Chapter 79: A Shadow of Deception
Several awkward moments later, Acheron and Rosamund were both dressed and now sat on opposite ends of the bed. The rogue held a piss pot between his knees, which he had already thrown up in twice but was not quite willing to part with.
“I can’t believe it was you of all people,” Rosamund whispered hoarsely.
“You sound like you’ve done this before,” Acheron observed cynically.
“Oh, shut it! You’re in no position to lecture me!”
“I’m not the one in a relationship with the future king!”
“What relationship?” Rosamund demanded. “He’s married now in case you forgot. I barely even see him!”
“So—did you start these nightly seductions before or after he married Eleanora?”
“I will not have my private life judged by the capital’s infamous rogue. Just because you’re a man and can flaunt your conquests doesn’t make you any less of a whore!”
“Yes, fine—I’m a manwhore, and I accept that. Excuse me if I’m unprepared to accept the fact that I’ve slept with my best friend’s mistress!”
“You think this is any better for me?”
“I don’t know—From what I can tell, I may not be your first affair since Nicholas.”
“Don’t you dare speak his name!”
“Are you being serious right now?” Acheron glared down at the contents of last night’s many poor choices. All of his mother’s warnings about the “consequences of sins” collided between his ears. ‘Women will be the death of me.’ He shook his head, set the pot down, and turned to face her. “Honestly, instead of wasting time on pointless dramatics and blame—can we just talk about what we’re going to do now?”
Rosamund half-turned towards him, her face curtained beneath her platinum hair as tears rolled down pale cheeks and spilled over her sultry lips. Even in this state, she was strikingly beautiful—and yet all Acheron could feel looking at her now was the immense weight of guilt that made him want to retch again.
“You-You’re not going to tell him—are you?” she asked weakly.
“Fuck!” Acheron slid his hands into his cinnamon curls as he turned away from her. “No,” he admitted with a groan.
“Then—you need to leave,” Rosamund said as her timid tone turned suddenly forceful. “Before the maid comes back.”
‘Shit—right—Nicholas mentioned getting her a maid.’
Acheron wasted no time gathering every piece of clothing that belonged to him before he hastily scrambled towards her bedroom door.
“Wait!” Rosamund hissed as she rose from the bed. “Too late to go that route, she’s here.”
“What?” Acheron scowled even as he heard a door open below them.
“Shh! You’ll have to climb down the back ivy.” Rosamund circled the bed and opened a window that led to the yard. “I’m sure you can handle escaping unnoticed,” she commented with an acid tone.
Acheron brushed past her and glanced over the window ledge. Sure enough, a dense growth of ivy had woven itself up the walls stone crevices.
“Nothing I haven’t tackled before,” he admitted as he climbed over the ledge. He paused just as his descent brought his gaze level with Rosamund’s womanly curves. “Ah—” he swallowed and glanced up towards her clover-green eyes that stared back with evident displeasure. “You might want to fix your hair,” he suggested with a faint grin. “And your lipstick. Pretty sure you left some of that on my—”
She slammed the window shut in his face, and Acheron almost lost his grip as he scrambled to save his fingers. He bit back a curse as he seized a fist full of ivy in each hand and hugged the wall as the vines creaked against his weight. A heart-stopping moment later, the ivy held, and Acheron carefully made his way down the wall.
At the top of the kitchen window, the sound of running water and moving dishware forced him to stop. Twice he saw the maid’s reflection in the windowpane as she prepared a tray of food for her mistress upstairs. His stomach grumbled at the smell of eggs and fresh bacon, but instead of hungry, it only made him nauseous again.
A crow cawed mockingly from a dogwood tree as Acheron contemplated jumping down the rest of the way. A quick recollection of his last experience jumping through a window changed his mind. Unlike Maura, he had an aversion for pain.
The moment he thought of that cold little lady, Beaumont’s menacing scowl came instantly to mind. Acheron beat his forehead softly against the stone wall. ‘Perhaps celibacy is the way to go—at least I’ll live longer.’
The maid finally left the kitchen, and Acheron quickly scaled down the wall and darted through the bushes out of sight towards the road—like a rogue.
Russell beamed with evident approval as Percy descended the stairs of Hawthorne Manor dressed in ceremonial court robes. “Good morning, Master.”
Percy accepted his hat, and the late Earl’s cane then stood still as Russell fussed over the official gold medal that marked Percy as the Leader of the Aristocratic Party. “Good morning, is Mother not up yet?”
“The Countess already left, my Lord.” Russell stepped back to retrieve his master’s summer cape.
“Left?” Percy turned so the servant could place the garment around his shoulders. “I wasn’t aware she was going out.”
“She mentioned visiting Lady Maura now that the Selection is over.”
Percy’s grip on the cane tightened. He nodded, checked the clasp of his cape, and headed for the door. “I’ll be heading out then.”
“Veles blessing upon you, Earl of Hawthorne.”
The Hawthorne carriage and servants waited for him outside. The footmen opened the door and bowed as Percy climbed in. He settled into the cushioned seat as they shut the door behind him and hastened to take their post at the back of the carriage.
“Morning, Master.” Captain Flint, leader of the mercenary group that Percy had hired to handle his public protection, tipped his hat as he bowed courteously from atop his energetic mare.
“You and your men will not be permitted inside the palace-fortress, so wait for me in the capital,” Percy reminded him.
“Understood, Veles blessing upon you, my Lord.”
Percy nodded dismissively then tapped his cane against the driver’s window. The light flick of a whip proceeded the evenly paced hooves of a well-trained team. ‘Only the best for a meeting with Lafeara’s future king.’ Percy smiled thinly as he balanced the cane beneath his forefinger and studied its black-metal crow sculpted head.
It had been some time since he had last spoken to or even seen Nicholas. Not since the capital funeral for Prince Tristan.
‘I was your brother’s friend and strongest supporter back then. I watched your family bury an empty coffin while you took his crown and Eleanora. What a shame you can’t win the support of the Aristocratic Party that easily.’
While the nation grieved the sudden death of Queen Rosalind a week after the Earl’s funeral, only Tristan remembered Percy. After the Countess all but locked her young son away inside Hawthorne Manor, the crown prince had made every effort to visit, even if that meant scaling the walls and climbing through windows to avoid the Countess and servants.
Percy had found these unexpected visits annoying at first, especially with the added risk of Tristan bumping into a member of the Coven of Crows. He knew full well that each Monarch relied on the Earl of Hawthrone to control the nobles of Lafeara. But it didn’t take him long to realize that Tristan had no agenda, other than mutual empathy that stemmed from the loss of his own mother, Queen Catalina.
Percy had made use of that kindness to the fullest—until Constance banned Tristan from coming anywhere near Percy. “This is all for your protection,” his mother had promised.
It was around that time that the Countess had stumbled upon Lady Maura and taken an instant liking to the half-blood. Percy began to see the funny-faced girl everywhere, though Maura had taken great pains to avoid approaching or intruding into his space.
Back then and even now, her ice-blue eyes always held a wary expression whenever she looked at him. As if she could see past the mask that he wore for everyone else.
Percy’s lips twitched with a mocking smile as he drew in a deep breath. The carriage slowed as instructed, a safe distance from Hawthorn Estate. The footman alighted and opened the door so that a woman, shadowed in a black cloak, could enter.
“Have you anything to report?” Percy asked as the coven witch settled into the seat opposite him.
“Our eyes on the crown prince’s whore reported another stray dog leaving her room,” the woman replied as she arranged the cloak, crossed her legs, and brushed her ankle against him intentionally. “It seems the whore’s desperation has made her even more reckless.”
Percy moved her leg away with his cane as he dispelled the bewitchment charm that gave her voice an alluring power. “Behave.”
She chuckled but uncrossed her legs and sat in a more dignified manner. “As you wish.”
“So? Was it anyone notable this time?”
Beneath the shadows of the cloak’s hood, her seductive lips formed into a thin line.
Percy tapped the window again with his cane and waited until the carriage continued its journey. “What is it?”
“My sisters and I are concerned,” the coven witch replied as she glanced out the carriage window.
“About the priest?”
“And his witch hunter.” She tapped a gloved finger thoughtfully against her cloak. “Perhaps it would be more beneficial to our long-term goals to give them the witch they’re looking for?”
Percy’s grip tightened around his cane as he searched the magic that shadowed her face. “You know that is impossible.”
Her smile twisted with amusement. “Why, have you become attached?”
“I don’t owe you an explanation,” he reminded her bluntly. The witch’s anger rippled through the air around them as shadows stretched from her dark figure. “And the coven is more than capable of dealing with a curious priest and his hound.”
“True,” she murmured with a faint sneer. “But—to attack them directly could draw even more attention—possibly the Pope’s gaze.”
“We have safety measures in place should Jericho wish to strike Lafeara with an inquisition. Besides, I don’t think Nicholas has the stomach for public burnings.”
“Your father once said the same thing about Henri,” she pointed out with a shake of her head. “And yet, after the Earl died, Henri burned four of our sisters and blamed them for the Earl’s death.”
“There are causalities in every war.” Percy shrugged. “We got rid of Henri. We can do the same to Nicholas if needs be.”
“It isn’t Nicholas, but the old bitch that worries us.”
“Ah—” his gaze sharped as he offered her a cold smile “—you know I have special plans for the Dowager, be patient. Meanwhile, remind your coven that if anything unfortunate should befall Lady Maura, I will hold them and you personally accountable.”
Her scarlet smile revealed pearly white teeth as she leaned against her hand towards him with a leer. “If you truly want her protected, why not make Maura your bride?”
“There is time enough for that,” Percy replied stiffly.
“To see you so worried about another woman’s feelings—I feel a bit jealous.”
Percy’s winter-gray eyes focused warily on the shadows of her face.
“I could always invite Lady Maura to join the coven. She would be much safer—”
“No, I will handle that,” Percy interrupted sharply. “I have someone more capable and trustworthy in mind. You already failed to keep her from passing the Selection.”
The woman shifted uncomfortably beneath his gaze. “How was I to know she’d continue despite her injury.” She pouted as she sat back and toyed with the ruby necklace at her throat. “Though I must say, her tenacity is a trait I quite admire.”
“Have the crows keep watch and keep a discreet distance,” Percy commanded. “She is far too valuable to lose to that cunt or the crown prince.”
“As you wish.”
“What of the poison I asked you to look into?”
Percy’s gaze narrowed at the odd ring in her tone. “Yes, the one that Lady Helena used when Maura was injured.”
“Ahh, yes.” Her hooded gaze returned to the carriage window, but he didn’t miss her displeased frown. “My sisters detected nothing unusual. It might have increased her chances of having a scar, but there was nothing life-threatening.”
“So, unless the person is already injured, it serves no purpose?” Percy sighed with disappointment. “Then again, if Hayes could pick up on it so easily, a royal physician would likely spot it even quicker. Shame, such an unusual poison for such a simple result.”
“If the Earl requires a more lethal, discreet poison, my sisters and I are happy to oblige.”
“I’m aware, but your poisons involve the use of magic.” Percy tapped his signet ring against the cane’s black crow head. “Now, before we arrive at the first checkpoint. Tell me, who did Lady Rosamund fuck this time?”