Chapter 71: The Rose of Lafeara
Percy smiled as he surveyed the line of nobles who entered the Ball Room of Lilly Palace before him. No matter how he considered it, this location would be the perfect spot to exact his revenge on the foolish Hendrix family, who dared attempt to swindle him into marriage.
The Earl’s unwitting audience waited inside, dressed in their most expensive garments, jewels, smiles, and those ridiculous, archaic powdered wigs. Percy eyed them with distaste. They oohed and aahed at the cracks in the ballroom marble floor filled with gold like children. He could hear their whispered discussions of the forbidden, moderately altered history attached to the chilling reminders of a long-forgotten, fallen dynasty—and every word betrayed these foolish nobles’ ignorance.
‘Mortals really do love a pretty fantasy of good versus evil.’
While the author of the tale surrounding the legacy of the previous monarchs, the tyrannical Isbrand Kings and Queens, remained a mystery. The story of how this wicked royal family of witches was defeated by the Holy Saint and his flimsy little rebellion with the aid of a small blue flower persisted throughout Lafeara’s history. The Isbrand witches were portrayed as immortal monsters who fed off children and virgins to maintain their long life and beauty. And yet, the archives of Anthraticus revealed a lost era of prosperity, formidable power, and a rich culture of magic and politics where even the idea of enslaved mortals would have been considered a crime.
‘And yet the Saint was able to turn so many against the Isbrand royal family.’
The page at the ballroom door accepted Percy’s invitation card without even bothering to confirm the names written therein. Instead, the stout little man turned promptly to announce the Earl’s arrival.
“Wait,” Percy commanded as he turned and held out his hand for Lady Serilda, who moved up beside him. The Marchioness flashed the page a dangerous scarlet smile as she fanned herself with an ornate diamond fan.
“Ah! My apologies!” The frumpy man hastily flipped the card over and ogled the second name added under the Earl’s as his guest. “The M-m-mar—” Realization sank into the stout man’s face as he gave up reading the card to stare at the beauty before him.
“The Marchioness of Berxley,” Percy supplied with a thinning smile.
“Ah! Yes, of course. Forgive me, Lord and Lady!” The page babbled loudly and then cleared his throat.
Percy tucked Serilda’s arm around his own and leaned towards her with an unnecessary whisper. “Ready to put on a performance?”
“As if you even have to ask?” Serilda returned with a single arched brow. “Which of us do you imagine has the most experience performing before a room full of nobles?”
Percy bowed his head in humble defeat and stifled his unnecessary concerns.
Serilda had chosen the finest diamonds from the Countess’s collection to accompany the dress Lady Maura had prepared for her this evening. His cousin looked every inch the returning, glorious heroine. Before the night was over, every noble in Lafeara—even those unable to attend the coveted Royal Ball—would learn of the Marchioness’s return to the upper echelons of society.
‘Let’s see how much this rattles Borghese’s position.’
The two cousins strode through the marble archway doors. They followed the purple carpet that trailed along the east wall through the waiting crowd, most of whom had already turned to stare at the beauty on the Earl’s arm.
“His Lordship, Earl Percy Hawthorne!” The page shouted as if his life depended on getting this introduction right—and perhaps it did. “And the Marchioness of Berxley, Lady Serilda Kensington.”
The rumble of shock, disbelief, and even a few fearful whispers trailed after Percy and Serilda, who together represented two legacies of Hawthorne and Kensington. Two out of five of the oldest houses in Lafeara which held the strongest political power next to the royal family. The nobles’ shock soon gave way as insect-like whispers filled the air with the sound of gossiping locusts.
“The Countess leaves from some mysterious illness, and the niece she sent away under a cloud of shame suddenly returns. Can this be a coincidence?”
“And she returns on Earl Hawthorne’s arm no less.”
“If the Countess weren’t already a member of the Kensington family, don’t you think they would make a perfect match.”
“Surely that woman does not expect to be welcomed back at court! Not after—”
“I wonder what the Crown Prince will say to her. His father’s mistress—presenting herself at such a public event—uninvited, no doubt. Shameful!”
“Watch, the Dowager will soon put the shameless little slut in her place.”
“Do you think the Marchioness expects to move back into the palace just because she was Henri’s secret mistress?”
“Perhaps she has seduced the Earl as well. Those rumors did mention a dark-haired woman.”
“Poor Lady Evelynn—is it any wonder she can’t compare to the Rose of Lafeara.”
“That old title? The Marchioness is not as young as she once was nor virtuous if rumors of her failed pregnancy are to be given any credence. How could a fallen noble like her cling to such a title after her public downfall?”
Serilda unfurled her fan and held it before glittering scarlet lips as the Marchioness’s moss-agate-green eyes focused on Percy. “Should I try seducing you, sweet Cousin? I feel as if I’m letting our public down.”
“I will rip out their prattling tongues soon enough,” Percy replied without breaking from his cold imperious expression.
“Alas, I am well aware your Queen is already set,” Serilda lamented playfully with downcast eyes.
“You hardly need worry, Cousin. You will have your pick of the most eligible bachelors in Lafeara soon enough.” Percy turned appraising eyes on her and smiled. “As always, you are the most beautiful woman in the room and soon to be the most powerful woman as well.”
“Flattery!” Serilda smiled as a faint blush appeared upon her powdered cheeks. “Another trait my future husband will have to master if he is to outshine you, Earl Hawthorne.”
Percy nodded as his gaze drifted past his beautiful cousin to the painted walls of the ballroom upon which the never-ending hunt of wolves and stags remained captured in a merciless dance. Percy eyed the crows that chased the wolves and smiled at the artist’s eccentric touch. The dark birds glowing red eyes left a trail of malignant light that held far more accuracy than any of these ignorant mortals or naive royals could have guessed.
The carpet turned left towards the royal dais upon which the Dowager, Crown Prince, and Crown Princess sat upon their thrones and greeted each of their guests in turn.
Serilda felt her gut and lungs clench the moment the Dowager’s ice-blue eyes focused upon her. For a single staggering heartbeat, she was a grieving orphan once more, helplessly seeking guidance, comfort, and approval from her aunt and uncle, who were far too distracted with arguing over who would hold onto Serilda’s birthright until she came of age.
How blind she had been to follow the advice of her father’s youngest sister. Serilda had grown up admiring Lady Constance, who took over the late Earl’s position as head of the Nocturnem Coven and leader of the Aristocratic Party with the help of the royal family and her brothers, Marquess Eckhart Kensington and Lord Alastair Kensington.
When Marquess Eckhart, Serilda’s father, passed so unexpectedly, the Countess had been quick to assure Serilda that she was still too young to govern her father’s coven. The Countess had pressed upon the impressionable young and shaken Serilda that the only way to hold onto her birthright was to attach herself to a man of strength who could help her keep it.
By the time Serilda realized the tangled web of deceit she had blindly wandered into, Lady Constance had taken complete control of the Twilight Coven along with the rest of Serilda’s inheritance.
In her darkest hour of need, Serilda had turned to the Dowager, the most powerful political figure among the covens and nobles in Lafeara, and soon to be the grandmother of Serilda’s unborn child—only to be cruelly disappointed once more.
‘I needed you then, but I do not need you now. I am no longer the foolish girl you both once manipulated. I will believe in myself and no one else from this point forward.’
With a sharp snap of her wrist, Serilda closed her jeweled fan, reassured by the weight of the hidden blades within it. Percy touched her arm lightly as they turned to face the dais squarely. Serilda focused on the highest step of the platform as the Earl took three steps forward and stopped. She curtseyed beside him, eyes dropping to the familiar purple carpet—the same material as the carpet she had fallen to her knees upon only to be dragged away like a thief. Her grip tightened on Percy’s arm as she measured her curtsey to his bow, refusing to bend her knee further than the Earl and King to whom she had sworn her allegiance and anchored her plans for revenge.
“Welcome, Earl Hawthorne. And welcome back, Marchioness Serilda,” the Dowager’s familiar voice greeted them both with a hint of amusement.
Percy straightened, and Serilda rose beside him as she turned her gaze towards the only person on the dais who mattered. “Your Majesty,” Serilda murmured and raised her moss-agate-green eyes to Nicholas’s familiar hazel-blue.
“Lady Serilda?” Nicholas nodded towards her with a curious smile. “I had heard you were resting in seclusion due to a permanent illness—I am glad to see those rumors were far from the truth—as always.” He stood, and even Percy seemed surprised when he approached Serilda with arms outstretched. “Truly, Marchioness—it is good to see you again.”
‘So you still remember me.’ Serilda smiled and released Percy’s arm as she stepped towards the crown prince, brushed her thumb across Nicholas’s right cheek, then kissed his left, smiling at the visible red mark she left there. A glance past Nicholas revealed a silently fuming Eleanora, who glared at Serilda reproachfully.
Nicholas chuckled and kissed Serilda’s right cheek without hesitation as he pulled her left hand from his cheek and squeezed it warmly. “I shall never forget your kindness, Marchioness. Or the terrible grief you suffered through—” his gaze turned briefly towards the Dowager “—was made to suffer through—alone.” His kind hazel-blue eyes returned to Serilda’s as he smiled sadly. “If you need anything, anything, Marchioness. Please, let me know. You have my permission to seek an audience with me at any time.”
“Your Majesty is as generous and thoughtful as your late father,” Serilda replied, allowing her gaze to moisten as she smiled sadly. “Thank you.”
“No, Marchioness. Thank you for returning,” Nicholas replied as his brows furrowed with remorse. “In such—trying times, a friendly face is always welcome.”
‘You poor boy.’ Serilda almost reached out to cuddle his face as she once had when he was but the forgotten second prince living in Tristan’s shadows. ‘You still dream of achieving fame and acknowledgment that will never be.’
The Earl cleared his throat softly behind her, and Nicholas hastily dropped Serilda’s hand like a guilty lover. A swift glance towards the dais rewarded Serilda with the crown princess’s livid expression. ‘You won’t last long if you allow your enemies to read you so easily, Elly.’ Serilda nodded towards her jealous cousin, then stepped back to take Percy’s arm as Nicholas spoke to the Earl.
“You, no doubt, intend to restore the Marchioness’s inheritance, Earl Hawthorne?” Nicholas said with a note of encouragement.
“Of course, her father’s estates have been in my mother’s keeping only until the Marchioness’s health stabilized. Now that Lady Serilda has returned, the house of Hawthorne will aid her in taking control of her father’s legacy and any responsibilities that come with it.”
“Good. Though I fear some of those lands were traded to Marquess Borghese over the last few years,” Nicholas added solemnly.
“I am prepared to do what is necessary to restore the Kensington estates to their original status and place them under the Marchioness’s capable hands,” Percy confirmed with a confident grin.
“Excellent!” Nicholas nodded his approval. “It’s just a shame Lady Serilda can’t join us at the House of Lords beside you.”
“Ah-ha! What would I do in a room full of serious old men?” Serilda shuddered, and Nicholas laughed along with her.
“Of course, the Marchioness is much better suited to social occasions. Though I expect you will marry in the future, Lady Serilda? Perhaps your husband will hold onto a seat for your future heir.”
Serilda tilted her head and offered the crown prince a brilliant smile. “One never knows what the future will hold, your Majesty.”
Nicholas blinked and then blushed. ‘Oh, bless this dear boy.’ Serilda unfurled her fan and smiled as she recalled Nicholas catching herself and the late king in a compromising position more than once. ‘I’ll forgive you those naughty thoughts, Nicky. After all, it was my idea to seduce Henri in your old nursing room with promises of another son.’
Another darted glance at Eleanora nearly sent Serilda into a fit of giggles. ‘The Crown Princess looks as if she ate a barrel of sour grapes. Poor Elly, do you need lessons on how to win your husband’s favor? Or are you worried he will notice your secret while you put on a display before the Dowager and your aunt?’
As if Eleanora could read her thoughts, the crown princess’s flushed cheeks turned pale. Eleanora jerked her gaze away and snapped at one of her attendants to fetch a glass of wine.
Serilda smirked and turned her attention back to Nicholas, only to unintentionally catch the Dowager’s gaze. The familiar wolf-like grin on the Queen Regent’s face matched Octavia’s predatory ice-blue eyes that glistened with far more knowledge than she had any right to know. Serilda felt her own smile slip as her hand tightened around the fan. ‘Damn you, you old ghoul. You know what the Countess did to me, and you still took her side.’
The calming touch of Percy’s hand on Serilda’s lower back restored the trembling Marchioness’s focus as she directed a delighted smile and laugh at the tail end of whatever joke Nicholas had been telling the Earl.
“Please, don’t let me keep you two any longer,” Nicholas apologized with a sheepish smile. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to partake of tonight’s dance, but I do hope to have the honor of a dance in the near future, Marchioness Serilda.”
“Perhaps at the Royal Hunt?” Serilda suggested quickly. “I have deeply missed what a delight it is to ride through our beautiful Lafearian forests chasing deer. During my rest, I was—rather restricted to the indoors—” she lowered her gaze and allowed just a sliver of her darkness to seep through.
“Then I order you to attend, Lady Serilda,” Nicholas replied hastily as he retook her hand and raised it to his lips. “It would hardly be a worthy social event if Lafeara’s greatest Rose were not in attendance.”
Serilda felt her stomach twist at the title King Henri had given her after the Marchioness became his mistress. ‘Well, if I am still Lafeara’s greatest Rose—’ Serilda turned her laughing moss-green eyes towards Eleanora’s burning amber gaze ‘—what does that make you, Elly?’
“Your Majesty’s compliments come with such responsibility! I have a great deal of preparation to do to ensure I measure up to your Majesties expectations!” Serilda returned with a delighted smile. “I do hope you will allow me to bring along a companion. There is a dear, kindhearted young noble who has become a bosom friend to me. The only noblewoman who has offered me her friendship and support since my return. Why she even prepared the dress I am wearing this evening.” Serilda raised his hand and twirled herself about once, accidentally tripping against him and laughing as Nicholas hurriedly supported her.
“Such a simple request, Marchioness. Of course, I would be happy to invite your friend!” Nicholas confirmed with an easy laugh. “And a worthy lady she must be to ignore those detestable rumors and offer you her support. I insist you bring her along, Lady Serilda. The Earl and I shall ensure you both enjoy the best the Royal Hunt as to offer.”
Serilda smiled, her mission accomplished and offered the crown prince another kiss on the cheek before she moved away and took Percy’s waiting arm. “I look forward to it, Nicky.”
The risk of public impropriety paid off as Nicholas smiled. A look of genuine relief flickered across the young monarch’s face before he turned back towards his empty throne.
“The Crown Prince is quite lonely, isn’t he,” Serilda whispered to Percy as she faced forward, ignoring the crowd around them that had swiftly adjusted their expressions from cold, reserved hostility to welcoming, admiring approval. “Just like his father was. I thought Nicholas had a mistress tucked away somewhere.”
“The commoner whore?” Percy’s tone dripped with cynicism as he turned and nodded to where Marquess Winifred and his two sons stood watching their approach. “I’m sure his Majesty will remember her easily enough when the time comes.”
“Poor, Elly,” Serilda whispered, hiding a twisted smile behind her fan. She quickly shifted into her usual enchanting demeanor as she faced the two young lords. ‘Poor little Eleanora who will never be queen. If I steal Nicky away, wouldn’t that be just too—unfair?’
Percy relaxed as Serilda laughed and fell effortlessly into conversations with both of Winifred’s sons. The brittle tense aura that had surrounded the Marchioness when she stood before the royal family quickly faded as the glow on her cheeks returned.
Marquess Winifred watched and nodded in approval as she and Lord Eustis flirted and gossiped as they enjoyed their wine and surveyed the still arriving nobles. Lord Oscar, the elder son, stared shamelessly at the notorious Marchioness while his plain-faced wife nursed a glass of apparently bitter wine.
As always, Serilda was a master at manipulating her audience’s attention with each fascinating gesture, delighted giggle, lingering gaze, and secretive smile.
Still, Percy had not missed Serilda and Nicholas’s apparent closeness earlier, though he dismissed it as nothing more than an old lingering attachment. After all, whatever their relationship had been while Serilda was the late king’s mistress, those feelings would have been buried deep in the earth along with the Marchioness’s unborn child and subsequent banishment.
“And to think they said you were locked away in some madhouse in the country, Marchioness,” Lord Oscar observed callously.
“I retired to the country to enjoy the beauty and peaceful solitude it offered,” Serilda replied with just a hint of steel to her words. “After King Henri’s sudden death—I decided to prolong my stay to grieve for him as well.”
“Oh?” Oscar raised an enquiring brow. “Then why have you returned now, Marchioness? To find a husband or another powerful lover to cling to?”
“Oscar!” Winifred growled with an alarmed glance at Percy. “You’ve had too much to drink.”
“Perhaps my father?” Oscar pressed as he pointed his empty cup towards the Marquess. “I do seem to recall that older men were particularly susceptible to your cha—“ Oscar doubled, his eyes bulged against suddenly pallid skin as he clutched his stomach with a gasp of pain.
Percy smiled as he twisted the invisible force against the arrogant noble’s gut. A loud wretch soon emptied Lord Oscar’s stomach onto the floor as the nobles around them gasped and backed away.
“Earl Hawthorne,” Winifred pleaded as he stepped between Percy and his son. “Forgive him—I will correct the boy’s behavior immediately—please.”
“The young lord seems unwell,” Percy commented coolly as Serilda unfurled her fan and stepped away from the repugnant mess. Another vicious twist and added pressure sent Oscar down on all fours, gasping for air as he strained to keep his face away from the puddle of vomit below him. Satisfied, Percy released the pressure upon the Marquess’s son and turned his winter-grey eyes to Winifred. “Perhaps he should return home.”
“I—Yes,” Winifred hastily agreed with noted relief as he turned and gingerly stepped into the disgusting filth to lift Oscar back to his feet. “Then, my youngest—”
Percy glanced over to Lord Eustis, who watched the Earl with wary eyes. ‘Eustis is not a fool. He should realize why his brother is suddenly in this predicament.’ Percy narrowed his eyes, and the unvoiced suggestion reached the Marquess’s second son quickly.
“I would be happy to stay for a dance with Lady—Marchioness Serilda,” Eustis replied as he stepped forward with a formal bow. “If my brother has not already ruined your spirits for this evening?”
“Hmm,” Serilda tilted her head and eyed the Marquess’s second son over her fan coyly. “I will need to think about it—but I suppose you may stay, Lord Eustis.”
Eustis’s smile relaxed as he glanced over to Percy then stepped back with another respectful bow.
Serilda circled the foul mess on the floor as she rejoined Percy and pressed her forehead against his shoulder. “You are such a bully,” she giggled.
“Am I?” Percy raised a brow as a sinister smile slid across his face. “They haven’t seen anything yet.”
“Terrifying,” Serilda whispered as she turned her moss-agate-green eyes towards him with a knowing smile. “My future husband must be terrifying, as well.”
Percy frowned as he studied her curiously. “Why does he need to be terrifying? Didn’t I say I would protect you both?”
“Because—” Serilda replied as her voice dropped to a whisper “—for some reason, I find it ridiculously appealing.”
Percy shook his head and tapped her nose before he nodded towards the ballroom door. “There is something else you will enjoy headed our way. Tonight’s prey has finally arrived.”