She had no idea how things had gone so wrong.
Edrys reviewed the events of the past day in her mind, trying to find the one loose thread, the one moment when it all came apart in her hands. Was it when King Maxillian arrived? Or when Smythe offered to marry her? Maybe during the ball itself? She simply couldn’t figure it out.
She looked around her cell. As jails went, this wasn’t the worst she had ever been in. The walls were cool but thankfully dry, and there actually was a narrow window toward the top of the wall that allowed a meager amount of sunlight to filter in. And so far, she had been the dungeon’s only occupant. But by the same measure, this was the worst jail she had ever sat in, simply because she had no idea how she’d get out again. She had tried charming the guards to get them to let her out, but they seemed impervious to her wiles. She didn’t have enough on her for a suitable bribe. Maybe Villac would show up to rescue her, but she somehow doubted it. He had made it clear that he was closing in on his quarry. If he had succeeded in his mission, he was likely long gone.
That meant she was alone in Darkshire Woods, without a friend to her name.
So what could she expect going forward? She was guilty of fraud, that much was obvious. Perhaps if she could convince the king that she wasn’t trying to steal the throne, only leech off the glory of the kingdom for a little while, that would help reduce her sentence. The boy who had been feeding the king Cloud Bringer, that was an unfortunate wrinkle. True, it had ultimately helped her cause; no doubt the king was so accepting of her ludicrous story because his mind was so muddled by the drug. But she hadn’t arranged for him to do so. Was someone else running a scheme in Darkshire Woods against the king? If so, who would be the culprit? Smythe? Azebel? Maybe even Maxillian?
Too many questions. Too many knots. And too few answers to untangle them.
The heavy iron door to the dungeon screeched open. Edrys moved from her cot to the door of her cell. It couldn’t be another guard patrol. They were very precise, even down here in the depths of the castle. A testament to the devotion of the guards and their commander, to be sure. But by her reckoning, the last patrol had already come through ten minutes earlier. They weren’t due to come by for another fifty. So why the change?
“Unhand me, you oafs! Don’t you realize who I am?”
Edrys’s brows shot up in surprise. Smythe? What was he doing down here? By the desperation in his tone, it was clear that he didn’t want to be. Sure enough, two guards dragged the struggling lord into the dungeon.
The dungeon keeper followed behind them, a smirk on his lips. He stepped past the guards and banged on Edrys’s door. “Step back, little missy. You’ve got company.”
Oh, but this was suitably ironic punishment, to lock her in the same cell with her dearly betrothed. But no, wait. How would the king have known about that?
The dungeon keeper unlocked the door and stepped aside, allowing the guards to shove Smythe into the cell. Edrys whipped around to face him, dropping into a defensive crouch. True, she probably didn’t know how to fight as well as Smythe undoubtedly did, but she knew a few dirty tricks that would keep his lordship at bay.
But before Smythe could attack her, the guards stepped in and yanked her out of the cell. “Don’t worry, yer ladyship. That traitor won’t lay a finger on you.”
Traitor? Edrys turned to look at the cell. Smythe had pressed himself up against the bars and reached through them, his fingers like claws. He snarled and spit curses at them. Her certainly didn’t appear like the suave lord she had come to know.
“You’re to come with us. The king wants a word.” The guard clamped onto her arm and his companion followed suit.
Any relief Edrys may have felt quickly vanished. Maybe it would have been better to remain in the cell with Smythe after all.
They didn’t give her that option. Instead, the guards marched her out of the dungeon and back up through the palace. She didn’t pass by any courtiers, and for that, she was thankful. Even though she knew she shouldn’t have, she had come to like the accolades from the different courtiers she had met. She didn’t want to face the disappointment or anger they might have felt at her deception.
Much to her surprise, the guards brought her back to the king’s private study. Odd. She would have expected that Bartholomew would want to conduct her trial in the open, for all the kingdom to see. The guards knocked on the door and a deep, resonant voice answered, ordering them to enter.
The guard opened the door and shoved Edrys through. She skidded to a halt in front of the king’s desk, where she received another surprise. The king was alone. There were no other advisers, no courtiers, no one but her and the king.
At least, he looked like the king. But this wasn’t the same Bartholomew she had come to know. Instead of being frail and feeble, he appeared strong and vigorous. His eyes particularly flashed with a keen fire, one that seemed to strip away all the lies she had been telling and left her bare before him. He looked more like an avenging god than a frail mortal.
“Ah, there you are.” The king indicated a chair in front of his desk. “Do sit down, won’t you, Miss Fanella? Although I don’t suppose that’s your real name, now is it?”
There was little harm in confessing to that. “No, it isn’t.”
“And I don’t suppose you’d be willing to share your real name?” It wasn’t really a question, even though he phrased it like one.
Edrys plastered on an overly polite smile. Disobeying such a round-about order didn’t seem like the wisest choice, but she wasn’t going to give him any more rope for her noose than she had to.
“I didn’t think so.” The king clapped his hands together. “Well, I suppose you wonder why I summoned you here. I thought it was best for us to settle accounts, as it were.”
Edrys braced herself. True, the king seemed friendly enough. Gregarious, even. But she knew that it was all for show. He would pronounce his sentence, the guards would come back into the study, and she would be brought out to be executed. If she was lucky, he’d choose something fast, like beheading. If he was carrying a grudge for deceiving him, he’d likely send her off to be tortured to death. If she were in his position, she’d definitely go with the torture.
Bartholomew regarded her for a moment, then sat down and rifled through his desk. Edrys winced. Was he looking for a weapon? Would he carry out the execution himself?
Something metallic clinked and he produced a small leather bag. He glanced inside it and then tossed it across the desk into Edrys’s lap. She frowned. What was this? She opened up the bag and looked for herself. Her breath caught at the sight of gold coins, dozens of them.
“I believe that’s what we agreed to, wasn’t it?” Bartholomew’s smile grew wider. “Twenty-five sovereigns up front. Another seventy-five when the job was completed?”
Edrys’s mouth went dry. Those were the terms she had agreed to when she took this job. Her employer had always worked through intermediaries, contacting her initially, giving her her instructions, promised her payment. Could it be…? No, that didn’t seem possible. The king was her employer?
“My agent found you in a brew hall in Taniz, arguing with the proprietor about your tab. You claimed he was overcharging you. He said that you had conned his son into giving away his half of the establishment.”
That was exactly how it happened. It felt as though her entire body had gone numb, like her mind was detached and floating away. “But you…why?”
“I’m in a precarious position right now, my dear. I’m getting older, no doubt about that. And I have no living heirs thanks to that…” Bartholomew winced, his eyes going shut. “Thanks to Lord Smythe. He killed both of my sons, you know, back during the wars. Made it look like an accident, but I knew. I knew. But I couldn’t prove it.
“And then that wretch had the gall to suggest that I should adopt him as my heir. Oh, he didn’t say it directly. He had his pet witch make the suggestion. They did a good job, pretending to hate each other so thoroughly. But they forgot that the palace staff, they see more than they let on. It was common knowledge that Lady Azebel had taken Lord Smythe into her bed. I could see the writing on the wall. They wanted to replace me.”
“So why hire me?” Edrys asked.
Bartholomew’s smile turned feral. “Because you would put them off balance, my dear. They thought they had their little scheme all sewn up, with every detail in place. You were a variable they couldn’t have anticipated and it made them desperate.”
“So you were the one who sent me your wife’s necklace?” Edrys whispered.
“Of course. I had to open her tomb to retrieve it, but I know that Georganna would understand. She was a very practical woman, that one.”
“And the boy? The one who had been giving you Cloud Bringer?”
“I hired him as well. I started taking the drug six months ago, long enough to make it look like I was rapidly declining in my facilities. It’s a shame that the boy had to die, but he wasn’t subtle enough, apparently. These things happen…such as the death of my chamberlain?”
Once again, Edrys winced. “My apologies, Your Majesty. I didn’t intend for anyone to die.”
Bartholomew waved away her words. “Of course you didn’t, my dear. You’re a fraud, not an assassin. As much as I appreciated his service over the years, the man was starting to annoy me, insisting that I name a new heir. I half suspect that the man was in Smythe’s pocket as well, so I think you may have done me a favor in ridding my kingdom of him.”
Edrys leaned back in her chair, releasing her held breath. She had wondered who would want her to fool the king. She never thought that it would be the king himself.
“So now what?” she asked.
“Now, you take your money and you leave my kingdom, never to return. You have done your part, but I can’t have you here anymore. The truth about what you are and what you did will eventually make it through the court, as these things always do. But your services are no longer required.”
“But what about you? What are you going to do?”
Bartholomew leaned back in his chair as well, letting out an immense sigh. He looked over her head toward the door. “I have been a king for many years, Miss Fanella. I know the duty I bear for my kingdom better than most. I still have some strength left in me, long enough that I can continue until a suitable heir can be found. And find him or her I will.” He fixed his steely gaze on her once again. “But what I do should not concern you any longer. You are free to go.”
Edrys scooped up the purse and rose from her chair. She dipped into a quick curtsy, then turned for the door. She’d have to find a way out of the palace quietly, but she could manage that. If she stole the clothing from one of the serving women, slip out through the servant’s entrance. Maybe she be able to rejoin the caravan of Velanese merchants, the same ones who helped her enter the kingdom. A few silvers in their hands and they wouldn’t ask any questions.
But before she left, she turned back to look at Bartholomew one last time. While he did appear stronger than she had ever seen him, he still looked tired, slumped in his chair, his head resting in his hand. For a moment, just a foolish moment, she wished that things could have been different, that she really could have been Edrys Fanella, his long-lost daughter and heir.
Then she shook such foolish thoughts from her head and made good her escape. Sentimentality was fine for honest folk, but she had greener fields to harvest. At least Darkshire Woods was in the hands of its true heir.