Chapter 95: A Crown of Vengeance
The Countess’s cerulean-blue eyes fixated on Percy the moment he stepped through the front door of Hawthorne Manor. He recognized the look in them, as all sons do, and braced himself for the storm of her disappointment.
Constance turned on the middle step of the staircase and waved her maid away impatiently as she glared down imperiously at her son. “Where have you been?” Her low voice brimmed with frustration and anger. “Do you have any idea how late it is?”
The butler silently took the Earl’s hat and coat without comment then whisked them and himself to safety.
“There was a fire at the Sisters’ Chapel near the capital,” Percy replied as he watched the servants scatter from view. “It would appear a troublesome witch has crossed our borders.” He moved up the steps, his gaze focused on the second floor, and the bath and bed that waited beyond.
Constance caught his arm quickly and sniffed delicately. “You smell like a bonfire.” She cringed away but refused to remove her gaze from his resolute expression. “We need to discuss your change in behavior. Since when did you disrespect your mother so publicly?”
“Since when did Mother forget that I am now Earl of Hawthorne,” Percy answered coldly as he shook her grip loose. “I am tired.” He continued up the stairs and ignored the angry footsteps and swishing skirt that trailed after him as he turned towards his room. “Not now, Mother.”
“Don’t you Mother me,” Constance snarled as she followed him down the hall. “Lady Evelynn has always been the plan. You need a bride with the right heritage and proper connections to ensure the balance of power between the Aristocrats and royal family is maintained.”
“Lady Evelynn was always part of your plan, Mother,” Percy replied as he opened his bedroom door and turned to face her. “I have no interest in your balance or whatever designs you and the Dowager have for Lafeara.”
He took a step back as Constance stormed towards him and shut the bedroom door behind them.
“You are playing a dangerous game, Percy!” Constance hissed as her finger danced dangerously close to his face. “Do not delude yourself. I am not blind to who you’ve been cavorting with secretly at night. The Coven of Crows is dangerous, deceitful, and cannot be controlled.”
“And that’s what you fear most, isn’t it, Mother,” Percy observed as he caught her hand and pushed her finger away from him. “What you can’t control.”
“Percy,” Constance whispered in bewilderment as she stepped forward and cupped his face in her hands. “Percy—listen to me. You know I only have your best interests at heart.”
Percy sighed as he wrapped his fingers around her delicate wrists. “You told me recently that I lack patience,” he murmured. “But I have been very patient, Mother.” He leaned down until their foreheads touched, and his shadow covered her pleading expression. “I have tolerated your lies and betrayal for fifteen long years.”
Constance twitched beneath his hold but remained otherwise still. “Percy, whatever lies that Crow Witch told you—”
“Don’t,” Percy growled as he moved back. “Do not compound your sins with more lies.”
“Percy!” his mother’s voice trembled with disbelief and fear.
“I know it all,” he confirmed coldly. “The Dowager poisoned Father with the Aconitum Flower to diminish his witch powers. But it was you who hired those assassins from the Fox Den to ambush him and ensure he did not return home.”
Beneath his fingers, he could feel her heartbeat rising—her terror confirming his every word.
“I even know why you did it, Mother.” He leaned forward and kissed her forehead and cheek. “To protect the Hawthorne name and your precious balance,” he hissed in her ear.
“Percy,” Constance whimpered. “You’ve misunderstood. You still don’t understand what’s at stake. I did what was necessary to protect you! Ethan and that woman would have exposed Lafeara to the Emperor’s wrath. None of us would have been spared if the truth of Queen Catalina’s death came to light.”
“Do you honestly believe the Emperor doesn’t know?” Percy asked incredulously as he released his grip and stepped back.
“No, he—how could he? He wouldn’t have left the matter alone if he knew!”
“And what about Catalina’s son?”
“Tristan?” Constance shook her head. “The Emperor’s bastard is dead. The Dowager saw to that when she and King Henri sent him off to die against the Tharyn princes.”
“He didn’t die,” Percy replied softly.
“I warned him,” Percy explained with a cynical smile. “I told him the Dowager would poison him to ensure his death in battle.”
“Ultimately, Tristan exceeded even my expectations. He somehow managed to undo all those years of poison the Dowager inflicted upon him.”
“That—Impossible!” Constance clasped her trembling arms around her waist. “The effects of the Aconitum flower are irreversible.”
“Did it ever occur to you or the Dowager,” Percy continued with a mocking smile, “That killing without respite simply to maintain your power and balance would one day bring a monster of your own making to your doorstep?”
“Enough, Mother!” Percy heaved a sigh as he dragged his long fingers over the grimy skin of his face. “I confess, I am tired of keeping up this facade.” He dropped his hand and regarded his blackened fingertips then his mother with emotionless eyes. “As of this moment, you are no longer the Countess of Hawthrone. I revoke your title, position, and all its benefits.”
Constance gasped out a weak laugh.
“You will withdraw from Lafeara’s politics, and you will have no further cause to meet or communicate with the Dowager in the future on any matter. All of Father’s holdings, properties, and finances shall pass to me fully as they should have done after my coming of age ceremony.”
“Percy—you are angry—but you can’t—”
Percy stepped forward, caught her right hand, and pulled the white diamond signet ring from her finger. “I will prepare one of our country estates for your comfort and care. And I will spread word that you are retiring due to your failing health.”
“Percy!” Constance stammered. “Your father gave me that ring—”
“And you murdered him.” Percy dropped her wrist and tucked the ring that passed to each Hawthrone’s Countess into his trouser pocket. “Finally, you will no longer have anything to do with Lady Maura. Your future plans for her to enter the Prime Minister’s house end tonight.”
“You—why would you say that?”
“Because I know you, Mother,” Percy replied with a tight smile. “You know the Prime Minister wants Acheron settled down. You intended to offer Maura as a potential daughter-in-law. Pushing her to do well in the Selection wasn’t just to place her at Eleanora’s side.” He removed his soiled vest and held it up between them. “You wanted to dangle Maura just beyond my reach, where she could still be of use to you.” He flung the garment aside as he regarded her coldly. “Manipulating others with their weakness is something you picked up from the Dowager. Though to be fair—I believe you’ve improved upon her methods.”
“If Maura is your weakness—then all the more reason to be wary of her,” Constance returned with trembling anger.
Percy stared back at her silently and shook his head. “You won’t even deny it,” he muttered as he turned away.
“Would it matter if I did? You seem convinced that I am as bad as Octavia. If you honestly believe I conspired to kill Ethan, then why spare me at all?” Constance demanded as she crossed her arms defiantly.
Percy took in a slow breath as the black diamond signet ring on his right hand flashed. “For three reasons, Mother. The first is simple enough. You brought me into this world, that has to count for something. The second would be the lesson you taught me when you betrayed my father, never to trust anyone. As for the last reason—” he exhaled as a soft smile spread across his face, “—you found Maura and brought her to me.”
“Then I curse the day that brought her to my doorstep,” Constance spat venomously. “What kind of son would turn against his own mother just because of some half-blood with a pretty face?” She turned on her heel, yanked open the bedroom door, and flinched in surprise as Mercy appeared blocking the doorway.
“Evening, Countess,” Mercy greeted with a sultry smile.
“You vile gh—”
Mercy snapped her fingers and cut Constance off mid-speech.
“Mercy,” Percy greeted over Constance, who clutched her muted throat baffled.
“Should I have someone remove this?” Mercy asked with a nod to Constance, who glared at her furiously.
“Mother, it would appear your illness is relapsing,” Percy murmured as he placed a hand on Constance’s shoulder. “You should retire to your room to rest. Abbess Mercy will have one of her sisters watch over you while you sleep.”
Constance stared at him, horrified, and shook her head quickly.
“I suppose that will do for now,” Mercy replied with faint disappointment. “Temperance will watch her then.”
The older nun stepped forward from the hallway and bowed her head respectfully to Percy. Constance stared between the two witches that had suddenly appeared in her house and backed away—only to be blocked by Percy, who stood behind her.
Her son offered an empty smile before he pushed her firmly towards Temperance. The old nun caught the stumbling Countess and gripped her firmly. Constance protested with silent rage, then she turned her furious gaze to Mercy and gestured at her throat.
“Perhaps if you had not abandoned your magic, you would be able to remove such a simple spell yourself,” Mercy replied with a note of disgust.
“Good night, Mother,” Percy said dismissively as Temperance pulled the struggling woman down the hallway. “I’m sure you’ll have your voice back by morning.”
He turned from Constance’s pleading gaze to face Mercy. “I trust the Witch Hunter has left Lafeara?”
“Our crows are watching to ensure that he does,” Mercy answered confidently. “However, my sisters and I were quite disappointed when you asked that he be spared. Some of the witches he harvested his magic from were from our sister covens after all.”
“He benefits our cause more alive than dead—for now.” Percy turned, entered his room, and headed towards the bedroom dresser.
“How?” Mercy demanded impatiently as she followed behind him.
“You killed the priest, did you not?” Percy answered as he pulled out Constance’s signet ring and placed it on a clean handkerchief. “Someone has to take the blame for that. Might as well be the Witch Killer. Nothing would embarrass Jericho more than the rumor that one of his precious hounds turned on their priest.”
“And the Witch Star?” Mercy pressed speculatively. “Why let such a dangerous artifact slip through our fingers?”
“Tristan hunts for his mother’s killer who possesses that cursed jewel.” Percy shrugged as he unbuttoned his shirt. “He wasn’t going to leave Lafeara until he found it.”
“And now he has,” Mercy affirmed with a wry smile.
“So, let the Pope, the Emperor, and the bastard pure-blood hunt Nero down. One or the other will claim the Witch Star first and then fight to keep it. Meanwhile—” Percy waved his hand. The curtains of his bedroom window fluttered aside to reveal the capital and Royal Palace in the distance, bathed in moonlight. “—we will bring the Dowager and this city to its knees.”
“I see,” Mercy murmured with a satisfied smirk. “You are wise, indeed—my King.”