Quartus 3, 1669

I woke, slow and stiff, my open eyes letting in precious little more light than they had when closed. The world lurched sickeningly to one side and back again, dragging the chains that bound us noisily across the deck.

This was our third day in this hell-hole, the belly of some Castillian brigantine bound for our new home — exile.

Stories were told down here amongst the rats and the rank bilge-water, in hushed tones so as our captors might spare us the lash. They said the island we were bound for was called la isla d’espinas, the island of thorns. They said it was a prison surrounded by walls forty feet high; that its cannons pointed inward as if it were defending the rest of the world against the captives. Against us.

We talked of our crimes, too, and our circumstances. Thieves and fraudsters; those accused of unproven murders. Captured Montaigne officers, revolutionaries and those the Inquisition found ‘inconvenient’. And nearest the aft sat we, perpetrators of the terrible crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Primus 15, 1669 (three months ago)

It was the day every novice member of the Explorer’s Society dreams of.

We were summoned early that morning to the office of Master Abruzzo, a swarthy Vodacce man and our direct superior within the society. He was not a man known for his love of pleasantries, and our briefing was short. We had been nominated to take over an excavation currently taking place in the north of Montaigne-occupied Castille. Our papers would allow us to pass the borders with ease, and the dig site was to be far from any battlefield. An easy introduction to field work. We were to leave by sunset.

And that was it. Hardly the grandest of adventures, but we had all been taught again and again to put thoughts of adventuring to the back of our minds; to focus on our training and our studies.

So we set sail, Master Abruzzo paying well from the Society’s coffers for a fast sloop bound for Montaigne.

###Tertius 14, 1669 (nineteen days ago)

The excavation site sprawled out before us, a wide flat expanse from which stacks of stone erupted in regular shapes, the stubs of walls from a city which fell a thousand or more years ago. There was not an archaeologist in sight, for as our Master had explained on the voyage, the site had revealed a greater secret — another city, deep underground, of even more ancient origins.

We lit torches and descended a set of rough-hewn steps, winding and spiralling into the earth. After a short while, these came to rest in what looked much like a series of cave tunnels that extended off into the distance. Closer inspection, though, showed the unmistakable signs of hammers, chisels and axes. The entire place had been carved by human hands!

We called out for the team we were supposed to be replacing on the dig, but all we heard were the echoes of our own voices. Supposing that they were somewhere deeper inside the city, we pressed on. But within a minute, we had stopped dead in our tracks.

Lying in the floor in the middle of a wide chamber was a body, surrounded by a pool of thick wine-red blood.

We rushed to it, pulling the clothes back to see if the wound were treatable, but the man’s body was already cold, and the wound a neat rapier thrust through his lungs and heart.

As the panic subsided, more details began to register in my ind. The body of the man was dressed in a Castillian army officer’s uniform, enough gold stitching to make him a Colonel at least. The wound he had suffered was neat. Too neat. Expert, even.

We heard a rush of footsteps from behind us, and turned expecting to see fellow members of our Society to whom we could report our find. But before we could react, into the chamber poured no less than twenty Castillian soldiers, muskets ready and quickly levelled directly at us.

I stood, the blood of the dead officer dripping from my hands, and realised in that sudden moment of clarity that often accompanies guns being pointed at you, exactly how bad this looked.

The soldiers bound our hands and feet as we stood there, and led us immediately to a wagon which we were compelled into at the point of their bayonets.

And only ten minutes into our bumpy journey to imprisonment or death in Castille, did it occur to ask perhaps the more important question of all — where, in all of this, was Master Abruzzo?

Quartus 3, 1669

Whether we were victims of a conspiracy or just a terrible turn of fate, we simply didn’t know. But as Castillian shouts from the quarterdeck signalled that we were nearing the island of our exile, we swore to each other that we would find out, and we would have our revenge.