Chapter 73: A Scene of Tragedy
Haemish finished off his third glass of Caligo wine and half-closed his eyes as he enjoyed the surge of desert spice, rich Caligo grape, and the hint of fire that burned down his throat. ‘A drink fit only for pure-bloods in Ventrayna. How did Eleanora get her hands on it?’ He snorted with ill humor and snapped his finger at the manservant who carried the open bottle of precious wine. The servant hastily stepped forward and refilled the Ambassador’s glass.
‘I should be enjoying my success, but—’ Haemish looked up from his glass towards the ballroom filled with nobles either dancing or conversing loudly over each other. Their animated socialization a stark contrast for moments ago when Percy Hawthorne had snapped his fingers and frozen them all in place.
‘With power like that—is it possible?’ Haemish pursed his lips as he drew in a breath. ‘It would not be the first time Veles blessed a witch of the Hawthorne bloodline.’
As much as Haemish feared and respected his Emperor, even more so while Arius still held Kritanta’s blessing, fire was a visible force of destruction. Air, however, was silent and, like its God and covens, often moved unobserved until they were perfectly poised to strike. Throughout history, many stories claimed that the words of a pure-blood could compel even a pure-blood witch, or mortal king, to act against their nature.
‘It would certainly explain why King Henri favored an alliance with Ventrayna and our Emperor while Ethan Hawthorne was his Prime Minister.’ Haemish took a quick drink to mask the slight tremor in his hands. ‘First that bastard, Prince Tristan shakes up the line of succession in Ventrayna, and now this arrogant Earl wants to usurp Lafeara’s throne. All my efforts to make Eleanora a Queen will be for naught if they have their way.’
The Ambassador sighed. Then his gaze settled upon a supple blonde noblewoman circling the ballroom in his direction. Haemish raised his glass towards her with an inviting leer, but the young woman quickly unfurled her fan to block him from her sight as she hurried on towards her male partner, who might have been her husband or father given the death glare he sent in Haemish’s direction.
‘Bah! Lafearian’s are such prudes. At least in public, given their Crown Prince has a mistress and a wife.’ Haemish chortled at the thought of Nicholas fulfilling his wedding obligation with Eleanora in front of the Queen Regent and Lady Lavinia. ‘Hopefully, the young monarch doesn’t choke under pressure.’
He snorted and finished off his wine. ‘At least with Lavinia otherwise occupied tonight, I can enjoy myself freely.’ The Ambassador’s mood somewhat lifted until the sound of Marco’s laughter rose above the din. Haemish’s gratified leer reversed into a frown as he turned to find his disappointing offspring seated between two young noblewomen, one of them a blonde who had rudely rebutted Haemish’s advances earlier.
“It is good to see you are finally enjoying yourself, Son,” Haemish called out loudly as he approached the sofa upon which they reclined.
The three young nobles turned towards him with varying levels of disgust. Marco visibly tensed as he straightened his glass and then raised it towards Haemish in a toast, “To your good health, Father.”
The respectful words did not match the unmistakable anger and ever-present fear that lurked behind his son’s hazel-blue eyes. Marco emptied the glass and snapped it down on the table as he rose to his feet.
“Ladies, I owe you a dance,” Marco announced as he turned his back to the Ambassador and held out a hand to each of his pretty companions. “And as you are both impossibly beautiful—rather than choose between you—I suggest we dance as three.”
Haemish barked out a laugh, but the giggling women rose and gladly accepted Marco’s offered hand. The three completely ignored the Ambassador as they rounded the table and headed merrily towards the dancing floor.
‘Useless waste of space. Piss me off and see if I don’t drag you back to Ventrayna to have Lord Zenaku beat some more sense into you.’
As if sensing his gaze, one of the young women glanced back at Haemish and wrinkled her nose in a blatant gesture of disgust before Marco’s arm tightened around her waist as the half-witch spun both women in a giggling circle amongst the other dancers.
Haemish glowered after them, then realized his cup was empty and snapped his fingers for a refill. ‘Bastard should have died before leaving his mother’s womb. At least then I’d have been spared the embarrassment of fathering such a weak half-witch.’
With his cup refilled, Haemish strolled leisurely towards the dais and its three empty thrones. He was fully aware of the unfriendly eyes that followed his daring movements and chose to ignore them. As the Ambassador drew closer to the king’s chair, he leaned in to appreciate the ornate golden artwork a carpenter had woven into the three devouring wolves.
A sudden silence filled the ballroom behind him, and Haemish turned to where the crowd rapidly gave way before a woman with graying sable-brown hair, topaz-blue eyes, and a familiar disapproving expression.
‘Ah, so the Countess of Hawthorne finally makes an entrance.’
Lady Constance looked regal, if not a bit pale, in the purple gown that trailed behind her on the floor. Although she leaned upon a cane, the Countess still walked with quiet confidence, her eyes piercing through the crowd as nobles hurriedly nodded their heads towards her respectfully.
Lord Hendrix rushed through the crowd to greet the Earl’s mother with a bow. “Countess Constance! We heard you had retired to the country.”
‘Retired?’ Haemish eyed the formidable woman curiously as she waved Hendrix out of her path with her cane. ‘I suppose, now that Percy has inherited all his father’s powers, that would strip away most of the Countess’s influence.’
“I have returned briefly to see the matter between our families settled,” Constance replied impatiently as her gaze moved towards the royal dais and narrowed upon Lord Haemish with a sharp look of disdain. “Where is the Dowager?”
“The royal family retired early tonight,” Hendrix explained with a shrug.
“All of them? Why?” Constance demanded sharply.
“I—” Hendrix shrugged uncertainly.
“They had a private family matter to deal with,” Percy supplied as he stepped forward to greet the Countess. “Mother, you don’t look well. Why force yourself here tonight?”
Constance gazed up at her son with a look of unmasked fury. “You have greatly disappointed me, Percy. I will no longer stand by and watch you jeopardize the peace I sacrificed so much to build.”
The quiet amongst the nobles around them intensified as the audience held its breath in an attempt to capture this unexpected power play.
“You overestimate your capabilities and underestimate mine, as always,” Percy replied with a note of weary frustration.
“Lord Hendrix, you should fetch your daughter and wife,” Constance ordered with a sharp tap of her cane. “Tonight, I will announce the engagement of our children so that they may prepare for a spring wedding.”
Soft gasps filtered through the crowd.
“What? But that is—wonderful news!” Hendrix blurted out—then immediately cowed beneath Percy’s sharp glare. “I’ll—just excuse myself.” The Viscount darted away, his eyes scanning the crowd, no doubt in search of his family.
Haemish snorted and resisted the urge to sit down in the throne chair beside him as he watched the family drama play out. Percy’s winter-grey eyes turned towards him with a look of warning, as if reading his thoughts. Haemish quickly stepped down from the dais and decided now would be a good time to reintroduce himself to the Earl’s mother.
“Countess Constance, it has been a long time,” Haemish greeted as he stepped towards them and offered her a formal bow.
“Not long enough.” The woman’s short reply was followed by the sharp unfurling of a fan that Constance used to block Haemish’s face as if the sight of him had somehow offended her.
‘Arrogant pure-blood bitch.’
Haemish straightened and stepped back, satisfied to let the Earl handle the difficult woman. ‘Clearly, their relationship is not as good as I had heard. I wonder what created such a rift between mother and son.’
“I’m surprised the Ambassador was able to make the journey,” the Countess said scornfully, speaking over her fan. “Given that the inquisition arrived before you, I would have expected you to delay your visit until after the church’s hounds departed.”
“Countess,” Haemish smiled stiffly. “I came to drive them out and have already done so.”
“Indeed,” Percy supplied with a taut smile. “The Crown Prince gave the order this afternoon to shut down the inquisition. As we speak, knights are on their way to Crowhaven, where the witch hunters were last spotted, to locate and escort them to the border.”
“The prince wouldn’t dare!” Constance replied with evident outrage.
‘Why the hell would this witch want the inquisition to remain here?’ Haemish narrowed his eyes and glared at the infuriating fan still aimed in his direction.
“Well,” Constance continued, still audibly annoyed. “After the negotiations have concluded, the Ambassador can carry back news of your engagement to the Emperor as well.” The Countess turned sharply and marched up onto the dais Haemish had just left.
Percy brushed against the Ambassador’s shoulder as he hastily moved after his mother and caught her wrist. The Countess stumbled as her cane became useless and whirled around to face her son.
“It is already too late to tie me to the Hendrix bitch, Mother,” Percy informed her in a threatening tone.
Constance smirked, though her topaz-blue eyes shown with cold disapproval. “It is time you stopped behaving like some stubborn, spoiled child, Percy. You want to throw away a perfectly good marriage for a half-blood of unknown breeding?”
“Lady Maura is of far higher quality than you realize, Mother.” Percy’s voice rippled dangerously. For a moment, even Constance seemed momentarily cowed by the menacing glint in his eyes.
‘A half-blood? Lady Maura?’ Haemish could hardly contain his glee. He clearly remembered the pretty brunette Eleanora identified as Lady Maura at the banquet last night. The same brunette the Earl appeared enamored with. ‘So the Earl has a weakness after all.’
“I am doing this,” Constance whispered determinedly as she pulled her wrist free, “to protect the future and legacy of the Hawthorne name.”
“Your every action has trampled upon that name,” Percy replied mercilessly. “And I will not forgive your disobedience if you continue to force your designs upon me, Mother.”
Constance’s face flushed with anger. “Look what she has done to us. Look at what she has done to you!” The Countess lifted her chin defiantly and pulled her wrist from the Earl’s grasp. “I am your Mother. I will always do what is best for you.”
Haemish shook his head as the Countess mounted the dais, then turned and waved her fan sharply in the direction of the orchestra that fumbled to a halt as the conductor caught her signal. “Noble Lords and Ladies,” Constance called out in a shrill, loud voice. “If I could have your attention!”
The ballroom, which had already given its undivided attention to the Earl and his mother, now crowded towards the dais in eager anticipation, although they were careful not to press too close to the silent Earl. Haemish watched Percy, half expecting the young Earl to storm upon the dais and drag his mother down again.
Instead, the Earl shook his head, then turned his back to the thrones and the Countess. The cold smile that spread upon Percy’s face as he moved through the crowd towards the Ambassador sent a chill down Haemish’s spine.
‘He—doesn’t appear the least bit concerned.’
The Earl’s winter-grey eyes shifted to concentrate on something behind Haemish. The Ambassador turned and found Prime Minister Attwood pushing his way rather rudely through the crowd of onlookers focused on the Countess.
“I have returned to the Capital for a very important announcement!” Constance continued, unperturbed or unaware of the lord fighting his way towards her desperately. “It is my great pleasure to announce the engagement of—”
“WAIT!” Another man’s voice shouted frantically from the ballroom doorway.
Haemish felt as if his head were on a spinning platter as his gaze swiveled towards Lord Hendrix, who stood panting in the doorway. The Viscount’s wig slid down his rather pale forehead as he sucked in several gulps of air.
Having finally reached the dais, Prime Minister Attwood pushed past Haemish and Percy and whispered something urgently to the Countess. Haemish caught a soft chuckle from the Earl as Constance turned towards them and stared at Percy, horrified.
“That is the problem with the elderly,” Percy murmured as he gazed back at his mother dispassionately. “They believe their grip on power to be unshakable. But the world cannot survive on balance and peace. It thrives on change, chaos, and revolution.”
‘Is the Earl referring to Lafeara or—’ Haemish shook the thought from his head quickly. The Ambassador was no pacifist, but the more he saw of the Earl’s power and cunning, the less he desired a war between Lafeara and the Emperor. ‘The Earl is far too confident—and it would be to the Emperor’s benefit if they became allies united against the Pope.’
Attwood held up his hands as he faced the crowd with a strained smile and pale complexion. “Forgive the interruption. I had wanted to give this announcement myself, as is proper of the intended groom’s family.”
‘Oh?’ Haemish glanced across the crowd, who whispered in confusion while the Countess turned her distressed gaze away from Percy and leaned upon the arm of a stricken Lord Hendrix.
“Therefore—Today,” Attwood continued. “I would like to officially announce the engagement of my son, Lord Acheron Hargreve, to the daughter of Viscount Hendrix, Lady Evelynn Hendrix. We will send out invitations for the official engagement party later, and I hope to see many of you at the wedding once we have worked out all the particulars. Now, please, go back to enjoying yourselves on this blessed evening.”
Haemish turned from the clearly shaken Prime Minister towards Percy and raised his wine glass to the young Earl in silent admiration. ‘It would appear Percy already had a plan in place to thwart the Countess’s attempts to arrange his marriage. How disturbingly insightful.’
Percy offered a smug smile, then turned to welcome his cousin, the beautiful Lady Serilda. The Marchioness made no attempt to hide her victorious smile as she wrapped her hands around the Earl’s arm and sent Lady Constance a vicious smirk.
‘Lady Serilda will no doubt take control of the Twilight Coven now that she has returned. If Percy is able to unify the three covens of Lafeara beneath him, taking the throne of Lafeara should be an easy task. If he becomes King of Lafeara and the three covens, even the air witches loyal to the Emperor might be swayed back to his side.’
A gasp spilled through the crowd as the Countess collapsed to the floor beside the throne. Percy swiftly pulled away from Serilda and leapt up on the dais. The Earl shoved the startled Lord Hendrix aside as he scooped up his mother and carried her through the parting crowd towards the exit. Lady Serilda hurriedly picked up the Countess’s fallen cane and quickly followed behind them. Her dancing chestnut curls were soon buried behind the crowd of nobles who closed like the sea upon their exit, brimming with excited whispers.
“I thought the Earl was engaged to Lady Evelynn?”
“Indeed, I believe that was the Countess’s wish, no wonder she was so overcome with shock.”
“But didn’t the rumor say the engagement was in jeopardy because the Earl had fallen for one of the Crown Princess’s ladies-in-waiting?”
“Nonsense, the Earl could do far better than any of those ladies.”
“Perhaps those rumors mistook his cousin, Lady Serilda, for one of the Crown Princess’s attendants.”
“Oh dear. I’m certain I saw Lady Priscilla kick out one of the Crown Princess’s attendants at the Holy Maiden Boutique just last week!”
“Yes, but Lord Eustis was on hand to rescue her.”
“And now he’s been left stranded by the Marchioness.”
“Which of her Majesties ladies was it?”
“The youngest one, Lady Maura, a half-blood. No family name.”
“What is a half-blood doing as the Crown Princess’s attendant?”
“Nevermind that, how could a half-blood afford to shop at Sir Everly’s Boutique?”
“Maybe the rumors are true, and the Earl is paying her bill?”
“I saw this Lady Maura at the banquet yesterday. She is pretty—in a pitiful orphan sort of way.”
“A mistress before he’s even married, and the Earl is only twenty! Shocking!”
“The Crown Prince had a mistress at a much younger age before he married the Crown Princess! A commoner too, I hear.”
“Careful, that subject is taboo. Do you want to be thrown into the Dowager’s dungeon?”
“But—if Lady Evelynn was engaged to the Earl—why is she suddenly, publicly engaged to Lord Acheron of all people?”
“Everyone knows Lord Acheron is an infamous rogue! I hear at least two fallen noblewomen were sent to the church as nuns after becoming entangled with him.”
“He is a close friend of the Crown Prince, so he would have had plenty of opportunities to meet with Lady Evelynn.”
“I suspect we’ll hear a delicious scandal with tomorrow’s gossip paper!”
“Perhaps there will even be a rushed marriage before winter!”
“Poor Lady Evelynn! I doubt she’ll curb Acheron’s appetite.”
Haemish stepped away from the vicious pit of gossip, quite satisfied with what he had gleaned from the women’s prattle. It had confirmed one or two of his earlier suspicions in either case. He allowed the crowd to push him closer to the dais, where the Prime Minister and Lord Hendrix were having a rather heated, whispered discussion.
“I said it before already. Acheron will take full responsibility for his actions, but your daughter is hardly blameless in this matter either. Why on earth did she go looking for him away from the party when he was clearly drunk and not himself?”
“Don’t you dare implicate my daughter! Your son’s horrendous behavior is well known to all! If anyone was drunk and taken advantage of, it was Evelynn!”
“And what kind of noblewoman drinks herself senseless and wanders around into empty rooms unchaperoned?!”
“I will not allow you to—”
“Enough!” Attwood’s voice rose then fell sharply as he pulled Hendrix in closer. “This is not a place to discuss what’s happened. In any case, Acheron will do the honorable thing and marry her. We should return upstairs. The sooner we get them both out of sight, the better.”
Hendrix’s face turned a purple shade as he sucked in a breath to hold off another angry retort. He quickly deflated and gave the Prime Minister a sharp nod of agreement. Then the two troubled fathers turned and made their way silently through the crowd that quickly focused upon them with inquisitive prods and hearty congratulations.
When the two lords finally made their escape, the ballroom slowly returned to the festive atmosphere as partners returned to the dance floor and the unattached and elderly resumed their whispered conversations.
Haemish decided that he had tolerated more than enough Lafearian perfume for one evening and followed after the two lords. The crowd parted before him with narrowed eyes that quickly darted to the floor when the Ambassador glanced towards them. ‘Nothing but preening sheep easily spooked.’ The Ambassador signaled to his trailing servant to remain at the ball and keep an eye on Marco.
‘Can’t have that brat getting any clever ideas about running off.’
A Lafearian knight posted at the bottom of the staircase nodded and stepped aside as the Prime Minister and Lord Hendrix stomped hurriedly up the stairs. The same knight scowled and held up a restraining hand as the Ambassador approached.
“You do realize that my rooms are upstairs,” Haemish reminded him pointedly. Two fire witch bodyguards fell in step behind the Ambassador, one of them casually lighting a cigar in the corner of his mouth with a finger.
The knight eyed the witches with a grimace of unease but stepped aside, choking as the witch exhaled a puff of fragrant smoke into the man’s face. “Impudent mortal,” the bodyguard hissed in Ventrayna.
Haemish ignored the witch’s comment, more intrigued by the scene the Prime Minister and Lord Hendrix were hurrying towards. ‘They even blocked off the stairs with a knight. It must be something worth keeping away from prying eyes.’
The second floor was divided into three hallways. Haemish had been given the largest bedroom to the west while Lady Lavinia and Marco shared co-joined rooms to the North. The East wing remained empty, though judging by the two knights on guard outside the room near the stairwell, not as empty as it should have been.
“Ambassador,” the witch guard by Haemish’s bedroom door moved over and bowed.
“What has happened?” Haemish asked with feigned disinterest.
The door in the east wing opened, and the sharp wail of a young woman spilled out, followed by two raised voices that belonged to the Prime Minister and Viscount and the sound of someone puking. Lady Hendrix appeared through the door, which shut promptly behind the woman, who shook visibly as she wiped tears from her cheeks with a handkerchief.
Feeling their gaze, the Viscountess turned towards them, straightened her spine, and angrily shouted, “What? What are you looking at?”
Haemish barked out a laugh and turned towards his west wing.
“A young couple was caught fornicating by their parents,” the witch guard whispered with a hint of annoyance. “There has been a lot of crying and yelling since the Prime Minister barged in on them a short while ago.”
“How did he find out?” Haemish pressed curiously. “And how did they get past you?”
The guard shrugged. “A Lafearian noblewoman brought up the drunk young master earlier. She said he was a government official and even showed me his badge. She asked to use one of the unoccupied rooms to allow him to rest for a moment.”
“I see, and then?”
“The noblewoman left him there a short while later and returned to the ball. She said his wife would be up in a moment to check on him.”
“His wife?” Haemish chuckled appreciatively. “And then the other woman arrived?”
“Yes, a servant led her upstairs to the room, and she entered alone, but—the lady insisted she was his wife when I tried to stop them from coming up the stairs.”
‘Mind manipulation?’ Haemish shivered despite the uncomfortable warmth of his robes and nodded. “Give them a few minutes to calm down, then ask them to leave. I’m sure the Prime Minister will handle everything. I shall retire to my room. I do not wish to be disturbed.” He paused outside his door and turned an inquiring brow to the guard, having remembered his other purpose for leaving the boring ball early. “You did find the two dancers I asked you to look for, correct?”
“Yes!” the guard nodded as he handed over the bedroom key. “They are already inside as you instructed.”
“Good. Lavinia will be away for a few hours until the royal couple has finished their marital consummation. When she returns, tell her to go to bed, she can report Eleanora’s progress in the morning. I intend to enjoy myself tonight. No one is allowed to disturb me—not even the Pope himself. Is that clear?”
“I will ensure you remain unmolested, Ambassador.” The guard replied with an envious leer as his two comrades took up their position at the other ends of the hall. “Please enjoy your evening.”
“I intend to!” Haemish replied with a laugh. “I’ll see you in the morning, Reith.”
With a growing impatience, the Ambassador unlocked the bedroom door and threw it open.
Two blond beauties sat provocatively posed at the foot of his bed. Their glistening chests were free of any garments beyond their painted curves. Haemish sighed happily as he admired their matching firm breasts. They weren’t within his usual age preference, but they were still more than enough to satisfy him for the evening. ‘And twins have their own tantalizing charm.’
“Good evening, Ambassador.” The blondes, who had not spoken, pulled apart as a third young woman sat up between them. A black veil concealed all but her ash-brown hair and familiar frigid ice-blue eyes that pinned him in place. “We have been waiting for you.”