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The Fate of the Tearling (The Queen of the Tearling #3)
Author:Erika Johansen

The Fetch hissed as a thorn dug into his hand. It did not puncture the skin; he had not bled in lifetimes. Many times he had tried to end himself, before giving it up as a lost cause. He and Row, both of them had been punished, but he saw now that he had been blind. Rowland Finn had never stopped plotting for one moment in his life. He, too, had been waiting for the girl.

She was the first Raleigh heir who did not grow up in the Keep. The Fetch observed her often, visiting the cottage in secret when he was idle, and sometimes even when he was not. Initially, he could not make out much. Kelsea Raleigh was a quiet child, introspective. Most of her education seemed to be in the hands of that eternal battleaxe Lady Glynn, but the Fetch sensed that the girl’s personality was being quietly and surely shaped by the old Queen’s Guard, Bartholemew. As she grew older, the girl surrounded herself with books, and this, more than anything, convinced the Fetch that she merited special attention. His memories of the Tears were constantly fading, losing their bright shine and becoming dim. But this he remembered: the Tears had always loved their books. One day he had watched the girl sit under a tree in front of the cottage and read a thick book all the way through in four or five hours. The Fetch had been hidden in the trees more than thirty feet away, but he knew absorption when he saw it; he could have crept up and sat down across from her and she would not have noticed. She was like the Tears, he saw now. She lived inside her head as much as out.

From that day on, one of his people had been on the cottage at all times. If a traveler showed a bit too much interest in the occupants—men had followed Bartholemew home from the country market several times—the interested party was never heard from again. The Fetch wasn’t even sure why he exerted so much effort. It was a gut feeling, and one thing William Tear had drilled into them from the beginning was that instinct was a real thing, a thing to be trusted. The Fetch sensed that the girl was different. Important.

She could be a Tear, he told his crew one night over the fire. She could be.

It was always possible. There were several men in Elyssa’s Guard whose origins he did not know. Tear or not, the girl demanded close scrutiny, and as the years passed, he subtly shifted his course. Whenever Thomas Raleigh showed signs of forging an actual alliance with one of the powerful nobles of the Tear, the Fetch would turn all of his attention toward that noble, robbing caravans and storehouses, stealing crops and then vanishing into the night. Enough theft on Thomas’s watch, and any potential alliance was quickly soured. At the same time, the Fetch began to lay his own groundwork in Mortmesne, just beneath the Red Queen’s feet. Should the girl make it to the throne, the Fetch knew, her first test would come in dealing with the shipment. Mortmesne was wide open to anyone who knew how to exploit unrest, and after years of patient work, there was a healthy rebellion under way. So many things to attend to over the years, and so he had naturally let Row Finn slide.

A shape rose suddenly from the rocks ahead, halting his climb. To anyone else, it would appear to be merely a dark silhouette, but the Fetch, who had a great gift of night vision, saw that it was a child: a young boy, five or six years old. His clothes were little more than rags, his skin pallid with the cold. His eyes were dark and impenetrable. His feet were bare.

The Fetch stared at the child for a moment, chilled to his marrow.

I didn’t end him when I could have.

The boy darted forward, and the Fetch hissed at him, like a cat. The boy’s eyes, which had brightened in anticipation, abruptly dimmed, and he stared at the Fetch, bewildered.

“I am not meat for you,” the Fetch snapped. “Go and get your master.”

The boy stared at him for a moment longer, then vanished into the rocks. The Fetch covered his eyes, feeling the world tip crazily inside him, a dark vortex. When the girl had cracked the New London Bridge, certainty had crystallized inside him, but all moments since then seemed like a parade of doubt. She was in Mort custody, and Howell’s last message made clear that they were preparing to transport her to Demesne. The True Queen had arrived at last, but she had come too late.

Something was descending the slope. Just a wisp in the darkness, but it had been a long time since anyone could sneak up on the Fetch. He stood his ground, waiting. The last time they had sat down for a conversation had been . . . when? More than two centuries earlier, James Raleigh still on the throne. The Fetch had wanted to see if Row could kill him. The meeting had turned into a cutting party, all right, but neither of them had shed a drop of blood.

We were friends, the Fetch remembered suddenly. Good friends.