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Christopher’s homecoming takes a sinister turn when a murderous conspiracy is uncovered in this fifth novel of the award-winning Blackthorn Key series.

Christopher, Tom, and Sally are back in London at last. Everyone is relieved at their return—the plague has ended, and the king, pleased with their service, offers a surprising reward. But trouble has followed them home...

First, an old friend is ambushed and left for dead. Then an anonymous letter arrives at Blackthorn—a mysterious warning hidden inside a riddle and secret code. As Christopher and his friends begin to investigate, they soon discover they’ve stumbled upon a plot to kill the king...and anyone else who dares stand in the traitors’ way.

Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
“IT WAS AN ACCIDENT,” I said.

The carriage burned with a bright orange flame. Fire raged across its body, the silk curtains fluttering through the windows in smoking tatters to the road. The frame turned charcoal black, while inside, the stuffing in the seats gave bright flashing bursts as buttons popped off the upholstery.

Tom clutched his cheeks in horror. “I told you,” he said, staring at the slowly crumpling carriage, our boots sinking in the mud. “I told you.”

The heat drove away the late winter’s chill, but I wouldn’t have felt it anyway. My face was burning with shame. “It was an accident.”

“I told you.”

Sally stood next to him with her head bowed, palm covering her eyes, auburn curls falling across her face. I’d never seen her so disappointed. “Oh, Christopher.”

Behind us, a farmer, his wife, and two young daughters leaned against a wooden fence, cattle watching nervously from a distance. The girls gawked in wide-eyed amazement. Their father, chewing absently on a piece of straw, considered the flames.

“Now there’s a thing I never seen before,” he said.

“It was an accident,” I said.

He nodded. “Would almost have to be.”

Ahead of us, twenty of the King’s Men waited, stunned, atop their warhorses. A pair of them had dismounted and were now soothing the four draft horses they’d cut loose from our carriage. The road smelled like smoke and cows.

Tom moaned. “Why wouldn’t you listen? Why? Just another couple hours and we’d be back in London in a nice dry room, meeting the king. And everyone would be happy, and we could say, ‘An honor to see you again, Your Majesty,’ instead of ‘Goodness, Your Majesty, I hope you didn’t want your carriage back, because it’s sort of on fire!’?”

Sally shook her head. “Oh, Christopher.

I didn’t have time to answer. The leader of our band had arrived. Riding ahead of our escort, he’d come back when he saw his men had stopped outside this farm. Or, more probably, when he saw the king’s carriage burning in front of the supply wagons.

Slowly, the man maneuvered his mount through the mud. His horse, a veteran of many battles, seemed unfazed by the bonfire.

Lord Ashcombe, the King’s Warden, dismounted. He was dressed, as usual, in black, wearing fur to keep out the cold. An embroidered patch covered his left eye, an angry scar tracing from under it to the side of his mouth, which turned upward in a permanent half scowl. His pearl-handled pistols, polished to a fine sheen, hung off his belt, grips forward.

He regarded the carriage for a moment. Then he grabbed me by the collar and pulled me close.

His voice was like gravel. “Explain.”

“It was an accident,” I said.

He looked like he was ready to add me to the blaze. I spoke quickly.

“Right… um… well… Tom and I were talking, and… and I said wouldn’t it be amazing if… if you could mount a cannon on a carriage? And fire it.”

“Ridiculous,” Lord Ashcombe said. “The recoil would flip it like a leaf.”

“Well, yes. Tom said that. But then it occurred to me: What if you had two cannons? One on either side. So you could fire both at the same time. And make the carriage of steel, instead of wood, so it wouldn’t crumple. Then you could ride your carriage into the enemy and shoot it off. Like a warship, but on land. A mobile artillery platform.”

Lord Ashcombe looked off into the distance. “A mobile artillery platform…,” he mused. Then he blinked. “Why am I considering this?”

His grip tightened. For someone who only had three fingers on his right hand, he sure was strong. I almost told him he was strangling me, but then I supposed that was the point.

I continued. “Anyway—ergh—we didn’t have cannons, obviously, but… well, you know those fireworks I made last night? To celebrate the fact we’d finally be back in London today? I remembered I had one left in my apothecary sash.”

Actually, I had three left. But I didn’t think it wise to mention that.

“So… er… I told Tom it wouldn’t need to be a cannon. We could shoot rockets at our enemies. Call it Blackthorn’s Fire-Spitter! And… well, never mind. Anyway, I said I’d show him.”

Tom tried to shrink into the mud. Seeing as how he was about three times my size, he wasn’t particularly successful.

I did try to get him out of trouble. “Now, Tom said this was a bad idea, he did. But I thought, how can research be a bad idea? You always learn something, even when you fail. That’s what Master Benedict said.”

That was sort of true. I mean, my late master had said that—though it hadn’t stopped me getting punished from time to time. “Anyway, I tied the firework to a stick and lit it. It was supposed to shoot into the meadow. But… well… the road was so bumpy. I… might have lost control of it. Just for a second.”

Sometimes it’s the second that counts. Lord Ashcombe glared at Tom. “You couldn’t have stopped him?”

“I tried,” Tom wailed. “I did. But you know what he’s like.”

The King’s Warden regarded me. “Yes,” he said finally. “I suppose I do.”

He let me go. I really enjoyed breathing again. I even thought I might get out of this unscathed.

Then Lord Ashcombe smoothed out my collar where he’d crumpled it. That wasn’t a good sign.

“Get on the horses,” he said.

The King’s Men had saddled the carriage horses they’d freed from the now-charred reins of our transport. The driver had taken one of them. Tom and Sally, with a final look of deep disappointment, climbed onto the horses beside him, one of the King’s Men giving Sally a leg up.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, and stepped toward the last mount.

Lord Ashcombe laid a finger on my chest. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“You said to get on—”

Slowly, he shook his head.

Horror dawned as I realized what he meant. “But… we must be five, six miles from London!”

“You think so?” He stared off down the road, considering it. “I would have said seven.”

“My lord… I… It was an accident.”

Lord Ashcombe climbed into his saddle. “I understand. So if you’d rather not walk”—he jerked a thumb at the flaming heap behind me—“feel free to take the carriage.”
Photograph © Thomas Zitnansky

Since escaping from university with a pair of degrees in theoretical physics, Kevin Sands has worked as a researcher, a business consultant, and a teacher. He lives in Toronto, Canada. He is the author of the award-winning and bestselling Blackthorn Key series.

More books from this author: Kevin Sands

More books in this series: The Blackthorn Key