The Captives: Master of Malice #Excerpt

A city besieged by evil…

Secure in his stolen stronghold, Baron Reen continues to sow chaos in Albia’s capital. Nowhere is safe from his malice and the King’s Guard is powerless to stop him. Crucial pieces of his plan are falling into place and soon his vengeance will be complete. All he lacks is the final game piece that will force his archenemy to her knees before him.
Sullyan works frantically to solve the mystery of Reen’s newfound powers. She knows she is getting closer to the truth, but will she be too late to save the scarecrow’s captives?


BONUS: The first book in the series, King’s Envoy, is running a FREE KINDLE VERSION promotion from May 26th –May 30th. How flippin cool is that! There is not a universal Amazon link for that but here is the US link: https://www.amazon.com/Kings-Envoy-Artesans-Albia-trilogy-ebook/dp/B00FLXRW4I

Cas lives in the lovely county of Hampshire, southern UK, where she was born. On leaving school she trained for two years before qualifying as horse-riding instructor. During this time she also learned to carriage-drive. She spent thirteen years in the British Civil Service before moving to Rome, Italy, where she and her husband, Dave, lived for three years. They enjoy returning whenever they can. Cas supports many animal charities and owns two rescue dogs. She has a large collection of cacti and loves gardening. She is also a folk singer/songwriter and is currently writing and recording nine folk-style songs to accompany each of her fantasy books. You can listen to and download all the songs from her website: www.caspeace.com
See the video of her performing live at the King’s Envoy book launch here:

Find out more at her website: www.caspeace.com

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The Captives
Chapter One
 
Princess Seline woke to the sound of the servant delivering the overloaded breakfast tray. Bessie did not stir, so she got out of bed and went to collect her own plate, wrinkling her nose at her nursemaid’s mountain of food. Seline liked to take a walk in the castle park after breakfast, the earlier the better. Bessie knew this very well, yet always lingered over her extravagant meal and interminable morning ablutions. Sometimes Seline suspected Bessie of deliberately dallying, especially after Seline had given her a difficult time.
Seline had had enough. She was not a child anymore, unable to dress herself or find her way about. She did not need a chaperone, certainly not within the bounds of her own house. She finished her fruit and bread, drank the milk, washed quickly in water heated over the nursery fire, and dressed in simple, warm clothing. It might be gray and dismal outside, but she still wanted her walk. She did not see why she should wait for the sloth-like Bessie, who had only just fetched the breakfast tray to her own room to eat. With the noise of her exit concealed by Bessie’s clinking cutlery, Seline emerged into the hallway and made her way toward the stairs.
She passed the east wing door and wondered what the vagrant was doing. She was still annoyed he had refused her help. Surely he would need food and drink? What she had taken him the previous evening would not last more than a day. He would find no sustenance in the deserted east wing.
She had half decided to ignore his refusal and smuggle him more food when she remembered she had given him the only key to the east wing. One of her favorite curse words nearly escaped her lips, but she bit it back just in time. She would have to be careful of that. Bessie would inform the King if she ever heard her charge uttering obscenities.
Seline stamped past the doorway, irritation growing as she realized she had lost her only refuge. Until the vagrant returned the key, she had no bolt-hole. She sighed. That would teach her to offer her help so quickly. The prospect of helping her mother had excited her, and she had not thought things through. She ought to have kept the key or ordered the vagrant to have a copy made.
Feeling petulant, she decided to stay outside as long as she could. Let Bessie come and search for her, although the lazy maid would likely send some lesser servant instead. Well, the Princess was under no obligation to obey servants.
Holding her head at an arrogant angle, Seline stalked past the guards, ignoring their greetings, and emerged into the morning chill.
*
“What the hell’s going on, Brynne? What can have happened to Jinny?”
Taran had gone through elation, fear, anger, puzzlement, terror, and confusion after Sullyan’s startling statement that the burned skeleton in the ruins was not Jinella. At first Taran’s soul had swelled with hope and gladness. But then his memory of her frantic mental contact intruded, and the terror or pain that must have engendered it plunged him back into fearing what had become of her. Knowing he had lain insensate for twenty-four hours, useless both to her and his King, ate away at him, and he completely missed the thing that most troubled Sullyan.
Sullyan could hardly blame him. He was looking at the personal danger and terror, thinking only of his love and what had become of her. Sullyan, worried though she was for Jinella’s safety, was much more concerned by the murder and elaborate subterfuge perpetrated here: the killing of a woman who superficially resembled the Baroness and the planting of her body, dressed in Jinny’s jewels and clothing, in order to … what? Throw them off the scent long enough to spirit her away? But the fire alone did that. By the time the conflagration had burned itself out, whoever had taken Jinny was long gone.
No. This elaborate charade had an entirely different purpose. There was a pattern here, a clue, she was certain. She just was not sure yet what it was.
She turned to regard Taran, her heart lurching with pity. He burned to do something to help Jinny, yet he was helpless, bound by his commitment to Elias and without any clue as to who might have taken her or where she might be. Sullyan could only imagine how she would feel if it were Robin. She would be climbing the walls to find him.
“I cannot say, Taran. I am as confused and fearful as you. But I will pledge you this: once I have attended the duties that await me, we will sit together and reach for Jinella’s mind. If she was able to overcome her lack of talent once, she might do so again. You and I together might be able to sense her. I will stand for you; you can use my strength and skill, along with your intimate knowledge of her, to seek her out. More than that, I cannot offer you.”
Taran squeezed her shoulder, too full of fear and hope to express what he felt.
*
They arrived back at the castle just before mid-morning and rode into a garrison courtyard strangely devoid of people save for a lone swordsman on patrol. Sullyan shot Taran a look as she slid from Drum’s back, leaving him to dismount as best he could with his injured leg. She yelled for a groom to take Drum’s reins as the patrolman caught sight of them. He raced to meet them, panting as he threw Sullyan a hurried salute, but she gave him no time to catch his breath. “Where is everyone? Why is no one else patrolling the garrison?”
“They’re all inside the castle, Colonel. Something’s happened …”
Sullyan sprinted for the side door leaving Taran to hobble after her. Fear knotted her stomach—not more bad news! She pounded up the stairs, calling urgently for information.
On the upper floor, Sullyan accosted a servant who appeared flustered and confused. He gabbled an incoherent message in which the only clear words were “dying” and “Levant.” Sullyan took off at a trot and Taran followed more slowly as she made for Levant’s suite.
She ignored the quick, soft footsteps on the carpet behind her, her attention riveted on the tight knot of people gathered outside Levant’s door. She wheeled to face Taran as he reached her, but then stared angrily past his shoulder at someone behind him.
“Princess. What are you doing here? Why are you alone? Where is your maid?”
Her tone was sharp. Seline drew herself up to deliver a proud retort, but Sullyan was in no mood for the young girl’s pertness. Whatever had happened was one strange occurrence too many, and her duty to her King overrode the sensibilities of anyone who got in the way of her execution of that duty.
She swung round on the nearest guard. “You. Take the Princess back to the nursery and give her to her maid. Do not leave her alone. See that they both remain there, do you hear?”
Seline drew an outraged breath, gray eyes snapping with haughty pride. “I don’t have to do what you say. You’re not my father; you can’t order me about like that!”
Sullyan stared at her coldly. “Colonel Vassa and I are responsible for your safety while your father is away, and you will follow any order we give you. Protest to the King when he returns, if you wish. Until then, Madam, you will obey me. Now go to your rooms.”
She waved her hand and the guard led the spluttering Princess away, her angry protestations loud in the hushed hallway. Sullyan ignored her, reserving her pity for the hapless guard, who had to endure Seline’s spleen all the way to the nursery.
Sullyan entered Levant’s suite, nearly gagging as a dreadful smell hit her like a sledgehammer. She covered her mouth, trying to hold on to the contents of her stomach.
This was more than Rendan Levant had managed, judging by the carpet by his bed. And it was not the only indignity his body had suffered.
He lay on his left side, breathing harshly through a slack mouth, his skin a ghastly shade of green. His eyes were open but unseeing, glazed over by a strange milky film. His nightgown was drenched in sweat and bunched around his legs, tangled with the bedclothes when his body convulsed. Urine and excrement soaked and covered everything. The remains of a half-eaten meal lay on the floor, scattered by the suffering man’s uncontrollable spasms.
Sullyan crossed to his side, laying her hand on the clammy brow. She struggled to draw breath through the fug of sickness and stench of vomit. “Who found him?”
“I did.”
Colonel Vassa entered the room, followed by two healers. He stood back, a hand to his mouth, as they approached the sick man to examine him. “When I did not find him in his office, I looked first in the garrison and then in the dining hall. One of the servants told me he had brought a tray in at dawn, so I came back to see if he was still here. I found him like this.”
A yell sounded in the hallway and the guard who had escorted Seline pelted into the room. “She’s dead! The nursemaid is dead! There’s blood and vomit and—”
Sullyan let out a curse. “Where is the Princess, man?”
“I left one of the other guards with her, Colonel.”
Sullyan nodded. “Get back there and make sure there are two guards with her at all times. Touch nothing in the room—nothing, do you understand? Your lives may depend on it.”
The guard ran off and Sullyan turned back to the healers. “Has he been poisoned, Endor?”
The older of the two men nodded, his broken-nosed face nearly as green as Levant’s, whose breathing was growing shallower by the moment. “Someone fetch water, lots of water. And salt. Hurry!”
One of the hovering servants dashed to carry out his orders as Sullyan turned to Vassa. “Jerrim, these are not random cases of poisoning due to bad food, these are deliberate acts. The person responsible will be long gone, but I recommend we close down the castle. I also suggest we turn out the garrison and check every one of the castle’s inhabitants, in case anyone else is affected. Do you agree?”
Though Vassa was technically the senior officer as he was Blaine’s second-in-command, and it was his tour of duty at the castle, he did not begrudge Sullyan taking command in this crisis. He simply nodded his assent and left to give the orders.
Sullyan knelt by Levant’s side, addressing Healer Endor. “We need a purgative, and quickly.”
The master healer was already reaching for his medical bag. “We do not know which poison was used, Colonel. Bringing it back up may do more harm than good.” He produced a packet of purging herbs. “And he’s not a young man.”
She held his gaze. “He will most certainly die if we do nothing.”
Endor opened the packet, shaking his head. “Someone fetch me that jug on the table. And the cup.”
Taran did so, and the healer mixed the strong smelling herbs into the water. There was only about a cupful in the jug. Levant must have drunk some before the fever came upon him. The purgative brew would be very strong.
“Turn him on his back and then stand away,” Endor instructed. “You should all stand away.”
He placed a hand under Levant’s head, tilting it back, causing him to open his mouth. Trusting his reflexes to seal off his airway, Endor poured the liquid down Levant’s throat, the heavy aroma of purging herbs masked by the vile smell issuing from the sick man’s gullet.
When the liquid hit Levant’s stomach, he convulsed violently, lurching over the side of the bed, bringing it all up again. Most in the room avoided the splatters, but not all. Those who had not slipped away for a hasty wash and change of clothes.
A servant arrived with water, another with salt. The second healer mixed the two in the water jug and then passed it to Endor. He poured the biting fluid down Levant’s helpless throat, heedless of the consequences.
With every infusion, the sick man convulsed, vomiting wretchedly. What came up smelled vile and turned the water murky brown. The convulsions and the effort required to expel the fluids exhausted the stricken man. After the third time, Sullyan stepped in to support Levant’s failing strength with her own.
The First Minister was no Artesan, but he knew Sullyan well and offered no resistance to her probing psyche. With the way thus left open for her, she managed to bolster his energy before it gave out completely. Her face was as pale and clammy as his by the time his response to their treatment eased.
She glanced up at Endor, who was looking to her for guidance. Artesan healing was still new to him and he was unsure how to proceed. “Keep giving him the salt water until what comes back up runs clear. I think he is over the worst. He did not eat all of his meal, if that is where the poison was, so perhaps he did not receive a lethal dose. But the drain on his body has been severe, and as you so kindly pointed out, Endor, he is not a young man.” She glanced at Taran. “If you can find a way to support him, Taran, do so.”
Endor flushed. “I have never known so old a man recover from such virulent poison.”
Sullyan smiled grimly. “Ah, but then you have never seen one attended by Artesans before, have you?”
She swept from the room, leaving the healers to their work and Taran to concentrate on trying to reach the stricken man’s inner resources.
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