Chapter 81: The Widow in Mourning
Lady Lavinia Zenon was not a woman prone to displaying her emotions carelessly. Her every action, word, and tone were a calculated display meant to fill the role she endured as Haemish’s wife. For twenty years, she had been forced to kneel and submit to marriage with that ambitious, worthless, detestable coven witch at the command of the Emperor. A fate that even her cousin, Empress Alexandria, had been unable to save her from. It didn’t matter that their marriage went against all the traditions of the covens meant to protect the sacred bloodlines of pure-blood witches. The Emperor, fed up with the antics of his legal wife and her extended family, had been persuaded by the Merchant of Lies to humble them by forcing the Empress’s favorite cousin to be Haemish’s wife.
Lavinia had learned to endure her husband’s constant humiliations in silence, but she never forgot her bitter resentment for Haemish and his Emperor. She hated every moment of her marriage, with one exception—her children.
Despite the inferiority of her husband’s questionable witch bloodline, Lavinia had given birth to two strong coven witches, Seamus and Marcel. Alas, her youngest son, Marco, succumbed to the dangers of breeding with a new and inferior bloodline. Marco, like Haemish’s own sister, was born a half-witch.
Even though Lavinia had never wanted this third pregnancy, she became protective of her youngest son. Although she wished to believe she favored and loved all her children equally, Marco was remarkable. What he lacked in magical power, Marco made up for with the glow of his smile, the undaunted joy in his eyes, the endless curiosity about the shape and mystery of the world around him and the different people that lived there.
But Ventrayna was no place for a half-witch, not even one who was born to a pure-blood of the Zenon family. The Dragon Coven considered the boy—and his father—a mark of shame upon their lineage. Lavinia’s father had even suggested hiring an assassin to remove “the problem,” as he called it.
Haemish himself refused to acknowledge Marco as his son. It was as if the Ambassador’s pride refused to accept the blame for the boy’s failure lay within himself.
But two blessings came from Marco’s birth. The first was that Haemish no longer sought his wife’s company in bed—least another failure be produced. The second, that Lavinia learned how to love without expectations. With her older boys, Lavinia wasted no time encouraging them to greatness. She pushed them to walk, speak, and then read from an early age. Once she was satisfied, their training in magic and coven politics began. But with Marco, Lavinia learned to be content with the weight of his arms around her neck. The beautiful blue light that shimmered in his dark curls under the moonlight filled her with peace. But most of all, the way his innocent hazel-blue eyes saw beneath her façade to the ache and rage she carried made Lavinia feel seen and validated.
Marco was good at seeing people. Perhaps due to his never-ending curiosity, or gentle nature, or simply his precarious position. He used what he saw to give people what they needed from him, often at his own expense. He was comfortable playing the jester to ease Marcel’s explosive anger. He was satisfied playing the weak and useless half-witch if it meant Seamus would acknowledge him, even if only with constant nick picking mixed with encouragement. He accepted being a shadow in his own house if that meant Haemish did not see him and subsequently turn his anger on some unfortunate house slave.
But when the house was empty of all but Lavinia and her boy, Marco was himself. He read in the alcoves of the ceiling, painted on the glass windows, climbed to the highest arches of their palace home, and watched the sunrise as he dreamed about the world.
Marco was Lavinia’s first thought as she stood over the body of her now-dead husband. More than her own unexpected liberation and joy—Marco needed to see this.
“Wake my son and bring him here,” Lavinia commanded, her voice barely above a whisper.
“My Lady?” Seth, one of her husband’s bodyguards, said hesitantly behind her.
Lavinia turned her chocolate-brown eyes on the man who had failed his duty. Seth flinched and lowered his gaze as her eyes burned with a threatening amber flame. He swiftly bowed and then left the room without further comment. Lavinia focused on the other guard who remained inside the bedroom door. “I would like a moment—of privacy.” The witch nodded and bowed as he stepped back into the hallway and silently shut the doors.
Then, and only then, did Lavinia genuinely smile.
‘You couldn’t have picked a better place or time to die, Haemish. I would thank you for that, but it’s the least you could have done for your family.’
She stared at her dead husband, sprawled upon the floor. His disgusting yellow-green eyes rolled back into his head. His mouth hung open crookedly; dry lips stretched into an expression somewhere between a laugh or a scream. Haemish’s skin was chalky, dry, and severely dehydrated, which suggested he had activated a purification spell shortly before death.
‘Was he poisoned, perhaps?’
Lavinia knelt down cautiously. Despite the guards’ attempts to keep it a secret, she was well aware her late husband had taken two women to his room for the night. She unbuckled the belt at the dead man’s waist with little concern for modesty, then pulled down his pants. A waft of dried piss assaulted her senses as her husband’s shriveled groin came into view. Lavinia was only mildly disappointed that Haemish appeared to have died intact and without obvious signs of torture or injury.
‘If the harlots used poison instead of the usual, more obvious methods of assassination, they would aim for an area other people would hesitate to look. And with two of them working together, the odds of distracting him long enough to prick him with a dagger or needle—’ There was an odd bruise along the Ambassador’s inner thigh, but nothing out of the ordinary for a man with such abhorrent sexual preferences. ‘Or perhaps they drugged his wine?’
Lavinia sighed as she yanked the pants back up and refastened the belt. She noted the dagger there that the Emperor had gifted Haemish on their wedding day. The blade remained in its sheath, and there was no damage to the decorative hilt. ‘He was always so damn proud of that piece of metal.’ Lavinia moved on, checking Haemish’s hands. The skin was dry like the rest of his body, but the Ambassador’s fingertips, in particular, were cracked from severe dehydration, a sign that Haemish had pushed his already weak magic past his limits.
“Well, let’s see if you managed to use the other gift the Emperor gave you,” Lavinia muttered as she turned both of his palms upwards and murmured a spell. “Mors ad proditores.” A sigil of black flame appeared on Haemish’s right palm and flared orange twice before it flickered out.
Lavinia smothered a cynical laugh as she rose to her feet. ‘So you managed to mark both of your killers. How convenient. But who would take the trouble to assassinate you here in Lafeara?’ She tilted her head thoughtfully as she took in the immaculately made bed, the barely disturbed carpet, and then frowned when she noticed an object was missing.
‘The robes you wore to the banquet last night. It looks like your assassins tried to clean up after themselves.’
Lavinia pulled the Emperor’s dagger from Haemish’s belt and jabbed it carefully between her husband’s teeth. His jaw pried open stiffly. Inside, the roof of his mouth and his tongue were caked in foam and blood.
‘Looks like it was quick—but perhaps not completely painless.’
Lavinia removed the dagger, wiped it on Haemish’s shirt, then returned it to the belt.
It went without saying that Lavinia’s husband had earned numerous enemies during his rise to power by the Emperor’s side. The entire Dragon Coven wanted him dead or at least beaten to within an inch of his life. Lavinia would have killed her husband many times over were it not for the Death Mark Curse the Emperor had blessed Haemish with before their wedding day.
‘The assassin is no Ventrayna agent. They wouldn’t bother to be discreet nor risk getting this close when they killed him.’ Lavinia chuckled darkly, but her smile soon faded. She turned towards the bedroom door as the sound of hurried footsteps reached her ears. The barrier burst open as Marco rushed in, wearing only trousers and a loose robe.
“Mother?” Marco froze in his tracks as his hazel-blue eyes dropped to the corpse at her feet. Lavinia held her breath as she waited for Marco’s reaction, but her son appeared frozen in disbelief.
Seth moved up beside the shocked half-witch and bowed his head to Lavinia respectfully. “What would you have us do now, Lady Lavinia?”
“The servants told me you brought two female entertainers to my husband’s room last night,” Lavinia replied neutrally as she turned her attention to the witch. “Who were they?”
“The two dancers who performed at Princess Eleanora’s banquet,” Seth answered promptly. “Lord Haemish asked me to seek them out and bring them to his chambers. The last I saw of either of them—they were both here with the Ambassador in this room.”
“And no one else came or went after he bid you goodnight?”
“When was the last time you spoke with him?”
“Well—” Seth hesitated, “—that would have been when you dropped by to speak with the Ambassador through the door.”
“I see,” Lavinia folded her arms and drew in a breath. “And when did the women leave?”
“That—I do not know.”
“We did not see either of them leave,” the other guard said as he moved forward to stand beside Seth. “Neither of us slept a wink, my Lady. I don’t know when or how they left, but they were gone when we knocked on the door to—escort them out before your ladyship woke.”
“Yes, I’m aware of how hard you both worked to placate my husband’s insatiable appetite,” Lavinia retorted acidly. The two bodyguards exchanged looks and said nothing. “So you brought the two women into his room, you saw them and my husband together, and then this morning the women somehow vanished, and you found my husband dead on the floor?”
“Did you not hear anything suspicious?” Lavinia inquired with a raised brow.
“No, not a sound,” Seth replied, then grimaced. “Which—was unusual for Lord Haemish.”
‘Indeed.’ Lavinia dug her fingernails into her arm as she repressed the unpleasant memory of her husband’s disgusting fetishes. ‘Just one more reason to be grateful to his killers, I suppose.’
She surveyed the room, her chocolate brown eyes flashing amber once more as she searched and found traces of an already fading enchantment along the frames of the windows and door. She kept this discovery and what she had found inside Haemish’s mouth to herself as her gaze returned to Seth.
“You realize that if the Ambassador was assassinated, both of you would be executed for failing to perform your duty?”
Seth and the other bodyguard both dropped to their knees and bowed their heads towards the floor. “We deserve death, Lady Lavinia.”
“Your death need not be certain. I am not yet fully convinced my husband was murdered. Perhaps it would be better for all concerned and the success of this negotiation if he were to pass unexpectedly due to some other reason.”
Neither bodyguard reacted nor replied to her subtle suggestion.
“Rise,” Lavinia raised her hand permissively and eyed the witches carefully as they stood. “For now, send word to the palace. I would ask Lafeara’s Crown Prince to help me determine the cause of our late Ambassador’s death. You two will now act as my bodyguards for the duration of our stay.”
Seth raised his gaze cautiously. “You intend to remain, Lady Lavinia?”
“Our mission is not yet complete. You should both be aware that in the event my husband was ever unable to carry out the Emperor’s orders, that responsibility would then fall to me,” Lavinia reminded them as her eyes burned closer to gold.
‘How long have they seen me as little more than a forgotten bedwarmer for that nauseating goat?’
“We understand, Ambassador,” the second guard replied.
Lavinia smiled as she turned to him. “Your name?”
“Reith, Lady Zenon.”
‘At least one of them remembers my family name.’
“Seth and Reith, decide which of you will report the Ambassador’s death to Prince Nicholas. The other may stand guard outside. My son and I need a moment.” Lavinia dismissed them both with a wave of her hand and then moved to Marco’s side as they shut the door behind them. “Marco.” She grasped the seventeen-year-old boy’s hand and felt his chaotic magic flickering like a storm in his center. “We must both make a better display of grief in the future, at least until after Haemish’s funeral.”
Marco jerked his hand away, his shocked expression hardening as his brows knotted together above the confusion and anger that he directed at her with an accusing gaze. “You want me to shed a tear—for him?”
Lavinia pressed a hand against her son’s chest and gently calmed the rage that crackled harmfully within. “We must not allow anyone to shift the blame to us,” she cautioned him patiently. “Weep tears of joy if you like, but it will take a convincing display to remove your name from the top of the list of suspects when word of his death reaches Ventrayna.”
“You mean—beneath yours?” Marco replied coldly with a derisive snort. “Let them blame me, Mother. I’d rather die here than go back to Ventrayna.”
“Stupid boy!” Lavinia cursed, then wrapped her arms around him as she hugged her youngest fiercely. She was not surprised when he struggled and tried to push her away, but Lavinia resisted his strength as she held on and whispered into his ear, “You are not going back. But if I am to secure you a foothold in Lafeara—Marco, you must listen to me!”
Marco’s fingers dug into her arms as his ragged breath came and went in tight, painful bursts. Lavinia held him stubbornly until his breathing slowed as if her arms would keep the broken pieces of his soul from shattering to the ground. There were days Lavinia wished he would break if only so she could reach the wounds he guarded so well. Yet—what kind of mother would want to see their son’s tears?
‘No. Now is not the time. Not until he is safe.’
Marco’s hands fell away as the monotone voice that never failed to make her shiver whispered back, “As you wish, Mother.”
Lavinia closed her eyes and held him for a moment longer until the golden flame aura of her magic dried the tears that threatened to escape. Her eyes quickly resumed their normal chocolate-brown color as she pulled back to face him.
She could no longer look at Marco without feeling guilt. He was her son as much as Seamus and Marcel were, and yet she had failed to protect him. She had allowed Marco to become irreparably damaged with her passivity and ignorance.
No matter how hard Lavinia tried to convince the Dragon Tribe to accept her youngest son, they never truly opened their minds or hearts to him. Only the Empress went out of her way to Invite Lavinia and Marco to the palace. Alexandria seemed to hold a special fondness for the boy, who filled the room like the desert moon with light, joy, kindness, and honesty.
Lavinia had been satisfied with that. Alexandria would make sure Marco had a good marriage, even if they had to settle for a lower coven witch bride. Marco would still find his place inside Ventrayna where Alexandria and Lavinia could both watch over him.
The day Marco came home with a bruise on his face, Lavinia’s wishful dream vanished. He had gone out earlier that morning to visit his brothers at training. Seamus and Marcel rushed home soon after and explained to Lavinia that Marco had been drawn into a fight with a boy from the Zenaku family. The brother stepped in to defend Marco, and the matter quickly escalated.
Seamus and Marcel were later suspended from training and kept at home for their own safety while the Burning Viper and Dragon Coven nearly started a blood feud.
Emperor Arius and Duke Tyrell quickly quelled the matter, but afterward, the Empress stopped inviting Lavinia and Marco to enter the palace. Sensing her son would be at risk if he set even one foot outside, Lavinia kept her youngest boy home. Months passed, and the conflict seemed to ease as Seamus and Marcell made friends amongst the other coven witches and brought them home to meet Marco.
Lavinia breathed a sigh of relief as she watched Marco finally making friends close to his own age. Another month passed, and Alexandria finally sent a letter asking Lavinia to visit her at the palace to discuss Marco’s future. He was almost sixteen, the age many Ventrayna nobles were engaged to be married.
Although she found it odd that Alexandria had not included Marco in her invitation, Lavinia went, eager to put the past behind her. If she had known that leaving her son alone that day would cost Marco his smile, Lavinia would have rejected any summons, even one from the Emperor himself.
According to the servants, it was one of Seamus’s friends that Marco had befriended, who convinced her son to leave the house in the middle of the day to attend a birthday celebration. Lavinia was frantic and furious when she came home to find Marco had left. Before she could drag Seamus and Marcel from school to help search, Marco returned.
The memory of his vacant, hazel-blue eyes, as if someone had reached inside them and snuffed out the flame of his soul, waited for Lavinia every night she went to sleep. Marco was pale, covered in sweat, and shaking. He flinched away from her when Lavinia tried to hold him, and she knew—that something unimaginable had happened to her son.
But Marco said not a word. He locked himself away in his room and ignored Lavinia’s desperate pleas to let her in.
Haemish returned home early in a sour mood, as he often did after losing favor with Duke Zenaku due to their sons’ altercation. When Lavinia expressed her concern over Marco’s peculiar behavior, her husband’s response had been, “Marco will have to toughen up. No matter how much you coddle him, he’s still only a half-witch.”
Neither Seamus nor Marcel knew what had transpired. When they failed to get Marco to open the door, they searched for the friend the servants said had taken Marco out of the house. They returned without success and slept on the floor outside Marco’s door, but for three days, Marco would not open it to any of them.
It was Haemish who finally broke down Marco’s door on the fourth day and dragged his gaunt, sickly son outside into a carriage for a trip to, “Get over it.” Lavinia’s protests that Marco was unwell fell on deaf ears, as nearly everything she had to say to her husband did. She paced throughout the day and stayed up late into the night, but Haemish and Marco did not return until the following morning, and then her son only looked worse than he had the day before.
This strange behavior repeated with Haemish dragging Marco from his room to “have a good time.” Marco tried to fight his father off after the first outing, but Haemish had never been lenient with any of his children and beat Marco into submission without hesitation.
So Lavinia turned to the only person she could think of for help, her mother.
“Haemish is doing what you refused to do,” Lady Yenta said coldly as she swept briskly into Lavinia’s home. “Marco must pay for his sins.”
“And what sins has my son committed?”
“A half-blood dared to look down on a pure-blood from Duke Zenaku’s Coven,” Yenta replied with a snort. “Even worse, he dragged Seamus and Marcel into his mess, and then the Emperor. The Zenaku family has never been known to let go of a grudge, especially when they consider a blood debt unsettled. Your Husband was quick to take this opportunity to smooth things over, and though I never liked the man, he has a sharp eye for discerning the appetites of his betters.”
“I don’t understand, Mother,” Lavinia whispered, shaking in disbelief and anger. “What is happening to Marco?”
“Ask your husband,” the Matron said dismissively as she turned to leave. “But do not expect the Dragon Coven to intercede in this matter on behalf of a half-witch. What is one failed offspring compared to the peace between our covens?”
With no other recourse, Lavinia returned home to wait. But Haemish and Marco did not return that night, or the following morning, nor even two days after that. When her husband finally returned on the fifth morning, Marco was not with him. Only the Death Mark bestowed by the Emperor to ensure Haemish’s safety stopped Lavinia from burning her husband where he stood when Haemish refused to tell her where Marco was.
“Even if you avoid the curse, you’ll be the first one they suspect if anything happens to me,” Haemish taunted as he swept past her to the dining room. He was always poking Lavinia with that threat, confident as ever she wouldn’t risk her life to take his. She had felt the weight of those words like a whip every time the servants cleaned up another lifeless corpse of a slave girl that Haemish had broken.
‘What is the point of killing him if it will only bring about my death. At least while I’m alive, I can look after my children.’
Two weeks passed with no sign of Marco. By now, Seamus and Marcel were ignoring their training to help Lavinia in her desperate search. And then her eldest, Seamus, returned home and broke down Haemish study door in a fit of rage. Lavinia barely restrained the boy from killing his father as the bodyguards hastily smothered the Ambassador in a carpet to put out the flames.
“How long?” Seamus screamed while his fire blasted through the walls and shelves of books and official documents around them. “How long were you going to let my brother be raped like some Zarus prostitute!”
Prince Consort Farrell had discovered and recognized her son, Marco, in Duke Zenaku’s slave pens after a dinner feast. Farrell, the son of Duke Tyrell, had broken the boy out and taken him back to his palace for medical treatment. The Prince Consort then quietly sent word to Seamus, who had trained under Farrell briefly at school. Seamus and Marcel immediately rushed over to the Prince Consort’s palace, where the sight of their brother had been enough to send Seamus into a killing rage.
Lavinia left her husband’s palace that day. She left the Dragon Coven behind as well. When Alexandria ordered her to return to Haemish’s side, Lavinia refused and burned the palace edict in front of the royal messenger. She moved into Farrell’s palace and barely slept as she nursed her youngest day and night and prayed for his eyes to open.
The Zenon family, fearing that Seamus and Marcel would abandon the coven as well, let the matter of Lavinia’s rebellion drop. Haemish, who had learned to fear his sons, did not encroach upon Farrell’s property or Marco’s rest.
It was Duke Zenaku who appeared the following day, demanding the return of his stolen slave. This time, Seamus and Marcel had to restrain Lavinia while Farrell calmly paid back the money Haemish had taken in exchange for her son’s freedom. The Duke protested, but Farrel was never one to hesitate to use his authority, especially when it came to dealing with his family’s political rivals.
The memory of it all still made Lavinia tremble with rage, guilt, and disgust. She blamed herself each time she looked into Marco’s dull eyes, and she promised vengeance to everyone who had tarnished her desert moon. She held onto that rage now as she held Marco, and they both stared at Haemish’s dead body.
“What do we do now, Mother?” Marco’s tone was resigned as he stood locked against her side.
Lavinia removed her arms and turned to cup his cheeks. Marco was no longer the boy she had foolishly tried to shelter from the world. His face, both familiar and distant, would never again carry the peerless smile of innocent joy and wonderment he had shown her as a child.
She didn’t care what expectations the Emperor or Empress had for this negotiation. Lavinia had no plans to bring Marco back to Ventrayna, nor would she leave his side until she knew he would be safe here in Lafeara.
Haemish’s death had freed them both and gifted her with this golden opportunity. ‘Who better than a victim of your political manipulation Haemish, to wield your tricks against this young monarch and his inferior government? Watch how I destroy all your plans and reduce you to a forgotten distasteful memory.’
Marco sighed as he took his mother’s wrists and met Lavinia’s eyes with an expression of hopelessness. “Well?”
“My son,” Lavinia smiled, and Marco’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “All we have to do now is wait. Soon enough, the sheep will come running to our door—begging to be sheared.”