She slipped off the dais and headed for the nearest exit. Two guards in their best livery should have stopped her from exiting, but it was a simple thing to cast a quick spell, cloaking her from their sight. They stood at rigid attention as she slipped out the door and into the hallway beyond.
Once she was out of the throne room, she hurried, hiking up her robes to help her move faster. Time was of the essence. Her absence would be noticed sooner rather than later, and she had to have answers at the ready. She had worked for too long to let some whelp from across the seas ruin her reputation as a seer.
But why had she failed to foresee this turn of events? She had spent the last two weeks in her scrying chamber, plying the gods above and below to give her insight. She had used every method she could find in her library to examine the omens for Smythe’s adoption as Bartholomew’s heir. So far as she could tell, there hadn’t been a smudge or shadow on the day, certainly nothing as tumultuous as this revelation. She had given her assurances to the king several times that everything would proceed smoothly. And now this had happened! It wouldn’t be long before Bartholomew would summon her and demand answers for her lapse of insight.
Best for her to have an answer for him when the time came.
Azebel hurried down a flight of stairs into her private chambers. The room was cool, as were all the chambers in the castle’s basement, with no windows to allow in the light of the sun. The dank darkness was perfect for her art. She flicked a finger and the sconces that dotted the walls burst into flame, casting their flickering light on her chambers. They were stark and mostly bare: a bed shoved against one wall, a towering shelf filled with books and scrolls, a table with beakers and bottles for her experiments in herbalism and potioncraft. A rough wooden door, one held together without iron, was set into one wall. She headed there and slipped through.
There was no need for candles in her scrying chamber. The crystal plinth that jutted up through the stone floor cast a faint blue light, more than enough for Azebel to navigate the room. She rushed to the plinth and ran her hands along its smooth surface. Warmth radiated into her hands, a response to her presence.
“Show me what I need to know,” Azebel whispered. “Why didn’t I see the return of the king’s daughter?”
A musky odor tickled the back of Azebel’s mind, feather-light caresses that quickly bored deep into her skull. She gasped as the weight of the visions slammed down on her. She tumbled through shadow and ice, half-formed images whipping past her in the void. She didn’t try to latch on to any of them. It was more important to let the knowledge flow into her of its own accord. Curiosity could be fatal in the vision realm. If there was knowledge or wisdom for her here, it would seek her out. She just had to be patient.
But then she fell back into her body. She stumbled away from the plinth and took a few moments to catch her breath. She hadn’t been given any insight, nothing that could guide her. The visions rarely failed her; it was even rarer that they refused to come entirely. So why had the plinth failed? There were a couple of possible explanations. There were spells and magical objects that could interfere with a person’s connection to the vision realm, but Azebel had learned to recognize their influence many years ago. She didn’t sense anyone meddling with her. It was also possible that she had done something to offend the myriad spirits that lurked within the vision realm. But she had spent the morning performing her usual ablutions and rituals to keep herself mystically attuned and clean.
Then there was the most obvious explanation: if a person was agitated or feeling inner turmoil, the vision realm would remain silent. And Azebel knew all too well how agitated and filled with turmoil she was since this “Lady Edrys Fanella” made her dramatic entrance to court.
She glanced at the plinth. She could try to delve the vision realm again, but her previous failure would only make matters worse. King Bartholomew had likely noticed her absence by now. He would be looking for answers as well. She couldn’t tarry in the scrying chamber for too much longer. Azebel stepped out of the scrying chamber and straightened her robes. Once she was sure that she was presentable, she left her quarters.
Not surprisingly, a pair of royal guard waited on the other side of the door. They snapped to attention as soon as they saw her.
“Well, gentlemen, shall we go?”
They led her out of the cellar and through the throne room. The courtiers were no longer there, likely chased out by the guard. The room was mostly empty save for a few servants who remained behind on clean up detail. Even the throne was vacant. Azebel scanned the room for any sign of Edrys but saw nothing. What had happened to the king’s supposed daughter? One way to find out.
She was ushered into the king’s private receiving chamber. Rather than being filled with symbols of the state, this room was filled with Bartholomew’s personal momentos: antlers from successful hunts, favorite books and scrolls in a full bookshelf, along with a painting of the royal family from several years ago, back when the queen and their sons still lived. Seeing the Bartholomew in the portrait made for quite the contrast with the living king. He sat in a plush chair, surrounded by cushions and pillows. Bartholomew looked frail and fragile, a mere shell of his former strength. A goblet of wine sat on the chair’s arm within his easy reach. Azebel frowned. Who would have given him wine at a time like this?
“Well, witch? Have you managed to weave together some explanation for how you missed the fact that our king still has a living relative?”
Ah, that explained the wine. Azebel turned to face Lord Smythe. The would-be adopted son of the king still wore his finery from the ceremony. It should have made him look regal. Instead, Azebel only wanted to laugh at him. A strutting popinjay with his feathers all ruffled.
“My arts are not guaranteed to always be accurate, my lord.” She injected the right amount of ice into her tone.
“Then what use are you?” Smythe turned to the king. “It was ridiculous to cancel the ceremony, Your Highness. By postponing it, you only lend credence to that wench’s preposterous claims.”
So many long words, and all of them used correctly! Someone must have been coaching Lord Smythe in his vocabulary.
“Her name. Edrys. My mother’s name. We were going to give my daughter that name had she not…had she not…” The king’s voice, already a weak whisper, faded into silence as the man slumped lower in his chair.
“Exactly right, my king. Exactly right. Forgive me for reminding you of so painful a loss, but your daughter was stillborn, was she not? How can she now be here, alive and well?” Smythe’s voice carried too hard an edge.
Bartholomew looked up, but he didn’t look at them. Instead, his gaze was fixed on the portrait. “It was so long ago. Twenty years. I was gone with my sons…to the war, remember? I was gone to war when Edrys was born. And she did die, yes. That’s what Geroganna told me when I came home. But I never saw her body, never held her in my arms. It’s possible that she…that perhaps she survived? She grew up to be the young lady we saw today?”
Silence fell over the room and Azebel realized that the king’s question had been directed at her. What could she say to him? Curse the vision realm, why had it remained silent for her?
“It is possible, I suppose. I was not in the king’s service at the time, if you recall.” She turned on Smythe. “You were the squire of one of the princes at the time, were you not?”
Smythe’s face reddened and Azebel cherished the sight. “I was, but like the king, I was at war as well, serving Prince Norman to the best of my abilities.”
“Oh, so that is why the prince didn’t return from the war? I understand now.”
Smythe’s eyes widened and his face turned even more purple. Azebel fought back a smile. She had scored a point against him, one she would have to answer for later, but for now, it felt good to relish his fury from across the room.
“Enough!” The king stood up from his chair and, in the process, spilled the goblet of wine onto the floor. “I do not have time for your bickering, not today. We have a more pressing concern. Is this woman my daughter?”
“How would that even be possible, Your Majesty?” Smythe asked. “It’s foolish to even consider.”
“Foolish it may be, but it is something that must be investigated and soon.” Azebel stepped closer to the king. “For the good of Darkshire Woods, yes?”
Bartholomew nodded. “For the greater good, yes. This must be investigated. I am sorry, Vance. I know you have been eager for this day to come—”
To Smythe’s credit, he dropped into a flawless bow. “Only eager to serve my king to the utmost of my abilities, nothing more.”
“Well said, Lord Smythe,” Azebel murmured. “You are almost convincing.”
Smythe straightened up, his eyes aflame, but before he could reply, Bartholomew raised a hand to stop him.
“We must proceed carefully, investigate this fully to learn who this young girl is. If she truly is my daughter or some sort of impostor. Either way, we must uncover the truth, no matter what. Lady Azebel, I ask that you continue to ply your craft to the matter. See what you can learn.”
Azebel nodded, dipping into a quick curtsy.
“And I? What shall I do, my king?” Smythe asked.
“I leave the investigation of the girl’s claims to you, Lord Smythe. Find the truth.”
Before Smythe could stalk out of the throne room, Bartholomew called after him, “But you may not speak to the girl…my Edrys. I will speak to her soon.”
Smythe froze in the doorway. His arms trembled and he forced them to straighten at his sides. Without saying a word, he stormed out of the room. Azebel shivered in spite of the receiving room’s warmth. Smythe’s attitude was that of a hunter stalking its prey. Pity poor Edrys Fanella. Even if Smythe was forbidden She may wind up wishing that she had stayed home.