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Queen Ariadne is descending into madness, brought about by the strain of ruling a country plagued with secrets. Mysterious massacres are taking place throughout the city of Cordelia, terrifying residents into following new restrictions. The future of the country looks bleak, and a rebellion is born amongst those who cannot stand silent
When Ainsley Pierce discovers the youngest princess wasting away in a maximum security prison infamous for its cruelty, she recognises the opportunity and rescues her. With Princess Victoria leading the charge, revolution takes hold of the country – but seeds of discord spread themselves throughout the newborn rebellion as they battle a Queen whose intelligence is only matched by her daughter.
As Victoria’s power amongst the people grows, so does the distrust of her closest colleagues. For some of them, the resemblance to her mother is too unnerving to trust, and it is becoming apparent to everyone that she is as ruthless as the woman who bore her.
Ainsley tucked her cap lower over her ears as a brittle wind whistled past. Beside her, horses pulled phaetons that contained those privileged enough to afford them, their hooves clattering against the uneven cobblestones. Eying the nobles with distaste, she pulled her scarf across her face to protect her nose and mouth from the weather as she hurried on.
She squinted through the flecks of rain, ignoring the cold. Curses! Her tram had just pulled away from the metal shelter, rattling into the evening fog. Swearing loud enough to attract the attention of the nearby lamplighter, who grinned in response to her salty language, Ainsley whipped the grey cap from her head and ran one gloved hand through her long dark hair. The night was already touched with frost, and the next tram wouldn’t be along for another hour. As it was, her roommate was going to furious at her tardiness. At least this time, she had a good reason.
A promotion, Ainsley turned the phrase over in her head. It hadn’t felt like a promotion. Standing in front of the head warden as he listed the names of guards who had been killed in last week’s riot – subsequently freeing up their positions – didn’t feel much like the ceremony promotions usually garnered at NorthTree prison. Being upgraded to guard the maximum security ward was more terrifying than gratifying. Feeling the bite of nerves, Ainsley made for her favourite ‘missed-tram-stop’ pub, the Whaler’s Daughter.
She made it to the front door just as Edward Strauss, the owner and long-time bar tender, hung the pub’s oil lantern on its hook. She grinned as the golden light spread over her dark skin, and Edward, recognising his regular patron, returned the smile.
“Sometimes I think you miss that tram on purpose,” he remarked. “One of these days you’ll catch it on time and put me out of business!”
“That day is not today, Edward.” She responded easily. “What house specials do you have for me?”
He clapped a calloused hand between her shoulders, the blow muffled by her thick tweed coat. “I’ve got a beautiful Areation brandy; straight off the latest shipment. Got your name written all over it, love.”
Ainsley let him guide her into the pub. Inside, the smoky interior was lit by oil lamps, some flickering and sputtering as they drained their supply. A hushed murmur emitted from the patrons, some seated on stools by the bar, others clustered around the pool table with the occasional loner taking up the tables on the main floor of the pub.
A dozen cigar tips flared crimson in the haze as she followed Edward to the bar. After coercing a drunkard into giving up his stool, she slid onto the faded red leather cushion and slipped her gloves off, drumming three fingers on the worn countertop. Edward had joined his two barmaids and was busy selecting the correct bottle from the well-stocked shelves. Wriggling his fingers in delight, he tugged a long-stemmed brandy bottle from the depths, the amber liquid sloshing inside. It had obviously been opened; the green wax seal around the neck already slit. Edward noticed her knowing gaze and winked.
As the experienced bartender pulled a snifter from below the taps, Ainsley glanced around at the other patrons, wondering what their excuse for ending up in her favourite drinking hole was. Aside from the usual folk who were already arguing over their game of pool, there was only one fellow she didn’t recognise; a young man lounged at one of the tables, boots on the chair next to him, newspaper in hand. He ran a hand through dark curls as she watched, then sipped from the bottle sitting beside him.
“Edward.” The bartender looked up as he slid the glass to her, the brandy glinting in the oil light. “Who’s that man sitting by himself?”
Edward was already taking another drink request, pulling one of the tall beer glasses from the depths of the shelves below the bar. “No notion, love. First-timer.”
His eyes met hers for a split second, something hidden within them. She nodded almost imperceptibly, recognising the request. Taking her brandy and checking her pocket watch, Ainsley offered the barstool to the man she’d stolen it from. Ignoring the raucous laughter as he promptly fell to the hardwood floor from the proffered seat, she made her way to a table situated near the stranger’s, moving the snifter around in her fingers. She sat delicately, sipping the brandy. The glass had warmed from being in her hand, just enough that the heady aroma filled her nose with the rich scent. She inhaled reflexively; it truly was an exquisite drink.
The stranger had continued reading his newspaper, the pages crinkling as he turned them. She ignored him as he did her, sipping her drink. The brandy warmed her throat, burning slightly as it slid down her gullet. Listening to the rain beginning to fall in earnest outside, she leant back, completely at east. This called for a cigar.
She opened her heavy coat, groping in one of the inside pockets. Seizing the leather pouch that she kept her cigars in, she unwound the cloth tie and laid the case flat on her table. She ran her fingers over the empty holders and sighed loudly; all she had left were small cigarillos – inexpensive and made from only one type of tobacco, part of her knew they just wouldn’t suit the Areation brandy. Despondent, she rolled the pouch up and retied it.
“Forget to stop by the tobacconist?”
She glanced up at the stranger, who’d folded his newspaper in half and was now watching her closely. His own cigar pouch rested atop it, alluringly fat with hidden stogies.
“My roommate stole my last Lythem,” she responded, naming a cigar popular for its low cost but surprising strength of flavour.
He tutted and shook his head in sympathy. “Can I offer you one of mine instead?”
She smiled and leant forwards on her table. “Perhaps. I’m not a cigarillo type of girl.”
A hint of a smile glinted in his eyes as he slowly began to unwrap the cigar pouch. “I guessed as much. How does a Hamlyn 6½ by fifty sound?” he asked, turning one over in his fingers. Seeing her smile and returning it, revealing bright eyes and even teeth, he slid a pair of scissors from a special compartment in the pouch and expertly trimmed the end.
Ainsley leant over and plucked it from his fingers, leaning even closer as he lit a match, the small flame illuminating his face. Holding the cigar in her teeth as he brought the match to the other end, Ainsley glanced up and noticed his eyes on her, something deep in their blue depths. She held his gaze until smoke separated them both, indicating the cigar was lit. She puffed once and held the smoke in her cheeks, savouring the strong flavour of the leaves. She exhaled through her nose, leaning her head back.
“That’s good.” She breathed. “A Hamlyn, you say?”
The stranger shook the match until the flame went out, plunging his features back into darkness. “Named after our beloved Queen.”
Ainsley grimaced, biting down on the cigar between her teeth, a habit Penelope loathed. Her Majesty the Queen, Ariadne of house Hamlyn, first of her name. A blight on the country and its capital city, Cordelia.
“Have you heard the latest?” the man asked, pushing the newspaper he’d been reading towards her.
Ainsley puffed on the cigar and clamped it solidly between her teeth as she took the paper from him. Bold black ink proclaimed the headline clearly, even in the murky depths of the pub.
SECOND FOREIGN SPY BEHEADED
She thumbed through several pages until she got to the cover story. Another poor sod sentenced to death by a Queen whose madness was becoming legendary.
“Where was he from this time?” She asked.
“Areta.” The man took a long draught from the bottle beside him. “A merchant. Been in town for only a few days.”
“Not a spy.”
“Probably not. She hanged him anyway.” His tone was heavy with disapproval.
Ainsley let the newspaper slide closed and held the cigar between two fingers as she sipped her brandy. Areation brandy. It could’ve been sold to Edward by the deceased merchant. She slowly twirled the stem of the glass between her fingers. “How many more countries is she going to make enemies out of?” Ainsley murmured quietly.
The man didn’t answer, and she didn’t press further. It was a dangerous topic to be discussing in public. Instead, she turned the conversation to him. “I haven’t seen you here before.”
He raised an eyebrow. “I haven’t been here before.”
“Are you new in town?”
“I guess. I lived here, I went away, and now I’ve come back. What does that make me?”
Ainsley stuck the cigar between her teeth and didn’t answer, unimpressed with the response. He drummed his fingers on the table and then finally turned back to her.
“I’m being impolite, I apologise. I came back to look for someone.”
“Anyone I would know?”
He half-smiled, not meeting her gaze. “I don’t think so. This person has very particular ties.”
She didn’t miss the half-baked insult. “Are they missing?”
“Yes,” he said softly, and Ainsley suddenly realised there was an innate sadness to him. He’d been chasing this person for a long time. She leant forwards.
“Look, I’ve lived in this city since I was born. I work in a particular establishment that missing people sometimes turn up in. If you wanted to give me his name, or a description-”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he interrupted, and stood abruptly. “I’m sorry. You seem like a good person, and good people shouldn’t get tangled up in this.”
He pulled his coat from the back of his chair and tugged it on. Ainsley watched wordlessly. Snagging the half-empty bottle from the table, he turned back to her as he left. “I’m sorry. But don’t ask any questions about me, okay?”
He left before she could agree, disappearing into the icy rain, the door swinging closed behind him. Ainsley remained seated for a moment, then stubbed out the stogie and returned to the bar. Edward flicked a glance at her and she nodded slightly, taking a seat.
The stranger had left his newspaper behind. She leafed through it now as the bartender made his way to her, deftly avoiding the slurred orders being shouted his way by those who’d been in the pub for far too long.
“Violetta, deal with them, won’t you?” Strauss finally lost his temper at a flirting barmaid, who ran her tongue over her teeth, biting her lip as she eyed off a lucky patron. She sashayed to the taps and started taking orders again, but Ainsley didn’t miss the poisonous look she threw her boss as she tossed scarlet hair over her shoulder. “I’m sick to death of girls who can’t keep their mind on the job!” Strauss blustered his way to the waiting woman. “So, who was our mystery man?”
“Definitely a mystery. Noble-born, though.” She thought of his smile, with straight, unblemished teeth. “Military I think, but surprisingly, not a patriot.”
“Indeed.” She ran a finger over the picture of the Areation merchant who’d been hanged for espionage. “He made no secret of his displeasure regarding the recent hangings.”
“Why was he in my pub?” Apparently unknowingly, Strauss had picked up a glass and began to clean it. Ainsley watched, a smile hoisting up the corner of her mouth. You don’t think-”
He didn’t finish his question. She rolled the newspaper and slapped it down on the countertop. “Keep an eye on him, Eddie. He reeks of suspicion.” She chewed her lip, deep in thought. Suddenly appearing to snap back to her senses, she checked her pocket watch. “Next tram will be arriving soon, and I’ll be damned if I’ll give Penelope any more ammunition.”
“I pity you, lass. If he comes back I’ll try to get some more information for you. Until next time, eh?”
Ainsley nodded and pulled her gloves and cap on. She glanced at the still smoking cigar in the ashtray where she’d left it, before journeying out into the night as the clanging of bells hailed the coming tram.