‘Was it you?’
The duchess was holding a bowl while her son finished chewing a piece of bread with honey.
‘Yes,’ she answered with no hesitation.
‘I know it was you who gave me my human body back, but... did you also turn me into that repulsive animal?’
Now her answer was not as clearly pronounced, but it was equally categorical.
‘Yes, that was me too.’
‘May I know with what purpose?’ he asked angrily, completely forgetting about his breakfast.
‘You had too much poison inside of you. My remedy would not have worked in such a large body.’
Of all the possibilities ─and they were a lot─ he had considered since he had come to and fallen asleep again to later find himself in this bed as a man, none of them had even gotten close to this explanation. The revelation astonished him. He was so determined to think the worst about his mother that now, with this unexpected twist, he did not know how to react. He finally accepted the bowl he was offered and took a sip.
‘Who poisoned me?’ he asked when he managed to put his thoughts in order again.
‘I'm not completely sure,’ the duchess answered in all honesty, and feeling embarrassed for not being able to identify their enemy with certainty yet. ‘The atmosphere has been so rarefied since the king died. There are too many heads anxious to wear the crown.’
He looked at her confused.
‘Surely you don't mean Adalberht.’
‘Oh, no.’ She smiled. ’Ironically, he is the least of my worries. But you saw how the influential men were acting. They're like bulldogs, eager to throw themselves at anyone's neck.’
They remained a few seconds in silence while Kasimir ate and drank a little.
‘Did you kill him?’ he finally decided to ask directly. The atmosphere invited directness.
‘The king? Of course not! I knew this could happen; that things could get bad for you if you weren't awarded the throne before he died. But everything seemed to be going on smoothly. After that ball in your honor, the king would have waited some years, not many, and he would have abdicated his crown in your favor, as his designated heir. It would all have gone according to plan.’
Once again, Kasimir's theories were crumbling. He believed her. What she said made sense. But that opened the door to an unknown adversary.
‘Then who did?’
‘I suspect it was the same person who tried to kill you afterwards. I have a theory, but the reasons just don't seem to fit in.’
‘Not yet. That might make you careless as regards the other possible culprits. I need you to be on the alert for any other evidence until I manage to confirm or dismiss it.’
The prince took a look around him. He was in his sister's room. It had been a while since he'd last had any news about her. Nevertheless, there were more important things to worry about at the moment.
‘What will happen now? How will you explain my transformation? How will you explain that you're a witch?’
The duchess smiled again.
‘I won't. You'll reappear and take your place as the sovereign of this kingdom. No-one must dare ask the king for explanations... or his mother.’
‘You're forgetting that someone has already tried to kill me.’
‘I'll pay more attention. I'll take bigger precautions.’
Kasimir wondered aloud.
‘Maybe Adalberht knew what he was doing when he decided to leave.’
She glared at him.
‘Your brother was a coward, unworthy of that honor. My son is not.’
‘Why do you refer to him in the past tense?’ Kasimir realized that, now that he knew about his mother's powers, the range of possibilities for any actions or speeches that had to do with her had broadened enormously forever.
‘He is in our past. We should not worry about him anymore. And now,’ she added, after a brief pause, ‘you must focus on getting better. I intend to announce the good news tomorrow. For the present, you are considered to be dead; or almost. It wasn't easy for me to convince the influential men that I had better take you to a doctor's house, whose address, for security reasons, ought not to be revealed. But I'm sure it took them no time to start planning who they would replace you with. Supposing, of course, that they had not already planned that beforehand. The sooner you return, the better. So eat, drink and rest now.’
The group was too large to be received at the palace with no trouble, even under Adalberht's leadership. They decided that the four of them should arrive alone to arrange for the meeting first, while the others waited at a safe distance.