Copyright @ 2011 by Anne Osterlund. Used by permission of Speak, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. All rights reserved.  

Official Book Excerpt

Death disturbed the night. The sound of squeaking wheels grew louder, as did the clicking of horse hooves scraping across cobblestones. A rickety old wagon, its simple board bed held together with rusty screws, pulled up against the back of the palace.
Two servants slipped from the shadows, a bearded footman and a wiry kitchen maid with a shuttered lantern in her hand. The footman put his back and shoulder strength into opening an old storage-room door. It had not been moved for some time. Finally, the harsh brush of sliding splinters overcame the friction. A loud squeak echoed into the stillness as he pulled his hands away from the door, satisfied the gap was wide enough.
Meanwhile the maid had rushed toward the driver in the wagon seat and gestured for him to follow her inside. A scraggly, aged man climbed down from his perch, one mud-crusted boot at a time sliding into its foothold and landing less than gracefully upon the ground. The woman tried to encourage him to hurry but received only a sullen grumbling about arthritis on a cold night.
Her face tight with worry, she led both men through the doorway, passing shelves of flour, sugar, and other baking ingredients on her way toward the abandoned cellar. At the top of the staircase, she lifted the lantern shutter to reveal a burning candle, and the group began a descent into the darkness, keeping their hands on the jittery, loose banister.
They hovered above a bulky lump draped in a linen sheet at the bottom of the stairway. Words were exchanged in rasping whispers, though no one was nearby to overhear the conversation. The footman’s face dripped with sweat, and the woman’s hands trembled, causing the lantern to shake and the light to flicker along empty walls.
In contrast to the nervous servants, the driver simply went about his job as he did every night. He asked the necessary questions, frowned at the distance he was told to travel, and nodded as his payment was increased.
Then the three lifted the awkward object, still wrapped within its sheet, and packed it up the stairs and out of the palace, where they loaded it onto the back of the wagon. Though the wagon bed had been empty, a lingering stench of decay caused the maid to pale and move away in fear of growing nauseous.
The footman dug his hand into a pocket and pulled out a thin purse of money to place in the older man’s callused palm. Having received payment, the driver nodded, slipping the purse into a pocket under his frayed, black coat. He pulled up the wagon flap and slid the latch into place. Then, at the same slow pace with which he had climbed down, he negotiated his way back up to his original perch. The well-trained horses waited patiently for him to unwind the reins, and a croaked “Giddyap” swung the wagon into motion.
As the wheels rapped their way down the road, the two servants exhaled with the relief of having finished an undesired task. The woman shuddered and said, “I never thought I’d be dealing with the likes of him when I undertook this job.”
The footman murmured his agreement, sliding shut the obstinate door. A chill wind picked up, encouraging both servants to hurry along the path. They slipped through a stone doorway and entered the warm interior of a kitchen in the tumultuous midst of serving a royal banquet.
Down the road, no more than half a mile, the tattered driver hunched over the wagon seat in a futile attempt to fend off the cold. His stomach did not turn when he thought of his cargo. Even if he had been aware it was the body of the princess’s meal taster, the knowledge would have mattered little to him beyond its contribution to the purse in his pocket. To him, the body was just another corpse, resting on cracked boards as the wagon lurched its way toward an unmarked mass grave.

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