One

The smell of spice was overwhelming.

There were three open sacks just inside the door: one full of dried vanilla pods, one peppercorns, one golden-yellow halud, fine ground to release its perfume. Beyond the sacks were casks and chests, brimming with aromatics. Many glowed startling hues of orange, red and green. Behind them was the darkwood counter with its shelves packed with secrets – asafoetida for the control of demons, powdered lotus root, tilosa corms, cinnamon quills, cardamom pods, sesame seeds and mandragores specially compounded to open magical locks.

The Spicemaster was watching Blue from behind the counter. He was a small, thin man with a twisted spine who had either refused rejuvenation treatments or was so old now that nothing could colour his hair or take the wrinkles from his face. He had very pale, intelligent eyes.

Blue approached him warily, wondering if he could see through her disguise. No question of boy’s clothes this time, of course – too much chance of a scandal. But the way she did look should have fooled anyone. The hand-crafted illusion spell had transformed her into a woman in her early thirties (more than twice her actual age!) and she was dressed in the anonymous garments of a harassed housewife. She might have had a couple of children dragging at her skirts, although – Blue shuddered – thankfully she didn’t. But she looked as if she might, which guaranteed no one would imagine they were in the presence of their Queen. Most of the time it guaranteed nobody noticed her at all.

The only problem was her hair. In a moment of vanity, she’d commissioned waist-length, sex-goddess, brushed blonde hair which – duh! – ruined the effect, so she’d had to tie it up. Illusion or not, that hair was heavy. She felt as if she was wearing a military helmet. Would the Spicemaster notice? He had a fearsome reputation. Would he be able to see through the illusion as easily as he was supposed to see… other things? Not that it mattered. She was expected.

She half thought he might say something, offer her fennel or chilli or a twist of taste powder, but he only stared at her.

Blue said very quietly, ‘I understand the Painted Lady approached you about me, Spicemaster.’

For a moment he looked blank. Then he murmured, ‘ Ah,’ and came slowly round the counter to shoot the bolt on the door. She heard magical securities tinkle into place. The display window dimmed. They were alone in the shop. No one could see in.

The Spicemaster turned towards her. ‘Your Majesty…’ he exclaimed. There was just the barest hint of a question mark in his voice, but he bowed deeply all the same. The twist in his spine pitched him sideways.

‘Can we be overheard?’ Blue asked.

He straightened painfully and shook his head. ‘The privacy spells came into play when I closed the door.’

‘Good,’ Blue said. ‘Spicemaster, I -’

‘Memnon,’ he murmured. He caught her expression and added, ‘Forgive me, Majesty, but it is not fitting that the Queen should have to address me by my title.’ He cast his eyes down. ‘My name is Memnon.’

Blue suppressed a smile. Memnon the Spicemaster was another Madame Cardui, a stickler for good manners and precise protocol. No wonder she’d spoken of him so highly.

‘Master Memnon,’ Blue said, granting him one honorific to replace the other, ‘Madame Cardui has told you why I’m here?’

He nodded. ‘Yes, Majesty.’

‘You know this visit can never be spoken of?’

‘Yes, Majesty.’

‘And you can do the thing I wish of you?’

This time there was just the barest hesitation before he said, ‘Yes, Majesty.’

‘What’s wrong?’ Blue asked at once.

‘Majesty, may I sit in your presence?’

Blue blinked, then realised what he was asking. Memnon was a very old man and that spinal problem must make standing difficult.

‘Yes, yes, of course.’

He moved even more slowly this time. ‘I have a stool behind the counter, Majesty.’ When he had perched, he said, ‘I can do what you wish, but the Painted Lady has told me I must work without assistants.’

Blue said, ‘The matter is confidential. No one must know but you and me.’ And even you won’t know, she thought, if what Madame Cardui told me is true.

He looked away as if embarrassed. ‘Then you must assist me, Majesty,’ he murmured.

She’d been warned this would most likely be the case.

‘That will not be a problem, Master Memnon,’ she said firmly. ‘Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.’

‘Yes, Majesty.’

There was something else: she could tell by his tone. ‘What is it?’

The Spicemaster raised his head to look her directly in the eyes. ‘Majesty, to stay with me alone in the labyrinth may prove dangerous.’ He hesitated, then added, ‘Very dangerous indeed.’

Contents