Chapter 28 [Part Two]: The Executioner’s Blade
Beaumont walked between the Duchess and Crown Prince as he strode towards the center of the dueling ring, which the nobles rapidly vacated as they moved beyond the hastily erected rope barrier. The Knight Captain ignored their whispers and pointed looks as he turned to meet the ice witch’s blue eyes.
Kirsi looked away first, though her gaze returned to the knight frequently as he circled the ring. Beaumont declined the steel gauntlet offered to him by one of Nicholas’s stewards. Beneath his knight’s tabard, he wore his usual steel breastplate, full torso chain-mail armor, steel vambraces, leather padded shirt, and cotton tunic. A similar layer of armor protected his groin and legs with the steel greaves and sabaton boots on his feet.
With the heat rising as the sun climbed above them, Beaumont couldn’t help but envy the simple leather armor worn by all the other nobles present, who trusted their knights to keep them safe from any harm. He pulled his chain mail coif over his already damp ash-blonde hair and turned to where a clatter of armor and bemused laughter surfaced to his left.
Lord Aaron Stafford staggered into the ring, clearly burdened by the weight of the full-plate armor that covered him from head to toe. It did not appear to be made for the Viscount, as was evident by Stafford’s awkward movements and labored breathing beneath the raised visor of his helmet.
Beaumont felt a ting of disgust as he eyed the swaying noble with some reluctance. This was hardly a contest and certainly not a duel he would derive any pleasure from winning.
“Saint’s Mercy, Stafford. Is that you?” Viscount Tomberline called out mockingly from the sidelines. Behind the nobleman and his chuckling friends, Marquess Borghese reappeared, accompanied by Earl Coldwell. Both nobles eyed their enshrouded part member with grim expressions. It was clear that no one expected Viscount Stafford to win, much less survive, no matter how much protection he wore.
The Knight Captain sighed and returned his attention to the seated Duchess. Kirsi’s lips twitched with an almost sympathetic smile as if she could read the discomfort behind his neutral expression. The disquieting and demoralizing sound of sniffling from the trembling suit to his right turned Beaumont’s stomach as he clenched his jaw and waited patiently for Nicholas to give his signal.
The Crown Prince glanced from Duchess to Knight Captain with a playful twinkle in his hazel-glue eyes, completely ignoring Stafford’s wretched presence. “Lady Kirsi, did you—perhaps forget to prepare a token for your knight?”
“A token, your Majesty?” Kirsi replied, her brows furrowing in confusion.
Beaumont scowled as her gaze left him, then directed his mistrustful glare to the Crown Prince, who struggled to hide his mischievous smile.
“I assumed you knew already,” Nicholas replied with feigned innocence. “It is customary for a lady to present the knight fighting on her behalf with a token as a gesture of gratitude. Though they also serve as a symbol for good luck.”
Beaumont’s frown deepened as he reflected on the few duels he had witnessed, most of which had been undertaken on behalf of a knight’s family or the noble household who sponsored them. If a lady’s honor was at stake, she was rarely present to witness the bloodshed on her behalf. However, a servant, who served as proxy and witness, would often gift the lady’s representative with a scarf or feather to tie upon his person.
The Knight Captain scanned the Duchess’s garments and found, just as she did, that she lacked any removable item to give him aside from her jewelry and hair accessories. Kirsi pressed her lips together as she toyed uncertainly with the lilac ribbon woven into her braided ash-brown hair.
“Ah, if you haven’t had time to prepare a gift, then a kiss on the cheek will suffice,” Nicholas tacked on helpfully, ignoring Beaumont’s warning glare.
‘I suppose it’s not a completely ridiculous tradition, though I’m pretty sure the last part is a lie.’
Kirsi narrowed her eyes suspiciously as she fumbled with one of her mother-of-pearl hairpins, then sighed as she dropped her hand to the armrest and stood.
The Crown Prince looked positively giddy as the Duchess approached the Knight Captain, who swiftly bent to one knee before her. Beaumont blinked in surprise as Kirsi placed her small pale hand on his shoulder. He hardly dared to breathe as she leaned in towards him.
Once more, the nostalgic scent of jasmine filled his senses, mingled with notes of lilac, lavender, and rose. Her cold breath grazed against his cheek as he inhaled the vibrant and refreshing fragrance.
“Since I am without a gift, you can consider this a means of repayment—for before,” Kirsi whispered.
The Knight Captain blinked as she pulled away. “Before? You mean—”
The Duchess’s ice-blue eyes narrowed in on him dangerously, confirming his suspicion.
‘But the only reason you kissed me then was to save me from the Death Mark I took from you.’
Beaumont scoffed quietly as he caught her hand before she could pull it away from his shoulder. “Now you’re just insulting me.”
He was surprised by the conflicted expression his words drew upon her face. Kirsi sucked in a quick breath, then muttered, “Well, what then?”
“This is a mere favor,” Beaumont replied, casting a dismissive look in Stafford’s direction. “One hardly worth fretting over.”
“But a favor nonetheless.” The Duchess pressed her lips together and tugged at the hand he held.
Unable to stop his smile, the Knight Captain offered her a teasing, questioning brow as he maintained his gentle but firm grip.
“Well, then—Thank you, Captain,” Kirsi spoke up, annunciating her words for the audience around them. “I suppose I’ll owe you one.”
Beaumont bit back a laugh as he released her, redoubling his efforts as she patted his shoulder awkwardly before returning to her seat with slightly flushed cheeks.
“Well, that was—underwhelming,” Nicholas commented dryly as he glanced between them sullenly.
Before the Knight Captain could offer a response, Stafford lunged toward the Duchess. Beaumont sprung after the man, yanking him back by his left pauldron, just as Colonel Isaac leapt forward to deliver a kick to the Viscount’s chest. Lord Stafford spun between them like a tightly wound spinning top before landing in an unsightly heap on his backside, with his helmet half-covering his face.
However, dizzy the unfortunate Viscount was, he managed to roll onto his hands and knees, pleading in the Duchess’s direction. “Please, your Grace. Sp-spare me! I shall make whatever amends you ask—I was wrong! Please, show some mercy for the sake of my ill sickly wife and unmarried child.”
Beaumont curled his lip in disgust as the very thought of tainting his mother’s blade with this coward’s blood turned his stomach. Behind them, the sympathetic murmurs of the nobles could be heard as Lady Meredith Stafford appeared beside Earl Coldwell, sniffling pitifully against her handkerchief.
The Duchess offered the wretched-looking Viscount a cold smile before stepping away from Colonel Isaac to take her seat. The Bastiallano officer moved cautiously after her, his attention still focused on the cowering nobleman.
“Your Majesty,” Carina murmured as she sat down and draped her arms leisurely across the armrests. “Would you mind clarifying the rules of the duel for me?”
The Crown Prince rubbed his jaw thoughtfully before turning to nod at his Prime Minister. Attwood stepped forward and presented the rules of conduct in his orator’s voice.
“The match presented before you on this field of honor shall be resolved in the following manner. The duel shall continue until either party becomes well-bloodied, disabled, or disarmed and unable to resume combat. At such a time, they shall be offered the opportunity to yield and apologize to the offended party. Whereafter, they will offer up a sum of compensation that shall be presented before the arbitrator of this duel now.”
“The fool will more than likely drop his sword before the captain gets in a single hit,” Lady Serilda commented cynically from beside Earl Percy. Nicholas chuckled along with several other nobles present as Viscount Stafford flushed with apparent embarrassment.
The Duchess smiled and gestured to Lady Hana, who stepped forward to present the Prime Minister with the prepared terms of compensation.
Attwood’s brows rose slightly before he cleared his throat and read the terms aloud, “Her Grace, Lady Kirsi Valda, demands the following as compensation for the insult to her honor and person. Lord Aaron Stafford shall surrender his title along with all lands and business that will be transferred to the Battalion Duchy.”
“That is absurd,” Borghese bellowed immediately, his words nearly drowned out by the gasps and murmurs of shock and surprise among the nobles on both sides of the dueling ring.
“Your Grace,” Earl Coldwell called out calmly before ducking beneath the rope barrier to address the Duchess and royal couple. “While I understand your justified anger, the title and lands the Viscount currently possesses by right belong to Lord Commander Stryker and the Hargreve Dukedom. They cannot be transferred without his Grace’s signature and consent.”
Carina pursed her lips with apparent dissatisfaction before turning her gaze to the Crown Prince. Nicholas and Eleanora were both looking at her with varying expressions of surprise, though the prince recovered quickly.
“I’m afraid the Earl is correct on this matter, Lady Kirsi. You are free to collect any properties, business, or profits not on Hargreve land. Everything else by law belongs to the Duke and cannot be seized outright, even to pay off a debt.”
“I understand that the Viscount has a few textile factories on the outskirts of the Capital, your Grace,” Earl Coldwell continued amiably as the Duchess let out a long sigh. “You would be permitted to seize those. Though the wool and thread they produce are derived from the sheep raised on the Duke’s land.”
“You can, of course, sue his Grace for compensation,” Nicholas added helpfully. “Any price the Viscount cannot meet becomes a debt to the Duchy after all—within reason, of course.”
“And who determines what amount is reasonable?” Carina replied coldly. “What amount would soothe your Majesty’s anger were someone to address a member of royalty as a ‘good-for-nothing whore’?”
The Crown Prince rubbed his fingers together silently, blinking slowly before he turned to face the three men in the ring. “Since I shall be the arbiter of this duel and its settlement, the amount of compensation shall be equal to the sum of all lands, business, and properties owned by the Stafford family, including those loaned to him by the Duke of Hargreve.”
“Your—Majesty!” Stafford gasped weakly, sinking back onto his hunches as the blood drained from his face.
“If the Viscount is unable to produce the required amount, then the debt shall fall to the Duchy of Hargreve to fulfill, at which point the Viscount and his family shall be stripped of their titles and reduced to commoners without the possibility of promotion for at least three generations.”
Carina arched her brow in surprise at the extended punishment. ‘It looks like Nicholas is using this opportunity to remind the nobles of the consequences of disrespecting any member of the royal family.’
A shrill cry escaped Lady Meredith before she slumped to the ground beside the Marquess, who stepped aside with a look of annoyance while his steward and other nobles carried the unconscious young woman away.
Eleanora stared after the fallen lady-in-waiting with a smug look of satisfaction before lifting her empty glass for Lady Evelynn to refill.
“Your Majesty, please—spare my family!” Stafford pleaded, looking rather close to fainting himself or on the verge of vomiting onto the ground he now cowered above.
“If you would spare them the disgrace and burden of your folly, then my lord is free to seek an honorable death here on the field of battle,” Nicholas retorted mercilessly, with an irritated glance at his wife’s freshly filled cup. “Only an honorable death or victory will expunge the debt.”
“Your Grace,” Coldwell implored as he directed his attention to the Duchess. “This is little better than a death sentence. Surely—you’ve made your point.”
“If my point were clearly made, then my lord would not waste his time asking for mercy,” Carina retorted with a cruel smile that belonged as much to her as the immortal ice witch relishing the nobles’ frustration within her.
The Earl sighed, then hung his head in defeat before offering the Duchess and royal couple a bow as he retreated from the ring.
Lord Stafford struggled to remain upright as he rose to his feet. Nicholas flicked a disinterested gaze over the pale nobleman as he pulled a pocket watch from his jacket and scowled at the time. “Let’s get on with this, shall we? The mornings half-wasted already.”
Carina laced her fingers together tightly as one of Borghese’s stewards brought over a longsword for the trembling Viscount. The servant appeared to utter something to Stafford, which the noble responded to with a sluggish nod of acknowledgment. Her gaze returned to the Knight Captain, who had removed his cloak, which he folded and draped over the rope barrier. She followed his gloved hand as Beaumont raised it to the dragon-steel blade he carried.
The Knight Captain had barely teased the longsword from its scabbard when a subtle ripple of power rolled through the earth beneath Carina’s feet.
‘Ahaha!’ Kirsi laughed victoriously. ‘Behold the power of Minerva’s heir. That sword is both lock and key to his awakening.’
The Duchess glanced at the nobles around them, who appeared undisturbed by the already receding presence of magic—except for the witch nobles gathered around Lord Percy, who eyed the Knight Captain as he drew his sword with sudden suspicion.
The two combatants turned to face each other. Stafford appeared to find his nerve as he gripped the longsword tightly and held it between them. The Prime Minister signaled to a royal steward, who sharply blew one of the hunting horns to start the match.
Beaumont remained in the same spot as Stafford circled around him with his wobbly blade. When the Viscount finally stepped in to attempt a strike, a single counter from the Knight Captain’s blade was all it took to knock the noble’s weapon to the edge of the ring.
Mocking laughter and murmurs of disapproval mingled through the audience as Stafford scrambled away, clinging to his right hand with gasps of pain as the captain followed steadily behind him.
Carina leaned forward uneasily in her seat as she watched the Viscount attempt to pick up his sword, only to drop it again with a sob. ‘His wrist is either sprained or broken. He must have gripped the sword too tightly when Beaumont disarmed him.’
“Your Majesty,” Marquess Borghese called out in a resigned voice. “It would appear that Lord Stafford is too injured to retrieve his blade, much less continue the match.”
“What? Already?” Nicholas protested, shooting his bodyguard a reproachful glare. “Very well. Viscount Stafford, it would seem you have a decision to make. You can either die an honorable death—or face a lifetime of disgrace and humility with your family.”
The Duchess clenched her jaw as she watched the Viscount attempt once more to pick up the longsword. He managed to leverage it between his left hand and right arm, only for Beaumont to knock the blade free once more with a flick of his dragon-steel blade. The Knight Captain stepped on the blade as Stafford fumbled to retrieve it once more. The Viscount scrambled away and watched with visible despair as Beaumont kicked the sword outside the ring.
Carina barely heard the wind blow across the matted dusty grass. She watched as the crestfallen nobleman slumped to his knees, then slowly—hesitantly, removed his helmet.
“Your Majesty,” Stafford called out hoarsely. “I am defeated.” The Viscount turned his gaze to where Borghese and Earl Coldwell watched him from beyond the rope barrier. “Marquess, please—look after my family.”
The acting head of the Royal Faction pursed his lips but offered the doomed nobleman a nod of acceptance.
A flicker of relief lit up Stafford’s face that vanished the moment his gaze returned to the Knight Captain that loomed above him. “Please—make it quick.”
Beaumont pushed back the heavy folds of his coif and then tapped his sword against the Viscount’s shoulder. The Knight Captain then turned his gaze to Nicholas, who sighed before waving his hand permissively. The giant’s violet eyes then sought out Carina’s as the Duchess’s fingers dug into the hard wood of the chair she clung to.
The scene playing out before her was not entirely unexpected. Nor were the similarities to Maura’s sad fate entirely unreasonable, given the similar setting and executioner. The Duchess’s fingers slid across the mahogany wood as her palms broke out in a cold sweat.
‘You actually feel sorry for him?’ Kirsi muttered tauntingly. ‘The Viscount made the only honorable decision he could. At least he had enough integrity to protect his family from his blunder.’
‘I know! I know it must be done.’ Carina retorted as she steeled her resolve and then offered the Knight Captain a single nod of approval. ‘There is no path forward that does not end in death.’
Much as Beaumont had done in Maura’s memories, the Knight Captain offered his victim a clean and swift demise. The noble ladies who had lingered to watch the sentence carried out swooned and gasped in horror at the gory, messy reality of death.
Carina felt nothing as she watched Beaumont step away from Stafford’s severed head. The knight moved to the edge of the ring to retrieve his cape and wipe the dragon-steel blade clean. The front of his purple and white tabard was splattered with fresh blood that tainted the air around the dueling ring.
The Duchess’s skin prickled beneath the many gazes upon her, both resentful and curious, from both political factions, along with the concerned looks of the royal couple seated to her left.
Carina pried her fingers free, then rose numbly to her feet to present the Crown Prince with a curtsey. “Please inform Captain Beaumont that I will find a suitable gift for him. Now, if you will excuse me, your Majesty, I shall finish preparing myself and my men for the hunt.”
She did not wait for a reply.
As the Duchess turned to gather Colonel Isaac and her ladies, she felt inexplicably detached from everything around her, as if the Captain’s blade had severed more than one soul from the world that day.