The marble fireplace in Casimer’s study was twice as wide as a normal fireplace, and on this night it was filled with twice as much wood as well. The freshly stoked fire roared with heat, the flames licking upward with a wild fury that made it seem they yearned to escape their hearth and consume the books that lined the shelves above. And yet in spite of the warmth, Echidna had lost count of the number of times she’d shifted in her chair, unable to get comfortable. The book in her lap could have been laying upside down for all the attention she’d been paying attention to it. Her eyes merely went through the motions of skimming over the text as she flipped from one page to the next without actually taking in a single word.
Though she knew it was an irrational fear, for weeks now, a thread of apprehension had laced through her thoughts, like a dark cloud rumbling on the horizon. She should be relieved—ecstatic even—to have Casimer back at her side once again. Perhaps the anxiety was a lingering fear. After all, Ohanzee assassins had tried to kill her husband. They’d just failed this time. Barely. Dreading that more attempts may be made on his life in the future wasn’t unreasonable at all. Where there was one assassin, there was bound to be more.
Hoping to shake away the bleak thoughts, she looked down at Ladon who was playing with a set of miniature wooden logs nearby. He was utterly engrossed in building with them, the tip of his tongue poking out from between lips pursed in concentration as he lined up and interlocked the notches to construct a small rectangular house. Echidna supposed it was a house, at least. It was little more than a square frame at this point, but he’d left openings for what looked like a door and windows, so a house seemed a pretty safe guess. It was too small to be anything else.
On the other side of the room, Casimer was engrossed in his task too. He sat at his grand mahogany desk, alternately reading and then signing various papers like he did on most evenings. It was as quiet and serene a night as Echidna could ask for. The two people most important to her were safe and healthy—or at least healing. Yet no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t shake the ominous sensation tingling at the back of her mind.
“Look I made a castle!” Ladon proclaimed. He beamed and gestured toward his creation with a flourish. The “house” had grown no larger in dimensions compared to a moment ago, but now there was a roof attached.
“Castles are much larger than that, you silly boy,” Echidna teased in an affectionate tone.
When he didn’t receive the glowing praise that he expected, Ladon crossed his arms and put on a childish pout.
Echidna thrust out one hand in a playful swipe, pretending she was going to grab his protruding lip. “You live in a castle. You know they’re much larger than that.”
Ladon flopped backward to dodge his mother’s grasp, squealing with laughter. Clumsy hands and feet sent wooden logs rolling in all directions across the plush carpet, including parts of the “castle,” which tumbled down in the onslaught.
Hastily, Echidna held one finger to her glossy red lips to silence him. “We need to be quiet so your father can concentrate,” she murmured.
Ladon mimed the gesture back at her with an impudent grin. “I’m going to make a real castle this time,” he said a second later, cupping his hand to his mouth as if he were whispering, but hardly lowering his voice at all.
“I can’t wait to see it,” Echidna replied, though she wasn’t looking in his direction anymore. Her attention was focused on Casimer.
Part of her was relieved that their commotion hadn’t disturbed him, but a part of her was a little irritated, too. He’d obviously been paying as much attention to them as she’d been paying to her book.
Which was to say, none at all.
As Ladon gathered the scattered pieces, Echidna resumed her futile attempt at reading. Not a moment later, a knock came at the study’s door. Casimer’s head lifted from his work immediately, as if he’d been waiting for the sound, and he wasted no time summoning the visitor to enter.
Nils strode into the room, his cloak still wrapped around his broad shoulders and the hair in his long ponytail damp with melted snow. Whatever news he had must be urgent for him to come without even taking the time to remove his outerwear.
Before the door closed behind him, Echidna clapped her hands, gesturing for the nursemaid waiting in the hall to take Ladon back to his room. Then she snapped her book shut since it didn’t matter what page she’d been on anyway and set it on the table beside her. It had been quite some time since they’d gotten an update from Nils, and she was keen to learn what had prompted this urgent—yet apparently anticipated—visit.
Casimer met Echidna’s eyes over the top of Nils’ bowed head, an unreadable expression on his face. For a fleeting moment, she felt sure he was going to ask her to leave as well, but he didn’t. She didn’t even know what would prompt her to think such a thing. He had never excluded her from meetings with Nils before, so it would have been completely unlike him to ask her to leave this time.
“Thyra has carried out her orders as instructed,” Nils said as soon as he straightened from his bow.
“And what was the outcome?” Casimer prompted. Echidna had no idea who Thyra was or what her orders had been, but her husband obviously did. It must have been something the men had discussed before Casimer came to the country estate.
Nils’ features twisted into a sour expression. “She has failed. Nerissa has fled the city, and as far as we can tell, she was unharmed. We assume the Ohanzee have taken her back to their stronghold.”
“Were we at least able to finally track their retreat?” Casimer asked. Echidna noted that he didn’t inquire about Thyra’s fate, though she supposed the consequence of failure was safe to assume.
“No,” Nils answered, a growl of frustration running through his voice. “As usual, shortly after reaching the forest, their trail disappears.”
Casimer struck the top of his desk with his fist in a rare fit of pique, knocking a heavy brass seal from its holder and making Echidna flinch. “Is there at least an opportunity for us to make a move on Niamh now that the Ohanzee have left the city?”
Nils shook his head. “Only a small party departed with Nerissa. The majority of their men remain behind, and they have increased the frequency of patrols in the wake of Thyra’s failure.”
“So it’s nothing but bad news all the way around,” Casimer grumbled. He clasped his hands behind his back and began pacing.
Nils bristled, looking like he very much wanted to protest, but one quick glance over his shoulder at Echidna kept his lips pressed together.
A wise decision, she thought.
“Did we at least find out if the Ohanzee have located the remaining books they were searching for?” Casimer asked.
“We can assume they either have them all or they have abandoned the search for them,” Nils replied in a clipped tone. “The one piece of good news is that Thyra was able to get one last report to us before she made her move. In it, she stated that Nerissa is seeking information about a series of antique paintings.”
“We know she’s planning to begin construction on a new Royal Manor soon. Starting a new art collection to decorate its walls hardly seems relevant,” Casimer said, and Echidna silently agreed.
Nils continued on as if he hadn’t heard him. “These paintings are special. They have powdered gemstones embedded in the paint. Somehow, the paintings are related to an unspecified talent that Nerissa and her guardian possess. And what’s more—the paintings apparently have something to do with an ancient weapon. Doesn’t that sound familiar?”
Casimer froze. “Quite familiar,” he said. “Do you think it’s related to the artworks we asked Amon to investigate?”
“I’ve already sent men to look into it,” Nils said. “Our starting point will of course be to observe Amon’s movements and whereabouts.”
Echidna just barely caught the word “traitor” and one other, more colorful, epithet as Casimer muttered his nephew’s name under his breath. She could hardly blame her husband for having such a visceral reaction. Amon’s defection to the Ohanzee’s side was how they’d gotten close enough to attack Casimer in the first place.
“Nephew to the king or not,” Nils said, “once we get the information we need, there will be no mercy shown to him.”
Though Echidna agreed with the sentiment wholeheartedly, the icy undertone in Nils’ voice sent gooseflesh tingling up her arms.
“Better to do it sooner than later,” Casimer said with equal coldness. It seemed family connections meant little in the face of betrayal. “Was there anything else you have to report?”
“There is one more thing,” Nils said slowly, as if choosing his next words carefully. “Thyra’s failure means it is time for us to put the final phase of our plans in motion.”
Echidna wondered what he was referring to, and Casimer’s reply didn’t provide her any answers. “I expected as much,” was all he said.
Nils gave a quick satisfied nod, then bowed and departed without another word.
Echidna waited for the door to close behind him, impatient to ask her husband what plan they’d been referring to, but she didn’t get the chance. Seemingly caught up in his own thoughts, Casimer wandered out from behind the desk and headed toward the fireplace. He passed Echidna without acknowledgment, pausing only briefly to look down when the toe of his shoe struck a stray miniature log Ladon had overlooked. As the toy rolled away and disappeared from view, Casimer tugged on the tasseled cord that hung beside the mantle.
A servant entered the room mere seconds later.
“Have these toys cleaned up and returned to the nursery right away,” he said before the maid had even finished bowing.
Echidna’s fingers tightened on the armrests, her long nails pressing half-moon indentations into the cushions. Any curiosity she had about Nils’ mysterious plans vanished in the wake of Casimer’s request. She’d remained silent until now, attributing Casimer’s occasional odd behaviors as the stress of enduring a near-fatal injury. No one could be expected to behave normally under those circumstances. But this? This was too far out of character to let pass without remark.
“Darling, what is going on with you?” she demanded once the maid left. “You’ve been behaving strangely for weeks.”
Casimer turned away from the fire to face her, his features painted with concern. “What have I done that seems strange to you?”
“Well, most recently…,” Echidna gestured toward the rug where Ladon’s toys had been. “You’ve always said you wanted Ladon’s toys left out because you liked to be surrounded by little reminders of your son.”
A log snapped in the hearth, sending a shower of sparks flying up the chimney. The light from the licking flames flared, momentarily growing bright enough to obscure Casimer’s features, turning him to a shadow of his usual self.
“You’re not still worried about Ladon and that silly prophecy, are you?” Echidna asked, the idea just now dawning on her.
There was a long pause. “No, of course I’m not still concerned about that. I have far too many other things to deal with,” Casimer finally said. “No matter what some foolish prophecy claims, I am completely certain that Ladon is no threat to me.”
He offered one hand to Echidna and helped her to her feet, then skimmed his lips over the tops of her knuckles. “It’s not that I don’t want Ladon’s toys around me anymore. I had them put away because I’m afraid of stepping on one and falling.” He pulled her hand toward him until it rested softly against his chest, just over his heart. “The doctor says I’m healing well, but I still have to be careful. Even something that is normally harmless, like tripping or lifting heavy objects, could be enough to cause a serious setback.”
A wave of relief washed over Echidna, and she suddenly felt foolish for not considering such a simple explanation in the first place. “I’m sorry,” she said, knowing those words rarely left her lips. “I should have realized that on my own.”
“I can hardly blame you for worrying about me,” he said tenderly. “You haven’t seemed like yourself lately either.”
“Really?” she asked, incredulous. She didn’t think she’d been behaving any differently than usual.
“It’s nothing too obvious, but since I know you, I can see the subtle changes. You’ve been distant, distracted,” he said.
Echidna’s lips curved upward in a wistful smile. He’d been as worried about her as she was about him.
Casimer gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. “I want you to throw a party,” he said suddenly.
“A party?” Echidna echoed in surprise.
“Yes, I think it would be good for us both.”
“Are you sure that’s such a good idea? You said yourself that you’re still healing. You have enough going on without the added stress of entertaining or being under the scrutiny of guests’ eyes,” she protested.
“Ah, but the guests’ eyes are exactly what I need right now,” Casimer countered. “ ’The more the merrier’ is especially true in this case. Invite all the nobles that have followed us here. Invite all of the nobles that are still in Nyx, if their carriages can manage to get through the snow. Invite anyone you wish. Being seen alive and well by as many people as possible will do more to dispel the rumors of my demise than anything else. And I needn’t worry about the stress of hosting, do I? Because my lovely wife will take care of every detail.”
“Of course I will,” Echidna agreed, trying to sound enthusiastic. But despite his reassurances, the dark cloud in the back of her mind rumbled again.
© 2020 Rachel R. Smith