Chapter 96: An Official Death Notice
“Prime Minister,” Nicholas greeted groggily as he rubbed heavy eyes. The crown prince’s purple silk pantaloons slid precariously down his toned pale hips as he stumbled towards the office desk in the dimly lit room that connected to his bedroom chambers. The medallion of kings jostled between his pectorals as he slumped into the uncomfortable seat. “What—” he yawned, “—is so important that you had to drag me from my bed before the sun has left its grave?”
“Forgive the earliness of the hour, your Majesty,” Attwood replied, with a glance at the stunningly realistic painting of a pack of wolves gnawing on giant bones, that hung behind Nicholas. “I received some rather disturbing news.”
“Does this concern the witch fire everyone’s been talking about?” Nicholas grumbled as he scratched his jawline. Beaumont appeared through the connecting bedroom door with a cup of water that he placed before the crown prince.
“I’m afraid not, your Majesty. This news arrived just a few hours ago from the town of Averly,” Attwood explained gravely. “You recall Pope Jericho sent a priest and witch hunter here to investigate a suspicious murder in the slums.”
“Yes,” Nicholas replied tiredly as he combed through his light-auburn hair. “Some unfounded claim about a witch attack upon a nobleman.” He sighed and crossed his arms over his chest. “Didn’t the Knight Commander already rule that incident as a failed rape attempt? I distinctly recall him mentioning that a local vigilante killed the rapist to defend some young noblewoman who wandered into the slums.”
“No noblewoman has come forward to confirm the Knight Commander’s assumptions on the matter,” Attwood replied.
“And why would she?” Beaumont countered with a hint of bitterness. “To come forward would ruin her reputation. Not to mention, place her under the church’s scrutiny. They have already labeled the incident a witch attack.”
“And so far, they have yet to produce any evidence to support that claim,” Nicholas continued calmly. “The Capital’s safety falls under Captain Sloane’s jurisdiction, who reports to Knight Commander Quentin. A man whose judgment and thoroughness I hold in high regard.”
“While I would normally agree with your Majesty regarding the Knight Commander’s excellent record, but it would appear that the investigation was dropped presumptuously,” Attwood interjected with a worried expression. “With your permission, I would like to look into the incident more thoroughly.’
“Why?” Nicholas drawled impatiently, then picked up his cup and took a drink. “What news did you receive from Averly?”
“That the priest, Father Alden, was murdered.”
Silence stretched through the dark office room as Nicholas drew in a slow breath to ask, “By a witch?”
“According to the sisters of Averly Chapel—he was killed by his own witch hunter.”
“What?” Beaumont snapped. His pale blonde brows furrowed together as his violet gaze dropped to the floor in tense contemplation.
“His hound?” Nicholas echoed in disbelief as he sat up, fully awake, alert, and extremely interested.
“Yes, the witch hunter known as Nero attacked the priest—apparently to prevent Father Alden from revealing that he wasn’t a half-witch at all. The sisters reported seeing the witch hunter use ice magic to decapitate the priest.”
“Ice-magic was all but eradicated during the great purge,” Beaumont muttered with a note of uncertainty. “You’re suggesting one of the most persecuted witches in history willingly chose to hide among the church’s dogs?” He shook his head incredulously. “Perhaps what the sisters saw was the work of another witch—or the effect of an artifact or magic jewel.”
Nicholas closed his eyes, drew in a shallow breath, and exhaled. “Decapitated?” He picked up the glass of water and finished it off. “So, according to the sisters, we have a rogue ice witch, who was one of Jericho’s witch hunters, running around killing priests?” He drummed his fingers against the desk and then rubbed the back of his neck. “Tell me again how this relates to the witch that set the Sisters’ Chapel on fire?”
‘The most likely origins of a fire witch would undoubtedly be Ventrayna, but why would they go so far as to attack a chapel in Lafeara? Is this a warning from the Emperor because we permitted the priest and his witch hunter to enter Lafeara?’
“I am unsure at the moment, your Majesty,” Attwood confessed and bowed his head. “The knights are still investigating the witch fire at present.”
“I should like to view all reports related to the original murder that brought the priest and his witch hunter to Lafeara,” Nicholas commanded sharply.
“Of course,” Attwood replied and raised his head. “I took the liberty of obtaining a copy of the witnesses who were present during and shortly after the fire. I also have a list of the victims who were killed in the fire.”
He unfolded the two documents which he placed before Nicholas.
“Luckily, Abbess Mercy and her sisters were able to escape, but a noble family was holding a funeral at the chapel during the attack. Lord Josiah Turnbell and his recently divorced wife, Lady Helena Gilwern, were killed while attempting to escape.”
“Gilwren?” Nicholas repeated. “Any relation to Viscount Gilwren?”
“His estranged daughter, your Majesty. The funeral was for her oldest son, Lincoln Turnbell. One of the survivors is her eldest daughter, Lady Sophya Turnbell, and—Lady Maura is Helena’s illegitimate daughter.”
“What?” Nicholas’s gaze zipped across the list of the deceased. “These are Lady Maura’s parents?” He barely registered the names as he recalled the young girl’s defiant ice-blue eyes across her fortune-telling crystal.
“Yes, I’m afraid so, your Majesty.”
‘Then Lady Maura is now an orphan.’
“But Lady Maura was not at the funeral?” Nicholas muttered curiously as he examined the witness list. ‘There was no way she could have attended without an official pass granted by the Dowager, myself, or the Prime Minister.’
“No, your Majesty. It would seem she was—not informed,” Attwood confirmed with a heavy sigh. “I’ve only recently become aware that her brother, Lincoln, died the day before Lady Maura entered the palace for the Selection.”
“Wait—” Nicholas held up his hand “—her brother died before the Selection? As I recall, her parents divorced during the Selection, and now they are dead as well.”
‘Given that Lady Maura was only able to keep her position after Eleanora made her a Baroness—should I say she is a rather fortunate or unfortunate person? Either way—these tragic events are peculiar.’
Beaumont picked up the list of witnesses and studied it with a silent dark scowl.
Nicholas glanced up at his pensive friend, then leaned back and tapped his chin thoughtfully. ‘I suppose it couldn’t hurt to dig into the matter further since Beaumont’s still hung up on her.’
“Either way, Lady Maura is now a member of the royal court,” Nicholas continued with a note of acceptance. “An Official Death Notice should be prepared and delivered to her this morning. Along with our permission and express wish that Lady Maura takes a few days to handle any arrangements necessary for her parent’s funeral with her sister, Lady—” he glanced at the list in Beaumont’s hand then turned to Attwood.
“Lady Sophya Turnbell,” the Prime Minister supplied.
“Yes, her sister, Lady Sophya.” Nicholas nodded his thanks. “In the meantime,” he leaned his elbows upon the desk and rested his chin upon his interlaced fingers. “Have Knight Commander Quentin look deeper into all three of these witch incidents, see if there is a connection. Tell him to make the priest’s death a priority. I want a detailed report on my desk before dinner.”
“Yes, your Majesty,” Attwood replied with a respectful bow.
“Pope Jericho will not turn a blind eye to Lafeara even if it was the church’s hound that killed the priest.” Nicholas leaned back and rubbed his eyes and temple. ‘Damn it! The timing of all this—with Eleanora’s uncle arriving in two short weeks.’
“And if the Pope requests an inquisition—” Attwood broke off uncertainly.
“I will not allow his Holiness to run rampant the way my father did,” Nicholas growled. “There are still many noble families who harbor resentment for the wives and daughters King Henri permitted the pope’s hounds to burn.”
“Of course, your Majesty, but we cannot deny the Pope access to investigate.”
‘You mean I can’t offend the Pope before my coronation because of some archaic tradition.’
“Pardon me—your Majesty,” Beaumont interjected hesitantly. “But with your permission—I would like to deliver the Death Notice to Lady Maura—personally.”
Nicholas turned towards the knight captain and frowned. “What? Why?”
‘You’re not going to get over her if you can’t keep your distance.’
“I—” Beaumont dropped his violet eyes to the imperial oak desk “—thought she should hear the news from someone she knew.”
Nicholas raised an eyebrow in disbelief and shook his head. “Beaumont, I really don’t—”
“Permit him, your Majesty,” Attwood urged with a sudden hopeful expression. “Whatever Lady Maura’s relationship was with her family, she’s still young and has just lost her mother. A little gentleness and empathy couldn’t hurt.”
‘Empathy?’ Nicholas swallowed as he tried to ignore the uncomfortably tight feeling in his chest. “Oh, very well,” he waved his hand permissively. “Deliver it yourself, Beaumont, but wait until after breakfast. Allow Lady Maura to enjoy the morning before you ruin the rest of her day.”
“Of course,” Beaumont bowed his head. “Thank you, your Majesty.”
“In the meantime,” Nicholas slapped his hands against the desk and stood. “I’m starving. Why don’t we raid the kitchen and then head out to sword practice?”
“Ah—your Majesty!” Attwood called out quickly. “We should allow the kitchen a moment to stoke the fire and prepare a proper meal.” He turned to the steward who waited by the office door and cleared his throat loudly.
The servant hastily dipped a bow and departed.
“Ugh,” Nicholas groaned as he slumped back into his seat. “Next time, could you refrain from waking me until you’ve had a proper meal prepared.” He stifled a yawn, folded his arms across the desk, and laid his head upon them. “Wake me when there’s food,” he grumbled.
Attwood shook his head as Beaumont removed his knight’s cape and draped it over Nicholas’ bare shoulders. The Prime Minister observed the knight captain for a moment then coughed. “I—ah—don’t suppose Lady Maura would happen to be the young woman that you and Acheron were—”
Beaumont’s violet eyes flickered with anger as he glanced up sharply.
“Never mind,” Attwood whispered as he averted his gaze, folded and returned the documents to his satchel, and then turned to leave. He paused in the office doorway. “Good things come to those who persist.”
Beaumont watched his uncle disappear quickly down the hall.
“Ignore him,” Nicholas grumbled as he snuggled beneath Beaumont’s cloak. “He still thinks Acheron will settle down once he gets married—we both know that will never happen.”
Beaumont did not comment as he resumed his stance behind the tired crown prince. A short while later, a maid appeared with a tray of grapes, cheese, and pink strawberry muffins. She moved hesitantly towards the desk and Nicholas, whose eyes remained closed. Beaumont sniffed suspiciously as an odd bitter aroma filled the room. His violet eyes observed the maid blush as she studied the sleeping crown prince. Then she wet her lips nervously and pinched her small bosom between her arms to accentuate their size.
‘Here comes another brazen hussy.’ With effortless long strides, Beaumont cut the maid off and lifted the plate from her tray. The bitter, musty scent grew stronger as she quivered beneath his stern glare.
“Your name?” Beaumont growled.
“I-I—forgive me!” The blush drained from her cheeks as she bowed and quickly spun on her heels to leave the room.
“Stop intimidating the staff,” Nicholas mumbled beneath the cloak.
“They should know better than to take liberties,” Beaumont grumbled as he sniffed the food cautiously.
“Anything suspicious?” Nicholas asked as he straightened and stretched.
‘Other than the maid?’
“No,” Beaumont grunted as he placed the breakfast plate before the crown prince. He would ferret out the maid’s name later and see that she was barred from the palace. “But to be sure,” he pulled a silver dagger from his belt and passed it to Nicholas.
“You’re being paranoid,” Nicholas observed as he took the dagger and stabbed a muffin, a few pieces of cheese and fruit, then held the blade aloft to check for any discoloration.
“I didn’t recognize her,” Beaumont muttered defensively as he moved to shut the office door. “Too many new faces inside the palace recently.”
“We had to increase staff in preparation for the Ambassador’s visit,” Nicholas replied as he held up the knife for Beaumont to inspect. “Look, it’s clean, so relax.”
“Would you like me to try one first?”
“Go get your own food,” Nicholas scoffed as he stuffed a muffin into his mouth and chewed. He swallowed and lifted his empty cup with a frown. “Besides, I trust your nose more than I do a silver blade.”
Beaumont grunted as he retrieved the pitcher of water to refill Nicholas’s cup. The last thing the knight captain wanted to talk about was the unique sense of smell he had inherited from his mother. He stepped back to allow the crown prince privacy to enjoy his breakfast.
‘If a witch can slip into Peony Palace as a maid, I’ll need to examine the rest of the staff that recently entered the palace as well.’
Even if the witch only hoped to attract Nicholas’s attention and intimate favor, there were plenty of other witches who still resented the crown’s involvement in the last inquisition.
‘And then there’s Lady Maura.’ Beaumont tilted his neck from side to side as his thoughts clouded with the mixed emotions that resurfaced whenever he thought of the little ice witch. ‘More importantly, how should I deliver the Death Notice?’ The more Beaumont visualized Maura’s reaction to the news of her parent’s death, the more he feared she might cry. For some unexplained reason, the thought of seeing her in tears sent a cold chill through him.
He was also afraid of how she would react to seeing him again.
They had just gotten comfortable around each other during the last night of the Selection. Maura had been so focused on her performance that she stopped flinching every time he touched her. It was only a slight change in her behavior, and yet it had made Beaumont strangely happy.
‘This is ridiculous. Nicholas is right—I should probably keep my distance, but—’
Beaumont sighed as he stretched his back and watched the first rays of sunrise appear through the office curtains.
Whatever his feelings for Maura had been, they were crushed the moment Acheron opened his fat mouth and declared that Lady Maura had rejected them both.
Beaumont’s embarrassment at being rejected through his cousin had sent him back to Nicholas’s side. Later, he had heard that Captain Leo had been assigned to escort Maura at Dowager Octavia’s request.
‘Of all the knights to choose from, why did they pick my half-brother?’
It had occurred to him that the Dowager, Nicholas, and Acheron each had similar thoughts as to who best suited Lady Maura. Leo and Beaumont were both officially recognized bastards after all. Now that Lady Maura had her own title and a position beside Lafeara’s future queen, who knew what other opportunistic bastards and fallen nobles might slither forth to pursue and entrap her.
Beaumont clenched his jaw and shifted his feet impatiently as he waited for the sun to climb higher.