Flamelord Vin-Shylvia slammed her fist down on the council table and glared at everyone around it.
“I refuse to believe the Asythians are responsible for the murder of my father. Just because Caster Botha found traces of the assassin in a Asythian tavern on the border does not mean that the Asythians committed the killing.”
“But what of the fact that the barkeep received the man welcomingly, Flamelord?” someone, Shylvia could not recall the woman’s name, asked.
“As the investigator said, the barkeep did not know this man. He just received him as he would any other guest, and suspicions in that direction are fallacious.”
“What about the people, Flamelord?”
Chills ran up and down Shylvia’s spine as her brother stepped out from the shadows. She still had not accustomed herself to his presence. As of yet he had done nothing indicative of his previous decadent behavior, but it didn’t mean he could not start.
“What do you mean, Valvoa?” she asked. “The people know nothing. We have kept this a secret.”
“On the contrary,” he said, standing at the head of the table as if combating Shylvia for her position. “Hearthlords and Flamewardens, the people have already heard rumors of this investigator’s findings. Who is to say they will not rise of their own accord to exact revenge? The Vith people are a loyal people to be sure, but they are not the smartest.”
“But how are there rumors of this, Firelord?” Hearthlord Rhin asked.
Everybody was now focused on Valvoa, and Shylvia realized with even greater consternation how easily he had stolen her place. She very quickly moved forward, bringing herself to right against the table, and cut her brother off before he could speak.
“If there are rumors, there cannot be many. We have kept this news very carefully guarded. The people do not and will not know enough to cause an uprising.”
“How can we be sure?” Novana demanded, rising to his feet.
“You will sit down, Flamewarden,” Shylvia retorted, her voice sharp. “And you will address me as Flamelord. I shall have no disorder at my table.
“We cannot be sure that the people will not rise up. The truth is we don’t know what they know.” You didn’t know they knew anything, a small voice in Shylvia whispered. She ignored it. “If they do decide to rise up against Asyther, we will put them down.”
“But that would mean civil war!” Novana again shouted.
Shylvia spoke very evenly. “You will control yourself, Hearthlord, or you will leave this meeting. Would you prefer war with Asyther over civil war? Which do you think would damage our country more?”
“If I may speak, Flamelord?” Valvoa said, and his deference did not make Shylvia feel any better about his presence, but she could not refuse her own brother.
“What is it?”
“I do believe that the most diplomatic solution may be to send to the Asythian Everking and ask about this assassin. If we could gain his assurance that the assassin is not his, then we could make an official proclamation the people, and avoid any conflict.”
“Now that is an idea I can get behind,” Hearthlord Rhin, a hearty man, declared, and everyone else murmured in agreement, though some seemed slightly unwilling.
Shylvia once again chilled at how easily Valvoa had stolen her place. She had to regain control of the situation somehow.
“Thank you for the idea, brother. Flamewarden Hein will ensure that a messenger is sent to the Asythian kingdom?”
Novana inclined his head in acquiescence. He seemed uncomfortable with the entire situation; in fact he had seemed on edge the entire meeting.
“In the meantime, Hearthlord Rhin and Hearthlord Lorin, I understand that maintaining your armies on standby has put a drain on your resources. I ask that you continue to do so, but we will supply you with resources from the kingdom.”
“It is as you wish, Flamelord,” Rhin said, bowing his head.
Lorin also nodded, but said nothing. Shylvia could not tell if he was disgusted or if he always appeared to have eaten something unexpectedly rotten.
“What about our armies, Flamelord?” Hearthlord Poin-Hava asked, speaking for his two compatriots. “Maintaining our armies has put a drain on our resources as well. We cannot keep them on standby without the promise of actual work. The soldiers are growing restless.”
“I am told that your coffers are quite full, Hearthlords Poin, Nain, and Shin. That is why I had you three keep your armies on standby. As for the restlessness of your soldiers, I am surprised that your troops are ill-disciplined enough to be restless while serving their country. You will continue to keep your armies at the ready, until I have given you the express order to stop.”
Hava’s face blackened, but he said nothing, much to Shylvia’s relief. She looked around the table. Everybody looked discomfited, if not completely upset. Only Rhin seemed to maintain his spirits, but that was of little solace to her. There was no way she could run a kingdom if all her subjects hated her. How had her father done it?
“That will be it. You are all dismissed.”
An hour later, Shylvia found herself once again in the room where both her parents had died, the funny little Botha beside her, setting up more of his funny instruments.
“You have certainly done a good job of asserting your dominance, Flamelord,” the inventor said, as he adjusted a knob.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Shylvia said, sharply.
“I meant no disrespect, Flamelord,” Botha instantly said, holding up his hands placatingly. “I actually like you, unlike a lot of the men who were in that room.”
“How can you tell?” Shylvia asked wearily, leaning against the wall.
“I am the investigator. It’s my job to notice things. I wish to warn you. I have been able to build some trust between the Flamelord Hein and myself, and he has let on, none to subtly, that there is some kind of conspiracy going on among the men of court. I fear they may try to depose you.”
“Surely they wouldn’t dare,” Shylvia said, eyes flashing.
“Well,” Botha seemed hesitant.
“What is it, man? Tell me this very instant.”
“I have no problem pointing fingers at the Flamewardens and Hearthlords, believe me, but I am hesitant to go further, Flamelord.”
Shylvia tightened her lips and balled her fists at her side, crumpling the elegant fabric on the sleeves of her dress. Her breath came in short bursts that puffed her veil away from her face. She knew what he was talking about.
Her next words came out in sharp jabs, like desperate sword thrusts at a kink in armor. “It is my brother, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Flamelord. I believe they plan to lock you away and then say that you had passed the throne over to him. Before they had no order and no courage, but the Firelord has worked wonders among them. He has somehow managed to unite them, and I fear that few remain on your side.”
“Surely the royal guard will defend me?”
“I have informants among them too, Flamelord. The news they bring me does not bode well.”
Shylvia felt tears of frustration well up in her eyes, and she turned away quickly, so Botha would not see them. It had only been a brightmoon since she had taken the throne, and she was about to lose it to the one person her father would never have given it to. Defeat tasted sour in her mouth.
Footsteps echoed in the hallway outside, and before Shylvia could react, the door burst open and her brother marched in, accompanied by five soldiers.
“Seize her,” he said emotionlessly, and two of the armored men, whom Shylvia recognized as her guards, moved forward to grab her.
“Is this what it has come down to, brother? Attacking a defenseless woman?” Shylvia said bitterly.
He didn’t say anything. She looked around the room to seek help from Botha, but could see no sign of him. So even he had abandoned her at the last minute. At least he had tried to warn her.
“So what? Now you’re going to lock me in a dungeon and tell the rest of the kingdom that I ceded the throne to you? Is that your brilliant plan? What makes you think the people will believe you?”
Valvoa stepped towards her slowly, his previously submissive eyes hardened like flinty points, and his demeanor impassive, emotionless. Something about him intimidated her, and she shrank from him as far as the soldiers would let her.
He did not say a word as he slid the knife into her belly, did not even blink as he twisted it around. She, herself, could not make a sound from shock. Robotically, he pulled the blade out of her and wiped it on her dress, then turned and left the room. The soldiers followed, dropping her to the ground, and she lay sprawled there, blood streaming out of her abdomen, eyes already losing their color.
In the haze that was approaching oblivion, she stared at the tapestries on the wall, reaching for them as if they could save her. The last thing she saw was a crudely depicted image of a man stabbing a woman. Then consciousness fled her.