unhappy with her. Like most people, he believed in her helpless, simpering, public princess persona far too much to bring himself to acknowledge her as an assassin, a spy, a thief, and sometimes whore. He didn’t want to think his sister capable of such things, really, nor did he want to think of how the king—their father—turned her into such a weapon.
She sighed, limping along the street to the corner. She wanted to flag down a footspider and have him pull her in his cart, but it would only call attention to her. Better to walk.
By midmorning she made her way to a ramshackle room down near Blackwater Bay on the north side of the customs docks. The place was located in the back of a tavern and looked like nothing more than a lean-to storage shed. As she unlocked the door wards, the first drops of a chill rain pattered against her cheeks. She made a face. Halfway through summer and it felt like late fall.
She slammed the door and sneezed as dust swirled up from the floor in a thick cloud. The place was cold and damp and smelled of brine and moldy bread. From the undisturbed dust in the rest of the room, it was clear no one had trespassed here since her last visit six months ago. Margaret’s stomach growled in the silence of the room. She hadn’t eaten since she’d stolen a half-eaten sandwich that had been hidden in a maid’s workbasket. That was more than a day ago.
She yawned, her jaw cracking. She lifted her skirts and unbuckled the satchel. She stepped forward and turned back to the door and knelt. She placed a splayed hand on the middle of the warped wood floor. White light ran around the edges of her palm and fingers and a feeling like a mass of sticky squirming worms engulfed her hand. After a moment, the sensation dissolved and the light spread across a rectangle of the wood-slat floor. The boards shimmered and then melted downward.
Inside the space below was an iron box with no visible lid. Margaret traced a sigil on the top. It flared orange and the top of the box turned into a layer of oily, thick smoke. She pushed the satchel down into the box. The touch of the smoke was greasy and cold. She pulled her hand back out and traced a different sigil across its slow-swirling surface. Immediately it firmed back into solid iron. Next she closed the wood floor and stood, scuffing the dust to make it less obvious she’d disturbed it. Then she slid her hand over the door to reactivate the locking wards.
She turned around and longingly eyed the potbellied stove in the corner. There was a full bin of coal beside it. But if she lighted a fire, Markham, her landlord, might come to find out if someone had broken in. He was discreet enough and loyal to the crown, but now was not the time to take needless chances. The satchel was too important.
She crossed to the bed in the corner and carefully peeled the sheet off the top, folding it back along itself to keep the thick layer of dust covering it from erupting into the air. Beneath, the straw mattress was swathed in a thick layer of blankets. Margaret took off her boots and apron and crawled under, falling almost instantly asleep as she ignored the loud protestations of her stomach.
She woke after dusk. The room was pitch-dark, and outside the wind whined and the rain pelted the slate roof like pebbles. Margaret sat up and stretched. Her ankle throbbed, and when she examined it with the tips of her fingers, she found that it was swollen twice as large as it should be and was hot to the touch. She sighed and swung her feet over the edge of the bed. Her breath caught hard in her chest as the pain throbbed through her ankle like a deep-rung bell.
She fumbled for a striker in her bed table drawer. She found it and scraped alight the thick candle on her bed table. Flickering light melted the darkness away. She breathed slowly in and out, then reached for her boots. Lacing them on her hurt foot was an exercise in self-torture, but eventually she succeeded. She pulled the bed right and slid the dust sheet over it again. A few minutes later she had retrieved the satchel. She started to buckle it on beneath her skirts, then hesitated.
Her father had made Ryland prelate until their brother Vaughn could be crowned king, following a proper election, of course. Margaret was to serve as their weapon and spy, the same as she had done for her father. But her father had confided in her—trusted her. Ryland thought she needed protecting and kept far too many things from her.
With a decisive movement, she unlatched the satchel and dumped its contents onto the bed. Quickly she sorted and scanned the letters,, flipping through a journal and a ledger. There was so much information that Margaret had not known—secret allies, hidden caches of money, ongoing plots and intrigues in foreign countries, locations and names of spies, and a series of papers detailing specific plans her father had set in motion. It was all as if he expected to be murdered and so had made sure that his heirs could follow in his footsteps. Even if Ryland did complain that she’d disobeyed him, he’d be very glad to have this information.
The last set of papers were those she’d swept from the regent’s desk. Most were letters confirming shipments of slaves. Her mouth twisted in a snarl. She should have hunted him down and killed him while she was in the castle.
Her attention snagged on one last parchment. She picked it up and read it through three times, torn between gloating triumph and horrified fury. The letter reported that the regent had kidnapped the son of Nicholas Weverton, a powerful merchant and crony of the regent’s. The fact that Weverton had a son was stunning in and of itself—he had so many spies watching him, it hardly seemed possible he could cut his toenails without generating fifty reports. Yet even she had not discovered the boy’s existence. Margaret had to admire him for keeping something so important a secret for so long. She smiled, sharp as a dagger. In her hand she held the revenge she craved for her father’s murder. For she had no doubts he’d had a hand in her father’s assassination, if he wasn’t soley responsible. It served the mother-cracking bastard right that his puppet, the regent, had turned on him. She folded the missive up and started to tuck it into the satchel with the rest. But something stopped her. She hesitated, chewing her thumbnail as she considered the letter.
Could she do it? Could she just let the regent kidnap an innocent boy as a pawn in this game of political intrigue? The child was innocent. Her hand clenched on the crisp parchment. Emotion swelled inside her and her teeth ground audibly together. Why should she care? Because of the regent and Weverton hundreds of her family and friends had been rounded up and sold into slavery. A traitorous thought chased hard on the heels of that question: Why should she care about Crosspointe at all? The same people who had bought those slaves were the people she was trying to save from Weverton’s machinations and the regent’s brutal rule. Even Weverton was getting a taste of the monster he’d created. Let the wick-sucking bastard reap what he sowed.
She started to push the letter into the satchel again, and again she stopped. She felt like she was caught in the battering waves of a Chance storm. Her chest was tight with unfamiliar indecision. Her job was to protect the innocents of Crosspointe and it was in her power to help the boy. All she had to do was give the letter to Weverton. She could help so few. Ryland was afraid of exposing the growing group of resistance fighters by moving too soon. That meant ignoring too many of the people chained up and marched onto ships to be sold in villages along the coast or even in other countries. In fact, Ryland forbade Margaret to do much of anything but run messages and spy from afar. It grated on her.
He would strangle her for certain if he found out she’d helped Weverton in any way.
Margaret chewed her thumbnail again, her mind racing. Weverton was the wealthiest man in Crosspointe, with a wide network of allies. If she helped him, he might not only withdraw his support from the regent, but join forces with Ryland and Vaughn in destroying the usurping bastard.
Weverton prided himself on loyalty. He would most definitely turn against the regent once he learned of his son’s kidnapping. As much as he despised the Crown, he would want to annihilate the regent for daring to touch his son. Margaret nodded. It could work.
She folded the letter up and tucked it inside a weatherproofed pouch that was strapped around her waist. Ryland would never approve such a risk. But if her plan worked, she would not only help an innocent child; she’d help save Crosspointe. Weverton’s help could be all the difference. She was sick to death of doing nothing while Ryland and Vaughn planned without her. At last she had something to do, and she wasn’t going to let either of them tell her no.
She rose off the bed and fastened the satchel beneath her skirts before wrapping herself in the warm wool cloak she took from a trunk at the foot of the bed. She hobbled out into the driving wind and pelting rain, resetting the wards as she shut the door. She made her way up into Tideswell just south of the Burn. Rivers of water ran in waterfalls off the roofs and Margaret was soaked before she’d gone a few blocks.
The weight of the sodden cloak only increased the pain in her injured ankle. It felt like her entire leg was on fire. She made herself keep moving through the gloom, careful to watch for anyone following her. At last she came to an alley behind a row of tall buildings. On the first floors of each were businesses, and above were the living quarters of the proprietors’ families.
The water here was ankle deep. The darkness was like walking into a coal mine. Margaret stepped on something and her ankle twisted to the side. She splashed to her knees, biting back hard on the string of epithets that rose to her lips. Instead she pushed herself erect and kept slogging to the end of the alley. It dead-ended at the back of a tavern. She could hear music and laughter within. She ignored the pair of doors leading inside and turned to the left, her nose wrinkling at the stench of wet, rotting garbage. Things floated and bobbed around her legs and she made a sound of disgust deep in her throat.
A rusty iron stairway led upward. Margaret mounted two stone steps inside a shadowy doorway opposite to wait. Grains dribbled past. and she felt the shivers starting deep inside her as cold eeled through her body. She bit her lips to quiet the chattering of her teeth and forced herself to remain still. Up the iron stairs was one of the meeting houses for Ryland and the resistance. The meetings moved constantly and randomly from place to place, with Ryland posting times and locations in coded handbills. No guards loitered outside where they might be noticed. They weren’t really needed. Each alleyway door was protected by strong turn-away wards that had been activated before sunset. Any soul considering passing through would soon think again. But just in case the meeting house was discovered, a small army of armed men and women as well as majicars waited within. Anyone attacking would need a substantial force.
Grains turned to minutes and then a glass. Nearly another slipped by before the first visitor arrived. Margaret watched him, unmoving. He wasn’t the one she’d come for. More guests arrived one at a time, twelve in all. Keros was the last to arrive, as usual.
The majicar slouched through the rain, pausing at the base of the rusty steps as if he wasn’t particularly eager to go up, which he wasn’t. He hated these gatherings. In all truth, Keros was a renegade and a loner with a strong sense of disrespect for all things regal. Yet somehow her father and Ryland had roped him into serving the Crown anyhow.
Margaret emerged from her hiding place just as a loud clatter arose behind the double doors of the tavern. Both she and Keros started and then he twisted to face her, his hands tense, ready to hit her with a killing spell.
Margaret pushed her hood back. “It’s me,” she said in a low voice.
He relaxed and stepped forward, pushing his own hood back. In the gloom, all she could make out was the shape of his long shaggy hair and the soft edge of his bearded jaws. “I thought you’d be upstairs by now, not skulking out here in the rain.”
“I was waiting for you. I need you to take something to Ryland for me.”
She bent, pulled up her sodden skirts, and unfastened the satchel from her waist. She handed it to him.
“I went into the castle,” she said obliquely.
Keros gave a low whistle. “Ryland will be irritated. He did tell you specifically not to go.”
She snorted. “He’ll have a litter of kittens. But I raided father’s secret vault as well as the regent’s desk. He’ll want the information, even if he doesn’t like how he gets it.”
“You want me to deliver it for you?” He shook his head. “That’s not your style. You like poking pins in him.”
She grinned. “I do, but I’ve got something to take care of. It shouldn’t take long, but it’s best if Ryland doesn’t slap any decrees on me before then. I wouldn’t want to disappoint him twice and so close together.”
Keros chuckled quietly. “One day when he figures out just how formidable you are, he’s going to be kicking himself for not making better use of you sooner.”
“If he doesn’t send me to the Bramble for treason first,” she said as she turned away. Her ankle gave way again and she fell against Keros, who caught her in a firm grip.
“I hurt my ankle a little. I plan to see a healer tonight.”
She could hear the frown in Keros’s voice. “Be careful. Majick hasn’t been acting right and most majicars have been on edge since the Kalpestrine fell. I think some might have become unbalanced. Maybe you should wait for me at my place. I’ll heal you when this is over.”
“Thanks, but Ryland’s bound to tell you to order me back here if you run into me. Plus, I don’t have time to wait.”
Something in her voice must have alerted him. His voice sharpened. “What are you up to?” Before she could answer, he said, “Whatever it is, you know I’ll help you. All you have to do is ask.”
She smiled. She’d not known Keros more than a few months, but in that time, she’d discovered in him a true friend. He understood who she was—her rebellious spirit, her violence, and her desire for revenge and justice. Her brothers, on the other hand, couldn’t see her at all. She’d lived her life performing tasks that would have horrified them—not just that she had done them, but that her father had forged her to be such a weapon. Assassination was her art; spying was her trade; stealing was her entertainment; seduction was her sport. Keros understood all of that, and did not flinch from the knowledge.
“I know,” she told him, squeezing his arm. “Thanks. Tell Ryland I’ll be back in a few days to let him castigate me in person.”
With that, she went back up the alley to find a healer and to prepare to break into Nicholas Weverton’s well-protected manor. She’d go in tomorrow night. That didn’t leave her a lot time.
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