Earth Witch

Cover design by Michelle M. Welch. Artistic elements by Chesterf and Jhetta | Dreamstime.com.
Cover design by Michelle M. Welch. Artistic elements by Chesterf and Jhetta | Dreamstime.com.

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One

Used to wonder, I did, why there’s no prince in a deck of cards. King, queen, knave. Knave sounds like something of a scoundrel, doesn’t he? Bit of a villain, a ne’er-do-well, not what you’d call the heir to the throne. Well, then, have you ever met a real prince?

Played cards with him all night, partnered across the table. Irvinn Michal, His Royal Highness and heir to the throne of Surland, with his sleeves rolled up and elbows on the table, leaning so far over his cards that he nearly dunked the ends of his hair into his glass of brandy, almost tilting his hand so anyone could see what he held. Son and heir to our sovereign king Irvinn the Third, who would doubtless be scandalized to see him here, no jacket, no wig on his head. But I suppose our prince doesn’t dress up when he’s at the palace, either. Anyway, the lace on his collar probably cost more than me and poor Tam earn here at Losser’s Hall in a month. Had the real desire, I did, to accidentally knock my red berry cordial over and splash on that pretty white shirt.

But I know my job and I just smiled, put down a card, then giggled like I was surprised. “Goodness, have we won the trick?”

Trumps, the game is. Mr. Losser’s favorite, to which he has devoted the better part of his Hall of Entertainment, rows of little square tables the whole length of the building. A great long building it is, too, stretching blocks across prime real estate in South City, blocking four roads just a few miles south of the palace itself, so all the gentlemen and courtiers and merchant-class folk looking to better themselves must pass it on their way.

No better way to get attention than being seen in here, there is. Just tonight we had three dukes, seventeen lords of something-or-other, and the king’s Secretary of the Exchequer himself, and that was all before eleven o’clock. Mr. Losser was beside himself over the exchequer, and worked all night to get Mr. Secretary to sit at my table and partner with me, as if he needed my help to make sure he won. Now, even I know the man who keeps the palace running and the navy sailing wasn’t going to play high stakes, and sure as hell wasn’t going to lose. Mr. Losser’s a bit of a twit sometimes.

Then came His Highness, quarter to midnight, when the serious nobles had gone home and there was just the frivolous, drunk lot left. Just Irvinn Michal’s sort. Walked in with some more of them, his favorite courtiers, all bright and shiny in their satin suits and jewels, powdered wigs, walking sticks they don’t need but they fancy make them look important. Their colors clashed like a bad headache, and some of them were so perfumed that I could smell them across the hall, even from where I sat at the bar. “All hell,” I muttered at Tam, who was already putting out all the clean glasses he had left, ready to serve up the most expensive liquor he could talk them into. “Which one is Losser making me play with tonight?”

But His Highness had his say before Mr. Losser could even bumble his way over there and start bowing and scraping. “Who is that lovely creature at the end of the hall?” he announced, sounding like a bloody bad actor. “Is it? Ah, it is – Miss Kat Benson!”

“Lord, he remembers me,” I mumbled, pretending I didn’t hear him.

“Just earn us some money, will you?” Tam said, polishing a glass with his towel. “I’ve got a nail coming up through this shoe and it’s time I got some new ones.”

“You got new shoes last time.”

“Well, I’ve got to work on my feet, don’t I?” He leaned down to murmur in my ear. “And I keep telling you I could get you work where you didn’t need to be on your feet at all – make a hell of a lot more money.”

The prince was making his way over, so no time to hit Tam for that remark. Had to settle for sticking my tongue out at him as he turned away, snickering, and then I had to spin around and make my greetings with the sweetest smile I could come up with at that time of night. “Your Highness,” I said, sounding surprised to see him and slipping off the stool to make a little curtsy.

He can turn on the charm, though, can’t he? Hair the color of honey and he wears it loose on his shoulders, unlike most of the nobles who like to put vast wigs on just to show they can afford to buy them. He wears a slight little mustache, which tickled as he took my hand and raised it to his lips. Dark brown eyes, very intent, looking over my hand at me, as his mouth curved up in a smile. “Call me Michal.”

But as a card player he’s rubbish. Four players in trumps, two sets of partners sitting across the table from each other, thirteen cards dealt to each of them. Last card is the trump suit. Each player puts down one card in turn. Whoever plays the highest trump card wins the trick and takes all four, or if no one’s got a trump, whoever’s got the highest card in another suit. Play out all the cards and the side that took the most tricks wins the hand. You see then, don’t you, how you’ve got to remember which cards have been played already? How if twelve hearts have already gone out then there’s no point putting down a three of hearts hoping I’ll bring in the suit?

But no, our crown prince has no idea that the tricks everyone laid down a minute before have anything to do with what he’s laying down now. A fine player to be at odds with if you’re looking to win, but the absolute devil to be partnered with. I hadn’t planned on winning at all that game – it was my night to be unlucky, since you have to be careful in presenting yourself if you’re trying to convince wealthy men that you’re just a pretty little woman who doesn’t know what she’s doing – but I did everything I could to win anyway. Nearly impossible, given my partner, but my pride couldn’t bear losing that badly. Sad, isn’t it?

I begged off at half past one. “But the night is still young!” His Highness cried.

“Oh, dear me,” I said, “but I must get my beauty sleep.” Our opponents at the table, two round-faced fellows who came by their beauty using a lot of white face paint and little shapes cut from black felt glued to their cheeks and chins, nodded wisely as if that meant something to them.

“Then let me escort you home,” insisted the prince. “Gentlemen, I’ll return shortly to let you try your luck again.”

To my credit, I managed not to snort.

Tam had gone in the back room, fortunately, probably to fetch some even more expensive bottle of drinkables, and didn’t see me leave with the prince. I hardly wanted to endure the comments from him next day if he had seen. He spends so much time joking about putting me on a street corner and taking bids that I expect someone to overhear him one day and try to take him up on it. He’ll beat the fool into a pulp, of course. Tam might not look like much, but he’s wiry, and Mr. Losser pays him to manage any patrons who might get difficult, as well as to serve up the drinks that’ll get them that way. Still, that’s not the sort of reputation I’m looking for in the first place. The prince spent so much time at the door, though, claiming his sword and letting the doorman admire it before he belted it back on, that I was sure Tam was going to come back before we could get around to leaving.

Didn’t have any actual fears about the prince, though. Not certain why. The king has so many mistresses at the palace, not to mention the ones scattered around the city, assorted wealthy widows, a few who aren’t widows yet, one rather famous actress, and a couple more in the country, that even the newspapers have trouble keeping them all straight and started referring to them collectively as the Bedchamber Fleet. But I had no expectation whatsoever that His Highness would impose himself.

What he did was gawk at my neighborhood like a child with a strange taste in sweets – heavy on the tart ones. “You live down here?”

Mr. Losser doesn’t pay us extravagantly, of course. He’s a businessman and he spends most of his profits on keeping the place looking impressive and keeping the liquor flowing, so the patrons keep coming back. I’m not sure where the rest of it goes, though I have my suspicions. It’s not much going to the hired help, at least. And I play on my own money, you see, so I’ve got to be wise about how I spend it. Any extra and I’ve got to buy a new dress, keep up the appearance that I’m a lady of honorable family, rather than one who wandered ashore in a crowd of beggars and urchins. Benson’s a name I chose because it’s so common, plenty of merchants and gentlemen have it, so I could be related to any one of them. Lucky I’ve never been asked which one in particular. So no, I don’t live in the nice part of town. It’s not the worst part of town, at least, not near the docks. Tam and I moved up from there several years ago. But it is a bit run down, the buildings are crammed together cheek by jowl, and everything is rather dirty. And we have… “An alley! Is that really an alley?”

His Highness was ten feet into the alley before I had the chance to answer him. “Yes, someplace where they throw all the refuse.” I suppose my voice was a little sharp, a little irritated, which was rude and probably dangerous, but it didn’t seem to bother him. “That’s why it smells like that. And I’m not sure that’s the way we should go.”

He didn’t listen, only threw back a silly grin and hurried along, skidding on the filth like it was the most fun he’d ever had. I picked up my skirt, swore under my breath at Tam and his shoes, and followed.

Went only half a block when the headache started. That’s what I called it when I told Tam about it. Hard to explain what it really felt like, and I wasn’t so sure I should explain where I thought it came from. I’ve had them all my life, now and again, any time I’m near someplace where they’re moving the earth. Digging, shoveling. I walked past the graveyard by accident once and thought my head was going to split open, but even someone planting flowers in their window box sets it to pounding, little thuds in my skull. Someone was digging something in our part of town, and I wasn’t sure what it was, but it was moving. Two days ago it was further south. I ran into it going to the market and had to turn back and send Tam. Now it had moved up a few streets. Every day it was somewhere new, pounding behind my eyes and making me nauseous. I didn’t know where the diggers were going but I wished they would stop.

“Are you alright?” His Highness noticed I wasn’t following him anymore and turned around to check on me. I might have thought about how nice that was, after all, if I wasn’t leaning against the wall, looking for something to balance me. Couldn’t even look up to make sure I wasn’t under a window and out of the way of whatever chamber pots people might have been emptying out of it. My foot slipped on something – it rolled and rang and I realized it was an empty bottle, probably dropped by some wandering drunkard, the glass cracked and half broken. I tried to focus my eyes on the prince as he moved in front of me. He actually looked worried. All I could manage was to put my hand to my forehead and moan a bit, hoping that got the point across.

Then there was a noise that managed to cut through the pain: the snap of a pistol being cocked. Irvinn Michal turned and my eyes focused as they had refused to do a minute before. Threats to your life will do that.

The man with the pistol stood a little ways down the alley. He was alone and he was very grubby, which made me think he was a thief, rather than anyone intending something awful for the heir to the throne. Not many ordinary people saw the prince as a general rule or knew what he looked like. With no jacket, no bright colors, no wig, and his white shirt all dim in the shadows, Irvinn Michal wouldn’t have looked like he had any money at all. Except for the sword. Poor people do not have swords.

“Sorry to interrupt,” the thief said, spitting a little as he spoke. Probably missing more than his share of teeth. “You can go back to your romance once you’ve handed over your purse, sir.”

But His Highness did not hand over his purse. The idiotic grin came back to his face. He squared his shoulders, tossed his hair, and leaned down to whisper, “Stay behind me.”

“Oh no,” I mumbled, clutching my head. “He thinks this is an adventure.”

It’s likely the prince really did know how to use his sword. That was the sort of thing noblemen did, so I’d heard, take fencing lessons and swish about on lawns and in great halls. Wide open lawns and halls. The alley was so narrow that when Irvinn Michael, our crown prince, drew his sword with a flourish that came straight out of the theatre, he banged his elbow against the wall and knocked the blade clean out of his own hand.

Fortunately, the thief had a laugh at this and tucked his pistol into his belt before rushing His Highness and pushing him against the opposite wall. Something in my head shifted then, just a little clearing, just enough to hear the voice. They’re not really voices, not like someone talking to you aloud, more the sort of thoughts that something else put there. And this one told me to remember the bloody bottle on the ground.

If you’re going to tell me that, I thought in reply, you could at least do something about the headache. It wasn’t easy to focus on the thief’s skull, scuffling about as he was. The voice didn’t reply, they never do, and it didn’t have anything else helpful to say, either. I had visions of getting caught knocking the prince on the head instead, then I made a strangled shout and lunged, cracking the bottle and showering everything with bits of glass. And I closed my eyes when I did it, not the best thing to do, of course, but what do you expect? I was just relieved to open them and find the thief on the ground, His Highness on his feet.

He blinked at me, looking about as stupid as I did. Then he recovered his wits and grabbed my arm. “Run!”

My head cleared more as we got to the end of the alley. Wherever the digging was, we’d passed the worst of it. I could almost think straight, whereas His Highness was still a bit delirious and would have run headlong into the shadow standing at the street opening if I hadn’t grabbed his arm to stop him. He also didn’t think to reach for his sword, and so forgot that he’d left it behind on the ground. He did reach for me in the valiant attempt to defend me and put me behind him again, although he grabbed rather more than he intended, I think. “If you would, Your Highness, let go of that,” I said, squirming to get my chest out of the vicinity of his hands.

“Yes, Your Highness,” said the shadow in front of us. “If you would.” Thank heaven, it was Tam.

The prince dropped his hands fast. Bit like holding a hot potato. I’m not certain he recognized Tam until Tam offered to walk him back to the Hall after taking me to my door, but he took great pains to straighten himself up and try to look respectable before emerging on the street. Stayed a few steps behind us, though, and looked a little sheepish. Didn’t say a thing the whole way, quarter mile or so that we had to go before I knocked at the door of our tenement and waited for them to unlock. And he didn’t hear Tam lean in just before the door opened and whisper to me, “I’d have charged him three silver crowns at least for that grope.”

I smiled up at Tam just as I grabbed hold of my fist and used it to propel my elbow backward into his ribs. Then I curtsied to His Highness and bade good night to the doorman, smiling still even through the old fellow’s usual cranky tirade about how we kept waking him up so late.

 

Two

Told Tam a story when we first met. Smuggled aboard a ship leaving Crescent Island, we both did, found each other sneaking about the hold trying to get comfortable and chase away the rats, turned a corner and tripped on each other and let out such a shout, both of us, that half the crew came running right down. Fortunately, the captain was feeling charitable and didn’t toss us right over the side. We were small, Tam and I, didn’t take up much space and didn’t eat much, and as the ship was stuffed with goods that the captain was confident would sell for a good price, he could afford a little kindness of heart. So we got to stand at the rail as we sailed out of the harbor, and we could see in the distance off to the north, behind Crescent Island and growing smaller all the time, a little cone of rock like a neighbor island.

“I know how that was made,” said I. “There were two witches, an earth witch and a water witch, who fought each other for a hundred years. Earth Witch threw rocks and Water Witch threw waves, then Earth Witch made the ground break apart under her rival’s feet, and Water Witch made a great black storm cloud come. Earth Witch made a cave to shelter in, and Water Witch made a great flood that washed out everything. Then Earth Witch made a hill to lift her out of the water, and Water Witch made the seas rise higher, chasing her and chasing her. Then Earth Witch made the bottom of the sea crack and an island came up, higher and higher until it broke the surface of the sea and kept rising, higher than Water Witch could ever reach her. Earth Witch sat at the top of it and looked down and laughed, because she had won.”

Tam looked at me with his face a little crooked. His face has always been a little crooked. He got into a lot of fights on Crescent Island, scuffles with other street urchins, fighting off the press gangs that would have packed him off to war on a navy ship, and his nose has been broken a few times. Looks like a regular old scoundrel, does Tam. He grinned, lopsided and missing a few teeth already, and said to me, “That’s a great stinking load of manure.”

So I never did tell Tam that I can feel the earth move, you know. He’d have left me at the door of the nearest madhouse, rather than keeping me on and helping me find a place to live, going into business together as it were, trying to find ways to keep ourselves afloat. Funny how even people who have been to Crescent Island, even a boy who was born there when his mother got into trouble winking at some handsome sailor who wandered into her tavern, even people who sometimes call it by its other name – Witches’ Island – don’t really believe there are witches there. Even if they’ve seen witches. You can’t miss them: tall and pale, pale hair, pale eyes, wearing rags. Tam and I both wore rags, too, living on the streets as we did, but something was different about how the witches wore them, like they might have been cobbled together from leaves and magic, like they might have turned into feathers at any moment and flown away.

I used to look at the witches in the market, selling charms to sailors who wanted a safe passage or rain to fall on their enemies or to seduce some girl back home, and wonder where the man witches were. I used to wonder if I’d ever see my father. Because my mother, whoever she was, got into trouble the same way Tam’s mother did. Only my father wasn’t a sailor.

So I can feel the earth move. Digging, shoveling. Can’t move it much myself, although I tried when I was younger. I used to go out on the north side of the harbor where the cliff and the battery of big guns were, defending it from attacks from the sea that haven’t actually happened yet. I would sit at the bottom of the cliff and put my hands in the dirt and make it move, send ripples across the surface like it was water, make mounds come up, even build myself some walls, not very tall, but enough to pretend it was a fortress and hide in it. Tam found me, so it wasn’t a good fortress after all. “What in all hell are you doing?” he shouted at me. “If we’re going to start pretending you’re a lady, you can’t go around getting your clothes dirty!”

Not much good, is this magic. Once I made a lot of little clay figures, soldiers and famous navy captains and the like, and sold them in the market to children. Couldn’t get them to dry hard, though, so the first few crumbled when the kids squeezed them and we had to pay back everything we’d earned that day. I didn’t tell Tam how I’d made the figures and I never made use of the earthworks again, not to make money. But I’d learned to play cards from the merchant sailors and Tam got the idea pretty quick that it was a great racket. Especially when I was small – people really let down their guard when they’re playing a twelve-year-old girl. Don’t think we know numbers, they don’t.

Don’t play very high stakes, either. It took us a few years but as soon as we saved up the money Tam moved us up to a better tenement and bought me a nice dress, had me sit in some of the finer taverns and learn how a better class of people talk. I’m a good enough mimic, I caught on well enough to fool them, played several card games, got to be known as a prime attraction at a few of the establishments, and then Mr. Losser discovered me. So it’s wits and skill that worked for me, not magic at all. And here in Surland, three weeks’ sail from Crescent Island in good weather, it’s not very likely I’ll meet a rival witch to hide from by raising a mountain.

Don’t know if I could raise a mountain, really.

So it’s only headaches, I told Tam, and don’t know why I have them. And he teases me something awful about it but sometimes he lets a little sweetness come out, and the morning after His Highness and the bit in the alley, Tam came up with a nice pot of tea. “Here we are,” he said. “Finest brew money can buy and the rats didn’t eat up on the passage over.”

I propped myself up, swaying. We sling hammocks in our room, Tam and I, navy-style. They’re easier to wash and keep the bedbugs away, they take up less space, and they can be hung separate from each other, which keeps Tam from getting any ideas. Or as he says, keeps me from getting any ideas. “Bought it from the Temperance Society ladies downstairs, did you?”

“Devil save me, I did.”

“Now that’s a sacrifice, it is. You’re a true friend, Tam.” I took a sip and sucked my lip where the steamy draught burned a little. “When are they saying the monarchy will fall? Any day now, isn’t it?”

“If they don’t stop their evil ways, mmm…” He made a silent tally on his fingers. “Three weeks ago, I think.”

“The king is dead,” said I, raising my cup in a toast. “Long live the king.”

“That’s His Highness Call-Me-Michal, is it?” Tam pulled up a stool and sat, leaning against my hammock and swinging it. “So have you?”

“Have I what?”

“Called him Michal?”

I put two fingers in my cup and flicked a drop of tea at him. “I’m not calling him anything you would suggest, or doing anyth- no, don’t say it, and stop swinging my bed. I’ve got a headache here!”

“Ah, but it’s a grand plan. Really moving up for you. A royal mistress! You’d be set for life. And I could retire. All those royal bastards get pieces of land and titles, and your son the Baron-To-Be would doubtless need a regent to manage things for him until he reaches his majority.”

“And you think that’s you? A nobleman’s regent with a broken nose and only half his teeth, who looks like a ruffian even after he’s washed his face? There’s a reason I’m the one pretending to be from a good family and you’re the tapster.”

Tam made a face and pushed my hip in a good swing.

What was left of last night’s headache cleared up, and I managed to get my feet under me and down the stairs before noon. Not that it was a respectable hour for the ladies of the Temperance Society, of course. They sat on the landing outside the front door as they did day in and day out, quizzing people about where they were going and where they had been, delivering dire judgments to whomever walked by on the street. Had they been awake when the prince came to the door last night they would have interrogated him mercilessly, but fortunately for His Highness, they rarely set foot outside during that improper time after dark. They turned their usual disapproving stare on me as I opened the door and made to step out. Their name is Geldin, I think, two sisters, but as one is thin with a sharp, beaky nose and a hard, mean eye, and the other is somewhat droopy-eyed and jowly with an everlasting frown, I’ve always called them Mistress Hawk and Mistress Hound. “I see someone has finally arisen,” said Mistress Hawk.

“Good day to you,” I said, pleasant as I could. I made my living pretending to be a lady and pretending not to know how to play cards. I could pretend to be polite.

“There’s only one sort of woman who stays abed until this hour,” Mistress Hound growled, ignoring my greeting.

“And for all your claims of men streaming in to see her at all hours of the night, you’ve never seen one yet,” Tam said rudely, making the ladies drop their jaws in outrage. He wasn’t very good at pretending. “Despite my best efforts,” he added in a whisper to me, then before I could smack him discreetly, he picked his way between the sisters’ chairs and stomped down the steps to the street.

“Don’t let them bother you, my dear.” There was a third chair crammed onto the landing and in it was a bent old man, all wispy hair and milky eyes, smiling up at me as if he’d heard what the sisters had said. Probably didn’t, but he could certainly guess. He reached for my hand as I made my way through and patted it, wrinkled skin like glove-leather. “I know you’re a good soul. You pay them no mind.”

“Thank you, Admiral,” I replied with a little curtsy. Old man probably wasn’t an admiral, either. He told a lot of stories about major sea battles but usually got the dates and the places and the commanders all in a muddle, and if he ever talked about ships he’d get the terminology mixed up, like calling a stay a halyard, when even I knew which was which, though they’re both just rope. But he introduced himself as the admiral and so I called him that. Not one to blow through another person’s act, I’m not. And the poor old soul was stuck on the landing with Mistress Hawk and Mistress Hound, his leg so bad he couldn’t get away, so anyone with a heart would have to have some mercy on him.

“Oh!” he cried. “I’ve got something for you!” He patted the pockets of his huge, worn blue coat – still had some gold piping on the collar, although the admiral’s insignia, had there ever been any, had fallen off long since – and brought out something yellowish and much-folded.

“A newspaper!” I said. “Where did you get a newspaper?”

He beamed but didn’t answer. Didn’t remember, likely. The sisters scowled and looked away as he unfolded it and handed it to me, scooting backward in their chairs as if it wasn’t just ink that would rub off on them but some kind of tawdriness and commonness, too. Really wished the admiral could remember where he’d gotten that paper, I did. I’d have made sure he got one every day.

“This is today’s paper,” I said, looking at the date. However it had gotten to him, it must have gone through several puddles and maybe under the wheels of a carriage, so battered it was. Hard to read, much of the ink smeared, but one headline stood out to me, large words across the top. ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT ON CROWN PRINCE.

“Do you think it’s true?” I hissed at Tam once I’d finally gotten away from the landing.

“Doesn’t sound like it, from what you told me.” He flicked through the pages, squinting hard. Tam doesn’t read very well, never having picked it up as a child. I was lucky enough to have found some benefactors on Crescent Island, girl street urchins being cuter than boy street urchins. Those folks were kind enough to take me in once in a while, give me a little learning, teach me how to speak properly and comb my hair. I looked over Tam’s shoulder, careful not to grab the paper too eagerly and make his deficiency that obvious. “Your thief was working alone, didn’t even recognize his Michal-ness. Assassins would come in twos, at least, if they were serious.”

“And this says there were two,” I read. “In black, in the shadows, armed with pistols and knaves.” I peered at a bad smear on the page. “Must be knives. You got him back to the Hall, didn’t you? Did something happen when he left later that night?”

“More likely he made it up to impress the fools in the gaming room. I didn’t go back to work. I’d sold the last bottle and closed the bar before I followed you, and I left the prince at the door when I brought him back. Losser sometimes keeps the club open until dawn. His Highness might have been telling stories all morning.”

I felt my hands clench up. Actually, I didn’t realize my hands were clenching up until I tripped. The cobblestones we were walking on had suddenly cracked, catching my foot. I gasped and flung out a hand, and Tam caught it before I accidentally punched him.

“Damned roads,” he muttered. “All the money in the bloody world and South City can’t keep its roads in good repair.”

I shook my hands loose and took a breath. Didn’t point out that there’d never been a crack there before. Mustn’t get angry like that, I told myself. Imagine what would have happened if we’d been walking on bare ground. I might have raised a mountain after all. Must calm down and not think about how His Highness probably didn’t even say how I’d knocked the thief on the head with a bottle, probably said he’d rescued me instead of the other way around, probably said any number of things about me. But no – was that a rumble I felt under my feet? I did grab the newspaper then, out of Tam’s hands, and looked for something to distract my thoughts. “What’s this, then?”

In the corner of one of the last pages was crammed a little square of print:

 

CORRUPTION in the RANKS of the NOBILITY!

by the SWORD OF TRUTH

Someone is Hiding in Shadows. Someone is Lurking in the Undermost Corridors of Vice and Villainy. Making connections with the DEVIOUS UNDERWORLD, spies and schemers and Murderers. A call has gone out, a Most Grievous Call, to the Worst of our Criminal Element, to become Allies in the OVERTHROW of our GOVERNMENT, the Deposition of our Rightful King, the Destruction of Our Very Nation. Who are these Villains, these Assassins, these Conspirators? It is not for them to Show their Faces. But TRUTH Will Find Their Patron! This High Schemer, this Most Vile Corrupter, he will be named – DUKE W___!

 

“Duke W?” murmured Tam, whose forehead was all furrowed as he bent to read over my shoulder. He wasn’t good at spelling people’s names. But there was only one person it could be, really.

“Duke Witshire,” I whispered.

“Oh!” Tam straightened and whistled low. “Well, Mr. Sword of Truth had better hope he stays anonymous.”

I read the article again. “So it could be true then? Even if the story about last night is wrong – there really could be a plot against the prince’s life?”

Didn’t see until I looked up that Tam was laughing a little. The letter was a bit ridiculous, of course, and the last three pages of the paper are meant for outrageous things. The Sword of Truth had been writing for years and no one thought he was anything but a madman making up stories. Dangerous stories, if he libeled the wrong person, but make-believe nonetheless. But Tam also heard the tremor in my voice, damn him. “Well,” he said, arching an eyebrow. “You really are taken with His Highness. Good. I can work with that.”

©2015 Alison Highland

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