Chapter I – Introducing the Apprentice to the Court Magician

It was just a typical shopping list. All Sarton wanted was three dragon’s teeth, a physically perfect calf of about one month age, and a box of peppermints. The last were for him personally, not one of his spells. Thinks I’m his errand boy, does he?

Well, I guess I am. I’m his apprentice. My father talked it up as a great opportunity. “Being apprentice to the Court Magician!” he told me. “You’ll win fame and glory!” Assuming I’m not turned into a newt or given over to a demon as a plaything, yeah, maybe.

Oh, forgive me. Let me introduce myself. I am Tollon of Velgard. No, Velgard is not my estate. It’s the hole-in-the-wall village I grew up in. Watching our mangy cattle die is one of our great recreational sports. But when I use my name, I try to make Velgard sound like a swell place. Easier than you might think, because it’s a long ways away, and few people know of it.

First stop on my peregrinations (didn’t think I knew long words because I’m a peasant? hah!) is to the Palace Kitchen. They might have a calf. They will have the peppermints.

The kitchen is on the ground floor. It used to be in the basement, until Her Glorious Excellency decided it was a good idea for the cooks to see what they were doing. Maybe having her father die from improperly cooked troll did some good after all. Though the old cooking staff might not have thought so as they were gasping out their dying breath on the gallows.

I push open the heavy wooden door to the kitchen, and immediately hear someone yelling at me to shut the door. The kitchen is always warm, unlike most of the palace, so some people are forever trying to prop open the door in the cool seasons.

I shut the door behind me, turn and survey the scene. This used to be a banquet hall at one time, so it’s big, and long, and has a huge stone fireplace in the middle of one long wall. They need the room. There are something like 300 people living in the palace, not to mention the soldiers in the nearby barracks. The kitchen is always busy with cooking.

I’m looking for the Head Cook, and see him halfway down the hall, near the fireplace, having an argument with the Court Chamberlain. Probably Her Excellent Gloriousness has a tummy ache from her addiction to refga. Or maybe she’s pregnant again. Great, another mouth that will require a supporting staff of fifteen.

Not being desirous of falling afoul of the Chamberlain, I wait until he’s through shouting whatever gripe he has, and, lucky for me, storms off to the other end of the hall to leave. I nudge and dodge my way through the staff, all of whom (save one) give me ill looks, and finally come face to face with the Head Cook. “Hi, Armis. Hugo giving you the guff?” Hugo is the Chamberlain.

Armis smiles. We get along well, despite having little in common. He’s a giant of a man, well over six feet tall, and built like he eats a lot of his own cooking. We do share a common disdain for most of the Court functionaries. That includes my boss. Armis looks up to the ceiling in a significant way before replying. “Bastard number four is probably on the way, and Her Royal Highness’s appetite is picky. But I’m supposed to get her to eat. How, Hugo doesn’t know. And it’s not like I’d get an audience with the queen to discuss it with her. Not and keep my head.

“But what are you here for? Sarton want another pickled human infant? Sorry, fresh out.” He says this with a grin. I did ask him for one, once, I admit. Only once.

“Nah, this time the old man wants peppermints,” I reply. “Wouldn’t mind a few myself. And you wouldn’t happen to have a month-old calf handy, would you?”

Armis shook his head. “Check with Degrif. Peppermints I can do. Just got in a shipment from Port Royal yesterday. Even have the chocolate-coated ones you like.” And without another word, he turns and heads toward the storeroom.

The storeroom is equally vast. It was once an assembly hall. Now it has hundreds of feet of shelf space loaded with foods. Nothing’s labelled, but Armis knows where it all is. He heads right in, and with minimal fuss grabs a box of each kind of peppermints and gives them to me.

Since he’s in a good mood, I decide to pry a bit. “Just whose bastard is it?”

Armis looks up and down the aisle, stoops low, and speaks to me in a whisper. “Probably the Earl of Haulloren’s.”

I smile. I thank Armis for the peppermints. And the I get out of the kitchen before I start shaking. The Earl of Haulloren has fathered a child on the queen? People could die from this.

And I could be one of them.

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