Chapter 7

Malone woke up with the worst headache that anyone in the world had ever known. There was also a terrible taste in his mouth, and he had a crick in his neck. Whatever it was that Kestrel had given him, it had been strong. He rolled over and spotted Karlton in the chair next to his bed, asleep and dead to the world. Malone had noticed that Karlton was a worrier, and now he could see that the poor man looked worried even when he was asleep.

Malone sat up and put his feet on the floor, stopping only when he felt his head pound harder. Waiting a few minutes for the pain to go away, he thought about his predicament and how he could get out of it. As long as Kestrel was nearby, he would have no chance: the wily old councilor was ready for any move he tried to make.

"Oh, you're awake," Malone heard Karlton say. He saw that Karlton had woken up as well. "How are you feeling?"

"I have a huge headache," Malone answered. "I want to cut my head off."

Karlton smiled. "Well, I could get you a remedy that wouldn't be quite as drastic, Your Highness."

Ned winced. "Please, Karlton, just call me Ned. None of that 'Your Highness' stuff, all right?"

Karlton nodded. "If that is what you wish."

Malone massaged his temples. "Karlton, do you really think I'm the prince, or do you call me 'Your Highness' because of Kestrel?"

Karlton looked surprised at the question. "Why do you ask that?"

Malone snorted. "I'd have to blind and totally stupid not to notice that you treat me like a normal person when everyone else around me is bowing and 'Your Highness-ing,'" he pointed out.

Karlton shook his head. "I'll tell you something if you agree not to tell anyone else, all right?"

Malone nodded.

"A lot of what's going on isn't what it seems," Karlton said, leaning his head on his hands. "Kestrel isn't always the helpful or humble councilor, as you already know. He's mad, and he's hungry for power. The queen is a good person, and very kind-hearted, but she's too willing to believe something if it's what she wants to believe, and she's not able to stand up to Kestrel. She's often more like a little girl than a woman. That's why Kestrel seems to handle everything."

"I could tell that much," Malone admitted.

"There's more," Karlton told him. "A great deal more. The king was a young man who was determined to rule the people well, and he always questioned every plan that Kestrel had proposed since people would suffer in some way because of them. More than once he and Kestrel had arguments about these vetoes. Everyone thinks that the king died of some kind of illness. I knew him personally, and there was no way that illness could have killed him. No. The last person to see him before that 'illness' had set in was Kestrel."

Malone swallowed, trying to wet his suddenly dry mouth.

"That is the sort of person you are dealing with, Ned," Karlton said seriously. "That is why you must be careful. I think that until you can find a way to defeat Kestrel, it would be better for you if you behaved like the proper young prince that Kestrel wants you to be."

Malone nodded. "I see." He stood up, took a deep breath and looked at Karlton. "Well, if I'm going to be a 'proper' young prince, I have to learn how to be one. Could you help me, Karlton?"

Karlton smiled as he stood up as well. "Of course, Your Highness."

Malone glared at him. "Didn't I ask you to call me Ned?"

"Lesson number one," Karlton said, wagging a finger in mock severity. "Everyone calls you 'Your Highness.' Lesson number two is that no one sits while you stand."

"And what is lesson number three?"

Karlton grinned. "A prince must get dressed and ready for breakfast," he said. "That is lesson number three."

Space

Kestrel could not get over the change in the young man that he had chosen to be the prince. He called the queen "Mother" without any prompting, happily attended all the court functions and council sessions, and he asked older members of the court about his "father." It was as if the young man had suddenly been metamorphosed into the real prince.

Kestrel reflected that things could not have turned out better. Ever since the vision, the queen had been acting as if he could do no wrong and happily allowed him to control things. Kestrel smiled at how well the deception had worked and how the 'vision' of the young prince had taken everyone in. The vision had been no lie: He had seen the queen being saved by a young man; all he had done was to tell her that the young man would be her son. The foolish woman had believed it. The kingdom had a prince again, thank goodness. He had no idea where the real prince had gone, but it was better that he had cowed this young man into the role. Since he had been the one responsible for 'restoring' the 'prince' to the kingdom, no one would ever doubt him again.

He gazed out the window at the garden party that was in full swing. The boy was circulating among the guests and being perfectly charming. Things couldn't be going better. Kestrel wandered along the gallery and glanced outside every now and then. He had to take a quick second look when he saw the carriage that was rolling through the gates. It couldn't be! No, it was. Kestrel ground his teeth in annoyance: Duchess Miranda, the queen's elder cousin, had come to the party. In Kestrel's opinion, there wasn't a more aggravating person on earth. He left the gallery to spend the rest of the day in his study.

Space

"Oh, my dear, how good it is to see you!" the Duchess gushed as she hugged the queen. "It's been much too long!"

"Miranda, what a pleasant surprise!" the queen said, returning the embrace. "You must meet my son. You've heard that Kestrel foresaw his return?"

"Yes, it's all the talk in the city," Miranda answered. "You must meet a young man and his friends who were of great help to me just the other day." Without waiting for the queen to say anything, she introduced the people who were right behind her. "This is Mr. Roxton and Dr. Challenger, and these delightful young ladies are Veronica Layton and Margeurite Krux."

Bows and curtsies were exchanged as appropriate, and the queen sent off a waiter to find Edward. A few minutes later the boy was at her side. "This is my son Edward," the queen said proudly as Ned bowed. As Ned straightened up, he felt as if he had just been thrown a lifeline. His friends had found him.