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Coup in the Night
Othniel glanced over his shoulder at the guardsman who’d come for him and frowned. “I’ve been involved in the managing of guardsmen since I was twelve, but I don’t believe I know you.”
“No, Your Highness,” the man responded, his dark eyes forward and manner gruff.
Othniel looked again, slowing his pace to walk abreast of the knight whom he guessed to be in his late twenties. He’d been too distracted when on the wall to think twice about why he didn’t recognize this knight save the fact he wore Taisce colors with the royal crest on his tunic sleeve.
“What is your name? How long have you been in service to the king?” Othniel watched closely, suspicion putting him on high alert, but the man betrayed nothing.
“Jordel, Sire, and your father offered me a place among his knights just two days ago when I arrived with Lord Vladentine who’s come to join you in Fortnight.”
It was a reasonable answer and not unheard-of occurrence; several of Taisce’s guardsmen had been wandering knights on the verge of mercenary lives. Othniel’s father had a soft spot for men without roots. He had often proclaimed that when given what all men long for—purpose and a place to call home—their loyalty was stronger than the clearest diamond. Othniel privately believed that the pay and prestige received from a king’s service didn’t hurt either.
“Welcome to Castle Taisce, Jordel. I look forward to getting to know you better.”
“Thank you, Sire,” Jordel said, giving Othniel a flash of a glance, which proved the only physical response the prince would receive from the stoic man.
“You say my father is in the mews?”
They’d almost arrived, bypassing the stables where the other young lords waited to begin the Fortnight seeking. The thought sent an unpleasant twinge across Othniel’s already tight shoulders. Part of him didn’t want to find Ismene tonight, to face her. Another part of him—the part whose pride smarted with rejection—wanted to find her and win the blasted prize, to watch her subjected to the servitude of the game’s outcome. That part of him was small in more ways than one, and Othniel immediately rejected the thought as soon as it entered his head. Nothing would stop him from the search and from winning, but he would not see Ismene humiliated.
A lump formed in his throat at the prospect of not having her. He’d grown so used to the idea, it hurt to think of a future where she wasn’t his.
“What?” Othniel answered more forceful than he’d meant. He shook off his preoccupation in time to see they stood outside the mews. Darkness enveloped them, but he thought he could see a small light within.
Othniel swung the door in and stepped through the entry, but before he could begin to utter a syllable, night wraiths attacked him, tackling him to the ground in a scuffle of dark-clad arms and legs. Othniel cried out and fought back against his attackers, but there were too many.
He reached for his knife, sure that if he could just get to it he’d be able to free himself. “Jordel!” he yelled in the midst, but no one replied. Either Jordel had been taken down as well, or he was a part of this. Othniel could not tell.
A light flared from the rear of the mews and several of the birds squawked in protest. Othniel could now see what he was up against; three men had converged on him. Burley men dressed like Taisce’s guardsmen but all unrecognized by the prince. One pulled Othniel’s own knife from his belt and jabbed it to his neck while the other two wrestled him to his knees and gripped his arms. By quick count, four men more stood with weapons drawn.
“Father?” Othniel yelled, the king’s whereabouts his primary concern.
“Save your breath. He’s not here.”
Kendric! Othniel would recognize that voice anywhere. “Traitor! Where is my father?”
The man with the knife pressed the point into Othniel’s flesh, and a warm trickle of blood dripped down his neck as Kendric stepped into his line of sight.
“The dungeons. And alive, if that’s any consolation.”
Kendric sounded neither pleased nor displeased. Dispassionate came to Othniel’s mind, but it could not explain what was happening or why the lord’s son was among these traitorous men.
“What is the meaning of this?”
“Get him up, you bunch of ruffians. He’s a prince, not a dog,” Kendric said before giving his attention over to Othniel. Once the prince was on his feet, Kendric looked him in the eye, but he didn’t move from where he leaned against the nests. “Your father made a bad choice, and you allowed it without a word of protest. You dragged innocent people into the midst of it, and now the family you and your father rejected are ready to make you pay. Make all of us pay.” He muttered the last words. “Is that clear enough?”
“Not hardly.” Othniel split his attention among the man with the knife now pointed at his chest, the distance to the exit, and Kendric. Anger and fear caused him to vacillate between the urge to fight off his captors or spit in their faces. Maybe he would do both.
“Listen,” Kendric said after a heavy sigh, “this wasn’t my idea. I wanted no part in it.”
“That means nothing since you are here now, committing high treason.”
Othniel watched Kendric’s face and neither missed the slight flare of his nostrils nor the clenching of his jaw. Good.He’d struck a nerve.
“If you want to keep those you care for safe, you must give your word to come along without a fight. Simple enough, if you are the sort of chivalrous man legend claims you to be.”
Othniel picked up on the sarcastic undertones, rankling his composure further. “Don’t you lay a hand to my father’s head, or—”
“Your father is a dead man. Poison eats away at his body even now, or so the physician claims, having administered it at the easy cost of a gold coin. I am told there is an antidote to this particular brand of poison, but don’t hold your breath for it. The powers that be won’t allow him to live. Your wife, though—” Kendric cringed ever so slightly at his own words.
“You lie.” The air rushed from Othniel’s lungs. If true, his father was in terrible danger. And the veiled threat against Ismene was the last straw. “Where is she? What have you done with her?” He couldn’t clear his mind, thoughts reeling with every horror imaginable. Othniel renewed his struggled against the men holding him captive.
“Don’t,” Kendric said, warning hardening his voice.
Othniel stilled, realizing the futility of wasted energy, yet his chest heaved with the unspent exertion.
“She’s safe enough . . . for the time being.” Kendric paused and let it sink in. “Are you ready to come quietly?”
Othniel shook with rage. First, he’s attacked, then he finds his father at the mercy of who knew, and now to hear they also had Ismene. Blow after blow. Helpless and bereft of ideas, he had no inkling how deep this betrayal ran, and so he relented with the single nod of a defeated man.
“Good,” Kendric said with such sincere relief it startled Othniel at first, until he again realized with a jolt that Kendric’s feelings for Ismene must be genuine . . . feelings Othniel wished very much had never existed. Except for in this moment, there sparked a tiny idea that this rival might be persuaded to protect Othniel’s wife no matter what else happened.
“Tie the prince’s hands behind his back, but make sure it’s not noticeable.”
Othniel gleaned what he could from this simple statement. Not everyone in the castle could know of this coup, and not everyone had yet chosen a side. He relaxed his arms and let the men tie him. When the one doing the work cinched the rope tighter than necessary, Othniel looked over his shoulder, icy shock coursing through his veins to see Sir Wilen—the very knight he’d entrusted Ismene to in his absence. His expression was anything but grim as he took pleasure in giving the ropes another solid yank.
“Wilen. Why?” Othniel could think of nothing else to say. The ropes burned the exposed skin at his wrists, but it was nothing compared to the burn of betrayal from this once-loyal guardsman.
Wilen’s face lost the amusement, and an angry glare took its place. He shoved Othniel. “’Tis naught but the payment I’ve waited these eight years to give you and yorn father. My da was no soldier and when the mine was collapsed, ’tis on yorn father’s hands that rest his blood and that of the six men who died with him. And leaving me, my brothers, and sister without ma nor da.”
Othniel wanted to deny it, but he couldn’t ignore the heartache so obvious in Wilen’s voice. Othniel hadn’t been there, but he remembered hearing of the tragedy to which Wilen referred. The king had ordered them to leave the mine and the men within. Othniel also remembered how his father had agonized over that decision for months afterward.
What Wilen didn’t seem to remember was that the collapse had been done on purpose to trap a band of robbers within who’d been pillaging, murdering, and raping all along the northern border for months.
The king had gone there with a unit of guardsmen in an effort to locate and either kill or capture these bandits, but when they’d arrived at the little village and gone to the mine, there had been one man escaped who was severely injured and would not live the night. But he’d told them of the deaths of all his friends within the mine and how that very moment the bandits were inside, stealing the stores of diamonds. The king decided the best way to stop the raiders for good would be to trap them, buried alive. But Wilen would have been nothing but a child at the time, and he must have believed that his father wasn’t already dead, that the king had purposefully left him to die.
Wilen must have also forgotten that the king brought him and his siblings here to be taken in by castle servants. Wilen himself was even offered the ability to move through the ranks to knighthood, something he’d never have gained otherwise. But the past had not laid to rest in Wilen’s heart, and now here their lives parted ways.
Kendric stepped out the door before the prince and motioned for Wilen to lead him out. The other men filed out and closed ranks around the prince, blocking Othniel from view. No one would see his bound hands, but it was doubtful anyone would miss the trickle of blood staining his neck if the shadows did not work to hide it.
Othniel could see Jordel, safe and sound, standing guard at the mew door. He shot the lying bastard a glare and hoped it stung like the slice of pain that seemed fused to Othniel’s chest where his heart beat. The other man’s face gave no hint of his feelings, and this served to anger Othniel further.
They marched him to the keep, and in the silent procession, he looked at the other men, all dressed in Castle Taisce colors. He recognized only one other: Sir Callor of the house of Noren, the son of Lady Grentich’s brother-in-law. He was not related to Othniel by blood, but he’d seemed like a friend. Could the insults become any worse? How could he have trusted so many deceitful people? Othniel couldn’t help but think he’d been blind and the stupidest of stupid fools.
“Kendric,” he finally said, attempting to sound unconcerned, “is your father behind this?”
Kendric halted and turned, leaning toward Othniel with menace written across his face. “No.” He growled the word. “Don’t dare to insult my father. He had nothing to do with this.”
Othniel, not easily cowed, even while surrounded by a band of hostiles, squinted at Kendric in the dark. “Then why are you?”
Kendric deflated and sighed the sorry acceptance of a man trapped by fate. “I told you, I had no choice.” He offered not a syllable more and lead the short trek to the keep in silence.
Othniel could not think what or who was at work here, but they’d obviously been planning this for quite some time. They arrived at the stairs to the entrance of the keep and Othniel stopped, forcing his captors to do so as well. Kendric made it to the top of the steps before he noticed. He turned and looked down at Othniel, the shadows making the stern look of his face seem sinister and sorrowful all at once.
“Kendric, before we go in, I need to ask something of you.”
Kendric glanced at the darkness of the entrance then descended the steps. “What?”
“Lady Ismene is innocent in all of this. Whatever happens, I can’t— Protect her. Please.”
With the horde of betrayers standing around them, Othniel did not expect much response from Kendric, but relief washed over him as a silent look of acknowledgment passed between them.
Ismene’s life had become the most important one to Othniel in such a short time. He didn’t know how it had happened in a flash, but he’d fallen in love with his wife and would do everything in his power to protect her, to his dying breath—even if that meant giving her up to Kendric, no matter how much it hurt. The physical pain of the silent admission made him want to buckle at the waist, but he stood firm and followed the other man inside to face whatever fate lay before him.