Chapter 72: A Stage of Fools
In the sea of shining jewels, opulent perfumes, and the familiar, inviting smiles of more than a few noblewomen, Acheron focused his tired gaze upon the table of liquor located at the south end of the ballroom.
‘How long has it been since I had a drink? Or slept for more than a few hours for that matter?’
Acheron cringed as his mother, Lady Lucy, whispered his nickname urgently. ‘I know she doesn’t like the name Father chose—but she could at least use it while we’re in public.’
“We have to go greet the royal family,” Lucy reminded him as she nodded towards the carpet where Prime Minster Attwood waited with an impatient frown.
“I—” Acheron glanced towards the glistening glasses of pre-poured wine “—you don’t need me with you for that. I can barely stand up as it is—wouldn’t want to embarrass you both before the Dowager—or the Crown Prince!”
Lucy looked concerned, but Attwood turned towards them with a profoundly disappointed sigh that was so familiar Acheron heard it often in his dreams. ‘Or were they nightmares?’
It did seem a bit callous to call the dreams of his father’s never-ending disapproval nightmares after the horror Acheron had witnessed over the last few days. His new nightmares, filled with visions of burning babies climbing over his body, were much closer by comparison.
“Let him be, Lucy,” Attwood advised. “It’s probably for the best.”
“Oh—well, I suppose,” Lucy looked conflicted as she straightened Acheron’s neck scarf for the third time that night. “Greet a few people, so they’ll remember that you attended, then take the carriage back home and get some sleep,” she whispered affectionately as she patted his cheek.
‘I don’t deserve you,’ Acheron thought guiltily as he smiled reassuringly after Lucy, who rejoined the impatiently waiting Prime Minister on the greeting carpet. ‘All I’m capable of is disappointing you both and destroying all the opportunities you tried so hard to give me.’
Truth be told, Acheron could not bear to look at Nicholas. Although he resented the crown prince’s decision to assign the task of observing the Witch Hunters to him, Acheron also felt that he somehow deserved it.
And yet, no matter how hard Acheron scrubbed the smell of burning witch from his skin, the weight of guilt still clung to him every time he looked at his friend.
The day Nicholas discovered Acheron’s betrayal was the day their friendship would end. ‘And I’ve only myself to blame.’
Acheron’s feet turned resolutely towards the shrine of soul-numbing liquid. His longing gaze wandered appreciatively through the variety of expensive wines, spirits, and even ale for those who preferred a more robust, earthier taste to their liquor. ‘I shouldn’t—but what could one drink hurt—I need something to get me through the next half-hour—is half an hour long enough? Better make it two drinks. No, damn it, Acheron—’
He pulled himself up short and nearly gasped at the painful need that spread like fire down his throat into his gut.
“Well, look what the cat dragged in,” a familiar, rich voice taunted him.
Acheron turned and blinked for a moment at the beauty, who stood appraising him with a pitiful expression in her lively moss-agate-green eyes. “Seri?”
“Marchioness Serilda to you,” she corrected sharply, then laughed as she circled him. “Well, aren’t you a sight for—well—” she raised a brow. “Perhaps you do need that drink.” She signaled a waiter who brought over two prepared glasses of champagne.
‘Not a bad first option,’ Acheron decided as he accepted the glass of Dulcis Baca wine and raised it towards his first crush. “To your return, Marchioness.”
“Why, thank you, Archie.”
He grimaced but quickly ignored the sting that endearment held as he downed the glass in one gulp. “What brings you back—”
“Why wouldn’t I come back?” Serilda interrupted him again as she toyed with her glass, more focused on staring into the pink bubbles than drinking. “You don’t look as happy as I thought you would—all things considered.”
“I seem to recall an arrogant brat who told me he would marry me—”
“I didn’t know what I was—”
“And how a ruined woman like myself should appreciate your generous offer,” Serilda finished with a cat-like smile.
“I admit it. I was an idiot. I didn’t deserve you then—and I don’t deserve you now.” Acheron sucked in a deep breath as the champagne hit him with a sudden wave of dizziness. “I’m—sorry.”
Serilda’s expression softened as she handed over her glass without a word.
Acheron took it with a grateful smile, finished the drink, and passed both glasses off to the nearest passing servant. “And I am—very happy—to have you back—though—” he held up a hand as another wave of fatigue rocked him “—though perhaps, I’m not in the best condition to—”
‘Had that wine always been this strong? No, I’ve barely kept down a meal these last few days. That’s probably why—’ He blinked slowly, steel blue eyes entranced by the glittering flutter of Serilda’s fan as she waved it beneath her majestic green eyes.
“Perhaps you should sit down, Archie,” Serilda murmured, her tone worried as she took his hand and tugged him back towards the entrance. “Come, let me help you find a private room to lie down.”
Acheron laughed. “If—I didn’t know any better—I would think you drugged me, Seri.”
Serilda’s enchanting smile swam before his eyes as her familiar, long-missed laughter filled his ears. The crowd blurred past, and the marble floor with its glorious gold-filled cracks tilted like a ship rocking against the waves. The stairs to the second floor stumbled beneath his uneven feet as Acheron tried to stand straight.
“But you—wouldn’t need—to go that far,” he mumbled incoherently, feeling intermittent hot flashes between the stars of exhaustion that danced behind his eyes.
“And why is that, Archie?” The chandelier above them haloed the Marchioness as she paused on the top step to look down at him. Those shadowed, mysterious moss-agate-green eyes were like an enchanted forest he dared not enter yet could not look away. Acheron groaned as he pinched the bridge of his nose and struggled to keep his eyes open at all.
‘Damn it. I will not pass out like some drunken fool in front of her!’
They passed through a doorway that Acheron nearly walked into. Serilda laughed as she pulled, prodded, and pushed him in the right direction. Her final push sent him tumbling down onto soft cool sheets, where his feverish mind and body foolishly hoped she might join him.
“I—I’m sorry,” he mumbled as the Marchioness’s figure danced before him. “Can’t—stay awake.”
“Then sleep, Archie,” Serilda replied, already heading towards the door. “I will inform your mother that you came here to rest.”
‘Stupid—what a thing to say. Why don’t you try bawling to see if that will impress her? Idiot.’
“You won’t be lonely for long, Archie,” Serilda promised. A moment later, her lips touched his forehead, but when he reached out to grab her, he found only air and an empty room.
“But you—came back,” Acheron mumbled as he rolled over onto a soft pillow and snored.
Percy reigned in a victorious smile as he turned from his conversation with Lord Coldwell towards the hesitating Lady Evelynn. “Lady Hendrix,” he greeted formally.
“Percy,” Evelynn pressed, her gaze pleading, eyes already red as if she had cried for hours before the ball. “Can we please—talk for a moment.”
‘I thought you’d never ask.’
Percy turned an apologetic smile to his companion. “If you’ll excuse me, Earl Coldwell.”
“Naturally, Earl Hawthorne,” the noble replied with a curious stare after them as Percy led Evelynn towards the arch window doors along the western perimeter of the ballroom that opened onto the veranda and overlooked the garden of lilies for which the palace had been named.
“What was it you needed to discuss?” Percy prompted as he turned to face Evelynn, careful to stand at a respectful distance and within sight of all observers. “Perhaps, there was something you felt you needed to apologize for?”
“No, I—” Evelynn fumbled with her fan, “—I only wanted to say—that—I missed you. I am so very glad that you’ve returned safely from—”
“You interrupted an important conversation between myself and another governing official to tell me you missed me?” Percy echoed with mocking cynicism. “Your childish whims aside, I have been patient with this delusion long enough. You need to wake up Lady Evelynn. Your deceitful words and rude behavior will no longer be tolerated.”
“I have never been deceitful to you!” Evelynn protested as she took a step towards him.
Percy held up a hand sharply and narrowed his eyes in warning. “But it was you who spread those rumors that you and I are already engaged and that Lady Maura came between us?”
“That—you cannot say that it is entirely false—”
“We are not engaged, Lady Evelynn.”
“So there was nothing for Lady Maura to get in the way of.”
“Though I would have to admit the rumors about my affection for the Baroness of Averly are entirely accurate,” Percy finished smugly as Evelynn gaped back in startled disbelief.
“But—Maura—she’s—a half-blood!” Evelynn protested the moment she recovered. “Her father could be anyone—a conman or murderer—or even a slave!”
“Say one more disrespectful word,” Percy replied in a threatening tone, “regarding Lady Maura, and I will see to it that you and your family are tossed out into the street tomorrow as beggars.”
The young woman’s crestfallen face quickly shifted to stunned disbelief. “Percy! You cannot—”
“Lady Evelynn!” Percy’s raised voice cut her off once more and the Earl watched with great satisfaction as Evelynn recoiled. “You have no idea what I am capable of.”
She dropped her gaze, finally quelled into silence, twisted her fan—and then sniffled pitifully.
‘Veles breath—will the theatrics never end?’
“Stop.” The magically attuned word was barely more than a whisper, and yet Evelynn stiffened, blinked, then looked up at him uncertainly with glistening eyes. “Right now, Lady Evelynn, you should be thinking about how you’re going to apologize to me and salvage what remains of your reputation.”
“W-what—should I do?” Evelynn mumbled out numbly. Her expression became unfocused as she pressed a shaking fan to her chest. “I—I’ve made such a fool of myself.”
“The rumors. Who helped you spread them? Was that really your idea, Lady Evelynn?”
“No—it was Lady Priscilla who suggested it,” Evelynn admitted with a puzzled frown. “To drive Lady Maura from her position and away from you.”
“Lady Priscilla Borghese?” Percy echoed with a grim smile. “I see.”
“I-I am—sorry—for harassing you both,” Evelynn whispered, still enthralled by his magic. “How can I—make amends?”
Percy turned to where a palace servant stood just out of sight beside the archway windows. “Follow this man. He will lead you to your future husband. You should do all within your power to forget your feelings for me, forget this conversation even happened, and focus on making your husband happy. All you need to remember is that you ended this one-sided fantasy because you found another more worthy of your affections.”
“Yes, I understand,” Evelynn nodded eagerly. “I will be happy with—the man you choose.”
“And your future husband is eager to meet you. There’s no reason to delay, after all—you are now madly in love with Lord Acheron Hargreve.”
“Yes—so in love.”
Percy waved a hand dismissively. Evelynn turned robotically towards the curtains, where the servant waited. The dazed noblewoman followed the manservant without question. Percy observed them as they made their way around the edge of the ballroom, through the arched entrance, and up the stairs to the second floor.
Once they had vanished out of sight, the Earl rejoined the other ballroom guests and shook his head when Lord Coldwell pressed him about Lady Evelynn’s conversation. The topic drifted expectedly towards the uncertain negotiations and the royal couple’s uneasy task.
Soon enough, the royal musicians picked up their instruments and played a graceful and merry melody that began the evening’s first dance. Percy freed himself from the dull conversations of politics to find his cousin standing beside Lord Eustice and pulled her towards the ballroom floor.
“It seems the first performance ended successfully,” Serilda observed with an amused smile. “You’re in good spirits once more.”
“Lady Evelynn can hardly point the finger at me for being unfaithful when she is caught in bed with the capital’s most notorious rogue,” Percy replied with a satisfied smirk. “Whatever the rumors of our engagement, no one would hold me the slightest bit responsible once she and Lord Acheron are married.”
“And the Prime Minister and his wife can give up any hopes of matching their wayward son to Lady Maura after such a public scandal,” Serilda replied with a nod of approval. “What a shame, at least with a Viscountess as a wife, Acheron can still pursue his father’s ambitions.”
“For as long as he can, at least. The Prime Minister’s days are numbered.” Percy grabbed Serilda’s waist, hoisted her up off the floor, and spun her slowly down beside him. “The Hendrix family will tie what little influence and wealth they retain to the Prime Minister’s son—and then when Rosamund’s betrayal is revealed, both families will perish together beneath Acheron’s ruin.”
Serilda’s laugher glided around the ballroom as they finished their dance, and Percy relinquished her to the waiting Lord Eustis. However, the second dance was soon interrupted by the anticipated arrival of Ambassador Haemish, Lady Lavinia, and their son, Lord Marco. The esteemed Ventrayna guests bowed their heads politely to the nobles before they proceeded down the purple carpet towards the impatiently waiting royal family.
Percy smiled as the dance music resumed after Haemish’s family had given their greeting and made his way towards the Ambassador.
“Earl Hawthorne!” Haemish nodded towards him nervously as Lady Lavinia found a chair beside Lady Lucy from which the two women admired the dancing couples. “I’ve just heard the wonderful news. Your cousin, the Marchioness of Berxley, has returned?”
“Indeed, Lady Serilda has finally given up the comforts of country living to lead her father’s household,” Percy replied with a cryptic smile. “She has his legacy to look after as his only heir.”
“Excellent!” Haemish smacked his son’s shoulder hard enough to make Marco wince. “My wife is determined to see the last of our litter married off to a Lafearian noble. I can think of no higher household with an appropriate match than—”
“Allow me to interrupt you right there!” Percy snapped his finger, and with that single motion, the rumble of voices and ballroom of nobles dancing and socializing came to a sudden stopped—as if time itself had frozen.
Haemish blinked slowly. His eyes widened while his jaw descended towards the floor as he took in the lifelike statues of nobles, servants, and even the royal family. “You—how—”
“I am not amused, Ambassador,” Percy interrupted coldly as he pressed his knuckles against the throbbing ache that quickly formed behind his eyes. “You would pair your half-witch brat to Lady Serilda, a pureblood belonging to one of the oldest Lafearian families? How emboldened you have become during your short visit.”
His words had their intended effect as Haemish paled and quickly bowed his head in apology.
“I—I can see how such a request—might have offended you,” Haemish simpered as he raised his hands and noted his frozen son beside him. “I merely thought—given Lady Serilda’s—” he shuddered as an invisible force clamped against his throat. “No—I apologize! I most sincerely apologize!!”
“I admire true ambition as much as the next witch, but only when it knows its place,” Percy growled as he tightened his fingers against the air and watched Haemish gasp as the force pressing against his throat cut off any chance to reply or draw breath. “The Ambassador should banish such treasonous thoughts from his mind.”
Sharp pain blossomed behind the Earl’s eyes, followed by a sudden wave of nausea that rippled through his gut as Percy was forced to release the Ambassador. The startled Ventrayna clutched his throat with a gargled gasp of air and bobbed his head once more.
“Yes, at once. They are forgotten!” Haemish mumbled out with a nervous laugh.
“And you will focus on peaceful negotiations with the Crown Prince tomorrow so that my cousin and I may be rid of your family’s distasteful presence within two days as planned.”
“You are—most magnanimous—your Majesty.” Haemish bowed humbly, but Percy knew a serpent when he saw one.
“Offend me again at your peril,” Percy warned dryly. “It would be a simple matter to squeeze that melon you call a head and make you disappear. It might even prove a formidable reminder to the Witch Emperor that the Lafearian covens are not as weak as they used to be.”
Haemish remained with his head bowed, unable to reply, as Percy snapped his finger and the ballroom flickered to life around them.
“I’m sure your son will find someone more suitable to his tastes on his own,” Percy murmured with a disinterested wave as he passed the Ambassador and his confused son. The Earl frowned as he circled the chair where Lady Lucy and Lady Lavinia resumed their conversation. The scent of fire magic pulled his gaze towards the Ambassador’s wife as Lady Lavinia’s warm honey brown eyes focused on him with a pointed threatening stare.
‘The Empress’s cousin.’ Percy nodded his head towards the woman politely and then moved on. ‘Why did she accompany her husband for this negotiation? And why drag that half-witch brat along with them?’ He avoided other nobles’ numerous efforts to draw him into their conversations and returned to the terrace, where he unfurled the curtains for privacy then leaned against the balcony as he clutched his chest.
‘It seems I am pushing my limits. Dealing with Mercy drained me far more than I realized.’
Percy closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath of the cool evening air as he turned and sat, looking back at the shadows cast upon the curtain. A drop of scarlet fell upon the silver button of his jacket. Percy blinked down at the blood then hastily pulled a handkerchief free to wipe his nose.
‘Perhaps my demonstration to the Ambassador was a bit too much,’ he reflected ruefully. ‘Hopefully, it will be sufficient to stop him from playing any more games and focus on the continued alliance between our kingdoms.’
The Earl checked his nose, and when he was confident the bleeding had stopped, he wrapped the handkerchief carefully and tucked it inside his jacket. The glint of light against his signet ring pulled his attention as he accessed the enchant within and confirmed Maura was still resting safely in her room.
‘Or—at least—the Winter Rose is still there.’ Percy frowned and clenched his hand. ‘Why is she being so stubborn about wearing it? Is it possible—’
“Percy!” The curtains swished behind Serilda’s dramatic entrance as her moss-agate-green eyes focused in on him, glittering with anger. “What were you thinking! You have no idea who might have noticed!” she hissed as he smiled towards her.
“I was thinking that the Ambassador has already overstayed his welcome,” Percy replied coldly.
Serilda raised a sharp brow. “That’s what this was about? Intimidating that old worm?” The Marchioness sighed and crossed her arms as she moved to join him by the balcony, her anger abating as she took in the garden of Irises blooming beneath the setting sun. “Do you remember when this used to be my palace?”
“I can build you a better one.”
“So many promises, cousin,” Serilda murmured sarcastically. “But there is only one promise I will hold you to.”
Percy nodded as he turned towards her. “Mother will be yours to do with as you wish the moment the throne belongs to me.”
“I know,” Serilda said softly as she placed a hand over his on the balcony. “We must all make sacrifices for the good of the covens.”
A murmur from the ballroom pulled her attention away, and Serilda left him briefly to gaze past the curtains. “The royal family is leaving. It’s time for Elly to face the music.”
“Eleanora and Lady Lavinia will have prepared something to disguise her dishonor,” Percy replied confidently. “In any case, it hardly matters now since they’re already married.”
‘Though I can’t help but wonder why Arius is forcing the matter.’
“Doesn’t it?” Serilda asked as she turned an inquiring brow towards him. “Would you be happy to share your marriage bed with the woman your dead brother already slept with?”
“Nicholas might be a fool, but I’m sure even he suspects there was a reason behind why Eleanora was permitted to perform the bridal examination protocols in Ventrayna instead of Lafeara.”
“You think too highly of him—or perhaps too unkindly,” Serilda replied with a shake of her head. “Nicholas will always believe the best of people—until they leave a knife in his back.”
“That is his weakness then,” Percy muttered as he joined her beside the curtain to watch the departing royals disappear through the arched doorway. “But not mine.” His gaze wandered over to where Lord Haemish, freed from his wife, was already flirting with an uncomfortable young blonde noblewoman. The unfortunate target of the Ambassador’s attention was soon rescued by her parents while Haemish stared after them, disappointed. “I would rather possess the secrets that make others useful to me.”
The Earl’s gaze wavered as he heard Serilda’s heart rate increase unsteadily beside him. He looked down just as the Marchioness averted her gaze from his face. Then she stiffened and gasped, “Percy!” The Earl followed Serilda’s shaking finger as she opened the curtains still further and pointed towards the archway doors the royal family had just departed through.
Percy smiled grimly as he took in the frail but majestic figure of the Countess who entered the ballroom leaning upon a cane. The woman’s topaz-blue eyes turned in his direction as Serilda hastily darted behind the curtain. “So, there you are—Mother.”