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This Excerpt of ‘A Treason of Thorns’ Will Leave You Dying For More

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This Excerpt of ‘A Treason of Thorns’ Will Leave You Dying For More

This Excerpt of 'A Treason of Thorns' Will Leave You Dying For More

What has a magical manor, an atmospheric setting, and a badass protagonist that is a force to be reckoned with? A Treason of Thorns by Laura E. Weymouth.

This dark, historical fantasy from the author of The Light Between Worlds follows Violet Sterling, the daughter of a Caretaker, those who are entrusted with maintaining England’s Great Houses—sprawling, magical buildings that are practically alive. Violet’s father has done his job well—until he is found guilty of treason, and is forced to live out his remaining days in Burleigh House without the key that allows him to control its magic.

Ultimately, book nerds? It’s a death sentence.

Later, Vi strikes a deal with the King to save the only place that has ever felt like home. But Burleigh isn’t what she remembered, and as its magic ravages the countryside, Violet has to decide how far she’s willing to go to save her house—before her house destroys everything she’s ever known.

If dark fantasy is your jam (and honestly, we know it is), get lost in the walls of Burleigh House in this exclusive sneak peek of A Treason of Thorns!

 

PROLOGUE

A lace-trimmed wedding invitation sits on my nightstand and I know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Mama is not coming back. It was inevitable, but so far in life, ignoring the inevitable has always been easy for me.

Until now.

There’s no avoiding the truth anymore. There it is, stamped in gold ink, wafting the lingering traces of rose-scented eau de toilette toward me.

Curled up on my side in bed, I stare at the invitation as if it’s a snake.

“Violet.” Wyn, my father’s ward, calls softly from the other side of the bedroom door. “Can I come in?”

He may not be able to see me nod, but the House can. There’s a click as it turns back the lock and a gentle scrape of hinges as it swings the door wide. I glance over and see Wyn crossing the room carefully, holding a cup of water with two hands so as not to spill. He’s always walked so since coming to Burleigh House—as if the ground beneath his feet is strewn with invisible bits of broken glass, and he might damage himself with a single wrong step.

Wyn sets the cup down on my nightstand, in front of Mama’s invitation, so that the print looks strange and distorted when seen through the glass. We may both be only eight and surrounded by servants—Jed and Mira, Papa’s steward and housekeeper, are never far off—but even as children this is what we do. We look after each other.

As Wyn takes a seat at my side, the comforting ivy Burleigh House has blanketed me with rustles and pulls away from him—they’ve never got on that well, Burleigh and Wyn. Flames flare deep purple on the hearth and the lamplight glows in the same shade. Poor old House—it hates to see me unhappy just as much as Wyn does. I sometimes forget in these moments when Burleigh’s so kind and solicitous that it’s one of the five Great Houses, whose vast magic governs the well-being of England. To me, my House has always been both more and less than that. Burleigh, like Wyn, is simply this: both family, and a friend.

Wyn shifts, putting a little more space between himself and Burleigh’s retreating leaves. If he were anyone else, he’d ask if I’m alright. But Wyn’s been a quiet child since the day Papa brought him back to Burleigh House from a Taunton foundling home. Which is just as well, if you ask me—I’ve never seen much use in endlessly worrying over troubles. I don’t want to talk about how Papa’s gone yet again, off in London on House business. I don’t want to talk about how Burleigh House’s fears have been seeping into me through the floors, and how sometimes they make my heart pound so fast I can hardly breathe.

I absolutely do not want to talk about Mama.

Instead, I hug my legs tighter, wishing to make myself so small I’ll disappear. Wyn looks down at me, solemn and wide-eyed. I know he and the House will stay with me all night and dog my steps tomorrow. They never abandon me, at any rate. The House will wrap me in flowers and lull me to sleep with nightingale song, and Wyn—well. Wyn never sleeps in his own bed. He prefers a pile of blankets and a pillow in my airing cupboard.

I can’t help but remember what Mama thought about all of this. My mother and father fought about everything, but the way I feel about Burleigh and Wyn came up often.

“She should put the House first, Eloise,” Papa would say. “Vi will be Caretaker of this place when she’s grown. Burleigh will choose her, I’ll pass on the key when I’m ready, and His Majesty will certainly approve of the arrangement—you know the king’s always taken an interest in Vi. This is who she’s meant to be.”

“She doesn’t know who she is now, let alone who she ought to be in the future,” Mama always argued back. “And how will she ever sort herself out if you keep her tethered to Burleigh House and never let her be with ordinary children?”

“Wyn keeps her company.”

“He is not an ordinary child.”

They’d go on and on like that, in endless circles, arguing behind closed doors. Perhaps they didn’t know Wyn and I sat outside listening, or perhaps they were past caring.

But now all the fighting has come to an end, and Mama’s off in Switzerland, planning her second wedding to some foreign baron.

“Wyn.” I sit up and look at him. I need to know that all this is worth it. I need to know that no matter what I’ve lost, I’ve lost it for the greater good.

“Yes?” he says, all untidy sandy hair and serious grey eyes.

“Do you think I’ll be a good Caretaker for Burleigh House?”

Wyn doesn’t answer. He fixes his gaze on the blanket of ivy still covering my bed, except for the conspicuously empty space around him.

“A good Caretaker puts her House first,” I say, half to myself.

“Always?” Wyn asks.

I reach out a hand and a strand of green ivy twines around my wrist, a near match for the latticework birthmark of slick pink skin that stamps me there, like a bracelet. “Always. Papa says so—a good Caretaker puts her House before king. Before country. Before family. Before her own life, even.”

“But what if you change your mind?”

Now that is unthinkable. Mama may leave, I may grow up, but the one thing that will never change is my resolve to serve Burleigh House. My father, George Sterling, is a perfect Caretaker, and in the rare moments when he’s at home, he sees to it that I learn my place. That one day I’ll follow after him: the best Caretaker England has ever known. Under Papa’s watchful tenure, Burleigh has thrived. The counties our House governs have known peace and prosperity.

“I will never change my mind,” I tell Wyn. “I’ll put Burleigh first all my life, because this place is greater than you or me or any one person.”

And though I’ve learned this lesson by rote under the watchful eye of my stern father, my heart still swells when I repeat it. For as long as I can remember, Burleigh has been everything to me. This House is like a mother, father, comforter, and friend. I intend to repay the favor someday, when I’m able.

“We may not understand the House, we may not be able to speak with it, but Burleigh House was here watching over the West Country before you or I were born, and it will be here long after we’re gone. It is my duty as a Sterling to serve this place, and to help it care for the countryside. Mama knew that, Wyn. She knew it. But she was always jealous of Burleigh. She couldn’t see why it’s worth looking after.” I stop and swallow fiercely, past the heat burning in the back of my throat and behind my eyes.

Wyn stares down at the floor, looking as small and miserable as I feel.

“And what about a good House?” he asks after a long silence. I frown as he plucks an ivy leaf and shreds it to bits. “What does a good House do? Shouldn’t you get something in return?”

I run a finger across the ivy, soothing the place where Wyn marred it, and the leaves turn to my touch like flowers toward sun. “I don’t expect anything. A good House puts itself first, because the well-being of the countryside is bound up in the health of its House. And so a good House chooses its Caretaker wisely, and doesn’t spare them when trouble comes.”

The fire flickers on the hearth, as if to confirm my words.

“Violet.”

When I glance up at Wyn, the expression in his eyes makes my stomach clench. He always looks just so—restless, ill at ease, like an animal poised for flight—before making the suggestion I know is coming. “Let’s run away. You don’t have to stay here, or be a Caretaker, if you don’t want to. We could go to Switzerland, to your mother. Or somewhere else—you can choose, just . . . let’s leave.” Wind moans in the chimney, like a sob, and the ivy on my bed begins to recede, sliding sadly away toward the windows it crept in through. Out of habit and out of practice, all my self-pity shifts as

my heart goes out to Burleigh House.

“You shouldn’t say such things,” I tell Wyn, my tone a reproach. “You know I’ll never go, and you know even talking about leaving upsets Burleigh.”

Wyn hangs his head and looks so woebegone I don’t know who I feel for more—him, or my keening House.

“Oh, stop it, Burleigh,” I say, and the wailing wind subsides even as I speak. “I’m not going anywhere.”

But it’s Wyn who I throw my arms around, and he relaxes just a little. As much as Wyn ever does, at any rate.

“I’m sorry about your mother,” he whispers, and I hold him tighter.

“I’m not.” The words come out so fiercely I almost believe them. “I’m not, I’m not. I’ve got you and Burleigh, and Papa when he’s not working on House business. What more could I possibly want?”

After Wyn climbs off the bed and retreats to his makeshift cot in the cupboard, I get up. Opening the drawer in the nightstand, I pull out a letter Mama enclosed with the wedding invitation. It carries even more of her scent than the invitation itself, and I breathe in that aroma of roses, remembering the feel of her arms around me.

One sentence stands out, for the ink has run and spotted, as if tears were shed when it was written.

Come to me, my Violet—let me make a home for you here.

But I have a home. I am a Sterling—I was born on the grounds of Burleigh House, and someday, I hope to be as brilliant a Caretaker as Papa.

A good Caretaker puts her House first. Before king, before country.

Before family.

Kneeling next to the hearth, I feed Mama’s letter to the sympathetic flames, which shift to blue as I scrub the sleeve of my nightgown across my eyes.

“Think about something else. Anything else. It helps,” Wyn’s voice says from the shadows of the cupboard.

I take a shaky breath and begin to hum. It’s a song Papa always sings for me when he’s at home.

Blood for a beginning

Mortar for an end

Speak out your binding

Be you foe or friend

 

Take up the deed

Take it well in hand

And bind a House’s power

Bind it to the land

 

Blood for an ending

Mortar for a start

Unmake a binding

At your House’s heart

 

Unleash a House’s power

Let it all run free

Leave naught for the king

Naught for you or me

 

First House for a prison

Second for ladies’ rest

Third for a palace

Fourth to be blessed

 

Fifth House holds quicksilver

The Sixth ruins all

But for blood in its mortar

But for breath in its walls

But this time it doesn’t have the usual effect, not even when I fix my mind on the words.

All I see is Mama’s handwriting. All I can think of is the fact that she’s never coming back.

“Once upon a time there was a Great House,” I begin somewhat desperately. I haven’t told Wyn a story in over a year, not since he grew used to life here at Burleigh. But it grounds me, the sound of him settling in to listen, and the feeling of the immense, brooding presence that is my beloved Burleigh turning its attention in my direction. “There were the Sterlings, too, who lived and died for it. Their blood ran with its mortar. Their bones rested in its ground.”

When I turn away from the fireplace, every inch of the bedroom floor is carpeted with new-sprouted daisies. Slowly, I lock up the sadness of my mother’s leaving deep inside, because I know I would give anything for this place. One day, my blood will run with its mortar. One day, my bones will rest in its ground.

 

1

Nine Years Later

Beneath me, the flat bottom of my boat thrums ever so slightly as a fenland pike bumps against it. The long, gleaming creature is focused on its fishy business, and I’ve been motionless for near an hour, letting gentle currents in the marsh water carry me this way and that. I’m all but invisible to the pike, and an invisible fisher is a successful one.

Sun beats down on my bare head, and heats the long rope of my braid. Sweat trickles between my shoulder blades and down my raised arm, which holds a sharp-tipped fishing spear aloft. This is the one thing that affords me relief—this moment where everything comes together and all of me fixes on a single goal. I’m no longer Violet Sterling, dispossessed daughter of a treasonous nobleman, too long separated from her family home. All the aching worry over Papa and Wyn and my House recedes, and I become whole instead of fractured—Vi of the Fens, who never ends the day empty-handed.

In this moment, I distill into my most elemental self. A level head. A keen set of eyes. A pair of hands that move like quicksilver, or summer lightning. The fish turns over on its side, exposing a glistening expanse of scales.

In an explosion of spear and net and brackish water, I haul the pike aboard. It thrashes ferociously and the boat rocks, but a quick blow from the hatchet I keep under my low seat puts an end to that. Shoving my braid back over one shoulder, I finally allow myself to grin, to wipe the sweat from my forehead, and to feel that my nose has burned terribly yet again. It’ll peel and freckle, and Mira will scold, but so be it. We’ll eat for half a week thanks to this fish. And in this moment of clarity I’ve found a way to shed the creeping anxiety that’s plagued me these past years. At least for a little while.

But even as I straighten and stand above my catch, the sense returns—that I am too far from home, but still bound to it by a long, taut stretch of line. It’s not just Burleigh I can’t get past, either.

“What do you think of that, Wyn?” I murmur. I only indulge the habit of speaking to him when I’m alone on the fens, careful to make sure no one hears. God knows who actually talks to Wyn now—who takes his silences and his moods into account, who lets him stay close when the night is too long and too dark, full of noises and shadows that remind him of things he’ll never speak of. I hope it helps, that I send my voice to him when I can.

With the trackless expanse of the East Fen surrounding me, there’s only a miry waste of bogs and silt deposits and tidal estuaries to hear my secret conversations. In places, the land’s been shored up and laid to pasture, so that farmhouses and sheep enclosures stand out incongruously against the marshland. It’s all a jumble and a maze, but I know this place better than any other save one. The currents speak a language I’ve learned, the seabirds call to me, and the brassy blue sky above is a map waiting to be read. The marshes are honest, if you understand them, and they always play by their own particular set of rules.

But they are not the West Country, which encompasses the five most southwesterly of England’s counties, and which Burleigh House nurtures and governs. This land is wide and flat and straightforward in its wildness. It’s unlike the Blackdown Hills I grew up among, which look tame at first, checkered with enclosed pastures and apple orchards, but which hide old shrines in their valleys and bone-wrought charms in their hedgerows. And nothing could compare to Burleigh’s strange, enchanted grounds. The truth is, though I take up the oars and begin sculling back to shore, it doesn’t feel like heading for home. It never does.

By the time I make it back to our little cottage on a raised hump of land in the middle of absolutely nowhere, the light’s growing long and golden away inland. Mira has the shutters thrown open, and Jed sits on the front stoop whittling. He wasn’t a whittler before our exile, but I suppose I wasn’t much of a fisherwoman, either.

“Find your luck, then?” Jed asks as I tie the boat to our bit of dock. In answer, I sling the pike up, and it takes two hands for me to lift it.

Jed lets out a low whistle. He’s a thickset, bearded man with a florid white complexion and close-cropped hair that long ago went grey, and though he’s stood by me through good times and bad, I love him best for how he was with my father. There never was a more devoted steward, whether Papa was present or absent. When the king sentenced my father to House arrest, it took six men to hold Jed back. He shouted and struggled as they sealed George Sterling away behind Burleigh’s walls, and he never stopped fighting, not till the front gate vanished, replaced by unbreachable stone.

“Mira’s waiting inside,” Jed says. “She’s—we—have something you need to hear.”

I can feel the smile fade from my face at his words. “What—”

But before I’m able to ask, Mira’s voice calls from within the cottage, cutting me off. “Bring that fish in here at once and wash the stink of it off your hands.”

As I step into the close confines of the cottage, she tuts at me. “I expected you home hours ago.”

Mira does rule us with a bit of an iron fist, but Jed and I would be lost without her. We’re a family—an odd one, to be sure, but time and tide have bound us together and it would break my heart to lose them.

I cross the cottage’s tiny downstairs room—just the one space for cooking and eating and living, with a curtain drawn across the nook that holds Jed and Mira’s bed. A ladder leads up to a loft for me, and that’s all there is to it.

With a weighty thud, I let my pike fall onto the kitchen table, and Mira turns. Horror writes itself across her face.

“Violet Sterling, you’re a sight, and today of all days I wanted you home early.”

Leaning against the table that holds my rather splendid fish,

I hunch my shoulders, as if doing so can protect me from what’s surely coming. If Wyn were here, he’d appear and just stand at my side, a silent ally in all things. And if we were home, the House would already have a carpet of reassuring flowers around my feet.

Will I never feel whole without them?

“Why? What’s happened?” I finally summon the courage to ask. Jed ducks into the cottage, and the whole space feels suddenly smaller. “Mira had a visitor come looking for you today. A messenger from the king.”

All the air goes out of me. I drop onto my chair, ignoring the fish now lying forgotten on the table.

“His Majesty’s back from Belgium and stopping at the Knight’s Arms in Thiswick tonight,” Mira says. “Apparently he’d be much obliged if his only goddaughter would pay him a visit tomorrow at noon, before he journeys on. The messenger said—he said there’s news from Burleigh House.”

“News.” My voice breaks on the word. There’s been no news from Burleigh House for seven years. And every sun that sets without it is a relief to me, because it means that across the country, my father and Burleigh and Wyn have survived another day of House arrest.

Jed steps up behind me and puts his enormous hands on my shoulders. “He didn’t give any particulars, but I don’t think we have to tell you what to expect.”

I choke back questions I know Jed and Mira have no answers to, and mechanically lay the table for supper. But when we’ve eaten and the dishes have been cleared, I duck out of the cottage the instant Mira’s back is turned. Jed watches, saying nothing as I shove our dory into the water and scramble aboard. I ship the oars and haul back on them and the boat reluctantly begins to move.

“Violet!” Mira calls through the open cottage doorway. “Just where do you think you’re going so close to nightfall?”

“Away!” I answer back, sculling for all I’m worth. The dory pulls steadily forward, building momentum until I’m skimming across the water, dragging the welter of my emotions behind me like a length of tangled net. Movement is the best thing for me, I know—to still the aching of my heart, the clenching of my stomach, the furious grinding of my teeth. I scull until my arms and back ache—till sweat drips between my shoulders again and the last of the day’s sun adds freckles to my freckles.

And when I’ve rowed for so long that each oar seems weighted with lead, I drop anchor in the middle of a tidal floodplain. Water stretches ahead of me to the very edge of the eastern sky, which has gone dark. I turn away from it, and from the vast, uneasy North Sea, looking westward instead, toward the setting sun. Beyond that blaze of splendor lies my past. Beyond it lies my future. Beyond it lies my House.

Blood and mortar, I miss it with everything in me. Every bone and every breath. I thought the end of Papa’s House arrest might taint things between Burleigh and me, but even knowing what’s surely happened—that my father must be dead, finally killed by the House itself—all I feel when I think of Burleigh is an agonizing desire to be with it.

So I know in the morning I’ll visit His Majesty. I’ll sit in front of him while he feigns pity and tells me Papa’s protracted death sentence has ended, and a new Caretaker must assume his place. I’ll do what must be done, choking down my hatred and fear of the king, all for the sake of Burleigh House. Because in the wake of Papa’s arrest, Burleigh will need a gentle hand.

It is a wicked punishment, House arrest, designed to torment both a Caretaker and the Great House they tend. If found guilty of treason, a Caretaker is stripped of the key that allows him to channel his House’s magic safely, and restricted to the grounds. The House is bound to let no one in or out until its powerless Caretaker lies dead.

But a Great House cannot keep the countryside healthy for long without a key-holding Caretaker to direct its power. Sooner or later, a good House must put itself and the land first, no matter how badly it hurts to do so.

There have been five House arrests over the years, before my father’s. Two Caretakers killed themselves before their Houses had to. Three were killed by their Houses, though outside the confines of an arrest, the binding the Great Houses have been placed under expressly forbids them to take a life.

My heart aches for Burleigh, required to do what is neither in its nature or its bond. But it breaks at the thought of Wyn. Seven years after the arrest began and I still don’t understand why my father was allowed to inflict a portion of his punishment on a child and keep Wyn trapped within the manor walls. I’ve never been able to think of it without resentment gnawing at my insides. Everything else I can fathom—Papa risking arrest and a charge of treason in his attempt to steal Burleigh’s deed from the king and free our House. Indeed, all across England, there are people who support the unbinding cause in spite of its risks.

Of course I sympathize with that. Of course I want Burleigh out from under the king’s thumb. The royal family has maintained control of the Great Houses since William the Deedwinner first bound them. Caretakers may manage the Houses’ magic, but it’s the deedwinner they must obey. I suppose it wore on Papa, watching the king make decisions for Burleigh that were not in its best interests.

Yet the price Papa paid for his attempt and subsequent failure—the choice he made to sacrifice not just his own freedom, but Wyn’s—has never sat well with me. And I don’t know why it had to be that way.

A good Caretaker puts her House first, I remind myself, to calm the anger that still rises in me when I think of Wyn. Before her family. Before her friends. Surely, that must have been what Papa was doing, whether I understand his actions or not.

The light on the horizon burns down to crimson embers. Swallows skim across the water, and far above them, bats flit here and there. Around me, the air cools and sweat dries on my skin as the sky darkens. I shiver, a salt girl alone on a salt marsh.

When the stars wake in the sky, winking to life one by one, I count them. It’s an old trick Wyn and I learned together, long ago, when we’d sit out on the roof of the House. We were both of us children plagued by worries, and on the nights they kept us from sleeping, we’d count stars together until the fears faded. It used to work. It used to keep my fear at bay.

Now, though, I always lose count before the tide of my worry turns, and this night is no different from any other since my father and my friend were sealed away within Burleigh’s walls. When I’ve

lost myself among the stars, I turn inward, the way I learned to do after both heart and home were taken from me. In the labyrinth of my own mind, I count fears instead of stars.

I am afraid of memory, and the visions it brings of my father’s careworn face—his stern eyes, his harried smile. Did he do right? Will I be a worthy successor to him? Will I someday meet the same fate?

I’m afraid of never seeing home or Wyn again, of living my life in limbo here on the fens, and never wishing for better. Of never feeling whole.

I’m afraid of losing Jed and Mira as I’ve lost everything else. I’m afraid of hunger, which stalks us each winter as the saltfish barrels run low. I’m afraid of the sea, that gives life and then buffets the

coast with storms.

Each fear surfaces and as they rise, I take them one by one, box them up and put them away on a dusty shelf in the back of my soul. I don’t know what else to do with these thoughts that threaten to

choke me, so I keep them locked inside, like last winter’s moldering apples or a dragon’s tarnished hoard.

The last fear I tuck away is this: I’m afraid of the king, desperately afraid. But for me, the good of Burleigh House will always come before that fear. It must.

“I want to go home,” I whisper to myself and the night sky and the stars.

Home. The word tastes like honey and ashes, like hope and regret, and this I know: I would face the devil himself for a chance at getting back to the House I grew up in, and at finding out what fate has befallen the one friend I had as a child. The king is only a little worse than the devil, after all, and I would beg or bargain, whichever he prefers, to get back to where I belong. To be what I was born to become—the Caretaker of my beloved House.

The tide has turned, running out to sea. It pulls at my boat, tugging me eastward and away from home. For the first time in years I ship oars and truly set myself against it.

As I scull toward the west, I hum an old, old song.

 

Blood for a beginning

Mortar for an end

Speak out your binding

Be you foe or friend

 

Fifth House holds quicksilver

The Sixth ruins all

But for blood in its mortar

But for breath in its walls

 

2

His majesty is a late riser, and I am not. In fact, I’ve already been up for several hours by sunrise, on the water with a dark lamp and my fishing spear, and even delivered a catch in Thiswick. I learned long ago that there’s nothing like activity to keep sorrow at bay.

But now, as the meeting time draws closer, I sit cross-legged on the pallet in the loft that serves me for a bed. Dried onions and bunches of rosemary hang only inches above my nose. Outside, the world is awash with pale light and gulls cry mournfully as they wing their way seaward. I look toward the shore, and somewhere inside me, there’s a grief that can’t be borne. I didn’t expect it, and I’m not entirely sure who it’s for—my father or Wyn or my House or myself. I can’t afford to fall apart, though. Not with His Majesty waiting. Not with Burleigh’s fate hanging in the balance. So I shut my eyes and tamp down the sorrow so far that all I can feel is a whisper of it. This, too, is one of my manifold fears—that someday I’ll shut up my heart so securely there’s no unbinding it, and I’ll be left numb till the day I die.

“Come down for a bite of breakfast,” Mira says from below. “Whatever’s happened, I don’t like to think of you facing it on an empty stomach.”

I couldn’t eat, though. Not for love or money. Instead, I shuffle on my knees to where a battered chest sits under the round window. A briny breeze dances in and blows cool against the back of my

neck as I fumble with the chest’s lock. It sticks a little, stiff with lack of use. When at last the lock gives way, I push the lid up and let out a long sigh.

We left Burleigh House in a hurry. His Majesty sentenced Papa on the front drive before a traveling court and ordered me out by day’s end. I was only able to snatch a few of my things, which I’ve since kept tucked away, needing no reminders of home when my blood forever calls westward and anxiety churns constantly through my veins.

This morning seems a time for reminders if ever there was one, though. I push past a one-eyed china doll, a drawing of Wyn’s, and a long-outgrown frock until I find a sprig of dried ivy leaves. I take it out and hold it gingerly, as if it might crumble beneath my touch.

Mira’s voice drifts up to me. “Violet, I’m begging you, love.”

“Not hungry,” I call back, looking down at the ivy until my eyes blur and lose focus.

The smell of damp soil.

Rain running down my bedroom windows at Burleigh House.

The weight of a full valise, tugging at one arm.

Below, the king’s carriage stands on the drive. I press my face to the glass, still only a child, just ten years old, not ready for any of this. It’s past time to leave, and Mira’s already come up to my bedroom to ask if I need help with anything. I sent her away, because I can’t bear for anyone to see how broken I am at the thought of leaving Burleigh, the only constant presence in my life since the day I was born.

But the House sees, and that hurts me worst of all. I want to be brave for it, to be a good Caretaker, but I can’t stop silent tears from tracking down my face. Wind moans in the chimney, rain sobs against the windows, and white funeral flowers bloom from the cracks in the wall. Hurrying toward the doorway, I stumble over one of my dolls lying abandoned on the bedroom floor. My valise falls and bursts open, scattering hastily packed clothes about the room.

Always, always, it is one last insignificant thing that finishes me. I crouch in the midst of the mess and sob, shoulders shaking, stomach aching, my heart torn to shreds. The House trembles on its foundations, but there’s nothing it can do.

And then, though I didn’t hear the door, Wyn is in front of me, picking up the mess I’ve made, pushing pinafores and stockings back into my valise. When everything is packed away once more, he holds the bag out to me. I look up and his face, too, is tearstained and pale.

“It’s time to go, Violet,” he says.

“I know,” I tell him. “You’re finally getting your wish. We’re running away.”

Wyn’s already wretched expression grows a little more miserable.

“This isn’t what I wanted. You know that—I’d never want anything that hurts you so.”

He reaches out and takes my hand, a rare gesture from a boy who seldom bridges the gap between himself and the rest of the world.

I swallow and look down at our intertwined fingers. “Don’t let go. I can’t do this all by myself.”

“You can do anything you set your mind on,” Wyn says fiercely. “Anything, Vi, don’t you know that?”

But all the way down the stairs and out the door onto the drive, the only thing that keeps me from falling apart again is his hand, warm in mine.

Jed and Mira are waiting for us. We stand with them and watch as Papa emerges on the front steps of the House, flanked by half a dozen royal guards. Thunder rumbles low on the horizon and the darkened sky weeps endlessly, water pooling in low spots on the lawn and making wide puddles, rain dripping cold down the back of my neck.

When the guards bring Papa out and he catches sight of us, his jaw clenches and his gaze clouds over.

“Wyn, Violet,” he says, voice rough from unnumbered sleepless nights. “Come here to me.”

Wyn and I look at each other, and I see my own fear and despair mirrored in my friend’s eyes. Wordlessly, I tighten my grip on his hand and he does the same. We climb the front steps together as a peal of laughter sounds from the king’s carriage—His Majesty’s waiting to see Papa’s sentence carried out, but even today, he’s brought a trio of courtiers along to make up a foursome for whist. I’d like nothing more than to snatch the cards from his hands and tear them to bits.

Papa can’t put his arms around me—they’re bound behind his back, but he’s never been much of a one for displays of affection anyway. Nevertheless, I let go of Wyn and cling to my father for a moment, choking back tears.

“Be brave for the House, Violet,” Papa whispers. I gather my scant courage and pull away, reaching for Wyn again.

But before he can take my hand, Papa shakes his head. “No. Wyn, come stand at my side.”

Wyn turns toward him, wide-eyed.

“Come on now, Wyn,” my father says. “You’ll stay with me, just like we agreed on.”

What?” My voice rings loud across the front lawn, even with the rain to deaden it. Papa won’t meet my eyes—he just looks at Wyn, who stares up at him and finally nods, stepping away from me.

The tears I’ve kept in check burn their way down my face and I feel as if something on the inside has shattered.

“Papa, don’t take Wyn,” I beg. “You and the House, and him now, too? It’s too much—it’s everything I have. I don’t know how to live without any of you. You’ll make a ghost of me.”

“Don’t be hysterical, Violet,” Papa says, and there’s steel in his tone. “You’ll upset Burleigh.”

“That’s because Burleigh loves me,” I stammer. “And I love the House, everyone knows it. So . . . let Wyn go free, and if someone has to stay, keep me instead. I would do it willingly. I don’t care—you know I don’t. Let the king seal us in together. I will stand by your side and be just what you taught me to be—a good Caretaker, who puts her House first. Please, Papa, please.”

“Jed, take Violet,” my father says. Indomitable as he is, Papa’s voice breaks on my name.

Jed steps forward and takes me by the hand. “Miss Violet. It’s time to go.”

Mira appears at my other side and puts an arm around my shoulder, but I cannot tear my gaze away from Wyn, standing by Papa, his shoulders hunched in silent resignation.

“No. No!” I’m shouting now, and the king and his courtiers peer out of the carriage windows with interest. But I don’t care. Let them watch me make a scene. “It isn’t fair—look at Wyn. He doesn’t want to stay! Let him go, and let me be with Papa and the House.”

It’s true Wyn’s pale face is pinched and unhappy. He hurries down the steps and throws his arms around me and I hold him tight.

“Don’t do this,” I say tearfully. “You don’t have to—they can’t make you. We should be together. Wyn, run away with me.”

“No,” Wyn answers. “I can’t. Not anymore. But promise me something.”

“Anything.”

“Once you’re gone, stay away. Don’t come back.”

I hardly have time to feel another stab of hurt and betrayal, because at his words, the ground bucks and heaves beneath us, jolting us apart. I stumble and nearly fall, and when I’ve righted myself, Wyn is at my father’s side again.

“You have to go, Violet,” Papa says. “Think of the House.”

I am. I do. I always think of the House. So I square my shoulders and turn my back on Papa, taking the first steps down the drive and away from everything I’ve ever known.

“Violet Helena Sterling,” my father calls after me. “I love you.”

I’ve never heard him say those words before and I can’t answer back, because if I do, they will have to drag me kicking and screaming from the grounds of Burleigh House. I carry on without a word, and when I draw up alongside the king’s carriage, His Majesty looks out.

“I’m sorry, Violet,” he says, though there’s little in the way of remorse in his eyes. “The law is the law, and your father broke it. I never pegged him for the sort who’d be weak enough to insist a child bear his punishment as well, though. Funny about the boy.”

“Shut up,” I hiss, infusing the words with every ounce of venom my ten-year-old self can muster. “Just shut up. I never want to see you again.”

“Now, now,” the king chides. “Is that any way to speak to your own godfather? Who’s going to look after you, if not me?”

I step up to his carriage window, small and furious and heartbroken. “I have one father, and you’re killing him. I’d rather die than take your charity.”

“Suit yourself,” the king says with a shrug. “But you’re still standing on my land. Burleigh, see Miss Sterling off the grounds.”

A peal of thunder breaks overhead and suddenly I’m outside the front gate in the laneway, with Jed and Mira at my side. His Majesty’s coach has been transported as well, along with the royal guards. Through the rain and the ironwork of the gate, I can make out Papa and Wyn still standing on the House’s front steps.

The king gets down from the carriage and walks over to the wall surrounding Burleigh’s grounds. When he reaches out a hand, the stonework trembles beneath his touch, but he is the deedholder— my father may be able to channel Burleigh’s magic, but it’s the king who truly controls it, who can bid and bind it, and the House cannot refuse him.

“Burleigh House,” His Majesty says. “George Sterling has been found guilty of treason. I leave him to your care. Let no one in or out of these walls until he lies dead. No new Caretaker will be afforded you until his punishment is carried out.”

The harsh, scraping sound of stone on stone grates through the air as the wall begins to fill in the space where the gate once stood. Dimly, I’m aware of Jed lurching forward and the guardsmen holding him back as he struggles toward the wall. I stare at Wyn’s distant form through the narrowing gap until the last inch closes. Then I turn to the king and spit at him as he passes me by.

His Majesty pulls a clean white handkerchief from one pocket and wipes his face.

“Someday, little Violet, you will come begging to me,” he says as he climbs back into the carriage. “You are your father’s daughter, and I know you. George won’t even be cold in his grave before you crawl back, asking for the key to Burleigh House. Sterlings never can resist this place.”

“I’m a Caretaker,” I snap. “I was born to look after Burleigh, and yes, I will do whatever must be done to see it safe. A good Caretaker puts her House first, even if means begging favors from a monster like you.”

The king shakes his head and reaches into his pocket, dangling a skeleton key before me. My breath catches at the sight of it—there’s a dull chip of grey stone set in the bow, and I’d recognize it anywhere. I’ve seen my father toy with it a thousand times in idle moments, and hold fast to it when he needed the protection of the guardstone while working House magic. I fight down the urge to snatch at it and run.

“You’re not a Caretaker without a key, are you?” His Majesty says softly. “In fact, Burleigh House has no Caretaker now. We’ll see how long that lasts. How long before the House must deal with the fact that your father stands in the way of its well-being.” He tucks the key away and I stand by, staring at him belligerently, refusing to be the first to falter.

“What a game we’ll have when all this is over, and you want the key.” The king smiles. “Don’t doubt that I will make you dance for it. That is, if I don’t give it to someone else first.”

I have nothing to say to that. The idea of His Majesty giving Burleigh’s key to anyone else and forcing Burleigh to accept a stranger as Caretaker pours ice through my veins. I watch as the

carriage pulls away, the king’s guardsmen marching in its wake. The wall surrounding Burleigh House is unbroken and impermeable stone now. Jed stands near the place where the gate used to be, shoulders slumped in defeat.

I take a few steps up onto the grassy verge and rest my forehead against Burleigh’s wall, once the boundary of my world and now a prison.

“Look after him,” I say to the House. I feel empty and hollow, as if there’s nothing inside me but grey fog. “I know you can’t do anything for Papa, and you’re not meant to care for anyone but yourself. Perhaps I shouldn’t even ask—maybe a good Caretaker wouldn’t. But, oh, Burleigh, if you can, look after Wyn. And someday I promise I’ll be back to look after you.”

“Vi!”

Mira jolts me out of my remembering, appearing flushed and worried at the top of the loft’s ladder.

“Child, what on earth is taking you so—” She catches sight of the open chest and softens. “I’m sorry. But you should eat something, even if you are feeling a bit out of sorts.”

“Maybe just a cup of tea? I’ll be down directly.”

When she’s gone, I glance at the sprig of ivy in my hand. Impossibly, it’s flushed green once more, the leaves waxy and alive, so fresh it might have just been cut from the vine. I press the token to my lips and manage a small, mirthless smile.

“Soon, Burleigh,” I murmur. “I’ll be home soon.”

The ivy goes grey, and I feel the faintest prickle of magic as mortar suffuses the leaves. In a moment, they’ve lost their shape entirely, leaving my palm gritty with dust and smelling of old stone. A little tendril of pain and fear curls through my skin.

My homegoing can’t come soon enough. I won’t let anyone, not even a king, stand in my way.

 

3

Thiswick, the nearest village to our cottage, was built near a crossroads. It sees plenty of travelers, which means the Knight’s Arms is crowded at noon, my appointed meeting time with His Majesty. I push my way into the cavernous public room and cast about myself, looking for royal uniforms, or the king’s familiar face.

Through a doorway that leads to the inn’s private dining space, I catch a glimpse of red livery. Of course His Majesty wouldn’t be out here, eating with common folk—foolish of me to think he would. Surreptitiously rubbing my damp palms against my skirt, I shove past merchants and sailors and tinkers, only to have Dex, the proprietor of the Knight’s Arms, stop me at the door to the private room. He’s a tall, broad-shouldered man, with an amiable smile and a purple birthmark that stands out against one white cheek.

“Are you sure you want to go in there, Vi?” Dex asks. He’s known since we first arrived who I am and why I’m here, worlds away from Burleigh House. Sometimes I think all of England’s party to my sad family affairs. Especially in the West Country, where they say folk keep calendars marking the days since Papa’s arrest, and drink to his health every night instead of the king’s.

Who will they drink to now, I wonder?

I square my shoulders. “No, I’m not sure. But I have to do it anyway—the king said he has news about the House. About my father.”

Dex lets out a long breath and nods. “So it’s finally come to that. I’m sorry. We all are. I’ll be about if you need anything.”

“Thank you, Dex.” Before my nerves can fail me, I cross the threshold into the private dining hall.

The inn staff have been dispensed with in favor of the king’s own liveried servants, who stand quietly along the wall, ready to step forward at the slightest indication they’re wanted. A handful

of courtiers sit at the table, fearfully au courant in ribbons and lace, the women wearing flimsy dresses with waistlines that nip up under their breasts, the men in frock coats and breeches and garishly colored cravats. I wonder if this is how I would look, had my life gone differently—bright and unmarked by grief, fashionable and sharp as tacks.

As it is, I’m drab and downcast by comparison, in my plain wool-spun shirt and often-patched skirt. Like a reed bunting beside kingfishers. But none of it matters. I have no pride, no position, and no place left to me. I’ve come to hear the worst, to ask after Burleigh House, and, as the king knew I would, to beg for a chance to go home.

His Majesty sits at the head of the table with a plate of dainties before him and a bored expression on his face. He’s a lean, middle-aged man with shrewd dark eyes and a white complexion, pale from too much time spent indoors at his desk and the gaming tables.

The sight of him chills me to the bone. It is a relic of the old medieval hostage system that he’s my godfather at all. Since the Great Houses were bound, Caretakers’ children have been placed under the guardianship of the reigning sovereign. A pretty thought at face value—the royal family serving those who serve the Houses. Truly, it is a ploy to ensure the loyalty of the Caretakers. His Majesty took an interest in me when I was small—sent gifts, and would stop at Burleigh House whenever he passed by. He taught me to play cards, and I spent my childhood convinced he and Papa were friends.

But none of that familiarity and feigned friendship was enough to ensure mercy for my father, or clemency for me once Papa’s great crime was uncovered.

I will make you dance, His Majesty said. Well, here I am. Will it be a waltz, or a gavotte?

Hiding my hands behind my back so the king won’t see how they tremble, I step closer to the table and clear my throat. One of the courtiers is twittering away, and I go unnoticed.

I reach for anger rather than fear, but can’t quite find it. Sterling stubbornness will have to suffice.

“Uncle Edgar,” I say, loud enough that everyone in the room can hear. The courtiers fall silent, and their eyes widen at my decision to call him by the name I used when I was small. “You wanted to see me?”

A delighted smile replaces the king’s look of boredom. With a loud scrape he pushes his chair back, and I will myself not to falter as he puts a hand on each of my shoulders and presses a kiss to my cheek. “Violet Sterling, where is the pretty child I knew? You look like an absolute fishwife. What would your father think?”

The courtiers giggle, assured that their pleasant day will carry on much as it has done, and that my intrusion will cause no trouble. But somewhere within me, music has begun. If I’m to dance for my House, I mean to lead, not to follow.

So I step past the king and drop into his chair at the head of the table. The silly laughter of the courtiers dies down. His Majesty raises a disapproving eyebrow and snaps two fingers together.

One of the waiting servants hurries up with another chair. The king takes a seat and leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees, as the courtiers pick up their silverware once more, pretending their attention isn’t fixed on the head of the table, on me and His Majesty.

“Not a single kind word for your godfather?” the king chides. “Have you lost your manners out here on this bog? I didn’t expect to ask for a royal visit only to find you sulking.”

“I’m not sulking, Your Majesty,” I say. “I’m grieving. I will always be grieving. You took everything from me, and tormented my family’s House in the process.”

Covert glances fly between the courtiers. Perhaps their day won’t be as pleasant and dull, but it has become more interesting.

Something like remorse crosses the king’s shrewd face. “Violet, do you think it brought me joy to sentence your father to House arrest, or to receive the news that his confinement had finally ended? George was a friend, and the finest Caretaker I’ve known. I thought the world of him until he betrayed me. The deeds to the Houses are my family’s birthright—they’ve been so for eight hundred years, and yet he tried to steal Burleigh’s from me. One cannot simply ignore that. Nevertheless, it pains me to have lost him, too.”

So it is as I expected. My father is dead. I look past His Majesty, out the dining room’s long bank of windows toward the fens I’ve come to know. Familiar in all their aspects, but never, never my home. I don’t know who I miss more in this moment—Papa, or Wyn, or Burleigh.

“How did it happen? The end of the arrest, I mean,” I ask, because there is no use arguing over the king’s version of Papa’s conviction. We will always be at odds about it. What Uncle Edgar calls

treason, I call a Caretaker’s duty to put one’s House first, because Papa would never have risked trying for Burleigh’s deed unless the House had need of it.

The king reaches out and pats my hand, and I resist the urge to pull away.

“You know I’ve been in Belgium for several months,” he says. “I bound the Houses to obey the duke of Falmouth in my absence. He sent surveyors to Burleigh twice, to ensure everything was going smoothly. They found the gate had appeared in the wall again, and knew the arrest must have ended, but the House refused to let them in. Falmouth had to go down to Somersetshire himself, and even then the House tried to go against its binding to obey him. It tried to keep Falmouth out, but when he eventually got in, he found your father. Evidently George had been working House magic without the protection of the key, which is what killed him in the end. That’s how he was able to prolong the arrest the way he did—anytime the House’s magic built up and threatened to wreak havoc without a Caretaker to put it to good use, your father siphoned it off himself.”

His Majesty tuts dramatically. “What an unpleasant way to die.”

I ball my hands into fists beneath the table and press, nails digging into soft skin. I need the small pain it brings, to distract me from a larger agony blossoming inside. It’s not just unpleasant, death by House magic. It’s slow and messy and gruesome. And though I cannot think on it now, I can feel that a bright and vital part of me has been ruined by this news. Something young and yielding and fragile has fallen apart within my soul, crumbling into countless irreparable pieces.

A little House magic, a little mortar in your veins, is unpleasant but won’t do too much harm. It’ll be carried off into your blood and diluted, but never really leave you. Add a little more and perhaps it’ll shorten your life—shave five or ten years off when you’re weak with old age and start coughing up grey matter. It’s the mortar that comes back to haunt you, settling in your lungs.

Add more magic still and you may die younger, taken with fits or with madness or with heart failure, as the leftovers of the mortar you’ve absorbed find their way to your heart or your brain. Take in enough at once and it will kill you outright, suffusing your veins, flooding your body with poison.

But whether you’re exposed to a great deal or a little, whether you allow yourself time between doses or not, mortar stays with you. Every bit you add only brings your death nearer. That’s why

the Caretaker’s keys were made—no one’s ever explained to me how their magic works, but they allow their bearer to channel mortar without being harmed. So long as you hold a Caretaker’s key,

House magic passes through you without a drop of mortar staying behind. You can do wondrous things with a Caretaker’s key—mend your House, mend the land, work the weather, encourage the crops.

That’s why I’m here. It’s not just to hear the truth of my father’s death—I’m all Burleigh has left now and I need that key. There’s no one but me to speak for my House, and no one else who ought to be Caretaker now Papa’s gone.

But I won’t let the king see how badly I need this.

“What about Wyn?” I ask instead of mentioning the key, though I’m terrified of the answer I may hear. “What’s happened to my father’s ward?”

The king lifts an indifferent shoulder. “They said there was no sign of the boy. What that means, only Burleigh House knows. Look, now all this is over, can’t we let bygones be bygones, Vi? Chalk it up to a misunderstanding and start again?”

“Do you even hear yourself when you speak?” I ask in disbelief, voice made sharp by the grief I hide. “You sentenced my father to a living death and forced my House to carry out the punishment. The only friend I had is missing, and very probably dead because of your actions. Do any of those sound like forgivable offenses?”

I’m meant to be dancing, but here I am, intentionally treading on my partner’s toes. One of the courtiers, a golden-skinned girl with a mass of loose dark curls, coughs into her handkerchief. I favor her with a vicious smile, all fen predator on the outside when inside I’m still flighty as a marsh hen.

“Did you enjoy the soup course?” I ask her. “I killed the pike myself—stabbed it through the heart this morning.”

The girl dabs at her mouth and sets her kerchief aside. “Well, that explains the aftertaste of rancor. You’re quite a feral thing, aren’t you?”

His Majesty smiles fondly at the two of us, as if we’re a pair of children sitting down to tea with our dolls. “Violet, I don’t think you’ve had the pleasure of making my daughter and heir’s acquaintance before. This is Esperanza, Princess of Wales.”

Behave, Violet, I chide myself. Behave. But my own unspent emotions have me bitter and reckless. “Oh, there’s two of you? How delightful.”

“You were absolutely right about her, Father,” Esperanza says, smiling affectionately at the king. “She’s prickly as a hedgehog. What fun the three of us could have.”

Now I know they’re connected, I can see the similarities between the two of them, though the king is far paler than his daughter. They both have a habit of tilting their head to one side when contemplating a problem—in this case, me. Their dark eyes both spark with a sharp and intent curiosity. And they both seem determined to run rings around one Violet Helena Sterling.

The king beckons to a footman to bring him a pudding. “Do you hear from your mother often?” he asks me, and I’m sure to an outsider his display of interest seems genuine. “I must say, I was surprised to hear you’d taken up residence in this swamp when I turned you out of Burleigh House. I thought you’d have gone to her. Where was it she ended up after the divorce? Austria? Germany?”

“Switzerland.” I can’t disguise the venom in my answer. “She lives in a chateau now, and has two little boys. She writes once a year, at Christmas. I’d rather die than go to her.”

The king smiles, a beatific expression that looks entirely incongruous on his clever face. “How you do hold a grudge. Fortunately Switzerland should never be necessary, as you’ve been blessed with

a doting godfather, who intends to start taking an interest in you again.”

I swallow back yet another biting retort, reminding myself that I’m not here for my own advantage, I’m here for Burleigh. The king picks up his spoon as a footman sets a pudding in front of him. “Would you like to come to court, Violet? Be Esperanza’s companion, perhaps?”

The two of them share a scheming smile.

“No, thank you.” Though I’m trying to be civil, the words still sound tart. “I’d like to go back to Burleigh House.”

“No one’s going back to the House,” His Majesty says around a mouthful of pudding. “It’s completely unmanageable now—refused three new Caretakers. Fact is, the place was in disrepair when your father took it over, and without him, it appears to be dying. I’ve come home from Belgium expressly to put it down.”

The air suddenly feels hot and close, and there’s a ringing in my ears. “What do you mean, dying?”

For once, the king answers in absolute earnest, and there’s pity in his usually well-governed voice. “Burleigh’s failing, after spending so long without a proper Caretaker. It will have to be burned to the ground, like the Sixth House. You know as well as I do how dangerous the Great Houses can be if they fail without a proper channel for their magic, Violet. Yorkshire is a wasteland now because of the mistakes I made with Ripley Castle. I won’t risk that in the West Country. Better to destroy Burleigh, and its pent-up mortar, before it does terrible damage.”

Dex appears with an enormous tray of ices, which one of the footmen hurries to take. Once relieved of his burden, Dex lingers in the doorway, tilting his head at me as if asking a question. But no, I don’t need rescuing. My House, however, surely does.

A good Caretaker puts her House first—before her own life, and far, far before her pride.

I slip from my chair and kneel before His Majesty, not even bothering to hide the angry, despairing tears that fall from my eyes at the thought of Papa’s fate, of Wyn’s face disappearing from view as the House arrest began, of Burleigh House in flames.

Every courtier’s attention is riveted on us. Even the servants are watching.

“In seven years, I haven’t asked you for anything,” I say to the king. “I was content to live a small life and never trouble you, not as your goddaughter, not as a girl whose prospects you destroyed and whose heart you broke. So long as I knew my House was managing, nothing else seemed to matter. But I am begging you now. Let me go back to Burleigh. Give me the summer with it, and if it is not in good health again by fall, then burn it down. But at least let me have a chance first. I was born for this, and you know it.”

The king gives me a narrow look. “What would you do for that chance?”

I swallow, and remember Burleigh House growing a garden of flowers in my bedroom, one winter when I lay ill with a fever wishing for spring to come. “Anything. I’d do anything you ask if you’ll give me the key and let me serve as Caretaker.”

Jed would be horrified if he could hear me. We crossed the country and hid away on the fens because he and Mira hoped to keep me from the king’s clutches. And here I am, bargaining my independence away.

His Majesty smiles languidly and my stomach drops.

I know that look. I’m eight years old again, sitting across from the king as he prepares to win yet another hand of écarté. He always did prefer games of strategy, and all I ever managed to beat him at was Slaps.

“I will never give a Sterling the Caretaker’s key or my trust again,” the king says. “I’m no fool, to make the same mistake twice. But I will let you go home, little Violet. That is all, though.”

I rock back on my heels. “But how will I help without the key? I can’t work House magic without it. What do you expect me to do, talk Burleigh out of its ailments?”

“That’s none of my concern.” His Majesty shrugs. “You’re a resourceful girl, and goodness knows Burleigh’s always taken an uncommon interest in you. Figure something out. And if you manage to restore the House to good health, I expect you to support the Caretaker I choose. More than that, I expect you to convince Burleigh to support my Caretaker.”

When I hesitate, the king leans forward, ready to consolidate his victory. “Either you agree to my terms, or I will do what must be done and torch the place before it makes a ruin of the West Country.”

I don’t like his terms, not one bit, but it will have to be enough for now, this chance to go home.

“I’ll need time alone with the House, to settle it,” I tell him, grasping for any scrap of advantage. “Veto power over your choice of Caretaker, too—I won’t have Burleigh saddled with some incompetent fool.”

The king laces his hands together behind his head, satisfaction written across his face. “Such a Sterling. I’m so glad you came to see me, little Violet. You may be just what Burleigh needs after all.”

“As you say,” I answer, and Esperanza’s eyes narrow. Because what Uncle Edgar doesn’t notice as he turns his attention back to his pudding is that when I look at him, I’m halfway to murder.


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