The Queen's Poisoner (Kingfountain #1) by Jeff Wheeler

CHAPTER ONE

The Duke of Kiskaddon

Lady Eleanor sat at the window seat of her chambers, gently stroking her son’s head in her lap. Owen was her youngest child, the one who had barely survived his birth. He was a frail lad of eight, though he looked younger than that. His hair was a mousy-brown color, thick and untameable despite all their efforts, and she loved gliding her fingers through it. There was a little patch of white hair above his left ear. His siblings always asked her why he had been born with such a strange patch of white in his dark hair.

It was a mark that set him apart from his siblings. She considered it a reminder of the miracle that happened after his birth.

Owen stared up at her eyes with his deep brown ones, seeming to know she was fretting and in need of comfort. He was an affectionate child, always the first to come running into her arms. As a babe, he would murmur his parents’ endearments while clutching their legs or hugging them. Maman, Papan. Maman, Papan. Maman, Papan. He had loved more than anything else to burrow into the sheets of his parents’ bed after they had awoken for the day, stealing the ebbing warmth. He stopped doing that finally at age six, but he had not outgrown the hugs and kisses, and he always wanted to be near, especially to her husband, Lord Kiskaddon.

Thoughts of her husband made her stomach churn with worry. Eleanor glanced out the window overlooking the well-sculpted gardens of Tatton Hall. But she found no comfort in the trimmed hedges, the vibrant terraced lawns, or the large foaming fountains. A battle had raged the day before, and she still awaited word on the outcome.

“When will Papan come?” the little voice asked. He looked at her with such serious eyes.

Would he even come home?

There was nothing she dreaded more than the battlefield. Her husband was no longer a young man. He was more statesman than battle commander now, in his forty-fifth year. She glanced at the empty armor rack stationed by their canopied bed. The curtains were open, showing the neat folded sheets. He always insisted on the bed being made every day. No matter what troubling news arrived from court, her husband relished the simple rituals of sleep. Though some nights he would lie awake for hours pondering the troubles of Ceredigion, he was still most at peace when they were together, alone, in that canopied bed.

“I don’t know,” Eleanor whispered, her voice husky. She continued to smooth his thick locks, her finger pausing to play with the tuft of white. Her husband had been summoned to join the king’s army on the battlefield to face the invasion, and her oldest son was a hostage in the king’s army to ensure her husband’s good faith. Word reached her before the battle that the king’s army outnumbered their enemies three to one. But this was not a match of mathematics. It was a test of loyalty.

Severn Argentine was a hard king to serve. He had a barbed whip for a tongue and it drew blood whenever he spoke. In the two years since he had usurped the throne from his older brother’s children, the kingdom had been fraught with machinations, treason, and executions. It was whispered the uncle had murdered his nephews at the palace in Kingfountain. The very possibility made Eleanor tremble with horror. She, a mother of nine children, could not bear the thought of such wickedness. Only five of her children had survived childhood, for they were all of sickly constitution. Some of her sons and daughters had died as infants, and each new loss had broken her heart. And then there was her lastborn, little Owen. Her miracle.

Her dear, thoughtful boy was still staring into her eyes, almost as if he could read her thoughts. She loved to catch him playing by himself, to watch at the edge of the door as he knelt on the floor and stacked tiles before toppling them over. She often caught him in the library, reading to himself. She no longer remembered teaching him to read, he had been so young. It was something he seemed to have learned all by himself, like breathing, and he just inhaled the letters and words and sorted them effortlessly in his mind. But, though he was a particularly intelligent child, he was still a child. He loved to run outside in the gardens with his siblings and join the chase for a white ribbon tied to a pole through the hedge maze. Of course, he could start wheezing when he did this, but that did not deter him.

She would never forget the sorrow she had felt when the royal midwife had announced the babe stillborn. There was no cry, no wail like those that had announced the births of Eleanor’s other eight children. He came into the world bloody and silent—fully formed, but not breathing. It had devastated her to lose what she knew to be her lastborn, her final child. Her husband’s tears had joined her own as they wept over their lost child.

Was there nothing to be done? Were there no words of solace? No skill that could be rendered? The midwife had crooned to the dead babe in her arms, kissing his tender, puckered head, and suggested they mourn with the babe together as husband and wife. Lord Kiskaddon and Lady Eleanor cradled the baby in their arms, burrowing in the sheets of the bed, and wept for the child, hugging and kissing him. Speaking to him softly. Telling him of their family and how much he would be loved and needed.