Michael Sullivan: The Crown conspiracy

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Michael Sullivan The Crown conspiracy
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    The Crown conspiracy
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"I know you're tired of hearing this, but I still think this is a mistake. We shouldn't be dealing with thieves. You can't trust them, my lady. Mark my words: these people you hired will steal from you just like they steal from everyone else."

"Nevertheless, we're here now, so we might as well get on with it." Alenda opened the door and stepped out onto the street. As she did, she noticed with concern that several of those loitering nearby were watching her intently.

"That'll be a silver tenent," the driver told her. He was a gruff, elderly man who had not shaved in days. His narrow eyes were framed with so many wrinkles that Alenda wondered how he could see to drive the carriage.

"Oh, well, you see, I was expecting to pay you at the end of our journey," Alenda explained. "We're only stopping here for a short while."

"If you want me to wait, it'll cost ya extra. And I want the money ya owe me now, in case ya decide not ta come back."

"Don't be absurd. I can assure you we will be coming back."

The man's expression was as pliable as granite. He spit over the side of the carriage at Alenda's feet.

"Oh! Well, really!" Alenda pulled a coin from her bag and handed it to the driver. "Here, take the silver, but don't wander off. I'm not exactly sure how long we'll be, but as I told you, we will return."

Emily exited the carriage and took a moment to adjust Alenda's hood and to ensure her ladyship's buttons were secure. She brushed the wrinkles out of Alenda's cloak and then repeated the procedure on herself.

"I wish I could tell that stupid driver who I am," Alenda whispered. "Then I'd tell him a few more things."

"Don't even think that way. Maribor forbid your father should ever learn you came here."

The two women were dressed in matching woolen cloaks, and with their hoods up, little more than their noses were visible. Alenda scowled at Emily and brushed her fidgeting hands away.

"You're being such a mother hen, Emmy. I'm sure women have come into this establishment before."

"Women, yes, but I doubt any ladies have."

As they entered the narrow wooden doorway of the tavern, the pungent odor of smoke, alcohol, and a scent that Alenda had previously smelled only in a privy assaulted them. The din of twenty conversations fought each other for supremacy while a fiddler worked a lively tune. Before a bar, a small crowd danced, hammering their heels loudly on the warped wooden floor, keeping time to the jig. Glasses clinked, fists pounded on tables, and people laughed and sang far louder than Alenda thought dignified.

"What do we do now?" Emily's voice emanated from the depths of her woolen hood.

"I suppose we look for the viscount. Stay close to me."

Alenda took Emily's hand and led the way, weaving through the tables and dodging the dancers and a dog that was gleefully licking up spilled beer. Never in her life had Alenda been in such a place. Vile-looking men surrounded her. Most were dressed in rags, and more than a few were shoeless. She spotted only four women in the place, all were barmaids dressed indecently in tattered gowns with plunging necklines. To Alenda, their manner of dress invited men to paw at them. A toothless, hairy beast grabbed one of the barmaids around her waist. Dragging her to his lap, he ran his hands along the length of her body. Alenda was shocked to see the girl giggle instead of scream.

At last, Alenda spotted him. Viscount Albert Winslow was dressed, not in his typical doublet and hose, but in a simple cloth shirt, wool pants, and a neatly tailored suede vest. His vestige was not entirely without noble adornment, sporting a lovely, if not ostentatious, plumed hat. He sat at a small table with a stocky, black-bearded man dressed in cheap work clothes.

On their approach, Albert Winslow stood and pulled out chairs for them. "Welcome, ladies," he said with a cheerful smile. "So glad you were able to meet me this evening. Please sit down. May I order you both something to drink?"

"No, thank you," Alenda replied. "I was hoping not to stay very long. My driver is not a considerate man, and I would like to conclude our business before he decides to strand us here."

"I understand and, might I say, very wise of you, your ladyship. But I am sad to say your delivery has not yet arrived."

"It hasn't?" Alenda felt Emily give her hand a squeeze of support. "Is there something wrong?"

"Unfortunately, I don't know. You see, I am not privy to the inner workings of this operation. I don't concern myself with such trifles. You should understand, however, this wasn't an easy assignment. We have taken days to prepare, and any number of things could have transpired that might create delays. Are you sure there's nothing I may order for you?"

"Thank you, no," Alenda replied.

"At least take a seat, won't you?"

Alenda glanced at Emily, whose eyes were awash with concern. They sat down, and as they did, she whispered to Emily, "I know, I know. I shouldn't deal with thieves."

"Make no mistake, your ladyship," the viscount said in reassurance. "I would not waste your time, money, or risk your station if I didn't have the utmost confidence in the outcome."

The bearded man seated at the table chuckled softly. He was dark and seedy with skin as tan as leather. His huge hands were callused and dirty. Alenda watched as he tipped his mug to his lips. When he withdrew the cup, droplets of ale ran unchecked through his whiskers and dripped onto the tabletop. Alenda decided she did not like him.

"This is Mason Grumon," Winslow explained. "Forgive me for not introducing him sooner. Mason is a blacksmith here in Medford's Lower Quarter. He's-a friend."

"Those chaps you hired are very good," Mason told them. His voice reminded Alenda of the sound her carriage wheels made when traveling over crushed stone.

"Are they?" Emily asked. "Could they steal the ancient treasures of Glenmorgan from the Crown Tower of Ervanon?"

"What's that?" Winslow asked.

"I once heard a rumor about thieves who stole treasure from the Crown Tower of Ervanon and replaced it the very next night," Emily explained.

"Why would anyone do such a thing?" Alenda asked.

The viscount chuckled softly. "I'm sure that's merely a legend. No sensible thief would behave in such a way. Most people don't understand the workings of thieves. The reality is that most of them steal to line their pockets. They break into homes or waylay travelers on the open road. Your bolder variety might kidnap nobles and hold them for ransom. Sometimes, they even cut off a finger of their victim and send it to a loved one. It helps to prove how dangerous they are and reinforces that the family should take their demands seriously. In general, they are an unsavory lot to be sure. They care only about making a profit with as little effort as possible."

Alenda felt another squeeze on her hand. This one was so tight it caused her to wince.

"Now your better class of thief, they form guilds, sort of like masonry or woodworkers guilds, although far more hush-hush, you understand. They are very organized and make a business out of thievery. They stake out territories where they maintain a monopoly on pilfering. Oftentimes, they have arrangements with the local militia or potentate that allow them to work relatively unmolested for a fee, as long as they avoid certain targets and abide by accepted rules."

"What kind of rules could be acceptable between officers of a province and known criminals?" Alenda asked skeptically.

"Oh, I think you'd be quite surprised to discover the number of compromises made to maintain a smoothly functioning kingdom. There is however, one more type of malefactor-the freelance contractor or, to put it bluntly, thief-for-hire. These rogues are hired for a particular purpose, such as obtaining an item in the possession of a fellow noble. Codes of honor, or fear of embarrassment," he said with a wink, "require them to seek out a professional as their only recourse."

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