Putting the goatskin-bound tome down on a small table, Rim leaned back in the rocking chair, scratching at the bald spot atop his head with one hand and rubbing his eyes with the other. He was surprised to note that the candle he had been reading by was burned almost halfway to the base. Somewhere between the chapter discussing symptoms of rare diseases in male humans and the one on herbal remedies, he had lost track of the time. By now, it had to be well past midnight, perhaps even as late as halfway to dawn.

Stifling a yawn, he realized that he was tired. Before he retired for the night, however, there was one duty that demanded his attention: checking the king's wife. It had been about four or five hours since his last visit to Joi, and she had seemed well on the road to recovery then, her temperature down and her breathing unlabored. Some healers might wait until morning, but Rim's conscience wouldn't allow such laxity. Sor had entrusted his wife's health to him, and Rim intended to honor that commitment in the way he knew best.

After allowing himself a long, leisurely stretch, the healer rose, donning the cloak that had been loosely wrapped around his shoulders. Supposedly, the previous occupant of this room, the former palace healer Vii, had complained constantly of coldness. Rim was beginning to understand why. Of course, during hot summer days, the cooler climate would be an advantage, but not on chilly nights such as this.

Rim slipped from his room into the corridor. A ghostly silence had settled over the palace at this hour. Lanterns set at regular intervals along the walls provided the only source of illumination. Rim felt a sudden, inexplicable shiver of dread - the sensation of being watched. He turned quickly, looking both ways down the corridor, and saw nothing. The feeling was gone, having passed almost as quickly as it had come, and Rim concluded that it was likely the result of being in a strange place at such a late hour.

His footsteps echoed loudly as he made his way down the hall, leather soles striking unyielding stone. Again he felt the sensation of unseen eyes watching him, but when he turned and peered into the flickering shadows behind him, there was no one there. He shook his head and muttered a few words to himself, embarrassed at acting like a frightened child. After all, what place in the city of Vorti could be more safe than where he was now?

Although he had only been here a short time, Rim thought he was going to like life in the palace. He couldn't believe his luck, how one simple act of common-sense healing had gained him the respect and trust of a king whose family he had believed in and honored for his whole life. As a result, his drab and damp hut, with its dry rot and creeping mildew, had been replaced by a spacious room, warm meals, and servants who catered to his every whim.

The only person within the palace that Rim hadn't instantly liked was the chancellor, Vas. There was something dark and sinister about that man. Rim would not want to meet him in these empty corridors past midnight.

The path from his chambers to the royal wing was not yet so ingrained in his mind that he could traverse it unconsciously. He had to concentrate on where he was going - where to turn left and right. During the day, the trail seemed easier, with people busting to and fro who could point him in the right direction if he got lost. Now, there was no one. The servants, having to rise before their masters and mistresses, were all in bed. Only the latest-rising of the royal family were still up, and they were sequestered in their rooms.

Rim realized he had reached the royal wing when the floor became carpeted. The spacing between lanterns was reduced and the strength of each light increased, chasing away the shadows that had pursued him from his chambers. Occasional finely-woven tapestries depicting romantic and mythical scenes adorned the walls at irregular intervals.

Ahead, outside of the quarters shared by the Princess Jen and her husband Prince Yiv, a stoic guard stood, ever watchful. He inclined his head by way of greeting. The healer returned the gesture. Although he longed for some sound, he was unwilling to be the first to break the stillness with a word.

Two more turns brought him to the corridor which housed Princess Gea's chambers. Again, a soldier was stationed by the door, although this man seemed more relaxed than Jen's guardian. He smiled and nodded at Rim. As the healer was passing, there was a sudden peal of laughter from behind the closed door. The guard's smile widened and Rim could have sworn he saw the man wink, but no words were exchanged and he continued on his way without pause.

A long, straight hallway followed by several more turns brought him to the door of Joi and Sor's chambers. Immediately, he was aware that something was wrong. For a fraction of a second, however, he couldn't figure out what it was.

The hall was deserted. As with the other rooms he had passed on the way here, there should have been a guard on duty. Instead, there was no one. Rim felt the cold hand of fear clutch at his heart for the third time in the last few minutes. The concealed lurker seemed near again and he felt the small hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Glances to his left and right revealed nothing, however, and there was no place to hide. The corridor was empty. Apprehensively, Rim reached for the door handle.

The door swung open easily. Numerous lanterns and candles were lit within, so the front room was bright. Rim stepped over the threshold, cast an uneasy look around, then shut the door behind him. The silence that pervaded the castle seemed deeper and more ominous in here.

He moved quickly into the sitting room, which, at first glance, was in order. Cushioned divans lined all the walls except the far one, where the entrance to the bedroom was, and the center of the room was occupied by a large table with several equally ornate chairs around it. Then Rim saw what was under the table, curled into a ball.

He rushed over, dropping to his knees as he recognized the face of the corpse: Hud, the head of Sor's personal squadron of guards. The man had died from a stab wound to the back of his neck - a knife driven up under the skull and into his brain. There was little blood, but death was not always messy. His skin was still warm to the touch and his flesh remained pliant. He hadn't been dead for long.

Only fear kept Rim from rushing into the bedroom - fear that he was not alone. By his estimate, Hud had died within the past half hour, perhaps as recently as ten or fifteen minutes ago, and that could mean that whoever had killed him was still here. As much as Rim was concerned about the queen's safety, he was not willing to throw his own life away.

He crouched under the table, eyes and ears alert, straining to hear any sound that might identify an intruder. He was concerned that he hadn't been as quiet as he could have been coming in here. Perhaps he had alerted someone and now they were waiting for him. A thin rivulet of sweat trickled down his back. For the first time, he wished he had adopted the custom of so many of the other residents of the palace and carried some sort of weapon, even if it was just a knife. But healers were expected to save lives, not take them.

Finally, after a torturously long and absolutely silent ten minutes, Rim slowly emerged from under the table, his eyes darting from side to side, still half expecting some hidden enemy to materialize out of thin air and do to him what had been done to Hud. At least there wouldn't be any pain in dying that way. Death would come so suddenly, he'd never know what had happened. It was not, however, a comforting thought.

The manner of the guard's death worried him greatly. Hud had been an alert soldier and a strong man. For someone to murder him like that...Rim couldn't understand how it was possible. Even the stealthiest person couldn't have gotten that close without being noticed and, as he had observed himself before entering, there was no place out there to hide.

From his position in the sitting room, he could see that the bed chamber was lit, although not as brightly as out here. That was as it should be. In fact, everything so far had been normal, except that the guard was lying dead under a table instead of standing at attention outside.

Within the bedroom, everything seemed peaceful and undisturbed. Sor's chair sat unoccupied across the room, as did the plainer, unpadded seat Rim had placed next to the bed. In the fireplace, the fire that had been blazing healthily on the healer's last visit had died out to a few glowing embers, no one having made the effort to re-stoke it. A single lantern, hanging on a hook mounted in the far wall, was the only source of illumination within the room, although a fair amount of light spilled through the unobstructed entranceway. The translucent white curtains around the queen's canopied bed were drawn, but through them Rim could see the form of a body - he assumed it was Joi's - in a reclined position. She appeared to be alone.

The greatest danger was that there could be someone hidden under or behind the bed. To check those two places, Rim would have to enter the room: not something he was anxious to do. He glanced back at Hud's body and shuddered. Whoever could do that to a guard would be more than a match for the likes of him. Perhaps the fact that he was still alive was proof enough that he was alone in the royal suite.

He had come here to care for the queen and that's what he intended to do. Taking several deep breaths in a vain attempt to settle his nerves, he sprinted into the room and around to the other side of the bed. There was no one there. Less-than-gracefully, he flopped to the floor and threw back the fringe of silk that concealed the space between the underside of the bed and the carpeting. In doing so, he disturbed a cloud of dust, and the motes flew into his eyes and nose, causing him to blink and sneeze. Other than the offending particles, however, there was nothing there. Unless he had missed some subtle hiding place, a possibility he considered unlikely, whoever had killed Hud and dragged him under the sitting room table had already departed.

Sneezing for a second time, Rim rose and separated the curtains surrounding the bed. Joi lay in peaceful repose, her eyes closed and a look of serenity on her face. The fevered flush of her normally-fair skin was gone. She lay atop the covers, her hands folded across her stomach and her bare legs crossed at the ankles. An ivory-handled stiletto protruded from just below her left breast, sunk to the hilt in her body at an angle aimed for the heart. A small patch of crimson stained her snow-white sleeping gown in a flower-like pattern surrounding the wound. Her chest neither rose nor fell.

Knowing that she was beyond his powers, Rim nevertheless felt for a pulse. Her skin was warmer than Hud's, but still too cool for that of the living. There was no trace of a heartbeat, not even the faintest murmur. The conclusion was inescapable; there was nothing that he or any other healer could do. Even an Apath, such as her husband, with all of his celebrated abilities, could not reach beyond that final gateway. Joi was dead.

Rim stood there, gazing stupidly at the body, as if expecting it to begin moving on its own. It seemed impossible that she could have been killed, and in such a brutal fashion, with the look of tranquility masking her features. Murder victims - as he had seen often enough on the streets - almost always looked frightened, or at least startled. Their eyes were wide-open and staring, not closed like Joi's.

Gradually, the disbelief faded as the magnitude of the event asserted itself. This was not some peasant girl found dead in a back alley - it was the queen of Vorti, murdered in her own bed. And, as the man who had discovered the body, he was likely to be considered a strong suspect. For a moment that seemed to stretch into an eternity, Rim was caught in a paroxysm of indecision, uncertain what to do next, how best to protect himself. He couldn't flee back to his room - witnesses had seen him coming here. He had to come forward immediately and hope that justice wasn't blind. Suddenly galvanized, he headed for the outer door to the royal apartment.

The moment Rim stepped into the corridor, he again felt the slippery, unsettling sensation of being watched. He looked both ways, but, as had been the case on each of the previous occasions, there was no one to be seen. This time, however, the feeling persisted. He couldn't shake it, and, considering the grim tableau he had just witnessed, he was unwilling to dismiss it as the delusion of an overactive imagination. There was something unnatural in these halls. Suddenly he longed for the open dangers and familiar miseries of the streets.

The king's temporary chambers were just around the corner, Sor having wanted to stay as near to his ailing queen as was possible. Rim rounded that corner and came to a dead stop. As had been the case outside the royal suite, there were no guards. Because this was the king's sleeping place, there should have been two men on duty, but the hall was empty. The healer felt his breath catch in his throat as a low moan of fear slipped between his lips. With hands that had not yet stopped trembling, he reached for the door handle.

A single lantern illuminated the sparsely-furnished outer chamber of the two-room apartment. Rim's vision took in a small sofa and a low, round table with three solid, wooden chairs arranged equidistantly around it. There were no bodies in evidence nor were there any places to conceal them. The entrance to the sleeping chamber was dark, a black rectangle in the wall to the left. Rim took the lantern from its place on the table and moved uncertainly toward that doorway.

The sleeping room, furnished with a simple bed - little more than a cot, actually; a single padded rocking chair; and a small chest of drawers, was, to all appearances, empty. The fireplace was stacked with logs, but no fire had been started. After making a cautious circuit of the chamber, Rim bent to look under the bed, half-expecting to find the bodies of two guards and the king. Instead, he found no more and no less than he had under Joi's bed. There was no one here.

The obvious question that faced the healer was where the king could be at this hour of the night. It occurred to him that the bodies of Sor and his guards could have been removed, but that didn't make any sense. Why leave the queen and Hud behind, in that case? And why risk discovery by dragging corpses through the halls?

Rim was starting to feel sick to his stomach, the mounting tension and uncertainty of his position grinding him down slowly. He felt lost and confused. A dead queen and a missing king. Deep inside, he was frightened that somehow, he was going to get blamed for everything that had happened. He hadn't led a lucky life, his first real break coming when Sor had picked him for this post. Now, his one stroke of good fortune seemed ready to turn.

After placing the lantern back where he had taken it from, he left the room. Once in the corridor, he hesitated, debating where to go. Perhaps the best move might be to backtrack to Princess Gea's room, where he knew a guard to be. Belatedly, he mentally corrected himself: where he had known a guard to be. Just because there had been one there when he had passed half an hour ago did not mean that there was still one there. Rim shuddered at the thought that someone might be stalking through the palace halls, eliminating members of the royal family at will.

He decided to go to Queen Sye's chambers, which, if he remembered correctly, were close by. He headed off to his left, moved down to the T-junction at the end of the corridor, then made a right. The healer paid as much attention to what was behind as to what was ahead, ever-watchful for signs of danger. Somehow, he doubted that his eyes would be enough to save him from whatever had infiltrated the palace, however.

He turned the corner and moved into the long, straight hall along which Sye's apartment was located. His heart gave a sick lurch. No guards. The corridor was deserted.

He tried the the outer door of Sye's suite, knowing that it should be locked and bolted from within, that the queen would never leave the entrance to her chambers unsecured. She had been subjected to assassination attempts before; she knew the risks and would take precautions. In fact, her reputation indicated that she was fastidious about such matters. The door, however, swung open with no resistance. Within, all was dark. For the briefest of moments, the healer was seized by a panic so acute that his mind went blank.

As he moved to take a lantern down from where it hung on the corridor wall, Rim spotted an almost-invisible pinkish stain. He bent closer and saw that it was a thin smear of blood. Tentatively touching a finger to it, he found it to be sticky. His gaze strayed to the floor where there were several tiny red dots on the gold carpeting.

Rim was frightened and needed help, but some inner compulsion drove him on, almost as if he couldn't stop until he had reached whatever end this grisly path might lead to. He took the lantern down from the wall, held it high in the air, and stepped across the threshold and into the darkness of Sye's suite, shutting the door behind him.

The front room was furnished with three lavishly upholstered divans arranged in a triangle around a low, square table. In the far right corner was a large desk with a padded armchair pushed under it. The rugs on the floor had a thicker shag than those in the corridors and the tapestries adorning the walls were clearly the works of masters: each a priceless depiction of some mythical epic, vivid in color and precise in every detail to the rings on women's fingers and the scars on men's faces. The entrance to Sye's sitting room was to Rim's right, closed off by a thin curtain.

At first glance, there didn't appear to be anything abnormal in the room, but the same had been true of the royal suite as well. Rim scouted around carefully, looking for telltale signs of the missing guards' bodies - or something more grotesque - but found nothing. His scrutiny of the floor just inside the doorway, done on hands and knees, was equally fruitless, with not even the smallest bloodstain in evidence.

Hefting the lantern, Rim passed through the curtain into Sye's sitting room. The walls and floors were adorned in much the same fashion as the outer room. There were several padded chairs here, the most luxurious of which was pulled up to a long, waist-high table set against the far wall. An oval-shaped looking glass was suspended directly above the table, with doused lanterns hanging on hooks to either side. A variety of paraphernalia was in evidence, from perfumes and bath oils to creams and ointments. There were also several gold-handled brushes, their bristles entwined with strands of the queen's fair hair, and a comb with a silver backbone and ivory teeth.

Not including the way Rim had come in, there were two exits from the room, one to the far left and the other opposite it. Neither doorway was obstructed.

Rim spent a few moments checking for danger signs, but again found nothing. He moved on to the doorway to the left, which opened into a huge wardrobe, with row after row of racks, each sporting at least a hundred neatly-hung gowns of nearly every imaginable color and style. Without entering, Rim couldn't tell how large the chamber was, but he suspected that both the front room and sitting room could fit in it with space to spare. The light from his lantern didn't reach far, as if the mounds of silk were soaking up the illumination, leaving much of the cluttered room in shadow. With all of its alcoves and nooks, it was the perfect place to hide bodies, as well as an excellent spot for an ambush. Rim backed away from the entrance, not turning his back to it until he was near the middle of the sitting room. He then moved to explore the only as-yet uninvestigated chamber.

He knew before entering the bedroom that Sye was dead. As the first rays of his lantern slanted though the entranceway, they fell upon her body, lying just beyond the threshold, facedown in a puddle of blood. This killing had none of the grace evident with Joi's murder. Rather than a simple, efficient blow to the heart, this had been a brutal slaying, a hacking and slashing of the body until life had fled. Rim couldn't see Sye's face, but without looking, he knew her expression would be nothing like that which had masked Joi's dead features.

The healer placed the lantern on the floor and crouched to examine the body. The queen's flesh, as well as her gown, was shredded, cut by what appeared to be a carving knife. Her back, legs, and arms had been disfigured, flesh wounds crisscrossing madly, tracing out a gruesome crimson map on her once-perfect skin. The primary blow appeared to be a wound to the throat, from which hot blood was still running, pooling beneath her face. With a shock, Rim realized that Sye couldn't have been dead more than five minutes, which was just about the time he had been in her chambers. His eyes wandered involuntarily to the darkened entrance of the wardrobe.

As if on cue, a clatter came from inside. It wasn't a loud noise, but in the deathly stillness of the room, it sounded like a thunderclap. For the second time tonight, panic seized Rim. Adrenaline pulsing through his veins, the healer bolted for the door, not daring to look behind. He stumbled once in the front room, the toe of his boot catching on the edge of a rug, but was on his feet again immediately, flying to the door, jerking it open, then racing through the well-lit corridors as fast as his legs could carry him.

When he finally came to a stop, leaning up against a wall to catch his breath, there was no sign of pursuit, but he was lost. He had run blindly and wasn't familiar enough with the twists and turns of the palace to make an educated guess about the location of this particular hallway. The hard stone floors and wide spacing of the lanterns told him that he was out of the royal wing. He had left by a different path than he had arrived by, but that didn't offer any clues. Many of the halls doubled back on themselves.

No longer running, but moving at a brisk walk, Rim wandered the seemingly-endless, empty halls until he heard laughter. Following the noise, he found the barracks housing the officers of the king's personal guard. The half-dozen men there, who were throwing dice and wagering coppers, turned in Rim's direction when they heard him enter. Suspicious expressions crossed their faces as they took in his sweating brow and haunted features.

Before he had finished his terse account of the past hour's horrors, the guards were buckling on weapons and charging out of the room, shouting orders, apparently to other men housed nearby, as they went. Moments later, Rim was alone again. He slumped into one of the still-warm, just-vacated chairs, lay his head on the table amidst a pile of coins, and started to tremble.

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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