Queen of Salt and Blood (Part Four) by Nixx Winters
The Sixth Day
‘When did you want the list, your grace?’
Lord Taunton held up a hand at her question, a half apology for his mouth being full. His trencher was covered in fare she hadn’t tasted in months; thick white cheeses, smoked suckling, and sturgeon. It was the fare of a man who did favors for his new king, who had been rewarded with her husband’s place on the privy council.
Taunton dabbed the blunt of his chin with a cloth. ‘Tomorrow, in the afternoon. Think very carefully on it, to be sure it’s complete.’
Coran stared at the cloth, a token she’d embroidered with Cormac’s heraldry. It had been in the wardrobe in her antechamber days earlier.
‘I am exceedingly aware that you are without a proper place, Lady de Courcy.’
‘I have my family’s estate, and lands of my own.’ At least until those were confiscated, too.
‘But a lady in waiting has certain rights, privileges. It’s your honor to serve. As such, I have assigned you to attend Lady Mornay.’
He had assigned her? Chancellor of Tenths? He’d forgotten his place. And his mind.
And not in the furthest reaches of hell was she waiting on Essa Mornay, that twenty-year-old twat.
He needed a reminder of what sanity looked like. ‘Lord Taunton, I outrank Lady Mornay in my own right. And by my marriage–’
‘Your being married to Cormac nearly had you sold into slavery and close to being attainted. Well…’ he chuckled. ‘Or did it? In any matter, it’s done you no favors.’ He stared at her, sifting her for something. Coran showed only what she felt: dead inside.
‘Have you reconsidered my offer for the lands titled you by de Courcy?’
‘They’re the only legacy I have from my husband.’
‘And very strategic. I would pay handsomely,’ he drawled.
‘No thank you.’
Taunton looked her over. ‘You have some magic through your mother’s line.’
As though he’d just discovered this. ‘Natural magic. Alchemy, really.’ Amplified by the salt, but she didn’t tell this to anyone.
‘Oh, so modest. It seems your ability could be beneficial. Or dangerous…’
Coran’s skin dampened with perspiration beneath her smallclothes. She couldn’t survive this. She didn’t have strength or the correct answers. Intrigue was for a more seasoned woman of the court, in a more measured time.
Serve me and I will give you vengeance.
She balled her hands into fists. Her thumb rubbed the braided ring of Anders’ hair. Coran swallowed her hate and her pride. ‘I hope that I can assure you and his majesty of my loyalty, by my actions.’
‘Your actions will certainly effect a favorable report on my part. So would your properties.’ Taunton showed her his wolf’s teeth, and nodded. ‘I will tell Lady Mornay to expect your attendance.’
‘I’m still rather injured, sir. If I could beg a few days.’ Just a little time was all Coran needed, for what she had in mind.
He nodded. ‘You will see to Lady Mornay at the start of the new week.’
“I will see to her. Absolutely.’ Coran held his eyes. ‘You have my word.’
The Seventh Day
Coran stood in Lady Mornay’s antechamber, waiting to be acknowledged by a woman not fit to hang Coran’s wash. The room attested to the Mornays surviving similarly to Lord Taunton. Essa had not been made to give her tapestries as soldier’s blankets. Her silver candlesticks had not been melted down. In fact, she seemed to be increasing. Beside the door was a fine azure silk armchair. Coran’s chair. Lord and Lady Mornay didn’t boast the power to confiscate property. That was the sole purview of Lord Taunton. Pieces fit together in Coran’s mind, lock and key. Lord and mistress.
She took the little scissors from her pocket and slit the cushion end to end, disemboweling its white down stuffing.
Then she stood with hands clasped, staring beyond the crack of Essa’s chamber door, a little more happy to wait. She could see the long line of Essa’s back, black hair unpinned and swaying. Essa planted her hands on the counterpane and arched. Coran admitted a pang of jealousy at the girl’s sounds of pleasure.
The minstrel stood, scrubbing his mouth and hurried into the antechamber. Eyes downcast, he gathered his instrument from behind Coran, who didn’t move to make it easier for him when he tried to open the door.
Essa sauntered behind, flush-cheeked and smoothing the maroon velvet drape of her skirts.
‘Lord Mornay still in the field, I see.’
‘Just so you know,’ Essa began, slumping against the wall and examining her nails, ‘I don’t allow my maids to address me with that sort of cheek… ‘ Her eyes snapped to Coran’s, hot and sharp. ‘Or at all, for that matter.’
Essa never had quite gotten over having to marry Guis Mornay, or being passed over as a lover by King Angis denHaag.
‘I have kinsmen in Balhill,’ Coran reminded needlessly. She and Essa had grown up together at court; Essa knew her family well. ‘Men who recall the reason for precedence and think it an honor to enforce.’
‘This is Islip land now.’ Essa pouted. ‘Listen to you, dear one. What a fantasy you occupy.’
Coran swallowed. ‘You’re correct. I have to get used to that.’
‘My being correct? You should be used to it already.’
‘I brought you a gift. A token.’ Coran took the red glass dragon from her pocket and set it just so atop Essa’s mahogany cabinet, its eyes glowing like the gilt acorns on each door.
Essa tsk’d. ‘Quaint. There is a certain…charm to unskilled craftsmanship.’
Coran curtsied under the weight of all her pride. ‘I will return at the beginning of the week.’
‘And at dawn that day. Lord Mornay doesn’t hesitate with the cane for disobedience.’
‘Yes, Lady Mornay. I hope you enjoy the dragon.’ Letting herself into the passageway, Coran felt a little sad that a cane was the best Lord Mornay could do. She’d longed for more of a challenge.
The Eighth Day
At the stroke of midnight, when the new day’s magic energies spilled in at their most abundant, Coran sat at the table in her darkened antechamber. She cradled the milky glass scrying orb and concentrated on its cold, pitted surface, on trying to see inside.
She’d never crafted a magical tool before, only used her magic for the object’s appearance. She never used a magic tool, either. Alone in the damp chill of the small hours, with her breath echoing around her, this felt like the sort of danger Taunton had accused. She held the orb closer. Her thoughts separated, and slipped inside. Coran panicked and drew away when her thoughts grew far, flowed into the passageway. Then elation took over, and the taste of risk, something Coran admitted she loved. She closed her eyes tighter, and sank back into the orb like a raindrop.
It flipped her stomach, how easily the motion came on a single thought, and how she could feel herself suspended above the floor, anchored to nothing. She gripped the table to steady herself. Her energy slipped into the dragon, and followed his ley lines with the orb where they grew radiant and penetrated Essa’s cabinet. There were so many papers and objects that Coran could examine, but time was short. Already the day’s magic was tempering. A corner of one shelf pulled her, blacker than the others. Coran turned the eye to see it.
Three glass bottles: Rose pink inlaid with a silver heart. Cobalt blue, with a teardrop. Viridian green, with a lightning bolt. Coran recoiled, nose stung by acrid fumes leaking around their corks. Her view dimmed again. She turned the eye to a letter tucked beneath the poisons. Coran didn’t understand how to separate the layers with her orb and see the words on individual folds. Only the top, where no lines of writing competed, gave her clues. Taunton’s writing; this she knew by heart. Coran saw the last word on the line: de Courcy. The sight faded. She slipped from the dragon like water being spilled, flowed into the orb, and opened her eyes, alone in her room.
It was still black beyond her windows.
Coran went to her door and summoned a guard. ‘Send Lord Baynbridge to me; tell him I have urgent information about the list I am making.’
She peered through a crack while he stalked away to do her bidding, and saw that he turned toward Taunton’s apartments, not Elis’s.
Elis slipped in without knocking nearly half an hour later. ‘Your list?’ he whispered, standing over Coran and leaning a hip against the table.
‘They brought it to Taunton first.’
‘Perfect. He’ll have no reason to think you’re not being truthful, if you’re consulting me.’
‘I’m not being truthful.’
‘I know. That was never our plan.’
Coran stood. ‘I’m not making the false list, either.’
‘You can’t abandon this now!’
‘The time for half measures and childish deceptions is passed. No more sleight of hand only to be flanked, Elis!’
‘You can’t march into the privy chamber and–’
‘I never said I would. But neither am I taking seven steps when two will do.’ That was Cormac’s way and look what it had accomplished. She caught her breath. ‘I need you to tell Taunton that you’ve just heard Lord Mornay is expected to return today.’
Elis sat on the edge of her bed, disappearing into the shadows of her bed curtains. ‘What are you thinking?’
‘That if he thinks his lover’s husband is returning, he’ll summon her. That leaves her apartments free. I need a few minutes alone with her letter cabinet.’
Coran withheld the rest; she’d decided it was much harder for anyone to betray her with only a fragment. She moved to the bed and stood between Elis’s knees. She’d also decided a man was more pliable when he shared a woman’s bed.
Coran brushed her lips over his and he returned the gesture. ‘I don’t love you,’ she murmured, absolving herself.
‘I don’t need you to, Coran.’
She tugged the silk cord on his doublet. He didn’t feel like Cormac, didn’t kiss her with the same gentleness that was almost weakness. She had the sudden urge to punish Elis for this, punish him for leaving her the slightest tension in the pit of her stomach. ‘I’m just buying your loyalty, like every other woman in the palace does with every other man.’
His breath caught when she slipped a knee onto the bed. ‘You convinced me long ago that you’re not like any other woman in Tainn.’
By sunset tomorrow, Coran hoped everyone in the palace would understand this.
The Ninth Day
‘Your grace.’ Coran held the bottles aloft for Raulfe to see, their jewel colors glinting sinister in sunlight from beside the dais. ‘You have witches in your court, working against you.’ She didn’t tell him where she’d found them, who they belonged to. Coran had forced herself to accept that she could amputate a finger or a thumb, but to cut off the hand, the entire nobility, would make things impossibly worse. It would set Raulfe to purging. Coran intended to have all possible control in that regard.
In time. Essa. Lord Mornay. The privy council. All in time.
Raulfe swore. ‘I call for soldiers! Beat them out.’
‘No! No.’ Coran exhaled. ‘That won’t expose them. They’ll only go into hiding. I have a test they cannot escape. It will reveal them each to you.’
‘I will have to set trials?’
‘No. It will only harm one who possesses dark magic. My test cannot harm the innocent. It cannot harm you, no matter what lies they tell.’ This was true. She didn’t possess enough natural magic to kill anyone without help. And poisons from Essa’s little garden would be impossible to replicate, now. Coran had mixed so much salt in among those priceless herbs from a faraway place. Coran smiled at this.
‘It will kill them. Wickedness and treason will eat them up in flames.’
Raulfe’s face scrunched. The Islip clans were superstitious, but Coran doubted they’d seen actual witches or demons. Even in the northern wastes such things were rare.
This left him room for doubt.
She saw some leverage. ‘I can prove it to you, on the very first witch. Let me show you. And the Church will be forced to acknowledge your power; not even their Witchmaster General can do what I can.’ Because there hadn’t been an actual witch in Auldearn in a hundred years, just inconvenient housewives to be got rid of. But that wasn’t the point.
The Church had acted against King Filip, but they didn’t want a barbarian on the throne. Raulfe must know this, as surely as he’d seen the power the archbishop held over the people. He needed a bargaining chip, her chip.
His lips twitched. ‘Hunt witches. I’ll reward, when you have give proof. How long?’
Coran held her breath on a surge of black joy. She willed her limbs to be still and her face deliberate. ‘Immediately, your grace. My magic is at its peak.’
The Tenth Day
‘Lady de Courcy.’ Lord Taunton leaned back in his chair and set down his quill. There was a rustle in the bedclothes. A woman sat, raked black hair from her face.
Coran pretended to be surprised.
‘De Courcy! Elgin, what is she doing here!’
‘Calm yourself, Essa. Lady de Courcy is on our side. Isn’t she?’
‘I am. Very much so. In fact, there is a paper I want to show you, Lord Taunton.’
He snapped fingers at Essa. ‘Lady Mornay, get out.’
‘When I have my clothes, you great–’
‘Out! Your husband can well afford new ones for you.’
Coran waited on the threshold, and made Essa turn and sidle past her, wrapped in a sheet. ‘I’m very sorry about your chair,’ Coran whispered.
Essa smiled her hot malice. ‘I’m very sorry about your husband.’
Coran clutched the cool shape of her scissors, deep in her pocket, and let the crimson fog pass.
Taunton regarded her again when the door had closed, circling his finger around the hull of Cormac’s salt cellar. ‘You do very lovely work. I see why this was Cormac’s favorite thing.’ He pouted. ‘I’m sorry it had to be confiscated. If it gives you any comfort I’ve used it every single day. I plan to do that with many things of Cormac’s…’ His eyes raked her over.
Coran exhaled, bridling her temper. ‘It gives me great comfort that you’ve used it so often, your grace.’ She pulled the list from her bodice with trembling fingers. ‘I brought you this.’
He snatched it from her, but Coran stilled his hand, made him clasp it while she held his eyes. ‘Prepare yourself. There are names on here you will not expect.’
Taunton grinned and pulled away, pinching the paper, savoring it. ‘I love to be surprised.’
He unfolded, skimmed the list, and his broad face collapsed on itself. He held the paper aloft, waving it at her. ‘I don’t understand. This is not the list I asked for.’
Coran frowned, a silent stretch while she calculated the sweat of his fingers and how long they’d touched the foolscap. ‘Well…what’s the first name on the list?’
Taunton scoffed. ‘Mine! And–’ He coughed. No other sounds came from the words he formed.
‘And you’re confused as to why.’ Coran sauntered closer. ‘And why you’ve lost your powers of speech.’ She fingered the silver sails of the cellar, as he’d done. ‘I used a great deal of magic to create this…’ she smoothed her list. ‘And I used up every last drop of several poisons to infuse these fibers with a counter humor.’ She smirked. ‘And since you love to be surprised, I’ll just say that the influence of even a little magic on a simple poison is something quite astounding.’ She leaned in, feeling the breath of his silent, jibbering lips. ‘I hope Essa likes surprises too, because I left the empty bottles in a very incriminating place.’
Taunton lunged for her.
Coran skipped just beyond reach. ‘You won’t be fucking her anymore, so don’t trouble yourself too much about her fate.’
When he tried for her a second time, his arm hardly raised. He couldn’t stand. She hadn’t anticipated it happening so fast. ‘Now your powers of motion. It’s moving quite quickly,’ she said, in awe of her own handiwork.
Coran dragged him from the chair to the rug. Taunton’s lips worked, damning her with high-pitched gurgles.
‘I told Raulfe that only witches in his court would be affected by the paper. Magic paper.’
She gripped her scissors’ filigree handles, shaped like a heart. ‘A gift from Cormac.’ She held them up for Taunton to see. ‘I know…you’re assuming I can’t do anything to harm you. Lady Mornay saw me here, after all. But I’ve been given leave by his grace to hunt witches.’
She snipped his laces and worked down his breeches, surprised by how difficult it was when his body was limp and still.
Taunton’s head lolled side to side in denial.
‘In a few moments the poisons and my magic will liquify your guts, and then ignite spontaneously. You’ll be steaming ashes.’ She snapped the scissors. ‘No one will know what came before.’
His eyes watered. They rolled bovine and terror-filled, and tears trickled onto his cheeks in a silent plea. But Coran was deaf, had been deaf to such pleas for ten days, and a thousand days to come.
‘Cormac was the last truly good man in all of Tainn. I may hate what I’ve become but I will never lose a moment’s sleep over what I’m about to do…’
She grabbed the mass of his bollocks, drawn tight inside his body and went quick with her scissors. Her stomach turned at the last thick snip, but she didn’t relent. She poured the contents of the salt cellar between his bulging lips and stuffed the meaty wad into Taunton’s mouth, already gaped wide in a silent scream. Her efforts smeared his cheek with blood. Coran caressed the bright streak.
‘You were the first,’ she whispered, smoothing his sweat-soaked brow. ‘I want you to know that everyone who was loyal to you, who aided you in killing my husband and betraying our king, who fucked you and conspired with you…they’ll share your fate, eventually.’
He wasn’t listening. Taunton curled, writhing. But Coran hoped her words found some purchase in the black hollows between his bursts of agony. She wiped the blood from her fingers and her scissors onto his doublet, and left him to his fate.
Coran sat on her bed while cries of Smoke and then Fire! rang out through the corridors. She waited for Hejl to speak to her again, absolve her or assign her some new task. Comfort her. She waited for her vengeance.
She took out her list and unfolded it, paper still scented with the acrid poisons. So many names left, and there would be more to add. She cradled the ring of Anders’ hair, now braided with silver strands of Cormac’s that Elis had brought her. So much loss and waiting.
Cormac had been right about victory and revenge, and she’d had to accept his wisdom. Vengeance was a funeral procession, not a cavalry charge. Coran understood, but wasn’t sure she had it in her for the years to come.
A gust of wind slipped under her door, swirled the bed curtains and gently flagged her list.
Patience. It was, once again, more a sensation than a voice; she felt it deep inside where her heart once lived. Be patient, and make our list.
‘But I’ve made my list,’ she whispered.
Patience, it answered again. I will come to you when it’s time.