The Royal Court gathered in their private hall adjacent to the throne room. It was an impressive room even by the palace standards. Mighty pillars rose up to the ceiling, draped in golden cloths. The table itself was made of the finest oak. Gideon seated himself in his father’s chair at the head of the high table, outwardly daring anyone to question his place there. Internally, he was nervous, thinking that he did not belong at the head chair, and wondering if he had the steel to conduct the meeting. His uncle and Eleanor Horowitz sat either side of him. Jason Hartigan was present, along with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Juliette Wayne, the Minister for Finance, Anton Fisher, and the Grand Priestess of the Holy Church of the Twin Gods, Ada Jacobi. The most powerful people in the kingdom; gathered in one room in a grim hour. All were looking extremely tired save for Gideon himself, who was no stranger to the hours proceeding midnight. He quietly wondered to himself whether he would ever sleep peacefully again.
Charles Wayne, the Captain of the Royal Guard, and husband to Juliette, stood to attention at the base of the table. The guard who was knocked out by the King’s murderer was stood before them, looking nervous. The bruise on the left side of his head was already a deep purple, and his nose was a bloody mess. The table where the court sat was elevated far off the ground, and they all looked down judgementally from on high.
Gideon leaned forward in his seat. “What is your name?”
“Neupert, m’lord. Barry Neupert.”
“Neupert, can you tell us why you allowed my father to die?”
The guard swallowed. “I didn’t allow nothin’, m’lord. Some knight came walkin’ nice and pleasant like to the door, said he had an urgent message for the king. The other guard on watch, Daniels was his name, Paul Daniels, refused to let him pass. The knight rushed us, he did. Cut Daniels’ neck open and punched me in the face. Next thing I knew, I woke up and Lord Edmund was standing over me.”
“Can you recall the knight who assaulted you?” asked Jason Hartigan.
“T’was one that came visitin’ with that Steele lord. The knight with the scar on his cheek. ‘E carried a sword with an owl on it.”
Juliette Wayne turned to Gideon. “There is no doubt about it. Sir Richard Henley was the man who killed King Harold.”
The prince nodded, and then turned back to Neupert. “Is there anything else you can remember? Did the knight give any clue as to what this ‘message’ was about?”
“He said it was from Lord Steele, m’lord. An urgent message… he didn’t tell me no specifics.”
“Very well,” said Gideon. Lord Dustin Steele, his wife Sarah and their children had been arrested and thrown into the dungeons shortly before the meeting, along with everyone in their entourage. The prince’s mouth tightened and a dark shadow washed over his face. I must be strong, and show little mercy to those who do not deserve it. “As reward for failing in your duties to protect the King, I banish you from Goldoak. If you ever set foot in this city again, I will have you hanged.”
The colour in Neupert’s face disappeared. “But, m’lord… I have a wife and four sons! I’ve lived here me whole life. We’d have nowhere to go!"
“Yes, and in credit to your incompetence in your duties, I have no father,” growled Gideon. “Go. And be thankful that I am letting you live.” His uncle gave him a brief look of – what, approval? Concern? Gideon could not tell.
Without another word, Barry Neupert turned and strode out of the room as fast as he could.
After the former guard was gone, Gideon turned to the Royal Court. “I think we are all certain that it was Sir Richard Henley who murdered my father,” he said. “But the question is… who ordered him to do it?”
“It must have been Dustin Steele,” said Charles Wayne dismissively at the foot of the table. It was Wayne who had arrested the Steeles. Gideon briefly wondered how the man had handled the situation of waking children up in the middle of the night to throw them in a cell. The Captain of the Royal Guard was known to be a short-tempered, blunt man, so probably had no guilty conscience concerning that particular duty. Either that, or there was some deep repression the man had built up over his two decades of service in the palace. “The knight was a part of his household. There can be no doubt about it.”
“Oh, no?” replied Eleanor.
The court turned their heads as one to look at the Minister for Information, but it was Gideon who spoke. “Say what you mean, Eleanor.”
“If Henley could so easily kill one guard, it would have been no challenge to kill the other, especially after he was knocked out. Yes, the racket might have woken King Harold, but His Highness had nowhere to go. The only way out of that room would have been through the guarded door. Henley could have simply have killed the unconscious Neupert either before he murdered the King, or on his way back out.”
“He was most likely panicking,” said Juliette Wayne. “People in such positions do not often think through their actions.”
“Unless he meant to leave a witness,” countered Eleanor.
“Why would he want to leave any witnesses?” asked Edmund Fyedragon curiously.
“Think about it,” said Eleanor. “He said that he had a message from Dustin Steele for the King. Naturally, that meant we would all instantly presume it was Lord Steele who ordered Henley to kill His Highness. And if it was someone else who got Henley to do the dirty work… well, wouldn’t the easiest person to frame be Henley’s liege lord?”
Edmund fidgeted uncomfortably, an act that Gideon did not miss. He went to speak, but was interrupted by Jason Hartigan.
“You seem awfully sure of yourself on this matter,” said the Minister for Justice, narrowing his eyes. “How can we be sure you were not the one behind this?”
“In what possible world would I have cause to want my king murdered?” spluttered Eleanor in outrage.
Gideon sighed. Eleanor Horowitz and Jason Hartigan shared a deep dislike of each other, for reasons neither disclosed to any other member of the Royal Court. They often avoided each other in the palace, and rarely conversed in court sessions unless it was unavoidably necessary.
But then again, Eleanor was one of the first on the scene… in fact, it was Uncle Edmund who had discovered the mess. However, the relationship between his father and his uncle had never been strained. That you knew of, fool… thought Gideon. But why would Edmund kill his brother? To be the king… but he’d have to get rid of William and myself too… no. My uncle would never do something like that. He was the king’s brother, not the king.
Further thought, and arguments between Eleanor and Jason, was interrupted by the door bursting open. Prince William Fyedragon, soon to be the King of Cantaria, ran into the room, looking more distressed than he had ever been before. Standing at six-foot-three, William was a bulky lad with a soft face that spoke volumes of his mental impairment. At the age of twenty-three, his hair was already receding – a rare occurrence in a family otherwise gifted with thick, curly black locks. The crown prince was dressed in a golden silk nightgown and walked barefoot.
Behind him stood a figure that made Gideon roll his eyes; Starface, William’s royal jester. No-one knew his real name (or rather, no-one had bothered to enquire), and he bore a birthmark on his face in the shape of a star. His motley clothes were knitted together from various blue and white rags.
King Harold had purchased him from overseas some two decades ago, from the northern continent of Ulvaeus, but no-one knew if that was where he originated from.
“WHY IS FATHER DEAD?!” the soon-to-be king screamed.
Gideon turned on the court. “Who let that slip?” he demanded.
Jason raised his hand. “Sorry, I wasn’t aware we were keeping this from him.”
“I wanted to tell him myself on the morrow,” sighed Gideon amidst his brother’s anguished shouting. “Thank you very much, Jason.”
The Minister for Justice lowered his eyes guiltily as Gideon turned back to face his older brother. “William, please calm down. Screaming will not accomplish anything.”
“The people cried ‘the king is dead!’, the son got the crown placed upon his head,” sang the jester in a soft, warbling voice. His accent was completely unidentifiable.
“WHY IS FATHER DEAD?!” repeated William with an even louder scream.
“Will somebody get that freak out of here?” demanded Edmund. The whole court looked at him with wide, disbelieving eyes. He coughed. “The clown, I meant.”
“No, Starface stays with me,” said William. “I’m the king now so you have to do what I say.”
“You’re not king until we crown you,” Gideon reminded him sternly. “And to be bluntly honest, we have more pressing matters to deal with tonight.”
“And I want whoever killed Father hung, drawn and quartered,” continued William, ignoring his little brother.
“You’ll have a tough time of it, my prince,” said Grand Priestess Jacobi in a tired voice. “Sir Richard Henley has fled the palace.”
“I WANT HIM FOUND NOW!” screamed William at the top of his lungs. His face turned red, and suddenly there were tears in his eyes.
“Charles, can you take my brother back to his chambers?” asked Gideon.
The Captain of the Royal Guard strode across the hall and grabbed William firmly by the arm. “Come on, my prince, we’d best get you back to bed. Your brother and uncle have important matters to discuss.”
William looked around, confused. He mumbled something incomprehensible as Charles Wayne guided him out of the room, but he raised no complaints. His jester soon followed, but not before giving a mocking bow to the rest of the Royal Court.
“Permit me to say this, Gideon, but I think it unwise that William should wear the crown,” said Edmund. “Cantaria would fall into ruin.”
“What a bold thing to say,” commented Anton Fisher. “How can we be sure that it wasn’t you who Henley was working for?”
“Now that is a bold thing to say, Anton,” said Gideon, though on some level he shared the same suspicions. That was not something he wanted to let the others know, however. “People, this bickering is pointless. There is only one way to be sure who ordered the killing of my father. We need Sir Richard Henley brought before us alive, so that he might confess the identity of his contractor.”
“And how do you propose that?” asked Edmund. “It would be unwise to just put the word out; Henley would be torn to pieces by the first upstart lad thirsting for glory.”
“We cannot simply keep quiet on the matter though,” said Eleanor Horowitz. “The common people whisper. We need Henley found, but found alive. We should put out that the king was murdered by one of his guards. A guard whom is now rotting in the dungeons. And meanwhile, we get someone to track down Henley.”
“You mean like a bounty hunter?” asked Edmund.
Gideon snorted. “I’d rather my brother’s clown wear the crown before I consort with that rabble of murderers.”
“I agree with the prince,” said Juliette Wayne, to which Gideon was grateful for. “They are nothing more than a vicious pack of animals who make their profit in blood.”
“Aye, and all are ungodly children,” added Ada Jacobi.
Eleanor shrugged. “Yes, it’s true that a lot of them are no more than hired assassins. Some are trackers though, and many have been known to help arrest criminals and bring them to justice. And not just run them through with a sword, like the opinion of the common people seems to dictate.” She smiled. “Perhaps you’ve heard of an organisation known as the Black Hawks?”
Gideon shook his head. “You propose sending out a bounty hunter to track and return Henley to us?”
“Of course. The Black Hawks have been highly useful to me on many occasions in the past, and your father too. I do believe they will assist us with this nasty business. In fact, I know the perfect man for the job…”