Chapter 45: A Testament of Humanity
“Lord Commander,” Nicholas greeted warmly as Knight Commander Quentin entered his office and knelt before the crown prince’s desk. Nichols stood and quickly gestured for the Knight Commander to rise. “Thank you for coming.”
“I am at your service, your Majesty,” Quentin replied as he straightened. “How can I be of assistance?”
“Your investigation into the deaths of the Turnbells, Lord Josiah and Lady Helena, how is it faring?” Nicholas gestured to an open seat that faced his desk out of habit.
“I have not yet concluded that investigation, your Majesty.” Quentin glanced at the offered chair as he stepped closer but remained standing. “There are a few more loose ends that need to be tied up.”
“Do explain,” Nicholas urged as he leaned back in his chair.
“By all accounts, the nobles’ deaths were unfortunate but not deliberate.”
“Unfortunate, you mean they were not the witch’s target?”
“It would appear the fire witch was after the witch hunter, your Majesty. Lady Helena died because she fell upon a large shard of glass while trying to escape the flames. The glass pierced her lungs, and regrettably, there were no capable physicians nearby to tend to the injury before she bled out. The witch may have caused the chapel windows to explode, but according to one of the holy sisters I interrogated—it was Lady Helena’s late husband who caused her to fall when he pushed her out of his path.”
“Lord Turnbell?” Nicholas raised a brow and scoffed. “And his death?”
“Lord Josiah Turnbell died well away from the chapel. Abbess Mercy’s testimony indicates that the noble was drunk when he arrived at his son’s funeral. After the fire, Lord Josiah and Lord Asher Winslet fought over the recent engagement of Lady Sophya. By all accounts, Lord Josiah appears to have tripped over his own feet and fallen upon a pitchfork because he was too drunk to maintain his balance.”
“So,” Nicholas murmured in disbelief. “Neither of them burned to death?”
‘So much for the initial report of a fire witch attacking nobles.’
“That is my findings thus far,” Quentin continued. “The Earl of Hawthorne has already stepped forward to testify to Lord Asher’s innocence. Lord Percy claims it was Lord Josiah who provoked the fight by being rough and abusive to his own daughter, Lady Sophya.”
“I see,” Nicholas slumped back with a puzzled expression. “That does rather change things.” ‘Not that it would have stopped the Inquisition given a priest still died on Lafearian soil.’
“There was—one unexpected piece of testimony during my investigation,” Quentin continued hesitantly. “I interviewed Lady Sophya Turnbell a few days after the fire, and she—”
Nicholas leaned forward quickly. “Did she offer a contradictive statement?”
“About the chapel burning, no, your Majesty. But she—implied that her sister, Lady Maura, was responsible for the death of her brother, Lincoln Turnbell.”
Nicholas’s expression shifted from surprise to uncertainty. “I don’t follow, Lord Commander. How did this brother die? I was unaware of a third noble victim.”
“It is another investigation that your Majesty asked me to look into regarding the ice witch that brought the priest, Father Alden, to Lafeara after a young noble was murdered in the slums. That noble was the eldest of the Turnbell children.”
‘So the Turnbells are connected to two witch attacks? That can’t be a mere coincidence.’
“Do we have any evidence to suggest Lady Sophya’s claims are true?” Nicholas asked tensely.
Quentin glanced away for a moment as he seemed to debate his answer. “There was a witness testimony which mentioned Lincoln was in the slums looking for a sister. At the time, we assumed this was in reference to a prostitute, who are commonly found in that area—not someone of blood relation.”
“Indeed, the slums would be a strange place to seek out one of his sisters,” Nicholas murmured as he tapped his lips and tilted his head. “So then why would Lady Sophya think Lady Maura was involved in her brother’s death?”
‘That girl never struck me as a person capable of murder.’
“I am uncertain as Lady Sophya was rather emotional at the time, your Majesty,” Quentin replied calmly as he shifted his feet. “As part of my investigation into the Turnbell family, I interviewed a few members of their household staff. The butler, in particular, painted a rather grim picture of the treatment Lady Maura received while living with her family.”
“What sort of treatment?”
Quentin raised a brow and shrugged. “The usual treatment for a half-blood. Lord Josiah took no notice of Lady Maura unless he was punishing her for a mistake. Lady Helen also neglected her, to the extent that Lady Maura was forced to skip meals and hide in her room because she didn’t have the appropriate clothes to dine with the family when she was but eight years old. Lady Maura’s health declined as a result, and she nearly died. I’m told a family relative stepped in at that point and later provided Lady Maura with a maid to look after her. Lady Maura recovered but estranged herself from the family as much as possible especially the brother—”
“That’s enough,” Nicholas held up a hand and dropped it to the desk with a sigh. “Wouldn’t that sort of background suggest that Lady Maura had a motive to harm the brother?”
“Motive, perhaps. Opportunity? That would appear to be less likely.” Quentin cleared his throat and continued. “At the time of Lincoln’s death, Lady Maura would have been recovering from another injury. According to the butler, Maura was whipped while defending her maid from Lincoln. Neither she nor the maid was capable of leaving their room without a great deal of pain. For a young woman of that age and upbringing to sneak about the slums at night while seriously injured—it is rather hard to imagine, your Majesty.”
“I see your point,” Nicholas conceded softly. “But then why would her sister suggest such a horrible thing?”
“I believe Lady Sophya’s testimony to be motivated by grief and jealousy, more than truth.”
“Jealousy,” Nicholas echoed with a frown. “Of her half-blood sister?”
The knight commander raised a brow. “Their circumstances have certainly changed in the last several days, your Majesty. Lady Maura was recommended for the Selection over the eldest daughter, Lady Sophya. That is unusual for most noble families, let alone when the youngest is also a half-blood.”
‘I suppose jealousy between siblings is not all that unreasonable.’
Nicholas grunted as he glanced towards the stack of documents from Rose Palace. The list of names with Frost’s insignia still rested on top. “I would like you to look further into Lady Maura’s background, Lord Commander.”
“Your Majesty?” Quentin’s silver-tinged brows narrowed.
“Lady Maura is a person of interest to the Crown. I want to know more about her upbringing, her father’s background, and her tutelage under Countess Hawthorne.”
Quentin masked his confusion as he adjusted his cloak. “I had intended to interview Lady Maura in the next few days, but—may I ask—why, your Majesty is so interested?”
Nicholas smiled tightly and rose from his seat. “I would first like your word that this matter will remain between us and no one else—” He held up his hand as Quentin moved to speak “—no one, Commander. That includes the Prime Minister, the House of Lords, and the Dowager.”
“You are my King, your Majesty. My services and discretion are yours to command.”
Nicholas nodded, satisfied. “I suspect Lady Maura has another benefactor who supported her entrance into the palace,” he explained with a wry grin. “If this is true, I want you to seek out this benefactor’s identity and their motives.”
“If the lady herself is not forthcoming, that may prove difficult, your Majesty. Most of the Turnbell family’s servants were sold off after the Earl of Hawthorne acquired Lord Josiah’s debt. The manor itself was auctioned off just recently, and only the two estranged daughters remain.”
“What about the maid you mentioned, the one that looked after Lady Maura after her illness.”
“Miss Ivy was sold by Lady Maura to the Countess before she entered the palace for the Selection. I would need the Earl’s permission to interrogate one of his servants,” Quentin explained hesitantly.
‘Lady Maura must have really cared about that maid to go through the trouble of removing her from the Turnbell house.’
“I have given you control of the Silver Wolves. Use them to uncover the truth—discreetly. As for the maid, I will speak to the Earl regarding her another time. Lord Percy is already handling a dangerous mission on behalf of Lafeara. I won’t offend him by abusing his absence to interview a servant.”
Knight Commander Quentin nodded as he pressed a closed fist to the Lafearian wolf sigil on his chest plate. “I shall inform the Silver Wolves of your request, your Majesty. We should be able to track down the other servants and slaves within a week.”
“You may go, Commander.”
Quentin bowed once more and exited through the office door. Beaumont entered not long after and bowed before the crown prince.
“You’ve returned,” Nicholas observed as he studied the silent giant. There was a trace of mud along the captain’s boots and a twig of evergreen snagged against the edge of his cloak; both told Nicholas the knight captain had probably ridden out to the Hargreve estates and his mother’s grave. “You are better now?”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
“Good.” Nicholas flipped through the documents on his desk. “Shut the door then, if you would, Captain.”
Beaumont obeyed the command and then approached the desk with a stone-like expression.
“Captain?” Nicholas murmured as he scribbled out a note beside the list of chapels where the orphaned children now resided. ‘I need to send some knights to recover these children and bring them back to the capital as soon as possible.’
“Your Majesty, I have something to report.”
Nicholas paused, returned the eagle-feather quill to its ink well, and then lifted his gaze to the brooding knight. “Tell me then.”
“I believe the church has a dual purpose for this inquisition,” Beaumont said grimly as he stepped closer. “I observed them purchasing two half-witch slaves from a noble.”
Nicholas sighed and interlaced his fingers together. “The selling of slaves to a foreign nation is not a crime, Captain. You know that”
“They were boys, your Majesty. The oldest was only twelve.”
Nicholas felt a stab of guilt as the list of names with Frost’s emblem burned in the corner of his vision. “Never-the-less, a noble is entitled to sell their property. The law only prevents the selling of child slaves for immoral purposes.”
“These boys belong to the caretaker who has been tending to my mother’s grave since she died!”
Nicholas exhaled sharply at the anger in the Captain’s voice as his hands tensed. “Who was selling them?”
“Lady Variety Hargreve.”
Nicholas grimaced as he met the captain’s gaze and shook his head. “All the more reason I cannot help you. Beaumont, you can’t accuse your step-mother—”
“Lady Hargreve is not my step-mother—”
“Be that as it may, she is Lord General Commander Stryker’s wife!” Nicholas stood and crossed to the window beside his desk. “The Hargreve family have been my greatest supporters. Borghese and his followers support the Dowager and their own interests. Winslet and Hawthorne support the interest of the older noble houses.” Nicholas turned slowly and spread his hands helplessly. “I can’t abolish slavery without making enemies of the entire House of Lords, and if I did that—”
‘The nobles won’t take such a move sitting down. Not when it alters their control over the commoners. This would leave us to civil-war. And if the Hargreve family abandoned me—I would lose the throne before I’m ever coronated as King.’
“I can’t give special favor to half-witch slaves either without alienating more than half of Lafearian’s citizens.” Nicholas raised his gaze, hating that he had to turn down a rare request from his trusted captain and friend, but he saw no alternative. “I cannot help you. Take comfort in knowing those boys will have a better life in Zarus.”
“They were taken from their grandfather and sold—they didn’t have a choice,” Beaumont growled, unmasked anger and frustration drawing his silver-blonde brows closer together.
“Slaves don’t have a choice! Under the law, they are property.” Nicholas sighed as he stepped towards the desk and rubbed his neck. “I may disagree with that, but I cannot interfere. Not until I have the power to weaken the hold the nobles have over this country. I am sorry!”
A flicker of something passed across the knight’s face. Resignation or perhaps disappointment, before it resumed the stone-like expression Beaumont so often wore.
“I understand why you’re upset,” Nicholas said sympathetically as he leaned against his desk. “Your mother was considered a slave when General Stryker brought her back as a war prisoner from Tharyn. But he freed Lady Jasmine, my father gave her a title, and Stryker named you his son.”
“Bastard son,” Beaumont muttered through clenched teeth.
“I know,” Nicholas sighed. “My point being—you relate to these boys. How could you not? You’re a half-witch too.”
Beaumont flexed his shoulders and shifted his gaze from Nicholas to the stack of documents on his desk. “It’s getting late, your Majesty. Should I have the cook send up dinner?”
Nicholas accepted the change in conversation and leaned against the window frame for a moment as he cleared his thoughts. “I was thinking of visiting Rose Palace for dinner again.”
Beaumont’s stone mask slipped for a moment into a surprised frown.
“But you’re right, it has gotten late,” Nicholas amended quickly, “And I still have work to do. We’ll go tomorrow.”
“I’ll send word, your Majesty.”