Phillip McCollum

Beneath the king’s oak table, Lurian rolled the smooth glass vial filled with powdered devilleaf in his palm. He thumbed its cork stopper, nervously confirming that it hadn’t fallen out, and with it, any chance of saving his own neck from the king’s chopping block. In truth, if he did not proceed with the girl’s demand, the chopping block would be a charity compared to what he’d likely face.

He focused on the empty cup at the far end of the table. Between Lurian and the jeweled goblet sat silver platters overflowing with the king’s favorites — sweetmeats from the game warden’s private stock, piles of salted almonds, and Marsinian grapes. He recalled a time many years ago when the two of them were nearly caught behind enemy lines at Marsinia, all because the then-prince insisted on stealing barrels of a finer vintage then their regiment had in stock.

A cough made Lurian nearly leap out of his skin, but he was well practiced in hiding surprise. Stanislo, the silent, crooked-nose cupbearer, hovered above, giving Lurian one of his rude looks while holding two brass pitchers of wine in his hands. In the hierarchy of things, Stanislo’s official status was below that of Lurian, but he’d been in service to the king at least a decade longer. Admittedly, the servant took impudence to a talented level–one couldn’t outright accuse him of being excessively bold. He had a slippery way about him, like that of a sidewinding snake. Lurian would have been within rights to be jealous of the lackey’s talents, but he had his own by which to make up for them.

“The king is very tired this evening,” Stanislo said, touching up Lurian’s goblet with the weaker crimson wine. “It would be well not to keep him late.”

Maybe he shouldn’t be late, himself, Lurian wanted to say, but if he was going to potentially lose his head, it wouldn’t be due to a trivial, spiteful statement.

Instead, he smiled. “Of course.” Killing a man he had come to view almost as a brother was not something Lurian wanted to do, but to be rid of Stanislo? That might actually be a pleasure. He watched the cupbearer glide to the other side of the table and pour from the king’s personal stock into the empty cup. Their eyes never left each other, as if the servant was trying to pry into Lurian’s soul.

Stanislo walked through the wooden double doors and closed them gently behind him, disappearing into the hall. Lurian was alone now in the imposing dining room, leaving him to do the thing which he did not wish to do. He slept little the previous night, searching for a way out. One night was not enough time, but that was all the king’s daughter had given him.

Slip this into his cup tomorrow evening. I’ll take care of the rest.

Her speech still echoed in his ear. The moment he heard those words, Lurian felt as if his heart had stopped beating and never started again.

He pushed his chair back. The skidding sound was absurdly loud. He stood and waited for the doors to swing open, but there was no indication of the king’s arrival. Sweat beaded on his forehead. The vial nearly fell from his wet palms.

A part of him was still unbelieving of the words which had left the princess’s lips, but he had no way to prove the truth. Her word against his? She had insisted he drink with her. What drugs were slipped into his own cup, he had no idea, but he found himself out of sorts, unable to focus and resist as she took advantage of him. The very idea that she would claim that he raped her outraged him, and alone would be enough to seal his fate, but that she would also claim to be carrying his child? That ensured an unpleasant exit from this world.

She promised him a position if he cooperated, but who was to say that she would not accuse him of committing the treachery alone after the king fell into the long sleep? That was a very real threat, but in Lurian’s position, there seemed to be no good option.

He longed for the days when he had been a minor noble; before he had impressed the king with his performance in battle; before he had become very close to him and eventually made an advisor. He wished he had been as much of a student of domestic history as he was of warmaking and trade. Maybe then he would have foreseen the lengths that those in the royal family would go to seize power.

“Damn it, man, just go,” he whispered, realizing he’d been standing still for some time.

But his legs wouldn’t carry him forward. The king’s cup of wine sat, both compelling and repulsing him. Heavy winds outside of the castle rushed through tiny cracks in the stone walls, creating a low whistle in one corner of the room.

Lurian was unsure how much time passed between his standing and waiting, but it was clearly too long. He was still on his feet, undecided, when there was a brief bustle of noise outside of the doors. Lurian pocketed the vial as the pair of heavy oak planks swung open and an obviously exhausted King Jorn entered the room.

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