Nothing in the crisp autumn morning air spoke of murder.
The weather was better than it had been in weeks. Where before, moody dark clouds had lingered overhead with the promise of murky rain that left unsightly streaks on the window panes, today was sunlight and warmth. It was the pleasant weather that led Flynn and I, restless from being caged by wild winds, to propose a hunt.
Despite not being the closest of my half-siblings in terms of age, Flynn and I had been kindred spirits for many years. As the youngest true-born son of our royal father, King Rience Trevelian of Anglesey, Flynn lacked the responsibility—and in truth, the maturity—of our eldest brother, Callan. His carefree manner, combined with my propensity for drinking and merriment, often led to some interesting situations. These typically ended with a firm scolding from Father.
Our first obstacle was, predictably, Bethwyn. The only one of my half-siblings younger than me, she had a tendency to plead and wheedle her way into acceptance. When that didn't work, she became a tiny maelstrom of fury, her tantrums renowned throughout the castle. When Bethwyn was in a fit of rage, you stayed out of her way.
To her parents, she was the model of what a little lady should be, though there was a rebellious streak to her. At eighteen years old, she knew better than to persist when it came to joining Flynn and I for a hunt. She stood in the doorway with her blue eyes narrowed in anger, small hands clenched into fists.
"You've been told countless times, Beth." Flynn arched an eyebrow as he counted out red-fletched arrows. "It's not proper for you to come along. You know Mother and Father will be looking for matches for you. What lord or prince would want some half-wild little huntress for a wife?"
"Sian is going." There was accusation in Bethwyn's tone. She folded her arms across her chest and pouted as she was prone to doing when she didn't get her way.
Flynn and I exchanged an exasperated look. We'd had the feeling that Bethwyn would attempt to use that to her advantage.
"That's different," I said.
Sian was my twin sister. As the acknowledged royal bastards of King Rience, we had the privileges of being a king's children without the drawbacks of having to behave like our true-born siblings. Our mother, Myrna Pembroke, had once been the king's official mistress. She was respected in court, aside from by those who saw her presence as a slight toward Rience's wife, Deirdre.
Sian was not expected to make a fine match, as our older sister Nora had done. She was free to join Flynn and I for the hunt if she so chose, and as she often did. It was always an issue with Bethwyn, who lacked the maturity to understand why Sian cound hunt and she could not. Our bastard status gave us many luxuries, though there were some drawbacks. I would never inherit our father's title and lands, Sian would never marry into nobility or royalty. None of these things particularly bothered us.
"Please, Emrys." Bethwyn's eyes widened as if that might convince Flynn and I to change our minds.
"We said no. Piss off, Bethwyn." Flynn lost patience, his harsh words and sharp tone causing Bethwyn to stomp off, taking care to slam as many doors as she could. I rolled my eyes, far too used to our sister's tantrums to believe it would last longer than several hours.
"What have you done now?" Sian leaned in the doorway that Bethwyn had departed through, a wry smile on her face. "Don't forget, we promised her Majesty we would be back before sundown for the feast."
Sian and I could never be mistaken for the children of Queen Deirdre. Whilst Callan, Nora, Flynn and Bethwyn all inherited the freckles and red hair—in varying shades from ginger to auburn—of their mother, Sian and I had the same brown skin and dark hair and eyes as our mother.
Our mother and her family were all given privileges following her ascent to the position of king's mistress. Our grandfather Seamus Pembroke was granted the position of captain of the guard. A few years after Sian and I were born, our father's generosity extended to naming Devlin, Mother's younger brother, as his Lord Chancellor.
One would think these honours would have angered Deirdre, but the Queen had only ever shown grace and benevolence toward Sian and I. Deirdre was convinced by Rience that her children only would inherit his throne, titles and lands. Sian and I might have comforts, but we would never be royal.
"What feast?" Flynn asked, earning a smack around the back of the head from Sian. The mischievous grin across his freckled face assured me that he hadn't forgotten the feast in honour of Callan's birthday. The oldest of our siblings and heir to the throne, Callan was thirty today.
"You know bloody well what feast. Nora's even coming."
That earned an audible groan from both Flynn and I. We didn't mind Nora, even if she could be a bit stuck-up. Her husband Percival was the oldest son of King Pellinore of Listenoise—and he was a complete ass. It also meant that their two-year-old daughter would be in attendance, the only creature possible of having a worse tantrum than Bethwyn.
"Then I suppose that means we need to head into the woods as soon as possible," Flynn said, tossing his spare bow to Sian. "Try and keep up, won't you?"
"I'll save some game for you," Sian promised with the flash of a smile.
We were in the woods past sundown. We returned to the castle full of laughter as the sky was streaked with pinks, purples and oranges as the sun dipped low beyond the horizon. As children, the three of us had quickly learned to navigate the labyrinthine passages of the king's castle. When we didn't want to be caught, we used the southern servant's entrance. Once we had used the eastern one, but it had become shrouded by overgrown plant tendrils, impossible to access without a gardener's maintenance.
"Where do you three think you've been?"
It was Callan. He had become aware of our favourite entrance as we had grown older, and had delighted in catching us. He was ready for the feast, judging by his crimson-and-gold tunic and the way he'd slicked his auburn hair back. I looked for the hint of a smile in his closely-trimmed beard, but found none.
"Hunting." Flynn held his bow aloft triumphantly, despite the fact that we had only managed to catch several birds throughout our day in the woods.
"Go ahead and prepare for the feast." Callan waved a dismissive hand at Sian and I, focused on Flynn. "You, come with me. We need to talk."
"What do you suppose that's about?" I asked as we watched a sullen Flynn reluctantly follow Callan down the corridor.
Sian shrugged her slender shoulders. "You know Callan. He's probably in for a scolding."
Of all our siblings, we got on with Callan the least. It had nothing to do with our bastard status or our mother, and everything to do with the fact that Callan was unbearably controlling and already seemed to think he was king.
Sian and I had lived in the castle since we were born. I wondered if this had caused friction, though I never dared ask. Our quarters were separate from those of our siblings. Sian and I got old clothes from Callan and Nora. The divide between us and our true-born siblings was there, but it was like symbols carved into a statue. You noticed they were there, but they didn't detract from the statue itself.
We didn't have the time for hot baths, which was disappointing as my muscles ached from the day's hunt. I quickly changed into my best clothes, slicked my hair back and made my way down to the feast. As I descended the steps, the first thing I noticed was Angharad, Nora's daughter, running rampant. Toddling would be a more accurate description—the child weaved her way unsteadily through tables as Nora tried her best to catch her.
The dining hall was a sight to behold. The table had been dressed and heaped with plates of steaming food, and several pitchers of wine had been laid out. The golden glint of the tiger sigil caught my attention where it hung proudly over the hearth.
Angharad almost cannoned into my legs, eyes wide as she stared up at me. Nora took the distraction as an opportunity to seize her daughter, picking the toddler up and holding her close despite her attempts to squirm away. Nora wrinkled her nose when she assessed me, shaking her head.
"You smell. Don't tell me you've come straight from the hunt."
I grinned. "Then I won't tell you."
Nora sighed. "Emrys, you are incorrigible."
Sian had already made her appearance—how she managed to get ready with such speed must certainly border on witchcraft, else I didn't know how to comprehend it. She wore one of Nora's old dresses, a deep bronze that Nora had declared looked awful on her, but suited Sian's complexion far better.
I set my sights on by far my favourite part of feasts: food and drink. Tonight's feast in particular boasted pheasant, slow-cooked pork and herbed vegetables, among many other delicacies. The wine was thick and rich on my tongue when I brought my goblet to my lips. Father really did save the best barrels of wine for the feasts.
I spotted my uncle and grandfather talking with several noblemen near the hearth. Devlin was laughing loudly. It was rare to see him without a smile on his face. Mother always said he was a true charmer and a wordsmith to rival the best poets. Mother didn't tend to come to such celebrations—she had withdrawn from court about ten years ago and although she visited, she no longer enjoyed the raucous company she'd kept in her youth.
Flynn arrived late, with a surly expression on his face no less. Whatever the conversation he'd had with Callan, it hadn't been to his liking. He took a seat beside me just as Callan stepped up to the head of the table. He basked in the attention of his friends and family. Nature truly couldn't have produced a man better suited to the position of heir to the throne.
"I'm honoured that you could all join me here tonight for my birthday." Callan raised his goblet as if in a toast.
"Like we had a choice," Flynn muttered.
Sian stifled a laugh, quickly bringing her goblet to her lips and taking a sip to disguise the mirthful sound. I tuned out as Callan continued his speech, some dull spiel about peace and their contributions to it. Across the table, Uncle Devlin caught my attention, his brow pinched in a frown. He disliked when Sian and I appeared disinterested in the affairs of our royal family, likely because these affairs concerned him directly.
"Here's to you all." Callan lifted his goblet higher, before bringing it to his lips and taking a deep gulp. Everyone at the table joined him in drinking. There was a round of applause as my oldest brother put his drink down, as though making a speech was a commendable achievement in itself.
Callan coughed and rubbed at his throat. At first I assumed he'd taken his wine down badly—there had been one occasion when he'd been younger where he'd gulped his mead so fast he'd almost thrown up. However when Callan coughed again, bringing up a napkin to conceal the sound, a splatter of blood tainted the cream cloth.
Callan collapsed, crashing to the ground and taking down a pitcher of wine as he gripped the tablecloth for support. Nora screamed, the sound echoing through the dining hall as chaos erupted. Father ran over to his fallen heir. Deirdre had her hands pressed over her mouth. Beside me, Flynn had gone utterly still, his face pale as milk.
"Callan!" Nora kept shrieking our brother's name. It sounded like the cry of a wounded animal. "Callan!"
On my other side, Sian moved to grip Flynn's arm. Her free hand slipped through mine, trembling.
Devlin ran over to join the king and several of the nobles who stood over Callan. Grandfather shouted for the guards, who nearly broke the door down getting into the dining hall. When Father rose from Callan's side, I knew what he was going to say. I knew because I could see how still Callan's legs had gone, where before they had been twitching. I knew because Father's blue eyes were welling with tears—Father, who I had never seen cry.
"My son is dead."