Erna stood, wide-eyed, staring at the two. It was definitely Abel, but somehow … not the Abel she knew. His hair color was different, that was the most obvious change, but even his eye color seemed to have changed. And there was something else, some subtle difference in his face that Erna couldn’t quite define, but it was somehow …
“Kalion?” she muttered almost absently. That was it, something in his face now made her think of Kalion. Her gaze hardened. She suddenly understood why he looked different.
“You were under a spell,” she said. Her new magic on the Grand Castle was why he looked different now – it had ended his disguise.
“That’s right,” said the Abel-imposter.
“Who are you?” she asked coldly. Beside her, the knights drew their swords. “And why are you with Vanessa?”
“I shall explain,” Vanessa said, stepping forward.
“Go ahead,” Erna said. She had always regarded Vanessa as like a mother; Seeing her apparently allied with this imposter put a sharpness in her tone.
“Mr. Abel Perding next to me…,” Vanessa began.
“Mister?” Erna interrupted, her eyes narrowing at the word. There weren’t many people Vanessa would refer to as “Mister”. She found only Erna, Kalion, and Adelaide were worthy of titles in Hessenguard. The only other person she had to use an honorific for was …
Erna’s gaze snapped to the Abel-imposter.
“You’re from the royal family of Aether,” she declared.
“You recognize it right away,” he replied. Despite Erna’s piercing gaze, he stood calm, relaxed. He had clearly expected her reaction.
“Let me introduce myself again,” he said. “I am Ruben Aether, 2nd Prince of Aether.”
“And you’re a wizard?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said simply. He exuded confidence, as though he had nothing more to hide.
“Do you understand how suspicious you look in this moment?” she asked.
“Of course,” he answered. “A foreign prince sneaking into Hessenguard with no prior contact? And a wizard? I am the most suspicious person in the Grand Castle at this moment, especially when Lord Kalion has been poisoned while the protective magic of Hessenguard was down, a poison which would more than likely have magical elements in it.”
That was certain, Erna thought. When she’d heard of Kalion’s poisoning, she had immediately suspected magic was involved. And to find a new wizard had arrived at the same time …
When orders had been given to find Abel, she’d thought he’d fled. But not only had he not left, he had revealed himself to be Ruben, Prince of Aether. And he was with Vanessa.
“Did you two meet on the way here?” she asked. She had expected them to blurt out that excuse, but the prince shook his head.
“No,” he said. “I have been with the Chairman all morning. And I didn’t use magic once before coming into this room.”
“Is that the truth,” Erna asked, staring at Vanessa.
“It is,” she replied simply.
“Well, I am curious what you have been discussing with foreign royalty since this morning,” Erna fired back. Try as she might, she couldn’t keep the thorns from her tone.
If Ruben truly hadn’t used magic since this morning, it couldn’t have been him. Some might ask if he could have prepared a spell ahead of time, but Erna had checked the protection magic this morning. It had been weak, but still moving properly. Any magic prepared in advance would have been extinguished. So, if he truly hadn’t used magic since this morning, there was no reason to suspect him. That left two possibilities – either Vanessa was lying, or there was another wizard in the Grand Castle.
Erna straightened herself, fighting the exhaustion that tried to drag her down. Everyone was here: Adelaide, Ruben, and the knights of Hessenguard. Kalion was unconscious, and now she couldn’t trust Vanessa. She couldn’t rest here.
“That still doesn’t excuse your actions,” she said. She glanced at the knights beside her. “Bring Cedric in.”
Ushered in by the knights, Kalion’s deputy – who had been blocking Haband’s delegates – quickly came in.
“We’ve called him, Lady Erna,” he said. Like her, Cedric had been on edge since Kalion had taken ill. But he had implicit trust for anyone who controlled the knights, and now bowed politely to Erna as he spoke.
“This is Ruben Aether, the 2nd Prince of Aether,” Erna said, gesturing to the prince. “He claims no connection to this situation, but I order you to keep him under arrest in the basement of the knights’ building until I can confirm his claims.”
“Understood,” Cedric answered. At the mention of “Aether”, he had shot a vicious look toward the prince.
“And one more thing,” Erna said, staring at Vanessa. “Vanessa Schulz, you are banned to enter the Grand Castle, with the exception of the council hall, until further orders from me.”
She traded stares with each of the people around her. Adelaide was sobbing. Ruben now wore a troubled expression. Vanessa’s face was frozen. None of them could seem to believe what was happening.
* * *
I feel like a swallowed a fireball, Kalion thought, hovering just at the edge of consciousness. It was a feeling he knew well. He’d felt it every time his beloved mother and king had slammed him to the ground in his childhood – the sense of weakness through his body, the burning, sticky feeling in his mouth, on his tongue.
His life had been spared, but he had greater travails ahead. Everything seemed like poison to him now. He couldn’t swallow anything, even water. And every time he spat it out, the servants parted his lips and gave him more.
Their actions were desperate – if he didn’t survive, they likely wouldn’t either. Yet they only increased his terror. They kept trying to give him food and drink, and he could only keep spitting more, spitting harder.
Even with his blurred vision, he could tell where he was. This was obviously the bedroom he and Erna were sharing. That realization gave him some mild relief. At least here there was a warm body he could feel against his.