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

“In hope of heaven,” the Mace repeated. “One day, I’m going to send that man to meet Jesus myself.”

“One more troubling report. Two days ago, one of my runners spotted several priests leaving New London, taking the back road around the city.”

“Where did they go?”

“Demesne, most likely. My man tracked them well down the Mort Road.”

The Mace’s face darkened.

“Should we pursue it?” Elston asked.

“No,” the Mace replied after a few moments’ thought. “If he’s dealing with the Red Queen, my source in the Palais will tell us what passes. What else?”

Arliss looked down at his list. “We have to bring in the harvest before the snow comes. The entire kingdom is starving for fresh fruit and vegetables. I would think the first farmers to get back out there and cut a crop could command their own price.”

“That’s no incentive to those who farm a noble’s patch.”

“Yes, but all the nobles are still in New London.” Arliss smiled, a smile of such mischief that Aisa could not help liking him in that moment, foul-smelling cigarettes and all. “If Lord Such-and-Such fails to mind his own land while the Mort cross it, who’s to say where the produce went?”

“And what if the Mort do their own looting on the way home?” Elston demanded.

“They’re not. I asked Hall’s second. They’re leaving the land untouched, God knows why.” Arliss shrugged. “Let the farmers go and cherry-pick. Even a few days’ crops would help them cover their winter, if they managed to be the first to market. And their success would beckon the rest.”

The Mace nodded slowly. “You handle it.”

“Merritt is still outside, sir,” Elston reminded him.

“How many Caden with him?”

“Three.”

“That’s all?”

“Yes, sir. But not just any three. The Miller brothers.”

“Oho.” The Mace considered this information for a moment. Aisa didn’t know who the Miller brothers were, but there had been a bitter debate about letting any Caden into the Queen’s Wing. Elston didn’t like it, and neither did most of the Guard, but the Mace was determined to have them, and Aisa hoped he would have his way. She longed to see real Caden up close.

“Well, bring them in.”

The Mace ascended the dais, and Aisa held her breath, waiting. But he ignored the throne entirely, merely settled himself on the top step as Devin let the Caden through the doors.

The leader, Merritt, was well over six feet tall, but he moved like the Mace, with the easy lope of a big man who could summon great speed if needed. An ugly scar marred his forehead. Aisa, who had taken several knife wounds to her hands and arms over the course of her training, didn’t think the scar was clean enough to have been made by a blade. If she had to guess, she thought it came from human fingernails. She had heard of Merritt; everyone had, for even among Caden, he was elite. But the three men behind him were a puzzle.

They entered the room in a triangle, one in the front and two at the back, a defensive formation that Aisa recognized from her own training. Their blood-colored cloaks were incongruously bright against the grey stone of the Keep walls. Physically, the three men were unlike: one tall, one medium height, one short, and they displayed varying shades of brown hair, from sandy to dark. Yet they shared a curious similarity, not physical, that Aisa could not pinpoint. When one moved, so did the other two; they oriented themselves as a triad without speech or other overt signals, and Aisa sensed that they had worked together for a very long time. Elston, in his capacity as provisional captain, had decreed that none of the Caden were to come within ten feet of the Mace, and now Aisa was glad for his caution. These three looked like trouble.

Merritt pointed to his three companions in turn. “Millers. Christopher, Daniel, James.”

The Mace considered them for a moment and then said, “I heard you three were cast out of the guild.”

“The guild thought better of it,” Christopher, the tallest, replied mildly.

“Why?”

“We are useful, Lord Regent.”

“You were useful six years ago. I’ve heard nothing of you since.”

“Yet we haven’t been idle,” said James.

“Of course not.” The Mace’s voice sharpened. “You were hunting the Queen.”

The three men remained silent, staring truculently back at him, and finally the Mace relented.

“Past is past. I have a job for you, and for as many members of your guild as wish to come.”

“Our guild is very busy,” James replied, but the response sounded automatic to Aisa. She wondered if they always said no the first time.

“Yes, you are busy,” the Mace replied, a thread of mockery entering his voice. “We’ve heard the stories. Caden as highwaymen, Caden as rent boys, Caden running dogfights and worse.”

“We do what we have to. What of it?”