Secret Burdens by Suzanna J. Linton by Suzanna J. Linton - Read Online

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Secret Burdens - Suzanna J. Linton

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B.

Acknowledgements

It takes a lot to write a novel. Many people think it only requires a crazy person hopped up on caffeine banging away at a laptop. While that’s the main ingredient, it takes a crowd to transform a concept it into a readable, enjoyable tale.

First, I’d like to thank Libby at Sherman Writing Services for helping me to edit. You’re Jarrett’s first fangirl and he appreciates your enthusiasm. I’d also like to thank my beta readers, K.T. Katzmann and Jason McCuisten, and my proofreader, Julia Gibbs.

Thanks again to Fiona Jayde of Fiona Jayde Media for another gorgeous cover. Big thanks to Vikki Perry, Mike Beedy, and Pee Dee Writers. Thank you to the content creators at the YouTube Channel Pursuing the Knightly Arts. I watched your videos multiple times so I could better write my action sequences.

Most of all, I want to thank my husband, Brad, to whom this novel is dedicated. Every writer needs a muse but also a caretaker. For me, you are both.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements

Homecoming

Investigation: Day One

Investigation: Day Two

Investigation: Day Three

Investigation: Day Four

Investigation: Day Five

Investigation: Day Six

Endings and Beginnings

About the Author

Homecoming

A soldier coughed, shattering the silence of the clearing. Jarrett took a deep breath and flexed his fingers around his sword hilt. Before Jarrett’s squad of sixteen men was a hole, the height of a tall man and three times as wide, dug into the rocky hillside.

Within the cave, nothing moved in the darkness. All around them, birds twittered and flies buzzed in the sun-splotched forest. But from the hole came only silence.

Jarrett could imagine its interior. Stinking of offal, dung, and the dry musk of snake, it no doubt led down into a warren of similar tunnels. They riddled this part of the forest for miles, twisting like the branches of a gnarled oak.

It would be suicide to enter. There wasn’t room enough to swing a sword, no easy exit, and a group of men would bottleneck or become trapped. He’d never gone further than a single turn in such a tunnel. Jarrett wondered how long he would last if he ventured deeper.

He tilted his head back, peering beyond the broad brim of his kettle helm to mark the sun’s position in the bright blue sky. Summer heat simmered in the clearing, leaving him sweaty and restless. It was nearing noon. They had been waiting close to two candlemarks.

While this was normally Jarrett’s squad to lead, Lieutenant Nathaniel gave the orders on this hunt. The man had tired of patrols and especially requested this assignment. So, not only did it chafe not giving orders to his own men but it also irked Jarrett to be underneath a sallow-faced lieutenant a decade younger than him. 

Sir, Jarrett said, maybe we should slaughter the goats? He forced a lilt to his voice, turning a pointed suggestion into a question.

A pair of goats stood tied to a holly tree. The lizards often came out to lie in the sun at this time of day but, on occasion, they needed encouragement. It looked to be one of those occasions. Unless this particular beast had slipped out of an exit they missed.

Jarrett and his men had spent the last week closing up holes into the warren. It was possible they’d missed one or the holes they closed belonged to a separate den. Anything was possible with Marduk’s creation. If the creature hadn’t come out yet, then they needed spilled blood. If spilled blood didn’t work, then it was another week in these damned woods, searching for a monster that had eaten three cows and a farmer’s daughter.

On occasion, deep in the night, Jarrett still heard the screams that tore from the throats of the men and women Marduk changed. The sorcerer-king used elemental spirits to turn people into his monsters. Because he was Captain of the Royal Guard at the time, it was Jarrett’s job to protect Marduk in case the wizard lost control of his creation. After the spell was complete, Jarrett escorted the new creation to its cell under the Palace. It was a ritual that happened night after night.

On the walk beside the confused creature, stumbling on four legs instead of two, it never failed to strike him that their eyes remained human. Unless it was the progeny of one, Jarrett knew that every creature he killed had once been a human who did not ask for its fate. And even as he killed them, over a year after their creation, their eyes still remained too human.

After Clara and Emmerich killed Marduk, making Emmerich the new King of Lorst, a traitor opened the cells and released Marduk’s menagerie. It was discovered later that it was Remus, a Tieran who had been attending the Academy for magic workers. It was part of Remus’s plot for revenge, one that Clara and the King foiled through luck and violence.

The monsters spread throughout Lorst, most of them going into the Eastern Forest. After the business with Remus ended, and Clara returned with her parents, Jarrett left his commission. He joined one of the companies assigned to clear the Forest. That had only been two weeks ago but long enough for him to become acquainted with what they fought. Not that he needed much of an introduction.

Nathaniel nodded. I think you’re right, sergeant.

Jarrett, nerves tightening his stomach, signaled to the men in charge of the goats. They untied the animals and brought them over to the gaping tunnel. However, as they came closer, the goats tossed their heads and bleated, their eyes rolling in their heads. The soldiers picked them up and carried them the last few feet.

With swift motions, the men slit the goats’ throats and dumped the bodies in the mouth of the hole. They backed away in quick steps. The rest of the men shuffled like saplings brushed by wind, complete focus centered on the hole.

Jarrett became intensely aware of the sweat on his skin, the robin singing in a nearby sycamore, and a bee buzzing around a clump of wild yellow roses. He felt his heart beating in his chest and each whoosh of breath passing through his lungs.

There was a sense of movement in the dark, a darker bulk in the blackness. It might have been his imagination but Jarrett swore the air grew heavier with the reek of dung and old, rotten blood.

Jarrett opened his mouth out of habit but Nathaniel beat him to the order.

Archers, nock, the lieutenant called.

The four archers, standing at the flanks, notched their arrows.

A lizard’s clawed foot, larger than Jarrett’s head, reached from the dark and dragged one of the goats into the tunnel. Jarrett listened hard. He didn’t hear anything to suggest the creature had left. He hadn’t heard it approach, either.

Draw, said Nathaniel.

Jarrett raised his sword as the archers pulled back.

Loose!

The men sent their arrows whizzing into the dark. Screams erupted. Claws scrabbled against earth and stone.

Nock. Draw. Loose.

More arrows. More screams and tearing of ground. A salamander three times the size of a horse lunged out of the hole, three arrows buried in its scaled hide. The sun glinted off its crimson and gold scales. It opened its mouth and screamed again.

For the King! Jarrett shouted, charging forward and trusting his men to follow. Behind him, the others echoed his war cry and the heavy thud of their boots covered the sounds of the summer day.

***

Two months later...

Jarrett scrubbed himself with the long-handled brush. Satisfied that every part of him was sudsy, he stepped down into the cold pool. His breath caught at the icy water. It was almost too late in the season for outdoor bathing. The poplars ringing the spring wore the bright gold plumage of autumn. But being able to put his whole body in water, no matter its temperature, was really the last luxury allowed to him.

Besides, the cold water helped rid of him of a worry that had been crouching in the back of his mind.

Once rinsed, he climbed out and dried with a scratchy towel. He shivered as cold wind swept over his bare skin, raising goosebumps in its wake. The trousers he fumbled with nearly slipped out of his half-numb fingers.

Sergeant?

A soldier from the outpost stood at the rise over the spring.

What is it, Walter? Jarrett asked, pulling on his wool tunic. The warmth felt glorious against him. He ran his fingers through his short-cropped hair.

The captain summons you, sergeant.

Tell him I’ll be right there.

Walter saluted and walked away. Jarrett jammed on his gloves, pausing long enough to examine the mottled, scarred flesh of his left hand. Once again, the memory of the salamander’s scream echoed through his mind. He shoved on the glove and buckled on his sword.

During the walk to the outpost, the worry he’d been carrying since summer rose in his mind. And there was nothing to kill or a task to complete to help him ignore it.

Clara had not answered his letters. He wondered if she was angry with him for leaving, despite his best efforts to explain it to her. Stubborn woman.

The thick wooden walls of the outpost rose before him as he came up the path. It sat on the edge of Vernon’s Luck, a small town deep in the Eastern Forest. Not far away, Lord Stanley lived in his estate. From there, he ruled his small fiefdom. Jarrett had never met the man. Rumor had it that he was fair and honest.

As Jarrett passed through the gate, he nodded at the soldiers on guard duty. No one there recognized him as the former Captain of the Royal Guard. To everyone, from armorer to scullery maid, he was only Sergeant Jarrett and he thanked the Mother for small mercies.

It was bad enough that his own memory didn’t let him forget about his failures. He didn’t need other people reminding him.

After swinging by the barracks to drop off his toiletries, he walked into the big main building to the captain’s office. Jarrett knew men who loved to decorate their offices and sleeping quarters with every comfort. Captain Andrew worked out of a room stark in its simplicity.

A spacious desk, a table with chair by the window, a bookcase with battered volumes, and a series of cubby-holes bristling with rolled papers were the only items there other than the man himself. It looked almost incongruous against the deep red paint applied by its last occupant. Andrew, a large man with the shoulders of a bull, sat in the chair by the window, taking advantage of the brilliant sunlight. He held sheaves of paper: reports from patrols, no doubt. Jarrett saluted him.

Dropping them onto the table, Andrew saluted back. You’re a lucky man, sergeant.

Sir?

I received an order to relieve you of duty immediately and send you to Bertrand as quickly as your horse can carry you. With it came this letter. He held out a thick, folded letter.

The moment Jarrett touched it, he recognized the weight of the paper. It was the kind especially made for the Palace. The handwriting addressing it to him appeared familiar. He flipped it over and surprise lit through him. Clara’s seal, a star surmounting an eye, stared back at him.

As of this moment, Sergeant Jarrett, you are relieved of all duty and are ordered to leave tomorrow morning. A caravan is going in that direction, so you’ll go with them.

The roads are quiet, Jarrett replied. More or less. I should be able to make the journey on my own.

Maybe so, but it’s never a good idea to tempt destruction. You’ve been a good soldier. I hate to see you go.

Did the orders say where I’m to report?

To the Lady Clara, with full rank of captain restored. That’s all the orders said. I assume details are in the letter. This is your copy of your orders. He held out another folded piece of paper.

Jarrett took it. I’ll miss risking my life in this damn forest, sir.

Andrew snorted. I’m sure you will. You may go. I’m sure you have plenty of packing to do.

Thank you, sir. Jarrett saluted and departed, barely waiting for the captain to return it.

In the two months spent toiling and bleeding in the Eastern Forest, he had written Clara three letters. He knew it was odd. Normally, only very close friends, relatives, and lovers exchanged informal correspondence. However, after everything they’d been through together, Jarrett felt he’d earned the privilege. Besides, he’d left her still suffering from the after effects of her spirit journey. Surely letters full of the funny antics of soldiers would be welcome to a sick person.

However, none of his letters were answered. After the third one, he stopped trying.

Friends from among the Royal Guard, who occasionally wrote, said Clara was rarely seen outside her quarters. Her father died mere weeks after arriving at the Palace. Whether old age, a consequence of his long journey, or the sudden change in diet, no one knew for sure. And the betrothal between Clara and Emmerich still remained unofficial: the Council sat in deadlock over approving it. According to Jarrett’s contacts, King Precene of Tier wanted Emmerich to marry one of his daughters. Such a marriage made for a military and political alliance that could bring an end to centuries of war and uneasy truces. Half of the Council wanted to grasp at it while the other half supported Emmerich, mostly out of a desire to spite Tier.

Now with a letter in hand, Jarrett wasn’t sure what to think. He certainly didn’t expect concern and anticipation to turn his stomach inside out.

Privacy not being in abundance in the barracks, he found a measure of it in the outpost’s chapel. Only a few of the more devout of the servants and soldiers ever went there. He entered the narrow room, to find it occupied only by the statue of the Mother at her spinning wheel, with the Child standing by her knee.

Jarrett sat in a pew in a far corner, by a stained glass window. Red and blue light streamed over the worn, dark wood. He broke the letter’s seal and unfolded it.

Jarrett,

Bertrand is as alive and bustling as the day you left. The Palace prepares for winter. Bruin says it’s still weeks away. The harvest festival will be soon and it’s all my maidservants can talk about. Mistress Catriona has begun making her amazing apple and pumpkin turnovers. She asks me about you but I can’t tell her anything.

I’ve written letters but have received no reply. If you suffered misfortune, I’m sure I would have been informed, so I can only conclude that you’re too busy killing monsters and stealing pastries from the outpost kitchens.

Emmerich granted me the temporary ability to issue military orders. Please don’t be angry that my first one was to bring you back. Don’t dawdle. I have a task that requires your immediate attention.

Your friend,

Clara

As Jarrett folded the letter, he wasn’t sure what to think or feel.

First, the letter was little better than a note and it left him feeling underwhelmed. After two months, he thought there would be more to say. Secondly, it didn’t explain why no one saw her outside her rooms or if she’d recovered from her illness. It certainly didn’t explain why she wanted him back, given what she knew about his leaving. Thirdly, it only strengthened his concern.

She really had written him. How could Lady Clara’s letters become waylaid? Despite the monsters, letters and packages flowed freely. He certainly hadn’t missed any from his friends. Missives from a noble of Clara’s prominence would have higher priority. In fact, they would come through with the Royal Messenger, who visited the outpost once a week, while Jarrett’s regular correspondence ran through the merchants. Suspicion arose but he wasn’t sure who to direct it toward.

Instead of making him feel better, the note only brought a new chill to his spine.

***

On his own, Jarrett could reach Bertrand in a week or so. However, because he traveled in a caravan, it took longer and he counted the days, Clara’s phrase requires immediate attention spawning scenario after scenario in his mind. Eventually, they left the Eastern Forest behind for wide plains. Late autumn turned the grass to dull shades of brown, with patches of darker green. Wind blew almost nonstop, bearing with it the icy promise of snow and winter. It only served to add to his sense of impending doom.

Relief swelled in him when they crested a hill and sighted Bertrand sprawled out along the banks of the Lyn Tone River. The dark skeletons of fire-gutted buildings in the Low Quarters looked especially black set against the white stone walls surrounding the inner city.

Once upon a time, Bertrand had been a much smaller city. However, as it grew, the walls did not move. People built outside them and those became the Low Quarters. The poorer citizens made their home in this section of the city, which spilled out onto the plains and along the edge of the river. The city had been built on a hill, so the unblemished walls rose above the dingier Low Quarters while the towers of the Palace, Grand Temple, and the Academy reigned over them all.

They passed through the Low Quarters. Many buildings still lay in charred rubble but scaffolds and industry overshadowed them. It all seemed futile to Jarrett. Without walls, they remained vulnerable.

Once within the walls, he bid goodbye to the caravan’s headman.

I’ll make sure your trunk reaches the Palace, the headman assured him.

Thank you. Jarrett passed him a few more coins for his trouble and pressed through the crowd toward the Palace.

Jarrett wondered what he would face. How would the King react to his return? What urgent matter waited for him? Astride his gelding, Heartsblood, and pulling along his pack horse, he negotiated the bustle of the Middle Quarters. The familiar scents of animals, dung, and frying foods surrounded him. Noise and clatter rolled over the city like thunder. It was good to be home.

He considered visiting his parents’ house. However, if he went by his old home, his mother would insist he tell her everything that happened in the Forest. Never mind that he had written to them weekly. If he took off his gloves, she would be upset that he had left out something as important as being injured. 

Clara had instructed him not to dawdle. He passed the turn off for their street.

The crowds thinned the closer they came to the High Circle, where the nobility lived and where the Palace was located. Heartsblood threw his head back and Jarrett patted the horse’s neck. Nudging with his heels, Jarrett urged his gelding into a trot.

Royal Guardsmen saluted him as he approached the Palace gates. One of them spoke to a page-boy, who took off up the white gravel road leading to the Palace itself.

Been watching for me? Jarrett asked.

One of them, a short man whose name Jarrett couldn’t remember, replied, Her ladyship’s orders.

Jarrett carried on. Several courtiers stood on the front lawn, dressed for an outing and waiting for their carriages. They stopped and stared as Jarrett passed. When he left for the Forest in the summer, no one tried to keep his reassignment a secret. However, aside from the Guards on duty, it seemed Clara had kept his return quiet, judging from the looks of open curiosity and surprise.

A sense of foreboding settled in the back of his neck. It was never a good idea to surprise the King and Jarrett hadn’t believed she could keep his return a secret. Otherwise, he would have sent a note on ahead.

Idiot girl. Clara could be brave, competent, and even wise. But she enjoyed tweaking the tail of the dragon far too much. King Emmerich seemed disappointed when Jarrett left but what if the King had changed his mind in the intervening time?

At the stables, a stable hand, a servant, and a young boy in an unfamiliar, blue and silver uniform met him.

Captain Jarrett, the boy said, you’re to come with me right away. Kessy will take your belongings to your new quarters.

Jarrett dismounted. Are you a page?

Yes, sir. I serve the Lady Seer. Normally, pages wore a green tunic over brown trousers with a brown leather belt. This page, on the other hand, wore a deep blue tunic with silver edging over black trousers with a black belt.

Jarrett followed the boy into the Palace. How many pages serve her ladyship?

Two. She gave us new uniforms because people kept trying to redirect us or order us around. She said we’re supposed to serve her ex-clu-sive-ly.

He said the last word as if he wasn’t used to anything four syllables or longer. Jarrett wondered if he came from the Low Quarters. What else has changed in the last two months?

Not a whole lot. The King’s aerial has gotten bigger and started hiccupping. He laughed.

What’s funny about the hiccups?

Because fire comes out when she hiccups. One time, she set a tapestry on fire and the guards had to hurry to put it out. The King laughed.

It sounded like a nightmare. He could only imagine his replacement’s headache.

At least it isn’t my problem.

The Palace felt slightly warmer than the outside. Unfortunately, a charm set into place to keep the Palace cool in the summer meant it was hard to heat in the winter. Given the plethora of velvet tunics, wool dresses, and beribboned shawls, the courtiers had adapted.

The page took Jarrett to Clara’s quarters: a suite of rooms Marduk had laid aside especially for her. They weren’t as extensive as the Royal Wing but still impressive. Jarrett wondered if she still had the workroom where she made dresses.

The door to her private chambers opened. The page slipped past the man leaving.

Jarrett smiled and bowed. General Asher.

Sergeant, Asher said, closing the door behind him. What brings you to Bertrand?

Jarrett checked the urge to sigh. So, she didn’t tell you. I’m the captain of her new personal guard.

Asher’s brows rose as he processed this. If I didn’t know this—

She hasn’t told His Majesty.

I’m sure it won’t be a problem. But Asher grimaced anyway. Emmerich might not care that Jarrett had returned. However, he might care that Clara didn’t tell him that she had sent for Jarrett.

How is Bran? Jarrett asked. Bran had been a page who was unexpectedly gifted with the Sight by an aerial. After the fire that tore through the Low Quarters killed his mother, Asher had adopted the boy.

Settling in. He’s more used to being a servant than having servants but he’s adjusting.

And your sister, Lady Giselle?

With child. She and her husband announced it only yesterday.

Carry to her my congratulations.

I will. Asher’s lips twitched, as if he fought a smile. For the sake of safety, I’m going to pretend I didn’t see you in the hall.

Good idea.

Captain.

General.

He walked away. The door opened again and the page gestured for Jarrett to enter.

***

Jarrett strode through the door and cried, Reporting for duty, your ladyship!

It took a beat for the scene in front of him to register and then, all the breath left under a wave of shock.

Clara sat on the couch, every bit as pale and thin as the last time he saw her. Her dull hair hung in lank waves, brushing her shoulders, and dark circles smudged the underside of her eyes. She wore a burnt orange gown. It only served to make her appear more sallow. Brocade curtains over the windows and stale air heavy with the scent of herbs made the spacious room feel claustrophobic.

Mother’s tits. Clara, what happened?

Her lips formed a tired smile. Sit, Jarrett.

He sat beside her on the couch. He lifted a gloved hand to take hers but dropped it away at the last moment. What happened? Why aren’t you better?

I was getting better. Slowly. Mother smothered me with attention, tonics, and scolds but it helped. Emmerich kept finding excuses to see me, no matter how often Mother tried to warn him off. Then, an assassin poisoned me a little over four weeks ago.

Her statement was so matter-of-fact, Jarrett wasn’t sure he heard her correctly. Poisoned you?

Aye. It was kept about as quiet as Emmerich could manage. He forbade anyone who knew to speak of it. Officially, I’ve sickened with a stomach ailment. That’s sort of true, I suppose.

That explains why none of my friends told me of it in their letters.

I wrote you. Why didn’t you respond?

I didn’t receive your letters. Did you receive mine?

She raised a brow. No.

A heavy pause passed between them.

He asked, Did they catch the poisoner?

No.

This is why the King wants you to have your own guard?

Aye. My only condition was that I get to be the one who chooses the captain.

You said the story was exciting. You nearly dying is not exciting. He could live without ever hearing such a tale again.

It did get me out of a boring dinner party.

Jarrett pursed his lips. So you want me to find the man who hired the poisoner?

No. Lord Bruin and General Asher are investigating. In fact, Asher was here a moment ago updating me on how little progress they’re making. She took a goblet from the table. Her hand shook and it began to slip out of her fingers.

Jarrett grabbed it. It felt light to him, being only half full of water. Clara’s face closed into a stony expression.

May I? he asked.

It’s better than spilling it. Her voice was barely above a whisper.

He held it to her lips. Clara cupped her hand over his gloved fingers as she drank from it. After she pulled away, he returned it to the table.

Clara cleared her throat. What I need you to do is different. Mistress Catriona discovered several of her new maids were slaves.

Slaves in the Palace?

She was devastated at the discovery. Her face hardened. There shouldn’t be slaves this far south. There shouldn’t be slaves at all but you know how the North is.

How many?

Three. The women are too afraid to talk. I need you to find out who owned them and bring the slavers to justice. Bruin can’t do it because he’s too busy trying to find my would-be killer.

As captain of your personal guard, it should be me who tracks your enemy. Let the Palace and City Guards search for these slavers. How did they know they were slaves, anyway? They couldn’t have been wearing collars.

"One of them got hurt. When the healer treated her, he found a brand. A slaver branded her, Jarrett. Color rushed to her face and a glimmer of the old Clara lit up her hazel green eyes. If I ever meet the man who did that, I’ll see how he likes a brand. After the discovery, Catriona ordered for all the servants to be inspected. Matthias— She licked her lips. Matthias, your replacement, had sketches done."

I’ll investigate but—

Emmerich doesn’t want too many people involved in the search for the poisoner’s employer in case it was engineered by someone living in the Palace. He doesn’t want to scare the person off.

Jarrett snorted. I’m fully capable of being discreet.

At any rate, you’ll have help. I told Matthias and Captain Tarsus of the City Guard to help whoever I send to investigate.

You didn’t tell them it was me?

I’ve been keeping your return a surprise.

Why didn’t you at least tell Asher?

Because he would have told Emmerich. I even requested a list of possible candidates from Emmerich to make him think I wasn’t considering you.

Jarrett sighed. Clara, why wouldn’t you want the King to know?

She pressed her lips into a thin line. Because I know there has to be more to you leaving. I didn’t want to hear him say no.

"Clara, I left because I am not worthy to be captain of anything. I made two terrible mistakes.