The atmosphere in the court was so tense you could cut it with a knife. It pressed inwards on the assembled Erls until a cold sweat broke out upon their brows. Whitwyn fidgeted nervously in his seat. Hannart coughed. Durithar glared at anyone who dared to break the silence. Someone shuffled their feet.
Beatrix was fuming. Yesterday, she and the other Erls had been notified of Quigley’s arrest for treason. But none of them had been told before Quigley was already arrested and safely under lock and key. And she knew why that was – Quigley was now, in Aaron’s eyes, the only person who knew that the evidence against Owain was fake. And so he had to go.
It had been the most Beatrix could do to rouse the other Erls into action. They had voted, five to four, for Quigley’s case to be brought before them. They’d been waiting in the courtroom for twenty minutes now. This was beyond rudeness.
‘Sorry to keep you all waiting,’ Aaron said, entering the room at a saunter. ‘I’m sure you don’t mind. Now, to business.’ He sat comfortably in the throne, and Beatrix had to force herself not to say anything. This was the most terrible disrespect to King Roald! Aaron was behaving as if he were King, rather than just Prince Regent.
‘Now, to be perfectly honest I’m not sure why this meeting was called today, but no matter. We are here to discuss the arrest of the traitor Quigley. There is evidence that he has conspired to replace the outlaw Owain on the throne. We also have reason to believe that he helped the traitor to escape.’
Beatrix felt suddenly cold. She’d been completely wrong. It wasn’t Quigley who had betrayed Annesdale. It was Erl Dangloe. He must have heard Quigley and Annesdale’s conversation that day in the library. But why? They had been friends. What could possibly have made Dangloe betray his own friend?
‘Now,’ continued Aaron, completely unaware of the revelations that those few moments had revealed. ‘I propose for him to await trial from the Crown Court. I shall prepare my best qualified judge and lawyers.’
‘My Lord, I must protest,’ Beatrix said, standing. She could hear his lies no longer. ‘What proof of his treachery have you? Witnesses? Can they be vouched for? Quigley served the late King faithfully for many years, and his father served before him. You would do well to consider this before you make any accusations. I for one would trust Quigley with my life – I know he is no traitor. Perhaps you have misunderstood? I would be prepared to vouch for him in a court of law.’
Aaron laughed in her face. ‘My dearest Cousin, I think it is you who have misunderstood. Why my noble uncle continued to give you such heavy duties within court I do not understand – I shall now relieve you of them. A woman so beautiful should not be tired by the talk of men. I suggest your lands and title go to Erl Otha – does that seem prudent?’
Beatrix bit her tongue. Nothing she said now would make any difference.
‘We shall see,’ Erl Hathering said quietly. ‘Never before has an Erl or Countess been denounced – especially not one so beloved by the late King, the ward of King Roald.’
Despite herself, Beatrix smiled slightly as she settled herself back in her seat.
Hathering had subtly reminded Aaron of her status. He would have a difficult time if he wanted to take absolute control. But it would be all too easy for him to deprive her of her titles and power. All too easy.