Chapter 30: Of Pride and Caution
The Duchess’s hunting party dispersed to refresh, recover, and resupply before meeting up at the main tent by Gilwren Manor to verify their kill count and gauge how the other hunting parties were doing. Carina handed her mare off to one of the knights as she trudged back toward her tent, doing her best to ignore the dull ache in her shoulders, lower back, and inner thighs as she walked stiffly through the tent flap.
The pulled-back tapestry curtain revealed Lady Hana and Ivy draped across the Duchess’s bed in various states of repose. The Viscountess lay reclined with an open book across her chest while Ivy lay on her stomach, her face curled into a pillow wrapped in her arms. Both women had stripped down to their corsets and petticoats in an attempt to alleviate the unavoidable heat that crept inside the tent. A plate of cheese, crackers, and grapes rested between them beside a pile of sketchbooks ranging in topics from local birds to wildlife and berries to flowers.
Carina blew the loose strands of ash-brown hair away from her cheek, then reached down awkwardly to loosen her boot strings. After pulling both off, she tiptoed across the burlap carpet towards a small dining table, where she set down her crossbow as gently as possible.
A faint whimper drew her gaze back to Ivy, who shivered as her brows tightened in discomfort. The Duchess quietly moved to one of her garment chests and pulled out a light shawl. She tiptoed carefully around the bed, pausing as she took in the loosened ties of the maid’s corset and the faintly stained bandages beneath. Carina carefully draped the shawl over Ivy’s shoulders and then returned to the table to rest.
Tiny rays of sunlight crept through the quiet tent, reflecting off the smooth wooden surfaces of the table and bed posts and glinting across the beautiful crossbow that rested before the silent Duchess.
“Your back, Kirsi?”
Carina turned to where Hana now stretched, her book in one hand, before leaving the bed.
“How was the hunt?”
“We were fairly successful,” Carina whispered, absently rotating her stiff right shoulder. “I don’t know how we measure up against the other groups yet, but I feel rather confident about our score.” She plucked at the buttons of her jacket and pulled the dense garment off with a grunt of relief.
“What time is it?” The Viscount asked as she carried over the half-eaten tray of snacks.
“Lunch. We’re only back for a brief rest. The heat caught up with us rather quickly.”
“No wonder the Crown Prince seemed so annoyed by the duel this morning,” Hana observed as she took the Duchess’s jacket and placed it on an empty hanger. “Perhaps you should wait until the heat dies down a bit before heading back out.”
“Oh, I’m fine,” Carina replied with a relaxed grin. “I’m rather good at keeping cool even in extreme weather.”
“Of course, but you’re not immune to dirt and grime,” Hana observed as she returned to the table with a freshly filled washbowl and cleaning cloth. The Duchess glanced down at her dusty dress and sighed as the Viscountess plucked a broken twig from her hair. “See.”
Carina laughed and tugged off her splotched and dusty gloves before accepting the linen cloth and dipping it into the water. “Thank you.”
Hana nodded and left the Duchess to wipe down her face and neck before rinsing her hands in the cool water.
“I can’t wait to take a bath already,” Carina commented with a sigh as she shook her hands dry and then leaned back against the table wearily.
“How much time do you have?”
“Not enough for that. I just came to change my boots and stockings—though a fresh pair of gloves and a new jacket would be lovely.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
Carina smiled gratefully, then turned and folded her arms against the table before resting on them briefly. Before her eyes managed to flutter closed, they settled on Ivy, now curled up beneath the shawl. “How is she doing?”
Hana looked up from the stockings she held and followed the Duchess’s gaze. “Her symptoms have improved—but my treatments fall short of curing her.”
Carina rolled her forehead onto her arms, sighed, then straightened before turning to face the Viscountess. “Can you tell me more about the treatment? Perhaps there’s something I can do to help.”
Hana shook her head as she carried over the fresh pair of stockings, boots, and gloves. “Judging by Ivy’s reaction to physical contact with you—I don’t think your magic would benefit her. However—” she quickly amended at the Duchess’s crestfallen expression, “—the medicinal tonic you’ve provided has helped relieve the worst of her pain.”
The Duchess accepted the garments and set them aside. “Milk of the poppy is an effective pain reliever—but the longer Ivy requires it, the more dependent she will become.”
“I should be able to remove the worst symptoms of the curse within a week or so with consistent treatment,” Hana replied soothingly as she knelt and clasped the Duchess’s hands. “We can ween her off the poppy slowly then.”
“But what if she gets worse? What if—” Carina pulled her hands away and dragged both palms across her face as she pushed back the anger and fear fighting against rationality. “There has to be a way of finding out what sort of curse this is and how to break it.”
The Viscount tucked a lock of golden blonde hair behind her ear as her turquoise blue eyes drifted towards the sleeping maid. “I remember a story told by many in old Zarus—about the witch plagues of Strugna who served an ancient evil deity that lived in the deepest parts of the ocean.”
The Duchess lowered her hands slowly as she paired this story with Kirsi’s memories. “Such a plague nearly wiped out Strugna’s royal family, but—what connection does that story or the plague in Lafeara have to Ivy’s mark?”
“It might be nothing,” Hana deflected as she rose to her feet. “But the way Ivy described this witch—Arachne’s offspring were known to be monstrous creatures with tentacles and horrifying visages. That and the timing of Jade’s curse matches up too closely with the appearance of the plague in the slums. It just seems too coincidental to ignore.”
“I had been wondering the same thing,” Carina murmured reluctantly.
‘After all, if the gods brought both the witch plague and Jade to Lafeara—why wouldn’t there be a connection to Ivy’s curse.’
“It’s certainly as good a place to start as any. First, we need to find a water witch who can help us confirm or disprove the connection.” The memory of the huntsman’s curious scent sharpened into sudden realization as the Duchess hastily pulled on her stockings and boots. “I need to return to the hunting party.”
“Of course. Let me get your jacket.”
Nicholas finished off the refreshing concoction of mint and strawberry as he lounged in his seat on the royal platform beneath the canopy. A quick glance at his pocket watch confirmed there were still another twenty or so minutes before the rest of his group was expected to reassemble. ‘No point in rushing off during this heat anyway.’ A faint cough drew his attention to the Knight Captain at his side. Beaumont nodded to where the Crown Princess had entered the tent, dressed in a man’s hunting jacket and trousers, looking a little worse for wear as she dabbed away the sweat and damp hair clinging to her face and neck.
“Your Majesty,” Eleanora greeted with a mock curtsey before slumping into the chair beside him. “Beautiful day for a hunt, isn’t it.”
“Yes, I suppose—”
“Captain, would you mind fetching me one of those delicious drinks they’re serving over there?”
The Crown Prince frowned as his wife turned expectantly toward his bodyguard. Only then did he realize that she had come without any servants or attendants. ‘That’s right. Eleanora’s down to only one lady-in-waiting. But where is Lady Evelynn now?’
“Where is your bodyguard, Major Garrett?” Nicholas asked with a sharp glance around the banquet tent.
“Cooling down our horses. He’ll be along shortly.”
“Then perhaps you should wait until then.”
“Really, Nicholas, is it too much to ask for a moment of privacy?” Eleanora countered sharply as her amber eyes pierced through him. “You’re perfectly safe in here, aren’t you?” She gestured towards the nobles in various states of excitement and exhaustion scattered around the tent at their respective tables.
“Captain,” Nicholas resigned with a sigh. “Would you mind fetching the Crown Princess a drink?”
“Not at all, your Majesty.”
The Crown Prince nodded his gratitude while his wife stared after the giant’s towering figure with pursed lips before stating bluntly, “I hear you’re trying to set Captain Beaumont up with Lady Kirsi.”
Nicholas half-coughed, half-choked in shock as he turned towards her, then his narrowed gaze snapped toward Acheron, seated beside Viscount Marco. “Ahh—well—I’m only attempting to help them when and where I can.”
Eleanora scoffed and crossed her legs as she continued to monitor the Knight Captain, who appeared to be requesting a freshly poured cup from the steward. “And how exactly do you expect anything to happen when the Captain is all but chained to your side?”
“Well—” Nicholas set down his empty cup, then rubbed his fingers together. “He is my bodyguard. Where else should he be?”
“Beaumont can’t stay your bodyguard forever, not if he’s to marry a Duchess.” She laughed as the Crown Prince looked momentarily taken aback. “How do you expect him to protect you and make it home to his wife every night in Bastiallano?”
“Hush!” Nicholas hissed frantically, inching over his chair towards her as he glanced sharply towards the table of nobles nearest to them. “Keep your voice down. This isn’t exactly set in stone! And at the pace they’re moving, I’ll have kids before they get married!”
This time it was his wife’s turn to look taken aback as she whipped her gaze away from him. Nicholas snorted in relief and then glanced to where Beaumont was sniffing the drink the steward offered him.
‘I wish he wouldn’t do that in public, but I suppose most people would just consider him overly protective.’
“So—how did your morning hunt go?” She said in an apparent attempt to change the topic.
The Crown Prince smiled as he stretched, folded his arms, and then settled into a relaxed pose. “You’ll find out when they update the board, but—pretty well, I’d wager.”
“You seem—confident,” Eleanora observed, her brows furrowing in confusion.
“It’s all about making the most effective use of the resources you have,” Nicholas replied distractedly, stiffening in his seat as Viscount Gilwren appeared. Lord Rykard glanced towards the Duchess’s all-but-empty table with an unmistakable look of irritation before composing himself and heading back outside.
‘Yeah—I should probably help smooth that over.’
“What is our host up to, and why haven’t they posted this morning’s score?” Eleanora mumbled impatiently as the Crown Prince’s bodyguard returned with her requested drink. “Thank you, Captain.”
“I should probably go see what the hold up is,” Nicholas responded as he stood and clasped Beaumont’s shoulder. “Enjoy your drink, Eleanora.”
“Good luck, dear husband. Oh—and I’ll let you know if we spot the Silver Stag.”
The Crown Prince’s footing faltered as he stepped down from the platform. He clenched his fist but turned to offer his smiling wife an amused grin. “Good luck to you as well, Elly.” The Crown Princess’s left eye twitched slightly at the nickname. “And do keep trying to patch things up with the Duchess. Having the Mistress of Bastiallano and her knights in your corner would go a long way towards establishing a position of power for yourself in Lafeara’s court.”
‘She truly has a talent for poking at my weak spots,’ Nicholas reflected as he made his way through the tables of nobles who rose and bowed after him. One of the many ways King Henri had displayed his favoritism to Tristan was by denying the Second Prince access to the Royal Hunt for years because it would be inappropriate for anyone aside from the King and his chosen heir to shoot the King’s Stag.
‘In the last two years since I became Crown Prince, no one has laid sight on the damn beast, yet Tristan slew one on his first hunt at the age of fifteen.’
Opting to avoid the main entryway where Marquess Borghese and his rather irritable group of hunters now appeared, Nicholas turned sharply toward one of the side openings, brushing past his momentarily flustered father-in-law with little more than a courteous nod.
As the Crown Prince thrust the tent flap out of his way, he collided with a familiar pair of moss-agate green eyes on the other side, trodding all over the hem of the unfortunate Marchioness’s dress.
“Oh,” Serilda gasped as they grabbed each other for stability. “Forgive me, your Majesty.”
“Not at all, Lady Serilda. That was entirely my blunder,” Nicholas responded hastily as he stepped back while still supporting her. “I do hope I haven’t damaged your dress.”
The Marchioness laughed, the sound as enticing as the easy smile she offered him. “Even if you did, there is no harm done. One can hardly partake in the Royal Hunt without expecting to get a little dirty.”
“Ha.” The Crown Prince shook his head as his gaze trailed up the immaculate dusty-rose dress with gold applique embroidery that complimented her feminine curves. “Well, that is hardly a term I would use to describe you, Marchioness. No matter where you are.”
“Oh, well.” Serilda’s lips curled into a curious smile as her agate-green eyes swept over his shoulder towards Beaumont, who obscured the view of the tent behind them. Nicholas blinked as she stepped closer. The delicate scent of roses teased his senses as she brushed her fingers through his damp light-auburn hair. “Your Majesty has never seen me in bed.”
A warning bell went off somewhere in Nicholas’s subconscious, but the smile the Marchioness offered him as she glided past sent an even more overwhelming thrill shooting through his body that kept the Crown Prince rooted to the spot. Beaumont stepped aside without comment as the noblewoman entered the tent, where Marquess Winifred and his sons swiftly rose to greet her.
The urge to follow Serilda and claim her attention all for himself warred against Nicholas’s pride and cautionary nature. He clenched his fists and drew in a swift breath, only for the lingering scent of roses to shatter his resolve.
‘And what would be wrong with a little flirtatious conversation with a family friend? It’s not as if Lady Serilda is engaged.’
The raised voices from the direction of the Duchess’s encampment pulled Nicholas’s gaze to where Viscount Gilwren faced Lady Kirsi and her escort of knights.
‘Right. That needs to be handled first.’
“You should have come to me first. I would have never allowed those beasts to enter my forest—”
“They are completely under my control, Viscount,” Carina cut in sharply. “And the rules do not prevent the use of hunting animals.”
“That’s because hunting hounds are not in the habit of eating their masters! The same cannot be said for a pack of wild dogs!”
“It’s not the breed but lack of training that is to blame for most animal attacks.”
“Must you be so unreasonable!” Rykard’s voice fluctuated with evident frustration as he whirled away from the defiant Duchess and exhaled sharply. “I am responsible for the safety of every noble attending the Royal Hunt. I cannot turn a blind eye to this matter simply because you claim to have those beasts under control.”
“Those beasts are more reliable and trustworthy than half the nobles in attendance!” Carina fired back. “They will not cause harm to anyone unless I give the command!”
The Viscount looked equally horrified and flabbergasted by her statement. He squared his shoulders, then turned back to face her with a determined glower. “Your wolves are trespassing on my lands, Lady Kirsi. I’m sorry, but I must ask you to remove them. Immediately!”
“That hardly seems fair, Lord Rykard.”
The Duchess and Viscount turned in surprise to where Earl Hawthorne approached with a hooded black falcon perched on his left fist.
“You’ve never restricted the use of any hunting animals before,” Percy continued with a polite head bow to the Duchess. “Wouldn’t you agree, your Majesty?”
Carina turned as the Crown Prince jogged towards them and hastily presented the monarch with a curtsey. “Your Majesty.”
“Rykard, I understand your distaste for the animal, given your personal experience,” Nicholas murmured sympathetically. “But to have them removed would severely handicap Lady Kirsi’s ability to win. And as Lord Percy pointed out, other beasts and fowls are permitted.”
“Borghese’s hounds are kept chained when they are not in use,” Rykard pointed out tensely. “Even the Earl’s falcons are kept under careful watch. But where are the Duchess’s wolves? Still freely roaming my forests, getting into who knows what sort of trouble.”
“My knights are watching them,” Carina replied evasively. ‘Although truthfully, it’s more the other way around.’
“Which is another concern! It’s bad enough that many of the nobles believe Lady Kirsi is receiving differential treatment due to our relationship, but it wouldn’t surprise me if more of them complained about the Duchess using wolves and Bastiallano’s knights to her advantage. Borghese has already lodged a complaint about the strange absence of deer in his quadrant this morning.”
“Our huntsman can confirm our kills,” Nicholas interjected sharply, no doubt taking offense to the mere suggestion of cheating. “As for the other deer we turned in, it’s easy enough to judge whose handiwork they belong to. Wolves of that size are uncommon in Lafeara. And as to the Marquess’s unfortunate luck, maybe his forty hunters, twenty hounds, twelve squires, and stewards have something to do with his inability to come across any defenseless animals.”
The Viscount drew in a strained breath and then attempted to compose himself. “I understand your position, your Majesty. I am only trying to avoid further conflict.” He glanced toward Kirsi. “Your Grace, the moment I find any evidence that your wolves have caused harm to the nobles, their servants, or property—or that they have interfered with the hunt in any way—they will be driven off my lands and shot if they remain.”
“Well, that—seems like a reasonable compromise,” Nicholas said cautiously with a wary glance to the Duchess.
“Fine,” Carina muttered before stepping past the Viscount towards the main tent.
“In the meantime, your Grace,” Rykard called after her. “I’ve replaced your huntsman with someone I can rely on to keep me better informed.”
“What?” Nicholas protested as the Duchess whipped around.
“And where is Jasper?” Carina demanded sharply.
“He was sent packing the moment he returned from the forest,” Rykard responded with a glimmer of simmering anger. “There was no reason for me to keep him at Gilwren after his contract was terminated. Your new huntsman will be waiting for you in the main tent with this morning’s final count, which I shall be announcing shortly.”
‘Old man, for someone who claims to want to help his grandchildren, you seem only to create more obstacles for me.’
The Duchess turned to Colonel Isaac with a determined glare. “Find the huntsman and bring him to me at once.”