Short Story – The Princess of Raleigh

The Princess of Raleigh
A Tale by Aaron Canton

 

Zenda Raleigh’s mouth curved up in a fierce grin as she shot an arrow through the thick forest and toward the distant deer. The animal jerked once as the arrow hit it squarely in the neck, but even as it raised a leg to run, it was already bleeding and starting to totter. It only managed a few steps before it collapsed at the base of a huge oak tree surrounded by orange flowers. “Yes!” cheered Zenda, pumping a fist even as she slung her bow across her back and trotted towards the animal. “Perfect shot!”

“Well done,” said Katherine Anadail, Zenda’s lady-in-waiting. She brushed a few strands of her long, blond hair behind her head and hurried after Zenda. “Shall I call the horses? If we load the deer quickly, we can get back to the castle by teatime.”

“What, already?” Zenda glanced up towards the canopy. Even though the girls were only an hour outside of Viscosa proper, the forest they were in was thick and untamed, perfect for hunting. Still, there were a few gaps in the trees where the sun was visible, and it hadn’t moved all that much since the two had arrived. “We only just got here,” Zenda teased. “Didn’t you say you wanted to get out of the castle? In fact, didn’t you pick this spot?”

“Sure, but I thought we’d go for a quick hike,” said Katherine. Zenda made an exaggerated frown, and after a moment, Katherine laughed. “Well, perhaps a longer hike. You know I like hunting with you, Zenda. But we have things we need to do. Well, you do, anyways.”

Zenda shook her head as she reached the deer. “What I need to do right now is get this guy cleaned and dressed. Once that’s done, we can keep exploring. See if we can find some herbs or flowers for a garnish—not those, though.” She gestured at the orange flowers. “I was talking to Ranger MacNair about how to identify edible plants, and he said those type of flowers will knock you out. But I’m sure we can find some good ones deeper in. Plus, this forest is green enough that—”

“Zenda.”

“—there should be a source of water around here. Maybe ducks. And you know what that means, right? Duck eggs and venison over a campfire—”

“Zenda!” Katherine moved a step closer to the other girl. “That’s not what I meant. You have official duties to attend to.”

Zenda looked at Katherine for a few moments before frowning. “I’m not a princess, Katherine. I haven’t been for years. Not since Dad…you know…”

“You still have responsibilities—”

“No, Katherine, I really don’t.”

Zenda Raleigh was several inches taller than her friend, standing at over six feet. She had a lithe, athletic build, with brown hair cut short and a fashion sense that trended towards the rugged and practical. The only jewelry she wore, tucked under her clothes where nobody could see it, showed no signs of her former royal lineage—just a little heart-shaped ruby, given by her father on her last birthday before he died.

“We’ve been over this,” said Zenda as she drew her skinning knife from her belt. “Magnus is the king now, and he’s been king for years. That means I’m not in the line of succession. I don’t have any obligations, other than to show up and be alive whenever some noble spreads rumors Magnus is a usurper and secretly killed off the entire Raleigh bloodline, including me.” She began to skin the deer with a series of quick, expert cuts. “Since right now nobody’s going around saying Magnus killed me, my time’s wide open.”

“That isn’t what I meant,” pressed Katherine. “You’re supposed to be the monarch right now. Magnus is illegitimate, and everyone knows it. He was supposed to be the regent for a little while when your dad died, until you got older, and even though he got the nobles to agree to keep him around forever, that doesn’t make it right that he’s still running things!”

Zenda shrugged. “Look, it’s not like he’s pillaging the kingdom. Everything’s pretty much the same as it was when Dad was in charge. Magnus spends most of his time locked in the library with his scholars talking about how Raleigh worked when it was founded. I mean, does anyone really care if he wants to rename the roads or bring back the old types of coins instead of using the new ones? I sure don’t, and I don’t think I’m the only one.”

Katherine shook her head. “That doesn’t matter. It’s your job and—”

“I never wanted to be queen, and you know that,” snapped Zenda. She opened her mouth to say something else, then caught herself and was silent for a moment. When she spoke again, it was in a softer voice. “I never liked the fancy stuff, even when I was little. I always liked running around in the woods more, and I really hoped Dad would have another kid that could take over someday so I wouldn’t have to do it. And then Dad died, and every time I see the throne, I think of him, and… Look, if I didn’t want to run things before, I definitely don’t want to run them now.” She shrugged, then returned her attention to skinning the deer. “It doesn’t matter anyways. Right now, I’d rather go hunting, or fishing, or on adventures, like when we checked out those caves last month. And I’d rather be a ranger or a knight when I grow up than another royal who sits on fancy chairs, wears stupid clothes, and talks about taxes all day. What’s wrong with that?”

“What’s wrong is that your father died years ago, Zenda, and you still haven’t taken up your birthright,” said Katherine in an equally soft tone of voice. “I understand you still feel sad, but you need to get past it. Magnus must be dethroned before he destroys everything. And you’re the only one who can do that, because you’re the only one who can replace him without being a usurper yourself.”

“How is some scholar-king going to destroy Raleigh?” said Zenda, an exasperated tone creeping into her voice. “And why are you upset about this now? Like you said, Magnus has been king for…what, five years now? But in the last couple weeks you’ve gotten obsessed about this. Why?”

Katherine hesitated for a moment, and Zenda raised an eyebrow. She’d known her lady-in-waiting for years, and this was what it looked like when Katherine steeled herself to do something unpleasant. “Katherine?” Zenda repeated, forcing herself to speak calmly and without a trace of annoyance. “Is something wrong?”

“…yes,” said Katherine. “I… I had another motive for choosing this spot today. Could you please follow me?”

She led Zenda deeper into the forest, and though Zenda cast a sad glance at the deer carcass they were leaving behind, she followed. She knew better than to doubt her best friend. “Have you heard the rumors that Magnus had a hand in your father’s death?” Katherine asked.

Zenda sighed. “Sure. Of course, everyone suspected him; when a king dies, everyone thinks it was the heir, if there’s an heir that’s old enough, or the regent if there isn’t. But they caught the real killer. It was Adrayos, that knight who thought my dad didn’t appreciate how many of his friends died in the Battle of—”

“Adrayos did it, but that wasn’t why,” said Katherine, a fevered tone entering her voice. “There’re stories that he was paid to do it by Magnus.”

“I know there’re stories, but nobody ever proved it.”

Katherine grimaced. “There’s proof now. Come on, we’re almost there.”

A few minutes later, they reached a large rock with an odd shape; to Zenda’s eyes, it looked almost like a unicorn. Some earth had been turned over near its base. Katherine stood by the disturbed ground and began to speak. “There’s a trapper family who lives near here and comes to market occasionally; my uncle is friends with a few of them. Two weeks ago, they told my uncle they were trapping in this part of the woods when they got stuck under this rock in a rainstorm. One noticed a faint gleam under the soil, so they dug a little, and…” She gestured at the dirt. “They found a sword.”

“And didn’t take it with them?” asked Zenda, curious despite herself. “Even if it’s old, they could use it or sell it.”

“They couldn’t move it. I mean, they uncovered it, but they said they couldn’t pull it out of the ground—it’s magically fixed there—so they reburied it while they tried to figure out what to do about it. But they described what it looked like and… Well, you’ll see.”

Zenda knelt by the dug-up earth and cleared it away until she saw the gleam of a bright, sharp sword that looked like it had been buried a couple days prior. Several sigils were etched onto the blade, but when she tried to lift the sword to look at them more closely, she found she couldn’t. The sword was stuck to the dirt beneath it as if affixed by mortar. “Okay, that’s odd, but…”

“First, look at the hilt. Isn’t that Magnus’s seal? They described all the markings to me, and when they mentioned that one, I knew it sounded like his.”

The seal in question was a rough rectangle with a few lines crossing it, making it look like the page of an old book. “Sure, but…even if it’s his, just because the sword is here, that doesn’t mean it was used for something bad. Besides, if Magnus really was involved in Dad’s death, why would he have Adrayos use a sword anyone could trace back to him? I know you don’t like him, but he is a scholar. He’s not dumb.”

“No, but he might not have had a choice,” said Katherine. “Look at the markings on the blade. You know I’ve been studying a little magic, right? Not enough to cast it, but enough to recognize spell sigils. So, when the trappers described the marks on the blade, I knew what they were and what they did. Those are powerful dispelling wards—they cancel the magic of whatever the sword hits.” She paused. “Your father wore clothing enchanted by the country’s best archmagi when he was murdered. Nobody ever figured out how the knight cut through those clothes, and nobody found his weapon. Nobody cared after they caught Adrayos trying to flee the castle and sent him to jail forever. But if Magnus happened to have a sword of his own that could break those kinds of spells…and if he gave it to Adrayos, had him kill your father, and then somehow retrieved the sword while everyone was chasing his hired killer so he could hide it deep in the woods where nobody would find it for years or more…”

She trailed off, and Zenda could only stare at the blade before her.

 

*          *          *

 

Until recently, the assassin who had killed Zenda’s father had been imprisoned in the newer jail near the edge of town. It was built from thick stones, and its passages were dutifully patrolled by respected veterans of the city guard, making it one of the safest places to secure Raleigh’s criminals. But Magnus’s reforms had included bringing back the dungeons Raleigh’s third king, Raghnall Raleigh, had built into a basement of Raleigh Castle, so the assassin and a few more of Raleigh’s worst criminals had been moved there.

It was a typical example of how Magnus was running things, Zenda thought as she approached a staircase leading down to the basement level. Housing the prisoners in the castle dungeon was certainly a change from how the last few kings had done it, and it definitely didn’t seem to be most urgent issue that needed attending to, but it wasn’t doing any harm, and it wasn’t like Magnus was profiting off of it, so who cared? And if all Magnus wanted to do was make little tweaks like that, why would he think it worthwhile to assassinate King Bidouin? People usurped thrones to loot treasuries, or execute enemies, or set themselves up as gods. Not to relocate a dozen prisoners.

Zenda had to admit, as she descended, that she still didn’t really want to do this. There had to be a dozen holes in Katherine’s theory. For instance: suppose the assassin had used one of Magnus’s enchanted blades to kill King Bidouin, as Katherine had guessed, and then Magnus had hidden the blade in the woods. How would he have gotten the blade away from the murder scene in the first place? Magnus was one of Bidouin’s highest-ranked advisors; as soon as the murder occurred, he would have been surrounded by guards in case someone tried to assassinate him too. How could he have gotten away from them for long enough to find the murder weapon and hide it?

Her father was dead. She still woke up some nights desperately missing him, and Katherine… Katherine didn’t get it. She’d talked to Zenda all the way home about the official acts they could do, how even as a deposed princess Zenda could still call upon the lords and nobles to open an inquiry or take other official acts. But Zenda had always hated anything that involved dealing with nobles, even when she’d been little and forced to get wrapped up in stupid dresses and smile politely for three hours while her father talked with boring people about boring things. And now that whenever she went to the parts of the castle where business was conducted, and she was immediately reminded of her father’s untimely death, she had less desire than ever to meet with the nobles. Her father had been killed by some horrible retainer; she just wanted to accept that and move on with her life. Go hunting, or fishing, or adventuring. Get away from the castle and everyone in it.

But Katherine was her best friend. Her family had served the Raleighs for centuries, and even as children, Katherine had always been ready to rush off and get Zenda a juice or a toy or anything else she wanted. She could do this one thing for her friend…especially if she did it her way.

The fun way.

Zenda reached the bottom of the stairs near the first checkpoint, but she didn’t turn down the corridor to the dungeons themselves, as the guards would then see her. It wasn’t like she had a legitimate reason to be in the basement. Instead, she went down the hall to the wine stores, but stopped halfway there at a small door barely wide enough to fit through. After looking around, she forced the rusted door open and slipped through it.

The old castle had been expanded by several generations of kings, and some expansions had been haphazard, with new structures built but then badly integrated into those already there. The dungeons, which had been built some time after Raleigh Castle itself was erected, were among them. And, thanks to having gone exploring all over the castle when she was little and learning every detail she could about it, Zenda knew those dungeons included two large suites for the royal family in case the castle was breached and the king needed to take shelter in a defendable area with checkpoints, armories, and plenty of guards. Someone had evidently decided that, since those shelters would need stocking, there should be a servant’s passage so supplies could be brought in to both of them without bothering the guards—but that passage would need to be narrow enough and have sufficient defenses so bulky, armored criminals couldn’t breach it and free their compatriots. The shelters had, ultimately, never been used for their intended purpose, but the servant tunnel was still there and still provided access to both suites—if Zenda could get through it.

It was a dark, tight, claustrophobic passage, but Zenda felt more at ease within it than when she was in the castle’s formal rooms. She felt her way forward, moving quickly but carefully enough that she didn’t trip on the rough stones, and when she felt a stone move under her touch, she picked her way around it to avoid setting off any pressure plates or traps. Then came a point where she tried to step forward only to feel her foot descend through empty air, and for a moment she tottered on the edge of the pit trap, but she caught herself and made a standing jump across the pit without trouble. When she landed, she looked down into the pit behind her, saw the faint gleam from some rusted spikes, and managed a small but exhilarated grin. “Way better than talking to the nobles,” she muttered.

She reached the suites after about twenty minutes. The door was closed and secured with a bar, but there was a crack she could slip her short sword through to pry the bar up. When she got it open, she rushed into the suite and peeked through its front door. There were two guards in the dungeon hallway, but their backs were to her, and she quickly opened the door and darted down the next corridor without arousing their suspicion. That put her among the regular cells, a series of rough cubes carved into the stone and blocked off from the hallway by thick iron bars. And in the last one was…

Sir Robert Adrayos. The knight who had killed King Bidouin.

Zenda’s breath caught as she approached his cell. The knight sat on the bed, looking sullen and withdrawn, but as she neared him, all she could see was Adrayos grabbing his sword and stabbing her father. She’d heard the stories of the witnesses; her father had been unarmed and at ease as he’d approached Adrayos to ask why the knight sought an audience. Adrayos had looked her father in the eye, whipped out his sword, and…

“You want something, girl?”

Zenda came back to reality and saw that Adrayos was staring at her. “Yes,” she said quietly, forcing herself to maintain a blank expression. “I have questions about King Bidouin’s murder. There’s evidence someone else was involved.”

“That so?” The knight’s mouth curled upwards. “I already told the guards it was all me, girl. There ain’t nobody else.”

“If there is another party,” continued Zenda in a strict, controlled tone, “and if you have evidence of it, we might be able to reduce your sentence.” That was a lie, but Zenda had figured the knight—who had already been in jail for several years and would never leave it unless he escaped or made a deal—might go for it. “And you could be given protection if needed.”

“Is that right?” Adrayos smirked. “Well, too bad for me. Like I said. Ain’t nobody else.”

Zenda frowned. Adrayos’s tone was almost mocking, like he knew something and was pleased Zenda couldn’t make him say it. “Whereas if you conceal evidence—”

Adrayos leaned back on the bed. “Nothing to conceal, girl. I got mad old Bidouin didn’t care about all the knights who got killed in his stupid war, so I killed him. All there is to it.” He grinned. “What, don’t you think I’m…trustworthy?”

Zenda could feel her knuckles starting to hurt as she tightly gripped the hilt of her sword. “This is serious. You might want to stop joking—”

“Halt!”

Zenda swiveled to see two guards on patrol staring at her—and behind the one who had shouted, giving her a quizzical look, was Magnus Lorethal.

The current king of Raleigh was tall but thin, with hair that had been wispy and washed-out even when he was younger. He wore the same style of clothes Raleigh’s first kings had worn, but his body was slight enough that the ornate outfits almost seemed to wear him instead of the other way around, and the crown on his head—before Zenda glanced away from it—looked almost too big for his slight form. His eyes were a somewhat hazy blue, though they seemed more focused when viewed through his exquisite ivory-framed spectacles. He looked like a scholar who never left the library; he was, in fact, the absolute monarch of the country.

“I was… I wanted to see the man who killed my father,” said Zenda before the guards could ask more questions. Beads of sweat formed on her neck, and it occurred to her again that—deposed princess or no—she didn’t have the right to be down there. Distantly, she wondered if Magnus would dare to have her arrested. If that happened—

But Magnus was already waving off the guards. “It does not matter. There is an old custom of Raleigh leaders—kings, nobles, high officials—personally interviewing prisoners to ensure that justice is being carried out correctly, that no innocent person was arrested, and no guilty person given undue leniency. As the former heir, you qualify.” He passed the guards to approach Zenda. “Although, in the future, perhaps such visits could be scheduled in advance.”

“…of course.” Zenda paused. “Uh…what are you doing here, Your Majesty?”

“Fulfilling that same custom.” Magnus reached Adrayos’s cell, and Zenda noted how the prisoner tensed, as if he were now in the presence of someone who he needed to keep happy. Of course, that could be because Magnus was king and could order him executed, but…

“By the way, Zenda,” continued Magnus. “You should know that there will be a large celebration in the grand hall tomorrow evening. I understand you were planning a hunting trip then, but if you do wish to attend the banquet, you’re more than welcome.”

Zenda frowned. “What is the celebration for?”

“Diplomats from Daltain are arriving, and they must be appropriately honored, as per our ancient traditions.” Magnus smiled. “We have erected an altar that exactly matches the one King Cailan Raleigh is said to have built to honor his treaty allies, down to the last bit of filigree. We have also set aside scores of cattle and pigs to be sacrificed like the old rituals require and trained dozens of entertainers in the traditional dances and musical performances Kings Cailan and Quintus were known to prefer. Just as they demonstrated their wealth and honored their allies, so we shall honor ours—and Daltain will then be as loyal to us as Quintus’s and Cailan’s allies were to them.”

Zenda raised an eyebrow. “You’re sacrificing scores of cattle? Isn’t that expensive?”

“By returning Raleigh to its era of greatest prosperity, we will earn back all the money we spend on reforms and then some.” Magnus’s eyes twinkled. “We will bring forth a new Golden Age.”

“But…” Zenda paused. It was true that Magnus wasn’t keeping the money and that it was all being spent on securing alliances for the kingdom, but still… that was a lot of money to go up in smoke. She remembered her father having cut back on diplomatic parties, and she also remembered him telling her his own father had cut back on them as well to preserve the kingdom’s treasury. “I don’t…”

“If you’d like to sit in on the council sessions where these issues are discussed or take part in my scholarly studies where we research ancient Raleigh customs and determine which ones we should bring back, you are more than welcome, Zenda,” said Magnus in a tone which made it clear he knew virtually nobody would ever want to actually do that. “In the meantime, I do need to speak with Adrayos. Guards, if you could please escort Zenda here back up to her room?”

Zenda hesitated, but there was nothing else she could do at the moment. She had no choice but to let the guards take her away.

 

*          *          *

 

“You tried to sneak into the jail?!”

Zenda scowled at Katherine as she flopped on her bed. Except for one wardrobe in a corner of her room, which held her royal vestments in case she ever again became involved with something formal, the room’s contents looked more like those of a knight than a member of the royalty. Her swords, bows, arrows, and other equipment were carefully lined along one wall, and most of the furniture was rough-hewn, the kind where it wouldn’t matter if she nicked something while practicing with her sword. Her bed was small and tucked into another corner, so she had enough space in the middle of the room for exercises. This meant that, when she was on her bed, Katherine had to move a chair across the large room so she could sit down and talk to the princess.

“Sure. You said you wanted me to investigate, so I tried. But the guy didn’t want to talk to me.” Zenda shrugged. “Still, sneaking in was kind of fun… You know what we should do? We should see if there’re other secret passages around—”

“Of course he didn’t want to talk to you!” snapped Katherine. “Why would he tell a random person about the conspiracy he was involved in?”

“What conspiracy? Like I told you, I don’t believe Magnus is guilty of anything except wasting all his time in the castle library.”

Katherine shook her head. “I think you just don’t want to believe it. But you know the truth. There are too many coincidences.”

It took a moment for Zenda to muster a response that wasn’t just snapping back in anger. “Look, I didn’t find anything, even though I investigated—like you asked me to. Can we be finished with this? Some elk were cited in the woods north of here, and tomorrow—”

Katherine grimaced. “No, we’re not done!” she insisted. “You can look into it as the princess! Or former princess, anyways. You can do things. There are people you can talk to. Protocols you can invoke. You could get things done if you didn’t decide to act like a…a common thief!”

“Well, that’s not the way I like to do things—”

“That doesn’t matter!”

Zenda’s eyes widened. Katherine had never yelled at her; in fact, she couldn’t recall the lady-in-waiting ever yelling, period. But now Katherine’s face was red, and she glared directly at Zenda.

“You have an obligation to do something!” Katherine insisted. “It’s your job! The people need you! It doesn’t matter that…that doing formal things bores you or that you hate the stupid dresses. You have to do it!”

“Katherine,” said Zenda in a low voice. “I don’t need you to tell me what to do. I don’t want to get involved in—”

“Why not?” demanded Katherine. “I know how much you loved your dad. I know you’d want to get back at anyone who hurt him.”

Zenda stood and approached Katherine. “Stop talking.”

“And I know you’re not afraid—I’ve seen you face down wolves and bears in the forest. And those bandits we ran into on the way back into Viscosa three months ago. So, you—”

“I said, stop talking.” Zenda felt herself beginning to growl. “Now.”

Katherine shook her head. “So, I don’t understand why you don’t want to try dealing with Magnus the right way. Is it that you don’t think you can handle your royal duties?” Zenda’s eye twitched, but she said nothing, and Katherine continued. “Did you forget how? Did you—?”

“I just can’t do it!” yelled Zenda before she could stop herself. “I can’t do it, all right?”

Katherine froze. “What?”

Zenda, almost as stunned as Katherine, took several seconds to respond. “When I was learning how to do all those things,” she said at last, “it was from Dad. And then he was…he was murdered three rooms down from me. I came in when I heard yelling, and I saw him on the ground… I saw blood everywhere…”

She took a shuddering breath and sat back on the bed. Katherine rushed to her side. “I didn’t know you saw his body.”

“Well, I did. And after that, every time I see his throne or his crown or clothes like the ones he wore…all I can see is him. I see how he should be in that throne, wearing that crown, the clothes, everything. And then I can’t stop myself from thinking of his death again, and… I can’t bear to even look at them.” She let her head drop. “Sure, I never really liked doing princess things in the first place, but after he died, after I realized I couldn’t stand being in half the rooms in the castle because I couldn’t stop thinking about what he’d have been doing there if Adrayos hadn’t murdered him…well, I started spending a lot more time in the woods.”

Katherine took her hand. “You never mentioned—”

“Of course I didn’t. You’re my friend; I didn’t want to dump all that on you. But…” She took a shuddering breath. “I can handle whatever we run into in the woods, or when we’re fishing, or even when we’re on the roads. I can’t get through two minutes in Dad’s throne room without wanting to run away, and whenever Magnus wears Dad’s crown, I can’t even look at it. So why should I torture myself?”

“Because you have a duty,” whispered Katherine. “Like I have a duty to help you with anything you need, and the knights have duties to protect Raleigh, you have a duty too.” She clenched Zenda’s hand. “To your father. And the kingdom.”

Zenda shut her eyes. “But I don’t—”

“My parents told me about your father. They said that sometimes he had to do things he hated—like when he led a makeshift army of conscripts and peasants to defend the city against bandits, because all the knights and guards were off at war and he was certain he would die. Or when there was a famine, and he had to laugh and tell everyone how a great harvest was just around the corner while he and his family were as hungry as anyone else. He did those things because they were his duty. And Zenda… I’ve known you since we were six.” She tilted Zenda’s head up, and the princess opened her eyes to see her friend smiling. “I know you care about fulfilling your duties just as much as he did.”

Zenda said nothing.

“Do you think Magnus was involved with your father’s death?”

“I don’t want to think that,” Zenda protested feebly. “There’s no proof—”

“But there’s a lot of coincidences. Please, Zenda. Do you think it?”

Zenda let out a soft breath and forced herself to think back on everything that had happened. “…yes,” she said at last. “Yes, I do.”

“Can anyone else get back at him besides you?”

“No,” admitted Zenda. “I’m the princess…and it’d look suspicious if something happened to me, anyways. Anyone else he could have exiled or killed. Me, he can’t touch without making himself look suspicious.”

“So. Will you investigate and uncover the truth?” Katherine guided her head to look at the wardrobe with her royal vestments. “The right way?”

Zenda froze, feeling stupid as she did so. Katherine had been right about her facing down wolves and bears; once she’d even had to fight a large exotic cat that had broken out of a traveling zoo and was charging at her and a few kids sheltering behind her. But to go back into those rooms where her dad should have been…

She didn’t know whether she could do that alone.

“Will you help?” she asked at last.

“Of course,” said Katherine at once. “That’s my job. And…and you’re my friend.” She smiled gently at Zenda. “Whatever you need.”

Zenda nodded, then steeled herself, rose, and carefully approached the wardrobe. “Thank you,” she said. “You’re wonderful. I don’t deserve you.”

Katherine giggled at that, and Zenda cracked a smile. “So,” the princess continued, trying to fight jitters she hadn’t felt even when facing down charging wolves. “How should we start?”

“The sword’s our biggest clue,” said Katherine. “But we can’t move it. And… Wait, how do you think Magnus got it out of the castle, anyways? Could he have done it himself?”

“No,” said Zenda at once. “He was surrounded by guards that day. He would have needed another accomplice. But how can we use that? Even if we confront Magnus in front of people, he’ll be able to get the sword back himself before we can do anything. So, we can’t…” She thought back to her protocol lessons, and then after a moment, she had it. “Never mind,” she said abruptly. “I have an idea on how to start.”

 

*          *          *

 

The clothes made Zenda’s skin crawl.

Katherine had helped her dress in the formal outfit appropriate for the receiving of ambassadors, with all the frills and jewelry and even a stupid corset. They were decorated with various symbols and seals of importance in Raleigh, including the Raleigh family crest stitched into the hem, and as soon as it touched her skin, Zenda wanted nothing more than to rip it off. But she caught herself, and after a few breaths—and some support from Katherine—she could get the rest of the accoutrements on. Now she and Katherine—the latter in her own formal outfit, less fancy than Zenda’s royal ones but still incredibly decorative and expensive—were approaching the diplomatic celebration Magnus had invited her to.

“Remember the plan,” murmured Zenda. “Back me up, whatever I say.”

“What will you say?”

“That will depend on what everyone else does,” she said. “But you’ll know it when I say it.” And then they were at the threshold of the castle’s grand ballroom.

For a few moments, Zenda couldn’t even recognize it. There was indeed a large altar built along one side which was incredibly ornate; the structure was built from a rare wood Cailan Raleigh favored; and Zenda couldn’t count all the jewels and pieces of filigree worked into its surface. The room itself had also been redecorated, with paintings and statues in the historic styles replacing the more modern ones Zenda’s father had preferred. Even the silverware on the table had been replaced by utensils carved in the older styles, and Zenda felt a shock of anger at the sheer waste of the kingdom’s money the renovation represented.

But those elements were ultimately unimportant. What mattered were the hundred guests, ambassadors, nobles, and scholars mingling in the room. Back when she was a child, Zenda’s father had taught her how—

Zenda tensed again at the thought of her father. She almost turned back to the door, as if to run away. But Katherine was there, gently moving to keep Zenda in place. And after half a minute, the impulse to flee passed, and she could think on her father’s lesson—how to scan a room full of people in ornate costumes who all blended together and identify the crucial ones. They were the ones who held their own little courts, the ones who had their own hangers-on and followers, the ones who were leading and not being led. That didn’t apply to most of this group—Magnus and his scholar-court weren’t much for leadership—but she just needed a few…

There. A man in a red outfit with the Daltainian symbol prominently embroidered on his coat; he was probably the lead ambassador. A portly woman lecturing to a dozen listeners; she was likely a noble, and a fairly prominent one, given the scorn she heaped on other esteemed guests she wagged a finger at. Another man, this one bald and wearing the simple outfit of a scholar; from the deferential gestures of the others in his presence, he was probably a high-ranking official. And then, of course, there was Magnus himself.

The king seemed more animated than Zenda had ever seen him. He smiled easily, laughing at jokes, even trotting at quick speeds as he rushed from guest to guest. He looked like… well, like how Zenda had felt when she’d first taken up sword lessons and done well enough that her trainer had complimented her to King Bidouin. Like he was celebrating some great accomplishment.

Zenda curled her lip. Now that she could admit to herself what Magnus had surely done, she couldn’t stand to see him happy. “I,” she murmured, “will bring all of this down upon your head.” She squared her shoulders and nodded at Katherine. “Shall we?”

They moved across the floor gracefully, respectfully, in perfect accordance with every protocol lesson Zenda had sat through in her youth. Zenda reached the Daltainian ambassador first, waited a few seconds for a break in the conversation, and then expertly slipped in between two of the people around him—another skill her father had insisted she learn. The man looked at her, confused. “Oh, hello,” he began.

He clearly wanted to say more, but he hesitated for just long enough that Zenda could get into the conversation without seeming rude. “Hello!” she said in a refined voice that sounded as pleased as possible without getting oleaginous. “I’m Zenda Raleigh—the former king’s daughter. You must be the head Daltainian ambassador. I hoped to meet you here.”

“Ah—really?” The ambassador raised an eyebrow, and Zenda could tell he was assessing whether she was merely flattering him. “I didn’t know I was so popular here.”

“Well, I had a few things I wanted to ask you. I’m sure you know King Magnus is trying to bring back some traditional rituals and mores to Raleigh culture.” The ambassador nodded. “As how one of the first links between Raleigh and Daltain was the exchange of a few members of their respective noble and royal houses, and as I’ve always wanted to see Daltain, I was hoping there might be something similar now. You’ve had the Allegiance Meeting, right? Where exchanges like this would have been discussed?”

Zenda hadn’t remembered every detail of Raleigh’s history from her lessons; given how long it had been since she’d studied, she would have had trouble choosing some parts of the country on a map. So, she and Katherine had spent most of the last few hours buried in the castle’s library looking at the historical tomes Magnus obsessed over. They’d learned that, during the first visit of the Daltainian leader to King Cailan’s castle, they’d had a long meeting discussing the possibilities of various exchanges of people to foster allegiances between their nations. Magnus, Zenda was certain, would have done his best to replicate that meeting.

“Yes,” said the ambassador, the suspicion gone from his face—he’d clearly concluded that Zenda had shown enough knowledge that she was genuinely interested and not simply a sycophant. He then extended his hand, holding it at a slight angle. “And if you’re willing to live in Daltain for a few years, we’d love to have you.”

“Wonderful!” Zenda smiled and executed a perfect curtsey, then took his hand and clasped it in just the right way—strong enough to add emphasis and formality, not so strong as to seem ‘unladylike’ or crush his hand. “Can you come with me for a few minutes? I’d love to talk more about it with you.”

The ambassador nodded, and Zenda led him across the floor towards the other important guests. She continued to move according to the rules of formal etiquette—if she began sprinting, not only would she earn some odd looks and alert Magnus too early, but she might make the ambassador think she was eccentric and lose interest in talking to her. Katherine remained by her side, ready at a moment’s notice to chime in, the quintessential lady-in-waiting. It only took a few seconds for them to near the next person they needed to talk to, the portly woman.

“As I was saying,” she told her listeners, “I think the tax policy is egregiously wrong. We can’t possibly provide all these forests for the exclusive use of our hunters unless we get something in return. If we—”

“Well, I don’t know about that,” interrupted a person in her group. He was a younger man with rougher clothes, and Zenda figured he was an heir to one of the poorer baronies. “The hunters pay a lot as it is, especially with King Magnus’s tax increases. We…”

He trailed off, because the woman glared at him. “I mean…” he stuttered. “That is, I…”

“Yes?” asked the woman in an icy, hostile voice. “I believe you were saying something of incredible importance?”

The man blushed. “Excuse me,” he said at last and almost sprinted off. The woman made a ‘hmph!’ noise before returning to her lecture.

Zenda winced to herself, then waited for the next break in the conversation. When the woman reached the end of her next thought, Zenda quickly slipped in. “But haven’t you heard?” she said as she reached the woman, using a tone that mixed empathy and urgency. She let her hands clasp each other a little and allowed her mouth to quiver a faint amount; the effect was that she looked like she was genuinely worried, but also restrained enough that she maintained her dignity and thus could be addressed by the noble without tarring her reputation. After all, even in a real emergency, no self-respecting noble would talk to someone in hysterics. “The taxes will be decreased for the hunters next season,” she lied. “King Magnus will decree it next week.”

“What?” demanded the woman, indignant. “Why?”

Zenda thought very quickly to come up with a reason but couldn’t think of one—she’d barely paid attention when her father had discussed taxes with her. She opened her mouth to say something—

Katherine murmured, “Hunter Gift, Year of Gaune 30,” in her ear.

That reminded Zenda of something they’d read in the library earlier, and she brought the story to mind before continuing. “Back when King Raghnall was crowned, he was so grateful to the hunters for their support in driving off bandits that he slashed all taxes on using the forests for ten years. King Magnus says that if we bring back that custom, we’ll have a more bountiful hunting season.”

“Well…” the woman frowned. “I… I disagree. Do you suppose I could meet with the king to discuss it for a few moments?”

“Yes, of course. I can show you to him on the way over. This way, please.”

She moved across the floor again, with both the ambassador and the noble trailing her, until they reached the scholar Zenda had picked out earlier. “Please excuse me,” said the man as they approached. “King Magnus has tasked me with determining how wide the new canals should be, and I have no time for chatter.”

“Ah, of course.” Zenda gave an apologetic glance at the noble and ambassador to convey that she disliked this interruption and if they would only be patient she would get going again as soon as possible. Then she turned to Katherine. “We understand how important the canals are. Didn’t you tell me you were reading about them in that diary by… What was his name? King Quintus’s civil engineering captain?”

“Cortelo Radgers,” said Katherine at once. That impressed Zenda, who knew she surely had seen the name during their crash course in Raleigh history, but hadn’t remembered it herself. “He designed all of King Quintus’s big projects. You were right, by the way. His diary is fascinating.”

“You have his diary?” asked the scholar. “Did he…did he leave details of his work?”

Zenda glanced back at Katherine, who smiled. “Oh yes. So many, actually, that it’s taking a long time to get through. But I promised my mistress I would be done by the end of the season, and I will.”

“Good.” Zenda turned to the scholar and said, as if in explanation, “I’ve always believed in educating one’s servants. Since she had a knack for understanding bridges, canals, and that sort of thing, I had her read a few books I found on the subject. And—well, no, never mind. We should leave you to your thoughts. Please, excuse us.” And she hurried on with Katherine and the others in tow.

“Wait” said the scholar. “If you have—please, let me borrow that book!” But Zenda kept far enough ahead of him that he had to rush after her.

Zenda hid her smile, then took a breath as she approached Magnus, who stood near the altar and gazed at it appreciatively. If she screwed this up, it was all for nothing… She had to get it right. “King Magnus,” she said as they approached. “This is a lovely party. Thank you for inviting me, Your Majesty.”

She bowed with impeccable courtesy, and Magnus matched her with a bow of his own. “Of course, Zenda,” he said. “I am pleased that you like it. And look.” He gestured at a few of the rubies set in the altar’s side. “These are from King Quintus Raleigh’s ceremonial suit of armor. I had a royal mage confirm their authenticity. This is the first time they’ve been used for a ceremony in centuries!”

“I see,” said Zenda. “But I wanted to introduce you to someone.” She glanced at Katherine before continuing. “The noble—”

Katherine suddenly jolted, a sharp motion completely out of place in the formal room. Magnus and the others all turned to her…as she and Zenda had rehearsed. “Zenda,” Katherine continued. “I’m sorry, but I just remembered. Those knights you said you wanted to talk to visited today—”

“Not now, Katherine,” said Zenda sharply. “This isn’t a good time.”

“But—”

“Katherine!” growled Zenda. “I am talking to the king.”

Magnus held up a hand and smiled gently. “Now, now,” he said. “Servants often have valuable wisdom. That was one lesson Quintus Raleigh insisted all his heirs and nobles learn, after his own groom alerted him to an ambush and helped him sneak out of an inn before it was burned down by his enemies.” He turned to Katherine. “What is it you wanted to say?”

Zenda had to work to contain her smile. Quintus had indeed believed that; in fact, the inn ambush was one of his more notable adventures. Which meant that Magnus, who was obsessed by the ancient kings, couldn’t have said anything but what he’d said, which, she’d wager, would go very badly for him.

Meanwhile, Katherine was speaking again. “Well…Zenda, my mistress, had some knights exploring an area of the woods. A few peasants had found an old sword with some odd sigils, and…”

Magnus’s eyes widened. Just slightly, but Zenda saw it. And she knew for sure.

He was her father’s killer.

“I talked with some mages about the sigils the peasants described, and they said those sigils were magical—and that they could have made a sword sharp enough to have cut through the protective clothing the old king, Bidouin, used to wear,” said Katherine. “So, I told my mistress, and she mentioned that they never found the murder weapon—”

“I see,” cut in Magnus. “But…it is probably a coincidence. After all, oftentimes a blacksmith will put markings in a blade to make it look magical and expensive even though it is mundane.”

“Exactly,” said Zenda. “That’s what I said.”

Magnus smiled. “Then—”

“But I felt like I had to look into it anyways.” Zenda sighed. “When I was little, my father told me a story about how King Quintus, when he learned an uncle he’d thought had died in a hunting accident may have actually been murdered, he conducted an investigation himself. He called it the, uh…”

“Royal Penance,” chimed in Katherine.

“Right. He said he had a special obligation to make sure the killer was caught, because an attack on the royal family wasn’t against one person, but against the whole nation. And so, he investigated and searched until he found the killer. And, since you’re always saying how we should stick to tradition and follow our ancient values, I felt I should do the same.”

The ambassador coughed. “But, ah, didn’t they catch your father’s killer?”

“Yes, but he didn’t have time to get out of the palace. So, if his sword was hidden in a forest, he must have had an accomplice. And I need to find that person…again, assuming the sword’s real. It’s probably not. The knights today couldn’t find the sword again, so for all I know, it might not exist, and the peasants could be lying for some reason. But I have to be sure.” Zenda gave Magnus a cautious glance. “Don’t you think so?”

Magnus hesitated, and Zenda grinned fiercely to herself. Magnus surely wouldn’t want a real investigation, but what could he say? He’d no doubt already spent a lot of time telling the ambassador how much he valued all tradition, no matter how expensive or pointless—the stupid altar was proof of that—so if he objected to Zenda’s request now, that would look very odd to the ambassador…who would no doubt tell all his colleagues about the incident, potentially derailing the alliance with Daltain that Magnus was working on. The noble would surely be suspicious if Magnus looked like he was trying to head off the investigation into the murder that earned him his kingdom. And the scholar could, of course, be relied on to confirm Zenda’s story if Magnus lied and said she must be mixing her history with some other ruler. Magnus had no way out of this, and if he refused to support her, they would all tell everyone and make Magnus look guilty even without Zenda investigating. Meaning…

“Well, as it’s in accordance with tradition, I approve,” said Magnus. “In fact, I’ll help. I can have a full battalion of guards search the woods for that sword. If it’s there, we’ll find it.”

Zenda was sure they would—and was also sure Magnus, who no doubt knew exactly where the sword was, would slip out beforehand and swap it for a non-magical blade that could never have killed Bidouin. She and Katherine had determined it would be impossible to retrieve the sword themselves, and even if they could get it, Magnus could claim they’d taken it from his stock themselves and planted it. No, Zenda needed something else… And now that Magnus was committed…

“Thank you so much, Your Majesty!” said Zenda brightly—and just loudly enough that others looked in their direction. “While they do that, I’ll take care of the other thing.”

“What’s that?”

“I’ll talk to Adrayos,” she said as the others listened in. “See if I can get him to talk about the conspirator who got the sword out of the castle for him. You know, like how King Quintus interrogated the hunter who killed his uncle and figured out the truth himself.” She smiled. “He’s already in the dungeon, so could you have him available to talk around noon tomorrow?”

Magnus froze for a moment, but there was no way out, especially not with so many witnesses. “Of course,” he said at last. “We must follow tradition.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty!” repeated Zenda. “I truly appreciate it. And…” she turned to the noble, who was staring at Magnus. “I believe you had a request for the king?”

 

*          *          *

 

The interrogation was situated, as Zenda had predicted, in a dungeon suite. That way they wouldn’t have to remove Adrayos from the secured area and risk him escaping, and there was a squadron of guards nearby in case he tried. Plus, Magnus would no doubt be reassured that Zenda couldn’t have snuck in anybody else to eavesdrop.

Of course, Magnus didn’t know about the precaution Zenda had taken, which suited her just fine.

Zenda reached the dungeons exactly on schedule, carrying a tray with a pot of tea and a few cups. “What’s this?” asked a guard.

“According to the histories, when King Quintus interrogated his uncle’s killer, he served tea first,” lied Zenda. “It was bespelled by a mage to be a truth serum. I don’t have a mage, but King Magnus still wanted me to mimic King Quintus’s methods as closely as possible otherwise.”

The guards exchanged exasperated looks, but nobody said anything. It was well known by now that once King Magnus decided something was traditional, it was impossible to talk him out of pursuing it, no matter the expense or the consequences. Granted, if the guards memorized the histories themselves, they might have realized Zenda was making this up and that there was no indication Quintus had served anything during the interrogation… But, as Zenda had guessed, the guards weren’t nearly as obsessed with old stories as Magnus was.

Zenda was searched for weapons—the guards explained they had to check in case she was trying to assassinate her father’s killer—and one sampled the tea, making Zenda pour a sample into a flask and then tasting it, to verify it wasn’t poisoned. When done, they guided her to the suite she’d gone through during her visit to the dungeons two days prior. Upon entering, she noted the servant’s door was shut and presumably locked from the other side. That was expected; after the celebration the previous night, when she and the guards were discussing how the interrogation would work, they had insisted she explain how she had gotten into the dungeons the first time, and she hadn’t been able to avoid telling them. Now the door between the servant tunnel and the suite was barred from the tunnel side, and the door between the servant tunnel and the main castle basement was locked from the basement side as well. Thus, the suite was completely isolated… or so Magnus surely thought, anyways.

A few minutes after Zenda seated herself in a comfortable chair in the suite, the front door opened, and three heavily armed guards led Sir Robert Adrayos in. They roughly flung him into the chair opposite Zenda, then took up posts—one to each side of him, and the last one blocking the door. As soon as they were done, Zenda rose and courteously inclined her head at the guards. “Thank you, brave knights, for your assistance,” she said, quoting words Quintus Raleigh was recorded as saying so many years ago. “Please, partake.”

She poured tea for all three guards, herself, and Adrayos. When she offered the cups to the guards, though, they hesitated. She dropped her voice and lied, “It’s tradition, and Magnus told me he would be upset if we didn’t follow it…”

That did it. The guards all drank deeply, and Zenda rose her cup to her lips. Adrayos, though, stared at her and didn’t touch his tea. “Still got nothing to say, girl.”

Zenda gave him a long look before lowering her cup, then sat primly back in her chair. “Be that as it may, I have some questions regardless,” she said. “For instance: when did you decide you wanted to kill the king?”

Adrayos sneered at her. “Two minutes beforehand. I stubbed my toe, got real mad, and thought, well, why not dabble in regicide?”

Zenda showed no reaction to his sarcasm. “Let’s try something else. Where did you get the sword?”

“Magical pixies brought it to me when I was on the pot,” Adrayos said.

“Why did—?”

The guard to Zenda’s left suddenly slumped down against the wall, his sword falling from still fingers and thudding into the carpeted floor. The guard on Zenda’s right took a step towards the fallen one before collapsing himself. Adrayos whipped his gaze back and forth between them, then turned to the guard by the door only to see him collapse too. “What the—?”

“Now,” said Zenda in a stern, piercing voice. “Can you give me some real answers?”

“What’s going on?” demanded Adrayos. “Why—?”

“You’ve held your tongue for years about why you did what you did,” said Zenda. “I figured that wasn’t because you liked rotting in a dungeon while your conspirator went free. Magnus was somehow keeping you quiet. So, I also figured that, once I forced him to let me interrogate you, he’d make sure a few of his thugs would be in here to ensure you didn’t say anything. If you’d given me a straight answer, I bet at least one of the guards would have killed us both, then told everyone you killed me, and he was forced to kill you to stop your escape.”

Adrayos gave Zenda a long look. “You’re not as dumb as I thought, girl.”

“My name is Zenda Raleigh,” said Zenda, saying—for the first time in years—her name with the gravitas and emphasis appropriate for the princess of a mighty kingdom. “You murdered my father, and I want to know why.”

“Of course you do. But, ah, there’s one problem. All the guards are sleeping, and one of them’s got the key to this room in his pocket. So, what stops me from escaping right now?”

“The dozens of other guards in the dungeon and the rest of the castle,” said Zenda. “All the ones who aren’t in on the conspiracy will kill you rather than let you go, and as for the rest, I think if Magnus was willing to let you escape, you’d be out already. No, he wants you here, and if there’s even a faint risk of you getting out and talking, he wants you dead. His minions probably have orders to kill you on sight if you’re seen outside of the dungeons.”

Adrayos considered. “Then why shouldn’t I sit right here until those goons wake up?”

“Because, if you give me real answers, I can get you out of here.”

Zenda leaned back in her chair, doing her best to radiate confidence and certainty. She could not in fact free Adrayos even if she’d wanted to, which she didn’t…but she had to stop him from realizing that. And so she sat up straight and rigid to radiate surety, met his eyes without blinking to emphasize self-assurance, and otherwise used everything she could recall from her protocol and etiquette lessons to assert, without saying a word, that she was a royal and could make anything happen that she chose.

Adrayos looked at her for a long moment. “You’d really do that?” he asked. “Even though I killed your father?”

“I see you as a tool. I want the man who wielded you.”

Nobody said anything for another few seconds, but then Adrayos’s body relaxed a little as he settled back in his chair, and Zenda smiled to herself. She had him.

“Fine,” he said. “Give me your word of honor, princess, that I’ll be free to go. And I’ll talk.”

“You have my word.”

The knight was silent for a few seconds before shrugging. “Deal, then. What do you want to know?”

“Why did you kill my father for Magnus?”

“My sister,” said Adrayos at once. “She married this idiot merchant who takes goods into and out of Warus. During one trip, they got captured by a warlord who demanded huge ransoms to let them go. Well, the merchant’s rich family raised the funds to get him out, but what could I do? Your father was many things, but generous to his knights wasn’t one of them.”

Zenda carefully kept her expression smooth. “How did Magnus find out?”

“I tried to petition King Bidouin for a loan, but he was busy. His majordomo said it’d be a month before I could get on his schedule, and by that time, it’d be too late. But then Magnus found out I was trying to get money from the king—don’t know how—and had me visit his home instead. When I got there, he gave me a sword he said some old knight had once used to kill an archmage that was covered in protective spells, then told me that if I killed Bidouin, he’d pay the ransom.”

“Why didn’t he kill you once you’d done it, to cover his tracks?”

“So if anyone else ever looked into it, he could take them to me and have me confess all over again. Kind of hard for his political enemies to say he was behind it when he can trot me out on cue to swear that, no, it was all me.”

Zenda nodded. “How did he know you’d never tell anyone the truth?”

Adrayos’s face twisted into a scowl. “When he paid the ransom, he didn’t actually bring my sister home. He set something up with the warlord where he sends over money every so often, and the warlord keeps my sister as a guest in his ‘court.’ If I ever tried to tell the truth, he’d cut her off and let the warlord kill her whenever he wanted.” Adrayos blinked quickly, and Zenda thought she saw tears in his eyes. “So yeah. I stayed quiet. Now, though—once you let me out of here, I can get to that warlord’s turf before Magnus gets him a message. I’ll rescue her. And then, if you want, I’ll come back and tell everyone exactly what I told you.”

“I see.” Zenda rose and began to pace, letting herself drift closer and closer to the servant door. “That would help convict Magnus…although some people might say you were only trying to deflect blame onto another. Do you have any proof of your story?”

“No. He covered his tracks really well. Even that sword? When I looked at it, I saw his seal on it, and I asked him why he’d carved that into a sword that he would use to assassinate someone. He said he’d gotten it in trade from some old retired adventurer who was selling off all the stuff he’d found in dungeons and ruins over the years, and the adventurer had been the one to carve Magnus’s seal so that…well, so that if he used the sword for anything bad, it would be obvious it was Magnus’s sword and then the adventurer could tell people as well. I asked if this wasn’t a problem, but he said he’d already had the adventurer killed, and he had some way to hide the sword after I used it.”

“What way?”

“Don’t know.”

Zenda was at the back door. “You’re sure you have no physical proof?”

“Yes, I’m sure, and that wasn’t our deal anyways, Zenda.” Adrayos crossed his arms. “I held up my end. Are you going to let me out of here or not?”

Zenda was silent for a moment. And then she smiled at him with an expression of contempt. “No. No, I am not. You’ll rot in jail forever, killer. And Magnus will have your sister killed the minute he learns what you said.”

Adrayos froze, and then his face reddened and twisted in rage. He jumped to his feet and grabbed the sword of a downed guard. “You little cur!” He charged her as Zenda hit the door—

And it easily swung open.

Zenda jumped back through it and landed next to Katherine, whose dress was filthy but who had a fierce grin on her face. The two of them immediately slammed the tunnel door shut again before Adrayos reached it. Katherine turned the lock and then dove away before Adrayos smashed into the door with a loud crash. “Ahh!”

“Don’t worry,” said Zenda. “This door was built to resist an invading army. He can’t get through it.” She turned to evaluate her handmaiden. “Are you all right? I know your night couldn’t have been great…”

“I’m fine.” Katherine took Zenda’s hand. “I’m just happy I could help.”

After the celebration of the previous night, but before Zenda had told the guards how she’d gotten into the dungeons, Katherine had slipped into the tunnel and then carefully hid in a pit. She’d wrapped herself around the spikes without stabbing herself and had put a makeshift board over her head to conceal the pit. When the guards had come through, they hadn’t even noticed that trap, and so when they’d sealed the tunnel on both ends, they’d done it without knowing Katherine was inside. When they were gone, Katherine had gotten out, unlocked the servant door into the dungeon suite, and then spent the night waiting for Zenda to come down and get Adrayos to confess.

“And thank you,” Katherine continued. “For doing this.”

“Thank you for making me see that I had to,” said Zenda, as sincerely as she could.

Inside the room, Adrayos was smashing things. “I’ll get out of here and kill you, girl!” He screamed. “You’ll wish you’d never met me! You—”

“Halt!” It sounded like more guards had heard the commotion and reached the suite. “What’s going on?”

“Watch out, Adrayos went berserk!” someone yelled. “I think he knocked out the other guards!”

“Where’s Zenda? Wasn’t she supposed to be in here?”

“Who cares? Stop him!” There were screams and a series of muffled thuds. “Get him back to his cell! Now!”

Zenda nodded at Katherine. “I’ll be right back. See you soon, okay?”

“Good luck,” said Katherine. “I’ll be here.”

Zenda rushed down the tunnel to the entrance into the other dungeon suite, the one she hadn’t used the previous day, and the one that—since nobody was supposed to be using it—nobody had bothered to lock. She slipped inside, shut the door behind her, and by the time guards entered through the front door, she was sitting calmly in a chair.

“Why is this taking so long?” she asked. “I’ve been waiting here alone for quite some time. Why haven’t you brought Adrayos in yet?”

 

*          *          *

 

“Do you think Magnus will kill Adrayos?” Katherine asked. “Or his sister?”

Zenda shook her head. She was sitting on her bed looking over her royal outfits and working out which she could still wear, and which would need alterations. “As far as any of them can tell, the guards brought me to a suite and Adrayos to another—presumably to warn him not to answer my questions; they couldn’t tell him that in the cell or the other prisoners might hear, so the suite would make sense—at which point he grabbed a sword, knocked out the guards, and tried to escape. Magnus will punish him, I’m sure, but since he won’t know that Adrayos talked, he has no reason to kill him or his sister. Especially since, like Adrayos said, keeping the killer alive and able to confess all over again helps him fend off any other investigations into the assassination.”

Katherine was in a new dress; she had changed after Zenda had been escorted out of the dungeon area, gone back to the entrance of the servant’s tunnels, and unlocked it. There hadn’t been any passing guards to find that suspicious; they’d all been called in to help subdue Adrayos, as Zenda had predicted. “Won’t the guards you knocked out say something?”

“No. Remember those flowers I showed you in the forest a couple days ago? I went back last night and picked them, ground them into a residue, and coated the guards’ cups with them so they would drink it along with the tea. That’s what knocked them out, and I know from experience—MacNair had me try some myself—it’ll leave their heads so woozy they’ll barely remember getting up that morning. They won’t know what they did with me and won’t be able to disprove anything the others say.”

“I see.” Katherine paused. “Wait, is that how you got the drugged tea past the guards? You knew they’d test the tea, so you poisoned the cups instead?”

“Yes. I read about someone doing that in my father’s old history lessons.” Zenda smiled wistfully. “Turns out they were a lot more useful than I’d thought.”

Katherine sat next to her. “For what it’s worth…I’m sure your father would be very proud of you.”

“Thanks.” Zenda sighed. “Although, honestly, I don’t think he’d be happy until we take down Magnus. We’ve still got work to do.”

“Isn’t Adrayos’s testimony enough?”

“No. Like I told Adrayos, Magnus would deny all the charges, and everyone would think Adrayos was trying to have someone else take the fall for his crime. But we have more leads we can investigate now. That adventurer who gave Magnus the sword—even if he’s dead, maybe he left behind business records. After all, he specifically carved the seal into Magnus’s sword because he was worried Magnus might do something bad with it. If he was that paranoid, I’m sure he’d have left other clues. If we can find out who he is and go through his things, there could be evidence there. And we also still need to figure out how Magnus had the sword smuggled out of the castle. If we can answer those two questions—”

Katherine clapped her hands together. “We’ll have Magnus.”

“Yes. And then…” Zenda looked at the formal dresses again and was reminded of when her father had given them to her as presents. This time, though, the thoughts, though sad, weren’t paralyzing. They were inspiring. The man who had loved her, who had given her everything, was dead, and it was her duty to bring his killer to justice. “Dad will be avenged.”

“My father helped your father hire adventurers. I can check his records—”

A knock sounded at the door, and before either of the girls could do anything, the person on the other side pushed it open. It was Magnus, and he had a sad expression on his face. “Zenda,” he said. “Katherine. I hope I am not interrupting.”

Zenda stood, using every ounce of control from her lessons to not let her true feelings show. “Of course not, Your Majesty,” she said. “How can I serve you?”

“I wanted to let you know,” he said. “Adrayos attempted to escape and injured several guards. Given these circumstances, I do not think it wise for you to attempt to interrogate him by yourself again. I will have a guard convey your questions to him and relay their answers… as King Abel Raleigh did when questioning Archmage Nyxus, who had used magic to break out of confinement and almost slay the king during a previous interrogation.”

Zenda had expected as much. “Thank you, Your Majesty. I am grateful for your assistance.”

“Of course, my dear Zenda.” He turned as if to leave, then paused. “Also, next week my court will announce our plans to rebuild the old Sea Temple that used to be on the waterfront. If you wish, you may attend the announcement.”

“I will, Your Majesty,” said Zenda. Then she paused. “Where will the temple be built, exactly? I had thought the waterfront was full.”

“We will need to tear down some buildings,” said Magnus. “Nothing of importance. A few shops, an inn, the fish market.”

“Isn’t that expensive?” asked Zenda, as carefully as she could. “And the people living there—”

Magnus cut her off with a sweep of his hand. “It will be worth it. What are a few coins and a handful of people when the whole realm is at stake?”

“At…stake?” asked Katherine.

“Yes.” Magnus was quiet for a few seconds. “Do you have any idea of the immensity of King Quintus’s accomplishments? He forged a new nation from chaos and wastelands. He built a glorious society, a society with art, magic, commerce, and culture, from nothing at all. But now look at us. When was the last time Raleigh expanded or grew? What was the last incredible accomplishment we had?” He shook his head. “Our nation has cast off the traditions which made it powerful. I will bring back those traditions and return us to glory. Once we have embraced our past, once we are living exactly as our great first kings taught us to live…then nothing will be able to get in our way. We will build a nation that will make every other state look like a squalid collection of hovels. We will build the closest thing this world will ever have to paradise.”

He didn’t sound like he was lying, Zenda thought. As far as she could tell, he really meant what he said. “I am pleased to hear it,” she managed. “Although it sounds like it will be a difficult task. Some will object.”

“No matter. I will ensure that those who object cannot stop us.” Magnus met Zenda’s gaze. “Because I love this country, and I would do absolutely anything to bring it into the new Golden Age I know it is capable of reaching.”

Zenda suddenly felt very cold. She almost asked him if ‘anything’ included killing anyone who wouldn’t support his projects…such as, say, a king. But that wouldn’t be safe, and besides, she didn’t need to ask. She knew.

“I…I am glad,” she said at last. “On behalf of all Raleigh’s citizens, thank you, Your Majesty.”

Magnus bowed and left. As soon as he was gone, Zenda shut the door and turned to Katherine, who was looking wan. “We have to stop him,” she said. “Fast. Before he destroys the country.”

“I know,” said Zenda. She picked up a robe and turned back to Katherine, fierce determination in her eyes. “And we will.”

The following two tabs change content below.
Michael DeAngelo

Michael DeAngelo

Michael is the creator of the Tellest brand of fantasy novels and stories. He is actively seeking to expand the world of Tellest to be accessible to everyone.
Michael DeAngelo

Latest posts by Michael DeAngelo (see all)