A cursed symphony and magic which tells stories in your mind.
High Mistress Talia is a hellraising socialite with a murky past. But she has a bright future. Beautiful, rich, and a virtuoso harpist, she’s betrothed to the Count of Brecht. In short, she has it all. Or so it would seem.
Marla Holst is the new lady’s maid, but never has the ‘help’ been so unhelpful. Marla, real name Mist, has only one mission: to stop the high mistress’s marriage. By any means necessary.
But complications abound. Talia’s disturbed daughter, a girl who can see into the future, is cursed with the stigma of a devil-worshipping father. The count’s father, the Duke of Rizak, is a recluse, too afraid of assassins to show his face. And all the nobility want to do is duel.
Meanwhile, the highlight of the season—a recital of the famous ‘Cursed Symphony,’ draws ever closer.
Epic Fantasy for fans of Robin Hobb, Patrick Rothfuss, Brandon Sanderson, Neil Gaiman, V.E. Schwab.
PRAISE FOR SERVANT OF THE LESSER GOOD
“Intrigue & dark magic sprinkled with 18th century glamour & glitz. A great read.”
“A fun book with feeling and heart that pulls no punches.”
“I couldn’t put this book down, great from start to finish, exciting fantasy adventure mixed with conflicted characters.”
Servant of the Lesser Good
A ROOM WITH NO VIEW
It was a nice room, all told, a cosy hideaway in the attic. Recently converted, judging by the sticky varnished floorboards, the owls nesting in the eaves had seen off the rats, and the bugs in the thatch had been dispatched with acrid-smelling camphor. There were a lot worse cells.
The half-dressed woman tied to the bed squealed beneath her gag as Mist carried the sloshing chamber pot to the window. Verdant countryside framed the view as far as the eye could see, and not a hovel in sight. She tipped the pan’s dark contents down the side of the roof. “There’s no point complaining,” she said. “No one will hear you.” She returned the empty container to the end of the iron-framed bed. It was hardly a dignified scene, the woman dressed in only her discoloured shift, the mattress damp with suspicious stains. The prisoner’s eyes flitted between fear and anger, straggly, out-of-place strands of chestnut hair stuck to the side of her face over a red welt. She must have struggled. Mist offered a sympathetic smile. “I’ll take your gag off, but you got to be quiet.”
The woman nodded, suddenly compliant. She turned her head to allow the muzzle’s removal. The saliva-soaked linen fell on the mattress. She turned slowly back, puckering lips spitting out the dryness. “Who are you?” she croaked.
“The name’s Marla, lady.”
“What do you have to do with all this?”
“I’m just the maid.” A freshly filled water jug sat on the dresser. Mist moved it to the bedside table.
The woman pulled at her tied wrists, grimacing with pain. “How am I supposed to reach that?” she said. “I can’t even scratch my nose.”
“I’ll loosen your binds a little,” Mist offered, “if you promise not to try anything.” It couldn’t hurt. She wasn’t an animal.
The woman nodded eagerly. “Thank you.”
Her right wrist was red and swollen where it was lashed so tightly to the bedframe. Mist loosened the knot, retying the cord to allow several inches more movement. “There,” she said, “you can reach it now.”
The woman made toward the jug. “I need more slack.”
Mist sent an unimpressed look. “So you can untie yourself, you mean? Are you trying to get me into trouble?”
“No.” Her eyes darted toward the door. “Please, you have to help me.”
“I’m sorry, lady, it’s more than my job’s worth.”
“Your job?” She let out a shriek of frustration. “They’re going to kill me. I just know it.”
“I’m sure it won’t come to that,” Mist said. “You’d be dead already if that was their plan.” She stepped back from the bed and picked some pins from the sideboard to do up her dress. The captive stared sullenly over. “Drink some water,” Mist said. “It’s fresh from the well.”
The woman didn’t move. “Do you know what they want with me?”
Mist pinned the frock closed. “I couldn’t say.”
“Can’t or won’t?”
She offered no reply. It wouldn’t make any difference what she said. She checked the mirror. There, the complete look. A simple outfit, but clean and tidy. Perfect handmaiden material.
Their eyes met. “Please, just free me,” the prisoner begged. “No one will know it was you.”
“There’s a man downstairs. He’d know.”
A tear snaked down her cheek. “You could tell someone—the local Justice.” She sat forward as much as the rope would allow, eyes intense. “How far are we from Kandar? You could go there, bring the City Watch.”
“I’m sorry. Really, I am.” Mist turned to go.
“Please,” the woman sobbed. “Don’t leave me.”
Mist looked back from the door. “They’ll bring food and water,” she said. “Just don’t cause any trouble. You’ll get through it.”
“No!” The captive pulled at the bedframe. It clanked back and forth, perfectly secure. “Don’t go!”
Mist shut the door regretfully behind her. Some people had the worst luck.
“Your handwriting’s confusing at the best of times,” Mist said. “Looks like a spider’s in charge of the quill.”
“And the worst of times?” Dasuza asked. The skinny youth steered their two black mares around a broken-down cart.
She considered the parchment. “Weyvik looks like Whyvil, the way you’ve written it.” She flapped her skirt, trying to cool her stockinged legs as the wagon trundled onward. It was too hot for maid’s attire this morning.
“And the others?” he pressed.
She scanned the next line. “The easily confused Lords Frey and Freya,” she said, “and House of Gaignot becomes Gavenot.”
“Good. And don’t forget Gamil, that’s two days’ travel. Garel is the fallback, remember?”
“Like an elephant.”
He nodded approvingly. “You’ve a knack for names, Marla.” He chuckled. “And where did you drag that one up from?”
“A headstone.” She passed the letter back. “Down Ravenshill. It’s beautiful, carved like angel’s wings, polished granite. There’s a poem and everything. Always flowers—someone still remembers Marla Holst.”
“Holst? That’s rather dry for a name, isn’t it? I’d have pegged you to come up with something more colourful.”
“Dry’s good when it comes to an alias, Suz. You wouldn’t want me to draw attention to myself, would you?”
“Whether I want you to or not is beside the point. You can’t help attracting trouble. The dangerous kind, at that.”
“Better to burn bright than fizzle along like a dullard, Suz. Besides, a little danger makes me feel alive.”
“Really? The way you act, sometimes I think you’d prefer a shorter life.”
Mist laughed. “Well, Marla Holst lived into her eighties. That’s got to be a good omen, right?”
One of the horses whinnied, enveloped in a cloud of city dust. Kandar’s sprawling suburbs continued past on both sides. Mist prised the lid from the tin in her hand, revealing a vivid blue powder. She took a pinch, rubbing it into her gums. It tasted metallic, like she had static-charged saliva. She waited. The horses clip-clopped, wagon rattling over loose stone. She gripped the seat—still waiting, waiting…
The world turned silvery-grey again, colour draining from the view like water down a plughole. The effect was more striking, more sinister than the last dose only a few hours ago.
Dasuza looked across. “Take it easy with that stuff, will you?”
“I know what I’m doing, thank you.”
“Famous last words.”
She dragged air in around her teeth, cooling the irritation. He could try to be more supportive. It wasn’t like she enjoyed taking the stuff—quite the opposite. Copper azurite, soulshade as it was known, had some very unpleasant side effects, as well as the more useful ones. The colour blindness and missing depth perception definitely ranked in the former camp, as did the dull, dead feeling it provoked—like she’d lost something important. Something of herself. But then, that was nothing out of the ordinary, she always felt like that—a certain detachment from life and the people around her. The damn powder was making her worse though, she knew it. But she couldn’t stop taking it now.
The city wall approached, the street turning to cobbles, and they passed a tall mound. Atop, a body swung in the breeze on dark oak gallows—a man, sometime dead by the look of it. He was well-dressed as criminals went, a nicely tailored jacket, blue at a guess. Crows and ravens perched on the crossbeam, watching the world go by around them. Mist wondered who was the least perturbed at the corpse, her or the birds. The man, young by the colour of his hair, had probably done something to warrant his execution. Even if he hadn’t, those were the rubs of being alive—death came to everyone. Did it really matter when?
A ladybird landed on the back of her hand. It was a beautiful creature, so tiny, so delicate. She blew gently and it flew off into the city. They passed a squat bookshop, and a perfumery, opaque glass in tiny squares of lead casting snatched glimpses of duchy life—a woman scrubbing a floor, a man bookkeeping… A rickshaw rushed by in the opposite direction, a well-heeled dignitary in a curly white wig carried aloft, two bodyguards sweating to keep up. Kandar was a hive of activity, as you’d expect for the capital of the largest southern duchy.
Eastgate and its connected guard post came into view up ahead, concentrating thoughts on the task at hand. Dasuza slowed the wagon, joining the queue of carriages and carts waiting to enter the city. Up on the high wall, the glints of readied muskets announced a substantial security force. “Remind me of your experience,” Dasuza said. He donned his tall black hat.
He shot her a dark look. “Come on. You don’t want to say the wrong thing.”
“I’ll forget it if I say it too many times.”
“That makes no sense.”
“Yes, it does. It’s like snow blindness.”
“Just humour me.” He focussed on the guards.
“Fine. If it’ll stop yer whining.” Mist paused, conjuring a demure, well-spoken voice. “I trained under Madame Ashquez,” she purred, “a year at the Duke of Faylon’s court. Then I served at Lord Frey’s estate for the summer season, then onto the Whyvil’s staff. It was at the Whyvils’ Noxen ball that Mistress Perivale found me and saw my potential as a handmaiden. I’ve never looked back.”
“And why should I employ you?” Dasuza posed in a poor approximation of a woman’s voice.
“Why, it’s every girl’s dream to slave after spoiled rich women, mistress.”
He cursed under his breath.
Mist cupped an ear. “What’s that, mistress? You want me to brush your hair? Cut your toenails? Lance your boils? Perhaps you’d like to use me as a footstall?”
“I wish you’d take this more seriously,” Dasuza protested. “It’s important you make a good first impression.”
“I always do,” Mist returned hotly. “People like me. I can’t help it.”
He sighed. “A word of advice to the uninitiated. Service may seem straightforward, but there are a thousand pitfalls your training can’t prepare you for. Don’t underestimate the challenge.” He glanced toward the gate as the line moved. “Remember, best behaviour.”
“I’m not an imbecile, thank you very much.”
“No, but your head’s fifty degrees hotter than the road.” He edged the wagon forward.
A thick-set, bearded soldier sporting breastplate and pike stepped out in front of them. “Hold!” He raised a hand.
The world flooded back into full colour, the guard’s uniform bursting into rich bottle green. Mist screwed her eyes up at the brightness. The awakening got worse each time, the effect equal and opposite to the ever-increasing malaise the soulshade provoked.
The guard walked around the wagon and pulled the back curtain across, inspecting the contents. Dasuza exchanged a tense glance. It wasn’t the most usual looking vehicle, or most roadworthy, for that matter. Black paint peeling on all sides, the name Hashenkov and Son just about legible in flaky gold lettering, it was more a bad dream on wheels. The soldier reappeared. He stared suspiciously up at Dasuza. “I’ll see your merchant’s pass, citizen.”
“Merchant’s pass, sir?”
“Yes. You need one to drive a covered wagon into Kandar. Regulations.” He nodded at the hearse. “Undertaker’s guild, is it?”
Dasuza doffed his hat. “Well observed, sir. I am indeed a fellow of that fine organisation.”
“Don’t take much observing, son.” The guard thrust out a hand. “Let’s see this pass then.”
Dasuza proffered a broad smile. “My good man, this is our first visit to your magnificent city. I’m afraid we were not aware of the requirement for a pass.” A musket up on the wall flashed in the dazzling sunlight, repositioning to point in his direction.
“Northerners, eh?” the guard remarked.
“Indeed,” Dasuza confirmed. “Hailing from glorious Carmain itself.”
“Ah,” the guard murmured. “The true capital of Sendal.”
“Horseshit. Capital of muck, more like.”
“The sewers do struggle to keep up,” Dasuza returned generously.
The soldier offered an unimpressed, searching stare. “State your business.”
Mist cleared her throat. “I am to be interviewed by the High Mistress Talia for the position of handmaiden, sir.” She smiled sweetly, all the way to her sultry brown eyes—at least they’d better be damn sultry today.
“The count’s fiancée?” the guard said. “She in town, is she? I thought I smelled something bad.”
Well, that was rude, but the lack of enthusiasm was hardly a surprise. Talia was from the neighbouring duchy, Tombar, and relations with Rizak had been strained for years, no love lost between the two states. The hostility made the upcoming wedding all the more noteworthy.
The man considered their rickety vehicle suspiciously. “This ain’t the kind of transport you’d expect for a well-to-do lady’s maid,” he said. “I have to warn you, miss, making false representations to the City Guard is a serious offence.”
“It’s all above board,” Dasuza said. “I am to deliver my cousin here to the royal apartments. Everything is arranged.” He withdrew a folded piece of parchment from inside his jacket, passing it down. “Here, a letter of introduction.”
The guard scanned the document, at least pretending to read it. But going on his accent, rough demeanour, and the charms hanging around his neck, he probably couldn’t decipher anything more complex than a tavern menu. He looked up after a moment. “No pass, no entry.” He handed the letter back and adjusted his tricorne, wiping the sweat from his forehead.
Mist stifled a groan. The man was infuriating. How was she supposed to get the job if she couldn’t even get into the city?
“Perhaps you could issue us with a temporary document?” Dasuza suggested.
The guard shook his head, patience wearing thin. “You’d need a corpse in the back of there first, undertaker.”
Don’t tempt me, Mist thought. “It’s fine, Suz,” she said. “I’ll walk from here.”
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible, miss,” the guard said. “You can’t just waltz into Kandar whenever you feel like it. There’s rules, and paperwork. Lots of paperwork.”
“Are you saying I can’t even pass on foot?”
“Vagrancy law, miss. We’re plenty full already and the ropes are tight.” He nodded toward the hanging man on the mound.
“This was a civilised country, last time I checked,” Dasuza said. “Sendal does not string people up for vagrancy.”
“If the duke would hang his own valet, citizen, I doubt he’ll have any problem with you two.”
Dasuza glanced at the unfortunate corpse. “And what did he do to deserve that?”
“He tried to assassinate the duke. Not a sensible course of action. Deserved to hang for his own stupidity, so he did.”
“When was this?”
“Couple of weeks back, citizen. Still, I don’t suppose the lucky duke surviving another attempt on his life makes headlines in the news sheets in Carmain.”
“You’d be surprised,” Dasuza muttered. But he would be. This was the first they’d heard about it.
“Poisoning, was it?” Mist asked casually.
“No, miss. He attempted to blow his grace up. Got caught sabotaging his pistol.” The man grimaced. “The birds don’t care either way. They pecked his eyes out in the first hour. Me and the lads had a wager riding.” He tapped his pocket. “Let’s just say, I’m a keen gardener.”
Mist swapped a bemused look with Dasuza. “Long may he rot for such a despicable crime,” she said. “Long live the duke.”
The soldier saluted sharply. “Long may his grace rule over us, and the gods bless him in all his merciful goodness.” That much praise seemed like overkill, but then, there was always someone watching—perhaps the men on the wall could lipread. “Right, I suggest you turn this thing round,” the unhelpful man barked. “There’s a livery over at Blackwharf if you need one.”
Mist took a calming breath. This was no good. She’d not spent all these years learning how to manipulate her betters beneath a mask of polite subservience only to fall at the first hurdle. She fixed the soldier with her most earnest expression. “This is the last chance for my family, sir. If I do not take this job, we shall be destitute and my uncle sent to a debtors’ prison.” She fluttered her eyelids for good measure. That had worked in the past too.
The guard put his hands on his hips. “Rules is rules.” He raised an expectant eyebrow.
“Very well.” She relented. “How much?”
His eyes flicked to his two comrades, busy inspecting the contents of the next cart in line. “Pedestrian tax is six marks, miss.”
“And who do I pay that to?”
“I can take it for you.”
Well, that sounded suspect. “I get a receipt, do I?” Mist asked sarcastically.
“We don’t do receipts, miss.”
The only recipient of this tax would be the man’s favourite tavern keeper. Usually, she’d refuse to pay a bribe on principle, but this job was important to Uncle. She couldn’t afford to mess things up before they’d even begun—and not getting into Kandar would certainly count as that. “Pay the man, Suz.”
Muttering darkly, Dasuza reached into his britches and dug out a silver coin. The guard palmed it smoothly and retreated to a safe distance. He waved his pike at the wagon. “Come on now,” he called, “turn this thing around. You’re blocking the way.”
Mist adjusted her bonnet. “Right then, I’ll be seeing you, cousin.”
Dasuza nodded reluctantly. “I’ll be in touch. Don’t do anything rash, will you?”
She placed a reassuring hand on his arm. “You know, too much worrying can send an idiot to an early grave? There’s been studies.”
He snorted. “At least I’ve got the right transport to get there.”
She offered an approving grin and jumped down onto the road, slinging her traveling bag over her shoulder. She had little in the way of possessions. But she shouldn’t need many. She was resourceful. You have to give the girl that.