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The Black Hawk

Chapter One

1818,  London   


   The past caught up to her in the rain, in Braddy Square, six hundred yards from Meeks Street.  

   She’d been wary as a wild bird all the way across London. No footstep echoed her own. Nobody showed a flicker of interest. But she knew someone was following. She had been a spy a long time.  

   Her gun was no use in this wet. She kept her knife in hand, ready, under her cloak.  

   In the end, it did no good. The square was a confusion of housemaids scurrying home and clerks bent under their umbrellas, resentful. They emerged out of the rain, brushed by, and disappeared into a landscape of gray. A young messenger boy ran toward her, his jacket pulled up over his head, a slouching cap hiding his face. Ordinary. He was wrapped in ordinary.  

   At the final instant, she sensed intention. She twisted. Slashed out with her knife. Hit him through the cover of his coat he twirled in her face. Heard him gasp. She felt the jolt and shock as his body slammed into her. She had a glimpse of his face. His knife scraped her chest, missing the blow to her heart, cutting her clothing. Cold pain speared up her arm.  

   He pushed her away and ran past, his boots splayed side to side, scattering gravel. It was the mark of the assassin to strike and run.  

   She dropped the knife and took her arm where she’d been cut. Sapriste. Her hand came away red. The blood went pale with rain and washed from her palm even as she looked at it.

   I’m bleeding. She pressed her arm tight to her ribs. Her dress was cut through. The slice down her arm ended in one single, deep jab. It had hit something important and the blood spilled out.  

   So small a thing to let the life out of her body. It barely hurt at all. Just death. Only death.  

   So she hurried. She let her cloak slip off. She held her blood in, trying to buy another few minutes. But all her time was seeping away.  

   Meeks Street was north of the square. The Service chose a quiet street. No one entered unless he had business there. Number Seven was halfway down. She staggered onward, not trying to keep dry or be inconspicuous or watch for enemies. Trying to make the last hundred yards.  

   She had expected death to be more spectacular, somehow. She had thought it would come at the end of a long Game, with the last roll of the dice still spinning and everyone watching and holding their breath for her. She’d be caught and shot by one army or another. It had seemed the most fitting end. She’d expected the simplicity of the firing squad. Its neatness and order. Its finality. Instead, she was bleeding to death on an ugly English street, and she had no idea why.  

   Now she’d never find out. Even the question faded as she concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.  

   Gray curtains of water wove in the wind. Two men barreled by, almost knocking her down. They were English gentlemen, seeing no one and nothing beyond themselves. They’d find blood on their coats when they got home and mourn their spoiled clothing and never know what had happened an inch under their noses.  

   She’d made them bloody aristos. Funny. It struck her as funny.  

   Nobody noticed her dying. Every door was closed. Every curtain drawn.  

   She passed low walls, punctuated by stone posts. Then she was at Number Seven. She knew the way even when she couldn’t see very well. The door was painted green. The knocker was a bronze rose. She covered it with her bloody hand and banged down hard and went back to holding her blood in.  

   She leaned on the door, her forehead against the green paint. It is strange that it does not hurt. I have been in pain so many times. This final time it does not hurt at all.  

   Really, she was not ready to die. She had a long list of things to do.  

   The door opened and she had nothing to lean upon. The ground crested upward to meet her. The rug was scratchy on her cheek, surprisingly hard. She felt herself rolled over. She was looking up at a woman, not much more than a girl. She didn’t know this one, did she?  

   Hands pushed her own hands away and came down strong around her arm, at the wound. Someone shouted. She could tell it was shouts from the urgency of it. It sounded distant in her ear.  

   When she opened her eyes again, he was there. Black hair and a thin face, dark as a Gypsy. Serious eyes. She said,  

   “Hello, ’Awker.”  

   “Hello, Justine,” Hawker said.