The king’s chamber was filled with snores, loud enough for Zavier the wizard to hear from the other end of the corridor leading to the door from behind which they emanated. The wizard wore a smile as he strode its length, not pausing as the door flew open before him. Orteg lay spread-eagled on his bed, head hanging off one side, drool dripping from one lip. As Zavier watched, Orteg let out another mighty snore, severing the line of drool and sending it to splatter into a sizable pool.
Zaiver pointed at the prostrate king and snapped his fingers. At once, Orteg was yanked into a sitting position in mid-snore, his eyes flying open with a startled grunt.
“Uh! Wha—who—what happened?” Orteg’s hand went to his head, his eyes clenching back shut against the pounding of his temples. “Where am I?”
“The king’s chambers, sire,” Zavier said, his smile turned down to a lower wattage.
“What happened last night?” Orteg asked, his face scrunched up as he massaged his aching head.
The wizard’s smile widened. Pulling his staff from beneath his robe, he swirled it before him, plunging the room into darkness, despite the bright sun streaming through the windows. In the middle of the room, a large silver ball appeared. It grew transparent, then figures appeared, solidifying into Orteg watching his children arrive via the guards Barris had sent out.
Orteg’s mouth dropped open as he watched his confrontation with Antion and Barris, his fury so great that the ache in his head was completely forgotten. “How dare—how dare they—” he spluttered, unable to articulate his rage.
The real Orteg watched with growing horror as his past self entered the bedroom to which Barris and Agathas had taken his children. Watched as he pushed past Agathas and knelt to strangle them. When he snapped the last child’s neck, the real Orteg vomited, a great red glut reeking of sour grapes and bile.
“You—” the real Orteg screamed, before being cut off by another retch that brought up nothing but pink gruel. He was screaming at nothing though. The room was empty.
Hearing a sound, he looked around, just in time to see the coupling of Barris and Agathas before the figures blurred, the ball grew silvery once more before vanishing. Cheerful sunlight streamed in through the windows once more.
Orteg kicked open the door to Barris’ chambers and strode into the room, his teeth clenched, stomach churning with rage and the horror of what he had seen. Barris looked up from his well-laid breakfast table, his fat features frozen in surprise, a ham falling from between his jaws. “Highness?”
Orteg decked the man, his fist sinking into the flesh surrounding Barris’ face before connecting with bone. With a howl, Barris hit the floor as Orteg continued pummeling him.
“You fat shit, why would you put forth that condition?” Orteg howled, kicking Barris repeatedly as the latter curled up on his side trying to avoid the blows. “I would have left and returned to the forest, never to set foot forth again, rather than harm my children. Even for the crown!” he screamed, planting one foot squarely in Barris’ gut. The huge man wheezed. “The wizard would not have it and bewitched me. Did you honestly think I could do what you saw?”
“For the crown—” choked Barris.
Orteg’s face was nothing but disgust as he withdrew his foot. “I am glad you and your disgusting sister enjoyed watching me murder my children, for your time to pay for it has come. That is, if you do not want the entire kingdom to know of your incestuous proclivities and you wish to have a prayer of returning things to the way they were before that miserable wizard showed up in my tavern with talk of royalty and riches and ruined my life!” His voice had risen to a scream. “Are you ready to listen?” He punctuated this last with another kick at Barris’ ample stomach, nearly losing his balance as his foot sunk into the big man’s gut.
“Yes! Yes!” sobbed Barris, gasping for air. “Your Majesty, I crave your pardon!”
Orteg stopped his assault, breathing heavily. “You are, Barris, without a doubt, the most repulsive individual I have ever laid eyes on. If I didn’t need you, I would have no hesitation in sharing your secrets with everybody I met so they would have no choice but to murder you for me, just on general principles.”
Barris said nothing, busily attempting to regain his own breath. He hurt all over from the beating he had taken but did not feel anything was damaged. His ample padding had absorbed every blow with ease. His ego had taken the hardest hit. For the first time, he felt small and inferior in the face of the king.
“The wizard,” Orteg said, walking back and forth in front of Barris’ prone form. “It’s the wizard. He made me murder my children. I don’t know what he wants but that cannot be allowed to stand. But he is powerful. I will need your help, Barris. If I do not get it, a tar and feather party will be the best thing you can look forward to.”
“My liege,” Barris wheezed, the kowtowing tone in his voice making him sick to his considerable stomach. “I live to serve.”
“Yes, yes,” said Orteg impatiently. “What resources have you to bring the wizard to heel?”
“You are the king, Sire, you have but to command the guards and the wizard shall be clapped in irons.” Barris said, keeping his tone respectful lest more kicks fly.
“Idiot!” spat Orteg. “You have seen evidence of the wizard’s power, three times as I murdered my own children without a second thought. You think he would hesitate to use it on the castle guards?”
“You are speaking then of subterfuge, Sire,” Barris said, righting the toppled chair and collapsing into it with a grateful sigh.
“Obviously,” Orteg said. “It must be done on the sly or the wizard will see it coming.”
“Poison, it would seem, would be the logical choice, Sire,” said Barris. “The wizard does enjoy his drink.”
Orteg could find nothing wrong with this suggestion. “How?”
“I will summon him to my chamber,” Barris said. As he expounded, back into the familiar territory of deception, his breathing steadied, his many chins ceasing their tremble. “I will offer him a full-time position at court. He will accept, and I will pour him a glass of wine. He will drink it, and cease to be a problem. I have done it before, many times.” He tapped a ring on one chubby finger. “This contains enough shredded blackbane to kill a reindeer. Half the amount would put paid to the wizard easily.”
“Are you certain?” Orteg asked, his voice firm. “What if he does not accept? Do not underestimate the wizard, Prefect.”
“He will accept. You will see. He is nothing I have not faced. Power-hungry men always grab before they think.” Barris levered himself with difficulty out of the chair. “You should depart, Sire. I will summon you when the deed is done.”
“You will summon me? You forget to whom you speak, I think.” Orteg’s voice held a hint of cruel amusement. “You will come to me, the moment the deed is done, or I shall have your head.”
“Of course, my liege.” Barris bent a knee as far as he was able, dropping his eyes. Orteg snorted and walked out, slamming the door behind him. Barris stood where he was for a moment, breathing heavily as he weighed his options. He crossed to the door and bolted it, checking first to see if the corridor was deserted.
Going to his bar, Barris brought out a bottle of fine wine, a burgundy so dark it was almost black. Two silver goblets were set on a tray beside the bottle of wine. Extending the ring on his smallest sausage finger, Barris carefully levered open the ring’s red gem to reveal a blood red powder the consistency of sand. He upended the ring over the left goblet, tapping the back of his finger. A slight wisp of smoke rose into the air from the grains rubbing against each other as the sand whispered into the goblet. Barris held his breath until it dissipated. It would not do to breathe the smoke.
Without warning, the bolt to the chamber door shot back with a bang. Barris whirled, his heart in his throat as the door swung open. Zavier stood framed in the doorway, his hood down, a smile of good cheer on his face. He raised a hand with awful casualness.
“Honorable Prefect Barris, how finds thee this evening?” Zavier beamed as he stepped over the threshold into the room. Behind him, the door slammed shut and bolted itself.
Barris forced a practiced smile onto his fat features. “The very man I wished to see, delivered unto me in the flesh!” He clapped his pudgy hands.
Zavier made a little bow. “As I sat, deep in meditation, it came to me that my presence was needed, Prefect. Naturally I hastened to your side at once.”
Despite his unease, Barris felt his ego expand at the wizard’s subservience. “That’s mighty fine. Yes, the very man, yes indeed. You know, the kingdom has been without a wizard at court since time out of mind and if you would see fit to join us here, it would be a privilege to have you.” He dropped a huge wink. “I daresay the council can find another seat at the table.” A wide smile pasted to his blubbery lips, Barris waited, trying to ignore the crawling sensation in his stomach.
Zavier stood for a moment, speechless, before dropping to one knee and bowing his head. “My talents are at your disposal, and that of the kingdom, Honorable Prefect.”
“Excellent news!” Barris cried. “Come, a toast to your appointment!”
“You are too kind, Prefect.”
Barris did his best to conceal the shaking of his hands as he removed the cork, keeping his body between the goblets and the eyes of the wizard. As he poured wine into the poisoned goblet, the little wisp of smoke rose once again. Once again, Barris held his breath.
“Honorable Prefect, what became of Orteg?” Zavier asked.
Barris let his breath out slowly as he poured into the other goblet. “I have not seen him this day. Perhaps he is abed still.”
Barris turned, holding tightly to the harmless goblet on the right. He held the left goblet out to Zavier, who took it. Barris raised his glass.
“To the kingdom!”
“To the kingdom,” Zavier agreed.
Barris felt his fingers twitch as he drunk deep from his own goblet but he was so intent upon Zavier that he scarcely noticed. Zavier downed his glass in one mighty swallow and hurled the glass against the wall where it vanished in an explosion of fire. Barris sputtered, spraying wine every which way. Zavier roared with laughter as Barris wheezed, wiping wine from the crevices of his fleshy face.
“Just a little trick of the trade, my dear Prefect,” said Zavier, the smile falling from his face as though by magic. Barris felt his heart sink like a dead sparrow. The poison should have been enough to decimate a full-grown man within seconds. He was positive he had given Zavier the correct goblet. But then why did he feel so…
“Much like the simple matter switching spell I performed as you drank from your goblet. You were in fact drinking the wine from my goblet as I drank the wine from yours.” Zavier smiled at him. “Simple but useful. Most of my spells are that way. Like the one which allows me to see what is happening in any room at any given time. It appears Orteg and I are both using the perversions of you and your sister against you. It is most thoughtful of you to have provided us with such a large and useful bit of leverage.”
Barris felt his stomach dropping further and further, the awful realization that this was the end growing larger along with the darkness which enveloped his vision. He crumpled to the floor, twitching. Zavier produced his staff and tapped Barris on the head. Immediately his twitching ceased and his breathing evened out.
“You’ll live,” Zavier said, a mad light in his eye. “But you’ll wish you hadn’t.”
Orteg paced the king’s chambers, the overwhelming gold décor in the room disturbing his eye. He had never liked gold, but now that he was king, he supposed it was de rigueur. Still, the yellow light reminded him of the color of baby excrement.
A knock at the door jerked his head around. “Enter!” Orteg called, striding toward the door.
The door swung open, framing Zavier in the light emanating from the corridor.
“Wizard!” Orteg exclaimed. Dread and hatred shot through him. Barris should have disposed of him by now. “What brings you here?”
“Lies, my King,” Zavier said, striding forward. Orteg instinctively recoiled from him. Zavier’s eyes were wild and his nostrils were flared.
“Lies?” Orteg ventured.
“Lies!” Zavier screamed, bringing his staff forward and down onto the ground with a mighty crash. There was an explosion of darkness from Zavier’s staff, rushing at Orteg like a hurricane. Before he could react, there was nothing but blackness.