So what could Smythe get of Edrys’s that would help in Azebel’s spell? She had said it had be something from her, like hair or saliva. How could he get that? Bribe one of her chambermaids? That was possible; most of the servants in the palace respected and feared him. He might not even have to pay them, just offer the right kind of threat. But no, that wouldn’t work. The servants would do what they were told, but they would whisper about it afterward. The last thing he needed was for Edrys to find out what he was up to. That really left him only one option: he had to break into her quarters and find what Azebel needed.
As he walked through the corridors to Edrys’s quarters, he thought more about Azebel and their plans together. It had seemed so easy just a week earlier: be adopted as Bartholomew’s son, arrange for the old king’s demise with Azebel’s help, and then get rid of Azebel as well, leaving him alone on the throne. But all of that had fallen apart when Edrys arrived. In some ways, Smythe was was relieved. The sorceress had become more and more clingy the closer he had come to his adoption. Rather than being another step towards his ascension, she was becoming a nuisance, one he longed to be rid of. Without her, though, he faced the prospect of trying to take the throne by himself. He needed her as an ally if he was going to seize power, especially to get Edrys out of the way.
Thankfully, the corridor outside of Edrys’s quarters were deserted. Smythe tested the door, hoping to find it unlocked, but apparently the girl wasn’t that foolish. Not that it mattered. After double-checking the hall, he picked the lock, a handy trick he picked up in a tavern some years back. He cracked the door open and slipped through.
He paused on the other side of the door, listening for any sign that Edrys or her hulking companion were somewhere in the chambers. Thankfully, the chambers appeared to be deserted, but he still slunk through the foyer, checking each corner before breathing out a long sigh. Now to get to work.
So what could he get? Probably not blood. At least, Smythe didn’t think it likely that he’d find any. So what did that leave him? Did women drool on their pillows? He knew many men who did that, but he had no idea about the women. But Edrys would notice if her pillow went missing, that much he could be certain of. What else was there? Azebel had mentioned hair, hadn’t she? Maybe he could find some of that. The most likely place would be on her vanity, probably in her hairbrush. Hopefully he’d be able to find enough for Azebel’s ritual.
“He froze at the quiet voice behind him. He turned, and sure enough, Edrys stood in the doorway, a frown on her face.
“What are you doing in my chambers?” She took a step forward.
That was a good question. He obviously couldn’t tell her the truth, but what excuse could he give?
“I cam here because…” His thoughts were still a tangled mess and any sort of answer couldn’t make it out of his mouth.
She raised a brow. “Well?”
“I cam here because…because I wanted to see you.”
“Why?” She glided forward, a smile tugging at her lips.
Why indeed? He had to give her a good reason, that much was clear.
“Because…I had to see you. I can’t…can’t get you out of my mind. Thoughts about you simply consume me.” The truth spilled out of him before he could stop himself.
Her eyes widened. Her mouth worked, as if she were trying to speak, but then she smiled, bright and dazzling. For half a moment, Smythe’s breath caught in his throat. She was a lovely woman, truly stunning. It was little wonder that so many people were taken with her. Under different circumstances, he may have tried to woo her himself…
That was it!
He looked down, away from her. “I must admit, when you first arrived, I found your presence…annoying.”
“Only annoying? I would think my presence here frustrated your plans, yes?”
He laughed, forcing himself to sound light-hearted. “Not my plans. I’ve only ever wanted good for this kingdom. Since we believed the king had no living heirs, I was willing to stand as his son. In some ways, I’m relieved to not have that burden on my shoulders any longer. But, I fear, I have only exchanged one heavy weight for another.”
“Oh? And what weight would that be?”
“My ever-growing feelings for you.”
She laughed, a melodic sound. Smythe felt his lips twitch into a genuine smile, but only for a heartbeat. Oh, she was good at deception, there was no doubt.
“And feeling love for me is such a burden, is it?” Her tone was teasing, but she took a step closer to him.
“Only if it is unrequited,” Smythe replied.
Her gaze swept over him, from his face down to his feet and back again, and her lips twisted into a wry half-grin. “I think most women would be very pleased if you showed them any sort of affection.”
“You are very kind to say so, my lady, but I fear your assessment is incorrect. Oh, I’ve had my share of admirers, but I’ve found time and again that most were only interested in me due to my station, not in me personally. Sadly, romance has not been a part of my life for a long time.”
“I see.” She stepped even closer, almost within the reach of his arms. “And what if a woman was of equal or greater station than yours and expressed an interest in you?”
Smythe opened his arms, as if ready to embrace her. “Well then, my lady, I would be able to trust her word because she would have no ulterior motives.” He offered her what he hoped appeared to be a nervous smile. “Are you…are you saying that perhaps…?”
“I am making no promises, Lord Smythe…Vance.” She whispered his name. “We have only just met, after all, and should my father offer me the throne, there may be obligations that come with that position.”
Smythe fought to keep his anger from his features. The girl was brazen to speak so matter-of-factly of her usurping the throne, but at the same time, he had to admire the way she lied so convincingly. If he didn’t know better, he would have sworn that she really believed she was the king’s long-lost daughter.
“But if I remain free to choose who my consort will be, I would be open to being courted by someone so gallant as you.” Her voice was breathless, almost airy.
Smythe’s vision narrowed on her. Had he fooled her? Or was she simply playing along with the game, trying to trick him into believing that he had successfully deceived her? He couldn’t tell, which was both frustrating and exhilarating at the same time. Under different circumstances, she would have been a rare find indeed, a woman against whom he could match wits.
“I understand your hesitancy. Court politics can be fickle, to be sure. But if we find ourselves in a situation where we could get to know one another better, I would relish it.” Much to his surprise, he found that he genuinely meant what he said. “While we cannot guarantee anything, I am willing to offer you a promise of my future fidelity.”
“Oh? And what would that be?”
He reached beneath his tunic and pulled out an amulet. He took it off, making sure to kiss it before he offered it to Edrys. “This heirloom has protected my family from malevolent spirits for the past six generations. I give it to you freely as a pledge to behave as an honorable suitor toward you in the future.”
Edrys’s eyes widened and she appeared frightened to even touch the necklace. Smythe wanted to laugh at her reaction. The amulet wasn’t as he described it. In reality, he had stolen it from a woman whose name he couldn’t remember, a dalliance from his youth. It was little more than a trinket, a meaningless bauble.
“And what would you ask for in return for such a precious item?” Edrys whispered.
“There is only one thing I would want would be a lock of your hair.”
Her head snapped back and she retreated a step. Her hand darted to the side of her face. “M-my hair?”
He must have pushed her too far. Or did she suspect his true intentions? But just as quickly as the uncertainty appeared on her face, it vanished in another dazzling smile. “I’m sorry. In my culture, it is customary for those who have been betrothed to give each other locks of hair to seal the engagement. It is…it is a very serious matter, to ask a woman for her radiance like that.”
“Oh?” Smythe kept his expression neutral, but this confession piqued his interest. He knew many people from Seviel and he had never heard of such a ceremony. Not in that kingdom, at least. If Edrys was telling the truth, it might be a clue as to where she really came from. “I’m sorry, my lady. I did not mean to offend you.”
She laughed and waved at his words as if trying to dismiss a buzzing insect. But there was still an undercurrent of nervousness. “Not at all. You meant no disrespect. I would be happy to provide you with such a trinket.”
She let down her hair, which cascaded past her shoulders. Smythe’s mouth went dry at the sight. In a sinly instant, Edrys had become breathtaking. Suddenly the thought of wooing her for real seemed like a pleasant idea. Exciting, even.
Edrys produced a dagger and sliced through a lock of her hair. She stepped over to a table and selected a length of ribbon, tying it around the lock. She held it out to Smythe with a shy smile, and a blush colored her cheeks.
Smythe stepped forward and clasped his hand over hers. “Thank you, my lady.”
Her eyes met his and he froze, a shock running down his spine. It felt as though the gulf between them fell away, along with the castle, the intrigues, all of it. She was so beautiful, so pure, so…
The doors to her room banged open and a serving girl stepped inside. “M’lady, I—” She gasped, and averted her eyes. “My apologies for interrupting.”
Edrys pulled her hands away and turned to the servant. “Yes?”
“My master the king wishes to invite you to a special feast in your honor this evening so you may make better acquaintance of King Maxillian.” The girl’s tone made it clear that it wasn’t really a request.
Edrys nodded, but her face paled considerably. “Thank you. I will be pleased to do so.” She turned to Smythe. “And you, my lord? Will you be there as well?”
“If I may.”
“Then I shall see you then.”
Smythe bowed to her and slipped out of the room. As he hurried down the hall, he considered what just happened. Edrys was good at what she did, no doubt. She played the innocent naif well. She was convincing, so much so that he was tempted to believe her. Was it possible that she had been telling the truth all along? Was it possible that she really was King Bartholomew’s long lost daughter? It seemed unlikely, but perhaps it was true. Maybe this all was one enormous coincidence.
Well, Azebel’s ritual would expose the truth soon enough. In all likelihood, Edrys would be revealed as the charlatan they suspected she was. But if not, if she really was genuine, then maybe this promise he made would bear unexpected fruit. Maybe he would woo her, even marry her. He could be her consort when she ascended to the throne. And then, if she were to meet with an unfortunate accident… He smiled. It could work.
Of course, he wouldn’t share any of this with Azebel. Until he knew the truth, it was better to keep the sorceress blissfully ignorant of his true intentions. But at least he had been able to get what he needed. If she had succeeded in getting a sample from the king, they would know the truth very soon.
He didn’t bother knocking when he arrived at Azebel’s chamber. He breezed inside, puffing out his chest. “I have succeeded, my love. Soon we will know what…”
His voice trailed off when he saw Azebel. She leaned against a table, staring at a golden goblet, one she had obviously acquired from the king’s study. Her brow was furrowed with concentration. She almost looked…angry?
“What is it?”
She met his gaze. “I have found something…unusual.”