On the third day, another meeting of the Erls was called. Only this time, for the first time in Disnartan history, the meeting had been called by someone other than the King or Prince - and it was Aaron. Curious, but keeping her face impassive as ever, Beatrix made her way to the court yet again.
‘My dearest friends,’ Aaron began, a wide smile on his face. ‘Thank you for responding so positively to my summons. I wish that our business here could be as positive.
‘It pains me more than I can say that we are here yet again. After the sudden and tragic death of our beloved King, I had hoped that the rest of this year, at least, might run smoothly. But – alas! – it was not to be. I find myself in a very different position to that I was in the last time we sat together between these walls. Only a few days ago, I would have laid down my life defending my dear cousin the Crown Prince, but I have been forced to change my opinion of him.’
‘What means you?’ Owain frowned. ‘Of what do you speak?’
‘I speak of the murder of our King, Cousin,’ replied Aaron. ‘Three days ago, our friend the Erl of Otha was told by Erls Lockspate, Hathering and Annesdale that his speculative theories were nothing but ill-informed, and that he should not raise the subject again till he had hard evidence of Your Majesty’s treason.’
‘Treason? Speak quickly, Cousin, and redeem yourself, lest I think the worse of you.’
‘I wish it were not so, Cousin, truly, but surely you cannot hold me responsible for your own actions? For now I find myself in the extraordinary position of having this evidence against you.’
The intake of breath was audible, and the tension in the room tightened to near breaking point. Beatrix clutched the edge of her seat, leaning forwards in a morbid fascination and anticipation.
‘I am sorry, my friends, that I am the one to reveal this to you. As I have said, I truly wish it is a misunderstanding, a fake, some scheme set up to frame my Cousin – but I believe it is not so. I could not stand by and see injustice done. My conscience would not allow it.’ He nodded to a servant who had been standing quietly to one side, and now he came forwards, holding before him a silver tray. On it was a small, folded piece of parchment, bearing the royal seal.
‘This letter,’ Aaron said, holding it up for all to see, ‘is written in the hand of the Crown Prince. One of the Crown intelligence officers intercepted it. It was in the possession of a Mr Taik – does anyone know of such a man? I believe him to be a herbalist, based in Dinnsbrough. Do you wish for me to read it aloud for all to hear and bear witness?’
‘Just read it, Aaron,’ Owain said loudly. ‘Before I lose my patience with this!’
‘As you wish, Your Majesty. The letter says: ‘Taik. I wish for our agreement to commence one month from now – on the night of the Lady Beatrix’s ball. I shall expect no less than one funeral that all Disnarta shall mourn. In return, I shall perform that which I have promised once the throne is mine; and as the crown rests upon my head, so you shall have that which you most desire – your Erldom. I shall rid my court of the traitors who thrived so well under my father’s weak rule, and replace them with forward-thinking, practical men like yourself. Again I warn you of the danger of your situation. Should our agreement become known to any save for those it may concern, I am sure my anger would be great, and you and your family would feel my irritation most acutely. I sincerely hope you understand me. Do not forget. Owain.’’