An emergency meeting of Erls was called the next morning. It dawned cold and misty – consistent with the mood. By now, anyone who in the capital who was as yet unaware of the King’s death would shortly be informed, and the news had been sent out with each messenger the night before to bring the tidings to the whole of the kingdom.
The sleepless Beatrix was woken by her handmaid Carla, a girl her own age with strawberry blonde hair and brown eyes who would have made a very attractive peasant girl had she not been Beatrix’s maid. Beatrix dressed quickly, making no attempt to call back the flawless beauty of the night before, only pausing to apply some rouge to her cheeks and a small amount of eye-liner.
The courtroom was large and roughly circular, with seats for all nine Erls, and two regal thrones for the King and Crown Prince. The central throne – Roald’s – had been hurriedly shrouded in black: a stark reminder of the purpose of this meeting.
Everyone looked tired and drawn, all faces set in grave lines. Beatrix shivered at the cold atmosphere in the room as she took her seat – opposite Aaron and left of the King.
‘Today,’ began Owain, his face ashen, ‘we are confronted with a murder.’ His voice broke slightly. ‘We all loved my father. He was good, just and strong. He cared for every member of his kingdom, no matter who they were. He believed in a fair, upright kingdom, united by its love of freedom and justice. I share that dream.’ His face was wet with tears, and yet he continued. ‘And that is why we must find the murderer: whoever is base enough to perform such an evil deed.’
Beatrix felt tears threaten in her own eyes, but pushed them away. They were useless to do anything but undermine her hard-won strength. She felt contempt for any who were weak enough to succumb to tears.
The doors banged open to reveal a servant. He entered hurriedly, running straight up to Owain, before leaning in and speaking in a quick whisper to him. Owain’s face darkened, and he stood abruptly.
‘A kitchen maid has admitted to seeing something unusual last night,’ he informed everyone. ‘I shall return presently. Wait for me here.’
And with that, he left.
The moment he was gone, Erl Otha stood up.
‘My friends, listen to me. I have reason to believe that we have been grossly deceived! Who would have reason to murder the most revered of kings? Who benefits from the death of King Roald?’
Annesdale shook his head. ‘Beware of what you speak, Otha. This smells of treason.’
‘But surely,’ continued Otha, ‘surely you can see reason – you of all people, Annesdale! You can see that what I speak of is true! He has contacts within the court. It would have been all too easy for him. And who else would we all follow unquestioningly?’
‘Except you are questioning, my friend,’ Erl Hathering said quietly. ‘I must admit, what you say makes sense, but I need more than words to break a lifetime’s loyalty to my Prince. You have nothing more than speculations on which to base your theories.’
‘Speak to us again when you have proof, my friend,’ Erl Lockspate said with a smile.
‘But till then, no more of this treasonous talk, I beg you.’
‘I admire your faith in our Prince,’ Otha said, returning to his chair. ‘I only wish I, too, could be so sure of his fidelity.’