Death of a king, p.19
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       Death of a King, p.19
 

           Robert Evert
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  “Not a clue, but whomever it was, was a trained assassin. He did an exceptionally efficient job.”

  Natalie’s lips didn’t move a muscle.

  Sir Edris clenched his fists and then gripped his left bicep again. “Bollocks!”

  Natalie attempted to help him take off his breastplate.

  “I can do it!” He fumbled with one of the leather straps until Sir Oliver assisted him.

  “I have to get a new squire,” Sir Edris grumbled.

  “I know a lad,” Sir Rowan offered. “Green as a sapling, but smart and motivated.”

  Sir Edris obviously wasn’t interested. He cast his breastplate aside with a great clatter. “An assassin? Who in town could have done this?”

  “I don’t have any informants in this region,” Sir Oliver said.

  “Nor I.”

  “Blast it!” said Sir Edris. “Of all the times to be without a crippled street urchin!”

  Natalie went to the window. Maybe a hundred townsfolk were milling about the streets outside the inn. Most appeared curious as to what was happening; however, several were truly upset. They were trying to get the crowd riled up, shouting “murderer!”

  “I don’t understand,” she said. “How can they believe you did this? I mean, and please don’t take this the wrong way, Sir Edris, but…you kind of stand out. Anybody with eyes would have noticed you going up to Sir David’s room.”

  Sir Edris flung a hand toward Natalie. “See! It’s ludicrous! Not only would I not do such a dishonorable thing, but it would be impossible for me to carry it off.” He resumed cradling his left arm.

  “Rumor has it you hired somebody,” Sir Oliver told him. “Word about your injury has spread, and the gamblers were betting you were about to meet your end.”

  Sir Edris chortled. “Were they now? The vultures. I hope they lost every copper they had. It’d serve them right.”

  An uneasy quiet fell on the room. Then somebody in the street shouted: “Come on out, you coward!”

  “Perhaps, Ed,” Sir Rowan said, “it’d be best if you left town.”

  “What! Over this?” He leaned on the windowsill. “Look at them. I shook a sheathed sword at them and they ran. They don’t have the nerve to—”

  “I’m thinking more about others coming,” Sir Rowan interrupted. “Once other knights hear about your imposition, some of them might attempt to push their advantage.”

  “Then there’s the issue of David’s family,” Sir Oliver added. “Who knows what action they’ll take?”

  Sir Edris flexed his left hand. “I’ve never run from a fight in my life.”

  “Do you recall what happened to Sir George?” Sir Oliver asked.

  “Oh, that! That was completely different! This is only a scratch. You two are worse than mother hens.”

  Natalie touched his shoulder tenderly. “You could go see Reg. I have a letter you can deliver to him.”

  “A letter?” Sir Edris huffed. “He’s only been gone ten days!”

  “And I’ve written him ten times.” She batted her eyelashes. “I’m a girl, remember?”

  His scowl gave way. “You love him, don’t you?”

  “You know I do.”

  Sir Edris sighed, still flexing his left hand, and then studied the two knights standing by the door. “Natalie, can you give us a few moments, please?”

  Natalie was going to object. He’d never hidden anything from her before, as least, not to her knowledge. But she could see he wasn’t in the mood to argue.

  She curtseyed like a serving girl. “As you wish, my lord. I shall return when your trousers need mending.”

  Sir Edris took her hand. “I didn’t mean—”

  “I’m teasing.” Standing on tiptoe, she kissed his cheek. “You boys have your little chat. I’ll be downstairs, sizing up the crowd. Maybe I can spread a rumor that a fiendish woman killed him. You know, a jilted lover of some sort?”

  “Yes, very well. Good idea,” Sir Edris said, tugging at the sleeve covering his left arm. “You do that.”

  Sir Rowan and Sir Oliver bade her goodnight. However, once she closed the door behind her, Natalie didn’t move.

  From inside the room, Sir Edris said in a worried tone, “Does this look infected to you?”

  Chapter Thirty-One

  Natalie threw open the door to Sir Edris’s parlor, startling the three knights inside. Sir Edris had his bandage off as Sir Rowan and Sir Oliver inspected the wound.

  “Natalie!” Sir Edris cried.

  Natalie rushed over to them. “Let me see that!”

  The wound was puffy, and its edges were red, especially where the fish gut held the slashed skin together. Yet, that was to be expected. After all, the wound was no more than thirty hours old. It’d take time to heal.

  “Here.” Natalie slathered a thick coat of medicine on the arm and then re-bandaged it. “So help me!” She thumped a finger into the knight’s chest. “Get better, or else! You’re not dying on me. I’ve had too many people die on me already.”

  She marveled at how cavalierly she could talk about the deaths of Artis and her family.

  “By the gods,” Sir Oliver exclaimed, “she is your daughter.”

  Natalie started. They had been telling everybody she was Rebecca and was married to a kingsman Sir Edris knew.

  “Not to worry, Nat,” Sir Edris said, reading her expression. “These men can be trusted. Remember that. Their word is as good as mine. If you ever need anything, and I’m indisposed, go to them. They’ll help you.”

  Sir Oliver bowed. “Indeed.”

  “You need only ask,” Sir Rowan added.

  “Yes, well,” Natalie replied, flustered, “make sure he puts on his stinky slime. He’s made me wear it for every scape and cut.”

  “And you were a good sport.” Sir Edris rubbed his injured arm. “Listen, Nat. I’ve been thinking, and I believe Row and Ollie are perhaps correct. I should get out of town for a few days.”

  “You’re leaving?” Natalie’s heart constricted. This would mean she’d be completely alone. She hadn’t been alone since—ever. After almost being killed by Brago, Sir Edris and Reg had seldom let her out of their sight. And before then, she’d always had her brothers and sisters.

  “Why?” she asked, trying to hide her anxiety. “Worried about the mob? They’ve already quieted.”

  “No. It’s not the mob. But I am concerned about others coming to challenge me. Hunters go after the wounded tiger. And then there’s the issue with the boy’s family. Donnie and I shouldn’t meet under these circumstances, and he’ll undoubtedly come to claim his son’s body.” He brushed the hair out of her eyes. “Now don’t give me that look. You’ll be fine. Brago hasn’t been seen anywhere in these parts.”

  “That’s the problem,” she said. “He hasn’t been seen at all.”

  “Hey, none of that. What do I always tell you?”

  “Squalid taverns have the best beer?”

  “What? No! Though that’s accurate.” Sir Edris took her in his good arm. “Don’t live in fear. It’s better to die than to be constantly afraid.”

  She held on to him. “People who live in fear never really live,” she said, quoting what he often told her.

  “Exactly.”

  “But, Brago…”

  “Keep practicing with your knives. And remember—”

  “Fighting is all about footwork,” she recited dully with him.

  The knights applauded.

  “Been teaching her how to handle herself, have you?” Sir Oliver asked.

  “Don’t laugh,” Sir Edris told them. “This young lady is remarkably quick! Her hands are strong and she has good instincts—when she follows them.”

  “Like father, like daughter, eh?” said Sir Rowan.

  “It’s more than that,” Sir Edris said. “She really is getting good. Why, if she were a boy—”

  “Which I’m not!” Natalie interjected.

  “—I’d put her against most young knights th
ese days. I’d surely pit her against this Sir David scoundrel.”

  The way Sir Edris winked at her made Natalie’s breath catch. Did he know?

  No. He wouldn’t be taking it this calmly. Never. He’d be throwing a fit worthy of the gods.

  Natalie giggled. “Like father, like daughter.”

  “In that case,” Sir Oliver said, “we’ll not wager against her, should she enter any tournaments.”

  “Or go on any quests!”

  Sir Edris hugged Natalie tighter. “You’d be wise not to. She’s got talent like I’ve never seen before.”

  “Ignore him,” said Natalie. “He’s trying to make up for the fact he’s leaving me.”

  “Speaking of which?” Sir Oliver asked. “To where are you headed?”

  “Somewhere closer to friends. But no place accessible to potential enemies.”

  The knights’ smirks seemed to indicate they knew exactly where that place was.

  “Now, now,” Sir Edris told them. “It’s purely out of convenience. Row, will you ride with me?”

  Sir Rowan bowed, hand on his heart. “It’d be my honor.”

  “Excellent!” Sir Edris attempted to raise his left hand, but he couldn’t get it higher than his belt. “We’ll ride before dawn. Natalie—”

  “I know,” she said, “keep my eyes open, head down, and mouth shut.”

  “I was going to say, I love you.”

  “And I you,” Natalie said, holding his hand. “Send me word when you’re settled. Okay?”

  “I don’t believe that’ll be necessary,” he told her. “A couple weeks and I’ll be good as new. Should anybody else challenge me, I’ll be ready for them. In the meanwhile”—he turned to Sir Oliver—“Ollie, find out who killed Donnie’s son. Pay any price for information. I’m not going to hang for this.”

  PART FOUR

  Chapter Thirty-Two

  Natalie wandered about her new shop in Winros Minor. It was a cute store on a busy thoroughfare two blocks away from the Cathedral of the Stars. It even had a few rooms upstairs in which she lived. They weren’t large, but they were comfortable, especially the sewing room in which she sat and read every night.

  She straightened a portrait of King Carac the Younger staring definitely off into the distance, then straightened it some more. She dusted a display of bejeweled daggers she’d cleaned earlier that morning. She hunted for something else to do.

  Ugh! This was ridiculous!

  It had been two weeks since Sir Edris had ridden off to the gods knew where and almost a month since Reg had gone to Upper Angle. She was alone. No fiancé. No big, lovable knight. Nobody. Only the occasional customer who came in to peruse her knickknacks.

  And gods, how she hated Winros Minor. The damned openness and the blasted bells were driving her mad. Even though it rarely snowed this far south, the cutting wind was going to be wretched come winter.

  But she believed Reg was right—nobody would expect to find her there. A few days earlier, she’d run into the innkeeper of The Yellow Canary. With her hair braided and dyed deep auburn, he hadn’t recognized her. Why would he? When she looked in the mirror, she didn’t recognize herself. She’d grown a couple of inches, and her breasts were far more prominent now. If she curled her hair, she could’ve passed as Hadley’s older sister.

  Hadley…

  Oh, how she missed her and Ida. She’d been so busy over the past year, running here and there, setting up shops only to close them and race out of town on thundering horses, she hadn’t had much time to think about her friends.

  And then there was falling in love with Reg.

  Reg…

  No, she wasn’t going to think about him anymore today. She wanted to think about Hadley and Ida. It was painful to imagine how traumatized they must have been when they were told she had been killed by Brago. But they were surely over it by now, going about their lives, gossiping and meeting boys. Natalie wondered whether they were married. Or maybe pregnant.

  That made Natalie laugh. Married, she could absolutely see—pregnant, however…

  Hadley couldn’t take care of herself, let alone children.

  Her thoughts slipped to Reg again.

  Did she want children?

  She wanted to say no. That was the response she’d always given to such questions. Then again, who knew? First, she had to get through the next four years. Then Reg would be done as a kingsman and he could…

  He could what? Adventure?

  She guessed Sir Edris would retire soon. He seemed more content sitting in taverns than sleeping under bushes and venturing around the wild lands.

  Taverns…

  Reg had mentioned buying a tavern or becoming a brewer after his service was over.

  Artis was going to be a brewer…

  No, she wouldn’t think about Art.

  Why not? He was a good friend. The best! And she’d loved him—in what way, she still didn’t know. It was complicated, and Reg understood.

  Natalie remembered the first time Art attempted to kiss her. They were—what? Maybe nine or ten years old and playing in the upper orchards above his family’s house. Natalie had run around an apple tree and smacked into him. There was an awkward pause as they both gazed into each other’s eyes. Then, Art leaned forward ever so slowly, his arms tightening around her…

  It was the worst possible moment for Natalie to sneeze. Not only did Art get a face full of snot, but Natalie’s head came forward, cracking hard into his nose. If she closed her eyes, she could still see him, pinching his bleeding nostrils, torn between embarrassment and amusement.

  What a wonderfully special moment. What she wouldn’t give to relive it.

  The pain of his death flooded her again, making it difficult to breathe. She steadied herself against a display of old history books and pushed the memories out of her mind, then stopped herself.

  Art was dead. No amount of crying could change that. But she’d be damned if she’d forget about him. He deserved better than that. So did Hadley and Ida.

  Maybe she could have Reg check on them. He wouldn’t have to spy or anything. He could say something like: “I was there when Natalie died, and I know she’d want me to see how you two were doing.”

  Her heart lightened at the thought of her friends meeting her fiancé. Hadley would probably fall in love with Reg too. That lightened her heart even more.

  Oh, how she longed to be with Hadley and Ida, to sit in Art’s orchards, giggling and chatting the day away, like when they were kids.

  The tears returned. But she also smiled. Thinking about Hadley and Ida eased her loneliness.

  Sniffling, Natalie locked the door of the shop and drew the curtains across the front window. It was no use fighting it. She was going to sit, have a cup of hot tea with lemon, and think of her friends. She was sure crying would be involved; however, it was going to be the good kind of crying, sprinkled with laughter about all the things they had done together. Maybe she’d even pretend to talk with them, telling them everything that had happened since they last met. She could imagine Hadley and Ida’s reaction to the news that Natalie was going to get married. They’d want to help plan the wedding—and the honeymoon. Ida would’ve bounced her eyebrows suggestively at that.

  Smiling and crying, Natalie climbed the stairs. When she reached the second floor, she turned into the room she used as a den and stopped dead.

  Sitting by the window, Brago lifted a glass of wine. “Hello, Nat.”

  Immediately, Natalie drew the two daggers from the folds of her dress.

  “I was wondering when you were going to come up.” Brago considered the bottle on the table next to him. “You have remarkably good taste. I’m exceptionally fond of this particular—”

  “I’m going to kill you, you bastard.” Natalie stalked into the room, not bothering to check to see if they were alone.

  Brago motioned to the daggers in her hands. “At least you’re holding them correctly. Your big boor of a father appears to have finall
y taught you something worthwhile.” His sneer turned evil. “Speaking of whom—”

  As she had practiced a thousand times before, Natalie flipped the dagger in her right hand, caught it by the blade and then threw it as hard as she could. With a cry, Brago leapt to his feet but couldn’t avoid the blow. The dagger buried itself hilt-deep into his upper leg.

  He screamed.

  Natalie repositioned her second dagger to her right hand. With her left, she reached into her sleeve and grabbed the small knife she had strapped to her forearm. “You murdering son of a—”

  She charged him.

  Brago heaved the table at her, knocking her out of the way.

  Natalie fell sprawling to the floor, dropping her dagger. She snatched it and sprang to her feet. Not wanting to give Brago any time to react, she lunged at him, slashing with her knife.

  Diving under the wild blow, Brago rolled to the open door behind her. Panting and leaning heavily against the doorframe, he jerked the dagger out of his thigh. He examined his wound. His pant leg glistened red.

  “Bitch!”

  “Oh, you have no idea.” Natalie repositioned herself in a defensive stance, frantically trying to recall everything Sir Edris and Reg had ever taught her. Brago was injured, but he was armed and beyond deadly.

  Pushing hard on his bleeding thigh, Brago retreated out of the room and snarled, “Remember me the next time you see your father.”

  He slammed the door.

  Natalie bounded after him. But the door wouldn’t budge. She drove her shoulder forward. The wood splintered. She kicked and kicked until it fell open. Brago had wedged her bloody dagger in between the door and the jamb. She sprinted down the stairs to her shop, but by then—he was gone.

  Chapter Thirty-Three

  Magnus sat in his private parlor at The Maggie. He’d been staying in Winros Minor for over a month, and he hated everything about it. The cold wind, the ceaseless bells…He even begged the innkeeper to stop giving him lavender-scented pillows. He couldn’t take the stench anymore.

  As Magnus expected, Lord Fairhill reappeared as soon as he’d swapped Sir Edris’s pouch of slimy medicine. Lord Fairhill gave Magnus three gold for the task and many accolades. However, when Magnus indicated he was going to go home and find a more sensible job for the winter, Lord Fairhill was very clear on the matter: Magnus didn’t need a sensible job. He now worked for him, and Magnus was expected to do what he was told.

 
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