Vesper.

Madeleine remembered something her mother had said: You will know Damien Vesper on sight, for he sucks the light from the sun. She turned away, sick to the stomach. He had caused the deaths of both her parents. And she felt a crushing truth: The fate of the Cahills, the fate of the world, was solely between Vesper and …

 Maddy Babbitt, scared as a rabbit.

Preposterous. Unthinkable.

 Remember your training, she told herself. The memorization, combat techniques, alchemy, survival exercises. The Endgame. Try as she might, Madeleine could not think of herself as a warrior. She was who she was — a sheltered Irish country lass. She stood no chance alone against the forces of Lord Vesper.

It was over — the battle for the 39 Clues and all it stood for. Father’s work had been destroyed. Even if Madeleine found her siblings, none knew the full secret of the formula. As for the ring — well, if Mother couldn’t decode its message after two decades, Vesper would never do it, either. Running away was a fool’s game. With his minions, Vesper would hunt her down like a wounded hare. Better to get it over quickly.

She stepped forward into the light.

Below her now, a bagpiper began playing the Cahill song, “Bhaile Anois.” Madeleine’s heart felt freshly bruised, as if Mother were rising before her. She could see Olivia’s face in the frigid sky, smiling curiously. Madeleine wanted badly to talk to her. Her soul could not feel bleaker than this. She took a step forward, silently asking her mother for advice, forgiveness, and comfort.

As if in answer, a hint of a spring breeze whispered over the moor. It seemed to caress her face, to reach into her mind and lift a blanket from her memory. Her mother’s words were as plain as if she were inches away. Your father’s mission was to heal. Vesper’s is to control. He seeks the formula and suspects the secret of the ring. With the first, he will create a race of superhumans in his service. If he discovers the latter … woe betide the world, which will then be his.

She fingered a bulge under her blouse. Overnight, while hiding in the academy, she had filched from storage a leather belt with a flat pouch. Into the pouch she had placed her sleeping potion vial and the contents of Mother’s box: Gideon’s mysterious gold ring. Olivia’s handwritten notes about the possible whereabouts of Luke, Katherine, Thomas, and Jane. A small knife, a set of fishhooks, and hollow darts for hunting. A copy of the music to “Bhaile Anois.” And a large sum of money.

No. Not the ring. Madeleine had taken it out last night. Just to examine, to try to make sense of the design. It was such a curious, odd-looking thing, with small ridges on the outer rim like cogs. She had placed it on her thumb and not yet taken it off! She turned from the funeral, pulling at the ring.

As the sun struggled through a gap in the clouds, the ring glinted. Madeleine quickly dropped it into her pouch. Stepping back behind the brush, she turned and ran.

Below her, Damien Vesper flinched at the sudden glare. And he looked up to see a figure disappearing into the heather.

“Nice, slimy baby,” Master Winthrop Cahill said softly to the red-spotted newt in his hand. “Nice little lizard, who gets very, very scared of dark places …”

Threading his way through the crowded market, he was careful to avoid the throngs of buyers. Already he’d squashed a salamander and a tree toad.

Princess Mary Tudor was just ahead. As she walked, her horrid brown ringlets bounced, whisking the shoulders of her dress like little dancing brooms. Her legs were as spindly as twigs, and her shoulders heaved as she sniffled, which was almost all the time. Winthrop’s father, Luke Cahill, said he was to marry her someday. Ha! He would rather live as a boil on the backside of a hairy boar. For one thing, she was only ten, a full year younger. For another, she was a first-class twit. Also, her nose ran faster than her bony legs, and she smelled of elderberries.

Not to mention she was ugly.

Mary held tight to the warty hand of their governess, Mistress Kletsch. With her other hand, Mistress Kletsch squeezed the merchants’ fruits and vegetables while complaining about high prices. As if the king’s governess needed to save money.

As Mary glanced over her shoulder, Master Winthrop cheerfully picked his nose and wiped it on a gooseberry. She crossed her eyes, stuck out her tongue, and turned away in disgust.

 Now.

Lunging forward, he pulled back Mary’s collar with one hand and dropped in the newt with the other. The creature’s little eyes flashed with fright before it disappeared into the layers of fine silk and lace.

Princess Mary’s shriek was sweet music.

Winthrop pretended to be examining a particularly interesting fig. “Is something wrong?” he said innocently. Watching the old lady fumble with the folds of clothing was even funnier than Mary’s jerky dance.

 “Master Winthrop Cahill, you lowborn pig, my father shall have your head!” the princess yelled.

But the boy’s howls of laughter abruptly ended when the cart of figs and gooseberries came crashing down around him. “Thief! Thief!” a merchant cried out.

Princess Mary’s screams were drowned out by voices shouting, “Over here!” and “Stop him!” As a gray-clad figure darted among the carts, a burly arm hurled a melon through the air. Apples went flying as people dove out of the way, running after the thief. Winthrop watched in awe. A humiliated Mary, a bandit in the market — could life possibly be sweeter?

He felt a reptilian claw closing over his arm. “Come with me, young man,” Mistress Kletsch commanded, pulling him back toward the carriage along with Princess Mary, who was now half undressed and weeping. The governess nearly threw them into the carriage, climbing in after them. “Go, Edward!” she cried.

The driver whipped the horses and the carriage took off. Crafted by King Henry VIII’s master coachmaker, it raced smoothly over the English countryside away from the market. Mary and the governess were both yelling at Master Winthrop now, but all he wanted to do was look outside at the melee.

The carriage jounced abruptly. Winthrop’s heart leaped with glee. Had they run over a dead body? Leaving Mary and the governess to their squealings, he looked out the back window. Alas, nothing to be seen but a dusty receding road.

Disappointed, he turned back. But not before catching a patch of gray wool just beneath the right corner of the window.

Curious, he climbed the seat again and gazed downward.

A pair of eyes gazed back up. The market thief was crouched on the carriage’s running board, dressed in gray and wearing a woolen cap with a mask that covered all but his eyes. Clinging to a metal hook, he cast Master Winthrop a panicked, pleading look.

No. Not he. She. The thin physique, the long-lashed eyes made that clear.

More adventure! There was sure to be a reward for this vagabond, and Edward the driver would revel in the capture.

Winthrop smiled at the thief and winked. Don’t worry, he mouthed. Then he turned to the front of the carriage.

On his way to Edward, he took great care to step on the princess’s foot. “Warty Winthrop!” she cried out.

“Bloody Mary!” he spat back.

The carriage jounced again. Master Winthrop spun around. He looked out the back of the carriage just in time to see the thief running off down the road. And he watched carefully as she stuffed something into the knot of a gnarled oak tree, whose arms looked like those of a wild dancer.

“Wicked, wicked, wicked child!” said old Williams, dragging Master Cahill by the arm though the Persian rug-covered corridors of King Henry VIII’s Palace of Placentia.

“Last time it was four wickeds and one wretched,” Master Winthrop chirped. “Incorrigible, too. Whatever that means.”

Williams tut-tutted, yanking the boy around a marble-columned corner. “What on earth have you done to make dear, gentle old Mistress Kletsch resign? The fifth governess in three months! How can we expect to replace her on such short — where is Hargrove? Hargrove promised he would meet us with another candidate for the king’s approval!”

“Mistress Kletsch smells like the fart of a dying warthog,” Winthrop replied. “And that’s after she has taken a bath.”

“Dastardly boy — foul, odious boy!” Williams said, looking around frantically for his fellow courtier.

“Odious …” Winthrop said. “I like that.”

Stepping into the opening of the king’s chamber, Williams was suddenly calm and ramrod straight. He held Winthrop tightly to his side, set his face into a neutral expression, and cleared his throat. “Ahem.”

Standing next to King Henry was a man with massive shoulders, fierce eyes, and long black hair. As he paced before a line of prisoners, his cape billowed around his gray robe. He was staring at the first man in line, a broad, curly-haired fellow with few teeth and soiled hands.

Winthrop loved watching his father at work.

“You say you did not steal the sheep from your lord, then?” said Luke Cahill, his voice a deep, rasping snarl. “You say you are a vegetable farmer?”

The man quivered as he replied. “Yes, milord. Them foxes is bedevilin’ the countryside a-nights, and they eats the sheeps, they does.”

“Ah, true, true,” Luke said, pacing a circle around the man. “No doubt you were home at the time of the thefts, tending to your lessons in proper speaking and good grammar.”

Master Winthrop let out a guffaw that was stifled by Williams’s gnarled, powder-scented hand.

Spinning around, Luke swiftly took the prisoner’s hand and rubbed it on his own face. “If these are the hands of a vegetable farmer,” he said, holding the man’s hands toward the king, “then what explains the scent of grease that is now on my face — sheep-wool grease?”

The farmer’s jaw flapped, his eyes desperate. “But — but I—”

“Ha! Brilliant, Cahill!” the king bellowed, applauding lustily. “Good, then, behead the lout.”

The man fell to his knees in tears. “Milord? I has me a fambly, five little boys and a wife what’s with child. Hunger is to blame, not deviltry! I beg you, spare me!”

“Five boys?” King Henry’s smile fell and his eyes began to moisten. Master Winthrop had seen this reaction before. The king wanted a son more than anything. Thus far, his only offspring was Mary. According to the so-called Rules of Succession, a daughter was not guaranteed to inherit the throne. But the son of a king automatically became king. Henry had grown so frustrated, he had begun blaming his wife, Catherine, the daughter of the Spanish king and queen. Henry claimed she was cursed. He was trying to convince the pope to annul the marriage. Now he had his eye on a woman named Anne Boleyn — perhaps if they married, she would give him a son! “Not one boy, but five …” the king said softly to the farmer. “You are a lucky man. And we are not without mercy. I sentence you to … oh, three days in the stockade!”

The man’s face broke into a grateful smile. He shouted thanks as guards whisked him away. “I daresay I have a soft heart, Cahill,” the king murmured. “I wish these men feared me as much as they do my adviser!”

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