Orteg was drunk. Ensconced in the king’s chambers, he had been supplied with a bottle of wine so far removed from the ditch liquor he usually could afford that his taste buds could scarcely cope with it. He lolled on the private throne, drinking from the bottle, wine slopping down his chin. Zavier stood at the window overlooking the kingdom to the east, listening to wine dripping from Orteg’s face.
“King!” he slurred, waving the bottle. “I rather like it. Now, Zavver, you said you’d be staying around?”
“If it is the king’s will, Sire.”
Orteg nodded vigorously, taking another drink. “I need a magishan around, thas for sure. Who knows when things’ll get all bollocksed up.” He squinted at Zavier. “Can I make you my adviser?”
“The king may do anything he wishes, Sire.”
“Then I hereby pronounce you my Royal Adviser,” said Orteg, and giggled.
“Your Majesty bestows a great honor upon me,” the wizard said, bowing his head slightly. “Might my first suggestion be an official proclamation, lest the council members become threatened by my position and hasten to remove me.”
“Yesh! Of course,” Orteg cried, waving his wine goblet. “None shall dare say a word against you, Zavver, because if it wasn’t for you, I’d still be in that miserable tavern, with a miserable life, wishing every day for death–”
“Your pardon, Majesty,” Zavier said, and gestured out the window. “But unless I am mistaken, trouble comes yonder.”
“Eh? Wha’ trouble?” Orteg heaved himself up from the throne and joined Zavier at the window, shouldering him out of the way.
“A party of guards is returning to the castle, Sire,” said Zavier, moving from his spot. “Unless my eyes deceive me, there appears to be a bundle containing three small children carried betwixt them.”
Orteg lowered the bottle, squinting in an attempt to bring the scene below into greater focus with only marginal success. “I can’t see. Whatsit you—”
The world shifted before him, things far away rushing toward him as his feet stood still. With a yell, he threw up an arm to block everything crashing into him.
“Your Highness, you have nothing to fear, I have merely enhanced your vision,” Zavier said, his voice respectfully amused. “Look again.”
Orteg opened first one eye, then the other in amazement. He watched one of the guards slide to the ground from his horse, so clear he was able to see the light reflecting off the beads of sweat on the man’s brow. He looked to the bundle they carried beneath them and his brow furrowed. He was about to speak when a single tousled head worked its way free of the brown bundle.
“My son—!” Orteg gasped. “That bundle is from my home, made of the bearskin rug upon my floor! How came they hither? Wizard, explain!”
There was no answer. Furious, Orteg turned to see the room empty. The wizard had vanished.
“Well done, Sir Antion,” Barris beamed at the leader of the guards as the man walked in, the large brown sack slung over one wide shoulder. “The mother did not make it in, then?”
“She met with an unfortunate accident, Prefect,” Antion said, a nasty smile on his face. “Would you like to meet your captives?”
“Please,” said Barris, his smile wider than ever across his jowls.
Antion grabbed the bottom of the sack and upended it, sending three little figures tumbling out onto the floor. They whimpered, clutching each other, as they stared into Barris’s meaty features.
“Children,” Barris said, keeping his voice low and soothing. “Little ones. You have nothing to fear from us. Your fate will be decided by another.”
The door banged open and Orteg came lurching in, breathing heavily. “My children! What are you—”
“Daddy!” one child cried. Orteg took a step toward the children, still huddled on the bearskin rug. In a trice, Sir Antion’s sword was at Orteg’s throat, stopping him in his tracks.
“My lord king,” Barris said, his smile now so wide, both sides were in danger of meeting behind his head. “My liege. I have a proposition for you.”
“I will hear any propositions after you have released my children, Prefect! Unhand them at once!” Orteg snarled around Antion’s swordpoint. The latter smirked.
“Not possible I am afraid, Highness, as my proposition includes these three adorable children just as they are.”
“By the gods, unhand me and free them at once or I shall—”
“I offer you a simple choice, Sire,” Barris said loudly. He poured a goblet of wine from a nearby tray and sipped it daintily. “The crown or your children? You must give up one. Choose now.”
Orteg gaped. “Are you telling me… that unless I adjudicate the throne, my children will be murdered?”
“Murdered, done away with, put out of the way, removed, however you wish to phrase it.” Barris waved his glass. “The point is, you cannot have both, and you must choose now.”
“My children… but where… where is my wife? Where is Dashani?” asked Orteg, his voice distant as his brain struggled to comprehend what was happening.
“Yes, Antion, where is the Lady Washburn?” Barris said, his smile huger than ever. “I confess I am curious as well what became of the good woman.”
“That choice has already been made for you, Majesty,” Sir Antion said, his smile nearly as wide as Barris. “She attempted to escape and I was forced to dispatch her.” He tugged at the crotch of his armored trousers, thrusting his hips. “Your wife is—was, a beautiful woman. I confess, I could not control myself.” He laughed at the look on Orteg’s face. “Be comforted, she was no longer alive at the time.”
Orteg let out a roar and would have been upon Antion, sword or no, had the latter not thumped him on the head with the butt of his sword, the heavy ruby sending Orteg into darkness with no more racket.
“Did you really penetrate his wife after you killed her?” asked Barris, fascinated.
“Twice,” Sir Antion said, and grinned. “I did not even get to tell him how the second time I used the wound in her throat.” He licked his lips. “Still warm.”