As the banquet with the King of Seviel loomed over her, an unfamiliar sensation built in her stomach, a fluttering and twisting that had nothing to do with hunger. She was nervous. Gods below, she was actually nervous to meet the king! When was the last time that had happened?
Her hand darted up to touch the ragged line of her hair where she had cut off the lock for Smythe. Maybe that was part of it. His request, so quietly made, had startled her into dropping her guard, just for a moment. She hadn’t been lying when she said that betrothed couples exchanged locks of hair in her home kingdom. She simply hadn’t been speaking of Seviel, but instead of her true home. Smythe most likely didn’t know enough to catch her mistake; the man was as dense as the castle’s walls and twice as thick. He had simply stumbled into the truth and the surprise had left her feeling a bit off. She’d recover quickly enough.
Villac appeared behind her, studying her reflection in the mirror. Edrys’s heart stammered at the suddenness. She should have gotten used to his ways by now, but she hadn’t. The man was immense, but he seemed more shadow than material. “How goes your hunt?”
He didn’t answer. He never spoke. At least, never in her presence. He frowned and touched her hair where she had cut it. His eyes formed the unspoken question.
“Ah, that. Yes, I know it’s not that fashionable. Lord Vance Smythe requested it. It would seem that the man is smitten with me.”
Villac winced and his scowl deepened. He clearly didn’t like that explanation, but why it should bother him so much, she couldn’t even begin to guess. When she learned that the hulking brute was to accompany her, she didn’t object. The pay was simply too good to pass up. And besides, she always loved the chance to tweak the noses of the aristocracy. It offered her a small measure of revenge for the way she had been treated in the past. Unfortunately, she didn’t know what Villac was looking for in Darkshire Woods. Her employer hadn’t explained his role in any detail. Her instructions had been simple: “Masquerade as King Bartholomew’s daughter. The way will be prepared for you. And bring Villac with you.” That had been it. She had hoped for further orders when she arrived at the palace, but so far, she had been left to make up the rest as she went.
Eventually Villac lost interest in her. Whether that was because he decided Smythe’s interest in her was harmless or because he grew bored, she had no idea. He vanished as quietly as he appeared, leaving her to dress. She settled on a rich burgundy gown, one her chambermaid had assured her was the height of current fashion. She twisted her hair up into a net made of delicate copper fibers, a demure style that would hide her impromptu haircut.
When the time for the banquet arrived, two members of the royal guard arrived to escort her to the ballroom. The mere sight of them was enough to set her heart fluttering again. She stifled her nervousness as much as she could, but it was a losing battle. The only way she would be able to fully overcome her fears was to charge them. She held her head high as the two men walked her through the castle.
The ballroom fairly glowed in the candlelight. A long table was set up on a low stage with high-backed chairs.Two rows of table spread through the rest of the room, forming a U-shape with the head table. At least three dozen people circulated through the room. Edrys recognized most of them as members of the Darkshire court, although at least a third had come from Seviel. The representatives of the two kingdoms mixed freely, forming little knots of conversation.
As Edrys crossed the threshold into the room, a servant rapped a large staff against the stone floor. “Lady Edrys Fanella, lately of Seviel and restored daughter of the king.”
The conversation in the room died. Everyone turned to face her. Once again, Edrys felt her stomach lurch and she had to fight off the distinct urge to flee the room. But instead, she plastered on a serene smile and scanned the room. She vaguely recognized most of the members of the Darkshire court. They had all sought her out to make introductions and begin currying her favor. Her gaze landed on Lord Smythe, who was dressed smartly in a black doublet, his house’s coat of arms embroidered onto its front with gold thread. He raised a goblet in silent toast to her, but his eyes were cold, distant. Was he simply maintaining a front for the rest of the court? Or was there something else at work?
She had no time to puzzle that out. The king tottered toward her, raising his hand to take hers and escort her the rest of the way into the ballroom. She smiled at the old fool. He was sweet, but clearly a moron. Why else would he have accepted her so readily?
“It is wonderful, simply wonderful, to have a woman in the palace once again.” Bartholomew tucked her hand into his elbow and gave it a pat. “I cannot wait to see what kind of changes you bring to these dreary halls, my dear.”
“Of course, Father.”
He steered them through the courtiers toward Maxillian, King of Seviel. Edrys’s body tensed, bracing herself. The other king’s gaze raked over her, his doubt plainly visible on his face.
“Maxillian, old friend, please allow me the pleasure of formally introducing you to my daughter, Edrys. She is recently from your kingdom, having lived with my late wife’s cousin Ilona Fanella.”
Edrys once again forced herself to smile, offering her hand to Maxillian.
He took her hand and bowed over it, kissing her palm ever so lightly, in the Seviel fashion. But when he straightened up again, his eyes remained glacial.
As much as she wanted to retreat from him, she knew she couldn’t. Better to remain confident than show any sign of doubt.
“Ah, yes,” Maxillian said. “I’ve heard quite a bit about you, my dear. And I’ve been quite eager to meet you. It’s so rare to find one of my subjects who have traveled so far from home.”
“That is indeed unusual,” Edrys said, because it was the truth. The people of Seviel didn’t venture far from home. Most lived and died in the same village. “But then, I am not truly one of your subjects.”
Bartholomew guffawed. “She’s got you there, Maxillian.”
“A valid argument, I suppose.” His eyes narrowed. “So you were raised by the Fanellas, eh?”
Edrys nodded, keeping a civil smile on her face. She had known he would interrogate her about her cover story. She risked a quick peek at the Seviel delegation. Were any of the Fanellas with them? That could prove awkward.
“Theirs is a remote estate.” Maxillian stroked his chin. “I haven’t seen Balor or Ilona for many years, but they do send in their tribute without fail.”
“As well they should,” Edrys replied. “My adoptive parents have always been good citizens and supporters of the throne.”
“Yes. It’s a shame that they don’t leave their holdings more often. We sorely miss them at court.”
“And they miss being able to serve you directly.” Edrys relaxed a little.
“But then, I’m sure that they took you to Halocline, didn’t they?”
Edrys froze. What was Halocline? A city? No, it couldn’t be that. She had studied maps of Seviel and memorized the names of all the cities and villages near the Fanellas’ estate. Could it be a person? A religious shrine? Or maybe a festival of some sort?
“I’m afraid that they tried but, sadly, in my youthful ignorance, I didn’t want to go.” Edrys punctuated what she said with a girlish giggle. She did her best to project the image of foolish waif. “Perhaps if I return home to see them again.”
“Oh? You don’t plan to stay here? Assume your rightful place on your father’s throne?”
She could hear the challenge in his voice. Naturally he assumed that she was only here for the power. It was a reasonable assumption, after all. And she had to admit that she was tempted. But she figured it would be better to remain humble, behave as though the throne was the furthest thing from her mind. “If the people of Darkshire Woods need me to rule, then I will do so. But until then, I am just happy to be reunited with my father.”
Bartholomew beamed at her. For a split second, she felt the tiniest pang of guilt. She didn’t know why her employer wanted her to deceive such a dear old man, but a job was a job.
Apparently her answers had mollified Maxillian, at least for now. He clearly didn’t trust her still. The piercing look he gave her communicated that well enough. But he turned to another noble and struck up a conversation.
Edrys resisted the temptation to breathe a sigh of relief. Instead, she excused herself and began to make the rounds through the ballroom.
An hour later, her ears practically rung from the inane chatter she had been forced to endure. She was positive that no one in the Darkshire court had even half a brain. Instead, they wanted to chat about the weather, the latest fashion, or swap old stories about the wars. She was grateful when the man serving in Chamberlain Gerard’s place called them to the tables for the actual meal.
Edrys was escorted to the main table and shown a place between Bartholomew and Lord Smythe. Smythe offered her a thin smile but still said nothing. She scanned the rest of the tables. No sign of Azebel. Why wouldn’t the king’s chief advisor be here?
A serving boy scurried past the front of the table, bringing a goblet of wine to the king. He took it and stood up, raising the cup in toast. The rest of the guests did the same.
“Tonight we celebrate many things, my friends. We celebrate past friendships, such as that between the people of Darkshire Woods and Seviel. We celebrate the present, such as the return of our beloved daughter. And we celebrate the glorious future her return portends.” Bartholomew raised the goblet to his lips.
“Wait!” The shouted word was accompanied by a clap of thunder that seemed to shake the room.
Edrys dropped her own goblet and the red wine spilled out across the white tablecloth. She looked around to see who had interrupted the dinner.
Azebel stood in the ballroom’s entrance. She looked like one of the gods below, resplendent in a flowing black gown with silver highlights along the cuffs and hem. She leveled a finger at the boy who had brought the king his wine. “Guards, arrest him!”
“On what charge?” Bartholomew demanded.
The chief advisor crossed the ballroom and snatched the goblet from the king’s hand. “Poisoning the king.”
The room erupted in confusion. Edrys stared at the young man, shocked at the accusation. Why would anyone want to poison Bartholomew?
But then she felt the weight of someone’s gaze land upon her. She turned and found herself under the scrutiny of not just King Maxillian, but Lord Smythe and Azebel as well.
She sighed. The party was clearly over.