Secrets of the Court: Chapter 18

 February 12th – Wessport Palace




How long had she been standing outside of that door waiting to come in? After the interrogation, and after Lord Athar himself had been taken away, Maria had not dared to look at either Christine or Tristan. She had followed them without a word, her eyes never leaving the floor. They had not spoken either — the four of them. It wasn't until they reached their apartments that Tristan turned around and — with that growling voice of his — told her to never show her face again.

Maria could only stare as the door had been shut right in her face, stare as the woman she had served for the past few years never even dignified herself to meet her eyes.

The corridor — the empty hallway where Lord Linahan had met his demise — was eerily quiet as Maria wrung her hands in frustration. She understood what she had done — that her words had doomed Athar and exposed Tristan and Christine. Alas, she couldn't bring herself to accept how much the world around her was changing. Serving the Vega family was what she'd always done.

Maria had been part of the staff of their townhouse when Charles Vega had been alive. She had been a child when she saw Christine for the first time. Maria had stayed with them after his death when so many other servants had deserted the family. She had decided to accompany them to their only remaining piece of land in Cadherra—a sorry excuse for a home. They had been surviving there for a few months until they were called to the capital—first forced to live outside of the city in another fallen-down house. But Christine, Amanda, and Maria had made wherever they lived their home.

Maria knocked on the door, shaking as she did so. The maid wanted to at least explain herself. She wanted Christine to look her in the eye, to listen to her before drawing any conclusions. There was fussing behind the door, a silent stir that sent her pulse rising. The door slowly opened. Joseph peered at her — thank God! The younger man would no doubt be more understanding than Tristan could ever be.

"My lord, please, I only wish to speak with—" but he cut her short, his eyes harder than she'd expected. There was no gentility in them.

"You should go, Maria, before Hawthorne throws you out himself," he murmured.

"I merely wish to speak with her," Maria pleaded silently, stretching her neck to see if Christine was in the room. "My lady! Please!" she shouted desperately when she saw Christine's stiff back facing hers. There was a split second where she knew Christine was deciding. The tension spoke it all and when Maria saw the unyielding shoulders sink, at last, she breathed out.

"Let her in, Joseph," came a defeated murmur. Joseph looked like he was about to argue with Christine, but he never found the strength for it. What had happened back in the assembly room had drained them all.

He stepped aside, letting Maria enter, her head low. If she were a dog, her tail would no doubt be between her legs.

"Sit." Christine gestured at a small chair in front of her. She never got up herself. Maria obeyed without question and sat down heavily. The defeat was so evident in her body that it tired her mind before she'd even spoken. The crackling fire could not warm her, and the beautiful room could not please her, but the expressive blue eyes of Christine touched Maria in a way that would stick with her forever. Maria was about to speak when the blonde put up a hand, silencing her.

"You will receive your wages and then I want you to leave this cursed city and never return, Maria." The words were solemn, dry, and held an undertone of disappointment that Maria had never heard in her mistress before.

"My lady, I know no words will ever pardon my brash actions earlier today. I know Wessport well enough, I know I should never have been in that assembly room. But believe me when I say that I never intended for it to happen! I went to confession after not being able to handle what I saw, I—"

"I am not sending you away for that, Maria. I am sending you away because being here is dangerous for you now. You are a key testimony against one of the most powerful men in Angloa. His friends and acquaintances will try to get rid of you. If you stay you endanger your life." An amount of sadness shone through, revealing Christine's true emotions under her stern posture. "This is Wessport. You know more than well that we endure what we can, we hold it in, until it consumes us. Do you believe I tell you everything that is on my mind? Do you believe, when I went to confession, that I told that friar anything that would endanger those around me? No." The crackling fire grew louder as the tension between both women rose. Christine bit back an angry remark.

"I will not beg for you to take me back into your service, although you know you will always be my lady. I came here wanting you to know that I never betrayed you! I was tricked into speaking before His Majesty! I was tricked into telling what I saw. Cardinal Thorpe never once said that he—"

"Cardinal Thorpe was your confessional priest, no? The moment you realized that you should have run as fast as your feet could carry you. You should have disappeared, Maria."

"But I…" she could not stop the sob that escaped her. The sound sent a dagger through Christine's heart.

"Maybe it is better that you leave Wessport. Things will get worse now, for there will be a struggle for power in the palace. I am glad you will not be here then. Go to your family, wherever they are, and never return. Lord Hawthorne will not be as benevolent as I have. You better hurry now, before he storms out of his chambers." Christine nodded towards the closed door to their left. Maria never felt the tears until the second sob escaped her. She wasn't ashamed to cry, she was only ashamed of what she'd done against Christine.

She was resolved to believe that Wessport coaxed out the worst in everyone.

But one look at Christine's face told her all she needed to know. There was no hate there, no rancor. The eyes that had held disappointment and sadness now looked at her reassuringly. Maria then understood—Christine knew she'd not betrayed her, but she could still not keep her in her services and this hurt Christine as much as it hurt Maria.

Thus, Maria did the only thing she could do, the only thing that was now expected of her. She left with dignity. Maria got up from the chair and gave a deep curtsy, her knee touching the floor. It was the most formal courtesy one could give in Angloa; the utmost way of showing respect. It was something everyone was taught but rarely used anymore. The days of such gallantry and chivalry had long since died; they were only a distant memory, swept away by the winds of change. Christine inclined her head in response, fighting to keep her expression steady although her eyes burned with unshed tears.

Maria left the parlor without another word, vowing to herself that she would never be far from her mistress. She would be there, seen or unseen, and serve her, just like her family had done for generations.

The door closed heavily behind her just as another chapter in her life seemed to take form.

Maria sighed, the tears never ceasing.


February 13th

There were only two days left until the duel between Hawthorne and Alistair. Alas, the event was seemingly overshadowed by Lord Athar's famed detention—suspected of being the one to have murdered Jonathan Linahan.

It gave Tristan some room to breathe. Alas, he could not.

There was a part of his mind that irked, a part of his mind that grew unsettled. He felt like ants were crawling up and down his spine foreshadowing something.

Tristan had barely spoken during the morning as they took breakfast in the parlor. A new servant was waiting upon Christine, sent there by the staff of the palace. His fiancée looked solemn as she, no doubt, missed Maria. Tristan had heard every harsh word Christine had spoken in the parlor the previous day, every sigh and cry as she had asked Maria to leave as politely as she could. Christine had been harsh, but just.

Tristan caught himself staring at her during breakfast. She still dressed in mourning, just as he did. While most of the courtiers had gone back to their colorful clothes the couple, together with Joseph, had remained dressed in black. He was disgusted that the aristocrats of Wessport cared so little for the loss of one of their own.

The new maid — a petite brunette with freckles dotting the bridge of her nose and her cheeks — served their tea.

"There is a servant in this palace, with light red hair," Tristan began distantly, not really directing his question anywhere. The maid froze as he spoke. She was, like the rest of them, wary of him. At least Maria hadn't squirmed every time he spoke. Christine looked up from her uneaten porridge.

"The one from yesterday?" Christine trailed off. She downed her tea, savoring the light texture as it slid down her throat. It was warm and comforting. As comforting as anything could be after having lost a good friend, she supposed. Tristan's intense blue eyes fixed on the maid who stood like a statue, looking as if she wanted to sink through the ground.

"Do you know of whom I speak?" His tone was harsher than it could've been and Christine sent him a reprimanding glance, arching an eyebrow as the maid looked about ready to drop to the floor.

"I-I d-don't know m-m'lord," she stammered. The silver tray in her hands shook with her.

"How many redheads could there be in this blasted place," he snapped, his tone a low growl, making the maid jump. She shut her eyes, sweat protruding from her temples, despite the chill in the room.

"M-maybe t-two or three?" she squirmed. Tristan slammed a fist hard down on the table, the maid might have jumped a few feet in the air.

"Well then, bring them here," he muttered. She immediately did as he bade, quickly running away. As the door shut behind her, Christine finished her tea and looked curiously at Tristan.

"Was that really necessary?" she tsked. Now that she knew him better, such a display didn't really bother her anymore. To believe that she had once recoiled at the sight of him. Christine's gaze drifted to his eyes—expressive blues that entangled her. They reminded her of a clear summer sky today. He leaned back in his chair.

"Yes," he muttered again. His curt answer only made her scoff and turn her head away. Tristan could not help as the side of his lip tugged upward.

"Why the sudden interest in the redhead?" she asked. "Do you not believe in her testimony?"

"We both know that what Maria said was true. But what that other girl said was too convenient." He stood up and paced around the room, never having liked sitting down for too long. Christine kept her thoughts to herself. She sighed and went to her room to change. She had decided to write to her mother. Ever since arriving in Wessport, she'd completely forgotten about the people she'd left behind in Cadherra.

Half an hour passed, half an hour where Tristan stood by the fireplace, transfixed by the dancing flames of the fire. He removed one glove to warm his frozen fingers. Joseph was out searching for Fletcher once more. There were more conspirators to be found. Tristan let his fingers glide along the cool mantle of the fireplace and sighed as his jaw tensed. A soft knock on the door drew him back to the present, and he quickly tugged the glove back into place.


A hesitant hand turned the iron handle. In stepped the brunette, followed by an ensemble of women. All had their heads bent down, staring at the floor in a silent wish to get away. Their fearful eyes searched the patterns of the rugs, taking in the luxury of the room and its furnishings. Most were maids that only kept to the kitchens or served in the banquet halls. Most were maids that were never seen by the inhabitants of the castle.

Tristan could feel his poor muscles stiffen in his back and neck at the sight of the women entering the room. Anne, the brunette, had kept her word, bringing every redhead she could find.

The shy women before him had all some shade of red to their hair. His gaze swept over them in an instant.

"Are these all?" Tristan asked in disbelief as he glanced at them up and down.

"Yes, m'lord," said Anne in her northern accent. "There are no more." She was careful as she spoke, not wanting to displease the well-known general.

Tristan eyed the women one final time. "They may leave." His voice was a tone rougher, and Anne whisked the young women away as fast as she could. When the heavy oak door closed behind the group, his hand went up to pinch the bridge of his nose.

The window overlooking Wessport and its skyline showcased a day that slowly turned gray—mimicking how Tristan felt inside. The clouds grew heavy with snow. Another snowfall was sure to come within a few hours or during the night. The cold would come with it. It seemed winter was not ready to leave yet.

As he sat there, looking at the white rooftops and chimneys puffing out the white smoke, his thoughts raced. Many variables concerning Linahan's death worried him. So many things did not add up in the end, and he could not let it pass.

Tristan promptly left the parlor and headed for the corridor. There he went to the side of the door, where Linahan had drawn his last breath. He stared at the spot where blood had covered the polished stone. There were still traces of oxidized blood left in the cracks. No servant had been able to completely clean away the evidence.

He thought back to that night. Linahan had been stabbed a total of five times in the side. One of the stabs had pierced his kidney, and another had grazed a major vein. There had been slashes across his throat. Someone had tried to silence him. Tristan hadn't noticed it then, for the urgency of the moment had overshadowed his rational thought. But as he recalled it with a clear mind, he understood what a sloppy job it had been. The person who had killed Linahan had done so out of need. Linahan had most likely found something he shouldn't have that night. It was information that had cost him his life, information that he could never share. The cut across the throat suggested they had wanted to make sure he died on the spot but Linahan must have managed to escape.

Tristan's eyes widened as he kept going further up the hall where Christine said she'd heard him come from. He found small traces of blood here and there, sloppily cleaned.

Linahan must not have wandered as far as they initially had thought. The struggle must have happened further up the hall. Athar's personal quarters were a good twenty-minute walk from theirs and it only further added to Tristan's new theory. Linahan had been stabbed close to their rooms, not in Athar's parlor, as the redhead had claimed. Furthermore, he could not have been stabbed in Athar's rooms—he would have bled out before even arriving close to their corridor.

However, this newfound information did not prove Athar's innocence, it only proved that Athar had not killed Linahan in his own quarters. As Tristan tracked further up the corridor — noticing small droplets of blood here and there — he started to question Athar's guilt. It would be so easy to say it had been Athar. Yet, the rational part of his mind screamed at him, there was something amiss.

Tristan came to a stop at the end of the corridor, its eerie quietness and darkness unsettled him. There were no traces of blood left. This was most likely where Linahan had been stabbed. Up ahead was an exit that led to a smaller courtyard and then out a back door, out of the palace.

Tristan returned, processing the new information he had just obtained.

The door to his apartments closed heavily behind him as he entered the parlor. What was he supposed to do now? If Athar had killed Linahan in that corridor, then why place false evidence suggesting he had done it somewhere else? Someone had gone through a lot of trouble to make certain that Athar took the blame. Cardinal Thorpe had been the one to secure the redhead to give false testimony against Athar. Tristan thought about the implication of someone as prevalent and powerful as Athar disappearing from court. Indeed, Athar being proven guilty would see the structure of the palace collapse. Investigations would stop and the real conspirators would be free to do as they pleased.

February 14th

Gray clouds had been pestering the skies for hours, growing darker and darker. They lay like a thick velvet blanket over the city and its vicinities. The heavy downfall threatened, and many rushed inside as quickly as possible.

A storm was nearing.

It bubbled under the surface of the palace, threatening to break free and unleash its havoc. They could all feel it. They had all felt it ever since Athar had been detained.

James Fell had kept away from the public eye for the past day. The betrayal from such a close friend had affected him deeply. The monarch had spiraled down into a melancholy that no physician could coax him out of. His mood swings had already cost a few palace servants their jobs. They had been kicked out, and left to wander the streets, hoping to find a roof over their heads for the coming nights. Some desperate girls had ended up in the brothel district of the middle circle. Their first night in Wessport showed its cruel face, and they suffered, much like the starving people of the lower circle suffered each day.

The Blue Hall was a mere whisper of what it had been only a few weeks ago. It held the sturdy throne of Angloa upon which James sat. He had prided himself in looking regal and threatening as he sat on it, looming over visitors as they entered his palace, his city, his realm… But what good was a kingdom to him when every second could be his last? What good was power when he had to continuously fight to keep it? What good was a crown when it would make those closest to him turn on him?

He sat on that splendid throne — carved from the trees outside of Wessport, detailed with gold and silver, painted in a myriad of colors. He sat in the darkness of the hall, alone, as the looming storm in the heavens outside the marble walls approached.

James stared at the golden crown he held in his hands. How many men were willing to sacrifice so much for such a puny thing? It was all that coursed through his mind. The piece of metal — shining brightly, with all its rubies embedded into it — looked lifeless to him. It was only cold metal. It was only gold and precious gems. Nothing more.

He sat in that hall which sported the coat-of-arms of Angloa. The gallery lining the long walk to the throne had dark blue drapes hanging from them. The tall columns had fabric twisting around them as well.

No lit candles graced the dark room. James had not allowed it. He had fired the footman who'd insisted on at least lighting one candle so that the king might see. But the king didn't wish to see. He had lost a good friend—his world had turned upside down in the course of a few hours. A man he practically saw as his father had betrayed him. For James, Thomas Athar was worse than Judas, worse than all traitors combined in the history of men.

James had locked Athar away in the most comfortable dungeon the palace offered. Despite himself, James could not mistreat a man that had been by his side since childhood.

The revelation that Athar might have been involved in Linahan’s death and supposed plan to overthrow the palace had been dismissed initially by James. However, reading through the confiscated documents several times had rendered the thought a possibility—enough to make the young king question his old mentor. James had frozen before the very real thought that Athar might not have been all that James believed and he had yet to venture to the depths of the dungeon and face the old man. James knew that facing Athar would render his resolve against him weaker—he was already inclined to wish that Athar was not involved, and he feared such debilitating thoughts would cloud his judgment. Yet, there were so many questions he had for Athar, so many things he wanted to say and to be sorted out. Perhaps Athar had a good reason? Perhaps this was just a big misunderstanding?

Alas, James knew who should be the one to speak with Athar. He had thought long and hard about it, coming to the most logical conclusion in his mind.

The eerie peace of that dark hall was disturbed as the great doors opened. The silhouette of a man stood there, dwarfed by the immense door that arched high above him. Quick steps sounded as the boots made contact with the cold marble floor.

Tristan approached swiftly, his dark mourning attire making him merge into the shadows that surrounded him. It had taken a lot of coaxing to get him away from his apartments but he had finally agreed, the guards practically having to drag him there. That same afternoon they had shown up at his doorstep, twenty-four hours after Athar’s initial arrest. In the presence of an armed escort and an ordered audience with the king, Tristan had every reason to suspect and fear for his own freedom. Why would James wish to speak with him when he scarcely allowed anyone else at court near him? Christine had insisted that he not go, she had been afraid then, he had seen it in her eyes. She had told him to stay with her. And he had tried. But the guards threatened him — fear shone in their own eyes as they pointed their weapons at him. Tristan saw no other alternative. He followed them, uncertain, almost afraid of what the king had in store for him.

He could not help but frown at the irony of the situation. The Blue Hall had seen a change from his initial arrival a few months earlier upon his return from the war. Back then, it had been a bright place, striking awe and respect into those who entered it. But now it was only a shadow of what it used to be. Wessport Palace was slowly decaying as the slithering conspirators of the court got closer to the king and his power became more fragile by the day.

"Who disturbs me?" James growled, not bothering to look up. His hair was unkempt. He had thrown aside the leather jerkin and the brocade doublet, sitting in a wrinkled shirt, untucked and unbuttoned at the top. His feet sprawled out before him and both his hands gripped the crown firmly.

"Tristan Hawthorne does, Sire, at your command." Tristan did not like what he saw but he was more alarmed that James had forgotten that he had summoned him.

Tristan had been briefed about the documents found in Athar's apartments as he had made his way to the great hall.

"Get out," James snapped with such ferocity that it made Tristan halter in his step. "I said get out! I order you" James got up, standing and pointing an accusing finger at Tristan as he barked his orders.

"You ordered me to come here. So which is it?" Tristan answered calmly, finally coming to a stop a short distance from the throne. Despite the colors of mourning, Tristan had returned his usually bulky military garb, reminding James of who he was — General Tristan Hawthorne, the famed Lion of the North.

"Very well," James muttered after a moment’s recollection, recognition flickered in his eyes as he remembered ordering the summons.

"Thomas Athar is proven a traitor and a day later you sit here sulking?" Tristan dared.

"I did not summon you here to give me such remarks, Hawthorne. You are addressing your king… I never wish for that name to be mentioned in my presence again." James's jaw tightened as he leaned forward with a vicious frown on his face.

"Then why have you called for me?" Tristan's voice grew harsher.

"I need someone that I trust to interrogate him. I need to know his motives. You have shown your loyalty at every moment, I trust you to speak with him without letting him…cloud your judgment as he might with someone else," James said, his tone low and slowly getting calmer.

"I am aware of the plans and lists found in his chambers. Plans that could have easily been placed there by someone else." The words were bold and provocative. They managed well in making James glare harshly at Tristan, fighting hard not to scream profanities as his fist tightened around the crown, the metal cutting into his skin, drawing blood.

"You may glare at me however much you like, Sire, but it will not solve any of your problems."

"Are you suggesting that he is innocent, despite the overwhelming evidence?" There was a slight hint of desperation in James' voice.

"He couldn't have followed through with his plans by himself—should they prove to be his. He must have had help from someone," Tristan stated. James sank down on the throne in defeat as he rested his head against the back.

"You mean there are more conspirators in the palace then," he whispered.


A long silence followed. James eyed Tristan, looking down in contemplation. Surprisingly, the tension between the two subsided.

"I am not disgracing myself by being in his presence," James said the words slowly, to let their full weight sink in. They were hard to utter, for he would like nothing more than to finally have an excuse to hear what Athar would say.

Tristan didn’t acknowledge James’s statement nor offer any words of comfort.

"You go…" James said, staring into the depths of the rubies of the crown. Blood smudged the polished gold, pure droplets emerged from his wounded hand and tainted the crown. He was too tired to think. It was easier to have other people handle everything for him.

Tristan turned to leave. 

"Where did I go wrong?" It wasn't directed at anyone in particular. The sentence was barely a whisper, probably not meant for Tristan. But despite himself, Tristan answered. He turned around, looking James straight in the eye.

"You already know." Tristan's words were loaded, weighing heavily upon the monarch. A fleeting moment passed where Tristan thought James would not answer—the harshness in his tone seemed to have affected the king. Suddenly a deep, low thunder could be heard in the far distance as it tore through the sky. The storm was upon them, the skies were black as night, angrily staring down at Wessport as if God himself judged the city.

"No," sighed James. His head came to rest in his hand as he cast away the crown, the source of all his troubles, just as it had been for his father, just as it had been for his uncle. It tumbled down the throne and rolled on the marble floor with a loud clatter, coming to a stop at Tristan's feet. The masked man sneered at it and eventually turned around and left without a word, leaving his king to wallow in self-pity.

When he reached the far end of the room Tristan turned around to contemplate James. A bright flash of light illuminated the room through the windows as lightning struck somewhere in the far distance. It allowed Tristan a view of a man who was the very picture of defeat. By the time the loud roar of the thunder came again, Tristan was already out of the hall.

He had never been in the lower part of the palace—the oldest part of the building. The foundations had belonged to the run-down castle that had stood erected on the sight long before any plans for the palace came to be. It was dark, humid, and cold, much like any other dungeon he knew.

Tristan followed the guard, holding a torch high over their heads as they descended further into the pit. The way down to the dungeons was a deep and wide hole in the ground. Spiral stairs along the wall allowed them to descend into the dark inferno. Along the staircase were some cells — thick iron bars were all that stood between the prisoner and their freedom.

The lower down a prisoner was placed, the worse his or her crime. Athar had a cell at the bottom. It was a bigger cell than most, but the light of day did not reach it. The murky darkness and humidity turned the place into a freezer for the entire year. Rats ran through the many holes in the walls, their bites carrying diseases that could kill a grown man in the course of a week.

"It seems strange to me that ‘is Majesty would allow ye to speak to this prisoner 'ere," came the raspy voice of the old guard—the keeper of the dungeons. "He strictly said no one was to speak wi' 'im, see?" The man had seen many winters. His back was crooked, making him permanently lean forward. His face bore small scars, slightly deforming his once homely features. A scruffy and unkempt beard with streaks of silver made him look ancient.

"You can go and ask him yourself but I suspect it would cost you your position," Tristan growled. The old guard kept quiet. He was stuck between a rock and a hard place. He didn't want to infuriate Tristan further, but he also didn't want to incur the wrath of the king.

"No, no, m'lord. I trust ye." The guard's back tensed visibly as he felt Tristan's furious breath down his neck. They quickly descended the steps, and the wails of the prisoners who were begging for mercy pierced their very souls. Somewhere in the distance, Tristan could hear the screams of pain as no doubt someone was being tortured. He heard the flick of a whip, shortly followed by yet another scream.

As they reached the bottom, rats scoured when the light of their torches illuminated the round space. There were three doors. Two led to more cellblocks while the third led to the torture chamber—a chamber that had been used since the dawn of the Middle Ages.

"Come 'ere, m'lord, lest ye want to get lost in them tunnels that reach under the palace," the guard rasped ominously. He chuckled when the thought of Tristan getting lost in the passageways popped into his mind—aye that would be a satisfying sight to see.

They continued down a damp, cold hallway where cells lined the walls. They passed dark rooms unfit for any human being to live in. At the end of the corridor, Tristan saw the light of wax candles illuminate the last cell. It did not sport any iron bars. It was reinforced with a heavy iron door instead, with an opening at head-level and then at the bottom, to deliver food for the prisoner. The upper part of the door was open and light streamed from the cell.

"Up ye go, Lord Traitor! Ye got a visitor!" screamed the guard in his heavy accent as he fumbled with his keys. Tristan could hear the rustling of a chair as someone got up. The guard opened the door and gripped Tristan by the arm before letting him enter.

"Now, as ye requested, I'll be waitin' by the end of the corridor. Scream when ye need me," he rasped, letting go of the black doublet and closing the iron door behind the masked man as he stepped into the cell.

Tristan took in the surroundings and felt an eyebrow arch in surprise at the sight before him. It was damp and cold, and a rotting smell expanded in the room, the stench was unbearable at first but he quickly got used to it.

Hay was spread on the floor to insulate the room as best as it could. It had an elevated bed, to keep the prisoner away from the rats that came and went through the many holes in the walls. It had a table that held some ink and paper and wax candles. And it even had a chair to go with the table. It was not at all what Tristan had expected.

By one corner he saw Athar, just as he had seen him the previous day, just a bit more unkempt from the night. He dressed in fine silken clothes. His doublet bore a damask pattern, and he still had his cape around him. The white hairs were slightly disheveled, probably from the resistance he had put up as the guards dragged him down the stairs.

"Lord Hawthorne," Athar said, rather surprised. "I did not expect you would come—" he was cut short by Tristan who turned around to see that the guard had kept his promise. True to his word, the old man stood at the end of the corridor where he could not hear the words they exchanged.

"I have come here by the request of His Majesty," Tristan said, turning around to once more face Athar. The old man arched an eyebrow suspiciously as he placed both hands behind his back.

"I thought all was said and done," he questioned as he studied Tristan's reaction.

"No, we know you were not the only one involved in this coup. There are sure to be more people who helped you," came the flat tone of Tristan as he crossed his arms before him.

"I'm innocent," the old man said stubbornly. A brief pause followed where it seemed none of them was willing to speak. The air grew pregnant until Tristan's rich voice finally cut through it.

"Of Linahan's murder I have no doubt," responded Tristan, walking past Athar to sit down in the chair. His response made the old man's eyes widen considerably. The thunder roared outside as the winds picked up more speed. Even in the deepest parts of the castle, both men could sense the electricity of the storm.

"It seems I have friends left in this blasted place, after all." Athar let a breath of relief escape him as he sat down on the bed.

"Don't fool yourself, Athar. You had my respect until I found out about your treachery—before Cardinal Thorpe brought up such incriminating evidence against you." Tristan twisted in his chair, so he was facing the older man.

"Then why do you think me innocent of Linahan's death?"

"If you truly were in your quarters that night then you couldn't possibly have killed Linahan yourself. The wounds were too severe. He could not have walked all the way from your wing to our rooms. He would have bled out before reaching us."

"Good observation," Athar smirked. "I was in my room that night. I have no witnesses—I have nothing that proves my innocence. But I assure you, the testimony of that young redhead is as false as they come." His face twisted into a frown.

"I still need to know who else has been cooperating with you in the palace."

"I am innocent, Hawthorne. Someone has seen it fit to frame me. There are traitors in this palace, but I am not one of them." Athar's words were truthful, he seemed convinced of them himself. But Tristan wouldn't have it. The masked man got up as the thunder roamed outside of the palace walls yet again.

"No, you are not. Explain Alan Moore to me. Or what about your dealings with the English?" Tristan snapped. Athar grew confused as he heard the accusations.

"This is what the king has gathered as evidence against me?" he asked in disbelief.

"No, this is information I have found out myself, gradually, since before being summoned to Wessport." He paced around in the cell, slowly. The rats ran away from his heavy boots as he didn't pay attention to where he was stepping.

"You know, I truly believed you to be trustworthy at first. I was even willing to place all my trust in you but was saved from dooming myself in the nick of time. To think that Saxton trusted in you," Tristan growled, the words were sharp as he loomed over Athar. There was a wave of uncontrolled anger rising slowly in the masked man, and he wouldn't mind letting it loose. But he fought against his instincts. Despite himself, Tristan still respected the old man too much to roughen him up.

There was something that sparked in Athar's eyes as Tristan mentioned Saxton. Suddenly, the old man regained his calm, as if all would be alright. He let out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding and sank back down on the hard, filthy bedding. He was calm as he spoke. As calm as a man could be, knowing well that his days were over.

"Then you have been in contact with Saxton?" Athar asked.

"I have," Tristan admitted without fear of being reprimanded. Athar could do nothing against him now. "He said you were the only man I could trust in all of Wessport. Either he was misguided or he is your accomplice," Tristan said darkly. His response made Athar's lips twitch, trying to conceal a small smile.

"Then listen to me closely, Hawthorne, for a great mistake has been committed here, on both our parts, but mostly mine." Athar felt the words weighing heavy upon his shoulders as he came to realize what his errors had cost him. When Tristan said nothing, Athar continued.

"You have been very perceptive, Hawthorne." Another roar of the thunder sounded, and the sound was so loud that it seemed to shake the very foundations of the palace. Even the small lights of the wax candles flickered as the air pushed against the walls. "What else made you think that I was involved in this?"

"Our maid, Maria, did not speak falsely yesterday. Linahan's last words were indeed your name. He mentioned my name as well." Athar's shoulders sank in defeat at the mention of his friend and his death. But he collected new strength, drawing breath and preparing to unveil everything to Tristan.

"The reason Linahan was murdered was most likely my fault—I am being framed, Hawthorne. However farfetched that may sound to you it is the truth. You see, Saxton was right, I am the only man you can trust in this palace as far as I know. But I believe that if Fawkes were informed of what was going on behind closed doors, he would rally to our side in a heartbeat. The same goes for Lord Rajac and Lord Durun. The reason I am being framed is due to a message I wanted to send to you through Linahan," Athar said as he revealed all the information he knew.

"To me?" Tristan was taken by surprise.

"Yes," he smiled, the wrinkles around the gray eyes crinkled as they lit up, displaying a youthfulness in the man's face that Tristan had never seen before. "There are many secrets kept at this court. Secrets that shouldn't be revealed to just anyone. I do not trust most here. Most of the men I do put my trust in are outside of the court and they, in turn, have sources that inform me of the traitors in the palace. Yet, these conspirators are good at hiding their activities. We have gotten nowhere in the last few years, mostly because of the war. As the war ended, they started up again, and we were close to unmasking them."

"Who are we?"

"I cannot give you all the names, but I suspected you are familiar with one of them. Henry Saxton told me I could put my trust in a new man arriving at court, I assumed it to be you. Thus I kept my eye on you. I even sent Linahan to find out if you were indeed allied with Saxton one day after the lord's assembly." Tristan remembered with a painful memory how he'd manhandled Linahan.

"The way you frightened that poor lad had me doubt myself. I thought that perhaps I was wrong. But I couldn't be certain. Thus, I wanted to make sure. I had Linahan deliver you a message that told of a time and place I wished to speak with you, away from the palace and its prying eyes."

"Does the note implicate me?" Tristan suddenly became tense.

"No, do not worry. I never put any names—they will never know whom the note was destined for. But be certain that they will search the palace for my accomplice now."

They remained silent for a while. Tristan considered if it was wise to reveal all his cards to Athar. He still didn't trust in him fully but the more Athar revealed to him, the more it all made sense.

"This all still doesn't explain John Fletcher," snapped Tristan. The name made Athar's eyes widen as he recognized it. "During the last battle against the English, a spy sent them information about our troops that nearly cost us the war. The spy was Alan Moore—sent to the front by Captain John Fletcher. After the war was over and I received my title and went to Cadherra, Moore was in the group that traveled with me. It was thanks to some very perceptive people in my ranks that I unmasked him and coaxed Fletcher's name out of him. When I returned to Wessport, I had a man guard Fletcher's every move, to find out who he reported to. It was you he kept seeing." Tristan went silent, waiting for Athar to explain himself.

The old man let out a deep breath and stared at his shoes in defeat.

"My actions were the ones that doomed me, in the end." Athar looked up, frustrated by the situation though the extent of his frustration was not entirely revealed. "I am not surrounded by as many trusted people, thus I had to gather a lot of the information myself. I knew that Fletcher was in contact with men who wanted to overthrow His MajestyI found him and bribed him frequently for the information he was giving the conspirators. I am certain your man saw me with him, for Fletcher only contacts his superiors by other messengers that I have yet to find," Athar said wearily. He sounded defeated and in the vague light of the candles, both men contemplated where the twist of fate had led them. They realized that because of an unfortunate misunderstanding, one of them was about to lose his life while the other might watch helplessly as a dynasty fell.

Tristan kept processing all the information. The pieces of the puzzle were slowly fitting into their positions. John Fletcher, Linahan's death, Athar's supposed treason—Tristan had been misguided in all of it, or so Athar wanted him to believe. Tristan sneaked a glance at Athar, expecting he would be angry at him, but instead, he found a lighthearted smile.

"I see you finally are starting to consider my words," said Athar, his voice a bit lighter. Tristan sat down and leaned forward in his chair. Wessport had outwitted them both, played them against each other. Both had been too paranoid and cautious to contact the other directly, and the final result was a catastrophe.

"These true traitors will still infiltrate the palace and take down His Majesty," Tristan muttered after a while.

"They will do it soon too," Athar agreed. "I can't do anything. It is up to you now."

"But why would they want to overthrow the king, especially when they have no one else to put on the throne? Surely a mere nobleman could not have so many supporters for no reason?" Tristan asked as he gritted his teeth. "Saxton said that there was a secret guarded by this court, does it have to do with this rebellion?"

Athar looked at him for a long while — as if measuring the man before him and weighing his options. He was judging Tristan, deciding or not if he should fully trust him. When the old duke had decided, he finally spoke. His expression grew serious and his words grave as he underlined the importance of what he was about to say. He rose from the bed and walked to the door to be certain that no one was listening to them.

"What I am about to say cannot leave this room. It is a burden I have carried for decades, a secret that could very well ignite a war if it were ever made public. It is a secret that men have given their lives for." He turned around and waited for Tristan to say something. Tristan was stricken by the conviction in Athar's countenance.

"You have my word." 

Athar leaned against the door, every cell in his body fighting against revealing such information. He had kept it to himself for so long that it was strange to be revealing it now—in a damp, murky cell, to a masked man he barely knew. Yet, a small part of him — his instinct — told him that he was doing the right thing, he was trusting the right man. Thus, Athar let go of his fears for the first time in over twenty years, jumping into the abyss, revealing what he thought should never be revealed. He did it for his king and his country, he did it because he thought it was right.

"Good. Then I give you what I believe is the reason for this whole conspiracy and treason." Athar's heart sped up while he locked eyes with Tristan Hawthorne, watching them grow curious as they took in the change in Athar. Tristan saw Athar hesitate before speaking. It was just a slight moment, a moment where he thought that the old duke would turn back on his word and take the secret to his own grave as well. But then, there, in the depths of his gray eyes, hope and determination shone through. Athar saw something in Tristan, something he could not entirely place. It was greater than respect, it was greater than a sense of kinship.

It was raw trust.

"These courtiers — for I know that the conspirators are indeed courtiers — are conspiring to dethrone the king and place someone else of royal blood on the throne," he said. It was something he'd been insinuating before, but he repeated it now to clear up any misunderstandings.

"They plan to use one of the princesses here?" Tristan asked in disbelief.

"No," Athar chuckled, despite himself. He walked over to stand by the table, looking down at ink and paper. He never remembered why he had asked for it in the first place, he had no one left to write to. "Someone else," he underlined the last word, almost wanting Tristan to figure it out himself.

"But there isn't anyone else. Magnus Fell only had one child before he died," Tristan could not believe what Athar was implying.

"No, not Magnus Fell, but Philip Fell did," Athar smirked. He was satisfied as he saw the masked man's expressive eyes widen until they looked about ready to fall out from their sockets. It was an expression he had never seen in those eyes before. It made Tristan stare at him even longer, processing what the other was saying. "And no, I have not gone mad. His second wife, Leonore Valois, had a child in secret. She was only three months pregnant when Philip passed away."

"To insinuate that a man at such an advanced age could still sire a child is quite farfetched," Tristan said, but he didn't sound so certain anymore.

"It is farfetched but entirely true. We whisked the child away from the dangers of court and from the biggest danger of them all—Magnus Fell and his wife. There are many in Angloa who in secret might have speculated over this knowledge, but it has never openly been stated, but I know it to be true. Magnus usurped the throne from his brother Philip. He never died peacefully in his sleep as many believe. I am certain Philip would have lived to be a hundred, for he was fit as a fiddle until the last few weeks of his life. No, Lord Hawthorne, he was poisoned by his own brother...or his sister-in-law," Athar said as his jaw tensed. Retelling a story he knew by heart and that he'd kept for so long to himself was harder than he thought. Philip Fell had been a good friend of his and not just his king. It had been quite difficult to acknowledge Magnus as sovereign of Angloa since Athar never would be able to prove that the younger brother had poisoned his older brother.

"I could do nothing until it was too late. I whisked away his young bride and hid her in a secluded estate in the south of the country. She had her child and raised it up as best as she could. They constantly moved from one of my estates to the other, to keep away from Magnus' men. When a few years passed, Magnus found them. I thought he had killed the child until recently. I know who the conspirators want on the throne; someone they — the noblemen — can control. Meanwhile, this child has a legit claim for it is the rightful heir to the throne, especially since James's father Magnus usurped his own brother. If this information were to get out in the open, it could bode disaster for the kingdom."

"And now this child seeks to be king by any means necessary," Tristan said as he stared pensively into the hay-covered floor. He thought all cards had been laid on the table, but Athar had yet another revelation.

"I never said the child was male." Athar looked enigmatically at Tristan as if savoring the moment.

"A girl?" The new turn of events had Tristan's mind spinning. "But if a woman had the right to the throne, then surely Victoria Fell would be first in line," he continued, trying to make sense of it all.

"The mother of both Miriam and Victoria Fell was only a countess, married off to Philip for political purposes at the beginning of his reign. Their marriage secured his hold of the northern regions. She died after giving birth to the younger child, Miriam. Philip remarried when he was much older to a princess, the sister of the current king of France. We all thought their marriage was barren until the queen confided in me. If that child chooses, she could have the backing of France in an eventual war of succession, and then we are all doomed," Athar sighed.

"But I do not understand," Tristan said slowly. "You helped keep this child safe, you agree that she has the right to the throne of Angloa, yet you do not want her to overthrow James?"

"She is misguided, Hawthorne. The lords that support her only seek to benefit from this rebellion themselves. She would be a puppet queen and Angloa would fall into the hands of vicious and greedy men." Athar drew a deep breath and continued. "They will strike soon. James' insistence on having the lords of the realm give up their armies was in hopes of quelling whatever uprising they were planning, but it seems instead that it was the last straw. These men, these traitors, want to go back to the way it used to be, they want to rule again. Any day could be the day they strike."

"I have an idea when that might be," Tristan said through gritted teeth. The cell grew void of any more words as he processed the information. There was a steady buildup of guilt growing on his already burdened shoulders as he stared emptily in front of himself.

"I cannot save you," Tristan whispered. A wave of helplessness washed over him. Tristan realized that even though all of this was going on behind closed doors, Athar was still charged with high treason, most likely to be executed. Tristan could not even look into the eyes of the man that would lose his life because he had failed to act.

"No, you cannot save me. But I think I have put up with this blasted palace life for a long while now." Gray eyes stared into the distance as Athar rose from the bed. "My hour has come and I accept it." Athar's tone was light, void of regret. The old man did not blame Tristan. "It is up to you now, Hawthorne. I have told you all I know, I cannot give you more, only my support and my blessing. You have to carry this burden alone, you have to stop these traitors from overtaking the throne and James' crown." 

He stepped over and placed a heavy hand on the tense shoulder. Tristan's head was bent down in defeat as Athar stood over him. The older man kneeled before the younger one.

"That is why you must win against Alistair tomorrow at dawn," Athar said as Tristan's heavy head finally rose to meet the kind, gray eyes. Tristan had forgotten about the duel and sighed. He rose from the chair and his height towered over the other. The roar of thunder sounded in the distance, much weaker this time. The storm had passed, and the tension in the air with it.

Tristan took Athar's hand in his, grabbing Athar's forearm with his hand in the old traditional handshake in a show of respect. He accepted the mantle that was being passed onto him. In turn, Athar gripped Tristan's forearm as well. 

Tristan banged on the iron door, hearing the eager footsteps of the guard, who no doubt wanted to get the masked man out of there so he himself could go to sleep and let another guard take his place.

Athar stared at the broad silhouette that left the cell and felt how his heart grew lighter. He didn't need to worry anymore, something told him that he had trusted the right man in the end. Tristan's eyes had confirmed as much to him. Athar stalked to his bed, suddenly growing weary. The worry was still with him, but his fatigue outwon, and as soon as his head hit the hard pillow, he fell into a deep and peaceful slumber.