Dark Jenny (Excerpt)

Dark Jenny by Alex BledsoePlease enjoy this excerpt from Alex Bledsoe’s Dark Jenny, the third book of the Eddie LaCrosse series, out on March 29th from Tor Books. If you are curious about the first two books in the series, you can find excerpts for them here and here.

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Chapter One

Gary Bunson, Neceda’s slightly-honest-but-mostly-not magistrate, came into Angelina’s Tavern accompanied by a blast of winter air. Immediately an irate chorus erupted, some with language that implied Gary had carnal relations with livestock. Gary was used to that sort of response so he paid it no mind, and it stopped when he closed the door behind him. He shook snow from his long coat and looked around until he spotted me sitting with Liz at the bar.

“LaCrosse,” he said. “There’s somebody outside looking for you.”

“Me? Must be a mistake.”

“No mistake. He knew your name, and knew to find you here.”

As a private sword jockey who either helped find the skeletons or made sure they stayed in the closet, I got my share of visitors, but not on a day like this. It was the worst winter in Muscodian history, and Neceda had it harder than most, being right on the frozen Gusay River where the wind had room for a running start.

Liz Dumont, my girlfriend, said, “Expecting someone?”

I shook my head and asked Gary, “Who is it?”

“What am I, your secretary?” Gary snapped. He straddled the empty barstool on the other side of Liz. “He’s outside, go find out for yourself. Angie, get me something hot to drink, will you?”

Angelina, the tavern’s owner as well as its main hostess, said to me, “You must owe someone a lot of money if they’d come out in this weather.”

“I owe you more than I do anyone,” I pointed out.

“That’s true. But I always know where to find you.”

“Maybe it’s someone coming to hire you,” Callie the waitress said. Even dressed in winter clothes that covered her from chin to ankle, Callie’s beauty could melt icicles at ten paces. It was a shame those same icicles could probably out-think her.

Gary put both hands around the mug of hot tea Angelina placed in front of him. I watched the door expectantly. When nothing happened, I asked Gary, “So is he coming in?”

“Hell, I don’t know, the snow’s blowing so hard I could barely see him. He’s got some kind of box with him.”

“Box?”

“Yeah, you know, a box. Like a coffin or something.”

He was wrong, though. It wasn’t “like” a coffin, it was a coffin. It rested in the middle of the snowbound street. The horse that pulled it stood knee-deep in a drift. The animal had a thick winter coat and a heavy blanket draped over it from neck to tail, but still looked pretty put-out.

The blizzard had subsided to a steady flurry of flakes by the time I went outside. The figure seated expectantly atop the coffin was a small old man with a white beard, huddled beneath a cloak and heavy cap. His bright eyes peered from under the brim. He seemed unconcerned with the weather, puffing serenely on a long-stemmed pipe. The smoke vanished in the wind as soon as it appeared.

“You looking for me?” I said.

The old man looked me up and down. “Depends. Eddie LaCrosse?”

“Yeah.”

He hopped to his feet, slogged to me, and reached inside his clothes. Beneath my own coat I closed my hand around my sword’s hilt; a single twist would make a hidden dagger spring into my hand. To any opponent, I’d look as if I were idly scratching myself.

But the old man withdrew only a folded document with a red wax seal. “This is the paperwork.” His voice was high-pitched, almost girlish, and this close his eyes looked a lot younger than his white beard implied. He gestured at the coffin. “And this is the delivery.”

I tucked the document inside my coat. “Who’s in there?”

He shrugged. “Beats me, pal. I was just told to deliver it.”

Skids were nailed to the bottom of the coffin to ease its passage through the snow. As the man unhitched this sled of the dead from his horse, I examined it for a sign of its origin.

The first clue was its size: whoever was inside would be well over six feet tall. I’d crossed paths with a lot of big men over the years and mentally went down the list. I couldn’t imagine any of them sending me their mortal remains.

When the old man finished, I dug out what seemed like a respectable tip, but he declined. “I got paid enough already. Keep your money.” He swung easily into the saddle, looking even tinier on the huge horse. “Tell me, is there a whorehouse in this town?”

“Closed until the blizzard passes. Being seductive in this weather is heavy going.”

 “Being horny in this weather ain’t that easy, either, but I’m doing my part.” He looked around as if determining which way to proceed. “Oh, well. Best of luck to you, Mr. LaCrosse.”

I watched him disappear into the snow. A few Necedans, bundled up so that only their eyes showed, had emerged to see what the commotion was about. It only then occurred to me that the old man had left the coffin in the middle of the street. I got behind it and, once I broke it free of the latest snow, pushed it with surprising ease over to the tavern. I left it outside the door and went back in.

 

* * *

 

“A coffin?” Callie said as I waited for my fingers to warm up. “Who would send you a coffin?”

“I think the point is who’s inside it,” Liz said.

“So who is it?” Gary asked.

I withdrew the document. “Don’t know. Supposedly this will tell me.”

Liz, Angelina, Callie, Gary, and at least half a dozen other people gathered around as I broke the seal. I glared at them until they backed off enough for me to read the message in private. It was brief, explained the coffin’s contents, and made it perfectly clear why it had come to me.

It also opened a pit in my stomach big enough to swallow the coffin, the tavern, and most of the town.

I put away the document and took a long drink of my ale. Everyone watched me expectantly. At last I said, “I’m not reading it to you.”

The air filled with their moans and complaints.

I held up one hand. “But I will tell you about it. I just need to go up to my office for a minute.”

“Why?” Angelina asked.

“I need to find a file. Refresh my memory on some things. I’ll be right back.” I kissed Liz on the cheek and went up the short flight of stairs.

My office was in the attic above the tavern’s kitchen. I hadn’t used it in a month because it had no independent source of heat and the kitchen’s warmth didn’t rise that far in this kind of weather. The shutters were closed, and ice around the edges assured me they’d stay that way until spring.

I lit a lamp, then bolted the door behind me. It felt a little weird locking Liz out with everyone else, but this had nothing to do with her. It started long before she and I met.

My “files” consisted of rolled-up vellum sheets kept in a large freestanding cupboard beside my sword rack. They contained details about cases that I suspected might one day come back to bite me. They weren’t the kind of notes the Society of Scribes kept; these were brief accounts designed to jog my memory. To anyone else they’d be mostly gibberish.

I opened the cabinet and searched through the scrolls. They were organized, but not so anyone else could tell it. I knew the pattern and quickly retrieved what I sought. I took it to my desk, untied the ribbon, and unrolled it. I used four rocks to hold down the corners.

There they were, the names I hadn’t thought about in months, in some cases years. I’d sketched a map of my travels as well, since geography had been so crucial to this case. But none of the words or drawings captured the scale of what happened during those long-ago days. In the blink of an eye the mightiest king in the world had lost everything. And I was there.

I didn’t need the scroll to remind me about it, though. What I needed was time to choke down the emotions it brought up. I knew I’d have to tell the folks downstairs something, and it might as well be the truth. There was no one left to benefit from secrecy now. But some things always felt immediate, and some wounds, while they healed, nevertheless always ached.

At last I replaced the scroll, relocked my office, and returned to the tavern. By then even more people waited for me. Not much happened in Neceda on its best day, and there had been little entertainment during this brutal winter. The coffin made me the main attraction.

As I settled back onto my stool, Liz leaned close and said, “You don’t have to tell anyone, you know. Not even me.”

“I know. But what the hell, it beats more talk about the weather.” To Angelina I said loudly, “A round for the house first, Angie. On me.”

A grateful cheer went up. Angelina scowled, knowing she’d have to add it to my already-lengthy tab. But she poured the drinks, and Callie distributed them.

I faced the room with my back against the bar. I said, “This all happened seven years ago, before I came to Neceda. Before,” I said to Liz, “I met you.”

“Oho,” Angelina said knowingly. “So there’s a girl in this story.”

“I knew somebody had to teach him what he knows,” Liz said teasingly. “He’s not a natural talent.”

I winked at her, then continued, “I hadn’t officially been a sword jockey for very long, so I was still building my reputation. I’d go somewhere for a client, and when I finished, I’d look around for another one that would take me somewhere else. That’s how I got word that my services were needed in Grand Bruan.”

My listeners exchanged looks. These days the island kingdom of Grand Bruan was primarily known as the site of the most vicious ongoing civil war in the world. Unofficial estimates said more than half its population had fled or been killed, and the land was overrun with invaders, mercenaries, and pirates. But it hadn’t always been that way, and they knew the story behind that, too. Hell, everyone did.

The tale of King Marcus Drake and the Knights of the Double Tarn had passed into legend almost before the great ruler’s corpse was cold. Thirty years earlier the island of Grand Bruan, a chaotic place of warring petty kingdoms, was on the verge of total chaos when a young boy did something no grown man had ever been able to do: he withdrew the magical sword Belacrux from the ancient tree where it was embedded. This signified that he was the true, rightful ruler of all the land.

Naturally there were those who disagreed, but they hadn’t reckoned with young Marcus’s determination, and his core allies: the wise adviser Cameron Kern, the great knight Elliot Spears, and the brotherhood of warriors known as the Knights of the Double Tarn. Every child could recite their great deeds of arms in unifying the island.

Then came the golden time, when Drake and his queen, Jennifer, naturally the most beautiful woman who ever lived, ruled in fairness and grace. Laws were passed to protect the common folk, and peace reigned for a generation.

But the brightest light casts the darkest shadow, and in that shade dwelled Ted Medraft, bitter knight and jealous nephew of the king. He fomented a rebellion and forced a final great battle. Drake killed him, but Medraft mortally wounded the king. Drake died, the land returned to chaos, and the great sword Belacrux disappeared, awaiting the hand of the next destined ruler, who had so far not appeared.

The ballads and broadsheets kept coming, though, embellishing the tale until it was an epic of how hubris and fate brought down even the loftiest men. In the seven years since Drake’s death, he’d become such a literary figure that some people believed he’d never existed. In another ten years, he’d be a full-fledged myth.

But he had existed, and the truth was a little different from how the ballads told it. I might be the last man living who knew it.

I continued, “My client was a Grand Bruan noblewoman named Fiona, and she had connections. As a result I found myself at a party given by Queen Jennifer Drake at Nodlon Castle on the island’s west coast.”

I paused long enough to take a long draft of my own ale. A lot of things in my past had grown hazy with the passage of time, but not this. The details all came back in a rush, from the odor of the banquet hall to the unmistakable coppery smell of blood thick on the wind. And the look on a king’s face as a woman rose from the dead before him. . . .

 


Chapter Two

 

Nodlon Castle was built so close to the edge of the cliff overlooking the western ocean that first-time observers always wondered why it didn’t just fall off. Most assumed this precarious-looking position was due to erosion, but in truth it was entirely on purpose: the king’s former adviser Cameron Kern had designed it as a psychological ploy to prevent enemy troops from trying to scale those same cliffs in an attack.

That had been in the old days, during the wars of unification. And by old, I meant twenty years from the summer I arrived. That might not sound like much time, but the changes in Grand Bruan were so significant that its prior incarnation might as well have been a century ago.

Nodlon Castle’s big central hall was freshly and thoroughly scrubbed. Flowers, banners, and tablecloths tarted it up in anticipation of its royal guest, Queen Jennifer Drake. Chauncey DeGrandis, the castle’s current lord, lumbered about greeting people as if he were doing the queen a favor by allowing her to visit. I moved away whenever I saw his three-hundred-pound bulk approach, which was easy since his outfit was done entirely in shades of yellow.

At that moment I hid among a group of puffy-sleeved lords and ladies in pointy hats, all of us laughing at some story whose beginning I’d already forgotten. I hoped they didn’t laugh too hard: they had on so much makeup that if they cried, they might erode. And that included some of the men.

I wore no makeup, but in my new suit, fresh haircut, neatly trimmed beard, and expensive manicure, I blended right in; that was the point of a disguise, after all. Since I had no visible female escort, I was set upon like a ham bone tossed among starving dogs. There wasn’t a woman present who didn’t look me over as thoroughly as the weight guesser at a fair, as either a potential son-in-law or possible bedmate when her husband was away. This wasn’t because I was particularly handsome or noticeably wealthy; all that counted was that I was new meat. For those who never suffer from hunger, the only variety comes from taste.

And that was the source of the delicious irony. Long before I decided to become a private sword jockey, I’d grown up in an atmosphere identical to this. The court politics in far-off Arentia might be different in detail, but ass-kissers and sycophants were the same all over. Although I’d left behind that world of pomp and suck-uppery, I now relied on my memories of it to complete my current job. Oh, the delightful paradox.

It was hard not to tease these soft-bellied, overpainted glowworms. Heck, even the men wore too much eye shadow. A lot of them weren’t native to the island; they’d swarmed here from other kingdoms after the end of the wars, bringing gold to shore up the economy in return for status they could never achieve in their home countries. They taught the Grand Bruan nobles all the arts of courtliness, as well as its subdisciplines of gossip, polite treachery, and smiling through your fangs.

I took another drink of the free wine, top-barrel stuff only kings and high priests could afford. My head felt it a bit, and I knew I should slow down, but this wasn’t a dangerous assignment, or a complex one.

“So, Baron Rosselac, what do you think?”

I blinked. I had picked my alias, an anagram of my real name, without too much forethought and kept forgetting to respond to it. I used the arch, proper tone of someone showing off his education and said to the matronly woman, “Oh, I’m sorry, my lady. My thoughts must have been distracted by your overwhelming beauty. What were we discussing?”

In response, she made a noise I assumed was laughter. It sounded more like the defensive chatter of some small rodent. “Oh, Baron Rosselac, you’re making me blush.”

It was hard to tell; she wore enough white face powder to ballast a frigate. “More color to those cheeks will only add to your loveliness,” I said with a slight bow. “Were we still debating the necessity of adequate leisure time for serfs and vassals?”

“Why, no, we finished that discussion ages ago. I asked if you thought Queen Jennifer would wear her crown jewels tonight.”

“Oh, of course she will,” I responded with faux certainty. “Why, just today I heard from my friend Lord Huckleberry—you all know him, don’t you?”

They quickly affirmed they, too, were intimately acquainted with my oddly named and entirely fictional best pal.

“Well, he told me in confidence that the queen would be wearing a whole new set of jewelry tonight, some . . .” I stopped, looked around in mock discretion, and motioned them all in close. The tips of the women’s tall hats tapped against each other above me. “Some of the jewels worn in places where they can’t even be seen by anyone other than the king!”

Handkerchiefs flew to cover heavily painted mouths, and eyes widened beneath eyebrows plucked away and redrawn as thin arches. The men couldn’t repress lascivious grins and brow waggles. “Now, don’t spread it around,” I cautioned. “I wouldn’t want dear Huckleberry to think I’d broken confidence with him.”

“Oh, of course not,” a thin woman assured me.

“Won’t breathe a word,” added a corpulent fellow with bulbous, lavender trousers. Naturally, I knew my little rumor would be spread all over the hall before they tapped the next wine cask. Eventually someone would point out that there was no Lord Huckleberry, and a reverse wave of social reprisal would travel back along the gossip channel, with any luck crashing down on the very powder puffs around me. I’d be off the island by then, so I’d miss the ultimate punch line, but I got a warm feeling from setting it in motion.

My eye fell on the big Drake family banner stretched across the wall behind the throne Queen Jennifer would soon occupy. The red dragon emblazoned on it was not snarling or breathing fire, but instead held the island of Grand Bruan protectively in one claw and looked over the room with the steady, even gaze of a concerned but supremely self-confident nanny. The other claw held a sword with distinctive dragon designs along the blade: this was Belacrux, King Marcus Drake’s royal talisman, supposedly unbreakable and invincible. It was probably the best-known single weapon in the world.

Fame had come hard and sudden to Marcus Drake. He’d claimed the crown at fifteen, winning over the other warlords with both charm and force, and used this alliance to drive the mainland invaders back across (or into) the sea. Now Grand Bruan stood as a shining example of the way a kingdom ought to be run, and rulers the world over were being held to Drake’s considerable standard. He’d set the bar pretty high, especially with his insistence on a rule of law that applied to nobles as well as citizens, a clear path to justice for the peasantry, and over a decade of peaceful relationships with the island’s offshore neighbors. Even when they fought each other, they left Grand Bruan alone, because no one wanted Drake breathing fire down his neck.

That titter that made my teeth gnash broke my train of thought as someone else amused my rotund lady friend. It reminded me of the ways Grand Bruan was exactly like every other kingdom: no matter how noble the man at the top or how loyal the citizens at the bottom, those in the middle would always serve their own interests first. Every king learned that truth eventually, even Marcus Drake; and that same truth kept guys like me in business.

It was also the reason for the party I’d crashed. Given that Drake’s reign depended on a network of internal alliances, it made sense that he occasionally gathered his landed-gentry supporters for some free booze and a pep talk. With no legitimate complaint against him, any rebellion would be driven by purely personal malice, and he knew that no one stayed mad at a guy who regularly fed them and got them drunk. The pageantry on such occasions also let him show off his power and warned any potential insurgents that they’d have quite a fight.

Even the great King Marc couldn’t be everywhere at once, though, so today Queen Jennifer would take up the slack. Her grand entrance would mark the beginning of the festivities and mean we could finally get something to eat. I looked forward to her arrival not just because I needed something in my stomach to pad out the wine, but because Jennifer Drake was, by conservative estimate, one of the two or three most beautiful women in the world. I wanted to verify that for myself.

I also kept my eye on the far side of the room, tracking the skulking form of the man who’d brought me here. Kenneth Spinkley, aka the Lord Astamore, leaned against the stone wall. His gaze flitted around the room. Astamore was a skinny, pasty-faced guy with the twitchy demeanor of a ferret. He wore ritzy clothes in the latest Bruanian style, something that did not accent his best qualities. A huge tapestry hung beside him, its life-size depiction of warriors in battle making him look as if he were fleeing the carnage. I could’ve quietly confronted him at any time and done what I was hired to do, but I held off to see who approached him. My client would definitely want to know.

“I heard,” said the spindly man beside me, “that dear Marc never lets Jennifer take her real jewels on these jaunts. He doesn’t trust his subjects in these outlying castles, even this one, which trains all his knights.”

“Does your friend Huckleberry have any insight on that?” the blushing woman asked me.

“I imagine Jennifer does what Jennifer wants,” I pooh-poohed, and batted my eyes for emphasis. When I turned away from the smug chuckles, Astamore had vanished. That figured; the instant I take my eye off the little dung beetle, he finally makes his move. “You’ll excuse me,” I said with a bow, “but I must find the nearest water closet.”

“Do return,” the matron said. “We have so much more to discuss.”

“And you must tell us more about that old rascal Huckleberry!” the man beside her called after me. “I’m dying to know what he’s been up to of late.”

It may have been the “great hall,” but it wasn’t that big a room; where the hell did Astamore go? The main doors were barred and guarded; along the walls were discreet service entrances, and behind the raised throne platform a guarded door led to the private chambers. I trusted that my peripheral vision would’ve alerted me if Astamore had moved toward any visible exit, but it was as if he’d just melted away where he stood.

Trailing muttered Pardon me’s, I went to the last spot I’d seen him. I confirmed that he couldn’t have reached any door without my noticing. Finally the obvious occurred to me and I peeked behind the tapestry. Sure enough, there was yet another service doorway.

I slipped behind the cloth, opened the door, and entered the small room. Although not stocked for this particular banquet, it was getting plenty of use. A young lady was bent forward over a table with her huge dress pushed up to her waist. Astamore stood behind her, his frilly pants down around his knees. They had their backs to me—not an appetizing sight—and were so single-minded they didn’t hear me enter.

“Oh, yes!” the girl cried in that fake, ego-stroking way some women use in a clinch. “Lance me, sir! Lance me!

Now I did need that water closet. I said, “Let’s hope they wash that table before they use it again.”

It’s always fun interrupting an illicit tryst. Astamore had such a firm grip on the young lady’s waist that when he turned toward me, he inadvertently dragged her off the table, toppling a neat stack of ale mugs onto the stone floor. The lovers fell in a loud tangle of expensive silk, pasty flesh, and shattered crockery.

“Who the hell are you?” Astamore demanded as he struggled to fasten his trousers.

“The name’s LaCrosse, Eddie LaCrosse. I was hired to keep an eye on you, Lord Astamore.”

“Hired?” he exclaimed. He got to his feet and, ignoring the disheveled girl, tried to salvage his dignity. “By whom?”

As if he didn’t know. “Fiona. The Lady Astamore.”

He bit back whatever else he was about to say. The girl finally got to her feet, turned to me, and cried, “Oh, thank you, sir! He was compromising my honor!”

“Compromising the hell out of it, from what I saw,” I said. “What’s your name?”

“Deborah,” she said, managing a curtsy despite the unmentionables around her ankles. “My father is—”

I nodded toward the door. “Save the damsel act, sweetheart, this has nothing do with you. Hit the flagstones.”

She scurried for the opposite door that led into the kitchens. “Keep your mouth shut, whore!” Astamore cried after her, but his voice cracked on the last word.

We stood quietly for a long moment, the noise of the party audible outside. Finally he said with a gulp, “So did Fiona send you to . . . kill me?”

He really was a weasel, and I thought about tormenting him a little. But that would just keep me here longer, and the fun had gone out of the game. “No, I’m just supposed to confirm her suspicions about you. I’d say I have.”

“You don’t have any proof,” he protested, but there was no juice in it.

“This isn’t one of your king’s law courts, Ken. Your money is actually her money, and we both know it’s the reason you married her. And if she wants to, she can take it all away. That would put a crimp in the ol’ lifestyle, now, wouldn’t it?”

He nodded, his eyes freshly wet. “What does she want?”

“You on a shorter leash.” I recalled homely, tearful Lady Fiona as she told me of her suspicions about him. This jackass’s infidelity had damn near broken her naïve heart. “So go home, Ken. Be nice to your wife. Be grateful for her, in fact: she’s rich enough that she could have had you killed. You’re a lucky man.”

He was about to reply when we heard the horns announcing the imminent arrival of Queen Jennifer Drake. “May I stay for dinner?” he implored in a tiny voice.

I shrugged. “Sure, why not? But keep it in your pants, Ken, or I might just have to cut it off so your wife can lock it up somewhere.”

I followed him back into the great hall. We joined the neat rows of revelers standing on either side of the long table to watch the pageant of arrival.

A dozen tough-looking men in shiny show armor bracketed the royal table. This was a contingent of the famous Knights of the Double Tarn, trained in this very castle and trusted with accompanying the king’s most valuable property. But these were no raw recruits; they were veterans of Drake’s campaigns, old enough to have fought under the king in the wars of unification. They now served as overqualified bodyguards.

The big main doors faced directly west, so the evening sky provided a glorious backdrop. To the cadence of a fresh fanfare, two small girls spread flower petals along the path the queen would take. Next came a dozen fresh graduates of the knight training school, who flanked either side of the flowered walkway.

Four exceptionally beautiful young women appeared next, daughters of Drake’s allies sent to serve his court and perhaps snag a suitable husband. They kept their heads demurely lowered as they stepped in pairs to either side of the door.

At last, accompanied by a longer, fuller blast of horns, Queen Jennifer Drake strode into the room.

It was worth the buildup.

She had wavy brown hair loose around her shoulders and enormous green eyes above a delicate nose and full, wide lips. Her emerald-green dress clung exquisitely in all the right spots. From the sparkle, I guessed that just one tasteful earring probably cost more than I made in a year. She was only in her thirties but radiated the power and assurance that always shone from rich, beautiful women. She’d been queen for her entire adult life and had settled gracefully into the part.

After pausing to be admired, she proceeded at that slow, measured royal pace down the length of the room. She made eye contact and nodded to various attendees as she proceeded. If it was insincere, it was a good act, because she kept up an almost constant murmur, greeting people by name and acknowledging bows and curtsies. Part of any queen’s job is to keep the people on her husband’s side, and Jennifer Drake had mastered it.

When she reached the royal table, two of her maids pulled out the chair, another took the queen’s trailing cape from her shoulders, and a third tapped the goblet with a silver knife to get everyone’s attention. As if anyone in the room watched anything else.

Queen Jennifer smiled. It wasn’t quite as bright as the summer sun. In a rich, commanding voice she said, “Lord and Lady DeGrandis, my friends of Nodlon Castle, Marc and I thank you for hosting this event. As you know, this special dinner is being held in honor of the brave men dedicated to our country’s service who learn the skill of arms inside these very walls. We owe our peace and prosperity to the soldiers trained at Nodlon, and we wish to show our gratitude.”

The polite applause grew more intense wherever the queen’s eye happened to fall. She waited patiently until it faded.

“To continue, I’d also like to introduce my escorts for the evening, who have accompanied me all the way from our main court at Motlace for this occasion. They are the country’s champions, and my personal friends. They have proven their valor more times and in more ways than I can say. And someday, the men trained at this very spot will fill their ranks. So lords and ladies, gentlefolk all, I give you the heroes of Grand Bruan, the Knights of the Double Tarn.”

To another blast of horns, the men snapped ramrod straight, hands clasped behind their backs, eyes fixed on a spot slightly above the heads of the crowd. The sound of their boots striking the stone floor in unison rang out.

I noticed a couple of the knights cast decidedly uncomfortable glances toward the queen, as if something in the ceremony bothered them. But before I could pursue the thought, something else caught my eye.

Yet another beautiful young woman stood outside a serving door. She held a silver tray loaded with apples, and as I watched, a newly minted knight at the end of the line surreptitiously snatched one from it. He grinned at the girl, who blushed and returned the smile. No one else seemed to notice.

And that’s how it starts, I mused. In a year’s time this girl was likely to be a disgraced single parent living in squalor and supporting herself and the knight’s bastard child with the very physical beauty that led to her downfall. Within five years she’d be reduced to simply begging, and by the time her illegitimate offspring was ten, she’d be dead. And all because she caught the eye of some handsome knight at a banquet.

I shook my head. Wow. When did I become so completely cynical? No wonder I didn’t have many friends.

“And I have a special gift for one of our most notable knights,” Jennifer continued. “Sir Thomas Gillian is my husband’s cousin and was knighted on our wedding day. Since then, he has proved himself in both combat and kinship as a worthy knight indeed.” She gestured with one delicate hand, and the girl carrying the fruit started toward her at a slow, ceremonial pace.

“As anyone who’s ever hosted him knows, Tommy has a taste for apples,” Jennifer said with a smile. “The first thing he always asks is, ‘How may I serve you, Your Majesty?’ followed almost immediately by, ‘Are there any apples about?’ ”

There was polite laughter at this.

“Tonight, in his honor we have apples that I picked myself in the royal orchard and brought personally from the palace, so that everyone, including Thomas, might truly know the esteem in which he’s held.” The girl knelt before the queen, who selected an apple and motioned for the honored knight to step forward.

Gillian was roughly the same age as the queen, with long black hair pulled back in a ponytail and the kind of solid, square build that served well in battle. As she handed him the apple, there was a moment of grim, serious eye contact completely at odds with the frivolous situation. It reminded me of the uneasiness I’d noticed earlier in the other knights. Then he lifted the apple to his mouth.

Just before he bit into it, a ragged cry of pain filled the room. The young knight who’d earlier snatched the apple from the tray fell forward onto the stone floor with a wet, painful smack. He immediately went into violent convulsions.

With cries of horror, the demure lords and ladies bravely scurried away from him. The veteran knights, as such men will, immediately drew their weapons and looked for the next threat rather than aiding the victim of the last one. Most of the new soldiers followed suit, although several just froze.

I pushed through the crowd in time to see the young knight stop thrashing and lie completely still in that final, unmistakable way. His eyes were wide-open, and his tongue stuck out between his teeth.

I knelt beside the man—hell, a boy, with a beard that was no more than a few ambitious wisps and a neck still dotted with pimples. Black foam oozed from between his clenched teeth, and his body had already so swelled so much that his thin show armor could barely contain him. His hand still clutched the apple.

I pried the piece of fruit from his fingers, careful to use a handkerchief so I wouldn’t touch it, and sniffed. Under the normal juice smell was the distinctive pungent odor I expected. Poison.

In the silence, a voice I instantly recognized called out, “That man killed a knight!”

I looked up sharply. Between the pale faces at the front of the crowd, Lord Astamore glared at me with a mean, triumphal grin. “He slipped him some poison! I saw it! Don’t let him get away!”

“He’s a murderer!” another man cried.

“Yes, I saw it, too!” chimed in a third voice

“Now, wait a—,” I started to protest, but suddenly strong hands grabbed my arms and yanked me to my feet. Two Knights of the Double Tarn held me between them, and from the looks on their faces I knew I wasn’t going anywhere. I wore no sword, and the knife I always carried in my boot might as well have been on the moon for all the good it could do me.

Then a third knight, bigger and older than the rest, approached me. I decided he deserved all my attention. He held out his hand for the apple. “I’ll take that.” He wrapped the handkerchief around it and put it in a pocket. “And who are you?”

Murder was too serious for aliases. “I’m Edward LaCrosse.”

“There’s no LaCrosse on the guest list.”

“You know every name by heart?”

“Yes.” He said it with such certainty I couldn’t doubt him. “So what are you doing here?”

“Being in the wrong place at the wrong time, apparently.”

“I’ll decide that.”

Lord DeGrandis lumbered out of the crowd. His red face contrasted sharply with the yellow frills at his neck. “Why are you standing there? Execute this man!”

“No one’s getting executed,” the older knight said, “until I get answers.”

“This is my castle, Sir Robert,” DeGrandis boomed.

Sir Robert faced him steadily. “Then give some orders.”

With a wave of his hand, DeGrandis said, “Execute this man!”

The knights holding me neither moved nor responded.

“Did you hear me?” DeGrandis said. It came out high, whiny, and desperate. “I’m the chancellor of this training school, the lord of this castle, and I gave you an order!”

“Did you hear anything?” the man holding my right arm said.

“Just a big yellow fly buzzing around,” the other responded. Neither smiled.

To my handlers Robert said, “Secure this gentleman in one of the serving rooms. I’ll speak to him in more detail shortly.”

 “Hey, wait a minute,” I said as they pulled me away. “You know this kid was already dead when I got to him, right?”

“I know he’s dead now,” Robert said, then turned to the crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen, I ask that you remain calm. No one’s leaving the hall until we know more about what happened, so I suggest you take advantage of the free food and drink.”

Trying to take on a roomful of Knights of the Double Tarn would be efficiently fatal, so I let them drag me away without a fight. The knights handed me over to a pair of the newly minted soldiers, whose grip was no less formidable. “Take him into a side room and sit on him,” one veteran said. “Sir Robert will be along shortly to question him.”

“Yes, sir,” the first soldier replied, and they quickly hustled me out of the hall. Great, I thought, a whole new irony: in trying to help a stranger, I’d fallen into the middle of something deadly here in Grand Bruan, where I knew no one and had no resources at all. Who was laughing now?

 

© 2011 by Alex Bledsoe

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