Tenaldi was mixing the Queen’s sleeping draught when the soldiers came; grim-faced and silent, they grabbed him, spilling the precious liquid to the floor and spoiling two days’ work in moments. He gasped and sputtered as they dragged him through Master Palumbo’s workrooms, but it was only in the outer halls that he could make his tongue work again.
“What is it? Where are you taking me?” he said, looking at each of his captors in turn.
But no one answered. Not even Arrigo Sacco, whom he had known for years. The old soldier only frowned and busied himself with opening an ancient oak door with a key the length of his hand. The door swung open, revealing a cramped, winding staircase. Suddenly Tenaldi realized where he was; he had walked these stairs often at Master Palumbo’s request, delivering poultices or on rare occasions a cup of suicide root tea. His breath stalled and he began to shiver. This was bad. Very, very bad.
They were taking him to the dungeons.
Tenaldi winced as the door swung shut behind him, creaking like a tortured cat. He thanked the Elder Beings the cell was empty; at least no one was here to witness his shame. Leaning against the dank wall, he racked his brain for anything that could account for his current predicament, but found nothing. He had been a dutiful apprentice to Master Palumbo, he performed any task set to him with utmost care, and he had no enemies to speak of, so why was he here? Thoughts of minor misdeeds swirled around his brain in a hurricane of doubt. Had the cook taken offence when he didn't finish the plate of frog legs in honey? What about the apothecary he had been forced to dismiss from court at Master Palumbo's request? Then a rat that could have swallowed the Queen’s pet canary in one bite crawled out of the moldy straw on the floor, interrupting Tenaldi's useless ruminations. He started, smothering a yelp, and inched away from the rat until his back hit the opposite wall of the cell. Disgusted, Tenaldi pressed his sleeve to his nose and hoped the foul thing would go away, but it didn’t. It settled in the middle of the room and started nibbling on something that looked like a half-decomposed finger. The animal smell of the rat mixed with rotten meat made Tenaldi’s breakfast try to crawl up his throat. He swallowed it back down.
A door creaked at the end of the hall and Tenaldi craned his neck to see who was there. Maybe he’d finally get some answers. Whoever it was, he seemed hesitant to advance. Boots shuffled against stone, then stopped, and the door creaked open.
“Please! Don’t leave!” Tenaldi yelled. Only silence answered him. “Please,” he whispered. The thought of being buried alive, friendless and forgotten, was almost too much for him, and his chest contracted with panic.
There was more shuffling and finally Arrigo appeared. The rat skittered, taking its ghastly prize with it, and Tenaldi approached the bars. They felt warm and oily against his forehead as he leaned against them. Some kind of warding spell, no doubt.
“Uncle Arrigo, what’s this all about? Please, I’ve done nothing. I swear it.” Arrigo wasn’t really his uncle, but Tenaldi thought the honorific would soften his heart and perhaps loosen his lips, but it didn’t work this time.
The guardsman looked as uncomfortable as Tenaldi had ever seen him, even worse than the time he had caught the man in bed with his mother, and glanced both ways before he spoke.
“Queen Azzurra is dead. The chambermaid found her cold in her bed this morning. No sign of a struggle, and the guards outside heard nothing. Her lady-in-waiting said she was perfectly healthy last night. She took the sleeping draught and retired, as usual. Your sleeping draught.”
“But, but--” Tenaldi felt blood rush to his ears. He had made that potion a hundred times, and he had prepared it as he always did. Or had he?
Arrigo glanced over his shoulder and lowered his voice. “Shh. Keep it down! You see how it looks, don’t you?”
Tenaldi grasped his hand, heart hammering. ”But you can help me, Uncle? Get Master Palladino, he’ll vouch for me.”
Arrigo looked down. “I’m afraid not. Palladino is far too busy saving his own hide to care if yours gets tanned. You were his apprentice; he’ll get stripped of his rank or worse if the Prince isn’t feeling merciful.”
Tenaldi bit his lip hard enough to draw blood. Arrigo was right. He couldn’t count on any help from Master Palladino. His hands started to shake again as he realized the full implications of this fact. The whole castle thought he had assassinated the Queen, and there was no one he could turn to for help. He was as good as dead.
“When are they coming for me?” he asked, his voice trembling.
Arrigo sniffed and blew his nose loudly. “There, there, lad. I believe you didn’t do it. Prince Frediano wants to question you himself. If you can convince him of your innocence you might still be saved.” He patted Tenaldi’s hand. “I’ll try to get assigned to escort you. If the Prince orders your death, I’ll make it as painless as I can.” With a final pat he released Tenaldi’s hand and left him to contemplate that small mercy.
Time crawled at the pace of a slug. Tenaldi paced the cell, and even when he fell down, exhausted, the nervous energy in his limbs forced him back up again. He retraced every moment of the last few days, and he was convinced he hadn’t messed up the potion. At this point he could have made it in his sleep.
An awful thought struck him: maybe someone had set him up. But who? Certainly not Master Palumbo; he had too much to lose. But who else knew? He hadn’t told anyone, not even to brag. It would have been a violation of his vows, and more importantly it would have earned him a sound trashing from Master Palumbo if he was found out. Yet some knew; the chambermaid had seen him deliver the draught, as had the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, and he passed the guards every time he took the vial up to the Queen. But why would they want to poison their mistress?
Tenaldi slumped down, dejected, only to jump up again to resume his pacing. He'd never figure it out before they separated his head from his body; it was hopeless. Tenaldi's neck was clammy with sweat, but he felt deathly cold despite the exercise. Then he stopped as if he had turned to stone on the spot.
There was someone he had told, someone who had been very interested in the slightest detail of his duties and his life.
They had met at the tavern a few weeks ago. Tenaldi still got chills when he thought of Orfeo's eyes, like embers and flint. Orfeo carried himself like a soldier, but dressed fashionably in tight hose that revealed his muscular calves and doublets of finest black velvet. Tenaldi had never met anyone like him, and he was flattered when the richly dressed stranger bought him goblets of fine wine and hung onto his every word.
On the third night Orfeo pulled him into a dark alley for a kiss. Things had progressed at a brisk pace from there, and Tenaldi had received two reprimands for missing his lessons, but his time with Orfeo had been worth it. Or so he had thought.
Now that Tenaldi thought about it, Orfeo had evaded most of his questions. He had said he was a retired soldier, travelling to his ancestral home in Alba Pompeia, but nothing more. Tenaldi remembered thinking that Orfeo wasn’t that good a soldier when he saw the multitude of fine scars that crisscrossed his body. And he had seemed far too knowledgeable about poisons when Tenaldi had sneaked him into the Queen’s Garden for a stroll. He had thought it a nobleman’s morbid fixation, but now he wondered. The deathbell bush had looked a bit worse for wear the next day.
What if Orfeo was behind the Queen’s death? Could he stand to betray him to the guards? Orfeo loved him. Or had that been part of the deception, too? Tenaldi began pacing again.
How could he have been so foolish?
Arrigo managed to support Tenaldi unobtrusively as he threw him on the floor before Prince Frediano, and he even gave Tenaldi's shoulder a reassuring squeeze before he withdrew. Tenaldi shot him a grateful glance and then occupied himself with studying the specks of dirt on the Prince's boots. At least he had managed to walk to the audience hall on his own two feet, even if they felt like they belonged to someone else at the moment.
“Apprentice Uccello, you may rise.”
Prince Frediano’s voice cut like fine steel blade. Tenaldi looked up. There was no mercy in the Prince’s cold blue eyes.
“Your Majesty, it wasn’t my potion that took your mother’s life, I swear it!”
The Prince’s expression stayed sharp and chilly. “Unfortunately there isn’t any of the draught left, or I would make you drink the rest to prove it, Apprentice.” He fixed his icy gaze on Tenaldi. “Poison is a coward’s weapon; I was a fool to think you would own up to your misdeeds. Do you want to die a coward’s death, Apprentice Uccello?”
Tenaldi hung his head. It seemed best not to answer. The Prince had made up his mind; there was nothing to do but wait for his verdict. For treason he could expect to be drawn and quartered, for murder, disemboweled and buried alive. He longed for the Queen’s Garden. If only he had a few mouthfuls of the suicide plant, or even a cutting of deathbell root. But he didn’t.
The Prince was droning on about betrayal and murder, but then something he said shocked Tenaldi out of his stupor.
“. . . and I am going to give you a choice: fellroot or the executioner. Will you take the coward’s way out, Apprentice?”
Fellroot. The demon plant. It opened a way for the beings of the otherworld for possession. They would be bound by the Pact to serve the crown until they had devoured their prey. When there was nothing left they would move on, leaving an empty husk to wander the inbetween places until it withered away. It was a fate worse than death, people said. But those people had obviously never faced death by disembowelment.
Tenaldi lifted his gaze. “I choose the fellroot, Your Majesty.”
A man in the robes of the Assassins’ Guild approached Tenaldi, his face hidden behind the traditional mask of plain obsidian, a face of stone, incapable of mercy. He held out a golden platter with a furry red root on it. Hands trembling, Tenaldi picked it up. That’s when he glanced into the assassin’s eyes. Ember and flint flashed back. Orpheo. Their eyes locked, and he didn’t look away.
Holding Orpheo’s gaze, Tenaldi bit into the root.
It tasted of betrayal and death.