Someone cleared his throat behind Bartholomew. He didn’t care. And he didn’t care that his knees were starting to ache. All that mattered was the girl. He held her tightly in his arms, pulling her close.
“I thought I was alone,” he whispered. “I thought my family was gone forever. And now, for you to be here…for you to be here…”
The girl mumbled something. It sounded like she might even be crying. She hugged him back, fiercely, as if she worried that if she let go he’d vanish. Before he heard her tale, that might have been a concern, but no longer. He felt stronger than he had in years.
Another clearing of the throat. This time, Bartholomew sensed someone leaning close to him.
“Your Majesty, please.” Gerard was so close, his breath tickled Bartholomew’s ear. “This is most undignified.”
Hang his dignity! His daughter had come home!
“Consider what the guards must be thinking. You don’t want this tale to spread to your courtiers.”
Bartholomew sighed. Gerard was right, of course. As much as the court fawned and flattered, they were more a ravenous pack of wolves waiting for his blood. As much as he didn’t want to let her go, he knew he had little choice. He released Edry and then reached over to clutch Gerard’s hand. His trusty chamberlain pulled him to standing, then set a hand at his back to steer him back to the throne.
But Bartholomew wasn’t ready to sit down again. Not yet. Instead, he offered a hand to his daughter. Edrys took it with a shy smile and he helped her stand up as well. Or, to be more truthful, she stood up and pretended that he helped. He set both of his hands on her shoulders and drew a deep breath.
“Be it henceforth known that this woman, Lady Edrys Fanella, formerly of the kingdom of Seviel, is recognized as my long lost daughter.” For once, it felt good to hear his voice boom and echo through the throne room.
“Now wait just a moment!” Smythe said.
Bartholomew didn’t turn even as Smythe stormed off the dais. Instead, he kept his eyes fixed on Edrys. “She is a princess of Darkshire Woods and shall be treated with the respect she deserves as such.”
Smythe appeared at his side and sputtered as Bartholomew took Georganna’s necklace and held it out to the girl.
Her lower lip quivered and tears glistened in her eyes. “Thank you, Father.”
“Oh, please!” Smythe strode forward and snatched the necklace out of his hands. “Your Majesty, may I please speak with you. In private?”
Bartholomew fixed a stony glare on Smythe, but to his credit, the lord did not back down. He jutted his chin out and puffed out his chest, looking ready to engage in a duel.
Fine. Better to hear what he had to say rather than let the man’s anger fester.
Bartholomew turned back to Edrys. “Excuse us, my dear one. Perhaps… would you be free to dine with me tonight?”
Edrys dipped into a curtsy. “It would be my great pleasure, Father.”
Bartholomew smiled, then turned around. He motioned for Smythe, Gerard, and Azebel to follow him, then he strode out of the throne room. The guards posted outside his private study barely had time to wrench open the door.
A serving boy snapped to attention as Bartholomew stepped into the room. What was his name again? Bartholomew couldn’t remember. He was new, having only come onto the palace staff a month earlier.
“You, boy, pour me a goblet of wine.”
The young man’s eyes widened. “I’m sorry, Your Highness, but I don’t have any here right now.”
Bartholomew frowned. “What do you mean, you don’t have any?”
“You drank the last of it before you went into the throne room not half an hour ago.”
Bartholomew’s frown deepened. He had? He didn’t remember doing that. Ah, but his mind had been muddled as of late, as much as it pained him to admit it. He very well could have drunk the last of the wine and not remembered it. “Then fetch more.”
The boy bowed quickly and scurried out of the room, brushing between Smythe and Azebel as he went.
Bartholomew took off his official crown and set it on his desk. Blasted thing got heavier every day. It was relief to be rid of it, for at least a little while. “Now, Vance, what seems to be the trouble?”
Smythe gaped at him, then stuttered a few half-words before he found his voice. “The trouble? The trouble is that you’ve accepted that waif’s story as true without any proof.”
“There is the necklace.” Bartholomew pointed to it in Smythe’s hand.
“This proves nothing! It could be a forgery.” Smythe looked to Azebel. “I’m right, aren’t I?”
Azebel glided forward and plucked the necklace out of Smythe’s hand. She held it out into a shaft of sunlight that streamed through the room’s solitary window and leaned in closer to examine it. “In truth, I cannot say for certain. I know that certain wards and charms are woven into such necklaces by their creators and, while I haven’t studied the spells extensively, they seem to be intact in this particular item.”
“So you’re saying it’s authentic?” Smythe demanded.
“Not necessarily. A clever forger would be sure to include the proper spells, I’m sure.”
The serving boy returned quietly with a new flagon. He poured Bartholomew a new cup and handed it to him. Bartholomew nodded his thanks and took a long drink, savoring the tart flavor.
“I think the better question would be this: what happened to the queen’s necklace when she died?” Azebel turned to Bartholomew. “I would think she would have been buried with it, wouldn’t she?”
Azebel and Smythe turned to Bartholomew with expectant faces. Was he supposed to know this? He held out his hand for the necklace and Azebel pressed it into his palm. He turned it over and over again, examining every ridge and line. As he did, he tried to think back to the day when Georganna died, but it wasn’t easy. It felt like he was struggling through thick fog, tangible in how it clung to his thoughts. He often felt like he was swimming through shadows when he tried to think back to his wife and children. Some days, he couldn’t remember what Georganna looked like and the portraits around the palace seemed to depict a stranger. Other times, he couldn’t remember her voice or those of their children. But with the necklace in his hand, he felt a connection to her, to the girl who brought it back to him. It felt right, it felt…
“Your Majesty?” Azebel asked.
He looked up at his adviser and was puzzled by the expectant look on her face. Why did she look so confused? Was he supposed to have said something?
“What is it?” he asked.
Smythe rolled his eyes. He turned instead to Gerard. “You would know. Would the queen’s necklace have been buried with her?”
Gerard hesitated. “Yes, it should have been. That is the custom.”
Smythe crossed his arms and grinned triumphantly.
“Except…” Gerard bared his teeth, clearly uncomfortable. “Except when the time came for the queen to be interred, we were…unable to find the necklace and so we were unable to—”
With a roar, Smythe backhanded the chamberlain.
Gerard stumbled against a wall and touched a hand to his cheek. “My lord, I am sorry, but it is the truth.”
“So the necklace is genuine,” Bartholomew murmured.
“That is entirely within the realm of possibility, Your Majesty,” Azebel said.
Smythe glared at her. “Whose side are you on, witch?”
“The kingdom’s. I have, after all, sworn an oath to serve the best interests of the kingdom.” Azebel’s voice was tinged with frost. “As, I believe, you did as well, did you not?”
Smythe growled but he fell silent.
“Then it’s settled,” Bartholomew said. “My previous pronouncement will stand. Edrys Fanella will now be regarded by all as my daughter.”
“But what of the matter of succession?” Gerard said.
Smythe straightened up at the question. Clearly it was an important matter to him as well.
Bartholomew waved away the chamberlain’s words. “A matter for another day. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a dinner to prepare for.”
Gerard bowed. Smythe appeared as though he wanted to continue the argument, but he fell silent. Azebel’s lips twisted into a faint smile, and she nodded.
Bartholomew had no doubt that the argument would continue the moment he left the room. But he didn’t care about that. All that mattered was the young woman he would dine with that evening. His thoughts were simply too consumed with Edrys Fanella to be concerned about anything else.