Seven Ways to Kill a King – Melissa Wright

Cassius’s eyes trailed over the figures crossing between the warehouse and the Blackwater. Their fingers were stained with pitch, and their clothes were stiff with salt. His duties for the harbormaster required distance, stealth, and a watchful eye. He was to track the goings-on quietly and report on men his employer didn’t trust. It was a perfect cover for Cass’s true concerns. “Shoo!” a woman whose vigor belied her age said. He couldn’t help the smile that crawled across his lips as Nan snapped a towel toward an old dog scavenging for scraps. The woman’s hair was drawn back to the crown of her head and pinned in a meticulous knot. Cass remembered the color it had once been, before he’d spent years watching it lighten and become streaked with ash. A fresh apron was tied over Nan’s long skirt, but beneath it would be tall laced boots and at least one knife. Three sailors laughed and hooted down an alleyway. It was far too early in the afternoon for their revelry to end well. But that was not Cassius’s affair. The men would be the harbor patrol’s headache when the time came. Nan held up a hand to shade her brow, as if gazing out to sky and sea, but her gray eyes hit Cass’s instead.

She made a gesture questioning if anything had seemed suspicious, and Cass replied with the merest shake of his head. Nan winked and turned, headed once again into the depths of the Blackwater Inn. It was a Myrina day, a day when all eyes would be on alert—a day for the queensguard to mind their watch. Smithsport was bustling nearly all day long in the summer months, but the lull between the morning’s business and the evening’s revelry felt the most dangerous of all. It was the time when Princess Myrina of Stormskeep, the daughter of the true queen, went out and about as the scullery maid, an orphan girl affectionately known as Bean, the same as a dozen other maids and servers in Smithsport alone. It was the time Cass’s attentions, his duty, became most difficult of all. A side door to the inn opened, and Myrina’s dark hair came into view. From a distance, it was hard to be certain, but he thought the sun lent it the tint of mulled wine. It was tied loosely into a knot at the nape of her slender neck, and a large swath fell over her face. Cass could remember Miri’s hair, too, before the dyes, when it had been as blond and wild as a lion’s mane.

She swung a bucket toward the street, and the dirty water splashed over the stones. Cass slipped farther into the shadows. When Miri straightened, the stray dog ran toward her, a spring in his step because he recognized her as a woman with food or attention. Miri’s face came up as she glanced at the street, probably checking for Nan or Thom or anyone who might rat her out, and then she reached into a pocket, drew out a scrap, and handed it carefully to the beast before giving him a quick scratch behind the ear. She straightened again, her shoulders rising in a deep breath. The air was not entirely fresh so near the port, but it absolutely beat what waited inside. She brushed the hair from her face and turned, and Cass leaned forward to watch her go—to not miss one moment more than he had to. The door shut, and a shadow shifted—another of his queensguard at watch. The figure glanced at Cass then away. It felt like judgment.

It felt like Henry. “Seven hells,” Cass muttered, turning back to scan the street. He wasn’t sure what was wrong with him, but it was getting worse. He was fairly certain it was the tedium. This was not what he’d been trained to do. Standing watch without a lick of friction was getting under his skin. If Cassius needed anything, it was action and to get away from the sea. A broad man in a worn cloak crossed at the corner of the street, catching Cass’s notice. The hood alone might have given Cass pause, but the weather in Smithsport did not always account for the way men dressed once they’d been soaked by salt and sea or traveled from far-off lands. What made Cass uneasy was the squareness of the man’s shoulders, the bearing that spoke of a soldier and a man who trained with swords.

Cass straightened, settling his belt more firmly at his hip. He would follow the man, even if it was nothing. Because surely, it was nothing. Cass’s pulse thrummed in his veins, arguing his own reassurance. But it was midafternoon in Smithsport. He had no reason to think she was anything but safe. Besides, there’d not been a single call— Suddenly, the call of a bird cut through the air. The first was short and sharp, then the second was longer. Cass’s feet were moving before he’d had a moment to think, his blood suddenly cold. The man in the cloak stepped onto the planks of the Blackwater’s porch, his hood falling to reveal a half helm carved with images of a bear.

It was Cass’s enemy, the enemy of them all, striding into the single safe haven of the princess and those loyal to her. It would be the death of her and the death of Cass and his brothers-in-arms. Cassius was bloodsworn, loyal to the queen and her family. But the queen no longer ruled. The Lion Queen of Stormskeep had been murdered, slaughtered before her throne. Her body had been burned to ash. To be a sympathizer was treason and to be queensguard a fate worse than death. But Cassius of Stormskeep had sworn his protection. He could do nothing else. M CHA PTE R 1 yrina Alexander was born to do great things.

It said as much on the tapestries that had lined her nursery walls. She slapped the sodden mop onto the rough stone floor. Its frayed rope caught and pulled as the dirty water puddled into crevices before she’d managed much cleaning at all. She’d still not mastered a few of the most challenging skills of her new life. Through the wall behind her rose the muffled yammering of men who’d drunk too much ale in the rooms she’d been kept safely away from since she was a girl. She was out of sight, away from notice, and alone in a storeroom that needed a good cleaning now and then. “Great things,” she muttered as she yanked the mop to work it free. The handle was long and narrow but nothing at all like the glistening swords woven into those childhood tapestries of a girl battling man and bear. When the snag gave, all the force she’d put into it landed solidly in the ribs of a sturdy figure behind her. The figure cursed, and she turned to gape at a hulking form she’d had no idea had moved into the space behind her.

He was not quite man or bear but something in between and far more dangerous. Sense should have had her calling for help or at least informing the man that he’d no business in the back rooms of the Blackwater, but she could only gape up at the dark eyes and bear half helm of a kingsman of Stormskeep. A huff of air came as Nan careened into the corridor and nearly slammed bodily into the opposite wall. “There you are,” she said through clenched teeth, and though the words appeared to be aimed at Miri, it was clear to Miri that Nan had been searching for the kingsman. Nan cleared her throat, tugging her apron back into place, and gave a practiced simple-farm-woman smile to the guard. “Apologies for the trouble, if it pleases you. I’ll see that the girl is right proper whipped.” Nan’s fingers curled into a tight fist at her side, but Miri’s had gone into the loose, ready stance she’d been taught as a child. But it was no time for that. Miri forced her fingers to curl into her threadbare skirt and dropped her gaze to the floor before scuttling toward Nan with a silent prayer and tightly pressed lips.

Miri’s head snapped up when the guard snagged her shirt, jerking her roughly toward his form. She winced away from him. His sour breath smelled not unlike the cook’s day-old onion stew. The kingsman drew her nearer, and Miri let her dark hair fall over her cheek. All color bled from Nan’s face. Though her neatly pinned bun was undisturbed, a smear of something dark stood out on her neck. Miri wondered what she’d missed and how many other guards were beyond the wall behind them, outside in the city streets—and whether it was the end for her and Nan. “Reeks of a life well lived.” Even if his words were ugly, the kingsman’s voice was low and careful. He was not a man who’d been drinking ale and had stumbled into the back rooms by mistake.

The kingsmen were intelligent. He would know she was no mere whipping girl. Thomas had been right—Miri had no business being let out into the world, not when the guards had access to every establishment in the kingdoms. Nan stepped forward, jaw going into a hard line. “Oh, she’ll pay well enough, I assure you.” Nan came just shy of snatching at Miri’s arm and falling into a tug of war that could cost them both their lives. Miri glared at her beneath a lowered brow. Nan drew a thin rod from the pocket of her skirt, and for a moment, Miri didn’t think either of them was entirely sure whether Nan intended to use it on her or the guard. The kingsman let out a snort, apparently not at all concerned for the latter, and tossed Miri roughly to the ground. Her knees hit the stone tiles with a crack, her thin flesh splitting over bone.

She bit her tongue and her words and bit back every shred of rage she’d ever felt for the men of the king’s guard and what they had done. Nan grabbed Miri by the knot of hair at the nape of her neck and muttered a curse as she dragged her to her feet. When she was pulled into the next corridor, Miri chanced a glance at the guard. He pushed over a tall shelf, scattering its contents onto the damp floor, then kicked through the mess and knocked over a metal bin and a basket of wooden utensils. Miri drew a breath through her nose, and Nan shoved her into the next room. Three corridors later, Nan slammed the door shut behind them, barred it with a wooden slat, and turned to lean against it. She placed a hand over her heart as she slid like liquid to the floor. Miri uncurled her fists from their grip on her skirts and straightened the material before pushing the tangled hair from her face. “Gods, girl,” Nan whispered up at her, breath coming in broken heaves. “That was close.

” “What are they doing here?” Miri knelt before her protector, who’d cared for her and hidden her since she was a child. “Why are they in Smithsport?” Nan ran the back of her hand over her forehead and, voice low, said, “King’s business. There are at least a dozen down by the dock.” Her soft gray eyes held an apology. “We didn’t get word in time. I’d no sooner heard they’d been spotted before this one was scampering about. Came in under the cover of a wagon, hidden in supplies like stowaways right through the town gates. Getting sneaky, they are. Thomas knocked an entire barrel of ale in this one’s path, made a mess of the thing, but the bear wouldn’t be put off.” “So that’s what happened to you.

” Miri reached forward to wipe the muck off Nan’s neck, but she brushed her attentions away. “Come on, help me up, Bean. We’ve got to get you somewhere safe.” Miri took hold of Nan’s arm and helped her to her feet. “Not much of a plan. You know we’re trapped back here.” Nan gave her a sly smile and whispered, “Don’t think much of your old Nan, do you, Bean?” She yanked a drapery cord by the far wall, and a filthy animal pelt fell silently to the floor. Miri waved away the dust and stared openly at what appeared to be a trap door. Nan had been holding out on her. “Aye,” Nan whispered.

“Now up you go.” MİRİ HAD CLİMBED through the trap door and into a small dark chamber nearly an hour before, by her estimation, and had been listening to the rustle of foot traffic and wheeled carts overhead. Nan had closed and locked the entrance behind her, swearing she would soon be set free. “Listen for Thom,” she’d promised. “He’ll be along.” A brief scuffle and shouting overhead had followed shortly after. Then came the clink of a metal sword, and sweat had prickled on Miri’s skin. Those noises had settled into the more common goings-on, though, and the sweat ran in rivulets down her back instead. She was a dirty, damp mess, and she was fairly certain the barrels tucked in beside her held something far worse than old ale. She wondered how long the stale air in the spare space would hold her and whether she would be able to break out if Thom never came.

She wondered what the kingsmen were looking for. A hollow scrape sounded above, and Miri ducked as loose dirt fell into her tangled hair. She cowered against a barrel, but there was little room to move away. A narrow beam of light speared the space as an overhead plank was shifted aside. Then she heard Thom’s knock: three short raps. She signaled back, two quick taps to the barrel with her knuckles, the second louder than the first. The plank was shoved aside. Miri closed her eyes against the glare, blinded after so long in the empty dark, and was met by Thomas’s words. “Come on, girl. Time to move.

” He reached into the open space to grab Miri’s shirt, glancing quickly at the man beside him. Miri rose, knocking her head against the low ceiling, then was tugged from the pit into the fresh evening air. It was early, well before sunset, and Thomas Blackwater was unceremoniously shoving a princess of Stormskeep into a dirty barrel. She resisted momentarily, but he tsked at her, and she remembered her place in the ordeal. Being caught could get them all killed, not just Miri. She squatted into the barrel and was turned on her side as it was set quickly to rights. As she struggled to shift in the cavity, the figure with Thom disappeared as he slammed the lid into place. “Quiet, Bean,” Thom murmured through the wood. “It’ll be over soon.” The barrel was jostled as she was thrown aboard a wagon, and then came the muffled crack of a whip and a call to the horses before her barrel rattled against the others and the wagon’s deck below.

She bit down hard on a curse and prayed she would not be stuck inside long enough to be taken to port. The ride was miserable and painful and loud and hot, but it was not the worst she had been through. Miri had experienced much worse, and that low point sat well beneath her current situation. She would get through it so that she could live another day. Myrina Alexander had things to do—great things.

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