257 10 0

I am upstairs when I catch sight of the approaching cart and its cargo through the thick glass of my window, and I assume the body in the back is a corpse, brought to me for study and then burial. But no one handles a corpse with such care; the driver is directing the horse to travel slowly, avoiding each hole in the dirt road. They also do not stop to pick up a healer for a corpse. Yet Mother Mouth is in the back, hunched as best she is able over the blanket-wrapped body.

By the time I make it down the grand staircase to the foyer, three of my Men are lifting the bundle from the cart with careful concern. I gesture to the threshold, and they lower it onto my front step. As soon as they set the body down, I can see that my assumption was correct.

It is a young woman.

And she is still alive. But only barely. I contain my shudder of revulsion, clamping my teeth down hard on my tongue to keep from gagging. I think I am only successful because I've seen this sort of thing before.

Bootknife has flayed her very prettily.

Artistic tendrils of bloody ivy are torn into the vellum of the young woman's flesh. I can only see a little of the pattern, however, from between the blanket's folds. Bootknife has written spells and agony into the muscle he's carved, into the wounds left by the strips he filleted from her. It's as detailed as any woodcarving for a stamp-some deep; some wide and shallow; some the merest scrape, only a layer or two of skin absent. Disgustingly beautiful. But it is not art.

It is torture.

She is unconscious. A blessing. I can't imagine how much the young woman must have been screaming before my Men forced poppy milk down her throat. Well, I suppose I can imagine it-I have seen quite enough of Bootknife's handiwork to be able to envision her pain. What I mean is that I do not want to imagine it. I can't bear the thought of the sounds that must have ripped her throat bloody.

She is as wrapped in rough blankets as she can be with such extensive injuries to her back. The blankets are filthy and crusted with blood and other bodily fluids, which means they were probably the only protection against the chill spring morning that her rescuers could find. I clench my hands into fists and jam them into the pockets of my house robe to keep from rushing forward and helping. A Chipping Master does not dirty his hands in labor. I hear the invective in my father's hateful voice in my head, and I take great pleasure in telling it to go drown itself.

All the same, I stay back. I would only be in the way.

Mother Mouth assesses the young woman's injuries, and when she is done, we ensure together that there are no Words of Tracing carved into the victim's skin.

It would not do to give our enemies such advantageous leverage as to lead them here. To the unknowing, my home appears to be no more than the manor of silly, crumpled Forsyth Turn, younger brother to the great hero Kintyre and a man quite stodgily attached to his library. And those on the outside must remain unknowing. Even the slightest slip would bring the Viceroy down on my Chipping, and I will not have the people under my care endangered.

I do not bother to ask why my Men brought the woman to me and not to the king; if the king had the security and ability to protect himself and those in his charge from the Viceroy, he would never have secretly employed me as his Shadow Hand.

There is nowhere safer for the injured visitor than Turn Hall. Not even Kingskeep.

Assessment done, they take the woman inside. I catch the attention of my butler and order a wing of my home that I have not entered in years be opened specifically for my surprise guest.

It has been a long time since there's been a need for lady's chambers in Turn Hall. They have remained shut since my mother's death. It has been even longer still since the need for a lady's maid; my staff are nearly all men. This is not out of preference, but because there are no women in my household who require women servants, and it made sense to leave the town's supply of employable young misses for houses where they were more needed.

EXCERPT - The Untold TaleWhere stories live. Discover now