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AGE OF IRON by Angus Watson

AGE OF IRON Angus Watson

Bloodthirsty druids and battle-hardened Iron Age warriors collide in the first volume of this action-packed historical fantasy trilogy.
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SYMBIONTMira Grant

The second terrifying novel in the Parasitology series by New York Times bestselling author Mira Grant!
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A sample from THEFT OF SWORDS

THE EPIC FANTASY SERIES THAT HAS TAKEN THE EBOOK WORLD BY STORM IS IN BOOKSTORES NOW!

When Michael J. Sullivan self-published the first books of his Riyria Revelations, they rapidly became ebook bestsellers. Now the adventure is coming to bookstores everywhere, starting with THEFT OF SWORDS: Volume One of The Riyria Revelations. Read on below for the first chapter, and visit the official Facebook page to read a short story set in the same world!

Chapter One
Stolen Letters

Hadrian could see little in the darkness, but he could hear them—the snapping of twigs, the crush of leaves, and the brush of grass. There were more than one, more than three, and they were closing in.

“Don’t neither of you move,” a harsh voice ordered from the shadows. “We’ve got arrows aimed at your backs, and we’ll drop you in your saddles if you try to run.” The speaker was still in the dark eaves of the forest, just a vague movement among the naked branches. “We’re just gonna lighten your load a bit. No one needs to get hurt. Do as I say and you’ll keep your lives. Don’t—and we’ll take those, too.”

 Hadrian felt his stomach sink, knowing this was his fault. He glanced over at Royce, who sat beside him on his dirty gray mare with his hood up, his face hidden. His friend’s head was bowed and shook slightly. Hadrian did not need to see his expression to know what it looked like.

“Sorry,” he offered.

Royce said nothing and just continued to shake his head.

Before them stood a wall of fresh-cut brush blocking their way. Behind lay the long moonlit corridor of empty road. Mist pooled in the dips and gullies, and somewhere an unseen stream trickled over rocks. They were deep in the forest on the old southern road, engulfed in a long tunnel of oaks and ash whose slender branches reached out over the road, quivering and clacking in the cold autumn wind. Almost a day’s ride from any town, Hadrian could not recall passing so much as a farmhouse in hours. They were on their own, in the middle of nowhere—the kind of place people never found bodies.

The crush of leaves grew louder until at last the thieves stepped into the narrow band of moonlight. Hadrian counted four men with unshaven faces and drawn swords. They wore rough clothes, leather and wool, stained, worn, and filthy. With them was a girl wielding a bow, an arrow notched and aimed. She was dressed like the rest in pants and boots, her hair a tangled mess. Each was covered in mud, a ground‑in grime, as if the whole lot slept in a dirt burrow.

“They don’t look like they got much money,” a man with a flat nose said. An inch or two taller than Hadrian, he was the largest of the party, a stocky brute with a thick neck and large hands. His lower lip looked to have been split about the same time his nose was broken.

“But they’ve got bags of gear,” the girl said. Her voice surprised him. She was young, and—despite the dirt—cute, and almost childlike, but her tone was aggressive, even vicious. “Look at all this stuff they’re carrying. What’s with all the rope?”

Hadrian was uncertain if she was asking him or her fellows. Either way, he was not about to answer. He considered making a joke, but she did not look like the type he could charm with a compliment and a smile. On top of that, she was pointing the arrow at him and it looked like her arm might be growing tired.

“I claim the big sword that fella has on his back,” flat-nose said. “Looks right about my size.”

“I’ll take the other two he’s carrying.” This came from one with a scar that divided his face at a slight angle, crossing the bridge of his nose just high enough to save his eye.

The girl aimed the point of her arrow at Royce. “I want the little one’s cloak. I’d look good in a fine black hood like that.”

With deep-set eyes and sunbaked skin, the man closest to Hadrian appeared to be the oldest. He took a step closer and grabbed hold of Hadrian’s horse by the bit. “Be real careful now. We’ve killed plenty of folks along this road. Stupid folks who didn’t listen. You don’t want to be stupid, do you?”

Hadrian shook his head.

“Good. Now drop them weapons,” the thief said. “And then climb down.”

“What do you say, Royce?” Hadrian asked. “We give them a bit of coin so nobody gets hurt.”

Royce looked over. Two eyes peered out from the hood with a withering glare.

“I’m just saying, we don’t want any trouble, am I right?”

“You don’t want my opinion,” Royce said.

“So you’re going to be stubborn.”

Silence.

Hadrian shook his head and sighed. “Why do you have to make everything so difficult? They’re probably not bad people—just poor. You know, taking what they need to buy a loaf of bread to feed their family. Can you begrudge them that? Winter is coming and times are hard.” He nodded his head in the direction of the thieves. “Right?”

“I ain’t got no family,” flat-nose replied. “I spend most of my coin on drink.”

“You’re not helping,” Hadrian said.

“I’m not trying to. Either you two do as you’re told, or we’ll gut you right here.” He emphasized this by pulling a long dagger from his belt and scraping it loudly against the blade of his sword.

A cold wind howled through the trees, bobbing the branches and stripping away more foliage. Red and gold leaves flew, swirling in circles, buffeted by the gusts along the narrow road. Somewhere in the dark an owl hooted.

“Look, how about we give you half our money? My half. That way this won’t be a total loss for you.”

“We ain’t asking for half,” the man holding his mount said. “We want it all, right down to these here horses.”

“Now wait a second. Our horses? Taking a little coin is fine but horse thieving? If you get caught, you’ll hang. And you know we’ll report this at the first town we come to.”

“You’re from up north, ain’t you?”

“Yeah, left Medford yesterday.”

The man holding his horse nodded and Hadrian noticed a small red tattoo on his neck. “See, that’s your problem.” His face softened to a sympathetic expression that appeared more threatening by its intimacy. “You’re probably on your way to Colnora—nice city. Lots of shops. Lots of fancy rich folk. Lots of trading going on down there, and we get lots of people along this road carrying all kinds of stuff to sell to them fancy folk. But I’m guessing you ain’t been south before, have you? Up in Melengar, King Amrath goes to the trouble of having soldiers patrol the roads. But here in Warric, things are done a bit differently.”

Flat-nose came closer, licking his split lip as he studied the spadone sword on his back.

“Are you saying theft is legal?”

“Naw, but King Ethelred lives in Aquesta and that’s awfully far from here.”

“And the Earl of Chadwick? Doesn’t he administer these lands on the king’s behalf?”

“Archie Ballentyne?” The mention of his name brought chuckles from the other thieves. “Archie don’t give a rat’s ass what goes on with the common folk. He’s too busy picking out what to wear.” The man grinned, showing yellowed teeth that grew at odd angles. “So now drop them swords and climb down. Afterward, you can walk on up to Ballentyne Castle, knock on old Archie’s door, and see what he does.” Another round of laughter. “Now unless you think this is the perfect place to die—you’re gonna do as I say.”

“You were right, Royce,” Hadrian said in resignation. He unclasped his cloak and laid it across the rear of his saddle. “We should have left the road, but honestly—I mean, we are in the middle of nowhere. What were the odds?”

“Judging from the fact that we’re being robbed—pretty good, I think.”

“Kinda ironic—Riyria being robbed. Almost funny even.”

“It’s not funny.”

“Did you say Riyria?” the man holding Hadrian’s horse asked.

Hadrian nodded and pulled his gloves off, tucking them into his belt.

The man let go of his horse and took a step away.

“What’s going on, Will?” the girl asked. “What’s Riyria?”

“There’s a pair of fellas in Melengar that call themselves that.” He looked toward the others and lowered his voice a bit. “I got connections up that way, remember? They say two guys calling themselves Riyria work out of Medford and I was told to keep my distance if I was ever to run across them.”

“So what you thinking, Will?” scar-face asked.

“I’m thinking maybe we should clear the brush and let them ride through.”

“What? Why? There’s five of us and just two of them,” flat-nose pointed out.

“But they’re Riyria.”

“So what?”

“So, my associates up north—they ain’t stupid, and they told everyone never to touch these two. And my associates ain’t exactly the squeamish types. If they say to avoid them, there’s a good reason.”

Flat-nose looked at them again with a critical eye. “Okay, but how do you know these two guys are them? You just gonna take their word for it?”

Will nodded toward Hadrian. “Look at the swords he’s carrying. A man wearing one—maybe he knows how to use it, maybe not. A man carries two—he probably don’t know nothing about swords, but he wants you to think he does. But a man carrying three swords—that’s a lot of weight. No one’s gonna haul that much steel around unless he makes a living using them.”

Hadrian drew two swords from his sides in a single elegant motion. He flipped one around, letting it spin against his palm once. “Need to get a new grip on this one. It’s starting to fray again.” He looked at Will. “Shall we get on with this? I believe you were about to rob us.”

The thieves shot uncertain glances to each other.

“Will?” the girl asked. She was still holding the bow taut but looked decidedly less confident.

“Let’s clear the brush out of their way and let them pass,” Will said.

“You sure?” Hadrian asked. “This nice man with the busted nose seems to have his heart set on getting a sword.”

“That’s okay,” flat-nose said, looking up at Hadrian’s blades as the moonlight glinted off the mirrored steel.

“Well, if you’re sure.”

All five nodded and Hadrian sheathed his weapons.

Will planted his sword in the dirt and waved the others over as he hurried to clear the barricade of branches blocking the roadway.

“You know, you’re doing this all wrong,” Royce told them.

The thieves stopped and looked up, concerned.

Royce shook his head. “Not clearing the brush—the robbery. You picked a nice spot. I’ll give you that. But you should have come at us from both sides.”

“And, William—it is William, isn’t it?” Hadrian asked.

The man winced and nodded.

“Yeah, William, most people are right-handed, so those coming in close should approach from the left. That would’ve put us at a disadvantage, having to swing across our bodies at you. Those with bows should be on our right.”

“And why just one bow?” Royce asked. “She could have only hit one of us.”

“Couldn’t even have done that,” Hadrian said. “Did you notice how long she held the bow bent? Either she’s incredibly strong—which I doubt—or that’s a homemade greenwood bow with barely enough power to toss the arrow a few feet. Her part was just for show. I doubt she’s ever launched an arrow.”

“Have too,” the girl said. “I’m a fine marksman.”

Hadrian shook his head at her with a smile. “You had your forefinger on top of the shaft, dear. If you had released, the feathers on the arrow would have brushed your finger and the shot would have gone anywhere but where you wanted it to.”

Royce nodded. “Invest in crossbows. Next time stay hidden and just put a couple bolts into each of your targets’ chests. All this talking is just stupid.”

“Royce!” Hadrian admonished.

“What? You’re always saying I should be nicer to people. I’m trying to be helpful.”

“Don’t listen to him. If you do want some advice, try building a better barricade.”

“Yeah, drop a tree across the road next time,” Royce said. Waving a hand toward the branches, he added, “This is just pathetic. And cover your faces for Maribor’s sake. Warric isn’t that big of a kingdom and people might remember you. Sure Ballentyne isn’t likely to bother tracking you down for a few petty highway robberies, but you’re gonna walk into a tavern one day and get a knife in your back.” Royce turned to William. “You were in the Crimson Hand, right?”

Will looked startled. “No one said nothing about that.” He stopped pulling on the branch he was working on.

“Didn’t need to. The Hand requires all guild members to get that stupid tattoo on their necks.” Royce turned to Hadrian. “It’s supposed to make them look tough, but all it really does is make it easy to identify them as thieves for the rest of their lives. Painting a red hand on everyone is pretty stupid when you think about it.”

“That tattoo is supposed to be a hand?” Hadrian asked. “I thought it was a little red chicken. But now that you mention it, a hand does make more sense.”

Royce looked back at Will and tilted his head to one side. “Does kinda look like a chicken.”

Will clamped a palm over his neck.

After the last of the brush was cleared, William asked, “Who are you, really? What exactly is Riyria? The Hand never told me. They just said to keep clear.”

“We’re nobody special,” Hadrian replied. “Just a couple of travelers enjoying a ride on a cool autumn’s night.”

“But seriously,” Royce said. “You need to listen to us if you’re going to keep doing this. After all, we’re going to take your advice.”

“What advice?”

Royce gave a gentle kick to his horse and started forward on the road again. “We’re going to visit the Earl of Chadwick, but don’t worry—we won’t mention you.”

***

In his hands Archibald Ballentyne held the world, conveniently contained within fifteen stolen letters. Each parchment had been penned with meticulous care in a fine, elegant script. He could tell the writer believed that the words were profound and that their meaning conveyed a beautiful truth. Archibald felt the writing was drivel, yet he agreed with the author that they held a value beyond measure. He took a sip of brandy, closed his eyes, and smiled.

“Milord?”

Reluctantly Archibald opened his eyes and scowled at hismaster‑at‑arms. “What is it, Bruce?”

“The marquis has arrived, sir.”

Archibald’s smile returned. He carefully refolded the letters, tied them in a stack with a blue ribbon, and returned them to his safe. He closed its heavy iron door, snapped the lock in place, and tested the seal with two sharp tugs on the unyielding bolt. Then he headed downstairs to greet his guest.

When Archibald reached the foyer, he spied Victor Lanaklin waiting in the anteroom. He paused for a moment and watched the old man pacing back and forth. Watching him brought Archibald a sense of satisfaction. While the marquis enjoyed a superior title, the man had never impressed the earl. Perhaps Victor had once been lofty, intimidating, or even gallant, but all his glory had been lost long before, shrouded under a mat of gray hair and a hunched back.

“May I offer you something to drink, Your Lordship?” a mousy steward asked the marquis with a formal bow.

“No, but you can get me your earl,” he commanded. “Or shall I hunt for him myself?”

The steward cringed. “I’m certain my master will be with you presently, sir.” The servant bowed again and hastily retreated through a door on the far side of the room.

“Marquis!” Archibald called out graciously as he made his entrance. “I’m so pleased you have arrived—and so quickly.”

“You sound surprised,” Victor replied with a sharp voice.

Shaking a wrinkled parchment clasped in his fist, he continued, “You send a message like this and expect me to delay? Archie, I demand to know what is going on.”

Archibald concealed his disdain at the use of his childhood nickname, Archie. This was the moniker his dead mother had given him and one of the reasons he would never forgive her. When he was a youth, everyone from the knights to the servants had used it, and Archibald had always felt demeaned by its familiarity. Once he became earl, he made it law in Chadwick that anyone referring to him by the name would suffer the lash. Archibald did not have the power to enforce the edict on the marquis, and he was certain Victor used it intentionally. “Please do try to calm down, Victor.”

“Don’t tell me to calm down!” The marquis’s voice echoed off the stone walls. He moved closer, his face mere inches from the younger man’s, and glared into his eyes. “You wrote that my daughter Alenda’s future was at stake and spoke of evidence. Now I must know—is she, or is she not, in danger?”

“She is most certainly,” the earl replied calmly, “but nothing imminent, to be sure. There is no kidnapping plot nor is anyone planning to murder her, if that’s what you fear.”

“Then why send me this message? If you’ve caused me to run my carriage team to near collapse while I worried myself sick for nothing, you’ll regret—”

Holding up his hand, Archibald cut the threat short. “I assure you, Victor, it’s not for nothing. Nevertheless, before we discuss this further, let us retire to the comfort of my study, where I can show you the evidence I mentioned.”

Victor glowered at him but nodded in agreement.

The two men crossed the foyer, passed through the large reception hall, and veered off through a door that led to the living quarters of the castle. As they traversed various hallways and stairways, the atmosphere of their surroundings changed dramatically. In the main entry, fine tapestries and etched stonework adorned the walls, and the floors were made of finely crafted marble. Yet beyond the entry, no displays of grandeur were found, leaving barren walls of stone the predominate feature.

By architectural standards, or any other measures, Ballentyne Castle was unremarkable and ordinary in every respect. No great king or hero had ever called the castle home. Nor was it the site of any legend, ghost story, or battle. Instead, it was the perfect example of mediocrity and the mundane. After several minutes navigating the various hallways, Archibald stopped at a formidable cast-iron door. Impressive oversized bolts secured the door at its hinges, but no latch or knob was visible. Flanking either side of it stood two large well-armored guards bearing halberds. Upon Archibald’s approach, one rapped three times. A tiny viewing window opened, and a moment later, the hall echoed with the sharp sound of a bolt snapping back. As the door opened, the metal hinges screamed with a deafening noise.

Victor’s hands moved to defend his ears. “By Mar! Have one of your servants tend to that!”

“Never,” Archibald replied. “This is the entrance to the Gray Tower—my private study. This is my safe haven and I want to hear this door’s opening from anywhere in the castle, which I can.”

Behind the door, Bruce greeted the pair with a deep and stately bow. Holding a lantern before him, he escorted the men up a wide spiral staircase. Halfway up the tower, Victor’s pace slowed and his breathing appeared labored.

Archibald paused courteously. “I must apologize for the long ascent. I really don’t notice it anymore. I must have climbed these stairs a thousand times. When my father was the earl, this was the one place I could go to be alone. No one ever bothered to take the time or effort to reach the top. While it may not reach the majestic height of the Crown Tower at Ervanon, it’s the tallest tower in my castle.”

“Don’t some people come merely to see the view?” Victor speculated.

The earl chuckled. “You would think so, but this tower has no windows, which is what makes it the perfect location for my private study. I added the doors to protect the things dear to me.”

Reaching the top of the stairs, they encountered another door. Archibald removed a large key from his pocket, unlocked it, and gestured for the marquis to enter. Bruce resumed his normal post outside the study and closed the door.

The room was large and circular with an expansive ceiling. The furnishings were sparse: a large disheveled desk, two cushioned chairs near a small fireplace, and a delicate table between them. A fire burned in the hearth behind a simple brass screen, illuminating most of the study. Candles, which lined the walls, provided light to the remaining areas and filled the chamber with a pleasant, heady aroma of honey and salifan.

Archibald smiled when he noticed Victor eyeing the cluttered desk overflowing with various scrolls and maps. “Don’t worry, sir. I hid all the truly incriminating plans for world domination prior to your visit. Please, do sit down.” Archibald indicated the pair of chairs near the hearth. “Rest yourself from your long journey while I pour us a drink.”

The older man scowled and grumbled, “Enough of the tour and formalities. Now that we are here, let’s get on with it. Explain what this is all about.”

Archibald ignored the marquis’s tone. He could afford to be gracious now that he was about to claim his prize. He waited while the marquis took his seat.

“You are aware, are you not, that I have shown an interest in your daughter, Alenda?” Archibald asked, walking to the desk to pour two glasses of brandy.

“Yes, she’s mentioned it to me.”

“Has she mentioned why she refuses my advances?”

“She doesn’t like you.”

“She hardly knows me,” countered Archibald with a raised finger.

“Archie, is this why you asked me here?”

“Marquis, I would appreciate your addressing me by my proper name. It’s inappropriate to call me that,since my father is dead and I now hold title. In any case, your question does have a bearing on the subject. As you know, I’m the twelfth Earl of Chadwick. Granted, it’s not a huge estate, and Ballentyne isn’t the most influential of families, but I’m not without merit. I control five villages and twelve hamlets, as well as the strategic Senon Uplands. I currently command more than sixty professional men‑at‑arms, and twenty knights are loyal to me—including Sir Enden and Sir Breckton, perhaps the two greatest living knights. Chadwick’s wool and leather exports are the envy of all of Warric. There is even talk of the Summersrule Games being held here—on the very lawn youcrossed to enter my castle.”

“Yes, Archie—I mean, ArchibaldI’m well aware of Chadwick’s status in the world. I don’t need a commerce lesson from you.”

“Are you also aware that King Ethelred’s nephew has dined here on more than one occasion? Or that the Duke and Duchess of Rochelle have asked to dine with me at Wintertide this year?”

“Archibald, this is quite tiresome. What exactly is your point?”

Archibald frowned at the marquis’s lack of awe. Carrying over the glasses of brandy, he handed one to Victor and took the remaining seat. He paused a moment to sip his liquor.

“My point is this. Given my position, my stature, and my promising future, it makes no sense for Alenda to reject me. Certainly, it’s not because of my appearance. I’m young, handsome, and wear only the finest imported fashions made from the most expensive silks to be found. The rest of her suitors are old, fat, or bald—in several cases all three.”

“Perhaps looks and wealth are not her only concerns,” replied Victor. “Women don’t always think about politics and power. Alenda is the kind of girl who follows her heart.”

“But she will also follow her father’s wishes. Am I correct?”

“I don’t understand your meaning.”

“If you told her to marry me, she would. You could order her.”

“So, this is why you coerced me into coming here? I’m sorry, Archibald, but you have wasted your time and mine. I have no intention of forcing her to marry anyone, least of all you. She would hate me for the rest of her life. I care more about my daughter’s feelings than the political implications of her marriage. I happen to cherish Alenda. Of all my children, she is my greatest joy.”

Archibald took another sip of brandy and considered Victor’s remarks. He decided to approach the subject from a different direction. “What if it were for her own good? To save her from what would be certain disaster.”

“You warned me of danger to get me here. Are you finally ready to explain, or do you prefer to see if this old man can still handle a blade?”

Archibald disregarded what he knew was an idle threat. “When Alenda repeatedly declined my advances, I reasoned something must be amiss. There was no logic to her rebuffs. I have connections and my star is rising. Then I discovered the real reason for your daughter’s refusal—she is already involved with someone else. Alenda is having an affair, a secret affair.”

“I find that difficult to believe,” Victor declared. “She has not mentioned anyone to me. If someone caught her eye, she would tell me.”

“It’s little wonder she’s kept his identity from you. She’s ashamed. She knows that their relationship will bring disgrace to your family. The man she is entertaining is a mere commoner without a single drop of noble blood in his veins.”

“You’re lying!”

“I assure you, I’m not. The problem goes further than that, I’m afraid. His name is Degan Gaunt. You’ve heard of him, haven’t you? He’s quite famous. He’s the leader of that Nationalist movement out of Delgos. You know that down south he has stirred up all kinds of emotions with his fellow commoners. They are all intoxicated with the idea of butchering the nobility and establishing self-rule. He and your daughter have been rendezvousing at Windermere near the monastery. They meet when you are away and occupied with matters of state.”

“That is ridiculous. My daughter would never—”

“Don’t you have a son there?” Archibald inquired. “At the abbey, I mean. He’s a monk, isn’t he?”

Victor nodded. “My third son, Myron.”

“Perhaps he has been helping them. I’ve made inquiries and it seems that your son is a very intelligent fellow. Perhaps he is masterminding liaisons for his beloved sister and carrying their correspondences. This looks very bad, Victor. Here you are, the marquis of a staunchly Imperialist king, and your daughter is involved with a revolutionary and meeting him in the Royalist kingdom of Melengar while your son sets the whole thing up. Many could assume it’s a family plot. What would King Ethelred say if he knew? We both know you’re loyal, but others may have their doubts. While I realize this is nothing more than the misguided affections of an innocent girl, her escapades could ruin your family’s honor.”

“You are insane,” Victor shot back. “Myron went to theabbey when he was barely four years old. Alenda has never even spoken to him. This whole fabrication is an obvious attempt to have me pressure Alenda into marrying you and I know why. You don’t care about her. You want her dowry, the Rilan Valley. That piece of land borders ever so nicely against your own and that’s what you are really after. Well, that and the opportunity to raise your own standing by marrying into a family that’s above yours both socially and politically. You are pathetic.”

“Pathetic, am I?” Archibald set down his glass and produced a key on a silver chain from inside his shirt. He rose and crossed the room to a tapestry depicting a Calian prince on horseback abducting a fair-haired noblewoman. He drew it back, revealing a hidden safe. Inserting the key, he opened the small metal door.

“I have a stack of letters written in your precious daughter’s own hand that proves what I’ve been saying. They tell of her undying love for her disgusting revolutionary peasant.”

“How did you get these letters?”

“I stole them. When I was trying to determine who my rival was, I had her watched. She was sending letters that led a path to the abbey and I arranged to have them intercepted.” From the safe, Archibald brought forth a stack of parchments and dropped them in Victor’s lap. “There!” he declared triumphantly. “Read what your daughter has been up to and decide for yourself whether or not she would be better off marrying me instead.”

Archibald returned to his seat and lifted his brandy glass victoriously. He had won. In order to avoid political ruin, Victor Lanaklin, the great Marquis of Glouston, would order his daughter to marry him. The marquis had no choice. If word of this reached Ethelred, it was even possible Victor could face charges for treason. Imperialist kings demand that their nobles mirror their political attitudes and devotion to the church. While Archibald doubted that Victor was really a Royalist or Nationalist sympathizer, any appearance of impropriety would be enough reason for their king to express his displeasure. At the very least, Victor faced crippling embarrassment from which the House of Lanaklin might never recover. The only sensible course for the marquis was to agree to the marriage.

Finally, Archibald would have the borderland, and perhaps in time, he would control the whole of the marchland. With Chadwick in his right hand and Glouston in his left, he would have power at court that would rival that of the Duke of Rochelle.

Looking down at the old, gray-haired man in his fine traveling clothes, Archibald almost felt sorry for him. Once, long ago, the marquis had enjoyed a reputation for cleverness and fortitude. Such distinction came with his title. The marquis was no mere noble, nor was he a simple sheriff of the land, like an earl or a count. Victor had been responsible for guarding the king’s borders. This was a serious duty, which required a capable leader, an ever-vigilant man tested in battle. However, times had changed, and peaceful neighbors now bordered Warric, such that the great guard had become complacent, and his strength had withered from lack of use.

As Victor opened the letters, Archibald contemplated his future. The marquis was right. He was after the land that came with his daughter. Still, Alenda was attractive, and the thought of forcing her to his bed was more than a little appealing.

“Archibald, is this a joke?” Victor questioned.

Startled from his thoughts, Archibald set down his drink. “What do you mean?”

“These parchments are blank.”

“What? Are you blind? They’re—” Archibald stopped when he saw the empty pages in the marquis’s hand. He grabbed a handful of letters and tore them open, only to find still more blank parchments. “This is impossible!”

“Perhaps they were written in disappearing ink?” Victor smirked.

“No . . . I don’t understand . . . These aren’t even the same parchments!” He rechecked the safe but found it empty. His confusion turned to panic and he tore open the door, calling anxiously for Bruce. The master‑at‑arms rushed in, his sword at the ready. “What happened to the letters I had in this safe?” Archibald shouted at the soldier.

“I—I don’t know, my lord,” Bruce replied. He sheathed his weapon and stood at attention before the earl.

“What do you mean, you don’t know? Have you left your post at all this evening?”

“No, sir, of course not.”

“Did anyone, anyone at all, enter my study during my absence?”

“No, my lord, that’s impossible. You hold the only key.”

“Then where in Maribor’s name are those letters? I put them there myself. I was reading them when the marquis arrived. I was only gone a few minutes. How could they disappear like that?”

Archibald’s mind raced. He had held them in his hands only moments ago. He had locked them in the safe. He was convinced of that fact.

Where had they gone?

Victor drained his glass and stood. “If you don’t mind, Archie, I’ll be leaving now. This has been a tremendous waste of my time.”

“Victor, wait. Don’t go. The letters are real. I assure you I had them!”

“But of course you did, Archie. The next time you plan to blackmail me, I suggest you provide a better bluff.” He crossed the room, passed through the door, and disappeared down the stairs.

“You had better consider what I said, Victor,” Archibald yelled after him. “I’ll find those letters. I will! I’ll bring them to Aquesta! I’ll present them at court!”

“What do you want me to do, my lord?” Bruce asked.

“Just wait, you fool. I have to think.” Archibald ran his trembling fingers through his hair as he began to pace around the room. He reexamined the letters closely. They were indeed a different grade of parchment than the ones he had read so many times before.

Despite his certainty he had placed the letters in the safe, he began pulling out the drawers and riffling through the parchments on his desk. Archibald poured himself another drink and crossed the room. Ripping the screen from the fireplace, he probed the ashes with a poker to search for any tell-tale signs of parchment remains. In frustration, Archibald threw the blank letters into the fire. He drained his drink in one long swallow and collapsed into one of the chairs.

“They were just here,” Archibald said, puzzled. Slowly, a solution began to form in his mind. “Bruce, the letters must have been stolen. The thief could not have gotten far. I want you to search the entire castle. Seal every exit. Don’t let anyone out. Not the staff or any of the guards—no one leaves. Search everyone!”

“Right away, my lord,” Bruce responded, and then paused. “What about the marquis, my lord? Shall I stop him as well?”

“Of course not, you idiot, he doesn’t have the letters.”

Archibald stared into the fire, listening to Bruce’s footsteps fade away as he ran down the tower stairs. Alone, he had only the sound of the crackling flames and a hundred unanswered questions. He racked his brain but could not determine exactly how the thief had managed it.

“Your Lordship?” The timid voice of the steward roused him from his thoughts. Archibald glared up at the man who poked his head through the open door, causing the steward to take an extra breath before speaking. “My lord, I hate to disturb you, but there seems to be a problem down in the courtyard that requires your attention.”

“What kind of problem?” Archibald snarled.

“Well, my lord, I was not actually informed of the details, but it has something to do with the marquis, sir. I have been sent to request your presence—respectfully request it, that is.”

Archibald descended the stairs, wondering if perhaps the old man had dropped dead on his doorstep, which would not be such a terrible thing. When he reached the courtyard, he found the marquis alive but in a furious temper.

“There you are, Ballentyne! What have you done with my carriage?”

“Your what?”

Bruce approached Archibald and motioned him aside. “Your Lordship,” he whispered in the earl’s ear. “It seems the marquis’s carriage and horses are missing, sir.”

Archibald held up a finger in the direction of the marquis. With a raised voice, he replied, “I’ll be with you in a moment, Victor.” Then he returned his attention to Bruce and whispered, “Did you say missing? How is that possible?”

“I don’t know exactly, sir, but you see, the gate warden reports that the marquis and his driver, or rather two people he thought were them, have already passed through the front gate.”

Suddenly feeling quite ill, Archibald turned back to address the red-faced marquis.

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About the Author

Born in Detroit, Michigan, Michael J. Sullivan has lived in Vermont, North Carolina, and Virginia. He worked as a commercial artist and illustrator, founding his own advertising agency in 1996, which he closed in 2005 to pursue writing full-time. He currently resides in Fairfax, Virginia with his wife and three children. The author’s website can be found at michaelsullivan-author.com and on twitter @author_sullivan.