Ophelia, Beatrice, and Lilith had finally been granted an audience with the king. It was absolutely invidious they’d been made to wait, considering he had invited them.
Lilith drummed her nails in rapid succession across the heavy table. The noise seemed to drive the oafish-looking knight across from her crazy, his features contracting every time she did it. Which only made her want to do it more.
They were also joined by an irritable and irritating advisor, a nearly-mummified wizard who seemed like at any moment he might crumble into a pile of dust, and–mercifully–two handsome knights. One was Darwyn, the other was the man who had found them in the library earlier when he was in search of Ysabelle. The king had still yet to show up, but they were promised he was on his way.
The silence that settled over the room gnashed at the Draclaudians, but the witches were unbothered. Ophelia and Beatrice preferred it to small talk, and Lilith, with her nails and whistling and flirtatious glances had turned it into a game.
Finally, the door was opened and Edmund entered. Everyone stood except for the guests.
“Don’t be insolent,” Aldis barked.
“We aren’t subjects,” Ophelia said flatly.
“The woods you haunt are within Draclaudian territory.”
“We were there before the expansion of your Empire; we’ll be there after.”
Beatrice smiled. “If you’d care to annex our humble cottage, you’re free to try. But you haven’t.”
“Who would waste time on you?” he spat.
“Aldis,” Edmund said sharply. “That’s enough. They are our guests, and you will treat them with respect and make them feel welcome.”
Edmund sat and the others followed. “I’m sure,” he began slowly, “that you’re curious as to why I brought you here. Especially given that I already employ the services of a master wizard.”
Odo smiled kindly at the recognition and Lilith stifled a laugh.
“We are,” Ophelia cut in. “But we don’t care for labored explanations. Our time is valuable. Be plain.”
“I can appreciate that.” He snapped his fingers at Alfraed, and the advisor slid a book toward the witches. “The marked passage, if you would,” Edmund said.
They opened the book and read. Their expressions were blank. They would yield nothing until they knew more.
Their silence eventually prompted the king. “I’m sure,” he said slowly, “that you’re aware of Aeterneau?”
“What of him?”
“You know what he is? What he does?”
“I’m sure we know better than you,” Ophelia said. It had the phrasing of an insult, but not the tone–it was a statement of fact, said with the same cool detachment that possessed her eyes.
“Yes. I suppose you would, being so skilled in the magical arts. Then…you understand the threat that he poses?”
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Lilith said. “He’s making judgments. Which means we’re playing politics.”
“Does he pose a threat?” Beatrice asked. “I don’t believe he does, to us.”
The king smiled, well aware of their game. “Perhaps not. But you feel it is okay for him to attack us–our citizens mind, you. Not us,” he said, gesturing at his entourage around the table. “Because why else would he be growing his army? We see it every night. The light intensifies as more damned souls pollute the air. You think it is okay to rip souls from the hereafter? To desecrate the sanctity of life? His goal is mass murder. His goal is to reap more souls for his army. I’m sure you’re right that you understand the necromancer better. And so I’m sure you know that I speak the truth.”
Ophelia’s features were still granite. “I asked for plainness: tell us what this passage has to do with Aeterneau.”
Lilith’s eyes gleamed as they held the king’s, waiting expectantly, knowing exactly what he was about to ask of them.
“Odo, despite his considerable talents and depth of knowledge, is unfamiliar with how to mix the ink. We hope that you can help us, so that we can use it to trick the necromancer and assassinate him.”
“And now,” Beatrice said, “the other important part.”
Edmund was confused.
“What’s in it for us,” Lilith said. “Favors don’t come free.”
“How about your continued ‘sovereignty,’” Aldis quipped. “Do this for us, and we won’t raze that forest to the ground. Don’t and we’ll–”
“Aldis, silence!” He inhaled, buried his aggravation, and turned to the witches. “Ladies, you have my sincerest apologies.”
“Aldis is known for his tactics, not his tact,” Alfraed snickered.
“Never mind all that,” Ophelia said. “Besides: he’s not wrong. There is, honestly, quite little of value that you could offer us.”
“I have much of value,” Edmund assured her.
“It’s what you value that means little to us.”
“Speak for yourself,” Lilith whispered.
Ophelia turned to Beatrice. “You’d be the one mixing the elixir. It’s up to you.”
Beatrice looked again at the book. There was no recipe. It would be easy enough to say that, like Odo, she was unaware of how to mix it. It wouldn’t even be a lie. But the fact that she didn’t know is what made her want to do it. She looked to Edmund. “You would make good on Aldis’ promise?”
The King was surprised it would be so easy. “Have we yet tried to subjugate you?”
“You haven’t yet tried to subjugate Aeterneau, either. And yet here we now are, discussing his assassination.” She pointed to Lilith. “It might interest you to know that my friend’s specialty is divination. The future is always hazy, its edges soft and out of focus. But we have seen one thing very clearly: your imperialist heart. So I ask you again: you will make good on what the boor says? You will leave us be?”