“…Well. That was quick.”
Uther and Agravaine looked down on the piece of parchment on the table, rolled up and neatly sealed shut. They hadn’t opened it yet. They didn’t have to. Neither of them had to read the contents to know what it was, and what kind of message was written within.
Agravaine stepped forward, scooping up the scroll and breaking the seal. The Royal Advisor cleared his throat before reading the message out loud.
“His Majesty, King Rodor the Second, hereby informs the recipients of this document that, as of St. Winefride… The Kingdom of Nemeth formally declares war on Camelot.”
It had taken almost three weeks, but Lancelot had finally managed to meet with one of the Princes of Essetir. More specifically – he had finally managed to meet him without anyone else around. Lancelot had been biding his time for weeks. He had finally caught a lucky break and ran into Pellinore as the Prince was making his way through the castle library.
Lancelot was determined to get answers out of him – but the payoff from his weeks of patience proved to be frustratingly little.
“Let me get this straight,” Lancelot said. “Despite us never once having heard of him before, Cenred of Essetir is-”
“Our true ruler, yes.”
“And you have no objections to that,” Lancelot continued. He watched as Pellinore shook his head in response.
“And neither do any of your brothers, who have been raised to compete for the throne since birth.”
The Prince of Essetir shook his head at Lancelot’s words, a strange smile playing on his lips.
“No, Lancelot. We do not. Trust me – Cenred is more qualified to rule than any of us.”
Lancelot knew that he could not press him further. Not without looking suspicious, himself. Lancelot smiled, folding his hands behind his back.
“I see. I just wanted to be certain. Thank you for your time, friend.”
The future Duke watched as Pellinore turned around and began to head for the door. Lancelot did not stop him. He placed a hand on his chin, lost deep in thought as his mind frantically searched for a logical explanation.
He found none.
None of this makes sense.
Lancelot had silently observed the Princes for days. Nothing about their body language or tone of voice suggested that they were being coerced or threatened. Pellinore did not seem to be lying, either. He sounded completely truthful – and yet, Lancelot instinctively knew that something was off. What Pellinore had said made no logical sense. Lancelot had known all three Princes since he was a child. The three of them had been competing for that throne for more than a decade. They were fiercely competitive, scheming against each other at every turn and trying to win their father’s favour by any means necessary. The late King William had raised them that way on purpose.
For not one, but all three of them to just bow out like that, without even putting up a fight… it made no sense.
Something was wrong.
That evening, the King of Camelot summoned what was left of his alliance. Uther formally called them all to the war room, bringing with him the declaration from Nemeth and placing it on the table for everyone to see.
“Nemeth has declared war on all of us,” Uther spoke, resting his hands on the edge of the table. “Our scouts report that they have already started gathering their army. They have betrayed everything that Albion stands for. King Rodor is making a mockery of the Five Kingdoms, and all of its allies. By declaring war, Nemeth is ridiculing each and every one of you.”
The war room filled with whispers of disbelief. Uther sat back down, allowing his guests some time to react before continuing his speech.
“I will not stand for it. The Kingdom of Camelot will strike out against Nemeth, to bring a swift end to this conflict. But we cannot do it alone. As allies of Albion, I call upon each of you for your support.”
King Oswald nodded, crossing his arms as he immediately agreed.
“Mercia and Camelot have been allies for decades, Uther. We do not intend to break that bond now. Mercia will aid you.”
“As will Essetir,” Pellinore chimed in, speaking in Cenred’s place. “Our King will stand with you, even in his absence.”
Uther nodded, a confident smile playing on his lips as he looked at his two allies. Then, his gaze shifted to the rest of the table. Nemeth’s seat was empty. When Richard left, everyone had left with him. But there were two more Kingdoms to sway. Uther’s eyes narrowed as he looked at the people in front of him – first to Wessex, and then to Northumbria.
“What do you say?”
A quick glance was exchanged on the other side of the table. The room watched as, in a split second, something unspoken travelled between the King and Queen.
As Queen Margaret turned to face Uther, her expression turned into an icy chill.
It was a simple word. But that one word had immediate consequences. Shocked gasps echoed through the war chamber, followed by a deafening silence. Northumbria had always been neutral. Their rejection did not come as a surprise – but Wessex agreeing with them did. The room full of nobles watched as Uther’s face pulled into a frown. He squinted accusingly at the Queen. Then, his gaze shifted to her left.
“Would you care to explain your reasoning, friend?”
But the King of Wessex was not having any of it.
“You use a curious term there, Uther,” he spat. “Friend. If memory serves me right, an alliance only works if all sides keep their word. You have blatantly disregarded yours. That piece of parchment there is a direct result of your fickleness – and your complete lack of honour. We have seen how you treat your friends. We will have no part in the fallout. Wessex will not stand against you – but we will not come to your aid, either.”
“Neither will we,” Queen Margaret added. “I will not send my people to war over a grudge that has nothing to do with us.”
“Nothing to do with you?!” The Iron King snapped, anger immediately seeping into his voice. “Nemeth is amassing an army as we speak-”
“-Because of you,” Queen Margaret interrupted, cutting him off. “Not us. It was you that withdrew from the arrangement, and angered the entire Kingdom of Nemeth in the process. It was you who broke your word, Uther. And the consequences shall be yours to bear – not ours. This is not our war to fight.”
“Queen Margaret is right. We will not absorb the blow for you, Uther. Not this time-”
“This is not just about Camelot!” Uther snapped, slamming his hand back onto the table. A few people flinched at the sound, shrinking back into their seats.
“Do you think that Nemeth will stop with us? Because they will not! They will ally with Cornwall. They will come and come and keep coming until all of Albion has crumbled to dust! Do you want that to happen? Do you really want to have that on your conscience?!”
But his sudden rage did nothing. The Queen of Northumbria was not intimidated in the slightest. She calmly looked up at him, that same icy chill still etched into her expression. At the end of his outburst, she scoffed at Uther.
“You can pose and threaten all you want, Pendragon,” Margaret spoke. “My answer is still the same.”
“I will not endanger an entire nation just because of your fickle stupidity.”
After the disaster that had been negotiations, Morgana had retreated to the nearest parlour. She was supposed to entertain the other nobles for the night, before they left in the morning.
But the sorceress couldn’t do it. She simply did not have the energy. Morgana leaned forward on the sofa, burying her head in her palm as she let out a deep, resigned sigh.
She was exhausted.
In one fell swoop, all of her plans had been destroyed. Just like that. Everything that Morgana had been working towards had broken to pieces, shattering beyond repair. Their relationship with the other Kingdoms had crumbled. The war meeting had more than proven that. Arthur probably had a number of assassination contracts on his life already, just because of what Uther did. Her brother was not safe. His future was not safe. And neither was Morgana. All of her hard work, the scheming, the pulling of strings, Sarah’s help, even the new, small dagger hidden in her dress –
It had all been for nothing.
In a single day, every chess piece that she had carefully placed and cultivated on the game board had been destroyed.
How could things have gone so wrong so quickly?
Morgana had racked her brain for days, but she could not figure it out. She didn’t understand. It had been almost three weeks since Uther’s announcement, and despite her best efforts, the sorceress could not read her father at all.
For the first time in years, Morgana was completely stumped.
She had to start over. Begin again from scratch, and salvage everything that could be salvaged. If there was anything left to salvage after their father had effectively angered half of Albion. Trust was irreparably broken. Nemeth had turned against them, and Wessex and Northumbria were gone. Essetir could not be trusted.
Who else is left?
In her mind’s eye, the sorceress could see the new chessboard taking shape. The pitiful number of chess pieces placed on her side made her blood run cold.
But she had to try. Morgana had no choice. She could not abandon Arthur. She wouldn’t.
Not now. Not ever.
But… how much longer could she keep playing this game? How much longer could she keep dancing along the razor’s edge?
How much longer until that dance pushed her into the abyss?
Almost as if on cue, the door to the parlour opened. Morgana could hear the tell-tale sound of her uncle’s footsteps trailing in from the hallway.
“Morgana. Do you have a moment? We have something to discuss.”
To say that the relationship between her and Agravaine was frosty was an understatement. The sorceress still hadn’t forgiven him for hurting Gawain. Morgana pulled her face into her usual mask, looking back at Agravaine with feigned interest.
“What is it?”
“I have a package for you.”
That got her attention. The sorceress narrowed her eyes in suspicion at his words. Agravaine had never hand-delivered her mail before. Not once. The castle had servants for that, not to mention that her uncle had three other jobs to concern himself with. For the Royal Adviser to come and deliver something in person- Morgana instantly knew that something wasn’t right. She could feel her heartbeat pick up as her mind translated what her heart had already realized.
“And you’ve decided to act as a glorified errand boy instead of handing it to a servant?” Morgana asked, unable to keep the suspicion from seeping into her voice. Agravaine gave her a single nod in response.
“For this package, yes. It was not delivered to us by conventional means, you see.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Over the years, Agravaine had perfected his mask to a level that even Morgana hadn’t been able to reach. He was almost impossible to read. But she knew her uncle. Morgana knew what kind of games he liked to play. As a child, he had taught her how to play them.
And this time, his tone of voice made all the hairs in her neck stand upright.
Something was very wrong.
“It was smuggled into the castle, actually,” Agravaine said. “One of my birds notified me of a rat that did not belong in Camelot. I decided to have the guards apprehend it. Imagine my surprise when I found them using one of our secret passageways.”
Agravaine reached behind him, revealing a small, ornate chest that Morgana did not recognise. The sorceress watched as he placed it on the table in front of her.
“…what is this?” she asked, looking down on it with suspicion.
“I was hoping that you could tell me,” Agravaine answered. “It came with a letter attached. A letter that has your name on it.”
The Royal Advisor pulled a scroll out of his robes and handed it over to her. She could feel the shape of a key inside the scroll as her fingers locked around the parchment. The seal was unbroken. Agravaine hadn’t opened it. That came as a surprise – normally, her uncle took any opportunity he could to snoop and pry. She didn’t understand his sudden hesitance – until the sorceress flipped the scroll over, and her breath got stuck in her throat.
Staring up at her was the wax seal of Nemeth. It wasn’t their royal crest. It was Richard’s personal seal. Morgana immediately realized the danger that that scroll posed – as well as the implications that came with where it was found.
She was not the only one.
“Did you know that there are only a handful of people who know about the passageway that they were using?” Agravaine asked, his eyes narrowed.
“I did,” Morgana answered, careful to keep her voice calm. The sorceress could see a dangerous glimmer in Agravaine’s eyes as he looked down on her.
“In fact, there is a very limited number of people that are this well-acquainted with our castle’s secrets.”
“One of them is me, and the spies that I choose. The other one is standing next to me.”
Morgana stood frozen, her thoughts leaping in a thousand directions at once. This was bad. This was very bad. She knew exactly what Agravaine was implying, and why he hadn’t broken that seal. The sorceress watched as her uncle took a step towards her, his eyes cold and ruthless. He was dangerously close.
He had no idea just how close he was.
“I’ve pondered this for a while, now, you see,” the Jacoban priest spoke. “How was that sorcerer able to find my hidden archives so easily? How was he able to escape without anyone seeing him? It should have been impossible. Not without alerting the entire castle. And then I realized. It is impossible. Unless he had help from the inside.”
“What are you implying?”
“Someone was able to steal valuable information from us without being caught, and escaped through tunnels that should have been hidden,” Agravaine continued, his voice growing dangerously soft. “Then Nemeth declares war on us. And not a week later, I find our enemy transporting a package for you through these very same tunnels. A strange coincidence, is it not?”
“Perhaps you left the door open,” Morgana retorted. “You are getting on in years, after all. Perhaps you are getting senile in your old age?”
Morgana feigned confidence, but her heart was hammering in her chest. She should have known that Agravaine would not let go of the incident in the archives, even after being ordered to by Arthur. Her uncle held onto grudges like a blood hound held on to prey. And this time, he was dangerously close to the truth. Agravaine was incredibly shrewd – one wrong word would cement her as a traitor in his mind… or lead him to discovering what she really was.
She had to stall for time. Morgana looked down on the scroll, once again picking it up.
“You haven’t opened it? Normally you eavesdrop and snoop into everything.”
“Oh, I simply did not want to pry,” the Jacoban priest replied. He gestured to the package on the table.
“Please. It is yours, after all. I hope that you do not mind if I stay. I would love to see what Nemeth goes through so much trouble for to get to you, the enemy.”
The sorceress gulped. It was too late. He was already convinced. There was no way to get it out of his mind now. But Morgana tried, anyway. In a soft voice, she spoke to her uncle.
“I am not a traitor, Agravaine.”
The Royal Adviser merely nodded towards the package in response. When he spoke, his voice was ice cold.
She had no choice.
Slowly, the sorceress opened the letter. Morgana immediately recognised the handwriting. It was a brief message, not more than a single paragraph in length.
My darling Morgana.
I had saved this for our honeymoon. It saddens me greatly that I cannot present it to you in person. Consider this a parting gift, as well as a promise.
Crooked-nosed knave. This has to be his plan. Whatever is in that chest is meant to be incriminating.
But she couldn’t refuse. If she refused to open it in public, Agravaine would take it as a confession of guilt, and arrest her. Or worse. Morgana had no choice. She had to open it.
She would deal with it. She always did. No matter what he threw at her. No matter what twisted angle he was playing from, she always found a way to-
The next second, the lid to the chest opened, and Morgana’s breath got stuck in her throat.
“I want a spy.”
“My name is yours to choose, mistress.”
Horrified, Morgana slapped the lid shut- but it was already too late. The image had burned itself into her mind. The sorceress could feel a wave of nausea overcome her as a horrible smell of rot and decay spread through the chamber. She pressed her hands against her mouth, trying to force back the bile that began to build in the back of her throat. It didn’t work. Morgana doubled over, retching as her body convulsed violently from the rotting stench.
She hadn’t eaten all day.
The sorceress was suddenly very glad that she hadn’t.
She wasn’t the only one who was rattled. As her stomach forced her into dry heaves, Morgana could feel Agravaine moving towards her.
“…Watcher’s mercy. Morgana, I’m-”
“Shut up,” the sorceress spat, in a rare burst of profanity. “Just shut up. I don’t want to hear it.”
The sorceress felt sick to her stomach. Morgana could feel her eyes burning. Her breath was ragged from her body trying to force the contents of her stomach out of her. As she spoke to Agravaine in between gasps, her voice was dripping with hatred.
“There is… your information leak, uncle. They tortured it out of your spy.”
Agravaine shook his head, a shocked expression on his face. The Jacoban priest reached out to her.
“Morgana, if I had known-“
But the Princess cut him off again.
“Get out of my sight.”
He did. The Royal Advisor tried to reach for the chest – but another hateful look from his niece quickly made him change his mind. Agravaine turned around, and exited the parlour without another word. Morgana could hear his footsteps rapidly move away from her and vanish in the distance.
Once again… she was alone.
Morgana wasn’t sure why she did it.
A small part of her wanted to believe that it had all been a hallucination, and that the chest in front of her was empty. That none of it was real.
She really wanted to believe… that that was the reason.
But instead, that wish was quickly drowned out by the eerie, morbid curiosity of something else.
Something much darker.
Morgana could feel herself disconnect as her body mechanically opened the chest. This time, she barely noticed the smell. It felt strangely far away, fading into the distant background. She was barely aware of her own body. Her vision blurred. In that moment, it felt like she was looking on from a distance, puppeteering her own limbs from afar. In a stunned haze, the sorceress looked down on Helios’s remains.
It almost didn’t look human.
It wasn’t until that moment that she finally saw it. Another object, tucked away underneath and partially hidden from view. Morgana could see herself reach inside. She felt her fingers lock around the object, pulling it out from underneath and slowly lifting it into the air. It took her a moment to focus. Only then did she realise what it was that she was holding.
Resting in her hand, the thick, congealed blood staining the inside of her fingers… was a single, white chess piece.
Have I ever shared Morgana’s theme song?