I’d like to introduce fellow Muse it Up Author, Susan A. Royal. Although we’ve never met, Susan and I have exchanged many emails and I thought you might like to know a bit about her and her writing.
Born in west Texas and raised in south Texas, Susan shares a 100-year-old farmhouse in a small east Texas town with a ghost who likes to harmonize with her son when he plays guitar.
After a late night visit to Battington’s marketplace, Princess Mena vanishes without a trace. Merchants are frantic, because King Leander has called for a curfew and postponed the Spring Festival until further notice. Certain his former constable is the man for the job, the mayor hires Xander to investigate, hoping he can solve the mystery in a hurry so things can go back to normal.
But Xander’s not so sure that’s possible, because there’s romance involved, and he knows when that happens folks who are normally very sensible seem to lose all reason. In addition to sorting out truths, half-truths and outright lies, he must deal with gypsies, love potions and an illegal moonshine operation before he gets to the bottom of things.
Intrigued? Well, Susan’s allowed me to reveal Chapter One too!
In the frenzy of last minute shopping before Battington Marketplace closed for the night, no one seemed to notice the figure creeping silently along the edges of darkness, avoiding the pools of light shining down from the streetlamps. As the last of the shoppers gathered their purchases and left, merchants were free to close up shop.
Only then did the cloaked and hooded apparition emerge from the shadows and head straight to Mercury’s Apothecary shop located in the center of the market. The figure stopped at the door and glanced in both directions before rapping against the rough wood.
Thin and reedy, a male voice could be heard from inside. “The apothecary is closed for the night. Come back in the morning.”
The knocking began again.
“Is something wrong with your ears?” Amid the rattle of the lock, squeaking hinges and mumbling protest, a wisp of a man opened the door far enough to peer outside. He pushed his spectacles up on his nose and squinted at the late night visitor. His eyes widened with recognition when he saw the velvet cloak bordered in gold and fastened with a broach bearing the royal emblem. Princess Mena.
“Oh. It’s you.”
“Are you going to stand there, gaping at me, or are you going to move and let me come inside?”
Mercury poked his head out the door and flicked a glance around the deserted marketplace before retreating.
With a snap of her cape, the princess brushed past him and stepped inside. The shop was bathed in shadows despite the flames dancing atop the cluster of beeswax candles on the worktable.
“If you’ll give me a moment, I’ll light a lamp…”
The princess sniffed and raised her hand, fingers splayed. “Don’t bother.”
“My humble apologies for the inconvenience, my lady. It was impossible for me to obtain the ingredients needed to complete the potion until late this afternoon.” The apothecary began to wring his hands. “And truth be told, after hearing King Leander had forbidden you to return, I was unsure whether or not I’d be seeing you again…”
“Enough of your prattle. Is my potion ready?” The princess’s voice crackled with impatience.
Mercury pressed his lips together in a thin line as if to keep further explanations from escaping and pointed at the glass beaker filled with pale amber liquid, sitting on his worktable. “I finished mixing it a few moments ago.”
Princess Mena thrust a hand full of gold coins at him. “Let me have it, then.”
The apothecary didn’t make a move. “Are you quite certain you want to go through with this?”
Mena’s words sounded as though she forced them through gritted teeth. “Of course I am. Why do you ask?”
“We are dealing with no ordinary, run-of-the-mill love potion. The spell alone is very binding. I wish you would reconsider.”
“We’ve been through this once already. Just hand it over.”
Mercury reached for a sheet of parchment lying beside the potion and held it up. “You must follow the directions exactly as I have written them. Read them and make sure you understand everything.”
The princess inhaled sharply, snatched the parchment from his hands and held it close to the candles on the worktable, muttering under her breath while she read. “Midnight… candle…strand of hair…recite the verse…got it.”
“Drink a drop of potion, no more, because of its strength.”
“What happens if I drink more than a drop?”
“Do exactly as I say or else there is no telling what might happen.”
Without another word, Princess Mena grabbed the beaker, bolted out the door, and vanished into the shadows.
* * * *
“Out of my face, you mangy beastie!”
The rumbling bass voice came out of nowhere. Xander jumped like he’d been scalded. Up at first light and on the road soon after, he’d dozed off and allowed Quep’s reins to go slack. The shaggy little pony wandered over to the side of the road for tender shoots of grass growing there.
“Look at you, riding along with your nose stuck up in the air like royalty.”
Xander squinted in the direction of the voice and spied a man dressed in raggedy brown homespun who blended with the landscape like a toad on moss. Arms crossed and lips pinched tightly together, the man stared back at him.
“Sorry, Frawl.” Xander yanked on Quep’s reins. “You’re out bright and early. Are you on your way to Battington?”
“Aye, I have pressing business.”
“Is that so?” Xander couldn’t begin to imagine what kind. It was a well-known fact that his second cousin once removed avoided anything remotely connected with work. “Where?”
The other man fished in his pocket and brought out copper coins. “Where d’ye think? I’m on me way to Battington to spend an afternoon at Ardley’s tavern. What about you?”
“I’m going to town as well, to pick up supplies and catch up on all the latest.”
Frawl flashed a grin. “Since we’re both headed in the same direction, how about you let me ride along? I can fill you in on all the tittle-tattle.”
Xander ground his teeth. So much for a nice, quiet trip. “Sure. Come on.”
As big around as he was tall, Frawl grunted and strained a bit before he managed to climb astride the pony. “You heard the latest?”
Xander shook his head. “Reckon not. I haven’t been to market in a fortnight. Suse and I live so far out we never get any news, unless a bird happens to fly by and share.”
“Unless a bird…?” It took a moment or two, but Frawl finally realized Xander was joking. After he stopped laughing, he pulled out a checkered rag, wiped his eyes and blew his nose. “You do have a quick wit.”
“Well, are you going to tell me or not?” Xander was less inclined to believe hearsay than most, but he did have a weakness for listening.
“Aye, I’ll begin at the beginning.” Frawl chuckled and rubbed his hands together.
“Of late, some of the royalty has been frequenting the market more often than normal. Not, as you might believe, for fresh blue milk or a rare piece of fairy silk, though I have been told the merchant in the big corner stall with all the fancy notions has some in his possession so fine he swears the cloth will float…”
“Get to the point, will you?”
“Pardon, I digress.” Frawl cleared his throat. “Now, where was I? Oh yes. It turns out it wasn’t just any royalty, but one of old King Leander’s daughters. Princess Mena herself. Anyways, word went round she was after a good apothecary. Reason being, she wanted to purchase a spell.”
“But why come to Battington market? Why wouldn’t she ask her father’s sorcerer instead?”
“Turns out, she didn’t want just any old spell, she wanted a love potion. When she showed up at Mercury’s shop, he was nervous enough. After he found out what she fancied, it near did him in. Everyone knows love potions are dicey at best. Sometimes they work and sometimes not. There’s always the chance some poor unfortunate soul could end up turning into a tree toad.”
He reached down, untied one of the burlap bags hanging from Quep’s saddle, and began to paw through it. “Mercury put her off by telling her it would take a day or two to gather the proper ingredients.”
Curiosity got the better of Xander. “What are you looking for?”
Frawl smacked his lips. “All this talking has me parched. I thought you might have a beverage with you…”
Xander fixed him with a stare.
“No? A pity. Anyway, the princess told Mercury he’d best not breathe a word to anyone about her visit. Of course, he couldn’t wait to tell the merchant in the shop next to him, who whispered the story to her best customer, who passed it along to someone else. Ere long, the whole town buzzed about it. Of course, the king found out and near burst a blood vessel. He forbade the princess to set foot in Mercury’s shop
again, but she didn’t listen, of course.”
“No surprise there.” Through the years Xander had heard plenty of stories about Princess Mena’s stubborn willfulness.
Frawl tugged at his chin whiskers. “Maybe I ought to see if I couldn’t talk old Mercury into mixing me up a batch…”
When Xander twisted around and glared at him, Frawl gulped and finished his story in a hurry. “Anyway, night before last she paid Mercury a late night visit and left with the potion. No one has seen her since.”
“So it would seem,” Frawl said. “King Leander ordered his soldiers to scour the countryside, but they haven’t turned up a clue. I’ve heard he sinks deeper into depression each day that passes without word.”
Xander shook his head. “The poor man must be frantic with worry. He dotes on Princess Mena.”
“Aye, and things have gotten so bad people are beginning to question his judgment.”
“The day after she disappeared he called for a nine o’clock curfew in Battington until further notice.”
“Not good, especially with the Spring Festival right around the corner.”
“You haven’t heard the worst of it. Word is, he’s may cancel it altogether. If he does, it’s going to hurt the merchants something fierce. The mayor must be worried,
because he’s posted a reward.” Frawl punched him on the shoulder. “Fifty pieces of gold goes to the person who brings her back, safe and sound.”
Things like this never happened in Battington. At least they never did when Xander was the constable. If the princess had been abducted, that would mean a ransom. Maybe not. Was it possible she’d run away? What about witnesses? And perhaps the most important question of all. Who was handling the investigation?
* * * *
Frawl continued talking nonstop about first one thing and then another, leaving Xander with aching ears by the time they reached Battington. The picturesque town was located in Seren Valley in the Kingdom of Regal, cradled on three sides by the Heliotrope Mountains and to the south by the Azure Sea.
They rode past fine buildings of red or blue brick, and over streets paved with smooth stones and bordered on either side by lush green willow trees. However, Battington was best known for its marketplace. People came from far and wide to shop for the merchandise offered.
Sellers of exotic spices and exquisite cloth did business next to apothecaries and goldsmiths. Food courts offered tasty delights like funnel cakes or hot sausage on a stick while actors’ troupes entertained with impromptu performances. For those seeking a wide variety of the unique and unusual, Battington Marketplace was considered the ultimate shopping experience.
As they approached the square, Frawl pointed toward the fountain where a large crowd of merchants had gathered. “Look yonder. I wonder what’s going on.”
Everyone was trying to talk at once, waving their hands and shaking their heads. Some of them were yelling, their faces the dark red of overripe berries.
Xander twisted his mouth to one side. “I don’t know about you, but I’d as soon not get close enough to find out.” He coaxed Quep into taking a wide berth around all the commotion.
Before they’d gone far, a rotund man detached himself from the crowd and sped across the cobblestones as fast as his chubby legs would carry him. “Xander, wait up. I must speak with you!”
Frawl groaned aloud. “Uh-oh, here comes trouble. What do you say we pretend you couldn’t hear for the noise and head straight for the tavern? I’m pretty sure we could lose him.”
The trouble was Cymon, Mayor of Battington. And he obviously had something on his mind. Before resigning his position of constable, Xander had been forced to deal with the man on a regular basis, so he recognized the signs.
As much as he wanted to take Frawl’s suggestion, he knew escape was
impossible. He pulled on Quep’s reins and turned the pony around, forcing himself to smile. “Good day, Master Cymon.”
“Good day, Xander.”
An expression of distaste flitted across Cymon’s face before he acknowledged Frawl, who returned the mayor’s greeting, but only after Xander drove an elbow in his belly.
Xander waved at the crowd. “What’s all the ruckus?”
Still breathless, Cymon shook his head. “You must have heard the news about Princess Mena. Even though the good people of Battington have done everything possible to aide in the search, King Leander is punishing us by declaring a curfew. It is as though he holds us responsible for his daughter’s disappearance.”
“Has there been any news?”
Cymon shook his head, his jowls quivering. “None whatsoever, and the longer it takes to find her, the more money we lose.”
“Princess Mena was last seen in the marketplace.” Xander shrugged. “It makes sense to take precautions in case someone is lurking about, abducting people.”
“But you haven’t heard the latest. King Leander’s seneschal arrived this morning with a decree, declaring the Spring Festival will be postponed until further notice.”
No wonder Cymon was so flustered. Money always came first and foremost to him.
Unable to contain himself any longer, Frawl burst in. “Hasn’t the reward
encouraged anyone to come forward?”
Cymon wrinkled his nose as though he smelled something unsavory. “Not a solitary soul. The princess seems to have vanished. It’s a complete mystery.”
Xander scrubbed his jaw. “Aye, so it is Cymon. But what does this all have to do with me?”
“The constable is at his wit’s end. This morning he told me he cannot handle his regular duties and continue to search for Princess Mena.”
After Xander resigned, Cymon had hired his lazy, incompetent nephew, Nudd. It didn’t surprise him to hear he couldn’t handle the job.
“When I saw you just now, I couldn’t help but think it must be an omen,” Cymon clutched his hands to his chest and raised his eyes to the sky.
Frawl snorted. “Are you sure it ain’t indigestion?”
The mayor eyed him with contempt before turning to his former constable. “I’m offering you a job…only a temporary one, mind you…until you find Princess Mena. You have the experience, along with a knack for solving mysteries. If there’s anyone who can make sense of what’s happened, it’s you.”
When Xander didn’t answer, the mayor threw up his hands. “I’m prepared to pay double your former wages. You must admit, you’ll never come anywhere close to making that kind of money mucking around in the dirt and calling yourself a farmer.”
“Let’s go, Frawl.” Xander clenched his teeth. He had no desire to discuss his financial situation with the man. He needed to get away from him, before doing something he might regret. “I have supplies to buy.”
“Think about it, and let me know before the day is over. This is a splendid opportunity you cannot afford to miss.” Cymon backed away and returned to the crowd at the fountain.
Frawl shook his head. “He’s got a lot of nerve, doesn’t he?”
Xander knew he hadn’t seen the last of him. The mayor carried a lot of weight, in more ways than one, and was nothing if not persistent. He also knew that buying the farm had depleted his savings, and the pitifully small harvest had done nothing to replenish it.
Frawl departed for the tavern with the excuse that he needed to get them a good table before it got too crowded. Xander went to Tilda’s Mercantile. Suse had sent him into town with a bag of canned goods to barter for supplies—something he dreaded. It didn’t matter that she insisted it was something all farmers did.
“If I wasn’t such a failure, we could use the money for things you want, instead of things we need,” he’d said.
She told him not to be so hard on himself, but she was being kind. Xander had always lived in the city. He knew next to nothing about country life or farming. His jaw muscles bunched. Suse deserved better. He’d make it up to her. Somehow…
Tilda was at the counter when Xander stepped inside the mercantile, her sleeves rolled up and her gray hair skewed in a knot on top of her head.
“Xander! It’s been an age. How’ve you been?”
“I’m tolerable, Mistress Tilda, and how are you?”
She put her hands on her hips. “I’d be better if Cymon hadn’t chased away the best constable Battington ever had, but I warrant I’ll manage. Enough about me, though. How is your pretty wife?”
“Suse is fine, thank you. She’ll be pleased you asked.” He swallowed and set the heavy sack down on the smooth oak plank Tilda used for a counter. “I’ve…uhh…brought things to barter. Do you have any need for Aroniaberry jam or Maize relish?”
“Absolutely. I’ll take the lot.”
“Are you sure?”
“Suse is a good cook. I’m certain every jar will be gone within the week.”
After Tilda sacked up all the items on his list, she handed him a hand full of coins to make up the difference. Enough for lunch and a pint or two with money left over.
They talked a while longer, until Xander thanked Tilda and picked up his bag filled with supplies. “It’s almost noon. I best go. I’m to meet Frawl at the tavern.”
“Off with you then. Knowing that man, you’ll be lucky if he hasn’t drunk up all the ale by the time you arrive. Leave your groceries here if you want and pick them up on the way out of town.”
Tilda was right. By the time Xander got there, Frawl was standing on top of one of the tables, guzzling ale and singing at the top of his lungs. He waved at Xander from across the room as though there was some way he could be overlooked and bellowed at Ardley, who tended bar.
“Another round for everyone!”
After checking to make sure nothing had been charged to his tab before he arrived and ordered a mug of ale and stew, Xander took a seat. When the barmaid plunked the bowl down in front of him, he picked up a spoon, and eyed the watery mess with disgust.
Someone burst into the tavern, making all kinds of racket. Xander glanced up to see Cymon headed in his direction. He sighed and set his mug down on the table with a sharp thud.
The mayor took a seat across from him and called out to the waitress. “A mug of your finest, and bring another one for Battington’s former constable as well.”
Xander’s stomach clenched. Suddenly, the ale was as unappealing as the stew.
Cymon leaned his bulk forward. “Have you given any more thought to my offer?”
Of course Xander had. In fact, he hadn’t been able to concentrate on anything else all day. Twice the wages he’d made when he was constable meant he and Suse would have money left over after buying seed and supplies. He could even see about getting the Bramble goats she’d always wanted. She wouldn’t be happy when she heard what he’d done, but she’d come around. She was sensible, his Suse.
“Think of all the merchants you’ll be helping. And there’s the king to consider.”
The mayor spoke as though trying to persuade a small child to do the right thing. “Not to mention you and your wife.”
“I have.” For once Xander had the upper hand, and he intended to savor the moment. He waited while Cymon drummed the table with his fingers and fidgeted.
“I’ll take the job on one condition. You must allow me the freedom to conduct my investigation as I see fit without any interference from you or Nudd. Are we in agreement?”
The mayor’s shoulders sagged with relief as he thrust out a clammy, perspiring hand. “Done.”