Edrys leaned against the stone railing of her balcony and looked out over the Woods. They stretched as far as she could see in the dim moonlight. She leaned over the edge just a bit to look down into the courtyard below. A cheer rose up to her. Gods below, had the crowd actually grown larger? When Edrys had retired for the evening, she discovered that a dozen people had camped out below her balcony, apparently waiting to catch a glimpse of the new princess. She had even heard strains of music wafting through the balcony’s door. A few enterprising suitors had hired musicians to serenade her well into the night. It was all a bit flattering. Exhilarating. Terrifying. It helped to know that she had captured the minds and hearts of the people.
And she had done something similar to the members of the court, if the stack of invitations to balls and banquets and parties stacked on her end table were any indication. True, some of them were undoubtedly curiosity seekers or people who were trying to bolster their own status within the court by being seen with her. But Edrys was certain she would find genuine friends at these parties. A good thing she had sent out the maids the king had lent her to find her suitable attire. It wouldn’t do for the newly returned princess to wear the same outfit to party after party after party. Tongues would wag and her reception might sour.
The door to her chambers scraped open. Edrys turned with a laugh. “There you are, Villac! I had wondered if I was going to see you at all tonight.”
She strode into the room and came to a halt. It wasn’t her traveling companion at all. Instead, Gerard, the chamberlain, stood just inside her chamber door. And he did not look happy.
“M-my Lord Chamberlain.” She took a step backwards. “This is an…unexpected surprise.”
“I’m sure it is.” His voice was cold, like the ice in the Northern Mountains, and his features were just as stony.
“To what do I owe this pleasure?”
His lips twitched into a snarl. “Do drop the formalities, girl. You do not fool me..”
“Do not ‘my lord’ me. I’m no simpleton, taken in by your fluttering lashes and charming naivete. I have stood by long enough. The time has come to expose your charade for what it is.”
A flutter rippled through her stomach. “I do not know what you mean.”
“Oh, but you do.” He took a step toward her. “I’ll admit, your story was well told. You’ve had a lot of practice. I suspect that if we were to inquire of neighboring kingdoms, we’d hear tales of a young woman fitting your description deceiving their aristocracy. But your scheme here ends tonight. You’re going to confess everything.”
Gerard nodded and pulled a dagger out of his belt. “One way or another, you will finally tell me the truth.”
He advanced on her. She glanced over her shoulder at the balcony. She could retreat that way, perhaps shout for help. There would be a mob of her supporters storming the castle within moments of her cry. But it would take time for them to find her room and by that point, Gerard could have already finished her. Worse, he could easily isolate her outside and cut off her only avenue of escape.
Instead, she edged around the perimeter of the room, facing Gerard. He stalked toward her, cautiously but with steel in his eyes. If she could only make it to her bedchamber. There was a door to the servants’ quarters within. From there, she could escape into the palace, maybe find some help…
She tried to lunge for the bedroom door, but Gerard was too fast for her. He slammed into her, shoving her into the stone wall. Before she could slip out of his grasp, he had the blade up against her neck. She tried to kick at him, but she could only feebly strike at his legs.
“Now, Miss Edrys, if that is indeed your name, we’ll discuss the truth.” His rancid breath gagged her. “Starting with why you’re really here.”
A tremble wormed through her, a mostly real reaction to the menace in the chamberlain’s voice. “Why I’m here?”
“Yes. Tell me, why did you travel all the way here and disrupt Lord Smythe’s adoption ceremony? Why are you claiming to be the king’s long lost daughter? Why are you here?” He drove the final question home by pressing the blade into her neck.
She held perfectly still, her mind locked on the feeling of cold steel tickling her flesh. If she flinched, if his hand trembled even a little, she would bleed out on the floor. “The truth? I came here…I came here because I wanted to meet my father.”
Gerard bared his teeth and he slammed a fist into her stomach. The breath exploded from her lungs and she wheezed.
“That isn’t the truth and we both know it, girl.” Gerard adjusted the dagger and his grip on her tightened. “Try again. But remember: the next time, I won’t just punch you. I’ll use the blade.”
She took in a deep breath to steady herself. The chamberlain wasn’t going to believe her, no matter what she said. He would only want to hear that she was a liar, a rogue in a dress. But she also knew that if she told him that, he wouldn’t hesitate to gut her right here and do so for the good of the kingdom. So what could she do?
The curtains behind Gerard rustled, the soft whisper of fabric. Only the night air had been still just a few moments earlier. That could only mean one thing.
Resolve flooded through her. She forced a smile to her lips. “The truth? Is that what you really want?”
Gerard’s eyes narrowed, but he nodded.
“The truth is, you’re a dead man. You just don’t realize it yet.”
Confusion danced across the chamberlain’s face, but then his eyes bulged as a massive hand closed around his neck. Villac lifted Gerard off his feet and pulled him away from Edrys. Gerard tried to break free of the Telkoshim’s grasp, dropping the dagger in the process, but it was no use. Edrys knew all too well how strong her traveling companion really was.
She smiled sweetly at him. “Poor old fool. Here you thought I was the threat, but you remained blind to the real problem. Pity. You seemed like a decent enough person. It’s a shame you won’t be able to serve the king any longer.”
Gerard clawed at Villac’s fingers, trying to pry them loose. But the massive Telkoshim wouldn’t let go. Instead, he wrapped his other hand around the chamberlain’s neck.
Edrys took a step forward. “You know, I’m feeling generous right now. You wanted the truth? Here it is: you’re right. I’m not the daughter of the king. Never have been. Pity you won’t be able to tell anyone. Villac?”
Villac wrung his hands and, with a wet snap, broke Gerard’s neck. Then he dropped the body, which collapsed in a heap on the floor.
Edrys sighed. She stepped over to a table and picked up a decanter of wine. He stepped back to Gerard’s body and poured some of it into his mouth, more on his tunic. She straightened up and looked at Villac. “There’s a brothel on the edge of town. Take the body and dump it behind the building. We’ll let one of the doxies find him there. People will assume that he was dallying with one of them and maybe ran into the wrong person. Problem solved.”
Villac didn’t say anything, but he fixed her with a pointed stare. Even though he remained silent as always, she knew exactly what he was trying to ask.
“Yes, yes. I know what you want, and our deal still stands: you help me with my task, and then you’ll be able to finish yours. Now please, dispose of the body. Quietly, of course.”
Villac nodded and then hauled the corpse up onto his shoulder.
Edrys didn’t bother to watch him slip out of the quarters. The man liked to remain mysterious and she had no problem indulging him.
She glided out onto the balcony once again, smiling as the music continued to drift up to her. Maybe she should pick a suitor, one of the men in the courtyard below. A princess would do that, undoubtedly. Maybe she’d even pick two young men, pit them against each other for her hand. Sure, it wasn’t part of her mission, but there was nothing that said she couldn’t enjoy herself while she worked. With Gerard out of the way, Darkshire Woods would remain her plaything.