The Inner Crown
2nd of October, 1341
Faversham’s words hung in the air for a moment. I cursed quietly and glanced at Tess, who frowned. I could almost see the cogs turning in her mind as she tried to think of a way out.
"Too many," Faversham replied. "At least a full squad. They're being led by a woman."
Shit! "Let me guess. Short? Red-hair?"
Faversham nodded and I suppressed a groan. "De Vayre. One of Gielding’s Runners. She's the one who arrested me."
"A Runner?” Tess glowered at me. “And you didn’t think to mention that?”
“I didn’t exactly have time.”
“Can I buy her off?"
I shook my head. "I doubt it. She doesn't seem like the type."
"Well then. We'll just have to get you out the old-fashioned way."
Without breaking her leisurely pace, she headed for the bookcase that we had used earlier on. Selecting the same book, she pulled down on it and stepped back as the hidden door swung open. She looked at me and Faversham.
"Timothy, you will have to lead him down to the docking bay. I trust you got the papers I asked you for?"
He nodded, a frown on his face. "What about you?"
"I will handle them."
"De Vayre isn't like most of Gielding’s agents," I warned her. "You might not be able to handle her as easily as you have in the past."
"He's right," Faversham said. "I should stay, you go."
"And give up these fine accommodations?" She shook her head. "I can handle a little Runner. If I were to leave openly, though, our dear Queen would have every magician in the country on my tracks. Now go."
Faversham looked as though he were going to argue further, but years of serving Tess had taught him when to give up on an argument. I remembered what that was like. I stood up and followed him to the opening. He vanished into the darkness, but I hesitated, looking at Tess.
"Be careful," I warned her.
"I always am."
I stepped past her onto the slippery stairs. Faversham had already vanished.
"Oh and Daniel?"
I turned back to face her. "Remember what we discussed. I want to hear back from you in three days or I swear, I'll help this de Vayre woman track you down myself."
I smiled. "Good to see you again, Tess."
She smiled back. "And you, my Daniel."
As she stepped back into the room and pushed the book back into place, sending the hidden door swinging shut, I gave her one last wink and then began to make my way down the steps.
Faversham was waiting for me a few steps further down, but as soon as he saw me he turned away. I followed him, trailing my hand along the moist wall to avoid tripping and falling in the dark.
I lost count of how many floors we passed by the time we heard a scream from above. Both of us shared a wry smile - that hadn't been Tess’ voice. Moments later, though, the silence was broken by the cracking sound of metal against wood.
I followed Faversham's advice and we raced down the slippery steps, somehow reaching the bottom without breaking our necks. Our flight ended at a door. With the sound of pursuing footsteps growing louder, Faversham brandished a key he had taken from his pocket on the way down. Opening the door, he pushed me through and followed me in. He slammed it shut behind him, locking it once more and settling a wooden bar over the brackets.
I turned to see where we were - a docking bay, much like the one de Vayre had brought me to the day before. A boat lay at moorings at the bottom of a set of steps. The smell of the river filled the air.
"You need an invitation, brother?" Faversham snapped me out of my thoughts. "Quit your gawping and help me unmoor her."
I jumped into action as the door behind me rocked on its hinges, one or more of the Tower guards throwing themselves at it. Jumping down the steps, I leapt into the boat and began to lift the anchor that hung over the side, pulling on the chain.
Faversham finished untying the mooring ropes and raced across the bay to a large wheel. He began to turn it, every muscle in his arms and back straining from the effort. The wheel jammed, then began to turn, lifting the grill between the bay and the river beyond. Behind me, the door into the bay shook. De Vayre’s men were determined.
"Get ready to go," Faversham shouted. I nodded and grabbed both oars. Turning away from the door, I kept my eyes on that slowly rising grill.
Precious seconds passed. Sweat soaked my shirt, sending shivers down my spine. The grill inched upwards, so slowly I wondered whether it would actually ever rise high enough. Finally, though, something gave in the chains and it shot up. I turned to see Faversham running towards me.
"Not without you."
"Go, you damned fool! There's no point in us both dying."
"Get out of here."
I realised that we were running out of time. Scowling, I pushed off with the oar. The boat slid through the water. I turned back.
"You can still make it!"
"Here!" He threw something, underarm. I followed its trajectory as it arced towards me through the air. It landed with a thump in the boat behind me.
"What is it?"
"Your way out!"
I didn't have time to ask any further. As the current caught the boat and guided it out onto the river, Faversham turned to face the door. The wooden board gave out with a cracking sound and the door exploded inwards, followed by two guards. Faversham had hunkered down behind one of the stone pillars and as the guards climbed over the ruined door, he lifted his pistol, firing once. The pop-bang echoed through the enclosed space and I saw one of the guards go down, clutching at a wound in his neck.
"He's getting away!"
I recognised that voice. De Vayre. She peered through the shattered door, past three guards, her eyes boring into mine. I couldn't resist waving a salute at her as the boat vanished through the arch and out onto the river.
I was away. Somehow, I had escaped. But Iwasn’t yet free.
The river caught up the boat and swept me downriver towards the far side of the Inner Crown. I had a moment to decide what to do next. Allow the boat to carry me to the Wall? The only way out would be through one of the gates, and all of those were held by guards. If the alarm had already been sounded or de Vayre managed to get the word out, I would be finished, papers or not.
So, the Wall was a bad idea. The only other option, though, was to abandon the boat and try my luck in the city. The Cordeliers side of the river would soon be swarming with de Vayre and her men. I glanced to the other shore. Arvinhal.
It seemed insane, but that might just be what I needed. De Vayre would never expect me to try my luck in the palace grounds. And at least those guards wouldn't be looking for me specifically.
The water looked frigid. Would I even be able to get all that way, weighed down by my clothes?
Before I could decide one way or another, I heard shouts from the other shore. Goddess! How did they get out of the Tower so quickly? Lights were spreading out along the shoreline, held up to illuminate the fast moving water.
"There's the boat!" I heard a female voice cry. It could only be de Vayre. "Spread out."
The lights started to bob faster and more erratically as the guards followed her instructions. Soon, they would have the whole shoreline covered. I would have no chance of making land without being seen. That made up my mind. I would have to risk the water. Hopefully, the current would carry the empty boat to the wall, keeping de Vayre focused on the other shore long enough for me to get away.
Reaching back for the bag Faversham had thrown me, I gripped it securely before sliding over the side and into the water.
The cold was like a million tiny nails against my skin. I took a deep breath and ducked my head under the water, hoping I was facing the right direction. With the bag in hand, I couldn’t use my arms and so I began to kick, praying my feet wouldn’t break the surface.
The weight of my clothes exhausted me. My lungs burned. The river water stung my eyes, but I kept them open anyway, terrified that I would end up turned around and swimming back towards the Tower.
When darkness flickered around the edges of my sight, I kicked upwards and broke the surface. I gasped loudly, unable to hold my breath in any longer.
Bobbing in the water, I turned myself around. I had not gone far, but at least I had gone in the right direction. My teeth chattering, I remained where I was, kicking my legs to stay afloat. I waited to hear someone shout that I was in the water, that theywere going the wrong way, but no one did. As far as I could tell, de Vayre and her men were still following the boat.
Turning, I swam more slowly towards the other shoreline. I tried to use my arms, but the heavy bag made it almost impossible. I thought about dropping it, but whatever Faversham had put in it had been important enough for him to throw it to me.
Every kick of my feet and sweep of my arms seemed like my last. More than once, the weight of my clothes dragged me beneath the surface and I came back up spluttering and coughing. Every splash and every gasp set my heart beating furiously, and I was convinced that any moment I would hear de Vayre’s shrill voice screaming that I was in the water.
The scream never came and, although the far shore didn’t seem to be getting any closer for the first few minutes, eventually I felt my feet kick against the muddy river bed. I stubbed my toe on a rock, but the pain only served to wake me up a little. The ball in my stomach untangled slightly, giving me an extra burst of adrenaline. I closed the distance with the shore, reaching a series of steps that led up to the quay. I collapsed on the bottom steps, my head dropping to the cold stone.
Drained, I just lay there. I’m going to stay right here, I thought. Right here is good. Great even.
- Don't you dare. Lucan's voice sounded in my head. You got us in this mess, you'd better get us out of it.
I groaned through chapped lips. Leave me alone, Lucan.
- Do you want to die, you bastard? Lucan snarled. ‘Cause I sure as hell don’t. I didn’t survive my own death just to die because you have the stamina of an old woman. Now get up and move.
- I hate you, I thought back.
Still, his words got through to me. I forced myself to my hands and knees, and started to crawl up the steps, wincing at every move I made.
I collapsed again at the top, sprawling on my front. Lifting my head, I looked around. A small path speared through a tunnel of trees and bushes before me, leading to an ornate metal gate. A single light hung from a hook above, illuminating another path on the other side. The palace grounds.
With another effort, I crawled and staggered to the gate, collapsing with my arms around the bars. I glanced through into the shadowed grounds of the Queen’s castle.
I cursed. Too much light. Making my way to the far wall without being seen would be difficult, if not impossible. The only good thing was that the guards would be just as visible to me.
- Quit complaining and get in there, Lucan growled.
- You’re trying to get me killed.
- If I wanted to do that, I would have told you to stay in the Tower with the Black Bitch.
I dismissed him, concentrating on the grounds again. I could see shadows moving in the darkness, far enough away that they wouldn’t be able to see me. Gathering all my strength, I scrambled up the gate and over, dropping down on the other side. I pushed back against the wall, breathing heavily, my chest aching, and looked around to check if I had been seen.
Once I had recovered my breath, I began to creep along the wall. A handful of times I passed other gates like the one I had climbed, set into the wall and lit by hanging glowglobes. I crawled past these as fast as I could, then stood and continued to edge around the ground’s wall.
It felt like miles, but it must have been less. Once I stumbled over a stone, and twice I was forced to press myself against the stone as a guard passed through the trees a few feet away. Finally, though, I reached the corner where the wall of the palace grounds met the Inner Wall. On the other side lay the City-in-Between. Safety.
I moved faster, my eyes darting off into the forest to make sure no one was near. A glowglobe appeared in front of me. A door. Finally. My fears faded. Until I saw a single guard stood to one side, his eyes scanning the darkness around him, a musket in his hands.
Ss’blood! I crouched down, trying to lose myself amongst the shadows. I studied him – he seemed young and inexperienced, wiping his moist hands on his trousers every few minutes, juggling the musket from one to the other. That should work to my advantage. They obviously did not consider the door to be an important one.
Closing my eyes, I took a few deep breaths. Opening them again, I waited for him to turn away from me, then rushed forward.
As I neared him, scuttling like a crab, he began to turn. I abandoned any hope of sneaking up on him and leapt to my feet, throwing myself across the remaining distance. He saw me out of the corner of his eye, spinning round. He tried to bring his musket up, his eyes wide with panic, but I barrelled into him. We both tumbled to the ground.
An explosion tore through the silence. Dammit! He had managed to get off a shot. The bullet went wild, exploding into the wall behind me. I flailed at his hands, striking him hard enough to send the musket skittering into the darkness.
As I struggled with him, I heard distant shouts echo through the grounds. A hand fumbled at my arm, and I lashed out with my elbow, slamming it down into the boy’s gut. His breath erupted from his lips. I tried to scramble away. He had wrapped his legs around my middle, though, and he hung on like a limpet to the arse of a boat.
Squirming, I caught sight of lights approaching through the trees. Ss’tits! The guards were almost on us. I had to get free of this fool. Turning around, I slapped at his face, hoping to shock him into letting go of me.
My open palm struck him a glancing blow, once, twice. I felt him go limp. I struggled out from his grasp and stumbled to my feet, my whole body shaking. That’s when I saw the yellow droplets on his lips.
No, no, no! Shaking slightly, I glanced down at my hand, and saw the tear in my glove where I had fallen in the forest. My stomach dropped.
I had stolen the poor sod’s soul.
Cursing myself for a fool, I dropped to my knees. Fighting back the urge to retch, I undid his belt and tore the keys free. As I stood, a sharp crack broke the silence and a bullet tore shards from the stone wall beside me.
Fumbling with the keys, I tried two before I found the right one. Pushing the door open, I felt something strike me from behind. The impact forced me around just as the guard’s soul engulfed me. I tumbled backwards, my mouth open, the soul engulfing me. I managed to kick the door closed and stay on my feet.
As the guard’s death screams echoed in my head, I turned away from the wall, cradling my injured arm, and started to run.