Adelia Aguilar is a doctor with a degree from the University of Salerno. Unfortunately for her, she doesn't practice her profession in Italy, but in England, at the behest of Henry II. But when her longtime lover and the father of her child, Bishop Rowley Picot, becomes aware that someone has been stalking her and trying to do harm to her, he does his best to get her sent out of the country to keep her safe, little knowing that the man who is stalking her can overhear them talking and will be following her.
Adelia is ignorant of the attempts on her life, thanks to two of her household who have been looking out for her. But when Rowley comes to see her, they tell him what has been happening. He also doesn't tell her, but says that King Henry has asked for her services once again, this time to be personal physician to Princess Joanna, who is being given in marriage to King William of Sicily. Since long journeys tend to have a bad effect on the health of people on the Journey, he wants Adelia to protect the health of the Princess.
Henry, of course, is only too glad to agree with this plan, and also to keep her daughter in England to ensure that she returns at the end of the Journey. He is even willing to let his estranged wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, look after Adelia's daughter, Allie, whom everyone agrees is growing into a interesting person, but probably not marriageable considering her interests and background. Of course, Adelia has no choice but to agree, and while Gyltha, her daughter's nurse, stays with Allie, her servant Mansur, the Moor, stays with her, pretending to be the "physician" that she merely translates for.
But there is someone in the procession who has it in for Adelia, the outlaw known as Scarry, the most-educated of Wolf's outlaws from the previous book, who was in love with his master. Adelia had to kill him to save her own life, but Scarry only sees her as a murderess who must be put down to put his lover's soul at peace, and he plots a long and convoluted revenge so that he can see her die in as much pain and aguish as possible.
First, he poisons her horse on the journey after she has nearly been killed by it, so that some people think she cursed the horse to death. Second, a knight who frightened her servant is murdered during a boar-hunt at night. Him, she did curse, and so the suspicion that she was to blame for his death increases. And then a laundress has an altercation with Adelia and Mansur and is found dead the next morning, face-down in the tubs full of water, hit over the head and drowned.
Rowley and others are willing to entertain the explanation that the woman died of a sudden apoplexy, but Adelia feels that her own duty is to the truth and the truth is that the woman was murdered. But no one, not even Mansur, is willing to back her up when she wishes to say so, something that wounds Adelia deeply.
But when Adelia stays behind with two women to save those of the party who have drunk from poisoned wells at a village attacked by Henry's son Richard, it opens her up to charges of heresy, for the two women are Cathars, and are considered witches and heretics in the South. With Rowley gone on ahead to Sicily, Adelia is left behind without anyone to vouch for her. Even her servant, now pregnant, isn't immune to a horrible death, for such is the hatred for the Cathars, that they are to be extirpated, root and branch.
Injured, imprisoned, and fearing for her life, can Adelia somehow escape the grip of the church and survive to end the threat that Scarry holds to her and her loved ones? Or will the venerated Mistress of the Art of Death finally come face to face with Death itself?
I enjoyed this book a lot, but at the same time, I was almost disappointed in Adelia. Her conversations with Rowley and the King didn't quite have the same snap I was used to reading from her, and she spends a lot of her time in a snit with Rowley for one reason or another. They claim to love each other, but his version of love is trying to run her life for her, and her version of love seems to mean always getting her own way, neither one being a condition I'd call love.
At the end of the book, we finally meet Adelia's parents (adoptive), her Jewish Physician father and her Christian Physician mother, and they, too, have the sort of peppery and acerbic relationship that Adelia and Rowley have. But there is a difference, that you can tell they feel actual affection towards each other, where as for Adelia and Rowley- that sort of affection seems to be missing. They are either in charity with each other and screwing like bunnies, or on the outs, cold and sarcastic- or not talking at all. There seems to be almost no middle ground.
As for the mystery, such as it is, it wasn't that hard to figure out if you parsed out all the clues. There was only four or five people who it could have been at the outset, and if Adelia wasn't so determined to ignore the truth of her senses and deductions at times, she could have found him out before the end of the book. I find that disappointing- the mystery could have been more suspenseful, but while there were genuinely suspenseful scenes, the rest were just... flat and rather dull.
So, while I would still recommend this series, I would steer people away from this particular volume. We're certainly given hints of what is to come, and the world seems headed towards a period of greater ignorance and bigotry. Salerno is falling backwards, and England, hopefully, will move forwards. Slight recommendation, but not as good as the previous books in the series.