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The long rugs of the halls of the castle silenced their feet as Ismene marched behind Lady Grentich and her niece. The emptiness grew eerie. Where had all the other servants and courtiers gone? It was late, certainly, but it was also Fortnight. Not only that, but it seemed to Ismene that there were people bustling about the castle at all hours. Her throat tightened and the thudding of her heart continued its erratic pattern. Where was Othniel?
She fervently wished she’d been more forthcoming with him earlier and not let him leave angry. Her fear doubled as her stomach tied in knots at the prospect of him hating her because of how she’d behaved and what he must believe. Somewhere in her mind, she imagined Fortnight had become the perfect alibi and cover for the Lady Grentich to murder Ismene and weasel her niece into Othniel’s good graces as a replacement bride. Would he believe it? He seemed to have an amicable relationship with Grace, and she certainly knew how to use her feminine wiles.
Their halting journey continued, for what Ismene indulged her wild thoughts in, as a death march until they reached Othniel’s room. If her stomach could tie any further in knots, she knew it would, but her insides were already so tight she could hardly breathe. The guard who stood at her back reminded her not to scream with a renewed press of his knife blade against the small of her back.
Lady Grentich stood by the door and waited for one of her henchmen to open it. The woman and her niece stepped within, but before the guards could escort Ismene in, a maid walked around the corner carrying a bundle of clean bedding. Swift and sure, before Ismene could utter a word, one of the men dashed down the hall and grabbed the girl who dropped her bundle and was about to scream.
In the most horrific sight Ismene had ever witnessed, the man grabbed her around the head, muffling her cry, and slit her throat. His barbarism proved more than enough to make Ismene’s blood run cold. The edges of her vision blackened, and a gurgling cry that could have easily come from the dying girl down the hall escaped Ismene’s throat, but a set of rough hands wrapped one around her mouth and one around her waist, pulling her into the prince’s room.
She did not faint completely, but the arms of her captor were all that kept her from crumbling to the floor.
“Fools!” Lady Grentich cried. “Clean that up immediately.”
The man holding Ismene spoke for her ears only, his voice unfeeling, “Will you keep quiet, M’lady?”
Ismene couldn’t speak if she wanted; it felt as if all the words of the world were trapped in her throat, choking her. She twitched her head ever so slightly and the guard released her mouth then set her on her own feet, but she wobbled unsteadily. The same guard reached to help her stay upright, but Lady Grace’s impatient voice stopped him.
“Leave her be. She is weak and deserves no such kindness.”
Ismene, angered by Grace’s words, reached out for the bedpost and held on. She breathed deep and slow, willing her frantic mind and heart and breath to calm. It took too many seconds to count, and in that time, the guards dragged the young maid into the room, wrapped in the linens she’d been carrying, and placed her body on the bed. Ismene fought the urge to wretch.
“They should have the prince here any moment. Do you have the king and all the rest of the unpersuadable courtiers secured?” Lady Grentich asked the tallest of her henchmen, and a nobleman by the looks of his attire.
The tall blonde man with piercing ice blue eyes nodded. “Yes, mistress. The king and those loyal to him are secure in the dungeon. Those young, unscrupulous gentlemen and unpersuadable knights participating in Fortnight are occupied—trapped in the soon-to-be burning stables—so that they cannot possibly interfere.” He paused at Ismene’s gasp but continued unperturbed. “The plan is coming together.”
“That is for me to say, Vladentine. You’re sure of this man, of this Jordel?”
“Yes, M’lady,” Vladentine said with a slow nod. “He has come highly recommended for his skills.”
“Very well.” Lady Grentich slashed her hand through the air. “Only he had better deliver as promised! It must look like she has killed him first. Every part must appear an accident or directly at the hand of this usurper.” She waved her hand at Ismene.
“What?” Ismene said for what felt like the hundredth time.
“Gag her.” Lady Grentich eyed Ismene with disdain.
“Oh yes, please do,” Grace added and held out the handkerchief she’d used to blindfold Ismene with earlier.
Vladentine’s freezing stare turned on the princess, not a single emotion transforming his face from the looming statue of marble he appeared to be. “M’lady.” He stepped near to Ismene who released the bed post and stumbled back toward the wall.
“Please, My Lord, I will not make another sound.” He ignored her, and Ismene’s panic robbed her voice of force. She whispered, “Please.” Tears she’d been fighting to hold back slipped down her face, but Vladentine did not halt his pursuit.
His hands rested on her upper arms as he physically forced her to turn around. She didn’t fight him, knowing it would do her no good. When Ismene thought he’d be cruel, he proved her wrong with the gentlest touch while tying the gag in place. He then took her arm in his big hand and walked her to where the man who’d pointed the knife into her spine stood.
“Rope,” Vladentine said, bland yet with easy authority.
Once in possession of the rope, Vladentine crossed Ismene’s wrists in the back and worked to lash them together. It chafed and scratched at her soft skin, but Ismene stifled her already spent tears, preventing more.
He walked with long strides, following behind Kendric. Their path was familiar to Othniel; they were going to his room.
“Take me to the dungeon. I need to see my father is well.”
“No.” Kendric offered nothing else and kept walking.
Othniel glanced at the guards behind him and knew they would block his only way of escape.
“Where is the princess Ismene?”
“You’ll be with her momentarily,” Kendric offered, his reluctance to speak clear in the sparseness of his replies.
Othniel let himself enjoy a tinge of smug satisfaction when they arrived outside his chamber. Kendric raised an eyebrow at him, probably questioning the out-of-place half smile on Othniel’s face. He shrugged. It would be inane to explain that he knew where they’d take him almost from the moment they walked in the door. The halls leading to the royal chambers were always sparse of excess people.
Kendric tapped three quick raps on the door and listened for a muffled call to enter before cracking it open.
A woman’s hard voice could be heard from within. “Go to your posts. You, the outer gate. You two, inner bailey entrances. You the stables. I want a report on the status of its demise and of those within. Send the rest of the men to the dungeon and the dining chamber.”
Othniel thought he might know that voice, but it wasn’t until he stepped in behind Kendric that he realized to whom it belonged. “You,” he said, the sudden surprise dissipating. “Why did I not think you behind this?”
Lady Grentich’s mirthless laughter filled the otherwise silent room. “If you had any sense, you would have seen this coming, My Lord. But we cannot all be born with intelligence.”
Othniel gritted his teeth but refused to join her sardonic repartee. Kendric gave him a little nudge, prodding him farther in to the room and away from the door. Othniel stepped to the right, but his composure shook at the sight of a demure Lady Grace gliding through the open door from the salon.
“Your Lordship,” she cooed, her impossibly dark lashes fluttering over her cold eyes.
He pressed his lips tighter together, refusing her the satisfaction of a reply.
Grace had braided her hair, much as Ismene was known to do, and laid it across her breast. She wrapped her slender fingers around the length of it and slid them down to the ends, drawing all his attention to the motion and sending stabs of uncertainty into this gut.
Lady Grentich stepped near to Grace and smiled at her with such motherly affection it made Othniel’s stomach lurch.
“My niece, by her dead father’s grandfather, is next in line for the throne after you. Did you know that?
“Of course. Do you take me for an imbecile? My father made all my relations and rivals clear to me from a young age.”
“All of this could have been avoided if you’d just chosen me over her,” Grace said, bitterness edging her tone. “I certainly didn’t want it to happen this way.”
Othniel half listened to the women while he assessed his situation in the back of his mind. “I didn’t choose anyone,” he said while counting one . . . two, three men and two women in the room. If he could get his hands free, he could probably take them both on, and he didn’t expect much resistance from Kendric. The coward.
“You could have, though. You could have contested any choice your father made for you. It is our law, but you did not,” Lady Grentich said. “You are as complicit, and now you’ve forced our hand. You could have ruled next to Grace, but now you will never be king. You will be forever remembered as the prince whose bride murdered him on Fortnight.”
As soon as she said it, an incredibly tall man who had to duck through the low doorframe of the salon pushed Ismene into the chamber. Othniel only had eyes for his wife. Ismene’s skin was ashen, her own eyes wide with fright and a little red, as if she’d been crying. Of course she had, how could she not? These people were beasts.
Without thinking, he made to step toward her. “Ismene,” he said, a barely masked tremble in his stern voice. But Kendric grabbed his bicep, and Jordel blocked his path, grabbing his shoulders as he pressed against the firm restraint in an effort to get near her.
“That’s close enough, Your Highness,” Lady Grentich said while at the same time shooing Grace to take a seat in the large stuffed leather chair by the fireplace where a low fire crackled happily against the doom.
Once she was pleased with her niece’s placement, keeping out of harm’s way, Lady Grentich turned her attention to Jordel. “I have been informed that you are our man, that you can . . . perform miracles of intrigue and design.
“I can, Your Ladyship,” he said with a nod before leisurely spitting on the floorboards to the side. His eyes never left those of Othniel who glared at him with barely contained rage.
“You’ve been paid half already, yes?”
“Yes, Your Ladyship.”
“Good. You shall receive the other half once word has successfully spread of the princess Ismene murdering her husband, our own beloved Prince Othniel, on Fortnight.”
Jordel, with more animation than Othniel had seen on his face all night, sucked saliva from between his teeth, grinned, then spit again. Othniel’s head went light and he renewed his effort to break past the thick man. He knew they would kill him, but to frame Ismene for it? That was unthinkable. He stopped struggling and stared at her. She shook her head as if the mere act of refusal could change her fate.
“You cannot do this,” Othniel said, his words strangled. “Leave the princess out of this.”
“Oh, ’tis much too late for that, Highness,” Grace said from her reclined position in the chair. “She has been witness to far too much to let her live. She shall die.”
“No!” Othniel gasped, pulling against Kendric’s grip which tightened on his arm while at the same time, he stumbled a little.
“It will be an act of passion,” Grace continued, her voice wistful, as if telling a fairytale to young children. She lifted Ismene’s bow and an arrow from the floor. “I will be forced to tell all who can hear of how she left me during Fortnight and came here, finding you in bed with your lover. In a rage, she took her bow, killed you with an arrow to the heart, and sliced the lifeblood from the poor servant girl who warmed your bed.”
“You’re a monster,” Othniel said, the words ground out between clenched teeth. He looked back at Ismene and couldn’t tear his gaze away from her brave, innocent, gentle, beautiful face. It was his fault she was here.
“Lady Grentich,” Kendric said, giving Othniel’s arm a light squeeze, “you never said Lady Ismene would be in danger. She was not to be harmed.”
“Kendric, you romantic fool,” Grace said, the quip rolling off her tongue. “What did you expect?”
“You can’t just kill her. I have done everything you’ve asked. Release her to me. I’ll make sure she never says a word of anything.”
“How do you expect to do this?” Lady Grentich scoffed. “You will be here beside your wife, Queen Grace.”
“That wasn’t our deal,” he said through gritted teeth.
Othniel held his breath and prayed to Almighty that Kendric would be able to negotiate Ismene’s release.
“Lord Selin, your family’s wealth and name are what will bolster Grace’s reign and keep those who might question the succession from causing doubt in others. You have become quite essential, pawn though you be. I do believe my dear Grace has taken a liking to you, though your rakish ways must come to an end, and you have not yet discharged your debt to us. No. I think not,” Lady Grentich said with such a sinister lilt that even Othniel cringed.
Kendric let go of Othniel’s arm and paced a few steps forward, toward Lady Grentich, and then swiveled, stepping nearer to Othniel than Jordel. Kendric looked stern, but there was a foreboding resolution in his eyes that Othniel grasped on to like a lifeline.
With his back to Lady Grentich, Kendric said, “I understand you, Lady. Let all be done as you require.”
Kendric gave a nearly imperceptible nod to Othniel who could not return it with the eyes of his enemies scrutinizing him, but he offered all his trust to this man who had become his most evident rival since Ismene had walked into his life and his sole friend in these final moments.
Kendric turned to Ismene but spoke to Lord Vladentine whom Othniel now recognized as the impossibly tall blond man.
“Vlad, I have not the stomach for killing, so let me hold onto the princess whilst you do the honors.”
“Gladly,” Vladentine said with a sneer.
Othniel couldn’t fathom what he’d done to deserve this man’s hate. Still, he stood firm when Kendric took possession of Ismene and Vladentine’s approach left Othniel looking like a child in comparison.
Othniel, realizing he couldn’t leave things as they were with Ismene, said, “Lady Grentich. I must beg one last favor—a dying man’s request.”
“What is it?” She stepped between Vladentine and Jordel.
“May I say goodbye to my wife. Kiss her one last time?”
“I should like to say no and watch you squirm, but I see no harm it, so I shall grant you this last request.” Lady Grentich nodded to Vladentine and Jordel, waving them both aside.
Othniel stood closer to the door, so he waited for Kendric to bring Ismene to him. Kendric loosened the gag and let it drop to dangle from Ismene’s neck.
“Othniel,” she gasped as soon as her mouth was free from the material.
Before she could utter another sound, his heart breaking in a million pieces, he pressed his lips to hers and wished to Almighty that his arms could be free to wrap around her. But just the feel of her lips and the warmth of her body near his was enough to remind him of what mattered most to him, and that was her life. He would let her go a thousand times before he’d see her suffer because of him.
“I’m sorry, Ismene,” he said and leaned his forehead against hers. “For everything. I’m only glad I have this chance to make things right.”
“Othniel.” She sounded so breathless. “No. I should have told you my feelings from the beginning; I shouldn’t have left you with any doubt. Please forgive me.”
“There is nothing to forgive.” The words lodged in his throat and he continued haltingly. “I would wish you free to love where your heart wills.”
“What?” Her eyes grew wide.
Othniel nodded to Kendric who lifted the gag.
Her words were cut off, the material shoved back in place. Othniel had to tear his eyes away as hers filled with tears once again. He couldn’t take the vehement shaking of her head that spoke her fear where her muffled words were unclear.