Prince Jaspin swept through the ample corridors of Castle Erlott on his way to the great hall where the Council of Regents sat deadlocked for the third day. He was followed by two of his own bodyguards carrying halberds with royal pennons fluttering from the halberds’ long staves. Jaspin had chosen this moment to remind the recalcitrant regents of his power and prestige.
Behind him also marched Ontescue, carrying a small ornamented casket. Next to Ontescue walked a man in the worn clothes of a soldier, hesitant of step, eyes darting everywhere as if seeking refuge for an uneasy conscience.
This parade arrived at the towering doors of the great hall, now locked and the way barred by three guards, one of whom was the marshal of the Council of Regents.
“Halt!” bellowed the marshal. “The council is in session.”
“The council is deadlocked,” said Prince Jaspin in his most unctuous manner. “I have with me the means they require to resolve their impasse. Let me through!”
The marshal puffed out his cheeks as if to protest when a knock on the door sounded from within. “Stand away,” he warned the prince and turned to open the door to the summons.
“Marshal, the council will recognize the prince,” said Sir Bran as the door swung open slightly. He added under his breath to the prince, “I am sorry. I have only just received your signal, or I would have given this featherbrain orders to admit you on sight.”
“Hmph!” the prince snorted. “Are you ready?” Sir Bran nodded as they moved inside the door. “Are the others?”
“They know their part. You will hear them sing when the time comes. Worry not.”
Ontescue followed them through the doors, motioning for the man in soldier’s clothes to remain without. The huge door closed with a resounding crash, and all heads turned to see who had entered to disturb their deliberations.
“I protest!” shouted a voice above the murmur that accompanied the discovery that the prince had invaded the privacy of the council. “I protest the presence of the prince at this meeting.” The strident voice belonged to Lord Holben, who was on his feet, waving an accusing finger in Jaspin’s direction.
“I come as a friend of this body and as one offering evidence which the council requires.”
Lord Holben clenched his fists at his sides and bent his head stiffly to confer with one of his friends. “This council will provide its own evidence,” retorted Holben. There were nods all around the table.
“Of course.” The prince smiled sweetly. “But the council may examine any evidence brought before it from any source—if it so chooses.” More nods of agreement.
“How is it that you know this council desires any such evidence?” asked Lord Holben. His voice was tense, barely under control. “It seems you have long ears, my prince, but methinks they belong to a jackass!”
“That is unseemly, sir!” cried Drake. He made as if to dash across the room to where Holben stood shaking with rage.
“Good sirs, desist!” shouted Lord Naylor, leader of the council. “The council has the right to decide if it will admit Prince Jaspin’s evidence or not.” He turned to address the whole of the council. “What say you, my lords?”
Starting with the chair on Lord Naylor’s right hand, each regent spoke his pleasure—yea or nay, for or against admitting an examination of the prince’s evidence. Curiosity enticed the greater number of the assemblage, and the prince was invited to admit his proof.
“I bow to your discretion,” said the prince, bending low. He smiled, but his eyes were stone as they cast upon Lord Holben and his dissenters.
“It has reached me that this council stands deadlocked for want of proof of the king’s death. And though it grieves me—you know not how much—to render this sad account, I would be remiss if, having the power to end this dissent, I stood by and did nothing.”
Again murmurs of approval were voiced around the table. Jaspin picked out his paid followers, eyeing each one individually.
“I have bare hours ago received this final proof of the king’s death. And though it deals a grievous wound to us all, who have hoped against hope that we would one day see his return, it nevertheless confirms the reason for this meeting.” He raised his sad eyes around the room. “It does confirm our darkest suspicions.”
Prince Jaspin raised a finger and motioned Ontescue to approach with the jeweled chest. Jaspin took the chest and placed it before Lord Naylor. He handed him the key, saying, “I believe you will find the end of your questions within.”
Lord Naylor took the key and without a word placed it in the lock and turned it. In all the hall only the sound of the lock clicking open could be heard. Naylor withdrew the key and carefully raised the lid. What he saw inside drove the color from his face. He closed the lid and looked away, sinking back in his chair, eyes closed.
The small gilt casket made its way around the table, pausing before each regent in turn. Prince Jaspin watched the effect of the casket’s contents upon each member. Some stared down in disbelief, others in grave sadness, like Naylor, and still others expressed nothing more than a dread curiosity.
All except Holben seemed to accept the evidence as proof enough of the king’s untimely death.
“Do you think, Prince Jaspin,” he began quietly, “that this scant remnant will suffice our inquiry?” He drew breath. “It is a travesty!” he shouted, flinging the casket from him. The contents, a severed finger, once bloody and mutilated, now withered and rotting, bearing a great golden ring, rolled out upon the table. The ring was King Eskevar’s personal signet.
“I have seen that ring on His Majesty’s hand. With my own eyes, I have seen it!” someone shouted.
“I, too, have seen it. I swear it is genuine!” cried another.
Others joined in the chorus, but Holben stood his ground. “The ring may be genuine, my lords. Indeed, it may even be the king’s finger which wears the ring. But it proves nothing. Nothing!”
“He is right,” said a noble sitting to Holben’s right. “A king’s ring and a king’s finger do not add up to a king’s death. Certainly, a king may be separated from one or the other, or both, and that separation would not prove fatal.”
Doubt traveled fleetingly across several faces.
“A king does not suffer his ring—the symbol of his sovereignty— to be taken except on pain of death. King Eskevar would fight to the last breath rather than give up that ring. That is enough for me.” The speaker, Sir Grenett, sat down triumphantly, as if he had carried the day.
But Lord Holben was adamant. “King Eskevar, I will warrant, would face death a thousand times rather than relinquish that ring. But King Eskevar may have had nothing to do with it.” He turned to fix Prince Jaspin with a fierce, defiant scowl.
Jaspin shook his head slowly and said, with seeming reluctance, “I had hoped to spare you the grisly details, but since Lord Holben would stain the illustrious memory of our great monarch with his morbid disrespect . . .” He turned and signaled to Ontescue to produce the witness.
Ontescue, standing ready at the door, gave a sharp knock, and the marshal opened the door and admitted the soldier.
“This man, this poor wretch you see before you, followed our king to foreign lands and fought steadfastly by his side. He was present at the end, when in the last battle Eskevar was killed and the ring cut from his hand by the enemy.” The soldier hung his head and did his best to appear dutifully grief-stricken.
“How did this ring come to be in your possession?” inquired Lord Naylor gently.
“If it please you, sir, the sight of the king sprawled dead upon the field so saddened our men that we were overcome with a righteous frenzy and slew the enemies who had killed our king as they retreated in victory. And so we retrieved this ring.”
“You saw the king fall, did you?”
“Yes, my lord.” The soldier’s eyes shifted uneasily from face to face around the room.
“And how did the . . . ring. How did it come to be in your possession?”
“The wars being over, we were all returning. I was aboard the first ship to sail for home, but the last ship to leave before winter. I volunteered to bring it on ahead.”
“The armies will be returning shortly?”
“Yes, my lord. With the first ships of spring.”
Lord Naylor closed his eyes again as if in great weariness. “Thank you, good soldier.” He nodded, dismissing the man. The soldier backed away from the round table with a bow. Prince Jaspin waved him away with a furtive gesture.
“Where is your commander?” demanded Holben. “Why was this token not provided with an honor guard? Answer me!”
“The man came directly to me as soon as he could,” remarked Prince Jaspin, ignoring Lord Holben’s demands. His witness left the room.
“Yes, of course,” agreed Lord Naylor wearily. Then he raised his head and in a voice filled with emotion said, “My lords, I think we have seen and heard enough.” He raised a hand quickly to parry Lord Holben’s objection. “Enough to make up our minds. For myself, I choose to believe what I see, and what has been told among us. I can see no other course but to do what we came here to do.”
“We can wait,” suggested Holben readily. “Wait for the others to return. Members of the king’s bodyguard, for example. Those who buried him . . .”
“And how many will it take before you believe?” asked Sir Bran. “You would not believe your own eyes, nor would you anyone else’s.”
“This council has been charged with a duty that must not wait,” offered Sir Grenett. “The realm daily cries out for strong leadership.”
“That from you, Sir Grenett?” sneered Holben. “Since when did strong leadership become a concern of yours? You and the rest of your thieving rabble!”
“Careful, my hotheaded sir. You go too far. This is not the place to settle our differences,” Grenett spat out with great control.
“You are right, Sir Grenett,” mediated Naylor. “This is not the time nor the place to dwell on these things. Lord Holben, you are entitled to your vote of dissent, but the rest of this body has a right to vote as they will.
“Prince Jaspin, if you will leave us to our duty, we shall endeavor to inform you of the council’s decision as soon as possible.”
“I think a midsummer’s coronation would suit me splendidly.” Prince Jaspin laughed upon returning to his chambers. “What do you think, Ontescue? I am overjoyed. At last it is mine!
“Wine! We need wine! I feel like celebrating! Send the chamberlain to broach a cask of my finest—”
“I have already done so,” said Ontescue. “And I would congratulate you myself, and take the opportunity to remind you of certain promises upon which we have agreed?”
“Oh, pish-tosh! I am in no mood to discuss such petty trifles. We will talk again on it soon. Plenty of time for that later. Let us celebrate now.”
“I would not like to be premature,” reminded Ontescue stiffly.
“Premature, you say? Nonsense!” The light died in the prince’s eyes as the smile faded from his lips. “Still, if you think we should, we will wait. Yes, we will wait. Better that way, of course. I shall share the celebrations with my friends. Yes, quite so.”
Jaspin threw himself into his chair to spend a worried hour waiting for the news he so longed to hear. At last the chamberlain thrust his head through the door to announce that a party from the council wished to see him. “Let them in, you fool!” he shouted at the man’s disappearing head.
“Sire, good news!” Sir Drake crossed the room in a bound, followed by Sir Grenett and the others. “I am charged by the Council of Regents to inform you that you have been named to the throne of Askelon, king of the realm Mensandor.”
“The council awaits the pleasure of your decision regarding the coronation,” added Sir Grenett. “Let me take them word so that the coronation may be announced at once.”
“Hmmm . . . I really hadn’t given it much thought,” said Prince Jaspin. His fleshy lips twitched with mischief. “But I think Midsummer’s Day would suit me splendidly. Yes. Let it be so proclaimed.”