Authors: J. Kirsch
Tags: #romance, #murder mystery, #magic, #political intrigue, #survival, #fantasy mystery, #assassination plot, #multicultural relationship, #queen detective, #scholar detective
The nearby whispering of voices spurred me out
of my languor. I slipped out of bed, resolving to dress
appropriately. It was time to look the part of a Queen instead of
the wounded dove people expected me to be. I fitted on my black
silk vest and leggings embroidered with silver and crimson
threadwork. I arranged an amethyst in place around my neck, its
purplish winks giving off a seductive light in the last throes of
day. Getting my hair under control took more effort. Tragic battles
had been fought with less frustration, and the disheveled clumps of
hair refused to yield to the comb which I wielded like a weapon,
more obstinate than a pack of blood-crazed demons. Finally, my hair
properly enshrined in braided strands spiraling around a central
bun in the Tajmari style, I found myself looking presentable in the
crystal clarity of the bedroom mirror.
I looked alluring and, with mixed feelings
about it, every bit the proper lady
dagger tucked away above my left ankle. Its weight felt reassuring,
Don't get cocky, Najika. Remember how little good
the dagger did when you drank wine in Queen Caerra's sitting
From now on I would have to be extremely careful about
whatever I drank or ate, not to mention who I accepted food or
Feeling semi-presentable and refreshed for the
first time in three days, I strode purposely to the bed chamber
door. I almost opened it, but something stopped me. The urgent
tones of the hushed voices pricked something across my skin and I
froze, turning my head. Just listening.
"Drake, this is not a problem that will go
away by itself."
"You think I don't know that?" The first voice
was definitely Bronwyn's. She had grown close not just to me, but
to Drake as well. He treated her with a certain level of
familiarity now, and most times that made me glad. Right now
though, part of me felt almost…jealous. On edge.
"How could you have spoken not a word with her
about the succession when you know she can't give you an heir? Do
you even now how she truly feels, with the knowledge that she will
never bear a child of her own?" The pity in her voice made me want
to vomit. It also made me seethe.
"Whether we have spoken of such things or not
is not your concern, and
not your place to meddle
in." The heat in Drake's voice gave me fierce satisfaction, but it
wasn't long before my grin turned upside down.
"Fine and noble words, Black Knight, but this
complicate the stability of your Kingdom." Good old
Bronwyn, ever the pragmatist, and one not tempered by the
tenderness that Lady Vaela, Drake's mother, sometimes showed.
Bronwyn was a peasant's daughter, and in her practicality there was
no mistaking it.
Drake sighed. "What would you have me do,
"You take a woman discreetly to your bed,
someone who resembles Najika if possible. Have the baby carried to
term in secret, and then when the baby's born it can be Najika's
and yours, as far as the world knows. I can take the real mother
far, far to another land and ensure that even if she does utter a
word of it, no one will dare believe her."
Drake's tone turned cold and yet burned with
its own passionate anger, a torch fed by wintry air. "Kingdom's
mercies, you are actually serious!"
"Of course I'm serious. I want what's best for
you and Najika and the future of your rule. Your people condemn
adoption as unnatural. They would never accept it. What other
choice do you have?"
There was a slap. Its echo rang as sharply as
the crack of thunder.
"There is always a choice." Drake's tone
brimmed with finality and contempt. "You are dismissed."
"You will address me as 'Your Lordship' or
'Sir.' Nothing less."
"This is ridiculous. I am only trying to help
both of you. I am only—"
I did not need to hear more. I had heard
plenty already, and it shocked me to the core, making me question
Bronwyn's friendship. Well-intentioned or not, she had a ruthless
quality I wasn't sure I shared. I held back the sob that threatened
to rip through my chest and stepped back into the recesses of the
bed chamber. Suddenly the room seemed suffocating and small, every
bit as claustrophobic as the infirmary. My eyes focused on the
latch to the arched window, and I stepped over to it, glancing
down. There was a twenty-foot drop to the courtyard below, but a
well-aged asperi tree had wound its roots into the sides of the
fortress's rock wall. They slithered up toward the window like
ravenous snakes. If I could use them as handholds I could bypass
Drake and Bronwyn easily enough. With my heart feeling like Bronwyn
had stabbed it from behind, I was in no mood to deal with her. And
Drake? I couldn't face him knowing that he was struggling with what
to do about a difficult situation and having to put on a calm
façade for my benefit.
No. The solution here was a little time to
myself, to clear my head and get as far away from my best friend as
possible...if I could even still call Bronwyn that. I needed to get
out of here, to escape right now. Otherwise it might be too
tempting to slash my dagger across my lady-in-waiting and
confidante's conniving face. It would be a good look for her. My
right hand instinctively reached for my ankle….
Snuff out the rage, Najika. It
hasn't helped you before, and it won't help you now.
I quietly unlatched the window, propping it
open as the warm breeze wafted in and made itself at home. Once
nightfall hit, the temperature in the city of Tajma plunged, but
for now the Gold Kingdom's oppressive heat still reigned. I heaved
myself over, hands gripping the window's ledge until my feet felt
the crisscross of roots. I found two serviceable footholds before I
let go of the ledge, moving down to scrabble along the roots with
my hands as I made a careful descent. It was like climbing down a
ladder built by a drunken man, the roots' twists and turns
seemingly random. But they held my weight and they weren't too
slippery, and that was all that mattered.
Or so I thought, right up until I realized
that there were tiny, nearly invisible thorns along the length of
the asperi roots. Thorns that were starting to sting where they had
pricked my hands like tiny pincushions. By the time I reached the
bottom my hands were on fire. I was furious, more at myself than at
the plant. I knew only the basics of the Gold Kingdom's flora. Just
enough to get myself into trouble, apparently. The stinging was
getting worse instead of better, and I found myself moving with an
extra spring in my step—but not toward the infirmary. My pride
wouldn't allow that. I'd spent far too much time there
I looked around the courtyard, then hurried
into an adjoining courtyard more spacious than the first. A
corridor of vines around a trellised archway connected the two, and
I kept going. I followed where the leafy canopy led, curious where
I would end up and trying to ignore the growing burn that now
festered through my palms and up to every fingertip. Either this
was an allergic reaction or I'd just been poisoned,
except this time through my own stupidity.
When I heard someone coming I abruptly dashed
to my left, toward a dark ocher door which gleamed with a lacquered
finish. There were stylized clouds across the top of the door, and
beneath it someone had carved scrolls with such delicacy that they
rose from the finish as three-dimensional masterpieces. My fumbling
hands finally opened the door, and I rushed into the cool dimness
of what was some sort of reception area. Inside I noticed a tall,
sprawling desk of mulberry wood, a heavily cluttered table with a
porcelain tea set, and shelves upon shelves of books stretching
behind the desk like the rank and file of a vast army marching off
to war. A man stood behind the desk, yet he was like no man I had
His eyes were bulbous orbs tapering off into
thin slits, stretched yet vivid. A gentle hammer might as well have
flattened his nose, and it gave him an air of having endured
hardships, though by my best estimation he was not past middle age.
To top it off the man's sable-gray beard and ethereal wisp of a
mustache highlighted his wizened face, giving him almost a
He was muttering to himself as he flipped
through the pages of a heavily bound volume. The smell of books and
scrolls invaded my nostrils, and I breathed in the scent as if it
was lifeblood to my veins. This smell brought me back to my
father's library, where I'd spent hours beyond counting as a young
girl. Of course it wasn't quite the same. Father's library had been
the finest in the White Kingdom, not to mention most of Arkor. This
library was cramped, dark, and smelled of oddly melded incense,
though that overpowering aroma of books and paper remained
That aroma grounded me and calmed me even as I
peered at the strange man blithely ignoring me, engrossed so
perfectly in his book.
"Yes, yes. Come back later. Can't you see I am
busy?" He looked up at me finally, agitated. His eyes settled on
me, and then his demeanor hedged. He rearranged the mud-brown scarf
covering his head and then smoothed out his padded brown robes. The
gold trim circling the ends of the sleeves seemed to shine despite
the muted light. There was a lantern hanging from the ceiling
above, throwing shadows and giving us a tantalizingly dim aura by
which to see.
"Come here, girl."
I opened my mouth, about to tell him that I
Najika, relishing the thought of wiping that
condescending expression from his bizarre excuse for a face.
Instead I quietly approached and thrust my aching hands across the
desk. I groaned as the pain of even laying my hands on the cool
wood of the desktop made me realize how badly things had
deteriorated. Really looking down now, I noticed for the first time
that my hands were puffy, swelling to an incredible
The dark-mustached enigma of a man ignored my
panicked look, turning and plodding away to disappear among the
"Please can you help me? I've cut my hands on
the roots of an asperi tree. It really burns!" I was about to leap
the desk and go after him when the wizened bookworm miraculously
reappeared, muttering with a fresh volume in his hands. He thumped
it open on the desk. A cloud of dust swirled into the air. I
coughed and sneezed and he did what he apparently did best—acting
as if I wasn't even there.
plants…Hmm." He kept mumbling to himself, his fingers flashing
through the pages faster and faster, a blur I couldn't hope to
follow. Finally he smiled, as if the letters in his book were
morphing into precious figures of jade and jasper before leaping
into his pockets. He put his finger beneath one of the entries. I
strained my eyes to read it.
"Ah. Ah. As I thought." He slammed the book
shut, a fresh cloud of dust erupting from its pages two moments
before I could read what he'd been looking at. I coughed again,
waving the dust away with my now-puffier hands.
"Please!" I groaned, the pain unbearable.
There were tears in my eyes just from all the agonizing sensations.
He returned a moment later with a dish slathered in something that
looked like crusty old butter. He grasped my wrists and pressed my
hands into the lard-like substance. The slimy goo immediately
surged between the tiny gaps in my swollen fingers, and the
muttering man proceeded to spread the gunk until it covered my
The change was almost immediate. A heavenly
plunged through my pores. The throbbing in
my hands stopped. I sighed with relief, my muscles relaxing as
gratitude washed through every part of me.
"Uuuhhhh…." I looked up at him, his expression
curious and fixed on me. As if I were a magical insect trapped in
an upturned glass.
"You have a name, girl?"
So much for salvaging a shred of dignity. I
sighed, this time with regret. "I am Queen Najika of the Black
Kingdom, but please, just call me Najika."
Mr. Dark Beard and Whiskers ambled over to the
cluttered table. Heaps of books bound in brocade silks of every
vibrant color obscured its surface so thoroughly that I could
hardly tell where the table ended and the books began. He picked up
the teapot and vanished again into the maze of stacks. A few
minutes later he returned, and by then my hands looked almost human
again. The swelling had eased completely, and I moved my fingers,
marveling at the transformation. He began to pour tea carefully
into two of the fine porcelain cups. Steam drifted lazily out of
each cup. I stared at the cups, fascinated by the blue-and-gold
peacocks that encircled their rims. Each time I blinked, I could
almost swear that the peacocks had somehow
"My name is Linn. I am the Librarian here at
Librarian Linn gave me a placid smile. "It is
the name of this library. But you may simply call it the Library.
Everyone else does. People are too lazy to call things by their
proper names." Linn sighed like a man used to suffering, then
gestured impatiently at the seat across from him. "Please, come and
sit. There are napkins there." He pointed. "Wipe your hands and
then sip a cup of tea with me, Najika of the Black