Beneath the king’s oak table, Lurian rolled the smooth glass vial filled with powdered devilleaf in his palm. He thumbed its cork stopper, nervously confirming that it hadn’t fallen out, and with it, any chance of saving his own neck from the king’s chopping block. In truth, if he did not proceed with the girl’s demand, the chopping block would be a charity compared to what he’d likely face.
He focused on the empty cup at the far end of the table. Between Lurian and the jeweled goblet sat silver platters overflowing with the king’s favorites — sweetmeats from the game warden’s private stock, piles of salted almonds, and Marsinian grapes. He recalled a time many years ago when the two of them were nearly caught behind enemy lines at Marsinia, all because the then-prince insisted on stealing barrels of a finer vintage then their regiment had in stock.
A cough made Lurian nearly leap out of his skin, but he was well practiced in hiding surprise. Stanislo, the silent, crooked-nose cupbearer, hovered above, giving Lurian one of his rude looks while holding two brass pitchers of wine in his hands. In the hierarchy of things, Stanislo’s official status was below that of Lurian, but he’d been in service to the king at least a decade longer. Admittedly, the servant took impudence to a talented level–one couldn’t outright accuse him of being excessively bold. He had a slippery way about him, like that of a sidewinding snake. Lurian would have been within rights to be jealous of the lackey’s talents, but he had his own by which to make up for them.
“The king is very tired this evening,” Stanislo said, touching up Lurian’s goblet with the weaker crimson wine. “It would be well not to keep him late.”
Maybe he shouldn’t be late, himself, Lurian wanted to say, but if he was going to potentially lose his head, it wouldn’t be due to a trivial, spiteful statement.
Instead, he smiled. “Of course.” Killing a man he had come to view almost as a brother was not something Lurian wanted to do, but to be rid of Stanislo? That might actually be a pleasure. He watched the cupbearer glide to the other side of the table and pour from the king’s personal stock into the empty cup. Their eyes never left each other, as if the servant was trying to pry into Lurian’s soul.
Stanislo walked through the wooden double doors and closed them gently behind him, disappearing into the hall. Lurian was alone now in the imposing dining room, leaving him to do the thing which he did not wish to do. He slept little the previous night, searching for a way out. One night was not enough time, but that was all the king’s daughter had given him.
Slip this into his cup tomorrow evening. I’ll take care of the rest.
Her speech still echoed in his ear. The moment he heard those words, Lurian felt as if his heart had stopped beating and never started again.
He pushed his chair back. The skidding sound was absurdly loud. He stood and waited for the doors to swing open, but there was no indication of the king’s arrival. Sweat beaded on his forehead. The vial nearly fell from his wet palms.
A part of him was still unbelieving of the words which had left the princess’s lips, but he had no way to prove the truth. Her word against his? She had insisted he drink with her. What drugs were slipped into his own cup, he had no idea, but he found himself out of sorts, unable to focus and resist as she took advantage of him. The very idea that she would claim that he raped her outraged him, and alone would be enough to seal his fate, but that she would also claim to be carrying his child? That ensured an unpleasant exit from this world.
She promised him a position if he cooperated, but who was to say that she would not accuse him of committing the treachery alone after the king fell into the long sleep? That was a very real threat, but in Lurian’s position, there seemed to be no good option.
He longed for the days when he had been a minor noble; before he had impressed the king with his performance in battle; before he had become very close to him and eventually made an advisor. He wished he had been as much of a student of domestic history as he was of warmaking and trade. Maybe then he would have foreseen the lengths that those in the royal family would go to seize power.
“Damn it, man, just go,” he whispered, realizing he’d been standing still for some time.
But his legs wouldn’t carry him forward. The king’s cup of wine sat, both compelling and repulsing him. Heavy winds outside of the castle rushed through tiny cracks in the stone walls, creating a low whistle in one corner of the room.
Lurian was unsure how much time passed between his standing and waiting, but it was clearly too long. He was still on his feet, undecided, when there was a brief bustle of noise outside of the doors. Lurian pocketed the vial as the pair of heavy oak planks swung open and an obviously exhausted King Jorn entered the room.
The king was slouched in his chair, popping almonds into his mouth, one by one.
“No, tonight is fine,” he replied.
Lurian had politely suggested postponing their meeting for the following night. The king’s tired state provided a potential out. It was a gamble. Lurian would beg the princess for patience. It was only one more night, after all.
But, alas, the king would not hear of it.
Now Lurian was finding his ability to poison the king severely hampered. How could he do it while he was in the room? He cursed himself for letting the opportunity slip.
“Give me the latest,” the king said as his lips smacked.
“Do you want to hear about the markets first or reports from the ambassadors?”
“The important things.”
Lurian knew that, but he was stalling for time, trying to think of potential distractions. Maybe he could get the king drunk enough to not notice a subtle slip of the poison. Lurian picked up his goblet and raised it in a toast. “To the important things,” he said. The king smiled and followed suit.
“Get on with it,” he said.
Even though Lurian had assassination on his mind for the past twenty-four hours, he’d still managed to prepare talking points for the king.
“Travian sends word that the marauders from the Bexton Hills have been taken care of. They’ll no longer be pillaging our primary wheat supply.”
The king released a gaping yawn. “And how has this been confirmed?”
“The band’s head, Sibea the Bold, has been taken care of. His various body parts rest on pikes outside the town–covered in thorns to keep the carrion off, of course. The rest of his tribe are working under the lash and sun to maintain the very fields in which they plundered, of course.”
The king released a low chuckle and popped an almond into the air, leaning back, hoping to catch it in his mouth, but instead missing by several inches where it bounced and clacked onto the cold stone floor below. He grunted and took another pull of wine.
“Tell me, Lurian, what are we going to do with all of these upstarts?”
Lurian scrunched his eyebrows. “The Bexton clans were only a nuisance, your Lord–”
“I’m not talking about them,” the king interrupted. “I’m talking about the enemies within.”
Lurian tried his best to keep the blood from rushing to his face.
King Jorn continued, “A king is always aware that the world is filled with plotters and schemers and they’re rarely far away.”
Had word gotten to the king? Was he trying to get Lurian to confess?
“Your Highness, I’m your man for foreign affairs and the merchant trades. Internal affairs, spycraft–these are a bit outside of my areas of expertise.”
The king slammed his goblet on the table. “Damn it, man, but you have ears. Tell me, what do you hear?”
The room was heavy with silence. Lurian felt a lump caught in his throat.
“I’ve heard nothing, my Lord,” he managed to squeak out. “Your kingdom is secure.”
“Hmph,” the king said, taking another swig of wine to wash down the almonds. He sank further back into his chair, his ruddy face looking pleased. “Good. I assume you’ll keep me informed should the slightest hint come your way.”
Lurian felt a bead of sweat slip down the front of his left ear. He was grateful the king was so far away.
“Of course,” he said.
The king closed his eyes. “What else do you have to tell me?”
As Lurian went on about the affairs of state–the swiftly snuffed-out uprising in Southern Drakoria, the rising cost of wool imported from the Pahnus Isles–he noticed an odd sound reverberating within the dining room.
Lurian fell silent, and for thirty untenable seconds, he simply watched as the king’s chest rose and fell in rhythm with his snoring. Lurian lurched slowly toward him. His eyes shifted between King Jorn and the doors until he was close enough to see the crumbs of almond nestled in the old man’s gray beard.
He wouldn’t get another chance. It was now or never.
Lurian reached into his pocket and pulled out the vial. He popped the cork, all the while keeping his eyes on the king. Was he ready to do this? Ready to kill the man who had seen his potential beyond being that of a mere knight, taken him under his wing and elevated him to his current station?
What type of kingdom would exist under the princess? She was a stubborn and emotional woman. To try and steer her would be like trying to quiet the Northern Blizzards. Then there was the question of whether or not Lurian would live long enough to see her reign through the year’s end.
He realized his hand was shaking to the point that he might drop the vial. In an instant, he knew what he had to do.
Quickly, he rushed back to his side of the table and emptied the powder into his own cup. He collapsed into his chair and stared at the vessel, cognizant only of the king’s snoring and the whistling wind. This was the best option, he thought. The only reasonable option. Still, he could not bring himself to drink. It’s not easy to dispense with one’s life at a moment’s notice.
There was a commotion outside of the doors which woke the king from his catnap. He stretched his arms and flexed the crick out of his neck.
“I must have drifted off,” the king said. He reached for his goblet and drank as if he had just spent a week marching through the deserts of Samar.
He wiped his mouth with a silk sleeve and looked to Lurian. “You know I never like to drink alone, friend.”
It was the final push he needed. He couldn’t convince himself to partake but having someone else make the decision for him somehow made things easier.
He picked up the goblet and raised it toward the large wooden chandelier hanging overhead.
“To my king.”
His hand began to shake violently and splashes of wine spilled over the lip before he grabbed it with both hands and gulped it down. Though Lurian had been told that the poison would be unnoticeable, there was a slight bitterness to the drink.
Devilleaf worked within a matter of minutes, suddenly seizing the heart. He decided to spend the rest of his time admiring the glorious man who sat at the other end of the table and think about his next statements.
The disturbance that had awoken the king raised in pitch and there was an argument outside of the door. King Jorn seemed not to take notice, instead popping more almonds into his mouth and staring back at Lurian.
“Your Highness,” Lurian spoke, “may I just say that it has been an honor being both your companion in arms as well as your humble servant. I hope that you have also considered me a friend as much as I have considered you such.”
The king was silent for a moment. Finally, he said, “They say a king should have no friends, especially among his advisers. But tell me–what’s a life without friends?”
“Indeed,” Lurian replied. He found himself oddly at ease, now. The tremors had exited his body and there was a sudden clarity running through his mind. “There’s something important that I need to tell you, my lord.”
“Oh?” The king grinned and leaned forward as if awaiting something lurid. “Been holding out on me, have you?”
“It’s about your daughter, the princess–”
Before Lurian could complete the sentence, the doors through which the king had earlier entered came bursting open. Stanislo stood, feigning indignation and looking like a whelp between the king’s two burly guards whose obsidian skin and light blue eyes spoke of their Dursinian lineage.
He pointed a shaking finger at Lurian.
“Seize this traitor! He has poisoned the king!”
Lurian leaped to his feet. On impulse, he pulled the empty vial from his pocket and threw it onto the table where it clunked on the hardwood and came to rest beside his own cup. “I have done no such thing,” he said, “as you will soon discover.” He looked at the king with sorrow, trying to determine how he should explain himself in the little time granted.
The king raised a hand toward his guards who stood like marble statues. He then slowly pushed himself up from his chair and leaned down to palm some more almonds before gliding towards Lurian. The room was filled with a deathly quiet. The two men’s eyes never left each other until the king finally towered above Lurian’s sweaty skull. King Jorn’s free hand came to rest on Lurian’s shoulder as he peered down into his advisor’s empty cup. Then Lurian felt the king’s grip squeeze down lightly, followed by a friendly smile.
“Your Highness,” Stanislo impressed, “we must get you to the priests so that they may prepare to drain–”
“Silence,” the king interrupted his cupbearer. King Jorn ignored Stanislo’s pleas and turned his attention back to his advisor. Lurian’s pulse quickened. It seemed the poison was beginning to take effect. There wasn’t much time and he had to confess–to warn the man who had put his faith in him until the end.
“Explain this,” the king said, looking toward the empty vial.
“My lord, nearly two months ago, I was drugged by your daughter and she took advantage of me. She recently revealed to me that she was with child. I know not the truth of this, but she plotted against me. Unless I poured this poison into your cup tonight, she would accuse me of rape and impregnating her.”
Lurian took a deep breath before continuing. “I wish that I could say that my first response was to come to you with the truth and face the consequences, but I feared I would not be heard above your only daughter. And I would be lying if I did not once think, selfishly, that carrying out her wishes might not be the worst course of action, given my potential punishment. But in the end, I could not do it. Instead, I chose to tell you everything before taking my own life.”
He finished his speech with a quiet tone, staring at the few drops of wine left in his cup in an effort to avoid both the king’s glare and Stanislo’s triumphant eyes. “My king, I am sorry that I could not be a better friend and servant.”
The unendurable silence returned. He felt King Jorn’s hand squeeze his shoulder once more.
“You are a worthy servant and indeed my friend.”
At that moment the king looked at his guards. “T’was not the sparrow, but the lark.”
While Lurian tried to decipher the message, there may have been an imperceptible nod by the hulking Dursinians, but it was Stanislo’s yelp that grabbed his attention. Within the span of five seconds, one of the strongmen had taken hold of cupbearer’s arms while the other slapped on a pair of iron shackles.
Stanislo protested. “What–what is the meaning of this?!” His cheeks were red, jiggling fiercely under restraint.
The king shoved the handful of almonds into his mouth and wiped the salt from his hand on his royal robe. He walked back to his own cup of wine which he gulped down until it was empty, releasing a satisfied gasp.
“When possible, I prefer to bag two birds with a single stone,” he said to Stanislo. King Jorn did not look rattled in the slightest. There was further commotion coming from down the hall. A woman was screaming bloody murder until the moment she was dragged through the doorway between another pair of Dursinians.
The princess grunted as she nearly fell onto the cold floor. Tears streamed down her pale cheeks. She looked up at the king.
“Father! I don’t know what you’ve been told, but there’s been a mistake!”
King Jorn stepped in front of his daughter and shook his head slowly. “There certainly has been.”
He gazed up at Lurian.
“You see, my daughter decided to hedge her bets. She took advantage of both you and Stanislo. Each of you was an insurance policy against the other. After my first sip of wine, I knew that I had been betrayed by him. Stanislo, no doubt, intended to hold you responsible for my death though he had slipped what he thought was devilleaf into my personal stock.”
The princess protested. “No! That is not true!”
Again, the king looked at her with true sorrow in his eyes.
“What my daughter believed was pure devilleaf was something which my chemist concocted and placed where one would normally find such an ingredient stored for foreign espionage. There were two samples, each with a flavor profile of its own.”
The bitter flavor Lurian had tasted upon drinking the wine had suddenly come back to him.
“Granted,” King Jorn said, “there was an element of devilleaf in each to give it a genuine appearance, but not enough to cause true harm.”
Lurian only now started to feel the blood flowing back to his extremities. He had not been fatally poisoned after all. Any notions of dying were in his head. A whirlpool of relief swirled within his core.
The king continued, “As soon as I drank my wine, I knew Stanislo had done his part. I simply gave you the opportunity to carry out yours as well. I don’t blame you for your indecision. Had I been in your place, I imagine I would have behaved the same. In the end, you confirmed my faith.”
“Take them to the dungeon where I won’t be disturbed by the screams tonight,” the king commanded his guards. The princess cried an unearthly howl, protesting as she was pulled from the floor and dragged away. Stanislo fainted as the other Dursinians removed him from the room and shut the door behind them.
King Jorn walked toward Lurian and embraced him. “My friend,” he whispered into his advisor’s ear. “Go. Sleep. Drink. Do whatever may bring you relief from tonight’s events, but I recommend you eat some of those almonds or you will be on the privy for at least a week.”
With that, the king released Lurian, grabbed another handful of nuts, and exited the dining room.