The guards had cleared out the ballroom at Maxillian’s insistence. As a matter of fact, Bartholomew’s good friend had pretty much taken charge the moment Azebel made her accusation. He had calmed the guests, shooed them all out of the room, and ordered the guards to clap the boy in irons. Lord Smythe, gods bless him, had similarly leapt into action, offering to search the servant’s quarters for any hint of what
Bartholomew studied the accused servant, scarcely believing what he had heard. Was it possible that one of his own servants had tried to kill him? He had always treated them so well, especially when compared to the previous kings and queens. Why, his father had been absolutely brutal in his treatment of the palace staff, often subjecting them to torture and other cruelties for his own amusement. Why would this boy want to see him dead?
But then Bartholomew realized that he really didn’t know who this boy was. Yes, he had seen him traipsing throughout the castle. For the past several weeks, he had served as his own personal cupbearer, bringing him drink whenever he requested it and, now that he thought about it, even when he didn’t. He frowned. How could a stranger be given a position of such importance? An investigation would have to be conducted throughout the entire serving staff to root out how this had happened. Normally, he would entrust the matter to Gerard, but with the chamberlain dead, he would have to find someone else he could trust to handle matters.
Smythe tromped into the ballroom, holding a leather satchel, one that clinked as he walked. He set it on the table in front of them with a triumphant smile.
“What is that?” Bartholomew asked.
“I found this shoved under the boy’s bunk, my king. It is filled with all sorts of vials and bottles.”
Bartholomew took the bag and opened it. Sure enough, small glass bottles rattled around the inside. Dozens of them, all labeled with words he didn’t recognize and wasn’t sure he could pronounce. He looked up at the boy. “What is this?”
The boy didn’t answer, but Bartholomew noted the look of defiance in his eyes. As a matter of fact, the boy looked entirely too calm, considering his present state.
“I can answer that,” Azebel said. “It’s an admixture of Crestin’s wort and texion with a tincture of seni grass. I believe this particular potion is called the Cloud Bringer.”
“Why? What does it do?” Maxillian asked.
“It lowers a person’s inhibitions, makes them more susceptible to suggestion. I’ve never experienced the effect myself, but from what I hear, it is quite potent.” Azebel fixed a glare on Edrys. “It can make you believe all sorts of ridiculous things.”
The color drained from Edrys’s face. She stared at the boy in complete confusion. Her mouth formed words but no sounds came out.
Smythe leaned across the table. “Who sent you, boy?”
The boy looked at each person crowded around the table, then laughed and shook his head. “Do you really think that you frighten me? The one who sent me is much more powerful than you. There is nothing you can threaten me with, nothing you can promise me, that will make me betray who they are.”
“We’ll see about that.” Smythe snapped his fingers at one of the guards. “Some time on the rack may loosen your tongue.”
“Do not flatter yourself, my lord.” The last two words oozed with sarcasm. “I will not reveal the truth, no matter how much you bluster.”
This was spiraling out of control. Clearly threats weren’t going to make the boy talk. Bartholomew cleared his throat, catching the attention of everyone around him.
“Why did you do this? Why did you put this potion in my wine?” he asked, keeping his voice quiet and level.
Was that actual compassion in the boy’s eyes? He smiled sadly. “It was nothing personal, Your Majesty. From all that I’ve seen, you are a worthy and honorable man. But the one who hired me wanted you to be more…pliable. Hence the Cloud Bringer.”
“And who was it that sent you? How did I wrong this person that they would strike at me thus?”
“All I will say is this: the one who hired me is in this room. And when the lingering effects of the Cloud Bringer have worn off, you may figure out the reason for yourself.”
“But you will not tell me who?” Bartholomew asked.
The boy closed his mouth and bowed his head. Clearly he wasn’t going to answer.
Smythe snorted. “Right, then. Guards, take him down to the interrogation chamber, and we’ll…”
The boy’s head snapped back up and a pale green froth spilled out of his mouth. His body convulsed so hard that it fell out of his chair. Smythe cried out and took a step back.
“What is happening to him?” Maxillian asked.
“Poison!” Azebel dropped at the boys side and swiped a bit of the foam from his mouth, rubbing it between her fingers. “It would appear to be nocturn’s kiss. He probably had a pouch of it held inside his mouth for just such an eventuality.”
“Can’t you do something to save him?” Bartholomew asked.
Azebel shook her head. “There is no known antidote and besides, the toxin works very quickly. There, you see?”
The boy had gone still and his skin was already turning purple. The guards and Smythe backed up by a step, as if they were worried that the poison was somehow contagious.
“So now what do we do?” Maxillian asked.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Azebel brushed her hands against her robes and stood up. “We determine who it is that brought this miscreant into our kingdom.”
Azebel, Smythe, and Maxillian exchanged veiled looks, and then as one, they turned toward Edrys.
Edrys backed up a step. “Wh-why are you looking at me? I’ve never seen this boy before in my life.”
“A likely story,” Maxillian said.
“You don’t find it the least bit odd that this boy arrived shortly before you did, that he was giving the king a potion that would make him more apt to believe your outrageous story?” Azebel asked.
“But I have my mother’s necklace! How do you explain that?” Edrys asked.
Smythe scowled at her. “Come now, Edrys—if that is your real name—it’s time to confess your crimes. All of them. Including the way you violated Queen Georganna’s grave.”
Bartholomew’s head whipped around so he could stare at the woman who claimed to be his daughter. She did what? A tremor wormed through him.
Edrys’s face paled even further. “How I…what? I did no such thing! I would never dream of violating a graveyard like that. Vance? What about your promise to me? The promise you made about our future together?”
Azebel’s head snapped back as if struck. She whirled on Smythe, who didn’t seem to notice her.
Instead, the lord waved away Edrys’s words. “Oh, come now. Did you really think I meant anything I said? I was merely trying to bring you into my confidence long enough to unmask for the fraud you are.”
Edrys sputtered and continued to back away. Her gaze locked with Bartholomew’s and he saw the urgent plea, the desperation, shining in her beautiful eyes. Eyes that he had believed at one time to be like those of his dear Georganna.
What could he say to her? How could he ever forgive her for such a blatant desecration? How could she have toyed with his heart so callously?
Her expression hardened and she turned to run. Before she could make it out of the room, though, she was tackled by two royal guards.
“Take her to the dungeon!” Smythe roared.
The guards dragged Edrys out of the room. She fought them the whole way, shouting at Bartholomew, begging him to release her. Still calling him “father.”
His chest hurt and he slouched in his chair. A groan slipped past his lips.
“Bartholomew, are you all right?” Maxillian knelt down at his side.
He couldn’t speak, didn’t dare look at his friend. He had been a stupid old man. So blind, too eager to accept the impossible.
“Is he all right?” Maxillian asked.
“He will be.” Azebel rummaged through the bag and pulled out a green crystalline bottle. “This, I believe, is the antidote for the Cloud Bringer potion. If His Majesty will drink…” She poured some of the contents into a goblet and pressed it into his hands.
Bartholomew stared at the amber liquid pooled at the bottom of the goblet. Tears welled up in his eyes. The gods bless Azebel for her continued loyalty. He simply didn’t know what he would do without her. He quaffed the potion and warmth spread through his chest. It felt as though iron was flowing through his veins, thickening his limbs and making them so incredibly heavy. The goblet slipped from his fingers and it clattered to the table.
Maxillian shook him by his shoulders and called his name. At least, Bartholomew thought it was Maxillian, and that he was indeed shaking him. “What is happening to him?”
“This is a normal reaction to the antidote. It must cleanse him of the toxins.” Azebel’s voice sounded as though it were echoing down a long tunnel.
Bartholomew’s head lolled forward, his chin touching his chest. He was vaguely aware of the people around him, making plans for him to be brought back to his chambers. Strong hands lifted him up and guided him past the boy’s body and out of the ballroom. He tipped his head back and forth to see that it was Smythe and Azebel guiding him. He stumbled several times, but they didn’t seem to care. He didn’t either. He was more confused by what was happening. He didn’t feel as though he were getting stronger. If anything, it seemed like he was getting weaker with each passing moment.
Smythe let go of him long enough to wrench open the doors to Bartholomew’s private chambers. As he worked, Azebel leaned in close. “It’s almost over, old man.”
The iciness in her tone surprised him. He wanted to speak, to ask her what was happening, but his tongue no longer worked.
“I didn’t think it would happen quite like this, but any opportunity you’re given, yes? The boy’s bag was quite well-stocked. The poison you drank should finish the job before midnight. Don’t worry. Vance and I will take good care of the kingdom once you’re gone.”
Poison? He tried to pull free of her grasp, but she wouldn’t let go. Instead, she and Smythe hauled him the rest of the way and dumped him into his bed.
Smythe leaned in close. “You don’t know how long I’ve waited for today. The people I’ve had to eliminate to clear the way for my ascension. Why do you think your sons didn’t come home from the wars? That was me, old man. They were lauded as heroes by the people, but they were really just obstacles for me to overcome. All swords are alike on the field of battle, are they not? And mine cut down your sons easily enough. And now, the throne is going to be mine.”
The two of them laughed as they left the room.
Bartholomew tried to roll off the bed, but he couldn’t move. His body felt like it was encased in iron which was slowly grinding him to nothing. Shadows swam in his vision, faces of his children, his wife, even his parents. All dead, welcoming him to the realm beyond.
He wasn’t ready to go. Not yet. Not like this…
But then a different face appeared before him, a hulking, pale face. He almost looked Telkoshim, but that was impossible. Why would he see one of those barbarians in his final moments? Was this someone he killed during the wars? Possible. This did not bode well for his placement in the realm beyond. Was this one here to torture him?
Hands probed at his body, moving his arms and legs. The barbarian grunted several times, his face twisted into a scowl. Finally, he produced a vial of his own and forced the liquid into Bartholomew’s mouth. He grunted some more, then vanished.
Had he imagined that? It seemed possible, but then, with each passing second, he felt better. More alert. Stronger, even. The weight was lifting from his body, bit by bit, along with the cloud that had fogged his mind for so long. And as it left him, realization returned. And he remembered.
He remembered everything.