She sat speaking with another lady-in-waiting when Kimbur cleared her throat in such a way that made Mirelle look up. “Your Highness,” whispered Kimbur, “the Healer across the terrace seems most urgent to gain your attention.”
The Healer…. Mirelle shot a meaningful look over her shoulder at Kimbur, who looked quite somber. Undoubtedly, this was related to Merridon.
“Do excuse me,” Mirelle told the lady-in-waiting and, without waiting for a reply, carefully made her way across the terrace. The closer she got to the Healer, the more upset the Healer became.
“Quiet yourself, dear Healer,” Mirelle said in a calm voice, pulling the Healer around a pillar that they might not be seen by anyone else on the terrace. She recognized the woman as one of Merridon’s regular attending Healers.
The Healer curtsied and said, “Your Highness, if it please you –” Tears formed in her brown eyes and she began to wring her hands.
“Come, come, let us go where we cannot be overheard before we speak,” Mirelle interrupted her.
Kimbur placed an arm on the woman’s back and Mirelle led them to an indoor sitting room. She closed the windows and the door and then sat down next to the Healer, who was trembling. Odd, that the Healer was so disconcerted. As a Healer, Mirelle thought she might be accustomed to the idea of a patient’s death.
Death… this meant that Merridon was… dead, then. She let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. She swallowed down tears, for she had to be strong for this woman. She’d read the paperwork Merridon had drawn up with Stanyard.
Mirelle’s mind was suddenly a-whirl. She would need to send for Stanyard, and plan this small burial down in the Royal Romeny Tombs… and how would Mother respond to all of this, would she cry or –
Kimbur coughed slightly. Mirelle took the Healer’s hand. “How can I help you, Madam Healer?”
“As y-y-ou know, Y-Your Highness, I have been attending your eldest brother, M-M-”
And the Healer began to cry. Kimbur offered the Healer her handkerchief. The lady took it, trembling. Whatever had happened that had this woman so terribly disconcerted?
“Go on, Madam Healer,” Mirelle prompted in a quiet voice.
“If you please, Your Highness, I’m so sorry to fall to pieces like this. Your brother – we knew he hadn’t long left – begging your pardon, Your Highness.”
“Go on.” Oy! Would she ever just spit it out!
“I’m so sorry, Your Highness, your brother Merridon, he has – has passed on.”
There, thought Mirelle, was that so terribly hard to say. She controlled her facial expression. “Thank you for informing me, Madam Healer. He has been struggling for some time. I know he is at peace now. I will see to his arrangements.”
The Healer’s eyes grew large again, however. What now, wondered Mirelle.
“He – His Highness, he – he didn’t pass – like he ought to have, Your Highness….”
“In his sleep, then, perhaps? Elaborate, Madam Healer.”
The Healer glanced all about the room nervously, then at Kimbur, before whispering, “His Highness was murdered!”
Immediately, Mirelle thought of the white powder she knew Merridon had asked to have given him – and wondered whether this woman recognized arsenic when she saw it. What a tangle this would be. Stanyard would have to talk to the Healers about this. This was all Stanyard’s doing, damn the man.
Aloud, Mirelle responded, “Murdered! What makes you say such a thing? How do you know?”
“We came in this morning and –” the Healer looked horrified suddenly – “he had a –” She ran a line across her throat. “Someone cut him from behind across the throat! In the night! It’s horrible! We’ve covered him up and not let anyone in. You’re the first to hear of it, Your Highness, as you’re his only blood relative here.”
Merridon! Murdered! On the brink of death and – murdered! And – and neither Father, nor Kendrick, nor Keldrick, in the Palace…. What was she to do?
They had been very good about – about covering Merridon. The Healers had simply placed a collar over his – wound, and dressed him in one of his best outfits. Merridon looked to be asleep now. Even at peace.
Here, in Merridon’s library, things seemed much calmer somehow. Kimbur encircled her shoulders and led her away from Merridon’s bedside, and a Healer moved to cover his face up.
Mirelle began listing what had to be done in her mind. There was a murderer still in Fairview, either in the Palace itself, or the city. How was she to deal with that?
All the Healers were accounted for, and both she and Kimbur agreed that, judging by the tearful, pathetic state of the Healers, none of them had killed Merridon. At least not in the way that had actually taken his life in the end. Mirelle wondered if any of them knew they had been administering poison to him all these months.
That left only the Guards, for they had intimate knowledge of where Merridon slept, his daily routines. Perhaps one had been bribed. She told each Healer to act as if Merridon had died of his disease, not murder. They were to tell no one what had occurred in this room, including the Her Majesty, the Queen.
Some of them looked doubtful, so Mirelle said, “Her Majesty is distraught already with the King having just left for war. Would you add this horror to her grief, needlessly? I will tell her myself what occurred here when it is time. Until then, you will only speak with me and Lord Stanyard about what has actually happened to His Highness.” And all of the Healers nodded immediately, for Mother was well-loved and regarded among the Healers.
“Your Highness, we are concerned for you. What if the – monster – who committed this act is still in the Palace? He may attempt to kill you, or your Royal Mother, Her Majesty,” said one of the Healers.
Kimbur caught Mirelle’s eye. Even Kimbur seemed emphatic on this point. “Very well, I shall see that more guards are assigned. And what of you? Are any of you afeared for your lives?” she asked.
A few Healers raised their hands, shaking.
Mirelle nodded. “Very well. I will see that guards are assigned to you as well – discreetly. I will be sending for Lord Stanyard and he will interview each of you. Once he speaks with you, you are free to leave the Palace. See that you remain in the Healers’ Quarters. Guards will be stationed outside there.”
Mirelle took a deep breath, for she had no idea how she would accomplish all of this. But she looked at the small group of Healers then and told them, “I’d like to thank you for your dedicated service to my brother. I know how much he appreciated your assistance in his time of need, and how much my Father, the Eastern Shield, will appreciate your continued services at this time. Take time to rest until Lord Stanyard arrives, and he will advise you further.”
Mirelle saw them relax a bit. She gestured for them to leave ahead of her. Once they had all filed out of Merridon’s library, she and Kimbur turned to the two guards at the door. “Where is the key that locks this door?”
The Guard on the right produced a small gold key, holding it in the air before her.
“I will take that now.” Mirelle held her hand out for it.
Wordlessly, the Guard surrendered it, then saluted. Mirelle locked the doors to Merridon’s library. Then she told them, “Should anyone want entrance, they will require my permission.”
Both Guards replied, “Yes, Your Highness.”
And she and Kimbur returned to her chambers.
“Mother,” Mirelle called. She had only been in her mother’s chambers once, and had been so new to the Palace that she hadn’t taken stock of her surroundings at the time.
This time, Mirelle had a chance to take in some of the interior while her mother crossed the room. A plush, plum carpet covered the chill stone floor, and a number of detailed art pieces hung upon the walls, including a wedding portrait of her and Father.
A crystal vase held freshly cut red and white roses from the garden below, and Mirelle suspected that they were replaced daily. A dark, mahogany mantel surrounded the hearth, where a lively fire snapped and warmed the entire chamber.
“Mirelle, dear. How are you this afternoon, child? Have you taken lunch yet? I just rang for lunch. Come, come into the solar with me.” And Mother guided Mirelle by the elbow into her solar.
Mirelle had a chance to glance at Kimbur, who gave the tiniest shrug. Lunch was not the ideal way to tell Mother the news of her stepson’s death, especially now that Mirelle saw the red rims about her eyes. She’d been crying – concern over Father – and Kendrick and Keldrick – at war. And now she was going to tell her that Merridon had passed away. Such rotten timing, not just over lunch but so soon after Father had left.
One of Mother’s servants appeared. “Lunch for three, please, thank you,” and the servant hastened off immediately. “Wine?” Mother offered Mirelle and Kimbur goblets of white wine, but they both declined.
Mother glided to her balcony with her goblet of wine. “I do love the view here. You see the Royal Forests and even some of the Mantle Mountains beyond them. Don’t you like it?”
“Of course, Mother,” answered Mirelle automatically, standing at her side.
“Now,” Mother said around a sip of wine, “did you want to see me for something, or was this a social call? I do hope it was the latter.” And she smiled.
Mirelle’s heart sank. She drew in a deep breath. “I’m afraid I come with bad news, actually, Mother.”
Mother huffed and raised her eyebrows. “Bad news? You mean worse than your father and brother off in the EverWinters at war, and Keldrick in the West who knows where in Clemongard at war? Worse than that?” She shook her head and sipped again at her wine, staring out over the balcony of her solar.
Mirelle rolled her eyes to one side. Would a murderer on the Palace grounds count? But she wouldn’t tell Mother that.
“Actually, Mother, it’s Merridon.” And she paused.
Mother turned and stared at her. “Merridon! Is he well? Is he asking for me?”
Mirelle wondered just how close Merridon and Mother had ever been. “No, Mother,” she replied gently. “He – passed on – in the night.” Such a kind way to phrase it, given what had occurred.
Mother’s mouth dropped into an “o”. She was silent for a moment, but then asked, “How is it that you know of this before I do?”
“The Healers informed me first because I am his only blood relative remaining on the grounds. I told them that I would tell you myself.”
“Of course, of course. I should have thought of that,” mused the Queen. “And Rhutgard so far away…” She sighed. Tears formed in her eyes and she immediately produced a handkerchief to dab them away with. “I – should have seen him more.” She sniffed. “You were – using him as a tutor. Such a brilliant mind he – had.” She stumbled over the need to speak of him in the past, then she looked down. “Your Father and he played Ice together each week, and most often, your Father would come back amazed at just how exceptional Merridon… was. His was a life wasted, he would tell me. Your Father will be so crushed….
“Merridon made me nervous at first, when I came here, a blushing young bride. For he was the son of your Father’s first wife, and a daily symbol at first that I needed to bear fruit.” She smiled through the tears that rolled down her reddened cheeks, though she was still beautiful, thought Mirelle. Aware that Mirelle was watching her, the Queen shook her head at the thought of her younger self’s folly. “I was hardly older than you, my dear, just nineteen. Eighteen when I was betrothed, nineteen when I wed your father, and just past twenty when I bore you three. I was never so relieved. And Merridon was a very sweet child, he loved me immediately, even though I was only his stepmother.”
Mirelle thought then how Merridon’s personality had not changed, for he had immediately welcomed her, tutoring her daily, when he normally preferred to speak to no one at all. He really had been very kind. But she could not allow emotion to overtake her now, for she was here to walk through the coming few days with Mother.
“I’ve sent for Lord Stanyard,” she told Mother. “Merridon drew up paperwork that insisted on very little ceremony, only the bare minimum, which Lord Stanyard knows how to assist with,” Mirelle ventured.
“Ah, Lord Stanyard.” And Mother swallowed at her wine. Mirelle took that to mean that they had navigated through their differences in their past.
“Well,” Mirelle pointed out delicately, “Merridon’s paperwork specifically calls for him, and he is Father’s chief advisor. He will need to serve in Father’s place, for Father cannot return now.”
Mother pursed her lips with distaste. “I understand.” Then she stared out at the view from the balcony again. “It’s almost as if Merridon planned this - waited to pass on until Rhutgard was away at war and could not be present,” she mused aloud, her face thoughtful.
Lunch arrived and Kimbur busied herself assisting the servant, though her face was alarmed. Mirelle found her mouth dry and had nothing to say. Mother was not stupid, but neither would she imagine Merridon capable of what he had planned over the last two years, much less three months.
“Come, Mother, lunch has arrived, you’ll feel better with food in your stomach,” Mirelle coaxed. Chopped chicken and strawberries, toasted wheat bread and garlic butter with chives, creamy cucumber soup, and a board of several cheeses with sliced pears and plums, along with several cherry-cheese pastries were laid upon Mother’s solar table.
Mother sighed and said, “I suppose you’re right.” Then she took Mirelle by the shoulders, looked her up and down, and lifted her chin. She smoothed Mirelle’s blue and ivory dress out. Then she sighed. “My poor daughter. Not even here a year yet and you’ll be wearing mourning.”