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One

Five years later, June 1294
Last Fells, England


So it had come to this, after all.

Sophia Darnly had known it would, eventually. It was as inevitable as spring flooding and salted meat in winter. She was tipping over into corruption and vice like a pitcher off the table.

It had only been a matter of time.

There was no shame in making a mistake. There was not even shame in committing the same manner of error a second time, by virtue of being “precipitous” or more inaccurately, “foolish”—they never named it “bold” or “ambitious,” for she was a woman, and therefore occupied the same mental construct as all confusing, vaguely frightening notions, such as shipwrecks and comets in the sky and how one stocking always ended up missing in the wash.

No, none of these were the problem.

It was when one found oneself hurrying through the cobbled streets of the rich port town of Last Fells, en route to break into the offices of one of the most venerated money-changers of all of England, to steal—retrieve, she reminded herself firmly—a ledger that could mean the demise of many a powerful man, and perhaps of her, it was then one began to suspect one was entirely cut out for a life of crime.

It was a sobering realization.

Additionally, as Sophia had been explicitly warned off, and as she was determined this matter would not cause any (more) deaths, that left trickery.

Fortunately, Sophia was very good at trickery.

Or had been.

She was diminished this far, then, to make use of corruption straight on.

It had only been a matter of time.

Your name is unfamiliar but the matters to which you allude are, unfortunately and unwisely, not, Tomas the moneychanger’s terse missive had informed her. I shall ignore the latter and address the former: my business is entirely by referral, Dame Silk, the only ones who make it through my doors are the ones who can make it through. Unless you are utterly unlike the tree from which you fell, and therefore full of surprises, it is difficult to imagine how that ever would occur, it went on in blatant challenge. My world is a dangerous one, and does not deal kindly with conspiracies. Return to your widowhood and your silk trade. Do not contact me again.

Or perhaps it had not been a challenge, she reflected.

Never mind. She was here now.

But when neighbors informed you men had shown up at your door whilst you were away, bearing weapons and asking questions, questions that oughtn’t be asked, you knew the time had come. When you found your silk warehouse burned to the ground, a threatening note nailed to the tree nearby, demanding the ledger or you would suffer the destruction of your livelihood, a note read through the ashen clouds of smoke still wafting off the warehouse, well, then you knew the time had come to arm yourself.

Thus, the ledger.

A sensible woman would face the truth. A practical woman might even see the benefits. Accept it as a way out from under the drawn-back trebuchet of her unwanted past. Simply give them the ledger.

Sophia had seen herself as all of these things. Sensible, reasonable, practical. Above all, law-abiding. She’d aimed at these things the way one aims an arrow.

Unfortunately, she was also angry.

The thought of her trade and livelihood being subsumed so completely, so swiftly, was terrifying. The realization that her will and efforts could be so cheaply commandeered was maddening.

These men who took, these men who plundered, these raptors in their finery, brigands in their brocades, they were worse than a pestilence. These men like her father.

She could be harvested like wheat, or she could pose some sort of defense.

Thus, the ledger.

They really shouldn’t have pushed her so far.

Furthermore, two hardly counted as a conspiracy, she thought irritably. Tomas Moneychanger, of all men, should know that.

It took a minimum of three.

She gave her tunic another tug down and looked down the street. Time to make Tomas Moneychanger understand she was not a woman to be trifled with, nor ignored, nor set aside like a wooden spoon when the stirring was done.

He ought to have just agreed to meet with her the first three times she wrote.

One could almost say it was his fault it had come to this.

She stepped onto the bridge where his shop was located, and as soon as the guard at its door came into view, she affected a noteworthy—nay, pathetic—limp.

When she was close enough, she stumbled directly into the guard, then pushed a stray lock of hair out of her eyes, and aimed a small, pained, apologetic smile up at him.

He stared a moment, blinking, then he slowly smiled back.

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