Welcome to the Kourend Chronicles, a six-part series of tales from Kourend's murky past! You can see a full list of all the stories so far on our A Kingdom Divided round-up.
The rain hissed across the cobblestones as the thief swept silently through the shadows. At this time of night, in this weather, the streets of Kingstown were practically deserted. But through the rain she could just make out the silhouette of her target, shifting from foot to foot as they huddled beneath the doorway of Councillor Hughes’ former residence.
Despite the miserable weather, the thief felt a shiver of excitement run up her spine. Since the arrest of Councillor Hughes a few weeks ago, the Saviours of Kourend had been surveying the area to see if the Cult of Yama returned to the scene of the crime – but this was the first time anything interesting had happened.
As the door opened and the hooded figure hurried inside, the thief dashed forward. A convenient gap in the wrought-iron fence let her wiggle through and scuttle over to the window. She wiped away the grime with the corner of her sleeve. From here, she could clearly see the dining room, and the overhang of the eaves let her shelter a little from the rain, too.
It didn’t look like a demonic ritual. The former councillor’s home was brightly lit by candles. There wasn’t a cobweb in sight. On the table, where the thief had expected to see unnameable implements and bloody chalices, was a tastefully painted ceramic fruitbowl. The thief tried not to feel too disappointed.
The hooded figure removed their cloak and hung it up on a hatstand by the door. He didn’t look much like a cultist, either. He was old, almost entirely bald except for the ring of lanky grey hair hanging about his ears. In every other respect he looked like every other person in Kingstown – posh, maybe, but not a demon-worshipping madman. Then again, Sophia Hughes had looked the same up until her arrest.
The man remained by the door, still shivering from the cold. The thief craned her neck to see if she could spot who he was speaking to, but her view was obscured by an ornate trophy cabinet. She was about to climb back through the fence to see if she could get a better vantage point when a snippet of conversation caught her interest.
“We must do something about the girl,” He said.
The thief settled back down among the roses.
“No. It’s too soon. It would only arouse further suspicion,” said the other person in the room. It was another man, the thief guessed, and the voice seemed familiar, though she couldn’t place it.
“Too soon?!” The man by the door scoffed, “I’d say we’re nearly too late. Sophia is in prison.”
“Councillor Hughes will not betray us.”
“How can you be sure?
For a moment there was no sound but the pitter-patter of the rain against the eaves. Then the hidden figure spoke.
“When we began this enterprise, we made an agreement –“
“And you think she’d keep to it? The woman’s mad. Conducting insane rituals, dealing with demons – how can we still trust her, after all this?”
“Calm yourself,” the other cultist snapped.
“If Sophia goes to trial, and lets even the tiniest thing slip…”
“Councillor Hughes will let nothing slip. She will not get the chance.”
The man by the door opened his mouth but ultimately remained silent. Outside the window, the thief closed her eyes and did her best to commit the conversation to memory.
“Do you need further assurances?”
The man by the door shook his head.
“Speak up, will you?”
“No,” he said. “I understand.”
“Now what’s this about the girl?”
The thief’s ears pricked up again.
“We’re already under so much scrutiny. Lawry can hardly be trusted, and there’s the matter of this adventurer, poking their nose in where it doesn’t belong…”
“Oh, please,” the other cultist dismissed him with a wave of his hand. “We’ve taken every precaution.”
“And what if it’s not enough?”
It was the other cultist’s turn to hesitate.
“Listen, I’ve had years to think this through. The only way we can protect ourselves is to be rid of the witness. Wouldn’t that be kinder than all this cloak and dagger nonsense?”
A shadow passed over the window and the thief ducked out of view beneath the sill just in time.
“We’ll just announce that she passed away,” the cultist continued, darkly. “Who would question us?”
“What is this really about?” the other cultist asked.
A fearful silence descended. When the cultist by the window spoke again, he did it so quietly that the thief had to strain her ears to hear.
“What we did – what we’ve been doing – it’s terrible. Evil.”
“It’s what you agreed to,” said the other cultist. “It’s what we all agreed to.”
“And when we get caught? The five houses will have our heads.”
“If we get caught. Follow the plan and everything will be fine.”
Above the window, the cultist made a noise somewhere between a laugh and a sob.
“Fine? Don’t tell me you still believe what that man – that thing – told us? You don’t really think he’s just doing us a favour, do you?”
“Be very careful what you say,” the other cultist hissed. “You never know who might be listening.”
Beneath the windowsill, the thief froze. But at the sound of footsteps across the wooden boards she exhaled slowly, before peeking into the window again. From the back, the man looked a little more familiar – but she still couldn’t place him.
“Perhaps you’re right.” The other cultist’s voice was perfectly neutral.
The man looked up at him expectantly.
“But it doesn’t matter. One way or another, the girl will soon be removed from the equation. Then nothing will stand between us and absolute power.”
The first cultist sighed. Whether in relief or exasperation, the thief couldn’t tell. Her thoughts were racing. A girl, a witness, a stranger, a terrible crime… what did it all mean?
“What about the potion?” The second cultist asked.
“All prepared. I’ll deliver it within the week.”
The second cultist nodded, satisfied.
“Then let’s try and keep our heads until this situation resolves itself.”
The pair were making their way towards the door. The thief hesitated, unsure if she should follow them. In any other situation she’d be loathed to abandon her watch, but this was urgent. If there was a witness to be dealt with, the cultists could only be talking about one girl. She had to warn her before it was too late – there was not a second to waste.
As the first cultist wrapped himself in his cloak and said his goodbyes, the thief darted out through the fence and raced as quickly as she could back towards the Warrens. There would be time to find the cultists later. Right now, she had to get home.
The Queen was in danger.
A Kingdom Divided - Coming June 2021