In the year 1543 of King Henry VIII’s turbulent reign, the daughter of a notorious alchemist finds herself suspected of cold-blooded murder…
Bianca Goddard employs her knowledge of herbs and medicinal plants to concoct remedies for the disease-riddled poor in London’s squalid Southwark slum. But when her friend Jolyn comes to her complaining of severe stomach pains, Bianca’s prescription seems to kill her on the spot. Recovering from her shock, Bianca suspects Jolyn may have been poisoned before coming to her—but the local constable is not so easily convinced.
To clear her name and keep her neck free of the gallows, Bianca must apply her knowledge of the healing arts to deduce exactly how her friend was murdered and by whom—before she herself falls victim to a similar fate…
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The Alchemist's Daughter
By Mary Lawrence
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Mary Lawrence
All rights reserved.
London, March 1543
Imagine a time when the good king's ship the Mary Rose moors within sight of His Majesty's Whitehall residence, its four masts reaching skyward like trees sprouting on the river Thames. Her sails are furled, waiting for the sun and wind to call them open. But it is night, and plying the waters beneath the galleon floats a humble wherry steered by one not of the stuff of man but of something else.
His wherry skirts the hull of the king's mistress, and the ferryman looks up to admire her rows of cannon, the iron threatening even in silence. He chuckles at this king's indulgence—man does love his guns. A watchman stands guard near the gunwale, leaning hard on his longbow, having mastered the appearance of duty while sleeping standing up. He does not notice the odd spectacle floating just beneath him.
This suits the ferrier, for there is little fog this night, and he is not one to work without its cloak. He must soon make his way toward Romeland, where a merchant ship will dock, laden with sacks of grain and goods from a trip abroad.
The ferrier lifts his nose into the air, catching a scent beyond London's usual fare. Her streets of stagnant puddles and ditch latrines—the stench of the Thames with its dumped offal from market—can't mask what this ferrier wants.
He touches his pole to the water and sails past a flotilla of moored wherries. No humans, not even those reeking of drink, would need a ride at this hour. So they sleep in their hulls beneath their woolen blankets, oblivious to their comrade floating past.
The steeple of St. Paul's peeps over the city wall as he nears the mouth of the Fleet, flanked by massive Bridewell—abandoned by Henry for his preferred palace to the west. Giving wide berth to the discharge of river, the ferrier relishes the silence of man's creation, London—its jumble of brick and mortar housing a warren of crowded, slumbering souls. He's seen more than one king, more than one merchant ship, more than one plague mark this town. He's plied these waters for ... years? More like eons, he thinks.
A rat treads water beyond his skiff, and he descends quickly upon it, snatching it out of its watery grave only to give it a new one. He digs his long fingernails into the rodent's back and sharply smacks its head against the gunwale, then tosses it over his shoulder to land squarely atop a pile of others.
This night has not been fruitful. He's harvested less than half his usual take. But he has a chance to salvage what remains of the dark. A merchant ship is lumbering up the Thames, headed for Wool's Key. It is rife with rats. He can smell them.
Ahead, London Bridge spans the river, its twenty starlings taunting the fainthearted with its rapids, swirling and churning the drink into a raging torrent. Most passengers prefer to disembark and portage the hazard by foot. But he is untroubled. He's shot the bridge so many times before.
He points his skiff into the curling tongue of river without touching his pole to water. After all, he mostly commands his boat by thought. The sluice accepts him, and it is as if he has entered a dragon's mouth, the water gurgling and rushing about like saliva all around him. The rapid grabs hold of his vessel, spins it around. It scrapes the stone cavern of the bridge's underbelly, bucking and rocking. His head barely clears the massive supporting timbers. All the while, he never loses his nerve.
Then, as if the dragon has tasted him and is repulsed, he is spewed out the other side into the slowing current. He blinks up at the Queen Moon winking at him from behind a veil of gossamer clouds, and he blows her a kiss.
In the distance, the dim outline of the merchant vessel noses its way up the Thames, closer but still a long way off. On the opposite bank, the bear-baiting rings are quiet as the lights of Southwark flicker and fade in spent tallow. Its rogues, cutpurses, theaters, and bawdy houses are exhausted from a full night of vice. He is contemplating a sated belly when his attention is drawn to an argument on the mudflats, where two muckrakers are the only visible proof that the town is inhabited.
Poor muckrakers, he thinks. Such a demeaning existence, scrounging through the slime for scraps of leather, rope, maybe a lost buckle or piece of jewelry, anything with which to barter a meal or sell for coin.
Their voices carry across the water, and he slows to watch them shove and sling each other about. It won't be long before one of them stumbles and lands in the slop. He cannot make out their words, but he can see that one is a man and the other is a woman, for her skirt grows visibly weighted by the heavy muck.
Could it be a lover's spat? He watches with interest, distracted from his course down river. No, he senses little affection between these two. Their words grow louder, and he wonders why no one comes to investigate. But it is Southwark, home to London's most depraved and criminal, and this quarrel would not earn much notice.
The man grabs hold of something around the girl's neck and pulls so that she reaches up and cries out in pain. He flings her sideways, and she loses her footing, falling into the mud with a splat. The man laughs, and the girl curses. She struggles to her feet and outruns her aggressor in the viscid sucking muck. The ferryman moves on.
He directs his skiff toward the opposite shore, where quays and pulleys line the waterfront. Bales of wool and barrels of molasses are lashed to the piers, waiting to be stored in warehouses or shipped to ports elsewhere. Beyond the wharves, massive walls encircle the Tower and its grounds, where queens and traitors have met the executioner's axe. He floats clear of the moored ships rocking gently in the current. He's careful to maintain his distance and watches as the Cristofur comes into sight.
Like an old woman weary from life, the ship creeps up the river, worn from her voyage at sea. A few men post the yardarms and prow, seeing that she sails true without causing injury to herself or others. Her hull creaks as if complaining about this final demand, but she hasn't much farther and then she can rest.
The piers are not manned. No one expects the Cristofur to arrive at such an unholy hour. No one will come to her aid by rowing tenders out to pull her into moor, so the captain orders the sails wrapped and the anchor dropped.
The shrill pipe of the boatswain pierces the quiet, and the iron weight speedily pulls a line of rope through the hawsehole. The anchor hits the water with a satisfying splash, then disappears beneath the surface on its journey to the river's bottom. He admires man's ability to maneuver these cumbersome beasts. It still fascinates him.
Soon this sleeping maiden of a city will stretch her toes and yawn. But there is still enough dark that he may only be seen as a hooded figure standing in his wherry. Just another ferryman waiting for business. No one can see his arms as thin as bones or his skin as gray and pale as the moon. The heap of dead rats is not obvious, but it is about to grow taller.
As the Cristofur settles, it is as if a signal has spread among the vermin that land is within sight. Rats escape from portholes and over the sides, leaping into the river to make for better spoils on shore. The water teems with them, their ratty noses protruding just above the waterline, smelling their way to a new home.
If anyone had noticed, they would have seen his eyes glow green like a cat's. He moved swift upon the hapless rodents.
Jolyn Carmichael had one hour to live.
She clasped her new cloak at the neck as she trudged down the lanes of Southwark toward her friend's room of alchemy. The morning still held winter's chill, though they'd had several days of warmth and even sun the past couple of weeks. But spring seemed a long way off, as did Bianca's quarters. The air was laden with a consumptive damp. A pain gripped her side, and she stopped to let it pass before walking on.
The waves of nausea had grown in number over the past two weeks. At times they were so severe she couldn't stand straight. She had tried to determine the cause. Was it that time of month or the candied figs she'd eaten? It could have been the sherried chestnuts—she wasn't accustomed to the rich food he'd heaped on her. She wiped the end of her nose with a gloved finger and paused to admire her doeskin gloves, another gift.
Jolyn smiled at her good fortune. Just over a month ago, she'd left the mudflats to live at Barke House. Her previous life raking mud had been a hard one. She had never slept in the same place twice, nor had she known what it was like to eat more than one meal a day.
To what did she owe this good fortune? It began with a find. A ring poking up from the muck near Winchester House. Its gold caught the morning light and Jolyn's eye. She could have sold it, but she liked its weight in her hand, and the etching on its surface intrigued her. The next day and then every day after, she found something of value to sell at market that could assure her a decent meal. The ring had brought her luck. If necessary, she could sell it, but she was not keen to part with her find.
While selling scavenged jewelry near the bear-baiting venue, Jolyn met Mrs. Beldam of Barke House. The old matron fingered the odd pieces, biting them and holding them up to squint at their stones. Finally, she bought a small brooch with a garnet center. As she handed Jolyn the money, her gaze fell to the signet ring hanging around the young woman's neck.
"How lovely," she said, her gray eyes growing round. She reached to touch the piece of jewelry. "Where did ye get this?"
"I found it," said Jolyn.
"How much would ye take for it?" asked Beldam, turning it over.
"Oh, I will never sell it. It has brought me luck—something money cannot buy."
Mrs. Beldam drew back. "Indeed." Her eyes flicked up at Jolyn's, then returned to the ring. "No amount of money?"
"No amount of money."
Mrs. Beldam dragged her eyes from the necklace and tipped her chin. "Do ye live near?"
"Ye is a scavenger, then?" Jolyn nodded.
"Can'ts be easy, that life," said Mrs. Beldam. "Ye have a place to lay your head at night?"
Sleeping in doorways and under bridges might be disgraceful to those who only knew soft pallets and pillows, but Jolyn was not embarrassed to admit her circumstance. To Jolyn, not much separated most from a similar fate. "I make do," she said.
Mrs. Beldam studied her. She patted her purse distractedly as she thought. Eventually she stirred from her contemplation. "Ye knows, I run a home for young womens, Barke House," she said. "I takes in girls who needs a help in life. I could use an errand girl. Ye might keep to your muckraking if ye so like it. But ye'd have a place to stays."
Jolyn perked to hear this. Here was a woman offering a step up in life. She would be cautious, though; wary that she could be taken advantage of and end worse off.
So Jolyn visited the home for women and left satisfied that Mrs. Beldam did have a charitable heart. Jolyn moved in. She never regretted her decision, and in fact, her life got even better because of it. She cheerfully fetched goods from market and delivered sealed letters to London addresses. Even though her hands grew raw from washing laundry and scrubbing floors, she was content. Compared to muckraking, this was a life of easy meals and shelter from the cold.
It didn't matter that Barke House was once a stew with a reputation as questionable as the king's taste in wives. All Jolyn cared about was that Mrs. Beldam had saved her from scraping out a meager existence in the mudflats. And for that kindness, she was eternally grateful.
Once the layers of river clay were scrubbed from her skin and hair, Jolyn emerged something of a swan. The coat of grime had preserved her skin and left it pale so that her blue eyes appeared a startling contrast. Beneath her coif was a head of daffodil-colored hair.
At Barke House she caught the notice of a rich merchant. A man who doted on her. Mrs. Beldam tried to discourage her from seeing him, but Jolyn believed soon she'd step into an even better life.
Another wave of nausea gripped Jolyn, and this time she couldn't control an urge to lose her stomach's contents behind a hedge off Bankside. No one stopped to ask if she needed help. She wiped her mouth discreetly on the inside of her cloak and hurried on. This current dyspepsia was probably caused by her new lifestyle, to which she was still unaccustomed. Like so many other obstacles in her life, Jolyn figured this, too, was only temporary and once she had gotten a remedy from Bianca, she'd be as good as new. What she didn't know was soon she'd be dead.CHAPTER 3
No sign marked her door. Only the odor of a simmering concoction hinted at what lay on the other side. Passing pedestrians would scrunch up their noses and hurry on, being sure to detour her rent on their return. Sometimes even she couldn't bear the smells and she'd run out into the lane, gasping for air, preferring the stink of Southwark to those of her own making.
Bianca Goddard observed the lethargic drip of a distillation as it collected in a vesicle. A labyrinth of coiled copper spanned the length of a table. She studied the remnants of crushed herbs, mashed frog bones, and pulverized chalk; her blue eyes were tinged nearly purple with fatigue. An idea had roused her out of sleep, and she could not rest until she had begun to pursue it. She was nothing if not obsessed.
Wedges of apple and a hunk of cheese from Eastcheap market lay untouched on the plate while John licked his fingers from his portion. He eyed the browning fruit. "The fruit is going off, Bianca," he said. "You should take the time and eat." He looked at Bianca, annoyed she had ignored his offering. "Because if you aren't going to have it ..." Then, rueful for wanting the food for himself, he said, "Can I at least steep you some tea?"
Bianca shrugged and, with eyes still fixed on her latest experiment, pointed toward a shelf lined with crockery. "It's next to the jars of herbs."
John retied the leather strip gathering his hair into a wheaten tail that reached between his shoulder blades. He crammed several wedges of fruit in his mouth, then wandered over to the shelves of Bianca's room of Medicinals and Physickes, as she preferred to call it. She was riled if anyone called it a room of alchemy. She'd been here for less than a year, having spent her childhood running errands for her father in his quest to discover the philosopher's stone. Eventually Bianca had come to reject her father's line of inquiry for one of her own. She combined the parts of alchemy she found useful with the knowledge of herbs she'd gleaned from her mother. To this combination she added a healthy dose of curiosity, and the result was a salve to tame the French pox. Its popularity afforded her this room off Gull Hole in the undesirable but, for her, affordable area of Southwark.
John squinted at the array of jars and cracked bowls, some labeled with torn bits of precious paper scribbled on in charcoal and stuck on with snail ooze. But the mucilage had dried and several labels had floated to the floor, though some had been rescued and hurriedly stuffed inside the jars. He found a container labeled "ceylon," but he couldn't be sure if it wasn't cayenne. Either way, they'd soon find out.
"So, what is this latest madness?" he asked, gesturing to Bianca's experiment. He set a pan of water to boil on top of a calcinating stove. The stove belched a steady plume of blue smoke, to which Bianca had provided an escape through a cracked window. Despite her effort, John's eyes still watered, and he thought he'd never get used to the smells and fumes that accompanied Bianca's dabbling.
Bianca brushed the hair from her eyes. The linen cap that usually hid her mussed locks hung on a hook by the door. She didn't wear the troublesome coif in the privacy of her rent, and John appredated seeing her hair—as black as the knocker at Newgate— frame her pale face.
Excerpted from The Alchemist's Daughter by Mary Lawrence. Copyright © 2015 Mary Lawrence. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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