From the Inside Flap
James Kayll locked the door of his shop, glancing up at the sign of the apothecary above his head. The placard with its picture of a pestle and mortar was hanging askew, its iron bracket twisted. The previous night's storm had battered the coastal town badly.
I got off fairly lightly, Kayll thought. Others lost chimney pots, slates.
Without conscious volition, he turned to look to the south, towards the cathedral. In the December dusk, the great tower was just visible against the dark blue sky. It rose above the smoky miasma of Weyrmouth. It was too far for Kayll to tell if the tower had sustained any damage.
If the stones have been seriously harmed, God save us. They will be hungry for blood.
Kayll turned the collar of his cloak up against the winter chill and pulled on his leather cap. It was almost Christmas, traditionally a time of good cheer for free-born Englishmen and women. But Kayll felt nothing but anxiety as he hurried through the narrow streets, doing his best to avoid pools of foul water and patches of ordure. The crowds made it difficult. But gradually the streets grew quieter.
The house of Richard Park lay upriver, where cleaner water could be drawn from the Weyr. As Kayll left the heart of the city behind him, the air became less smoky. A chill wind off the land cut through him, though, and he wished he had taken a drink of ale or wine before closing up. A few flakes of snow began to fall, gently stinging his face.
"Good evening, Master Kayll!"
Kayll recognized the voice of Roger Dayton, the son of a prosperous landowner and the youngest member of their group. He could just make out a figure on the corner up ahead.
"A cold evening, Master Dayton," replied Kayll, looking around to see if anyone was close enough to hear. It was full dark now, and the street was dimly lit. But he worried that being seen with Dayton might cause tongues to wag. The man was pleasant enough, but had a reputation for wild living at his father's expense.
"Fear not," said Dayton. "We are quite alone. Walk with us, friend."
"Us?" murmured Kayll.
He squinted into the gloom and made out a short, slender form standing by Dayton.
"Is this a member of the - of our company?" Kayll asked, hesitantly.
There was a nervous giggle.
"Is that a woman?" demanded Kayll, more loudly than he had intended to.
"Shush! Both of you!" urged Dayton, looking up at the houses around them. "We may be overheard!"
Dayton took Kayll by the arm and led him swiftly up the street. The small figure followed them. When the woman entered a patch of light cast by a window, Kayll saw a pretty, young, but pinched face. He recognized her after a moment.
"But that's one of the dockyard tarts!" Kayll exclaimed. "You can't bring a prostitute here!"
"Hey!" exclaimed the girl. "I'm not deaf you snobby bastard!"
"It's all right, Meg," soothed Dayton, "my friend is just a little surprised."
He paused, leaned close to Kayll to whisper in his ear.
"I am under orders from Master Park himself," he explained. "I was told to bring a woman of no great importance - one whose word would carry no weight. Child-bearing age, I was told, and not too undesirable. Not too worn out, or poxed. I thought one of her kind would suffice."
Kayll did not ask how Dayton had assessed the girl for her mysterious new duties.
"But why?" hissed Kayll. "What for?"
Dayton shrugged, turned to walk on.
"We are not to reason why, my friend," he said over his shoulder. "Now come on, or we will be late."
Park's serving girl let them in, casting a sharp eye at Meg but saying nothing. The girl followed Dayton and Kayll up the narrow stairway to the upper chamber of Park's house, where the Shadow Council always convened. All the other members were present, and there was the usual exchange of greetings. Dayton made sure that Meg stayed on the landing, her face in shadow, but a couple of members saw her anyway. There were raised eyebrows, mutterings.
"Good people," said Richard Park, raising his hand for silence. "I know it is unheard of for an outsider to attend one of our conclaves. Stranger still, this outsider is a woman."
This prompted gasps and an upsurge in talk, much of it critical. Again, Park raised a hand, but this time he could not quell the entire Shadow Council.
"This is outrageous!" spluttered a fat, red-faced merchant. "A woman cannot be trusted to not go gossiping at every door and corner! She will reveal our most secret business to the multitude, and we will be ridiculed at best."
"If not arrested for witchcraft," added Kayll, surprised to hear his own voice. "The Queen has made it clear that such doings as ours could be considered treasonous. We dabble in prophecy and the like!"
This prompted more intakes of breath as the implications of Kayll's words sank in. All knew that witchcraft carried many penalties depending on the seriousness of the offense. Some escaped with fines. But public execution was a very real possibility.
"Good brethren!" shouted Park, bringing his fist down on the oak table before him. The blow shook the mugs and plates laid out for the guests' supper. "We do no evil here! Ours is a most holy purpose! And rest assured that the woman in question will say nothing of our most precious secrets. She will-"
Park glanced over the heads of the councilors, seemed to reconsider what he was about to say.
"She will be very well rewarded for her silence," he concluded.