“Whet it sharper. His Highness wants to make a clean, proper job of it: the moment he strikes, the head should come clean off”, were the words of the captain of guards to the chief armourer. The chief armourer, Torker began his work, sharpening the Royal Sword on the whetstone in swift, rhythmic strokes. He had been in service for 30 years now and knew when it was best to keep quiet.
His son was inexperienced though. He came to Torker and asked, “Father, why is His Highness wielding the Royal Sword against his own brother? Isn’t fratricide against the laws?”
“Quiet, you fool!” Torker hissed. “It’s not our prerogative to question His Highness or any member of the royal family. Haven’t you understood that yet? Tie your tongue if you wish to live.”
Torker’s son hung his head and nodded. His father was right, of course. But how could he have kept quiet, knowing what was happening was wrong?
Some days earlier…
The royal shroud was a beautiful thing. Woven on it with metal wires was the crest of the royal family, a roaring bear, its face in gold, its teeth and claws in silver. The shroud itself was blue velvet, royal and glorious. But as it lay on the wrinkling body of King Marzib, the whole country drowned in mourning. Clearly, the late king had been loved by all.
King Marzib’s wife had borne two boys, the elder prince named Torzib and the younger one named Lozib. Both were exceptional warriors, wise and handsome, revered their father and loved each other and that was the only respite for the old king who, in his Will, had to declare prince Torzib as the ruler of the realm, bequeathing only a province to prince Lozib.
It was the fateful day of the reading of King Marzib’s Will. The two Princes took their respective places, to either sides of the king’s throne.
King Marzib’s brother, Talazib had also come from his province, said to be deeply grieved by his beloved brother’s passing and was present for the ceremony. Once all the important courtiers arrived, the High Priest began reading the Will in his baritone voice.
“This Will bequeaths the rule of the realm to the elder prince, Prince Torzib, except the province of Murab which goes to the younger prince, Prince Lozib. The—”
The elderly royal physician came running within the court, his exhaustion sonorous. He took a deep breath and said, “This wasn’t a natural death. It was murder.”
The physician’s words opened the sluice gates of murmurs and gasps and the formerly quiet court became a talking body. Only a bellow from Prince Torzib was able to silence the whole room.
“Sir”, he addressed the elder physician, “why say you so?”
“Your Highness, I went through all the utensils his late Highness ate his food in. It is a custom expected of the royal physician. The goblet from which he drank his wine that night, there were dregs in it. A rare powder made from a plant found in the sacred jungle was added to that wine, a powder that when consumed in wrong quantities, can be fatal.”
“WHO”, Prince Torzib bellowed, “brought the goblet of wine to father last night? WHO?! Uncle Talazib, I request you to investigate and put to death whoever was behind my father’s—”
“Move!” Prince Lozib shouted. And just in time, for hearing him, Prince Torzib’s reflexes kicked in and he jerked up and away from his throne. An arrow struck the throne where the prince’s head had been a mere moment ago. The court was shocked into silence. After the old king’s murder, this attack infused fear and uncertainty into hearts that stood loyal to the throne and the crown prince.
A day later, a council was held. Both the princes, the Vizier, important ministers of the court and the Chief Commander of the army were present.
Prince Torzib paced in the room, waiting for uncle Talazib to arrive while thinking hard, muttering, “Plots!…Schemes, treachery!… Unbelievable… Treachery, treachery everywhere. A trap…!”
“Clamp down your anxiety, dear nephew”, uncle Talazib said as he entered the court, bowing once to the empty throne.
“How, uncle? A second attack. I’m not even sure how many more are to come. The arrow will be inspected by the royal physician once I’ve been through it. When I handed it to him for superficial examination, he told me it stank of poison. Poison! As if an arrow hadn’t been enough, this attacker wanted to make sure my treatise with death was sealed! I can’t believe it.”
“Ah, but they fail. Whoever it is, they fail. You’re alive, son!”
“Oh yes. And as long as Lozib is by my side, no one can kill me. But what news you’ve brought, guard?” for there, standing at the door, was a guard with a scroll in his hand.
“Your Highness, I bring to you a message from the royal physician. But he says it should be read by you and only you. No one else should be made privy to its contents and by no one, the royal physician means, absolutely no one.”
Prince Torzib gestured the messenger to bring the scroll. His brows creased as he perused the scroll, once, and once again. His eyes paused at a few places, as if trying to make sense of what they were seeing. Finally, he closed it. His face looked grimmer.
“What news, brother?” Prince Lozib asked.
“Of sensitive nature, and that’s all I can tell you right now”, he replied. “This council is disbanded at present. We’ll meet again once I contemplate the contents of this scroll. Uncle, please stay back. I wish to hear the results of your investigations.”
“May God look over you, brother!” Prince Lozib said quietly and left the room. The others bowed and followed the young prince out of the room, muttering and murmuring amongst themselves.
“The servant who brought that goblet to the king was a maidservant of around 15. When I questioned her, she started sobbing. She’s in my custody at present.”
“Send her to me, Uncle. And if you would, please counsel me on this matter. The royal physician’s message says this poison comes from the province of Murab. And… last year Prince Lozib was given the permit to travel across Murab, surveying the people who would soon be his subjects. He was also allowed access to the sacred jungle there. The royal physician speculates that this poison comes from Lacefaith that grows in the sacred jungle and takes about a year to prepare. I wish to know what you think, Uncle?”
“Hmm. Lacefaith, the plant of treachery, suspicion and deception. Seems fitting, but don’t you think it’s too easy? Apart from the love he bears for you and your late father, don’t you think, if he really were the culprit, he wouldn’t have left so many clues as to his identity? Perhaps he’s being framed, Torzib.”
Torzib passed his hand through his long brown hair, usually tied up in a pony behind, now hanging loose and unkempt. Grief does that to a man. He let out a heavy sigh. “You are right, Uncle. I knew it before you told me but I wanted to see how you took the news.”
“To see if I directed you towards Lozib? If I was the culprit? You are clever, son. But I may still be the culprit. Your father always said one thing. ‘When aimed at a king, treachery can only be solved alone’. He was right. People who have something to gain from your fall will lead you where they want you to go. You can’t trust people with helping you solve this great a deception. If I were you, I would still keep myself up in the list of suspects. I would also keep an eye on Lorzib for he did save you from the arrow. Perhaps, he already knew it would come.”
“Thank you, Uncle. I’ll remember that.”
Talazib bowed and left the court.
Torzib thought it through. Interrupting his reflection, a messenger came to the court, bowed and said, “Your Highness, the royal physician’s daughter, wishes audience.”
“Allow her in”, the Prince replied and went to sit on his own throne.
“My lord”, Shara curtsied.
“How long will it take for you to start calling me Brother?”
Shara only smiled. Her auburn hair hung in a braid from her shoulder, adorned with small flowers. Her smiling green eyes always gave a sense of warmth to the viewer. She was a beauty. A kind beauty.
“Have you met Lozib yet?” Torzib asked.
“No, my lord”, she replied, blushing. She had been engaged to Prince Lozib a month back. It was a love match, and rare as it was, it was permitted. Shara had turned fifteen, in other words of marriageable age, just about then.
“Lozib loves jasmines”, Torzib said, sniffing. “That’s the scent, right?”
Shara blushed deeper.
“I won’t hold you any longer, Shara. Go to Lozib. He must be in the stables. And give your father my regards.”
Shara curtsied again and went away.
A few minutes later, the maidservant came, trembling and sobbing. Once their conversation finished, Torzib sighed. If Torzib’s suspicions were right… He shuddered to think of the consequences.
At dawn the next day, Prince Torzib sneaked in black clothes to the stables, mounted his horse and galloped off to the province of Murab. That was his only lead in the matter. He paid a local physician and asked him about making poison from Lacefaith.
The physician said, “Sir, that plant is found in abundance in the sacred jungle of Murab. It can take anything from a few months to a year to make a poison potent enough to cause death. I believe you’re another academician.”
The physician nodded, saying, “A man, garbed like you, came here about a year ago.”
“Can you describe him?”
“Yes, sir. He was about as tall as you, sir. His voice was deep but young. And his eyes were grey.”
“Are you sure?”
“Thank you”, Torzib said and mounted his horse again. By the time he reached the castle, the sun had risen. Prince Lozib met him in the stables and said, “Do you even know how worried I was, brother? Where have you been?! I was about to lead a search party. It’s dangerous for you, after that attack and father’s murder!”
“Calm down, brother”, Torzib replied, looking straight into the deep grey eyes that so few possessed and absolutely no one else in the royal family.
As the sun rose, blushing in the blue sky the day after, Prince Torzib declared the younger prince guilty and ordered the Royal Sword to be made ready. Gloom suffused through the air. The young prince had been a charming man, and kind. He’d not only looked after people, but talked to and mingled with them.
Shara was especially distraught. She came as soon as the news reached her.
The court was full. There were some commoners as well, standing along the sides. Prince Torzib was on his throne, grim but determined-looking. And her love, her dear prince Lozib, her to-be husband stood with his hands bound behind his back and his face drawn in grief and agony.
“Bring the Royal Swo—”
“Wait, Prince!” Shara cried. “I wish to talk with you… alone.”
Murmurs broke but the Prince only nodded. He gestured her to follow him. They went up some stairs and came to the late king’s solar. The Prince ordered the valet to light a fire in the fireplace.
“What is it, Shara?”
“Isn’t it obvious it’s your uncle Talazib?! Father told me about the letter he sent you. He told you Lacefaith was found in Murab. But didn’t he also mention in there that your uncle might be trying to throw you off scent? He is the real culprit, Prince, NOT my beloved prince. I know it. I just know it.”
The fire started burning, low at first, then higher and crackled and danced.
“Well, Shara, a day before I went to a local physician to confirm what your father said. Forgive me but I wanted to have information from a second source. I consulted the only other physician there’s to be found who knows about Lacefaith. I believe your father knows him. That physician was your father’s rival for the post of royal physician. He told me that another man, an academician came a year back, just like me.”
“What did he look like, this academician? Did the physician say anything?”
“Just like me, as tall as I was and with an easy grace. So he was tall like me, possibly of the royal family but under pretence. That’s our man, right? Our culprit?”
And now Torzib very slowly said, “And he also told me this academician had grey eyes. It all fits, doesn’t it?”
“Grey eyes? Really? How did this physician remember that? And how did the physician remember someone who came to him a year ago. That physician’s lying. It seems to me like someone framed Prince Lozib and paid the physician to describe Lozib if anyone came inquiring about Lacefaith.”
“But I know that. I thought about it and I came to the same conclusions as you, my dear Shara. It took me a few hours of contemplation, though, to fix my attention on how the physician was able to remember the academician even after a year. But you’re very clever, I must say. You have an eye for detail.” The Prince smiled in admiration.
“Oh… um, it’s nothing, really. But then—then why did you still punish Lozib? You were about to kill him?!”
“I still had my doubts. It might not be uncle. Lozib was but a young lad of 15 when uncle last saw him. It’s been two years since then. How did he come to know that Lozib had grown to my height? Unless… someone told him.” After a pause, the prince asked Shara, “Jasmine again, today?”
“You may wonder why I ask. Well, because”, the Prince began, then he went to the table lying in the corner of the solar, and brought back an arrow. “Smell it. It’s jasmine. And this is the arrow that attacked me. So… I believe my uncle uses the exactly same scent as yours. How… extraordinary.”
Shara trained her gaze on the ground as her fingers fumbled with her braid. They needed something to hold on, they were trembling so bad.
“Why?” The prince whispered. “No, don’t explain me. Explain Lozib. He’s worse hit by it. Had it not been for the jasmine scent, I would’ve never asked that maidservant, who happened to be uncle Talazib’s ward or something, if she was a friend of yours. I would’ve proclaimed uncle Talazib guilty.”
Tears pooled in Shara’s eyes. That scent had been a gift to her from Prince Lozib. She felt the irony of the situation and the cruelty of the universe.
A few minutes later in the late king’s solar…
Prince Lozib, now unbound stood in one corner. Also present were Uncle Talazib, the royal physician and the vizier.
Prince Torzib said, “My brother is not guilty.
“Brother,” Prince Torzib continued, addressing Prince Lozib, “forgive me but I knew you weren’t the culprit. I had doubts though. To confirm them, I had to announce that you’ll be put to death. And things have passed just as I anticipated.”
“What do you mean?” Prince Lozib asked.
“Shara, if you will, tell them. Also the reason.”
Shara confessed that she and her father had together plotted the murder of the late king. There were gasps at that. The royal physician himself was all wide eyes and trembling hands. They paid the other physician to describe Prince Lozib so accurately so that it would turn Prince Torzib’s suspicion towards his uncle Talazib. They’d also tried to kill Prince Torzib using the arrow, and the arrow had been dipped into Lacefaith.
“Why?” Prince Lozib asked, bewildered. “Why, Shara? And were you about to kill me as well?”
“No, no!” Shara wailed. “If that was the case, I would’ve let you die today. I only did it because you are so good, Prince Lozib. So much better than either your father or brother. And all you got to have was Murab! How fair is that?”
“As fair as it could be”, Prince Lozib replied, his jaw twitching, his face set and angry.
“Lozib, please. I… I just wanted you to get what you deserved. You—”
“I loved my father. And you murdered him. I love my brother. You attacked him. If you really cared about me, you wouldn’t have done that.”
Shara had only tears to offer in return.
“Shara”, Prince Torzib said, and his voice was surprisingly gentle, “if only you’d waited for the end of the Will’s reading, you would’ve saved us and yourself so much grief. It is customary in our family that only the first son gets the rule. Father couldn’t defy the law of land, not in writing, at least. But we had decided that half of the kingdom would go to Prince Lozib. It was to be your wedding gift.”
Shara looked up wide-eyed and so did Prince Lozib.
“I was about to announce the same after the Will had been read.”
“But it’s against the rules”, Prince Lozib cried.
“Are you trying to get rid of responsibilities, Lozib?” Prince Torzib smiled. “Father was a monarch. So will I be. We can change things for the better. You’ll still have half the kingdom but now…”
“I’ll take the blame”, the royal physician spoke up.
“And what good will come of it? Can I still love someone who murdered my father? Marry her?” Prince Lozib said, addressing the royal physician.
“I love you! I do!” Shara cried but Lozib had already stormed out. He felt cheated. Betrayed. Lacefaithed.
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