He sat at a small table in a dark corner. Pale fingers slowly swirled a half-empty glass, while his eyes focused on the amber liquid's ripples. Dressed in a long black traveling cloak that obscured his figure, he blended into his corner almost completely. The only light came from a small stub of a candle on the table, its weak glow dancing upon his hands. He gripped the glass as impatience brushed him. Where was he?
Ringing laughter interrupted his frustration and his eyes lifted to his surroundings. People sang and danced in the pub, their mugs of beer sloshing merrily. A foot-tapping jig played by fiddlers and wooden flutists added to the cheery atmosphere. No one noticed him in all the loud chaos. Their eyes traveled over him without the slightest pause.
The hooded man watched the laughing customers before him. A sneer touched his lips. Fools.
Suddenly, the door at the opposite end of the pub opened, sending a burst of cold into the toasty room. The clamor in the pub momentarily stalled as everyone turned to the newcomer.
In the doorway, against a backdrop of freezing rain, stood a giant figure. He stepped into the light. His already alarming mass was doubled by the use of a large, heavy coat. But then the door closed, the noise of the rain was muffled and replaced with the music, and the people returned to their laughing and eating.
In his corner, the hooded man's eyes followed the heavily coated man as he made his way to the bar. He watched him order a drink and now, with mug in hand, turn to survey the room. The burly man's eyes landed on his dark corner and slowly he walked around the crowd to stop before him.
The hooded man tilted his head slightly, revealing glistening teeth.
"You're late." His voice was like cold glass.
"This blasted rain," was the burly man's reply. "It started just as I left." He sat in the chair opposite his cloaked companion. He moved cautiously, his eyes watching the man before him warily. "Why did you want to meet tonight? I thought we weren't going to talk again until after"—he shifted slightly in his chair—"the incident."
The hooded man's lips curved into a sharp grin; the dim candlelight reflected upon his teeth.
"The opportunity presented itself."
"She's dead?" the burly man gasped, leaning over the mug that was tightly clamped in his suddenly sweaty hand.
The hooded man's smile widened and his eyes momentarily glittered in the shadows covering his face.
"How did you … when did it…?"
"She took a ride this evening. Just before she called for her stallion, I gave the horse a hefty dose of Horse Mint." He lowered his chin, his eyes piercing through the darkness under his hood. "I'm sure you know what that causes?"
The burly man's eyes were wide and with a jerk of his head, he nodded.
The cloaked man sounded content as he continued.
"On the ride, the horse grew wild and tried to jump a large hedge. She fell, broke her neck, died on the spot."
His casual and amused tone sent shivers down his companion's back. The burly man took a quick swallow of his beer, but his nervous eyes shot at the closed door, as if he was expecting someone to rush into the inn at any moment, screaming the terror that had so recently occurred for all to hear. He knew any second someone would, and he didn't want to be seen sitting here when it happened.
"No one suspected?" he asked quietly over his mug.
"No one. But I am surprised," the cloaked man smirked, his eyes glittering like a snake's, "that you don't know of this tragedy already. When you are—"
"I was on the perimeter!" the burly man hissed, his voice suddenly full of anger, as if he had just been insulted. "How could I have heard if it just happened?"
His companion smirked again, seeming pleased. "I will take care of the king," the hooded man continued softly. "And you must take care of the child, but we will do that gradually."
The man nodded obediently, his mouth too dry to respond.
"I will let the king mourn his wife." The hooded man downed the last of his drink and rose from the table. "We will execute the next stage on Wednesday. If all goes as anticipated, the people of Lenzar will weep over the last of the Kellen line much sooner than anticipated."
Without another word, he spun on his heel, gripping his cloak firmly about him, and walked quickly around the oblivious crowd to disappear into the storm outside, leaving the coated man alone at the table. The little stub of a candle flickered weakly by his hand.
Cayla Black entered the dungeons with apprehension. She had never visited the dark expanse under the castle before. She had heard stories just like everyone else … but she never thought she'd willingly go to the dungeons. The stuffy air reeked of death and decay.
A short, round knight, Sir Leon Gibbs, was guiding her down a long staircase, the stone steps narrow and worn. Along the dirty, smudged walls were sooty candle brackets. Even with the flames from the torches, the trek was dark and Cayla stumbled often. It was hard to believe that such a hell was located beneath the clean, gleaming rooms of Bosc Castle. With every step, Cayla felt more and more separated from the home above her head.
Panic swirled in her chest, threatening to choke her. The narrow stairs, the blackened walls, the low ceiling—they seemed to laugh and jeer at her as the feeling of claustrophobia increased. Cayla stumbled again, clutching the wall for support.
Sir Leon Gibbs turned to her.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"Yes," Cayla gasped, breathing deeply to calm the nausea. She tried to ignore her racing heart, telling her to turn around—to return to the safety of the castle. But she swallowed thickly and continued downward.
She was disgusted with herself for her moment of weakness. When Alice … when Alice was …
"How much farther?" Cayla blurted.
"Not much," Gibbs answered. He glanced at her over his shoulder and Cayla wondered if he was considering forcing her back up the stairs. Cayla wasn't sure if she'd be able to argue if he tried. It was then that she heard the screams.
They started as a soft moan and then Gibbs and Cayla turned a sharp corner and Cayla stumbled to a halt again. Before her eyes loomed a sight more horrible than her worst nightmare. Lining both walls were cells. The prisoners screeched and pleaded at the sight of Cayla and Gibbs, rattling their bars like some demented musical band. Before her, Gibbs shouted at the prisoners and banged on their bars. But this only seemed to energize them. They thrust out their arms toward Cayla as she passed, clawing at the air with skeletal hands. Horrified, Cayla dodged out of their reach, covering her mouth from the overpowering stench of unwashed bodies and old sick.
Alice was here? Here?
Eyes watering from the smells, Cayla managed to yell in hysteria over the screaming and banging, "She's here?"
"No," Gibbs yelled back, forcing his way through the thrashing arms. "She's farther down."
Deep relief washed over her at that. Soon they left these prisoners, their moans and screams still heard but muffled. Now the cells on either side were mostly empty. But more than once Cayla spotted a heap of rags that seconds later she realized was a body. But these souls kept in their corners and never uttered a sound. The abrupt change unnerved her.
Gibbs suddenly stopped and turned to her.
"She's three down on the left. You have five minutes."
Without wasting another second, Cayla hurried past him and dropped to her knees before the cell he had indicated.
"Alice. Oh, Alice," Cayla moaned.
Cayla saw someone shift in the pale moonlight that filtered through a tiny rectangular window at the very top of the cell's wall. Alice Spindle's pale, terrified face appeared. Cayla thrust her hands through the bars to take hold of Alice's. Her hands were horrifyingly cold.
"What are you doing here, Cayla?" Alice demanded, her voice trembling just as badly as her hands. "You shouldn't be here!"
Her clean clothes were torn and dirty, her neat hair all out of place, and the usually rosy cheeks were a sickly white.
"Don't speak rubbish! I can't believe they imprisoned you!"
Alice was silent before she whispered numbly, "I'm to be hanged, aren't I?"
Cayla's fingers tightened their hold.
"I won't let that happen."
"What can you do?" Alice exclaimed in a strangled whisper, her pale eyes as large as coins. "King Sebastian has been murdered and I fixed the drink! I was the last to see him. I—"
"You didn't kill him, Alice!" Cayla shook Alice's shoulders roughly through the bars. "I know you," she added softly as a sob escaped Alice's lips. "You've been set up, Alice and I'm going to find out by whom."
For a moment Cayla believed the conviction in her voice had strengthened Alice. But all too quickly, her shoulders slumped and her eyes dropped to the ground.
"It's my word against theirs. I'm only a servant."
Cayla had to press herself against the bars to hear her murmured words.
"Please, Cayla. N-nothing can be done. Giving me hope that doesn't exist—" She shook her head, her shoulders shaking from the effort to keep her sobs hidden. "Please, Cayla."
Cayla sat numbly on the freezing stone floor, watching her friend steadily unravel. She was lost for words and barely noticed Gibbs' approach.
"You have to leave now," he said softly.
Cayla continued to sit, her heart pounding. She couldn't leave her. She couldn't. She wouldn't.
A firm hand was suddenly on her shoulder.
"You must," he repeated.
Cayla blinked her wet eyes. She felt bile rising in her throat. She tightened her hold on Alice's hands until it was painful, before slowly rising to her feet and following Gibbs out of the dungeons.
Cayla didn't attend the execution. She did not go into the city. She stayed inside the castle, busying herself with her daily tasks, refusing to let her mind wander. Refusing to let her gaze drop in shame. She kept her jaw clenched, her red eyes from shedding a single tear. She would mourn in solitude at Alice's grave. She would not mourn before people who were spreading not-so-quiet whispers about Alice. Saying horrible, terrible things about Alice.
The other servants—people who had known and lived with Alice for years—believed her a killer! Cayla felt their eyes on her as she passed; she could only imagine what they thought of her. From the moment she had heard of Alice's predicament, she had loudly denied her guilt. But King Sebastian was dead. Murdered. Someone had to pay. So in an attempt to be as alone as possible, Cayla used the old servant passages. They fit her mood. The plain, empty, silent corridors were like a sanctuary to her. A sanctuary where she could remember Alice. Where there was no chance of seeing the horrible celebrations around the castle, as the people "avenged" their king's death, for there were no windows in the servant passages.
Bosc Castle was an impressive building. Towers rose overhead and gargoyles dotted the exterior. Inside were gloriously furnished rooms with highly intricate tapestries and walls covered with large oil paintings. Huge curving staircases of gleaming marble snaked from floor to floor. The corridors were wide and brightly lit with waxed tables and imposing statues. The servant passages, on the other hand, were neither grand nor imposing. They were dark, narrow, low, and unbearably cold during winter. But they were also incredibly intricate … and hidden. In the era of Bosc Castle's creation, servants were part of the setting … the backdrop … a piece of furniture that was to be overlooked. They were needed, necessary in fact. But never were they to be seen. Never were they to attract attention. Never were they to use the main corridors.
Since the servants were meant to be overlooked so was their means of travel. Tapestries, portraits, backs of wardrobes all hid the openings of the servants' passages. They were a maze of narrow corridors that weaved throughout the castle. Servants might have been the lowest of the low, but much careful thought was spent on them in the construction plans. It was so vital for them to flit in and out unnoticed that the entrances were perfectly invisible. Even the servants did not know them all. At times they still stumbled across floorboards that moved, or wardrobes with hidden doors. But times had changed and the necessity of keeping servants out of sight had faded away. Now, they could walk the main corridors, side by side with nobility. Over time, the passages had become forgotten by the court and the servants only used them when they were convenient.
"Cayla! Oh, Cayla!"
The mournful gasp made Cayla jerk in surprise. She had thought she was alone. When she turned and saw who was rushing to her, she closed her eyes and breathed deeply through her nose. Gerda Higgs was a new, young servant who never failed to put Cayla's nerves on edge.
"I'm sorry, Gerda, but I'm needed in the Princess's Chamber," said Cayla firmly.
"Oh! I couldn't possibly keep you," exclaimed Gerda, her already large eyes widening dramatically. "It's just—I just—" she choked wetly, drawing a damp handkerchief out of her pocket.
Cayla stood stoically, waiting for Gerda to recover herself.
"I'm sorry," she hiccupped into the handkerchief. "It's just so hard to believe. Alice—sweet Alice!" she cried, dabbing her eyes. "I'm sorry, I must look like a fool!"
Cayla didn't trust herself to reply.
"Who could have done this?" Gerda sobbed.
Cayla frowned, and though she had decided not to speak to Gerda, she couldn't stop herself from saying, "What do you mean? I thought you believed in Alice's guilt."
Gerda's large eyes, swimming with tears, widened.
"Where would you have heard that! Alice could never—she was always so nice. No, no I don't believe she did this!" Gerda said, fiercely shaking her head.
Cayla felt a warmth spread in her chest at Gerda's outburst. She had always found Gerda tiresome and silly, but at her words Cayla felt her gaze softening.
"It's just so hard to believe!" Gerda exclaimed again. "Why would anyone want to kill His Majesty? Especially one of us?"
"Someone could have snuck in through the servant passages," Cayla muttered.
"But we're sworn to secrecy!" Gerda gasped, horrified by the very idea.
"Then it must have been someone in the castle," Cayla replied darkly, more to herself than to Gerda.
Gerda looked close to fainting.
"In—in the castle?" Gerda repeated, clutching her handkerchief, her eyes darting about nervously.
"It's just a thought," Cayla said wearily, pinching the bridge of her nose. She suddenly wanted to be alone again. Her eyes were burning.
She pushed past Gerda who was still too shocked to stop her. It seemed that she couldn't believe that any of the servants would do such an atrocious deed. But after a few seconds, Gerda spun around and said something that made Cayla stop in her tracks.
"But it couldn't be a servant! What would we gain by killing King Sebastian?"
What would a servant gain, indeed? Nothing that Cayla could think of. King Sebastian had been loved. As far as Cayla knew, none of the servants had a grudge against him. And I would have known, Cayla thought wryly. Gerda's specialty was gossip and spreading it as fast and far as possible.
Cayla had entered Princess Avona's bedchamber from a hidden entrance behind a large tapestry. She'd been the princess's nanny since her birth. Cayla picked up the little wriggling baby and cooed softly.
Just as Cayla had calmed the fretful princess the chamber door creaked slowly open. Cayla turned and watched it sway forward as a large man with a grizzled beard slowly stepped through the door. When Sir Anon Haskin caught sight of Cayla he started.
"Cayla! Didn't see you there! Gave me a start," he said with a loud laugh.
"I'm sorry, Sir Anon," Cayla replied. "Did you need something?"
"No, no … no, no. Just wanted to check on the princess … make sure all was right."
"Why would you think something was wrong?" Cayla asked, alarmed, shifting the baby in her arms.
Sir Anon rubbed his bearded chin slowly, a crease appearing between his eyebrows.
"We live in dangerous times, Miss Black. Tragedy seems to be surrounding the castle … like a mist. I am a knight—my duty's to protect."
"Do you think someone might try … to hurt the princess?" Cayla whispered, clutching her burden closer as if she were afraid someone would run toward her from behind the dresser swinging a butcher's knife.
Sir Anon shrugged, though his serious air remained.
"Like I said, I am a knight."
Cayla nodded silently.
"Forgive me for intruding upon you." Sir Anon tilted his head respectfully toward the princess, who was goo-ing and gaa-ing, before exiting the chamber and closing the door behind him.
A chilling breeze blew through the cemetery. The execution was over and a tall man stood watching the proceedings, a look of quiet repulsion on his young, narrow face. Salir Romore, King Sebastian's advisor, watched as the servant Alice Spindle'''s limp body was slowly carried from the wagon that had transported her body from the central square where the execution had taken place. The wind ruffled his black hair. Beside Salir stood Illius Molick, the captain of the knights.
"I weary of funerals," Salir said suddenly. "Do you ever tire of them, Molick?"
Molick, a chiseled, hard-looking man, cut his eyes to the younger man beside him.
"As many as I have seen …" Molick sighed. "Yes, I tire of them."
Salir breathed heavily through his nose as Alice's body was lowered into the prepared grave. "I fear, Molick, that this will not be the last I witness as ruler."
Salir who had not moved his eyes once from Alice didn't notice how Molick had turned to him sharply.
"It has been decided?" Molick asked quickly. "You are to be king?"
"Until Princess Avona is of rightful age to take my place, I am king," Salir nodded.
"When will it be announced?" asked Molick, his eyes taking in every inch of the pale man beside him.
"Tonight. At sunset."
As advisor to the king, Salir Romore had been present at all of King Sebastian's speeches, but he had always hovered in the background, lost in shadow—quietly observing. Now he stood before the people—his people—speaking clearly and calmly, his words washing over the ashen faces below him.
After his short speech, Salir walked quietly down the brightly lit corridors, his face like a slab of stone. It couldn't be clearer that his mind was elsewhere.
He suddenly came to a stop and looked at the door he stood before in surprise. He stood before his old chamber – the one he had occupied as advisor. With a soft laugh, he turned from his old bedroom and moved through the corridors and stairs, passing staring servants, to the King's Chamber.
He hesitated before the heavily engraved doors, his hands hovering above the gold handles. He tightened his jaw, pulled the door open and entered. Slowly, the oak doors swung shut behind him and for a moment he stood still, letting his eyes roam over the room.
A magnificent chandelier hung at the center of the domed ceiling. The room was three times the size of his old chamber, with a handsome, rosewood writing desk, a sitting area with luxurious chairs and glittering crystal bottles of wines and liquors, a fireplace large enough to roast a boar, and a giant bed. Along the walls hung decorative tapestries, and two glass doors closed off the winter chill from a balcony. Salir, of course, had seen all of this before. As advisor, he had sat in that very chair, discussing issues with His Majesty, often over a bottle of gooseberry wine. A smile slowly formed upon his face.
Salir walked past tall candelabras, whose flames flickered, to the glass doors. There he stood, overlooking his city—his kingdom. He stood just as still as the stone gargoyles that leaned boldly over the balcony's intricate edge, watching the setting sun sink to her death. He stared, never moving, at his darkening city, his slim figure bathed in bloody reds and deep golds.
Sharply, he yanked the delicate drapes back over the glass. The tall candlesticks sputtered light into the darkened room, making wild shadows dance upon the walls. His shoulders suddenly tense, he turned slowly on the spot until he faced the two large portraits opposite him. Slowly yet deliberately, never shifting his gaze, Salir walked across the floor to one of the paintings.
Salir stepped before King Sebastian's portrait and tilted his head back, his eyes gleaming in the candlelight.
"Long live the king."