She might have preferred water to land, but there was something to be said for the markets of New London. Stalls lined the road that led to Exeter Palace, baskets overflowing with spices and fruit, pastries and pasties. One stall sold amulets and tokens, another cuts of mutton, a third the softly woven fabric from the Isles’ northern reaches. People of a seemingly endless variety moved among them—tall, short; dark, light. Some had come to the Isles to escape the violence of war on the Continent, others as part of cultural exchanges instituted by King Richard, the queen’s father, before his death. Diversified and open markets, he believed, were healthier and, therefore, more stable for the populous than economics based on few goods and colonization.
At the edge of the market, solid and stately, was Marten’s, the coffeehouse where investors insured the cargo, placing bets on which ships would come back—and which wouldn’t—and ringing the bell for each merchant ship that returned safely to port.
As she neared the palace, the stalls gave way to stately buildings where importers brought in goods from the Continent, and sent out goods from the Isles. Bolts of silks and good brandy coming in, wool and coal going out. The Unified Church of Isles, where the old gods had been exchanged for a unified being who created and spread the world’s magic, stood across a busy road from the palace, its own silver bell chiming the hour as she passed.
Exeter Palace was long and white and columned, nearly eight hundred rooms that served as Queen Charlotte’s residence in New London. It was surrounded by an imposing black fence over which curled the Saxon sea dragon in brilliant gold.
She was recognized by the guards—all of them members of the Queen’s Own—and was allowed through the gate and into the grand rotunda of the palace proper. White stone marbled through with pale gray and gold covered floor to domed ceiling. The cavernous room was nearly empty but for a few who waited for instructions or meetings with the queen or her emissaries.
Kit glanced around . . . and found a friend among them. He stood near a potted palm at the edge of the room: tall and fashionably trim, with green eyes and a short crop of dark hair. Charles Kingsley worked in the Crown Command’s Foreign Office for the Isles’ spymaster, William Chandler. Kit’s sister and closest friend, Jane, was convinced Kit and Kingsley were destined for marriage. Kit liked Kingsley, but she had no interest in marriage, in giving up the sea for domesticity.
Kingsley looked up as she moved toward him, and smiled warmly. She smiled back.
“Mr. Kingsley,” Kit said.
“Captain Brightling,” he said, and offered a bow as neat as his black tailcoat and waistcoat.
“I didn’t know you’d returned.”
“Only just now,” Kit said. “You’re waiting to see Chandler?”
“I regret I’m unable to provide any details regarding my intentions.”
Kit snorted. “You are, as ever, the soul of discretion.”
“I could hardly work for Chandler without being so. Your mission was successful?”
“I regret I am unable et cetera, et cetera.” Many knew of her position in the Queen’s Own, but few were aware of her actual duties. Most believed she was little more than a courier, shuttling important messages to and from New London. She had delivered messages once or twice, when time was of the essence. But her missions were rarely so mundane.
King Richard had created the regiment to serve as his personal guards after an assassin was nearly successful in removing him from power. The king believed the attempt was aided by officers within the Crown Command, so to his personal guards he’d added a select few others who could undertake sensitive tasks without the Command’s knowledge. Queen Charlotte had carried on the tradition when she took the throne after his death, and Kit had been inducted three years later.
Kingsley grinned. “Chandler should steal you away from the queen.”
“I belong to the sea,” she said, “and the sea belongs to me.”
“Sailors always have a proverb at the ready.”
“John Cox,” she said. “Cox’s Seamanship is very quotable.”
Kingsley snorted. “John Cox didn’t have a friend in the entire fleet, and spent most of his time at a desk penning that blasted book.” He tapped a finger against his temple. “With intelligence officers, it’s all brains. Learning what’s worth the trouble—and what isn’t.”
“And what’s worth the trouble?”
Kingsley laughed. “Little enough, as it turns out.”
They looked over. The man who approached in army red was pale and thin, with a scattering of freckles and short red hair. “We’ve just finished up here,” he said, “and we’re going to the Seven Keys. Come with us.”
“Stanton. I’ve business today, but may join you yet this evening.” He gestured to Kit. “Do you know Captain Brightling?”
He gave Kit a quick appraisal. “Oh, the queen’s messenger, eh? With the good magic and fast ship? Always good to see a blue uniform. Our comrades on the sea, and all that. John Stanton. Foreign Office.”
“Kit Brightling,” she said, and didn’t bother to correct his misperceptions.
“Captain Brightling has just returned from a voyage,” Kingsley said. “Although she hasn’t yet graced me with the details.”
“The queen’s concerns aren’t mine to share,” she said.
“So mysterious, the Queen’s Own.” Stanton’s features screwed into something Kit guessed he considered serious. “You have quite the reputation.”
“Do I?” Kit asked, tone mild.
“For your . . . magical abilities,” he said. “I, for one, believe there’s too much emphasis on magic these days.”
“Too much emphasis?” Kit asked mildly, hardly the first time she’d heard objections.
“Military action should be about physical skill. Mental prowess. Leadership and hardiness.”
“I doubt Lord Sutherland would agree,” Kit said. Sutherland was beloved in the Isles, the hero who’d chased Gerard across the Continent’s southern peninsula—and had relied on Aligned officers to use the land to his advantage.
Stanton flushed, red rising high sharply against his pale skin. “Sutherland’s use of Aligned officers is greatly exaggerated by those who have their own agendas.”
Kit cocked her head. “Those who prefer to understand the topography of their battlefields?”
The flush deepened again. It was, Kit thought, rather like watching the sun rise and fall, spreading its colors across the sky.
“I find that anyone who decries magic,” she said, now determined to see just how dark that flush would go, “either fears or misunderstands it.”
This time, insult had him tipping up his chin defiantly. “I have no fear. I’ve earned my place by work and determination. Not by being”—his gaze raked disdainfully over Kit’s uniform—“touched by some sort of conjuration.”
Kingsley’s eyes went hard. “I’m surprised, Stanton, that you’d have such old-fashioned ideas—or that you’d think it appropriate to voice them.”
Stanton’s brows lifted, as if shocked Kingsley would be so impertinent. “I’m late for an engagement,” he added lamely, then walked away.
“I’m sorry for that,” Kingsley said. “I hadn’t known Stanton was quite such an ass.”
“Beau Monde,” she murmured. The Beau Monde was the Isles’ most privileged class, its members born into extraordinary wealth and primarily concerned, at least in Kit’s experience, with their own comfort and ease.
“Regretfully so,” Kingsley said. “Although he’s not usually quite so obnoxious.”
They both looked over. The man who’d called her name was tan, his hair dark, his body compact and strong. Kess was the queen’s closest adviser.
“If you’ll come with me?” he asked.
“Of course. Kingsley,” she said, glancing back at him.
“Brightling. Fair winds and following seas.”
# # #
“I’m glad to see you’ve returned safely,” Kess said as they walked down a wide marble hallway ornamented with portraits of previous kings and queens, sumptuous ermine pooling at their feet.
“Thank you. I’d intended to report immediately, but found emissaries waiting at the dock.”
“There have been . . . developments,” Kess said, confirming Kit’s suspicions.
They turned into the anteroom, with its ladies-in-waiting and high gilt windows, and walked through it the mahogany door—finely carved with a sinuous sea dragon—at the other end of the hall. A guard nodded at Kess, pulled the door open.
The walls of the throne room were the soft red of deep sunset, light dappling across them from the dozen crystal chandeliers that hung from the arched ceiling. At the far end of the room stood the golden throne cushioned in the same soft red, and bearing the queen’s monogram—CR for Charlotte Regia.
Queen Charlotte sat her throne with grace and power. She was a stunning woman of thirty-three, with dark brown skin, brown eyes, and a straight nose above generous lips. Her dark hair rose like a wave above her golden diadem, and her aubergine dress was fitted low across her shoulders, marked by the saffron sash of Isles royalty and the sea dragon brooch that marked her as leader of the unified Crown Command.
Kess took his position beside the throne. Kit dropped her gaze to the thick carpet as she neared it, then dropped to one knee when she reached it. “Your Highness.”
She did as commanded and held herself at attention, meeting the gaze of the ruler of the Saxon Isles.
The queen had inherited the throne from her father when he’d fallen ill in the midst of the war. She was the only child of an only child, and the duty of ruling the Isles had fallen to her in wartime at the age of twenty-eight. She’d managed the war with a savvy that surprised the king’s advisers. And then she’d dismissed them.
“I was excited to learn of your return, Captain,” the queen said. “Your mission?”
She wasn’t wasting any time, Kit thought, and pulled the packet from her coat. The queen took it, opened it, and read.
And then swore. “Coded, but in his strange penmanship,” the queen said, and handed it to Kess. “Either a remarkable forgery, or another bit of arrogance. The treacherous bastard.” She looked back at Kit. “Where was it found?”
“On a packet called the Amelie, Your Highness. Running under the Isles’ flag.”
“He would dare,” she muttered.
“The Amelie’s captain told us the communication was part of cargo he picked up at Fort de la Mer. He was to leave it in a Pencester pub called the Cork and Barrel.”
The queen’s brows lifted. “Do you know it?”
“I don’t, Your Highness.”
“Then we will.” She handed the packet to Kess, who slipped it inside his jacket.
There was movement to Kit’s right. Her hand went instinctively to her dagger, weight shifting as she prepared to meet the threat. Two men walked toward the dais from a closing panel on the far side of the room. Given the queen’s cool expression, they weren’t unexpected.
Neither wore a uniform, just somber tailcoats and trousers. The first Kit had seen before, but never formally met. This was William Chandler, the spymaster. He was a big man, with tan skin and brown hair, a square jaw, and a face some would call rugged. And while his expression stayed mild, there was no disguising his confidence or his authority. This was a man in his power—a man who had the ear of the queen.
Kit didn’t know the second. He was a tall man, with sun-kissed skin, his hair a sun-streaked brown brushed over a strong brow, his eyes a startling blue green.
“Mr. Chandler,” the queen said. “I believe you know Captain Brightling.”
Chandler nodded at her, expression cool. She did the same.
“Colonel Rian Grant, Viscount Queenscliffe,” the queen said, gesturing to the other man.
Grant didn’t look like a member of the Beau Monde, Kit thought, much less any viscount she’d ever seen. His shoulders were broad, and his body looked capable of action, not merely climbing in and out of a curricle to circle Victory Park. There was energy here, banked power, in such volume it seemed to charge the air in the room.
“Colonel Grant served as one of Sutherland’s observing officers on the peninsula, and fought at Zadorra.” Zadorra, near the river of the same name, was a town in Hispania not far from the Gallic border. There’d been brutal fighting there over hard terrain not long before the war ended. The casualties had been . . . severe.
“Colonel Grant,” the queen continued, “this is Captain Kit Brightling of the Queen’s Own.”
If he had any thoughts about her presence in the room, they were well hidden behind a bland expression.
“Colonel,” Kit said, opting for the title the queen had used.
“Captain.” His tone was bland, as if mildly irritated to find her in his presence.
Charming, Kit thought.
“Now that you’ve gotten a look at each other,” the queen said, “let’s begin. I’ve asked you both here to deal with a very urgent matter. Marcus Dunwood is missing.”
Kit knew Dunwood, at least by name. Like Kingsley, he worked for Chandler, gathering foreign intelligence abroad. She surmised Grant knew him, too, because he’d shifted beside her. Just the slightest movement, as if bracing against a blow.
“What’s happened?” Grant asked, and his tone was grim.
The queen nodded at Chandler. “If you would.”
“Dunwood had been serving on a sloop running cargo along the northern coast of Gallia,” Chandler said. “Monitoring Guild activity.”
The Guild was a Frisian association of the country’s wealthy and powerful merchants. During the war, they’d supplied money and arms to Gerard in exchange for promised trade monopolies on spices, silk, and other goods.
“Monitoring them?” Kit asked.
“There was a downturn in economic activity following the end of the war,” Chandler said. “Peace, as it turn out, is rarely as profitable. But trade activity is increasing again. More Guild ships leaving port, carrying greater cargo.”
“Bound for?” Kit asked.
Chandler’s lips curved, as if pleased by the query. “Everywhere they can manage it. We’ve identified no particularly unusual location or focus. And cargo moving into Guild ports has also increased. Wood, iron, hemp among them. Not, on their own, particularly unusual. They are required for many industries.”
“But they are also useful in war,” the queen said. “For guns. For ships.”
Chandler nodded. “Yes. They’ve been very cautious. There’s been nothing certain—documents or information—linking the Guild to Gerard, or to efforts to restore him to his former position. But the, shall we say, suggestive information cannot be ignored.”
“And Dunwood?” Grant prompted.
“His last communiqué was received three weeks ago. Then, two days ago, the crew of the Carpathian—a privateer with a letter of marque from the Crown—found four injured sailors on a disabled sloop off the coast of Gallia, near Pointe Grise. They claimed to have been attacked, the fifth member of their crew taken.”
“Dunwood was the fifth,” Grant surmised.
Chandler confirmed with a nod. “The sailors stated the sloop’s attackers had sought out and removed the crewman they knew as ‘Paolo.’ And thought it odd the attackers had referred to him as ‘Marcus’.”
“They knew who he was,” Grant said quietly.
Chandler nodded. “I’m sorry.”
“You and Dunwood were friends,” the queen said to Grant.
“We were together on the peninsula,” Grant said. “He renewed his commission after Gerard’s capture, and I returned to Queenscliffe.”
And from the gruff tone, Kit thought it sounded as if he’d rather have remained there.
“You believe his identity was compromised,” Grant said.
“We do,” Chandler said. “By culprits we have not yet identified.”
“There weren’t many who knew of Marcus’s mission, and even fewer his last location,” the queen said. “And those who knew were members of the Crown Command.”
That simple statement, and the accusation beneath it, cut through the room like a sabre.
“Which is why we’re the only ones in the room,” Kit said. “You believe there are traitors in the Crown Command.”
“Yes,” said the queen. And that word fell like a shadow across the room. They waited in silence for her to speak again.
“There have been traitors in the Crown Command before. My father removed many who’d been proven disloyal. Among them an admiral, a major general, and two agents in the Foreign Office. He installed a new minister and believed the Command secure.” The queen’s breath shuddered. Not with fear or concern, Kit thought, but with fury.
“Either he was wrong, or foreign agents have gotten their claws in again.” She looked back at Kit and Grant, gaze burning with intensity. “I don’t know who may have revealed Dunwood’s name. But I will learn their name, and they will answer to me. Marcus has served the Isles for two decades. We will not leave him to molder or die while the rest of us sit in luxury. And that brings us to this meeting. The two of you will find him and bring him home.”
The room went silent, and Kit had to work not to shift her gaze to the man beside her.
“The two of us,” she said, hoping against hope she’d misheard the queen.
“Aboard the Diana,” the queen said. “You will search for Marcus Dunwood, you will locate him, and you will free him.”
Kit knew a command when she heard one. “Is there intelligence regarding his whereabouts?” she asked.
“The sailors believed Dunwood’s captors were headed for Finistère,” Chandler said.
“The pirate fortress,” Kit said. “And, literally, ‘the end of the earth.’” She knew the island’s name and its reputation. It was the largest rocky island among many on the far western edge of Gallia at the boundary of the Narrow Sea. The archipelago was difficult to navigate, and the cliffs afforded a long view of the sea, which had long made it a favorite for pirates and privateers—including the Five, the famous pirate kings, who’d made their home in the fortress during the war.
“What would the Five want with Dunwood?” Kit asked.
“Money,” Chandler said. “Even the Five aren’t arrogant enough to sail directly into a Frisian port. So they take Dunwood back to Finistère, and wait for the highest bidder to retrieve him.”
“Unless we get there first,” Kit said, and Chandler nodded.
“Your Highness,” Grant said, “the Diana is not a ship of war, and it cannot be sufficient for a frontal attack on a pirate quay. A larger vessel with guns would be more appropriate.”
His tone—confident and cold—stoked Kit’s anger, notwithstanding the fact that he was simply wrong. She’d yet to meet a soldier who could tell a staysail from a jib.
“Rescue missions require speed and maneuverability,” Kit said, sparing Grant her most withering look. “Size is irrelevant, and guns are little use when trying to outrun another ship at full sail. The Diana is as swift as they come.” Particularly, she thought, when I’m at the helm.
“You’re a courier,” Grant said. “That’s hardly—”
“Grant,” Chandler warned.
A warning Grant did not heed. “We cannot simply—”
“Colonel Grant,” the queen said, her voice thunderous across the room. “Remember our conversation and where you stand.”
His struggle for control was obvious, but he held his tongue. “Your Highness,” Grant said tightly. And Kit would have given a few gold coins to be privy to whatever had been said between them.
After a moment, as if deciding she’d made her point, the queen shifted her gaze to Chandler. “It appears your suggestion we downplay the captain’s position was perhaps too successful.”
“So it appears,” Chandler said. “Brightling isn’t a mere courier, Grant, and the Diana no packet ship. Brightling fought at San Miguel, discovered the Gallic ships at Faulkney. And the Diana will do ten knots without magic—”
“Eleven,” Kit corrected.
“Eleven,” Chandler said with a nod and mild smile. “And with Captain Brightling’s magic, considerably faster.”
Grant looked at Kit. “You’re Aligned?”
“I am,” she said, eyes flashing and daring him to comment.
But he made no response.
“And, as I mentioned, Grant is an able veteran with his own skills,” the queen said to Kit, anticipating her silent objections. “You both have experience in battle in your respective forces. You have both shown resilience under pressure. You are leaders. And, although your present displays make me question my judgment, which I dislike very much, I believe you will complement each other.” She looked at each of them in turn, an obvious threat in her eyes. “You will partner in this mission, and you will share the command.”
It was Kit’s turn to bristle. But she held her tongue.
“Sensible,” the queen added, nodding in approval at Kit’s control. “Given the need for dispatch, you will set sail tomorrow morning. The Diana will be provisioned this evening.”
“How long will it take to reach Finistère?” Grant asked, and they all looked at Kit.
“Depending on seas and weather, and if we’re able to maintain speed, about a day and a half.”
Grant’s features remained stony, his eyes hard. And there was something else there. Something deeper, darker. Nothing she could identify, at least not yet. But if she was to share her ship—and risk her people—she’d find out soon enough.
“The Diana is anchored at the Crown Quay,” Kit told him. “You know it?”
“Be there at dawn.”
“Very well.” The words were short, sharp. Bitten off, as if their taste were bitter.
Apparently satisfied they wouldn’t mutiny, at least not in the throne room, the queen sat back, looked at each of them in turn.
“Find him,” she said. “Find Marcus Dunwood, and bring him home.”