BtQC – Chapters 32 and 33
Brenna hadn’t had much time to explore the entire castle, so she wasn’t completely sure where Baron Machieve’s rooms were located. A couple of discreet inquiries led her to a wing on the opposite end of the keep from where her rooms were located, and after taking a deep breath, she rapped lightly on the door. When there was no answer, a sudden surge of boldness seized her and she tried opening the door. To her surprise, it was unlocked, so she glanced up and down the hallway to make sure she wasn’t observed and entered the room.
The room was dark and cool, the curtains drawn against the late afternoon sunlight. When Brenna’s eyes adjusted to the dimness, she could see that she was in a sitting room very similar to her own, with a sitting area, a small table, a desk near the window and a door leading, presumably, to the bedchamber and dressing room. It was all quite tidy and tastefully appointed, and Brenna didn’t see anything unusual or out of place. She closed her eyes briefly, listening to be sure she was truly alone and reaching out with her mind to see if she could sense anything, and found herself drawn toward a set of large cupboards near the window.
When she opened the first cupboard, Brenna was surprised to see an apothecary that rivaled her own – bottles, bowls, bags, some empty and some full of herbs, tinctures, and potions; a mortar and pestle; scales; jars of ointments; and cans of powdered substances. This was the cupboard of someone who was a serious practitioner of the herbal arts, and Baron Machieve did not seem like the sort of person to her. She scanned the shelves, looking for something amiss but there was nothing strange or unusual that she could see. There were several well-thumbed books on the top shelf, including copies of all the standard tomes that healers, apothecaries and practitioners of herbology studied. Why had she been drawn to this cupboard? What was here that she needed to see?
Brenna closed the first cupboard and opened the second one. There was more of the same here, including some of the same types of items Brenna often used in her magickal work – small crystals and stones, a handful of colorful bird feathers, rolls of parchment, small bottles of ink, an assortment of bones from some small animal. For a follower of the One God, he certainly had a supply of items for Old Ways rituals and worship.
Just then, Brenna heard voices in the hallway outside. She closed the cupboard, turning around to face the door just as Yvette entered the room, followed by a young servant girl. They all stood staring at each other for a long moment, then the servant girl scurried from the room as Yvette rounded on Brenna. “What are you doing here?” Yvette demanded. Brenna could tell from her expression that she was hoping to use her discovery to her advantage.
“I am looking for Baron Machieve,” Brenna said. She kept her gaze even. As far as Yvette knew, she had been waiting patiently for the Baron to arrive, not snooping about in his cupboards, and Brenna didn’t want to arouse her suspicions any more than they already were.
“Well, he isn’t here. He and Viccy are in town, on business,” Yvette said. She still eyed Brenna warily.
“I really must speak with him. Do you know when he will return?”
“What’s the matter, priestess? Bored with your handsome knight already?” Yvette smirked, hoping to goad Brenna into anger.
Brenna ignored the barb and tried again. “Do you know when the Baron will return?”
“I don’t know. I’m not their keeper. Probably not until late tonight, after supper.” Yvette crossed the room and reached into the first cupboard, prying open a large canister and spooning some of its contents into a teapot on the table. She went to the fireplace next, retrieving a simmering kettle hanging from a hook over the fire and filled the teapot with water, replacing the lid and returning the kettle to the fire.
Brenna watched her work, having the odd feeling that there was something here, something she was just missing, when it suddenly struck her. “Is that the special tea the Baron has had imported?” she asked, struggling to keep her tone nonchalant.
“Yes, it is very expensive and very rare. The Baron is very picky about whom he shares it with. It isn’t for just anybody.” Yvette was trying hard to goad her again, but Brenna didn’t take the bait.
“I see. I believe he shared it with King Alfonse though, before he died.”
“He did. He said he brought the king a cup first thing in the morning every day before he died. He said the king wouldn’t let anyone else make it for him since the Baron knew how to make it just right. Now, he’s shown me how to make it for the Queen.”
“The Queen is drinking it?”
“No, she’s using it to dress her hair! Of course, she’s drinking it. I know how to make it just the way she likes it!”
“How long have you been making tea for her?”
“Just a couple of days. I told Her Majesty that it was the same tea the king used to drink, and she thanked me because she said it reminded her of him.”
“And you’re making this tea for her now?”
“Why are you so full of questions?” Yvette looked guilty for a brief moment and turned away from Brenna, lifting the lid of the teapot and sniffing the steam carefully.
“When the king was still alive, the Baron mentioned his special tea and offered to share some with me. If it is as wonderful as you say it is, I am looking forward to taking him up on his offer.”
“Well, you’ll have to ask him about that. This pot is mine.” Yvette poured herself a cupful and stirred in several spoonfuls of sugar, smirking at Brenna the entire time. Seeing Brenna’s expression, she turned defensive. “He said I could have some, as a thank you for taking over the job of fixing the Queen’s tea for him. He’s very busy these days, you know, and since I’m taking care of it now, he doesn’t have to worry about it anymore.”
Brenna knew that she was most likely stretching the truth a bit, but Brenna didn’t care. “Well, I suppose I’ll have to wait until tomorrow to ask him about it. Good day.” She hurried out the door to the sounds of Yvette’s slurping, intent on discussing what she’d learned with Garan.
As she moved through the halls, her mind raced. The tea! Was that the connection? Could Machieve have poisoned King Alfonse? Was he trying to poison Alamara as well? Was he really so desperate to gain the throne that he would stoop to murder? And was Father Leonard involved somehow? The implications of her suspicions were alarming, but she needed proof before she could accuse them publicly. She needed to get a hold of some of that tea.
She reached the opposite end of the castle, but instead of stopping at Alamara’s rooms, she headed to her own, pulling down her books and settling into a chair to do some research. What type of poison could cause the Wasting Sickness or at least mimic its symptoms? Alfonse had appeared to suffer from it for years, so the poison would have to be one that was slow-acting and would accumulate in the body over time, unless, of course, Machieve had slowly been increasing the dosage over the years. Blessed Mother, could he be that cruel and calculating?
She poured over her books, making notes and cross-checking references. After a few hours, she sat up, rubbing her eyes and stretching. The sun was beginning to set and Brenna rose to light the lamps so she could continue her research. She’d found nothing in her books about a poison that would make one appear to have the Wasting Sickness, but Machieve and Yvette had both mentioned that the tea had been imported from far away, so it was possible that the substance was quite rare and unusual. Oh, how she longed for the library back at Streestown Abbey! There was an entire room there devoted to books on the herbal, alchemical and apothecary arts, and she felt certain she’d find the answer she was looking for there. If only she could go there now.
As she sank back into her chair, Brenna had an idea. Charcond Abbey was only a day’s journey away, and they were bound to have a library she could use. She couldn’t afford the time it would take to travel home to Streestown, but a quick trip to Charcond was feasible. She jumped up and hurried to Alamara’s room to share her suspicions with Garan and let him know what she’d decided.
She knocked softly on the Queen’s chamber door and entered. Alamara was awake and looking well-rested, her color restored and a happy expression on her face. Garan sat across from her, regaling her with a humorous tale from his time away from the castle and Brenna paused for a moment to take in the scene, unwilling to disrupt the joyful mood. She was greatly relieved to see that Alamara was feeling better and she moved to her friend’s side, taking her hand and sending a burst of healing energy to her.
“There you are, Brenna. Why didn’t you tell me that you and Garan had traveled to Locallen together? He was just telling me about your encounter with the desert tribes,” Alamara said.
“Forgive me, Your … my friend, but I wasn’t sure how to tell you,” Brenna said.
“How did your visit with the Baron go?” Garan asked, changing the subject.
“He wasn’t there, thankfully, but Yvette was.” Brenna recounted her conversation with Yvette and her suspicions about the tea, ending with her research and decision to travel to the Abbey at Charcond.
Garan began to pace in front of the fireplace. “I don’t like it. You’ll be completely alone and vulnerable. If Yvette tells Machieve or Leonard about your little chat, they’ll be suspicious and could look to do you harm.” He was torn between his duty to Alamara and his love for Brenna.
“I will send a contingent of castle guards to accompany you. No one would dare accost you with an armed escort,” Alamara said.
“No, that will draw too much attention to my trip and we don’t want to alert them to the fact that we suspect them. I’ve traveled alone quite a bit in my duties as a priestess at Streestown, and I’m hardly helpless and vulnerable. It is a day’s journey there and a day’s journey back, but when I am at the Abbey I will be quite safe.” Seeing Garan’s look of protest, she continued. “Garan, it is now more important than ever that you protect the Queen. The Baron and Father Leonard are growing more desperate, it seems.”
“I will ask Briance to protect the Queen, or to travel with you.”
“No, Garan, it will arouse suspicion. I can slip away and return before I am missed. Besides, it would not be unusual for me to journey to Charcond Abbey alone at this time of the year. It is nearing the time for the Harvest Festival.”
Garan knew she was right, but he didn’t like it. He turned to the window to look out over the darkening sky, scowling. Alamara took Brenna’s hands in hers. “What can we do to help you, dear?” she asked.
“First of all, do not drink any more of that tea until I can be sure of what is in it. How to do that without arousing their suspicions, however, will be a challenge.”
“Leave that to me. I can be quite clever when I want to be,” Alamara said with a smile.
“It is important that they suspect nothing, so you must pretend as if you’re considering Father Leonard’s proposal that you marry Machieve or Victice while stalling them.”
“You ask a lot of me, my friend,” Alamara smiled, “but I am still mourning my dead husband and I am still the Queen, so I think I can manage to keep the hounds at bay, with Garan’s help, of course.”
Garan grunted in response and Brenna knew he was not happy with their plans. She rose to leave, intent on packing the things she would need on her journey so she could get an early start in the morning.
Alamara held her hand, staying her. “I am feeling better, but not so well as to go down for supper. Will you and Garan have supper with me here, instead?” Brenna looked from her to Garan, who had turned from the window and was looking at the two of them as well.
“Of course, Your Majesty,” they said, almost in unison, and Alamara smiled at her friends.
“Excellent well,” she said.
The next morning, Brenna rose before dawn, dressing quickly in the darkness and pulling her cloak tightly around her shoulders. Garan rose and dressed as well, handing Brenna her pack and staff and walking with her to the front gate. She pulled her hood up, both to ward against the damp ocean air and to shield her face from prying eyes. Garan gathered her close, brushing a tendril of hair from her forehead and searching her face.
“I don’t like this. I should be going with you.”
“Garan, we’ve discussed this. The queen is in much more danger than I am, and you are the best person to protect her.”
“How long will you be at Charcond Abbey?”
“A day, two at most. If their library is as well-stocked as the one at Streestown, I should have no problem finding the information I need.”
“Keep to the main road. It leads directly to town, and the Abbey is just beyond it. There are always plenty of travelers going between here and there, so you should be safe enough staying in the open. If you walk straight through, you will arrive just before nightfall.”
Garan cupped her face in his hands, kissing her almost desperately, and Brenna remembered a similar kiss they shared at the town gates, weeks ago. To part from him again, after being reunited, was almost more than she could bear, but she knew this was the only way to put an end to Baron Machieve and Father Leonard’s plans to overthrow the Queen and she comforted herself with the fact that their separation would be much shorter this time than the last. “Three days, four at the most,” she whispered against his lips, trying to keep the tears from springing to her eyes.
“If you are not back in my arms by nightfall four days hence, I will come for you.” He kissed her again, stopping the protest that rose to her lips, loathe to let her go.
Finally, they pulled apart and Brenna turned, slipping through the castle gate and off down the darkened street toward Charcond. Garan watched until he could no longer see her, marveling at how quickly she blended into the fading shadows.
Her journey to Charcond was blessedly uneventful. Brenna stayed to the main road, as Garan had advised, traveling as quickly as she could without drawing undue attention to herself. As the day wore on, she noticed others on the road as well – farmers and merchants with carts and packs laden with goods for market, a troupe of acrobats and musicians hoping to find a performance venue in Locallen, a group of guards on patrol, and a smattering of lone travelers like herself. She reached Charcond at dusk and continued on through the town, smiling as she passed the small inn that had been Garan’s home while they were apart. The sky was just beginning to darken when she arrived at Charcond Abbey and after her credentials were verified, she was admitted into its confines.
She had no sooner entered the grounds when the Abbess herself appeared, hurrying toward her with a cadre of priestesses and acolytes trailing behind. Brenna bowed low before her as she approached, as was customary for a priestess of her rank, saying, “The Blessing of the Goddess upon you and yours, Mother.”
“And you as well, Brenna Samuels.”
Brenna looked up, surprised that the Abbess knew her name. She’d just given it to the gatekeeper, of course, but word evidently traveled quickly through this Abbey.
“You are quite the celebrity to those of the Old Ways, Priestess. To be summoned by name to the castle to attend Their Majesties is quite a privilege,” the Abbess said, her warm smile putting Brenna at ease. “To what do we owe the honor of your visit?”
“Thank you, Mother. I am on an errand for Her Majesty and was hoping to make use of your library.”
“Of course. We are happy to assist you and Her Majesty in any way you require. Have you eaten?” The Abbess motioned for Brenna to walk with her and they moved across the courtyard toward a long, low building.
“No, Mother, not since midday.” Brenna looked around, taking in the sights, sounds and smells. A wave of homesickness hit her as they walked and she realized how much she missed the Abbey at Streestown, her home for so long. They entered a dining hall and the Abbess indicated that Brenna should sit, which she did gratefully, letting her cloak, pack and staff slide to the floor beside her bench. Soon, a priestess brought a bowl of warm, scented water, a cake of soft soap and a thick towel for Brenna to use to wash away the dust of the road. When she was finished, a simple supper of salad greens, thick, brown bread slathered with fresh butter and a roasted sausage appeared, along with a mug of a sweet, slightly effervescent juice that Brenna had never tasted before. She hadn’t realized how hungry she was until the food arrived, and she ate every bite while exchanging pleasantries and making small talk with the Abbess. She was careful not to say too much about her errand or the political intrigue at the castle, however. It seemed best not to share the real reason for her visit and thankfully, the Abbess did not press for her true purpose.
When she’d finished eating, the Abbess rose and Brenna did the same. “There is a room just off the library that Agatha will make ready for your use.” A young priestess picked up Brenna’s pack, cloak and staff and hurried away. “Will you join us for evening prayers in the chapel?”
What Brenna really wanted to do was go directly to the library to begin her research, but she knew it would be rude to refuse to attend the evening prayers, so she agreed to follow the Abbess to the chapel.
After evening prayers, Brenna found herself surrounded by several young priestesses who plied her with questions about life at the castle. She answered their questions about the feasts, balls, tournaments, court fashions and handsome, available knights as best she could, charmed and amused by their enthusiasm and naivete. She, too, had been young and naïve once, and although her interests had changed over the years, she well remembered when what the ladies of the court were wearing that season was of the utmost importance to her. Some of the more thoughtful girls asked about the worshippers of the One God and their influence at court, and Brenna did her best to answer those questions too, being careful to remain neutral in her answers and not to allude to the political machinations she was currently trying to circumvent. It would do no good to alarm the Abbey’s inhabitants unnecessarily and if her errand proved fruitful, there would be no need for them to ever know how much danger their way of life and spirituality had been in.
Finally, Brenna plead exhaustion and Agatha showed her to her room next to the library. It was a small, sparse cell not unlike the one she had shared with Lorianne, but it had a comfortable cot, a small table and chair she could use for writing and a single, mullioned window that opened onto the courtyard. When Agatha left her for the night, Brenna lit a lamp and went through the rounded arch into the Abbey’s library, intent on starting her work that evening.