The Hollow Crown: A Novel of Crosspointe

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9780451463395: The Hollow Crown: A Novel of Crosspointe
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The fourth exciting installment in the tumultuous world of Crosspointe

After the murders of the king and queen, the island empire of Crosspointe is on the verge of chaos. The ruthless Lord Chancellor has taken the throne and made slaves of most of the royal family. Now, in order to sabe the country they love, the king's heirs are determihed to rally whatever allies they have left and overthrow the Lord Chancellor- before the Jutras invade.

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About the Author:

Bestselling writer Diana Pharaoh Francis has written several popular fantasy series. The Path trilogy, which includes Path of Fate (nominated for the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award), Path of Honor and Path of Blood, is epic fantasy. She has also written the Crosspointe Chronicles, including The Cipher, The Black Ship, The Turning Tide, and The Hollow Crown. She also writes The Horngate Witches series, Bitter Night (nominated for the RT Best Urban Fantasy 2010), Crimson Wind (Nominated for the RT best Urban Fantasy Heroine, 2011), and Shadow City (a Top Pick at RT), and Blood Winter. Her latest series is the Diamond City Magic books, beginning with Trace of Magic, which also earned an RT top pick and a nomination for Best Independent Urban Fantasy novel. The second book is Edge of Dreams, also a RT Top Pick, also nominated for Best Independent Fantasy Novel. Whisper of Shadows is the third book in the series. Diana has also launched the Mission: Magic series with the short romantic paranormal novel The Incubus Job. 

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Welcome to Crosspointe, the hub of the Inland Sea, where gold runs like water, and the balance of politics shifts uneasily between the monarchy, the majicars, and the Merchants’ Guild—and land where dangerous majick courses through the black waters....

Chapter 1

Margaret had no intention of dying today, though her pursuers had other ideas on the subject and, just at the moment, the odds were in their favor.

She ran down a flight of steps, taking three at a time. Her skirts tangled her legs and she snarled silently as she lost her footing and twisted her ankle. She fell against the wall and pain spun around her leg in rings of fire. She bit down on her cry, tasting blood, then plunged onward, clutching her satchel tightly to her stomach. She could hear the voices of the Crown Shields too close behind. Their armor clanked and their booted feet echoed.

At the bottom of the stairway she paused, trying to quiet her gasping pants. She peered around the corner. The long gallery was empty but for a scattering of pedestals holding bronze and marble statuary, a line of plushly cushioned benches along the left wall, and a series of doors recessed inside pointed archways marching along opposite. Margaret rubbed her knuckles across her tense lips as she glanced over her shoulder. Her mind raced.

She couldn’t afford to hide and wait for the Crown Shields to give up the chase. Not that they would. The mother-cracking regent would tear the castle down stone by stone to find her. And to add insult to stupidity, she’d let them herd her into the sovereign wing, which left her precious few escape routes.

But while she was out of time, she wasn’t helpless. In an instant she settled on her plan. She fled purposefully, threading her way through the gallery as fast as she could manage on her throbbing ankle. Her back itched as she listened for the guards to thunder down the stairs and find her.

She reached the other side before they spilled into the gallery. The noise of their arrival echoed. There was a crashing sound as a statue shattered on the parquet floor. Margaret ducked into a narrow cleft artfully concealed behind a display of lacquered Chaturakian armor. She went quickly to the door at the end and slid through, pulling it firmly closed behind her.

She paused in the shadowed corridor, listening. While the gallery outside had been deserted, the servant hallways were much more likely to be busy, no matter what time it was. She breathed a sight of relief. No one was lurking, thank Chayos. Licking her dry lips, Margaret turned right. Her plan was insanely risky, but she had little choice. She was trapped.

This passageway had plain wood walls and a rough slate floor worn smooth by hundreds of years of scuffling feet and trundled carts. Sylveth sconces lit by majick cast a dim yellow glow every thirty feet or so. Several tall cupboards lined the narrow space, with three plain doors interspersed between. Margaret tried the handles. The doors were barred from within, and a tingle in her fingers revealed they were also protected with powerful wards. Each led into the opulent quarters of the regent—formerly the lord chancellor—and his wick-sucking wife. Just months ago these rooms had belonged to the king and queen. But both had been murdered.

Margaret slammed the shutters on the memories before they could surge up and overwhelm her. She couldn’t afford the distraction, especially with the Crown Shields breathing down her neck. But one day, she promised herself again, she would find out who was responsible for killing her parents and cut them into tiny little pieces. Starting with the regent.

She tensed, hearing the murmur of voices and the soft metallic clink of armor and weapons. She edged to the corner of the cross-corridor and peered around it. A full squad of twelve Blackwatch stood in a cluster on the right side, talking avidly together in low voices. Margaret drew back out of sight, biting hard on the insides of her cheeks. She’d expected—no, she’d hoped—there would only be a pair. Even with a bad ankle, she could have handled two without undue trouble. No one ever thought anyone so small and fragile-looking could possibly be a threat. They would let her approach, and then she’d scratch them with one of the poisoned rings she wore. They’d died within grains.

Margaret drew a deep breath. She had counted on the regent sending his personal guard running after her instead of the Crown Shields. He trusted the Blackwatch more and as much as he wanted what she carried, it should have been a safe assumption. But apparently he was feeling too nervous to risk trusting his safetly to the men and women who’d served the man he murdered. She turned and started back the way she’d come. But it was too late. Light wedged into the passage through the door she’d shut so firmly behind her.

She slid into the shadows beside a tall cabinet, pulling her skirts close. Her chest tightened and her hands clenched on the leather strap of her satchel. There was nowhere left to run. She was going to be caught. Quietly she lifted it over her head, and stretched up on tiptoe. The cabinet was too tall. She dropped her arms, tucking the strap beneath the top flap, and then lifted it high again. She rested it against the wood, and then gave a leap, thrusting hard with her fingers at the same time. The satchel jolted and dropped out of sight behind the tall molding.

Margaret froze. But the soft thud went unnoticed over the sounds of the Crown Shields and Blackwatch. Sooner or later they would find it, but it would mean a little delay and she wasn’t going to make anything easier for the cracking regent to get his hands on it if she could help it.

She drew a breath. She’d known in sneaking into the castle this time that there was a better than good chance she’d get caught. Her brother had forbidden her to try.

Margaret smothered a cynical snort. Ryland was younger by five seasons and still wet behind the ears when it came to the dirty work of politics. Never mind that he was the crown-appointed prelate and supposedly the regent’s equal in the regency of Crosspointe. Just like every other member of the royal family, he was in hiding with a price on his head. The regent had always been a greedy, ambitious bastard and he planned to keep the throne for himself, even if it meant destroying Crosspointe. Besides, she knew what had to be done and she wasn’t going to sit around and wait for her baby brother to give her permission, especially on anything so crucial.

She twisted her rings around her fingers. Each one held at least one poisoned needle. A flick of her thumb or a pressed gem was all that was required to pop them free. They were the best first defense against a superior force. Margaret could take out two or three attackers before they knew what was happening. She touched the six short throwing blades tucked into her hair. Her entire body bristled with weapons. She would not be taken easily. Her teeth clenched. These were the same men and women who should have been protecting her and her family. She felt no guilt about killing them. In fact—she smiled with predatory anticipation—it was good to finally make a stand.

The Blackwatch squad must have heard the Crown Shields entering the corridor, but they were too well trained to desert their post. That, and the two forces despised each other. The Blackwatch would never deign to acknowledge their rivals, thereby crediting the Crown Shields with being any sort of threat. But it still left Margaret trapped between the two, and the Blackwatch would come running at the sound of a scuffle. She’d be chewed between their jaws.

Boots scuffled as the Crown Shields organized themselves. At the same time, Margaret came aware of the rumble of a trundle cart coming from the north side of the cross -passage. The voices of the Crown Shields and the Blackwatch broke off suddenly. The jolting grumble of the cart drew closer. Margaret pressed herself into the triangle of shadow between the wall and the cabinet, knowing it was futile. Whoever was pushing the cart could not help but see her.

“Halt! Name yourself,” a Blackwatch soldier demanded.

From up the corridor, the sound of the wheels stopped and a husky feminine voice answered the Blackwatch’s challenge. “I’m Ellyn. Mistress Alanna sent me to fetch refreshments.”

There was a note of annoyance in her voice, as if she thought her interrogator should have known that. Margaret’s mouth twitched.

“Get on with it, then,” answered the brusque voice.

Ellyn didn’t answer, but the cart began to rumble forward into the intersection of the passages. Her blond head turned curiously, her gaze settling almost instantly on Margaret. There was a slight widening of her eyes and then her attention flicked away to the Crown Shields.

Margaret tensed, waiting for the lady’s maid to scream an alarm. But unbelievably, Ellyn continued on without a word. She disappeared and the Crown Shields rustled to life again, shifting instantly into a businesslike march.

They started past her, none looking to the left or right. Swords swung on their hips as they marched two by two. Some were armed with crossbows, others with pikes. Each wore chain shirts, helmets, plate gauntlets, and greaves. The first three pairs passed before a sudden wave of force rippled through the cross corridor where the Blackwatch were stationed.

Margaret’s ears popped painfully as wild brambles of majick lashed her skin from head to toe. She gasped and tears burned her eyes at the sudden pain of the majickal attack. Her head knocked against the cupboard loudly as she jerked backward. But there was no escaping it. The Crown Shields shouted and thrust apart as thorny majick whipped across them. Purple welts rose on their skin. One dropped to her knees, screaming and grabbing her eyes. Another clutched his cods and moaned as he collapsed unconscious. Margaret sucked in a sharp breath. She wasn’t the target—or at least, not the only one. Who was the majicar and what did he want?

But she had no time to consider the question. There were ten Crown Shields left, and three had already seen their prey. Ignoring the flailing majick, they closed on her. She pressed back with artful fear, letting her mouth fall open and raising trembling hands. She let tears roll down her cheeks and made a little whimpering sound. More majick struck and she flinched dramatically. They lowered their weapons and moved closer.

She didn’t lunge. She waited for them like a spider in a web. The sylveth lights flickered and dimmed, then flared brilliantly and faded to sparks, casting the corridor into murky darkness. She released the needles on three rings. When the first Crown Shield grabbed her wrist, Margaret shook and staggered, letting her knees buckle as if overwhelmed by pain. Her twisted ankle made her performance all too real. An arm came around her and she grasped it as if to balance herself, then pressed her hand to the shoulder of one and gripped the hand of the other. The poison was quick and ugly. The two Shields spasmed and dropped to the floor in convulsions. They were dead within grains.

The chaos and the dying lights kept anyone from noticing. More majick snapped, and now she smelled burning flesh and hair. She didn’t waste time. As more Crown Shields moved into range, she poisoned them. Each movement was calculated and methodical. When there were only two left, she snatched a dropped crossbow and snapped away a bolt. It burrowed through the throat of the taller man. That left one.

He turned, searching for her. Blood ran from wounds in his scalp and face, and even in the gloom he looked shaken and angry. He leveled his pike and strode toward her over the bodies of his fallen comrades. Margaret pulled a throwing knife from her hair. The light sputtered and brightened for a moment. She saw the curved gleam along the edge of the pike’s blade and a flickering shine on the Crown Shield’s breastplate. His eyes were black holes in a rectangle of shadow. Her fingers flicked with practiced ease as she flung her blade. It bit deep into his right eye. He dropped with a clatter.

She scanned the carnage, rubbing her hand absently at a tickle on her cheek. Her palm came away sticky and wet. Blood. It trickled freely from a wound that ran from her eyebrow almost to her chin. Suddenly it burned like fire. Her mouth tightened and she wiped her hand on her skirt.

A husky female voice from the cross corridor startled her. “You’d better come quick if you plan to get away.”

Margaret spun to face the maid who stood in the opening. “Who are you?”

“I’m a lady’s maid for Mistress Alanna. Are you coming?”

“What did you do to the squad of Blackwatch? Hit them with pillows?” Margaret asked. Ellyn might be a lady’s maid, but that wasn’t all she was. The explosion of majick had come from somewhere and there was no other likely culprit.

“Yes. That is exactly what I’ve done,” Ellyn said with breezy insincerity. “But we’re wasting time. If you want help to get away, now is the time. Otherwise I should be about my business. M’lady Alanna will want her feet rubbed.” She made a face.

“Why would you help me?”

“Perhaps because I would do anything to avoid touching M’lady’s revolting feet. Who knows? I may be hoping to earn a splendid reward, Princess Margaret.”

That Ellyn knew who she was should have startled Margaret, but it didn’t. Something about the other woman told Margaret that she knew a whole lot more than she ought to. “I wouldn’t count on it. The regent has made paupers of the entire royal family.”

That was met with a disbelieving snort, but Ellyn didn’t argue. “Then I must want to help you out of loyalty to the crown, don’t you think?”

No, Margaret thought. I definitely do not think. But she was running out of time. Whether or not she accepted Ellyn’s assistance, she had to get moving. Did she dare grab the satchel? But the real question was whether she dared leave it behind. The answer was unequivocally no. There would be no chance to ever come back and get it, and those documents were needed now.

She glanced again at Ellyn. Taller than Margaret by several inches, the woman had a gamin face with a narrow chin, dark sunken eyes, and long blond hair she wore wrapped in a tail down her back. She held herself balanced and taut in the way of a predator. She wore an air of untiring patience and contained ferocity. A wolf in lady’s maid clothing. She said nothing, a faint smile curving her lips as if she knew Margaret’s dilemma and was both entertained by it and indifferent to the outcome.

“Crack it,” Margaret muttered and turned to face the cabinet. She leaped up, ignoring the shooting pain in her ankle. Gripping the top edge, she pulled herself high enough to reach behind and grab the satchel. She smothered a yelp of pain when she landed; then, lifting the strap over her head, she started picking her way toward Ellyn over the bodies of the Crown Shields.

The Blackwatch squad lay crumpled in front of Ellyn’s cart. Their bodies were mangled and torn as if they’d been through a butcher’s grinder. Blood splattered the walls and seeped and puddled on the floor....

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