At the same moment that Percival was defending his right to shovel cow dung without being interrupted, Lord Edmond Hargreaves, Duke of Whitefall, his wife, the Lady Duchess Chantal Hargreaves, and Ser Robert Mariner of Kreogsward, Knight Protectorate of the Crown, Chief Warlock of the Royal Parliament, and personal friend and adviser to the White King, were deep in conversation, grim expressions on their faces. They stood in the Duke’s private chambers around a wooden table with a large map of the realm unfurled upon it. A large sword with gem-encrusted hilt belonging to Ser Robert stood against a corner, glistening by the light of the flickering fireplace.
“So this man – this Josiah – he is definitely the Eagle?” the Duke was asking.
“The matter is beyond question,” Ser Robert responded. “Josiah was a—” he paused “—classmate of mine at Tao’lin sixteen years ago. When the Eagle murdered that family in Gavin’s Wold several years back, one of the witnesses described a man that I would have sworn was he, but I had no proof. Now, though…” his voice trailed off, before finishing firmly: “The matter is beyond question.”
Lady Chantal spoke next. “And is it true that the High Physician is also guilty?” she asked. “Even though his actions were subject to the Imperial Catechism?”
“The matter is beyond question,” Ser Robert repeated. “It was I personally who found and arrested the three of them. I do not know how Idriys overcame the Catechism, though I am sure that the White King will find out all when he arrives.”
Lord Edmond and his wife paled. “The White King… coming here?” the Duke breathed.
“Yes,” said Ser Robert. “This is a matter of high treason; the White King wishes to personally oversee the trial and – should the three be found guilty – their execution.”
There was a long pause before the Duke spoke again. “But what evidence is there against them? Surely it is not so certain as that.”
Ser Robert fixed Edmond’s gaze with a look that was not without compassion. “My Lord Edmond, you must understand that this is as difficult for me as it is for you. At Tao’lin I counted High Physician Idriys and his roommate, Cameron, among my friends. And while I shared no great love for Josiah Burroughs, I would not have expected murder or treason from him. However, clearly I was wrong. Now I serve the White King as Knight Protectorate, and I must perform my duties. I cannot deny to you or any other man alive what my eyes have seen. Yet, even were I able to, there is this.” Ser Robert reached into his tunic and retrieved a small, travel-worn journal, and handed it to Edmond. “I took this from the High Physician’s person at the time of his arrest; it is his personal journal.”
The Duke flipped open the volume and began to read:
5 Marte 534. Today I witnessed the death of my seventeenth patient. This man did not die like the other sixteen. He was not old. He was not wounded in battle. He did not appear to have contracted a sickness. He simply came into my clinic, sat down in a chair, and stopped breathing. I rushed to him, but he was dead by the time I crossed the room. It was beyond my art to revive him.
Wishing at least to determine the cause of death, I immediately performed an autopsy on the man, but was unable to reach any conclusion. I do not know how he died! That is a terrible thing for a man of my position to say. I do not know how he died! And yet, I must know. It is my duty to my King to understand any and every threat to his person that may present itself. It is my duty to my King’s people to protect them from illness and disease. It is my duty to myself to save as many lives as I can. And yet, I do not know how he died! I must find out. I must.
6 Marte 534. I spoke at length last night with the dead man’s wife, and she told me something quite strange. The morning of his death, he went to their cupboard, took out some Tao leaves, and made the tea that the Warlocks drink. The man was not a wizard! He had no magical abilities at all! The woman was not even aware that they owned any Tao, and given the restrictions on its use, was quite concerned that she might be implicated somehow. I assured her that I did not think she had anything to do with her husband’s death, nor did I believe that she had illegally acquired Tao.
After she left, I returned to my clinic. I began another autopsy of the man’s body, this time specifically looking for traces of Tao weed. There was none. None! If the woman spoke the truth – and I had been given no reason to doubt her in our interview – the Tao should still be in his blood. For that matter, if the man had really drunk Tao that morning, how did he walk the mile and a half from his house to my clinic at noon? Even the Warlocks must recover after drinking Tao, and I know of no person dispossessed of magic who could walk twenty yards after such consumption—much less a mile! Tao weed is, after all, a poison and a hallucinogen. But it does not kill people.
I am faced with a quandary: either this man’s wife is lying to me, or some heretofore unknown force is at work.
I must speak with Cameron. He is more knowledgeable in these matters than I. If only Josiah were here – he knew more than all of us.
14 Marte 534. There have been two more unexplained deaths in the last week. One death occurred at my clinic, much as I described before. Another woman simply fell over in her house, dead. Persons familiar with the dead individuals all report the same bizarre behavior. At some point a few hours before death, the individual brewed a cup of the Warlocks’ tea. No one is able to explain where the Tao came from, nor are they able to provide me with samples of the Tao used in the tea. Neither am I able to find any trace of Tao weed in the cadavers. Is someone perhaps trying to poison the White King’s subjects with some new chemical agent disguised as Tao? To what end?
I spoke with Cameron about the matter, and he is as confounded as I. He explained to me what I already knew, that there are different strains of Tao, each designed to grant different magicks to the imbiber. An important branch of magical research is devoted to the development of new strains of Tao, so that the Warlocks may have an ever-increasing repertoire of abilities. And, if improperly grown, some of these strains can be lethal. But Cameron claims it would be simply impossible to create a strain that kills and then removes itself from the bloodstream so soon after death.
However, he did ask me an important question, one that I am exasperated I did not think of myself. “Idriys”, he said, “there is another commonality surrounding the circumstances of two of the three individuals.” Cameron took a long drag on his cigarette before continuing, while I waited impatiently, wanting to strangle him (the inhalation of burning tobacco in any form is a despicable habit). “How is it,” he said, exhaling the smoke into my face, “that two of these people knew that they were ill, if they had no symptoms, or trace of Tao in their blood?”
Gods! How could I have missed it? Of the three cases thus far, two appeared in my clinic for absolutely no discernable reason. What compelled them to behave in such a manner?
Lord Edmond set down the diary. “I fail to see what bearing this has on our present predicament,” he said bluntly.
Ser Robert gestured at the journal again. “Read the last entry,” he said.
The Duke picked up the book and flipped through the pages till he arrived at the final entry, dated 14 Valis, 536 – three days before:
14 Valis 536. I am about to commit high treason. I did not think that it would come to this, but I see no alternatives. The White King’s people are dying, and he is complicit in their deaths! There is no longer anyone I can trust in the Kingdom. So I turn to our enemies – the Chimerae.
Edmond set down the book, hands shaking. “The Chimerae?” he asked in a tremulous voice.
“I have had no time to read or verify the statements in the rest of the diary, but that part, at least, is truth,” said Ser Robert. “Two nights ago, as I observed, the three traitors gathered in a copse near the mouth of the Chanti River. Just before midnight, one of the Chimerae entered the grove after them. I followed it. As I got closer, I could hear the four of them conversing, but I could not understand the words – they were speaking in the harsh, guttural language of the Chimerae. I waited as long as I could, but as they completed their business and the Chimera turned to leave, I could not stay my hand longer.” He spat on the ground in contempt. “The Chimera, at least, died quickly. If I had my way, it would not be thus for those treasonous wretches.”
The Duke sat down heavily in a great wooden chair. “And the Physician’s claim?”
Ser Robert gave a short, barking laugh. “What, that the White King is killing his own people? I assure you upon my honor that no such thing is possible. What ludicrous evidence the Physician has to support this mad conjecture I do not know. I suspect he has none at all, in fact. He has simply deluded himself into believing that the White King is guilty of such a crime to assuage his conscience. Perhaps the lure of Chimerae gold is stronger than we thought.”
“Strong enough to break the Catechism?” Edmond wondered pensively.
The Lady Chantal interjected at that moment with a worried expression on her face. “Ser,” she said, addressing the knight, “You said that you apprehended these men near the mouth of the Chanti River? But that is not more than sixty leagues from here! Are the Chimerae that close?”
Ser Robert looked troubled. “I do not know,” he said. “Before I captured the traitors, I saw signs of them, but they were old – at least a month.” He paused. “The White King is concerned, however. We do not the extent of the information they passed to the Chimerae, nor do we know how valuable the Chimerae believe the prisoners are. It… is possible that the Chimerae could attempt to rescue the traitors. That is part of the reason why I have been sent.”
At that, Lord Edmond stood furiously, knocking over his chair with a loud thump. “What have you done?” he said, voice shaking with rage. “You brought those prisoners here when you knew it might draw the Chimera armies? What right have you? The men of Whitefall are farmers, not soldiers! You and I might survive, but the people will be slaughtered!”
Ser Robert’s eyes flashed. “Duke Edmond, I will remind you of your place!” he said sternly. “You are a subject of the White King, and until he arrives, I am his hand. If I say that you will receive these prisoners, then you shall receive these prisoners, though it draw all the Chimerae armies and every demon in the nine hells upon your land!”
The Duke looked as though he had been slapped. Lady Chantal cast her eyes downward and rushed from the room, blinking back shameful tears. Ser Robert’s voice softened, and a glimmer of sorrow crossed his face. “I… am sorry, Lord Edmond,” he said. “The last few days have been trying for me, as well. I never… expected things to happen this way.”
“But what are we to do?” the Duke asked. “Surely the White King does not expect us to staunch the flow of Chimerae into his kingdom with hoes and shovels?”
Ser Robert picked up his sword and strapped it to his waist. “The White King comes to Whitefall riding at the head of a battalion of grey reavers,” he said. “Duke Edmond, you had best prepare to receive an army.” With that, he turned and strode from the room.