Edrys smoothed the front of her gown. The fabric simply wasn’t cooperating as it continued to bunch up around her waist. She fought off the frown that tugged at her brows. Maybe she shouldn’t have waited until she arrived in Darkshire Woods to purchase an appropriate gown. The tailors in Seviel could have easily whipped up a gown that would be considered appropriate for the Darkshire court, but no, she had to wait so she could get one that would fit in with the latest styles here rather than in Seviel. Stupid, vain, and foolish! She was about to see the king and rather than appear regal, she had the appearance of a lady down on her luck. Well, maybe that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. It certainly was close to the truth.
Her gaze jumped to the doors of the throne room. When she arrived earlier in the week, she hadn’t taken the time to really examine them. A pity, for the carvings in the wood were exquisite. The doors towered over her, at least fifteen feet high, and they were divided into six panels each. The door on the left depicted the ancient history of Darkshire: its founding by a group of human refugees and the Velanese elves who welcomed them to the fringe of their territory, the way that coalition of humans and elves defeated the armies that had chased the humans, the building of Darkshire Castle itself. Edrys noted the way the features of the elves in the carvings had been disfigured and scarred, most likely in symbolic retaliation from the wars.
The door on the right contained images from Darkshire’s more recent history: the wars against the elves, King Bartholomew on his throne, images of that nature. The last panel, however, contained no imagery, merely sworls and divots worked into it by the carver. According to Edrys’s research, the final panel reminded those who entered the throne room that what happened within could shape Darkshire Woods’s history. It was a potent reminder for her as well.
Heavy footsteps clomped up behind her and Gerard the chamberlain steppd into her view. He scowled, his gaze sweeping over her dress. She once again tried to straighten the fabric but it wouldn’t cooperate. She settled for adjusting the necklace she wore. The heavy medallion felt like it was listing to the right.
“You are about to enter the king’s presence, my lady.” The chamberlain had added so much sarcasm into those last two words, his voice could have stained his clothing. “It would behoove you to remember that, in spite of your audacious claims, the king has not recognized your claim to be his daughter. That means that you are to speak only when prompted. You may not approach the king’s throne. Instead, you must remain kneeling upon the cushion provided at the base of the dais. Do you understand?”
“Do you have any questions?”
“Will there be many people to hear my story?” she asked.
Gerard scowled. “No. Most of the courtiers will not be permitted within. Only Lord Smythe and the Lady Azabel, along with certain hand-picked members of the guard.”
Edrys struggled to keep her disappointment from her face. She had hoped for a slightly larger audience. Even though she had only been in the kingdom for less than a week, she had already received close to three dozen invitations to meals, balls, and other celebrations from various members of the court. Edrys had no doubt that they wanted her story more than her presence. If more courtiers had been present in the throne room today, the gossip mill would spread what she said to all the interested parties, making it less likely that she’d have to repeat herself multiple times to as many audiences.
“Anything else?” Gerard asked.
She glanced around. The antechamber was empty save for the two of them. She wished that Villac was with her, but her escort had steadfastly refused to accompany her to the throne room. She had no doubt that he was probably skulking through the halls of the palace right now, scouting out every hiding place and secret around her room and the guest wing.
Gerard cleared his throat. Apparently he wasn’t feeling particularly patient.
She offered him an apologetic smile. “I am ready now.”
Gerard tromped over to the doors and pulled one of them open. A wave of cold air swept out of the room and washed over her, sending prickles across her exposed arms. Taking a deep breath to calm her nerves, she started forward.
Before she could make it through the door, Gerard caught her by the arm and leaned in close. “It doesn’t matter if you convince the king. We both know you’re a fraud.” He released her and stepped through the door. “The Lady Edrys Fanella, recently of Seviel.”
Edry tried to keep herself calm, but her heart slammed against her ribs, harder and harder with every step she took. She had imagined herself walking into the throne room of Darkshire Woods and telling the king who she was, but now that the moment was upon her, she wanted nothing more than to retreat. This was insane! There was no way that the king would believe her story. But in spite of the panic mounting within her, she kept walking, one foot in front of the other.
The throne room was cavernous, more so since the court wasn’t present. Edrys strode past the statutes of departed kings and felt as though their stony eyes speared her. Instead of looking up at their disapproving glares, she focused on her destination. A red velvet cushion was set at the foot of the king’s dais. Her gaze drifted up to the throne itself. It appeared as if the immense stone chair was sucking the life out of the king. He looked so frail, almost dessicated. Her heart lurched within her and, irrationally, she wanted nothing more than to rush up the steps and gather the poor man in her arms. But Gerard’s instructions echoed loudly in her mind. There was no way she would risk the guard’s wrath.
Or Lord Smythe’s, for that matter. Her almost-brother stood to the king’s left. He glowered at her. To the king’s right, Azebel stared down at her as well. Edrys tried to steel her mind against the sorceress. She couldn’t let Azebel read the roiling storm of emotions within her.
Before she knew it, she knelt down on the cushion and bowed her head so far over that she could see the wrinkles in the front of her dress. She twisted her fingers into fists to keep from straightening the material yet again.
“Lady Edrys Fanella. You claim to be our daughter, correct?” The king’s voice was little more than a frail whisper.
“That is correct, Your Majesty,” Edrys replied.
Someone on the dais snorted. It sounded like Lord Smythe. Edrys wanted to peek up to see for sure, but she remained stooped over.
“You must admit, your claim is farfetched. We have no daughter, certainly not one who would be so old as you.”
Was that an invitation to speak? Edrys didn’t know for sure, but the king had lapsed into silence. Should she risk it?
“Well?” Smythe’s angry question pierced the room. “How do you explain that?”
“If His Majesty would think back, wasn’t his wife the queen, the gods bless her passing, pregnant twenty years ago while he was gone to war?”
“She was.” The king’s voice was hesitant.
“And did not the queen give birth while His Majesty fought the Velanese?”
“She did, but the child did not survive the birthing.”
“No, Father.” Edrys snapped her head up and met the king’s gaze. “I did survive.”
Smythe fumed next to the king. He practically frothed at the mouth. “Really! The impertinence! Bow your head, wretch, or I shall lop it off where—”
The king raised a hand, cutting of Smythe in mid-rant. “Tell me how this is possible. Convince me.”
Edrys sucked in a deep breath. She had practiced this story along the road. Villac had listened to most of the rehearsals. She had even considered sharing her story with the Velanese merchants, if only to see how they would react. But this time, this was the telling that mattered most.
“It is true that Your Majesty was told that the baby—that I—died. But…” She took another deep breath. “Forgive my continuing impertinence, but wasn’t your relationship with Queen Georganna rather…strained before you went to the wars?”
Smythe blustered, but he didn’t say anything. Azebel didn’t react to the question at all. It was almost as if the sorceress was a statue, not a person.
But the king sat up straighter in the throne. Tears glistened in his eyes. “Yes. Yes, it is true. I was a different man at the time. Harder. More cruel than I needed to be. It is true. Georganna and I used to fight every night. I used to say that she was preparing me to face the Velanese, but now, I see how right she was…”
Edrys swallowed a lump that rose in her throat. “And didn’t she—and forgive my continued insolence—wasn’t she particularly concerned about how harsh you were with your sons?”
Again, Smythe bristled, but the king nodded. “She was indeed.”
Edrys smiled sadly. “And that, Your Majesty, is why Queen Georganna conspired to send me away to Seviel. Not only did she fear how you would treat another child, she was worried about how you would react when you learned she had a daughter instead of the son you wanted.”
“This is preposterous!” Smythe said. “Why would the queen send you to Seviel?”
“A fair question.” The king’s voice was a thoughtful murmur.
“Do you remember the queen’s cousin, Lady Ilona?” Edrys asked.
The king nodded.
“Then I’m sure that you also remember that the Lady Ilona married a minor lord from Seviel. When I was born, the queen, my mother, sent me to be raised by Lady Ilona and her husband, the Lord Fanella.”
The king kept nodding, a light sparkling in his eyes.
“My king, you cannot possibly believe what she is saying.” Lord Smythe came around the throne and partially blocked Edrys’s view of the king. “This story is ludicrous on its face. That the queen would send away your daughter without your knowledge? To her cousin, no less?”
“Georganna’s cousin did live in Seviel. And I never did see the baby’s body.” The king’s voice sounded stronger, even though it was only a whisper.
“She has no proof!” Smythe said. “It is only her word. And while the tale is cunningly told, it is not enough!”
“But I do have proof, Lord Smythe.” Edrys reached up to her neck and fumbled with the clasp of her necklace.
Suddenly royal guards appeared at her side, their swords drawn and ready. She raised her hands.
“I’m not reaching for a weapon, merely for my proof.”
The king motioned with a flick of his hand and the guards withdrew.
Edrys resumed her work and finally released the clasp. The necklace fell into her hand. She held it up. “Do you recognize this, Your Majesty?”
The king squinted at it. Smythe stomped off the dais and snatched the necklace out of her hand, then brought it to the king.
Bartholomew examined it carefully. He straightened in the throne. “Yes. Yes, I do. This belonged to my wife. You see the sigils? These represent her clan, her family, her secret name. She wore this on the day of our wedding. Where did you get this?”
“She sent it with me, along with a letter that explained who my family truly was. She knew you would want to see proof. She hoped that this would be enough.”
“Then it’s true.” The king rose from his throne. His body wobbled as he descended the dais. “Then you are who you claim.”
“Wait, Your Majesty.” Smythe followed him down the stairs. “I would want to see this supposed letter, determine if it is authentic! We can’t just—”
The king apparently wasn’t listening. Instead, he knelt down in front of Edrys, his cheeks wet with tears. He wrapped his arms around her.
“My daughter. My precious, wonderful daughter. You’ve come home.”
Edrys stiffened at the contact. She hadn’t expected this, not in her wildest dreams. She looked over the king’s shoulder. Lord Smythe’s face had purpled and he looked ready to erupt in a stream of curses. Azebel regarded her with a twisted smile, the only hint at what she might be thinking.
And then King Bartholomew pulled her in even closer. Warmth spread through her chest and she started crying in spite of herself. It felt good. It felt like coming home.