Sergeant Adrianne Roche knew that service in the Queen’s Own Sabres would take her to strange new lands. She just never expected to go there in a belly dancing costume.
When the Duchess Margrethe de Charleroi, third in line to the throne of Lilles, is stolen as a bride for the Caliph of Magli’s son, Adrianne is ordered by the Queen to infiltrate the Caliph’s palace (with the help of a belly dancing troupe) and rescue the kidnapped duchess before she can be married to Prince Samir.
The mission is soon complicated by a scheming vizir, a young dancer driven to desperation by her father’s gambling debts, and a troupe mistress who expects Adrianne to, well, perform. Now, Adrianne must join forces with a magic-using monsignor loyal to the Queen’s political rival in order to stop this royal wedding.
Melanie Fletcher has taken all the best elements of The Three Musketeers and The Arabian Nights to a new level, writing a rousting, rollicking adventure. All for One and Fun for All!
– Laura J. Underwood
Where To Buy
It was a humid summer evening in Lutèce, and the very air seemed to cling like a second skin. Everywhere on the capital’s cobblestoned streets people complained about the heat; workers on their way home flapped soggy shirts in a vain hope of a breeze, tradesmen watched in dismay as their wares wilted right before their eyes, and nobility sweated under their fine clothes and longed for summer’s end.
Sergeant Adrianne Roche, of the Queen’s Own Sabres, longed for a cold beer. The rest of the squad was probably off duty by now, she thought sourly; holed up somewhere in a cool tavern and discussing the pros and cons of skinny-dipping in the Senne. Meanwhile, she was stuck in a hot second-floor room, made even more sweltering by a troupe of half-naked desert dancers practicing their routines.
At least ten other Sabres, most of them men, had groaned in jealousy when they found out where she was going. And I’d be happy to have any one of them take my place, she thought, a drop of sweat trickling down her neck. It seemed particularly unfair that the Celestial Court of Isis got to swan around in gauzy skirts, light blouses and bare feet while she was stuck in her Sabre’s uniform of boots, breeches, linen shirt, doublet, baldric, mandelion and hat.
Granted, the dancers were sweating from the heat as well, but on them it seemed natural, somehow. On her, it just looked damp.
And it itched.
The door behind her opened, and she came to attention. “We’re ready for you, Sergeant,” an urbane baritone said.
“Yes, sir.” She turned and followed Captain Bernarde Colline, commander of the Queen’s Own Sabres, into the small office where he’d been sequestered for the past half hour. A series of open casement windows along the top of the walls allowed a slight but welcome cross breeze into the room, and she took a deep breath of the cooler air.
A woman seated at an ornate desk smiled at her expression of relief. “Yes, I know it’s rather warm in there. It helps to keep the girls’ muscles loose and limber, and after a good practice even a warm, sticky evening feels cool,” she said as she rose. “But I’m being rude. I am Madame Isis Bet Sharim.”
Surprised, Adrianne bowed over the hand of the most famous dancer in Lutèce. Skilled in the exotic art of desert dancing, Isis Bet Sharim was a particular favorite of Queen Celeste, and rumor had it that her dance troupe’s name was in honor of the Lillean ruler. “It’s an honor to meet you, Madame.”
Isis gave Captain Colline an approving look. “She’s certainly charming enough.”
“That’s because she’s on her best behavior right now. You should see her in the field—or the tavern,” Colline said, leaning against the desk. His expression turned grim. “Sergeant, what do you know of Margrethe de Charleroi?”
Adrianne blinked at the simple question. “Her Grace is a member of the royal family, and is third in line to the throne of Lilles,” she said, “behind the Dauphin Phillip, of course, and Louis, Duc de Charleroi, younger brother of the queen—”
The captain held up a hand. “Allow me to rephrase—what do you know of the duchess? I know you’ve been assigned as her bodyguard in the past. What did you think of her?”
There were a number of responses to that question; the more honest ones would result in her court-martial from the Sabres. Adrianne decided on diplomatic evasion. “Margrethe de Charleroi is a credit to her ancestors’ notions of nobility,” she said with a straight face.
Madame Isis clapped her hands. “Bravo, sergeant. What a wonderful way of calling her an arrogant little snot.”
Colline sighed. “I take it that there was no fond feeling between the two of you?”
“Not unless you consider being called an ungainly sow a fond feeling, sir,” Adrianne replied. “And her cat…”
Where to begin about the hissing, spitting, hat-shredding demon known as Petit Chou? In his mistress’s arms, the black beast was a playful kitten; with anyone else, the teeth and claws came out, and usually went back bloody. “Her cat wasn’t fond of me, either.”
“Ah.” The captain gave her a long, somewhat apologetic look, and Adrianne was suddenly sure he knew about the Sabres’ habit of throwing dice for bodyguard assignments, with the duchess awarded to the loser. “Be that as it may, I’m afraid that you’re the only suitable Sabre we have at the moment, so you’ll need to ignore any personal issues you may have with her Grace while on this mission.”
That caught her attention. “Mission, sir?”
Colline nodded, unrolling a map on the dance mistress’s desk. “A week ago, the duchess was kidnapped by agents of Prince Samir, the son of the Caliph of Magli.”
Adrianne’s eyes widened in shock. Margrethe de Charleroi was the Queen’s own niece; by a brother she loathed, true, but the young woman was still a member of the extended Royal family. For her to be kidnapped from the palace itself meant that someone had found and exploited a gaping hole in security. The Palace guardhouse was probably packed with fearful guardsmen, she thought, waiting for heads to roll. “How did they get the duchess out of the palace grounds, sir?”
Colline grunted. “An excellent question, and one that we are continuing to investigate. In the meantime, however, this matter must be handled with a certain degree of delicacy, so what I am about to tell you must never leave the confines of this room.”
Adrianne glanced at the dance mistress, curious about her presence during a covert briefing. “You have my word as a Sabre, sir.”
“Excellent. Her Majesty is currently in negotiations with the Caliph’s government to establish a Lillean merchant presence in Magli. Not only would this expedite shipment of spices, rugs and other luxury items from Magli, but it would also serve as a very welcome source of tax income for the Crown. However, the negotiations are currently at a very fragile stage, and the Privy Council feels that demanding her Grace’s return would cause more problems than it would solve. Thus, the Sabres have been asked to retrieve her—quietly.”
She nodded, understanding. As the personal bodyguards of the reigning monarch, the Sabres could be dispatched on missions that were deemed inappropriate for other military branches.
The captain grew more solemn. “As if that weren’t enough, there’s another issue. During our search of the palace, we discovered that one of the crown jewels is missing. The missing piece, the coeur de la vérité pendant, traditionally belongs to the first female in the line of succession, whether or not she is actually to inherit the throne.” He brought out a detailed color sketch that featured a large, perfect teardrop of jet, set with diamonds and strung on a heavy gold chain.
Isis leaned over Adrianne’s shoulder, studying the pendant. “I’ve never seen this before. It’s far too lovely for that little brat,” she said. “I assume from the name that it’s one of the Crown’s magical pieces?”
“Unfortunately, yes. The coeur invokes honesty from all whom the wearer addresses,” Colline said. “Her Majesty only wears it during trials for crimes against the crown, which is why it’s not commonly recognized. As her Grace is the next female heir, she is the hereditary keeper of the pendant, so we must surmise that it was taken to Magli with her.” The captain looked grim. “Since the founding of Lilles, none of the crown jewels has ever been lost, stolen or removed from the keeping of the royal family. Her Majesty desires that this unbroken link be maintained. Since you speak Safaitic and showed great resourcefulness during the Three Queens campaign, it has been decided to send you to Magli, where you will locate both the duchess and the coeur and return them to Lilles.”
Adrianne’s mouth went dry. She knew about the Sabres’ secret missions, but as a mere sergeant she’d never expected to be sent on one. “Yes, sir.”
“We know that her Grace is being held somewhere in the Caliph’s palace, probably in Samir’s quarters,” Colline continued. “Presumably the coeur is either with her, or in the palace treasure room. The Queen is sending Madame Bet Sharim and the Celestial Court as her contribution to the Caliph’s upcoming birthday party. You will join that troupe and travel with them to Magli.”
The plan seemed sensible enough to Adrianne. “Will I be acting as Madame Isis’s bodyguard, or one of the regular sentries?”
Colline exchanged a glance with Isis, who pursed her lips as if trying to smother a smile. “I’m afraid you didn’t understand me, sergeant,” he said. “You’ll be joining the troupe. As a dancer.”
“A d—” Adrianne’s jaw dropped. “Are you insane?”
There was a horrified pause as she realized what she’d just said, and to whom she’d just said it.
“Sir,” she added, far too late.
Colline raised one iron-grey eyebrow. Even in the summer heat, the room’s temperature seemed to drop ten degrees. “I believe my sanity is quite intact, sergeant,” he said quietly.
“Yes, sir, I’m sorry, sir.” Adrianne stared at the items hanging over the dance mistress’s desk; a portrait of the Queen, the five-pointed Star of God, even a small, optimistic spider spinning a web in the corner. Anything to avoid Colline’s chilly gaze. “What I meant was—I mean—I’m a Sabre, sir, not a dancing girl.”
The captain’s other eyebrow rose. “Interestingly enough, that’s not what they said at the Blue Cockade.”
To her horror, Adrianne felt herself blush. The Blue Cockade. She’d known letting Gilles and Martain plan her birthday party was a bad idea. The two senior Sabres possessed an astonishing capacity for liquor, and their hobby was watching other Sabres try to keep up with them at the bar. These attempts usually failed in a spectacular fashion, with the Sabre vomiting copiously into a nearby gutter, alleyway or, once, the Quartermaster’s garden (everyone picked through their field rations more carefully after that).
After three large cups of ice wine and a tankard of Old Peculiar “for the birthday girl,” Adrianne had been persuaded (with the assistance of Gilles and Martain) to climb up on the bar and give a demonstration of the Low Country Fling, a energetic folk dance that was popular in her home county of Fabre. Gilles’s gleeful story about “The Dancing Sabre from Fabre” had echoed in the barracks for weeks afterwards; it must have gotten back to Colline at some point.
Her cheeks still blazed. “Oh,” she muttered.
“Indeed. Granted, folk dancing isn’t quite the same as desert dancing, but since you’re the only Sabre of the right gender who has demonstrated any sort of aptitude for dancing, you’ll be joining Madame’s troupe,” he concluded. “Now, may I please explain the mission details, or are you going to waste more of my time?”
She stiffened. “Sir.”
“Good.” He picked up a piece of paper from Madame’s desk, reading from it. “You’ll travel as an apprentice desert dancer to Magli—I’ve already asked Madame to teach you some of their routines during your trip—where you’ll be admitted to the Caliph’s palace with the rest of the troupe for his birthday party. The celebrations are scheduled to last three days. Our contacts in the palace have informed us that the Caliph plans to hold the marriage of the duchess and Samir as a ‘surprise’ on the third day. Before that happens, you must locate her Grace and the coeur and extract them from the palace. A Lillean merchant caravan will already be in the city; both of you will join it and travel with them to the port city of Aljierz. We’ll have a fast ship waiting there to take you straight back to Marsais.” He handed her the paper with a gimlet look. “Memorize the contact information, then destroy this. You leave tomorrow with the troupe tomorrow. Both her Majesty and I expect you to carry out this mission flawlessly, sergeant. Flawlessly. Your country is counting on you.”
And if you muck this up, say goodbye to your military career. Adrienne swallowed hard. “I understand, sir. I won’t fail you or her Majesty.”
He nodded once, and the dance mistress cleared her throat. “Well, now that’s settled, Bernarde, I need to see what I have to work with,” she murmured. “Please have her things sent from the barracks — I’m going to need every moment with her I can get.”