Chapter 17: The Ripper’s Smile
“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised the Pope wasted no time sending his Emissary to us,” Nicholas grumbled tensely as he walked along the side hallway towards the throne room. His attendant, Charles, hurried along beside him as the young man hastily polished and adjusted the heavy golden chain of office worn above the white-wolf fur of the crown prince’s purple royal robe.
“The Emissary arriving within a day of the Pope’s letter,” Prime Minister Attwood muttered as he smoothed the white silk neck scarf above his dark-purple jacket. “I suspect they intentionally delayed the letter in order to catch us unprepared.”
Nicholas scoffed and waved his attendant aside. “How unfortunate that we shall have to disappoint them.” He glanced over his shoulder where Beaumont had taken up his usual position. “Though I am curious as to how you happened to arrive at the palace gate at the exact same time the emissary showed up.”
Beaumont’s violet eyes shifted away ever so slightly as he bowed his head. “I was escorting a court lady back to the palace as her previously arranged knight had been called away unexpectedly.”
“Oh? I hope you got his name,” Nicholas remarked sharply. “A fine example he set abandoning her outside the palace without an escort.” The crown prince exhaled, momentarily distracted as he examined the giant that followed him. “Well, the Lady of Fate has placed you by my side at this critical hour. Let’s see how these witch hunters compare to our Ravager of War.”
A muffled flurry of footsteps and indignant protests turned their attention to where Acheron was fighting his way through the trailing members of the House of Lords, his robes and ceremonial hat askew. “Sorry—I was out—of the palace,” Acheron panted as he drew up alongside Beaumont.
“You have been oddly absent of late, Lord Acheron,” Nicholas muttered with a glance at the young noble’s disheveled countenance. The Prime Minister exhaled with heavy disappointment then hastily applied himself to tidying up his son’s appearance.
“Your Majesty,” a knight approached and bowed. “The Pope’s Emissary and entourage are waiting outside the throne room at your command.”
“Good.” Nicholas dismissed the knight and turned back to examine his childhood friend critically. Acheron avoided the crown prince’s gaze as Attwood straightened his son’s garments and smoothed out the young man’s hair. The rogue’s face was paler than usual, and the dark circles under his eyes alluded to more than a few nights of restless sleep.
‘Acheron must have gotten himself into some trouble again,’ Nicholas mused. He turned and caught Beaumont playing with a small purple flower. The knight captain hastily tucked it inside his ceremonial glove when he caught the crown prince watching. ‘Both of them are behaving rather—odd. I’ll have to get to the bottom of it later.’
Nicholas brushed back his light auburn hair and sighed. The only thing his ceremonial dress was missing—was his father’s crown. If there was one thing the church’s presence had reminded the crown prince of, it was that tradition required Nicholas to receive the blessing of the Pope as part of his coronation to become Lafeara’s next king.
An old tradition from before the Emperor’s victory, but one neither he nor Attwood were eager to break from—especially given the divides that remained among the noble factions after Tristan’s sudden death two years ago.
‘But even Tristan wouldn’t scrape and bow to the church’s every demand—so neither will I.’
It had been a long time since Ripper last graced the halls of Lafeara’s fortress palaces. He had forgotten how musky and damp the country was. Little had changed, though the puppet that sat on the throne was younger than the frail, paranoid king he remembered. He noticed with some interest that the Dowager was not present for these proceedings. Despite his mild curiosity, Ripper was not surprised to find that the Emperor’s adopted half-witch princess was absent as well.
The members of Lafeara’s House of Lords were of little consequence to him. After the Earl of Hawthorne’s death, they had become disastrously divided by greed and political differences. That suited his Pope just fine. A young, inexperienced ruler with a divided government was weakened and easier to control.
The only figure in the entire room that pulled the witch hunter’s attention away from the young monarch was the pale-blonde, violet-eyed giant that stood to the left of the crown prince. It wasn’t just the size of this reputed warrior, but the strange sense of foreign power that filled the air around the knight captain that made Ripper cautiously intrigued.
“Greetings, Crown Prince Nicholas,” Cardinal Murdock said with a single nod of respect. “I am Cardinal Murdock, sent on behalf of his Holiness, Pope Jericho, to investigate the death of our priest, Father Alden.”
The ginger prince nodded as his gaze trailed over the witch hunters behind the cardinal, Ripper among them. “You seem amply prepared,” Nicholas observed with casual neutrality.
The corner of Ripper’s mouth twitched at the crown prince’s obvious attempt to appear indifferent to their presence.
“We cannot help but take the matter seriously. It would not do for our noble ally to become infested with treacherous witches while the church is distracted by the Emperor’s war.”
“And how goes the fight with my wife’s adoptive father?” Nicholas returned the ghost of a smile.
Ripper repressed a laugh. No doubt the pup had been coached to remain neutral given the alliances it still held with both waring countries. Ripper glanced towards the man at the crown prince’s right, the Prime Minister that had taken over after the sudden death of Earl Ethan Hawthrone. ‘Well played, but the Pope won’t allow your little king to remain neutral forever.’
“My brethren continue to fight in the hope of reclaiming our ancestral home and the many good people who now suffer under the tyrant Witch Emperor,” Murdock replied somberly. “As to the matter of the witches in Lafeara—we hope King Henri’s son and heir will continue to respect the agreement between the crown and our blessed Pope.”
“Our two countries have shared a long history together in both the founding of this country and our reverence of the saints,” Nicholas responded with a political smile. “I see no reason for the crown to intercede in the church’s business—”
“Thank you, your Highness!” Murdock bowed his head, having achieved his goal.
A notable tick in the wolf pup’s left eye caught Ripper’s attention. “I was not finished, Cardinal,” Nicholas continued with a slight edge to his tone. “Interrupt me again, and you shall have a very short visit in my kingdom.”
There was a bit of movement from the nobles who lined the room around them. More than a few appeared shocked to witness a cardinal being lectured so publicly.
“Apologies, your Highness,” Murdock murmured with another bow. “Forgive my haste—we are eager to begin before the trail runs cold.”
“As I was saying—” Nicholas maintained his imperious glare upon the cardinal, his disapproval more evident “—the crown will not intercede so long as the church does not overstep its authority. To clarify, members of the church and its properties continue to fall under the Pope’s jurisdiction, but the inquisition will not touch the nobles and citizens of Lafeara.”
Murdock waited until the pause lengthened before he replied, “Of course, your Highness. Though I fear that will severely limit the scope of our investigation—”
The crown prince sighed with exasperated displeasure. “It seems the Pope’s Emissary will need help determining where his scope of authority ends. To ensure there are no unfortunate mistakes or tragic accidents, I shall send two members from the House of Lords to investigate the matter with you. Lord Tomberlin—” Nicholas gestured to the stout noble with graying pepper hair, “—and Lord Acheron.” The young noble who stood behind the Prime Minister grimaced but followed behind Tomberlin to approach and bow before the crown prince.
“Your Highness, that is not necessary, I assure you,” Murdock interjected quickly.
“You forget that these witches have murdered three members of Lafeara’s nobility,” Nicholas interrupted sharply. “I will ensure justice is brought to the families of these victims. My terms are non-negotiable. Refuse, Cardinal, and I will have to rethink our current alliance with his Holiness.”
Murdock, who appeared at a loss for words, glanced over to the towering witch hunter beside him. Ripper stepped forward, and at the same time, the giant stepped up beside the crown prince. The pressure in the room changed as the giant’s warning violet gaze met the witch hunter’s albino red eyes.
Ripper glanced at the massive bastard sword strapped to the warrior’s back and envisioned the satisfying battle such a specimen might offer. It had been too long since the head of the witch hunters had faced a worthy opponent.
“Is there something you wish to say, witch hunter?” the crown prince asked tensely.
Ripper smiled. His fang-like teeth drew a noticeable gasp from the nobles while Nicholas’s expression registered momentary shock. “Only my curiosity that your Highness appears willing to shelter witches should they reside among your nobles,” Ripper stated bluntly.
Nicholas’s gaze darkened even as he smiled back and spread his hands with an expression of feigned surprise. “I have granted you access to my kingdom, witch hunter. Should you find evidence that one of my nobles is a witch, you may present that information to Lord Tomberlin and Lord Acheron. They, in turn, will present the case to me. If I find there is sufficient proof, then I will have the noble arrested and investigated. I will not allow your inquisition to burn my people without restraint.”
“Evidence?” Ripper’s lips curled into a mocking smile. “Perhaps your Highness is unfamiliar with the powers of a half-witch. We do not make mistakes when identifying witches.”
“Really?” Nicholas leaned forward on his throne. “And yet I hear it was your witch hunter, Nero, that killed the priest with ice magic.”
Ripper’s jaw clamped shut. ‘It was not Nero that killed the priest!’ The Pope had confirmed that matter after resurrecting Alden’s spirit and interrogating the unfortunate priest. Still, Ripper could not deny that the death memories of Father Alden had painted Nero in a rather suspicious light.
“My crude understanding of witches is that the ability to use magic is what separates a half-witch from a real witch,” Nicholas continued. “Unless that rule has suddenly changed—? I don’t see how there can be any other explanation for your priest’s death. Witnesses who survived the attack and bravely came forward to testify are respected members of the church as well.
“Still, I have graciously agreed to play along with your investigation out of respect for his Holiness, of course. It is the hope of the crown and my people that our alliance shall remain intact.” Nicholas rose from his throne and slowly descended the platform with the giant one step behind. “So yes, witch hunter, I will be watching this investigation and the actions of the church with great interest.” Seemingly satisfied that he had made his point, Nicholas turned back to the cardinal. “I trust you have no further objections to my stipulations, Cardinal Murdock?”
“Of course not, your Highness,” Murdock answered stiffly.
“As long as your lords understand they have no authority or say over this inquisition as it relates to the church and its property,” Ripper muttered with a relaxed shrug. ‘Go ahead and put on a show, pup. We both know you need the support of the Pope and his church behind you.’
“Lord Acheron,” Nicholas turned towards the younger of the two lords he had assigned to them.
The haggard-looking nobleman rubbed his palms against his official robes as he approached, his steel-blue eyes hesitant to meet the crown prince’s gaze as he offered Nicholas a formal bow. “Your Majesty.”
‘Majesty?’ Ripper slid a glance to Murdock, who also noted the premature title that Nicholas had taken. ‘Well, given his bastard brother is no longer in the running for Lafeara’s throne—that does make him the only surviving heir.’
“Escort the Emissary and his companions to the cathedral. There should be rooms prepared there for you,” Nicholas said with a gesture to Murdock.
“Ah, forgive me, your—Majesty,” Murdock interjected with a weak smile. “It appears I was not clear in my introductions. I am here only as cardinal to fill the capacity as head of the church for this investigation. The one endowed with the Pope’s power and authority as far as the inquisition is the Commander of the Witch Hunter Order, Ripper.”
Murdock nodded to Ripper, who enjoyed watching the confusion play out on Nicholas’s face.
“I can assure you, your Majesty, that when it comes to hunting and slaying witches, Ripper is the most formidable witch hunter the church has seen in many centuries.”
“Then he should have no problem handling this fire witch and your rogue witch hunter,” Nicholas replied with a tight smile.
“And the ice witch,” Ripper added as he studied the wolf pup’s expression.
“Ah, yes, that one as well.” Nicholas waved his hand dismissively. “Acheron, please see that they are settled in for the day. After such a rushed journey across the border, I’m sure they must be tired.”
“Not at all,” Ripper interjected as Acheron turned towards the door. “In fact, I would like to begin my investigation this afternoon by interviewing one of your knights, a Lieutenant Declan.”
“Lord Tomberlin?” Nicholas turned towards the summoned noble.
“I will speak to Knight Commander Quentin and see that the Lieutenant is sent over as soon as can be arranged,” Tomberlin replied somberly.
“Excellent!” Ripper flashed another smile that succeeded in making the noble’s flinch once more. Surprisingly, Nicholas seemed unaffected, but given the giant shadow that followed him, Ripper suspected he knew why.
“Thank you for your hospitality, your Majesty,” Murdock said with another sweeping bow. “Saints blessing upon you.”
“And your future queen,” Ripper added. Nicholas’s jaw clenched, and a scowl darkened his gaze before he nodded and turned back towards his throne.
‘It would appear the rumors about an unhappy marriage are true as well.’ With a confident smirk, Ripper turned and led his men out the back door. Murdock followed after him, and they both waited at the bottom of the Peony Palace steps for Lord Acheron, their apparent guide, to join them.
“Arrogant little prick,” Murdock muttered as he wiped the sweat from his neck. “It would seem our alliance with Lafeara is shaky at best.”
“Nevertheless, the Pope wishes for us to strengthen this alliance. Let us hope our investigation unfolds in such a way that it does not tread on the little prince’s toes,” Ripper replied as he smoothed down his shoulder-length white hair. “Did you see the giant beside him?”
“You noticed as well—or did you smell—”
“I didn’t smell a thing—and that’s the problem,” Ripper muttered darkly.
“Not a witch then?” Murdock sounded dubious even as he suggested the idea.
“Do you know of a single witch that could meet my gaze without fear?” Ripper asked scornfully.
“Well—no,” Murdock admitted.
“Neither do I.” Ripper nodded to where Lord Acheron had finally appeared through the palace door. “Let’s make good use of our time here to see how stable this young prince’s reign really is.”