Hemsen Dumbcane's withered skin was pasty from a lifetime of library work. He was a sour man whose eyes had long gone rheumy and uncooperative, and he routinely wore a powerful magnifying lens clipped to his thick spectacles. He preferred his small, unobtrusive shop empty, and for most of his long career, he had only one client. But what a client he served! Hemsen Dumbcane was a master calligrapher to the secretive Tasters' Guild--producing the majority of its inscrutable documents--trusted with its most top-secret work and given access to its very private Library.
Although it was newly unfashionable, the royal seal of King Nightshade still hung over the dusty front door of his shop on the busy Knox bridge, right beneath the large, pointed quill indicating his trade. He figured the unpopular royal seal kept his store quiet, which was how he needed it to be in order to practice not only his calligraphy but also his more secretive, and highly lucrative, secondary trade. For Hemsen Dumbcane was a crook of enormous proportions--stealing and forging ancient, highly valuable,and oftentimes enchanted documents from Caux's libraries and private collections and then selling them on the black market.
Hemsen Dumbcane had been slowly relieving the land of its ancient maps and pictorials, testaments and charts of odd, indecipherable symbols for his entire career--one spanning many long years. That was a lot of missing paper, although for each he would toil to replace the original with a clever fake, copying it perfectly and returning the counterfeit undetected. Since many of the ancient tableaus were considered to be irreplaceable magical texts, Hemsen Dumbcane was distinctly responsible for the dilution of the ancient wisdom of earlier--and more respectable--kings than his most recent benefactor, King Nightshade.
At present, in his quiet shop, a drop of perspiration hung threateningly at the tip of his nose. Pausing with his damp kerchief, the calligrapher wiped his face, catching the offending droplet in the nick of time--lest it sully his work on the desk beneath his gaze. Before him, his final forgery.
He had stolen it from its hiding place in the very chambers of the Guild's fearsome Director, a scroll of such beauty and value that he could not bear to be without it. At great personal hazard, he now toiled to produce a counterfeit before his transgression was discovered.
He heard nothing of the little bell that now rang from the front of the shop, a signal of the unusual presence of a customer. He continued his work, though burdened by a great nervousness that had settled upon him in the middle of the night. For the past week Dumbcane had found himself distracted mightily from his sleep, from his shop duties, from everything. And today brought no relief. He tried to clear his mind and complete his final task, concentrating upon the dark weave of images amid the strange text. His shaking hand attempted to duplicate the sheen of the golden serpent before him.
There was quite a lot of traffic on the Knox bridge this morning, owing probably to some festivity, a festivity that Dumbcane--if he chose to acknowledge it at all--would find entirely uninteresting. The town had turned out for some mindless event, and compounding the traffic was an annoying amount of construction on the bridge. He had little to do with the life of the city--having long ago aligned himself with the thieves and scoundrels that made up his network of contacts, and the darker sides of Caux from which he profited.
The little bell rang again sourly--indicating that the door had shut once more. Presumably, someone now awaited him. This time Dumbcane was alerted, and he sat bolt upright, upending a small pot of black ink, a few pages before him scattering to the floor. Quickly he wiped the ink blot with his elbow--a lazy swarm of dark fruit flies escaped his arm just in time, only to come together again and settle hungrily on the stain.
Peering about the dark room cautiously, he craned his neck forward the door, his earlier nighttime anxieties returning. One large eye--magnified by his calligraphy lens--regarded the shaded room fearfully.
"What?" he hissed. "Who's there?"
"Hemsen Dumbcane?" came a nasally response.
"Who wants to know?" Dumbcane leaned out a little further into the gloomy room. With a start he relieved himself of his ever-present magnifying lens--flipping it upright quickly--but not before he was afforded the shock of one of the biggest noses ever to grace a face, a nose that indeed marked its wearer's lineage.
A nose as long as a sausage could only belong to a Taxus.
Dumbcane at once regained his composure. A half smile even made an appearance across his sallow face. Although he had had dealings with the Taxus family over the years, these two before him were new. But he knew the type. "What, gentlemen, can I do for you today?" Dumbcane asked.
"We are looking for a certain document," the elder and larger of the two Taxuses responded. This was Quarles Taxus, a man who really never achieved much in his life by respectable means. In fact, over the family's long and feuding history, there had been but one Taxus upon whom any amount of success had been visited. That was Turner Taxus, and he was now dead. Turner Taxus had risen through the ranks of the Nightshade army to a respectable position, only to consume for his last meal some poisoned soup. From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Poisons of Caux: The Tasters Guild (Book II) by Susannah Appelbaum; illustrated by Jennifer Taylor. Copyright © 2010 by Susannah Appelbaum. Excerpted by permission of Bluefire, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.