Excerpt: The Palace of Lost Memories

Book 1 : After The Rift

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This excerpt has not been edited. It will contain errors and the final version may be different.

CHAPTER 1

Whispers of sorcery began when the palace’s foundations appeared overnight. One frost-bitten day, the broad plain five miles from Mull contained nothing but grass and muddy puddles, and the next, solid walls took shape as if they’d grown out of the ground like daffodils at the first sign of spring. Looking at the completed building now, surrounded by mature formal gardens, I could see why those whispers had grown louder. Despite the distance between the palace and the clearing on Lookout Hill where I stood, I could tell it was enormous. It must be four times as long as the street on which I lived, and certainly higher than the temple in the center of Mull. According to my father, it was even bigger than the main temple in Tilting, Glancia’s capital city, where the last king had ruled from a crumbling old castle. That structure had taken three years to build. The palace had taken less than three months.

Three months in which not a single builder had been seen coming or going. No locals had been tasked with the labor, and according to the travelers and traders who now filled Mull’s taverns to bursting, they hadn’t come from elsewhere in Glancia or any of the neighboring kingdoms either. It was as if they’d been conjured from the air and returned there after the palace’s completion.

Magic.

Even I, a practical woman who believed in what she could see, hear and touch, couldn’t explain the sudden appearance of the palace. It wasn’t simply the speed of its erection, but also the secrecy. Only a handful of delivery carts from the village and nearby farms had been to the palace to supply its kitchens, and they’d only been allowed as far as the gate. Palace servants had unloaded the goods and retreated inside. They did not engage in conversation, they did not make eye contact, and they certainly didn’t come to the village on their days off.

Except for that one time a maid wandered into Mull early one morning, asking passersby if they knew her. When no one could offer answers, she fell to her knees and sobbed until four palace guards collected her. She went with them meekly enough, but the haunted eyes stayed with me. Not just hers, but theirs too.

With a last look at the dazzling building glinting in the late spring sunshine like a jewel, I picked up my battered old pack as well as the new one given to me by the patient I’d called on, and turned to go.

The thundering of hooves along the forest path warned me to remain in the clearing. By the sound of it, there was more than one rider and they were traveling fast. To move onto the path would be folly, so I waited until the reckless youths passed. No doubt it was Lord Deerhorn’s sons come to see the palace for themselves. Lookout Hill afforded the best view, after all. Either that or they’d decided to hunt here. They were supposed to keep to their own estate, but they were arrogant enough to shoot their arrows on common land when they felt like it.

I’d learned a long time ago to stay away from the Deerhorn lordlings, but I didn’t want them to think I was an animal worth hunting. I made myself visible in the middle of the clearing, facing the area of dense forest where the path briefly emerged into the clearing before disappearing again on the other side. They couldn’t mistake me for a fox or rabbit. Then again, they were as thick as the tree foliage in this part of the forest and fond of loosing their arrows.

The dull thud thudof the hooves came closer then the first rider burst into the clearing. His head jerked toward me and I caught a glimpse of a short dark beard but little else, thanks to the hooded cloak he wore. He disappeared into the forest again, his horse’s stride not even slowing.

A few moments later, the forest spat out another rider, this one wearing black leather with gold trim at the shoulder of his doublet, and long black boots. He sat tall in the saddle and looked comfortable despite his horse’s ferocious pace. I got a good look at his face as he slowed to study me in return. Short dark hair framed hard planes and a cleanly shaved jaw. It was his eyes that commanded attention, however. They were the blue of the shallows in Half Moon Cove on a sunny day. Those eyes made a quick assessment of me before focusing forward again.

“Question her!” he barked before urging his horse into the forest ahead.

He’d hardly disappeared when another rider emerged on the path. The new rider wore a crimson doublet with gold braiding. Crimson and gold—palace uniforms.

I clutched my bag to my chest.

The rider stopped and swore. He looked at me, swore again, and stared into the forest after the other riders. He swore again as his horse circled. Clearly good manners weren’t a requirement for palace servants. Good looks, however, must be. This rider was dark like the first, but with brown eyes and a bow mouth that turned severely down as he scowled at me.

“You there,” he hailed me.

Branches and brush rustled and a fourth rider emerged into the clearing. This one also wore a palace uniform but he was younger than his companion. My theory about handsome servants was dashed by the newcomer. Also dark, he had a nose like a horse, and a spotty forehead and chin. His narrow chest rose and fell with his heavy breathing. He couldn’t be more than eighteen.

“Who’re you?” he asked me, as baldly as can be.

I bristled then forced my spine to relax. I would usually treat such rudeness with silent disdain, but these were the king’s men and must be obeyed. Besides, if I was nice, I might find out something about the palace and King Leon.

“Joselyn Cully,” I said, still holding my pack in front of me. The new, empty one, remained slung over my shoulder. “Everyone calls me Josie. Are you from the palace?” I indicated the view behind me.

The lad sat higher in the saddle. “Huh. It looks tiny from up here, Max. Come take a look.”

The man called Max did not move. “Did you see him?” he demanded of me.

“Who?” I said.

“The rider in the hood.”

“A little. The other man followed him.” I pointed to the gap in the trees where the path led.

“The captain,” the young man told me. “Captain Hammer.”

Hammer? I managed to contain my snort of derision before it escaped.

“What did he look like?” Max asked. “The man in the hood?”

I shrugged. “I didn’t see much. He had a short, dark brown beard.”

“What shade of brown?” asked the younger man, leaning forward on the pommel. “Chestnut? Mud? Dung?”

Was he making fun of me? He didn’t laugh. Not even a hint of a smile touched his lips. “Medium brown,” I said.

“Anything else?” Max pressed, glancing toward the path again. Unlike the younger man, he seemed restless and eager to follow the two riders. The younger man still looked like he hadn’t quite caught his breath.

“No,” I said. “It was very—”

Thwack. 

Max grunted and lost his balance, half falling, half staggering off his horse. An arrow protruded from his arm. Merdu, be merciful.

“Get down!” Max shouted as he fell to his knees. “Find cover!”

I dashed behind a row of shrubs on the opposite side of the clearing from where the arrow had been shot. I was safe but the men were not.

I swallowed hard and dared to peek through a gap in the bushes. The two men were still alone with their horses in the clearing. Max lay flat on the ground. Blood seeped through his clothes, darkening the crimson fabric. He must have pulled the arrow out, the fool. The younger man knelt beside him, his body over Max’s, protecting him and making a target of himself in the process.

“Get off me, you little prick,” Max snapped, easily shoving off the skinnier lad. “Do you want to get shot in the arse?”

The youth glanced behind him in the direction of the forest then angled himself behind a horse for protection. “Max,” he hissed. “Take cover.”

“He’d have shot again by now if he was still here.” Max sat up and inspected his arm.  

He was probably right and it was safe to emerge from my hiding spot. “Let me see,” I said, crouching beside him. I reached for him but he leaned away. “I’m a…healer.”

“You can’t be,” the lad blurted out.

“Why not? Because I’m a woman?”

“No. That is, I can see you’re a woman.” His gaze dipped to my breasts and his face turned as red as his clothes. “But you can’t be a doctor.”

I did not correct him. I should have. I really should have.

“Because you’re pretty,” he went on. “Pretty women aren’t smart and doctors have to be smart.”

“Shut up, Quentin,” Max growled. He got to his feet, only to sway a little. He was shorter than me but not by much.

“Please, let me look at the wound,” I said, eyeing him carefully lest he topple onto me. “I assure you I know what I’m doing. I’ve been studying at my father’s knee ever since I could read. He’s taught me everything he knows, and he’s a brilliant doctor. The best in Glancia, perhaps the entire Fist Peninsula. Even so, I’ve taken my learning upon myself this last year or so. My patients have seen the benefit, too.” I decided not to elaborate and tell him all my patients were childbearing women. I was perfectly capable of treating ailments and injuries of all kinds, just not allowed by law. “Some of the procedures are experimental, but not dangerously so, I can assure you.”

Max put up his hand. “Be quiet. You’re as annoying as he is.”

Quentin beamed, as if he’d been paid a compliment. I kept my mouth shut. I did tend to chatter too much when I was nervous.

The pounding of horses’ hooves had us all turning toward the path again, but it was only the second rider returning, the one who’d given these men orders to question me. Captain Hammer. “I lost him,” he bit off with a shake of his head. He glanced at me and looked as if he was about to speak when Quentin got in first.

“If you’d been riding Lightning, you’d have caught him.”

“He doubled back,” Max told the captain.

Hammer glanced sharply at the injured man then his gaze fell on the arrow lying on the leaf litter at the edge of the clearing. “How bad is it?”

“I can’t tell,” I said before Max could answer. “He won’t let me inspect it. I’m Joselyn Cully, from Mull. It’s my professional opinion that the wound needs to be bound before he loses too much blood. It may also require suturing.” I held up my bag. “I have the necessary equipment right here.” I was always prepared with surgical thread, a fine needle and small doses of Mother’s Milk in case of large-headed babies.

I went to open my bag but the captain jumped down from his horse and grabbed it off me. He was much taller than me and his men, and broad across the shoulders. He checked inside the bag.

“It contains medical equipment,” I said, hotly, “not weapons.”

The captain handed the bag back after a thorough inspection. “Let her see the wound, Sergeant.”

“I’m fine,” Max growled. “I don’t need a healer.”

I focused on the forest behind him and gasped. All the men spun to look, but only Max swayed and fell to one knee. He swore then sighed and sat.

Quentin snickered. “I like her.”

Max glared at him but even I could see there was no animosity in it. He tried to remove his doublet but Quentin had to help him. By the time he’d removed his shirt, Max was sweating and breathing heavily. Quentin and I both helped while the captain kept watch on the surrounding forest. He seemed oblivious to his sergeant’s pain. 

I tied Max’s shirt around his upper arm to stem the blood flow. His veins soon bulged nicely.

“His fingers are going white,” Quentin said. “Is that good?”

“For now.” I rummaged through my bag, tossing aside forceps, vials and a suction pump until I found the bottle of Mothers Milk. “Swallow a mouthful of this,” I said to Max.

“You trying to get him drunk?” Quentin asked.

“It’s a soothing medicine. It numbs pain and will keep him calm while I stitch him up.”

“Just like ale, eh?”

“Better than ale. He won’t need as much to feel the effects, although too much has the same symptoms felt the morning after a night spent drinking.”

Max shook his head. “I don’t need it.”

“It’ll hurt,” I warned.

“I can cope with a little pain.”

“I’ll leave the bottle here. Grab it if you change your mind.” I set the bottle down beside him and pushed aside the equipment in my bag again until I found the jar. It would be wonderful to move all of my things into the new bag the leather seller’s wife had given me as payment after the safe delivery of her baby. It had internal compartments, pockets and straps to organize all my tools and medicines.

I removed the lid on the small jar and extracted the needle and thread stored in it. “Ready?” I asked, threading the needle.

“Ready,” Quentin said, crouching beside me, watching closely.

“Get on with it,” Max snapped.

I stuck the needle into his flesh.

“Fuck!” he blurted out.

“Mind your tongue in front of Miss Cully,” the captain said without turning around. He stood rigid, his shoulders tense.

“Doctor not Mistress,” Quentin told him. “Doctor Cully. How deep does the needle have to go in?”

Max paled. “Quentin!” he gasped. “Bring that ugly face of yours closer.”

Quentin leaned in. “Why?”

“So I can shut your mouth for you.”

The captain whipped around and intercepted Max’s fist before it made contact with Quentin’s face. “Maybe you should take the Mother’s Milk,” he said.

“You going soft, Hammer?” One side of Max’s mouth hooked into a wry smile.

I pushed the needle in again and Max grunted and squeezed his eyes shut.

The captain snatched up the bottle of Mother’s Milk. “Drink!”

Max accepted the bottle.

“Two mouthfuls,” I reminded him. “You’re a solid man but three will have you throwing up and all the good effects will be lost into the dirt.”

I waited for the medicine to take affect before continuing with the suturing. The captain returned to watching the forest, his arms crossed over his chest, but his stance a little more relaxed. I’d thought he was tense from alertness, but now I suspected it was partly due to concern for his sergeant.

“So your friends call you Josie, eh?” Quentin asked me. “Can I call you Josie?”

“If you like.”

“You can call me Quentin. He’s Sergeant Max and that’s Captain Hammer.”

“Are those first names or last?” I asked.

The captain half turned and glared at Quentin over his shoulder. The sergeant glared too. Quentin swallowed. “Is he ready now?” he asked. “He looks ready. You ready, Max?”

The sergeant sighed and closed his eyes. He finally relaxed. “The Mother’s Milk isn’t working. I can still hear him.”

I laughed softly. “It only numbs the pain.”

“Listening to him ispainful.”

I went to work, finishing what I’d begun. The task wasn’t difficult, particulary with Max now calm and pain free. I’d stitched far more delicate areas than a big man’s arm. It gave me time to think about the strangeness of the situation I’d found myself in. Aside from the mad servant and the guards who’d collected her from the village, these were the first people from the palace I’d ever seen. No one in Mull had been presented with such a good opportunity to learn more.

“Are you palace guards?” I asked as I stitched.

To my surprise, Quentin didn’t respond. He looked to Hammer.

“Yes,” the captain said without turning around.

“Who was that man you were chasing? Does he work at the palace too?”

“That’s not something I can divulge.”

“Have you worked at the palace long?”

The captain shifted his stance. “The entire time.”

“So you saw it being built? Where did the builders come from?”

“Here and there.”

“Can you be more specific?”

“No.”

This wasn’t going well. “Where are you originally from?”

He didn’t answer.

“Why can’t you tell me?” I pressed. “It’s a simple question.”

“You’d think so,” Quentin muttered.

“You and Sergeant Max are short and dark,” I said to Quentin. “So you must be originally from Freedland.”

Quentin turned huge eyes to me. “You’ve been there?” he whispered. “You’ve been to Freedland?”

“No. My father has and he told me stories of all the kingdoms and the republic. He’s traveled all over the Fist before he married my mother and settled here in Mull. But everyone knows the sand people of Freedland are short and dark. You don’t need to go there to know.”

“Right,” Quentin said. “Of course.”

“Captain Hammer is different,” I said, glancing at his broad back. “He’s tall, like those of us native to Glancia, but he’s dark like you. Glancia folk are naturally fair.”

“And pretty.” Quentin blushed. “Real pretty.”

I smiled. “I suspect the captain doesn’t like to be called pretty.”

Hammer shifted his stance again. “The captain doesn’t like people talking about him behind his back.” He glanced over his shoulder and those eyes, so blue against his tanned skin, drilled into me. “Are you done, Doctor?”

It was a little embarrassing to be called the title I hadn’t earned officially through the college, and never would. Women weren’t allowed to study surgery. Medicine and midwifery, yes, but not surgery. The college system was archaic, not only for entry into the college of surgery, but into all the colleges. The rules ought to be changed, but I couldn’t foresee it happening soon. None of that was a secret. It was common knowledge. Why did these men not know it?

I finished stitching and tied the end of the thread. I asked Quentin to cut off the excess and he looked more than pleased to contribute. After removing the shirt from around his arm, I told Max he could sit up.

He answered me with a soft snore.

“How will we get him back to the palace?” Quentin asked.

Captain Hammer tapped Max’s cheek. “Wake up.”

Max cracked open an eye. “The doctor’s not finished.” He closed his eye again.

“She is.” The captain pulled Max into a sitting position. “Come on. We must go.” He scanned the forest again. Did he think the archer was still there, watching?

I handed the doublet to Max and he slung it around his injured side but needed help with the other. Between the captain and me, we managed to arrange it equally on both shoulders then assisted him to stand.

Max groaned but slumped against Hammer. The captain looped his arm around Max and guided him to the horse.

“Come on,” Quentin said as he gathered the horse’s reins. “You can do it, Max. Upsy daisy.”

The sergeant pushed off from Hammer. “I’m not a child,” he growled.

He tried to mount alone, but couldn’t. The captain wordlessly stepped in and helped. He managed to get Max on the horse easily, even though the broad-set man must be heavy. From what I’d witnessed, Max was a barrel of solid muscle.

“Where’s your horse?” Quentin asked me as he mounted.

“I don’t have a horse,” I said. “I walked.”

“It’s a long way back to Mull,” the captain said. He remained standing, his hand resting lightly on his horse’s neck. “What were you doing up here?”

“Passing through.”

“It’s a hill. No one climbs a hill if they’re just passing through.”

“She was looking at the view,” Quentin said. “There’s a nice one of the palace from over there.” He pointed to the edge of the clearing where the hill dropped away too steeply for trees to grow and block the view.

The captain walked to the edge and studied the palace in the distance. He stayed there for some time, his back to us. Only the ends of his hair fluttered in the light breeze, but otherwise he didn’t move. The silence stretched.

Quentin cleared his throat. “Captain? Max is falling asleep again.”

The captain turned away from the view and my breath caught in my throat. He had the same haunted look in his eyes as the mad maidservant and the guards who’d collected her that day.

“Are you all right?” I asked in a rush of breath.

He halted and blinked rapidly at me. “We’ll take you back to the village.”

“It’s all right,” I said. “I can walk. I had a patient to visit at the base of the hill and decided to come up and have a look at the palace. It’s such a pleasant day and the sun in shining. The palace is so pretty in the sunshine with all those glass windows sparkling like gems. Is it made of gold? It looks like gold from up here, but perhaps its something else. I imagine gold is too expensive to use as a building material.” I bit my tongue to stop my rambling.

“We’ll take you home,” the captain said again. “You can’t stay here alone.”

“Why not?”

He hesitated before saying, “You saw the man we were chasing?”

“Only a little. Just his beard really.”

“He might think you saw more. That’s why he doubled back.”

My heart skipped a beat. “You think he was shooting at me?”

“It’s possible.”

“Then why not try again after missing?”

“Perhaps he couldn’t get a clear second shot before I returned.”

“She hid in the bushes,” Quentin told his captain.

I swallowed hard. Someone had tried to…to kill me?

The captain touched my elbow. “Doctor? Are you all right?”

“I…yes. I’m fine.”

“It’s doubtful he’ll come back for you. If you didn’t recognize him then he doesn’t know you either, or where to find you. If he’s clever, he’ll be far away by now. Even so, I’d prefer it if you allowed us to escort you home.”

Quentin shifted back on the saddle and patted the front. “Climb on.”

“She’ll ride with me,” Hammer said.

Quentin sighed. “Don’t you have enough?”

“You’re a terrible rider. If Doctor Cully wants to get home safely, she rides with me.”

“I fell off once.”

“Once today,” Max piped up from where he sat slumped in his saddle.

“A ride back to the village is the least we can do,” the captain said to me. “I’ll send payment for your service. I have no coin on me. We left in a hurry.”

I gathered up both my packs and helped myself onto the saddle, sitting aside rather than astride as I’d seen Lady Deerhorn do. The captain mounted behind me in one fluid movement. I felt small and delicate next to him, so tall was he. He smelled of horse and leather, and his hard thigh bumped against mine.

We headed slowly through the forest, back down the hill. Little light reached through the canopy so that it felt like twilight, despite being just after noon. The air felt damper in here too, denser, as if rain wasn’t far away. If I hadn’t been out in the bright sunshine moments before, I would have thought the weather entirely different.

The captain remained alert and silent as we rode. His reassurance that the hooded archer wasn’t a local and would be far away by now offered little comfort. I held my packs close to my chest and watched the forest too. I’d wager the archer was a burglar or poacher who thought to try his luck on palace grounds.

Or perhaps he was an escaped servant who needed to be retrieved. 

CHAPTER 2

We emerged from the forest at the base of Lookout Hill and rode into the village. The familiar salty scent of the sea hit me along with an undertone of gutted fish thanks to the northerly breeze. We passed the leather seller’s hut where his wife convalesced with their third born, and the clutch of other buildings built of the same warm yellow stone.

“You said your father traveled.” The captain had been quiet for so long that his voice startled me. It wasn’t so much the sound of it, but the way it rumbled through my body. He sat very close. “Where has he traveled to?”

“Everywhere on the Fist Peninsula,” I said. “Freedland, Dreen, Vytill of course, and even into The Margin and across the sea to Zemaya. Not beyond Widowmaker Peaks, though.”

“How long was he gone?”

“Years. He studied in Logios then after graduation, he took his new education and traveled. He says he learned more in Zemaya than he ever learned in college, particularly about surgical procedures and poisons.”

“What do you know about the other nations on the Fist Peninsula?” the captain asked.

I turned more fully to see him properly. At such close proximity, he filled my view. “Are you from Zemaya? You can’t be from the Margin.”

Those blue eyes lowered to mine. “Why not?”

“Because you’re too sophisticated. Margin folk are simple tribes people. You’re clearly not barbarians.”

Quentin nodded sagely, proving he was listening. He did not look around, however, preferring to concentrate on the road ahead. His white-knuckled grip on the reins and stiff back were at odds with the other two who both sat comfortably in the saddles. Max had straightened a little in the saddle and seemed more alert. The fresh sea air had woken him up, and the effects of the Mother’s Milk were wearing off.

“Tell me more about the Margin,” the captain said.

“It’s mostly plains and then the foothills of the Peaks.” I shrugged. “Nomadic tribes live there. They fight amongst themselves and don’t venture into Glancia. There’s not much more to tell.”

“What about Dreen? The college city of Logios is in Dreen, is it not? What else is it known for? What are the people like?”

We passed the Bramm sisters walking back from the main street, their baskets full. They stepped out of our path then stopped altogether and gawped at us. “Josie?” asked one.

“Good afternoon, ” I said.

“What are you doing with those…?”

“Palace guards?” I filled in for her. “I’ll explain later.”

They glanced at each other then rushed off, their strides long and purposeful. The entire village would know I’d ridden with palace guards by nightfall.

“Dreen is large in area but smaller than Vytill and Glancia in population,” I said, answering the captain. “Most of it is sparsely populated farmland. There are two cities, Upway, the capital, and Logios, the college city.”

“And Vytill? What are the folk there like?”

I huffed out a laugh. “The most intelligent, beautiful, and wealthy. Just ask them. Did I mention they’re arrogant too? According to the king of Vytill, it’s the most important nation on the Fist. Not anymore, though. Not since the Rift. Have you heard of the Rift?”

“I have.”

That was something, at least. I was beginning to think he was completely ignorant about everything to do with the peninsula.

“Tell me about Glancia,” he said. “You’ve lived in this kingdom your entire life?”

I nodded. “In Mull. That probably makes me quite dull to you.”

“Why would it?”

I waved at Yolanda and her three children, each carrying a package. None waved back. They were too busy staring. “Because you’re so well traveled,” I said to Hammer. “What’s it like in Zemaya?” I deliberately sounded idle, not too curious. “Or wherever it is you’re from?”

“We’re from the palace,” was all he said. “Glancia is a pleasant country with nice scenery. Is it mostly made up of fishing villages?”

He was secretive, this captain. Far too secretive. “It is, except for the capital, Tilting. It’s on the River Upway near the borders of Dreen and Vytill. Apparently being close to our wealthier neighbors makes it more strategic and affords better communication, although I don’t think the kings of either Dreen or Vytill cared overmuch about communicating with Glancia until now. We were nothing to them, just a poor dog they had to throw a bone to every now and again to stop us starving over winter. Before the Rift, that is. Everything changed after that. Why did King Leon decide to build his palace near Mull and not Tilting? The capital was good enough for the old king.”

“The old king kept to the old ways. The new king wanted to do something new and different.”

“The palace certainly is different,” I said. “For one thing, it’s not a crumbling old relic of a castle.”

He smirked. “No, it’s not.”

I directed the captain to move off Mull’s main road with its shops and bustling market that now opened every day instead of twice a week. I knew far too many shopkeepers and I was already growing tired of the stares and gasps. Soon the sheltered harbor with its two jutting piers were in view. The smell of the sea was strongest here, and the noise incessant. Dockworkers shouted at one another, sometimes in anger, but mostly barking orders. Crane ropes groaned and their machinery whirred as barrels and crates were lifted from boats onto the piers. Carts, drays and passenger vehicles came and went, jostling for space on the concourse. Everywhere foundations for new warehouses and shipping company offices sprang up. The customs building was already two-thirds built, with another level to go on soon. It looked very grand already, commanding the best view over Mouse Ear Harbor.

Large ships anchored in deeper waters at the harbor’s mouth while their smaller rowboats navigated Mouse Ear’s shallows, waiting for their turn to unload and reload at the piers. Timbers creaked and oars bumped as crews maneuvered through the crowded harbor and vied for the best positions.

The sooner the harbor was dredged and bigger docks built, the better. Perhaps. Mull was bursting at the seams with the influx of trade since the Rift, and I didn’t particularly like the way my sleepy village was being swamped. I hated to think what it would be like if it grew to the size of Tilting.

“Mull is changing quickly.” When he didn’t respond, I added, “Because of the Rift.”

“I see,” he said blandly.

“I’m sorry, I’m boring you. You must already know this.”

He hesitated then said, “I would like to hear about Mull from the perspective of someone who lives here.”

“Very well.” I indicated the busy harbor. “The Rift cut off The Thumb from the rest of the continent.” I waited for a reaction. He gave none so I thought it best to begin at the beginning. “A series of earthquakes one after the other tore the headland known as the Thumb from the mainland. Seawater flooded the gap, now known as The Rift. The quake event is also called The Rift, for want of a better word. The Thumb was—and still is, administratively if not physically—part of Vytill. Before The Rift, Port Haven on The Thumb was the eastern most port on the Fist Peninsula, making it a trading hub. It’s also on the River Mer so it was doubly strategic. Port Haven is the reason Vytill became the richest and most important kingdom on the Fist. Now that’s all changing.”

“Because The Rift severed the Thumb.”

“Nice pun.”

Once again he did not react. Not much of a sense of humor then.

“With the Thumb cut off from the peninsula, Vytill no longer has the eastern most port on the Fist. Glancia does.” I stretched out my hand to encompass the activity. “My sleepy fishing village has woken up. The population has already trebled and market prices have risen quickly. On the one hand, it’s good for everyone’s business, but on the other…” I sighed. “I liked it the way it was.”

I directed the captain into a street to take us away from the harbor. It was quieter but we still passed people I knew. Considering I knew everyone in the village, except for those who’d settled since the Rift, it wasn’t surprising.

“Is that why King Leon built his palace nearby?” I asked. “To be closer to Mull and the trading activity?”

“I don’t know what’s behind his thinking.”

“It did seem strange to us that he’d move away from Tilting and its administrative offices. The ministers can’t be too happy to travel here.”

“They haven’t come yet. They arrive next week for the first time.”

“Will they stay at the palace? Every spare room in Mull is already taken.”

“There are rooms prepared for them at the palace.”

“Many, many rooms,” Quentin piped up.

Captain Hammer asked me a few more questions about Glancia, mostly about its history and the various lords. I could answer many but not all. Aside from Lord Deerhorn who lived north east of Mull on an estate that overlooked Mouse Ear Harbor, the other powerful families of Glancia were a mystery to me. There wouldn’t have been enough time to answer questions about them, anyway. We turned into the narrow street where I lived and I told the captain to stop outside my cottage just as old Bessie Tailor emerged. She squinted at me.

“Who’s that?” she asked.

“It’s just me, Bessie,” I said. “Josie. Are you here for your eyes? Could Father help?”

“Josie, how lovely. Who’re you with? Is that Ivor Morgrain?” She squinted harder.

“Josie?” my father said, peering over Bessie’s head. “What in Merdu’s name…?” He took in Quentin and Max’s crimson and gold uniforms, and my position on the horse in front of the captain. “Get down, Josie! Come away from them!”

“It’s all right,” I said. “They’re palace guards. They—”

“I know what they are.”

I hadn’t seen him look this furious since I came home late one night after celebrating a friend’s betrothal at The Anchor tavern. He’d had good cause then, but his anger didn’t make sense this time. I was twenty-four, for goddess’s sake and hardly a naive girl anymore. The captain and his men may be strangers, but it was broad daylight. Father was over reacting, as usual.

The captain dismounted and assisted me to the ground, his hands on my waist. Our gazes connected but I couldn’t read his. Or perhaps I might have if I hadn’t been transfixed by his eyes.

“My name is Captain Hammer, sir,” he said to my father. “These are my men. You’re Doctor Cully?”

My father lifted his chin in a nod. “What are you doing with my daughter?”

“Doctor Cully—Doctor Joselyn Cully, that is—assisted my sergeant after he was shot by an arrow on Lookout Hill.”

I groaned silently. I’d have a devil of a time convincing Father there was no cause to worry now. It was difficult to know which was worse—the fact I hadn’t come straight home after seeing to the leather seller’s wife, the fact that I rode on a horse with a strange man, that he was from the palace, or that his sergeant had been shot by an arrow. I could see my father grappling with the overwhelming number of possibilities too. Thankfully, it rendered him speechless. For now.

It did not have the same effect on Bessie. “DoctorJoselyn?” She chuckled. “Very amusing.”

Captain Hammer turned a frosty glare to me.

I sidled off to join the sergeant. He sat well on his horse and looked much better. “I stitched up the wound,” I told my father. “We were on top of Lookout Hill and he was losing blood. There was no time to bring him down here and since I had everything I needed…” I stopped as my father’s face darkened.

“Get inside, Josie,” he said coolly.

“In a moment.”

He arched a brow but did not scold me.

“Those stitches will need to be removed in ten days,” I said to Max. “I can come to the palace—”

“No,” both my father and the captain said.

“Max will come to you,” the captain clarified.

“To me,” Father added. “My daughter would make an excellent doctor but an unqualified girl cannot attend to a servant of the palace.”

“But he’s mypatient,” I said.

“Thank you for bringing my daughter home safely,” Father said to the captain. “Good day to you, sir. Josie, inside.”

I slipped passed Bessie and Father, dumped my bags on the floor, found what I wanted in the surgery and returned just as the captain remounted. I handed him the roll of bandage but addressed the sergeant. “Cover the wound with a thick layer of bandage so that it doesn’t rub on your clothes. If it pains you, ask the kitchen staff to ground up some hollyroot. They probably grow it in the kitchen gardens. It’s not as strong as Mother’s Milk but it’s good for mild aches and pains. You look like a man who only needs mild pain relief.”

He puffed out his chest and gave me a nod. “Thank you doc— er, miss.”

“Josie will do.”

They rode off amid stares from our neighbors. I waved at Meg across the street and she signaled me to join her. I glanced at my father. His deeply furrowed brow gave me my answer.

“Later,” I called out to Meg.

“Josie,” Father snapped as Bessie made her way carefully along the street. He shut the door behind me. “What do you think you were doing accepting a ride from those men?”

The childish part of me wanted to storm up to my attic bedchamber, but I was too old for petulance. I bypassed the front room that Father used as his surgery and workroom and entered the kitchen instead. I took my time filling the pot with water and mildwood leaves and nestled it amid the burning embers. I saw no reason to make it easy for Father. He was over reacting, as usual, and I was heartily sick of it. He’d been very close to creating a scene out there, and in front of the neighbors and palace guards too.

“The sergeant needed help,” I told him. “So I helped.”

“I understand that,” he said, strained patience tightening his voice. “You’re a healer and wanted to assist an injured man. You can’t help your kind nature.”

“And we were too far away from here.”

“I don’t disagree with your decision to suture his wound. You were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“Or at the right place at the right time.”

“Don’t mock me, Josie. This is serious. Those men could have been dangerous.”

“They weren’t.”

“You don’t know that.”

I threw up my hands. “I helped one of them! Why would they hurt me?”

“Any number of reasons, none of which you’re foolish enough to dismiss so easily. You’re a young, attractive woman on your own in the forest on top of Lookout Hill. They’re young, virile men. Do I need to spell it out to you? You’re not a child anymore, Josie.”

“Precisely,” I spat. “I am not a child. I’m capable of assessing whether three men are a threat to me. I am well aware of what can happen to a woman alone, but you should notassume every man is after that.”

“I don’t,” he said, sounding put out. “But they’re strangers,” he added, gentler. “You can’t trust strangers, particularly after the prison escape.”

“The prison escape! Oh Merdu. Not only did that happen a long time ago and those escapees are probably rounded up by now, but the prison was miles away! Miles and miles!”

“I’ve heard that they have notbeen rounded up, and nor is it a stretch to assume they would be in Mull. We have so many strangers in the village now that new ones could easily blend in, find employment or attempt to leave the Fist on one of the trading vessels.”

“These men wore palace uniforms. If I can’t trust palace guards, who can I trust?”

He removed two mugs from the shelf and placed them on the table. “Their authority does not make them trustworthy.” He sat heavily, all the bluster knocked out of him. He looked every bit his age of sixty-five with the deep lines across his forehead and the last remnants of his hair clinging to his head like a summer cloud.

I kissed his cheek to show him I wasn’t too mad. I knew his anger was born from worry. It had been just the two of us for so long that he was afraid I’d either leave him voluntarily through marriage, or reluctantly if something awful befell me. “You think the king employs bad men?” I asked.

“Not on purpose. Besides, it’s not just that. There’s something odd about the palace and its servants.”

I sighed. “Don’t say magic. Those men are real.” So real that I could still feel the captain’s thigh against mine, his hands on my waist. “Magic doesn’t exist outside of children’s stories.”

He said nothing and I poured the brewed mildwood into the mugs. “Have you eaten today, Father?”

“Not yet. Do we have any eggs for breakfast?”

I smiled. “It’s well past breakfast time, but I’ll cook you some eggs if you like. Tell me about Bessie’s eyes.”

“You first. Tell me how the birth went.”

***

Tamworth Tao, the Zemayan born spice merchant, sported a knowing little smile; he had gossip to impart. Meg noticed it too and dragged me through the crowded marketplace by my arm to his stall. We’d been heading there eventually anyway, preferring to leave it to the end of our marketing, but she couldn’t wait and it became our first stop.

“Josie, Meg, my two favorite Mullians.” Tam flicked his long black braid off his shoulder with a jerk of his head. The bells attached to the strip of white leather threaded through the hair tinkled musically before falling silent at his back. “You are a wonderful sight for my world weary eyes.” Tamworth’s face-full of wrinkles deepened with his grin, but there were no signs of weariness in his eyes or elsewhere. The spice merchant was of indeterminate age. Despite the wrinkles, he sported no gray in his hair and his slender shoulders and arms were all wiry muscle. He could be forty, seventy, or anywhere in between.

I inhaled deeply, drawing the chaotic blend of sweetness and tartness, tanginess and sharp heat into my lungs. According to Father, Zemaya smelled like the spices sold in Tam’s stall, but rarely all together like this.

“What news from your travels, Tam?” Meg asked, not bothering to hide her enthusiasm. She was the same age as me, but sometimes she seemed much younger when her eagerness got the better of her, or if she became overly shy about the birthmark on her face.

“I will tell you,” Tam said, still smiling, “but first Josie must tell me about the palace guards she rode with last week.”

“There’s nothing to tell,” I said.

“There must be. No one else has been as close to them as you, Josie, so you must forgive our curiosity.”

Meg regarded me with mischievous blue eyes. “Go on, Josie. Tell Tam how you rode with the veryhandsome captain of the guards.”

Tam leaned forward, rising off his stool. He bumped his head on the string of reek roots hanging from the bar. His eyes widened, their whites so bright within the dark skin. “What did he look like? What was he wearing?”

I described Hammer’s looks and clothing, and that of his men. Tam listened intently, and I realized his curious little smile that enticed us over to the stall wasn’t as a result of hisgossip, but because he saw the opportunity to gather tidbits about the palace from me.

“How did he seem to you?” Tam asked.

“Seem?”

“Aye. Did he seem…solid?”

Oh yes, Captain Hammer was certainly solid in the thighs and chest. Being close to him on the horse had given me the perfect opportunity to feel just how solid. I said none of that to Tam, although I’d already described Hammer in detail to Meg, at her insistence. “Solid enough.”

“Was there anything unusual about him?” Tam asked.

“Such as?”

He shrugged. “Such as fading in and out. Or shimmering, perhaps. I don’t know. Anything?”

“Oh,” Meg murmured. “Are you referring to…” She lowered her voice. “To magic?”

Tam winked.

I sighed. “He was real and solid and alive. They all were. His sergeant even bled red blood. Come now, Tam, I expect a well traveled man like you wouldn’t believe in superstition and magic.”

“Perhaps that’s why I dobelieve. Did the men tell you anything about the palace? Anything at all about its origins, or King Leon?”

“Nothing. Now, may we conduct our business? I’d like a bulb of fire breath, some reek root and one scoop each of amani, tumini and borrodi spices please.”

As he packaged up my purchases, he finally imparted his own gossip to us. I was right, and he didn’t have much to tell. He’d just come from Port Haven on The Thumb where houses lay empty and shops had closed.

“The downriver section of the Mer has been cut off from its source and dried up,” he said. “It’s now just rocks, sand and stagnant pools. The surrounding farms are struggling to irrigate their crops. The harbor is no longer bringing in any trade, and the king of Vytill isn’t doing anything to help The Thumb folk. I heard the ministers have advised him to no longer consider it part of Vytill but rather an island nation that must administer itself. The population has been given a choice to resettle on the mainland or stay.”

“They’ll starve if they stay,” I said with a shake of my head.  

“They may starve on the mainland,” Tam went on. “There’s little work elsewhere in Vytill, particularly for those experienced only as dock workers.”

“What about their mines?” The Fist Peninsula mined most of the stone, iron and other materials the various nations needed, but all those mines were concentrated in Freedland and in the south of Vytill and Dreen. There were none in Glancia or The Margin to the north.

“Dock workers aren’t miners,” Tam said.

“They can find work here,” Meg said in all her good-hearted innocence. “There’s plenty to do now that Mouse Ear Harbor has become so important.”

“Mull isn’t ready for such a rapid increase in population,” I told her. “We’re not coping as it is.”

“There’s a rumor that Glancia may close its borders to migrants unless they can pay their way to cross,” Tam went on. “You’re right, Josie, and Mull can’t cope with rapid expansion. Glancia can’t cope. The villages are small and disparate, and quite primitive.”

Meg bristled. “We are notprimitive.”

“Glancia is nothing but a handful of fishing villages.” Tam handed me my purchases and I paid him. “Few people are educated, the roads are poor, and your ministers are too busy fighting amongst themselves to make the quick decisions that are necessary at a time like this. It didn’t matter if they sat on their fat arses and twiddled their thumbs before, but it matters now. Perhaps your new king will whip them into action.”

“Let’s hope so,” Meg said, thoughtfully. “I wish we knew more about him and his intentions.”

All of Glancia wished that.

We thanked Tam and finished the rest of our marketing. Despite having told my story about the palace guards numerous times in the last week, I found I had to re-tell it again and again at each stall. Ultimately, my listeners were disappointed. I had so little to pass on and I refused to embellish the tale as Meg suggested.

We did learn one more interesting piece of news. A farmer from outside Mull told of the procession of ministers arriving at the palace. The cavalcade of carriages, carts and wagons had stretched for a full mile along the road to Tilting where the ministers and previous king had lived. It seemed the new palace was finally allowing in outsiders. It was a positive sign that King Leon might whip the ministers into action, as Tam had put it.

Meg and I parted in the street between our houses and I found my father in the larder, reading labels on jars with his eyes screwed up so tightly it was a wonder he could see at all.

“Why is the Mother’s Milk now stored in these pottery jars?” he asked. “We used to keep them in glass ones.”

“Because the glass ones are too expensive,” I said. “I told you that at the time. Why do you need Mother’s Milk? What’s happened? You’re not scheduled for any surgeries today.” Mother’s Milk was used to relieve only the strongest pain because of its expense and the difficulty in sourcing ingredients. We made it ourselves to our own formula, but the ingredients came from traders like Tamworth Tao, and they didn’t always have what we needed. We only used it for surgeries, births where the mother had torn, and deep wounds. I probably shouldn’t have used it on Sergeant Max, but the decision had been made and it was too late for regrets.

“Have you got the forceps?” Father asked.

“Someone’s giving birth?” There weren’t many pregnant women close to term that I knew of, and I thought I knew them all.

Father shooed me out of the larder. “Fetch the forceps. In fact, just give me your bag.”

“Who’s having a baby?”

“A woman.”

I stepped in front of him and crossed my arms. “Why are you avoiding the question?”

He looked away.

“Father!”

He sighed. “A woman in the Row. Her waters broke overnight but the baby is stuck. Her sister came here and begged me to come. The expectant mother is fading.”

“I’ll go.”

“You most certainly will not! Not to the Row.”

“When I explain I’m the doctor—”

“They won’t believe you. The fact is, Josie, you are a woman, and the only women in the Row are…you know.”

“Whores,” I finished for him since he seemed to have trouble with the word.

The Row had begun as a single street in the north of Mull but over the years, the word became synonymous with the entire area where the prostitutes eked out a living—if it could be called living. The buildings were little more than lean-tos built from whatever materials had drifted onto the beaches. There were no proper gutters so the slops accumulated on the streets until the stench became too much and the residents themselves organized a cleanup. I’d never been into the Row but I’d smelled it in summer and heard of the cramped conditions where the makeshift buildings couldn’t keep the rain out let alone the wintry cold.

As much as I hated admitting it, Father was right. The women of the Row might trust me and accept me as a midwife, but the men would think of me as something they could purchase for a few minutes. It was too dangerous.

“Take Meg’s brothers with you,” I said.

He shook his head. “Having two young men with me is as good as putting a target on my forehead. It’ll make me look well off and in need of bodyguards. I’ll be safer without them.”

He pushed past me and picked up my pack, the new one given to me by the leather seller. He placed the jar of Mother’s Milk inside.

“You can’t take the pack,” I told him. “For the same reasons that having two men flanking you will be a danger, so will carrying a bag.”

“I have to take it.”

I took it off him and removed the tools he’d need. “Place these in your pockets. I’ll siphon enough Mother’s Milk into a smaller jar.”

He followed me into his surgery where I found an empty vial. “I had an unscheduled patient come this morning,” he said. “Well, sort of unscheduled. Sergeant Max came to have his stitches out.”

I turned suddenly, spilling a drop of the Mother’s Milk. “Was he alone?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Just curious.” I turned back to my task. “How is his wound?”

“Healing nicely. Your stitching was very fine. I couldn’t have done better myself. Your mother would be pleased.”

I laughed at that. We often joked how Mother would have liked me to be a normal girl with an interest in needlepoint, not surgery and medicine. She’d died when I was six but I’d already shown more enthusiasm for my father’s books than embroidery at that age. The fact that we did laugh about it meant she hadn’t really minded at all. According to Father, she would have been active in petitioning the medical college in Logios to allow female students if she were still alive. Apparently I got my independent and mildly rebellious streak from her.

“What else did Max say?” I asked, careful not to sound too interested. “Did he mention Quentin? Or the captain?”

“Not specifically. He said everyone at the palace is busy with the arrival of the ministers and also preparing for more visitors.”

“More?”

“Here’s some gossip for you that no one else in Mull will have, I’d wager.”

That got my full attention. I placed the stopper in the vial and regarded him. He was grinning. “Tell me!”

He chuckled. “You never did have much patience. He said the new visitors are the lords and ladies of Glancia, along with their daughters. Eligible ones, that is. The king wants a wife.”

I quickly calculated numbers in my head. “Will they all stay in the palace?” There must be two hundred at least.

“They can’t be put up at The Anchor, can they?” He laughed. “They’re arriving in two weeks. Now, is that vial ready? I must hurry.”

“I’ll tell your afternoon patients to come back later.”

“No need,” he said, pocketing the vial. “You see to them.”

“But one of them is Perri Ferrier. He’ll hate having to see me.”

“You can cope with the likes of Perri, Josie.”

“But I’ve never had anything to do with mildew infection before.”

“You would have if I’d stood up to Perri in the first place and insisted you be allowed to watch. It’s the best way to learn.”

I sighed. It was a little late for him to be admitting that now.

He patted my arm. “Your book learning will see you in good stead. Don’t worry, my little angel, you know everything there is to know about mildew infection. Think of this as an opportunity to put what you know into practice.”

He tossed me a smile and left. A half hour later, I was inspecting Perri Ferrier’s toe, despite his protests that I wasn’t a proper doctor. As much as I wanted to see Perri suffer, I put extra effort into being as gentle as possible. When he left, he paid me the fee and an extra amount to buy “something pretty.” I took that to mean he was more than satisfied with my service yet still felt I ought to be more feminine. I’d never win with the Perri Ferriers of the world.

Father returned at dusk unharmed but disheartened. The baby had died then the mother too. “The conditions in that place are appalling,” he said, nursing his ale at the kitchen table. “It’s a miracle anyone lives to adulthood. Someone should do something about it.”

***

Two weeks later, Mull was abuzz with the news that several of the country’s best families had passed by the village on their way to the palace. I’d caught a glimpse of one of the processions and was surprised by how many vehicles one family of four needed. Apparently they required a carriage to transport themselves plus another six wagons for luggage and servants.

Lady Deerhorn pranced around Mull for days too, boasting how she and the other Deerhorns were staying at the palace, despite living so close. She insisted on seeing every bolt of silk and satin that arrived from Zemaya first, and bought several different colors, as well as beads, ribbons, lace, feathers and even gemstones.

Mull felt different since the arrival of the first families of Glancia at the palace. Anticipation and excitement hung in the air and gossip was rife, although how anyone could possibly know that Lady Laxley padded her bodice was a mystery. Some villagers ventured to the palace gates and were pleasantly surprised to find they were not ordered to go away. They were allowed to gaze upon the spectacle, but could not enter. Some of the visiting servants came into the village on their afternoons off and told tales of the dazzling palace and its inhabitants, but none had seen the king in person, and no matter how many I asked, none had met Captain Hammer, although they’d heard of him. His guards were omnipresent, apparently, yet he was confined to the king’s side most of the time and out of view of the lower staff.

Another two weeks after the arrival of the nobles, in the final days of spring, the captain himself arrived at our house, alone.

“Josie,” he said, greeting me as I opened the door on his urgent knock.

“Captain! What a surprise. Is Sergeant Max all right? Is it his arm?”

“He’s fine.” He glanced over my head. “Is your father home?”

“He’s with a patient. He won’t be long. Is someone at the palace injured? Ill?”

He nodded and once again glanced over my head toward Father’s surgery where low voices could be heard through the closed door. “I need Doctor Cully urgently.”

“Perhaps I can help. What are the symptoms?”

A flicker passed through his eyes but I couldn’t determine what it meant. “You said your father is an expert on poisons. Are you?”

“Poison! I, er, have some knowledge, but there isn’t much call for poison expertise in Mull. Has someone ingested something noxious?”

“I believe so.”

“Is it the king?”

“A lady.” He eyed the closed door again. “He needs to come with me now. She’s very ill.”

He strode off but I rushed past him and knocked on the door. “Father! Father, we have an urgent situation,” I called out.

“Can you not see to it?”

“It’s the palace.”

The door jerked open and Father stood there. He took one look at Hammer and slipped past me. “Josie, see to Peter while I gather what I need.”

I glanced at Peter, a regular patient with a bad back. He usually only needed to replenish his ointment supply. I tucked a bottle into his hand.

“You have to go,” I said to Peter. “This emergency requires us both.” I caught a glimpse of the captain, standing just beyond the doorway, his brows raised at me.

He turned away when my father called out some questions about the patient’s symptoms from the depths of the larder where we stored more medicines than food.

“What about a massage?” Peter asked me.

“Not today,” I said. “The ointment is free.”

I saw him out then assisted my father. Based on Hammer’s answers, he’d gathered what he hoped would be the right ingredients to ease the pain.

“Cancel the rest of my appointments for the day, Josie,” he said as he strode for the front door. He never looked more in command, more energetic, than when he was racing off to a medical emergency.

I grabbed the sign hanging from the nail on the outside of the door and flipped it over. GONE FISHING it read. Everyone in the village knew my father didn’t fish, and that it was his way of telling them we were both out.

“Done,” I said. When he gave me a stern look, I added, “I’m coming with you. What if you don’t have the right medicine? You’ll need an assistant to fetch ingredients for you. This job is far too important for just one.”

“You get more and more like your mother every day.”

“Thank you. Oh look, it seems we’re going to the palace in style.”

A carriage blocked the street. The coachman and footman both wore crimson and gold livery. Another footman held a horse’s reins which he handed to the captain. He opened the carriage door and I climbed in, followed by my father. We were away the moment the door closed.

I smoothed my hand over the crimson velvet covered seat and matching door with gold embroidered LL, the king’s initials, repeated in a regular pattern. I blew out a breath and watched the streets of Mull whisk past, the people I’d known all my life staring with open mouths. And suddenly the reason for their shock hit me too.

I was going to the palace of King Leon, a man whose origins were as mysterious as those of the captain of his guards.

CHAPTER 3

I caught my first glimpse of the palace as we drove along the tree-lined avenue that led to the main gate. The symmetrical building was built from the same warm pale stone as much of Mull, but that was where the resemblance ended. The palace was three levels high with one wing stretching south and the other north. The entire length of gray slate roof was capped with gold, and gilded balustrades edged the roofline in an opulent statement. It was so bright in the sun that I couldn’t stare at it for more than a moment. There was more to see anyway. Much more.

The trees lining both sides of the avenue suddenly gave way to buildings fronted by columns and arches. Servants dressed in royal crimson and gold lead horses in and out of the left building, while a carriage drawn by two black horses rolled through an arched entrance of the building to our right. These grand structures must be the coach house and stables.  

“The horses live better than we do,” I murmured.

Father didn’t answer. He was too busy peering through the front window. The overwhelming sight of the palace up close was almost too much to take in. I didn’t know where to look first. The gold-capped roof? The pink marble columns? Or the vast forecourt beyond the gate with its towering central fountain? Quentin was right. The palace did look tiny from Lookout Hill. Up close, it was enormous. The entire village of Mull could fit in it, with space to spare.

The captain rode ahead and the guards manning the gate opened it for him. The gate itself was painted gold and topped by a golden statue of a warrior riding a chariot, brandishing a sword with a shield strapped to his arm. The House of Lockhart’s coat of arms featuring a key and a prancing deer were picked out in gold relief on the shield, while the king’s initials of LL made an impressive centerpiece on the gate.

My father gazed up at the statue and snorted. “He didn’t win the kingdom through battle. I’d wager he’s never lifted a sword in his life.”

“Don’t say that out loud around here,” I warned. “Besides, we don’t know if he has fought or not. We know nothing about him.”

“Precisely.”

We passed through the gate at a slower speed and into the expansive paved forecourt. Two identical long pavilions fronted by high colonnades faced each other across the forecourt. They were not part of the palace, but they seemed to guide visitors ever closer to it. Steps from the forecourt led to a smaller one paved in red, white and black marble flagstones. Water sprinkled from the fountain in the court’s center. Beyond, the palace’s main entrance was set back behind more pale pink marble colonnades.

It was not the only door, however. There were others dotted along this part of the palace, between the statues set into the façade and the high windows of sparklingly clean glass. The upper levels sported more doors leading onto balconies.

I was so stunned by the palace that I almost missed the lady dressed in lustrous sage green silk climbing into a sedan chair held steady by two burly men. An attendant closed the door and off she went across the larger forecourt toward the palace. It was quite some distance from the gate to the palace door, but surely she could walk.

I lost sight of her as we drove past one of the pavilions. It was bigger than the new customs house would be. We did not stop there, however, but continued to a square building south of the pavilion, hidden from the forecourts. Smoke billowed from the chimney pots high above us and cooking smells blended into a miasmic stew in the air. Servants bustled into and out of the building, some dressed in palace uniforms, others in the colors associated with their house, and yet others in maids’ uniforms, kitchen or gardening clothing. I even recognized two Deerhorn servants.

We’d hardly stopped when a palace footman opened the carriage door. “This way,” Captain Hammer said as his horse was led away by a groom.

Ogling servants stepped aside to allow him to pass. Father and I trailed behind, walking quickly to keep up. The servants watched the captain in eerie silence then turned those curious gazes onto us. One of the Deerhorn servants whispered to the other, nodding at Father and me. They knew who we were, and if the rest of the servants didn’t, they soon would.

The captain led us along the breezeway separating the square servant’s building and the pavilion. We entered the palace through what must be a service door, and wove our way down dimly lit corridors and up one flight of stairs. We emerged into another corridor through a door that when closed, blended into the wall so well that one had to know it was there to find it. This must be part of the palace seen by the lords and ladies. Where the walls in the servants’ stairwell and corridors had been unadorned stone, these were plastered and painted in a vivid shade of green. Vases on pedestals filled with white lilies flanked each of the doors along the corridor. I counted five doors, separated by long expanses of paneled walls. We finally stopped at the sixth, manned by two guards holding long pikes.

They stepped aside and Captain Hammer held the door open for us. The room beyond wasn’t a bedroom as I expected, but a sitting room with elegant furniture arranged around a black marble fireplace, and gold leaf gilding the cornices. A portrait of a man dressed in furs hung above the mantel, one hand resting on his hip, the other holding a scepter. His dark eyes seemed to follow me as we hurried across the thick carpet to a door on the far side that led to the bedroom.

Hammer nodded at Sergeant Max standing by the wall, trying and failing to look inconspicuous between a spindly-legged chest of drawers and a dressing table topped with small bottles, a jar of cream, and hair combs.

I smiled at him. He gave me a nod then flicked his gaze toward the four post bed where my father now stood, inspecting the patient. He was more professional than me. Where I’d been distracted by the awe-inspiring palace and the men I’d met some weeks ago, Father had immediately focused on the deathly pale woman throwing up into the porcelain bowl held by a maid. Another man and woman had moved aside to allow my father closer to the bed. Both were in middle age and looked on anxiously. They wore long richly brocaded gowns and slippers, and the man held one of the woman’s hands between both of his. These must be the patient’s parents.

Father placed the palm of his hand to the girl’s forehead then checked the pulse at her wrist. I dipped my fingers into the basin of water on the bedside table. I touched the back of the patient’s neck and she sighed from the coolness.

It wasn’t a hot day but the room felt stifling thanks to being higher up in the palace. Sweat dampened the woman’s blonde hair and her nightdress clung to her curves.

“Open the windows,” I said. The captain nodded at Sergeant Max to follow my orders. “Do you have a fan?” I asked the maid.

The patient had finished throwing up but the maid still held the bowl ready. I took it off her and she disappeared into the sitting room. She returned a moment later with a large fan. Under my direction, she stood on the other side of the bed and flapped the fan at her mistress.

“How long ago did the vomiting start?” my father asked the patient.

“Last night,” the woman whispered through cracked, colorless lips. “I went to bed after midnight and woke up with terrible cramps.” Her hand fluttered weakly at her stomach. “I thought it would pass.”

“Did you raise the alarm?” I asked the maid.

She nodded quickly. “My lady was like this when I brought in her breakfast. I fetched Lady Claypool straight away.”

Claypool. I knew that name. The Claypools were a noble family with an estate near Coldstream. Lord Claypool had come to Mull once years ago to inspect a fishing vessel. I’d not met him but had heard about him from those who had. Looking at him now, anxious about his ill daughter, he did not seem like the same man that Meg had called both masculine and graceful in the same awed breath.

“She has been like this all morning,” Lady Claypool said.

Going by the contents of the bowl, the patient had long since thrown up her last meal and now discharged only liquid. Someone had emptied the bowl.

Father asked the patient questions as he peered into her eyes, down her throat, and at her fingers. I didn’t know what he was looking for, but I would certainly ask later and make notes. I hated having gaps in my knowledge.

I did know one thing he would need, and while he was tied up investigating the patient’s symptoms, I could be of use elsewhere. “Have you disposed of the other contents?” I asked the maid and indicated the bowl.

She chewed on the inside of her lip. “I emptied it into the bathtub.”

“And where is the bathtub now?”

“The bathroom.”

The palace had a bathroom! What a luxury.

I followed her through another door near the back of the bedchamber into a large room painted yellow with a pink marble tiled floor. An unlit furnace squatted in the middle of the room beside a bathtub raised on a dais. The tub was large enough for me to stretch my legs out if I sat in it. Not that I would want to sit in it with the remnants of the patient’s stomach pooled at one end. There didn’t seem very much, however, and I realized the rest had disappeared through a hole in the bottom of the tub.

“Is that a drain?” I asked, looking closer. “Where does it go?”

“I don’t know.” The maid held up a plug then peered into the bath. She pulled a face. “I didn’t know it hadn’t all gone down. I didn’t look. I just wanted to get back to Lady Miranda. Will she be all right?” She blinked back tears. “She’s been so good to me. She’s such a lovely lady, so beautiful and kind. It’s no wonder the king has fallen half in love with her already. I wouldn’t be surprised if they wed before the summer is out. If she…if she doesn’t…” Her lower lip wobbled but she managed to keep control of her tears.

I squeezed her shoulder. “You’re a good maid to her. She’s very lucky to have you. Don’t worry. My father is the best doctor in Glancia and he’s an expert on poisons.”

“Poison! You think she’s been poisoned? Oh dear Hailia, no.”

“I, er, that is, we’re not sure. She probably just ate something that didn’t agree with her.” Damn. The captain hadn’t told her he suspected poison and I’d just blabbed it as if it were common knowledge. I hoped the Claypools didn’t know.

The maid gasped. “Do you think someone fed her the poison deliberately?”

“No! Of course not. She most likely ate the wrong kind of salad leaf.”

“But she didn’t eat anything that the rest of them didn’t. And she had no late night snack before bed, just the food at dinner that the others also ate. Even the king ate the same food.” She gasped again. “Do you think it was meant for him?”

Merdu, she had a macabre imagination. I had to reel it in before she accused someone of murder. “Do all the bedchambers in the palace have their own bathroom?”

She blinked rapidly at my sudden change of topic. “Not all. Most of the nobles have to share. We servants have a communal bathroom. Only the king’s apartments and these ones are grand enough to have their own. Lady Miranda and her parents only moved down here two days ago from the attic rooms allotted to them when we first arrived.” She drew in a breath and her chest swelled. “Theseapartments are supposed to be for dukes and duchesses, not for the lower nobles like Lord Claypool. He’s only a baron, so the family shouldn’t be here at all. But King Leon insisted on them moving out of the attic once he took a shine to Lady Miranda, even though Lord and Lady Claypool insisted they were comfortable where they were.” She leaned closer and lowered her voice. “The higher up families are so jealous. You ought to hear what they say about my lady. Vile things.” She shook her head. “Seems jealousy isn’t just for the likes of you and me, miss.”

I asked her for a towel and used it to pluck up partially-digested remains of Lady Miranda’s last meal. Back in the bedchamber, I stuffed the towel into one of our empty jars.

It was then that I noticed a newcomer in the room. Another guard wearing a uniform with identical gold braiding on his shoulder and chest to Max’s. He was of medium build with brown hair and the sharp cheekbones of a Vytill native. He stood by the door, his hands at his back, and stared straight ahead.

I turned to my father as he spoke, but not before I noticed Hammer watching me.

“Note the color of the fingernails, Josie,” Father said, indicating the dark half moons on Lady Miranda’s fingernails. “And tell me what you see in her eyes.”

“The whites are milky,” I said. “And the pupils are dilated. Her breathing is erratic too. Does your stomach still hurt?” I asked her.

My father nodded his approval of my question, but I guessed he’d already asked it while I was in the bathroom. He began to pack away his things.

Lady Miranda nodded and winced. She was putting on a brave face, but I could see by the way her jaw tensed that she was in pain. I touched her arm and gave her a reassuring smile.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “You’re in the best hands now.”

“Do you know what ails her?” Lady Claypool asked.

“Direweed mixed with Traitor’s Ease,” Father said. “Two poisons blended—”

“Poison!” Lord Claypool cried.

“Dear Hailia,” Lady Claypool whispered, clasping her daughter’s hand. Tears slipped down her cheeks. Lady Miranda lifted a hand to wipe them away but it fell to her side. She was too weak.

“Is there an antidote?” Captain Hammer asked.

My father nodded. “I’ll make one up.”

“Will it take long?”

“An hour once I get back to my surgery.” An hour for an antidote was too long. He was holding something back, but I couldn’t fathom what.

“Then go!” Lady Claypool said through her tears. “Go now, Doctor, please. Hurry back.”

“Captain…” Lord Claypool began, casting a look toward Hammer.

The captain nodded. “He’ll have an escort the whole way and our fastest horses.”

“Continue to give her liquids,” Father told the maid. “We need to flush it out of her system as much as we can before I give her the antidote.” He had hardly finished speaking before he was out the door.

I hurried after him, the captain and the Vytill sergeant on my heels. Max remained behind. We caught up to my father.

“Does she have an hour, Doctor?” the captain asked.

“She has two,” Father said without breaking his long strides. “If she’s strong and healthy.”

“She seemed to be, before this.”

“Are you a god-fearing man, Captain?”

The sergeant grunted a harsh laugh.

“Pray to the goddess Hailia that she lives. Come. We must hurry.”

***

Captain Hammer’s silent presence was a distraction. He stood inside the front door, his arms crossed, legs slightly apart, and watched us through the open door of Father’s workroom as we tested and re-tested the contents of Lady Miranda’s stomach. Without a sample of the poisoned food or liquid, we had only the evidence of her discharge to go by. It should be enough.

Father clicked his tongue. “Too much Riverwart.” He used the tongs to remove the small dish from the grill over the low fire and threw both dish and liquid into the pail near his feet. It was a terrible waste but we couldn’t risk reusing a dish the poison had touched. “Damnation.” He pressed a hand to his lower back and stretched. “Another, Josie.”

I handed him a clean dish and scooped a coin-sized chunk of Lady Miranda’s regurgitated meal onto it with a spoon. We had precious little left. “Should I halve the quantity of Riverwart this time?”

“Try one third. Going by the speed at which it burned, I grossly overestimated the amount.”

I handed him the bowl of ground Riverwart but he shook his head. “You do it. My hands are shaking.”

I’d noticed them trembling a while ago but hadn’t pointed it out. He could be sensitive about his age on occasion, but I knew he’d ask me to take over if the trembling interfered with his ability to work. He might be somewhat vain about his age, but never to the detriment of a patient’s wellbeing.

I added the requisite quantities of the six other ingredients that we’d identified for the antidote based on Father’s old notes from a book I’d never seen him refer to before. We only had the Riverwart to go. The painstaking process of testing and re-testing to find the right quantities of each ingredient had meant we’d taken longer than the hour. Father told me upon our arrival at the cottage that he’d only said that to give the patient hope. If she had hope, she might find the strength to fight and we needed her to fight. We’d be cutting it very fine to get back to her on time. It all depended on how much Riverwart needed to be added to the other ingredients to neutralize the poison left in Lady Miranda’s vomit.

I heard the front door open but did not turn around as I measured out the powder.

“Aren’t they ready yet?” came the voice of the other sergeant, the one named Brant. “The hour has long passed.”

“Go back outside,” the captain growled.

My father left the workroom to speak to them. “It’s a complicated process,” I heard him hiss. “It’s not a combination of poisons I’ve come across before and the ratios used are unknown. Traitor’s Ease is rare. Very rare. I’ve only seen it once in its raw form, years ago in Zemaya. If you want us to work faster, you’ll shut up so we can think.”

I smiled. Father might seem like a meek professorial type of man, but two things stirred his passionate nature—the wellbeing of his patients, and when someone disparaged me.

“Shouldn’t you be in there making the antidote?” Sergeant Brant said to him.

“My daughter is more than capable.”

“Is she qualified?”

“She has a lot of experience.”

“I’m sure the king would like to hear how the unqualified daughter of the local healer was left to create the antidote to save one of the most important ladies in the realm right now. We should have used the finance minister’s doctor, as he offered.”

“The king will receive a full report,” was all the captain said. “Return to your post outside, Sergeant.”

I heard the front door close. I added a lump of peat to the fire contained within the heatproof box set up on the desk and tipped the Riverwart into the dish. Father rejoined me and watched as I mixed the powder with the other ingredients until it was fully dissolved then set the dish on the grill over the fire.

The liquid quickly heated to simmering point but seemed to take forever to boil. The other experiments hadn’t taken this long. I looked to Father.

His lips twitched into a smile. “I think this is it.”

The liquid in the dish bubbled and turned a yellowish-green color.

“Take it off the heat,” Father said, handing me the tongs. “Quickly now. We don’t want it to burn away.”

I set the bowl down carefully on the tray. “That’s the right color?”

He handed me a ceramic jar. “It is. Commit it to memory, Josie. I hope you’ll never need to make this antidote again, but one never knows, particularly now that the palace has sprung up nearby.”

“What has that got to do with poisons?”

“It’s the favorite method of murder at courts all over the Fist and beyond. Has been for centuries.” He pressed the jar into my hand with a grim smile. “There’s no time to wait for it to cool. Pour it in now. Don’t spill any.”

The dish had cooled enough for me to touch it with my bare hands. With a steadying breath, I poured the medicine into the jar. Father fixed the cork stopper in place.

“Remind me to update my notes later,” he said, tucking the jar into the pocket of his loose doublet.

Without a word of instruction, Hammer opened the door and followed us out.

“About time,” Sergeant Brant muttered under his breath.

I hadn’t thought it possible to go any faster, but we drove at such a speed on the return to the palace that we did not slow for bumps or dips. Father and I got tossed around inside the cabin but it didn’t seem to bother him in the least.

He didn’t wait for the footman to open the door upon our arrival at the palace. He strode on ahead, joined by the captain. I picked up my skirts and ran after them, the sergeant behind me. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled and I turned quickly on the service stairs, catching him watching me.

“I hope I didn’t offend you earlier,” he said. “It’s not personal. It’s just that the king’s mistress should have the best doctor.”

“And you believe the finance minister’s doctor is the best?” I asked.

“So I hear.”

“You hear wrong. My father is the best and if he lived in Tilting, he’d have the sort of reputation that would satisfy the likes of you. But he prefers to be in Mull where the people are in dire need of excellent medical attention. That’s just the sort of person he is.”

“I can see why Max and Quentin like you,” he muttered.

I forged ahead and met the glare of Captain Hammer, holding the door open for me. His eyes had a way of making me feel as though he was rummaging around inside me, searching for my secrets. I pushed past him and followed my father along the corridor to Lady Miranda’s sitting room.

A man dressed in black with gold brocade like Captain Hammer’s uniform stood just inside the door. He nodded gravely at Hammer who nodded back.

Another man paced across the carpet near the hearth. He stopped abruptly and fixed dark eyes on my father. He was short and slender with black hair that fell to his white lace collar in gentle waves. He couldn’t have been more than mid-twenties and his face looked vaguely familiar but I couldn’t place it. He wore a doublet of deep blue with silver leaves and vines embroidered over the sleeves and down the front. The white lace cuffs of his shirt fell to his knuckles. He tipped his head back and peered down his nose at us; quite a feat considering he was shorter.

“Are you the doctor?” he demanded.

“This is Doctor Cully and his daughter Joselyn Cully, sire,” Captain Hammer announced.

Sire? So this was Glancia’s new king? I hurriedly performed a curtsy that almost ended in my humiliation since I hadn’t a clue how to curtsy properly. Thankfully the king was too busy ushering my father through to the bedroom to notice.

“Hurry then!” he said. “There is not a moment to delay.”

I caught a glimpse of the painting hanging above the mantel as I passed and realized why the king looked familiar. It was his portrait hanging there, although he seemed more imposing in the picture as he looked down on the painter with disdain. The real monarch was far less regal. Indeed, he looked quite ordinary.

I nodded at Sergeant Max, still standing where we’d left him, and joined Father at the bed. Lord and Lady Claypool had stood upon our entry and peppered Father with questions about the antidote.

He put up his hand for silence as he bent over Lady Miranda, lying in the bed. She looked little better than a corpse. Sweat dripped from her brow onto the pillow and her face was as white as the sheets on which she lay. Her breathing labored in shallow rasps and her eyelids fluttered. She was barely conscious, but at least she was still alive.

Father removed the jar from his pocket and asked the maid to assist Lady Miranda to sit up. She struggled and Max came to her aid. The maid settled behind her mistress to support her and I tipped her head back and opened her mouth. Father poured a little of the liquid down her throat. She instinctively swallowed and he poured more. He continued the process slowly until the entire contents of the jar were gone.

The maid laid Lady Miranda down again and everyone, including the king but not the guards, crowded close to the bed. The room fell quiet. Father and I exchanged glances and small smiles. Lady Miranda’s breathing had returned to normal. It was an excellent sign.

“She’ll sleep now,” Father whispered, backing away from the bed. “May I respectfully suggest that she be left in peace for the rest of the day. Only her maid is to be allowed to check on her from time to time, but not wake her.”

“And me,” Lady Claypool murmured without taking her eyes off her daughter.

“Yes, of course. It’s imperative that Lady Miranda sleeps as long as she needs. Her body must rest to allow the antidote to work as efficiently as possible. I expect her to sleep through the night to the morning. It’s vitally important she isn’t disturbed. Is that clear?”

Everyone nodded. The maid looked terrified, particularly when Father signaled for her to follow him into the sitting room.

“She may grow restless in a few hours,” he said quietly. “This is normal and expected. Make sure Lady Claypool is aware when it happens and does not try to wake her daughter. I don’t expect Lady Miranda to purge anymore. If her color hasn’t returned by dawn, send for me. If she doesn’t wake by midday, send for me. I’ll return then to check on her anyway.”

“You will stay overnight, Doctor,” the king commanded. He signaled to his man standing by the door to the corridor, and the servant approached.

“I regret that I cannot,” my father said.

Merdu.Was he mad? He was certainly behaving irrationally. He might not be all that respectful when he had to tend to one of the Deerhorns, but they were only lords. This was the king and kings wishes were not refused.

King Leon bristled. “Lady Miranda is very dear to me. If she dies—”

“She won’t if she’s left alone to rest.”

The king’s nostrils flared at the interruption. He slapped one hand against the palm of the other behind his back. “Nevertheless, the village is too far away. If you’re needed urgently, it will take too long for you to be fetched.”

“I have an afternoon schedule full of patients who need me, sire.” Father bowed. “I am sorry, but the people of Mull are important too.”

The king puffed out his chest and lifted his chin. His manservant winced, as if he expected an explosion of temper from his master.

“I’ll stay,” I said quickly.

“Josie,” my father scolded.

“I know the danger signs,” I added. “I can answer any questions His Majesty or Lady Miranda’s family may have, and I’ll know how to keep her comfortable.”

The king glanced at me, away, then back again. Those deep, dark eyes scanned me from head to toe with cool assessment. “You’re a woman.”

“Yes,” I said, biting back the sarcasm that came naturally to my lips.

“My daughter would be a doctor if the college allowed it,” Father said proudly. “She would graduate top of her class.”

“But they don’t allow it.”

A small frown creased the captain’s forehead as he followed the exchange.

“Please, your majesty,” I said. “I know it’s unusual, but I also know my Father will not give up his Mull patients and I am more than capable of tending to Lady Miranda as she recovers.” The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to stay. Not for Lady Miranda, who seemed to be out of danger, but because the palace and its inhabitants fascinated me. It was an opportunity to learn more.

“Very well,” the king said.

“I prefer you not to, Josie,” Father said. “It’s not right. And I need your help. My eyes are bad now and my hands…” He held up his hands. They trembled too much for it to be a natural shake. I gave him a glare that told him I knew it.

He looked a little sheepish for lying, at least.

“She stays.” The king turned to his manservant, a slender fellow of about thirty with the flat face and straight dark hair of the Dreen. “Send someone to go with Doctor Cully and bring back the things Miss Cully will need overnight.”

“Yes, sire.” He turned to go.

“And Theodore?”

“Yes, sire?”

“Make sure the court knows that no noise is to reach Lady Miranda’s rooms. There will be no revelries tonight, no musicales, and no games. If they complain, tell them to use the time to reflect.”

“Yes, sire.” Theodore hurried out of the room.

Captain Hammer directed Sergeant Brant to escort my father home. Sergeant Brant looked as if he’d question the order, but a glare from Hammer silenced him.

My father didn’t immediately follow him out. “May I have a word in private with my daughter?”

“Of course,” the king said, stepping toward the captain. “Hammer, you mustfind out who did this before he strikes again.”

My father grabbed my elbow before I could stumble through a curtsy and steered me away from them. “Josie, I forbid you to leave these rooms.”

“Why?”

“Because…” He indicated the sitting room, the window, the door, but I had no idea why. “Because this place is strange. Its very existence is strange. The sooner you leave here, the happier I’ll be.”

“Father,” I chided. “This place may be odd, but it’s not sinister. And it’s certainly real, not a magic palace.”

One white eyebrow crept up his forehead. “It seems there is a poisoner within these walls. Is that sinister enough for you?”

“I won’t eat anything intended for the Lady Miranda.”

“Don’t be glib.” He looked toward Captain Hammer who stood with Sergeant Brant, the king having left. “I don’t like you being exposed to these people, Josie. There’s something about them…”

“Something odd, yes, we’ve established that.” I kissed his cheek. “Go. They’re waiting.”

Father gave me a flat smile and joined the captain and sergeant. “Where can Direweed and Traitor’s Ease be purchased in Mull?” I heard the captain ask as they exited the sitting room.

“Direweed is sold by two traders that I know of,” Father said. “Traitor’s Ease is another matter. I’ve never seen it in Mull’s market.”

I re-entered the sickroom. Lord and Lady Claypool seemed to take my presence as a signal for them to leave. They excused themselves and hurried from the room. I sat with the maid, Hilda, but almost fell asleep in the chair. The return of Lady Claypool roused me some time later. She looked much fresher and extraordinarily elegant in a glossy dove-gray gown trimmed with pink lace, her golden hair fixed into an elaborate arrangement that must have required at least two maids to do in the time she’d been absent.

I signaled to Max to join me in the sitting room then shut the door behind him. “You won’t be needed,” I said. “She’ll sleep for a while.”

“I don’t require rest, and the captain ordered me to remain here.” He checked the corridor outside then rejoined me. After a moment, he sighed and sat on a chair. He rubbed his knee. “Will she really be all right?”

“There is always some lingering concern until the patient is fully recovered, but she should be fine. My father wouldn’t have left if he thought otherwise.”

“The captain said Doctor Cully is an expert in poisons.”

“He is, from his travels.”

“Would he know who supplied the poisoner?”

“No! He can guess, as I can, and he will pass those guesses onto your captain.”

He blew out a breath. “Of course. My apologies, Josie, I didn’t express myself very well.”

“It’s all right. I can see that you’re troubled. Do you know Lady Miranda well?”

He shifted forward in the chair and rubbed his hand over his jaw. “Not at all. I’ve seen her from afar, walking with the king, playing cards with the other ladies, laughing.” A ghostly smile touched his lips before setting into a serious line again. “She laughs a lot. It’s obvious she enjoys the king’s company and he hers.”

“You think they’ll marry?”

“Not if the ministers have their way.”

“Why don’t they want him to marry her?”

“Because her family isn’t important enough. They want him to make a strategic marriage, not a love match.”

“Will he bow to their wishes?”

He lifted one shoulder. “Who know what the king thinks? He keeps his own counsel.”

“He doesn’t confide in his ministers? Or his trusted servants?”

He hesitated and shifted his feet before finally answering. “He trusts Theodore and Hammer with his life, but not with his secrets. He prefers to meditate on problems of state in his own rooms, alone.”

“Who is Theodore? I noticed he wears a similar black uniform to the captain’s.”

“That’s because he’s the highest servant in the palace, along with Hammer and the Master of the Palace, Balthazar. Theodore is the king’s chief valet. He organizes all personal matters for the king, from his wardrobe to his food, who gets to see him and when. Hammer takes care of the king’s personal security, and Balthazar oversees the staff who don’t fall under Hammer’s or Theodore’s jurisdiction, as well as the day to day running of the household. Between the three of them, they have utmost authority.”

“The king must have known them a long time to entrust them with such important roles.”

“It would seem so.” He stood and turned toward the bedroom but stopped. “Quentin will want to know you’re here. He’s been driving everyone in the garrison mad with talk of you these last few weeks.”

“He’s sweet.”

“He’s a fool, but a harmless one. I’ll tell him you’re here when I’m relieved of duty. He’ll want to take over but I doubt the captain will let him. He’s too…” He waved a hand, as if that explained Quentin’s inadequacy.

“Tell Quentin I’ll visit later. Where’s the garrison?”

Max hesitated before answering, “Ground floor, almost at the end of the northern wing.”

I followed him into the bedchamber and checked on the patient. She slept peacefully so I decided to go for a short walk along the corridor. I was surprised to see more guards on duty. Two had been stationed at each end. I asked one of them who occupied the other rooms and he said that aside from Lord and Lady Claypool’s apartments, only the duke and duchess of Gladstow had permission to use that corridor to access their rooms. Captain Hammer had instructed the guards not to allow anyone else in until Lady Miranda was better.

I sat with the patient and checked her pulse on the hour simply to keep her mother and maid happy. I could tell by looking at Lady Miranda that she was better. She wasn’t quite so pale anymore and she slept peacefully.

The maid left to have her supper and brought some bread and cheese back for me. She whispered something in Lady Claypool’s ear then her ladyship rose and left. I ate in the sitting room. By the time I’d finished, Lady Claypool returned. She smiled warmly at me then entered her daughter’s bedchamber.

After another hour, I could no longer stand the boredom. I signaled that I was going out then slipped into the corridor. Someone had lit the torches in the wall sconces and the flames danced merrily in the drafts.

I found the hidden door that opened up to the service stairs by running my palm along the wall. Thankfully the torches had been lit in the service corridors too. I headed downstairs then in the direction that I hoped was north, although I couldn’t be certain. The windowless passages used by the servants played havoc with my usually good sense of direction. I asked a passing footman dressed in palace livery which way to go but I didn’t like the way he licked his lips as he looked at me, so hurried on. Thankfully he didn’t follow. I came across two maids moments later, talking quietly.

“Can you point me in the direction of the guards’ garrison?” I asked them.

“Who do you work for?” asked the larger one.

“No one. I came to tend to Lady Miranda Claypool.”

“You’re that woman doctor!” the thin one cried. “Is she all right? Will she die?”

“She’ll be fine.”

“Good. I liked her.”

The big woman grunted. “I know a few what will be disappointed with that news. Some around here want her dead. Some would rather the king looked at them the way he looks at her.”

“Well some ain’t as pretty or as kind as her and ought to just piss off back to where they came from,” the thin maid said. “I’ll be glad when they’re all gone again. They’re lazy and rude. Fetch this, empty that…it’s all they ever say, and me not even their own maid. That’s just the ladies too. The men are worse. My arse still hurts from where that Deerhorn prick slapped it when I was trying to make his bed.”

“You should have slapped him back,” the big woman said.

“I would have but he looked like he could smack me from here to the other end of the palace.”

“He can,” I warned her. “Stay away from the Deerhorns, especially the sons.”

“Thanks. I will.” She pointed along the corridor. “Take this all the way. Turn right, then left, then right again. Go down the steps, through the arched doorway—”

“The second one,” the thin maid said.

“No, the third. Then it’s right, right again and left. Why?” she asked with a crooked grin. “Who’re you meeting there?”

“Quentin, and it’s not like that.”

Both women chuckled. “We believe you,” the bigger woman said. “If it were the captain, I’d have my suspicions.”

“He has a lot of lovers?”

“Don’t know. I meant you ain’t the first one who’s tried to find her way to his room in the night. Problem is, his chambers are next to the king’s. It’s impossible to sneak in without a dozen servants seeing.”

“You tried, eh?” The thin woman chuckled and nudged her companion in the ribs with her elbow.

I continued on my way became hopelessly lost when the corridor darkened. The torches in this part were not lit. I was surrounded by cool stone walls, a flagstone floor and wooden ceiling that creaked as someone walked above me. That’s it! I’d forgotten to go down the steps. Or was it up?

I was about to retreat when I heard someone speaking. “How did he know, Hammer?” the man asked. “How did he know women aren’t allowed into the medical college in…where is it again?”

“Logios.” I recognized Captain Hammer’s voice, drifting to me from along the corridor. He was still far enough away, however, that I couldn’t see him. “It’s an old city in Dreen where all the colleges are located, and the libraries. Perhaps he read about it. There’s a book on the history of the Fist Peninsula in the palace library. More than one, in fact.”

Why would the king need to read up on Logios? Everyone on the Fist knew of the colleges and how they didn’t allow women. I could believe that these men, who must not be native to the peninsula, would need to read a historical text on the area to know such a thing, but it struck me as odd that they thought their king in the same boat.

“He doesn’t read books. I know that for a fact.” I now recognized the voice as belonging to Theodore, the king’s valet. “He’s worried the poisoner meant to target him and not the Lady Miranda. Can you reassure him?”

“Not yet.”

The voices became more distant and I realized they weren’t coming toward me after all. I went in search of them. I thought I almost had them but as I rounded a corner, I saw Theodore’s back as he walked alone through a doorway. There was no sign of Hammer.

I took the other door. A faint keening echoed along the narrow space. I couldn’t tell if it was human or animal, but it was certainly disturbing. My heart raced and every part of me wanted to turn back. But I was a healer and that sound could have come from an injured or ill person. It was my duty to check. Besides, Captain Hammer must be up ahead and he was no danger.

I crept along the dark corridor, feeling my way with a hand pressed against the stone. The keening sounded again. At first it seemed as if it came from all around me, but as it faded, I could tell that it came from ahead. I sucked in a deep breath in the hope it would calm my rapidly beating heart, then pushed on.

Soon the pitch dark lightened to a dull gray and finally the flames of a lit torch banished the darkness to the shadowy edges on either side of a closed door. A padlock as big as my hand hung from the bolt. It was open.

Beyond the door, wood scraped and a metal chain clanked, but the keening had stopped. There were no other sounds. The silence closed in, as thick as fog.

I reached out but the handle turned. My heart leapt into my throat. I don’t know why, but I ran off back up the corridor.  

I got as far as the corner when someone grabbed me from behind. I tried to scream but a hand slapped over my mouth. A strong arm wrapped around my waist and pulled me back against a solid chest.

“You shouldn’t be here, Josie,” Captain Hammer said in a low voice that stretched my nerves to breaking point. “You shouldn’t be anywhere near here.”

CHAPTER 4

Captain Hammer’s breath brushed my hair and his whisper echoed through my body. “Don’t scream. I’m going to let you go now.” His hands moved away from my mouth, my waist, and his body no longer warmed my back.

I shivered.

“Are you lost?” he asked.

I nodded. It was all I could manage. My voice could not yet be trusted to remain steady.

“Follow me.” He strode off without looking back.

I picked up my skirts and followed. By the time we reached a brightly lit corridor, my heart had stopped racing. “Who was in that room?”

“No one.”

“I heard something.”

He rounded on me. “What did you hear?”

“A sort of wail.”

“Probably just the wind. The drafts in this part of the palace could sail a ship.” He took off again and I realized we were heading back the way I’d come.

“I was trying to find the garrison,” I said. “Can you direct me? Usually I’m very good at following directions but the maid’s instructions were complicated.”

“You’ve spoken to palace servants?”

“Yes. Why? Am I not allowed?”

He turned left into another corridor. “The garrison is this way. Why do you want to go there?”

“Max said Quentin has been asking about me.”

“Persistently.” He sounded annoyed.

I smiled at his back then, as the corridor widened, moved up alongside him. He didn’t break stride.

“So what is in that room?”

“Nothing that concerns you. Any other questions, Miss Cully?”

“Call me Josie. And I have a million questions,” I muttered.

He turned to look at me. “This is why your father didn’t want you to stay, isn’t it? Because he knew you’d sneak around the palace and find trouble.”

“First of all, I am not sneaking. I was looking for the garrison. Secondly, have I found trouble?”

“That depends.”

“On what?”

“On whether Lady Miranda dies in your absence.”

I slowed but he kept walking. He was utterly serious. “She’s out of danger,” I said, catching up. “She won’t die now unless the poisoner gets to her again but Max is there to stop him.”

“Or her. Are you sure she’s out of danger?”

“I know you’d prefer to have my father’s reassurance, but I do know when someone is on their death bed or not.”

“I believe you.”

I blinked at him but refrained from asking if he really did believe me or was just saying so. I had a feeling Captain Hammer wasn’t a man who said one thing when he meant another.

He pushed open a door and the sounds of quiet chatter welcomed me into the large room beyond. Ten men dressed in palace guards uniforms sat in chairs, some positioned at the long central table, others near the fireplace. As with the service corridors, the walls weren’t plastered, painted or carved like Lady Miranda’s apartments. It was as bare as a crypt.

“Josie!” Quentin set down the boots he’d been polishing and sprang up. He went to embrace me then thought better of it and patted my shoulders instead. He couldn’t stop grinning. “I’m so glad to see you! So, so glad. Come, sit down. You must be exhausted.”

“Not at all. There’s nothing to do except watch Lady Miranda sleep.”

“Lucky you.”

The captain ordered some of the men to relieve Max and the other guards. They plucked off belts hanging from hooks by the door, each one holding a sheathed sword, then filed out.

Quentin pulled his chair around and directed me to sit. I did, somewhat self-consciously. All the men had stopped playing their card games or eating supper and watched me as if they’d never seen the likes of me before. I smiled at Sergeant Brant, the only other face I recognized. He tipped his chair back, balancing it on hind legs, and folded his arms over his chest. He looked broader without his doublet, the muscles of his shoulders straining his shirt seams.

“So she lives,” he stated.

“Despite the unqualified daughter of the local doctor creating the antidote,” I said, unable to resist the barb.

Quentin and at least one other guard snickered. “Ignore Brant,” Quentin said. “He’s an arse.”

Brant shot to his feet and grabbed Quentin by the front of his doublet. “You’re getting cocky. That got something to do with the pretty girl in the room? Haven’t you ever seen one before?”

Quentin swallowed audibly.

“Let him go,” Hammer said. He poured ale from a jug into a tankard and handed it to me, then poured another for himself.

Brant snatched up his own tankard and drained it. Quentin flattened his rumpled doublet and managed a limp smile. “Tell me about the poison, Josie,” he said. “Brant said your father knew straight away what it was. How?”

I described the symptoms and my father’s research. I told them how we’d tested the different combinations of ingredients for the antidote on Lady Miranda’s vomit. Several looked revolted. One even gagged.

“Your father is good healer,” one of the guards said in a thick accent. Like most of the men, he was broad, but he was also tall, taller even than Hammer, whereas the others were shorter. I’d never seen the likes of him before in Mull with his ropey blond hair falling past his shoulders, and the line of dot tattoos across his forehead. I may never have seen a man from the Margin but the hair and tattoos were a giveaway. Despite Glancia butting up against the south eastern edge of the Margin, it was rare for anyone from either side to cross the border. The Margin folk believed strongly in family tribes staying together. So why had this man left his home, and how had he come to work at the palace?

When his cheeks pinked, I realized I’d stared too long and looked away.

“That’s Erik,” Quentin said. “He’s not as frightening as he looks.”

“His looks don’t scare me,” I said. “I’m intrigued, that’s all.”

Erik arched a brow. “Intrigued? What word is this?”

“It means curious, interested. But not scared.”

“Then you are not like others.”

At my questioning look, Hammer added, “The visiting servants and nobles take one look at him and change direction to avoid him.”

“We’re not used to Margin folk here,” I said. “The palace servants aren’t afraid of you?”

“No,” Erik said. “Are you healer too, Josie? Like your father?”

“Yes…and no.”

“She hasn’t studied medicine,” Brant told him.

“Women aren’t allowed to go to the colleges,” Hammer clarified.

“No?” Erik’s brow wrinkled with his frown, drawing the dot tattoos together. “Why?”

The guards all looked to me, even Hammer. “Because it’s just the way it is and has always been,” I said, lamely. A lecture on the unfairness of a patriarchal society seemed out of place amidst all these men. Still, their ignorance was somewhat refreshing. Part of me wished they’d never learned of the college’s exclusivity rules.

“What’s the medical college like?” Quentin asked. “Can anyone apply? Do you have to be a certain age?”

“Any man over the age of eighteen can apply. Any man from the Fist Peninsula, that is,” I added, watching him closely.

“Does the applicant have to prove he’s from the Fist?”

“A letter of introduction from his village’s sheriff or the local lord will suffice.”

Quentin slouched into his chair. “Bollocks.”

“Thinking of a career change?” Brant asked.

“Not anymore,” Quentin muttered.

“You’ve got to find something else to do. You’re the worst guard I’ve ever seen.”

“How many you seen?” Erik asked.

“He’s the worst guard here,” Brant clarified. “By far. He can’t ride a horse and he looks like he’ll faint whenever he gets hit in the training yard, which is all the time. Him being a guard…it doesn’t make sense.”

“You think any of this makes sense?” Quentin shot back.

“Enough,” Hammer snapped.

Brant glowered at his captain then rested his folded arms on the table. He leaned forward and muttered something under his breath that I couldn’t hear.

“How much longer will Lady Miranda have to remain in bed?” Quentin asked.

“A few days,” I said.

“Will there be any lasting effects? Scarring? Disfigurement?”

“It’s a poison, not a disease or injury. She’ll look as she always did.”

“Beautiful.” Quentin smiled. “The king will be pleased that she won’t lose her looks.”

“A pretty face does not make a good woman,” Erik said.

Brant snickered, revealing a missing top tooth that I hadn’t noticed before. “Spoken like an ugly man who can’t get a beautiful woman.”

“Beautiful women come to me many times. Them that do not fear me.” Erik grabbed the bread and tore off a chunk. “Big is best, they say.”

“They say that beforethey’ve seen your pizzle stick.”

“Enough!” the captain roared. “Josie isn’t interested in hearing you two lugs voice your ignorant opinions.”

“Aye,” Quentin chimed in. “She’s far too clever for the likes of either of you, so stop beating your chests and showing off in front of her.”

“Showing off? To her?” Brant looked at me and laughed.

At least Erik blushed, saving me from complete humiliation.

Quentin offered me some cheese from the board but I refused. “More ale?” he asked. “Are you cold? It may be summer but it’s often cool in this room. We’re used to it and haven’t bothered with a fire tonight, but I can make a small one if you like.”

“I’m fine, thank you,” I said.

“Merdu, Quentin, you’re worse than a puppy,” Brant muttered.

“Thank you, Brant, I always knew you thought of me as adorable.”

Everyone except Brant chuckled. “Shut up, you annoying little turd.”

Hammer sighed and appealed to the ceiling. I wondered if it was always like this.

The door opened and Max entered with the other guards. He greeted me with a lift of his chin. “You found it then. I thought you might get lost.”

“I did.”

The newcomers helped themselves to ale and food then took up seats around the room. “Find out anything today, Hammer?” Max asked.

“No,” the captain said. “It’s most likely Traitor’s Ease was sold off-market to the poisoner, as Doctor Cully thinks.”

Quentin leaned toward me. “The captain was in the village investigating Lady Miranda’s poisoning all afternoon.”

“I had no luck,” the captain clarified.

Brant balanced his chair on its back legs, his toes just touching the floor. “You expect the guilty person to simply wave their hand in your face?”

“I didn’t say my investigation was complete.”

“So where will you go next?”

Hammer didn’t answer.

“What was poison in?” Erik asked. “Food? Drink?”

“The maid said Lady Miranda ate and drank nothing after the main evening meal,” I told them.

“There were no plates or glasses in her rooms when I went in,” Hammer added.

“You wouldn’t have been the first there, though.”

“I wasn’t. Hilda the maid was already with her, as were her parents. The maid sent a footman to fetch me so we can assume he was also in the room, albeit briefly.”

“No one else?”

He shook his head. “It’s possible the maid lied.”

“I doubt it,” I said. “She seems devoted to her mistress.”

“She’s a servant,” Brant said. “Servants pretend to be devoted all the time. Don’t we?” He swiped up his tankard and raised it in salute.

“Shut your mouth,” Max muttered. “Your voice is irritating my ears.”

“And your ugly face is grating on my nerves.”

“I can’t help it if you have delicate nerves.”

“It’s likely the poison was administered during dinner,” Hammer said before the argument turned physical. “But no one else became ill, which means she was specifically targeted by the poisoner. That narrows down our suspects to those who had access to her and those with a reason to kill only her.”

“Not the king.” Quentin blew out a breath. “That’s a relief.”

“We must find out who sat either side of her at dinner,” Max said.

“Brant, you and I will question the servants who were in the dining room before, during and after the meal,” Hammer said to his other sergeant. “I want to know the movements of every single one of them.”

Brant nodded.

“Do you know Lady Miranda, Josie?” Hammer asked. “Or her family?”

“Only by name,” I said. “The Claypools had little reason to come to Mull before now. Hilda the maid suggested several of the higher families are jealous of Lady Miranda’s rapid rise at court. She said the family’s new apartments are coveted by others who think they have more right to be there.”

“It’s not the apartments themselves,” Hammer said. “It’s what they symbolize—the king’s regard. They all want it.”

“They all want the riches he can bestow on them,” Brant added.

“We’ve already searched the rooms of the women who are Lady Miranda’s closest rivals,” Quentin told me.

“I’m sure that went down well.” At his raised brows, I added, “They think themselves above the law and not bound by the same rules as the rest of us.”

“Perhaps under the old king, but not Leon,” Hammer said. “My investigation has his support.”

The front legs of Brant’s chair returned to the floor with a thud. “Then allow us to use everymethod at our disposal to get to the truth. Questions will only result in lies unless we—”

“You’ll do as I say, Brant. Is that understood?”

“But—”

“No.”

Brant snatched up his tankard and, finding it empty, poured more ale from the jug.

Everymethod? I dared not think about it.

“You should ask the other nobles about the Claypools and Lady Miranda in particular,” I said to Hammer. “Perhaps there’s another reason why she was poisoned that has nothing to do with jealousy over the king’s favor.”

“Good idea,” Max said. “Bringing all the Glancia nobles together under the one roof could have ignited long-festering rivalries.”

“Land,” Erik said, nodding. “We will speak with other tribes.”

“Families,” Brant corrected. “They don’t seem to be called tribes here.”

What an odd thing to say. I looked from one face to the other, but they were all serious, even Brant. None seemed to think it odd that King Leon didn’t already know about the rivalries between the noble families of his own kingdom.

“The king ought to be aware of any land disputes,” I said.

No one met my gaze. Not a single one.

“I know he didn’t come from the noble set and he hasn’t been king long, but surely his advisors have informed him of all relevant grievances.”

“His Majesty doesn’t trust his advisors,” Brant said. “They’re all greedy and corrupt, according to him. Same with the dukes and other lords.”

I couldn’t quite fathom it. King Leon had inherited the throne a few short months ago under unusual circumstances, just as Glancia faced its darkest hour. Its very existence had been under threat. The old king’s only heir had died over twenty years ago, without children. Or so the world thought. Days before his own death, Old King Alain declared his grandson had been found. The thing was, no one knew there was a search for him, and many had initially suspected Leon tricked King Alain, until they heard the full story; the story that banished all doubts from the minds of Glancia’s ministers and lords.

According to Leon, his father, King Alain’s son, had visited Freedland and fallen in love years ago. The couple had married in secret because the son was afraid it would make Alain angry if he knew he’d married a commoner and a Freedlandian at that. It was true, of course. Not only would King Alain have been furious, but the nobles and ministers too, and the marriage would have been annulled. Leon claimed his father loved his mother and wouldn’t wish to disown her, particularly after learning she was with child.

Sadly, the King Alain’s son died and so Leon grew up in poverty, not knowing he was of royal Glancia blood. Alain’s son, however, had written a document before his death, naming his wife and child. He’d entrusted the document to the High Priest, instructing it to be read in the event of his death.

Unfortunately for Leon and his mother, that had not happened. The High Priest forgot about the document. It became lost among the High Temple’s records for years until a young priest stumbled upon it. Realizing the importance of the document at a time when King Alain lay dying, and the Vytill king was circling, Leon was found and acknowledged. King Alain was said to be delighted to foil the plans of his greedy distant cousin, King Philip of Vytill, who wanted to fold Glancia into Vytill, as well as put the Glancia nobles back in their place before any of them got ideas of taking the crown for themselves. With his succession secured, King Alain died only days after meeting his grandson for the first time.

Despite this legitimization by the old king himself, rumors still swirled through the cities, villages and farms. The tale of Leon’s rise to power was so unlikely, so fantastic, that whispers of magic passed between friends and neighbors. The whispers grew louder when the palace was built in mere weeks without a single builder seen coming or going.

“Is that why King Leon won’t listen to his ministers when it comes to taking a wife from one of the other kingdoms?” I asked. “Because he doesn’t trust them and thinks they’ll force him into a bad alliance for their own benefit?”

“That would be a reasonable assumption,” Hammer said.

“Why wouldn’t he take a wife from Glancia when he’s the king of thiscountry?” Quentin asked.

“Because it’s in Glancia’s best interests to make an alliance with one of its more important neighbors,” Hammer told him. “Marriage alliances keep the peace between kingdoms. No king wants to wage war on his daughter, for example, or his grandchildren.”

Quentin nodded, thoughtful. “So why doesn’t Leon want to marry a foreign princess? Are there none?”

“King Philip of Vytill has a daughter of marriageable age,” Hammer said.

“And the Dreen princess will be of age in another year,” I added. “There’s nothing stopping a formal betrothal taking place now with the wedding to be scheduled for after her eighteenth birthday.”

“But are either of them pretty?” Brant asked.

“Faces,” Erik said with a roll of his eyes. “Did we not say a pretty face matters not?”

Yousaid. Clearly the king thinks as I do. Glancia has the most beautiful women of all the peninsula.”

All the men frowned at him. “How do youknow?” Max asked.

“I talk to the visiting servants instead of avoiding them. I ask them questions.”

“And what do you tell them in return?” Hammer asked darkly.

“Nothing,” Brant mumbled. “I tell them nothing. I’ve got nothing to tell, have I?”

An oppressive silence filled the room, weighing me down as if it were a tangible thing. It wasn’t so much the silence that worried me, it was the haunted look in each man’s eyes. Something made these strong men deeply, desperately sad, and it had to do with their pasts.

“Where areyou all from?” I asked carefully.

Some of the guards appealed to their captain, others stared at the table or into their tankards. Hammer’s jaw firmed. He scrubbed a hand over it and I thought he would speak, but he didn’t. The silence deepened.

“We don’t know,” Brant finally said. “That’s the whole fucking problem.”

“Sergeant!” the captain snapped.

Brant slammed the tankard onto the table and shoved his chair back. It clattered onto the flagstones. He glared at his captain and Hammer glared right back.

After a moment, Brant picked up his chair and sat again. “You might as well tell her, Hammer. I asked her father and he’ll—”

“You did what?” the captain exploded.

Yousaid you were going to ask but you didn’t.”

“I’ve been busy looking for the poisoner.”

“What about yesterday?” Brant sneered. “Or the day before? Or the day before that? Ever since you, Quentin and Max met the doctor, you’ve told us you would ask him. But you haven’t. You put it off and put it off and put it off.” He stabbed his finger in Hammer’s direction with each repeated accusation. “What kind of leader are you? You’re too cowardly to ask an old doctor a simple question.”

The other guards squared their shoulders at the accusation, and both Max and Erik looked as if they’d gladly smash a fist into Brant’s mouth to shut him up.

But Hammer merely looked down at the tankard gripped in both of his hands. His knuckles were white. “I did not give you permission to speak of this to anyone,” he said quietly.

“I don’t care,” Brant went on. “I’ll follow your orders when it comes to finding poisoners and keeping the inhabitants of the palace safe, but if there’s a chance I can find answers about us, I will do it. For all we know, you are not our leader.”

“Don’t,” Max said, his voice a sinister growl. “We all spoke an oath to obey Hammer. Even you.”

“Well?” one of the guards asked. “What did the doctor say?”

“Wait.” I held up my hands. “What question did you ask my father?” When no one responded, I added, “He’ll tell me anyway when I see him tomorrow.”

They all looked to Brant except for Hammer. The captain got up and strode to the fireplace. He leaned his forearm against the mantel and lowered his head.

“I asked him if he knows a cure for memory loss,” Brant said quietly.

Being in a roomful of big, burly men looking as vulnerable as kittens was an unsettling experience. I couldn’t laugh at them, despite the absurdity of Brant’s words. He was not jesting or mocking me. He was utterly serious.

“Do youknow of a cure, Josie?” Quentin asked in a small voice.

“No,” I said.

Brant shot to his feet. “Of course she doesn’t.” He kicked over his chair. “Her father didn’t, so why would she?”

I studied each of their faces, and finally addressed Hammer’s back. “You’ve alllost your memories?”

Several of the men nodded. “Our memories begin three months ago,” Quentin told me.

“When the palace was finished,” I murmured.

“Not just us, but allof the palace’s inhabitants,” Max said. “Not a single one remembers their life before that day. We know our names and that of everyone else who works here. We know what our work entails and how to go about it. But that’s all. It’s as if…” He broke off and swore under his breath.

Hammer turned around and those blue eyes captured me. “It’s as if we didn’t exist before that day.”

CHAPTER 5

Allof them had lost their memory? Every single palace servant? What an absurd notion. Yet the alternative explanation was even more bizarre—that magic had created them.

“Did you all eat or drink something at the same time?” I asked. “Perhaps you consumed a poison.”

“Do you know of a poison that causes memory loss?” Max asked.

“No but I’ll ask my father.”

“I did,” Brant said. “According to him, the only thing that causes memory loss is a severe blow to the head.”

Quentin tapped his forhead. “No bumps.”

Brant righted his chair. “It may be worth youasking your father about poisons, Josie. I don’t think he believed me.”

I couldn’t blame Father for that. I couldn’t decide whether to believe them or not either. Yet why would they all go along with the story if it weren’t true? The humorless captain didn’t seem like the sort to favor trickery. “The land here is low lying. Perhaps some sort of miasmic cloud carrying an air-born poison settled in the valley and you all breathed it in.”

“Have you ever heard of such a cloud?” Hammer asked. “Or of another large group of people losing their memory like this? There are almost a thousand servants living and working here.”

“And it seems unlikely they would all be affected,” I agreed. “Tell me what you do remember.”

“Only our first names, not our last,” Quentin told me.

I eyed Hammer.

“It would seem the captain’s parents named him after a blunt tool,” Brant said with a grudging laugh. “Fitting.”

“We do not know our home,” Erik told me. “I did not know about the Margin until the new servants came. They all look at me like I am animal. When I finally ask Lady Miranda’s maid why, she tell me the Margin folk do not come here.”

“We didn’t know anything about any of the nations on the Fist Peninsula,” Max said. “We didn’t know its history, geography, the politics or religion. Nothing. We were as ignorant as small children.”

“That must have been unnerving,” I said.

“That is an understatement.”

“The captain and Theodore read in the library most nights,” Quentin said. “They reported back what they learned to us. Do you know, Josie, the day we met you on the hill was the first time I’d seen anyone from outside the palace. I thought you the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. Most of the maids are not as tall or elegant.”

“Height and fair hair are Glancian traits,” I told him.

“But not all Glancian women are as pretty as you.” He blushed and looked away, missing my smile.

“You don’t have a chance with her,” Brant sneered, showing the gap from his missing tooth to full effect.

Ordinarily I would have bitten back at him but I didn’t have the heart for it. Brant was as worried as any of these men. His bitterness was understandable.

“You obviously remember your language,” I said to Erik. “Do you remember your native tongue as well?”

He nodded. “I speak it once and none knew what I said so I did not do so again.” He tapped his temple. “I know two ways to say things but only one way will be understood.”

“The Margin tribes each speak a different language,” I told him. “The rest of the Fist speaks a united one. I wonder how you learned it.”

Quentin sighed. “We wonder about a lot of things.”

I reached across the table and placed my hand over his. “This explains much. Thank you for telling me. Father and I will look through our medical texts to see if we can help you get your memories back. I cannot promise to cure you but I will not rest until I’ve exhausted all avenues.”

“You can discuss this only with your father,” Hammer said. “No one else. Is that clear?”

“I don’t see why you need secrecy.”

“Whispers of magic already abound. If the ministers or nobles have any reason to think we are a result of magic, or that Leon became king under dubious circumstances, then our lives are in jeopardy. At the moment, they accept him as Glancia’s king, but if they think magic put him on the throne, they’ll no longer acknowledge him.”

“No reasonable person believes rumors of magic,” I told him.

“Your father does,” Brant said. “Is he not reasonable?”

“He is a little superstitious. Be assured, I won’t tell anyone. I promise.”

Hammer held my gaze a moment then nodded.

“You imply that the king also has no memory,” I said. “But that’s not true, is it?”

“It’s true,” Max told me. “That’s another reason no one must be told. Balthazar says that if the ministers think the king is unfit to rule because he lacks memories, they’ll try to remove him from the throne.”

I frowned at Hammer but he was once again staring into the unlit fireplace, his back to the room. “So he doesn’t know about the document written by his father and found in the High Temple only a few months ago?” I asked.

“He does now, but not in those first few days,” Hammer said. “We learned it from some documents found in his desk.”

“At least helearned his background,” Brant muttered. “He knows where he is from, who his parents were. We don’t.”

“What about the building of the palace?” I asked. “You say it had already been built before you, er, arrived, but have you since found out how it was built? Are there records of payments to builders?”

“None,” Hammer said. “We’ve heard from the villagers who delivered our supplies that it happened very quickly.”

“And that no builders were seen coming or going,” I added. “What measures have you already taken to learn what happened to you?”

“None,” Brant bit off.

“Research in the palace library,” Max countered.

“What else can we do?” Quentin asked with a shrug.

“We can leave,” Brant said.

Hammer turned around. “And go where? We don’t know where we’re from. We don’t know if we have families. This is the only home we have. At least here we are not alone.”

“We have to do something,” Brant snapped. “I hate sitting here and doing nothing.”

“We won’t do nothing forever. But for now, we have a poisoner in the palace. We have to find out who it is.”

Brant threw his hands in the air. “Why? What’s the point? Why should we care?”

Hammer stalked across the room and slammed his hand on the table near Brant. I jumped but the sergeant did not. “Because the day I woke up, I knew three things,” Hammer said. “My name, your names, and my purpose, and that purpose is to serve as captain of the palace guards. I have a feeling that’s significant.”

They fell silent and even Brant seemed to agree with him, albeit grudgingly.

“I should return to Lady Miranda,” I said, rising. “Will you escort me, Captain? I don’t want to lose my way again.”

Quentin jumped up. “I’ll do it.”

“No.” The captain’s quelling glare forced the lad back onto his chair. Hammer strode to the door and held it open for me to go on ahead.

“Thank you, Hammer,” I said, passing him.

“I prefer you to call me Captain.”

I blinked after him as he strode off. “But all the men call you Hammer when off duty in the garrison.”

“You are not one of my men.” He waited for me by one of the torches. The flames cast patterns of shadow and light over his face that made it impossible to read his expression.  

“Very well, I’ll call you Captain.” I regretted my snippy tone as soon as I heard it. Of course he wouldn’t allow me the same familiarity that he allowed his men. Perhaps in time, however… “Hammer is an unusual first name and it doesn’t seem to suit you anyway.”

His mouth softened. “Perhaps it’s normal where I am from.”

“Perhaps you have a sister named Wrench and brother named Saw.”

He laughed softly, the first I’d ever heard from his lips. His pace slowed, allowing me to easily keep up with his long strides.

“Thank you for telling me your secret,” I said. “I know it can’t be easy to trust an outsider, but I want to assure you that my father and I are used to keeping details about our patients to ourselves and this is no different.”

He nodded. “Thank you for believing us. I wasn’t sure you would.”

“Why not?”

“You seem very practical, and this is…”

“Odd?” I glanced at him sideways.

“Very.”

I smiled, a little relieved that he was talking to me with ease. “You may find your secret gets out,” I told him. “The palace servants may talk to the visiting ones about their memory loss.”

“They have been warned not to. They know the consequences of going against my orders.”

Consequences? My step faltered and he caught my hand to steady me. His thumb stroked my knuckles and his gaze fell to my mouth.

“Be careful,” he said. “If I send you home to your father with scraped knees he’ll never allow you to return to the palace.”

“True,” I said in a small voice. I didn’t know if I was attracted to him or afraid of him. I did know that I felt very aware of him, of his heat and size, the scents of horse and leather mixed with his masculine one, and the callused hand that still held mine.

“You do want to come again, don’t you, Josie? To see that Lady Miranda fully recovers? And to talk to me?”

“Talk?”

“I can only learn so much from books.”

Of coursehe meant that kind of talk. Fool.

I withdrew my hand, relieved that the spell he’d cast over me broke instantly. My father’s warning rang in my ears—be careful of these people; we knew nothing about them, and if they could be believed, they knew nothing about themselves.

I drew in a breath and chased the threads of our conversation until I found a safer place to resume it. “You didn’t answer me in there when I asked if the king had also lost his memory.”

He set off along the corridor again, his strides purposeful. “Max answered you.”

I picked up my skirts and hurried after him. “Perhaps Max doesn’t know the truth.”

“And you do? By all means, enlighten me because I am sick of being in the dark.” His biting retort came as a shock after the gentleness of his hand caressing mine.

A sensible woman would back down and walk meekly alongside him. But I wasn’t always sensible and I certainly wasn’t meek. “I want to hear the answer from your lips, Captain. Has the king lost his memory too?”

“He assures me that he has.”

“That’s not the same thing.”

“You’re accusing your king of lying? That could be treason, although I’d have to look it up in the legal texts to be sure,” he said bitterly.

“Stop being contrary. I am only trying to help.”

“Thank you, but I doubt you can.”

“I overheard you and Theodore discussing the king knowing things that he should not if he’d lost his memory too.”

His strides lengthened even more and I had to quicken mine.

“I don’t understand you, Captain. You seem to want to confide in me then suddenly you don’t. You seem to be willing to trust me then you don’t give me proper answers when I ask a simple question.”

“Haven’t you heard? I am an enigmatic mystery. We all are.”

“You are not funny either.”

He continued on and I trailed after him, feeling foolish and lost. I couldn’t even find my way through the palace let alone give medical advice for his memory loss. I didn’t want to argue with him either. I wanted him to trust me and confide in me so I could help him. Help them all.

We moved into the more populated part of the palace and passed maids and footmen carrying trays, some empty, some with sweetmeats, cake or wine for their masters and mistresses. Those wearing palace uniforms quickly stepped out of the captain’s way. The visiting servants paid us no mind.

We emerged from the dark service stairwell into the bright ducal corridor that housed the Claypools and Gladstows. The guards stood to attention then relaxed a little when they recognized Hammer. He spoke quietly to them and I went on ahead to Lady Miranda’s sitting room.

Hilda lay on the sofa, snoring softly. Lady Claypool sat in a chair by her daughter’s bed, her eyes closed. I leaned over the patient and listened to her breathing. It was regular. Her color was natural too, and she no longer sweated. I made sure she was well covered then settled on a chair on the other side of the bed to Lady Claypool.

I caught the captain watching me from the doorway. He quickly looked away then left altogether.

I did not see him again until the morning when he came to speak to Hilda. He silently beckoned her into the sitting room then closed the door. A few moments later, I heard her high-pitched voice.

Lady Miranda’s eyelids fluttered.

I rose and joined the captain and Hilda. “Shhh,” I hissed. “Please whisper or leave altogether.”

Hilda buried her fists in her apron at her lap. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Tears pooled in her eyes and she glanced past me to the closed bedroom door. What had Hammer said to her?

He stood by Hilda, his hands at his back, looking fierce and forbidding. It wasn’t a good way to get answers from a timid maid.

“A moment outside please, Captain.” I stepped past him into the corridor without waiting for his answer.

“Is Lady Miranda all right?” he whispered, closing the door behind us.

I nodded. “Are you questioning Hilda about the night of the poisoning?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Are you learning anything?”

“No. She says she can’t remember.” He glanced along the corridor. “Not in the way that we can’t remember. She’s muddled, that’s all.”

“Perhaps you’re scaring her.”

“How?”

“By being stern and grim.”

He arched a brow. “Grim?”

“May I suggest a softer approach with the maids? You need to make them feel comfortable with you, unthreatened.”

“How?”

I sighed. “Are you sure you’re supposed to be a guard? Perhaps you were meant to be employed in building maintenance but lost your way and woke up in the garrison instead of the workroom.”

“And you say I’mnot funny.”

Whether he meant it as a joke or not, I smiled anyway. His lips quirked. I counted that as a victory.

“Will you watch on as I talk to Hilda?” he asked. “Signal to me if I become to grim.”

I went to reach for the door handle but he got to it first. I glanced up and fell into the deep pools of his eyes.

“I’m sorry I snapped at you last night, Josie. You’re trying to help and there’s no excuse for my behavior.”

“You have a good excuse, as it happens. You must find the poisoner before he strikes again while trying to find answers to your memory loss. It’s no wonder you’re on edge.”

“You’re too forgiving.” He opened the door and I passed him, very aware that his gaze followed me.

I sat with Hilda on the sofa while Hammer stood by the exit. The heavy curtains remained drawn and someone had lit candles but the room was still dim. The lack of light didn’t ruin the elegance of the chamber. There was far too much gilding and color for it to ever be considered dull.

“Hilda, the captain is going to ask you some questions about the night of the poisoning,” I said quietly. “I’ll stay. Will you answer him as best as you can?”

“Aye, Mistress.”

“Call my Josie. All my friends do.”

A self-conscious smile touched her lips. “I’ll do my best to remember what happened, Josie.”

“Be assured, you are not under suspicion.”

“I’m not? Oh, that is a relief.” Her shoulders relaxed. “Go on then.”

“Did anyone visit Lady Miranda that night?” Hammer asked.

Hilda nibbled her lower lip, leaving tiny teeth marks in the soft flesh. “She didn’t want me to tell anyone…”

“Circumstances have changed,” I urged her. “It might be important to finding the poisoner. Who visited her?”

“The king. He came after dinner but my lady didn’t let him in. She’s not like that.”

“Did he give her anything?”

“Not then, but later a vase of flowers arrived for her.” She nodded at the red and pink arrangement in the large white vase. “The note that came with them said he wanted to apologize for his poor manners and for assuming.”

“Did Lady Miranda smell them?” Hammer asked.

“Aye. Why?”

“Did you smell them?”

“Aye.” She gasped. “You think they were poisoned?”

“You didn’t fall ill, so they weren’t. Was anything else delivered to her rooms?

She shook her head.

“Did anyone else come to her rooms? Her parents? A friend? Another servant?”

“No, sir. No one. She has no friends here at court and she has no need of any other servants except me.”

It would seem the poisoning hadn’t occurred here after dinner. I looked to Hammer. “May I ask Hilda a question?” He urged me on with a nod. “Yesterday you told me there are some who see Lady Miranda as a rival for the king’s affections and they’re jealous.”

“Aye,” Hilda said.

“Who?”

She hesitated and for a moment I thought she might refuse to tattle. “Many people, I suppose. Lady Miranda is clearly his favorite and everyone has noticed.”

“Are there any who are particularly nasty about her behind her back?”

She looked away “I wouldn’t know…”

“I understand your reluctance to tattle, but this is important. I know the servants talk. They must be aware that Lady Miranda was poisoned and some must have suspicions about who did it.”

“I’ve heard them say Lady Lucia Whippler is the king’s next favorite and very ambitious she is too. Her maid doesn’t like her, and that’s damning if you ask me.”

“Anyone else?”

“Lady Deerhorn’s daughter.”

“Lady Violette Morgrave? But she’s already married.”

Hilda leaned closer. “I heard she hates her husband. I can see why. She’s young but he’s old and fat and his rotten teeth give him bad breath.” She screwed up her nose. “Her mother’s maid says she overheard Lady Deerhorn telling Lady Morgrave how to go about seducing the king.”

“Seducing him is one thing, but she cannot marry him if she’s already married.”

“Perhaps she won’t be married much longer. Wait and see if her husband suddenly dies. If he’s poisoned too, then you’ll know your poisoner is Lady Morgrave or her mother.”

It wasn’t outside the realms of possibility. Lady Deerhorn was ambitious and vain. The only thing she would love more than her daughter being the king’s mistress would be for her to become queen. She’d think nothing of a little murder to reach such heights. I remembered when Lady Violette married Lord Mograve. Rumor had it that Lady Deerhorn was against the match but her husband had been friends with the elderly count and insisted. The bride had cried throughout the ceremony.

“What about other enemies?” I asked Hilda. “Does anyone have any other reason to want Lady Miranda dead?”

She shook her head. “None. She’s got friends back home among the village folk, but not here at court. Not since it became clear the king favored her.”

I glanced toward the closed door that led to the bedchamber. “What about Lord and Lady Claypool? Are they involved in any disputes with other noble families?”

She lifted one shoulder. “I don’t think so.”

The door to the bedchamber opened and Lady Claypool poked her head through the gap. Her lips trembled before she schooled her emotions. “She’s awake.”

I gave her a reassuring smile. “Good. She has slept long enough.”

Hilda pushed past me and knelt by the bed. “Oh, my lady, thank Hailia. The merciful goddess answered my prayers.”

Lady Miranda rested a hand on her maid’s arm. “Good morning, Hilda.” Her voice was weak but clear. “Mama?”

“I’m here, my dear.” Lady Claypool sat on the edge of the bed and took her daughter’s hands. She pressed them to her lips and blinked damp lashes.

“How long have I slept?”

“Long enough, according to Miss Cully,” her mother said.

Lady Miranda’s gaze shifted to me. “The doctor’s assistant. Yes, I remember. Do I have you to thank for my recovery?”

“My father,” I said. “He should return shortly. May I check your vitals?”

Her mother moved aside so that I could feel Lady Miranda’s pulse and listen to her breathing. “Does your stomach still pain you?” I asked, pressing it gently.

“It’s quite all right now. How long have I slept?”

“An entire day and night.” I checked her eyes. They were clear and focused. “The danger is over. The poison has left your system. You just need to rest now and regain your strength. Hilda, can you send to the kitchen for a bowl of broth, please.”

“Shall I inform the king that you are well?” Hammer asked as the maid left.

Lady Miranda teased the ribbon of her nightdress between her fingers. “Can we delay it?”

Lady Claypool sighed. “My dear, he is the king.”

Lady Miranda sighed too.

“Perhaps wait until my father has called,” I suggested. “I wouldn’t wish to declare you well when you are not.”

She gave me a small smile of thanks but it faded when she glanced at Hammer. He stood erect with his hands at his back, his jaw rigid. Lady Miranda’s fingers resumed their tugging.

“You do understand my position, Captain,” I said. “After all, I’m not qualified. It would be irresponsible of me to declare her ladyship well based on my uneducated opinion.”

His eyes tightened at the corners. He could see straight through me. “I agree that it would be inadvisable to give His Majesty false hope,” he finally said. “We’ll wait until Doctor Cully has called. In the meantime, are you able to answer some questions, your ladyship?”

He asked her whether she’d consumed anything after dinner, and she claimed she had not. Nor had she received any visitors, except for the king then a footman who brought the vase of flowers. All her answers matched Hilda’s.

“Did you eat or drink anything at dinner that no one else did?” he went on.

“I don’t think so,” she said. “We all ate from the same serving dishes and our glasses were filled from the same decanters.”

“Did anything taste bitter?” I asked.

Her pretty brow creased. “The last glass of wine I drank had a strange aftertaste. Was that the poison?”

“It could be. Direweed has a distinctive taste. Was it earthy?”

“Yes.” Her lips moved as if tasting it again.

“Who dined with you?” Hammer asked.

“The king, Lady Lucia Whippler, her brother Lord Frederick, Lady Violette Morgrave, the duke and duchess of Gladstow, and the duke and duchess of Buxton,” she said. “It was an intimate affair.”

“The two ducal families and the king’s most trusted friends,” Lady Claypool added.

“His favorites,” Hammer countered. “The king doesn’t trust easily and considers no one his friend. Did any of them handle your food or wine glass, Lady Miranda?”

She blinked slowly. “I don’t know. They could have, when I left the room briefly. Do you think one of them did it?”

“It’s a possibility. Most of those people have a reason to want to get rid of you.”

Lady Miranda’s fingers stilled.

“Isn’t it more likely that one of the servants administered the poison?” her mother asked. “Perhaps someone paid a footman to slip it into her glass.”

“It’s possible. I’ll question Lady Violette Morgrave and Lady Lucia Whippler first,” Hammer said.

“Tread carefully, Captain,” Lady Claypool said. “Those ladies’ families are manipulative. If they feel threatened, they’ll go to the king. He will not like his friends to be accused of murder.”

“I’ll be subtle.”

I bit back my smile but he saw it. He shifted his stance.

“What about the duke and duchess of Gladstow?” he asked.

“What about them?” Lady Miranda said.

Her mother looked down at her lap.

“There are rumors of a feud between your two families that began many years ago,” Hammer said. “Is there any substance to them?”

“We hardly know the Gladstows,” Lady Miranda said. “Indeed, I’d never met them before we moved into this part of the palace. I think your rumor monger is trying to stir up trouble where there is none.”

“Lady Claypool?”

“As my daughter said, we hardly know the Gladstows. I hadn’t seen them in years before this week.” Lady Claypool rose. “I must inform my husband of Miranda’s recovery. If you don’t mind, I think she requires some more rest.”

“And a bath,” Lady Miranda declared with a wrinkle of her nose.

Hilda returned as we exited the bedchamber. She carried a tray with a covered bowl and a small jug and cup. Hammer put up a hand to stop her.

“The king has a taster,” he told her. “He must be summoned.”

“One of the dogs was given some in the kitchens,” Hilda said. “It didn’t fall ill.”

“Even so. Find the taster.”

“Aye, sir.”

I plucked off the bowl’s lid and sniffed it. It smelled of game and red wine. I dipped my finger in to the broth.

“Josie, no.” I’d already licked my finger before Hammer finished protesting.

“It tastes fine,” I said. “Delicious, in fact. No earthy aftertaste.” I poured a little of the water into the cup but Hammer snatched it off the tray before I could.

He scowled at me over the rim of the cup as he sniffed the contents. Then he sipped.

“Well?” I asked as he set the cup down.

“It’s plain water.” He directed Hilda to go through to the bedchamber. To me, he said, “You shouldn’t have done that.” He held the door open for me and nodded at the guard standing in the corridor. I heard Lady Miranda thank Hilda and ask her to send servants up with water to fill the bath.

“The poisoner would be mad to strike now while you are on his trail and the palace staff are on heightened alert,” I said, trying to keep up with Hammer as he strode along the corridor.

“We can’t be certain of that. Perhaps the poisoner ismad. Next time, wait for the taster.”

“That poor man. How did he become royal taster?”

“I wish I knew.” Hammer pushed open the hidden door to the service stairs and allowed me to walk ahead of him. “You’re right, Josie. About me not being subtle, that is.”

I smiled. “I didn’t say anything.”

“You didn’t have to. I saw the laughter in your eyes.”

“I wouldn’t dare laugh at you, Captain.”

“Why not?” He sounded put out. “I can see that I don’t frighten you.”

“You’re serious, that’s all. Very serious.”

“There is little to laugh about in this place.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I find Quentin quite amusing, and I suspect the only way to cope with Brant’s bullish behavior is to laugh at him from time to time.”

He stopped. “Do not laugh at Brant. Is that clear?”

“Y-yes. Of course. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. If anyone should apologize, it’s Brant.” He walked off again, trotting down the service stairs. I raced after him, wondering at the nerve I’d struck.

“If you don’t like him, why do you keep him on your staff?” I asked.

“It’s easier to keep an eye on him if I can see him. Not to mention that a palace servant can’t leave. For good or ill, we are bound together by our memory loss. We must stay together until we know what happened to us.”

We headed along the narrow, dimly lit corridors, passing busy maids and footmen. Outside, several servants stood in the breezeway between the buildings, chatting to one another in between performing their duties. Those servants belonging to the noble houses mingled, exchanging news and gossip about their employers, but the palace servants kept to themselves.

We entered the square building. The smell of roasting meat overwhelmed all other scents, and despite the open doors, it felt warmer than the palace. No wonder the servants chose to remain outside when possible.

Two maids filled pails from the fountain in a central courtyard, chatting quietly as they did so, while other servants carried out their tasks. We passed a long dining room and several other rooms whose function I could only guess at—sewing, perhaps, and washing. We headed downstairs to the kitchen basement, a vast space with a vaulted ceiling the height of the entire building. We paused inside the door. Even Hammer seemed overwhelmed by the activity and unsure where to find what he was looking for. There must have been more than fifty staff at work at the tables or at one of the two yawning fireplaces. The young men turning the roasting spike handles looked no bigger than children as they stood behind screens that shielded them from the heat, somewhat unsuccessfully by the look of their sweating, red faces.

“Captain!” A stout, middle-aged man hailed Hammer from a long table where he stood looking over the shoulder of a woman kneading dough. “I’ve already spoken to Max and Brant so let me tell you what I told them. There was no poison in any dish that left my kitchen that night. My staff wouldn’t dare.”

Two women exchanged grim looks.

“Who took up the food?” Hammer asked.

“I don’t know, do I?”

“Emanuel was senior server that night, sir,” one of the women said. “Anton, Alexei, Paul and Victor were the under footmen.”

“Where can I find Emanuel?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“My staff aren’t at your beck and call, Hammer,” the cook said.

“I didn’t ask them to be. But let’s be clear, finding the poisoner must be everyone’s priority, not just mine. Until he or she is brought to justice, every member of the palace household, from the highest visitor to the lowest servant, is under suspicion.”

The cook straightened, extending his protruding stomach further. “Are you threatening me and my staff, Captain?”

“Informing you. The only person who should feel threatened is the one hiding something from me.” He didn’t speak loudly or through a clenched jaw, however the captain managed to put steel into his words nevertheless.

“Get those damned dogs out of here!” the cook suddenly shouted.

A man dressed in an apron shooed three long-legged dogs out of the kitchen. Hammer and I followed them. With a click of his fingers, the dogs came to Hammer’s side, forcing me to walk behind. One dropped back to walk with me. I rubbed its ears and it drew even closer to my legs, almost tripping me. “This one likes attention,” I said.

“They’re bored,” the captain said over his shoulder. “They’re hunting dogs and the king doesn’t hunt.”

“Why not?”

“He’s averse to bloodshed. He allows the grand huntsman and his underlings to hunt only when it’s necessary to supply the kitchens. It’s not done for sport, something that the visiting lords are learning. They, like the dogs, are growing bored.”

“Bored lords are never a good thing.”

“So Iam learning,” he muttered.

“In what way?”

He took the stairs two at a time, but realized he was leaving me in his wake and slowed. “In a way that keeps me busy.”

“Sir,” hissed a woman from behind us. It was the same kitchen maid who’d given us the names of the serving footmen. “Captain, a word if you please.”

“Go ahead,” Hammer said.

The maid glanced over her shoulder then climbed the steps. She was a solid woman, albeit short, with a masculine jaw that caved in on her left side thanks to a lack of teeth. “I don’t think any of our lads poisoned her. I know them all, and they’re good men.”

“Good men can be bought,” Hammer said.

She shook her head. “Not when it’s more important to them to find out why they’re here.” She glanced at me. “And to get back what they lost. They wouldn’t risk it, sir. Not them.”

The captain nodded.

“There’s more.” Another glance at me.

“Miss Cully can be trusted,” Hammer said.

The maid didn’t look too pleased but she didn’t insist on speaking to him in private. “Lady Lucia Whippler and Lord Frederick Whippler dined with Lady Miranda that night.”

“And?”

“That means they’re suspects, doesn’t it?”

“Everyone is a suspect.”

Her gaze turned flinty. “Not to me.”

“They’re suspects,” I told her since Hammer didn’t answer. “Why?”

“I overheard one of the Whippler maids telling a footman from another house something about her young mistress and master. Something I think you should know. Something that might make you see them in a different way.” The maid stepped up another step. Hammer moved down to stand beside me. “She said Lady Lucia and her brother, Lord Frederick, are lovers.”