The skull smashed to the ground like a Ming Dynasty funerary urn under a barbarian invader’s boot.
Sharon drew in a sharp breath, lowered the candle in her flame, and looked down at its cracked jaw, hanging awkwardly from one hinge. She moved farther away from the crypt wall.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
Sharon hoped that wouldn’t curse her.
The ancient bones nested too precariously in their niches and nets of dust, and she could not afford to anger the spirits of the dead anymore.
She pressed on down the dark tunnel. What more could she do? They were waiting for her, and she couldn’t be late.
She heard them before she saw them, before she saw the dim glow of their lanterns and candles. She heard the thrum of their voices. They echoed in the stone tunnels. One or two chanted their prayers as they waited, preparing themselves. Several whispered conspiratorially. Marilyn tittered nervously.
She walked into the puddle of their firelight, deposited her own candle on the floor.
They greeted her with tight smiles. Adam in his prayers nodded to her with pausing for breath. Robert was too lost in the prayer, eyes shut, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet, to notice her. Their leader beckoned her over.
“Are you ready?” Charlene asked. Charlene was dressed in leathers, her hood drawn up to hide her red curls.
“I’m ready,” Sharon confirmed. She didn’t mentioned the skull that she had broken on the way. It was a bad omen. Their mission could afford no bad omens. She hoped it boded poorly only for her and not for the group. Her own misfortune she could take. A misfortune that befell her friends, further wounded the city, she could not withstand.
Charlene grasped her arm, smiling at her, then glanced back at Adam and Robert. “We will need the god tonight if we are to succeed,” she muttered. “Have you prayed?”
“I’ve prayed.” To the goddess she had prayed, the goddess of the night who could cloak her in stealth. She had prayed before she’d left. She had broken the skull.
“You look ill,” Marilyn said. “What’s wrong?”
“We’re going to kill the governor.”
“You have to stomach it, Sharon,” Charlene warned. “We’re counting on you.”
“Can you do it?”
“He must die.”
“But can you do it?”
“I must try.”
“Then we go,” Charlene said. “Adam? Robert?”
Adam touched Robert on the arm, and Robert opened his eyes.
“Are you ready?” Charlene asked them.
Adam nodded, but he looked green.
Robert put his hand on the hilt of one of his three daggers. He also had a bottle of fire, several vials of poison, and a miniature bow and arrows to go along with it. Sharon once asked him why he carried so many weapons with him, and he had curtly replied that it was always best to be prepared—for anything. It was a logic that she couldn’t refute. She had not asked again.
“Stay behind me,” Sharon warned. She picked up her candle once more and led them all from the vault. She knew these tunnels as well as any mouse knows their burrows. Her path took them into the servants’ passages of the governor’s mansion. She didn’t know how many of the servants had discovered that these passages were connected to the crypts. She imagined some of them knew.
The governor did not.
Silent as shadows they passed along the corridor, Sharon praying that they would meet no one. Most of the servants were abed now, as was the governor. She would be ordinarily too. She had warned one of the servants to keep away from this part of the mansion’s passageways if she could. Sharon would not kill Meredith even if she should stumble across her here. She counted Meredith a friend, had trusted her with that secret message, and would trust her again if she had had to come to this part of the mansion all the same. She would send her away. She hoped that Charlene would allow that.
She would have to allow that.
But they did not meet Meredith. They were fortunate and met no one. They gathered together at the entrance to the governor’s bedchamber.
He was a bachelor, but a promiscuous. They had discussed what they would do if he should not be alone tonight. They had planned for several reactions from a mistress or prostitute.
Charlene pressed a finger to her lips, shifted her grip on her gold-hilted dagger.
This was it.
Tonight they would do it.
After months of planning.
Charlene found the handle of the hidden doorway.