The memory of Azebel’s body pressed up against his should have buoyed Smythe’s spirits for the rest of the day, but the moment he stepped out of her chambers, his sour mood returned. What was that fool Bartholomew thinking? It was so painfully obvious that the girl was a fraud! But the man’s guilt had consumed him too much for him to recognize the truth.
Healey melted out of the shadows and fell into step with him. Smythe gave him a sidelong glance. He had no doubt that his servant knew about his dalliances with the witch. He had his ways of ferreting out the truth. That was why Smythe kept him so gainfully employed. Better to be the one controlling the flow of gossip than having the current drag him under.
“What news?” Smythe asked.
“The girl’s story has spread through the servants,” Healey said.
Healey hesitated, a grimace tugging at his features. “Most of the servants believe her tale. A few of the oldest even claim to remember seeing her smuggled out of the castle as an infant.”
Smythe swallowed a roar. “And they never thought to mention it until now?”
“I doubt the memories are genuine, sire. More like reverse wish-fulfillment. They’d prefer to have ‘the Lady Edrys Fanella’ be the heir apparent than you.”
Of course they would. The servants didn’t love him. Respect him, yes. Feared him, absolutely. But love? Compassion for lessers was for weak-willed lackspines, not for the future ruler of Darkshire Woods.
“We have worked too hard for this to have it all unravel now,” Smythe said.
“Do any of these servants remember what happened to Queen Georganna’s necklace?”
Healey shook his head. “Not a one. And I’ve asked around to see if any of the queen’s former maids are still employed here to see if they might know of the necklace’s fate. Sadly, they have all been removed from their stations. Most of have left the kingdom or live in outlying villages. By the time we get messages to them, I fear it would be too late.”
Smythe growled. Better and better!
“But there is something I’ve learned.” Healey fell silent.
“What? Spit it out, man!”
Healey glanced up and down the hallway and then motioned for Smythe to step into a shadowy alcove with him. As soon as they were out of sight, Healey leaned in close.
“You know that the queen came from the highland clans, correct?”
“Everyone knows that, fool!”
“Well, don’t the highland clans insist that sigil necklaces remain with a person for life? Don’t they teach that it is better for someone to lose a limb than lose the protection afforded by such jewelry?”
Smythe stroked his beard, but he nodded. He had served with a number of highlanders during the wars. All of them had similar charms and necklaces, and they were extremely possessive of them.
“Don’t you find it the least bit odd that the queen would part with that necklace willingly?” Healey asked.
“Of course I do, but how else would the girl have gotten it?” Smythe said.
Healey’s eyebrows shot up his forehead. “I can think of one way, sire, especially given the usual fate of such trinkets. After all, the highlanders insist that the wardspells protect them as they cross the field into the Darkness Beyond.”
Smythe’s eyes widened. “You don’t suggest…”
“The route the girl would have taken with the Velanese would have brought her very close to the royal family’s ancestral burial grounds. And even if she didn’t go there herself, her Telkoshim manservant could have easily made the trip.” Healey spread his hands wide. “It’s worth investigating.”
“It does indeed. Let’s go.”
They hurried to the stables and rode out of the castle. Smythe was gratified to see the way the peasants scattered before him. The Fanella girl may have captured the kingdom’s heart, but he still owned its fear.
Smythe and Healey rode in silence for three hours, pushing their horses to their limits. They passed through outlying villages in various degrees of squalor until they veered off the main road onto an overgrown path. Smythe had to duck several times to avoid hitting low-hanging branches. He made a mental note to send a team of workers out to repair the path. There hadn’t been a royal funeral for many years, but they’d all be traveling this path soon to inter that old fool.
Within an hour, they found the graveyard. Concealed deep within the forest was a cluster of buildings made of gray stone. Smythe paused at the entrance to the graveyard, looking over the sprawling miniature city of the dead. There had to be at least forty buildings. The oldest of the structures, the ones closest to the entrance, looked like little more than mounds of rubble. The more recent structures were still constructed out of rough-hewn stone, the correct kind taken from a holy quarry far from Darkshire Woods, and the tombs were in better repair. They were squat boxes, large enough to contain the bodies of an entire generation of royals. If everything went according to plan, Smythe would soon be able to commission his own tomb in this sacred space, but only if they could deal with that pretender back at the castle.
Healey and Smythe crept through the tombs. Smythe tried to ignore the feeling of stony gazes slithering over him. Every building had the faces of those entombed within carved into their walls, a sea of royals to watch for intruders. Most of them looked dour and disapproving.
“Over here, sire.” Healey pointed to the tomb furthest to the back of the graveyard.
Bartholomew’s family grave had been adorned with golden highlights along its edges and roof. Surprisingly, the peasants hadn’t made off with them yet. Eventually they would screw up their courage and steal whatever precious items they could get their hands on. That was their way, to be parasites on their betters, even in death. Smythe looked over the structure. He recognized most of the faces. There, toward the top, was Queen Georganna. Beneath her were the princes and princesses who survived long enough to reach their Day of Naming. Smythe’s gaze lingered on the features of two of the royal spawn, Alexander and Danrelle. The twins. A pang of regret coiled in his chest, but he quickly dismissed the feeling. He had done what he had to and he wouldn’t doubt himself now. He quickly looked for the spot indicating that the real daughter of the King, the one that Edrys claimed to be, was in the tomb, but of course, her image wasn’t on the tomb. The infant princess had died too soon to be included in the fresco.
Then his gaze fell on the entrance to the tomb and he gasped in spite of himself. Normally, the entrance to the tomb was sealed by a thick stone slab, one that was kept in place by holy wards placed by a cadre of priests. It was to keep grave robbers out; in theory, only someone who was directly related by blood could undo the seals and open the tomb. But now, the door to the king’s tomb was open, the slab set to one side. Smythe knelt down in front of the tomb and peered inside. He wasn’t about to actually enter. There was no telling what the vengeful spirits inside would do since their rest had been disturbed.
Smythe stood up and stroked his beard. This had to have happened recently. The tombs were often visited by the priests to ensure that the inhabitants rested peacefully. He didn’t know when they would have been here last, but they surely would have reported the sacrilege. It was entirely possible that this had been done to retrieve the queen’s necklace, but there really was only one way to find out for sure. He turned to Healey. “Go in there and see if the queen’s tomb has been disturbed.”
The color immediately drained from the servant’s face. But to his credit, the man didn’t argue. Instead, he flicked his hand, a gesture meant to ward off evil, and then ducked into the tomb. A few moments later, he stumbled out into the open again. “I can’t tell for certain. It’s possible. It looks like the lid to her ossuary may have been slid open recently, but if it has been, they closed it again.”
Smythe frowned. That made no sense. Why close the ossuary but leave the tomb open? Unless the tomb had been opened for another reason, one that had nothing to do with Edrys Fanella.
A twig cracked behind them. Smythe whirled around, only find Gerard the chamberlain gaping at them.
“My Lord Smythe!” Gerard’s gaze flicked from Smythe to the tomb. “What have you done?”
“We found it like this, Gerard,” Smythe said. “Why are you here?”
The chamberlain didn’t answer. He brushed past and stood quietly. But then red crept up his neck and into his cheeks. His entire body quaked and his hands spasmed into claws. “That…that girl! How dare she do this to our king’s sacred tomb!”
Smythe regarded Gerard out of the corner of his eye. He had seen the chamberlain perturbed before. Put out, even. But he had never seen him this angry, so enraged.
This could prove useful.
“What girl?” Smythe asked. “You don’t mean…you don’t mean Lady Edrys, do you?”
“Who else would I mean?” Gerard spun on him. “Surely you see what’s happening, my lord. She continues to ingratiate herself with the king, with the court. Did you know that Lady Hallston is throwing a banquet in her honor later this week?”
Smythe’s jaw tightened. He hadn’t known that. The Hallston family controlled a great deal of land in the southern reaches of the kingdom and they had powerful allies within the court. If they threw in with Edrys, things could get extremely complicated.
“She’s taken in so many people, and here is the proof that she is simply a charlatan and fraud.” Gerard growled something else, a profane curse. “I hadn’t thought she had fooled you, Lord Smythe.”
“In truth, she almost did,” Smythe said. “She is a persuasive storyteller and so very charming. I confess, there have been times when I’ve been tempted to believe her and her story.”
Gerard sputtered. “She is false, my lord! False! I do not know what game she is playing here, if it’s just that she’s after the throne, or if there’s something deeper at work here. I don’t know what it is, but the king has to be made to see reason. Somehow, some way, someone needs to do something…”
Smythe regarded the chamberlain with growing interest. The man was angry. More than that, he was incensed. On the brink.
In other words, a tool to be used.
“You’re absolutely right,” Smythe said. “Someone needs to do something. And that someone is you.”
Gerard’s jaw dropped open and Healey gasped.
“Me, my lord? You can’t be serious. You would be in a much better position to—”
“To argue with the king? The man who ’til recently was to be my father? No, my good man, he would think that I was only being petty, that I was doing so, not out of concern for the kingdom, but out of selfish ambition on my part. But you.” Smythe clapped his hands on Gerard’s shoulder. “You, my friend, are perfect for the job. Everyone knows that you are the kingdom’s most humble servant, who puts the needs of the kingdom above his own at every turn. No, he will believe you.”
“B-but…be that as it may, we…I have no proof, nothing that the king would believe.”
“Then find it. Find the proof, the truth, whatever you can.” He leaned in closer. “Even if you have to beat it all out of her.”
Gerard still looked confused, but then his face hardened. He nodded, then turned on his heel and marched away from the tomb.
Healey took a step forward, frowning. “My lord? May I ask…what just happened?”
“I have taken steps to solve our problem.” Smythe inspected his hands, then dusted them together. “It’s entirely possible that he will be able to uncover the truth about Fanella and rid that problem for us. Even if he does, his attempt could discredit him and make it all the easier to remove him from office. No matter what happens, I’m sure that this will come out the better for us. Now, let’s get back to the castle. I suspect that tonight will be one we don’t want to miss.”