A tap at the door startled me. I sat up straight and instinctively looked about the room, wondering if there was anything I should hastily conceal. Silly. “Who is it?” Who but Molly, Nettle, or Riddle would know I was here? And none of them would have tapped first.
“It’s Revel, sir!” His voice sounded shaky.
I stood. “Come in! What is it?”
He was out of breath and pale as he pushed open the door and stood framed in it. “I don’t know. Riddle sent me running. He says, ‘Come, come right now, to your estate study.’ Where I left the messenger. Oh, sir. There’s blood on the floor there, and no sign of her.” He gasped in a shuddering breath. “Oh, sir, I’m so sorry. I offered a room, but she said no and—”
“With me, Revel,” I said, as if he were a guardsman and mine to command. He went paler at my snapped command but then stood a bit straighter, glad to cede all decisions to me. My hands moved instinctively, confirming a few small concealed weapons that never left my person. Then we were off at a run through the corridors of Withywoods. Blood spilled in my home. Blood spilled by someone besides me—and not Riddle, or he would have quietly cleaned it away, not summoned me. Violence in my home, against a guest. I fought the blind fury that rose in me, quenched it with icy anger. They would die. Whoever had done this would die.
I led him by a roundabout path that avoided passages where we might encounter guests and reached the estate study after interrupting only one indiscreet young couple and scaring one drunken youngster looking for a place to doze. I berated myself for how many people I had let into my home, how many I knew only by face or name.
And Molly was sleeping alone and unguarded.
I skidded to a halt by the study door. My voice was hoarse with anger as I took a nasty knife that had been strapped to my forearm and shoved it at Revel. He staggered back a step in fear. “Take it,” I barked at him. “Go to my bedchamber. Look in on my lady, be sure she sleeps undisturbed. Then stand outside the door and kill anyone who seeks to come in. Do you understand me?”
“Sir.” He coughed and then gulped, “I have a knife already, sir. Riddle made me take it.” Awkwardly he drew it from inside his immaculate jacket. It was twice the length of the one I’d offered, an honorable weapon rather than an assassin’s little friend.
“Go, then,” I told him, and he did.
I drummed on the door with my fingertips, knowing Riddle would recognize me by that, and then slipped in. Riddle straightened slowly from where he had crouched. “Nettle sent me to find a bottle of the good brandy she said you had here. She wanted to offer some to Lord Canterby. When I saw the papers on the floor, and then the blood, I sent Revel for you. Look here.”
Revel had brought the messenger food and wine and served them at my desk. Why had she declined to go to a guest room or join us in the Great Hall? Had she known she was in danger? She’d eaten at least some of the food, I judged, before the tray had been dashed to the floor along with a few papers from my desk. The falling wineglass had not shattered but had left a half-moon of spilled wine on the polished dark stone of the floor. And around that moon was a constellation of blood stars. A swung blade had flung those scattered red drops.
I stood up and swept my gaze across the study. And that was all. No rifled drawers, nothing moved or taken. Not a thing out of place at all. Not enough blood for her to have died here, but there was no sign of any further struggle. We exchanged a silent look, and as one moved to the heavily curtained doors. In summers I sometimes opened them wide to look out onto a garden of heathers for Molly’s bees. Riddle started to sweep the curtain to one side, but it caught. “A fold of it is shut in the door. They went this way.”
Knives drawn, we opened the doors and peered out into the snow and darkness. Half of one footprint remained where the eaves had partially sheltered it. The other tracks were barely dimples in the windblown snow. As we stood there, another gust swept past us, as if the wind itself sought to help them escape us. Riddle and I stared into the storm. “Two or more,” he said, surveying what remained of the trail.
“Let’s go before it’s gone completely,” I suggested.
He looked down woefully at his thin, flapping skirt-trousers. “Very well.”
“No. Wait. Do a wander through the festivities. See what you see, and bid Nettle and the boys be wary.” I paused. “Some odd folk came to the door tonight, professing to be minstrels. But Patience said she had not hired them. Web spoke briefly with one of the strangers. He started to tell me what she said, but I was called away. They were looking for someone. That much was obvious.”