Chapter One

When I catch sight of the cart and its cargo approaching through the thick glass of my study window, 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, and 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. But there is Mother Mouth 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 body 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 that it still alive was correct.

It is a young woman. 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 it was probably the only protection against the chill spring morning that her rescuers could find.

Between the folds I can see what has been done to her. I contain my shudder of revulsion, but only barely.

Bootknife has flayed her very prettily.

Artistic tendrils of bloody ivy are torn into the vellum of the young woman’s flesh. Bootknife has written spells and agony into the muscle he’s carved, into the wounds left by the strips he filleted from her back each time she lied to his master. 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. It is a blessing. I can’t imagine how much the young woman must have been screaming before my Men had forced the poppy milk down her throat. Well, yes, I suppose I can imagine it, I have seen quite enough of Bootknife’s handiwork to envision her pain. What I mean is that I do not want to imagine it; can’t bear the thought of the sounds that must have ripped her throat bloody.

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 we both ensure 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 straight to the Shadow Hand’s home base. No matter that it 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. 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 were bringing 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, then he would never have secretly employed me as his Shadow Hand.

JM FreyNEW NOVEL – Page One