Chapter 105: An Alliance of Covens
The carriage swayed as it began its ascent over another sloping hill in Lafeara’s countryside. Lavinia brushed the silk curtain back to admire the lush green and gold horizon of crops that kept this kingdom well feed, complacent, and lazy.
Her stomach churned with anxiety at the thought of Marco. Leaving her youngest behind in the care of Eleanora’s father had not been an easy decision, even if it was a safer one for Marco. She wiped away a tear as she opened the small musical box in her lap. It played an old folk song of the desert nomads. The music box had once belonged to Marco, but he no longer had any use for it like so many things from his childhood. Now the box held only memories for Lavinia to remember her sweet boy, along with a braided lock of Marco’s hair that Lavinia had cut from behind his ear that morning.
Marco had grumbled. His goodbye had been brief and cold, but Lavinia could see the struggle behind his eyes after leaving the chair to give her a farewell hug before he left to begin preparations for his ennoblement.
Lavinia held the braided lock and blinked back tears as her lips hardened into a firm line. Marco would be safe, at least for a while. Now was the time to focus on the return journey to Ventrayna and her revenge.
The death of Lord Haemish was sure to create waves among the three Dukes. Emperor Arius himself would likely be outraged and suspicious of Lavinia’s cover story regarding Haemish’s “poor health from their travels.”
‘But even if Arius suspects the story is a sham, the Emperor’s own Death Curse will prove me innocent,’ Lavinia thought smugly. ‘The last assassin appears to have perished out of sight as well, so nothing remains to link either myself or Eleanora to his death.’
Fate, she reasoned, had finally chosen to smile upon this patient daughter of Zenon.
‘My strongest ally in Ventrayna is still Prince Farrell. He has already put himself at risk to protect my son and makes no efforts to conceal his hatred of Duke Zenaku. But even if the two of us work together, it may not be enough.’
Her fingers tightened around Marco’s black hair as the music box’s lullaby emitted its last metallic note. The carriage rocked forward slightly as they reached the top of the hill and began a steady descent. ‘Neither the Emperor nor Empress will risk losing Zenaku’s support. Arius owes too much to the Covens to punish one of his Duke’s for raping a half-witch. And the Empress and Princess Aurelia have already been cornered thanks to the bastard prince’s return.’
Lavinia’s honey-brown eyes narrowed even as her lips relaxed into a smile. ‘As I recall, Prince Farrell and Prince Tristan were on friendly terms during the bastard’s last visit—and Farrell has no desire to remain as Aurelia’s Consort. Maybe—I just might have a third option after all.’
Lavinia glanced towards the curtain of her carriage door as soldiers raised their voices in alarm, and the transport slowed. ‘Strange, we have miles to go still before any planned stop.’
“General Garold,” Lavinia called out sharply as she moved the curtain aside. “Is there a problem?”
“Ambassador,” the general greeted her gruffly as he pulled his mount up beside her carriage door. “It seems the Earl of Hawthorne has prepared a tent and sent you an invitation. His party is just ahead.” He gestured in a direction Lavinia could not see.
“The Earl of Hawthorne?” Lavinia frowned, then snorted dismissively. “It must be a serious matter if he’s waited to accost me on my way out.”
“Should I decline his request?” Garold asked cautiously.
Lavinia considered her limited memory of the Earl, who appeared to have fallen ill shortly after the Royal Ball. “No, the Hawthorne name is not one easily ignored or slighted. Prepare me a horse and a small escort. I will give him a chance to state his business.”
“I will do so at once, Ambassador.”
Percy was not surprised when a small attachment broke off from Ventrayna’s two-thousand army escort and headed towards the tent his man had planted within sight of the road the new Ambassador would take on her return journey. Still, he was pleased that Lady Lavinia recognized the effort he had put into arranging this meeting away from the prying eyes of Lafeara’s royalty and court.
‘But will she be as receptive as Haemish? That much remains unclear.’
The Earl’s winter-grey eyes squinted painfully as he coughed dryly against the fur line of his cloak. After the cough passed, Percy scowled as he reached for the cup of herbal medicinal tea that Serilda had placed on the table beside his chair.
The Marchioness appeared through the tent flaps behind him. She had taken on almost a motherly air as she firmly took the reins of mentoring his recovery. Even now, Serilda folded her arms and tapped her fingers as she watched the Earl drink down the entire gruesome tasting tonic.
“The morning air is cold,” Serilda admonished as she took the empty cup from his fingers. “It would be best if you waited for your guest inside the tent.”
“Your concern is unnecessary. I am already feeling much better—” a cough immediately betrayed his nonchalant claim.
“Never mind,” Serilda muttered as she raised a hand to survey the group of riders headed their way. “Just promise me that you’ll rest properly when we return to Hawthorne.”
Percy grunted noncommittedly.
“It seems the new Ambassador is on her way.”
“And she’s bringing two hundred troops with her.”
“That little,” Percy scoffed. “We are to be allies, not foes, Seri. Put your worries aside.”
“Lavinia is not Haemish,” the Marchioness observed coldly. “Surely her allegiance is to her cousin, Empress Alexandria.”
“Who I am trying to broker an alliance with.”
“I don’t understand why,” Serilda muttered unhappily. “Why save Tristan if you were just going to join hands with his stepmother?”
“Ventrayna’s greatest strength is its populace’s blind allegiance to Emperor Arius,” Percy replied patiently. “I am trying to undermine that allegiance. That is why I saved Tristan.”
“Weaken Ventrayna from within—that way, they’ll be too distracted with their own political turmoil to focus on a shift in power in Lafeara.”
“Exactly,” Percy coughed out and cleared his throat. “The Emperor has already done the work of alienating Lafeara from the Church. Now we must do our part to push Ventrayna further away.”
“But—wouldn’t it be simpler to throw our support behind Tristan then?”
Percy smiled mockingly as he watched the new Ambassador steadily climb the hill on her horse. “When we take power in Lafeara, it wouldn’t hurt to be in the Emperor’s good graces by helping him thwart a rebellion.”
Serilda scoffed and nodded her understanding, but her gaze upon their rapidly approaching guest remained doubtful. “And you believe Lavinia can help us with that?”
“She is what we have to work with,” Percy replied adamantly. His winter-grey eyes narrowed as he recalled the night of the previous Ambassador’s death. Maura’s involvement, their subsequent fight, and the surprising way Lavinia and Nicholas had worked together to cover up the Ambassador’s murder as a natural death.
‘If I didn’t know what destiny awaited her, I would think the gods were on Maura’s side.’
Percy’s expression turned grim as the Ambassador’s entourage split into two ranks that rode around the tent and circled him in dust. Serilda hissed and waved her hand sharply, creating a wind barrier around them to keep the offending debris away from the Earl’s sensitive throat.
The riders slowed to a halt as they arranged themselves in ranks around the tent. Ambassador Lavinia dismounted and waved the lingering dust aside as she strode towards them, pausing a few feet from Serilda’s barrier with an inquisitive brow. “Am I invited in?”
“Seri, lower it,” Percy murmured. The Marchioness complied and stepped back as Lavinia approached and dipped her head politely to Percy.
“Earl of Hawthorne, it would seem you have something important to discuss with me before my return.”
Percy nodded and gestured to the empty chair that faced the table where he sat. “I won’t delay your progress more than necessary, Ambassador—” he flicked his fingers over the signet ring, subtly channeling the air around them to keep their discussion from outside ears, “—I wish you to convey an offer to the Empress on my behalf.”
“The Empress?” Lavinia took the seat gracefully and smiled. “And what message would you have me convey to my cousin.”
“An offer of friendship from the House of Hawthorne to the Empress and her daughter, Princess Aurelia,” Percy replied.
Lavinia’s smile widened as she pulled off her riding gloves with slow jerking motions. “And what use would the Empress have for an alliance with one of Lafeara’s forgotten air covens? For that matter, what use does a Lafearian noble have for an Empress under house arrest, Earl of Hawthorne?” She leaned back in her seat to study him with an almost pitying expression. “Forgive my bluntness, but I fail to see what either of you could provide the other—in your current positions.”
Percy smiled and nodded at her subtle innuendo. “Power and position is something that naturally transitions from one person to another over time. You yourself arrived at Lafeara as merely the wife and companion of Ventrayna’s Ambassador; now you are Ventrayna’s Ambassador.”
“Temporarily,” Lavinia replied with the ghost of a smile. “The role of Ambassador is something chosen by monarchs, Kings and Emperors. I doubt Emperor Arius will find the widow of his deceased subject a worthy long-term replacement.”
“Still, I’m sure you’d agree that the role of Ambassador is limited in power,” Percy returned with a friendly smile. “A more beneficial transition of power would be that of a monarch—”
“Which monarch?” Lavinia interrupted sharply with a raised brow.
Percy maintained his amiable expression as he interlaced his fingers together, fighting back the cough that tickled at the back of his throat. “What would the Ambassador say—if a Witch King ruled Lafeara?”
Lavinia’s surprise was subtle as her honey-brown eyes danced over his face for a moment before she turned to regard Serilda behind him. Then the Ambassador drew in a shallow breath and sighed. “Why does it feel as if my efforts to ensure peace between our countries will come to naught.”
“The alliance between Lafeara and Ventrayna need not be sacrificed so easily,” Percy replied reassuringly.
“Does the Earl honestly think the Emperor will allow the air covens of Lafeara to rule this kingdom?” Lavinia replied with a hint of levity.
Percy shrugged. “The Covens of Lafeara are certainly prepared to face his wrath should he disagree, but—” The Earl cough against his sleeve and quickly cleared his throat “—neither of us would gain anything from an open war between our kingdoms.”
“While that is true, Arius has Kritanta’s blessing, and—as rumor would have it—so does his bastard son,” Lavinia replied.
“Tristan won’t stand to see Lafeara invaded—”
“Even if that means removing the usurper who took his brother’s throne?”
“A throne which never belonged to Tristan or any of the Havardur kings.”
“Or the Hawthornes,” Lavinia countered with a hint of cynicism. “And you do realize the current crown princess of Lafeara is my niece.”
“Eleanora is my cousin as well,” Percy reminded her calmly. “I will ensure that no harm comes to her as part of this coup—but even you must have seen the cracks in their political marriage.”
Lavinia drew in another slow breath and then closed her eyes as she rubbed the frown between her brows. “You made this offer to Haemish?”
“I did, on the way over from the border,” Percy replied without hesitation.
Lavinia glanced from the Earl to the Marchioness. “And all the Covens are behind the Earl’s lofty ambition?”
“The Covens will go to war for their Witch King,” Serilda replied with a sidelong look at Percy, “—and his Isbrand Queen.”
Percy coughed and scowled faintly at his cousin. The Ambassador’s brows shot up, and she blinked in surprise.
“I see,” Lavinia murmured as she smoothed out the gloves in her lap. “The return of the Isbrand bloodline—who would have thought it possible?”
“The Isbrand line fell when we allowed the gods to pit us against each other,” Percy commented grimly. “By weakening ourselves and fighting over titles, crowns, and land, we only made it easier for the Saint and her offspring to rise in power against all witches.”
The Ambassador studied him silently for a moment, then folded her hands over her gloves as she posed her question. “Then is your intention to make Lafeara a witch kingdom and ally with Ventrayna against the Pope and his Witch Hunters?”
“Yes,” Percy answered confidently. “And I have no doubt Strugna would willingly join our cause. They certainly suffered far too much to forgive the Church who unleashed a plague that nearly wiped out their entire royal witch bloodline.”
Lavinia raised a brow as the Earl coughed against his arm again. “There are some who say it was Arachne who punished her own coven for joining in the Emperor’s war.”
“Even without Strugna,” Serilda interrupted. “We have our own blessed Witch King. Surely two witch kingdoms are better than one against the last Pope.”
“And what of the prophecy which claims a new Saint will appear when the Divine Heir breathes his last?” Lavinia inquired quietly.
“Saint Harmonia was the only saint to live long enough to conceive an heir leave behind a bloodline legacy,” Percy responded in a practical tone. “But even when the previous Saints were slain, Ramiel did not immediately summon a new Saint.”
“And if all goes according to plan, we can avert any war or bloodshed that would draw Ramiel’s ire,” Serilda added.
Lavinia glanced between them and scoffed. “You Lafearian witches and your arrogance,” the Ambassador rose from her seat and shook off her gloves before pulling them on once more. “I understand your offer to the Empress. You will support Aurelia’s right to inherit her father’s throne, and the air covens will join Ventrayna’s efforts to destroy the Pope and his Witch army. So long as both current and future Empress pledge a continued alliance between our kingdoms and recognize you as Lafeara’s Witch King. Is that about right?”
“Whichever Monarch you choose to deliver my message to,” Percy replied with a curious smile. “Know that I will take Lafeara and make my Isbrand bride its Queen.” He stood up slowly and shook off his fur cloak to reveal the black garments he had worn to Haemish funeral. “Veles has blessed my ascension and given me this task. If I must kill an Emperor to see this done—so be it.”
The Ambassador met his gaze with a determined expression in her warm honey-brown eyes. “I believe your Grace is correct,” Lavinia replied evenly as she pulled on the last glove. “Sometimes a change in monarchy is necessary for the survival of a coven or even a kingdom.” She lowered her hands and offered him a genuine smile. “But we both know you have no intention of allowing Empress Alexandria or Aurelia to take Ventrayna’s throne.”
Percy narrowed his eyes and assessed Lavinia with a startled appreciation. “So you would support the bastard, Prince Tristan?”
“I have my reasons,” Lavinia returned with a firm nod. “Though I will need to assess his ability to lead our Coven’s first.”
“So much for the limited power of an Ambassador,” Percy observed with an appreciative smile.
“So much for the oath of peace from the Hawthorne bloodline.” Lavinia’s expression grew somber as she dipped into a low curtsey. “I wish your Grace and your Isbrand bride a successful coronation.” The Ambassador’s honey-brown eyes flashed amber as she fixed him with a firm stare. “I will hold you to your promise to protect Eleanora from harm—along with my son.”
Percy extended his signet ring towards her and offered a sincere smile of his own. “You have my word, Ambassador Lavinia Zenon.”
Lavinia accepted Percy’s hand and kissed the ring upon it lightly. “Long live the Isbrand Queen and King.”
Percy felt his chest tighten for a moment as a cough caught in the back of his throat and faded. Lavinia rose, nodded politely to Serilda, and turned her back to them both as she returned to her troops.
The Earl watched the parade of horses travel back down the slope towards the waiting Ventrayna army that would carry the Ambassador and his ambitions across the border to Ventrayna. A sense of certainty filled his stomach as Percy rubbed numb fingers over the empty ache in his chest.
“Well done, cousin,” Serilda whispered. “Let us hope that Lady Lavinia will prove to be reliable.”
“The Ambassador will do what is best for herself and her son, Marco,” Percy replied with a satisfied smirk.
“I shall be sure to make Marco’s acquaintance and see that he becomes our friend then,” Serilda replied with a confident smile as she turned and entered the tent.
Percy remained where he stood and extended his hand to stare at the signet ring upon it. “Long live the Isbrand Queen,” he whispered.
The wind rushed by the tent as a cloud of sentinel crows rose from the branches above him to carry the Earl’s command to every cluster of coven witches hidden within Lafeara.
Percy turned and stopped as his gaze settled upon a single large crow with glowing red eyes that watched him from the branch of the great oak.
“There is no saving that which cannot be saved. Destiny is beyond the reach of any mortal, even one blessed by the gods,” Veles’s voice rippled across the short distance between them, its texture raspy and oddly strained.
“You lied to me,” Percy whispered back through clenched teeth. “What point is there to making Maura our Queen if you will only sacrifice her to a dead god?”
“There is much you have yet to grasp of what it means to be a mortal—and what it is—to be a God!”