Chapter 98: A Gathering of Wolves
Octavia could feel that she was smiling far too much. The servants were practically frantic in their attempts to prepare and set up a tent on a cleared section of the hill far enough from the pyre to avoid any possibility of catching fire. ‘One could never be too careful around fire witches.’
Added to the exorbitant size of the tent, which Octavia had requested be large enough to host twenty to thirty nobles comfortably, was the diplomatic management of seating arrangements. With Earl Percy Hawthorne swiftly pulling members of the House of Lords to his side, the previously calm and neutral relationships between the upper echelons of Lafeara’s nobility were slowly unraveling. The foremost supporter of the young Earl and newest member of the House of Lords was Marquess Winifred, who was more than a match for Marquess Borghese.
‘I look forward to watching their sandcastle crumble beneath the surprise that Kirsi and I will spring upon them,’ Octavia mused with a smirk as Lady Delphine brought over her usual cup of blue tea. “Lady Elouise, put away the nameplates. Let the nobles sit wherever they like.”
“Yes, your Grace.” Lady Elouise hastily retraced her steps to remove the handwritten cards. She then painstakingly double-checked the position of each chair and hurriedly wiped away any hint of dirt or dust.
“Are my guests on their way?” Octavia mused as she waved away the cup.
“Lady Maura should be arriving any moment, your Grace,” Delphine answered. “Captain Leo and Lady Tiffany will be coming with her as an escort.”
“Good, you arranged for them to make use of my second carriage?”
“Everything has been prepared as you instructed, your Grace.”
“Naturally,” Octavia smiled, not that she had stopped. She rubbed her cheeks thoughtfully at the growing unfamiliar ache. ‘Ah well, I suppose I’ve waited long enough to enjoy this moment. I really should have invited my brother, but Isaac was never one for these types of social engagements. Besides, there will be time enough for him to be reunited with Kirsi later.’
Captain Leo appeared through the tent flaps and held them open as Kirsi made her entrance, followed closely by Lady Tiffany. Octavia’s smile faltered as she took in the half-blood, who greeted her with an elegant curtsey. Perhaps if Octavia did not know Kirsi as well as she did, she might have overlooked the change in how the ice witch moved.
Lady Maura had the posture and grace of a dancer, alluring and gentle. A remarkable feat for one with such an unfortunate birth, no doubt due to Maura’s extensive training under Countess Constance. However, when the Scarlet Witch moved, every gesture, glance, and tone was asserted and filled with purpose and power. After all, the Kirsi that Octavia remembered had been a General of the Duchy of Bastiallano, which guarded the northern territories of Lafeara.
‘So this is what Kirsi meant earlier by us. How strange. I do not recall Kirsi ever sharing a body with its original host before.’
“Your Majesty, thank you for allowing us the use of your carriage,” Lady Maura said politely with a cautious glance towards the Dowager as she waited for permission to rise.
“Come, Lady Maura,” Octavia replied with a smile as she held out her hand. “Please, sit with me.”
A mere touch of the half-blood’s hand sent a ripple of cold power through Octavia’s fingers that made her blink back tears. ‘How long has it been since I last used my powers? Two decades? Three?’
“Thank you again for your hospitality, Queen Regent,” Maura said hesitantly as she pulled her hand away and took her seat beside the Dowager. “And the dress, they are all quite beautiful. Who is the designer?”
“A Lord Quinlan,” Octavia replied as she studied the red dress, which closely matched her own.
“Ahh,” Maura nodded in recognition as a curious smile crossed her lips briefly. “An excellent designer, though with a penchant for expensive materials.” The half-blood ran her fingers cautiously over the rubies sewn into the sheer black lace of her bodice.
“I have expensive tastes.” The Dowager smiled and reached over to grasp Maura’s hand. “How do you like the color, Maura?”
“It’s—” the half-blood blinked, her ice-blue eyes darting slightly to the side before they returned to meet Octavia’s gaze with a steady smile. “My favorite color. Of course, I love it.”
‘And Kirsi is also a better liar,’ Octavia observed with amusement as she retained her grasp on Maura’s hand, relishing the cold magic that entwined around her arm and seeped into her chest like a long-forgotten memory or dream.
Maura glanced her way once or twice with a curious expression but made no effort to remove her hand. ‘Kirsi would have ripped her hand away without a second thought for my feelings,’ Octavia reflected as the figures of a grieving child and the cold, sometimes even heartless General, flashed through her memory. ‘I formed myself in Kirsi’s image so that I might face the storm of persecution alone. And now all I want is to hold the hand of this half-blood a little bit longer.’
“How many nobles are you making your announcement to?” Maura asked, breaking the silence as she nodded to the rows of chairs that faced them.
“Only people of note,” Octavia replied dismissively. “Most of whom I’m sure you will have heard of in your studies with the Countess.”
“I see.” Maura nodded and glanced awkwardly at their joined hands.
“Are you prepared to face the day’s festivities, Lady Maura?” Octavia asked as she squeezed the girl’s hand gently, then released it as she rose to her feet.
“It is a funeral, is it not, your Majesty?” Maura inquired as she tilted her head.
“Yes, that is certainly true,” Octavia replied with a mischievous smile. “But if I did not take advantage of the lords gathering today, I would be forced to wait until the Royal Hunt, and I am feeling rather impatient.”
Maura nodded and exhaled nervously as she donned a determined smile of her own. “Then we must make the most of today, your Majesty.”
Octavia smiled at the nervous half-blood approvingly. ‘I suppose you’ve always had your courageous side, Maura, even if it pales when compared to Kirsi. Still, I wonder how long you will make me wait for her company.’
“Come, I have a gift for you.” The Dowager said as she clapped her hands. Lady Delphine promptly carried over a small, polished oak box that the Dowager took and placed on the table beside Maura. “After today, you will be my goddaughter, even if that does not make you a member of the royal family, this—” Octavia flipped the box open to reveal a delicate gold circlet of diamond swords, “—will remind all of them that your rank falls no lower than that of a princess.”
“It’s—lovely,” Maura whispered as she reached hesitantly towards the circlet. The half-blood’s hands grew suddenly steady as her ice-blue eyes hardened over a faint sneer. “The crown of a princess?”
Lady Delphine blinked and hastily lowered her gaze as the Scarlet Witch seized the circlet and placed it on her ash-brown curls.
“I suppose it will do—for now,” Kirsi replied as she turned and offered Octavia an amused smile. “How do I look, godmother?”
“Magnificent,” Octavia whispered, then quickly dropped her gaze. ‘The eyes and face are the same, but when Kirsi looks at me—all I see is the General standing in a field of dead witches.’
“The nobility of Lafeara are making us wait, godmother,” Kirsi observed with a cynical smile.
“Many of them are still arriving for the funeral,” Octavia explained reassuringly. “They must give their greeting to the crown prince—”
“That Havardur bastard?”
Octavia blinked and sent Lady Delphine a quick glance.
“Her Majesty would like a moment alone with Lady Maura,” Delphine announced as she stepped away to clear the tent. “Lady Tiffany and Captain Leo, you may both step outside and visit your respective families. Lady Elouise, please wait by the entrance and inform any guests that they will need to wait a moment.”
“Yes, let’s go find Malcolm!” Tiffany murmured as she took Leo’s hand and pulled the knight, currently frowning in Kirsi’s direction, towards the exit. “I haven’t seen him since our engagement!”
“This is tiresome,” Kirsi remarked as she watched the tent empty. “Surely it would be simpler to kill this prince and seize the throne ourselves. From what I gather, Lafeara’s position has weakened considerably since King Leon’s death.”
“That—” Octavia drew in a quick breath at the mention of her long-dead husband. “While it would achieve our goals, it is not just the nobles supporting Nicholas you have to worry about. There is also the Emperor.”
‘You were never particularly interested in seizing the throne before, despite my family’s ardent wish to make you Queen. Why the sudden change?’
“Are you implying that I’m incapable of removing another one of Kritanta’s witless consorts from this world?”
“Not at all—but Emperor Arius is not the only danger you will face should your return become public knowledge.”
“Ahh! You’re referring to Harmonia’s descendants?” Kirsi snorted. “The unimpressive remnants of my most formidable opponent.” The Scarlet Witch tapped her fingers impatiently against the table then sighed. “I suppose patience and preparation would be preferred if I want to avoid giving Ramiel an excuse to summon yet another Saint.”
“I believe that would be for the best,” Octavia replied with a nervous sigh of relief.
“Then I will begin by strengthening the ice witches that remain in Lafeara,” Kirsi continued with a note of determination. “What do our numbers stand at currently?”
“I-I’m afraid I don’t know, your Majesty,” Octavia answered hesitantly.
“Many of them went to ground after you—General Kirsi Valda died. The ice witches that remain have all scattered to the far reaches of the kingdom to avoid being hunted down by the church and Emperor.”
“I see—” Kirsi’s gaze hardened with a look of grim understanding. “That is why they did not come to my aid when I called them.”
“You called the Covens, your Majesty?” Octavia repeated with a frown of confusion. “When? I did not—”
“You could not,” Kirsi interjected sharply. “Hampered as you are by the aconitum flower that robs you of your powers.” The Scarlet Witches eyes narrowed on Octavia, who could only bow her head in shame.
“I am sorry, Kirsi. I have failed you—”
“No,” the Scarlet Witch shook her head dismissively. “It is I who have failed the covens. I wasn’t strong enough.” Kirsi pressed a hand over her chest, and the bright flash of her legendary immortal heart flickered brightly through the ice witch’s trembling fingers. “I will not fail this time.”
‘We may not have another chance.’ Octavia smiled encouragingly even as her heart tightened with fear. ‘If Maura is the last of the Isbrand bloodline. If she dies without an heir—if that happens—then Kirsi will not have another chance—and neither will Viktor.’’
“Your Majesty!” Lady Elouise rushed through the tent flap and offered a hasty curtsey. “His Majesty, Crown Prince Nicholas wishes for an audience with your Grace.”
“Tell my grandson he may enter. We—I have been waiting most impatiently!” Octavia commanded as she moved to take her seat beside Kirsi.
The servants pulled the tent flaps aside once more as Nicholas strode inside, followed as ever by his loyal giant, Captain Beaumont. The Dowager blinked in surprise as she took in the knight’s rather pale and clammy complexion, along with the dark shadows that surrounded his violet eyes.
“Queen Regent,” Nicholas greeted as he bowed respectfully, his hazel-blue eyes shifting swiftly towards Kirsi, who regarded him with a cold, dispassionate look.
‘Kirsi, please do not forget yourself,’ Octavia silently begged and then exhaled with relief as the Scarlet Witch left her seat and offered a belated curtsey.
“Your Majesty,” the half-blood murmured demurely. Octavia blinked in surprise as she beheld yet another sudden shift in the ice witch’s demeanor.
“Lady Maura,” Nicholas replied with a faint smile as he motioned for her to rise. “The past eight hours have been eventful, I see.”
“They were challenging, your Majesty,” Maura replied, somewhat defensively, as she straightened.
“Nevermind that now,” Octavia interrupted as she motioned for Maura to sit. “What about my request, Nicholas?”
The Crown Prince glanced between them with a sigh. “It was—rather unexpected, Grandmother. You already have one goddaughter, Lady Priscilla Borghese.”
‘Only because I promised her mother on her deathbed.’
“Are you saying I cannot have two?” Octavia remarked with a hint of cynicism.
“Borghese certainly took it as an insult when I presented your request to the House of Lords this morning,” Nicholas replied with a hint of amusement. “The Marquess finds it rather disrespectful that you offered a half-blood of questionable nobility the same rank as his daughter.”
“Oh, did he?” Octavia replied with a cynical smile.
Nicholas crossed his arms and shook his head. “You knew he would protest—didn’t you?”
Octavia’s smile widened for a moment before she shook her head. ‘He is learning, isn’t he? How tedious for us.’ Lady Maura glanced between the two of them curiously, her brows furrowed in uncertainty. “So then, the House of Lord’s refused my request?”
“They decided to—table the idea until a later date,” Nicholas explained with an apologetic smile. “But they did agree to reinstate Lady Maura as Baroness so that she might serve as an attendant in your palace and keep you company—”
“Nonsense!” Octavia interrupted sharply as her smile evaporated.
“Grandmother,” Nicholas pressed with a rather pleading look in Maura’s direction. “I am already in the process of granting Lady Maura a title as Viscountess. That will be difficult enough to push past the nobles since it comes with lands and responsibilities, and Lady Maura is still unmarried.”
“So, I must be satisfied with Lady Maura holding a position lower than the Marquess’s daughter simply because he is offended?” Octavia sneered coldly.
Nicholas blinked, somewhat taken aback by the Dowager’s angry demeanor.
A painful, dry cough came from Captain Beaumont and pulled the crown prince’s attention away as he motioned impatiently to Lady Delphine. “Would you bring the Captain a cup of water, please?”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
Nicholas nodded and motioned Beaumont towards one of the chairs. “Rest. If you were this unwell, you should have taken the day off, Captain.”
“Apologies, your Majesty,” Beaumont said hoarsely as he rubbed his chest with a painful grimace. “Would it be alright if I—stepped outside for a moment and asked Lieutenant Olund to take my place?”
“Yes! Please do!” Nicholas said with an exasperated sigh. “And I expect you to go to a doctor this time, Beaumont. Don’t even bother setting foot inside the palace tomorrow if you have not done so!”
The Captain bowed his head silently.
“Go, quickly. Get some rest and get well!” Nicholas ordered impatiently, then shook his head as the Captain accepted the glass from Lady Delphine, downed it rather greedily, and turned quickly towards the tent exit. “Now, what would you have me do, Grandmother?” the crown prince asked as he turned to face the Dowager again.
“You might try behaving like a king, Nicholas,” Octavia replied sharply.
Nicholas stiffened, his hands tightening into fists as he stared back at her in hollow disbelief.
“But since you are neither capable nor ready to act as King, then allow your grandmother to provide you with a demonstration as Queen Regent,” Octavia continued mercilessly with an annoyed glance in the direction of the still coughing Captain as Beaumont slipped through the tent flaps.
“I find it curious that you would trust me to handle negotiations when I would be forced to make a sacrifice for the good of Lafeara. But now you tell me I am not yet ready to be King when it comes to you having to make a personal sacrifice,” Nicholas remarked with heavy resentment. “Fortunately, we are but weeks away from my coronation, and ready or not, I will be King.”
Octavia raised a brow and glanced at Maura worriedly, but the half-blood appeared distracted as she gazed in the direction the knight captain had taken with a worried expression.
“In any case, today is not the appropriate time or venue for such decisions, your Grace,” Nicholas resumed with a bit more composure as he faced his grandmother squarely. “I hope the Queen Regent can at least be patient while we deal with the rather delicate matter of the Ambassador’s funeral.”
“Grandson,” the Dowager murmured, the cold inflection of her tone drawing a tight grimace upon the crown prince’s face. “A lesson I would impart, from one monarch to another.” Octavia rose from her seat and approached him, mimicking Kirsi’s strength and confidence as she swept towards the crown prince and watched Nicholas flinch back a step. “There is only one suitable time or place for anything to be done in this kingdom, and that is when and where its King or Queen commands it!”
“You cannot bully the House of Lords,” Nicholas growled impatiently. “Not over an orphan half-blood.”
A soft laugh echoed through the tent behind Octavia and sent a ripple of fear down the Dowager’s spine. She turned instantly as Kirsi—not Maura—rose from her chair and approached them with a mocking smile.
Nicholas’s gaze shifted instantly from the Dowager to the Scarlet Witch, with noted confusion.
“The Dowager is right,” Kirsi observed as her lips pulled into a scarlet smile. “Your Majesty must decide once and for all who rules this country. The Emperor? The Pope? The House of Lords?” She circled past the crown prince, her ice-blue eyes pulling his gaze after her. “The Dowager?” She lifted a brow in the direction of Octavia, who held her breath. “Or you?” She stopped in front of Nicholas with her hands locked behind her back. An almost child-like smile spread across Kirsi’s face as she curtsied and whispered, “Your Majesty.”
Kirsi rose swiftly and, with a single step, placed herself less than an inch from the crown prince’s startled gaze as she offered him a challenging smile.
Nicholas blinked at Kirsi in bewilderment as he took a half-step back and then stopped as he frowned. “Lady—Maura?”
“E-excuse me, your Majesties,” Lady Elouise interjected fearfully as she stepped through the tent entrance to stand beside Lady Delphine. “But Marquess Borghese and Earl Coldwell are waiting outside. They are here for an audience with the Queen Regent.”
“Send them in,” Octavia commanded as Nicholas shook his gaze from Kirsi and turned towards his grandmother with a frown. “I sent for them,” the Dowager explained with a shrug. “They will not turn me down so easily.”
The Marquess and Earl entered and glanced between the Dowager, crown prince, and Kirsi uncertainly before they moved forward by rank to bow and greet the royal family.
“Your Majesties,” Borghese greeted stiffly. “I hope today finds you both in good health.”
“In perfect health, Marquess,” Octavia replied with a dangerous smile as she met the deceitful lord’s gaze. “Please, gentlemen, take a seat. I am expecting other guests to arrive shortly.”
“Marquess Winifred, Earl Hawthorne, and Marchioness Serilda are outside requesting an audience with your Grace,” Elouise announced shrilly as she entered through the tent entrance frantically.
“It seems your Grace has a surprise in store for us,” Borghese observed with a sharp glance in Kirsi’s direction.
“Prime Minister and Lord Acheron request an audience—”
“Viscount Marlowe and Viscount Gladstone have arrived—”
“Viscount Tomberline and Lord Enfield request permission—”
Borghese’s gaze hardened resentfully as Octavia took Kirsi’s hand and led the Scarlet Witch back to their seats.
“We should find ourselves a place to sit, my Lord,” Earl Coldwell suggested hesitantly.
A sharp cough turned the pair to where a pale Lord Percy leaned heavily upon his cane while a worried Marchioness Serilda held onto his arm.
“By the blessed Saints?” Borghese murmured as he surveyed the sweating Earl. “It would seem you are unwell, Lord Percy.”
“If you have eyes, then you would move out of our way so we may give our greetings and allow the Earl to rest,” Marquess Winifred barked impatiently.
Borghese returned the man’s snarl with a look of disgust, then moved off to find a chair in the second row.
“Lord Percy,” Octavia greeted as she watched the troublesome Earl cough loudly into a handkerchief. “If you are unwell, perhaps you should return home to rest.”
“Thank you—your Grace,” Percy replied as he hurriedly wiped his lips. “But my place is here—” his winter grey eyes turned towards Kirsi. The Scarlet Witch studied him in return with narrowed eyes, then looked pointedly away.
“We thank your Grace for the invitation,” Marchioness Serilda said swiftly. “And we wish both of your Majesties good health.” The three offered respectful bows and moved toward the back of the tent to take their seat.
The noble lords and ladies stepped forward in turn to greet the Dowager and crown prince, more than a few of them making pointed glances towards Kirsi, who studied them each in turn with the unsettling gaze of a predator assessing her potential foes or allies.
“Viscount Gilwren is outside and requesting an audience, your Grace,” Elouise announced, her tired voice straining over the murmur of conversations as the tent quickly filled with nobles.
“Send him in,” Octavia commanded, her voice temporarily quieting the lords as they turned with surprise toward Lord Rykard Gilwren, who entered and presented himself gracefully to the Dowager upon bended knee.
“Your Grace, I received your summons. How might I—” Rykard halted as his hazel-brown eyes widened in surprise on Kirsi. Uncertainty and fear flickered across the Viscount’s face as he hastily returned his gaze to the floor. “How might this servant be of use to your Grace?”
“You may act as a witness along with the other nobles present here,” Octavia replied grimly, then motioned him away with a wave of her hand.
“What are you planning, Grandmother?” Nicholas asked through clenched teeth as Kirsi gave Maura’s departing grandfather a passing glance of disinterest before she returned to studying the nobles throughout the room with sharp, cunning ice-blue eyes.
“You will find out soon enough,” Octavia replied as she reached across the table to grasp Kirsi’s hand. The Scarlet Witch looked down in surprise and frowned before pulling her hand firmly away. ‘Ahh, I need to be more careful,’ Octavia observed ruefully as she motioned to Delphine for a drink. “We are nearly ready.”
“And who are we waiting on?” Nicholas asked as he edged closer toward them.
Kirsi turned her ice-blue eyes toward the crown prince with a bemused smirk. “Which important figure are we missing, your Majesty?”
Nicholas stared back at her for a long moment with a confounded expression before the crown prince blinked and then shrugged as he cleared his throat. “We appear to have every member of government here—”
“Except—your wife—your Majesty,” Kirsi murmured with a cynical laugh. “Her Royal Highness, Crown Princess Eleanora?”
Octavia glanced from the scarlet witch’s sarcastic smile to Nicholas’s suddenly flushed cheeks as her grandson cleared his throat again and looked away. ‘Ah, what a shame, Queen Tabitha, it appears your grandchild is headed towards his ruin.’ She smiled and turned as Lady Delphine approached with a pitcher of wine and two glasses. “Some wine for his Majesty while we wait.”
The Dowager clenched her hands together impatiently, feeling far more alive than she had in years. Perhaps it was Kirsi’s magic that had transferred from Maura’s hand into hers so naturally. It might also have been the familiar looks of hatred from so many of the nobles Octavia had summoned to her tent. The Monarch tapped her glass and raised it to Kirsi as she envisioned her long-awaited revenge on so many of the guests assembled here today. King Leon Havardur’s grandson among them.
Kirsi flinched suddenly as she reached down to cover the bracelet on her left wrist with a troubled frown.
“What is it?” Octavia whispered as she studied the magical artifact curiously, wondering how she had not noticed it until now.
“Nothing,” Kirsi murmured, though her expression seemed far from pleased. “We should hurry this along. I appear to be running out of time.”
“Pardon?” Octavia murmured, startled by Kirsi’s rather curious choice of words.
“Lord Alastair and Lady Isabella Kensington are here along with her Highness, Crown Princess Eleanora,” Captain Leo announced loudly as he followed a rather tired Lady Elouise into the tent. “They request permission—”
“Send them in!” Octavia commanded as she set down her glass and stood. “We have waited long enough.”