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Excerpt: The Bone Orchard by Sara A. Mueller

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“A masterfully woven plot with refreshing narrators ” — Publishers Weekly

Sara A. Mueller’s The Bone Orchard is a fascinating whodunit set in a lush, gothic world of secrets and magic–where a dying emperor charges his favorite concubine with solving his own murder, and preventing the culprit, which undoubtedly is one of his three terrible sons, from taking control of an empire.

Charm is a witch, and she is alone. The last of a line of conquered necromantic workers, now confined within the yard of regrown bone trees at Orchard House, and the secrets of their marrow.

Charm is a prisoner, and a survivor. Charm tends the trees and their clattering fruit for the sake of her children, painstakingly grown and regrown with its fruit: Shame, Justice, Desire, Pride, and Pain.

Charm is a whore, and a madam. The wealthy and powerful of Borenguard come to her house to buy time with the girls who aren’t real.

Except on Tuesdays, which is when the Emperor himself lays claim to his mistress, Charm herself.

But now–Charm is also the only person who can keep an empire together, as the Emperor summons her to his deathbed, and charges her with choosing which of his awful, faithless sons will carry on the empire—by discovering which one is responsible for his own murder.

If she does this last thing, she will finally have what has been denied her since the fall of Inshil — her freedom. But she will also be betraying the ghosts past and present that live on within her heart.

Charm must choose. Her dead Emperor’s will or the whispers of her own ghosts. Justice for the empire or her own revenge.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of The Bone Orchard by Sara A. Mueller, on sale 03/22/2022. 


CHAPTER ONE

The night breeze off the sea riffled through the bone orchard, playing softly in the ghastly white fruits, making the solid ones clatter while the long bones chimed and fluted. The trees were as foreign to Borenguard as their owner, Charm. She sat in the solarium with the windows open to the mellow night, going over her books. A soothing rhythm of touch, tally, and check, set to the uneven music of her bones.

During the long interim between empresses four and five, the Emperor of Boren had brought Charm to the capital, implanted a mindlock to enforce obedience, and established her in Orchard House. A triumphant prize, his people believed, from across the sea, taken in the Rebellion of Inshil. People of taste and rank forgot such a trifling detail as Inshil’s former independence.

Charm, a creature of neither taste nor rank, had not forgotten. She wore no colors save black, yet she colored her hair every tasteless shade available. There seemed little reason beyond amusement for the Emperor to put up with his conquest’s futile rebellions of color and her turning Orchard House into a gentleman’s club. There seemed even less reason for his continued interest in private Tuesdays at Orchard House, since Mistress Charm was fully a foot too short and her curves far too pronounced for Borenguard’s ideal of beauty. What talents might have sustained the Emperor’s notoriously fickle fascination was cause for speculation over card tables and cigars in Borenguard—not excepting those at Orchard House itself, as long as its proprietress was not in the room.

In a city of gray and damp, Charm was a scintillating, illicit legend.

Now, she toyed with a spiral of today’s brilliant pink hair and rubbed her fingers over the crystal casing of the mindlock in her right temple.

A boneghost with skin like milk glass and eyes the color of blood slipped into the solarium. Assembled from the bones in the orchard, their soft parts grown in a vat, boneghosts did not age. This one had looked eighteen since she’d risen from the growth vat in the greenhouse. If not for her coloring, she would have been the perfect image of Charm herself. Because the boneghosts had skulls identical to Charm’s, they all more or less shared her face.

“Yes, Pain?”

The boneghost laid her colorless cheek down on the gathered black satin of Charm’s skirt. “Prince Phelan is here, Mistress.”

Charm’s pen stopped, hovered in the air above the next column. Too soon. Justice wasn’t out of the growth vat yet. He was here too soon, but a son of the Emperor couldn’t be refused. It wasn’t anything in her mindlock that insisted. This was simply reality. One did not say no to princes if one could possibly help it. One particularly did not say no to Prince Phelan. Charm laid her pen in the carved rest at the top of her writing stand, smoothing her hands down the flawless fit of her black, burlesquely ornate evening gown.

Charm tried to cling to the positive. As long as Phelan remained obsessed with Justice, he wasn’t seeing some other child. Justice wasn’t awake tonight, but he didn’t know that yet. Charm knew, and others must have suspected, that a puckered scar on Phelan’s temple marked the Emperor’s first attempt at mindlock surgery. The surgery had been a resounding failure. All that remained of Phelan’s psychic abilites were fits of uncontrolled rage as famous as his other proclivities. That he lived had been a tragedy second only to the ongoing survival of his eldest brother, Prince Aerleas.

“The lock on his usual room?” It was the only room on the second floor that could not be locked from the inside.

“It works, Mistress.”

“Then we’ll hope we have no need to depend on it. Send him to the second floor. Send him Shame and complimentary supper as my gift to him for his inconvenience.”

“He’ll want Justice,” Pain said softly.

Then he shouldn’t have scalded her last time. According to the Lady’s schedule, she needs another week in the growth vat.”

“Yes, Mistress.” Pain rose and vanished back toward the public front of the house.

Charm picked up her pen, breathed, and went back to her ledger.

Touch. Tally. Check.

From Uptown, the cathedral bells struck twice and went silent. Orchard House closed its doors to incoming customers at two. In the solarium, Charm breathed in the serenity of the bells and the bones. The night was nearly done. The only traffic in the entry now would be customers going home. She sealed her last note, gathered her correspondence, and stopped in sheer surprise.

A woman stood just outside the gates, examining Orchard House. The Lowtowners who worked at Orchard House or came to ask about work came, naturally, to the back door. This was no Lowtown woman. A deep traveling hat buried her face in blackness as absolute as a grave. The satin of her overskirt gleamed palely. She wore a fur stole and muff against the evening’s chill. This was a lady of quality. It was impossible that such a lady would be seen below the Uptown wall, much less at the gates of Orchard House. And yet, she stood just . . . looking.

There was something about the stillness of the woman that raised the hair on the back of Charm’s neck. Even as she rose to go investigate, the noblewoman turned away and foggy dark swallowed her. A chill traced Charm’s arms. She rubbed them briefly. One of her customers would have a bad night when he got home, probably, and that was neither her problem nor her business. She took her letters to the front hall.

Pride, enthroned at the reception desk, stabilized the house. Charm wasn’t sure when she’d become aware of Pride, but was reasonably sure that Pain, Justice, Desire, Pride, and lastly Shame had been the chronological order of the ghosts. Even now that all of them had bodies separate from hers, she found Pride’s serene blindness a comfort.

Upright, lovely, with ashen hair and blue eyes that saw nothing, Pride’s sightless, judging stare reminded each gentleman of how they were to behave when they went upstairs. To break with gentlemanly behavior, even with the outward trappings of rank discarded, was to be barred from the second floor and to risk being unwelcome altogether. To be unwelcome at Orchard House was to lose the political talk of the cardroom, the impeccable dining, and the prestige of being here in the evenings. The only men immune to those rules were the sons of the Emperor. Prince Phelan was still upstairs. Perhaps they would escape his visitation unscathed.

“Tired yet, Pride?” asked Charm, with a smile that Pride could never see.

“Not particularly . . .”

Pain ran down the stairs. Charm’s heart ached in that moment of silence.

“Shame is hurt,” said Pain softly.

Charm’s breath punched out of her. She snatched up her skirts and bolted up the stairs to the second floor as a door along the hallway slammed. Prince Phelan’s cursing and the sound of shattering glass met her halfway up. Even Orchard House’s thick walls and doors couldn’t muffle the sound of his bellows from this close range.

Shame slid down the outside of Prince Phelan’s door, weeping, with the safety key in her hand. Her mousy hair had tumbled out of its pins and one hand held her bleeding face. Her cream-colored dress was stained down the front with cocoa, and down the left side with blood. Something smashed into the closed door and made it shudder, but the stout oak held.

“Oh, Shame . . . Shhh, it’s going to be all right. I’m here. I’ve got you.” Charm tried to be comforting for Shame even as she seethed inside. “Hush now, we’ll fix it. Let’s get you out to the laboratory and see how bad it is.” Charm slipped an arm around the boneghost’s waist, helping her to her feet and down the back stair.

Four Firedrinkers, Borenguard’s elite psychic constabulary, came in the kitchen door as Charm and Shame reached the safety of the bottom landing. Of course. Pain had been in a second-floor room with a Firedrinker. Their comrade heard Prince Phelan’s fit, so all of them knew. Borenguard’s theory was that the Firedrinkers had enough telepaths in their ranks that they were all linked all the time, but the only person likely to truly know was Pain; and Pain could not be forced to speak. Body armor under their scarlet coats, and helmets with mirrored visors, concealed their identities. Only one wore any distinguishing insignia. Charm was grateful to see Captain Oram’s white sash, and hoped it was truly the captain.

Captain Oram’s gift was a rare and exalted one. He was a telepath of immense power. He could suppress Prince Phelan’s rage and take His Highness to Fortress Isle until the princely fit passed. “Mistress,” Captain Oram said. His voice through his helmet visor was identical to every other Firedrinker’s, but given his name and height he certainly seemed male. He inclined his head politely. “We’ll bring Prince Phelan out this way and through the back gate. It will be quieter.”

The words were like stabs. “Of course, Captain. We wouldn’t want a fuss.” Charm all but snarled it, though they were as helpless in this as Charm. Pain, the only one outside of their barracks allowed to see them without their uniforms, had confirmed that every concealing Firedrinker helmet hid a mindlock similar to Charm’s own, and that they had standing orders far more stringent than Charm’s.

One of the newer kitchen girls, possibly her name was Sally, darted forward with a towel from the stack of clean ones by the sink. The other two just huddled and watched with wide eyes. Charm nodded thanks to Sally and helped Shame press it against her slashed face. She kept her arm around Shame across the little kitchen garden and through the orchard. The bones showed stark white where the moonlight touched them, clattered and clicked to themselves. The long brick building past the uneven trees had been a hothouse, once. It didn’t grow orchids anymore. Now, it sheltered far more tender specimens.

Charm unlocked the Lady’s laboratory, stepped inside, and closed the door. She let herself fall back inside her own mind so that the other woman in her head could wake up into the body they shared.

The Lady blinked and leaned on Shame for a moment. The familiar sight of her laboratory steadied her.

Carefully tended coal stoves kept the building a constant temperature and provided a dim orange glow, just enough light to guide them down the half flight of stairs. Growth tanks of glass and steel were ranged neatly along the back wall. The largest tank held a horse skeleton in the middle stages of growing muscles and organs. A creature so large took a long time to grow. The smallest tanks were hardly larger than gallon jars. Lifeless songbirds floated in two of them. They were further along than the horse, feathers just beginning to come in through new skin. The casket-shaped growth tank for her human boneghosts was a little separate from the others, covered with thick black canvas with chains and pulleys hanging over it. Shelves took up part of the other wall, with neatly labeled baskets of bones and trays of surgical equipment. A large table near the shelves was arrayed with beakers, tubes, vials, and catch basins. Storage crocks stood beneath in an orderly row. In the center of the room was a long, marble coroner’s slab.

It was dark outside, the Lady noted. She wondered briefly what time it was, but she knew better than to question her surroundings too closely. It would only make her black out again. One glance at Shame told her why she was awake. It had taken her years to learn to make them, the vessels for the other people in her mind. “Don’t worry, sweetheart, I’ll fix you.”

The Lady helped her injured ghost to a stool. She tied on a full-sleeved rubberized apron, collected clean clothes and a bottle of antiseptic, then peeled the gory towel away from the boneghost’s face. Shame gripped the edge of the table as the Lady wiped away the blood. The slash ran from just ahead of Shame’s ear to her nose, laying open the length of her cheekbone. Her cheek drooped, showing the white flash of bone and the upper edges of her teeth.

“My fault,” Shame slurred. The left half of her mouth did not work properly.

The Lady slid her fingers over the upper edge of the wound. A knife. The image of it, slipping through Shame’s face, flashed from her fingertips to her brain. The Lady blinked at tears of futile anger. The knife wouldn’t have done more than make a shallow cut on Justice or Desire, easily dealt with by a bit of empathy fluid reduced to gel. It would have left barely a scratch on Pain. Shame, not as resilient as her comrades, didn’t cling to the vat-grown body enough to give it resilience.

Behind the Lady, in their shared skull, Charm watched. There was nothing she could do except bill Phelan for the time Shame would be incapacitated. Ask him to pay for the damages as she might ask him to pay for a broken cup. He might pay. Usually he did not.

The Lady wished she could stop these things happening. She didn’t like her ghosts to be hurt, but neither did she want them back. They were, and should be, separate from her. “This wound is too deep to repair without some help. But we’ll pop you into the tank and everything will be fine,” the Lady told Shame. “I’m sorry this had to happen to you.”

Charm hovered, ready to draw the Lady aside if Shame faltered.

Shame didn’t hesitate. “You’re not to blame, Lady.”

The Lady nodded, wordless. Naturally it was not her fault, but it was kind of Shame to remind her. She got a bottle of solution, washed the wound, then retrieved her suture kit and carefully stitched Shame’s cheek closed. “Let me check how Justice is doing, and once we get her out, we’ll get you in.” She pulled the cover from the human growth tank.

Lavender empathy fluid supported the body of Justice. Eternally fourteen, she floated above the support rack, too lightweight to sink. The Lady had put her here just a week ago. The Lady removed the glass lid on the tank, breathing in the metallic, faintly salty scent of bodies and birth that came from the empathy fluid. She examined Justice’s thighs critically, and found the skin smooth and pink. The scalds had healed almost completely. The Lady lowered the chains, hooked them to the corners of the rack, and winched Justice up out of the tank. The little body sagged against the rack as it came free of the supporting gelatinous fluid. The Lady let the majority of empathy fluid on her drip back into the tank, then swung the rack over the dissection table, and lowered it gently down.

She tipped Justice out of the rack onto her side, making sure Justice’s head with her sodden braid hung over the edge. Thick, syrupy fluid strung down from Justice’s nose and mouth, draining into a pail on the floor.

“The fluid in the tank is still usable,” noted the Lady. “That’s fortunate.” Empathy fluid was the second-rarest substance in the world, second only to the Rejuv that kept the Imperial family and their chosen few eternally frozen in age. It wouldn’t do to waste it. She got the rack back over the tank, fetched warmed blankets from their chimney cupboard to wrap Justice’s body and warm her up. The Lady prepped an injection from a blue glass bottle and slid it into the dead boneghost’s carotid artery. She suctioned a little more fluid out of Justice’s airways while the body’s temperature came up. When Justice was warm, she started resuscitation. Chest compressions and then breathing into the little body.

The Lady ejected the part of her that was Justice into the body, struggling for a moment to get the clinging ghost out of their mind. She isn’t me. Her experiences are no part of me. I’m the daughter of the Chancellor, not this girl who has to sit sorting people all day.

Justice jerked, coughed, and dragged in a breath.

The Lady rolled her onto her side again, rubbing her back soothingly. “There now. I’d have liked to give you more time, but this will do.”

Justice looked around the lab, wobbly as a new-hatched chick. She curled up, clutching the blankets, and squeezed her eyes closed. Tears slid across the bridge of her nose.

“Just lie still for a moment. I must get Shame into the tank,” the Lady soothed her.

Justice craned her head to see Shame sitting, bloody and disheveled. She shivered and curled tighter.

While Shame undressed herself, the Lady prepared a syringe of oubain and an ether mask. She cranked the support rack over the human tank down so the rack was mostly submerged, but with the head end still clear of the fluid.

Shame’s distinction was obvious, once she was nude. From throat to feet she was covered with a swirling birthmark the color of Blood Field wine. She stepped into the tank, lying back against the padded steel bands. The Lady put the ether mask over her mouth and nose and carefully dripped in the ether. Shame’s eyelids sagged.

The Lady kissed Shame’s forehead gently. “Sleep well,” she told her ghost. The Lady took a firm grip on the syringe, but lowered the needle again. Shame slept, her face at peace. It was always hard to make the final strike. It would let the ghost back into her mind, even though the Lady didn’t have to see or interact with her.

All animals strove to live, but Shame never had. Perhaps more had gone wrong with Shame than her skin. Shame needed to be kept alive just as much as the Lady’s other creations, and with Justice back in the tank so frequently these days, it would take far too long to grow Shame an entirely new body. It would be bad enough to know Shame was with her for this little time. To have her that much longer, and risk reabsorbing Justice as well . . . The Lady steeled herself with the thought. Shame must die instantly if the body was to be salvaged.

The Lady stabbed the needle between Shame’s ribs and into her heart. The boneghost arched up for one moment, then collapsed as the Lady pressed the oubain into her heart. Lights danced across the Lady’s vision and the world whirled unsteadily as her own heart stuttered in sympathy.

In the confinement of their shared skull, Charm drew Shame’s battered consciousness back behind the barriers that preserved the Lady’s innocence. She cradled Shame close.

The Lady’s dizziness passed. It always made her queasy to kill or animate a boneghost. Animals never troubled her. Only her ghosts were so difficult. She pulled the needle free of Shame’s chest. The Lady smoothed the mouse-colored hair gently. “Poor thing, you just don’t have enough strength,” she murmured.

She lowered the body the rest of the way into the empathy fluid, then pushed the lid onto the tank and covered it with its black cloth so that light wouldn’t discolor the healing wound.

Justice got herself up to sitting, and after a moment more got to her feet. The Lady smiled. Justice was so strong. The Lady was always glad she’d made this ghost a body, even if the bones had been too small for an adult, and, because the bones grew separately on a tree instead of naturally in a body, one femur was slightly longer than the other. “How are you?” the Lady asked.

Charm watched through the Lady’s eyes. Justice sniffled, getting control, and Charm hated herself viciously for doing this to Justice. Of all of them, Justice. She should’ve thought of a way to refuse Phelan. Now Justice was going to have to deal with him again. The Firedrinkers would let Phelan out as soon as his immediate rage had passed, and everyone would go on pretending just as they always had.

“I’m f-fine, Lady. Just cold,” Justice assured her.

“Put your feet into Shame’s shoes, then, and hurry to get a bath to warm yourself up,” instructed the Lady. “Not too hot, your thighs will still be tender.”

“Yes, Lady.” Justice helped herself along the table to where her cane leaned by the stair. She left the shoes, let herself out, and limped away into the dark.

The Lady sat with her hands folded serenely together in her lap, listening to the bones in the orchard as they chimed and clattered in the breeze. At first it had seemed as if with more boneghosts she had fewer blackouts, but she wasn’t sure anymore. In Inshil, she had been awake almost all the time. She had never been conscious much in Borenguard, though she had this garden behind a great house, and her trees, and this laboratory where some kind person got her everything she could leave notes about. The world beyond this sanctuary was dangerous. The Lady rose, went to the shelf of baskets, reminding herself what bones were still needed for each partial skeleton, then picked up a pair of secateurs. She was awake, and her immediate duty was done; she would tend the bone trees, and collect any bones that were ready. Invisible and undetected, Charm stalked in the back of the Lady’s mind. She wrestled with useless anger, and kept Shame safe.

Copyright © Sara A. Mueller 2022

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2 thoughts on “Excerpt: The Bone Orchard by Sara A. Mueller

  1. Your words bring us seamlessly into another world, extremely unique in invention, quality and tone, yet familiar enough to enchant and lock the reader’s imagination to the ride you promise. Bravo!!!

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