Christopher Rowe is back and there are more puzzles, riddles, and secrets to uncover in this third novel of the award-winning Blackthorn Key series.
Wherever Christopher Rowe goes, adventure—and murder—follows. Even a chance to meet King Charles ends in a brush with an assassin.
All that’s recovered from the killer is a coded message with an ominous sign-off: more attempts are coming. So when Christopher’s code-breaking discovers the attack’s true target, he and his friends are ordered to Paris to investigate a centuries-old curse on the French throne. And when they learn an ancient treasure is promised to any assassin who succeeds, they realize the entire royal family is at stake—as well as their own lives.
In the third heart-pounding installment of the award-winning Blackthorn Key series, Christopher, Tom, and Sally face new codes, puzzles, and traps as they race to find the hidden treasure before someone else is murdered.
The Assassin’s Curse CHAPTER 1 “THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT,” Tom said.
He folded his arms and turned away, gazing unhappily through the carriage window. Beyond the curtain, the lights of distant farmhouses dotted the darkness of the countryside.
“But I haven’t done anything,” I said.
“You think we’re here because of me?”
“I’m not the one setting fire to pear trees,” Tom said.
“That was an accident.”
“I’m not the one saying, ‘Hey, let’s blow up these pumpkins in the street.’ ”
“That was an experiment,” I protested. “And it was one pumpkin. The rest were squash. What does that have to do with anything?”
“Maybe you destroyed an important pumpkin.”
“How can a pumpkin be important?”
“Maybe it was a prize-winning pumpkin,” Tom said. “Maybe it was England’s pumpkin, to be entered into the International Pumpkin Fair. In Scotland.”
“Now you’re just stringing random words together.”
“Oh? Then explain this.” He grabbed the . . . invitation, I suppose you’d call it, that had fallen to the floor of the carriage and thrust it at me. “Explain it!”
That was the problem. I couldn’t explain it. This whole business had come as a surprise.
Yesterday morning, Tom and I had been eating lunch in my apothecary shop when a heavy fist had hammered on the door. I’d opened it to find myself face-to-face with one of the King’s Men, the royal coat of arms emblazoned on his tabard. Behind him was a carriage, a second soldier waiting beside it in the street.
“You Christopher Rowe?” the King’s Man said. When I nodded, he handed me a letter. I stared at it, uncomprehending. When I read it, I understood even less.
Get Thomas Bailey and get in the carriage.
Baron Richard Ashcombe, the King’s Warden, was the Lord Protector of His Majesty, Charles II. I looked warily at the soldier. “Are we in trouble?”
He shrugged. “I was just ordered to bring you to Oxford.”
Oxford? That’s where the king’s Court was staying. “Are we under arrest?”
The man tapped his foot impatiently. “Not yet.”
And that was how Tom and I ended up bumping our way through the countryside in the back of this carriage. After a night under guard in an inn, Tom was convinced we were headed for doom.
“We’re going to end up in the dungeon,” he moaned.
“We’re not going to end up in the dungeon,” I said, not entirely certain of that.
“Do you know what happens in a dungeon? There’s no food. They starve you.”
“We’re not even in irons.”
Tom’s lower lip trembled. “All you get is a single piece of bread, once a night. And not the good bread, either, with poppy seeds and maybe a bit of cinnamon. No. It’s hard bread. Hard bread for a hard life.”
Trust the baker’s son to critique the dungeon’s bread. Still, I wished he’d stop. The more he spoke, the more the prospect of wasting away behind bars loomed large in my mind. I tried to push his worry aside and think of why Lord Ashcombe would call for us.
I’d only had contact with the King’s Warden twice since we’d stopped the plot against the city at the height of the plague. The first was after Magistrate Aldebourne had told Lord Ashcombe what had happened. He’d written to me separately, asking for my account. The second was when he’d found a job for Sally, as promised.
His note, characteristically brief, said he’d found her a position as chambermaid to the Lady Pemberton, and a horse would come to collect her. As the baroness was with Court, which had fled London when the plague came, Sally had said a bittersweet goodbye to us back in September. Since she’d gone, I’d written her letters every week, but I hadn’t heard back. That wasn’t unexpected—her job wouldn’t give her enough money to pay for post—but Lord Ashcombe’s summons made me wonder if she was in some kind of trouble.
The carriage slowed. Tom and I watched from the window as we turned north, off the road to Oxford. It appeared the city wouldn’t be our destination after all. We skirted the town, lumbering through deep ruts in the mud, until our driver pulled us onto the grounds of a private estate.
Oaks lined the pathway, autumn-copper leaves stained rusty orange by the torches staked between them. Our horses, their breath puffing wispy clouds in the November chill, dragged us up the road to the mansion atop the slope. Lamps glowed through the windows, adding their light to the haze in the frosty air.
This place was no prison. And, whatever reason we were here, we wouldn’t be alone. Dozens of other carriages lined the lawn, flattening the grass under mud-caked wheels, while their drivers lounged about, waiting.
Our own transport pulled to a stop in front of the mansion, where a man in livery ushered us from the coach. The King’s Men nudged us up the stairs, through a set of grand double doors. A coat of arms was carved into the stone above the entrance: crossed halberds over a shield emblazoned with antlers.
Wherever we were, this place was astounding. The entrance hall alone was as big as my entire house. A marble staircase curved upward from the center of the foyer to the upper floors. A pair of servants waited there, their livery matching the staff standing by the half dozen exits to the different wings of the estate. From somewhere beyond, I heard the sounds of a gathering and the faint strains of music.
Lord Ashcombe strode into the entryway, dressed in fine black silks. He wore a patch over his left eye and a glove on his three-fingered right hand, wounds from a battle with the men who’d murdered my master earlier this year. There was no sword at his side, but his pearl-handled pistol was jammed into his belt.
“Sorry, General,” the King’s Man accompanying us said. “The rain’s turned the roads to slop.”
Lord Ashcombe grunted and looked us over. “We’ll need to get you ready.” He motioned to the servants on the stairs.
“My lord?” I glanced at Tom, who, by this point, was close to fainting. “Are we in trouble?”
Lord Ashcombe raised an eyebrow. “Should you be?”
“Uh . . . no?”
“Then I suppose it’ll depend on how this evening goes.”
“Yes,” Lord Ashcombe said. “The king wants to speak with you.”
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A Reading Group Guide to
Blackthorn Key #3: The Assassin’s Curse
By Kevin Sands
About the Book
When Christopher Rowe, a young apothecary in 1665, meets King Charles of England, he’s thrilled at the honor. To everyone’s surprise, Christopher almost immediately saves the king and his sister from an assassin. Impressed, King Charles assigns Christopher and his friends, Tom and Sally, a dangerous mission: to travel to Paris as spies and keep the king’s sister safe. Christopher learns that the assassin’s real goal is to find a priceless hidden treasure; if he can find it first, he’ll defeat the assassin. Whether it’s detecting poisons, cracking codes, solving riddles, or fighting off swordsmen, Christopher must use every skill he’s acquired over his years of training to keep the royal family—and his friends—alive.
1. The book opens with the question, “Do you believe in fate?” Why do you think the author started with this line? How does it tie in to the rest of the book?
2. The first chapter begins with Tom saying to Christopher, “It’s all your fault.” What does this reveal about Tom and Christopher’s friendship? Contrast the line with the book’s opening line, “Do you believe in fate?” What tone does each sentence have? How do they affect you as a reader?
3. The book is divided into sections that list dates, followed by words such as “Matins” and “Prime.” List the words and explain what they mean, researching them if necessary. Then discuss why the author chose to use the words and to divide the book into these sections by date.
4. Of all the people that Lord Ashcombe could send to Paris as spies, why does he send Christopher, Tom, and Sally? What role does King Charles have in making the decision, and what is his view about sending them?
5. Describe what you learn about life among the French aristocrats, including behavior, activities, and clothing. What roles do Christopher, Tom, and Sally have to play in the palace, and how do they feel about those roles?
6. What makes the setting of Paris so important to this story? Describe some of the buildings and other places where the action takes place. What kind of atmosphere do different places such as the cemetery and the Louvre have, and how does that contribute to the story?
7. What aspects of Christopher’s training under Master Benedict give him skills that are useful to a spy? Give examples of what he learned and how it’s helpful. Aside from the spying, how does his training as an apothecary help those around him in Paris?
8. Christopher talks to Master Benedict, who seems to talk back. These conversations appear in italics. Why do you think the author included these conversations? How does Christopher benefit from them? Give specific examples.
9. “Master Benedict always said that when you couldn’t find an answer, you should step aside and let your mind find the answer for you.” How can someone step aside from their own thoughts? Why might this work?
10. Describe the relationship between Christopher and Tom. What does Christopher appreciate about Tom? What does Tom appreciate about Christopher? Which aspects of Christopher’s behavior does Tom react strongly to?
11. Sally proves to be good at planning and spying. As Christopher tells her, “You really have a head for this sort of thing.” What makes him say that? What qualities does she have that make her good at spying?
12. Why is Christopher surprised to learn that Sally has family in Paris? Why does Sally want to visit them? Describe what happens during the visit, and what the visit means to Sally.
13. Who are Simon and Marin? What role did Master Benedict play in their pasts? How does each of them prove important to Christopher’s mission?
14. Who are the Knights Templar, and where did their treasure come from? Name the clues that they left for finding the treasure, and how Christopher and his friends solve each clue. What do the friends learn about the current Knights Templar?
15. According to Marin, the Knights Templar were “masters of misdirection.” They are said to have hidden things in plain sight. Explain this misdirection and give examples of how the Knights Templar hid things in plain sight in their clues.
16. Why does Christopher decide not to claim the Knights Templar’s gold treasure? What would be the advantages of taking the gold? What would be the drawbacks? Discuss whether you think he made the right decision.
17. Who turns out to be part of the assassination plot? Describe each person and their actions, and what you learn about them. What are their goals? What happens to each of them?
18. One of the novel’s themes concerns secrecy in the past and the present, including the secrecy surrounding the treasure. Discuss the role of secrecy in the plot. Identify other themes in the novel for discussion.
19. Discuss the letter on the last page of the story. What does Christopher learn from the letter? What does it threaten about his future? Talk about how you think Christopher will respond to the letter and how it might change his future actions.
20. Why is the book called The Assassin’s Curse? Discuss the curse described in the story and its importance to the plot.
1. Landmarks of Paris
In searching for the treasure, Christopher visits important buildings and other landmarks around Paris. As a class, make a list of the buildings and places. Have pairs of students choose a building or landmark to research using digital and print resources. The students should create a slide presentation that includes images of the place and present it to the whole class. The presentation should highlight the building or landmark’s history and architectural features, and show a map of Paris marked with the location.
2. Dear Father Bernard
Father Bernard suggests that Christopher and Tom might join the Knights Templar when they are older. Have students choose either Christopher or Tom, and write a letter from that boy’s perspective about why he’d like to join and what would make him a good candidate. The letter should reflect what the student learned about the Knights Templar in the novel. Have students share the letters in small groups.
3. Author’s Note Challenge
The last line of the author’s note is in code, for the reader to figure out. Have students work in small groups to determine what it says. Then have each student write a sentence in one of the codes explained in the book. The sentence should describe one of the main characters, using at least seven words. Have students exchange their coded messages to solve.
4. Key Objects
Have students each select three objects in the story that hold some importance. They should create a poster with a drawing of each object and a paragraph about what makes it important. Have the students meet in small groups, share their posters, and discuss their choices.
5. Fashion Matters
Early in the book, Lord Ashcombe identifies the poisoner as someone wearing linen, indicating that he is a servant. As a class, make a list of all the different clothing and jewelry items mentioned in the story. Have students research any that are unfamiliar. Then discuss which items are still worn today and which are not. Talk about the importance of clothing at the court and elsewhere, and its role in indicating people’s social positions.
Guide written by Kathleen Odean, a former school librarian and Chair of the 2002 Newbery Award Committee. She gives professional development workshops on books for young people and is the author of Great Books for Girls and Great Books about Things Kids Love.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
Since escaping from university with a pair of degrees in theoretical physics, Kevin Sands has worked as a researcher, a business consultant, and a teacher. He lives in Toronto, Canada. He is the author of the award-winning and bestselling Blackthorn Key series.
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