Chapter 95: A Rose with Thorns
Dowager Octavia was always up before dawn, the curse of the elderly, although the term hardly applied to someone over two hundred years old who still appeared to be in her early 60s. She waved away Lady Delphine, who had finished brushing out the monarch’s pale white hair. The Dowager sighed as she rubbed her thumb against her index finger restlessly.
‘I would almost believe last night was but a dream—if Maura’s room hadn’t been empty when I checked. I wonder where Kirsi went? Why did it take her this long to wake up? And what did she mean by an imposter?’
The ice-blue eyes of the regent’s reflection narrowed back at her in silent contemplation. ‘When Kirsi was Queen of Lafeara, the world trembled before the power of the ice witch covens. Still, the longer I live, the fewer of us remain. The great Valda bloodline has all but been extinguished—aside from my disappointing son Nero and my brother. Neither of whom can be trusted to carry on the family’s name and legacy.’
Lady Elouise rushed into the room and clutched her bountiful bosom breathlessly as she trembled into a curtsey before the Dowager.
“L-Lady Maura has just returned—I don’t know how she got out—but she appeared on the palace steps out of thin air, soaking wet in her nightgown. She’s demanding a bath and some wine—she’s ordering the servants about as if she were a queen!”
“She’s back?” Octavia rose swiftly from her seat and combed through her hair with a shaking hand before snatching it away as she hastily composed herself. “See that Lady Maura is given all that she requires and dress me. I would have breakfast with our esteemed guest after she finishes her bath.”
Lady Elouise blinked questioningly and hastily bobbed a courtesy before she turned hesitantly towards the bedroom door.
“Don’t doddle about like a fool!” The Dowager snapped and shook her head as the attendant sprinted from the room. ‘Disappearing and then appearing out of thin air? That’s an interesting trick for an ice witch.’
Lady Delphine moved towards the ajar door and shut it with a sigh. “It would seem your guess was correct, your Grace.”
Octavia turned a wary glance towards the air witch who served as her attendant. “I trust you will keep your lips shut regarding this. That Earl who imagines himself a Witch King already knows far too much.”
“Of course, your Grace,” Delphine replied as she returned to pin Octavia’s frail white hair up into a bun before placing a powdered wig over it. “I have sworn to serve you until my last breath.”
“You are the only one that remains I can truly trust,” Octavia whispered as her gaze drifted towards the small painted portrait of a woman with blonde hair holding a bouquet of purple roses. “To have seen Kirsi twice in my lifetime. I am truly blessed.”
‘Though if Kirsi fails to fulfill her destiny—there will be no ice witches left to serve her in her next life.’
“What gown would you like to wear today, your Grace?” Lady Delphine asked as Octavia adjusted the wing and then pinned it into place.
The Dowager smiled as she contemplated her reflection and pinched her pale cheeks. “I’m in the mood for something—red.”
In the end, Kirsi made the Dowager wait. Octavia repressed a nervous sigh as Captain Leo knocked on the open dining room door. She quickly gestured him towards her.
“Knight Commander Quentin has arrived,” Leo explained as he knelt before the monarch. “He requests an audience with your Grace.”
“Tell him to wait,” Octavia replied with a frown. “I’ve not yet had breakfast.”
Captain Leo glanced towards the second place set beside the Dowager’s seat and nodded silently as he rose to his feet. The brisk sound of approaching dainty heels turned them both towards the door as Lady Delphine entered, followed by the small, fragile figure of Lady Maura.
‘Compared to her previous life as a General of Lafeara, I must admit, a small, helpless half-blood doesn’t really suit the Scarlet Witch.’
“So glad you could finally join us,” Octavia remarked with a dismissive wave to the Captain, who bowed and retreated towards the dining room doors. “I trust you slept well despite—”
“Octavia.” Kirsi interrupted with a smile as she glanced about the glittering room and then focused on the surprised Dowager. “Might we have a word—in private?”
The half-blood’s calm yet domineering tone was enough to draw expressions of utter disbelief from Octavia’s staff, aside from Lady Delphine, who brushed a smile from her lips. Captain Leo paused in the doorway on his way out to stare at the young attendant with a startled frown.
“Lady Maura and I require some privacy,” Octavia acknowledged as she waved her attendants away.
“But do tell the chef to send in breakfast when he is ready,” Krisi added as she swept around the table, pulled out her chair, sat down, and then promptly placed both elbows on the table as she folded her hands together. “And the best wine you have on hand.”
The Dowager’s gaze rested once more on the black diamond ring the half-blood wore. A sense of restless desire quivered through it, knowing that whatever ice witch possessed that ring would inherit some of Kirsi’s formidable powers.
The annoyed frown that graced the Scarlet Witch’s face quickly drew Octavia’s attention to where Delphine waited awkwardly beside her while Captain Leo and the rest of the servants stood transfixed by the half-blood’s blatant rudeness.
“Do I need to repeat myself?” Octavia commented with a cold glare.
The servants scattered, and Lady Delphine pushed Captain Leo firmly into the hall before she shut the dining room doors quickly behind them. Kirsi smirked as she leaned back in her chair and rolled her neck towards the Dowager with a relaxed smile. “Are you enjoying the position of Queen Mother, Octavia?”
Octavia let out a nervous breath as she gazed into the Scarlet Witch’s ice-blue eyes and felt more than saw the significant shift in power that the half-blood had obtained seemingly overnight. “Regretfully, I have no children worthy of inheriting my family name or Lafeara’s throne. If you remember, Henri was the child of another queen I—removed from my path.”
“Ah yes, Queen Lucy—Lucillia?”
“Queen Lucette,” Octavia corrected.
Kirsi nodded thoughtfully as she unclasped her hands and drummed the table.
‘Her mannerisms have certainly changed. Lady Maura had significantly more grace and self-awareness.’
“And how long did it take you to get rid of King Leon, your husband?” Kirsi asked as she clasped her fingers together once more and stared at the kitchen door with a ravenous look.
“I had to wait until King Leon named Henri as crown prince,” Octavia answered with a sigh. “Once he passed beneath the aconitum flower, I decided to enjoy my newfound power as Queen Mother while I waited for you to return.”
“You could have just smothered the babe and ended the Havardur bloodline,” Kirsi observed with a faint frown. “Wasn’t that your greatest ambition?”
“My ambition, as you call it, is to see an Isbrand heir back on the throne,” Octavia replied with conviction. She smiled and reached across the table to take hold of Kirsi’s right hand. “And now we finally have that opportunity.”
“You could have taken it for yourself,” Kirsi replied with less enthusiasm.
Octavia shook her head. “Yes, I tried that—but Valda doesn’t have the same ring of power as Isbrand. The air witch covens would rather place one of their own on the throne over an all but dead family line.”
“You never had any children of your own?”
“A girl who died in childbirth before I became Queen, and—a bastard son, who was unfortunately born a half-witch.”
“A bastard half-witch?” Kirsi narrowed her eyes. “You fell in love with a mortal.”
“It was no fault of that child’s father,” Octavia replied with a note of bitterness as she withdrew her hand and turned it over to offer Kirsi her wrist. The scarlet witch frowned and glanced down at the offered hand, her eyes flashing bright blue for a moment before she sighed and looked away.
“You poisoned yourself with the Aconitum flower. Octavia, why?”
“The Pope’s bloodline became more powerful after your last defeat,” Octavia answered. “Aconitum was the only way to suppress my magic so that I might pass the church’s inspection and become a royal consort. King Leon threw his support behind Pope Ivan and received regular visits from the Divine Heir and his witch hunters. Even with a new identity, background, and family name—I couldn’t take that risk. Ivan himself killed an Isbrand prince to make his eldest son immortal—not that it spared the boy from Kritanta’s consort.”
“Well,” Kirsi shook her head wistfully and glanced around the gold chromed walls, ceiling, chandelier, and furniture. “At least you managed to survive surrounded by splendor and luxury.”
“You’re not—disappointed?” Octavia asked timidly as she dropped her hand to her lap.
Kirsi turned back to the Dowager and smiled. “Unlike the gods and my obstinate father, I don’t expect you or anyone else to suffer for me.”
Octavia exhaled, nodded, and then laughed as she studied Kirsi critically. “Well, perhaps we can help each other reach our goals this time around?”
“I can only die trying?” Kirsi muttered with a cynical smile. “Which reminds me,” she gestured to her temple. “My—host appears to have encountered some trouble before I woke up.”
“Ah, yes—” Octavia frowned as she glanced towards the dining-room door. A cunning smile spread across the Dowager’s face as she turned back to Kirsi and arched a single silver brow. “How would you feel about calling me godmother?”
Kirsi blinked, snorted out a chuckle, and nodded as she straightened in her chair. “It feels a little backward, but I think that will suit our needs just fine, little Octavia.”
“Our needs?” The Dowager replied with an inquisitive frown.
“I’ll explain later,” Kirsi responded and drew in a deep sigh before her attention shifted entirely to the opening kitchen door and the servants carrying out trays of food. “Finally!”
Knight Commander Quentin paced the small greeting room in a tight triangle. He was less than pleased with the purpose of his visit. According to his subordinates, the Crown Princess’s accusations against Lady Maura had appeared seemingly overnight and were not so coincidentally linked to the attendant’s late-night visit to the Crown Prince’s palace.
‘I did wonder how long that half-blood would remain inside the palace without creating further problems.’ Quentin sighed as he took in the portrait of a much younger Queen Octavia, with a three-year-old Crown Prince Henri seated on her lap. ‘Both the Earl and Countess of Hawthorne asked that I keep an eye out for Lady Maura. Countess Constance even ordered me to cover up Lady Maura’s involvement in her half-brother’s death—and now the Dowager appears to be shielding her. She’s quite the resilient survivor.’
The faint sound of footsteps approaching from the hall turned Quentin towards the door as Captain Leo appeared with a tight smile.
“The Dowager will see you now, Knight Commander,” Leo announced with a brisk salute. “If you would follow me.”
“Excellent,” Quentin replied with a sense of relief. Dowager Octavia was reasonable and would most likely handle this matter without the Knight Commander being forced to make a public arrest. The less Quentin became involved in the jealous disputes between a wife and potential mistress, the better for his sanity. His current workload was already taxing enough with the added mystery of the Ambassador’s mysterious death still hanging over the capital.
‘In any case, the Dowager has the final say on Nicholas’s consorts until his coronation, so she will either acknowledge the half-blood or kick her out.’
The Knight Commander followed the young Captain in the familiar direction of the Dowager’s private indoor garden. The open glass doors carried out the cheerful sounds of a violin as the men walked through. Quentin beheld the Dowager, in a stunning red dress, seated upon a flowing white chair while a young noblewoman, ‘probably the half-blood,’ he reasoned, played her instrument with startling proficiency for one so young.
“Ahh, Commander Quentin!” Octavia greeted with a relaxed smile as he stepped forward to kiss the monarch’s offered hand. “Thank you for waiting.”
“Not at all, your Grace,” Quentin responded politely as he stepped back and glanced towards the young lady with ash brown hair and startlingly familiar ice-blue eyes. ‘Right, Declan did mention in his report that she might be an ice witch. Perhaps that’s why the Dowager is shielding her.’
“You are here to speak to Lady Maura, is that correct, Commander?” Octavia pressed pointedly as she motioned for the servants to bring over two chairs. “I will permit you to speak with her, but I must ask that you put aside any notion of arrest or detainment.”
‘Straight to the point as always.’ Quentin nodded and waited for Lady Maura to be seated before he took the chair beside her. “I do have a few questions for you, Lady Maura. I also hope that your Grace might assist me in finding a more peaceful solution to the current—situation.” He glanced towards the servants hesitantly.
“Lady Delphine.” Octavia smiled as her attendant hurriedly dismissed all the servants and, once more, shut the garden doors on her way out. “You may continue, Commander.”
Quentin cleared his throat as he turned to the half-blood, trying not to stare at those unnerving blue eyes, and framed his first question. “I meant to speak with you prior to this meeting, Lady Maura, concerning the ongoing investigation into the death of your half-brother, Lord Lincoln, which took place on the evening before you first entered the palace.”
The corner of Maura’s mouth twitched. For a moment, her gaze shifted over his shoulder as if searching for an answer or memory. Then the half-blood’s expression twisted with such extreme displeasure that Quentin momentarily lost his train of thought. A chill ran down his spine as the half-blood’s ice-blue eyes focused on him with a keen sense of resentment.
“Ahem—that is, I wanted to inquire about your whereabouts on the night of your brother’s death.”
“In the alley,” Lady Maura replied as she brushed a stray petal from her dress.
Quentin stiffened and glanced sharply towards the Dowager, who also appeared surprised by the attendant’s response. “I beg your pardon, Lady Maura,” he murmured as he refocused his attention on the young woman sharply. “Are you saying you were in the slums along with your half-brother the night that Lincoln Turnbell was murdered?”
“That is correct, Commander.” Maura smiled, her expression almost condescending as she folded her hands and continued. “No, to be completely honest and clear, I am saying that I killed the disgusting animal.”
“Kir—” Octavia cut herself off quickly. “Maura, you can’t—openly admit to murdering a—”
Quentin held up a hand and sent the Dowager a pleading look as he turned back to the half-blood. “Would you mind explaining your reasons for doing so, Lady Maura?”
“He tried to rape us—me,” Maura replied as her expression shifted from rage to disgust and then disappointment. “I panicked—and killed him while attempting to defend myself.”
Quentin exhaled as he rubbed the back of his neck and leaned back in his chair. He might have accepted this story without question a few days earlier. The evidence collected by Lieutenant Declan had heavily supported such a theory before the church became involved, and Quentin discreetly destroyed all the evidence related to Lincoln’s death at the Countess’s command.
But the terrified half-blood he had imagined was nothing at all like the young woman who sat before him calmly, with an air of impatience even, as she waited for him to continue.
“Was there something else you wished to ask me, Commander?”
“Why admit to it?” Quentin replied quickly, unable to hold back his confusion.
“Because you won’t tell anyone,” Maura replied with a shrug. “If you did, you would have to expose me as a witch. Since you have not done so already, you must be under orders from someone you dare not refuse to protect my secret.”
Quentin scoffed, his bewilderment only amplified by her confident tone and pose. “And why would you think that, Lady Maura?”
The attendant laughed, her ice-blue eyes glinting as she raised a single brow. “Because you are a witch yourself, Commander.”
Quentin clamped his jaw shut and then laughed sharply as he leaned back in his chair and turned towards the Dowager. Octavia smiled sympathetically but shook her head. “I ahh—” the Knight Commander cleared his throat. “Very well. Consider my questions related to the murder of Lincoln Turnbell finished. But what about the Crown Princess’s accusations, Lady Maura?”
“Has Eleanora provided any evidence?” the half-blood replied with a cunning smile.
“I sent my knights over to collect the evidence this morning—but I have not seen it personally myself,” Quentin admitted. “Why would her Highness report you for poisoning a member of the royal family if she did not have proof?”
“Because she was attempting to blackmail me, and it didn’t work,” Maura replied with a dismissive shrug. “Rest assured, whatever evidence they may forge to ensure my conviction will be destroyed before I ever step foot into court.”
“You are—speaking of destroying evidence, Lady Maura,” Quentin replied grimly with a glance to the Dowager.
“Forged evidence, Commander,” the half-blood replied with a cynical smile.
“Ah,” the Knight Commander shook his head. “In any event, a trial is only granted to nobles. The letter I received from her Highness stated quite clearly that she had revoked your title as Baroness. Which means her word alone is enough to convict—”
“I am still a noble. My mother’s title was restored after her death,” Maura interrupted impatiently.
“But you have not inherited a title yourself,” Quentin explained cautiously. “Your—status—and your grandfather’s reluctance to acknowledge either of his granddaughters as part of the Gilwren family makes that—insufficient to protect you.”
“We thought you might say that,” Octavia interrupted with an amused smile. “Which is why you will be the first to hear my good news.”
“Oh?” Quentin turned back to the Dowager, both curious and eager to wash his hands of this mess.
“I’ve decided to formally adopt Lady Maura as my goddaughter,” Octavia announced as she rose and held out her hand to the half-blood. “The paperwork has already been sent to the Crown Prince, who will no doubt approve.”
‘Goddaughter? A half-blood witch?’ Quentin’s eyes narrowed as he focused on the confident young woman who stood beside Lafeara’s longest-reigning and perhaps most dangerous monarch. ‘Well, they’re both ice witches—I suppose I should have expected this much.’
“My congratulations to your Grace and to you, Lady Maura—”
“Lady Maura Valda,” Octavia corrected with a gleaming smile. “I’ve also decided to give her my old family name since Viscount Gilwren is unable to recognize her worth.”
‘I just know this is going to create a lot more headaches in my future,’ Quentin thought grimly as he bowed before the Queen Regent and her troublesome new weapon. ‘How unfortunate for the Crown Princess to have made such a formidable enemy.’