Elliott / THE DARK KNIGHT
Here lies the start of the journey, both a beginning and an end. The Magician reaches to the heavens for guidance and points toward the paths of greatest potential. From his hand accept the power to shape destiny and the will that mani- fests great change.
The Tower of London housed many royal secrets. The chamber above the dungeons held a carefully guarded one.
A narrow shaft of sunlight streamed in through an arrow loop in one wall, creating more shadows than light in the cavernous room. There, in a place few men entered willingly, a man dressed in long, dark robes stood before a row of dusty shelves. Searching for something, he moved into the light. The brightness made his blond hair appear an angelic halo of curls, a disarming contrast to the inky darkness of his robes that shifted and flowed around him like a living thing; at once bloodred, then black, then the deep blue color of midnight. He leaned closer to the cluttered shelves, pushed aside a dried frog and a stack of parchment scrolls to lift a tarnished metal chest.
“The signs are favorable, Sefu,” Mordecai told the black cat who sat staring at him from the sun-warmed flagstones. He walked toward a scarred wooden table with the chest cradled in the crook of his arm, polishing the lid with the wide cuff of his sleeve. Beneath thick layers of grime and tarnish, the metal began to gleam the color of bright silver and he caught the faint scent of cedar. His fingers traced intricate etchings of moons and stars. “Fate may be my master, but I shall soon wield the power of destiny. Our visitor will arrive by nightfall. He will prove the truth of my words.”
“Your visitor has already arrived.”
The soft, lethal voice startled Mordecai and the box clattered onto the table. He glanced first at the cat, then toward the deepest shadows of the room where the figure of a gray-clad man emerged like smoke from mist. There was only one man who could catch him so off guard, so unaware of another’s presence.
Recovering his composure, he picked up the box to make sure it wasn’t damaged, then greeted his visitor with a genuine smile. “You will forgive my clumsiness, I trust? I did not expect to see a creature of night before the sun set.”
The shadowy figure continued toward him. “I am what you have made of me, Mordecai; a creature of nightmares.”
There was no arguing with the truth and Mordecai inclined his head to acknowledge as much. Many men would consider this the worst sort of nightmare, coming face-to-face with a man most often referred to simply as “The Assassin.” Few lived to tell of such a meeting, but Mordecai was not afraid. If anything, he felt a certain measure of pride in his creation.
The man who stood before him bore little resemblance to the angry, frightened boy who had appeared on his doorstep all those years ago. Even then, Dante Chiavari had claimed only one purpose in life: to destroy the man who had murdered his parents and stolen his birthright. It was Mordecai who had decided that the best way to serve justice to one monster was to create another.
Dante had proven himself an apt pupil. He had learned how to study his prey, how to memorize every habit and routine to find the weakness that would prove fatal. Moreover, he had honed an expert’s knowledge of every substance that could kill or debilitate, along with the precise formulas required to accomplish either goal. But poisons were not the only way to kill. Long hours of practice had turned Dante’s natural talent with blades into another deadly skill. He had earned the right to be feared.
Even more effective than Dante’s sudden, silent arrival at the Tower was his appearance. The color of his garments blended well with the shadows, but not well enough to conceal their unusual style. He wore the garb of a Muslim warrior, an infidel transported from the Holy Lands to the cold shores of England.
Although it was an odd choice of garments for an Italian nobleman, for a man of his profession it was practical. The loose, flowing djellaba concealed many weapons of his trade, with only the ebony handle of a dagger revealed above the sash around his waist. The length of fabric drawn down from his headdress was fashioned to protect a desert dweller from the sun and sands, but served equally well as a disguise. All Mordecai could see of his face were eyes the color of emeralds; a cold, glittering color that reflected nothing of his soul.
A card appeared in The Assassin’s hand, made of stiff parchment and illuminated with a painting that depicted a magician in long robes with one hand reaching toward the heavens and the other resting on a scarred wooden table. The face of the magician was an unmistakable portrait of Mordecai.
“I am curious to know why you have summoned me to your lair,” Dante said, as he tossed the card onto the table. “We were not to meet again until I returned from Venice. Are there new developments?”
Mordecai bit back a hasty retort. He reminded himself that Dante was unlike any other mercenary in King Edward’s hire or any apprentice he had trained before or since. He remained silent while Dante drew the scarf away from his face.
There was a rumor at court that only dead men had laid eyes on The Assassin’s face. An exaggeration, of course, since there were a few at court who were familiar with the Italian exile named Dante Chiavari, but only a handful of people knew that the exile and The Assassin were one and the same. Even in his guise as an exile, people tended to avoid him. When Dante turned his full attention on someone, there was a dark intensity to his character, an almost visible force that made people nervous. Still, he had long ago mastered the art of disguising his true nature as well as his face. Few would believe how easily he could blend into a crowd when he put his mind to it, especially since most people would say his face was one that they would remember.
Dark stubble covered the line of his jaw while deep brackets framed a hard, unyielding mouth. The profile of his face followed Roman lines more than his Venetian ancestry, and he had the look of a man who never laughed and rarely smiled. The business of death was hardly a laughing matter, so the lack of humor in such a man was no surprise. Judged separately there was nothing remarkable about his features, yet somehow they combined with those unusual green eyes to create a darkly handsome face.
More unsettling was the look in his eyes as his gaze slid away to survey the chamber. A predator was always wary of his surroundings, watching for unexpected dangers, constantly calculating distances and defenses. And like all predators, there were no ghostly shadows lurking in his hooded eyes, no demons of guilt. He was exactly what Mordecai had set out to make all those years ago: a killer without regrets, one who killed simply to survive in his world. What stood before him exceeded all of Mordecai’s expectations.
“Everything is in readiness for your trip to Venice?” he ventured.
“Do you really have to ask?” Dante moved to one of the arrow slits cut through the thick walls and glanced out at the sky, then turned to face Mordecai again. He leaned his shoulder against the wall and looked deceptively relaxed now that he did not have to watch his back. “Everything is proceeding as planned and we leave on the morning tide, as I am sure you already know.”
“Then nothing has changed to affect your plans in Venice,” Mordecai said. “Your petitions will be held until the Council completes an investigation into the murders, but they will revisit the issue soon enough. Once everyone is free of Lorenzo’s blackmail, the restoration of your name and birthright will be in everyone’s best interests. Still, once you return to England, it will take months for the Doge to recall you from exile, months in which you must be seen in public here to dispel the notion that you have set foot in Venice anytime in the last decade. Have you given thought to what you will do in the months you are waiting for the Council’s ruling?”
“I have given thought to what I will not do.” Dante folded his arms across his chest, a clear sign that he suspected what was coming and didn’t plan to go along with it. “There is nothing the king could offer that would tempt me. I am done with that life.”
“That life is not quite done with you.” Mordecai held up one hand. “Nay, do not argue just yet. There is good reason that you should listen to what I have to say.”
He opened the silver box and removed the cards that lay inside, their backs identical to the one on the table, their faces as unique as the people they represented. The Tarot was an old art, one little known in this country and even less understood. Even his stoic protégé’s expression betrayed a touch of curiosity when Mordecai began to arrange the cards facedown on the table.
“King Edward relies upon my skills to reveal the future,” Mordecai said at last. “Men who practice dangerous politics know the risks they take and you were the consequence. For many years you have enforced the king’s judgments without question or hesitation. Blind justice. You involved yourself in the affairs of men whose politics meant naught to you, whose deaths were nothing more than a means to an end.”
“If you are trying to tell me that I have made enemies, I am well aware of the fact,” Dante said. “’Tis the reason I have safeguarded my identity all these years, so they would not use my sister or anyone else whose life I value against me.”
Mordecai turned over one of the cards, knowing it would be the one that Dante had just returned, the card that showed his own image on its face. “Your fate and the king’s have become intertwined over the years. The fate of one woman in particular will affect you both in equal measure, but she is a scale that cannot balance. The weight will fall on either one side or the other.”
Dante said nothing for a time, and then he released a deep sigh. “How could one woman be equally important to an assassin and a king?”
“The ties were so faint that I missed them at first.” Mordecai traced the edge of one card, then turned it over. The card depicted a soldier stealing seven swords. “Seven of Edward’s ten earls hold Marcher lands in Wales, and there is another rebellion brewing there. The taxes and soldiers Edward demands for the fight in France will soon push the native Welsh beyond the limits of their patience. The king must be careful not to alienate his Marcher lords or they will also turn against him and join the Welsh natives rather than fight them, and then he will lose Wales altogether. This I have known all along. What I did not see until recently was your involvement.”
Mordecai continued to turn the cards over as he arranged them into a pattern, each stiff parchment card making a soft snapping sound against the table as he released the corner. Soon the colorful pictures covered the table, portraits of knights and queens, common soldiers and maidens, as well as cryptic symbols and sinister-looking creatures. Mordecai knew exactly what each figure represented. He laid down the picture of a long-dead Welsh prince, the last great ruler of Wales and the last line of its royal family. “Llewellyn’s heirs prove the most troublesome in their bid to stir a rebellion and regain his crown, although his direct line is now all but extinct. Even his distant relatives have been quiet of late, but now one of Edward’s Marcher lords has discovered an heir that Edward overlooked: a girl who is Llewellyn’s great-granddaughter through her mother’s side.
“Avalene de Forshay is her name,” he said, as his finger traced the picture of a blond-haired queen dressed all in red. “As a female she would be irrelevant except that her father is Baron Weston, an English Marcher lord who controls key lands between those lords who remain steadfastly loyal to Edward and those whose loyalty wavers. If she marries another Marcher lord, Baron Weston would prove a powerful English ally to her husband while her Welsh blood will rally the natives to her side. Any son she bears will have the strongest blood claim to the Welsh throne. She is the perfect bride for any of the Marcher families, and the most ambitious one has found her out.”
Mordecai flipped over a card that showed a forbidding tower set atop a rocky outcropping. “The Segrave family has vast holdings in Wales, and the king is negotiating for a marriage that will give the Segraves a rich English bride, more English lands, and another English title. Unfortunately, the potential groom is not a man given to sit idle while his future is decided for him. Faulke Segrave wants a break with England and knows a bride with noble Welsh blood is his best weapon to rally the native rebels to his cause. Add to that the benefit of an alliance with Baron Weston, and the balance of power would tip in the Segraves’ favor. Faulke will try to seize Weston’s daughter and force a marriage. You will make certain that does not happen.”
“’Tis obvious Avalene de Forshay poses a problem for King Edward if she weds into the family of any Marcher lord,” Dante mused, “but I still do not understand how this affects me.”
“That was the mystery.” Mordecai’s finger tapped one of the cards that showed a mounted knight holding a gold chalice. The face barely showed from beneath the elaborate helmet, but on closer examination the knight’s green eyes and profile matched Dante’s exactly. “You should not be here, yet to remove you changes the entire outcome. As you say, the effect on the king is obvious. If Faulke Segrave weds Avalene de Forshay, the Segraves will convince the other Marcher lords to side with them against the king and Wales will be lost.
“There are others who could be sent in your stead whose skills would also ensure this marriage never happens. However, only your presence will somehow guarantee Faulke’s marriage to an English bride. This matter is as important to the king as your business in Venice, and he will stop at nothing to ensure events play out in his favor.”
“I believe you are dangerously close to insulting me,” Dante drawled.
Startled, Mordecai looked up to find Dante’s eyes had narrowed. “I assure you, there is no insult in this matter.”
Dante shook his head. “I said that I wanted nothing more to do with the king’s intrigues and I meant it. Yet do you really think I have so little loyalty that I would need some coercion to do this last job for Edward? Especially now that I know all of Wales is at stake?”
Mordecai’s brows furrowed. “What are you talking about?”
“I can only assume that Edward intends to make some dire threat to make certain I carry out this assignment. I find it insulting that you or he would think I needed persuasion.”
“Ah, yes, I can see how you might misunderstand the situation.” Mordecai waved his hand toward Dante, subconsciously dismissing those concerns as he turned his attention again to the cards. It really was amazing how they fell into such similar patterns each time. “Your involvement has nothing to do with persuasion and everything to do with self-preservation. If this girl weds Faulke Segrave or if she dies by the hand of another assassin, you will never leave England alive. That is how your fate is connected.”
Dante said nothing for a time, then he cleared his throat. “I should have known there was more to the story. Still, I am curious. How or why should I die if I never meet these people?”
“How or why does the sun rise each morning?” Mordecai snapped, his patience worn thin. “How or why does the sun warm the earth without touching it? Everything in this life affects everything that lives. Everything is connected.”
“My apologies,” Dante said stiffly.
“Of course, I could be lying,” Mordecai taunted, as his lips curved in a sly smile. “Perhaps that is the coercion you suspect, my knowledge that you will believe your life depends upon doing this job just because I tell you it is so.”
“You have taught me to lie, but you have never lied to me,” Dante said quietly. “If this woman’s death will avert a war in Wales and the loss of hundreds or even thousands of lives, then I will make certain she dies. If Faulke Segrave must marry an Englishwoman to put an end to his treason, then I will convince him he must do so. I would do this even if my own life did not depend upon it.”
Mordecai rolled his eyes. “You have no need to convince me. I never doubted your loyalty. However, you may want to contain your enthusiasm until you hear the whole of it.” He again tapped the picture of the girl. “Avalene de Forshay’s death will solve nothing. Quite the contrary, it is imperative she remain alive until you convince Faulke Segrave to choose the English bride. Your own fate does not change until that time. Only then will you have a choice of what to do with the girl.”
“A choice?” Dante echoed.
“Faulke Segrave must remain alive,” Mordecai said. “The role he will play in convincing the Marcher lords to remain loyal to King Edward is just as critical as the role he would play in convincing them to rebel. Avalene does not have to die either, but she cannot remain in England and she cannot remain marriageable.”
“Fine. If she causes no trouble over the matter, I will offer her sanctuary in a convent.”
Mordecai nodded, then gazed upward and affected a thoughtful expression. “The king would feel better if she were wed to a man who has no ambitions in En- gland or Wales. A man who lives far from England, one who will have few reasons to allow his wife to return here.”
“Absolutely not.” Dante held up both of his hands outward, as if pushing away from the idea. “I will take Avalene de Forshay to some faraway convent in the Adriatic, but I will not take an English wife. My wife will be a Venetian, a woman with an old and powerful family whose members will protect my wife and children should something happen to me.”
Mordecai smiled. “I thought that would be your reaction.”
“An Englishwoman, especially a troublesome one who is half Welsh?” He shook his head. “That’s the last woman I would choose for a bride.”
“Aye, that is what I told Edward,” Mordecai said agreeably. “He even offered to provide a handsome dowry, but I told him you would not be swayed. No matter. Marriage or murder, mistress or nun, the girl is yours to do with as you wish once Segrave is convinced his marriage prospects lie elsewhere. The only condition is that you must make certain she never falls into the hands of anyone who could use her to further their ambitions in Wales.”
“You have my word that she will cause no trouble in Wales or anywhere else,” Dante murmured, with a bow so slight that it was little more than an arrogant tilt of his head. “If she proves troublesome, she will not live long. If she proves reasonable, she will disappear into a convent where none but I will know of her existence. Regardless of her fate, she will not return to England.”
“Excellent.” Mordecai rubbed his hands together, as much to warm them against the cold as to congratulate himself on a job well done. Still, he could not resist one last prod. “Be aware that this woman is not what you expect. The weights that balance her fate are like none other where you are concerned. Remember that she is innocent of any treason, as innocent as you once were when the Council exiled you from Venice. Can your conscience bear the burden if you must kill her?”
Excerpted from The Dark Knight by Elizabeth Elliott. Copyright © 2012 by Elizabeth Elliott. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.