The silence was long and shocked. No one breathed. No one moved. The only noise came from Aaron as he carefully folded the parchment back into its small, neat square. For some obscure reason, Beatrix found herself unable to tear her eyes from those tiny, insignificant movements until they were completed. And it was then that Owain finally spoke.
‘Ye gods,’ he whispered. Then, louder: ‘It is a fake. It must be! A forgery. I swear to the gods above I never even knew that a man by the name of Taik existed till now! You cannot believe these lies, surely? Tell me you do not!’
But Beatrix didn’t know what to think. And it seemed that the other Erls didn’t, either. Even Annesdale, Lockspate and Hathering, who had defended their Prince to vehemently the other day – even they could see no way around this hard evidence.
‘We shall have to check its authenticity, of course…’ Lockspate began.
‘I have already,’ Aaron replied. ‘There seems to be nothing to throw its authenticity into doubt. It is the Prince’s handwriting. It is his personal parchment. It is sealed with his royal seal. There is nothing amiss, save the contents. I truly wish it were not so. Why would I lie?’
‘If I am no longer Crown Prince, then the title passes to you, Cousin,’ spat Owain. ‘What more motive could you wish for?’
Aaron sighed sadly. ‘Cousin, I do not have such base motives as you. I act for what is just and true. I am only sorry that you could not find it in yourself to do the same.’
Owain turned again, imploring, to the Erls: ‘Do you all desert me, then? Am I to be accused of murder? Will none speak for me?’ He shook his head. ‘Poor fools. I leave my country in the hands of men afraid to know their own minds.’