The Palace of Lost Memories – C.J. Archer

Whispers of sorcery began when the palace’s foundations appeared overnight. One frost-bitten day, the broad plain five miles from Mull contained nothing but grass and muddy puddles; the next, solid walls took shape as if they’d sprouted from the ground like daffodils at the first hint of spring. Looking at the completed building now, surrounded by mature formal gardens, I could see why those whispers had grown louder. Despite the distance between the palace and the clearing on Lookout Hill, where I stood, I could tell it was enormous. It must be four times as long as the street on which I lived, and it was certainly higher than the temple in the center of Mull. According to my father, it was even bigger than the main temple in Tilting, Glancia’s capital city, where the last king had ruled from a crumbling old castle. That structure had taken three years to build. The palace had taken less than three months. Three months in which not a single builder had been seen coming or going. No locals had been tasked with the labor, and according to the travelers and traders who now filled Mull’s taverns to bursting, they hadn’t come from elsewhere in Glancia or any of the neighboring kingdoms, either. It was as if they’d been conjured from the air and returned there after the palace’s completion. Magic. Even I, a practical woman who believed in what she could see, hear and touch, couldn’t explain the sudden appearance of the palace. It wasn’t simply the speed of its erection but also the secrecy that shrouded it. Only a handful of delivery carts from the village and nearby farms had been to the palace to supply its kitchens, and guards hadn’t allowed them beyond the gate.

Palace servants unloaded the goods and retreated inside. They did not engage in conversation, they did not make eye contact, and they certainly didn’t come to the village on their days off. Except for that one time a maid wandered into Mull early one morning, asking passersby if they knew her. When no one could offer answers, she fell to her knees and sobbed until four palace guards collected her. She went with them meekly enough, but her haunted eyes stayed with me. Not just hers but theirs, too. With a last look at the dazzling building, glinting in the late spring sunshine like a jewel, I picked up my battered old pack, as well as the new one given to me by the patient I’d called on, and turned to go. The thundering of hooves along the forest path warned me to remain in the clearing. By the sound of it, more than one rider was heading my way and they were traveling fast. To move onto the path would be folly, so I waited until the reckless youths passed.

No doubt it was Lord Deerhorn’s sons, come to see the palace for themselves. Lookout Hill afforded the best view, after all. Either that or they’d decided to hunt here. They were supposed to keep to their own estate, but they were arrogant enough to shoot their arrows on common land whenever they pleased. I’d learned a long time ago to stay away from the Deerhorn lordlings, but I didn’t want them to think I was an animal worth hunting. I made myself visible in the middle of the clearing, facing the area of dense forest where the path briefly emerged before disappearing again on the other side. They couldn’t mistake me for a fox or rabbit. Then again, they were as thick as the tree foliage in this part of the forest and fond of loosing their arrows. The dull thud thud of the hooves came closer then the first rider burst into the clearing. His head jerked toward me and I caught a glimpse of a short dark beard but little else, thanks to the hooded cloak he wore.

He disappeared into the forest again, his horse’s stride not even slowing. A few moments later, the forest spat out another rider, this one wearing black leather with gold trim at the shoulder of his doublet, and long black boots. He sat tall in the saddle, looking comfortable despite his horse’s ferocious pace. I got a good look at his face as he slowed to study me in return. Short dark hair framed hard planes and a cleanly shaven jaw. It was his eyes that commanded attention, however. They were the blue of the shallows in Half Moon Cove on a sunny day. Those eyes made a quick assessment of me before focusing forward again. “Question her!” he barked before urging his horse into the forest ahead. He’d hardly disappeared when another rider emerged.

He wore a crimson doublet with gold braiding. Crimson and gold—palace uniforms. I clutched my bag to my chest. The rider stopped and swore. He looked at me, swore again, and stared into the forest after the other riders. He swore a third time as his horse circled. Clearly good manners weren’t a requirement for palace servants. Good looks, however, must be. This rider was dark like the one who preceded him, but with brown eyes and a bow mouth that turned down severely as he scowled at me. “You there,” he hailed me.

Branches and brush rustled and a fourth rider emerged into the clearing. This one also wore a palace uniform but he was younger than his companion. My theory about handsome servants was dashed by the newcomer. Though he was also dark, he had a nose like a horse and a spotty forehead and chin. His narrow chest rose and fell with his heavy breathing. He couldn’t be more than eighteen. “Who’re you?” he asked me, as bold as could be. I bristled but forced my spine to relax. I would usually treat such rudeness with silent disdain, but these were the king’s men and must be obeyed. Besides, if I was nice, I might find out something about the palace and King Leon.

“Joselyn Cully,” I said, still holding my pack in front of me. The new, empty one, remained slung over my shoulder. “Everyone calls me Josie. Are you from the palace?” I indicated the view behind me. The lad sat higher in the saddle. “Huh. It looks tiny from up here, Max. Come take a look.” The man addressed as Max did not move. “Did you see him?” he demanded of me.

“Who?” I said. “The rider in the hood.” “A little. The other man followed him.” I pointed to the gap in the trees where the path led. “The captain,” the young man told me. “Captain Hammer.” Hammer? I managed to contain my snort of derision before it escaped. “What did he look like?” Max asked. “The man in the hood?” I shrugged.

“I didn’t see much. He had a short, dark brown beard.” “What shade of brown?” asked the younger man, leaning forward on the pommel. “Chestnut? Mud? Dung?” Was he making fun of me? He didn’t laugh. Not even a hint of a smile touched his lips. “Medium brown,” I said. “Anything else?” Max pressed, glancing toward the path again. Unlike the younger man, he seemed restless and eager to follow the two riders. The younger man still looked like he hadn’t quite caught his breath. “No,” I said.

“It was very—” Thwack. Max grunted and lost his balance, half falling, half staggering off his horse. An arrow protruded from his arm. Merdu, be merciful. “Get down!” Max shouted as he fell to his knees. “Find cover!” I dashed behind a row of shrubs on the opposite side of the clearing from where the arrow had been shot. I was safe but the men were not. I swallowed hard and dared to peek through a gap in the bushes. The two men were still alone with their horses in the clearing. Max lay flat on the ground.

Blood seeped through his clothes, darkening the crimson fabric. He must have pulled the arrow out, the fool. The younger man knelt beside him, his body over Max’s, protecting him and making a target of himself in the process. “Get off me, you little prick,” Max snapped, easily shoving off the skinnier lad. “Do you want to get shot in the arse?” The youth glanced behind him in the direction of the forest then angled himself behind a horse for protection. “Max,” he hissed. “Take cover.” “He’d have shot again by now if he was still here.” Max sat up and inspected his arm. He was probably right and it was safe to emerge from my hiding spot.

“Let me see,” I said, crouching beside him. I reached for him but he leaned away. “I’m a… I have some medical skill.” “You can’t,” the lad blurted out. “Because I’m a woman.” It wasn’t a question, but he answered as if it were. “No. That is, I can see you’re a woman.” His gaze dipped to my breasts and his face turned as red as his clothes. “But you can’t be a doctor.

You’re too pretty. Pretty women aren’t smart and doctors have to be smart.” “Shut up, Quentin,” Max growled. He got to his feet, only to sway a little. He was shorter than me with a wide set of shoulders and a barrel chest. If he toppled onto me, I would not be able to hold him up. “Please, let me look at the wound,” I said, eyeing him carefully. “I assure you I know what I’m doing. I’ve been studying at my father’s knee ever since I could read. He taught me everything he knows, and he’s a brilliant doctor.

The best in Glancia, perhaps the entire Fist Peninsula. Even so, I’ve taken my learning upon myself this last year or so. My patients have seen the benefit, too.” Of course all my patients were childbearing women, although I was perfectly capable of treating ailments and injuries too. Unfortunately, the lawmakers disagreed. “I’m perfectly capable,” I finished. Max put up his hand. “Be quiet. You’re as annoying as he is.” Quentin beamed as if he’d been paid a compliment.

I kept my mouth shut. I did tend to chatter too much when I was nervous. The pounding of horses’ hooves had us all turning toward the path again, but it was only the second rider returning, the one who’d given these men orders to question me. Captain Hammer. “I lost him,” he bit off with a shake of his head. He glanced at me and looked as if he were about to speak when Quentin got in first. “If you’d been riding Lightning, you’d have caught him.” “He doubled back,” Max told the captain. Hammer glanced sharply at the injured man and his gaze dropped to the arrow lying on the leaf litter at the edge of the clearing. “How bad is it?” “I can’t tell,” I said before Max answered.

“He won’t let me inspect it. I’m Joselyn Cully, from Mull. It’s my professional opinion that the wound needs to be bound before he loses too much blood. It may also require suturing.” I held up my bag. “I have the necessary equipment right here.” I was always prepared with surgical thread, a fine needle and small doses of Mother’s Milk for painful births. “It’s some distance to the village, and I’m your best option.” It was perhaps a little reckless, considering they were the king’s men, but I was prepared to take the risk. This man needed immediate medical attention, and surely I’d only incur a fine and slap on the wrist.

Perhaps not even that, if the captain chose to overlook the fact I wasn’t qualified. I was, after all, doing his man a service. I went to open my bag but the captain jumped down from his horse and snatched it from me. He was much taller than me, with a powerful frame. His shoulders were as broad as Max’s, but due to his height, he didn’t look blocky. He checked inside the bag. “It contains medical equipment,” I said hotly, “not weapons.” The captain handed the bag back after a thorough inspection. “Let her see the wound, Sergeant.” “I’m fine,” Max growled.

“I don’t need a healer.” I focused on the forest behind him and gasped. All the men spun to look, but only Max swayed and fell to one knee. He swore then sighed and sat. Quentin snickered. “I like her.” Max glared at him, but even I could see there was no animosity in it. He tried to remove his doublet but Quentin had to help him. By the time he’d removed his shirt, Max was sweating and breathing heavily. Quentin and I both helped while the captain kept watch on the surrounding forest.

He seemed oblivious to his sergeant’s pain. I tied Max’s shirt around his upper arm to stem the blood flow. His veins soon bulged nicely. “His fingers are going purple,” Quentin said. “Is that good?” “For now.” I rummaged through my bag, tossing aside forceps, vials and a suction pump until I found the bottle of Mother’s Milk. “Swallow a mouthful of this,” I said to Max. “You trying to get him drunk?” Quentin asked. “It’s a soothing medicine. It numbs pain and will keep him calm while I stitch him up.

” “Just like ale, eh?” “Better than ale. He won’t need as much to feel the effects, although too much has the same symptoms felt the morning after a night spent drinking.” Max shook his head. “I don’t need it.” “It’ll hurt,” I warned. “I can cope with a little pain.” “I’ll leave the bottle here. Grab it if you change your mind.” I set the bottle down beside him and pushed aside the equipment in my bag again until I found the jar. It would be wonderful to move all of my things into the new bag the leather seller’s wife had given me as payment after the safe delivery of her baby.

It had internal compartments, pockets and straps to organize all my tools and medicines. I removed the lid on the small jar and extracted the needle and thread stored within. “Ready?” I asked, threading the needle. “Ready,” Quentin said, crouching beside me, watching closely. “Get on with it,” Max snapped. I stuck the needle into his flesh. “Fuck!” he blurted out. “Mind your tongue in front of Miss Cully,” the captain said without turning around. He stood rigid, his shoulders tense. “Doctor, not Mistress,” Quentin told him.

“Doctor Cully. How deep does the needle have to go in?” Max paled. “Quentin!” he gasped. “Bring that ugly face of yours closer.” Quentin leaned in. “Why?” “So I can shut your mouth for you.” The captain whipped around and intercepted Max’s fist before it made contact with Quentin’s face. “Maybe you should take the Mother’s Milk,” he said. “You going soft, Hammer?” One side of Max’s mouth hooked into a wry smile. I pushed the needle in again.

Max grunted and squeezed his eyes shut. The captain snatched up the bottle of Mother’s Milk. “Drink!” Max accepted the bottle. “Two mouthfuls,” I reminded him. “You’re a solid man but three will have you throwing it up.” I waited for the medicine to take effect before continuing with the suturing. The captain returned to watching the forest, his arms crossed over his chest, but his stance was a little more relaxed. I’d thought he was tense from alertness, but now I suspected it was partly due to concern for his sergeant. “So your friends call you Josie, eh?” Quentin asked me. “Can I call you Josie?” “If you like.

” “You can call me Quentin. He’s Sergeant Max and that’s Captain Hammer.” “Are those first names or last?” I asked. The captain half turned and glared at Quentin over his shoulder. The sergeant glared too. Quentin swallowed. “Is he ready now?” he asked. “He looks ready. You ready, Max?” The sergeant sighed and closed his eyes. He finally relaxed.

“The Mother’s Milk isn’t working. I can still hear him.” I laughed softly. “It only numbs the pain.” “Listening to him is painful.” I went to work, finishing what I’d begun. The task wasn’t difficult, particularly with Max now calm and pain free. I’d stitched far more delicate areas than a big man’s arm. It gave me time to think about the strangeness of the situation I’d found myself in. Aside from the mad servant and the guards who’d collected her from the village, these were the first people from the palace I’d ever seen.

No one in Mull had been presented with such a good opportunity to learn more. “Are you palace guards?” I asked as I stitched. To my surprise, Quentin didn’t respond. He looked to Hammer. “Yes,” the captain said without turning around. “Who was that man you were chasing? Does he work at the palace too?” “That’s not something I can divulge.” “Have you worked at the palace long?” The captain shifted his stance. “The entire time.” “So you saw it being built? Where did the builders come from?” “Here and there.” “Can you be more specific?” “No.

” This wasn’t going well. “Where are you originally from?” He didn’t answer. “Why can’t you tell me?” I pressed. “It’s a simple question.” “You’d think so,” Quentin muttered. “You and Sergeant Max are short with dark hair,” I said to Quentin. “So you must be originally from Freedland.” Quentin turned huge eyes to me. “You’ve been there?” he whispered. “You’ve been to Freedland?” “No.

My father has, and he told me stories of all the kingdoms and the republic. He traveled all over The Fist before marrying my mother and settling here in Mull. But everyone knows the sand people of Freedland are short with dark hair. You don’t need to go there to know.” “Right,” Quentin said. “Of course.” “Captain Hammer is different,” I said, glancing at his broad back. “He’s tall, like those of us native to Glancia, but he’s dark like you. Glancia folk are naturally fair.” “And pretty.

” Quentin blushed. “Real pretty.”

.

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