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The Demon King

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Ceres walked at a measured pace along the shaded path of an ivy-canopied walkway connecting the main hall of the castle to one of its outlying gardens. The slope of the mountain was dotted with cherry trees in their first bloom. Their petals would soon fall and scatter like snowflakes, but the pale pink flowers were still secure on their boughs. The afternoon was pleasantly sunny, and rainbows played in the mist rising from the waterfalls cascading down the moss-covered cliffs.

“You must admit that the incident was curious,” Tharsirion prompted.

The viscount had used his daughter’s friendship to wedge himself into the circles of nobles surrounding Ceres, and she was only too happy to oblige. It saved her a great deal of trouble, truth be told.

“You must be referring to the attack on the bridge.”

“Indeed I am. Please consider, why would an orc attack my lands?”

“I believe this orc was a known distributor of antimonarchist tracts at the Lyceum.”

“He may well have been, but could not have carried out the attack himself, not even with considerable magic at his command. The sheer distance would have rendered the act impossible, given the timeline.”

Tharsirion leaned against one of the walkway’s ornamental pillars, positioning himself so that the sun caught his hair. If nothing else, Ceres thought, this man was aware of his most flattering angles. He was trim and fit, and his tailored clothing flattered him. He wore his age well, and Ceres had not failed to notice that she had never seen him alone, no matter the time of day. He must have planned their ostensibly casual encounter far in advance – or someone had taken the trouble of planning it for him.

“No, Urhaugh would not have been working alone,” Ceres replied. If he were wise, Tharsirion would take a hint from her familiar use of the convicted man’s name and allow the matter to drop.

He did no such thing. “Could you not, with your considerable resources, investigate further?” he pressed.

“He confessed to the crime and accepted his sentence, so there is nothing more I can do, legally speaking.” Ceres approached the edge of the walkway and stood beside Tharsirion. “But perhaps something can be arranged, extralegally speaking,” she added, lowering her voice. “It depends on what you think might be uncovered.”

Tharsirion hesitated to respond, which may have been the first intelligent thing he’d done since he came to Whitespire.

“The waterfalls are lovely, aren’t they,” Ceres remarked. “The sound of falling water is so soothing to the ears.” It wasn’t accurate to say that no one could hear their conversation over rush of the falls, but they were in as private a space as they could be in the castle, as Tharsirion surely knew.

“Do you think one of your own supporters might have staged the attack, using my arrival to court as an opportunity, of sorts? A catalyst?”

Ceres smiled. She’d thought this was going to be difficult, but Tharsirion had just baited his own trap.

“One of my supporters, you say? I am the sole monarch of this kingdom. Are you suggesting that I have a political faction?”

“If there is a faction that opposes you, it logically follows that you must have a faction of supporters. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that there is a faction that opposes your opposition.”

“And tell me, how are you so important to either of these supposed factions that your lands have become a target of contention?”

“Is it not your duty to use the resourced granted to you to protect your kingdom? Is that not what you told me when I first presented my suit to you, Your Highness?”

“Then, by your reasoning, an attack on you would be an implied statement that I am not using my resources properly.” That was not what he had suggested, not at all, but she may as well cast the baited hook he had so graciously offered.

“If you were willing to allow me free rein of my own resources, there would be no need for you to take responsibility either way. No one could blame the throne for what might befall a territory responsible for its own upkeep and defense.”

Ceres pretended to consider his suggestion. She needed to time her response correctly. They were approaching the garden pavilion, where two soldiers stood at the ready. Most of the palace guards were purely ornamental, but she may as well give them something to do.

“Perhaps we should initiate a deeper investigation into the attack,” she offered. “I wonder what our young scholar might have been offered to choose your estate as his target. It is indeed a curious state of affairs. One might almost think you planned the attack on the bridge yourself,” she added with a wry grin.

“Come now, surely there’s no need for speculation on conspiracies,” Tharsirion replied, returning her grin. “I’m simply suggesting that the burden of the cost of territorial defense could be transferred from the crown to my estate. Imagine how much more effective I could be with regional forces under my own command.”

Ceres froze and arranged her face into a mask of shock. “Is that a threat, Viscount?”

The guards standing at the entrance of the pavilion responded immediately to the tone of her words, rushing forward to remove Tharsirion from her side. He protested, but Ceres merely bowed her head and focused her attention on her performance of dismay as she clutched her hands to her chest, every bit the besieged princess.

She continued on her way to the garden as the guards led Tharsirion away. She would have him released after an hour, of course. She might even make the trip to do it herself. She wouldn’t apologize – she made a habit of never apologizing for anything – but she would say that she did not intend for such an ignoble inconvenience to befall to someone in his position. She might even offer to consider his proposal.

Despite the disruption to her schedule, it was necessary that Tharsirion be seen escorted by guards. Urhaugh didn’t have the backing of anyone at court, but the viscount most certainly did. His temporary disgrace might provoke them into revealing themselves. Or perhaps they would abandon him, and he would come to her for aid, trading information for political protection.

The viscount should have stayed on his estate. He had a strong will and a keen mind, but he clearly didn’t have the temperament for court politics. Whatever power and authority he possessed in his own domain would not serve him here. It was beneath him to allow himself to become a pawn, especially at his age. Ceres thought of Ava’s fingers, which were graced by the calluses of a practiced musician. Perhaps life was softer and more gentle on the Mwyngil lakes.

Ceres lifted her skirts and brushed them to the side as she sat on a bench overlooking a shallow pond that pooled its crystalline water in a hollow of the cliffside. “I would request refreshment,” she said to the attendant hovering at her back. As he left the garden grove, she allowed her shoulders to drop and stretched her ankles, which were beginning to ache. If anyone in this castle deserved an afternoon drink, it was her. She’d been working since before the sun rose, and she would need to have several more uncomfortable conversations before it set. She might as well start drinking early.