Chapter 101: A Necessary Sacrifice
Serilda watched the spectacle of the Ambassador’s funeral dispassionately. The Ventrayna General stood before Haemish’s prized black stallion with two sharpened swords. The audience of Lafearian nobles murmured in shock and displeasure as the General slit the magnificent animal’s throat. The drugged beast balked, then shuddered and collapsed upon the prepared carpet where its four legs thrashed weakly.
When the once proud stallion finally breathed its last, the General’s soldiers took the horse’s legs and arranged the body on the carpet, grabbed the bloody corners, and lifted the sacrificial offering into the lower tier of the funeral pyre. There, atop the chests and platters of perishable, burnable treasures, Haemish’s stallion made its final journey alongside its Master to the underworld.
“Was that really necessary?” Captain Eustis muttered darkly from his seat beside his father, Marquess Winifred.
“Be grateful we are not in Ventrayna,” the Marquess replied somberly. “More than a dozen slaves would have accompanied that animal. Human sacrifice has always been viewed as the highest compliment since it was how our ancestors appeased the gods in the old days.”
Percy choked and coughed into his black handkerchief. Serilda glanced towards him hurriedly and signaled Ivy, who brought the Marchioness a prepared tonic to ease the Earl’s throat.
“Here, Percy,” Serilda urged as she opened the bottle and pressed it into his hands. “Drink.”
The Earl took a drink and grimaced at the bitter taste as he forced it down. After a few more sips, Percy’s coughing gradually eased, just in time for the smoke from the lit pyre to fill the field around them and trigger another attack.
“This air is no good for the Earl in his present state,” Serilda announced as she left her seat and took Percy’s arm. “I will escort him home to rest. Please give our sincere apology to the royal family and Lady Lavinia.”
“Of course,” Marquess Winifred said as he and Eustis rose from their seat and bowed their heads courteously to the still coughing Earl. “We hope that his Grace will recover quickly.”
Percy nodded against his handkerchief and allowed Serilda to guide him down the steps of their raised pavilion.
“You should have stayed home to rest,” Serilda admonished as she pulled the Earl’s cloak closer to his flushed neck.
“It is better if they see me, even in this state, than to allow them to gossip about my absence—and whisper as to the cause of my condition,” Percy replied hoarsely.
“And what is the cause of this illness? You still haven’t told me,” Serilda remarked crossly. Percy shook his head as his eyes turned towards the herbal tonic she still held. The Marchioness handed it over to him and then turned to Ivy, who trailed behind. “Have the carriage brought to us here.”
“Yes, my Lady.” Ivy bobbed a quick curtsey as she glanced with concern at the coughing Earl, then hurried down the uneven cleared field to where the carriages waited below.
“Well?” Serilda murmured tensely as Percy finished swallowing his medicine. “Will you tell me now?”
“It is better that you do not know.”
“Even when you’re like this?”
“It won’t kill me—” Percy coughed and smiled wryly. “We should focus on more important matters.”
‘More important than your health?’ Serilda scowled as she drew in an angry breath but then exhaled deflated. She had already concluded that the Earl’s health was in some way related to the disappearance of Jade and her little brat. That wretched homeless thief appeared to have made off with several pieces of Serilda’s jewelry and one of her new dresses. ‘And yet the Earl insisted we not waste the Coven’s resources hunting her down.’
Serilda huffed quietly and glanced worriedly at the sweat which lined Percy’s pale brow and darkened his collar. ‘This feels more like a curse than an illness. I can only hope that the strange medicine Percy had me prepare will do more than treat his symptoms.’ The Marchioness fidgeted with the lace edge of her gloves as she resisted the urge to wrap her arm around Percy’s waist. Instead, she glanced over to where Ivy was waving down their carriage driver, who quickly roused the team of horses and turned in their direction.
“So, Lady Maura is a Duchess now,” Serilda observed calmly. “Duchess Kirsi Valda.”
“It is beneficial to our plans,” Percy replied hoarsely. “Kirsi will need her own power to become Queen. The Duchy of Bastiallano will give her the power she needs to pull the nobles to her side, and I will unite the Covens behind her.”
Serilda frowned, surprised by how easily her cousin had switched over to Maura’s new name. “But—what about the Dowager?”
Percy frowned and coughed into his handkerchief.
“Isn’t it strange how they suddenly became so close?” Serilda pressed worriedly. “Octavia has never been particularly warm or nurturing to anyone—let alone a half-blood—”
“You forget that Octavia herself is an ice witch,” Percy replied in a matter-of-fact tone.
“So—suddenly they’re allies?” Serilda shook her head unconvinced. “Maura was always cautious of the Dowager before.”
“The Dowager did rescue Maura from the threat of prison. Now that Octavia has adopted her and made Maura a Duchess—what reason would Kirsi have to remain cautious?” Percy reasoned rationally.
“But then—what about our plans?”
“Has it not occurred to you, Seri, that the Dowager may want the same thing we want?” Percy turned his reddened winter-grey eyes towards Serilda and smiled.
“The Dowager wants Maura—to be Queen?” Serilda raised her brows and crossed her arms as she considered this. “But—to Nicholas?”
A quick glance at Percy revealed a glimmer of anger on the Earl’s face as he smothered another cough behind his handkerchief with white knuckles.
“We may have to push our plans forward then,” Serilda suggested.
“Perhaps,” Percy replied coldly. A sinister smile crossed the Earl’s lips as he glanced up towards the clear blue skies above them and scoffed. “Perhaps this is what the gods want.”
Serilda blinked and narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “Did you receive another message from Veles?”
“No, but—” Percy shrugged “—it has always been our plan to wipe out the Havardur bloodline. And I don’t need the help of Veles to deal with the Dowager.” He lowered his handkerchief as a confident grin spread across his pale face. “In fact, the Duchess’s promotion may have provided me with the perfect opportunity to clear a path to the throne.”
“You always have a plan,” Serilda replied with a note of resignation. The Marchioness shook her head as the Earl turned away to cough once more. “But first, you need to rest, Percy. If there is anything that needs preparing, leave that to me.”
“We have—time enough—to prepare,” Percy responded between coughs. “The Royal Hunt—that is when—” He clutched his throat as a painful cough ripped through him.
“Talk less and drink your medicine. The carriage is here,” Serilda murmured worriedly.
The Hawthorne carriage bumped along the jutted field and slowed to a halt before them. The footmen jumped down and hastily opened the carriage doors before assisting the Earl inside. Serilda entered and sat down beside Percy while Ivy remained in her seat across from them.
“On our way back, I will need you to pick up more herbs for the Earl’s medicine,” Serilda instructed as she draped another blanket over the shivering, coughing Earl.
“Of course,” Ivy replied hastily.
“I’ll drop you off by the markets when we get there. Do you have enough coin to pay your own way back to Hawthorne Manor?”
“Yes, Butler Russell prepared an adequate amount.”
“Add this to it,” Serilda murmured as she reached into her purse to pull out a banknote for one-thousand crescents. “And here is the list of herbs. Buy as much as you can find.”
“Yes, my Lady,” Ivy murmured as she folded the note and list together, then placed them inside her purse.
Percy drained the last of his medicine and closed his eyes as he leaned against the carriage seat. “Have them prepare a bath and a light meal when we get back.”
“As you wish,” Serilda replied as she pulled out her handkerchief to wipe his brow. “But then you must sleep.”
Percy scoffed as he captured her hand and pressed her fingers against his forehead.
“You’re burning up again,” Serilda murmured worriedly.
“Yes,” Percy hissed tiredly. He dropped her hand and leaned back against the carriage’s interior cushioned wall. “Wake me when we arrive.”
The carriage bumped and jostled as they made their way back towards a proper road. Percy scowled as his head banged against the wall, disrupting his attempts at sleep. The Earl coughed and grumbled as he turned and shifted and tried to get comfortable again.
“Don’t be so stubborn,” Serilda admonished as she pulled on Percy’s arm gently. “Come, use my lap. It will be more comfortable.”
Percy shook off her arm with an impatient sigh. “I’m not a little boy anymore, Seri.”
“I am well aware, cousin,” Serilda admonished with an amused smile. “But you are ill. Now come, lie down and get some rest.”
Percy’s eyes narrowed as her tone, laced with magic, soothed his fevered irritation. With a relenting sigh, the Earl leaned towards her and allowed Serilda to guide his head down upon her lap.
“Now, sleep, your Grace,” Serilda encouraged with an affectionate smile as she stroked his damp, mahogany-brown hair.
“You’re too pushy,” Percy grumbled as he grabbed her hand and placed it against his hot forehead. A few moments later, his fingers dropped from her wrist to his side as the Earl drifted off to sleep.
Percy’s relaxed face reminded Serilda of another time when they had both been naïve and happy children.
‘But now you’ve grown up and become entangled to this Maura—Kirsi. All because of her lineage and destiny. But how does she treat you, Percy? Not a word of concern when you stood before her just now as sick as you are.’
The Marchioness sighed as she brushed back the Earl’s dark bangs and traced her fingers lightly over his brow and nose.
‘You are already a Witch King, Percy. You don’t need Kirsi to take Lafeara. And there are plenty of other powerful witches who would gladly serve as your Queen.’
Serilda smiled as she continued to play with Percy’s hair and watched over him attentively as the Earl’s troubled breathing evened out. Only the occasional cough and bump in the road disturbed the sick man’s slumber, but Serilda quickly soothed Percy back to sleep each time he woke.
The countryside faded as the first buildings near the capital emerged. Then all trees and fields disappeared behind the blur and smog of the commoner’s districts as the carriage turned and pulled up outside the market streets.
Serilda pulled her gaze away from the Earl’s sleeping face and nodded to Ivy as the maid collected her things. A footman opened the door as the maid stepped towards it but hesitated as she glanced back towards the Earl.
“Is something wrong?” Serilda asked curiously as the maid’s eyes darted away.
“No, I—it’s just—”
“Spit it out,” the Marchioness commanded calmly.
“I wanted to ask the Earl—if Lord Barclay had returned from his trip?” Ivy answered hesitantly.
“Lord Barclay?” Serilda frowned but instantly connected the name with one of Percy’s underlings. “Not that I know of, but I can look into it if you like.”
Ivy’s face instantly brightened with relief as she nodded. “Thank you, Marchioness!”
“Of course. Focus on your task, Ivy, and try to return as quickly as possible,” Serilda replied with a dismissive wave as the footman took Ivy’s hand and assisted the maid down into the street. The door shut quickly behind Ivy as she headed determinedly up the road into the market square.
‘Naive little thing.’ Serilda sighed. ‘Would she be as concerned if she knew that Barclay was a witch?’ The Marchioness frowned as the carriage lurched forward and cradled Percy’s head and shoulders until their pace evened out once more. It was only after the carriage left the capital behind and took the north road to Hawthorne that Serilda considered the maid’s request more seriously. ‘Now that she’s mentioned it. Barclay and his group should have returned by now. How odd.’