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Allies & Assassins
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Murder, betrayal, and intrigue abound in Justin Somper’s thrilling YA series debut. Exploring the political machinations of the medieval-esque court and the lives that hang in the balance, Allies & Assassins is a gripping tale of a teen torn between duty and revenge.
Table of Contents
A Sneak Peek of A Conspiracy of Princes
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THE ARCHENFIELD HOURS
The Prince's Bell
The bell chimes once, for there can be only one true Prince.
We use this hour to give thanks for his multitude of virtues and for how he embodies all that is good and fair in our Princedom.
The Captain of the Guard's Bell
The bell chimes twice.
We use this hour to give thanks for the protection and peace the Captain of the Guard affords our Princedom.
The Cook's Bell
The bell chimes three times.
We use this hour to give thanks for the diverse and plentiful food that we eat three times each day.
The Woodsman's Bell
The bell chimes four times.
We use this hour to give thanks for our woods and forests and for those who tend them through the four seasons of the year.
The Groom's Bell
The bell chimes five times.
We use this hour to give thanks for the horses and other animals, on whom we all depend, and those who look after them.
The Poet's Bell
The bell chimes six times.
We use this hour to give thanks for the Poet's gift for finding words to tell the story of our Princedom.
The Falconer's Bell
The bell chimes seven times.
We use this hour to give thanks for the Falconer's ability to communicate with her birds and for the protection this affords us all.
The Huntsman's Bell
The bell chimes eight times.
We use this hour to give thanks for the skill and bravery of those who capture food for us to eat.
The Bodyguard's Bell
The bell chimes nine times.
We use this hour to give thanks for those who protect our Prince and thereby the Princedom.
The Beekeeper's Bell
The bell chimes ten times.
We use this hour to give thanks for the honey harvested from her hives and for the sweetness of life we enjoy in Archenfield.
The Physician's Bell
The bell chimes eleven times.
We use this hour to give thanks for those who know how to cure us and for the mysteries of our mortal bodies we have yet to comprehend.
The Priest's Bell
The bell chimes twelve times.
We use this hour to give thanks for the Priest, who guides our path through this life and shepherds us gently into the realm beyond.
The Executioner's Bell
The bell chimes thirteen times.
We use this hour to give thanks for the Executioner's axe, which is wielded with rigor and justice so we may all sleep safe in our beds.
The Edling's Bell
The bell chimes fourteen times.
We use this hour to honor our illustrious heritage and also to look forward to the glorious future of the Princedom.
THE PRINCE AND OFFICERS OF ARCHENFIELD
The Prince: Anders Wynyard (assassinated)
The Edling: Jared Wynyard
The Beekeeper: Emelie Sharp
The Bodyguard: Hal Harness
The Captain of the Guard: Axel Blaxland
The Cook: Vera Webb
The Executioner: Morgan Booth
The Falconer: Nova Chastain
The Groom: Lucas Curzon
The Huntsman: Kai Jagger
The Physician: Elias Peck
The Poet: Logan Wilde
The Priest: Father Simeon
The Woodsman: Jonas Drummond
The Falconer's Mews, the Village of the Twelve
WITH THE LAST OF HER SEVEN FALCONS BALANCED on her wrist, Nova Chastain walked back out onto the balcony once more. Her gray-brown eyes glistened, as if wet with dew; her dark hair, hanging low beneath the small of her back, was gently tangled from her previous trips out onto the windblown balcony. Already she had sent six of her falcons on their way—carrying their somber messages to her six deputies at each of the border gates. The new day had barely announced itself, but already Nova was weary. Her head ached and there was a gnawing sensation in her stomach, though she had no appetite for breakfast. It felt like an age since they had brought her the terrible news, but she knew from the changing light that it had been less than an hour ago that the Prince's Bell had sounded; the single chime that announced another Archenfield dawn. Albeit one that the Prince himself had not lived to see.
She had been watching, as was her habit, the budding of the new morning from her perch high above the village when the Captain of the Guard's messenger arrived. Hearing his cold, hard words, she had turned away—eyes already stinging—to watch the golden sunlight nudge away the pink residue of dawn. The view across the Princedom was as beautiful as she could ever remember, but today its very beauty felt wantonly cruel.
The Falconer could feel her bird's eagerness to take wing and follow its six fellows. It moved impatiently from side to side on the worn leather gauntlet that encased Nova's slender left arm, from her muscled bicep to the tips of her fingers. Nova had saved her favorite bird until last. She held Mistral close a moment longer, knowing that once the falcon took flight, she would be all alone with her grief. The Falconer's Mews, set atop its high tower, seemed a cold and lonely place when the falcons' roost was empty.
She conjured the image of her other six falcons—already in the air, soaring swiftly in their appointed directions across the Archenfield sky, carrying the bleakest of messages to the smaller mews at each of the gates:
Prince Anders has been killed. One or more assassins are on the loose. Close down the borders and take all other appropriate action.
After these two hard-won, barely savored years of peace, Nova knew what a gut-churning shock it would be to her comrades at each border mews to unfurl such an ominous note.
Stroking Mistral's small hooded head with the fingers of her free hand, Nova looked across the landscape spread out before her—the landscape she loved with a deep, visceral passion. She thought of how the news would travel swiftly, beyond the palace and the court, out to the settlements. Before the striking of the next bell, every man, woman and child might already share in the news of Prince Anders's assassination. Shock and grief would run amok, like the most aggressive forest fire—no, like a wind-borne plague. People who had never seen the Prince's face nor heard his voice would fall to the ground, keening in sorrow.
Unlike them, Nova had known the Prince: his face was as familiar to her as the sun; his voice as commonplace as the rustling of the trees. Imagining a world without him was as implausible as conjuring up a day without sun, wind or trees.
Nova attempted a steadying breath. She was one of the Council of Twelve—the council that supported the Prince in ruling the Princedom. She knew she must try to tamp down her personal feelings and keep focused on doing the job required of her. The Captain of the Guard's messenger had briefed her with extreme clarity and she had executed his bidding to the letter. Just as she always did. No one could take issue with Nova Chastain's dedication to duty.
She nuzzled Mistral one last time. There had always been a particularly strong bond between the Falconer and this bird. She had felt that she could sense Mistral's emotions—whether exhilaration or anxiety—and she was equally sure that the bird could intuit her own moods.
Now she removed the bird's hood and gazed down fondly at Mistral's jewel-bright eyes. They served as twin mirrors to her own disquiet. The bird's head began moving jerkily about. Whenever her birds were free from their hoods, it felt as if they were thirstily drinking in every aspect of their surroundings. Each day, she had the impression they were experiencing the world—its sights, sounds, scents and secrets—for the very first time.
The moment could be delayed no longer; it was time to set Mistral free. Nova gave a practiced flick of her wrist and the falcon extended her wings and took flight.
Watching her go, Nova felt suddenly weightless, giddy. She reached out both hands to grip the balcony. Snatching uneven gulps of air, she was distracted by signs of activity below her.
To the right was the dark blue-green forest, and beyond that, the silvery fjord. Turning her gaze in the opposite direction, she saw a cluster of figures in the glen—a hunting party. She strained her sight with the effort of identifying the figures, but her eyes soon budded with water again and her vision became blurred. She lifted a square of linen to her eyes to absorb some of the moisture. As she drew it away again, she saw a lone horseman riding out toward the glen.
She knew from the way he rode that it was Lucas Curzon, the Chief Groom. Lucas, her fellow on the Twelve, was one of the gentlest and noblest of men. He was a man of few words—to human companions at least. She had sometimes heard him, when he thought he was alone, deep in "conversation" with his horses.
Lucas must be taking a message to the hunting party. Piecing together the picture, Nova realized that Prince Anders's younger brother, Prince Jared, might be one of the hunters. Was it possible that the young prince did not yet know of his brother's fate? This thought sent a stabbing pain through her insides. She opened her mouth to cry out, but no sound would come. Her grief, she knew, was buried too deeply to be easily released. Holding her tender belly, she rocked to and fro for a moment, begging the pain to subside. But it was a stubborn hurt and she knew it would remain down inside her, submerged like a locked casket tossed to the depths of the fjord.
She knew this just as surely as she knew that dark and difficult times lay ahead. Not just for her and the rest of the Twelve but for all of Archenfield.
A sudden noise pulled her from her reverie. The north door had blown shut with such force that one of the glass panes had cracked and shattered. A fresh pain searing through her head, Nova surveyed the fan of fallen shards.
It was best to go inside. For now, her work was done. She turned and approached the broken door. Though she opened it as gently as possible, more shards of glass fell through and shattered next to her boots. One of the fragments, carried perhaps on the wind, ricocheted up and embedded itself in the pad of her forefinger. She watched with horrid fascination as a bud of blood appeared there and kept watching as it grew in size. It was rather like watching a rose bloom.
As the blood began to spill over the side of her finger, she lifted it to her lips and drew the metallic taste into her mouth. In a strange way, it comforted her, offering her some kind of fellowship with Prince Anders. She imagined, once more, the life draining from the young and virile Prince. She closed her eyes, trying to shut out the vivid image. But there it was, lurking horribly behind her eyelids.
"Prince Anders," she whispered. Then, an even softer echo. "Anders." Her eyes were still tightly shut. She felt a single tear snake down her cheek and fall saltily upon her blood-stained lip.
"HOLD FAST, SIR," KAI JAGGER, THE CHIEF HUNTSMAN, instructed Prince Jared. "You and I will wait here."
They had dismounted from their horses and now stood waiting in the long grass as the two other members of the hunting party set off on foot toward the woodland up ahead. The grass was wet with dew and some remnants of the morning mist still snaked around them. Jared could feel moisture seeping in above the tops of his riding boots. It was unwelcome but—at the same time—the cold and wet made him feel that much more awake and alert.
He hadn't wanted to be dragged out of his bed to hunt this morning—he would never actively choose to be dragged from the comfort of his bed—but it was all part of his princely training. He knew there was no escape for him—any more than there would be for the stag.
Jared's crossbow was trained on the line of trees ahead—the line of trees from which, assuming Jagger's subordinates executed their part successfully, the stag would emerge directly into the firing line. Jared watched his companions—a man and a woman—advancing on the glade. He noticed the precise way they walked, staying close to the adjacent trees so that their green and brown uniforms blended in with the flora. It was becoming harder and harder for him to distinguish the hunters from the trees. What chance would the stag have?
He turned now to the man at his side. Much as Jared would rather be back indoors and under his bedcovers, if he was to be subjected to activity at this hour, at least Kai Jagger was an easy, undemanding companion. Jagger was not much given to small talk—or to any kind of talk really. Watching him now, Jared had the feeling that Kai's senses were far more engaged with the plants and animals surrounding him than with his human companion. This suited Jared just fine.
He couldn't help but feel intimidated by Jagger. Jared considered himself to be in reasonably good physical condition. Now that he was sixteen years old, his body seemed to be constantly evolving from that of a boy into that of a young man. With each day, he packed on harder muscle and noticeable gains in his strength and endurance—a metamorphosis that happened almost without conscious effort. But, in spite of Jared's growing strength, and indeed height, he always felt like a puny youth in comparison to Kai Jagger.
He was unsure of Kai's age—and had never dared to ask him. It would seem somehow too intimate a question—even though he was a prince and entitled to ask whatever question came into his mind. Surely Kai must be in his forties now. For as long as Jared had known him, the hair on Kai's head and beard had been bright silver. And yet his face, though ruddy from endless days exposed to the wind and sun, was smooth and for the most part unlined.
Kai was now one of the older members of the Twelve, having kept his life while others around him had been lost in the last war. It was no surprise that Kai Jagger had made it back from the battlefield unscathed. As a boy, growing up in the court, Jared had aspired to become something like Kai when he reached adulthood. But even now that he was sixteen, and in spite of his growing physical power, he sensed he would always feel like a stripling in comparison to Jagger.
"He should make his way out any time now, sir," the Chief Huntsman informed Jared, raising his own crossbow. Jared knew that the onus was on him to make the kill shot. Jagger was only readying himself to fire a second if the entry was not clean or decisive enough.
There was a sudden noise and Jared tensed, preparing himself for action, but he swiftly realized that the sound had come not from the woodland but from above. He glanced up in time to see a falcon flying overhead.
"Nova," he whispered. It wasn't unusual to see one of her falcons on the wing at this hour, but there was something ominous about the bird's arrival today. Or perhaps he was only imagining it. The prince took in, with awe, the way the bird climbed with seemingly minimal effort to a higher airstream.
Now he felt Kai's breath, warm at his ear. "Don't allow yourself to be distracted, Prince Jared," the Chief Huntsman told him. "Stay focused on the woods. You may only get one chance at this."
Obediently, Jared returned his full concentration to the woodland. The sun was growing stronger all the time and now a golden shaft of light struck a section of the trees. As it did, Jared witnessed a most curious—and impossible—sight: his father, Prince Goran, stepped out from between the trees and glanced toward him.
Utterly transfixed, Jared raised his hand in greeting. His father lifted his own hand, in mirror fashion. Jared found himself trembling. His father had been dead for two years now—slain on the battlefield before Anders had rallied the troops to the final, decisive victory. So how could Prince Goran be here now?
"Focus!" Kai Jagger told him. "Look! Here he comes. Take aim!"
When Jared looked again, his father had disappeared. In his stead, the sunlight now illuminated a stag.
The stately creature stepped out from the line of trees, as if drawn by the light. Their fellows had executed their part. Now it was up to him to finish the job. But the stag was such a fine, noble creature. And Jared was still in shock at the strange vision of his father. He hesitated, bow strung back.
"Now!" Jagger commanded him. "Do it now!"
No "sir," no "Prince Jared." No further pretense about who was in command here.
Feeling a cold sweat overtake him, Jared released the bow and sent his arrow racing toward the trees. And that's exactly where it took root—in the trunk of a tree.
Before the stag could run, however, a second arrow had taken flight through the air. And, of course, this one made perfect contact with its target. Kai Jagger's aim would never fail at this range.
The fatal arrow had plunged into the stag's neck. The entry was deep and the creature reared up for a moment, then fell slowly backward as the tip of the arrow buried itself deeper still, slicing through the animal's nervous system and almost instantaneously shutting down one faculty after another. Jared could see, almost feel, the waves of pain the stag was experiencing, until at last its ability to stand gave way and it crashed down to the wet ground, sending up a spray of dew. Jared was filled with a heavy sadness and was unsure if this stemmed from his own sense of failure or from such a close proximity to death.
Jagger sighed, resting a heavy hand on Jared's shoulder for a moment. "You must not allow yourself to be distracted, sir. I believe I have told you this before."
Without further conversation, they set off toward the dying prey. Their two fellows emerged from the woodland and made their way over to meet them. As the four hunters were reunited, the stag looked up wearily, then gave out its last defeated breath.
"Well done, sir!" one of Jagger's subordinates congratulated Jared. Evidently, she hadn't noticed that it was not Jared's arrow that had felled the stag.
Jared opened his mouth to correct her mistake, but Jagger's voice now cut across his own, rendering him silent. The Chief Huntsman gave brief instructions to his team and, in answer, they began stringing up the beast to transport it back to the palace. Jared averted his eyes.
Since being named as Anders's Edling, his heir, Jared had been subjected to these hunting exercises every week. It was not something he naturally excelled at, unlike his older—and indeed his younger—brother. It seemed that the middle Wynyard brother lacked the killer instinct. But if the unlikely day did come when he was crowned Prince of All Archenfield, he would have to be as precise and ruthless a shot as anyone in the Princedom. That was the plan at least. But this morning's outing had only proved how far from fruition that plan still was.
Jared knew that Anders wouldn't have fluffed that shot any more than Jagger would. How much more rewarding Jagger must have found it to train Anders in princely pursuits. Not for the first time, Jared thought how little he had wanted his brother to choose him as his Edling. If only Anders had chosen Cousin Axel instead. Axel was far more accomplished with a bow and arrow. He seemed to enjoy all sporting endeavors—especially those ending in death.
His reverie was broken by the drumming of hooves. He looked up to see the Chief Groom, galloping toward the hunting party at breakneck speed. The fields were still cloaked in mist and Lucas Curzon's horse seemed almost to be flying through the air rather than pounding over solid ground. Glancing to his side, Jared saw that Kai was standing alert. Did he know, or suspect, the Chief Groom's purpose? If so, he was giving nothing away.
Lucas brought his steed to a stop right at the foot of the fallen stag. He swiftly dismounted and stepped closer still. Jared held his breath, seeing pain in Lucas's expressive gray eyes. He could tell it was bad news, even before the Chief Groom fell to his knees before him.
"I'm so sorry, Prince Jared," Lucas began, his voice unusually husky. He took a breath and resumed more forcefully. "Prince Anders is gone." He paused, but only for an instant. "Your brother was found dead in his bedchamber. It looks like he was assassinated."
Jared was dimly aware of Kai Jagger asking a question and of Lucas Curzon turning to him and beginning to answer. He could see the Chief Groom's mouth moving, though as if in slow motion with no comprehensible sound emerging. Jared felt his body going through a sequence of convulsions. He remembered keenly the way the arrow had buried itself in the stag's flesh, causing deeper and deeper impact and chaos within. Now he was the stag and this terrible news was the arrow. His brother was dead. Now he, Jared, was not merely a prince. He was the Prince of All Archenfield, ruler over all the lands his forefathers had claimed for themselves and fought many wars to protect.
He felt a hand on his shoulder. His first thought was that it was Kai Jagger again. But looking up, he saw that Kai was still deep in conversation with Lucas. Kai's two companions stood on either side of him. In which case, whose hand was on Jared's shoulder? He turned and found himself looking into his father's face once more. The ghost—if that was what it was—did not speak, but Jared knew that his father was trying to comfort him, to tell him to pull himself together. He nodded, discreetly, so the others wouldn't see. Then he drew himself to his full height. As he did so, he realized with a fresh wave of sadness that his father had faded from view.
Jared felt giddy. Then nauseous. A deep churning sickness seemed to rise up from his entrails. Powerless to hold back, he opened his mouth and emitted a quite spectacular torrent of vomit all over his hunting boots.
AS THE GROOMS LED THE HORSES OFF TO THE stables and the team of hunters dispersed, Prince Jared heard the three chimes of the Cook's Bell. Archenfield's sixteen-year-old ruler strode alone toward the back doors of the palace. He was dimly aware of activity going on around him—of the members of the Cook's team already out picking herbs and vegetables in the Kitchen Garden, scurrying to obey the forbidding Vera Webb as quickly as possible; of Emelie Sharp, the Beekeeper, placing a cover on one of her hives. Such actions spoke of order and continuity. But how could it be so? With the news of Anders's murder, everything within the Princedom was fractured.
Jared could feel his heart hammering with the anticipation of everything that awaited him inside the palace walls. He saw that Logan Wilde was standing on the back steps, ready to receive him. Logan was another important member of the Twelve. His title—the Poet—could at first prove deceptive. Yes, he was capable of crafting fine poems and stories, but his position was as much political as ceremonial.
Logan now raised his hand. Jared nodded, looking with new eyes at the tall, slim man standing in readiness to greet him. As the Prince approached, Logan's dark closely cropped head bowed down for a moment in respect. When he raised his face again, there was warmth in Logan Wilde's hazel eyes. He was smiling at Jared, doing his best no doubt to offer reassurance. But Jared thought he could see signs of strain in the Poet's face. He knew that Logan had been one of his brother's most constant companions.
The Twelve were not simply the Prince's retinue and the comrades with whom he ran the Princedom; they were each devoted to their ruler. Jared was keenly aware that his older brother had inspired a strong sense of devotion within everyone from his officers to his subjects. The ripples of his death would spread far and wide. Jared already felt a heavy sense of dread at even attempting to walk in his brother's golden footsteps.
"I need to see him," Jared told Logan Wilde, as soon as the two young men were within earshot of one another.
"Yes, of course, Your Highness," Logan said. "I'll take you to him."
Praise for Allies & Assassins:"Drawing on premedieval Welsh courts for inspiration, Somper breathes life into the inner workings of his fantasy kingdom...With its focus on forensics investigation and suspense, this is both political thriller and royal drama...Solid and entertaining."
- On Sale
- May 27, 2014
- Page Count
- 496 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers