Azebel could scarcely believe it. After years of patient waiting, the old fool was finally going to die. Yes, she wasn’t thrilled with the methodology. Using poison felt gauche, to say the least, but the opportunity was simply too good to pass up. With Edrys Fanella finally exposed as the charlatan she was, along with the revelation that she had somehow slipped a confederate into the palace staff, they had the perfect scapegoat. When the king’s body was found, Azebel could claim that she made a mistake, that she somehow missed the fatal dose of Witches’ Tears that the assassin had managed to slip into the king’s wine. There would be a period of mourning. The entire kingdom would be wreathed in black to mark the end of Bartholomew’s dynasty. And yes, there would be a fair amount of chaos. The matter of succession hadn’t been completely settled. But no one would question Vance stepping in, especially with Chamberlain Gerard dead as well. The kingdom would need a strong man on the throne and an even stronger woman to wield power behind it.
She glanced out the corner of her eye at Vance. A grim smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. He was likely running through a list of what he would have to accomplish to ensure a smooth transition. Hopefully he was including her in those plans. She didn’t like the way that Edrys turned to him in the ballroom, and she couldn’t help but wonder what promises he had made about their future. Had he simply been playing a role for her, trying to lull her into a false sense of security? Or had he been acting to rid himself of Azebel? She harbored no illusions about the man who walked beside her. He had confessed his many crimes to her, things he had done to secure his position as the king’s presumptive heir. He was not a man of deep loyalty. When she first took him into her bed, she didn’t much care. He was a distraction, a plaything, to be enjoyed and then disposed of. But as he whispered his grand plans to her in the dark of her chambers, she had been infected by his vision. Not only his vision for Darkshire Woods, but his vision of the two of them, ruling together. Now that the time had come, she wondered if he was going to follow through on the promises he had made to her.
He turned to her abruptly. “We must take the next steps carefully, my dear. If the king’s body is found too early or by the wrong person, it would be disastrous for us.”
Azebel nodded, although she winced at the ice in his tone. She caught the implied threat. If someone were to find the king’s body before the time was right, he would find a way to make sure the blame fell squarely on her. Suddenly her decisions to abandon her vows to the Order of the Eighth Eye. But as confounding as it was for her to admit, she did love Vance, no matter how callous and foolish he could be at times.
“Not to worry. I will let it be known that the king must sleep off the effects of the Cloud Bringer and can’t be disturbed until morning. That should give us plenty of time to do what needs to be done.” She raised her eyebrows in a quiet prompting. She didn’t want to do anything rash if she didn’t know what he was going to do.
“My plan is to send Healey out with quiet messages to my most ardent supporters with instructions to be ready. I won’t tell them what you did, even though they wouldn’t have a problem with it. But that way, when the news gets out, they will be prepared to support me when I take the throne.”
“What do you need me to do?” Azebel asked.
“At present, nothing. The less you’re involved in what comes next, the easier the transition will be. The last thing we want anyone to believe is that we were working together to achieve this end.” He smiled at her. “But there is one thing more that needs doing. I need you to finish your ritual to determine if Bartholomew is really Edrys’s father. The girl has many supporters at court. Unless we have incontrovertible proof that she is a fraud, her supporters could cause us problems going forward.”
“Of course.” Everything he said made sense, but it rankled her a bit to be relegated to the shadows once again. She had risked so much so that she could finally be set free of her shackles to the Order and the strictures they placed on her. “And when will we be able to announce my new role within the kingdom?”
“What? Your new…” His eyes lit up and a salacious smile tugged at his lips. “Ah, sweetling, are you jealous of the attention I paid to Edrys? That was a ploy, nothing more. You’re still going to be my queen. Never fear.”
He said all the right words, but they still left a chill slithering down her back. But she had little choice but to accept him at his word. “Then I will go finish my ritual to confirm what we all know.”
She turned to walk away, but he snared her by the arm and spun her around. Before she fully realized what was happening, he pulled her into a passionate kiss. Her body seized up, shocked at how brazen he was being. They had taken such pains to hide their relationship up until now. To be so open about their connection didn’t feel right, especially with the king’s body still warm in his bed. But she couldn’t help the way her body responded to Vance’s touch, the way she melted against him, wanting to pull him deeper into her arms, melding the two of them together until…
He released her so suddenly that she staggered. He offered her another wolfish smile before he slipped down the hall.
Azebel took a moment to catch her breath and adjust her robes. It wouldn’t do for any of the staff to see her in any sort of disarray. Then she headed out for her chambers.
Thankfully, the halls of the palace were relatively deserted and she didn’t see anyone out and about. That would help the narrative that Vance was likely crafting. She could almost hear his voice, telling the dark tale to the court: In the middle of the night, when everyone was safely abed, tragedy struck our kingdom and robbed us of our beloved leader…
She was so caught up in her imaginary tale when she arrived at her chambers that she almost missed the subtle signs that someone had forced their way past her guardian wards. Years earlier, when Azebel took up residence in the palace, she wove together a series of spells that would keep intruders out of her private chambers. At the very least, those same wards would reveal when someone attempted to enter her chambers. One of the magical threads wasn’t in its proper alignment. Granted, it wasn’t askew by much. She had almost missed the subtle irregularity. But she did notice.
Someone had managed to get past her defenses and enter her chambers.
Whoever the intruder was would learn that it was a costly mistake. Azebel summoned the beginnings of a battle spell, one that would set the offending party afire as soon as she stepped through the door. Then, taking a deep breath, she wrenched the door open and unleashed the magical energy.
It sliced through the room at the figure that loomed over her workbench. The poor fool turned just a fraction of a heartbeat before the spell impacted him. Azebel realized it was a Telkoshim barbarian, most likely the one that Edrys traveled with. How he got past her defenses was a mystery Azebel would never unravel, not after her spell turned him into a pile of ash.
The Telkoshim giant raised a hand and flicked the spell aside as if it were an insignificant insect.
How did he…? Azebel shook her head to dislodge the shock that echoed through her mind. That couldn’t have been possible, but no matter. He wouldn’t be so fortunate with her next onslaught. She summoned the magical energy she needed to truly obliterate the trespasser and…
The barbarian raised his hand and made a strangling motion. As he did, the magical energy slipped away from Azebel and she found herself paralyzed from the neck down.
How was he doing this? She had never encountered someone so powerful. Definitely never someone who wasn’t a member of the Order himself. Very little was known about the Telkoshim people, but if they were capable of such potent magic, someone would have surely known about it. So how was this even possible?
No, wait. As Azebel studied her captor, she recognized the slight waver of a charm spell. This man wasn’t truly a Telkoshim. Instead, he wanted to appear that way.
“Who are you really?” She was surprised that her voice still worked, although she winced when it came out as a barely understandable grunt.
The man smiled and waved a hand over his face and passed it down his chest. As he did, the image of the barbarian unraveled, revealing his true features. He was almost as tall as his disguise, but with bronzed skin and thickly braided hair. He had a large tattoo around his right eye, that of a large eye that glowered and seemed to writhe across his cheek.
Her stomach turned to ice when she saw him. “Megal.”
Megal, the greatest mage the Order had ever produced. Megal, the one that the Order sent out to hunt down and capture wayward mages.
Megal, the man who had inducted her into the Order and taught her everything she knew.
The man smiled at her and bowed deeply. “So glad to see you still recognize the members of our order, even if you do not remember the vows you took.”
She tried to free herself from the magical constraints that bound her, but she couldn’t move. She couldn’t summon even a sliver of the energy she would need to break free. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh, please. Drop the pretense, dear Azebel. We are called the Order of the Eighth Eye for a reason. Do you remember what it is?”
She did. It was a motto that had been drilled into her during her training. “‘We see all.'”
“Precisely so. And what do you suppose the Order saw when it turned its unblinking gaze on little Darkshire Woods?” He tucked his hands behind his back and circled around her. “A weak head of state. A scheming and grasping court. Intricate plots and machinations between the two. And in the middle of it all, one of our order who apparently had forgotten what her role was to be. We observe, Azebel. We advise when requested. We do not interfere. And we certainly do not position ourselves to replace the regents that we serve.”
Azebel redoubled her efforts, flailing about mentally for any way to escape this trap. Megal knew everything. Worse, the Order clearly knew everything. She had thought she had been so careful in obscuring what she had been doing, but it clearly hadn’t been enough.
“You may as well stop struggling, my dear. There’s a reason why the Order sent me, and you know it. There is no escape for you. My orders are to bring you back to the Magister General for trial.” He stepped in closer. “And I must say that I am personally disappointed in you. You showed such promise. Ah, well. We’ll make sure that your replacement is much more reliable. We owe that much to King Bartholomew.”
Azebel’s head snapped backwards, her former mentor’s words slamming into her like a blow to the stomach.
“Oh, yes, the king still lives. I alerted King Maxillian to the danger he faced, then administered an antidote myself. They are well aware of your treachery and know that you will no longer be with them.”
The quiet rebuke in his voice stung more than anything she could have ever imagined. She went limp in the restraints, her head hanging.
Megal clucked his tongue, then whispered an invocation. With an audible snap, a mystic portal appeared in the middle of the chamber. A breeze moved through the room, the air drawn into the opening. Azebel closed her eyes. The moment she passed through the portal, she would be gone from Darkshire Woods forever. She would never see Vance again. It was over.
“Can you at least tell me one thing?” she whispered. “Why did the Order hire Edrys to impersonate Bartholomew’s daughter? Isn’t that interference?”
Megal chuckled. “My dear, we did no such thing. I heard that Edrys was coming here and I ingratiated myself to her as Villac. All she ever knew about me was that I sought some sort of prey in the palace. She never knew what, precisely, it was.”
Azebel’s head snapped up. “Then you don’t know who hired her?”
“I didn’t say that either, now did I? The Order sees all. But I don’t believe I’m about to reveal that information to you. I’ll let the question fester in your mind for a while longer. That torture will be a good appetizer for what is to come, yes?” He snapped his fingers.
She suddenly felt lighter and her feet lifted from the floor of her chamber. As she floated toward the portal, she couldn’t help but wonder which hurt more: the fact that she would never be queen, that she had to leave without saying goodbye to Vance, or that she might never know who hired Edrys.
And then she entered a shimmering tunnel of light and those questions fled far from her mind.