The sequel to Maggie Hall’s romantic thriller, The Conspiracy of Us, will arrive at eager readers’ fingertips on March 8, as Avery, heir of a secret society that runs the world, heads to Alexander the Great’s lost tomb — with the help of her sometime-crushes Stellan and Jack — to hunt for the keys to her destiny.
EW is thrilled to reveal this exclusive sneak peek at Chapters 5 and 6 in advance of the book’s release:
The air in India was heavy, oppressively hot, and fragrant. Right now it still smelled like dinner—butter and spices and meat cooking. The streetlights in the distance were hazy, and my head echoed with the drums and flutes and cheers of the party that was still going on inside without me. I wiped a bead of sweat that trickled down my neck and climbed over the carved marble balcony.
I had mostly gotten rid of my fear of heights—maybe too many other fears had crowded it out. Still, I held my breath as I inched toward a trellis that ran down into the courtyard. Jack had scouted earlier and told me this was the best way to get out of my room. The trellis was splintered but sturdy, and I was on the ground and ducking behind a fern in moments.
I picked a sliver of wood from my palm and watched a guard’s shadow cross the exit from the courtyard, which lead to a delivery entrance off the kitchen. As soon as he was out of sight, I skirted the edge of the courtyard and stuck to the shadows as I snuck by the brightly lit kitchen door.
I was so keyed up I almost screamed when I felt a hand on my elbow.
I wondered briefly when I’d come to recognize Jack from just this tiny noise. He looked as handsome and serious as he had all day, but when I met his eyes, his face broke into a smile and he squeezed my arm. I could tell he was as glad to see me as I was to see him—we’d gotten so used to being together all the time that today had felt wrong. I almost threw my arms around him but stopped myself, and we stole off the property onto a bustling Kolkata street.
Jack pulled up the hood of his sweatshirt to hide his face. Western faces attracted attention here, and attention was something we didn’t need. I had a light scarf over my head for that same reason. “Did you have any trouble getting out?”
I shook my head and glanced behind me. I didn’t think I’d been followed by anyone from the palace, but I couldn’t be sure. Plus, I had to assume the Order knew I was in India. I still didn’t think they’d come after me, but my father’s paranoia—and Jack’s—were rubbing off. And then there was the fact that my family had no idea I was using these trips around the globe I’d agreed to for their purposes as research missions of my own.
No one seemed to be following us, though, and I wasn’t sure they’d have been able to keep us in their sights if they had. There were just so many people. People lounging in doorways of closed shops, watching us walk by. A group of men bathing at a faucet off the side of the road, soaping up and using a bucket to pour water over their heads, the cloths wrapped around their waists getting wet along with the rest of them.
Jack flagged down a bright yellow three-wheeled rickshaw with a fringe of tinsel around its canopy, and we squeezed inside. I collapsed back into the seat, finally letting myself relax, and rubbed at my face before realizing that the black eyeliner was coming off on my hands. I’d had time to change back into my brown contacts, but not to wash off the heavy kohl.
Jack pushed his hood back. We were pressed close in the tiny rickshaw. “Did Lydia do your makeup?”
I told him about getting ready.
Jack smiled. “I think Lydia rather likes having a sister.”
So did I. I wondered if there’d ever be a time when it would be me and Lydia sneaking out, hiding it from our dad like normal people.
“You don’t think they’re suspicious, do you?” I said, a stab of guilt in my gut again.
Jack shook his head. “You’re playing your part perfectly. As long as we don’t get caught out here, we should be fine.”
The rickshaw was stuck in a chaotic snarl of traffic alongside a motorbike with an entire family piled on top, and a cart being pulled by what I could swear were water buffalo, horns painted orange and blue and jingling bells on their collars.
Streetlights showed that there were almost as many colors on these streets as there were people. A salmon doorway in a turquoise wall. Blue buses with a yellow stripe, matching the yellow taxis. One bus had a display of birds painted across its side, and the words Please honk were scrawled across the backs of any large automobiles. The drivers behind them took the request to heart.
“I feel like I’m hallucinating,” I whispered.
“This country can do that.” Jack was staring out his side, too, where a wizened old man cooked up chunks of potato by flashlight in a metal wok as wide as the sidewalk, then handed them out to customers in makeshift newspaper bowls.
We were already late and the traffic was bad, so Jack asked the driver to stop. Just like at the palace, the air here had a scent, but this one wasn’t so nice. We rounded a corner and found three goats eating from a pile of garbage, one wearing a My Little Pony T-shirt around its scrawny rib cage. It butted its head against my bag gently as we walked by, and I shrunk against the opposite wall, but they let us pass, and we hurried on.
The square ahead was wide and open, and we had to dodge a nighttime flower market to get there. Sari-clad ladies with gold hoops sparkling in their ears squatted on their haunches and strung heaps of bright orange and yellow marigolds into garlands like the ones I’d worn earlier, calling to us as we passed and holding up their wares. Behind them, toddlers climbed on a pile of abandoned cardboard boxes. One little boy looked up at us, and I did a double take. “Is that baby wearing makeup?” I said. He couldn’t have been more than two, and he had kohl liner thicker than mine rimming his eyes.
“It’s common here,” Jack said. “Superstition.”
I took a deep breath. “Where are we meeting Stellan?”
Jack pointed across the square, and I saw him immediately. Unlike us, Stellan was making no effort to disguise himself.
He was leaning against a light post and studying his phone, his worn leather jacket open to expose a black T-shirt, his blond hair glowing in the streetlight above. If pale skin drew looks here, blond hair caused downright gawking. Sure enough, a crowd had gathered a few yards from Stellan, but he appeared unconcerned. When he saw us, he stashed the phone in a pocket. “You didn’t leave me to fend for myself after all.”
“Couldn’t you have put on a hat?” Jack said. The men were now staring at all three of us, whispering to one another. Great. Stellan smirked and waved to the crowd. “You mean I’m not allowed to enjoy the hundred percent humidity in my own clothes?”
“No.” I grabbed his arm and pulled him out of the circle of admirers and toward the street.
“If you’ll remember, some of us don’t have the luxury of traipsing about without a care,” Jack said shortly.
“No, some of us have to invent excuses to follow you two around the world.” After the Circle learned about the Saxons’ plan to marry me off to any family but the Dauphins, Stellan told his employers that he would follow us and report back. “Monsieur Dauphin was happy to let me go if it meant spying on you, but it’s not going to be easy to lie to Elodie and Luc.”
Luc and Stellan and Elodie had a strange relationship—it was as if they were a combination of siblings and best friends. Not what you’d expect to see between Circle family and staff.
“You’ll figure something out,” I said.
We made our way across the street to the Indian Museum. It was dark and quiet, with a few stray dogs sleeping on its front stoop.
“So you think the other bracelet could be here?” Stellan said, looking up at the looming facade.
I glanced down at Napoleon’s bracelet on my wrist. My twin and I will reveal all, only to the true. Its twin was somewhere, as was the password that unlocked it. “This museum was built in 1814,” I said. “The right time for Napoleon to slip something into their collection. Plus, it’s in a Circle city, and it looks like there are Alexander artifacts in this collection.”
Stellan lit a cigarette. “Have either of you been to this museum?”
Jack shook his head, and obviously I hadn’t.
“I have been here. This collection is curated, but it’s a very haphazard job. If the bracelet was ever here, it might be in the same spot as it was in the eighteen hundreds, or it might have gotten tossed in a cardboard box in the basement, or walked right out of the museum on someone’s arm . . .”
I frowned at him. “Well, it’s the best chance we’ve had for a long time, and I had to trick a very nice family into thinking I might marry their son to get here so I’m going to give it my best shot.
Besides, it’s not like you have a better idea,” I muttered under my breath.
Stellan took a drag of his cigarette. “You know very well I do have a better idea…”
I glanced at Jack, who had pretended not to hear, but I could see a muscle in his jaw twitch. I wanted to elbow Stellan. “As usual, we’re not talking about that,” I said instead.
I didn’t care if he was the One. The thirteenth. The heir of Alexander the Great, and the person who, according to the Circle, I was supposed to marry to secure some great power. Just like I wasn’t marrying Dev Rajesh, or any of the other Circle members we were going to meet on these trips, I was not marrying Stellan. It wasn’t an option. He just refused to accept it.
“What’s the plan?” I said. “Is there an unlocked door?”
The group of Indian men had followed us across the street and were edging closer. Stellan grinned at them. He called out something in what must be Bengali, and a few of them responded, then did those side-to-side head shakes I’d seen everyone here doing. Stellan pulled a wad of money from his pocket, peeled off some bills, and pressed them into the hand of one man, who counted it and hurried off, while the rest of them continued to gawk at us. I raised my eyebrows.
“He’s letting us in,” Stellan said simply.
“I thought you said you had a plan to get us access,” Jack said witheringly.
“This is the plan.” We followed Stellan through a propped-open iron gate into a wide courtyard. “Everyone here has a cousin or a brother-in-law or a barber who can make things happen. Trust me.”
I shook my head and looked around. The inner courtyard was impressive, with double rows of arches surrounding an immaculately manicured lawn and hedges. “Yeah, this place looks like a complete mess,” I said sarcastically.
“Just wait.” Stellan stubbed out his cigarette and held up a hand to wave at a different man, who’d just opened a door at the far end of the complex. “After you,” he said.
The guy let us in, and Stellan asked him something. He shrugged and answered, pointing down the hall, then left and shut the door behind him, plunging us into a dark, damp quiet.
“That was sudden,” Stellan said. “He said he has no idea if there are any Napoleon artifacts here, but that if there were, they’d probably be this way. He also said we shouldn’t get caught, because he’ll pretend he doesn’t know how we got in and then we’ll go to jail for breaking and entering.”
“Wonderful.” Jack clicked on a flashlight he must have stashed in his pocket and handed me another, and we made our way up a set of dingy steps. We emerged into an impressive gallery formed by arched wooden beams that loomed high overhead. Down the middle of the gallery marched—“Elephant skeletons?” I said.
They were bathed in moonlight from the windows above, and it wasn’t just elephants. Deer, giraffes, and smaller animals whose bones I couldn’t identify, all in a macabre parade. “I don’t think this is the gallery we’re looking for,” I whispered.
Just then, a door slammed shut at the opposite end of the gallery. I scrambled one way, pulling Jack after me, and Stellan ducked behind a cabinet in the other direction. Unfortunately, Jack and I had nothing to hide behind but the elephants themselves.
A flashlight beam swept toward us. Jack hit the floor flat on his stomach behind the elephant skeleton’s platform, and I started to do the same but it was too late. The guard was looking this way. I froze just behind the elephant’s rear leg.
The flashlight beam hovered for a moment. Then the sound of footsteps receded. I let out a breath as Jack jumped up, and we tiptoed across the room. Stellan was already heading down a connecting hall, gesturing for us to follow. “Apparently there are night guards on patrol,” he whispered.
“Thanks,” I said sarcastically.
We made our way into a long gallery with dim security lighting, and for the next hour, we scoured rows of glass cases, first in this room, then in a second, and I grudgingly admitted that Stellan had been right about the mess. It reminded me of the thrift store in Lakehaven where my friend Lara and I pawed through the cases for old jewelry. This was less fun—and took forever, especially since each of us only had one little flashlight. Even so, it felt amazing to finally be doing something after weeks of feeling powerless.
As far as I could tell, though, nothing we’d seen so far was connected to Napoleon. And none of the jewelry looked even a little like the bracelet we had. Jack joined me at the end of the rows we were searching, and shook his head.
“Let’s try the next gallery—” I whispered, but stopped.
Over his shoulder, there was movement at the far end of the gallery. “Stellan,” I hissed under my breath, and yanked on Jack’s sleeve. We crouched behind a display case and I had to bite my lip to stay quiet when an unidentifiable insect scurried across my foot. But after a few seconds, no footsteps came into the gallery and there was no flashlight beam, so it couldn’t have been a security guard.
I stood up, shaking off thoughts of cockroaches, and Stellan emerged from behind a cabinet a few feet away. “I guess I’m seeing things,” I whispered. “Sorry. Do you know where the Alexander artifacts are?”
Stellan led us down another hall.
The next gallery was less crowded and easier to search. We split up again, and I made it through most of the art on my side of the room pretty quickly—it was all paintings of landscapes and statues of animals. I shone my flashlight on a vertical case containing some jewelry, but was full of crowns and necklaces, pieces far older than our bracelet.
And then I shone the light on the art next to the case, and for a second, I was too startled to do anything but stare. There on the wall, above a bas-relief of three women with their heads bent together, was a carving of the thirteen-loop knotted symbol from the locket I wore around my neck: the same symbol that had led us on Mr. Emerson’s trail of clues. It wasn’t what we’d been looking for, but it wasn’t a coincidence, either. And just below it was an inscription in French.
“Guys,” I whispered.
Jack reached me first and looked as surprised as I was. “Do you see the bracelet?” he looked at the surrounding artwork.
“No,” I whispered, and pointed to the inscription. “But look. What does it say?”
Stellan pushed past us, muttering to himself. “La Serenissima. One step closer to unlocking the secret through a union forged in blood,” he translated.
I grabbed Jack’s sleeve excitedly. The language was so similar to our current clues, we had to be on the right track.
“Unlocking. Maybe it’s about the password.” Jack snapped a picture of the inscription with his phone.
Stellan was squinting at the words. “The Serene One. That part’s not in French, it’s in Italian. La Serenissima, like it’s a name.”
“A statue? A painting?” I looked around for where it might be pointing.
A slam echoed through the museum, and all three of us jumped. Heavy footsteps sounded on the wood floor, and we scrambled behind the nearest statue’s base in a jumble of arms and legs.
The footsteps continued on.
“We should go. We can’t afford to be caught in here,” Jack whispered. I was half sitting on his leg, and I could feel Stellan’s pulse pounding where his back pressed into mine. “Even if La
Serenissima is another piece of artwork, it’s probably not in this museum.”
We waited until the footsteps had faded to nothing, and then Jack hauled me to my feet and we hurried down the steps, out the door, and back out into the soupy air of Kolkata.
The next morning—even though I’d crawled back onto my balcony after midnight and hadn’t fallen asleep for hours after that—I was up with the sun. I thought I might sleep better than usual knowing we were making progress, but I’d been wrong. I rubbed my shoulders, tired and stiff from the dancing and the lack of sleep, and sat down cross-legged on one of the low couches on the balcony, where the morning air was a little cooler than the temperature inside.
When I pulled out my phone to look at the photo of the carving Jack had sent me, I was surprised to see a text from just a few minutes ago.
Venice’s nickname is La Serenissima, it said. Stellan.
Why are you awake? I wrote back. He’d stayed elsewhere in the city, and had been up as late as I was. Does that mean the bracelet’s in Venice?
Maybe. Lots of Napoleonic history there. Would make sense.
The Mikado family would be visiting Venice in a few days. My father had mentioned that we’d probably meet them while they were there.
Venice is already on my itinerary, but not for a few days, I texted. Maybe by then we can figure out what “a union forged in blood” means.
By the afternoon, I was on the Saxons’ plane to the next family visit in Germany, and I was decidedly less apprehensive than I’d been on the way to India. Knowing that we were on the right track was a huge relief, and I’d even asked Lydia if we could add some museums to the schedule so I wouldn’t have to go behind the Saxons’ backs quite as much. We’d had a family meeting earlier to debrief the Rajesh visit, and sitting around with my dad and Lydia—and even Cole, though he was playing on his phone the whole time—was weird, but nice. All those fantasies I’d had about family over the years didn’t involve planning my arranged marriage, but minus that part, laughing and chatting with my father and sister was kind of a dream come true.
I thought about Dev Rajesh, how sweet his mom was, and the party last night. I still wasn’t ready to accept that marrying one of these guys was a legitimate plan, but if all the families we’d be meeting the next few days were like the Rajeshes, the rest of these visits wouldn’t be too bad.
Unfortunately, they weren’t all like the Rajeshes.
First was the Hersch family, in Frankfurt. We arrived ahead of schedule and took a tour. I loved the city—it was huge and bustling and a little gritty, with surprise pockets of old-world charm. I could picture myself living there if I had to. The family themselves were another story.
Their only son, Jakob, was twenty-eight years old and already married. Lydia had prepared me for it—apparently a union with me would be advantageous enough that his wife would be okay giving him up. Which wasn’t awkward at all.
So after a day of museums that yielded nothing Napoleon-connected, Jakob’s wife and daughter sat at the dinner table with us as Jakob and Mr. Hersch attempted to sell themselves to my father. Jakob kept staring at me—well, not at me, at my eyes—the way I imagined a vampire would look at a girl he was about to have for dinner. At least Lydia had told me on the plane earlier that Jakob wasn’t a serious contender—my father just had to be fair. When I asked her which of them was a real possibility, she said that was still to be determined. Not that it mattered, I reminded myself. We still had eleven days to find the tomb, and get me out of this.
Then the Melech family, in Jerusalem. Daniel had a mop of thick dark hair and a slim, handsome face. I could tell from the way Lydia had talked about him that she liked him, so I was surprised when we met him and he looked me up and down so clinically I wasn’t sure whether to be offended or relieved when he nodded and shook my hand.
They, like many other families, adhered to certain local customs. There were candles, songs, blessings I didn’t understand. A sweet, soft bread shared between us, wine, more food than I could have eaten in a month. And then another hard sell. The Melechs could offer a population base the Saxons couldn’t reach from London. Historical significance. Military might unrivaled in any other small territory. They even outlined exactly what the ceremony would entail if we got married. It was so businesslike, they may as well have used a PowerPoint presentation.
We hadn’t had time to make it to any cultural sites during the day, so Jack and I snuck out that night, hopeful. Alexander the Great had visited Jerusalem. The two of us met Stellan and searched a few museums, but came up empty. Stellan was probably right when he said the area’s centuries of political unrest may have scattered any pieces Napoleon left here.
10 days, the Order texted that night. Ten more days to find Alexander’s tomb, or the Order would kill my mother. The optimism I’d been feeling before Germany was fading fast.
Next the Emir family, Saudi Arabia. I’d been sleeping worse and worse as the days wore on, and was so tired by that time that the whole visit felt like a series of hallucinations. Standing in the scorching heat, staring up at their Riyadh skyrise, a gleaming glass building in the desert sun.
The terrible look on Samarah Emir’s face when they talked about their oldest son Malik, killed by the Order just before I found out the Circle existed. A Saudi prince killed by a car bomb, the news had said, back when I thought the news told the truth.
They had a full-grown Bengal tiger in a penthouse petting zoo. Cole pushed its fur the wrong way, earning a snap of teeth that were as long as my little finger. That meant one of Jack’s hands on his gun and the other on me—the only time he’d so much as acknowledged my presence in front of the Saxons during the visits. The tiger got a squirt with a spray bottle like it was a house cat scratching the sofa. The animals had been Malik’s, Lydia said. Maybe they’d turn them out on the street to entertain themselves now that he was dead, Cole whispered when no one was listening.
Earlier, we’d seen the Emirs’ oldest daughter, who was around my age, with big, sad eyes. I remembered Jack telling me she’d been caught having a relationship with a Keeper, and been forced to terminate him herself. I decided Cole might not be kidding about the animals.
At dinner, a parading of their younger son, the one who was supposed to marry me, even though he was twelve years old. The look in his eyes was too grown-up when he took my hand and pledged his eternal love and protection for me if we chose him.
I could never live here. Or with the Melechs. Or the Hersch family. I’d rather marry Stellan.
During dessert, as I picked at sweet tea and sticky dates and thought about how days ten and nine had just been wasted and we weren’t even certain our next clue was right, I felt the door of this pretty cage closing faster and faster.