Tobimar and Poplock had found their interview taking a wrong turn...
"My thanks, and those of the city, again, Tobimar," Toron said, sinking into one of the massive split-backed Sauran chairs with the air of one who knows he will soon be forced to rise, and relished the moment of stillness.
Poplock hung on a bit tighter as Tobimar gave an embarrassed wave and shrug. "We've just done what anyone would have," the young Human protested.
"If only it were so. There are those who would not have wished to remain for the inquiry at all, I assure you – and not all of them because they felt they had something to hide. The Lord of Waters would have understood this, and I would be surprised if her son did not."
"Not everyone trusts even the Sauran King and his people," Poplock said bluntly. "At least, not when something like this happens." He bounced side-to-side, a Toadish shrug.
"Indeed. But more than that," Toron continued. "Your testimony was invaluable. We now know how it was done – at least, we know the basic outline of the assassination, though many details – critical details – are missing. But again, your information has given us other clues that may allow us to find out those answers as well."
Poplock smiled and hopped on Tobimar's head, something the black-haired prince tolerated with only occasional complaints. "Because Tobimar's trained to observe, and because at my size you learn to watch everything carefully."
"Don't interrupt the Marshal –"
"—King," corrected Poplock, unable to keep a smug tone out of his voice. He saw the involuntary ripple of the dorsal spines that was Toron's equivalent of a wince.
As Tobimar gaped, the Sauran glanced at Poplock with narrowed eyes. "And just how did you come by that little bit of knowledge?"
"I watch," he answered simply. "See how people behave. Bunch of little things. I suppose the key was when I saw Adjudicator Salandaras and the White Robe leave the Throneroom, and they were putting their dustcloaks back on." He could tell by the way Tobimar's head moved suddenly that he'd understood the point of that.
Toron stared at him and then gave a quick, explosive laugh. "Never underestimate a Toad. I've given that advice a thousand times, and it seems I still have failed to learn it myself."
As abruptly as he'd laughed, Toron became serious, even grim, again. "Yes. The Sixteen confirmed that I was Called early this morning, and while I tried to get them to defer that Calling or to select another, they convinced me that – at least at this time – there is no one in a reasonable position to take the position other than myself, and that a new King had to be selected before the general announcement. We have managed to delay the announcement thus far – partly because we were fortunate enough that it was just the three of us who discovered …" For an instant there was a deeper, rougher note in the Ancient Sauran's voice, an involuntary pulling back of the scaled lips and a flaring of the deep nostrils, "… discovered the body of my King and brother. As Marshal I was able to assume direction of all the T'Teranahm Chendoron, the Dragon's Palace."
Tobimar nodded, forcing Poplock to hop off to the human's shoulder. "I… understand. But you were saying you had figured out what happened…?"
"Yes. I owe you that much, at the least – especially as I'll have another request for you in a few moments." Even on the reptilian face there was no mistaking the serious expression.
"It was terribly well planned and executed – and in essence terribly simple, as many good plans are. It may have been readied for days, weeks perhaps, awaiting precisely the right set of circumstances.
"The culprits were waiting – listening, somehow, to my conversations with the Winnower – until they had a sense of my speech, my rhythms, my characteristics critical for a necessary deception. Following my interview with… the two women you noticed, I told the Winnower I would be back shortly; he knew that usually meant I was going to take my day's meal – and so would our unknown enemies. That meant that they knew I would be an hour or so in returning."
"But we saw you come back out a few minutes later," Poplock said.
"You saw someone come out who looked like me, yes." Toron leaned forward. "And I assure you, that is one of the most troublesome of all mysteries. How is it possible that a duplicate of myself was present? How could such an enemy have entered the castle and been present, waiting for this moment, and able to assume a perfect disguise at what would have been very short notice?" The reptilian ruler shook his head. "Understand, there are very powerful magics – summoned watchers, symbols of warding, prayer-screens, and others – to maintain the safety of the castle, and of its people. Most powers or beings capable of such an imposture should have set off half a dozen alerts as soon as it made the attempt." He shrugged in frustration, then continued. "The impostor, your own testimony showed, did not return via the Winnower's Gate, but by the main gate – a necessity, of course, to ensure that the impostor and I did not meet.
"He then went to the Winnower, who was mildly surprised to see me but it was not entirely unheard of for me to change my mind, especially if there was something particularly interesting about the next group."
"And was there?" Tobimar asked.
A flash of a sharp-fanged smile. "That, Tobimar Silverun, you will have to tell me."
Poplock looked at him. "What do you mean?"
"All in due time. As I said, the impostor returned and then escorted the next group – the five young people you described. What makes this particularly disturbing is that while you should have noticed nothing during your visit to the Throne, there are – even more so than in the rest of the castle – powerful, subtle, and – until now – absolutely reliable wards and seals which would not permit any to approach the King without being escorted by myself or one of a very few others."
Poplock understood in a general sense what that meant – after all, he'd been subverting some similar security himself not all that many days ago. But Tobimar reached up, took the Toad off his shoulder with a grip that almost squeezed the air from his body, and set him down. "Sacred seals," he said. It was not a question, it was a statement, one filled with grim horror. "This is the capital, this is the castle whose ruler is blessed by the Father of Dragons himself. There is not the faintest possibility that those 'wards and seals' were not placed there by Elbon Nomicon and the Sixteen themselves." He held Toron's gaze, and the Sauran nodded, slowly.
It dawned on the little Toad, finally, why this seemed to strike Tobimar so personally. His mother was the ruler of a country of her own, one probably protected by wards very much like those here. And something had apparently walked through them without so much as raising a question, let alone an alarm. "Oh, now that's bad."
Both the human and the Sauran gave a tiny smile. "Yes, one might say that," Toron said. "Now, exactly what happened next… we do not know. Perhaps the group he escorted were innocent, perhaps they were accomplices. If they were innocent –"
"—then the ritual gave him the perfect opportunity to kill, at that point when you have escorted the guests out and close the door to take your own leave and hear anything that the King wants to tell you privately," Tobimar finished, running a hand through his hair absently. "Then he escorted them out and… vanished wherever he came from."
"And we have checked every single person – Sauran, human, Artan, even Toad – in the Castle. None of them are our impostor."
Poplock scratched his head with a rear foot. "Um, I'm just a Toad, but that confuses me. If he could walk through god-forged wards, how can you be sure he's not one of the people you're questioning?"
"Because we found the body of one of my guards concealed under one of the floors. We're still working on determining just how and when he died, but it was quite some time ago." Toron stamped his foot suddenly and his next words were very nearly a roar. "And I spoke with Fureas myself just three days ago – not two hours before the assassination! The impostor was within my grasp!"
"If he could do that, though," Tobimar said slowly, "why didn't he just… kill the King whenever, maybe when he's sleeping and wouldn't be disturbed for maybe many hours?"
"Could be plenty of reasons," Poplock said quietly, hopping back onto Tobimar's shoulder – and receiving a small, apologetic glance and a pat for the prior rough removal. "Fear and confusion. Maybe get the other people blamed. Maybe get you blamed, Toron – then they take out the King and his heir in one shot." Or other reasons. "Maybe something made it necessary they do it now. I don't know. But the longer they stayed hidden, the more they could learn, right?"
"True enough, Sylanningathalinde," Toron acknowledged, using the Ancient Sauran name for Poplock's people. "A perfect spy in the household – and if he – or better, it – could be disgused as myself, well enough that the Winnower did not sense the deception, one must presume that at various times it could have been anywhere in the Castle, as anyone."
The door was suddenly flung open; Poplock flipped backwards off Tobimar's shoulder, drawing Steelthorn; he saw the lightning-fast flicker of the Skysand Prince's twin swords being drawn, and Toron was on his feet and in a crouched combat stance.
The Winnower almost screamed in panic, throwing up his hands. "Apologies! Apologies!"
"Tehry," King Toron said, slowly relaxing and straightening up, "this is a poor time to be surprising us. What is it?"
"My Lords… Your Majesty…" The Winnower seemed at a complete loss for words, gesturing outward.
Toron glanced at Poplock and Tobimar, and strode out towards the front gate. They followed, Poplock once more riding in his accustomed position, and all three quickened their stride as they heard an unfamiliar murmuring, a sussuration of unrest that grew to fearful calls and shouts.
They reached the open doors of the Castle, in view of the Gates, and the King staggered to a halt. "Q' u rr' a Terian khe' Elbon…"
In the courtyard were dozens of people – some human, a few Iriistiik, a Child of Odin or two, but mostly elves, Artan, and all with the haggard, drawn look of those who have been running for their lives. Some were bandaged, stained with blood, injured to a greater or lesser degree.
Poplock spotted a small knot of Toads trying to make their way to the left fountain, and leapt from Tobimar's shoulder, hopping as fast as he could. "People! Hello! What –"
As he got closer, he recognized some of his people – and especially the keg-sized one being carried, bandages ominously dark. "Oh no. No. Barkboat!"
The old priest opened one gold-and-black eye. "…Poplock. Is that really you, or –"
"What happened?" Even as he asked the question, he felt a terrible cold feeling, like sinking into an icy bog, rising over him from the ground under his feet.
"Duckweed…" It was Padsinker, who he'd never liked, but the wide eyes and scratched, loose hide brought with them an aching empathy. "They… they were everywhere. Armored warriors, wizards, monsters… Mazakh, humans, fire exploding…"
He'd been too late. Too late.
"M…Majesty…" an Artan warrior was speaking, so exhausted that he did not even attempt a bow. "Majesty, we… we are attacked. Hali-Shan-Alyin, the Suntree, is fallen. The Forest Sea… we no longer hold its heart."
Barkboat's eye slid shut, and he was limp. Unconscious, or…
The little Toad hopped a few feet, then stopped and sank to the ground, hearing the tiny peeping noises that were his sobs. He'd had four years.
And he'd wasted them all.
Poor little toad...