Part One: Chapter 9
Baeldrin had thought a few cups of strong wine, a cleansing rubdown, and fresh clothing would be enough to conjure a second wind. But he’d been wrong. Then, to combat a nodding head at his father’s table, he’d taken to drinking more wine to keep him occupied…and now…
He was quite drunk.
I should’ve accepted Zera’s pipe after all, he mused with a frown, pretending to be caught up now in savoring his food, hoping not to outwardly reveal his state. At least then I’d have one less headache come morning…
For some reason this thought struck Baeldrin as funny, and a sharp snort of laughter escaped him unbidden. Immediately he cut his eyes left and right to the men sitting beside him—and thankfully found they hadn’t noticed or didn’t care about such foolishness. The next course of figs, dates, and a fowl in thin syrup was set before him, and he fell at once back into his gluttonous disguise.
About Acomalath’s huge round feast table had been set enough cedar chairs for thirty subjects to dine comfortably in the presence of their lord. Yet not all of the seats were occupied tonight, as this was a meeting of council, and no wives or children—other than Baeldrin himself—were present. A brief formal welcome by the king had started the dinner, but the night’s business wouldn’t begin until everyone’s stomach was full to bursting. Those not presently joining the prince in silent indulgence conversed at ease in scattered groups of two to three around the counter, while overhead the light from hundreds of curved fixtures cast a red glow down on huge wall tapestries, ornate vases, instruments of gold, and busts of polished stone. A hint of jasmine played background to a myriad smells from the sumptuous foodstuffs at hand, and tattooed servants worked fans of feathers behind each group of diners to whisk away the day’s hot air.
As the last course was making its way around, Acomalath rose from his chair and, seeing his guests begin to follow suit, motioned for them to remain seated. At last, thought Baeldrin. All I need do now is hold my eyes open and listen. No one will speak to me once their business begins…
“My friends,” the king was saying, “…the new moon rises, and so we gather once more. I take it you’ve found the food and drink satisfying?” A brief round of approval followed, some councilmen assenting with grunts rather than words due to their full mouths. Looking to the man at his immediate right, Acomalath spoke again: “Radovan, who addresses me first tonight?”
The spindly minister cleared his throat and replied in his usual high-pitched, droll voice: “My king, that would be Lord Tomisval. He tells me he brings news concerning your safety—and that is certainly of paramount importance to us all.”
With a roll of his eyes and a loud sigh, Acomalath took his seat again. “What is it this time, Tomis? Another serving girl trying to poison my cup? Or perhaps a band of gremlins lurking about my bedchamber?” Even Baeldrin couldn’t keep from joining the laughter following this last statement—although afterwards he chalked it up to the wine rather than to his father’s wit.
“I’m afraid not,” said Tomisval, standing as the king reclined, he perhaps the only man present besides the servants remaining composed. “Thus far it’s but a rumor…or I’d have insisted on speaking to you immediately. Yet I fear the proof is soon to come. One of our previous informants took his own life this morning rather than speak a name to my men. There’s a conspiracy against you at work, my lord. One that involves more than scorned wenches and fairies.”
“Every week it seems there’s some such news, yet nothing ever comes of it.” Acomalath rested his chin lightly atop his raised index fingers, searching Lord Tomisval’s eyes. The chamber was quiet again. “But if it will ease your mind, old friend, I’ll indulge you. Exactly what is it that…”
A sharp clang resounded just then from across the wide table, cutting off the king in mid-sentence—and all eyes followed the noise to its source.
A moment later, as Baeldrin’s sluggish mind realized the interruption had actually come from him, a jolt of terror struck the prince and manifested itself in the look on his face. Quickly he snatched from his plate the dinner knife that’d slipped from his shaking hand; but then, afraid to be seen holding any blade just now with talk of treachery—his treachery—hovering in the air, he as quickly set it down on the table and pushed it well away from him.
This should’ve been the end of the matter, with faces returning to the king as he resumed his reply to Tomisval. Instead, Baeldrin felt his father’s gaze beating down on him, and the prince struggled to stifle old feelings of a child about to be severely scolded. Suddenly his mood shifted dramatically. What he should’ve said then was nothing—rather turning again to seeming diffidence. But what he actually said, in a near-booming voice thick with sarcasm, was: “Forgive my horrible clumsiness, Father! Have I broken your train of thought?”
“Tell me, son, is it not enough we’ve suffered you to dine here unbidden?” Acomalath’s cheeks reddened as he fought to control his anger. “Your business with me today is done, is it not? Or has the wine cooled your heroic aspirations?”
Baeldrin’s fists tightened at these words, and he looked as if he’d rise from his seat in a maddened rage; yet the king continued, undaunted:
“Leave us! I’ll not have another word from you!”
A single thought had played over and over again as Baeldrin turned his back on the table and stormed from the room: I’ll strangle you myself. Oh, how he’d longed to shout back…to curse the king for a coward and gold monger in front of the man’s retainers…to boast of his own grand design for the throne and beyond. Without their weapons at hand, his swimming brain had even surmised, I could’ve given them all a good thrashing. But now, outside the palace again, his gait finally slowing to a weary trudge, the prince felt a welcome night breeze brush past his face to dishevel his dark mane…and the cooling air was beginning to bring some sense back to him. He recalled how soon he’d be departing for Ost, followed by plenty of time for plotting revenge on the way.
But all he really needed now was his bed. And he was well on his way to it.