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The Princess Masquerade
Somershire, nestled in the southern hills of Teleere
Megan was tired. Her fingers ached as she tucked them into the opposite sleeves of her tattered coat, and her blackened eye still felt tender. She'd never been overly fond of stitchery. It was tedious, and she had to travel through a rough side of Somershire to deliver the garments, but it was a job, and she took any honest work she could find. She also took a good deal of dishonest work. It wasn't something she was proud of, but she could live with her lack of pride. She couldn't live on an empty stomach. And she would live. That's what she did. She survived. A tough 'un. That's what Mum had called her. "You'll be all right," she'd rasped into the darkness of their tumbledown cottage. "You'll be all right, love, 'cause, you're a tough 'un." Her voice had cracked. "My little acorn. So strong. So smart. Like your da." She'd touched Meg's face. There were tears in her eyes. Even in the pre-death blackness, Megan could see them glisten in some errant shaft of light that had found its way onto her face. "You'll be all right," she'd said again, then she had died, quietly and without complaint, just as she had lived.
Megan cleared her throat. She'd best hurry or she'd be late for work at the inn. Hard work. Time on her feet, which already ached from her hurried trip across town. The cobbles echoed softly beneath her footfalls. Her breath curled smoky fronds in the winter air, and her belly rumbled ominously, but she ignored both the bite of the season and the pang of her hunger, concentrating instead on the coins she'd earned. Perhaps she shouldn't skip supper. She'd already lost weight since her ribs had been cracked, but if she didn't eat, she could save every one of her lovely new coins. She'd wrapped them in a cloth and shoved them into her shoe, having learned early on not to keep them in a pocket. Pockets could be lost. Or stolen. A few abrasions and a day's lost income had taught her that years ago. But she'd not been more than twelve then and had healed rapidly. Her last run-in hadn't been as pleasant, but at least her tormentors had been better dressed. She glanced nervously sideways and winced. Oh yes, she'd learned that a woman alone could not afford to trust men, be he a prince or be he a pauper. The price of a man's clothing rarely told the state of his soul. But she had nearly reached the Lion's Share, where she worked and kept a room. She had nearly beaten the odds once again.
The back door of the inn groaned open as she scuttled inside. A chill draft of air curled in behind her, clashing with the moist heat of the kitchen.
" 'Bout time." Cate glanced up from where she slopped stew into a wooden bowl, her bright eyes hard on Megan's bruised cheek. "You look like 'ell.Apt to scare the customers."
"They'll be too drunk to scare, and it ain't so bright in the common room. We busy?" Megan shed her coat quickly, then donned a stained apron with fingers still numb from the cold.
"Some lordly fellow rode in from Ports'aven."
Megan spared her a quick glance. "Alone?"
Cate barked a laugh. Her face was as round as the soup bowl, her arms as beefy as twin hams. "Them lords ever come alone? Nay. They needs an 'oly army just to 'elp 'em lift their mugs. Fig's near to splittin' a gut."
Megan relaxed a smidgen. She'd left Portshaven six months before, and no one had come looking for her yet. "Is that beef?"
"Mutton with lemon," Cate corrected, then sniffed the concoction and winced. " 'Ope I caught it 'fore it turned bad."
A voice raised from the common room.
Cate scowled. "Got some hot pot what's good though."
Someone yelled again, and Cate motioned toward the noise. Megs hurried across the kitchen just as Fig Duevel came through the door.
"Where the hell you been, girl?" He was only a hair taller than she, but he had a mean mouth and a meaner fist. Or so she'd been told, though thus far she'd managed to stay clear of the latter.
She glanced through the open doorway to the common room beyond. "Place is packed tight as a oyster," she said, and fiddled busily with her apron strings, though they were already secured in place. "Last autumn's brew was a right hummer, aye?"
He glared at her, but harrumphed in something akin to good nature. He took pride in his beer, which he made himself. Fig might be as mean as an adder and a skinflint to boot, but he had a way of brewing that kept his patrons coming back. It was one of the reasons Megs had taken this job, for although Fig kept his secrets to himself, she was certain she could learn them. Secrets could only last so long. She knew that as truth. A truth that kept her mobile. Never stay in one place too long. Never be who they think you are.
"Take care of them gents," Fig ordered, and she hurried to do just that.
The common room wasn't as busy as she had implied, but it was crowded enough. She squeezed past a pair of farmers who argued boisterously about the weight of a gargantuan boar and found the table with the laughing lords from Portshaven. They were easy enough to spot in the rough room. Like pansies set amidst a field of sweet thistle.
"What'll y' be 'avin' this eve, gents?" she asked.
There were five of them. Dressed to kill in cutaway coats and pantaloons, they turned to her one by one, but they saw what she wanted them to see ...The Princess Masquerade. Copyright © by Lois Greiman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.