The Conspiracy: Part Two
The guard’s aim was true and the knife sliced toward Lockwood’s heart.
More quickly than he would previously have believed possible, the Gelert threw out a magical icy shield; it held, and the blade skittered downward to sink deep into his leg.
Jeran pounced swiftly on the Kougra assassin, who dropped his knife on the pavement with a clatter and dived into the bushes. The knight considered following, but realized at once that it would be madness to dive blindly after him; by this time the lithe Kougra could be anywhere, and might easily have the advantage of concealment.
Instead he turned to Lockwood. “Are you all right?” he asked urgently.
“Not very,” Lockwood replied through gritted teeth, leaning heavily against a tree.
Jeran bent to pick up the knife that the Darigan guard had dropped; it was surprisingly blunt, and oddly shaped – a weapon not native to Meridell. “This knife was never meant to cut anything,” he said grimly. “The edges are even blunter than the tip. I think it must be poisoned.”
“Oh, Jeran!” cried Lisha. “What do we do?” She was ashamed of herself for not knowing, and for being entirely unable to keep her head; but she had learned some time ago that Lockwood was the one with the ability to remain cool in a crisis, not her.
“Well,” he said solidly, “you can go find Kayla. She has an antidote for everything. Do you think you can walk at all?” he continued, addressing Lockwood.
“No,” replied Lockwood, relieving Lisha somewhat by sounding more irritated than near death.
“No need,” gasped Lisha. “I can transport us all to Kayla’s potion shop in an instant.”
Lockwood considered protesting, quite secure in the knowledge that he could never transport anything accurately at the best of times; Lisha, however, was evidently more skilled. Before he had the opportunity to object they were already there, and Lisha rushed off to make the appropriate explanations to Kayla.
A harried-looking red Zafara in an oversized hat appeared before him as if by magic and presented him with an equally red drink in a vial, which caused him to fall quite directly asleep.
Kayla’s potion shop was very bright, owing to the large windows overlooking a courtyard, and rather dusty and disorganized to suit its owner. Hundreds of delicate vials of beautifully colored potions were spread about the shop on a variety of stands and racks, and the sign on the door had been turned to read Closed in order to discourage any stray and particularly persistent tourists.
Kayla had seated herself on a rickety chair in the corner and Jeran and Lisha were likewise accommodated directly across from her; Lockwood had been removed to the castle healers.
“It was nothing terribly uncommon,” Kayla explained, removing her hat with a sigh, “and fortunately for your friend Mr. Lockwood I saw a great deal of that particular poison in the Darigan Wars. But he was very lucky; anywhere near the heart and he wouldn’t have stood a chance, no matter how quickly I got to him.”
“If only I had had my sword with me,” muttered Jeran. “But the vile creature knew, of course; he was probably posted at the castle door the entire time.”
“I’m very glad his shield spell worked,” said Lisha with a shudder. “That sort of reflexive magic can go so horribly wrong – and it was such a near thing – but I can’t understand it! Surely no Darigan guard would attempt a thing like that and I am certain that Lord Darigan did not order it!”
Jeran shook his head. “I agree, Lisha, but will Skarl and his advisers? I very much doubt it.”
“Then we will simply have to convince them!” she said hotly. “This will escalate into an absolute disaster if Skarl believes it was Darigan’s fault.”
Kayla cleared her throat politely. “Well, I make potions and nothing more – but as an old friend, Lisha, I will be happy to keep quiet about it if you prefer.”
Lisha sighed. “I suppose it might be best... Lockwood will be all right, won’t he?”
“Oh yes,” Kayla assured her with confidence. “The antidote is rather unpleasant, but once all that is finished he will simply have to stay off his leg until the wound heals. Your brother here has had much worse – I recall an incident with a herd of mutant Babaas, which...”
“Not my finest moment,” Jeran interjected hurriedly. “However, I think we had better get moving. I believe this warrants a direct and personal report to the King.”
“Yes, and I should really write to Lockwood’s sister,” said Lisha. “I hardly care to imagine what rumors she will hear, otherwise, before a single account of what really happened reaches her ears! She’ll be absolutely sick with worry.”
King Skarl, as anticipated, was not pleased. His immediate inclination was to order Darigan’s removal from the castle without question, and it was only after a prodigious amount of persuasion on the part of his chief adviser that he agreed to delay his actions until evidence had been obtained.
A meeting, however, was inevitable. Lord Darigan and Galgarrath and several other lesser generals and advisers were tense and rather sheepish at one end of the grand conference table; and King Skarl and his men were mutinous at the other. Lisha and Jeran took their places on either side of the King. Lisha was pleased to recognize Mr. Fox. He was another Royal Sorcerer, a spiritless, perfectly polite grey Kyrii who, as he had never yet been known to express any emotion, could generally be counted upon to remain peerlessly logical.
“I have nothing to say,” snapped King Skarl, “except that we all await an explanation.”
“Your indignation is natural and it is only reasonable to suspect us, but we hope that the matter may be settled with all possible speed,” replied Darigan. He appeared weary and haggard. “Aside from any personal concern for Mr. Lockwood, I assure you that I would not have thought of doing anything to jeopardize the outcome of this negotiation, and I know that I speak for my advisers as well.”
“If I may be so permitted,” Fox said drearily, “perhaps Sir Jeran and Lady Borodere might be allowed to identify the Darigan guard? If no such guard exists, then of course you are cleared of blame; and if we discover the culprit, then he may be questioned.”
This made such a prodigious amount of sense that nobody had anything to say for several moments. At last Darigan shrugged. “I would be happy to agree to that. I have no more wish for a traitor among my guards than you do.”
Fox only looked toward King Skarl with his peculiarly pale grey eyes and waited for confirmation. The Skeith shook his head in doubt, rather than dissent, and gave his permission.
“I will call for the guards now,” announced Galgarrath in his authoritative way, and the massive Grarrl snaked out of the room.
“Lisha, Jeran, you go with him,” growled Skarl. “And see that they don’t try any tricks with you. As for me, it’s past dinnertime.”
It did not take long to assemble Darigan’s guards, and Lisha and Jeran stood peering doubtfully down the long line of black and purple armor. “The count is twenty-four,” said Galgarrath shortly. “They are all here.”
Jeran nodded and began walking to the left; Lisha felt that she should practically have gone right herself, but instead she chose to follow her brother. She found herself oddly uneasy, almost wishing that they would not find the culprit among the guards – and she could not help wondering what the Kougra would do if they did find him.
Quite suddenly Jeran stopped, and Lisha saw him at once as well – it was without a doubt the same guard who had come at them with a knife just hours ago. It was strange seeing him here in the neat ranks of Darigan guards, and perhaps strangest of all was the fact that he showed no sign of recognition: he did not seem at all afraid that they would identify him. And when Jeran nodded grimly and pointed, he exclaimed in shocked denial. “Me! What are you accusing me of? I haven’t done anything!”
It was quite impossible not to admire his nerve, thought Lisha as two Meridellian guards took hold of him and escorted him to the dungeons. His acting was so brilliantly convincing that if she had not seen him so clearly in the sunlight, she might have doubted his guilt; and yet there was a certain gleam in his eye that she recognized, and even now she could picture him before her with the dagger in hand.
“This will not be the last of it,” said Jeran in an undertone, scratching his chin. “I have a feeling that he won’t respond well to questioning. Much as I trust Darigan, I have to admit that I don’t understand it myself.”
“It’s possible that one guard was simply very anti-Meridellian, I suppose,” Lisha said without any astonishing amount of confidence.
“Yes, I guess so.” The knight paused for a moment, squinting into the sunset after Galgarrath, who had departed in disgusted silence. “What strikes me about the whole thing is that you seemed to predict it.”
“What do you mean? If you are implying that I had some idea this was going to happen, I promise you that I had none at all –”
“Of course not,” agreed Jeran soothingly. “But don’t you think it is even a little bit strange that immediately before the guard attacked you said you had a bad feeling about something?”
“Yes,” said Lisha, frowning. In truth she had entirely forgotten that detail, but now that it had been brought to her attention it seemed nothing short of disturbing. “Yes... that is strange. I think Lockwood even made one of his nice sarcastic comments about premonitions... But it was not a premonition. Just an – an odd feeling.”
“Mmm,” said Jeran noncommittally. “Well, I had better go report back to Skarl.”
It was, Lisha thought as she made her way back into the castle, very strange indeed.
To be continued...