The king’s mistress, the fair Rosamond Clifford, who resides in a tower surrounded by a bramble-filled maze, has been poisoned. Henry II is devastated, outraged, calling for the aid of his “Mistress of Death,” forensic physician Adelia Aguilar at the scene of the crime to uncover the culprit.
All signs point to Henry’s queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, but are the clues too obvious? Adelia has doubts, traveling to do the king’s bidding with her infant, dear friend Gyltha, and Mansur, the castrato who accompanied Adelia when she was first brought by the king from Salerno to solve a series of heinous child murders.
But most painful is Adelia’s reunion with Rowley Picot, the father of her child. Rowley and Adelia parted badly when last they met, she refusing to give up her work to marry him, Rowley then accepting a bishopric from the king. As a man of the Church, he clings to his vow of chastity, though clearly the couple still cares deeply for one another.
Adjusting to their new roles with some bitterness on Adelia’s part, Rowley, the physician and their entourage stop at Godstow Abbey before going on to Rosamond’s castle. But murder precedes their arrival, a young man left dead in the snow on the bridge to the abbey. Again, the clues seem too perfect, too planned.
Finally arriving at the scene of Rosamond’s death, the travelers find the dwelling eerie, pillaged by the absent servants, only Rosamond’s tower room at the top left pristine. Adelia barely has time to investigate before Queen Eleanor sweeps into the castle, gathering Adelia and Rowley into her entourage against their will, taking them to wait out the winter at Godstow Abbey.
Rowley escapes - to warn the king or meet his death, Adelia cannot know. Isolated with the queen, her mercenaries, assorted clergy, nuns, laypeople and an assassin, the physician sets her mind to solving not one, but two murders, Rowley’s fate weighing heavily upon her.
Returned to resolve yet another of the king’s thorny problems, Adelia once more must sublimate her talents, pretending that Mansur is the physician, she his interpreter. Women are held in such low esteem that none would credit this talented young female as a healer or forensic investigator. Hence the need to disguise her value, which rankles Adelia to no end, chafing at society’s attitude toward the fairer sex.
Setting the scene in a snowbound abbey and the bramble-hedged maze that isolates Rosamond’s lonely tower, this tale is filled with unspoken menace, an assassin creeping the corridors of the abbey, tracking Adelia’s every move. Even Queen Eleanor’s revelry fails to subdue the incipient violence at Godstow, Eleanor hoping to outwit Henry and capture his throne with her rebel son.
But Henry II is wiser than most and cognizant of his wife’s ambitions. Perhaps Henry’s most powerful weapon is the quiet, clever woman who dissects the ordinary to expose the evil intentions of murderers and ambitious monks.