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 Spanish ambassador?

Madeleine recognized the voice before she could see him through the slits of her visor. It was King Henry.

In his armor, he appeared to be the size of two men. He handled his own lance as if it were a willow wisp. With a grin, he raised the visor of his helmet. “I have received word of your … disapproval of my desire to annul my marriage. You know my position, and you know my right as king. Yet still you protest. Perhaps we shall decide this matter on the field?”

Madeleine tried to think of something to say, but it was enough just to keep upright. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted a distant fancy carriage approaching — probably the real ambassador.

“I take your silence as an agreement!” the king bellowed, lowering the visor. His horse dipped its head twice, impatiently striking the ground with its hooves. As steam puffed from its nostrils, it looked more bull than horse.

“Readyyyyyy!” King Henry called out, raising his lance high.

 I’m dead, Madeleine thought.

If he even so much as swung that lance, its wind alone would knock her over. She had to get away. Now.

“About f-f-ace!” she said to the horse, flailing with her boots. “Into the barn, please. It’s time for some tasty hay! Haaaaaaay!”

The horse took off like a shot, toward King Henry. The king seemed surprised, as if he wasn’t expecting her to go just yet. “Cheating does not work in England,” he hissed.

He kicked his horse. The steed dug in hard, sending up storm clouds of dirt. The king’s eyes blazed through the visor as he slowly lowered the lance.

It was pointed at Madeleine’s heart.

No time to think. She lifted her lance, too, but it was far too heavy. Even if she could strike him, the torque alone would pull her off the horse.

King Henry was forty yards away … twenty …

Madeleine’s shoulder was falling. The tip of the lance was nearly to the ground. And her horse was headed directly at King Henry instead of to his side.

“Blast it, what are you doing?” he cried.

 Remember, smartest always beats strongest.

Olivia’s words were like a trumpet call. Madeleine ungritted her teeth and let out a scream.

The tip of her lance dug into the soil. It bent into a taut C. She felt her body lifting out of the saddle. She pulled back on her boots, releasing them from the stirrup. Freeing her from the horse.

The weight of her suit almost broke the lance, but instead she vaulted high into the air.

From below her came a bloodthirsty yell. She felt the whoosh of King Henry’s lance as it passed beneath her feet and over the top of her horse’s saddle. Her lance twanged as it grazed the royal steed’s flank. She held tight. As the pole retracted and straightened, for a moment Madeleine was suspended in the air.

Her horse faltered below her, confused. Then it began picking up speed. Eyeing its saddle, Madeleine pushed against the lance and released her grip. She plummeted downward, hoping to time her trajectory right. Hoping that the laws of physics she had learned from Xenophilus — angles of momentum, vectors and velocity — would save her life.

With a loud whomp, she landed heavily on its back. The horse let out a baffled whinny. Its legs nearly gave out, but fear took charge and it dug in harder.

“In the name of — come back here, you coward!” shouted King Henry from behind her.

The horse was heading at full tilt toward the palace’s stone gate. Four feet thick, it had been opened to let out an ornate, gilded black carriage. Now the gate was rising, and the guards stared at her in dismay. “What the devil are you doin’?” one of them screamed, running into her pathway. “Ye’ll get yerself killt!”

The horse was frothing now. It whinnied again, picking up speed. At the last second, the guard leaped out of the way.

Her eyes on the retreating carriage, Madeleine held tight as the horse squeezed through the gap.

“There, Father! That’ll be the tree!” Master Winthrop said, pointing through the window of the royal carriage.

“Are ye sure, son?” his father said. “It looks like every other tree in the forest.”

“The knothole. It’s in the right place. The two branches like the arms of a dancer!” Winthrop barely waited for the carriage to stop before he leaped out.

Luke Cahill grabbed a torch as his son raced to the knothole. Although it was morning, the thick tree cover made the forest dark. Luke had given clear instructions. They were to reach in to that hole together. He could not risk the clumsiness of an eleven-year-old’s fingers destroying anything fragile. If the girl had hidden something crucial — his father’s full list of ingredients, perhaps …

Or was it their father’s? His and the girl’s? All night, in his dreams, he had seen Madeleine’s face — her features transforming into Olivia’s and then Gideon’s. Her mannerisms were so like Jane’s, her voice nearly identical to Katherine’s. What if she were his sister? How could he countenance her death?

“Father, come!” Luke was snapped back into reality by the voice of his son. His only real family.

 You sentimental fool, he scolded himself, walking toward the tree, you must not be swayed by a face. The world is full of traps.

Winthrop waited by the knothole, his hands clasped together, dancing from foot to foot with excitement. “May I look? May I at least look?”

Luke lit the torch. Ignoring the boy’s request, Luke walked past him and peered into the knothole. He adjusted the torch, but even at full light, all he could see was a gray lump at the bottom.

He reached in carefully, hoping it was not a dead animal — or, worse, a live one with sharp teeth.

His fingers closed around a limp, shapeless mass. He grasped as much as he could, lifted the thing out, and spread it onto the forest floor.

Gray pants. A gray shirt. Gray socks stuffed into rough, black leather shoes. A gray woolen face mask. Disgusted, Luke reached back in but extracted nothing more than wood chips, acorns, and a handful of agitated ants.

“Those were her clothes!” Master Winthrop said. “She was wearing these when she robbed the marketplace!”

Luke’s mind reviewed the layout of the market. The fruits, vegetables, meats on the south end — and the cobblers, tinkers, and clothing merchants to the north. “She had stolen a change of clothes …” he said. “She needed something presentable for the interview. She changed her outfit here.”

Winthrop giggled. “She took off all her clothes outdoors?”

“She was hiding only clothing!” Luke said, kicking the garments in frustration.

“Can you let her go, then, Father?” Winthrop said. “She really is lovely. And … well, have you thought of taking a new wife? The king likes to do that, you know—”

 Enough. Luke glared at the boy, and he shrank back.

Behind him sounded the clattering of hooves, swift-moving and strong. Luke glanced up to see trees moving near a blind corner behind his son.

 “Winthrop!” he shouted, yanking his son off the road with one hand.

As they both dove away, a team of colossal horses thundered by. Luke sheltered his son with his body as soil and branches rained over them. He heard his own driver shouting in shock, followed by the shriek of horses and the crack of splitting wood.

It was over in an instant, but not before Luke had a chance to see the receding carriage.

Its color was black and deep purple, with a gilded V painted on its side like a bolt of lightning. Through the oval of the rear window, Luke spotted a shock of black hair with a streak of silver.

 Vesper.

Luke felt his blood rise. Nineteen years had only sharpened his rage at the murderer of his father.

“What was that?” Master Winthrop asked.

Luke’s own carriage lay in splinters at the other side of the road, the horses bolting into the woods and the driver wandering dazedly.

“It is the man who made me what I am,” Luke said between gritted teeth. He grabbed his son by the scruff of the neck. “Follow me!”

Damien Vesper hated the countryside. Too much fresh air led to high spirits. And high spirits made people into idiots.

The smell of fear calmed his soul. And right now it wafted toward him full strength from the seat opposite his.

“I — believe that was Lord Cahill’s carriage,” said the valet Hargrove.

Vesper had never seen a man sweat so much. It was downright unseemly in a grown man. “The late Lord Cahill, I would imagine,” Vesper replied. “Alas, drivers these days … so reckless! I will have to speak to mine.”

He smiled agreeably, but the man remained stone-faced. How dreary. Years ago, the help could carry on real conversations — not just sit like lumps, expecting to be entertained!

 Just as well, he thought. This one has outlived his usefulness.

“You did good work, Hargrove,” he said, holding out his hand. “Took the training quickly, used uncanny powers of observation. I am impressed at how you were able to recognize the ring. I will have it now.”

“Of course, Your Lordship, but you promised five hundred pounds in advance.” Hargrove’s sweat was dripping from his nose, which struck Vesper as inconsiderate. Especially from one who expected rewards.

“I said I would advance you five hundred pounds,” Vesper replied. “Which sum would be payable upon receipt of the ring!”

“I — I have seen an inscription on it,” Hargrove blurted out. “And for another few pounds, I can tell you what I think it means—”

 “Inscription?” This was getting interesting. In recent years, Vesper had heard of a secret ring. But he had never connected this ring to Gideon Cahill.

It had taken him nearly two decades to track down Olivia. He’d intended to force out the secrets to Gideon’s serum but failed again. How delightful to discover there was a daughter. When he’d seen her hiding at the funeral, everything just … fit.

She was fiddling with a ring. And his memory flashed back to her father and the last conversation he’d had with Olivia. He thought she was a grieving widow then, and not another conniving Cahill.

Now he knew better.

“What inscription did you see?” he pressed. Following Madeleine, bribing the servant — all of that had been child’s play. He had no room for his lackey’s stubborn attitude.

“If I am to reveal the ring,” Hargrove said, swallowing hard, “I must have your word that —”

Vesper heard a soft zing. Hargrove fell silent, his mouth agape. He clutched the side of his neck and fell to the ground.

“Do not play with me, man,” Vesper said. But as he knelt over Hargrove, he heard another zing, and another. He flattened himself to the floor and slapped Hargrove in the face, hard.

That was when he noticed the small dart stuck in the servant’s neck.

 Bandits. Vesper grabbed a firearm, a long arquebus, from under the carriage seat. “Move!” he cried to the driver. “Faster!”

His coachman whipped the horses. They took off through the woods, the carriage bouncing wildly. Vesper climbed out of the rear and nearly vaulted toward the driver.

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