Cobus held the parchment next to the flame on the desk, the firelight twisting and pulsing as it washed over the page. Wax dripped from the candle onto the words of the letter:
The king knows the truth.
He is planning to kill you.
You must act now.
Outside, the sky darkened as rain began to beat against the stone windowsill. Cobus’s eyes moved between the letter and the flames. The flames do not lie, it was said. It was an ancient proverb his father had believed. He stared into the flames looking for a sign, and then he stood and touched the corner of the page to the fire. He watched as the parchment glowed golden under the intense heat, the wax seal of stag and falcon melting beneath the dancing light. A gust of wind blew in through the open window, and the flame sputtered but did not die. Cobus threw the blackened letter into the hearth, the last of the orange embers choked out by gray ash, and then he went over to the desk and blew out the candle. He walked across the chamber, the room framed by flashes of blue and white from the outside. He found the door, opened it, and stepped out into the hallway.
He made his way down the long corridor, his boots shuffling over the flagstones, and when he came to the end of the hallway, he opened another door and stepped out into the night. The sky poured rain, and so Cobus pulled the hood of his cloak over his head and hurried across the courtyard. He entered the kitchen shaking off drops of water from his clothes. Smoke filled the chamber scenting the air with mutton, venison, and trout. Several boys tended the ovens on the far side of the room, with the cook overseeing their work. Cobus made his way toward the cook, who stood next to the doorway leading to the great hall. As Cobus passed him, he slipped a leather purse into the man’s hand.
“A deer can kill a man just as easily as a man can kill a deer,” Cobus said, and he left the room as quickly as he had entered.
He walked down a short hallway and opened the door to the great hall. King Lolek and his wife, Aoife, sat at a table in the lower part of the room near the central hearth. The fire crackled and sputtered, and wood smoke drifted up to the rafters. Eight soldiers lined the perimeter of the room. Cobus addressed the guard closest to him.
“Where is Seth?” Cobus asked.
“The queen says he’s sick.”
“The little prince is always sick. We will fetch him afterward. Are your men ready?”
The guard nodded.
Cobus continued across room and sat down at the table with Lolek and Aoife.
“I saw your father today,” Lolek said.
“How was he?” Cobus said.
“I didn’t see him. He left before I returned.” He is planning to kill you. The words of his father rang clear in his mind.
“He wanted to see you but said he could not stay past dark. He mentioned he would leave you a note. Did you receive it?”
A log popped and showered sparks above the hearth. Cobus could feel the sweat forming on his skin. He knows the truth.
“He didn’t leave me anything,” Cobus lied. Wine. He needed wine.
The king turned to his wife. “Go see what is keeping them.”
Aoife stood and headed for the kitchen door. A servant came through the archway carrying a pitcher.
Thank the gods. He needed at least one cup. Yes, one cup would do. “They’ll be in with the food shortly,” Cobus said. “I was just in the kitchen.”
Aoife returned to her seat, and the servant poured three cups of wine.
A deer can kill a man. Still, Cobus let the king and his wife drink first.
“How was your trip to Alecon?” Lolek asked. “How was my brother?”
Cobus let the two of them drink half their cups before taking a sip from his. “As ambitious as ever,” Cobus said. The wine tasted smooth in his throat. “You would be wise to keep him at odds with Benoic.”
“Perceval and Benoic have always fought,” Lolek said. “They always will.”
“But if they were to come together–”
“They won’t.” Lolek drained the last of his cup, and the servant stepped forward to refill it.
“Then do not give them a reason to,” Cobus said.
“You forget I have a son now. Their claims mean nothing.”
A very weak son, a sickly son. Cobus turned to the queen. “How is Seth? I heard he was with fever.”
“He still sweats at night and coughs, but the physician assures me he is getting better,” Aoife said.
Cobus thought she did not sound so assured. “It is good to hear. I pray every night for his strength and that he will make a full recovery.”
“My son will sit the throne after me,” Lolek said. “Not my brothers. I can assure you of that.” He took another swallow of wine.
Cobus finished the rest of his cup and motioned to the attendant to bring him more. The man stepped around the table and poured.
“Of course, lord,” Cobus said as the red wine spilled from the pitcher into his cup. Red. The color of blood. Royal blood. Cobus drained half his cup. Where are they? He glanced over at the door to the kitchen.
As if reading his thoughts, more servants came through the archway carrying the platters of mutton, venison, and trout. They also brought cheeses and bread loaves and fruit pastries.
“It’s about time,” Lolek said.
You must act now. A deer can kill a man.
The servants laid a platter of meat in front of Lolek and Aoife, and they laid a separate platter in front of Cobus. They placed the dish with fruit pastries near Aoife and the cheeses and loaves in the center of the table. Cobus’s stomach churned, but not from hunger. He wasn’t in the mood for mutton or trout. Or venison for that matter. Especially not for venison. He could go for one of the fruit pastries. Apple. He could smell the aroma of cinnamon from across the table. Something sweet might calm him. Still, it was not polite to eat before the king and queen had tasted everything, and he needed to be courteous…especially tonight.
The king cut into the venison first but left the slices on the platter and moved on to cutting the mutton and trout. He grabbed a couple of loaves and a wedge of cheese. The fruit pastries would come last. Cobus took another sip of wine. He was too nervous to cut, too afraid his hands might betray his intentions. He grabbed a loaf as well and waited for the king and queen. Once they started eating, Cobus forced a piece of bread into his mouth and washed it down with wine.
“So what did Perceval say?” Lolek said as he chewed one of the loaves.
“He still wants to know when you will recognize his claim and not his brother’s,” Cobus answered.
“And what did you tell him?”
“The same as always, that you have an heir.” A poor excuse for an heir. The boy will not make it to three years.
“And what did he say to that?” Lolek had moved on to the mutton and trout, while Aoife was busying herself with the cheese and wine.
Cups and cups of wine to drown her desperation. The deer still lay untouched on the platter.
“He is growing impatient,” Cobus said.
“He’s always impatient.” Lolek said.
“Impatience can breed an army.”
Lolek scoffed at that and swallowed a chunk of mutton. He then took his knife and stabbed a slice of venison and brought it up to his mouth.
“He would do well to learn patience,” the king said. “Such is a fruit of the Spirit.”
The word fruit made Cobus glance at the apple pastries once more. He could already taste the sweet flavor on his tongue. He almost reached for one, but his arms were frozen. The venison was almost in the king’s mouth.
Eat it, you fool.
And Lolek did.
He chewed and swallowed and then took another slice, chewed and swallowed again. Cobus waited and watched, waited for the coughs to start, waited for the sweat to form on the king’s brow, waited for the gurgling and the choking, and for the blood and bile to spill from Lolek’s mouth.
Cobus touched the dagger at his belt, knowing that if the poison didn’t kill the king, he would have to finish the job himself. He would need the dagger for the queen too, for Aoife would scream and wail when she realized what was happening, and Cobus would need to shut her up quickly. Then, he would need to get Seth. The little prince will not make it three more hours.
And so Cobus waited, and he waited, and nothing happened.
Lolek finished the venison, while Aoife remained content to eat only the cheese and bread and drink the wine, and all the while Lolek rambled on about his ungrateful brothers and his son’s strength and the fact that his wife would bear him many more strong sons, but Cobus paid little attention to any of it. He had given the cook the poison, had paid him well, and the man had betrayed him. And if the cook had betrayed him, it was likely the man would go confess to the king’s chaplain, and the chaplain, who was loyal to a fault, would most certainly tell Lolek everything.
And then he will hang me for treason, Cobus thought. You must act now.
Cobus fingered the dagger at his belt, slowly pulling it from its sheath, and he looked at the guard he had spoken to earlier and nodded. The man nodded to the guard closest to him, and they both circled in behind Lolek and Aoife.
“Here, you must try this,” Aoife said to her husband as she held out one of the apple pastries. “It’s fantastic.”
Aoife was drunk on wine, and she playfully laughed as she popped the pastry in the king’s mouth. Cobus had forgotten about the fruit pastries, cared nothing for them at the moment, because all he could think about was killing the king and queen and then finding Seth. He would kill the cook too, but that would come later.
Lolek smiled and sucked on his wife’s fingers and then chased the fruit pastry down with more wine. Aoife ran her fingers through Lolek’s beard and then leaned back to grab another pastry, but she leaned too far and fell backward on the floor.
“You need more wine, dear,” Lolek said, laughing as he reached down to help his wife off the floor.
But Aoife wasn’t laughing. She was coughing.
Cobus thought at first that she had swallowed the pastry wrong, but her small coughs soon became violent and uncontrollable, and she turned pale and began clutching at her throat. Lolek tried to help her to her feet, but he too fell on the floor and coughed until he could hardly breathe. Aoife’s body twitched and twitched and slowly grew still, while Lolek dragged himself across the floor to his wife and draped his body across hers. His breathing was labored, short gasps of air clinging to the last shreds of life. He turned to Cobus, his eyes pleading for help.
Cobus released the dagger and brought his cup to his lips, and he drank wine as Lolek drank his own blood. Cobus did not move, and so the king turned to his guards for help, but they did nothing. They all watched their king die, choking and gasping and sputtering like the dying light of a candle’s flame. The flames do not lie.
Lolek ran his hands through his wife’s hair and across her face, and with the last of his strength, he propped himself up on his knees and reached for the knife at his belt. Both hands were shaking as the life drained from him, his right hand shaking as it reached for the dagger and the left hand doing all it could to hold his body up, and then he vomited blood and collapsed on top of Aoife.
The king is dead. You must act now.
Cobus stood. “Someone go find the boy,” he said, still staring at the king. The last of Lolek’s muscles twitched to death’s rhythm.
“I’ll get him,” one of the guards on the far side of the room said. He hurried through the archway in the direction of the royal chambers.
“Clean this up,” Cobus said to the guard whom he had spoken to when he first came in the hall. “And secure the castle grounds. No one gets in or out.”
“Yes, lord,” the man said, and two soldiers stepped forward and carted the king and queen from the hall.
Blood stained the rush matting covering the floor, and Cobus ordered the servants to replace it with fresh rushes scented with flowers to mask the smell. The boys hurried off while Cobus sat by the fire drinking the last of his wine. The flames still burned hot, red and gold, red and gold.
He knows the truth. He will never open his mouth again to tell it. But if he knows, who else knows?
Cobus stared into the flames for a long time, but he saw nothing. The flames do not lie, he thought again. True or not, he still had a blood price to collect, and in order to collect it he needed an army, and he needed an army quickly. Once the news reached Perceval, the king’s brother would move quickly to stake his claim.
And what about Benoic? What would he do? If the two brothers joined together…
Cobus should have listened to his own advice.
A few of the guards re-entered the hall.
Cobus looked up from the fire. Red and gold. “Where is Seth?” he asked, expecting to see the guard who went to get the boy.
The men looked at each other and shrugged.
“Well find him!” Cobus threw his cup across the room. If the little prince makes it out alive…
“Yes, lord,” one of the men answered. “We will find them both, lord.”
“And the chaplain,” Cobus said. “Bring him to me as well. He may know where they’re going.”
“Yes, lord.” The men hurried from the room.
And the cook. He would need to find the cook.