Azebel stroked the necklace, admiring the way the candlelight danced and shimmered across its surface. Even more impressive was the way the spells within the necklace were woven together. She was familiar with the ward-spells and charms used by the denizens of Darkshire Woods and the surrounding kingdoms, and this one necklace had at least a dozen protective spells woven into its metal and the chain. And while she wasn’t an expert in the sigil alphabet used by Queen Geroganna’s clan, the inscriptions looked authentic enough. Based on Gerard’s reaction to the girl’s story, it was entirely possible that Edrys Fanella was telling the truth. She really was the long lost daughter of King Bartholomew.
And yet there was something that continued to nag at the back of Azebel’s mind. It was a bit too convenient that Edrys would arrive in Darkshire Woods just in time to disrupt Lord Smythe’s adoption as the king’s heir. Coincidences were, of course, possible, but Azebel’s training had taught her that a seeming coincidence could esily hide a larger threat.
Her fingers tightened around the necklace. Standing in her chambers staring at a lump of metal wouldn’t bring her any answers. A smile tugged at her lips. Better to return the necklace to its rightful owner and see if she could sift out the truth of the matter herself.
She opened the large wooden cabinet next to her bed and shoved aside the robes and dresses. Hanging on the back of the cabinet were dozens of amulets and necklaces of her own, each one crafted and enspelled for different purposes. Azebel suppressed a chuckle. The courtiers loved to coo at her jewelry at the official feasts and holidays. What they never realized was that her jewelry served a more practical purpose. It allowed her to unravel the shifting cords of deceit and plotting within Darkshire’s court. She had been able to expose at least a half dozen conspiracies during her tenure in the castle, all for the good of the kingdom. Perhaps she’d be able to do it again.
She selected a brooch tied to a length of black lace. The brooch itself featured the image of a snarling ferret’s head etched into onyx, its eyes ruby chips. Azebel tied it around her neck and the room around her immediately dimmed, the colors draining out of the furniture and walls. The effect was disorienting, but only for a heartbeat. Once she was certain her stomach had settled, she left her chambers.
Azebel passed a number of courtiers in the halls. They were all polite enough, at least when they thought she was looking, but Azebel knew well enough that the moment they thought she couldn’t hear them anymore, they whispered and complained about her. Let them. She held a position of prominence in the court and that wasn’t going to change anytime soon. She was certain of that.
Edrys’s chambers were on the opposite end of the palace. She took a deep breath, knocked on the door, and then braced herself. According to what she had heard, the girl traveled with some sort of manservant, a hulking Telkoshim warrior, if the rumors were to be trusted. While she had never met a Telkoshim before, she knew that the barbarians were steeped in wild magicks thanks to the shamans who led their tribes. The man’s mere presence could be disorienting, especially with the brooch on.
And yet the servant did not answer the door. Instead, it was Edrys Fanella who smiled warmly at Azebel once the door was opened. “Lady Azebel. This is a genuine surprise. What brings you to my room?”
Azebel held up the girl’s necklace. “In all the…confusion earlier, I’m afraid the king didn’t return your necklace to you. I didn’t want you to be worried.”
Edrys’s smile turned positively blinding as she took the necklace. “Thank you. Would you like to come in?”
“If you’re not too busy,” Azebel said.
Edrys stepped aside and made a sweeping motion with her arms.
Azebel stepped into the room and looked around. A modest suite, with a well-furnished receiving room and doors that led to Edrys’s bedroom and bathing chamber. Much to Azebel’s surprise, there was no sign of the Telkoshim inside the suite either. Was he hiding? Or had Edrys dispatched him on some errand?
Edrys came around Azebel and held up the necklace. “Thank you again for returning this, my lady. I would have been devastated if I hadn’t gotten it back.”
“It is a lovely piece.”
“Thank you. And…” Edrys winced, ever so slightly. “…and so is yours.”
The colors of Edrys’s hair and clothing flared even more brilliantly. Azebel held back her smile. While the brooch was indeed hideous, it had a more practical use than mere aesthetics. The spells woven into the onyx were working perfectly, discerning the lie in Edrys’s words.
“Are these quarters satisfactory?” Azebel asked. “If not, I’m sure that I can arrange something more luxurious for you.”
Edrys laughed. “Oh, no. I would never dream of imposing. This is certainly much nicer than the room I had while living with Aunt Ilona.”
No reaction from the brooch. That, in and of itself, meant nothing. She may have lived with a woman named Ilona who was really her aunt, and her room may have been nice enough. Better to remain patient and keep pressing. If there was a lie here, Azebel would find it easily enough.
“And your journey? I trust it was pleasant?”
“Oh, of course.” This time, her colors did flare, but not brightly. A little white lie, something a person might say in polite company. And as Edrys launched into an abberviated version of her trip, she offered similar falsehoods along the way. Again, nothing she said struck Azebel as devious. It seemed more like Edrys was simply glossing over some of the details.
“…and so here I am,” Edrys said to conclude her story. “I still can’t believe this is truly happening. I’ve found my father.”
Her colors remained muted. Azebel’s brows twitched into a brief frown. Truth. Or, at the very least, the girl believed she was the king’s daughter.
“I’m sure you are very happy, my dear,” Azebel said, her voice a coo. “But it does make me wonder, what are your plans now that you’ve found him?”
“My…my plans?” Edrys repeated.
Azebel smiled. “Oh, come now. You interrupted Lord Smythe’s adoption. By doing so, you’ve positioned yourself as a claimant to the throne. Will you pursue that claim?”
Edrys blanched, the color draining from her face even further. “I…no, I didn’t…I mean, I don’t want the throne. That’s not the reason why I’m here.”
Once again, there was no reaction from the brooch. Azebel could scarcely believe it. Was it possible? Was Edrys really telling the truth? About all of it?
Edrys’s head tipped to one side. “Is that why you’re really here? To find out what my intentions are?”
“Not exactly,” Azebel said. “I did want to return your necklace to you.”
Edrys laughed, a melodic sound, like distant bells. Then she gave Azebel a knowing look. “You’re a member of the Order of the Eighth Eye, aren’t you?”
Azebel sputtered, but then realized that there was no point in denying it. “I am.”
“I thought that might be the case. I’ve never met a member of your Order before. Of course, why would I, living on the outskirts of Seviel? But even in that rural province, we heard about your esteemed order. Magick users, tasked with the protection of civilization. People who have taken vows denouncing family, worldly riches, and prestige, all for the good of the kingdoms they serve.”
Azebel’s eyebrows rose. Edrys seemed to understand the Order’s mission quite well.
“Is it true that they recruit children when they’re ten?” Edrys asked.
“Not always,” Azebel said. “I was recruited when I was eight.”
“And you don’t regret what you’ve given up? Love, titles, political power?”
Azebel smiled and shook her head. “I have taken vows to protect the throne of Darkshire Woods to the best of my abilities. My service is reward enough.”
“And you never get lonely?” Edrys asked.
“Not at all.”
“I am glad to hear that.” Edrys reached out and snared Azebel’s hands. “I still do not know what my plans are for the future, Lady Azebel. But if I should stay here, it would bring me no small amount of happiness to count you as a friend.”
And once again, the girl appeared to be telling the truth! Warmth spread through Azebel’s chest. “I should like that too.”
Edrys squeezed her hands. “Thank you again for returning my mother’s necklace. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I need to lie down. I’m feeling positively drained.”
The color around her flared like the sun. Azebel almost laughed. Rather than confront her, she decided to let the lie slip by. “Then I will take my leave of you. I hope to see you soon.”
“As do I.”
Much to Azebel’s surprise, Edrys’s colors turned dazzling again. A frown pulled at her brow as she stepped out of the room.
As she made her way back to her chambers, Azebel puzzled over the mystery of Edrys Fanella. Based on their conversation, she had no reason to doubt the girl’s words. She truly believed that she was the daughter of King Bartholomew. She almost didn’t need the brooch to see how earnest and genuine the girl was. Azebel couldn’deny how tempting it would be to simply take the girl at her word and acknowledge her as Bartholomew’s daughter.
But at the same time, a small part of Azebel simply couldn’t do that. Yes, the girl may have believed everything she said was the truth, but that didn’t necessarily mean that it was. It was possible to alter a person’s deeply held beliefs through magick, although the spells to do so were extremely complex and difficult to cast. Or perhaps those who raised her told her this story and this was the only truth that she knew. Until Azebel could eliminate those possibilities, she had to continue her investigation.
She pushed open the door to her chambers and stopped short. Lord Smythe stood in the middle of the room, his arms tucked behind his back.
“Well? Are you back from interrogating the wench?” Smythe’s voice was brusque, almost glacial. “Have you exposed her for the fraud she is?”
“What right do you have to violate my private chambers, my lord?” Azebel matched her tone to his.
“Why, the right of being the true heir of Darkshire Woods. Haven’t you taken an oath to serve the throne?”
Azebel stepped into the chamber and pushed the door closed behind her. “To the throne, yes. But you are not the throne’s occupant yet.”
“I see.” Smythe took a step closer to her. “And is Edrys Fanella a worthy occupant? Is she the one you will someday serve?”
“That has yet to be seen. The girl has a strong case. She could very well be what she claims.”
Smythe snorted. “And you are so gullible, witch? Your arcane arts havne’t kept you immune to the girl’s charm?”
Heat flashed through Azebel’s cheeks. The gall of the man, to call her witch in her own chambers! “I am merely a servant to the truth. My vows demand me to be such.”
He stood so close to her that his breath washed over her face. “And you would never consider breaking those oaths?”
She smiled. “Never, Lord Smythe.”
His hands lashed out, catching the sides of her face. She gasped, but then his mouth was pressed against hers, hot and hungry. She snaked her arms around his neck and pulled him closer, as though she wanted to consume him and make him a part of her. In many ways, he already was.
“You have violated your vows for me before,” Smythe whispered to her. “Why stop now?”
She chuckled. It felt good to let go of the charade, at least for a little while. It was so wearying to pretend to hate this man, to argue with him at every possible moment. But they had to maintain the illusion of hostility, especially when in the presence of the king. At least until Smythe was safely enthroned.
A delicious moan crept up her throat as he continued to devour her with kisses. Finally, reluctantly, she pushed him away. “My love, we must be patient. Both right now and with the girl.”
“Can’t we just kill her?” Smythe asked. “Healey could do it and make sure that her body is never found. We could tell the king that she returned home to Seviel.”
Azebel shook her head. “No, he would never accept that. Let me think on matters some more. Even if her claim proves to be legitimate, we will find a way around her.”
“And then you and I shall sit upon the throne. Together.”
With that final word, Smythe leaned forward and kissed her again. Then he slipped out of her chamber.
Azebel sighed and went about straightening her chamber. Anything to distract her from the way that Smythe’s colors had blazed with that final promise. At one time, she had hoped that Smythe’s love for her would prove to be genuine and maybe, someday, it would be again. But even as he was trying to use her, she would use him in return. For the good of the throne. For the good of her throne, even if it meant turning all her vows to lies.