Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Price of Loyalty

Why me? I reflect as I wait in the darkest shadows of the dark room. Had it been anyone else who’d overheard the plot, they could have reported it and received gratitude, perhaps even a reward. To do the same, I am risking… everything. Everything I have left, anyhow. But it was once been my job to risk my life to protect Queen Iglacia, and whatever anybody thinks, my loyalties have never shifted.

Finally, the door opens and moonlight floods the room, silhouetting Andren in the doorway. He knows I am there instantly—he’s not the queen’s spymaster for nothing. A knife leaps into his hand as he orders, “Show yourself. I know you’re there.”

I step forward. Andren has always been hard to read, but I can tell he is surprised to see me. “Lilidy,” he says my name quietly, and lunges at me.

I expected it, so I dodge him, and swing onto his sofa, putting my hands in the air to show him I mean no threat. “I came here of my own will, because I have something important to tell you. Just hear me out before you do anything,” I tell him.

“Why should I listen to you?” he demands angrily, so angrily.

I want to tell him that he should listen to me because he’s always trusted me and I’ve never given him reason not to, but he wouldn’t believe it. “Because the queen’s life could depend on it.”

He hears me out, of course. I knew he would. The only question is, what will he do when I finish talking?

“I’ve been working as a maid, in Sir Bitan’s household,” I begin.

He raises an eyebrow. “Spying for who?”

I shake my head. “I am loyal to Iglacia; I wouldn’t spy for anyone else. I’m working as a maid.” Andren looks at me like I’m crazy, and I think he’s torn between not believing and not understanding. In truth, I’m not sure why I did it either. It’s not a desirable job, and I could have gotten a better one. I feel it’s my penance, but I don’t know for what. I didn’t do anything wrong. Though on the other hand, I was the one who originally suggested that the barren queen pretend Kylana’s unwanted baby was hers. If you look at it that way, it is all my fault.

I continue. “I was washing dishes. Well of course I was, as the most junior kitchen maid I was always washing dishes-” I babble when I’m nervous. You’d think that would be dangerous, but it’s actually served me pretty well—when you start babbling about dishes or your horse or whatever your terrified mind focuses on, you don’t seem much of a threat. But I would really prefer to be able to tell my story as neatly as possible, especially now, so I take a deep breath, and say, “Sorry. Anyway, I overheard Sir Bitan and another man talking. I don’t know if they didn’t notice me, or just assumed I didn’t speak Irigardian, but they spoke quite freely. Bitan was talking about whether it would be easier to have Iglacia poisoned or stabbed, and the other man laughed and said they might as well do both and arrange a fall from a horse as well, and the same to Coyld.” I reported as I had been taught to, what I had seen and heard, not how I felt about it, but I know my voice showed my disgust with their talk of murdering Iglacia and her six year old son. Well… But, no, though Kylana had born him, he was Iglacia’s son.

“Why should I believe you? You betrayed the queen once, why should I think this isn’t a trap?”

“I’ve never betrayed her. I don’t know how it got out, but I never told anyone. Andren, why would I do it? Kylana was like a sister to me, and I would give my life for the queen. How can you really think I would have betrayed them?” Logically, I understand. Only four people knew: Andren, Kylana, Queen Iglacia, and me. Kylana was the one who was killed by it, and the queen had every reason in the world to keep it a secret. So if Andren hadn’t done it, he knew it had to be me. But it wasn’t.

“I wish I could believe you.” He sounds as if he means it, but that doesn’t mean anything. “But Lilidy, I’m the one that taught you how to lie.” It was true, and if I had been lying, I’d have said much the same things I have, and just as convincingly. Maybe more so. Except…

“If I’d done it, I wouldn’t have come back.”

“Maybe you want me to think that.”

“I wouldn’t sacrifice my life to make you think well of me. The only reason I’m here is because I couldn’t stand by and do nothing while they plotted against the queen.”

I’d ran, before, when I should have been solving that crime, but if I’d stayed, I’d have been trying to solve it from prison, if I was lucky. Still, I shouldn’t have given up. I could have worked at it from a safe distance. I’d have to now, anyway. Not just to save my own skin, but because it couldn’t be a coincidence, two plots to take over the throne within as many months.

But Bitan couldn’t have been behind the first one, because how could he have known? In truth, the only person it could have been, other than me, was Andren. But despite everything, I trust him. Not the safest thing to do, in this job, but I just can’t conceive of him being involved.

I run through other possibilities in my mind. The queen’s husband, before he died? But then why wait so long. “Coyld’s real father?” I don’t even realize I’m thinking aloud. “But he, whoever he was, never even knew who Kylana really was or that she was pregnant, much less what happened afterwards. And they tricked a doctor-“

“Lilidy, do you think I haven’t gone through this a thousand times?” Andren asks me. “The only ones who knew that Coyld is Kylana’s son were you, me Kylana, and Iglacia. Iglacia had no reason to reveal that and every reason not to, and she swears she never did. Kylana wouldn’t have, and she’s the one who was killed because of it, she would have been betraying herself. I never told anyone; I don’t know whether you believe that. You say you didn’t, and I don’t know whether I believe that.”

“Well, that’s a marked improvement from practically being ready to burn me at stake.”

“What am I supposed to think?”

I shrug. “I don’t even know what I think. I do believe it wasn’t you. Why is it that the only three people who could have revealed it are the only three people in the world I trust?” I don’t expect him to answer, and he doesn’t.

“Do you think they’re related?” he asks me after a few minutes of silence. “Kylana’s death, and this plot you overheard?”

“No such thing as coincidence, of course,” he smiles at that, the words he must have told me hundreds of times, “But is it directly related, or just both about the legitimacy of her line? Kylana’s death was almost certainly an attempt on the queen, do you agree?”

“Or on the prince.”

“Either way, she wasn’t the main target. If the assassin hadn’t killed himself….”

“Which was the point, of course,” Andren reminds me.

“I know, I know. Anyhow, this could be a second attempt by the same people, and I lean towards thinking it is. On the other hand, since the truth about Coyld came out, there could be others who aren’t happy about it.”

“Either way, who would have motive?” Andren is more thinking out loud than asking me, but I’m used to this. He is, I suddenly realize, back to treating me as one of his trusted people, rather than a traitor. Whether he knows it or not, in his heart he believes me.

“Or to look at it from the other direction, what is Bitan’s motive?” I suggest.

“How far is he from the throne?” Andren muses. “No, he’s not in the royal line at all; he was only her husband’s brother.”

“Who would be next in line, if something happened to Iglacia and Coyld?”

“There’s no clear successor. It could come to civil war.”

“Would that take Coyld dying too? I’d think there’d be even more of a civil war if he was alive and one of the claimants to the throne.”

Andren shakes his head. “There’d be some people who wouldn’t want him, bit Iglacia’s well loved, and she’s made it quite clear that Coyld is her son and heir. Most of the country would rally behind him, and any war would be over quickly with Coyld as the clear victor.”

“And Bitan doesn’t have any right whatsoever? So what’s his motive?”

“Morals? Politics? Or… who was the man he was talking to? Maybe it isn’t Bitan’s plot.”

“Maybe, but that’s not the sense I got. It seemed to me as though the other man was just hired help, an assassin or a middleman.”

“We’re not getting anywhere looking at it this way, so what about this? We don’t know who revealed that Coyld is Kylana’s son, but who first found out about it?”

“Whoever hired the assassin who killed Kylana? I don’t see where you’re going.”

“The question is, what was the goal? Did they want Kylana dead, or the queen, or Coyld, or all three of them, or any two? Or either of us, we were both on the stairs as well. And we’ve been assuming it’s about Iglacia, but Kylana worked for me for over a decade; she had more than her share of enemies.”

“Does that work with how it went down though?” I relived the scene in my mind. We’d been coming down the stairs of the palace, Kylana and Andren on either side of the queen, Coyld and I a few steps behind. Suddenly Kylana fell, an arrow in her chest. Iglacia bent to help Kylana; Andren ran after the archer; I tried to shield Coyld, but he screamed for his mother and ran over. Iglacia grabbed him—

And suddenly, I see it, I understand who did what and how it all happened. I must have made a noise, because Andren looks at me sharply and asks, “What?”

“I know who revealed the secret.”

“Well?” he demands.

“Think of exactly what happened, when Kylana died.”

He gives me a look, but says, “We were coming out of the palace. Kylana fell on the steps, bleeding. You and Iglacia tried to help her, and I ran after the attacker, and Coyld screamed for his mother, and she grabbed him-“

“No,” I interrupt. “That’s your interpretation. What actually happened?”

It takes him only a second to see it then. He looks at me in awed horror. “Kylana fell and he screamed, ‘Mother!’”

“She must have told him, I think. Iglacia wouldn’t have, and…. Maybe she just wanted him to know. She loved him, of course. She couldn’t have thought…”

Andren nods. “I’m sorry, Lilidy.”

I shrug. “You didn’t know.”

“I could have trusted you.”

“You? Trust someone? I know you better than that.”

He smiles, but then his face goes grim. “I think we agree that Coyld wasn’t behind it.”

“Of course not. He’s six, and even if he could have, he loves Iglacia, and loved Kylana even without knowing she was his mother. “

“And he’s not a child to go around telling secrets just because he knows them. So the question is, who manipulated it out of him?”

“The obvious answer would be Bitan, but if so, why?”

“Fortunately, we don’t have to speculate anymore,” Andren said with a grin. “I’ll go up and invite Coyld over for some hot chocolate.”

While he was gone, I prepared the drink. About ten minutes later, Coyld flew into the room, nearly knocking my cup from my hands with his hug. “Lilidy!!! I’ve missed you! You’re back!”

I hugged him back, then gave him a glass of hot chocolate, and the three of us sat down to talk.

“Do you know why I was gone?” I began, because I couldn’t just blurt out, “Who did you tell that the queen isn’t your real mother?”

“To spy on bad people,” Coyld replied cheerfully.

“That ended up being part of it, but it was actually because your mother and Andren thought I’d told people that Kylana was your real mother.” I watched his reaction carefully.

“You knew?” he asked me, surprised and worried. “But she said nobody was supposed to know!”

“I knew before you were even born,” I told him. “But what we need to know is if you’ve told anyone.” I was careful to keep my voice light and unnacusing, but Coyld still looked a little scared.

Andren added kindly, “It might have been someone who already knew, and asked you about it?” I glanced at him. I hadn’t thought of it, but that made the most sense—that someone had suspected, or even just suspected there was some secret, and used Coyld to verify it.

“Oh, him,” said Coyld. “It was just my cousin.”

“Your cousin?”

“Imkel, my cousin,” Coyld explained.

I wanted to slap myself. “I’m an idiot!” I exclaimed loudly. “It wasn’t just some assassin, it was Bitan’s son!”

We wait to discuss it until Andren gets back from bringing Coyld home. “I told Iglacia. She sends her deepest apologies and hopes you’ll return to her service. Though, some spy you are; you worked in Bitan’s house and you didn’t even recognize his son?” He was joking, mostly.

“I wasn’t there as a spy; there’s no reason I would have. I’ll do better next time. The question is, does this change anything, besides for confirming it?”

“Does it give them a motive, you mean? I think it does. He’s not in direct line for the throne, but no one else is any closer, and as a strong young man, with a family—you know his wife’s pregnant?” I hadn’t known, but did realize that it would make him a better candidate for the throne, in most people’s eyes—they wouldn’t have to worry about dealing with another civil war when he died. Andren continued, “And he is related to the queen, even though it’s just by marriage. He’d have at least a chance of winning the throne, and that’s enough of a motive.”

He sent out several men to arrest Bitan and Imkel. They returned with their prisoners two days later. Imkel demanded a trial be combat, to the death. He lost. Bitan settled for being tried by the queen. He also lost.

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