The King’s Inquisitor
By Tonya Ulynn Brown
The queen of Scotland is dead. Her almoner’s son, William Broune, has fulfilled his father’s wish that he should serve the king, James VI, at court. William finds himself caught between loyalty to the king or loyalty to his conscience. As William is forced to serve as the king’s inquisitor in the North Berwick witch trials, he must make a decision. Will he do what the king asks, and earn the wife, title, and prestige he has always desired, or will he let a bold Scottish lass influence him to follow his heart and do the right thing?
If William doesn’t make the right choice, he may be among the accused.
Trigger warnings: Some violent imagery.
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Read an Excerpt
“Mother,” I started slowly. She looked up at me from her plate, a smear of lemon glaze stuck to the corner of her mouth. “Do ye recall how I told ye of a plot to put the king in danger and remove him from the throne?
Mother, to her credit, shot her eyes to William, then back at me. I was thankful that she was in her senses and knew enough to be leery of mentioning such things in front of people we barely knew. Especially when it pertained to the help we were trying to give the accused witches. A slight nod of her head told me that she knew exactly to what I referred.
“I had to share the information with someone we could trust. I told Sir William of what information I had in hopes that he could prevent the plot from coming to fruition.”
Mother swallowed the bite of wafer that she had been chewing. “But Ailsa dear, I thought ye said that Master Broune was not to be trusted?”
William coughed, almost spitting his tea down his beautiful velvet doublet.
“I don’t know that I said those exact words—”
“Nay, not those exact words. But ye said he wanted something, and we must be very careful what we say or do around him.” She sat, wide-eyed, clueless as to the fact that she had just embarrassed me and shared something that I had spoken in private.
“Mother,” I began, but William cut me off.
“Mistress Blackburn, Ailsa is right. I do want something. I want to be your friend. You can trust me. I will not betray any confidence that has been shared.” He looked as if he would have said more, but he was suddenly taken with a sneeze that practically rattled our cups.
Mother was unphased. She fluttered her eyelashes again and said in a sickeningly sweet voice. “That is kind of ye, but ye might not say as much when ye find out how Ailsa came about the information.”
“Mother!” I was horrified. What was she doing? William wiped his nose with a scrap of cloth he had tucked into his pocket and looked at me, the shock on his face reflecting my own. Mother said no more as she stuffed another wafer into her mouth and took a gulp of tea.
“I have already shared it with him, Mother.”
“Aye, that is why I am—” Another sneeze overtook him, cutting his words short.
“Oh dear, ye aren’t catching a cold, are ye, son?”
“Mother, don’t call him son.” I was mortified. This visit was quickly turning into a disaster, as so many of my encounters with this man seemed to do. “He is the king’s man. Ye must address him with respect.”
“It’s all right,” he began before a third sneeze shook his body. His eyes were beginning to water, the rims reddening in irritation. Just then, Sadie mewed at him from below as she wrapped her tail around his calf and rubbed her head against the soft leather of his boot. “Ah, there is the culprit.” He leaned away from Sadie as if she had the plague and tucked his legs beneath his chair.
“What do ye mean, sir? She is the sweetest feline ye will ever lay eyes on.” I picked Sadie up and rubbed my cheek against her head.
“I mean I have a reaction to such animals. Their fur causes my eyes to itch, my nose to run, and a series of sneezes to ensue.”
“Oh.” I gulped, understanding taking hold. I quickly took the feline to the door and shewed her outside to get some fresh air. “I am sorry. I did not know.”
“How could you know?” Achoo. Another sneeze bellowed forth.
“My, ye do shake the crockery,” Mother observed. I giggled.
“My apologies,” he said sniffling as he wiped his nose again. Inwardly I beamed; for once this man was not in full possession of his composure. Finally!
“Sometimes my eyes itch. In the spring when the flowers are at their first bloom. This always helps me.” I handed him a cloth that I had wetted and rung out. I had folded it into a rectangle and motioned to his face. “Lay it over your eyes.”
“Here now, Ailsa,” Mother crooned. “Let him lay upon the bed for a moment. It’s hard to keep the cloth over your eyes when ye are sitting upright.” She grasped him under his upper arm and pulled him from his chair. I marveled that this small woman could lead such a large man, like an ox with a ring through his nose.
“I don’t think that is necessary,” William began.
“Ye will do well to just obey, sir,” I advised, struggling to hold down my amusement.
“You’re laughing at me,” William accused, pulling the cloth from his eyes, and sitting back up on the side of the bed to glare at me. A red, glassy glare.
“Ignore her,” my mother commanded, pushing him back down.
“Mistress Blackburn, my boots, they are dirty. I don’t want to soil your bed linens.”
“Oh pish,” Mother waved away his concern with her hand. “Here, we can solve that.” And with a huff, she pulled his boot from his right foot.
“Mother!” All decorum was completely gone.
“Shh,” Mother hushed, but I could clearly see that William was uncomfortable.
“Mother, Sir William is very particular about his clothing. I don’t think he wants his boots removed. Just leave him be for a moment. The wet cloth will help, and he’ll be good as new.”
Mother huffed in disagreement but said nothing more. I watched as William’s chest slowed to a steady pace, his breaths calming and relaxation taking over. He was silent for several minutes, and I was afforded the opportunity to admire him unashamedly, without being seen. A dimpled chin and strong jawline, covered with the first appearances of dark whiskers could still be seen from beneath the cloth, and thin, smooth lips parted slightly as he pulled breath into his lungs.
Heat crept up my neck as the awkwardness of the situation began to take hold. I could have probably observed him for another hour or so and wished for an instant that I had taken up drawing lessons along with Bess’s mother. He would have made a fine study in the human form, but instead I finally said, “At least ye aren’t sneezing anymore.”
“Aye, I do believe the warm cloth has helped.” He sat up and removed it from his eyes. The rims had returned to a faint pink, and his cobalt blue eyes fastened onto me.
“My apologies for my mother’s overbearing nature,” I whispered, trying my best to tamp down another smile. “Sometimes she won’t take no for an answer.”
“She means well.” He handed the cloth back to me and picked up his boot, shoving his foot into it. Something in my chest warmed to his gentleness concerning my mother. Most men of his position would have been put off by her antics. Indeed, I wasn’t sure what had gotten into her. But I was thankful for his understanding, even if I didn’t understand her myself.
Tonya Ulynn Brown is an elementary school teacher. She holds a Master’s degree in Teaching and uses her love of history and reading to encourage the same love in her students. Tonya finds inspiration in the historical figures she has studied and in the places she has traveled. Her interest in medieval and early modern British history influences her writing. She resides in rural southeastern Ohio, USA with her husband, Stephen, two boys, Garren and Gabriel, and a very naughty Springer Spaniel.
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