Natalie, her mentor Sir Edris, and squire Reg are hidden in Eryn Mas with only two quests standing between them and a place in history. With the diabolical Brago scheming to become the greatest adventurer in history by any means necessary, they will have to conduct their moves covertly to avoid interference. Posing as a shopkeeper far from home, Natalie enlists Magnus, a rapscallion with the potential to be a perfect informant, to help keep the heat off our heroes as they search for the next artifact.
Magnus, however, is a wild card. The newly minted spy is constantly distracted by new possibilities—and even worse, his inelegance draws unnecessary attention. Brago’s shadow seems to peek around every corner . . .
When the plan for virtually orchestrating a quest becomes exponentially more complicated by Brago’s machinations, Natalie will have to scrabble to ensure victory for her company.
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Natalie sat by the marble fountain in the lower gardens of Eryn Mas, pretending to admire the purple coneflowers around her. She plucked one and, bringing it to her nose, feigned inhaling deeply. She slid a glance toward the boy standing in the shade of an oak tree, hands jammed into his pockets.
Boy? He was — what? Maybe fifteen or sixteen?
Whatever his actual age, he was short and cursed with a baby face any elderly lady would love to pinch. That wasn't necessarily a bad thing — especially for what she had in store for him. Cute boys could get away with murder.
Around Natalie, people strolled, talking and enjoying the cloudless afternoon. The boy subtly scanned each person as they passed. He nodded politely to an old man walking a little black terrier. The boy's gaze lingered on the dog as though stealing it might be the most profitable venture in the park.
Who'd steal a dog?
Then again, perhaps ransoming a dog wasn't all that foolish. It wasn't as if anybody ever got their hands cut off for stealing an animal — other than a horse, or maybe a cow, that is. And people loved their pets. The man might pay a small fortune for the mutt. Low risk and potentially high reward. Smart.
A young couple lingered by the fountain. The girl smiled at Natalie; Natalie smiled back. Eventually, they walked away, kissing every few strides and smelling the rows of blue sage lining the brick path. Natalie returned her attention to the boy.
She'd been spying on him for the better part of three weeks, and she'd never witnessed him pick anybody's pocket. Either he was really good or a coward. She was hoping he was really good.
Bells for the dinner hour rang out from the hilltop around which Eryn Mas was built. It was getting late, though the bright autumn sun was still high above the city's outer walls.
Should she go talk to him?
No, there were still too many people about, and she couldn't afford to be seen with him in public. Wait a bit longer. Better cautious than hanging from a noose.
Bored, Natalie watched buzzing bumblebees glide from one flower to another, their striped abdomens coated with yellow pollen. She usually loved flowers. Despite her protests, Reg frequently brought her bunches of them; however, here in the royal gardens, their fragrance was overpowering. She could barely breathe.
Natalie studied the babbling fountain next to her, a pillar of three laughing children, standing on each other's shoulders until the top child spouted water from her mouth, her hands raised in triumph. It was disgusting, when Natalie thought about it. Was the girl supposed to be spitting into the basin? Of all the things the sculptor could have crafted, why in the world a spitting child?
Still, listening to the constant burble was relaxing, and she did need to learn how to relax. Ever since her near-fatal run-in with the volatile adventurer, Brago, the past year had been an endless race — arriving in some no-name town in the early morning, disappearing in the dead of night, only to wind up someplace else a hundred miles away the following week. She couldn't begin to count the number of times she'd changed her hairstyle or color. She was even having difficulty remembering which of the growing list of aliases she was calling herself. Hopefully all that would change now that she was in Eryn Mas.
Eryn Mas wasn't home; she supposed no place would be while Brago still hunted her. But it was a big city, with plenty to see and do. And its people seemed pleasant enough. At the very least, they didn't ask too many questions. That would be key if she were going to successfully complete the assignment Sir Edris had given her. Questions usually got people executed.
Natalie watched the water arc up and then splatter on the shiny pebbles lining the pool's bottom. When the warm breeze shifted in her direction, the mist from the fountain caressed her skin. It felt lovely.
Wait. How did that work? There had to be something that took the water from the pool and propelled it up through the statue and out of the girl's mouth — but what? Magic?
Natalie snorted, her ladylike faÃ§ade slipping.
In King Lionel's realm of Aninore, anybody suspected of witchcraft was flayed, then burned alive. In fact, His Royal Highness had recently ridden northward with an army of muscle-bound knights to fight an alleged magic user who declared some insignificant town nobody had ever heard of his own kingdom. The usurper was supposedly a fat, one- eyed librarian who could shoot fire from his fingertips. Honestly, if he could shoot fire from his fingers, why'd he need to be a librarian? The ridiculous things people believed ...
Across the park, somebody shouted, shattering the peace around her. "Magnus!"
Five exceedingly large men charged the boy. Judging from Magnus's expression, he considered running but abruptly changed his mind. He smiled as warmly as a merchant selling a cartload of worthless trinkets.
They surrounded the boy. One man, the largest of the lot, jabbed a finger into Magnus's chest and berated him about money. A score of people were watching now, yet the men didn't seem to care. They must have been in some guild or had friends in high places. Breaking the king's peace could earn them ten lashes, if not twenty.
A hard slap sent Magnus reeling to the ground. At least this time he was shrewd enough to start groveling. Thugs hated weaklings, but they hated people who stood up to them more.
One of the men kicked Magnus in the ribs. Then two others joined in. Soon, they were all kicking the screaming boy, his blood and snot flying in the air.
Natalie searched the growing crowd for a constable, but somebody had beaten her to it. A woman on the far side of the park was calling to a guard and pointing to the fight.
Curled in a tight ball, protecting himself as best he could, Magnus rolled back and forth, shouting and trying in vain to avoid the men's hard- toed boots.
One of the assailants grabbed the weatherworn sack the boy had been holding and tossed it to his mates. They rummaged through it, flinging aside what appeared to be clothing. Finding what they sought, they threw the torn sack at Magnus's head and strode away.
To Natalie's surprise, the boy — bloody, but still able to push himself to kneeling — shouted at them.
"Fucking bastards! Come here and fight me one at a time! I'll kill you. Do you hear me? I'll kill you!"
The men laughed as they shoved their way through the dispersing crowd, the city guard letting them go without a word.
To his credit, Magnus wasn't crying.
Brave or stupid?
Either would work for Natalie's purposes.
She went over to the boy as he held his side and spat blood. "You shouldn't tell people you're going to kill them."
Magnus flinched, startled. He peered up at her through swollen eyes. "What?"
"In the future, you might want to kill them first, and then say something witty as they lie dead. Saying 'I'm going to kill you' when you're outnumbered five to one is asking for another pounding."
The boy spat again and drew a dirty sleeve across his bloody mouth. He heaved himself to his feet. "Kill first, then say something witty. Got it."
Natalie studied him. She'd seen him on many occasions, but this was the first time they'd ever spoken. She realized he was shorter than her. He also had a peculiar, rapscallion quality to him. Why was that endearing? It didn't matter. She needed him, and feelings would only get in the way.
Then she noticed his left arm. From the elbow down, it was twisted and gnarled, his fingers curved into a perpetual claw. How'd she miss that?
Seeing where she was staring, Magnus hid his deformed hand.
"All right then!" He straightened his disheveled clothes with the overblown dignity of a lord. "If you don't mind, my good lady, I prefer to bleed elsewhere." He bowed low, tipping an imaginary hat.
Natalie recoiled and, panicking, threw a right jab into the boy's already bloody nose. His head snapped back.
"Gods!" Magnus held his nose as more blood spurted through his fingers.
"Why the hell did you do that?" He swore. "What did I do to you?"
"I said I was sorry." Natalie tried to help stop the bleeding, but Magnus swatted her away.
"Ugh! What is it with people wanting to beat the crap out of me today?" He pressed one of the shirts that had been in his sack against his face. He eyed Natalie warily. "Do you want to kick me in the groin too?"
Natalie gathered the clothes strewn about the ground. When she realized she had picked up a pair of dirty underwear, she hastily thrust it at him. "You see, there was this ... this boy, Nathaniel. Anyway, he ... he tried to hurt me, and, well, he used to pretend to tip a hat like that. I suppose I got kind of flustered."
"I sure hope you didn't stab him while he walked away!" He limped off. "Bitch."
Magnus quickened his pace, conscious of the people watching him.
"Leave me alone. I've never belted a woman before, but I will!"
Natalie followed him. "Like I said, I'm really sorry. Let me make it up to you."
He stopped, the wadded-up, bloodstained shirt pressed to his nose.
Natalie cleared her throat and adopted the business-like demeanor she had meant to use before punching the boy. "I have a proposition." She was staring at his contorted hand clutching his ruined sack. "A very profitable proposition."
"I don't need your damned charity."
"It's not. It's work!"
He straightened and then glanced about suspiciously, blood dribbling from his distended bottom lip. "I'm not a member of the guild."
"Any of them. Look, lady, the reason those apes attacked me is because I worked for somebody without permission. Trust me, they aren't going to give me permission to work for you now." He shrugged, frustration building in his voice. "Besides, they took my tools. Hell, they took everything but ..." He lifted his blood-splattered clothes and ripped pack. Seeing how useless they were, he threw them into the gutter. "So much for my things." He tucked his mangled hand into a pocket. "Bastards."
Natalie made for the park's exit. "Come with me."
"Lady — "
"Come with me. I'm not going to discuss this out in the open."
Magnus dithered for a moment, then hurried after her. "Look, I appreciate your help and all. The sock to the nose I could've done without, but I don't hold it against you. Give me a few coins for reparations and we'll —"
"Yeah, it means —"
"I know what it means." Natalie resumed walking up the terraced hill toward the second level of the sprawling city. "I'm just surprised you do."
"I'm poor, not ignorant!" Magnus adjusted his tone. "That is, I know a few things."
Natalie waved an insistent hand. "Come on. And I don't think you're ignorant. I wouldn't be offering you this opportunity if I did. Hurry. I don't have all day."
Magnus trotted to catch up. "Lady —"
"So help me!" Natalie spun, fists and teeth clenched. Magnus shrank back. "If you call me 'lady' again, I'll pop you a second time. I'm no more than a year or two older than you are." She sighed. "Come with me, okay? I'll give you money for a pack and new clothes."
"New new clothes?" Magnus asked hopefully. "Or old used clothes that are new to me?"
Why was this so difficult? This was supposed to be the easy part of the plan.
"Fine! Come with me and I'll give you money for new clothes that haven't been worn by anybody before. Hell" — Natalie headed toward the main road winding through the heart of Eryn Mas — "I'll dress you like a damned prince. Now come on!"
They entered the second tier of the city, passed rowdy barracks and the royal stables. Natalie quickened her pace to get away from the noise and smell of horse manure. Magnus followed a few strides behind her.
"You walk like a man," he said. "I've never seen a woman walk fast like you. Not unless she was being chased or something. And not in a dress." Then he added, "It's an attractive dress, by the way. Very becoming."
Ignoring him, Natalie turned into a street running through the artisan quarter. All around them hammers rang, saws whined, and weavers' looms rattled.
Magnus went on, "You're not going to kick the crap out of me in some alley, are you?"
"Only if you get me angry."
He jogged next to her. "It didn't hurt, you know. When you slugged me. I was kidding with all that swearing and such."
They passed a line of merchants standing by their wagons. One called to them, trying to tempt Natalie to buy some day-old bread — but she kept going.
"And I could've licked those guys in the park," Magnus continued. "I could've knocked them senseless. I just didn't want to embarrass them in front of everybody."
"Good idea. Knock them senseless someplace where they won't be embarrassed."
Magnus trotted along.
"I may not look it, but I'm a good fighter. That's why they sent five guys to get their money. They're afraid of me."
"I bet. You're terrifying."
"I mean it! I'm not kidding. I've killed people. So don't mess with me."
Natalie rolled her eyes. "Stop it. You're frightening me."
She attempted to appear scared but ended up smiling.
Magnus's stern demeanor gave way.
Even after being beaten bloody, he was still able to laugh. What an admirable quality. Natalie wished she could get over her pain so easily.
"Seriously, what's this all about?" he asked. "I mean, any work is good work, but I don't want to get in any more trouble. Not that I'm afraid or anything. I'm actually thinking about your safety. They might come after you."
"Don't worry about me."
They passed under the great arched gates to Eryn Mas's third level; royal guards in polished breastplates stood like statues on either side.
"I like your hair," said Magnus. "It's very fetching. All the young nobles are wearing it like that nowadays."
Natalie touched her hair self-consciously. She hated it so long. It was hot and always got in her way. However, she found having it to her waist enabled her to change styles. She could wear it up and look older or put it in braids and look younger. Add a few curls and she'd look like a completely different person altogether. If she wanted to stay alive, she needed to be able to change her identity at a moment's notice.
"You're noble, aren't you?" asked Magnus.
"We've already established you aren't ignorant. No need for the act. All right?"
"I'm merely trying to figure out who I'm dealing with. Not that I have anything against nobles, mind you. Your money spends as well as anybody's."
"I'm not noble," said Natalie.
Magnus seemed relieved.
They entered the upper-class merchant district, where the roads were wider and made of white cobblestones. Carts rattled by.
Natalie indicated the side street she wanted to enter. "Let me ask you this, do you have any friends?"
"You mean, ones who'd miss me if I suddenly disappeared? Absolutely! Tons of them. King Lionel and I have drinks every Thursday night. I also have a wife and ten kids who need me, so don't be getting any funny ideas!"
Natalie laughed. "King Lionel is an idiot."
Magnus watched several lesser nobles stroll by. "I'm guessing you're new here, so you might want to watch what you say about our beloved moron of a king."
Natalie's stride faltered. "How did you know I'm not from here?"
"Your accent. I'm guessing you're from the Angle. Am I right? Man, I've always wanted to go up that way. It's supposed to be stunning, with forested hills and rivers and falls and everything. Not like here. Granted, Eryn Mas is bigger than Upper Angle. But there's something to be said for scenery, and I've always heard Upper Angle was picturesque. Mountains and such. Always wanted to see a mountain. Does it really snow in them? I've always wanted to see snow. Though I wouldn't want to sleep in it. Good way to freeze to death."
Damn it! She'd been working on how she spoke for months now, but she still didn't sound as though she belonged in Eryn Mas. She'd have to try harder.
"Of course," Magnus lamented, "I'd love to go anywhere. Eryn Mas is great and all, and you meet a lot of people. But the heart does long for change after a while."
"The heart longs for change? What are you — a poet?"
"No. Not me. Not really. I have a friend, Allyn, who fancies himself to be a bard. He plays the lute. He's extremely talented. But I hate telling him that. He has a big enough head already, if you get me."
"I get you."
They passed several extravagant shops. Some were selling expensive clothes made from colorful silks. Others had rows of shoes and hats in the windows. One had imported rugs.
"So," he ventured again after they had taken another turn. "You're a foreigner with a lot of money."
"What makes you think I have a lot of money?"
"Like I said, your dress is fetching. And it isn't cheap. I know craftsmanship when I see it."
Natalie considered her flowing dress. It had cost a fortune, more than her father could've earned in a year — when he was alive. Now it was speckled with Magnus's blood. Another dress ruined. It bothered her to keep spending money on such frivolous things, but she had to keep up appearances.
"You aren't going to kill me, are you?" asked Magnus.
Natalie laughed again. "Do I look like I'd kill somebody?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Death of a King The Quests of the Kings Trilogy - Book Two"
Copyright © 2018 Robert Evert.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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