Epilogue {Part One}: An Oath of Allegiance


The bells of Lafeara’s great cathedral peeled out in long, vibrating knells of celebration that echoed up into the towering rafters of its arched mosaic ceiling. Tall glass panes depicting kings, saints, and popes covered the esteemed guests seated behind the scarlet-roped gallery in the light of the divine.

Whether in the side aisles or the center pews, every seat was filled with noblemen and noblewomen from Lafeara’s highest families. Each family sat segregated by either sex or position. Typically, the married women and the children were seated behind the men and the elderly, signified by each noble family’s hierarchy.

The lower nobles gathered in less luxurious seats beyond these roped galleries of glittery silks, jewels, and feathers. They did not complain but gazed upon their betters with envy and humility, for had they been commoners, they would have been left to stand in the heat outside the cathedral’s walls.

Beaumont gazed over the amassed swarm of spectators speculatively. His fingers grazed lazily over the strap that kept his dragon longsword attached firmly to his back. A restless unease stirred beneath the polished armor chest plate and the golden emblem of the three devouring wolves that adorned it. A sensation, not of dread, but more anticipation—as if the knight captain had long waited for this moment and now welcomed its arrival.

‘Strange, but then, who could have predicted that a half-blood would one day be appointed as Duchess of Bastiallano.’ His violet eyes drifted over to Nicholas, who stood before his throne conversing quietly with Bishop Murdock.

The Bishop had been less than pleased with Nicholas’s request that Murdock offer a blessing to each of the nobles receiving an ennoblement promotion today. Murdock had looked downright flustered when the crown prince informed him that the Dowager had named one of these nobles as heir to the Duchy of Bastiallano.

The shaken Bishop had quietly agreed. Whatever his motives, they were now masked behind an expression of benevolent grace and dignity that Beaumont did not trust.

Nicholas nodded to something the Bishop said and moved back towards the knight captain to take his seat.

The Prime Minister appeared through a side door and signaled the conductor as he moved up the steps towards Nicholas.

“They are ready,” Attwood whispered as he bowed beside Nicholas’s shoulder.

The Crown Prince nodded and rubbed his hands together as he glanced at both of the two empty seats beside him. “Then let’s begin.”

Attwood bowed his head and turned again to the conductor, to whom he gave an affirming nod. The choir of young boys and girls rose to their feet, and soon the cathedral was filled with heavenly music that eased the soul and danced upon the specks of daylight which glimmered across a purple carpet leading to the back of the cathedral.

The cathedral doors creaked open. An escort of knights dressed not in the usual purple colors of Lafeara’s royalty but of silver and black entered and formed a uniformed line along the aisle from the cathedral doors to the altar steps where Bishop Murdock waited.

‘These must be knights from the Duchy of Bastiallano,’ Beaumont realized as he assessed their cold, superior expressions. The knights ignored the nobles and barely blinked in Nicholas’s direction before they each turned in sequence to stand guard along the aisle. When the final pair had taken their place beside the altar steps, the knights all turned together with precise uniformed movement and bowed their heads in recognition as their commanding officer appeared.

A murmur rippled among the crowds as the General of Bastiallano’s forces strode down the carpet in full armor. A red sash was draped across his silver and black colors. Still, even more shocking and eye-catching was the General’s blatant disregard for the nobles present along with Lafeara’s monarch by failing to remove his helmet inside the cathedral.

Beaumont’s eyes narrowed suspiciously at the piece of armor that shielded this man’s face from view. Not only was wearing a helmet, hat, or even the hood of a cloak inside the church considered blasphemous but hiding one’s face before a monarch was a public gesture of disrespect that was just shy of being called treasonous.

‘Why take such a risk to hide your face?’ Beaumont shifted his stance uneasily as the General strolled towards the Bishop and the crown prince with the casual air of one who feared neither reprimand nor punishment.

Nicholas leaned forward curiously to study the knight. His left eye twitched in annoyance while his expression conveyed interest and perhaps even a hint of desire. The power the Dowager held over the other nobles of Lafeara came from her position as the owner of Bastiallano and its military forces. Like Lady Maura, Octavia had also been adopted by the previous Duchess, who has served as a General before King Henri’s coronation.

The knights of Bastiallano were notorious for their unreserved loyalty to their Duke or Duchess. They only involved themselves with the monarchy and other noble houses when their Master answered Lafeara’s king’s call to fulfill the oath given by each Duke and Duchess that received their title.

The General reached the first step and tapped a closed, gloved fist against his chest where the symbol of a single white wolf was barely distinguishable against the silver armor’s surface. He bowed his head, the gesture stiff and even reluctant before he turned sharply and positioned himself at the base of the steps, completely ignoring the Bishop who stared at him with silent fury.

“Your Majesty?” Attwood whispered as he glanced from Bastiallano’s Commander to the outraged Bishop.

“Let it be,” Nicholas murmured with a dismissive wave of his fingers. “You cannot blame a dog for its owner’s arrogance.”

A stir at the back of the cathedral proceeded the page’s clear voice that cried out above the din, “Announcing her Majesty, Queen Regent Octavia, Ruler of Lafeara and Duchess of Bastiallano. Announcing her Ladyship, Lady Kirsi Valda of Bastiallano.”

Like a tidal wave, the mesmerized nobles turned. Among them, Beaumont noted Viscount Rykard of Gilwren, who clutched his cane with trembling hands as the two women crossed the threshold and entered the sanctorium.

The Dowager was dressed in the royal purple and gold colors of Lafeara. Across the Regent’s chest, a sash of silver and black glistened in the sunlight. Upon Octavia’s snow-white hair, her monarch’s crown had been replaced with a circlet of diamonds that sparkled and blinded all who beheld her.

Holding the Queen Regent’s arm, Lady Maura—now Lady Kirsi—walked with grace and confidence as if the hundreds of nobles that gazed upon her, baring every color of human emotion from awe to resentment, did not exist before her ice-blue eyes. Lady Kirsi’s gown was the color of the clearest blue sky, laced in silver and adorned by a dozen tiny black swords carved from onyx stone. Her ash-brown hair was tied up in silver and black ribbons with a smaller circlet of silver swords that nestled upon her crown and forehead.

Row by row, the nobles rose to curtsey and bow before their Queen Regent. Halfway through the wooden pews of lower nobility, a young woman with scarlet red hair stepped suddenly towards the aisle and called out Maura’s name furiously. Instantly, one of the Bastiallano knights drew his sword and turned upon her.

Beaumont tensed as the redhead stumbled back away from the blade, shielded by the young nobleman beside her, who raised his hands placatingly and cried out in alarm as the knight’s sword pierced his hand.

The Dowager and her adopted granddaughter stopped and turned to stare at the offender and the wounded noble. Beaumont watched as a curious smile crept over Maura’s face. Her ice-blue eyes matched the Dowager’s expression of disgust with a bit of added loathing.

“Remove them,” Octavia commanded coldly and then continued forward. Four Bastiallano knights stepped forward to escort the young woman and the injured nobleman out of the cathedral. A senior noblewoman hastily followed after them as the cathedral doors shut with a thud behind all three.

“That redhead,” Nicholas whispered towards Attwood, who stood beside him. “Was that Lady Maura’s sister?”

“I believe it must be, your Majesty,” Attwood replied. “What a foolish child. Thankfully, the Queen Regent handled it quickly—and without too much violence.”

The Dowager and Lady Maura continued through the rows of lower nobles and on past the gallery of higher noble families that each rose in turn to give their greeting. Octavia cast a smug smile in the direction of Viscount Rykard, while Lady Kirsi ignored his presence altogether. The future Duchess’s gaze remained fixated on Bishop Murdock as a glimmer of uncertainty tightened her pastel pink lips.

Nicholas rose from his chair and extended his arms to welcome them. Lady Kirsi blinked and curtsied beside Octavia as the crown prince approached.

“Rise, Lady Kirsi,” Nicholas commanded with a welcoming smile and a wave of his hand.

Beaumont turned his attention to Bishop Murdock, who glanced between the Dowager and Lady Kirsi with an expression of dawning comprehension. Beaumont well understood his belated enlightenment.

Though the women bore little resemblance to one another, their eyes held not only the same cold ice-blue color but an equally imposing presence of power. ‘This is the first time Bishop Murdock and Lady Maura have met, but no Bishop of Zarus would fail to understand the implications of those blue eyes combined with Maura’s new name and position.’

“Bishop?” Nicholas turned towards the holy man with an inquiring brow but stern gaze.

Murdock swallowed and offered a hesitant head bow before he turned towards the stewards who brought forward the prepared medallions of office, two silver and one of gold, each attached to a golden chain.

Beaumont kept his eyes trained on the Pope’s representative while Nicholas turned to face the two women before him and intoned the first words which began the ennoblement ceremony. “Lady Kirsi Valda, you have proven yourself worthy of noble prestige, responsibility, and authority. With the recommendation of our Queen Regent and the support of the House of Lords, you will now receive the office of Lady Protector, Duchess of Bastiallano.”

Lady Kirsi folded her hands across her chest and bowed her head before the Crown Prince.

Beaumont remained focused on Murdock, his muscles clenching as the Bishop pulled a clear bottle from within his robes and hastily sprinkled it upon the golden medallion, which sat between two silver medallions. The Knight Captain knew without asking what the contents of that bottle were.

‘Holy Water.’

“I, Lady Kirsi Valda, do hereby pledge my loyalty to the Hargrave family and to their descendants with my heart and body, life and property until I breathe my last breath and perish from this earth.” Lady Kirsi’s voice rang out in calm serenity as she recited the Oath of Allegiance. “I swear to fulfill the oaths of my predecessors, to rise in defense of my King and country, against all enemies, foreign and Lafearian. To all who would oppose, threaten, or undermine Crown Prince Nicholas’s rule, I shall be the blade called upon to separate their souls from this world. This is my pledge, this is my oath, and may the Saints strike me down should I fail to uphold it.”

Beaumont casually reached up to unbuckle the strap on his sword. The prime minister noticed the knight captain’s movements despite his best efforts to be discreet. Attwood’s eyes widened in alarm.

“I, Crown Prince Nicholas, future King and Ruler of Lafeara, hereby accept the oath of Lady Kirsi Valda,” Nicholas intoned graciously. The crown prince turned with a smile stretched across his face and reached for the medallion that Bishop Murdock carried over.

The sharp sting of magic ripped through the air, and Murdock tumbled.

The medallion fell from the holy man’s hands, as did the vial of Holy Water from the sleeves of his robes. Nicholas hurriedly steadied the Bishop, who practically barreled into the crown prince.

Beaumont’s gaze flew to the gallery where Earl Percy Hawthorne’s winter gray eyes bore into the Bishop with the look of a killer. The Knight Captain removed the hand from his blade and focused on Nicholas. The Crown Prince stared at the bottle of Holy Water and then at the Bishop he held. He released the man and picked up the medallion, running the golden chains of the necklace over his bare hand as he glanced towards Octavia and Lady Kirsi.

The Dowager removed a handkerchief from her sleeve and held out a gloved hand to her grandson. The Bishop, Maura, and Beaumont watched as the Queen Regent brushed over the chain and medallion before offering it back to Nicholas with a permissive nod.

‘It seems, as always, the Dowager came prepared,’ Beaumont realized as a slow breath slithered through his tense lips.

“And so—” Nicholas held the necklace aloft for the nobles to see, “—it is with great respect and expectation that I name Lady Kirsi Valda, Duchess of Bastiallano, and successor to all the responsibilities, power, privilege, and wealth such an office entails.” The crown prince slid the necklace with the greatest of care around Lady Kirsi’s circlet of swords and then arranged the chain against the shoulders of her dress.

The Duchess bowed her head and then knelt upon the steps as Nicholas drew his sword. For a brief moment, Beaumont thought he noticed the Commander of the Bastiallano knights shift tensely in their direction. The crown prince tapped the blade against the chains upon Kirsi’s shoulder and then sheathed his sword once more.

“Arise, Duchess Kirsi,” Nicholas commanded.

The Dowager offered her hand to the new Duchess, and Lady Kirsi stood to meet the eyes of her sworn sovereign.

Nicholas met her gaze, smiled, and inclined his head ever so slightly in a gesture of respect that sent a ripple of surprise through the nobles who watched the ceremony reach its conclusion.

Bishop Murdock trembled as he moved to stand over the bottle of Holy Water he had dropped, obscuring it from view beneath his robes. His efforts proved pointless as the crown prince turned and cast a warning look at the holy man before returning to his throned seat.

“I’m amazed you didn’t take his head off,” Nicholas whispered to Beaumont as he glanced over his shoulder.

“Is that your way of granting me permission?” Beaumont grumbled with an arched brow as he watched Lady Kirsi curtsy to the Queen Regent before following the Prime Minister towards the side door.

Dowager Octavia sent a sharp look to Bastiallano’s General. The man signaled two other knights to follow him as they hurried after their disappearing Duchess.

“Not yet,” Nicholas muttered quietly as he adjusted his garments and focused on the opening cathedral doors.

“Presenting her Highness, Crown Princess Eleanora and his Lordship, Lord Marco Emerson,” the page informed the room of waiting nobles.

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