Chapter 27: An Offer of Friendship
The slowly rising sun glittered upon the blanket of golden dew that slumbered across the campgrounds, clinging to the leaves of the forest limbs surrounding them. Carina rinsed the remnants of blood and vomit from her mouth, lingering souvenirs of Kirsi’s memory transfer, with a herbal mixture of goldenrod, peppermint, and honey. Her throat still burned from all the salt water the Scarlet Witch had swallowed during her last panicked breaths for air.
‘Perhaps beheading is a better way to go after all.’
The Duchess gargled down the last of the tincture, then hastily spit the salty fluids out as she caught sight of Hana and Ivy heading in her direction. After dropping the cup into the grass behind the canopy post, she slipped inside her tent to hastily spritz the bed with a dash of perfume to mask the lingering traces of her abrupt awakening.
“Your Grace?” Hana called from outside the front tent entrance. “May we come in?”
“Ah, yes! Just a moment!” Carina called out, pausing beside the miniature vanity desk to check her reflection and wipe a trace of tincture from the corner of her mouth. “Come in.”
The two ladies entered and glanced at the Duchess curiously. Belatedly, Carina realized they were both fully dressed for a day of leisure while she remained in her nightgown and robes.
“Did you get any sleep, Kirsi?” Hana murmured worriedly as she brushed the Duchess’s disheveled ash-brown hair away from her cheek.
“Some,” Carina managed, momentarily struck by the Viscountess’s piercing turquoise blue eyes that reminded her hauntingly of Kirsi’s still vivid memories. “I should get ready.”
“Of course.” Hana turned and gave Ivy a curiously encouraging nod before moving toward the chests of garments and decorative armor. “Since the duel this morning is being held in your honor, you should wear one of Sir Everly’s stunning creations.”
“Aha!” Carina laughed awkwardly. If it weren’t for her relentless and utter defeat during the Scarlet Witch’s training only moments ago, she might have tried fighting the Viscount herself. ‘I suppose I should be grateful to Beaumont for stepping in then. Without Kirsi’s abilities and experience, I’m more likely to make a fool of myself.’
“Your Grace,” Ivy spoke up hesitantly. “Could I speak to you privately for a moment?”
The Duchess turned swiftly towards the hesitant maid, who nervously twisted the silk belt of her dress. “Of course, Ivy. Should we—” Carina gestured towards the hanging woven tapestry of Bastiallano’s sigil that offered some amount of privacy to the bed tucked into the tent corner.
“At least give me a color scheme to work with,” Hana called out as she held up one dress of silver green and another of teal blue.
The Duchess hesitated as she held the corner of the tapestry open for Ivy. “There should be a lavender blue dress in the red oak chest next to you.”
‘That’s as close to purple as I can get.’
Hana’s delicate brows furrowed for a moment before she smiled, nodded, and motioned for Carina to follow Ivy.
“It’s—about my mother—Lady Miranda,” Ivy began, still twisting the fabric of the teal green gown that had been altered to fit her willowy frame.
“Of course,” Carina murmured, her memory hastily juggling through the night’s events to the image of Priscilla’s attendant coughing up blood. “Of course, you must be concerned.”
“The knights say she is to be executed for attempting to frame you,” Ivy blurted out, her expression contorting between rage, uncertainty, and anguish. “I know what she did was wrong. I can’t believe she’s working for the Borghese’s of all families, but—a death sentence?”
The Duchess folded her hands rigidly against her waist as she struggled to resist comforting the older girl. “I would happily punish her a thousand times over for what she did to you, Ivy.”
The maid blinked and hesitantly raised her jade green eyes to the ice witch’s icy gaze.
“But if you wish for her to be spared—I will do all I can to see it done,” Carina affirmed with heavy reluctance. The relief that flooded Ivy’s face sent a dagger of guilt through the Duchess’s chest as she sank onto the unmade bed and gestured for her friend to join her. “You are far too kind, Ivy.”
‘And far more forgiving than I could ever be.’
“I’m not sure—” Ivy responded as she took a seat at arm’s length from the Duchess. “I hate her for what she did to me—but she wasn’t to blame for what happened to our family—my father.”
‘I’m not so sure about that, given the evidence Borghese’s investigators dug up.’
“You never told me about what happened to him,” Carina replied cautiously.
“I was too afraid to even keep our family name,” Ivy whispered, rubbing the corner of her eye. “Lord Spenser Koresh was a good father—a kind husband and reputable nobleman. I still remember how proud he was to be elected to serve inside the palace as a historian.” She shook her head, her hands tightening together as she blinked back tears. “I don’t believe for a moment—that he would ever commit treason. He was truly devoted to the sanctity of Lafeara’s history.”
“Perhaps that’s what led to his downfall? Perhaps he uncovered some ugly truth the royal family did not wish to be revealed?”
“I had the same thought many times before,” Ivy replied, her tone gritty with remorse. “But what possible mystery could a junior historian uncover that hundreds of historians before him overlooked?”
“Fair enough.” The Duchess reached towards her friend’s hand, wanting to offer comfort, but stopped short and settled for resting her hand on the bed between them. “It still doesn’t excuse what your mother did to you.”
“She did what she had to in order to survive.” Ivy shook her head firmly, then rose from the bed. “But this is the last time I will ask you to offer her any mercy, Lady Kirsi. After this, I want nothing to do with her—ever again.”
“As you wish,” Carina whispered, then clenched her fist as she watched the tired maid wander past the hanging tapestry to join Hana. ‘I can ask Nicholas to spare Miranda’s life, but that doesn’t mean she won’t be punished all the same.’
“There, is that better?” Hana asked as she adjusted the leather straps of the corset adorned with ivory and mother-of-pearl worn over Carina’s lavender blue dress embroidered with white lilies and violets.
The Duchess twisted slightly from side to side and raised her arms to hold an imaginary crossbow before nodding. “Much better.”
“Good, then we should probably get going. You can let the Colonel in now, Lady Ivy.”
Ivy set down her empty tea cup, then rose from her seat and headed towards the tent entrance.
“What did you put in it?” Carina murmured curiously, marveling at how much the silent maid’s complexion had improved.
“Ahh, nothing much,” Hana replied as she hurried over to one of the still-open chests and pulled out a velvet jewelry box. “Shall we go with these?”
The Duchess glanced over at the displayed set of amethyst jewels before offering the Viscountess a questioning brow.
“Well, if you’re going to dress to match the knight who’s representing you, might as well go all the way,” Hana stated bluntly as she set the box down and removed the amethyst gemstone necklace.
“I don’t have time to argue with you,” Carina retorted as she lifted her loosely braided hair out of the Viscountess’s way.
The Duchess turned to where Colonel Isaac stood with a long black-cherry box tucked under his arm, his head bowed courteously towards the tent floor. “You may look, Colonel. What is it you have with you.”
“A delivery from the Capital,” Isaac replied as he pulled a small envelope from his belt, placed it on top of the box, and then presented them to her. “From the Master Blacksmith.”
“My crossbow!” Carina quickly picked up the letter and opened it to read the short message inscribed.
‘I thought it best to have this delivered through your knights to avoid any chance of you refusing or attempting to force payment. Please accept this offering as a gift to commemorate our temporary partnership. Respectfully, Sir Iker Blackstone.’
“Ha.” The Duchess shook her head and then immediately flipped the latch and opened the lid of the wooden box. A soft exhale escaped her lips the moment the silver crossbow came into view. Every inch was a work of craftsmanship, from the polished oak butt engraved with twin wolves racing on either side to the painted silver moon and stars that continued along the shaft; to the silver enameled stirrup, bolt clip, and trigger.
“It looks so delicate,” Hana murmured as she leaned in curiously to study the weapon.
“It’s perfect,” Carina replied as she ran her fingers over the simple steel cranium device mounted on top of the weapon that would allow her to draw and load the silver-tipped bolts tucked into the side pocket of the box with relative ease.
‘At this size, it should be much easier for me to manage.’
“It looks like a toy,” Isaac commented dryly, examining the crossbow with a critical brow. “Probably designed for a child.”
‘Is he mocking me?’
The Duchess stamped down on her irritation and lifted the gift from its box, testing both the crossbow’s feel and the comfort of her dress as she aimed the empty weapon towards the tent flap, startling the nobleman who walked through them.
“Hold! I yield!” Bromwell called out hastily as he raised his hands. “Apologies, your Grace. His Majesty sent me to bring you over to the dueling grounds that have been set up for this morning’s activities.”
“I see,” Carina replied as she lowered the crossbow, then returned it to its box. ‘It’s almost too pretty to use.’ “Colonel, if you could see to it that the weapon and my horse are prepared for the hunt.” Her fingers paused to select one of the silver bolts, which she examined curiously. “And have our weaponsmith make a hundred bolts of similar size and weight from regular iron. I’d rather save these for a more formal occasion.”
“Of course, your Grace. I’m sure the sergeant can find something suitable.”
The Duchess offered the Colonel a warning glare before turning to accept Bromwell’s offered arm as she and her ladies exited the canopy.
In retrospect, Carina was somewhat surprised and a bit annoyed at her choice of colors when she took Nicholas’s hunting outfit, which came in various shades of lavender, violet, and green. The Crown Prince was seated in one of three especially placed ornamental mahogany chairs alongside the Crown Princess.
‘Well, purple is the color of the Lafearian royal family.’
Eleanora’s hunting gown was a mixture of brown, beige, dark violet, and forest green, which, judging by the long cuts that ran from the upper thigh to the hem, was a poor attempt to mask the brown men’s trousers she wore underneath.
‘She seems more herself since coming here,’ Carina mused as she and Bromwell bowed and curtsied before the royal couple.
“We’ve been waiting for you, Lady Kirsi.” Nicholas rose from his seat as he greeted them with a permissive wave to rise. “Come, I’ve had a chair prepared.”
The Duchess nodded graciously to her cousin before accepting the Crown Prince’s offered hand. She glanced past the young monarch to his silent shadow and found Beaumont’s violet eyes resting rather curiously on the necklace she wore.
“Amethyst looks lovely on you,” Nicholas observed in a suspiciously loud whisper as he escorted Carina to her seat.
“Thank you—your Majesty.” The Duchess paused before sitting to offer Eleanora a polite head bow. “Your Highness.”
Eleanora eyed the Mistress of Bastiallano’s rather elaborate attire and clicked her tongue with a hint of disapproval before shifting her gaze to the nobles watching them. Carina couldn’t help but notice that several members of the Royal Faction, including Marquess Borghese, were absent from the gathering.
“Perhaps, your Grace might provide the Crown Princess with a bit of helpful advice regarding the use of social and formal attire,” Nicholas commented as he returned to his chair with a pointed glare at his wife’s exposed left leg.
“I rather admire her Highness’s confidence, not to mention the practicality of her wardrobe of choice,” Carina replied as she took her seat. “Perhaps one day it will not be so shocking for women to wear clothing more appropriate for outdoor sports.”
The Crown Prince heaved a plaintive sigh before turning to the Prime Minister, who waited close by. “Bring in the witness, Attwood. Let’s get this unpleasantness over with so I might return to the simplicity of the hunt.”
‘Really, Nicholas. You married her. The least you could do is try to understand Eleanora.’
The Duchess’s sympathy was just as swiftly squashed when she caught the Crown Princess stealing a longing glance at Lady Hana.
‘Then again, the same could be said of you both.’
“Bring in the prisoner!” Attwood commanded as he pulled a folded document from his folder.
Hana placed a supportive arm around Ivy as Lady Miranda was dragged forward in a pair of manacles locked tightly around the sleeves of her dusty black dress. The attendant’s face and hair had been cleaned up prior to her appearance before the nobles but judging by the confidence in her step and demure gaze, Carina’s accuser did not appear to have suffered much during the night.
“I regret to inform your Majesty that the prisoner remains unable to answer my questions verbally due to the injuries suffered from the spiked leaves she ingested,” Attwood explained. The Royal Knights escorting Miranda pushed the attendant roughly to her knees before the three seated members of the royal family. “However, per my request, she did write out her testimony on paper, which was delivered to me this morning. I will summarize its contents for you now.”
Carina arched a brow as the Prime Minister unfolded the document and then presented it to Nicholas.
“According to Lady Miranda’s testimony, she was offered a cup of tea by one of the maids who served as a member of the Gilwren staff. She claims the drink made her tongue and mouth numb after a few sips, so she didn’t notice the pain at first or realize her injury until blood began to pool up in her throat.”
“What?” Viscount Gilwren protested as his grip tightened around the silver stag cane in his left hand. “Her throat may be damaged, but that bitch is lying through her teeth! My staff is not in the habit of serving other servants, much less offering our guests tea laced with harmful herbs.”
“Was anyone else allowed to speak with the prisoner after she was taken into your custody, Viscount?” Attwood questioned patiently.
The Crown Prince passed Miranda’s written testimony to the Duchess, who glanced over it wordlessly as Rykard shook his head. “Only the estate physician and those provided by his Majesty were allowed to examine or interact with the prisoner. No nobles or other guests were permitted entrance to her room.”
“The Borghese physician was given the opportunity to examine her, did they not?” Nicholas pressed.
“Only briefly, to ascertain her care and wellbeing.”
“Your Majesty,” Acheron interjected as he moved to stand beside the enraged Viscount. “Perhaps we might examine the evidence the Duchess retrieved from the prisoner’s throat?”
The Crown Prince nodded and turned to his wife. Eleanora, in turn, gestured to her ladies-in-waiting. Carina’s grip on the written testimony tightened as Lady Meredith Stafford stepped forward with a small wooden box.
“My Lords,” Meredith announced as she presented the box to the Prime Minister. “This is the plant her Highness received from the Duchess following last night’s incident at the baths.”
Carina had only to look at Attwood’s perplexed expression to realize that something was amiss. She rose from her seat to return Miranda’s statement and glanced down at the crushed, almost powder-like substance that lay upon a napkin inside the box.
‘Of course. I failed to consider the possibility that the Dowager’s spies might serve more than one master.’
Acheron and Rykard joined her to examine the substituted evidence, and judging from the Viscount’s enraged expression, he had also realized the deception at play. Maura’s grandfather raised his troubled hazel-green eyes to the Duchess’s with a worried expression. Whether for her or himself, Carina couldn’t be sure, but for some inexplicable reason, she suspected the former.
“This is not the same evidence I examined when I visited her Highness last night,” Rykard declared firmly as he turned to face the Crown Prince. Eleanora immediately leapt to her feet with a look of rage and stormed toward them. The nobles parted, and Carina watched as shock overtook the Princess’s visage.
“Eleanora?” Nicholas called out questioningly.
The Crown Princess let out a shuddered breath before her amber gaze narrowed accusingly at her lady-in-waiting. Lady Meredith avoided her Mistress’s gaze, apparently choosing to feign ignorance, while the Crown Prince finally left his chair to join them.
“Is there a problem, Eleanora?”
“I—I’m—not sure,” Eleanora whispered as her gaze returned to the crushed pile of leaves. “It looks—different—from how it did last night.”
“Different, how?” Nicholas pressed curiously as he took the box from the lady-in-waiting and peered at its contents curiously.
“It appears to have dried out overnight, your Majesty.”
“Forgive our late arrival, your Majesty!” The Duchess and royal couple turned to where Marquess Borghese and his daughter had finally made their appearance along with other members of the Royal Faction. “I trust we haven’t missed anything of significant importance?”
“Thank you for finally joining us, Marquess,” Nicholas replied grimly. “We were just going over the evidence collected last night.”
“Ah!” Borghese nodded as he stroked his ash-brown beard. “Yes, regarding that. I wondered if my physician might have an opportunity to look at the herbs responsible for our servant’s injury. We have yet to see this viper’s tongue for ourselves.”
‘You mean since you replaced it with nearly harmless powder?’
A glint of cunning surfaced in the Marquess’s chartreuse-green eyes as they sized up the Duchess briefly before returning to the Crown Prince.
“I see no reason why not,” Nicholas responded with surprising calm as he carried the open box of herbs to the Marquess. “Perhaps your physician could also offer his opinion as to the identity of this plant.”
“Certainly, your Majesty.” Borghese waved over a man wearing spectacles, who bowed to the Crown Prince before taking a pinch of the crushed leaves to examine them. “Well?”
“It is difficult to say, my Lord. What little residue remains has very little structure by which to identify it.” The physician brought his fingers closer for a quick sniff. “The plant is certainly odorless, which matches the properties of the viper’s tongue and—ah!” The man winced while rubbing his fingers together. “But there still appear to be a few spiny needles in the mixture, which likely caused the maid’s injuries.”
“So it is the viper’s tongue?”
“Yes, harmless enough aside from its prickly exterior.”
“And where does such a plant grow?” Nicholas asked curiously.
“It’s a weed, your Majesty. It can grow practically anywhere. You might even find some in Gilwren Forest.”
“We might have found some in the maid’s quarters had we been allowed to search them last night,” Rykard shot back, bristling at the subtle implication of the man’s words.
“In either case, in this condition, the plant would easily dissolve in warm liquid, aside from the needles, which would take longer to break down.”
“Then it is possible to drink this without realizing the danger?” Nicholas pressed.
“Oh, certainly no more than a sip,” the physician replied with a dry chuckle. “The tongue and throat are quite sensitive, after all.”
“Then how do you explain the extent of the maid’s injuries?”
“Well, from what I gathered, the tea was also laced with a numbing agent that likely masked any initial superficial injuries.”
“Then when the person who unwittingly ingested this herb vomits up blood?”
“Far too late, I’m afraid,” the physician replied grimly. “The lady will find it difficult to breathe, much less talk for several weeks. Inflammation and fever are especially dangerous, and a strict liquid diet must be followed until the needles have properly dissolved inside the patient’s stomach.”
“I see,” the Crown Prince offered the man a thin smile, then turned and dumped the crushed remnants of the viper’s tongue onto the ground where a breeze carried it towards Borghese’s boots. “Thank you for your assistance.”
The physician bowed and then withdrew as Nicholas returned, tossing the empty box to Eleanora before retaking his seat. The Crown Princess glanced hesitantly from the empty box to the Duchess before joining her husband. Meanwhile, Marquess Borghese and Priscilla shot the ice witch pointed glares before presenting themselves to bow and curtsey before the royal couple.
“As you can see, your Majesty,” Borghese began, staring down at the seated monarch. “This whole affair is far from clear, and certainly, the victim, who shall require weeks to recover from her injuries, should not be blamed for the cruelty she’s suffered.”
Many of the nobles behind the proud Marquess nodded and whispered in agreement as Miranda sagged weakly onto her side, looking genuinely pale and miserable.
‘It seems they wish to brush the entire incident under the rug?’ Carina bit back a laugh as she circled the kneeling attendant to approach the Crown Prince. ‘Well, since I’ve already given up on holding Priscilla accountable for this incident, the least I can do is take advantage of their strategy to grant Ivy’s wish.’
“Your Majesty, I find myself in agreement with the Marquess. Whether the attendant accidentally drank these herbs or not, she has suffered enough. Punishing her for a crime we cannot prove would be a pitiful fate.”
Nicholas sat forward with a surprised expression that he hastily masked as he glanced toward the Prime Minister. “Well—if that is how you feel, Lady Kirsi.”
“It is. In fact, I hope your Majesty will allow the servant to continue to receive treatment somewhere more secluded so that she might rest and recover swiftly.”
Carina was not at all surprised by the dumbfounded expression worn by many among Borghese’s party. Maintaining her façade, she smiled benevolently at Miranda, who only shrank away from the Duchess’s gaze with a look of barely suppressed fear.
‘How strange. Perhaps because Miranda is more beast than human, she can sense danger more clearly than most.’
The Crown Prince sat back with a faint scoff and tilted his head back towards Beaumont briefly before straightening to address the waiting nobles. “Very well, per Lady Kirsi’s compassionate request, we shall release the prisoner and transfer her to one of the chapels outside the Capital for care and treatment.”
“But—” Priscilla protested as the two Royal Knights stepped forward to assist Lady Miranda to her feet. “—what am I supposed to do without an attendant.”
“Oh, please, Lady Priscilla,” Eleanora responded as she rose from her seat with a fierce smile. “Allow me to offer you a suitable replacement.” Lady Meredith gasped in surprise as the Crown Princess seized her arm and then shoved the lady-in-waiting roughly toward the Marquess and his daughter. “I trust you will find Lady Stafford amenable to your demands.”
A few shocked and disapproving murmurs broke out among the nobles as Meredith hurriedly collected herself and glanced hesitantly after the already retreated Crown Princess.
The Duchess smiled at the look of rage that swept over Borghese’s face while Priscilla managed to look meek and ill at ease. ‘It must hurt to lose a spy so close to your greatest threat for such a petty reason. I suppose I have Priscilla to thank for that.’
Judging from the Crown Prince’s bewildered expression, Eleanora’s sudden move appeared to have caught him off guard. “Did your lady-in-waiting do something wrong?” Nicholas asked curiously as his wife settled back into her chair.
“Nothing that serious, your Majesty,” Eleanora replied with an impatient flick of her wrist. “I simply have no desire to keep the daughter of any noble family foolish enough to offend my friend as an attendant.”
Carina remained at a loss for words as she watched Lady Evelyn hastily step forward with a cup and bottle of wine. The Crown Princess snatched both items impatiently and promptly filled the glass, which she then extended towards the Duchess.
“Please, allow me to apologize for any offense that my servants or I have caused you, Lady Kirsi. Despite our somewhat rocky history—I hope we may remain friends.”
‘This morning is not going at all how I expected.’
Carina hesitated, then turned to Hana, whose conflicted expression quickly shifted into a hesitant smile as she shrug.
‘Well, better friends than enemies, I suppose. Let’s see how long this peace offering lasts.’
The Duchess turned back to the Crown Princess and dipped her head in humble acceptance. “I should like nothing more, your Highness.”