Othol paced before the Council, at all times aware of their reactions. He was a good actor; so he acted. Though outwardly calm, inside he buzzed with excitement. If his sources were correct, Malida had poisoned herself and had convinced both her heir, Toyus, and her other husband, Moyen, to believe in her mad visions. He made the Council wait, acting as if he was distracted by concern. He didn’t have to wait for long.
“Why did you call us here, Othol?” Yvar’h demanded.
Othol cleared his throat. “I’ve received very distressing news from a good source.”
Tehn frowned. “Go on.”
“Malida has poisoned herself, which is why Moyen is not here and his second-in-command, Rien Tholten, is.”
The Council gasped and Sjona rose. “Malida?”
“Sit, Sjona,” he told her mildly. “I’m not finished.”
“But–” Her eyes glittered with unshed tears. “Is she dead?”
“I’m not sure,” he replied honestly. “Her children have sequestered her body in her suites. They seem to believe she will awaken from her poisoning whole.” He grimaced and shook his head. “There will be brain damage, if she survives. She imbibed a tea made from okre leaves.”
Sjona began to helplessly sob and he frowned. She was detracting from him, damn her!
Kol rose and put his arm around her shoulders. “Becalm yourself, Aunt.” He looked at Othol. “What else do you know?”
Osjon rose unsteadily to his feet. “And the Warlord?”
“He is there but has refused to fetch a healer,” Othol replied. “I don’t know why, other than to believe he believes in this absurd fantasy that Malida has conjured up. Toyus, too, believes it.”
Osjon wiped his mouth with a shaking hand and dropped to his seat. “Goddess help us, they are all mad.”
Othol willed himself to remain calm and schooled his features into a worried mask. “Do you think so?”
Osjon sighed. “What else are we to believe?”
Commander Rien Tholten cleared his throat. “I would not do anything hasty, my lords. I would investigate first. I will head to the villa myself.”
Othol scowled at the young man. “They were all witness to her madness and they allowed her to poison herself, Commander. What does that tell you?”
Rien Tholten opened his hands helplessly. “I will not jail anyone without a fair investigation, my lord. I am within my rights to demand it of the Council.”
Berin shifted. “We can’t allow Malida, Toyus or Moyen to rule during the investigation. That leaves Sjona, as the oldest living female. Are you willing to rule in your sister’s stead while the investigation is mounted?”
Sjona sniffled and looked helplessly at Othol.
Othol sighed impatiently. “Answer the Serren, girl!”
She started and swallowed thickly. “Y-yes.”
Berin nodded. “Good.” He looked at the Commander. “Then the Council will vote now. Do we allow the investigation to be mounted, temporarily removing Malida and Moyen from their positions?”
Othol almost growled with frustration, but he kept his face a bland mask.
Everyone raised their hands and looked expectantly at him.
He looked at Rien Tholten and knew he would have the young man poisoned at some point for interfering with his plans.
“Agreed,” Othol stated with practiced reluctance.
Rien nodded. “Then I’ll head to the villa right now with a troop. I’ll place everyone on arrest until I conclude the investigation. Excuse me.”
Othol’s control slipped again a he frowned.
He watched helplessly as the Council rose.
“You are Queen now Sjona,” Osjon stated. “Rule with an even hand, girl. We will be here to counsel you. You are not alone.”
He made his unsteady way to the hall door, Berin holding his elbow to steady him.
Malida’s brothers rose and left the chamber without a word.
Sjona turned helplessly to him. He waited until the hallway door was closed before brutally backhanding her. She cried out and fell to the floor.
“Have you no sense!” he snarled.
She began to cry.
He sighed and squatted beside her prone form. She flinched when he reached out and tenderly touched the growing bruise on her right cheek.
“Have we not spoken of this before?” he asked her with deceptive mildness.
She nodded mutely, her eyes large and frightened.
He smiled at her. “You are queen and now we shall marry. Don’t you want this, Sjona?”
He helped her rise and hugged her. “You need a firm hand, girl. You always have. Our hopes and wishes are almost accomplished. I need you to heed me.”
“She will be brain dead or mad, when all is said and done. You are queen now, girl. As soon as Malida is dead or set to one side, we shall have my marriage to her annulled. Nothing stands in our way.”
He caressed her back and she sighed.
Grimacing with distaste, he willed himself to cradle her gently, even though he wanted to beat her black and blue.
“I love you, Othol.”
“And I you,” he replied, swallowing the lie and the foul taste it left behind. How long, if he slowly poisoned her, would it take her to die, he wondered.
He pulled back and stared deeply into her eyes. “We’ve lots of changes to make, but we have to be patient. Can you be good, Sjona?”
He kissed her mouth and pulled away before she could deepen the kiss. The idea of stroking her tongue with his made him want to vomit.
“Good,” he told her. “Let’s go then. There are many things that need to be done.”
Commander Rien Tholten did not trust Counselor Othol as far as he could throw him. He had to proceed carefully to mount a fair and swift investigation, before the Counselor wrested the crown from Sjona Ekesj’s hands. Oh, Rien had no doubt about Counselor Othol’s motives. He had a thick file on Othol in his office. If there was one thing he knew, it was people. Moyen had begun amassing the file long before Rien became his second-in-command, but Rien had taken over the file with no problem. Rien Tholten was a commoner and he was quite aware that Othol was a son of the clans and had slipped a time or two about bringing the clans to their former glory. Othol’s achilles heel was that he believed himself infallible and clever. Sooner or later, those who thought themselves clever gave themselves away.
There were courtiers that Othol had strung along for a years. Men who had wanted to climb the ladder of influence and who were ruled by their pockets. It had been easy to buy their loyalty. Othol paid for no one’s loyalty. He rode his marriage to Malida like a tired nag. He believed himself above commoners and the courtiers he courted with promises of sex which amounted to nothing. Rien had no problem convincing the courtiers that money was better than sex with the handsome Othol. Slowly, for five years, he had collected intel on Othol Ekesj by placing his ears and eyes in Othol’s very household.
From his ears and eyes he had learned that he bedded Sjona, that they had been lovers since shortly after Othol had married Malida. He grimaced. Othol was a pedophile, bedding and abusing young girls to slake his twisted sexual urges. He treated his servants abysmally. He had no one’s loyalty, except Sjona’s. But Rien had placed his eyes and ears in her household as well. He knew that Othol and Sjona had sex once a week and then spoke about taking over the Crown. Othol would find it nigh impossible to become King. Rien would see to it.
He sighed as they approached the Ekesj villa. He wondered whom Othol had in his pocket. He would find out, if it was the last thing he did.
Rien and his men rode onto the half moon drive, past the dead garden with its lush okre trees. He had brought half a troop with him. It was not his intent to arrest anyone but merely to get to the bottom of everything.
He dismounted and turned to his second. “Post half the men at the back of the villa and the other half here in the front. See our animals are stabled.”
His second saluted him. “Right away, Sir!”
Rien entered the household.
The butler bowed.
“Bring your family together in the kitchen, Besen.”
The butler bowed again, face worried. “Right away, sir.”
“Before you go, Besen. Where is the Warlord?”
“In the Queen’s suites, sir. Down the hall. In the north wing. Would you like me to lead you there, sir?”
Rien shook his head. “I’ll find it. I’ll be at the kitchen shortly.”
Rien stalked into the hallway that connected the north and south wings of the main house and headed into the north wing. The hallway was wide and filled with paintings painted by an ancestor of the Ekesj clan, the famous Alona Ekesj. He glanced at the stunning and colorful paintings, regretting his inability to pause and study them more thoroughly.
Voices led him to the Queen’s suites. The door to the sitting chamber was ajar and he entered, following the voices to the bedchamber.
He paused at the open door and took in the scene.
The Queen was sitting up propped upon a stack of pillows, looking waxy and pale but otherwise hale.
Warlord Moyen sat in an armchair next to the bed and held her hand.
“Sir,” Rien murmured.
Both Queen and Warlord turned as one to him.
Moyen cocked his head and smiled. “What are you doing here, Rien?”
Rien closed the door behind him. “Sjona has been made Queen and I am here to investigate the allegation that the Queen has poisoned herself.”
Moyen frowned and rose. “Who told you?”
“Othol has spies in this villa, Sir. I intend to find out who among your servants is a spy for him.”
Malida made to stand then fell heavily back on the pillows. “Goddess, I feel so weak.”
Rien took two steps closer to the bed. “Your Majesty. If you would explain to me what has occurred, I intend to reinstate your rule.”
She shook her head. “No. I cannot be Queen and do what must be done. Sit, Commander. There is much to speak of today.”
Rien sat down in the armchair and Moyen perched himself on the edge of the mattress.
“I’m listening, your Majesty,” Rien told her.
She told him every fantastical bit of information, going so far as revealing Belihn Ekesj’s book to him. He paged through the ancient tome with wonder and a growing sense of disconcertion.
Rien was not a gullible man. He was serious, intelligent and an excellent judge of people. He knew the Queen and Moyen sane and he did not for one minute doubt the veracity of the book.
“So, you believe the Sentinels have awakened?” he asked.
“Yes. It is only a matter of time before they find us,” she replied.
Moyen looked at him. “I cannot rule if I must do what Malida has seen, Rien. I am going to suggest another to take up the scepter and orb rule, as I am stepping down as Warlord and you will take over for me.”
Rien gasped. “No, sir!”
Moyen placed a hand on Rien’s knee. “Listen to me, Rien. The threat to this world is vaster than my desire to remain Warlord. I cannot ignore this threat; none of us can. I must undergo the okre poison and see what I see. Can you support me in this?”
Rien took in a deep breath and released it. “Yes, sir.”
Moyen nodded. “We must bring Othol’s file to the Council and we must arrest him for treason. Sjona is weak; once he falls, she will fall in line. Yvar’h, as Malida’s oldest brother, will rule in her stead, she as a figurehead.”
Rien straightened his back. “I will do as you say, Warlord.”
Moyen nodded again and smiled at him. “You must talk to the Council members one at a time, away from Othol. Convince them each and then present a unified front. Arrest Othol and have him quietly poisoned, before his father intervenes. Later say he took his own life.”
Rien nodded. “I’ll burn the body before anyone becomes the wiser.”
Moyen’s smile widened. “Good. I knew I could trust you, Rien.”
Rien turned to the Queen. “Will Sjona remain Queen then, your Majesty?”
“I agree with Moyen’s suggestion that Yvar’h rule and Sjona remain as a figurehead,” she told him.
“And your heir?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I doubt any of us will survive, Commander Tholten. I must be sure the kingdom is secure and Belihn’s work remains intact.”
He stood and saluted her. “I shall make sure the Ekesj clan remain rulers.” He tamped down his growing fear. “When will the aliens arrive?”
“In less than a season,” she replied. “Make sure Othol is dead by then.”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
Moyen clapped him on the back. “Now, let’s find our mole, shall we?”