It had taken Jessie the better parts of two months here in Glasonland to accomplish this, but she had finally done it. She had finally pried Queen Viviette out of her chambers and into the more public parts of the castle. They sat in the music room now, where any courtier or official could come and pay his respects to the Queen. The Queen was that much closer to the seat of real power, figuratively as well as literally.
Of course, Jessie had only managed it by suggesting Lady Sandy favor them with a brief concert, but she would take what she could get. Today, a concert. Tomorrow … she would think of another excuse tomorrow. The important thing was that she had succeeded today.
Jessie had even succeeded better than she had hoped, in that she had gotten Queen Viviette to take the seat nearest to the open archway that formed the door. She had even convinced Queen Viviette to order the curtain in the arch taken down. Now the milling courtiers could see the Queen whenever they chanced to turn their heads — perhaps to investigate where the music was coming from — and hopefully guilt would work on one or two of them and persuade them to come pay the Queen their respects. Where one or two started, more would follow.
The only drawback in Jessie’s plan was that, what with Lady Sandy’s body being in the way, she herself couldn’t see into the waiting area and to the milling courtiers.
But Jessie had gotten a good look when the ladies all came down in their full state. Most importantly, she had ensured that Will saw her. Will knew that she had been trying to get the Queen into a position of more visibility for weeks. If the Glasonlanders liked to forget what respect they owed their Queen, Will would remind them by paying it himself.
“Assuming my showing up doesn’t make them more determined to ignore her,” Will had pointed out the evening before. “They think she’s a failure, Jess, and they know she has no power. And …” Will had rubbed the back of his neck and looked sheepish. “She’s not your mother, unfortunately.”
No, Queen Viviette was most certainly not Alison. Alison might have been content to slide into the background and appear to leave the governing to the men, but there were several reasons for that. First and most importantly, the government was in competent hands. Secondly, Arthur consulted Alison on everything important. And lastly, Alison had never been forced into the background, snidely told that her opinion was of no value and that she would be better off occupying her mind with her sewing. Alison might take care to appear mild and domestic in public, but there was a fire underneath that only needed the right circumstances to burst into flame.
Queen Viviette didn’t have that fire.
Instead, she fidgeted, her skirts swishing this way and that as she tried to see and not see through the arch. “I see your husband is out there, Princess,” she remarked, her hands twisting in the fine silk of her underskirt. “And yours too, Lady Emilia.”
“Hardly surprising,” Lady Emilia remarked, “given that today is His Majesty’s audience day. Doubtless they are both waiting to meet with the King.” Lady Emilia flashed a brilliant smile at Jessie, the kind of smile that did much showcasing of the teeth and very little of any bonhomie or goodwill. “That would be right, wouldn’t it, Princess?”
“Of course,” Jessie replied, glancing sidelong at the Queen. Queen Viviette chewed on her lower lip, a faint blush on her cheeks. She cast another nervous glance through the arch. Good Lord, Jessie thought, she didn’t even know today was Vortimer’s audience day, did she? But how could she not know that? Even if Arthur hadn’t been the type to keep Alison informed, any idiot could have figured out that Arthur always held his audience on the third Thursday of the month. But the Glasonlanders’ schedule wasn’t as regular as that. Jessie herself hadn’t quite figured it out.
“Although I must admit,” Jessie added, mostly for the Queen’s sake, “I’m always a bit confused by how the audiences work here. I’m never quite sure when the next one is coming. My father’s are always very predictable.”
Lady Emilia leaned back with a frown. “That is because Lord Lucinius,” she spit the name out like a healer spitting out poison sucked from a wound, “does not deem fit to keep a regular schedule. King Vortigern always used to have his audience on the day of the dark of the moon.” A glance out of the corner of Jessie’s eye confirmed that the Queen was nodding. “And I am told that King Uther before him preferred the third Thursday of every month. But apparently Lord Lucinius prefers to keep us all on our toes.”
And to keep the Queen as uninformed as possible, thought Jessie, glancing in her direction.
“That,” the Queen murmured, “does not to me seem … that is to say, I don’t understand the reasoning behind that. I am sure there is a good reason, but …”
Oh, come on, Viviette! Jessie yelled in her head. You can do better than that! Call it what it is: idiotic and back-asswards! If this had been Albion — if, say, Elyan had somehow managed to become the regent for little Elise — that was what Jessie would have said. To his face, if she could manage it.
For once, though, Lady Emilia seemed to be in complete agreement with Jessie’s thoughts. But all she gave was an elegant little shrug. “I’m sure Lord Lucinius has an excellent reason for constantly moving the royal audience around,” she half-agreed. “Alas that it is beyond the understanding of we poor ladies.”
Us poor ladies, Jessie mentally corrected. Someday she would even bring herself to correct Lady Emilia out loud.
But that day was not today.
Without another word, she rose and crossed to the doorway. Maybe she was blocking Queen Viviette from view. But it would do to have a look at the courtiers, wouldn’t it?
Of course it would. Perhaps she might even stare one of them — other than Will — into coming to have a word with his Queen. Stranger things had happened, hadn’t they?
She knew most of the names of the waiting men. There was Lord John Bullocke, Sir Luchinius Fairbridge, the Earl of Greene. All of them were the hanging-on types. Bullocke and Fairbridge had been probably the closest intimates King Vortigern had — not all that close, really, but closer men tended to run afoul of the headsman sooner or later — but they had not really been useful for much, except as, well, procurers. Bullocke in particular had been a prodigious father of daughters, and it was rumored that half of his grandchildren were bastards of Vortigern. Jessie couldn’t help but feel sorry for the daughters; but still, that was neither here nor there. The point was that men like Bullocke and Fairbridge were at a bit of loose end in the new reign.
But none was at more of a loose end than Adam of Howell.
It did not escape Jessie that Will had placed himself close to Howell, or Constantine of Caernavon, for that matter. She could see Will shifting in small movements, barely noticeable to someone who didn’t know him well. And when his eyes darted around the room, they always darted to Howell.
Jessie hadn’t seen Howell since their first day at court. Rumors insisted that he had been banished from court after his furious reaction to being stripped of his post of High Constable, but that couldn’t be true, else he wouldn’t be here now. The guards would have never let him in. They shouldn’t have let him in now, with the way he paced, and muttered, and cast shifty eyes to the door to the royal audience chamber. She and Will couldn’t be the only ones to notice this odd behavior, could they?
Jessie meant to catch Will’s eye, to nod to Howell, to try to determine from him what was going on. But something else caught her attention first.
It was not a sound, not a smell. Something between both of them. A low buzz just on the edge of hearing, a foul stink just on the edge of smelling. Magic. Dark magic. And it was coming from …
The doors to the audience chamber opened before Jessie could pinpoint just where it was coming from.
Later Jessie would find reason to be grateful that Lord Lucinius and Sir Septimus led the way. At the time, however, she could only scoff and roll her eyes. Didn’t they know that the King always came first? Of course they knew — they were deliberately flouting the convention. The only people entitled to come before a King were the pages and heralds and guards, and they only to clear the way. However, the crowds parted before the Tarquinii brothers of their own accord. They probably would have parted before the King, too.
Suddenly Jessie staggered, hit by a wave of the stench, the buzz. The magic. There was blood here, and anger and death —
And Howell had started to run to the Tarquinii —
And he was holding a knife —
“WILL!” Jessie shrieked.
Maybe that was her mistake. Certainly all eyes in the room turned to her, not just Will’s. Or maybe that was her most brilliant move. Jessie only had to point for Will to see what she was on about, and for him to dash in that direction.
Maybe, Jessie would hope in the aftermath, that was what kept things from being worse.
But at that moment, it looked like that was the worst thing she could have done. “Good Lord!” barked Sir Septimus. “What is it now, Howell? You’re not being reinstated! I’ve barely managed to whip the army into some kind of shape since I got your pudgy fingers off the reins!”
Howell didn’t answer.
Instead, he lunged for Lord Lucinius, the knife stretched out before him.
Sir Septimus roared; Will swore and ran for the scuffle. Constantine of Caernavon jumped too to his feet, but he ran in the opposite direction. “EMILIA!” he shouted. He shoved past Jessie to get into the music room, sending her sprawling into the doorpost.
The music of the violin cut off with a squawk of outraged strings.
“What’s happening?” yelped the Queen. “What’s going on?”
Howell’s knife slashed across Lord Lucinius’s throat. A bright line of red, a second smile, appeared. Tiny red drops bubbled forth.
Then they sprayed. Lord Lucinius gasped, hands clutched to his throat. He watched the red gush through his fingers. He fell.
“Uncle! UNCLE!” the King began to shout.
Will skidded to a stop. Jessie couldn’t see his expression, but she could see his back: stiff, still. Shocked.
All of the other courtiers in the room stood the same way.
Jessie stared at the twitching Lord Lucinius. Lord Antonius went to kneel by his brother, slipped in the slick blood and fell on top of him. Lord Lucinius’s torso bounced up, blood spraying and sprinkling the ceiling. There was a scream of agony in there somewhere. Jessie wasn’t sure whose it was.
The Queen stumbled to the doorway, saw the lord and the blood and Howell, still wielding his knife and laughing. She screamed. Not just a woman’s panicked scream at a scene of violence, but a name: “LILLA!”
She pushed past Jessie and ran for the stairs. And that was what snapped everyone awake.
Will was the first to yell, “Guards!” But he was still too late.
Sir Septimus had other ideas. “You bastard!” He leapt for Howell.
That was when all hell really broke loose.
Jessie would only ever remember flashes of it: the ruby-stained knife flashing in the light, diving up and down. The point constantly chiming against Sir Septimus’s armor. But always the same motion: stabbing, stabbing, stabbing. Howell’s arm never stopped moving, no matter what Sir Septimus did to the rest of him.
The stink of Dark magic grew stronger with every stab, while Howell fought like a man possessed.
Someone jostled Jessie from behind — Constantine, his arm over his wife’s shoulder, hustling her out of there. He didn’t even look at Howell and the fight.
Jessie stumbled into the waiting room in their wake. Her eyes searched for Will. She found him, grabbing the King’s arm and dragging him away from the fight. “Uncle, Uncle!” the King continued to shout, sounding like a child on the edge of tears.
The knife flashed and slashed across Sir Septimus’s face. Sir Septimus roared in pain. Lord Antonius jumped into the fray.
He didn’t last long. He wasn’t wearing armor. Howell look one look at him, grinned, and plunged his knife into Lord Antonius’s unprotected gut. Lord Antonius stumbled back. He hit the wall and slid down, blood seeping from between the fingers he had closed over his wound.
Then Howell turned again to Sir Septimus.
Finally, finally, the guards appeared. One pushed past the Earl of Greene. There was a great deal of shouting — Jessie saw other guards running for the King, tearing him from Will’s grasp and dragging him farther away from the fight. But the King wiggled loose and ran back, still shouting, “Uncle, Uncle!”
Other courtiers were running, too. Running for the exits. Jessie could hear the cries of, “Treason, treason! The Tarquinii are murdered!” already sounding.
Finally a guard made it closer to Howell. “Lord Howell! Stand down, in the name of the King!”
Howell had somehow forced Sir Septimus to his knees, and was holding his head back, his tan throat stretched to the breaking point. Sir Septimus still struggled, his arms flailing, ignoring the knife at his throat. Howell ignored Sir Septimus’s flailing.
Jessie would never forget Howell’s expression when he looked up. She would hear his laugh, echoing and triumphant, in her nightmares. His eyes were narrowed, but sparkling. He even grinned.
“Who,” he asked the guard, “is your real commander?”
Then he stabbed Sir Septimus — a clean shot through his left armpit, unprotected as Sir Septimus flailed. Sir Septimus’s eyes widened, he choked — blood seeping from his mouth — and Howell let him go.
He fell. Howell straddled two of the Tarquinii brothers: Lord Lucinius, dead, and Sir Septimus, choking his last breaths. “Who is the true military man now? Who deserves –”
The guard leapt and tackled Howell. His knife went flying. It flashed end over end as it sailed through the air, then clanged and clattered to the ground.
And the Brothers Tarquinii, all of them, lay shuddering or choking or simply still on the floor, their blood puddling together.
“Who is your commander? WHO IS YOUR COMMANDER?” Howell continued to shout as the guard pounded him up and down. Finally, the guard landed a blow to the top of Howell’s skull, and he shut up.
The King trembled at the heads of his uncles. “Uncle Lucinius! Uncle Septimus! Wake up, wake up!” He gulped and sobbed, fat tears coursing down his cheeks. “UNCLES!”
Lord Antonius gasped against the wall, his head lolling. Tears ran down his face, too. Jessie could see his lips moving in silent words: a prayer?
Will somehow materialized at her elbow, hand locked under it. “Jess, come on. You don’t need to see this.”
“No,” Jessie murmured.
Lord Antonius was staring right at her. Whether he was seeing her or not, Jessie didn’t know.
Jessie would never be able to explain what she did next, except, what else could she do? She had been trained by Morgan, and while she didn’t have the latter’s talent for healing magic, there were some things even she could do.
She stepped forward.
As it so happened, healing a stab wound — even one that pierced as deeply as Lord Antonius’s wound — was not difficult magic. You just had to know the right spell and have the power to back it up. A first-year apprentice could do it.
The blue sparks and purple sparks flew from her wand and lighted on Lord Antonius’s wound. It didn’t take them long to vanish. Howell’s knife had been sharp. There were no jagged edges to clean up. All the spell had to do was latch onto Lord Antonius’s body’s natural desire to knit itself back together and speed things up a bit.
Lord Antonius gasped and lurched forward. He pulled his hand away from his stomach. There was blood — Jessie couldn’t do anything about that — but even from her vantage point, she could see the skin where the wound had been. It was whole and mostly clean, except for the dried blood.
Lord Antonius looked up and straight at Jessie, his jaw fallen.
“Jess, come on!” Will grabbed her waist and pulled her with him. Jessie didn’t struggle. She stumbled her way with him.
Will guided them both into a side room — a library — and slammed the door behind them. “Are you all right?”
“I …” Or was it “aye” she was saying? Her head felt so light and muzzy all of a sudden …
Will grabbed her shoulders, stared into her eyes. “Did he come near you?”
“The knife, did it get near you?”
“The guards? The other courtiers? They all ran past — did they hurt you?”
Jessie shook her head. Then she choked. “Will! You were right there!”
“He didn’t touch me.” A single corner of Will’s mouth turned up. “Not a scratch. Nor the guards.” Then his eyes narrowed, and he stared into Jessie’s eyes again. “But Jess, what did you do to Lord Antonius?”
“Healing spell — I don’t think he’s bleeding any more …”
Will’s eyebrows went up, but he said nothing more. And Jessie was too exhausted to try to piece out what that meant. “The guards all saw you,” he murmured.
“Oooh … hell …”
Will glanced toward the window. “And there’s a crowd gathering around the palace.”
“What?” Jessie yelped. She turned to see that what he said was true.
“We need to get out of here,” Will murmured. “And there will be no getting through that crowd.”
Her head was starting to clear even as her heart started to pound. She turned around. “There’s my broom.”
“Can it carry two?” Will murmured.
“Are you sure? I could probably manage to force my way through the crowd — you could fly out and meet me –”
“No! We go together, Will!”
Will gulped and tucked a hand under Jessie’s chin. “You’re sure?”
He slipped away from her, opened the door and stuck his head outside. “Then,” he murmured, “we’d best make a dash for it before anybody thinks to start sequestering witnesses for questioning.”
Jessie didn’t need to be told twice. They ran out of the library and up the stairs.
First they would run to their chambers, grab Jessie’s broom and whatever else the broom could carry. Then they would run for the roof.
Then they would run for Albion.