When Miriam Medina and her father are accused by the Inquisition of murdering a high priest, Miriam knows justice is impossible. Their accuser, the Grand Inquisitor, is in fact, the real murderer. Miriam's only hope is to resort to her long dead mother's magical legacy: the resurrection of the dead through a magical tattoo.
I first met Susan when she edited my short story "The Walker of the Shifting Borderland" for the fine Canadian speculative fiction magazine, On Spec. Susan's excellent suggestions and editing played a major role in that story winning the Aurora in 2013. But Susan is not only an editor, but also an excellent writer. I'm delighted to be able to include this wonderful example of Susan's writing, the first book in her Tattooed Witch fantasy trilogy set during the Spanish Inquisition and infused with Romany culture of the time. – Douglas Smith
The characters are vivid and sexy, the action non-stop, and the world Susan MacGregor has created is both fascinating and a little frightening.– Sally Fogel, author of Indigo Time (writing as Sally McBride)
The fantasy world was an interesting mix of Spain during the time of the Inquisition and Romany culture. I will definitely be watching for the sequel.– Nicole Luiken, author of Through Fire & Sea
Susan MacGregor is one of those rare writers who can pen interior dialogue without forcing the average male reader to run for cover. This is brilliantly done, intriguing and down right spooky in places and I, for one, fully intend to read this trilogy to its conclusion.– Greg McKitrick, author of A Walk in the Thai Sun
In the furthest corner of the gilded bed chamber belonging to Alonso de Santangél, High Solar of Granad, Miriam Medina stood as still as a porcelain vase. Only the occasional blink of her eyes and the even, slow rise and fall of her breasts betrayed her presence, although the priests in the room knew she was there. She had watched the dawn come, had marked how the sun spilled through the crenellated glass, how it had cut bright patterns across the floor. Her assistant's tunic clung to her like a damp tent, as heavy as the velvet drapes on the windows. Sweat trickled between her breasts. A potted oleander bush, heavy with blossoms, shielded her from view. To her reckoning, she had been banished to her corner for five hours now. In this place, Miriam Medina knew it was better to be ignored.
She breathed through her nose and tried not to gag. Beneath the powdery scent of the oleander, the room stank of old men. She could smell her own sweat, too. The heat of the day was not the only cause. The priests had rounded on them when she and Ephraim had arrived. Their open hostility startled her so much that she had stepped on her father's hems. A woman! In the High Solar's chamber? What are you thinking, Doctor Medina?
She is a drudge, nothing more, her father maintained. They both knew it for a lie. And then she had been banished to this corner as if she were no more than a child. So demeaning, considering Ephraim knew her true capabilities.
You're at a loss, Papa. One touch and we'll know what ails the High Solar.
No. It's too dangerous.
But you said so yourself—you don't know what ails him!
I have my suspicions.
And they are?
They don't matter. I will deal with it.
And if he dies, what then? They'll blame you. And then, what will happen to me?
It had been an unkind thing to say, a selfish thing to say, but it had been the only way to move him. Against his better judgment, he had agreed.
You'll do nothing until I call you, Miriam.
You'll stay out of the way and not dare to move.
And if I call you—that's 'if' Miriam—you'll determine the trouble. Then you'll return to the house and stay there until I come home.
It wasn't fair, this pretense they were expected to maintain. She considered the room full of priests. These old men—they lived one way but preached another. Wasn't it Sul who had said, 'Hide not your light beneath a bushel, but place it on a candlestick, so that it giveth light to all the house?' Hers was a unique gift, but if she ever displayed it openly, they would accuse her of congress with demons.
If he would just call me. She closed her eyes to suppress her impatience and ignore her thirst. In spite of the sunshine, the bed chamber was littered with enough candles to light a nave. What the High Solar needed was darkness and solitude. Ephraim had suggested it, but the priests insisted that their patriarch needed the blazing protection of Sul all about him. It mattered not if the heat contributed to his demise.
A small page in white livery appeared in the doorway. He held a steaming bowl of broth in his hands. Earlier, Ephraim had turned away Alonso de Santangél's breakfast. The monks had tried to feed him, but he had spit up the gruel. Clear liquids only, Ephraim maintained.
With a nod, Ephraim beckoned the boy forth and accepted the broth. The monks in front of her shifted, affording her a better view of Alonso de Santangél.
She caught her breath.
Without his robes of office or a miter upon his head, he was a much younger man than she had assumed, about thirty years of age. A tonsure of blonde hair ran about his head like a crown. He had the face of an angel—beautiful in a stern sort of way, although at the moment, the visage was marred by pain. His bare chest was well muscled for a man of the cloth. He looked as if he spent his days scything grain.
He was handsome! The realization came as a shock. What business did a Prince of the Church have in being so attractive? And what business did she have in finding him so? Surely, it was a sin to think of him that way, although there were far too many sins as it was.
A flush rose to her face. She had seen naked men before, surreptitiously, through slatted shutters. None of Ephraim's patients had impressed her—all flabby bellies and flaccid penises, but this one; he would be different, as perfect as any sculptor's model, his thighs well-formed and his loins…she took a deep breath, thankful that the priests' backs were turned to her.
She set aside her attraction with a rigid self-control. She had studied the body's drives in Ephraim's medical books. It was logical to feel this way. She was a young woman reacting to a striking, albeit ineligible, man. She eyed the priests about her. At least Alonso de Santangél wasn't old and dried out, as these others were.
Ephraim set a spoon to his lips. She held her breath—please, Your Brilliance, keep it down!—and chided herself. She was reacting like one of those stupid girls who pressed themselves against the bricks and swooned whenever a conquistador who rode by. Would she be so worried about the High Solar if he weren't so good looking? She knew the answer to that. She would not.
Alonso de Santangél accepted another spoonful, and then abruptly, he choked and coughed. She bit her lip. All around her, monks muttered in dismay. Ephraim thrust the bowl to the page and reached for a cloth. He leaned Alonso de Santangél to his side and helped him wretch up what little he could. Bloody spittle bubbled from his lips. She held herself tightly, knowing she could not rush to his bedside to help.
A Luster monk approached to help. Ephraim waved him off. "Leave it." He glanced to where she stood at the back of the room and beckoned her to come. "My assistant will clean it up."
She blinked. Gods, had she heard him right? He motioned to her a second time, so she dropped her gaze and strode through the priests with her hands clasped. Let them think she was no more than a servant reserved for the most odious of tasks. Alonso de Santangél loomed into view. He is wonderful, she thought as she drew alongside him, like Sul after the Passion. Without a word, she dropped to her knees and thought of the Goddess Lys in her incarnation as the Pietà, Mother of the God. With great care, she swabbed Alonso de Santangél's face. His flesh was a mottled red. Her attraction fled as fear for him took its place. She wanted to cradle him, to ease his pain. He lifted his suffering gaze to regard her. His eyes were as blue as a summer's sky. It took all of her strength to refrain from laying a soft hand against his cheek, to reassure him that she would do all in her power to help him. She caught a hint of sweetness beneath his breath. That was wrong. Why should his breath smell sweet? Abruptly, he choked and gagged. When he subsided, she wiped his chin and allowed the tip of her forefinger to touch his face.
A tongue of fire shot through her, burning her throat and turning her stomach into a molten churn. She fought the grey that engulfed her and swallowed. Her legs buckled, but since she was already on her knees, no one noticed. She curled her finger back into her fist and forced herself to breathe.
Trembling, she wiped his mouth as gently as she could, keeping her fingers clear. She couldn't afford to lose herself. Gods, what had he been given? She ran through the list of possibilities. Alonso de Santangél watched her with sunken, wild eyes, his pupils like dark beetles scuttling in a grave. One thing was certain; she and Ephraim couldn't leave him alone. Someone in the Solarium had done this, perhaps one of the priests in this room. She tucked a strand of her black hair into her kerchief. Her fingers twitched. Ephraim watched them intently.
Poison, she signed, knowing the awful truth of it. Monkshood or oleander.
Her father's eyes narrowed. He glanced at the soup. He reached into his bag and withdrew an envelope—medicinal charcoal for toxins.
"Take that away," he told the page, indicating the bowl of broth, "and on pain of death, don't touch it." He stared hard at the lad, knowing the proclivities of young boys. "From now on," he told the breathless assembly, "no food or drink passes the High Solar's lips that I don't prepare."
"But what is wrong with him?" demanded the Solarium's Exchequer. He looked like rabbit about to bolt for its hole.
Ephraim tipped the charcoal into a cup of water and set it to the High Solar's lips. "It's a sensitive matter, Luminance. When His Brilliance is stable, I'll share my diagnosis with you in private." Her father was no fool; the last thing he would do would be to air their suspicions publicly. He coaxed Alonso de Santangél to drink. To Miriam's relief, he kept it down.
"You must have some idea," the Exchequer pressed. "Is he contagious?"
"No. What ails him isn't due to any humor of the air, nor is it a god-sent punishment. He is sick through no fault of his own." Ephraim eased Alonso de Santangél to his pillows. "I want this room cleared. His Brilliance needs peace and solitude if he's to recover."
The Exchequer frowned, less bothered now that he was unlikely to catch a plague. As the priests grumbled, Alonso de Santangél captured her gaze. His eyes bore into hers as if she were his last link to life. His fingers trembled. He lifted a shaking hand as if to touch her.
A harsh clatter of boots came from down the hall. The tramp grew louder. Miriam pulled her gaze from Alonso de Santangél to see what army had arrived. A stark figure in black and white stood framed in the chamber's doorway. She ducked her head to hide. Gods! Ephraim had said that the Grand Inquisitor had left for Madrone that morning, but here he was.
Flee, her instincts told her. Run and don't look back.
This was the man that all of Esbaña feared as much as they did a god-sent pestilence. In three major cities, thousands had died smelling the stink of their burning flesh. La Puraficación de la Fé, he called it, a purification of the faith. He had given the town one week to come forward and confess its sins in an Edict of Grace. Most people attended. She and Ephraim had not; Ephraim's grandfather had been Juden until the family converted fifty years ago. The conversions made little difference to the inquisitors; they didn't believe them. Now, it was too late.
"What is this?" Tor Tomás demanded. He swept into the room, his boots striking hard against the marble. No one said a word as he stopped before her. She lifted her head to meet his gaze, hoping she looked as benign as a lamb. His eyes were a strange colour, so yellow as to be reptilian. He wore no tonsure as the other priests did, but had shaved himself bald, as if to impress Sul with his greater sanctity. His head resembled a cracked egg. A thin line cut across his face—an old scar, she realized. His only other ornamentation, other than the official Brand upon his chest, was a tiny hoop in his left ear. He looked more cutthroat than priest.
Ephraim cleared his throat. "This is my daughter. She cleans for me, nothing more."
"I take the sputum to my residence to study, Radiance. She knows how to collect it."
Tor Tomás dismissed the excuse with a wave. His fingers were long and thin, the nails uncut. Something dark and ruddy rimmed their bases. "She has no business here. She taints the very air."
"Forgive me, but I beg to differ." Ephraim stood his ground. "Even the medical college in Zaragoza allows that women have their place. I can vouch for my daughter. She's received no schooling, save for what little I've shown her. She's no threat to anyone, least of all, the High Solar. I would not have her here, if she were."
"How long has she been here?"
"Since early morning, Radiance."
"And why did you bring her?"
"As I explained, she collects.…"
"You're lying. You brought her here because you thought she would be needed. Why is that, I wonder?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"You weren't at the Edict of Grace."
"I've been with His Brilliance all week."
"That doesn't excuse your daughter."
The silence was palpable. She felt the weight of the priests' scrutiny fall upon her. In seconds, someone would point a gnarled finger at her and accuse her of witchcraft.
"She is unmarried," Ephraim said quickly. "I don't allow her to travel or stay alone without a chaperone."
She walked through Granad as she pleased, although mostly to visit the market to buy supplies for the house or their pharmacopoeia. If the priests asked anyone who knew them, they would uncover the lie.
Alonso de Santangél groaned. The focus in the room shifted. Tor Tomás pursed his lips. "How is the patient?" he asked dryly.
"Not well. I've administered a tincture," Ephraim said.
"You prepared it yourself?"
"Of course. I wouldn't trust any woman to handle it."
She closed her eyes. Another falsehood. Fortunately, the Grand Inquisitor didn't question it. He studied Alonso de Santangél for a moment and then snagged his cheeks between his thumb and forefinger. "He doesn't look well," he said, handling him as he might a melon in the market.
The High Priest sputtered to life. His arms shook as if he had no more strength in them than a man twice his age. His hands flailed. He wheezed and choked.
"Radiance, please." Ephraim set a restraining hand on the Grand Inquisitor's wrist.
The inquisitor released his fingers as if he had touched something foul. He locked his strange yellow eyes with Alonso de Santangél's blue ones. The two men regarded each other with such loathing, that anyone with a whit of understanding could not fail to notice.
"This is terrible, my Brothers!" Tor Tomás announced suddenly. "Your Patriarch is dying!" He pointed at the Exchequer as if to accuse him of negligence. "Luminance, you can't allow him to leave this world without administering the Holy Unction. I have with me, a shipment of wine from Madrone. Let a cup of it be used for his last rites."
"Radiance, there is still hope," Ephraim began.
Tor Tomás dismissed him. "You've done quite enough, Doctor."
"But I can save him! Wine is the last thing he needs right now. He needs.…"
"He doesn't need absolution? What kind of heresy is this?" He glared at Ephraim as if he had suggested they drain the high priest's blood from his veins.
"I don't mean that! Of course, we all need absolution…."
"Step aside, Doctor Medina. You aren't the only one who knows impending death when he sees it. Our brother doesn't need a physician. He needs a priest." He snapped his fingers. A Luster monk rushed forward with a goblet of wine in his hand.
"Not that." Tomás waved him off. "The rare vintage I brought from Madrone. Ah, there it is." One of his retainers stepped forth with a bottle in his hand. The man was as huge and as grim as block of granite. His black and white habit barely passed his knees. Tomás tossed the goblet's original contents to the floor and ignored the gasps of shock from the clergy. He broke the bottle's seal.
Ephraim stepped forward. "Please! Not yet, I beg you!"
Tor Tomás ignored him and poured fresh wine into the cup, topping it to the brim. "Great Sul!" he cried, holding it aloft for all to see. "Your shining son, His Brilliance Alonso de Santangél is soon to depart from this world. Let him not descend to the perpetual darkness you reserve for all sinners! Lift him up, Holy Sul! Grant him an eternal place at your side, ever radiant and ever strong, free from the stagnant waters of mortality!"
Miriam watched as the sun caught the rim of the glass. The harsh scintillation blazed like a star. Tor Tomás brought the goblet down and passed his hand over it in blessing. From where she sat, she saw a pale powder fall from his fingers. Before she could speak, the inquisitor pressed the cup to the High Solar's mouth. Alonso de Santangél raised frantic hands to prevent it from touching his lips.
Stop! she wanted to cry, but Ephraim had already done so. The Grand Inquisitor ignored him and pried the High Solar's mouth open. Alonso de Santangél had no strength to prevent it. He swallowed—one gulp, two. Wine splashed over his face and gushed from his mouth; there was no way he could not drink. He choked, gagged. In defeat, Miriam folded in on herself. The sacrament went on forever. The priests and monks looked on with distress but did nothing to prevent it.
Finally, the goblet was done. The wine had spilled down the side of the bed and had stained the sheets. Splotches of it spattered her face. She watched dully as Alonso de Santangél went into convulsions. His death was violent and hard, as one might expect for a man in his prime. She closed her eyes, couldn't block the sounds of his agony. She wanted to clutch him, send her apology flying after him: Your Brilliance…Alonso! Forgive me! I couldn't stop him! I'm so sorry! Her throat tightened into a knot, her limbs stiffened into stone. She couldn't afford to weep. The priests in the room watched in uneasy silence, their expressions grim. At the last moment, she opened her eyes to capture a last shred of Alonso de Santangél before he died. To her horror, he stared at her as a drowning man might, as if she were the last tenuous hold he had on life. She winced, wondering if those blue eyes registered what she was—a girl of seventeen, smitten for the first time and at the worst possible moment in her life, a girl devastated by his dying. With a violent shudder, his head slumped to the side and he gave up the ghost.
She wanted to scream. Tears streamed down her cheeks, but she made no sound. Alonso de Santangél had been stolen from her. Now, he was inextricably lost. The clergy lifted their hands and made the starburst of Sul. Their leader, His Brilliance, Alonso de Santangél, and youngest patriarch to ever have served the faithful in Granad, was dead.
Ephraim helped her rise. She stood, feeling broken, as if some of part of her had fled. Ephraim looked as if he had shrunk inside his robe. He set a trembling arm about her shoulders and drew her away. They passed through the chamber like phantoms in a bone yard.
As they reached the doorway, a strident voice called out, "Stop them! Don't let them escape!"
Ephraim dug his fingers into her arm. She had been waiting for the Grand Inquisitor's shout, as had he. A tramp of footfalls rushed up behind them.
Her father stepped in front of her to protect her from the guards. "Why are you stopping us?" he demanded. "We've done nothing wrong!"
Tor Tomás confronted them. "Done nothing wrong?" he repeated. "I disagree. You bring a woman into the High Solar's presence. You allow her to approach him on his sick bed. He dies. You and your daughter are under arrest for the murder of Alonso de Santangél, High Solar of Granad."