“This has to end .” Blaine McFadden looked at his sister Mari huddled in the bed, covers drawn up to her chin. She was sobbing hard enough that it nearly robbed her of breath and was leaning against Aunt Judith, who murmured consolations. Just sixteen, Mari looked small and lost. A vivid bruise marked one cheek. She struggled to hold her nightgown together where it had been ripped down the front.
“You’re upsetting her more.” Judith cast a reproving glance his way.
“I’m upsetting her? Father’s the one to blame for this. That drunken son of a bitch . . .” Blaine’s right hand opened and closed, itching for the pommel of his sword.
“Blaine . . .” Judith’s voice warned him off.
“After what he did . . . you stand up for him?”
Judith McFadden Ainsworth raised her head to meet his gaze. She was a thin, handsome woman in her middle years; and when she dressed for court, it was still possible to see a glimpse of the beauty she had been in her youth. Tonight, she looked worn. “Of course not.”
“I’m sick of his rages. Sick of being beaten when he’s on one of his binges . . .”
Judith’s lips quirked. “You’ve been too tall for him to beat for years now.”
At twenty years old and a few inches over six feet tall, Blaine stood a hand’s breadth taller than Lord McFadden. While he had his mother’s dark chestnut hair, his blue eyes were a match in color and determination to his father’s. Blaine had always been secretly pleased that while he resembled his father enough to avoid questions of paternity, in build and features he took after his mother’s side of the family. Where his father was short and round, Blaine was tall and rangy. Ian McFadden’s features had the smashed look of a brawler; Blaine’s were more regular, and if not quite handsome, better than passable. He was honest enough to know that though he might not be the first man in a room to catch a lady’s eye, he was pleasant enough in face and manner to attract the attention of at least one female by the end of the evening. The work he did around the manor and its lands had filled out his chest and arms. He was no longer the small, thin boy his father caned for the slightest infraction.
“He killed our mother when she got between him and me. He took his temper out on my hide until I was tall enough to fight back. He started beating Carr when I got too big to thrash. I had to put his horse down after he’d beaten it and broken its legs. Now this . . . it has to stop!”
“Blaine, please.” Judith turned, and Blaine could see tears in her eyes. “Anything you do will only make it worse. I know my brother’s tempers better than anyone.” Absently, she stroked Mari’s hair.
“By the gods . . . did he . . .” But the shamed look on Judith’s face as she turned away answered Blaine’s question.
“I’ll kill that son of a bitch,” Blaine muttered, turning away and sprinting down the hall.
“Blaine, don’t. Blaine—”
He took the stairs at a run. Above the fireplace in the parlor hung two broadswords, weapons that had once belonged to his grandfather. Blaine snatched down the lowest broadsword. Its grip felt heavy and familiar in his hand.
“Master Blaine . . .” Edward followed him into the room. The elderly man was alarmed as his gaze fell from Blaine’s face to the weapon in his hand. Edward had been Glenreith’s seneschal for longer than Blaine had been alive. Edward: the expert manager, the budget master, and the family’s secret-keeper.
“Where is he?”
Blaine caught Edward by the arm and Edward shrank back from his gaze. “My whore-spawned father, that’s who. Where is he?”
“Master Blaine, I beg you . . .”
“Where is he?”
“He headed for the gardens. He had his pipe with him.”
Blaine headed for the manor’s front entrance at a dead run. Judith was halfway down the stairs. “Blaine, think about this. Blaine—”
He flung open the door so hard that it crashed against the wall. Blaine ran down the manor’s sweeping stone steps. A full moon lit the sloping lawn well enough for Blaine to make out the figure of a man in the distance, strolling down the carriage lane. The smell of his father’s pipe smoke wafted back to him, as hated as the odor of camphor that always clung to Lord McFadden’s clothing.
The older man turned at the sound of Blaine’s running footsteps. “You bastard! You bloody bastard!” Blaine shouted.
Lord Ian McFadden’s eyes narrowed as he saw the sword in Blaine’s hand. Dropping his pipe, the man grabbed a rake that leaned against the stone fence edging the carriageway. He held its thick oak handle across his body like a staff. Lord McFadden might be well into his fifth decade, but in his youth he had been an officer in the king’s army, where he had earned King Merrill’s notice and his gratitude. “Go back inside, boy. Don’t make me hurt you.”
Blaine did not slow down or lower his sword. “Why? Why Mari? There’s no shortage of court whores. Why Mari?”
Lord McFadden’s face reddened. “Because I can. Now drop that sword if you know what’s good for you.”
Blaine’s blood thundered in his ears. In the distance, he could hear Judith screaming his name.
“I guess this cur needs to be taught a lesson.” Lord McFadden swung at Blaine with enough force to have shattered his skull if Blaine had not ducked the heavy rake. McFadden gave a roar and swung again, but Blaine lurched forward, taking the blow on his shoulder to get inside McFadden’s guard. The broadsword sank hilt-deep into the man’s chest, slicing through his waistcoat.
Lord McFadden’s body shuddered, and he dropped the rake. He met Blaine’s gaze, his eyes wide with surprise. “Didn’t think you had it in you,” he gasped.
Behind him, Blaine could hear footsteps pounding on the cobblestones; he heard panicked shouts and Judith’s scream. Nothing mattered to him, nothing at all except for the ashen face of his father. Blood soaked Lord McFadden’s clothing, and gobbets of it splashed Blaine’s hand and shirt. He gasped for breath, his mouth working like a hooked fish out of water. Blaine let him slide from the sword, watched numbly as his father fell backward onto the carriageway in a spreading pool of blood.
“Master Blaine, what have you done?” Selden, the groundskeeper, was the first to reach the scene. He gazed in horror at Lord McFadden, who lay twitching on the ground, breathing in labored, slow gasps.
Blaine’s grip tightened on the sword in his hand. “Something someone should have done years ago.”
A crowd of servants was gathering; Blaine could hear their whispers and the sound of their steps on the cobblestones. “Blaine! Blaine!” He barely recognized Judith’s voice. Raw from screaming, choked with tears, his aunt must have gathered her skirts like a milkmaid to run from the house this quickly. “Let me through!”
Heaving for breath, Judith pushed past Selden and grabbed Blaine’s left arm to steady herself. “Oh, by the gods, Blaine, what will become of us now?”
Lord McFadden wheezed painfully and went still.
Shock replaced numbness as the rage drained from Blaine’s body. It’s actually over. He’s finally dead.
“Blaine, can you hear me?” Judith was shaking his left arm. Her tone had regained control, alarmed but no longer panicked.
“He swung first,” Blaine replied distantly. “I don’t think he realized, until the end, that I actually meant to do it.”
“When the king hears—”
Blaine snapped back to himself and turned toward Judith. “Say nothing about Mari to anyone,” he growled in a voice low enough that only she could hear. “I’ll pay the consequences. But it’s for naught if she’s shamed. I’ve thrown my life away for nothing if she’s dishonored.” He dropped the bloody sword, gripping Judith by the forearm. “Swear to it.”
Judith’s eyes were wide, but Blaine could see she was calm. “I swear.”
Selden and several of the other servants moved around them, giving Blaine a wary glance as they bent to carry Lord McFadden’s body back to the manor.
“The king will find out. He’ll take your title . . . Oh, Blaine, you’ll hang for this.”
Blaine swallowed hard. A knot of fear tightened in his stomach as he stared at the blood on his hand and the darkening stain on the cobblestones. Better to die avenged than crouch like a beaten dog. He met Judith’s eyes and a wave of cold resignation washed over him.
“He won’t hurt Mari or Carr again. Ever. Carr will inherit when he’s old enough. Odds are the king will name you guardian until then. Nothing will change—”
“Except that you’ll hang for murder,” Judith said miserably.
“Yes,” Blaine replied, folding his aunt against his chest as she sobbed. “Except for that.”
“You have been charged with murder. Murder of a lord, and murder of your own father.” King Merrill’s voice thundered through the judgment hall. “How do you plead?” A muted buzz of whispered conversation hummed from the packed audience in the galleries. Blaine McFadden knelt where the guards had forced him down, shackled at the wrists and ankles, his long brown hair hanging loose around his face. Unshaven and filthy from more than a week in the king’s dungeon, he lifted his head to look at the king defiantly.
“Guilty as charged, Your Majesty. He was a murdering son of a bitch—”
The guard at Blaine’s right shoulder cuffed him hard. Blaine straightened, and lifted his head once more. I’m not sorry and I’ ll be damned if I’ ll apologize, even to the king. Let’s get this over with.He avoided the curious stares of the courtiers and nobles in the gallery, those for whom death and punishment were nothing more than gossip and entertainment.
Only two faces caught his eye. Judith sat stiffly, her face unreadable although her eyes glinted angrily. Beside her sat Carensa, daughter of the Earl of Rhystorp. He and Carensa had been betrothed to wed later that spring. Carensa was dressed in mourning clothes; her face was ashen and her eyes were red-rimmed. Blaine could not meet her gaze. Of all that his actions cost him—title, lands, fortune, and life—losing Carensa was the only loss that mattered.
The king turned his attention back to Blaine. “The penalty for common murder is hanging. For killing a noble—not to mention your own father—the penalty is beheading.”
A gasp went up from the crowd. Carensa swayed in her seat as if she might faint, and Judith reached out to steady her.
“Lord Ian McFadden was a loyal member of my Council. I valued his presence beside me whether we rode to war or in the hunt.” The king’s voice dropped, and Blaine doubted that few aside from the guards could hear his next words. “Yet I was not blind to his faults. “For that reason,” the king said, raising his voice once more, “I will show mercy.”
It seemed as if the entire crowd held its breath. Blaine steeled himself, willing his expression to show nothing of his fear.
“Blaine McFadden, I strip from you the title of Lord of Glenreith, and give that title in trust to your brother, Carr, when he reaches his majority. Your lands and your holdings are likewise no longer your own. For your crime, I sentence you to transportation to the penal colony on Velant, where you will live out the rest of your days. So be it.”
The king rose and swept from the room in a blur of crimson and ermine, followed by a brace of guards. A stunned silence hung over the crowd, broken only by Carensa’s sobbing. As the guards wrestled Blaine to his feet, he dared to look back. Judith’s face was drawn and her eyes held a hopelessness that made Blaine wince. Carensa’s face was buried in her hands, and although Judith placed an arm around her, Carensa would not be comforted.
The soldiers shoved him hard enough that he stumbled, and the gallery crowd awoke from its momentary silence. Jeers and catcalls followed him until the huge mahogany doors of the judgment chamber slammed shut.
Blaine sat on the floor of his cell, head back and eyes closed. Not too far away, he heard the squeal of a rat. His cell had a small barred window too high for him to peer out, barely enough to allow for a dim shaft of light to enter. The floor was covered with filthy straw. The far corner of the room had a small drain for him to relieve himself. Like the rest of the dungeon, it stank. Near the iron-bound door was a bucket of brackish water and an empty tin tray that had held a heel of stale bread and chunk of spoiled cheese.
For lesser crimes, noble-born prisoners were accorded the dignity of confinement in one of the rooms in the tower, away from the filth of the dungeon and its common criminals. Blaine guessed that his crime had caused scandal enough that Merrill felt the need to make an example, after the leniency of Blaine’s sentencing.
I’d much prefer death to banishment. If the executioner’s blade is sharp, it would be over in a moment. I’ve heard tales of Velant. A frozen wasteland at the top of the world. Guards that are the dregs of His Majesty’s service, sent to Velant because no one else will have them. Forced labor in the mines, or the chance to drown on board one of the fishing boats. How long will it take to die there? Will I freeze in my sleep or starve, or will one of my fellow inmates do me a real mercy and slip a shiv between my ribs?
The clatter of the key in the heavy iron lock made Blaine open his eyes, though he did not stir from where he sat. Are the guards come early to take me to the ship? I didn’t think we sailed until tomorrow. Another, darker possibility occurred to him. Perhaps Merrill’s “mercy” was for show. If the guards were to take me to the wharves by night, who would ever know if I didn’t make it onto the ship? Merrill would be blameless, and no one would be the wiser. Blaine let out a long breath. Let it come. I did what I had to do.
The door squealed on its hinges to frame a guard whose broad shoulders barely fit between the doorposts. To Blaine’s astonishment, the guard did not move to come into the room. “I can only give you a few minutes. Even for another coin, I don’t dare do more. Say what you must and leave.”
The guard stood back, and a hooded figure in a gray cloak rushed into the room. Edward, Glenreith’s seneschal, entered behind the figure, but stayed just inside the doorway, shaking his head to prevent Blaine from saying anything. The hooded visitor slipped across the small cell to kneel beside Blaine. The hood fell back, revealing Carensa’s face.
“How did you get in?” Blaine whispered. “You shouldn’t have come. Bad enough that I’ve shamed you—”
Carensa grasped him by the shoulders and kissed him hard on the lips. He could taste the salt of her tears. She let go, moving away just far enough that he got a good look at her face. Her eyes were red and puffy, with dark circles. Though barely twenty summers old, she looked careworn and haggard. She was a shadow of the vibrant, glowing girl who had led all the young men at court on a merry chase before accepting Blaine’s proposal, as everyone knew she had intended all along.
“Oh, Blaine,” she whispered. “Your father deserved what he got. I don’t know what he did to push you this far.” Her voice caught.
“Carensa,” Blaine said softly, savoring the sound of her name, knowing it was the last time they would be together. “It’ll be worse for you if someone finds you here.”
Carensa straightened her shoulders and swallowed back her tears. “I bribed the guards. But I had to come.”
Blaine shifted, trying to minimize the noise as his heavy wrist shackles clinked with the movement. He took her hand in both of his. “Forget me. I release you. No one ever comes back from Velant. Give me the comfort of knowing that you’ll find someone else who’ll take good care of you.”
“And will you forget me?” She lifted her chin, and her blue eyes sparked in challenge.
Blaine looked down. “No. But I’m a dead man. If the voyage doesn’t kill me, the winter will. Say a prayer to the gods for me and light a candle for my soul. Please, Carensa, just because I’m going to die doesn’t mean that you can’t live.”
Carensa’s long red hair veiled her face as she looked down, trying to collect herself. “I can’t promise that, Blaine. Please, don’t make me. Not now. Maybe not ever.” She looked up again. “I’ll be there at the wharf when your ship leaves. You may not see me, but I’ll be there.”
Blaine reached up to stroke her cheek. “Save your reputation. Renounce me. I won’t mind.”
Carensa’s eyes took on a determined glint. “As if no one knew we were betrothed? As if the whole court didn’t guess that we were lovers? No, the only thing I’m sorry about is that we didn’t make a handfasting before the guards took you. I don’t regret a single thing, Blaine McFadden. I love you and I always will.”
Blaine squeezed his eyes shut, willing himself to maintain control. He pulled her gently to him for another kiss, long and lingering, in lieu of everything he could not find the words to say.
The footsteps of the guard in the doorway made Carensa draw back and pull up her hood. She gave his hand one last squeeze and then walked to the door. She looked back, just for a moment, but neither one of them spoke. She followed the guard out the door.
Edward paused, and sadly shook his head. “Gods be with you, Master Blaine. I’ll pray that your ship sails safely.”
“Pray it sinks, Edward. If you ever cared at all for me, pray it sinks.”
Edward nodded. “As you wish, Master Blaine.” He turned and followed Carensa, leaving the guard to pull the door shut behind them.
“Get on your feet. Time to go.”
The guard’s voice woke Blaine from uneasy sleep. He staggered to his feet, hobbled by the ankle chains, and managed to make it to the door without falling. Outside, it was barely dawn. Several hundred men and a few dozen women, all shackled at the wrists and ankles, stood nervously as the guards rounded up the group for the walk to the wharves where the transport ship waited.
Early as it was, jeers greeted them as they stumbled down the narrow lanes. Blaine was glad to be in the center of the group. More than once, women in the upper floors of the hard-used buildings that crowded the twisting streets laughed as they poured out their chamber pots on the prisoners below. Young boys pelted them from the alleyways with rotting produce. Once in a while, the boys’ aim went astray, hitting a guard, who gave chase for a block or two, shouting curses.
Blaine knew that the distance from the castle to the wharves was less than a mile, but the walk seemed to take forever. He kept his head down, intent on trying to walk without stumbling as the manacles bit into his ankles and the short chain hobbled his stride. They walked five abreast with guards every few rows, shoulder to shoulder.
“There it is—your new home for the next forty days,” one of the guards announced as they reached the end of the street at the waterfront. A large carrack sat in the harbor with sails furled. In groups of ten, the prisoners queued up to be loaded into flat-bottomed rowboats and taken out to the waiting ship.
“Rather a dead man in Donderath’s ocean than a slave on Velant’s ice!” One of the prisoners in the front wrested free from the guard who was attempting to load him onto the boat. He twisted, needing only a few inches to gain his freedom, falling from the dock into the water where his heavy chains dragged him under.
“It’s all the same to me whether you drown or get aboard the boat,” shouted the captain of the guards, breaking the silence as the prisoners stared into the water where the man had disappeared. “If you’re of a mind to do it, there’ll be more food for the rest.”
“Bloody bastard!” A big man threw his weight against the nearest guard, shoving him out of the way, and hurtled toward the captain. “Let’s see how well you swim!” He bent over and butted the captain in the gut, and the momentum took them both over the side. The captain flailed, trying to keep his head above water while the prisoner’s manacled hands closed around his neck, forcing him under. Two soldiers aboard the rowboat beat with their oars at the spot where the burly man had gone down. Four soldiers, cursing under their breath, jumped in after the captain.
After considerable splashing, the captain was hauled onto the deck, sputtering water and coughing. Two of the other soldiers had a grip on the big man by the shoulders, keeping his head above the water. One of the soldiers held a knife under the man’s chin. The captain dragged himself to his feet and stood on the dock for a moment, looking down at them.
“What do we do with him, sir?”
The captain’s expression hardened. “Give him gills, lad, to help him on his way.”
The soldier’s knife made a swift slash, cutting the big man’s throat from ear to ear. Blood tinged the water crimson as the soldiers let go of the man’s body, and it sank beneath the waves. When the soldiers had been dragged onto the deck, the captain glared at the prisoners.
“Any further disturbances and I’ll see to it that you’re all put on half rations for the duration.” His smile was unpleasant. “And I assure you, full rations are little enough.” He turned to his second in command. “Load the boats, and be quick about it.”
The group fell silent as the guards prodded them into boats. From the other wharf, Blaine could hear women’s voices and the muffled sobbing of children. He looked to the edge of the wharf crowded with women. Most had the look of scullery maids, with tattered dresses, and shawls pulled tight around their shoulders. A few wore the garish colors and low-cut gowns of seaport whores. They shouted a babble of names, calling to the men who crawled into the boats.
One figure stood apart from the others, near the end of the wharf. A gray cloak fluttered in the wind, and as Blaine watched, the hood fell back, freeing long red hair to tangle on the cold breeze. Carensa did not shout to him. She did not move at all, but he felt her gaze, as if she could pick him out of the crowded mass of prisoners. Not a word, not a gesture, just a mute witness to his banishment. Blaine never took his eyes off her as he stumbled into the boat, earning a cuff on the ear for his clumsiness from the guard. He twisted as far as he dared in his seat to keep her in sight as the boat rowed toward the transport ship.
When they reached the side of the Cutlass, rope ladders hung from its deck.
“Climb,” ordered the soldier behind Blaine, giving him a poke in the ribs for good measure. A few of the prisoners lost their footing, screaming as they fell into the black water of the bay. The guards glanced at each other and shrugged. Blaine began to climb, and only the knowledge that Carensa would be witness to his suicide kept him from letting himself fall backward into the waves.
Shoved and prodded by the guards’ batons, Blaine and the other prisoners shambled down the narrow steps into the hold of the ship. It stank of cabbage and bilgewater. Hammocks were strung side by side, three high, nearly floor to ceiling. A row of portholes, too small for a man to crawl through, provided the only light, save for the wooden ceiling grates that opened to the deck above. Some of the prisoners collapsed onto hammocks or sank to the floor in despair. Blaine shouldered his way to a porthole on the side facing the wharves. In the distance, he could see figures crowded there, though it was too far away to know whether Carensa was among them.
“How long you figure they’ll stay?” a thin man asked as Blaine stood on tiptoe to see out. The man had dirty blond hair that stuck out at angles like straw on a scarecrow.
“Until we set sail, I guess,” Blaine answered.
“One of them yours?”
“Used to be,” Blaine replied.
“I told my sister not to come, told her it wouldn’t make it any easier on her,” the thin man said. “Didn’t want her to see me, chained like this.” He sighed. “She came anyhow.” He looked Blaine over from head to toe. “What’d they send you away for?”
Blaine turned so that the seeping new brand of an “M” on his forearm showed. “Murder. You?”
The thin man shrugged. “I could say it was for singing off-key, or for the coins I pinched from the last inn where I played for my supper. But the truth is I slept with the wrong man’s wife, and he accused me of stealing his silver.” He gave a wan smile, exposing gapped teeth. “Verran Danning’s my name. Petty thief and wandering minstrel. How ’bout you?”
Blaine looked back at the distant figures on the wharf. Stripped of his title, lands, and position, lost to Carensa, he felt as dead inside as if the executioner had done his work. Blaine McFadden is dead, he thought. “Mick,” he replied. “Just call me Mick.”
“I’ll make you a deal, Mick. You watch my back, and I’ll watch yours,” Verran said with a sly grin. “I’ll make sure you get more than your share of food, and as much of the grog as I can pinch. In return,” he said, dropping his voice, “I’d like to count on some protection, to spare my so‑called virtue, in case any of our bunkmates get too friendly.” He held out a hand, manacles clinking. “Deal?”
With a sigh, Blaine forced himself to turn away from the porthole. He shook Verran’s outstretched hand. “Deal.”