The King of Thieves - Extract

Monday before the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Langdon, Kent

"Ah, I am glad to see you both," the boy said condescendingly, and Simon had to shoot a look at Baldwin to stop himself from sniggering. Not only would it have been rude, it would also have been very foolish. A man would not willingly insult the next King of England.

The Earl of Chester was almost thirteen years old, but his manner held all the haughtiness of his father. He was taller than Simon remembered, although it was only some two months since he had last seen the Earl, but as Simon knew perfectly well, a lad could very quickly shoot upwards at this period of his life.

He was good-looking. The fair hair of his father, the regular, slightly long features, and the steadiness of his gaze all added to the lad's allure. Simon could easily imagine that in a short while, he would be tempting the serving girls from any nearby establishment. But his looks and manner were of little concern to the Bailiff just now. What he wanted was to hear that his own presence was unnecessary.

"You will ride with me when I leave this country to go to France to meet my uncle," Prince Edward stated. "I will need to have protection, I am told."

"His Royal Highness is fully aware of the risks of the road," Richard of Bury put in.

Simon did not like Bury. The man was a large, florid-faced cleric, who appeared to hold his piety and love of learning as others might grip a shield. He was watching Simon now, his small, brown eyes shrewd and knowing.

"How many of us will there be?" Baldwin asked.

"We haven't decided," Bury said.

"My Lord?" Baldwin pressed, ignoring him.

"I have a need for a fair entourage. I am to be travelling as a Duke, after all," the Earl said. "I think I shall need four knights as a minimum, and then the servants..."

The list was a long one, but Baldwin was not interested in the finer details. "Which other knights will travel with us?" he enquired.

"I had thought to bring Sir Henry de Beaumont. And of course the Bishop of Exeter will join us."

"They are good men," Baldwin agreed.

"Oh, and I would like to have Sir Richard de Welles, also." The Earl was looking up and over Simon's head as he spoke, as though mulling over this additional choice.

Simon looked up, forgetting to show due respect. "Him? Why?"

"I beg your pardon, Bailiff?"

Simon realised his error. "I am very sorry, your Royal Highness, but I am just surprised at your choice there. Sir Richard is a man of... of great courage and —"

"Precisely, Bailiff. He is a man of courage and fighting ability. He would be an ideal companion on a journey such as this, I would think. You have a comment to make about him? If you know of some fault in his character, or a dangerous secret, you should share it with us now."

Simon swallowed and shook his head. He could hardly declare that he had a great respect for the knight's drinking abilities, for his capacity for strong ale, burned wine, and breakfasts of immense proportions the morning after, when all decent folks were still nursing bellies that complained at the patter of a flea's feet. And heads that threatened to explode at the rumbustious clatter of a sparrow's feet landing on a branch. "I have enormous regard for Sir Richard," he managed with a slight croak in his voice.

"I am glad. And now, gentlemen, I would be grateful if you could prepare yourselves to leave England in the next week. My father will soon give me the two counties of Ponthieu and Montreuil, and after that we shall be leaving for Paris."

Simon knew it then. This was a boy, little more than a child. And he was about to leave his country to go to a strange land, where he would be carrying out an important duty for his country and his father. It was a stern, responsible task - but for a boy of twelve years, it was more than that: it was exciting. Especially since he would hopefully guarantee his own inheritance.

He mentioned this later that afternoon as he and Baldwin stood at the bar in the buttery, Baldwin sipping at a leather cup of strong, red wine, Simon gulping from a quart jug of the King's best ale.

Baldwin looked at him a little strangely. "You believe he's thinking of the realm and his Crown? I tell you this: I think he has more important considerations in his heart."

"Such as? What would be more important to a fellow like him than his realm?" Simon scoffed.

"The thought that he will be able to see, kiss, and converse with his mother for the first time in many months - that will weigh more heavily with the Earl."

"And we'll be there..."

"To look after us," said Richard of Bury.

The chubby cleric eyed them both short-sightedly, and Simon glowered in return. "You were eavesdropping on us. Don't you trust us?"

"Bailiff, I have been seeking you out. Don't you think that we are to be allies on this journey? My only interest is the safety of the Earl of Chester, and yours is the same, surely?"

Baldwin gave a smile and apologised. "We are sorry if we gave you offence, Richard. The simple truth is, we are both out of sorts. We would infinitely prefer to be ensconced in our homes with our wives and children about us. This trip - it is just one more lengthy journey which we would fain have left to others."

"But the Earl himself asked for you both. He felt happier with your company."

"He barely knows us," Simon said with a bad grace and turned his back to lean on the bar.

"True. But he knows his mother's opinion of you both, which is very high. And he knows something of your characters because I have been teaching him how to understand men. What's more, he is well aware that you are no favourites of the Despenser."

"Sir Hugh le Despenser is a close friend of his father's, though," Baldwin said lightly.

"Let us not mince words, Sir Knight," Richard said, his voice dropping. "Despenser is an evil cancer in the heart of the realm. You two are known to be hated by him. Yes, even here people can receive messages of such a sort. And yes, the Earl is happy to have men with him who will be less devoted to Despenser."

"What do you want from us?" Baldwin asked.

"Just this: that you keep an eye on the Bishop. He is dedicated to the destruction of the Earl's mother, and Earl Edward will not allow that. It is your task to...

Simon turned back, eyes narrowed. "Are you suggesting that we should spy upon him? Bishop Walter has been a friend to me for longer than I can remember."

"I am glad for you. To others, the good Bishop may not appear so kindly. One such person will become your King. Remember that, Master Bailiff!"

"Richard, we are grateful to you," Baldwin said sharply. "We will do all in our power to protect your student."

He watched as the clerk nodded and walked away. "I think, Simon," he sighed, turning to his old friend, "this could become a strangely dangerous mission."

"May he swyve a goat!"

King of Thieves

The King of Thieves was published by Headline on 13th November 2008; it was published simultaneously in hardback and trade paperback (large format soft covers) editions. You can click the links to order it now from Amazon, or ask your local bookshop to order it, quoting the ISBN: 978-0-7553-4416-1 for the hardback, 978-0-7553-4903-6 for the trade paperback.

King of Thieves is also available in audio: published by ISIS Soundings and read by Michael Tudor Barnes; order it direct from the publisher or from any bookshop (ISBN 978-1-4079-0915-8).