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The Maid's War

By:Jeff Wheeler


CHAPTER ONE

The Queen's Poisoner





The sound of laughter, conversation, and clinking goblets drifted in from the overcrowded ballroom down the corridor. Music bubbled over the din. The celebration seemed a little too exuberant considering the kingdom was facing yet another war with Ceredigion. Ankarette Tryneowy paused before a pillar, watching the light from the torch mirrored on the polished marble floor. She’d heard a sound, the clip of a boot, and wondered if she was being followed by a drunken Occitanian lord more interested in trying to steal a kiss than in returning to the rough camp of the army hunkering around the city of Pree.

The sound of shuffled steps in heavy boots came from behind, followed by a grunt and a slurred bit of Occitanian. She paused, adjusting her skirts, and then wobbled slightly and caught her hand on the pillar, giving the impression that she’d had too much to drink. As she pressed her stomach and breathed deeply, she dug her fingers into the folds of her dress, ready to seize the dagger hidden there to defend herself.

Ankarette’s delicate beauty conveyed the impression of defenselessness, but she was his majesty’s poisoner, the most dangerous woman in her realm. If she hadn’t been, her king would never have sent her into the heart of the enemy’s capital on the eve of war to seek a man who was one of the Occitanian crown’s most notorious prisoners. The army of Ceredigion was encamped several leagues away on the other side of a river—the farthest they had marched into Occitania since the invasion that had led to their stunning victory at the Battle of Azinkeep. No cities had been taken as of yet, but the threat of conflict seethed in the air like smoke. Her instincts were taut and ready for battle.

The shuffling steps halted and then she heard the unmistakable sound of a man relieving himself against a stone wall. If he was that drunk, he posed no threat to her at all. Still, she did not lower her guard until the drunken lord staggered past her, oblivious to her presence even then. She thought for a moment that it might be a ruse, that this man was one of King Lewis’s poisoners, come to kill her, but the man’s bleary eyes, shuffling steps, and moans indicated liver infection. He must have been a man who frequently indulged in such nocturnal pleasures. Soon he was gone, and Ankarette let out a sigh of relief.

Moments later, a little palace drudge appeared with a bucket and rags and began mopping up the mess the nobleman had left reeking against the wall. The waif was a pretty little thing, but she could be no more than eight. She should not have been kept up so late. Ankarette had observed many such drudges in the palace, lurking in the shadows to earn their bread by serving the whims of the Occitanian nobility. They were invisible to most people and treated like dogs.

Turning from the column, she approached the girl and sank down onto her knees to be at her level. The waif blinked in surprise, taking in Ankarette’s rich, fashionable gown and her delicately coiffed hair.

“Shouldn’t you be abed?” Ankarette asked the child in a quiet, kind voice, reaching out and brushing some of the girl’s hair away from her face. Her Occitanian was fluent, but she knew the capital Pree had its own flairs. Hopefully, her accent would suffice.

The girl seemed even more surprised by the show of compassion. “No, my lady. I napped earlier, but the fête is almost finished and we’ll be cleaning till dawn.”

It was only just after midnight. “That’s a shame,” Ankarette said, patting the girl’s cheek. “It must be difficult cleaning up the messes of others.”

The waif sniffed and shrugged. “You have a strange accent,” the girl said offhandedly, dipping a rag into the bucket.

Children always noticed things that others passed over. Ankarette had made it a rule never to underestimate their usefulness.

“I’m not from Pree,” Ankarette responded vaguely. “You have a different accent in the city.”

The girl nodded, accepting her explanation. Another thing Ankarette had learned about children was their natural inclination to be trusting—most of them knew nothing of spies and the machinations of court. Ankarette continued speaking with her for several moments—the girl was chatty, and Ankarette soon had her revealing helpful information. The King of Occitania had been assembling all the princes of the blood in preparation for whatever conflict was to come.

And then the waif said something that made Ankarette blink in surprise. “All the princes save La Marche. The king will keep him trapped in that awful tower.”

“The Duke of La Marche is here as well?” Ankarette asked. Her heart swelled with relief that the king’s Espion had been correct. She had secretly dreaded that the duke was being held deep in the hinterlands in some faraway dungeon.

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