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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"So, they'll steal anything for anyone?" Alenda asked. "The ones you hired for me, I mean."

"No, not anyone-only those who are willing to pay the number of tenents equal to the job."

"Then it doesn't matter if the client is a criminal or a king?" Emily chimed in.

Mason snorted. "Criminal or king, what's the difference?" For the first time during their meeting, he produced a wide grin that revealed several missing teeth.

Disgusted, Alenda turned her attention back to Winslow. He was looking in the direction of the door, straining to see above the tavern patrons. "You'll have to excuse me, ladies," he said, abruptly standing up. "I need another drink, and the wait staff seems preoccupied. Look after the ladies, won't you, Mason?"

"I'm not a bloody wet nurse you daffy old sod!" Mason shouted after the viscount as he left the table and moved off through the crowd.

"I'll…I'll not have you referring to her ladyship in such a way," Emily declared boldly to the smith. "She is no infant. She is a noble woman of title, and you had best remember your place."

Mason's expression darkened. "This is my place. I live five bloody doors down. My pa helped build this infernal pub. My brother works here as a ruddy cook. My mother used ta work here as a cook too, up until she died being hit by one of yer fancy noble carriages. This is my place. You're the one who needs to be remembering yours." Mason slammed his fist down on the table, causing the candle, and the ladies, to jump.

Alenda pulled Emily close. What have I gotten myself into? She was starting to think Emily was right. She should never have trusted that no-account Winslow. She really did not know anything about him except that he attended the Aquesta Autumn Gala as a guest of Lord Daref. Of all people, she should have learned by now that not all nobles are noble.

They sat in silence until Winslow returned without a drink.

"Ladies, if you'll please follow me?" the viscount beckoned.

"What is it?" Alenda asked concerned.

"Just please, come with me, this way."

Alenda and Emily left the table and followed Winslow through the haze of pipe smoke and the obstacle course of dancers, dogs, and drunks to the back door. The scene behind the tavern made everything they endured so far appear virtuous. They entered an alley that was almost beyond comprehension. Trash lay scattered everywhere and excrement, discarded from the windows above, mixed with mud in a wide-open trench. Wooden planks, serving as bridges, crisscrossed the foul river of slime, causing the ladies to hold their gowns above their ankles as they shuffled forward.

A large rat darted from a woodpile to join two more in the sewage trough.

"Why are we in an alley?" Emily whispered in a quivering voice to Alenda.

"I don't know," Alenda answered, trying desperately to control her own fear. "I think you were right, Emmy. I should never have dealt with these people. I don't care what the viscount says; people like us simply shouldn't do business with people like them. I can just imagine what my father would think."

The viscount led them through a wooden fence and around a pair of shanties to a poor excuse for a stable. The shelter was little more than a shack with four stalls, each filled with straw and a bucket of water.

"So good to see you again, your ladyship," a man out front addressed them.

Alenda could tell it was the big one of the pair, but she could not remember his name. She had only seen them briefly through an arranged meeting by the viscount, which had been on a lonely road on a night darker than this. Now, with the moon more than half-full and his hood thrown back, she could make out his face. He was tall, rugged in feature and dress, but not unkind or threatening in appearance. Wrinkles, which may have come from laughter, tugged at the edges of his eyes. Alenda thought his demeanor was remarkably cheerful, even friendly. She could not help but think he was handsome, which was not the reaction she expected to have about anyone she might meet in such a place. He was dressed in dirt-stained leather and wool, and was well armed. On his left side, he had a short sword with an unadorned hilt. On his right, was a similarly plain, longer, wider sword. Finally, slung on his back was a massive blade, nearly as tall as he was.

"My name is Hadrian, in case you have forgotten," he said and followed the introduction with a suitable bow. "And who is this lovely lady with you?"

"This is Emily, my maid."

"A maid?" Hadrian feigned surprise. "For one so fair, I would have guessed her to be a duchess."

Emily inclined her head and for the first time on this trip, Alenda saw her smile.

"I hope we didn't keep you waiting too long. The viscount tells me he and Mason were keeping you company?"

"Yes, they were."

"Did Mr. Grumon tell you the tragic tale of his mother being run down by an insensitive royal carriage?"

"Why, yes, he did. And I must say-"

Hadrian held up his hands in mock defense. "Mason's mother is alive and well. She lives on Artisan Row in a home considerably nicer than the hovel where Mason resides. She has never been a cook at The Rose and Thorn. He tells that story to every gentleman or lady he meets to put them on the defensive and make them feel guilty. You have my apologies."

"Well, thank you. He was rather rude and I found his comments more than a little disturbing, but now," Alenda paused. "Did you…I mean, do you have…were you able to get them?"

Hadrian smiled warmly, then turning he called over his shoulder in the direction of the stable.


"If you knew how to tie a proper knot, I wouldn't be taking so long," said a voice from inside. A moment later, the other half of the pair emerged and joined them.

Alenda's memory of him was easier to recall because he was the more disturbing of the two. He was smaller than Hadrian was and possessed elegant features, dark hair and dark eyes. He was dressed in layers of black with a knee-length tunic and a long flowing cloak that gathered about him like a shadow. Not a single weapon was visible upon him. Despite his smaller size and apparent unarmed state, Alenda feared this man. His cold eyes, expressionless face, and curt manner had all the warmth of a predator.

From his tunic, Royce drew forth a bundle of letters bound with a blue ribbon. Handing them to her, he said, "Getting to those letters before Ballentyne presented them to your father wasn't easy. As far as races go, it was very close but ultimately successful. You might want to burn those before something like this happens again."

She stared at the package as a smile of relief crossed her face. "I…I can't believe it! I don't know how you did it, or how to thank you!"

"Payment would be nice," Royce replied.

"Oh, yes, of course," she handed the bundle to Emily, untied the purse from her waist, and handed it to the thief. He quickly scanned the contents, snapped the purse closed, and tossed it to Hadrian, who slipped it in his vest as he headed for the stables.

"You'd better be careful. It's a dangerous game you and Gaunt are playing," Royce told her.

"You read my letters?" she asked fearfully.

"No. I'm afraid you didn't pay us that much."

"Then, how did you know-"

"We overheard your father and Archibald Ballentyne talking. The marquis appeared not to believe the earl's accusations, but I am certain he did. Letters or no letters, your father will be watching you closely now. Still, the marquis is a good man. He'll do the right thing. My guess is he's so relieved Ballentyne doesn't have proof to take to court that your affair won't bother him much. However, as I said, you'd better be more careful in the future."

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