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It was not a particularly dignified position in which I found myself; propped up against Travis’s side, with Rebecca in front of us both, in heated argument with the Duchess of Dentry. Or rather, attempting to argue with the Duchess, who was rather monopolizing the conversation, bemoaning the state of affairs that had led to this recent marriage, to her losing control and credibility in the eyes of the populous.

She had just compared Duke Wafret to a plague-ridden pustule on a serpent when Rebecca abandoned her polite, measured approach and cut the older woman off in the midst of a sentence.

“I don’t greatly care how much support he may or may not have won,” she growled, “because until they’re confirmed before the High Court and the House of Lords, they won’t hold the throne – and while some of the Dukes may prefer their own machinations, the lower members of the Lords are somewhat less likely to do so. Besides which, the Court will never confirm such a tenuous relative of the last Queen when a closer one is present – unless they succeed in proving me insane, which, in this setting, the court telepath would then have to confirm. As she’s not likely to ignore the willing testimony of another telepath, I can assure you that the success of Wafret’s machinations is for naught. Now, would you kindly stop obsessing over that needless distraction and pay attention, Your Grace, or will you force me to go over your head?”

By the shock pouring forth from her mind, that might have been the first time in Duchess Dentry’s adult life that anyone had dared to challenge her. The very notion was so alien, so incomprehensible to her, that she simply stared, slack-jawed.

Not precisely “listening,” but Rebecca gained some bleak amusement from at least being able to squeeze a word in edgewise. “Good. Whatever his character flaws, Wafret isn’t a traitor to Vard. That news was among the smallest of the surprises I’ve been subjected to in these past weeks – the man simply isn’t capable of hatching this manner of plot. For that reason, as Queen Meribeth’s closest surviving heir, I must insist upon your full co-operation in stopping a plot against the newest member of his household, to wit, his new lady wife.”

“His – his wife? Duchess Halston? Who in the world would want to harm her?

“The same person who wanted to harm Queen Meribeth, her entire family, and my entire family,” Rebecca growled, a host of unflattering appellations dancing through her thoughts. “Myself included, but for the merest chance. This is not a courtly ball, Your Grace; the stakes in play here are very high indeed.”

It was strange, truly. I’d met a great many competent men and women in several layers of society, the nobility included, and Rebecca herself was self-assured in most everything she did, even when it was outside of her expertise. This woman, though… however skilled she was at statecraft, at diplomacy, at the administration of her lands – and she was an intelligent woman in whom I could sense some skill at something – as soon as she was outside of her areas of knowledge, she became frustrated and ineffectual so much more swiftly and totally than nearly anybody else I’d met. These last few weeks especially had been full of very competent people, and now… this. I forced myself to take a step forward, leaning in to speak into Rebecca’s ear. “She knows nothing of use; we’d be better questioning her staff.”

She acknowledged me with a flick of that ear, but tried one more query, more specific: “In the past few months, Your Grace, has there been any newcomer to your guard that may have felt somewhat off? Someone who, perhaps, keeps to him- or herself?”

“I don’t know, I’m sure,” the Duchess replied, shaking her head with a clatter of metal rings. “My personal guard have all served me for years, but for most of the rest, I leave such details to my captain, Michael Banning.”

“And where could he be found at this time of day?”

“He said he had an errand – ah, Jessica,” the duchess turned to her plainly- but elegantly-dressed factotum, “where did he say he would be, today?”

“At the smithy, Madam,” the tiny woman replied, her voice full of simple assurance that was in marked contrast to her mistress’s uncertainty. “The Hammer and Tongs, on the Street of Rough Hands. There’s a dire need for new fittings for tackle, he said.”

Rebecca winced; though I didn’t know that particular street, her memory made plain that the Street of Rough Hands was across the city. I could barely force myself to walk, never mind run, and speed might well be of the essence. She took a breath.

“You speak with authority, and would be better for dealing with his like,” I told her. “Go. I think it best I try to wait for where the assassins will be, rather than pursue them. If we can flush them toward each other, that may work better than if I were to stumble along after you.”

She gave my shoulder a squeeze. “Be safe, Edmond. Travis, Nancy, accompany him. Advise him, but take to heart anything he tells you. Helen, go to find Elizabeth at Wafret House and advise her. Jacob, with me.”

She bustled off with the medic in tow; Helen, for the moment, turned to me. “Before I advise the Lieutenant, it’s best I have news for her. Where will you be sitting in wait?”

Where would the assassins strike? Halston House, home of their target? That was, of course, the simplest approach. Another noble’s footmen might well have access to the place without too much question, being social with their matches among the ranks at that House. I opened my mouth to say that we’d go to Halston House, when a thought struck me.

Killing Duchess Halston wasn’t the entire aim of the plot. It was also about image – about making Wafret look like the wronged party, and Dentry a wicked and duplicitous aggressor. Where would the attack leave the strongest impression?

Someplace peaceful. Someplace sacred, even. But most of all, someplace on Wafret’s grounds – someplace where, after all, Trellig might have arranged for a gap in security, while arranging for that gap to be short-enough lived to catch the assassins promptly after the deed was done.

“Wafret House as well,” I declared. “But go on ahead. Be discreet, but let Elizabeth know to be wary of anyone there. Try to find the Duke and Duchess and keep a wary eye over them – if there’s a garden or chapel on his grounds, this is all likely to happen there.”

“This is all very distressing,” Duchess Dentry cut in, wringing her hands. “I’m terribly sorry not to be of more use, but I can at least loan you my carriage and driver; you look as though the road has left you in a dreadful state.”

Thank you, Your Grace,” I sighed with all the sincerity I could muster; under the circumstances, that was a good deal of it. “Go on ahead, Helen; you may well arrive faster on foot, by the time the arrangements are made here.” She gave me a salute which felt rather strange to receive, and bolted out of the hall at a quick trot.

My estimates of the Duchess’s staff proved to be a touch pessimistic; they were willing to rush when the urgency of the errand was plain, and the driver was not shy about pushing his team to greater than their accustomed speed. The carriage bounced along the cobblestones in a manner that wasn’t entirely kind to my much-bruised posterior, but it was at least better than being on horseback myself, and we made far better time than I would have been able to manage on foot in my state.

We were just passing by a set of once-grand gardens, now bare of leaves and flowers, branches dusted with white snow, when a sudden motion caught my eye. There were two figures on a path, going toward a small chapel or similar – and there was motion between the trees and trellises.

Something about that latter felt… wrong.

“Stop the carriage,” I called out, pushing up to my feet and checking that my pistol was, except for the safety, ready to fire. “Over there, you two – might that be Wafret and Halston? I don’t know either by sight.”

“It could be,” Travis allowed. “Bundled up as they are, I can’t rightly be sure.”

That was enough for me. I doubt I’d have been able to explain my decision in a way that any right-minded person could comprehend; I hardly did so myself. All I knew then was a sudden and overwhelming urge to act. I dropped to the ground before the carriage had quite come to a halt, ignored the jolt this delivered to my already-aching bones, and hopped over a low stone wall with agility that might have surprised me even if I hadn’t been sore. Travis and Nancy scrambled to catch up, drawing their own weapons.

The walking pair had gone along the path a ways, towards that small shrine-like building; but in so doing, they came nearer the thicket of bare trees, and now a half-dozen dark-clad forms stepped into view, radiating a sick mixture of hostility, anticipation, and satisfaction. They spoke, though what words were said, the wind took in the wrong direction for me to hear, not over the sound of my own breaths.

The glint of steel in the larger group’s hands, the obvious fear in which the pair retreated only to be surrounded – there was no doubt, now, that something was about to happen here, something dire.

Travis noticed it as well, coming up beside me with his pistol held high. “Stop!” he called out. “In the Queen’s name, lay down your weapons!”

It didn’t work. Some of the figures turned toward us, and the steel in their hands revealed itself to be guns. Nancy cursed, bodily dragging me behind a sturdy maple just as the first gun spoke; Travis, leaning out from the cover of another, returned a shot with care.

And well he might; a stray round might harm the very people we sought to protect. It was the very sort of shot which I had been warned never to take; now, however, what choice did we have? I leaned past one side of the maple, with Nancy going the other, and I carefully put my sights on one of the dark-clad bodies.

We had the advantage of cover; they were in the open, now, but they were more numerous, and what cover they did have was cover that we dared not strike. A half-dozen bullets came our way for every two that we returned; yet through it all, I sensed something far more perilous. One of them remembered their mission, and the promise of wealth that had been made for completing it; that one refused to be distracted, and, even if it wouldn’t quite be in the manner desired, would see that mission through, here and now.

It wasn’t anything I’d done before. I’m not even quite certain how I did it. But I focused my thoughts on that one thread, and I managed to identify its source among the four of our opponents still standing. I ignored the other three assailants; I put out of my mind that this shot would come all too near the Duke’s body. I did not allow myself to be distracted by the horrible tearing sound beside me, nor the impact that followed. I put my sights upon that one target’s head, and when they were aligned, my finger squeezed almost of its own volition.

It was a shot I’d have feared to make with even a rifle. I’d failed at easier shots in the past. But this time, when I most needed it to be, my aim was true. That figure tumbled to the snow-speckled and blood-drenched ground, gun falling to one side.

Twice more Travis fired, and two more of the aggressors fell. The last shot to land came not from us, but from one of the nearly-forgotten pair that had been menaced in the first place, and from a mere body’s length away; the last of the assassins fell and did not move.

I drew a quick breath, steeling myself, and turned. Travis was already running forward; on the ground beside me, though, Nancy lay sprawled, the snow around her stained a hideous red. But, thank the heavens, she lived – she breathed, her eyes were still bright, and now they met mine.

“Just,” she gasped, “my shoulder. Go. Be sure they’re all right, and send help after.”

I was hesitant to leave her thus, but the conviction behind her thoughts was undeniable. I paused only to grasp her hand in mine for a moment, and then I struggled to follow in Travis’s wake.

The conversation I heard ahead of me, the thoughts buzzing under it, confirmed that the pair to whose aid we had come was the same Duke and Duchess we had sought, out for a quiet stroll away from prying eyes – a place where, in this season, nobody came, where they might consummate their union away from the demands of their households. But when I drew nearer, something gripped my attention about the one I had shot, the one who’d thought to kill Duchess Halston after all. The conversation fell silent as I approached; Travis, especially, watched me with some concern when I knelt for a closer look.

I turned the body onto its back, and suddenly the very breath left my lungs.

“What is it?” Travis pressed, looking from the corpse to myself and back. “Who – good heavens…”

It was, indeed, a familiar face. It was one I’d not seen in something over two years, however.

Not since I’d been left on the streets, when the constable had hauled her away for smuggling dream-spice.

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