Secrets of the Court: Chapter 17

 February 12th – Wessport Palace

Deep and peaceful breaths broke her dreamless sleep. Christine found herself on her bed atop her covers, her mind distant and confused. She looked around the room. The sun was shining its dim beams through the thick windows, and all was quiet and peaceful. She could see the dust particles dancing in the air as the light hit them. The air in the room felt thick and humid as a chill crept up on her. She was lulled into a strange sense of serenity before she realized where she was.

The room was so quiet that she could've heard the drop of a pin. It was the reason why she heard the soothing breaths next to her — they reminded her of the ocean, in a way. The rhythm served to calm her and it turned into a sense of security. When Christine's eyes adjusted to the dim light she was surprised to find Tristan sitting on a chair next to her bed, his head resting against its tall back.

Her eyes widened as she took him in—his white shirt was stained with blood, as well as his brown wool hoses. The upper part of his shirt was unbuttoned, allowing her a slight view of his chest — some white, thin scars rose up, trailing toward his throat and continuing under the mask. It sparked a distant curiosity in her.

Even with his face covered, he emitted an air of fatigue albeit also a sense of peace. She had never seen anyone sleep so deeply before. For the last several days she suspected he had barely slept, for she knew something had been bothering him. Yet now he slept like an infant — not even the sound of a gunshot would seem to wake him.

Christine inched closer. Tristan's closed eyes looked so heavy that the lids appeared glued shut. The black eyelashes cast shadows onto his covered cheeks. His lips were slightly parted, allowing the sweet breaths to escape. His arms were folded over his chest and they moved as he inhaled and exhaled. Long legs were sprawled before him. Christine had never seen someone look so peaceful in quite a while and she smiled. There was something almost beautiful about him—it was a peace she had never come to know in Tristan. It made him look more human to her, proving that the calamities and strains of life affected him just as much as they did her.

But soon memories from the previous night reappeared. Christine pushed the sight of a lifeless Linahan away from her mind and focused instead on getting out of bed. She gripped the gray mantle tightly around her and walked with silent steps to the door, seeing if Maria was in the parlor. The maid was stacking logs in the fireplace to prepare the fire for the day. Big snowflakes fell outside of the palace and managed to paint the city white again, hiding the gray and black filth that had forced its way through the previous days. In some sense, it seemed like any other morning to Christine. If she didn't think about it, she could almost forget that a man had been brutally stabbed and died in her arms the previous night. It was the only thing that reassured her. Whatever happened to her, whatever horrors were thrown her way, life never stopped. It had no reason to. The sun would still rise, bringing with it a new day. It wasn't the end of the world, she kept thinking. She knew she could overcome this, just as she had overcome last night.

"My lady!" Maria exclaimed as she saw a disheveled Christine enter the parlor. Her golden hair was a mess, looking more like a bird's nest that had been tousled in a storm. The gray blanket hid part of her once-white nightgown, but not enough. Maria quickly reached for the wool garment and pushed it aside, taking a deep breath as she saw the bloodied clothes Christine wore underneath. The young woman drew a sharp breath at the dried blood on her hands, wondering how she could've forgotten to ever clean them.

"Are you alright?" Maria asked, her voice fighting hard to not break.

"I will be, Maria." Christine was surprised at her honest answer. She thought she would be in despair, in fright as she had not been able to sleep much. When the initial adrenaline had left her system, the shock had taken over. She had felt vulnerable then, strangely reminded of her own mortality. But, in a way, the combination of Tristan's comforting presence and fatigue had managed to calm her.

Last night, when Tristan sat with her, she had for the first time felt safe and sound in his company. He had barely said anything. However, no words were necessary. He emitted a composed calm and it rubbed off on her. She remembered his eyes being the last thing she saw before succumbing to sleep.

"Could you prepare me a bath and a gown? But take care in not waking Hawthorne. I will bathe in his room instead," Christine said, looking at the closed door to her chamber.

"Lord Hawthorne was with you all night?" Maria asked. Her mouth parted in surprise as her eyes locked with Christine's.

"It is not what you think, Maria!" Christine exclaimed but she never fully explained herself, turning around to hide her reddening cheeks.

Christine wasn't disturbed by the fact that they had spent the night in each other's company. She was surprised when she realized that she welcomed it and that she already missed his company.

Maria never questioned it. Instead, the maid sent word for bathwater and went into Christine's room to fetch her mistress' gown and attire for the day. Maria tiptoed to the wardrobe and her eyes widened at the sight of a peaceful Tristan, resting in his chair. Maria could not help but smile, the chair was even a modest distance from the bed.

The light in the room got more intense as the sun continued to rise in the sky until it reached its highest point. The light finally managed to irritate his eyes. Tristan stirred. His body ached from having slept in a chair the whole night. As he shuffled around on the uncomfortable wooden furniture, he realized something—he had not slept so well in weeks. He got up from the chair and stretched his stiff back and neck, rolling his shoulders to get the blood flowing. Tristan looked down and swore at the bloodied clothes.

Images of the previous night started revealing themselves to him. He remembered the dark corridor, Christine's shouts of panic, and the look on Linahan's face as he cried out for someone. He remembered Christine's look of shock as she watched the man die in her arms. But what Tristan remembered most of all were Linahan's last words. In the heat of the moment, he had barely remembered the importance of them ‘Tell Hawthorne’, and ‘Athar’. 

Linahan had mentioned Athar.

Could it be that the old duke had overheard Linahan speak with Tristan the other day after the assembly? Could it be that it was Athar who — in desperation to not be found out — had stabbed the younger man to silence him? So many questions suddenly found their way into his mind and served to confuse him. The more he unveiled, the more questions he had. It had been Linahan who'd asked him about Saxton—Saxton had trusted in Athar, thus Linahan must have done so as well. Tristan only knew that he needed Lucius in Wessport as quickly as possible. He had an itch to interrogate Captain Fletcher, but he did not have the means to do so in Wessport. It would surely expose him.

Christine had heard Linahan's last words as well. Tristan trusted her, he knew she would not go around and mention them to anyone. He was certain, now more than ever, that she would have a myriad of questions for him. It made Tristan sigh in composed frustration. The gloves creaked as his hands turned into fists.

He headed for the door and opened it, finding Christine sitting in the parlor, staring into the fire. A tome rested in her lap, but the book was unopened, almost as if she'd wanted to start reading but never got to it. She heard him come out from her room and her head snapped in his direction. Tristan then saw Joseph sitting with her in silence as well—his posture tense. Both looked like they wanted to speak with him, but one look from him quickly silenced them. Tristan needed a bath and a change of clothes. He saw a few buckets of water by the fire, sending a questioning glance toward them.

"I imagined you would want a bath as well, so I had the servants prepare the water until you were ready," Christine said.

Tristan wordlessly took the buckets with him into his chamber where he stripped from his bloodied clothes and let the water cleanse him. The dried blood came off his body, mixing with the water and a metallic smell filled his nostrils. He spent little time in the tub and quickly returned to the parlor, finding Christine and Joseph as disturbingly quiet as before. They all sat there a while, taking in what had transpired a few hours earlier.

Joseph had been alerted that morning. The gossip had spread like wildfire and many courtiers had even ventured to the same corridor, in hopes to get a glimpse of the body. Of course, out of respect for Linahan, he had been moved to the chapel awaiting his funeral. But the bloodstains were still there, the odor of metallic blood and fear stalked the cold corridor and the same courtiers soon walked away, overcome by the scene they had witnessed.

"His Majesty has asked for us the entire morning," Christine said distantly after a while. Tristan remained staring into the flames. He seemed pensive and angry, perhaps even furious.

"I suspected as much," Tristan muttered after a while.

"They are probably sending someone over again."


"His Majesty, the small council, and some members of the assembly," answered Christine, receiving another sigh. Tristan had no strength nor will to deal with frightened old men at the moment. But he was even more irritated that he hadn't been informed earlier.

"And you tell me this now?" His tone was even, it contained a hint of irritation as he rasped the words gravelly. It made the hairs on Joseph's arms rise. Christine sighed. She put away the book, her lavender eyes met his sky blues.

"You needed sleep. If you argue with me on that—lying about how you've barely had a shuteye for the past few days, then you mock me, my lord." She got up from her seat and walked over to him. Joseph felt uncomfortable as he sensed the coming fight between the two. Tristan did not move an inch in his seat as Christine came to stand before him.

"If His Majesty asks for me, I am obliged — as his loyal subject — to go."

The response made Christine huff in slight frustration at his ever-present arrogance. "I see, then the promise we made in the carriage about being honest with each other was false?"


"Then enlighten me, my lord, for I know that you are keeping something from me. Joseph was gone for days and suddenly returns with an urgent message for you. Linahan was stabbed by someone right at our doorstep. His last words were to tell you something and then he mentions Athar?" With each word, her voice grew more severe. "I have told you several times that, despite some of my previous actions, I am no fool. I can sense trouble when it is present. What aren't you telling me?" It was not a plea, nor her begging him. Christine was demanding Tristan treat her as an equal. He could not argue with that. But keeping her in the fold would mean that she would feel as paranoid about living in the palace as he did. It would mean that she would not only have to worry about the pestering courtiers—she would constantly look over her shoulder in suspicion.

"This is Wessport, madam, what do you think is going on behind closed doors?" Tristan's question was enough to answer her own.

"Conspiracy?" It was the first thing that came to mind and as she uttered the loaded word she sank down on the settee next to him. "You cannot be serious…" she trailed off. But as she kept thinking about it, another realization hit her. "Thomas Athar is involved in a conspiracy?" she asked, looking first into his eyes and then into Joseph's. "H-He killed Jonathan?" Her words were barely above a whisper. The mere thought made her feel sick. She could practically see the kind eyes of the old man before her and Christine refused to believe that such a man would ever do something so horrible.

"Never speak such words again out loud lest we all end up like Linahan. Conspiracy might well have been the reason he was stabbed," Tristan growled, growing tense.

"You will not report him to the king," she stated. She understood why. Going up against a powerful man like Athar was extremely dangerous. They were alone at court with no connections or friends. It was she, a traitor's daughter; Tristan, a masked commoner turned nobleman; and Joseph, an insignificant Viscount's son with no prospects. And that Tristan was to duel in a few days did not add to their favor either.

"We will deal with this after the duel. It is better to focus on that now than to try to balance several things at the same time," Joseph said, voicing his own opinion. "But Athar will pay for his crime—if he did kill Linahan." Joseph's voice shook slightly. He had known the deceased man. They had been acquainted since children and the loss weighed heavy upon him.

"In all of this, it seems we keep forgetting that a man lost his life," Christine admitted and looked apologetically at Joseph. "Did you know him well?" she asked quietly.

"I would've liked to have known him better," Joseph answered distantly.

"Do you, by any chance, know who Angela is?" she asked. Her voice could not hide the sadness she felt when she remembered how Linahan had spoken the name with so much care.

"It was his wife, she passed three years ago in childbirth." Joseph looked questioningly at Christine. "How did you know her name?" Tristan could see the sadness rip another fresh wound into Christine as she was yet again reminded of the previous night.

"Because when I held him in my arms he would not stop calling for her." Her voice broke at the end and she released a shaky breath. Tristan appeared as if wanting to reach out and comfort her, but he remained seated, his head lowered instead. Christine took a moment to compose herself before getting up and walking over to the door. "I... I believe we should not keep His Majesty waiting." She wanted to be anywhere but there.

Tristan and Joseph reached for their capes. They were all dressed in mourning as they headed for the assembly chamber, Christine included.

Maria had never been in the palace chapel before. It was a secluded building with an impressive courtyard in the east section of the building. The courtyard facing it was called the Courtyard of the Kings. She looked around again; it was more of a small church than a little chapel, which spoke of the immensity of the impressive palace. The little church was the oldest part of the building, not taking into account the pagan foundations. They could be found beneath the dungeons of the palace, beneath the Roman ruins. They were the leftovers of the civilization that had inhabited the island long before the Romans—the Hynglican people. They had lived in tribes, much like the pagans of those days, praying to their own strange gods of old until the Romans had taken over Angloa. It had also been the Romans who had given the island its name: Hangloa, which had then passed to be called Angloa as it was conquered by the Anglo-Saxons during the early Middle Ages, only to be reclaimed by the Normans and annexed to Britain.

Maria drifted toward the confessional. Since the palace chapel was much richer than the one she'd taken Christine to, the confessional was more than just a chair where the priest sat. It was a box with separate compartments, so the confessor might keep their anonymity. She kept telling herself how she had never been devout, but confession had always been soothing for her. If not for her soul, it had always helped her mind.

Maria had not been able to deal with what she had seen and heard the previous night. Anything that she heard that concerned Christine she would take to her grave, bear the burden, and live with the consequences of never sharing such secrets. But when she saw Linahan's blood pouring out of his body — like his life was draining out from him — she had been plagued by that sight during her sleep. Her nightmares had woken her several times and she had struggled hard not to wake up screaming.

It was the first time she had seen a man killed so violently. She needed a confessor to hear her worries and give her relief.

She opened the box and slipped in, talking in hushed voices with the priest. The incense of the building soon calmed her nerves and the echo of their whispering voices sounded like an unearthly melody—the kind of sounds one could only find in a house of God.

Maria poured out her whole heart. She talked about what she had seen. She knew there could've been a better place to go to, considering that the palace was a dangerous place to let out such information. But the gates of Wessport Palace had been closed until the culprit was found. She did not wish to burden her mistress and thus, her feet had taken her to the impressive chapel.

The maid kept glancing at the wooden panel in front of her, at the intricate detail carved into it, allowing her some view of the priest that sat behind it. There was a long silence, as his mind worked the alluring information he'd just received.

"Step out of the confessional, my child," the priest spoke gravely. She almost jumped in her seat as the words ripped through the silence. Maria did as she was bid and stepped nervously out of the wooden box only to come face to face with Cardinal Thorpe. She immediately got down on her knees.

"Your Eminence!" she cried out, never knowing such a high-ranking servant of the church had listened to her meek problems. He lowered his gloved hand for her to kiss his ring and bid her to stand. There was a sense of urgency on his face as he spoke.

"Now, listen to me. If you do as I say, your worries will disappear and Linahan will rest in peace in his grave. But we must take quick action if we want that to happen," he said, his plump face smiling down at her and his enigmatic eyes piercing into hers. Maria did not feel comfortable under his gaze but did as he bade. She nodded and followed him, unaware of where he might be taking her.

The odd pair stalked through the chapel, away from the deep calm and silence and out onto the Courtyard of the Kings. His steps quickened as he took her toward the palace, looking back once or twice to make sure she was following him. Maria was worried. What was he up to? He had heard her confession and somewhere deep down, she suspected that her words would not be allowed to rest a secret. She felt her feet slowly become heavy as she slowed down until coming to a complete stop. Thorpe noticed immediately and turned around.

"What is it, my child?" he asked with a worried look on his face as he came up to stand next to her.

"Where are we going?" She was cautious of him now. A priest, a cardinal, it did not matter. They were supposed to keep a confession a secret. So why did she feel like this was not the case?

"We are going to a man who can help Lord Linahan. That man will also punish those responsible for his death," Thorpe said, giving her a stern eye. He never said more, but the look he gave her was most incriminating—as if she would be doing a great wrong if she did not continue after him.

Maria sighed, her mind giving up and listening to his comforting words. She gave him a determined nod, soon following the man in red once more. He led her through the vast network of corridors, up some stairs, and into an area she had never been before. Thorpe stopped in front of an exquisitely carved door. Two palace guards stood out front, casting glances at him and the maid. He told one of them something and the guard quickly bolted away in another direction. He soon returned with someone else.

"Are you ready?" Thorpe asked as he turned to look Maria directly in the eye. She nodded, confused, but put her faith in him. He was a servant of the cross, after all. The cardinal then proceeded to knock on the door, announcing his presence.

The three of them stood in the assembly room. It was not the usual setup that Tristan had become accustomed to. The room housed fewer people than usual. Only the lords forming part of the small council — the highest-ranking council in Angloa — were present. They were Athar, Fawkes, Braun, and two other lords. They sat next to James, looking at the group before them. Even members of the council dressed in black, out of respect for the dead.

James looked like he had seen better days. His eyes were about to shut close from fatigue and there was a shadow of a beard on his face, suggesting he'd not had time for a shave. Fawkes had a serious look on his face, something Tristan had only seen during the war. He always associated Fawkes with laughter and charming smirks or remarks. Seeing Fawkes so serious unsettled him.

Christine got the impression that she was standing in front of a tribunal—guilty of a crime she had not committed.

"I would appreciate it, Lord Hawthorne, if the next time I call on you, you arrive faster." James was not happy as he spoke. The pleasantries had gone to the wind as the king got straight to the point. He waved a hand in the air as the frown on his face intensified. "For I deeply hope you take this matter seriously," he continued. Tristan said nothing, but his eyes stared directly into the monarch's golden ones, instead of submissively glancing down.

"It was my fault, Your Majesty," Christine intervened. She took a hesitant step forward and squirmed silently as all eyes fell upon her.

"It seems, Lady Vega, that you have a knack for getting those around you into trouble." James was not amused.

"Your Majesty has to understand that Lord Hawthorne and I could scarcely sleep after having kept Linahan company during the last few moments of his life." She was satisfied with the choice of words. They delivered the importance and impact she desired. James gave a halfhearted nod and Athar's frown turned milder.

"Hrm, eh yes, well… don't let it happen again." James grew flustered as his hand clutched his wooden seat.

"Do you know why we have summoned you?" Fawkes spoke up, gaining momentum as James cleared his voice.

"Jonathan Linahan was stabbed multiple times and left to wander the desolate corridors of the palace, bleeding out like a wounded animal. We have a very clear picture of why we are here." Tristan's voice was just as dark as the day he had spoken with Alistair—the moment he had issued the duel.

"Was he lucid during the final moments of his life?" Fawkes continued. "Did he indicate anything about his attacker?" The old general grew weary at the final words.

When none of them spoke up James grew visibly impatient. "Let it be clear now that any information you are withholding from me will result in dire consequences for the three of you."

"The pain and loss of blood had him rambling, Sire." Christine grew cold at the memory of Linahan's gray eyes as he called out for his dead wife. She let the emotion fill her and displayed it on her face. "He kept calling out for…for Angela." Her voice broke at the last sentence and Christine turned around. James looked confused and Athar quickly explained to the monarch. James's eyes widened as he suddenly understood.

Despite himself, Tristan was thankful that Christine had spoken. The men before them did not wish to tread further, causing Christine more distress. When Tristan stole a glance from her it was evident — as she looked back at him and gave him a half-broken smile — that she was trying to buy them time, but from what, he did not know.

"He said nothing else, then?" asked Athar. Tristan fought hard against his emotions as his blood boiled. The old duke appeared genuinely struck by grief at the loss of Linahan. Whispers had floated through the palace that Athar had rushed to the chapel to say his personal farewells before the funeral.

"He—" began Tristan. Suddenly a knock broke through the interrogation. It was modest, quiet even. But it was so unexpected that it ripped through the serious scene like an ax hacking away at a piece of hardwood. They all turned their heads toward the door and James slammed a closed fist down onto the armrest, muttering profanities as his voice boomed.

"I explicitly told you that we are not to be disturbed!" 

The guard who peaked in through the door grew pale but persisted.

"I am terribly sorry for the affront, Your Majesty, but Cardinal Thorpe wishes to speak with you." The guard's eyes kept dancing between the small council and the strange group of people they were questioning.

"He will have to wait!" James got up now, for a more intimidating effect. But the guard would not give up.

"He says it has to do with Lord Linahan." The young guard cast his eyes to the ground, hoping the king would not have him thrown into a dungeon for his impertinence.

James's eyes grew into a set of saucers and his silence was more than enough to invite the man outside. Thorpe pushed past the guard and stepped confidently into the assembly room, walking past Christine, Tristan, and Joseph. He planted himself firmly in front of the five men that eyed him with keen interest. Before James could utter a sound, the old cardinal commenced speaking.

"I come, humbly, to request that firm action is taken immediately against one of you in here," he said enigmatically. Christine's heart started beating hard in her chest as Thorpe glanced back at them. Was he going to have them imprisoned for not divulging more information? Or was he perhaps in league with Athar? Could it be that he was trying to protect the old duke by imprisoning her or Tristan? She did not let her worry show. Instead, confusion spread on her face. She glanced over at Joseph who remained calm on the exterior. Tristan's mask shielded him from any insight. For the first time ever, she was jealous of his mask.

"Well, speak up man, we haven't got all day!" James was impatient, but Tristan noted a hint of nervousness in the young king. Maybe James knew as much as Tristan did. Maybe James had figured out that Linahan's death was tied to the ongoing conspiracy in the palace.

"I have proof that someone in this room stabbed Lord Linahan countless times. They did so to silence a man whose conscience got the better of him. This proof also reveals plans of a most treasonous nature against you, Your Majesty," Thorpe said haughtily. He put much force in his words as he spoke, proudly raising his head. The words did inspire the wanted effect and they all leaned forward in anticipation. Thorpe knocked on the door and in came two women.

They were both dressed as servants, but there the similarities ended. Christine, Tristan, and Joseph all felt their hearts drop as they spotted Maria enter, seemingly frightened at the scene before her. The young maid's mouth dropped when she spotted the king. She cast herself to the ground in a clumsy courtesy and shivered. Her eyes then found Christine's and Maria grew nauseated. She reprimanded herself then and there as it dawned on her what the cardinal had brought her into.

Between Christine, Maria, and Tristan a thousand words could not have expressed the sense of defeat and betrayal they felt. Christine's confused mask began slipping as her eyes locked with Maria's. Her furrowed brows finally showed the sadness that had replaced the feeling of betrayal. Why? was the only thing that coursed through her mind. Why was she there? Why would she be with Thorpe?

"This young woman, burdened by her heart and by what she saw last night, came to the chapel for confession," Thorpe said as he placed a reassuring hand on Maria, making the maid turn to face the small council.

"I know, my lords, that confession is a secret we servants of the church must keep. But this brave young woman was willing to step forward and reveal what she heard to me." He gently squeezed Maria's shoulder. She had never agreed to such a thing, but to Christine, it had to sound so. The young maid fought hard to not let the tears escape, uncertain of what to do. She couldn’t very well deny the request Thorpe now demanded of her, it would be denying the king as well.

"Tell them what you told me, child. Do not let fear overcome you. The ones responsible will pay." Thorpe squeezed the shoulder harder and guided her to stand before the king. James eyed her keenly, sudden recognition sparked in the deep crevices of his mind. This was Christine Vega's servant.

"Your Majesty, I…" Maria’s voice broke as she felt her heart beat faster and harder than a thousand galloping horses. Her tongue would not move, and she could not stop shaking. The harsh stares of the three people behind her dug into her neck, while the eyes of the king pierced her very soul. Maria's eyes then gently drifted to Athar—a man whose face most in the kingdom would recognize, even in his advanced age. His reassuring face gave her courage, not because of the kind look he gave her, but because of what she suspected about him. She didn’t understand what implications revealing what she had overheard might have for Christine, but Maria thought it could not incriminate her.

"L-Last night my mistress went for a pitcher of water and stumbled upon a dying Lord Linahan in the hallway. I know little of what Lord Linahan said, for my lady and his lordship sent me to get a physician. I have never run so fast in my life, my lords. Your Majesty, I tried to get to him in time, I swear I tried!" she exclaimed and clasped her hands in front of her, as if in prayer. Remorse was evident in her eyes. Before she could continue James lifted his hand in a reassuring gesture.

"You did more than what was asked of you. But there is a reason His Eminence has brought you here. That is what we wish to hear." The irritated tremor in James' voice revealed his impatience to find out who in that room had betrayed him.

"When I returned—having fetched more servants and the physician—I was first to arrive as I ran the fastest.” Maria couldn’t help but glance back in uncertainty, should she continue?

“Speak up,” Thorpe said forcefully, the previously friendly expression now gone from his plump face.

“I-I arrived there in time to hear Lord Linahan speak…before—"Maria stopped herself and turned to meet Christine's glazed eyes.

"I believe both Lady Vega and Lord Hawthorne were too affected by the situation to fully process what Lord Linahan had said. But I heard them," Maria swallowed hard, looking from Thorpe to Athar to the king. "He…he said a name,” she whispered, frowning as her shaking became more evident. The maid had gone pale as she directed her gaze at Athar. “Your name, my lord.”

The old man frowned at her, confused. James stared at Athar in disbelief.

"It is well known that I kept a close friendship with Jonathan," Athar defended himself, growing considerably insulted by the words. James gripped the armrests of the chair, his countenance growing more agitated. His face twisted, speaking of the conflict unfolding within him.

"That was very courageous of you." Thorpe removed the hand from Maria’s shoulder, his eyes closed as he spoke sincerely, yet she could not hear any warmth to his words—the sincerity feeling forced. He then motioned for the other maid to move forward as Maria was forced aside. The other maid was a beautiful young woman with bright red tresses. The intense color of the young maid’s hair scratched at Christine’s eyes for some reason.

Maria had been made to stand by the side of the room, wishing she could disappear. And maybe she would, if Tristan didn't have her punished, then Athar would certainly have her gone from the surface of the earth.

The other maid strutted forward. She needed no initiative from Thorpe as she commenced.

"Well, I saw it all happen, I did. I was returning from Lord and Lady Tremston's apartments. They had asked for a late-night bite as they always do and I always oblige them, of course. I am no stranger to the hallways of Wessport Palace, but last night as I returned from the kitchens I heard strange noises coming from Lord Athar's apartments as I passed them. They're further down the hall from the Tremstons, you see," she stated matter-of-factly. "I walked past and noticed the door ajar." The young woman took a deep breath as a pained expression grew across her delicate features. She did the sign of the cross as she continued. "I saw Lord Athar sink the knife into poor Linahan who fought his way free and stumbled through the corridor. I ran for my life, so I did! I was afraid that the murderer would kill me as well if he ever found out what I had seen," she finished. It was swift but effective.

Before anything else could be said, Thorpe motioned for a guard to step in and hand him some documents.

"After Miss Jeanne was brave enough to step forward, I took it upon myself to speak with Lord Athar, for I thought that perhaps the young maid had been overcome by what she had seen." 

Joseph saw some pieces of parchment from afar and his eyes widened as he recognized some of them. He had glanced over them when he'd searched John Fletcher's place. Thorpe gave the documents to the king.

"These documents, signed and sealed by Lord Thomas Athar himself, show his implication in a very detailed conspiracy." Cardinal Thorpe looked over at Athar with disgust as he continued. "I suspect Linahan was involved in it, but his conscience got the better of him. I wouldn't be surprised if Lord Athar stabbed him to silence the poor man for good."

The words of Thorpe, the documents, and the testimonies were enough to sentence Athar to be executed.

"You do me an injustice, Thorpe." Athar got up now, insulted yet he managed to retain his composure. Fawkes stared at his old friend in utter disbelief, with his mouth slightly open.

"This cannot be! There must be some mistake!" Fawkes said in desperation. James looked at the plans, with each turning page his eyes grew darker and darker.

"Do you have anyone—a servant, or a footman who could vouch for your whereabouts last night?" James asked slowly. Venom spilled from every word as he squinted his eyes at Athar.

"I…, no, Your Majesty. I was alone that night, but I assure you that Linahan was nowhere near my apartments," Athar said calmly. Athar grew frustrated as he came to realize his predicament. He was being accused of murder, on top of that, of conspiracy. It was his word against that of two maids who had given credible testimonies of what happened that night. He eyed the room and found the look of condemnation on many faces in the crowd. His eyes came to rest longer on Fawkes. The man was his friend, practically his brother. Fawkes stood up, not daring to believe that his friend could have done such a thing. Athar’s breath quickened when he realized that Fawkes was beginning to question what he had just heard.

Christine dared sneak a glance at Tristan. She could not believe they had been spared any complications. Athar was being accused on someone else's behalf; Maria's, the other maids, and Thorpe's. Tristan gave her a reassuring look, promising they would not be implicated—promising that he would not let it happen. She wondered if Tristan had known of Athar’s involvement since before Linahan’s murder and if that was the main reason for his restless nights. She wondered how long he had known.

"All evidence points at you, Athar," James whispered in defeat. His old mentor had fallen from grace and the king suffered from it. The man who had stood by his side ever since the death of his father would now be taken away.

Athar got down from his seat to come and stand in front of James. Athar did not plead, nor did he break into a husk of himself. Thorpe had had the advantage of delivering the first blow. Athar knew he would be locked up and there was little he could do from prison, and few that would lend a helping hand once he was there. He would be executed as a traitor, just like Christine's father, Charles. But he gave his final words—tried one last time to convince the king he had stood by as a trusted advisor for the past decades.

"Your Majesty, I give you my word of honor that I did not kill Jonathan Linahan. He was a good man and a good friend that I greatly respected. I would never wish any ill against him, just as I would never wish any ill against you. There may be a plot in Wessport, but it is not by my design, Sire." Athar spoke so truthfully that Tristan believed every word. The conviction in his voice was strong, unbending.

"Can you prove without a doubt that you did not murder Linahan or that these plans were not found in your apartments? If I were to send guards to your apartments or indeed your estates in Cantabria, could I be absolutely certain of not finding anything that would incriminate you?" James's words were harsh, there was a hint of defeat and sadness in them.

Athar’s shoulders lowered. “The plans were found in my lodgings for a reason, Your Majesty. Someone wants me gone.”

“Maybe so, Lord Athar,” Braun interceded. “Maybe you are innocent and we shall uncover if these accusations against you hold true. But you could be another cog in this wheel against His Majesty.”

Braun’s reasoning ran true for all present in the assembly room. Monarch and mentor shared a momentary glance where the nature of their relationship was revealed. Athar had been James’s father figure—his advisor in every possible situation.

The old man did not protest as James motioned for the guards to take him away. He walked away with the dignity of a king himself, holding his head high as his heavy feet marched him out of the room.

James sat watching the door as it closed after the white-haired man. In the course of a few minutes, the power of Wessport had shifted. Athar was no longer the most powerful man in the country after the king. He had fallen in disfavor—his name would be swept away by the wind as if he had never existed, as was done with all traitors.

Fawkes dared not speak, but the thin line of his lips said it all. Braun and the other lords had nothing to add. Except Braun, they had remained quiet the entire time, to not attract any unnecessary attention to themselves.

James sat down heavily in his chair, letting his hands trace the fine wood as he stared at it.

"I know all the evidence against Athar is overwhelming. But I still wish to confirm this. Until I am certain that Athar has taken part in said conspiracies, he will be held in confinement," James said, more to himself than to anyone else in the room. His mind was a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions. With Athar gone, all would change. James needed someone at his side that he could really trust. Lord Athar had been a great ally to him. James knew that he would have to do the impossible in order to prove Athar's innocence, and even then, the allegation would never truly fade away unless someone else was implicated as the conspirator and murderer.

"Go, leave me." He flicked his hand in agitated irritation. They did not waste a second and scurried out of that room like frightened rats.

James was left alone. He could only look down on and scoff at the absurdity of the situation. His head came to rest in his hands as tears of grief and anger started welling up in his eyes.