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"Could he do this?" he wondered, as yet another wail began. He knew he had no choice if the Valisars were to survive.
Two great oak doors, carved with the family coat of arms, separated King Brennus from his wife's groans and shrieks, but despite the sound being muffled, her agonized cries injured him nonetheless. He knew his beautiful and beloved Iselda would never have to forgive him because she would never know of his ruthlessness at what he planned for his own flesh and blood. He looked to his trusted legate and dropped his gaze, shaking his head. They were all servants to the crown—king included—and serve he must by presenting the infant corpse in order to protect the realm.
"It never gets any easier, De Vis," he lamented.
De Vis nodded knowingly; he had lost his own wife soon after childbirth. "I can remember Eril's screams as though they were yesterday." He hurried to add: "Of course, once the queen holds her child, majesty, her pain will disappear."
They were both talking around the real issues—the murder of a newborn and the threat that their kingdom was facing its demise.
Brennus's face drooped even further. "In this you are right, although I fear for all our children, De Vis. My wife brings into this world a new son who may never see his first anni."
"Which is why your plan is inspired, highness. We cannot risk Loethar having access to the power."
"If it is accessible at all in this generation. Leo shows no sign at this stage . . . and Piven . . ." The king trailed off as another agonized shriek cut through theirmurmurs.
De Vis held his tongue but when silence returned and stretched between them, he said softly: "We can't know for sure. Leo is still young—it may yet come to him—and the next prince may be bristling with it. We can't risk either child falling into the wrong hands. And as for Piven, your highness, he is not of your flesh. We know he hardly possesses his faculties, majesty, let alone any power."
The king's grave face told his legate that Brennus agreed, that his mind was made up. Nevertheless he confirmed it aloud as though needing to justify his terrifying plan. "It is my duty to protect the Valisar inheritance. It cannot be tarnished by those not of the blood. I hope history proves me to be anything but the murderer I will appear if the truth ever outs. Is everything in place?"
"Precisely to your specifications," De Vis answered.
Brennus could see the legate's jaw working. De Vis was feeling the despair of what they were about to do as deeply as he was. "Your boys . . ." the king muttered, his words petering out.
De Vis didn't flinch. "Are completely loyal and will do their duty. You know that." "Of course I know it, De Vis—they might as well be my own I know them so well—but they are too young for such grim tasks. I ask myself: could you do it? Could I? Can they?"
De Vis's expression remained stoic. "They have to. You have said as much yourself. My sons will not let Penraven down."
Brennus scowled. "Have you said anything yet?"
De Vis shook his head. "Until the moment is upon us, the fewer who know the better. The brief will also be better coming directly from you, majesty."
Brennus winced as another scream came from behind the door, followed by a low groan that penetrated to the sunlit corridor where he and De Vis talked. He turned from the stone balustrade against which he had been leaning, looking out into the atrium that serviced the private royal apartments. Breathing deeply, he drank in the fragrance of daphne that the queen had personally planted in boxes hanging from the archways and took a long, sorrowful look at the light drenched gardens below she had tended and made so beautiful. Trying for an heir had taken them on a torrid journey of miscarriages and disappointments. And then Leo had come along and, miraculously, had survived and flourished. But both Brennus and Iselda knew that a single heir was not enough, however, and so they had endured another three heartbreaking deaths in the womb.
It was as though Regor De Vis could read Brennus's thoughts. "Do not fret over Piven, your highness. If the barbarian breaches our walls I doubt he will even glance at your adopted son."
Brennus hoped his legate was right. Brennus was aware that Piven had made it quietly into the world and had remained mostly silent since then. These days odd noises, heartbreaking smiles and endless affection told everyone that Piven heard sound, though he could not communicate in any traditional way.
And now there was a new child who'd managed to somehow cling on to life, his heartbeat strong and fierce like the winged lion his family's history sprang from. There had been so much excitement, so much to look forward to as little as six moons ago. And now everything had changed.
The ill-wind had blown in from the east, where one ambitious, creative warlord had united the rabble that made up the tribes who eked out an existence on the infertile plains. It had been almost laughable when Dregon sent news that it was under attack from the barbarians. It had sounded even more implausible when Vorgaven sent a similar missive.
De Vis could clearly read his mind. "How something we considered a skirmish could come to this is beyond me."
"I trusted everyone to hold their own against a mere tribal warlord!"
"Our trust was a mistake, majesty . . . and so was our confidence in the Set's strength. It should never have come to this. And, worse, we haven't prepared our people. It's only because word is coming through from relatives or traders from the other realms that they know Vorgaven has fallen, Dregon is crushed and cowardly Cremond simply handed over rule without so much as a squeak. I'm sure very few know how dire the situation is in Barronel."Royal Exile. Copyright © by Fiona McIntosh. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.