The iron-gridded portcullis barred Kyen’s way into Castle Veleda. Two guards stood at attention inside the gate tunnel.
“Kyen of Avanna here to see the king,” Kyen told them.
One guard motioned to the other. The gate clanked and began to ascend; its iron bars rose up past his grave face.
“So glad you’ve come, sir,” said the guard. “I’m supposing you’ve heard?”
“Heard what?” asked Kyen.
“An assassination attempt has been made on the king,” said the guard.
“What? How?” Kyen ducked under the still-rising portcullis.
At a wave from the guard, the iron gate began to lower again.
“Finn, sir,” said the guard. “He attempted to murder the king. There’s a great tumult in the castle about it. Finn’s been—”
Kyen left before the guard finished his sentence. He strode quickly across the bailey and pushed open one of the double doors into the castle keep. Without waiting for a footman, Kyen mounted the nearest staircases. He bound up two flights, taking the steps three at a time and drawing stares from a couple maidservants as he passed.
Kyen exited onto the third floor, the solar, the royal family’s private sitting room where doors to their bedchambers lined the walls. Finn’s younger sisters sat in high-backed chairs, gazed idly out the windows or wept together in the corner.
At the sound of Kyen’s footsteps, all the redheads turned to him. They stared at him for a moment, wide-eyed and open-mouthed.
Tears glimmered in Clarissa’s eyes as she rose from her chair.
“Oh, it’s terrible!” The girl threw herself on Kyen and sobbed into his tunic. One after another, the other sisters gathered around him. A chorus of sobbing and wailing echoed around the solar.
Kyen, looking grieved, patted at the various heights of heads and shoulders. Only Adelaide, the littlest sister, stood at a distance gazing forlornly at the group. Once the chorus of grief spent itself out, Kyen gently pushed them away and looked into their tear-stained, puffy-eyed faces.
“Oh, it’s terrible!” Clarissa said again. “Daddy and Finn got into an argument. Finn—Finn—” She burst out in a fresh wave of sobs.
Taking her by the hand, Kyen helped Clarissa back to her seat.
She took out a handkerchief and buried her face in it.
Elenora and Lionora, the eldest set of twins, looked up at Kyen with identical, red-eyed expressions. The group of sniffling girls clung to one another behind them.
“How is King Veleda?” Kyen asked.
“Come and see.” Elenora and Lionora led him to one of the side doors and knocked. The castle apothecary admitted them into the bed chamber beyond. He returned to his station at the bedside as Kyen and the girls gathered into the room.
In his bed, King Veleda groaned and shifted with fever. His face looked pale beneath his wiry, red beard. Broad bandages swathed his chest. The apothecary dabbed at his brow with a damp cloth.
“How bad?” asked Kyen.
“He’s still in danger until the fever breaks,” said the apothecary.
Fresh tears rose to Elenora and Lionora’s eyes.
Kyen shook his head, gazing on the wounded king.
“What happened?” said Kyen. “I can’t imagine Finn ever arguing with his father, much less acting out of violence. What happened?” He looked to the twins.
They both shook their heads, too.
“Finn seemed sad when he returned,” said Lionora.
“But he’s always had his moods.”
Kyen watched King Veleda muttered incoherently under his breath.
The apothecary laid the cloth over the king’s brow.
“Where is Finn?” Kyen looked to the twins.
“He’s—” Eleanor swallowed hard, tears threatening.
“He’s being held in one of the storerooms.” Lionora finished for her.
“May I see him?”
They both nodded.
* * *
In the basement of the keep, a guard stood posted before a solid oak door. He came to attention as Clarissa, Elenora, and Lionora brought Kyen to him. At a word from Clarissa, the guard unlocked the door.
Kyen stepped inside. The door shut and locked behind him.
A lantern hung from the ceiling and lit the crates and boxes pushed to the back of the room. Under the dim light, Finn paced. He strode to one wall, turned, strode to the other, turned. Fury clouded his features. His fists clenched and unclenched at his sides. A black welt stood out on his forearm. He lifted his head when Kyen entered, cast him a single dark glance, and looked away
“Finn?” Kyen took a cautious step forward.
Finn paced past him.
“What happened Finn?”
Finn strode up to the wall, turned.
“What’s wrong with you?” asked Kyen.
“Nothing.” Finn crossed the room.
“I don’t believe that.”
Finn reached the opposite wall, turned.
“Not until we talk,” said Kyen.
Finn kept pacing. His fists clenched tight.
With a yell of rage, Finn lunged at Kyen. He swung out a fist at Kyen’s head.
Finn collided with the door.
The slithering zing of metal sounded as Kyen drew his sword.
“Don’t fight me,” said Kyen.
Finn spat on the ground.
Kyen’s frown deepened.
The lock rattled, and the guard put his head inside
“Everything alright?” He eyed Kyen’s drawn blade.
Finn returned to pacing.
“I’m finished.” Kyen sheathed his sword. He stepped out around the guard.
Clarissa, Elenora and Lionora looked up as Kyen joined them. Clarissa was biting her lip. Elenora and Lionora clutched each other’s arms for support. Behind him, the guard re-locked the door.
“See?” said Elenora.
“He won’t speak to anyone,” said Lionora.
“What do we do?” Clarissa’s voice broke over the question.
Kyen stood for a long time gazing at the door.
The three young princesses watched him.
“I need to speak with Adelaide,” said Kyen.
“Yes.” Kyen walked past them and mounted the steps back to the solar.
* * *
Adelaide sat at the bay window apart from the rest of her sisters. When Kyen approached, Clarissa, Elenora, and Lionora crowded behind him. He waved them away. The twins exchanged perplexed looks, but Clarissa walked to the table and took up her sewing. The twins followed, and the three sat together, stealing glances at Kyen over their embroidery.
Kyen seated himself next to Adelaide.
The girl clutched her doll and gazed up with doleful eyes.
“I received your message, Princess Adelaide,” said Kyen.
“Can you tell me what happened?”
“Something’s wrong with big brother.” Adelaide lowered her eyes. “He won’t play with me anymore. He hurt daddy.”
“When did he stop playing with you?” asked Kyen.
“He promised he’d play dress up with me and my dollies, but he just says go away.” Tears bubbled up in the girl’s eyes. She gave a great big sniff. “I think big brother got stung.”
“He’s got a big, black sting.” Adelaide pushed up her sleeve and rubbed her arm. “Right here.”
“Adelaide, which one is Finn’s room? Can I see it?”
Adelaide nodded. She hopped off the cushions. Taking two of Kyen’s fingers in her whole hand, she pulled him forward. Kyen stooped as he crossed the solar with her. Clarissa, Elenora, and Lionora stared, needles forgotten.
Adelaide opened the door next to the king’s room. She pulled Kyen inside.
The bed, the desk, the longsword mounted on the wall, the cloak on the door peg: everything stood in high order. Kyen’s gaze swept the bedroom.
“Let me look around.” Kyen slipped his hand free. He checked out the window and surveyed the view of the grounds. He opened the desk drawer—a neat stack of parchment, an ink bottle, quills—and he closed it again.
Kyen turned to leave but paused.
A bedside table supported a candleholder. Beside it lay a dart of dark metal.
Kyen picked the dart up. Taking the cloth bundle from his pocket, he unwrapped in. In its folds lay the other dart—the dart from the griffin—a twin of the one from Finn’s bedside table.