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SERPENT

in the

THORNS

The Crispin Guest Novels by Jeri Westerson

Veil of Lies

Serpent in the Thorns

SERPENT

in the

THORNS

A Crispin Guest Medieval Noir

Jeri Westerson

Acknowledgments

Again, my first thanks go to my ever-patient husband, Craig, my wonderful son, Graham, and my Vicious Circle of Ana Brazil, Bobbie Gosnell, and Laura James. Thanks also to my agent, Joshua Bilmes, for continuing to hold my hand, and a very special thanks goes out to Julia Spencer-Fleming and her husband, Ross, for their kind words and their wonderful help! Another very special thanks also goes to Kevin Cooper and Carl Vitolo of Inland Color Graphics. They have continued to help me with their support and their valuable printing for all my wonderful promotional materials. And thanks also to DiAnne Cooper, my idea person at ICG. (Thanks, guys! I owe you more tequila.) Paige Vignola offered help in the Latin, and there were scores of others who helped with aspects of history and answered many other questions I posed on mediev-l. I’ve met librarians and booksellers who have been nothing but supportive and kind and I thank you all, wherever you are. Last but not least, I thank Keith Kahla at St. Martin’s Press for his excellent editing and advice. Long may you wave!

SERPENT

in the

THORNS

1

London, 1384

PRETTY, LIKE A WINDBLOWN shepherdess. Sweet, but a bit dim. Crispin sensed it from the way she ran her chapped fingers over her right hand and by the care she took pronouncing each word. She lifted her chin and parted her lips even when she wasn’t speaking. He leaned forward and focused his blurry eyes on her. “Tell me again about the dead man,” he said. “Slowly.”

She rubbed her hands, meekly, hurriedly, as if she knew she would be chastised for it.

Crispin watched her busy hands and closed his eyes. His head felt like an eggshell liable to crack, and the merest sound seemed to rake the back of his eyeballs with sharp needles. He glanced at the wine jug on its shelf. Hair of the dog?

She sat on a stool in his lodgings, a small room above a tinker shop on the pungent streets of the Shambles with its meat markets and butchering stalls. One of his broken shutters rattled with an acrid wind that did nothing to sooth the belch of the room’s smoky hearth. A table, a chair, another stool, a narrow bed, and a chest. All rented. He owned little more than the clothes on his back, and they made a poor showing.

“There’s a dead man in me room,” she said, thick with a Southwark accent. She overpronounced her words, letting her lips slip back over her teeth, revealing them often. One bottom tooth was chipped and gray. “Livith wasn’t there. I couldn’t ask her. She’s always there to explain, but she wasn’t there.”

He passed a hand over his face but his head hurt too much. He slowly sank to the stool. “Who is Livith?”

“She’s me sister. She looks after me. I get confused. She always explains.”

“I see,” he said, barely understanding. Wine might not be a bad idea at that, and he moved to the larder. He poured a bowl, but not for himself, and handed it to her. She stared into the wine and then looked up at him. “Go on,” he said. “You look as if you need it.”

She tipped the bowl with trembling fingers, sloshing some of the wine onto her faded blue gown and apron- covered lap. She tried to smile. A wine mustache made it pathetic.

Crispin sat on the chest this time and rested his hands on his thighs. He hoped it would keep the room from tilting. “Why did you come to me?”

Her lips twisted. “You’re the Tracker, ain’t you? I heard of you from the others. You find out things. They say

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