Authors: C. S. Quinn
PRAISE FOR THE AUTHOR
THE THIEF TAKER
‘Captivating, vivid writing. Descriptions come straight off the pages and permeate deep into your senses, and a truly electrifying pace. Quinn is a brilliant new talent!’
—Peter James, international bestselling author
‘A fast and dangerous ride through Restoration London where plague stalks every street and death is hidden behind the iron-beaked mask of a plague doctor. Sharp, atmospheric and sumptuous.’
—Simon Toyne, author of
ALSO BY C.S. QUINN
The Thief Taker
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2015 C.S. Quinn
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Thomas & Mercer, Seattle
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Cover design by bürosüd
To Simon and Natalie.
London is a city of half-timbered houses and wooden shacks. In the narrow backstreets, astrologists predict the future and alchemists conjure wonders. Traitors’ heads line London Bridge, where witches sell potions and gamesters turn cards. The river flowing beneath lands a daily cargo of smuggler gangs and pirates.
England has traded her Republic for a monarch of the blood. But London’s wealth lies in the guilds, which regulate trade and set prices. And already, there is talk among Londoners that blood is a dangerous currency.
London 1649. Seventeen years before the Great Fire.
Sally’s heart was pounding as she opened the chest. She heaved the papers into its dark belly and her candle flame hovered over them. These documents held secrets worth killing for.
She knew the risk she took in stealing them. The disused sea chest was the safest place to hide the papers until she could call on the protection of the magistrate. Its ocean duties were long relinquished and it was too heavy to be moved or sold. As far as Sally knew, no one in the household ever looked inside the great trunk.
She pulled back her candle and the papers fell into darkness. Sally shut the lid and turned the key with shaking fingers. Hewn of a dense teak, the chest was impenetrable. Only fire could breach the interior, and even that by slow degrees. All of London would have to burn before the contents were at risk.
Pocketing the key, Sally felt for the heavy shape through the fabric of her apron.
Its head bore a symbol of a crown and three knots. The sign of the Sealed Knot – the Brotherhood whom she had served until she discovered their dreadful secret.
A sound from the doorway made her start. Sally turned to see her two boys were eyeing her from the threshold. She hadn’t dared leave them in their slum home whilst she took the papers. But she’d taken pains to ensure they were ignorant of her purpose.
‘I told you to stay downstairs,’ she hissed. ‘What did you see?’
The eldest eyed the chest. ‘Why did you hide Master Blackstone’s marriage certificate?’ he asked.
Sally cycled through the safest next step.
She knelt by the older boy.
‘Rowan,’ she said carefully. ‘Tell me exactly what you saw.’
His eyes flicked to the chest, then to his younger brother Charlie, trying to establish how much trouble he was in.
‘A marriage paper,’ said Rowan. ‘For Master and Mistress Blackstone.’
Sally hesitated, trying to decide how best to protect her children.
‘Stay here,’ she said, trying to keep her voice from shaking. ‘I’ll only be a moment.’
Sally stepped out on to the landing, pulse racing, to the locked door of her mistress’s dressing room.
The household was sleeping. She could grab her little bundle of possessions and with the money she would get for them, secure sanctuary for long enough to tell her story. Master Blackstone was an important man. She would need all the resources at her disposal to persuade the authorities to search his house.
She crept to the door with the heavy bunch of housekeeper’s keys in her hand. The warm circle of candlelight fell on the lock. Behind the door were the belongings that had been held in trust since Sally had entered the household. No light shone through the keyhole, but she still paused to reassure herself all was silent inside before unlocking the door and stepping into the room.
Sally washed and dressed the lady of the house daily, combing her hair and warming her pearls on her own throat. She knew every hiding place of the chamber, and moved easily to the jewellery box, picking out a gold chain from which a small key dangled.
Turning it in the dresser she opened the drawer and retrieved a bulky roll from the back. When she’d started her service she’d been made to give over a scant parcel of possessions as security that she wouldn’t turn thief. She breathed out in memory of her little clutch of embroidery, coins and the pewter mug which she had not seen since she’d entered service for the Blackstones. Snatching them up, she turned to see a long shadow had fallen across the doorway.
Sally felt the breath constrict in her chest. The pewter mug dropped from her grip, ringing like a death knell on the wooden floor.
Blackstone’s dark figure loomed in the half-light. He wielded an eight-armed candelabra and amber flames danced over his heavy features.
‘Sally,’ he said with chilling calm. ‘I never thought to catch you stealing.’
Blackstone had returned from civil war starved to a yellow skeleton by siege. He had regained his muscular frame and more during peacetime, lending his face a swollen quality. War had punched a ruthless savagery into his eyes.
‘I . . .’ Sally hardened her voice. ‘It is my bundle I take,’ she returned. ‘Belongings that are due to me is all.’ She tried to summon bravery. ‘I no longer serve this house,’ she added. ‘I know what you did.’
From her vantage point by the bed she could see he swung his own bunch of keys, slowly, dangerously. ‘That will be for the hangman to decide,’ he answered.
Sally blanched. ‘It is my own possessions I take,’ she repeated.
‘I don’t speak of your trinkets.’ Blackstone’s voice had dropped to a furious hiss. ‘I am missing some papers.’
The accusation sat thickly in the air. Sally swallowed. She hadn’t thought he would notice them missing until morning. But of course he would check obsessively. Whoever held the papers had England’s darkest secret in his power.
Blackstone took a step forward and as he did, Sally saw the candlelight catch his eyes. In that moment she knew he meant to kill her. He would easily find her sons hiding in the adjacent room. The realisation stripped away a life of learned servitude.
‘Your wife, Teresa,’ cried Sally. ‘Your unholy marriage has driven her to dark magic.’
‘Blood-ash,’ continued Sally. ‘Ground into your family tree, over your sister’s face. It’s death magic, old and powerful.’
‘You lie.’ Blackstone’s heavy features were tight with pain. The flames in his candelabra trembled.
Sally lunged with a ferocity she didn’t know she had. For a split second Blackstone was caught off guard. He sidestepped clumsily and the candelabra twisted from his hand. It fell heavily to the wooden floor, its clutch of candles breaking away.
Fire rolled in eight different directions. The richly decorated interior flared in circles of low illumination. One candle came to rest against thick drapes and the flame ebbed briefly before advancing upwards.
In the next moment Sally hardly knew what happened. Only that there was fear in Blackstone’s face and flames at his feet.
Letting her scant possessions fall, Sally raced past him. Flinging open the door where Rowan and Charlie were hiding, she grabbed both her sons by the hands. They all three ran down the back stair and out into the starry night.
Breathlessly, Sally and the two boys hastened along the honeycomb of dark and winding track which led from the house down to the riverbank. The way was strewn with washed-up debris and Sally’s foot landed awkwardly. A shard of broken cartwheel lodged in the mud pierced her calf. She choked back a cry of pain and staggered on. Blackstone hadn’t seen her boys. She could put them safe.
Her calf ran with blood and the biting pain had risen quickly to excruciating. Sally took a ragged breath. They were on the riverbank, where heavy industries dumped their refuse into the Thames. Her eyes landed on the brewery. She’d visited it a few times to collect beer for the house. Brewers were burly men built to shovel hops. They worked through the night. Maybe the men there could protect her. Sally headed for the dark building.
Her leg sparked agony with each step. She gritted her teeth as she limped the final distance. The thick brick walls and square windows seemed to promise sanctuary. It was only as she neared the large door she realised her mistake. It was Sunday night. Cromwell’s Puritan Republic had banned brewing on the Sabbath. The heavy door was locked. Wild panic rose in her chest. Blackstone would kill her children. Sally closed her eyes tight, trying to pull an idea from the raging thoughts.
There was a small grating in the door. She tried to push her hand through, to raise the catch from the inside. But it was no good. The metal bars were too narrow.
She let out a bitter sob of defeat, slamming a fist against the heavy door.
A warm hand tugged at hers.
‘Mama,’ said Charlie. ‘I can fit my hand through.’
She turned to him, hope blooming.
‘Do you want me to?’ he asked.
Sally nodded. She lifted him and Charlie’s tiny hand slid easily through. He pressed the catch up and the door fell ajar.
Sally let out a sob of relief. She pulled open the large door just as Blackstone emerged from the house. Two candles had been wedged back into his candelabra at hasty angles, shadowing his enormous frame.
Offering up a prayer she pushed her children into the brewery and slipped in behind them.
A close beery smell hit her and Sally made out the domed copper pot-stills, ranged like giant beehives across the packed-earth floor. Desperately she circled one, but there was no way to climb inside. Then as her eyes adjusted to the dark she noticed a stack of empty barrels at the far back of the brewery.
Sally raced for them, pulling her children. They were easily large enough for her small boys, and she thought her slim frame might fit in one too.
Lifting Charlie she placed him carefully inside. Then she did the same with the elder, Rowan.
‘We play a game,’ she said brightly. ‘We shall hide in here. Whosoever is quiet longest will get an orange.’
Sally began climbing inside the third barrel.
‘A whole one?’ asked Rowan.
‘Yes, but you must not say a peep,’ Sally cautioned, finger to her lips. They could hide until morning, she thought, pulling in her skirts.
Outside the brewery footsteps approached. Sally froze. Then she saw the blood trail, glistening. Despair washed through her. It would lead Blackstone straight to them.
Dread blooming, Sally climbed silently from the barrel. She knew what she must do.
Sally turned to her youngest.
‘Charlie, I have something for you to keep,’ she said, struggling for composure. The little boy looked steadily back at her, uncomprehending.
She reached into her apron pocket and withdrew the large key. Taking a ribbon from her hair she fashioned a necklace and looped it over his head.
His gaze dropped instantly to the shiny object, and he gripped it wonderingly. The key was double sided, foreign looking, with blades fanning out like wings. The top was wrought in a strange symbol pattern, like a crown, looped over with knots.
The sound of a shoulder slamming into wood resounded through the brewery. Then a loud splintering as the door began to give way.
The boys glanced uncertainly towards the noise. Sally wrestled to appear calm.
‘Keep it well, Charlie,’ she whispered, trying to hold back the grief that squeezed at her throat. ‘This key guards the sacred secret of the Sealed Knot. If the wrong man discovers it, England will fall.’
Charlie’s small face was stern with responsibility.
‘I’ll guard it with my life,’ he promised. Sally’s eyes filled with tears.
‘Not a peep,’ she reminded them. ‘Hide here. I’ll come get you, when the game is over.’
The brewery door creaked open. A yellow orb of light flared out, multiplied in the copper pot-stills.
‘I will return,’ whispered Sally, and with a final choking sob kissed them both on the head. Gently she replaced the lids.
Sally closed her eyes, took a breath and stepped away from the barrels. At the sound of her movement Blackstone’s light held steady, listening. She took a breath and walked towards the nearest still, drawing Blackstone away from her boys. In moments he was on her.
Sally stifled a shriek as his strong arms pinned her, wheeling her back against a pot-still with a clang.
‘The papers.’ His voice resounded with tight fury around the empty brewery. Blackstone’s candles had fallen to the floor in the struggle, and the light cast upwards, giving him a demonic cast.
With effort Sally kept her eyes on Blackstone, and away from the barrels where her boys hid. His hands tightened painfully on her trembling shoulders. ‘Tell me where the papers are!’ He shook her so that her cap tumbled from her head. Without waiting for an answer he plunged his hand into her stays in search of the concealed documents.
Sally struggled vainly against the attack, and after contenting himself she wasn’t carrying anything on her person Blackstone wrenched his fingers free, tightening his grip on her arms. ‘You have cost the lives of your children,’ he hissed. ‘I know you have nowhere else to hide those papers. Believe me, I will find them in your Blackfriars slum home.’
Something else seemed to occur to him and his eyes ranged the brewery. Panic surged in Sally.
‘You are a coward and a thief,’ she shouted. ‘You shall go to hell.’
Blackstone’s gaze rested back on Sally.
‘Your witch will burn with you,’ she continued. ‘I know what you have done and what you are. The Sealed Knot will find you out.’
Uncontrolled rage was animating Blackstone’s features.
‘Their revenge will be brutal,’ Sally said. ‘The marriage will be found out.’
She gasped as he fastened his hands around her slim throat.
‘Your wife . . . wears the dark crown . . .’ she managed as her vision began to swim. She felt his hands tighten further, as though he meant to wring the curse out of her.
‘It is too great a risk to me to let the hangman carry out this duty,’ said Blackstone, as he watched her lips purple and her eyes bulge. ‘People may talk, though the words are of a thieving servant. And as you know, I can well conceal one extra body.’
As the world darkened Sally thought she could see a shape, reflected in the shining copper, picked out in the widening gloom. A crown and a loop of knots. And then the world closed around her.
It took Blackstone a moment to assure himself of her death and as the anger passed he realised his mistake. He should have kept her alive. Now he would have to find out her children in the slums. Cursing in frustration Blackstone shouldered Sally Oakley’s limp body and headed for the door. He could dispose of her and find out her sons before dawn. Then his papers would be back under lock and key.
Inside their barrels the two boys sat quietly. The older was already whimpering but Charlie gripped his key tightly. It was only hours later that he too began to cry in a steady hopeless rhythm.