The Assassin’s Curse
“THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT,” Tom said.
He folded his arms and turned away, gazing unhappily through the carriage window. Beyond the curtain, the lights of distant farmhouses dotted the darkness of the countryside.
“But I haven’t done anything,” I said.
“You think we’re here because of me?”
“I’m not the one setting fire to pear trees,” Tom said.
“That was an accident.”
“I’m not the one saying, ‘Hey, let’s blow up these pumpkins in the street.’?”
“That was an experiment,” I protested. “And it was one pumpkin. The rest were squash. What does that have to do with anything?”
“Maybe you destroyed an important pumpkin.”
“How can a pumpkin be important?”
“Maybe it was a prize-winning pumpkin,” Tom said. “Maybe it was England’s pumpkin, to be entered into the International Pumpkin Fair. In Scotland.”
“Now you’re just stringing random words together.”
“Oh? Then explain this.” He grabbed the . . . invitation, I suppose you’d call it, that had fallen to the floor of the carriage and thrust it at me. “Explain it!”
That was the problem. I couldn’t explain it. This whole business had come as a surprise.
Yesterday morning, Tom and I had been eating lunch in my apothecary shop when a heavy fist had hammered on the door. I’d opened it to find myself face-to-face with one of the King’s Men, the royal coat of arms emblazoned on his tabard. Behind him was a carriage, a second soldier waiting beside it in the street.
“You Christopher Rowe?” the King’s Man said. When I nodded, he handed me a letter. I stared at it, uncomprehending. When I read it, I understood even less.
Get Thomas Bailey and get in the carriage.
Baron Richard Ashcombe, the King’s Warden, was the Lord Protector of His Majesty, Charles II. I looked warily at the soldier. “Are we in trouble?”
He shrugged. “I was just ordered to bring you to Oxford.”
Oxford? That’s where the king’s Court was staying. “Are we under arrest?”
The man tapped his foot impatiently. “Not yet.”
And that was how Tom and I ended up bumping our way through the countryside in the back of this carriage. After a night under guard in an inn, Tom was convinced we were headed for doom.
“We’re going to end up in the dungeon,” he moaned.
“We’re not going to end up in the dungeon,” I said, not entirely certain of that.
“Do you know what happens in a dungeon? There’s no food. They starve you.”
“We’re not even in irons.”
Tom’s lower lip trembled. “All you get is a single piece
of bread, once a night. And not the good bread, either, with poppy seeds and maybe a bit of cinnamon. No. It’s hard bread. Hard bread for a hard life.”
Trust the baker’s son to critique the dungeon’s bread. Still, I wished he’d stop. The more he spoke, the more the prospect of wasting away behind bars loomed large in my mind. I tried to push his worry aside and think of why Lord Ashcombe would call for us.
I’d only had contact with the King’s Warden twice since we’d stopped the plot against the city at the height of the plague. The first was after Magistrate Aldebourne had told Lord Ashcombe what had happened. He’d written to me separately, asking for my account. The second was when he’d found a job for Sally, as promised.
His note, characteristically brief, said he’d found her a position as chambermaid to the Lady Pemberton, and a horse would come to collect her. As the baroness was with Court, which had fled London when the plague came, Sally had said a bittersweet goodbye to us back in September. Since she’d gone, I’d written her letters every week, but I hadn’t heard back. That wasn’t unexpected—her job wouldn’t give her enough money to pay for post—but Lord Ashcombe’s summons made me wonder if she was in some kind of trouble.
The carriage slowed. Tom and I watched from the window as we turned north, off the road to Oxford. It appeared the city wouldn’t be our destination after all. We skirted the town, lumbering through deep ruts in the mud, until our driver pulled us onto the grounds of a private estate.
Oaks lined the pathway, autumn-copper leaves stained rusty orange by the torches staked between them. Our horses, their breath puffing wispy clouds in the November chill, dragged us up the road to the mansion atop the slope. Lamps glowed through the windows, adding their light to the haze in the frosty air.
This place was no prison. And, whatever reason we were here, we wouldn’t be alone. Dozens of other carriages lined the lawn, flattening the grass under mud-caked wheels, while their drivers lounged about, waiting.
Our own transport pulled to a stop in front of the mansion, where a man in livery ushered us from the coach. The King’s Men nudged us up the stairs, through a set of grand double doors. A coat of arms was carved into the stone above the entrance: crossed halberds over a shield emblazoned with antlers.
Wherever we were, this place was astounding. The entrance hall alone was as big as my entire house. A marble
staircase curved upward from the center of the foyer to the upper floors. A pair of servants waited there, their livery matching the staff standing by the half dozen exits to the different wings of the estate. From somewhere beyond, I heard the sounds of a gathering and the faint strains of music.
Lord Ashcombe strode into the entryway, dressed in fine black silks. He wore a patch over his left eye and a glove on his three-fingered right hand, wounds from a battle with the men who’d murdered my master earlier this year. There was no sword at his side, but his pearl-handled pistol was jammed into his belt.
“Sorry, General,” the King’s Man accompanying us said. “The rain’s turned the roads to slop.”
Lord Ashcombe grunted and looked us over. “We’ll need to get you ready.” He motioned to the servants on the stairs.
“My lord?” I glanced at Tom, who, by this point, was close to fainting. “Are we in trouble?”
Lord Ashcombe raised an eyebrow. “Should you be?”
“Uh . . . no?”
“Then I suppose it’ll depend on how this evening goes.”
“Yes,” Lord Ashcombe said. “The king wants to speak with you.”