Authors: Julia Latham
To my dear friend, Laurie Bishop:
Thank you for all the help you’ve given me
through the years, making my books better
than I thought they could be. Now that you’ve
begun a new stage in your life, I hope you
find the joy of rediscovering yourself.
She was dressed in royal blue, trimmed in fur, with a jeweled girdle hung low about her hips. Her neckline was square, with the curves of her breasts visible beneath a scrap of sheer lace that might be a sensual undergarment. Daring, sexual, and marking her as less than a wife, and more than a common prostitute.
“Do I meet with your approval?” Juliana asked dryly.
“You’ll have to consult me every day,” he answered smoothly.
After hiding their finery beneath cloaks, they went outside to the waiting horses. Paul considered the open gate, where anyone could see them, and decided to launch into his role. When he took Juliana’s gloved hand in his, she allowed him to bring it to his lips.
“Mistress Juliana, permit me to help you mount.”
“I am your concubine, not your wife,” she said with exasperation.
“Regardless, I am a man who treats well what’s mine. And you are mine, for the near future.”
ir Paul Hilliard almost rejected the summons by the League of the Blade, the legendary knights who secretly fought injustice on behalf of the innocent. And although others would be flattered, he felt only anger, indignation, and disgust, the same feelings that had led him to renounce his place in the League, and driven him to Europe several years before. But he could not escape their shadow without confronting them one last time.
The house in a small neighborhood off the Strand looked like any other merchant’s house, surrounded by a high wall to keep others out—and to keep secrets in. He was admitted through the front door by a short, stocky man with a heavy beard that partially hid an old scar. The guard escorted him through another door and into a larger room, furnished simply with benches, stools, and a cupboard decorated with plate. Three men stood about
a long table that occupied the far end, scrolls and books piled haphazardly. Behind them several more men stood talking together. All looked up at Paul’s entrance.
Sir Timothy Sheldon came forward first, his lined face creased with a welcoming smile. He was a short man, barrel-chested, with brown hair more streaked with gray than Paul remembered. Timothy had been Paul’s foster father, his own father’s best friend, who’d spirited away three frightened little boys when their parents had been found slaughtered in their bedchamber. This was the man who should have protected them himself, instead of delivering them into the hands of the League.
Paul stiffened as Timothy reached him, and the older man drew to a halt, his smile fading.
“You look well, Paul,” Timothy said.
Paul nodded. “You have changed little.”
“That is a compliment to a man of my middling years. I accept it gladly.”
“As you wish.” Paul could see Timothy’s eagerness, and it made him uneasy. How could the man believe that Paul could ever forget the wrongs that had been done him?
Timothy cleared his throat, then stepped back to include the other two men who’d been standing with him.
“You remember Sir Joseph and Sir Michael?”
Paul nodded, recognizing them both: Sir Joseph,
black-haired and so handsome that women followed him about with moonstruck eyes; and Sir Michael, a freckle-faced redhead, the first one to show a faint hint of disapproval upon seeing Paul. The three other strangers remained at the rear of the chamber and simply watched, which wasn’t unusual. In the League, Bladesmen kept to themselves, their real lives a secret.
“What do you need from me?” Paul asked.
“Very well then, sit down, my boy,” Timothy said, his voice still gratingly pleasant.
“I’m not ‘your boy.’ You made that clear when I was but a child.”
Timothy had great control of his expressions, but Paul could tell his barb had struck home. He felt no regret, for his own life had been damaged by Timothy’s actions.
“Ungrateful, aren’t you?” Michael said coldly.
Paul raised an eyebrow. “Do you know my story?”
“Much of it.”
“You are quick to judge.” Paul turned back to Timothy.
“So much for keeping secret a Bladesman’s real life.”
“There are reasons you do not yet understand,” Timothy began.
“Paul wants to know why he was summoned,” Joseph interrupted affably. “Let us tell him so that he can make his decision whether to help us.”
“You mean help the League,” Paul countered.
“We mean help all of England,” Michael said, his eyes narrowed.
“I understand this involves the king.” Paul glanced at Timothy.
“And men contemplating treason.” Timothy sank down on the wood-backed settle beneath the front window.
Michael and Joseph took stools nearby, leaving Paul the bench. He gave a last glance at the men at the far end of the room, but none of them moved. They were a small group, clustered together, and for a moment, Paul thought he sensed a feeling of … familiarity. When he could not place it, he gave them his back, then reluctantly sat, his hands resting on his thighs.
“Surely the king has an entire army to protect him,” Paul continued.
“He does, but this is a delicate matter,” Timothy said. “Before I explain all the details, let me assure you that you will not be working alone. Since you will be portraying a man rather easily led”—he held up a hand when Paul began to interrupt—“you will have guards in your retinue, as well as someone at your side at all times to defend you.”
Paul practically bit his own tongue to keep from insisting he could defend himself.
“Your guard will be your concubine,” Timothy said.
“A concubine?” Paul echoed, finding himself on his
feet. “You expect a woman to defend me when I am perfectly capable of doing so myself?”
“A Bladeswoman,” said a cool voice from behind him.
Paul turned around, and one of the men at the back of the chamber separated himself from the others and walked forward. From his height to his manner of walking to the way he held his lean frame, Paul could see nothing different from any other Bladesman.
And then the light coming through the window fell on the upturned face, smooth of whiskers, hollow-cheeked. No man, but a woman.
Paul stared at her, but could think of nothing to say. She’d blended in so easily with the others, that he hadn’t even guessed her sex. Now that he’d been alerted, he could see the curve of her hip and breast beneath her simple tunic and breeches, but she managed to disguise it without even hiding it. It was obscured by the veil of her bold manner, the swing of her arms, even the tilt of her head. She hadn’t bothered to hide her hair, black as soot, only pulled it back with a leather tie. There was something stark and yet exotic about her face, her jaw too square for a woman, yet softened by a lush lower lip.
“Do you not recognize me, Sir Paul?” she asked, one brow lifted.
He looked into her eyes, faintly slanted, centered with black as if to conceal all her thoughts.
She was a Bladeswoman.
“Juliana.” He said her name in disbelief. “You’ve changed.”
“You only knew me for a few months,” she said.
Was that disapproval in her voice?
Yet he remembered her well. He did not know her story; such was the way of the League. But like the Hilliard brothers—and unlike every other Bladesman—she’d come to live permanently at the Castle, the League fortress, well hidden within the mountains. She’d been sad-eyed and lost when he’d first seen her, and he’d learned that her parents were recently dead. But the rest was her past, part of the outside world, and she had seemed to relish the anonymity of her new position. Surprisingly talented with a dagger and sword, she’d behaved more as a young man than a woman, and he’d tried to treat her as any other recruit, fighting feelings of protective-ness because of her tragedy. During those few months he’d known her, when a rare glimmer of attraction hovered between them, he’d firmly buried it. She’d been his student—but not anymore. He found himself wondering how she’d adjusted to life in the League, how it had changed her. There was an air of confidence—of power—about her now, and he found it far too appealing.
While he studied her, Juliana said nothing, simply watching, waiting, a new maturity and awareness in her gaze.
Paul felt … off-balance, and needed to reassert himself. “I see you learned at last the art of silence.”
Though her eyes lightened with amusement, she said, “I learned much after you left. ‘Tis a shame you did not remain to work with the recruits assigned to you.”
He’d never told her why he’d left—he hadn’t told everything to his brothers, either.
“Such service to the League was no longer my path, brat,” he said. “Perhaps you should look into your own heart.”
She did not flinch at his old pet name for her. “The next few weeks will reveal much.”
Paul turned back to Timothy. “I have not yet agreed to anything. I need details.”
Timothy nodded. “You know that since Henry won the Crown in battle from Richard—”
“Killed him for it, you mean,” Paul pointed out.
“Defeated him in battle, aye. Since then, there have always been rumblings of discontent, especially in the north, noblemen who don’t always come to London when the king calls. He put down a rebellion in York last year, and then earlier this summer, his army came to battle against traitors backed by armies from Ireland and Flanders. But not all of the traitors were discovered. Henry is determined to march north, wanting his people to see him and benefit from his generosity, the better to bring peace. ‘Tis our duty to make the way safe for him.
There are still whispered rumors of treasonous plans to claim another with better bloodlines as rightful king. We need to find these traitors”— Timothy’s voice grew cold—“and expose them for what they are.”
Paul spread his hands. “The king’s own men aren’t able to discover this?”
“They suspect some,” Michael offered. “But mere suspicion and then arrest will not placate the king’s people. Henry wishes to be certain.”
“And why do you need me for that? Send in Bladesmen in disguise. Or Juliana here, since she is so eager.
“She only gave him a bold smile. Apparently, she was quite willing to offer herself into danger. The League had worked its illusions well.
“You have the perfect appearance for the man we need,” Timothy said.
“So you need someone fair-haired?” Paul asked with disbelief.
“You are of noble blood, and that essence is often difficult to falsify. Your hair and eyes are the right match for one thought dead.”
“You want a ghost from the grave?”
“We want Richard, the Duke of York.”
Paul took a deep breath. Richard and his brother, Edward—who would have been crowned Edward V—young boys when their father died, were taken into protective custody by their uncle Richard. He was named
their Protector until it came to light that their father had been legally betrothed to another woman before marrying the woman who eventually became Richard and Edward’s mother. This conveniently made them both bastards, leading to Richard’s assumption of the Crown as Richard III. The little boys disappeared into the Tower of London and were presumed murdered. Richard only ruled for eighteen months before the Battle of Bosworth, where he lost first his crown, and then his life.