When someone started pounding at his chamber door in the early morning, Smythe was already awake and dressed. He hadn’t been able to sleep, not even for an instant.
Part of that was due to the sheer amount of arrangements that he had to make. He kept Healey running for hours after he returned to his quarters, contacting everyone he could think of. Each time, Healey returned with assurances that a good number of lords were ready to back his bid for the throne.
But even after Smythe had dismissed Healey, he hadn’t been able to settle his mind long enough to rest. He kept running through how the next day’s events would go. Obviously the servants would discover the king’s body at some point, most likely when they attempted to wake him. A cry of alarm would be raised and the guard would likely summon the court to the throne room to deliver the tragic news. There would be a great deal of hand-wringing and uncertainty. When the court had worked itself into a near panic, one of Smythe’s supporters—he didn’t know which one, and it really didn’t matter—would step forward and make the obvious suggestion. King Bartholomew was about to adopt Lord Smythe as his heir. Why not give the throne to him now? Those who had been enamored of Edrys, that charlatan, would likely suggest her as a possibility, but then Azebel would reveal what she had learned about Edrys’s true parentage. All would realize that Smythe was the best choice, and he would humbly but graciously accept the immense burden of taking the crown. He wold probably be expected to make a speech of some kind. The prospect of actually trying to string together a series of words in a meaningful way scared him the most out of everything that they had done so far. And so Smythe spent the rest of the evening pacing his quarters, trying to figure out exactly what he should say and what tone he should use when he did.
He had almost crafted what he felt would be an acceptable speech when the pounding started. Smythe quickly mussed up his hair and threw a robe on over his clothing. No need to let the person see that he was already dressed.
Smythe opened the door a crack. A member of the royal guard stood outside at crisp attention.
“Yes?” Smythe tried to inject just enough weariness in his tone to make it sound as though he had been asleep.
“My apologies, Lord Smythe, but there is urgent business for the court to attend to. You have been summoned to the throne room as quickly as you can manage it.”
Smythe frowned. There was something off about the boy’s tone, something he didn’t like. A touch of arrogance, maybe? The lad clearly didn’t have the proper amount of respect for someone of Smythe’s stature. That was something he’d have to correct after he was crowned as the king.
“Give me a moment to get dressed.” He shut the door and waited what he felt was an appropriate amount of time before removing his robe and then opening the door again. “Let’s go.”
The guard offered him a quick salute and stepped aside. Smythe stepped out of his chamber. Two more royal guardsman stood at attention in the hallway and fell into step behind him as he headed down the hall. Smythe smiled to himself. They obviously knew who was going to be in charge soon. It felt right to have them as his escorts.
He breezed into the throne room a few moments later and noted with satisfaction the way the members of the court appeared disheveled and out of sorts. Some still wore their nightclothes, although they had done their best to cover up their state of undress with fancy robes and cloaks. A few of his closest allies shot him significant looks. Several offered subtle nods. Good. Then things were at the ready. All he had to do was wait for the proper time to make his move and then the kingdom would be his.
After what felt like an interminable wait, the doors to the throne room burst open and the Captain of the Guard, an insufferable lout named Caliston, strutted through the crowd, leading a procession of a dozen other guards. Caliston glared at Smythe as he marched past and Smythe returned the look. Clearly Caliston still bore a grudge against Smythe, one that he had been nurturing since their time in the army together. Smythe forced himself to keep his expression neutral. One of the things he would enjoy was getting rid of that smug fool. Perhaps he would assign him to be a latrine scrubber in the dungeon.
As Caliston approached the dais, the guards following him fanned out, taking up positions along the edge of the throne room. Caliston turned to face the crowd, his arms stiffly at his sides, and he tipped his head back ever so slightly.
The doors opened again. This time, King Maxillian of Seviel hurried in, flanked by his own set of guards. He brushed through the court, not pausing to acknowledge the way the courtiers showed him deference and respect. Smythe’s brows rose. Had Maxillian discovered Bartholomew’s body? If so, that would add an extra dash of drama to the proceedings. He’d have to rethink his strategy.
Maxillian stepped onto the dais and waved for the court to fall silent. “Dear lords and ladies of Darkshire Woods, I have a grave announcement to make. Late last night, my friend and your king, Bartholomew, was poisoned at the ball given in my honor.”
A shocked murmur swept through the crowd. Smythe forced himself to look suitably surprised at the news, but he scanned the crowd. Where was Azebel? She should have been in the throne room by now. He’d need her information regarding Edrys if his ascension was to be successful.
Maxillian allowed the noise to die down. “I know this comes as a shock to you, but I want to assure you that we are well aware of who the culprits were behind this heinous attack. From what I understand, one of them is already facing stern justice at this time.”
Smythe frowned. Where was Healey? The moron should have heard about the summons and come to assist him in whatever transpired.
“As for the other perpetrator, he stands in this very room,” Maxillian said.
Smythe’s head snapped around. What did he say?
“Men, seize Lord Smythe immediately!” Caliston called.
Smythe whirled around, only to realize that the guards who had accompanied Caliston into the throne room had surrounded him. He lunged to one side, hoping to slip between two of them, but they were too quick for him. Strong hands grabbed both his arms and wrestled him into a kneeling position. Smythe tried to throw them off, but they wouldn’t let go.
The court whispered to one another, but then an audible gasp swept through the room. Smythe looked up to see King Bartholomew enter the throne room. The King stood tall, his posture impeccable. The old fire that once blazed so brightly in his eyes had returned. If anything, the king looked at least twenty years younger. How was that possible? Where had the doddering old fool gone?
Bartholomew stalked through the crowd and then stood over him. “Lord Vance Smythe, I hereby find you guilty of not only attempted murder of our royal person, but also sedition, treason, and the murders to which you confessed, namely those of our dear sons, Sedrick and Thomas. For your guilt, you will be beheaded at noon this day.”
Smythe snarled. “You old fool! You have no proof!”
One of Bartholomew’s brows rose ever so slightly. “We have the words of your confession, those that you uttered when you thought us to be dying. In addition, we have captured your associate.”
Two guards stepped into view. Healey stood between them, his ankles and wrists encased in iron chains. His head hung limp and he wouldn’t meet Smythe’s gaze, the coward.
“In exchange for his life, he has offered testimony sufficient to assure us of your guilt. Do you have anything to say for yourself?”
Smythe growled and shook his arms, wanting nothing more than to break free of his captors and get his hands around Bartholomew’s neck. “You are a weakling and a senile old goat! It was time for the kingdom to pass into stronger hands.”
“That may be, but the hands of which you speak will not be yours.” Bartholomew turned to Maxillian. “My friend, I owe you a debt of gratitude for staying with me this night and nursing me back to health.”
Maxillian waved away his words. “Bartholomew, it was my honor. I am only happy to see that you are yourself once again.”
“Sir? Shouldn’t we take care of the prisoner?” one of the guards asked.
The king laughed. He laughed! “Time enough. I will want to savor his death. For now, take him to the dungeon and put him in the cell that holds Edrys Fanella. Then bring her to me.” The king’s gaze darkened. “There is one last matter I must attend to.”