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Addya Dace pulled the chain hanging from the ceiling in the dark corner of the hidden corridor. The servant door into Countess Talia Yarek's study popped open an inch but drifted closed within seconds. After tugging the chain again, she held the door open enough to peek through. Red velvet bedecked with beaded embroidery covered the windows. A squashy black divan with an army of satin cushions sat against the wall and served as the chair for a low, delicately carved desk. The stench of heavy perfume mingled with the homely smell of burning wood. Light from the crackling fire in the fireplace provided enough illumination to avoid tripping and finding the floor with her beak.

A light push on the door opened it with no further noise. Addya crept into the room. The servant door swung closed behind her, making every muscle tense. Her talons clicked on the stone-tiled floor and sounded like snare drum beats in her ear.

Espionage is for the mammals. She winced and slowed her pace. To be discovered now was to invite execution. Why hadn't the king sent a spy to act like a courier instead of a courier to act like a spy?

The trek to the desk took half of eternity. Addya settled on the divan and looked at the carved woodwork. Where would she even begin? Was it too much to hope that the evidence was in a box marked "Plans for Betraying the King?"

She ground her beak and huffed. The sooner she found the papers, the sooner she could go home.

Addya slid open the drawer in front of her. The scraping sound would undoubtedly be heard all the way in the capital. She hissed. A couple uncut quills, a few corked ink bottles, sealing wax, and a stack of fine paper were the only occupants. She rifled through the papers to confirm they were blank before lifting up on the drawer as she slid it back into place.

The drawer on her right wasn't quite flush with the front of the desk. She tugged on the brass handle and peeked through the opening at a stack of papers. Lines marked on the top one looked something like a map. Battle plans? The final division of property among the conspirators? A harmless map of Aelstria and neighboring Schafland?

Addya slid the paper out and tilted it toward the dull firelight. It was a recognizable map of the continent all right, but Schafland no longer existed and the capital province was expanded and renamed "Yarekia." Other borderlines had also been redrawn and showed the influence of the names of other counts and countesses.

The second paper in the pile was a listing of nobility and their forces divided into two columns, one marked "Traitors" and the other marked "Loyalists." His Majesty topped the first list.

Addya's eyes widened. Oh, yes. This is indeed what he wanted.

The third paper, a simple letter, contained only veiled references to a meeting somewhere, but it bore Countess Yarek's signature and seal. That would be handy for a handwriting comparison in case the lady pleaded innocence. Addya folded the papers into quarters and tucked them into her diplomatic pouch. When she pushed the drawer closed, a cacophonous clang threatened to wake the dead on the other side of the world.

Addya cringed. Of course, it had to be rigged with an alarm.

She bolted for the servant door and hoped the door release on this side had a sign on it.

The main door made of carved oak swung open with a loud bang. Steel scraped on leather.

"You! Be still and identify yourself!" a deep, masculine voice demanded.

In a single movement, Addya spun and drew her sword. Her crest feathers whipped around, and the beads tapped her beak before they swung back into place. She stood erect and turned her shoulder toward the heavily muscled guard. He wore a black tabard and had feathers that could only be so thoroughly black through prodigious use of dye.

He came on guard, her mirror image. "Stand down, Courier."

She drew her knife right-handed and straightened her left arm, extending the rapier toward him. "In the name of His Majesty, King Evryt Lixine, clear the way."

Somewhere far overhead, a huge bell tolled.

That can't be good.

His eyes narrowed, and he hissed. The guard tapped her sword aside and charged in.

Addya pivoted on her front toes and brought her right foot around while she retracted her sword arm and used the knife to parry the guard's rapier. Twisting a second time, she reversed position, used her knife to keep his sword at bay, and thrust her sword at his upper chest. The point pressed through the cloth tabard and met the slightest resistance before driving into his body a finger-width below his collarbone.

She yanked the blade loose. The guard staggered back. He dropped his weapon and pressed his hand against the wound. A wheezing noise came from his chest with every labored breath. With the help of a skilled physician, he might survive, but she'd be dead if she didn't get moving.

Tightening her grip on the hilts of her weapons, Addya leapt over the fallen guard and raced down the hall. The corridor ended in the main hallway that ran north and south through the second level of the castle.

The map the king had encouraged her to memorize flashed into her mind. There were stairs at the north and south ends. The gate out of here was to the north.

Addya turned left. Armor and weapons clanked up the stairs. That sounded like more trouble than she was prepared for. She jerked to a stop and recalled the map again. The south stairs would drop her near the kitchen, which led to an outside door. If she couldn't get out the gate, she could scale the wall.

She whirled and ran south.

The large, exquisitely carved door to Countess Talia Yarek's personal chambers opened with a terrific groan, and the great lady herself came out. Her Excellency's ample bulk filled out a heavily embroidered, brilliant green gown that would have fit any normal-sized Aelstrian like a tent. Gold beads and glass-beaded chains were clipped to the long, tan feathers of her head crest. Even her otherwise pristine upper beak had been pierced along the edge with what appeared to be diamond studs.

Addya ran past the Countess. Overbearing perfume permeated the air around her. Addya continued toward the rear stairs while the woman hollered and shrieked incomprehensible outrage. Four guards stomped up the stairs and barred the way. Like the one gasping his last breaths in the Countess's study, each guard sported dyed plumage as black as their tabards. As a unit, they drew their swords.

Countess Yarek clicked her jeweled beak. "There's no way out, Courier. Surrender and hand over what you've stolen."

Addya looked back at the Countess and the five guards coming from the north. "An interesting offer, Your Excellency, but I must decline."

With nine to one odds against her, she'd have to find a way to level the field. On the east side, a narrow corridor led to a window. According to the map, there'd be a servant door down that way, too. If she could situate herself, the guards would only be able to come at her one at a time, two if they wanted to risk foiling each other's blade work. With a little luck, she might even find the servant door. Then she could sneak down the hidden passages to the kitchen and out, if guards didn't box her in.

Addya darted into the eastern hallway.

The Countess's raspy laugh echoed off the stonework. "There's no way out for you there."

She looked at the red glass window. There was no locking bolt. The catch for the servant door wasn't marked.

Spinning back to the opening, Addya snapped into the erect posture of her favorite rapier style. The walls were only a hand-length to either side of her. There'd be no room for circling motions in here. As the first guard reached the opening of the narrow corridor, she settled instead into the half-crouched form the humans preferred, with her sword hand down near her left hip and the knife at a near right angle to it up at shoulder height. Although not as graceful and precise as Aelstrian Circle, the human style would serve her better in this space.

The guard, a young Aelstrian who hardly appeared old enough to have fledged properly, stepped into the hallway and stood tall, holding his left arm straight out from the shoulder and his right hand back almost to his chest. His shoulders were too square to her and the fencing instructor in her soul wanted to call a hold so she could correct his form.

Addya blew out a breath. "Back out of this, lad. This fight's not for you."

His eyes narrowed. He stepped in, aiming the sword point at her eyeball.

The dueling birds image was one of the original concept designs for the cover, but it proved to be too wide for the cover.