Chapter Twenty-Two

He put up no resistance when the guards came storming up the stairs. There was no protestation from Emeret as he was tackled to the ground and manacles clicked shut around his wrists. The blade clattered to the ground, still glistening with a deep red. Pushing through the crowd, Idana found herself at a loss for words as she took in what had happened. Her gaze trailed from the dead noble to the messenger that she had befriended on the road. Emeret seemed to stare at nothing, his face pale. He did not acknowledge her presence as she screamed his name.

Idana did not blame him. Theirs had always been a rocky relationship. It had not been her finest moment, using her abilities to coax him into bringing her along to the capital. But after they had arrived, he had not been obligated to put in a good word with his mother. Idana had learned a few days later that she had enjoyed a greatly discounted price to stay at The Thirsty Hog.

The Emeret she knew could not have done such a thing. It was simply inconceivable. What would he have gained from such an act? Even as she tried to juggle the shock of being a witness to murder, Idana was certain that there was something not quite right about the entire affair. It smelled of conspiracy.

It did not, however, make it any easier for her as she watched the guards drag Emeret away. She wanted to protest his treatment. To say that he did not deserve to be locked away until a full examination of the facts was made. Yet, she knew such a thing would be fruitless. Instead, she kept her own counsel – warring within herself at her inability to step up when her friend was in need.

To do what she felt compelled to do would only paint a target on her own back.

It pained her to see as the messenger kept silent as he was shoved down the stairs. His eyes downcast.

When they were gone, Idana finally turned back towards the victim. The hushed voices around her were quick to identify the man. Once more, she felt her stomach sink. Another vital clue had been snuffed out.

Lying on the wooden decking of the tavern, Lord Rothfarin seemed like a smaller man than she had been expecting. Blue eyes stared sightlessly ahead, caught between surprise and fear. His unkempt hair had begun to turn silver, evident in his unbrushed moustache and the goatee that he had been slowly developing. What struck Idana the most, however, was how thin he was. Lord Rothfarin had the appearance of a man that had suffered a number of sleepless nights. His face was gaunt and there were dark circles under his eyes.

Before she had the opportunity to further inspect him, one of the remaining knights dropped a sheet over the body and ordered the crowd back. Words were said and commands given, but Idana was deaf to it all. She was still trying to make sense of the events, her thoughts hazy.

"We need to go now, Idana," said someone close by. A hand on her arm gently tugged her towards the stairs. Reluctantly, she allowed herself to be pulled away from the grisly scene.

What should have been a raucous celebration of the summer solstice had been ruined. Through an open window, Idana saw an explosive array of colours light up the sky just beyond the cathedral to the Goddess as she followed Anais and Fyorn down the stairs. In The Prancing Griffin, however, the mood was much more subdued. Patrons drank deep into their cups as silence hung heavy in the air.

The barkeep, ashen-faced, met them at the door. "Lady Anais, Sir Fyorn, my sincerest apologies," he said.
I've given my statement to the city guard, but if there's anything else I can assist you with, you can find me here. If I had known that the young man would have done such a thing, I would have barred him entry. There is no excuse for what happened tonight. I should have been more vigilant."

"This blame isn't yours to bear. By all accounts, Dubin, you did everything you could. The man in question worked as a royal messenger. He would have had a writ of passage."

"Your words are kind, Sir Fyorn, and yet I still feel as if I ought to have done something."

Fyorn lay a firm hand on the barkeep's shoulder. "And if you had, we might have been short one of our favourite barkeeps. No. Not another word, Dubin. There wasn't anything you could have done to prevent this tragedy. Now, we really must go," said Fyorn. He stopped at the entrance and turned back. "For your troubles, Dubin. Hopefully it'll be enough to remove the stains from the wood." With that, he dropped a fat pouch into the barkeep's hands and whisked both Anais and Idana into the night.

Despite the breeze coming from the harbour, Idana felt as hot as she would have been if she stood near a roaring hearth. Worse was the relentless pounding in her head as she staggered after the Yaelyn siblings. The events of the evening had shaken them and they were walking briskly back to the palace.

"Hells, Fyorn. What are we going to do now?" Anais turned towards her brother, an unreadable expression on her face. "Father said that they had gone underground after what happened to Dendron. Why now? Why Rothfarin?"

The older sibling did not answer. Instead, his pace quickened as they neared the gates. In the moonlight, he seemed as pale as the barkeep of the tavern. There was a hardened glint in his eyes that proved frightening. Even as she was recovering from her night of debauchery, Idana knew that any questions she had would have to wait.

Anais, however, was not be so easily deterred in her quest for answers. She pelted queries and accusations, hoping for a reaction. When they had neared the palace walls, thankfully without incident, Fyorn rounded on his sister and snapped out several harsh words. Rather than quelling her, Anais stepped up and threw several colourful epithets.

"Enough! We will talk about this later, Anais. I will personally track down father and we will discuss this like civilised individuals." His tone made it blatantly clear that the conversation was over. After taking several deep breaths, he looked over towards Idana. "I'm sorry you had to see that, Idana. Rest assured that we've had no murders during the last few celebrations."

"That would have been rather concerning, actually," replied Idana as she tried to keep the nervousness she felt from her voice. "Thank you for bringing me back. You didn't have to. If anyone had tried anything, I know several spells that would have sent them crawling to a doctor."

"Be that as it may, you were our guest. Well, Anais's guest. It wouldn't have been proper," said Fyorn. "And if we had more time, I would see you directly to your rooms. But as you've no doubt deduced, there are some matters both Anais and I have to attend to."

After they bid their goodbyes, Idana headed back to her rooms. The familiar hallways of the palace seemed different now. Almost menacing. As if hidden in the shadows lurked a secret assassin just waiting to pounce.

Why had Emeret struck Lord Rothfarin down? Did it have any connection to Windrider and the secretive group that held her master captive? There were so many loose threads tangled together that it felt as if she falling off a cliff and desperately grasping at straws. It would not be long until she was out of her depth and drowning. Within a few more weeks, she'd probably be at the bottom of the ocean. The answers forever out of her reach.

Her rooms were as silent as a grave and just as cold once she finally entered. It was odd how reliant she had become on Qina and the other servants. The first few days had been grating. Idana had never once been pampered before. She remembered telling the maid time and again that she could attend to her own affairs. That hadn't stopped Qina, though, and in time, Idana simply allowed herself to be coddled as if she truly were a person born into wealth.

None of that now, she thought wryly as she picked up the poker from the hearth.

Tapping into the aether around her, Idana summoned forth a roaring fire. It was a simple enough spell and one she had used often in Lastrune, though Lacet had seen fit to chide her rather extravagant use of magic for even the most mundane of objectives.

"Oh, you're already back. I had hoped to have the fire stoked, ready and waiting for you, but it appears you have swifter feet than I."

Idana jolted at the sound of the voice. She had been so wrapped up in her thoughts, she had not heard the door open. Nor the soft padded footsteps of Qina. She did not know how, but the young maid had mastered the art of sneaking up on her effortlessly. One of these days, Idana thought to herself as she turned around to greet Qina with a tired smile, she would have to create a spell that sounded a silent alarm when someone entered her rooms.

"Are you okay, Lady Idana? I heard what happened. It's hard not to, even at this hour, considering what happened."

On a normal day, the sincerity behind her words might have served as a welcome balm. Qina always knew just want to say and how to say it. But tonight, Idana felt thoroughly drained. Perhaps it was the fact that she had been right there at The Dancing Griffin and had failed to stop it. Or the fact that she had a chance to realise something was wrong when Emeret had asked her for a dance.

Maybe, too, it was simply the alcohol finally leaving her system.

"I don't know, Qina. It's just…everything happened so fast," said Idana. "And Emeret…I just can't wrap my head around why he would do something like this, you know?"

"Sounds like you just need a bit of rest, Lady Idana. Did you want me to draw you a bath? Please call on me if you do need anything. Anything at all."

With some gentle coaxing, Idana found herself being tucked into bed just as the hour struck two. Eyelids drooping shut and trying to battle the waves of exhaustion that was pulling her down, she bade Qina a good night. When the door clicked shut behind the maid, Idana closed her eyes and was instantaneously transported into the world of dreams.

Idana knew not the hour when she finally woke. Her head was pounding, fuelled by a loud tapping somewhere close by, and her mouth was dry. Even the meagre beam of sunlight that had filtered its way through the shutters seemed harsh. It did not help that she had been troubled with frightful images the entire night and was still felt uneasy after what had transpired the night before.

Wanting only a quick return to silence, she fell out of bed and landed heavily on her knees. A curse flew from her lips as she stumbled to her feet. Whoever had decided to interrupt her much needed rest, Idana decided, was one deserving of a full blast of magic.

When she finally reached the window and pulled aside the shutters, Min greeted her with a cranky hoot. The great horned owl looked agitated. As Idana swung open the window, the familiar made a beeline towards her solitary perch on the far side of the room. But even in that quick glimpse, she caught sight of the dull red that was splattered all across the bird's plumage. Ice took hold of her heart. The self-righteous indignation of moments ago now forgotten.

She was struck with a thousand different worries. Not for the first time, she cursed the fact that she could not communicate with the familiar. At least in any way that mattered. Lacet had always said she was too young to form a bond with a familiar and that it would be better if she waited until her seventeenth birthday.

Min gave a reproachful bark at Idana's approach. As she preened her feathers before settling in for a well-deserved morning of rest, she nipped impatiently at Idana's entreating fingers.

"Won't you tell me what happened, Minerva?"

The owl hobbled away and tucked her head under a wing. It was a clear enough message and Idana felt her spirits deflate even lower.

Knowing that to antagonise the owl further would simply be wasted effort, Idana set about completing her morning ablutions. Though her head was pounding, there were still things she needed to see to, least of which was Emeret. No doubt he was held in one of the many cells in one of the guardhouses located in the city before his trial for murder. It was clear that this would be an open and shut case.

A grim look of determination on her face, Idana studied her reflection in the large looking glass that hung adjacent to her bed as she prepared herself for a tiring day. White was once again showing at the roots. In another day or two, she would have to apply some more dye. For the time being, perhaps she could work on a glamour? Or mayhap an illusion. The guards would not simply reveal information to any civilian that asked. No, if she was going to do this, her disguise needed to be perfect.

It was nearing noon when she left her rooms, finally satisfied with her appearance. There were still many things running through her mind. Why Rothfarin? And what could have driven the mild-tempered messenger into committing such an atrocity?

Loathe as she was to admit it, Idana could not shake the feeling that it had been her fault for what had happened during the summer solstice. If she had been a little more circumspect, perhaps none of this would have happened.

There were only two things she knew with absolute certainty.

That the murder of Lord Rothfarin had not been an act of passion. Rather it had been a cold and calculated move. By who, she could not say, though Idana did have her suspicions. Emeret, of course, was innocent of the dead. He had to have been compelled or coerced into such a brazen act.

The second was that she would get to the bottom of this mystery. Everything that had happened in the last few months were intricately connected. It had not been a coincidence that the lord's name had been on the slip of paper Windrider had given to her. She simply had to find the right thread to pull and unravel the schemes of those that lurked in the dark.