Home > The Queen and the Knave

The Queen and the Knave
Author: Sarah M. Eden

Chapter 1

       London, 1866

   Móirín Donnelly had been called a great many things in her twenty-seven years, but “naive” was not one of them. She knew more than enough of the world to realize ’twas a cruel place, and she’d lived long enough in its harsher corners to know how to navigate its labyrinth of uncertainty.

   On a dark, fearful night, mere hours after the funeral of two of her closest friends, and even merer hours after learning of the betrayal of a man she’d thought of as something near to family, she moved with silent footfall along the corridor of an unlit home on King Street, one she knew well, though no one would guess that she did. Almost no one.

   For five years, this had been the headquarters of the Dread Penny Society, a group of penny dreadful authors who secretly fought for the good of the poor and the voiceless, who undertook dangerous missions to protect lives that most people considered unworthy of acknowledgment. In so doing, the DPS had earned themselves some extremely dangerous enemies.

   ’Twas Móirín who’d begun it all shortly after arriving in London from Dublin, along with a chance-met author named Fletcher Walker and a philanthropic gentleman who’d wished to do good in the world without drawing attention. That gentleman had, shortly before his death, provided the funds for Móirín to purchase this house for use as the society’s headquarters. He’d believed in what they did, though no one but Fletcher and Móirín had any idea of his connection to the organization’s earliest days. Móirín had been the head of the Dread Penny Society over the years, but her role had been kept hidden even from the members. A lot was kept secret in the DPS.

   Now those members were in hiding, and she, alone, tiptoed through this house to search out the mole who’d betrayed them all.

   Holding aloft her shuttered lantern, she took hold of the door handle to the room Nolan Cook, the man who’d worked as butler and general caretaker, had called his own these past five years. He’d been a constant in the entryway, aware of all their comings and goings, privy to their membership and much of what they’d undertaken.

   They’d trusted him with so very much. And he, in return, had offered their secrets to the most dangerous criminal London had ever known.

   Móirín turned the handle and pushed the door open. Its hinges squealed as the door scraped against the floor. Her arrival would not go unnoticed by anyone who might be lurking inside. She pulled a long-bladed knife from her boot and held it at the ready.

   No sound echoed from within the room. No movement. No breathing. No breeze from an open window.

   Nolan had disappeared before his betrayal had been discovered. No one knew precisely when or where he’d gone. She’d searched the entire house, leaving this room to the last.

   She stepped over the threshold, slowly sweeping the space with the focused light of her shuttered lantern. The small bureau to one side had no bits or baubles strewn atop it. The bed, up against the far wall, was neatly made. She raised the lantern higher and inspected the walls. Bare as a vulture’s head.

   Móirín set the lantern on the bureau, not loosening her grip on her knife. She flipped back the metal shutters on the four sides of the lantern, allowing the flame to illuminate the room more fully.

   It was empty.

   She’d known the chances of Nolan still being in the DPS headquarters were slim at best. He’d probably stepped out the front door right after the Dreadfuls had assembled earlier that night and been on his way. ’Tweren’t likely that he’d’ve gone down to the belowstairs and cowered in the very first place he’d’ve been looked for. Still, she’d thought it best to be absolutely certain. Móirín hadn’t survived all she had by being reckless.

   What clues have you left me, then, Nolan?

   She pulled open each drawer in the bureau. All were empty. Nothing sat beneath the bed. The washbasin was dry as a bone. He’d scampered off, for certain, but something in the pristinely vacant room wasn’t right. ’Twas . . . too empty.

   Nolan was forever reading newspapers, yet not a single one was in the room. He’d have certainly packed his things before running off, yet he’d left behind not so much as a stray thread or a bit of lint. Dust, yes. But nothing that’d lead anyone to believe this room had ever been lived in. ’Twas too thorough for Móirín’s peace of mind.

   Movement in the corridor heightened her senses even further.

   She heard footsteps. Ones made cautiously, quietly. Someone was attempting to sneak up on her. She hadn’t let anyone do that to her since she’d left Ireland; it certainly wouldn’t happen now.

   Móirín adjusted her hold on her knife, then moved behind the door, positioning herself so she could see the person entering the room before being seen herself.

   Then she waited.

   She’d left footprints in the dust. Any housebreaker or cutthroat worth his salt would notice and track her that way. She was ready for that possibility.

   A shadow fell across the threshold. Not a sound. Not even a breath.

   The Phantom Fox was this stealthy, being a legend among sneak thieves. She was also a friend of Móirín’s. And she wouldn’t have made any noise upon approach. This was someone else, for sure and certain.

   The Tempest, London’s criminal overlord and the person the DPS was currently hiding from, likely could have arrived relatively undetected, but her style was louder, bolder, more inclined to crowing than tiptoeing. So, ’twasn’t her stepping into the room either.

   The new arrival moved forward, revealing a man’s boot and trouser leg.

   “You’re either Ana or Móirín, and I know Ana ain’t here.”

   Móirín lowered her knife. “B’gor, Fletcher Walker. Why’re you sneakin’ about the place?” She stepped out from behind the door.

   “B’gor?” he repeated with a smirk. “Leaning a bit heavily into your Irish roots.”

   “Anything else I might’ve said would’ve melted your ears.” She met Fletcher in the middle of the room.

   “My dainty ears thank you.” Fletcher looked around the room. “Clean as a whistle, i’n’it?”

   “Except for all the dust.”

   Fletcher nodded. “Something ain’t right about it.”

   “I’ve been feeling the same since stepping inside.” She shook her head. “It ain’t so much that it’s empty. It feels . . . abandoned. Dusty like no one’s been caring for it, not for a long time.”

   “There ain’t no personal belongings anywhere to be seen.” Fletcher’s eyes darted about. “And the only footprints in the dust are ours. It’s been there quite some time, I’d guess.”

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