The arrival of foreign noblemen at the palace barely caused a raised eyebrow in Mull. Few weary travelers bothered to look up from the dirt beneath their worn boots to witness the procession of polished carriages passing by, and the villagers were indifferent to the presence of esteemed personages. After all, the palace—and therefore Mull—was still overrun by Glancian nobles. The visitors and their entourages were as common as any other newcomer.
Most didn't know that King Leon hadn't invited the foreign lords. He'd invited the Vytill and Dreen princesses to court, with a view to choosing one as his bride, but their fathers, the kings of Vytill and Dreen, sent representatives to negotiate instead. Dane, the captain of the palace guards, had informed me of that much, but I hadn't seen him lately and didn't know what King Leon thought of the changed plans.
It was the only time Dane had visited me since the day he'd planted a riverwart seedling behind my father's headstone. He'd bought some hollyroot for Theodore, the king's valet, to ease a headache. I felt his absence more than I cared to admit and was disappointed that he didn't seem to miss me as much. That was until Meg pointed out that he could have sent a footman or guard to fetch the hollyroot, but he had come in person. She assured me it meant he wanted to see me, and the hollyroot was simply an excuse. I liked her theory.
"Do you have any patients to call on this afternoon?" Meg asked as we walked from the graveyard together. She often accompanied me when she wasn't busy helping her mother at home. If it wasn't too hot, we walked up Lookout Hill and gazed down upon the palace in the distance, but I usually discouraged her. Seeing the palace reminded me of the times I'd been there, the people I'd met, and the amazing things I'd seen, and that was a little painful. The palace, and everything associated with it, was interesting, yet the days in Mull passed by with an unvarying monotony.
"Not today," I said. There were only two women due to give birth in Mull, and I'd checked on both recently. Despite the influx of people into the village, my workload had not increased. Most newcomers were unwed men or married ones coming ahead of their families to find work. The imbalance of the sexes caused its own set of problems, most of which I didn't see first hand as I rarely visited Tovey Harbor's dock or the taverns, but I did hear about the brawls.
"Then come and share our midday meal," Meg said. "Mama says she'd like to see you."
"She sees me often."
"You rarely stay to dine."
That was because Meg's brother was there at meal times, and he'd decided I was worth noticing, now. I wasn't sure when he'd started to actually see me, but it was unnerving. He'd always been like a brother to me, and not in a good way. He'd teased me as much as he'd teased Meg when we were children. He'd called me names, held things out of my reach, pinched me to make me cry, and told lies about me to his parents. If he thought I was going to forget it all, and allow him to court me, he needed to think again.
"Please say you'll come, Josie." She plucked a long blade of grass from a clump at the side of the road and tickled my cheek with the feathery gray-green flower plume. "Pretty please."
"I will if you stop tickling me." I scrubbed at my cheek. "But only for tea, not a meal. I don't want to be a burden."
"You're not. And besides…" She pressed her lips together and glanced left and right. We were only around the corner from where we lived, and there were few people about. Even so, she lowered her voice. "Tilly has a cough. Mama wants you to check her."
"You know I can't do any doctoring," I whispered back. "If the authorities found out—"
"No one will find out. We're friends. You're expected to visit from time to time." She hooked her arm through mine. "Besides, you know how Mama is. She wants to take care of you. She thinks you're getting too skinny."
"She wouldn't think so if she saw my hips."
Meg nudged me, and I almost walked into a bollard. I laughed, only to stop when she asked me how I was doing. "I mean really doing. Are you lonely?"
"Not at all," I lied. "My father wasn't much of a conversationalist anyway. Besides, I enjoy my own company."
She eyed me with sympathy. I'd never been good at keeping secrets from her. "Perhaps you should get a dog."
"I don't want a dog." Another lie. I liked animals, and a pet would be good company, but I couldn't afford to feed a dog. I could only just afford to feed myself if I lived frugally. Despite searching the entire house, twice, I'd not found my father's savings. I doubted they'd ever existed.
"This law against you practicing medicine is absurd," she said, reverting to our former topic of conversation. "You should be allowed."
"The law is there for a reason, otherwise we'd have charlatans claiming they could cure all sorts of ills. It's good that it's regulated and only trained doctors can practice."
"Then you should be allowed to go to college and become a doctor. It's not fair."
I agreed. Not that it would matter, now. I had no money to support myself if I were in college.
We turned into the street we'd both lived on our entire lives. The wooden houses wedged into tight spaces on both sides of its narrow length were as familiar to me as my own hands. I could have walked along it blindfolded and known precisely when I was passing the Grinstens' house with its upper level leaning so far to the right that it almost abutted the Meeks's. The spicy smell of Etty Bricket's cooking seemed to waft into the street all day and night, and then it was only eight paces to Meg's front door, and another eight to cross the street to mine.
We were passing Etty Bricket's house when a horse and rider approached from the opposite end. We both stopped. The sight wasn't a common one.
My heart lifted only to sink a little when I recognized the stocky form of the rider. I raised a hand and hailed Sergeant Max before he dismounted at my house. He rode over and dropped to his feet before us. Meg instinctively lifted a hand to the brim of her sunhat, pulling it lower. She always wore a broad hat, summer or winter. When she put her hand to it, she thought she hid the wine-red stain on that side of her jaw and neck. No one ever told her that her effort was in vain.
"Good day, Josie," Max said, removing his hat.
"Good day. What a pleasure to see you again." I must have sounded a little too enthusiastic because his brow creased. "Max, this is my friend, Meg."
Max's gaze lingered on Meg's face a little too long to be polite but thankfully he showed no signs of disgust. He gave her a little bow. "A pleasure to meet you, Meg."
She dipped her head lower and mumbled a response. I would have dug my elbow into her ribs to encourage her to meet his gaze, but Max was already straightening.
"Is this a social call?" I asked him. "Have you come to taste my celebrated cakes? They're as good as the palace cook's, you know." I said it as much to tease the very dour sergeant as to get Meg laughing and warning him not to believe me. I failed on both counts. Max politely refused the offer, proving he could not be teased, and Meg remained silent.
"I've come to collect you," he said. "A carriage is—" He was cut off by the arrival of a carriage pulled by two black horses. It wasn't one of the palace's finest, but it was still shinier than anything seen around Mull. "—is here to take you," he finished. "If you are free."
"Is someone ill?" I blurted out. "Not another poisoning, I hope."
Meg gasped, only to retreat even further back.
Max shook his head. "A maid has requested your services."
"She's with child?"
"I have not been informed of the particulars. The captain sent me, upon Balthazar's request. She asked him if she could see you and only you."
It must be for a pregnancy or she would require the services of a doctor. The only doctor in the area at present was the finance minister's medic, Doctor Clegg. Whether he would stoop to attending a maid, I couldn't be sure. Ever since my father's death, Mull had been without a doctor. I had sent a letter to the college in Logios to ask if a new graduate could be placed here. I expected someone to arrive any day, either from the college or a more experienced doctor who'd heard of Mull's growing population. It would be a lucrative practice, if carefully managed. Thankfully there'd been no dire emergencies requiring medical attention in the four weeks since Father's passing. His regular patients had come to me for medicine. Sometimes they asked me to check them in his workshop, but I'd refused. I couldn't risk it.
"The captain told me if you were to hesitate, I am to reassure you that no one else knows of your visit. Just Balthazar, me and the patient herself." Max leaned in. "He thought you might be worried about practicing medicine at the palace."
I expected Meg to chime in with a comment about me hesitating in the village too, but she remained silent. If Max had been a villager she'd known her entire life, she wouldn't have been this shy. Indeed, since I'd only ever seen her with friends and acquaintances, this shyness was new to me. I supposed it was new to her, too.
I stepped back to draw alongside her. "I'll come with you in a moment, Max, but I must check on Meg's sister first. She has a cough. I won't be a moment. Meg will keep you company while I'm gone."
I raced off before she could protest. Meg's mother let me in and glanced past me. I caught her arm before she charged out. Her lips tightened.
"He's a good man," I told her. "He's kind."
"He's from the palace," she said, as if that explained her reticence.
"They're just talking." But they weren't talking. They stood exactly where I'd left them, with Max holding his horse's bridle and Meg touching her hat brim, her arm trying to cover her birthmark. "Come away," I urged her mother.
But she would not budge from the doorway.
"He won't harm her," I added.
"Perhaps not physically."
I sighed. She was over-protective of Meg to the point of being stifling. I understood that she hated the idea of Meg's feelings being hurt by someone cruel enough to laugh at her birthmark, but Meg would never learn to ignore them if she was closeted. And anyway, Max wouldn't do that.
"Come with me," I said, "or I won't see to Tilly."
That got her moving, although she did scowl all the way to the bedchamber Tilly shared with Meg.
Tilly's ailment was just a cough brought on by a tingling throat that heralded the beginnings of a summer cold. Tilly was promptly swaddled in a blanket and plied with a warm tisane that had been brewing for some time judging from the smell infusing the house. I felt sorry for poor Tilly, denied the pleasures of summer fun with her friends, but a little rest would do her good. I knew from experience that her mother would not be swayed from her smothering until Tilly was well again.
I rejoined Max and Meg and was glad to see their silence had finally broken. He was talking quietly to her and she seemed to be listening as she patted the horse's nose. She no longer had her arm up to her hat brim but had angled herself so that she presented Max with her unmarked side.
"He's so velvety, Josie," she said when I joined them. "Pat him."
"What have you two been talking about?" I asked, dutifully patting the horse.
"Horses," Max said, stroking his mount's neck. "And you."
"Since you are the one person we know in common, it stands to reason."
When he put it like that, it sounded like a very dull conversation.
Meg gave me a sly smile. "Apparently somebody called Quentin has been asking about you. He can't wait to see you again and has been pestering the captain to be allowed to come to the village."
I laughed. "I suppose I'd better see him while I'm at the palace. To give the poor captain some peace and quiet, you understand."
"How many other admirers does Josie have there?" Meg asked.
Max counted silently with his fingers, "Five, that I know of."
"So few?" Meg said. "I expected her to have at least a dozen lords and two dozen servants pining for her."
Max blinked at her.
"Don't listen to her," I told him. "She's teasing."
He gave an uncertain smile.
Meg blushed and turned away. "I have to go," she said as she ran off to the house.
"Goodbye," Max said, but she was already inside by the time he spoke. "Is she upset that I didn't laugh at her joke?"
"She's not upset with you." I walked with him across the street to my house. "She's just shy."
"She seems relaxed with you."
"That's because we know one another very well. The mark on her face makes her self-conscious with strangers."
"May I ask what caused it?"
"She was born with it."
He waited with his horse and the carriage while I retrieved my medical pack from the house and locked the door again.
"The captain regrets that he couldn't fetch you himself," he said as he took my bag and placed it in the cabin. "He had to go hunting with the king."
"I thought the king hated hunting."
"The guests are getting restless and needed something to do."
"Can't they go hunting without him?"
"They want to be near the king," he said, assisting me into the cabin. "So he decided to go out today with the new arrivals."
"Ah, yes, I heard about the lords from Dreen and Vytill. I do hope everyone is getting along and there hasn't been much work for Captain—" I cut myself off before I said the wrong thing. Calling him Captain Hammer didn't seem right now that I knew his real name was Dane, but I couldn't call him Dane to anyone, not even to Max. I didn't necessarily agree with Dane's decision to withhold his real name from the others, but I would abide by his wishes.
Besides, it felt special to be his only confidant.
"Very little," Max said. "They've all behaved like gentlemen, so far. That may change after the meetings. That's if the meetings ever take place."
"They're avoiding them?"
"The king is." He shut the door and signaled to the coachman to move off.
I spent the journey wondering why the king was avoiding meetings with the representatives of the two most powerful nations on the Fist Peninsula. It was surely in his best interests to begin discussions immediately, both about his future marriage to one of the princesses and trade between the kingdoms. The fact he was now willing to consider marriage to one of the princesses was remarkable enough, but his reluctance to discuss it with their representatives was an indication that he might not be that keen after all. Perhaps he'd only gone this far to satisfy those of his ministers who wanted an alliance through marriage. The king had been adamant that he would wed a Glancian woman, believing that Glancian women were the fairest. It was a silly notion that I expected him to forego sooner or later. He only had to come to Mull and see the pretty women from the other nations who worked near the harbor. On the other hand, most of them were prostitutes, so it might prove his theory after all, in a way.
Thinking about the king made me wonder whether Dane had confronted him about the gemstone we'd found in the cabinet stored in his room and where that jewel was now. There were so many questions surrounding it, and why the king was so protective of it, but one thing was for certain—it was linked to the memory loss suffered by the palace staff. It had to be. It glowed when they were near and seemed to draw on their life force, but it didn't react to me.
All my questions vanished upon seeing the palace. The first glimpse of it, as the carriage turned onto the Grand Avenue, never ceased to steal my breath. Even on an overcast day, the gold edging the roofline and balconies shone. Its wings stretched north and south in a giant's welcome, the ends not yet visible, as I passed the grand coach house on one side of the avenue and the stables on the other. Each one was bigger than the temple in Mull. I'd once joked to Meg's family that the king's horses lived better than the god and goddess. Her parents hadn't found it amusing.
The guards opened the gates and the carriage deposited me on the large forecourt. Sedan chairs waited to carry lords or ladies too tired or lazy to walk from the gate to the palace entrance. It was a considerable distance, and I could understand the aged requiring a ride, but the woman dressed in deep blue silk who stepped into a sedan chair looked no older than me. A palace footman settled her voluminous skirts into the tight space around her legs, but the peacock plume shooting from her hat defeated him. He bent it then quickly closed the door and instructed the burly carriers to proceed. They set an unhurried pace in the direction of the palace ahead of Max and me.
Instead of entering through the palace's front door, we diverted to the right and followed the external wall of the northern wing almost to its end. Max was about to push open the door to the garrison when something further along caught his attention. I worried that it might be the prison next to the garrison, but then I saw the fight.
Max cursed under his breath. "Go inside, Josie," he said as he marched off.
I hesitated before following him past the prison entrance to the guards' training ground, mostly hidden from view behind a brick wall to the side of the palace. The two fighters had been visible through the arched entrance, and as we drew closer, I could see four other guards looking on. Some shouted encouragement, and one laughed, but none tried to stop them.
"Brant!" Max shouted. "Get off him!"
Brant, who sat astride his opponent, grabbed the other man’s shirtfront, lifting him and shoving him back against the ground. The opponent groaned. I couldn't see either of their faces yet.
"Brant!" Max ordered. "Enough! You want to kill him?"
Sergeant Brant stepped back, giving me a view of the other man's face.
"Quentin!" I rushed forward and knelt by the youth's side. Blood trickled from a cut on his lip, and his dark hair was gray with dust and matted with sweat. He smiled at me, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
"Josie! What are you doing here?" He sat up only to wince and clutch his ribs.
"Let me see," I said, lifting his shirt.
Behind me, Brant snorted. "Weakling."
"I said enough!" Max barked.
"I was teaching him a lesson. He needs it. Pathetic."
I shot to my feet and stabbed my finger into Brant's shoulder. "Are you such a bully that you feel the need to fight a smaller, less experienced man who poses no threat to you? You, Sergeant, are the one with the weak, pathetic character."
My tirade was met with a silence so thick it felt smothering. I suddenly had trouble drawing a proper breath and my body felt heavy, my head light. No one moved, yet everyone seemed to tense. Brant's eyes darkened until they were as black as pitch.
I swallowed. I couldn't decide whether to move toward the safety of Max or turn away and tend to Quentin, so I simply stood there, frozen.
As if he sensed my fear, Brant's lips stretched into a hard smile. "You’d better go, Josie." He kicked Quentin's foot. "Take your pet with you." He went to walk off, but Max grabbed him by the shoulder.
"I have to report this to the captain," Max said.
Brant wrenched free. "Go ahead, run to Hammer. I don't care. The little turd hit his own lip with his sword hilt." He jerked his chin at the other guards, still standing about. "Ask any of them. They'll tell you he's hopeless."
"So why'd you fight him if he did nothing to you?" Max asked.
"I told you. To teach him a lesson. He needs to become a man. The captain ain't going to show him how, so it's up to me."
"The captain hasn't got time."
"The captain treats him like a little sister." He sneered at Quentin. "Maybe because he's as useless as a girl." He ambled off toward the two swords discarded in the dirt. "He should never have been a guard."
"I didn't have a choice!" Quentin shouted after him from the safety of Max's side.
Brant gave him a rude hand gesture. I wondered how he'd learned it, since his memory loss would have wiped such things from his mind.
I turned back to Quentin and inspected his lip. It had stopped bleeding and didn't require any stitches. "Clean it up and place a damp cloth on it," I said. "It'll sting for a few days. Now, show me your ribs."
"They're fine." He smiled but winced as it stretched the cut on his lip. "Thanks for what you said, Josie, but don't do it again. You've got to be careful with Brant. He's got a temper."
"As have I."
"Aye, but he uses his fists when he gets mad. You just use words."
"The effects can last as long, if not longer." But I conceded his point with a nod and agreed not to antagonize Brant further. "I'll do my best to stay out of his way. As should you."
"Aye," Max said, rejoining us after speaking to the other guards. They were once again sparring with swords on the far side of the training ground. "Both of you need to stay clear of Brant. Quentin, you're not to train when he's here. Understand?"
"But he's always here," Quentin whined.
"Then you wait for me or the captain, or Erik. You can't rely on them to protect you." He glanced at the other guards, sparring as if they wanted to kill one another.
"Why does he hate me?"
If Max knew the answer, he didn't say. He simply walked off toward the arched exit where he stopped and waited for me. I picked up my bag and went to join him.
"You got a patient, Josie?" Quentin asked, falling into step alongside me.
I nodded but didn't elaborate. Max had made it seem as if the matter should be kept private.
"Who? What's happened? Someone sick?"
"Leave Josie alone," Max growled. "Go clean yourself up."
Quentin pouted and ambled off toward a trough of water, his shoulders slouched. I followed Max out of the training yard only to be met by Theodore striding toward us.
"There you are," he said. "The guards at the gate said you'd arrived. Max, you should have brought her straight to the garrison. I've been waiting."
"There was an incident in the training yard," Max said.
"Brant? Is that why he was puffing like an enraged bull just now?"
"Best to keep out of his way for the rest of the day."
Theodore clicked his tongue. "We shouldn't have to tiptoe around him. Hammer needs to force him into line."
"Easier said than done. Besides, Brant's just frustrated with how things are and the fact there ain't no cure for us." Max tapped his temple.
"We're all frustrated, but no one else is picking fights and acting like they're the only one who's lost their memory." Theodore took my bag. "Josie, come. Max, you should carry a lady's bag if she has one."
Max blinked then looked down at his feet. "Sorry," he mumbled. "Seems I weren't brought up with manners like Theo and Hammer."
"It's all right," I said, trying not to smile at his blush. "It's not heavy." To prove my point, I took the bag back and carried it myself.
I entered the palace with Theodore through a service door just past the garrison entrance. We climbed a set of narrow stairs, walked along corridors and trudged up another three flights. We walked what must be the entire length of the palace past an endless series of closed doors, each with a brass number nailed to it.
I peered through one of the dormer windows lining the corridor on the opposite side to the doors. It overlooked the square commons building that housed the kitchen and other service rooms. Beyond the stables and coach house, I could make out the length of the Grand Avenue slicing through the forest like a scar. The intersection with the Mull road was hidden behind dense trees, but I could see the village itself, nestled on the edge of Tovey Harbor. If it weren't for the tiny ships crowding the harbor's entrance, sea and sky would have been indistinguishable on such a dull day.
"Is this where the servants sleep?" I asked, turning back to Theodore.
"This is the southern wing," he said without pausing his brisk stride. The king's valet didn't seem weary or hot whereas my damp clothes clung to me in unmentionable places and I was a little short of breath. "The room Ruth shares with another maid is not far. The palace maids occupy the attic rooms in the southern wing. The footmen have the ones in the northern wing, while the attic rooms in the central section of the palace are currently occupied by the visiting servants. Higher nobles are housed on the first and second floors in more spacious rooms. Lower ranking nobles are accommodated in the pavilions with any visiting entertainers. Kitchen staff and some of the outdoor servants have rooms in the commons, and the remainder of the outdoor servants sleep in the stables."
"And the guards?"
"Have rooms on the ground level, near the garrison. Except for Hammer, who sleeps in a room next to the king's. I sleep in the king's room, on a truckle at the foot of his bed, and Balthazar gets a nice room all to himself not far away." He stopped in front of room two-five-one. "Do you want to know what we ate for breakfast too?"
"Oh, er, no. Sorry for prying. I find the palace fascinating."
He chuckled. "I don't mind your questions, but be careful you don't ask the wrong person." I was about to ask why but he continued. "Ruth's alone in here. If you think she needs time off from her duties, I'll inform Balthazar. I'm afraid he'll also need to know what's wrong with her, but there's no need for her to know that. Oh, and don't tell her you know about our memory loss. Don't ask her any questions that will force her to tell you. I can't stay. The king will return from his hunt soon and will probably require my services. He might want a bath," he went on, sounding distracted by the notion. "Certainly a change of clothes, and I imagine hunting is thirsty work."
"If he's been gone a while, he might want something to eat."
"Good point. Thank you. He's never gone hunting before, and I'm not sure what to expect."
"I'm sure he doesn't expect you to anticipate his every need."
"Nevertheless, it's my duty." He knocked on the door and a woman invited us to enter.
She sat on the bed, her feet firmly together, her shoulders rounded, and gave me a hesitant nod. Theodore introduced us then backed out of the room and shut the door.
I set my bag down on the other bed and regarded my patient. She was young with dark brown hair and perfect skin. She was pretty but in a quiet, subtle way that required a second and third look before really appreciating just how much. She glanced up and blushed. She was nervous. No, worse than that. She was frightened. Of telling Balthazar that she was carrying a child? Of telling the father?
"Are you unwell, Ruth?" I began.
She shook her head.
"You're with child?"
Her huge brown eyes stared at me then suddenly watered. Her face crumpled and she buried her head in her hands.
I put my arm around her shoulders. "It's all right if you are," I said. "Don't be scared. I'll tell Balthazar for you, if you like."
"I don't want a baby," she said between sobs. "I don't want his baby."
Dread settled into my heart, a hard, bitter thing. "Whose?" I asked carefully. "Ruth, who is the father?"
Her sobs grew louder. "I don't know."
"How can you not know?"
It took several moments and quite a lot of gentle talking for her to calm down. Her crying finally abated, and she wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand. "He came up to me in the dark from behind. He forced me to the floor and lifted my skirt and…"
I folded her into my arms and caressed her hair. Her body shook uncontrollably. I rocked her and told her over and over that it would be all right, that she was safe now.
But how could she be safe? Her rapist was still somewhere in the palace. With almost a thousand staff, and hundreds of visiting nobles, each with their own servants, finding him would be a mammoth task. It could be anyone, from the lowest servant to the king himself.