ETWG First Chapter Book Award: Xander’s Tangled Web
July 21, 2016
Xander’s Tangled Web by Susan A. Royal is the Second Place Winner in the Science Fiction/Fantasy Category of Published Books in the East Texas Writers Guild First Chapter Book Awards.
After a late night visit to Battington’s marketplace, Princess Mena vanishes without a trace. Merchants are frantic, because King Leander has called for a curfew and postponed the Spring Festival until further notice.
Certain his former constable is the man for the job, the mayor hires Xander to investigate, hoping he can solve the mystery in a hurry so things can go back to normal.
But Xander’s not so sure that’s possible, because there’s romance involved, and he knows when that happens folks who are normally very sensible seem to lose all reason. In addition to sorting out truths, half-truths and outright lies, he must deal with gypsies, love potions and an illegal moonshine operation before he gets to the bottom of things.
Award-Winning First Chapter
In the frenzy of last minute shopping before Battington Marketplace closed for the night, no one seemed to notice the figure creeping silently along the edges of darkness, avoiding the pools of light shining down from the streetlamps. As the last of the shoppers gathered their purchases and left, merchants were free to close up shop.
Only then did the cloaked and hooded apparition emerge from the shadows and head straight to Mercury’s Apothecary shop located in the center of the market. The figure stopped at the door and glanced in both directions before rapping against the rough wood.
Thin and reedy, a male voice could be heard from inside. “The apothecary is closed for the night. Come back in the morning.”
The knocking began again.
“Is something wrong with your ears?” Amid the rattle of the lock, squeaking hinges and mumbling protest, a wisp of a man opened the door far enough to peer outside. He pushed his spectacles up on his nose and squinted at the late night visitor. His eyes widened with recognition when he saw the velvet cloak bordered in gold and fastened with a broach bearing the royal emblem. Princess Mena.
“Oh. It’s you.”
“Are you going to stand there, gaping at me, or are you going to move and let me come inside?”
Mercury poked his head out the door and flicked a glance around the deserted marketplace before retreating.
With a snap of her cape, the princess brushed past him and stepped inside. The shop was bathed in shadows despite the flames dancing atop the cluster of beeswax candles on the worktable.
“If you’ll give me a moment, I’ll light a lamp…”
The princess sniffed and raised her hand, fingers splayed. “Don’t bother.”
“My humble apologies for the inconvenience, my lady. It was impossible for me to obtain the ingredients needed to complete the potion until late this afternoon.” The apothecary began to wring his hands. “And truth be told, after hearing King Leander had forbidden you to return, I was unsure whether or not I’d be seeing you again…”
“Enough of your prattle. Is my potion ready?” The princess’s voice crackled with impatience.
Mercury pressed his lips together in a thin line as if to keep further explanations from escaping and pointed at the glass beaker filled with pale amber liquid, sitting on his worktable. “I finished mixing it a few moments ago.”
Princess Mena thrust a hand full of gold coins at him. “Let me have it, then.”
The apothecary didn’t make a move. “Are you quite certain you want to go through with this?”
Mena’s words sounded as though she forced them through gritted teeth. “Of course I am. Why do you ask?”
“We are dealing with no ordinary, run-of-the-mill love potion. The spell alone is very binding. I wish you would reconsider.”
“We’ve been through this once already. Just hand it over.”
Mercury reached for a sheet of parchment lying beside the potion and held it up. “You must follow the directions exactly as I have written them. Read them and make sure you understand everything.”
The princess inhaled sharply, snatched the parchment from his hands and held it close to the candles on the worktable, muttering under her breath while she read. “Midnight… candle…strand of hair…recite the verse…got it.”
“Drink a drop of potion, no more, because of its strength.”
“What happens if I drink more than a drop?”
“Do exactly as I say or else there is no telling what might happen.”
Without another word, Princess Mena grabbed the beaker, bolted out the door, and vanished into the shadows.
* * * *
“Out of my face, you mangy beastie!”
The rumbling bass voice came out of nowhere. Xander jumped like he’d been scalded. Up at first light and on the road soon after, he’d dozed off and allowed Quep’s reins to go slack. The shaggy little pony wandered over to the side of the road for tender shoots of grass growing there.
“Look at you, riding along with your nose stuck up in the air like royalty.”
Xander squinted in the direction of the voice and spied a man dressed in raggedy brown homespun who blended with the landscape like a toad on moss. Arms crossed and lips pinched tightly together, the man stared back at him.
“Sorry, Frawl.” Xander yanked on Quep’s reins. “You’re out bright and early. Are you on your way to Battington?”
“Aye, I have pressing business.”
“Is that so?” Xander couldn’t begin to imagine what kind. It was a well-known fact that his second cousin once removed avoided anything remotely connected with work. “Where?”
The other man fished in his pocket and brought out copper coins. “Where d’ye think? I’m on me way to Battington to spend an afternoon at Ardley’s tavern. What about you?”
“I’m going to town as well, to pick up supplies and catch up on all the latest.”
Frawl flashed a grin. “Since we’re both headed in the same direction, how about you let me ride along? I can fill you in on all the tittle-tattle.”
Xander ground his teeth. So much for a nice, quiet trip. “Sure. Come on.”
As big around as he was tall, Frawl grunted and strained a bit before he managed to climb astride the pony. “You heard the latest?”
Xander shook his head. “Reckon not. I haven’t been to market in a fortnight. Suse and I live so far out we never get any news, unless a bird happens to fly by and share.”
“Unless a bird…?” It took a moment or two, but Frawl finally realized Xander was joking. After he stopped laughing, he pulled out a checkered rag, wiped his eyes and blew his nose. “You do have a quick wit.”
“Well, are you going to tell me or not?” Xander was less inclined to believe hearsay than most, but he did have a weakness for listening.
“Aye, I’ll begin at the beginning.” Frawl chuckled and rubbed his hands together.
“Of late, some of the royalty has been frequenting the market more often than normal. Not, as you might believe, for fresh blue milk or a rare piece of fairy silk, though I have been told the merchant in the big corner stall with all the fancy notions has some in his possession so fine he swears the cloth will float…”
“Get to the point, will you?”
“Pardon, I digress.” Frawl cleared his throat. “Now, where was I? Oh yes. It turns out it wasn’t just any royalty, but one of old King Leander’s daughters. Princess Mena herself. Anyways, word went round she was after a good apothecary. Reason being, she wanted to purchase a spell.”
“But why come to Battington market? Why wouldn’t she ask her father’s sorcerer instead?”
“Turns out, she didn’t want just any old spell, she wanted a love potion. When she showed up at Mercury’s shop, he was nervous enough. After he found out what she fancied, it near did him in. Everyone knows love potions are dicey at best. Sometimes they work and sometimes not. There’s always the chance some poor unfortunate soul could end up turning into a tree toad.”
He reached down, untied one of the burlap bags hanging from Quep’s saddle, and began to paw through it. “Mercury put her off by telling her it would take a day or two to gather the proper ingredients.”
Curiosity got the better of Xander. “What are you looking for?”
Frawl smacked his lips. “All this talking has me parched. I thought you might have a beverage with you…”
Xander fixed him with a stare.
“No? A pity. Anyway, the princess told Mercury he’d best not breathe a word to anyone about her visit. Of course, he couldn’t wait to tell the merchant in the shop next to him, who whispered the story to her best customer, who passed it along to someone else. Ere long, the whole town buzzed about it. Of course, the king found out and near burst a blood vessel. He forbade the princess to set foot in Mercury’s shop
again, but she didn’t listen, of course.”
“No surprise there.” Through the years Xander had heard plenty of stories about Princess Mena’s stubborn willfulness.
Frawl tugged at his chin whiskers. “Maybe I ought to see if I couldn’t talk old Mercury into mixing me up a batch…”
When Xander twisted around and glared at him, Frawl gulped and finished his story in a hurry. “Anyway, night before last she paid Mercury a late night visit and left with the potion. No one has seen her since.”
“So it would seem,” Frawl said. “King Leander ordered his soldiers to scour the countryside, but they haven’t turned up a clue. I’ve heard he sinks deeper into depression each day that passes without word.”
Xander shook his head. “The poor man must be frantic with worry. He dotes on Princess Mena.”
“Aye, and things have gotten so bad people are beginning to question his judgment.”
“The day after she disappeared he called for a nine o’clock curfew in Battington until further notice.”
“Not good, especially with the Spring Festival right around the corner.”
“You haven’t heard the worst of it.