Chapter 35: A Culling of Honor


Nicholas glanced up at the ominous sound of rain drizzling against the canopy attached to the side kitchen door. The Silver Stag, which hung over a bucket with a good three inches of blood, now waited to be skinned and processed. Two members of the manor staff held the stag’s front legs while Lord Bromwell took a bone saw to the already cut skin of the deer’s neck.

The Crown Prince folded his arms as he watched the young nobleman complete his task. While he found the sound and smell of it all rather unpleasant, he preoccupied himself with visions of the stag’s magnificently mounted head.

“Can you imagine the noble’s faces when they see this?” Nicholas glanced at the Prime Minister, who waited at his side. “Just in time for my coronation.”

“It is a blessing from the heavens, your Majesty,” Attwood replied, reading over a letter sent from the capital. “It would also appear that our other hunt was successful.”

“Excellent.” The Crown Prince leaned closer as the Prime Minister tapped at a section of the message below. “I knew the Dowager could be relied upon to ensure discretion.”

“Just a bit more—and there it is!” Walter commented with a faint grunt as the saw grated through the last bit of vertebra. The nobleman promptly passed the saw to a waiting servant, then pulled his hunting knife from his boot to finish severing through the flesh and skin of the deer’s throat. Once finished, Lord Bromwell lifted the silver stag’s head and carried it over to the waiting silver platter.

“Well done,” Nicholas murmured enthusiastically as he knelt against the table to examine the clean cut.

“You’ll need a taxidermist to clean and mount it properly,” Walter commented, looking pleased with the young monarch’s praise. “Shall I remove the front legs while we wait for Lord Rykard?”

“Oh, please do.” The Crown Prince waved permissively. As excited as he had been with the prospect of skinning such an impressive creature—this was the first deer that he had ever attempted such a feat on. A task which, once faced with the reality of the blood and glory, he began to overthink as Lord Rykard regaled him with all the possible uses for nearly every piece of the creature.

‘I wonder what Eleanora would think of eating the testicles of such a specimen?’

In the end, Nicholas had decided the best strategy would be to leave the difficult parts for those with far more experience and step up when and where something simple and manageable could be left to him.

‘And who better than the Viscount of Gilwren and his successor, who participate in the royal hunt every year, to lend me a hand.’

“There looks to be a storm brewing, your Majesty,” Rykard announced as he joined them through the kitchen doors. “We’ll need to finish this quickly and get the meat inside for the cook to prepare.”

Nicholas watched in silent admiration as the Viscount promptly rolled up his sleeve, took the second bond saw from the table of tools, and set about severing the stag’s left leg just below the shoulder while Lord Bromwell finished off the right.

Once both limbs had been tossed inside the bucket, Rykard pulled out his hunting knife and made two shallow incisions on either side of the stag’s hind legs. “Your Majesty, if you’re ready. The primary part of skinning starts here.”

“Oh? Yes.” Nicholas stepped forward to take the offered blade, then watched as the Viscount demonstrated where to begin his incision.

“Place the tip of your knife there. Good. Now, you want to try and bring the knife down in one fluid motion all the way to the stag’s sternum. Right here. Feet apart like so, give it a practice run over the skin if you need, and be mindful of your limbs when you pull the blade down.”

“Yes. All right.” The Crown Prince exhaled as he attempted to mimic the Viscount’s position and gave it a practice run.

“You’ll need to move a bit quicker than that. Just like a sword swing, the momentum and direction do most of the work.”

‘Could we leave my shoddy swordsmanship out of this?’ Nicholas glanced towards the corner of the tent where Beaumont stood like a statue with a faraway gaze. ‘He’s been distracted since we left the Duchess in the woods.’ With a scoff, the prince steeled himself, returned the tip of the knife to the open cut, tightened his grip, took a quick breath, and pressed down.

“My Lord!”

Nicholas flinched as the knife in his hand veered sharply to the right, halfway down the stag’s stomach.

“Oh, by the Saints! We were in the middle of—what is it!” Rykard snapped as he turned towards the servant. Lord Bromwell quickly stepped forward to steady the prince’s shaking hand, removing the blade before turning to examine the monarch’s derailed cut.

“It’s fine, nothing a good seamstress can’t mend. Fortunately, you didn’t cut yourself.”

‘Fine?’ Nicholas blinked as the young noblemen fingered the severed, slightly frayed white fur. ‘It was perfect. And now….’

“Forgive me, my lord, your Majesty. But—I’ve just received word that Duchess Kirsi has returned from the forest—and that she’s injured and unconscious.”

The Crown Prince forgot about the mangled deer entirely as his gaze whipped towards Captain Beaumont. The ash-blonde giant’s violet eyes widened with a rare expression of alarm before he ripped his longsword free and sliced an opening through the back of the tent.

“Beaumont!” Nicholas shouted after him, half irritated, half sympathetic, as he watched the giant storm off through the rain.

“Wha—what do you mean the Duchess is injured?” Rykard’s voice dropped lower with each word as the blood drained from his cheeks. “F-forgive me, your Majesty.”

“No, by all means,” Nicholas waved his hand permissively and sighed as he watched the Viscount push through the torn canopy wall. “Well—” the prince glanced over at the knife in Lord Bromwell’s hand and then grasped the worried nobleman by the shoulder. “Would you mind finishing this up for me? I should see how Lady Kirsi is doing.”

“But—I—” Walter swallowed down a protest as his grip tightened around Rykard’s hunting knife. “Yes—your Majesty.”

“Excellent.” Nicholas patted the nobleman’s shoulder sympathetically, then took off through the tent at an even pace. He blinked in surprise as four Bastiallano Knights fell in step around him.

‘Well, at least she’s still managing to do one job properly.’


Colonel Isaac breathed a sigh of relief as the waiting group of Bastiallano knights stepped forward to move the unconscious Duchess from a hastily crafted litter to the properly supported stretcher. His hand on the reins shook as he relaxed his grip and dismounted. The memory of Kirsi being dragged underground before his eyes still frayed against his nerves.

‘That was no ordinary remnant.’

During his years of service to the Holy Church, Isaac had only ever witnessed the devastation left in the wake of such monsters. The undying possessed unnatural physical strength comparable to the magical power of a pureblood. Because of this, the church believed they were remnants of powerful witches whose corpses had not been appropriately burned after death.

The practice of burning witches began with the inception of the church and its Witch Hunter Order as a countermeasure to prevent the birth of such vengeful abnormalities. As a result, most remnants uncovered today were treated with caution due to the high probability of them being one of the famished, ancient specters who had long succumbed to the basic instincts of a savage beast.

Isaac could not even begin to imagine how the Duchess had survived her encounter with the two-headed viper remnant, let alone escape. ‘Then again, remnants are rumored to be far more vulnerable to elemental magic than physical, brute strength.’

The campgrounds were relatively quiet beneath the steady downpour of rain. As expected, most of the guests and servants present were either indoors or still making their way back from the hunting grounds.

The Colonel glanced over his shoulder to where the fake Harry remained on his horse at the end of the line behind the two knight horses that carried the mountain bear’s corpse.

Earl Hawthorne had briefly explained the dead man’s surprising return before handing Lady Kirsi over to the Bastiallano knight’s care. While Isaac had done his best to memorize the rather implausible lie meant to cover the afternoon’s extraordinary events, he had been far too distracted by the Duchess’s unconscious state.

‘The Scarlet Witch might have been a pureblood, but Maura was lucky to have been born a coven witch at all, given her mother’s mortal bloodline. Physically, Kirsi’s new body was still half-mortal. Even if she possesses the heart of a god, the backlash of using too much magic could cripple her in other ways.’

The fake Harry coughed obnoxiously, directing Isaac’s attention to the flurry of movement from the manor toward them. The Colonel was surprised to find the Crown Prince’s bodyguard leading the charge with intimidating speed.

“Captain, please step back!” Isaac called out with a cautioning hand as he moved to block Beaumont’s path. He blinked in confusion as a single swipe of the giant’s arm nearly shoved him off-balanced into the muddy grass below.

“Beaumont!” The Crown Prince’s reproachful tone only added to the Colonel’s embarrassment as he spun after the impertinent royal knight. He was pulled up short by Viscount Gilwren’s frantic voice.

“Colonel, what happened?”

Isaac clenched his jaw as he watched Beaumont grasp the Duchess’s wrist but composed himself quickly as the nobles and Crown Prince closed in around them. ‘I can’t let things get any more chaotic, especially while Kirsi is in such a state.’

The Colonel turned over the web of lies that Lord Percy had prepared in his head as he signaled the fake huntsman, who dropped down to untie the tarp placed over the suspended mound of muscle and fur tied to a pole between the two horses. “Your Majesty. Lord Rykard. We were attacked—by a bear.”

“A bear?!” Rykard stumbled back from the Duchess’s stretcher as he took in the giant predator with a gasp. “Saint’s Mercy—why—how? What is a mountain bear doing this far east?” The Viscount turned back to Kirsi, grasping the stretcher for support as he reached towards the blankets that covered her, turning visibly paler by the second. “Was she—is she seriously injured?”

“Her Grace was incredibly lucky,” Gladestone interjected, moving forward promptly to fill in the gaps in Isaac’s story. “The bear caught us off guard while we were spread apart, searching for more prey. Fortunately, it targeted her horse. The Duchess was thrown clear during the attack but managed to retain her crossbow. Before we could intervene, Lady Kirsi fired off a lucky shot that struck the beast’s heart. The injury caused it to panic and run—but it didn’t get very far.”

“Then—why is she?”

“Lady Kirsi’s head struck the ground when she fell,” Gladestone continued solemnly, lying so seamlessly even Isaac was tempted to believe him. “I can only assume the injury and shock, coupled with the horrific death of her mare, caused her Grace to faint. We decided that it best to return immediately.”

“And rightly so,” Attwood commented sharply as he and the Crown Prince joined the knights around the giant bear. “Viscount, how is it your huntsmen were not aware of a beast of such size lurking about in Gilwren Forest?”

“The Duchess was beyond lucky,” Nicholas murmured in disbelief. “To take down such a monster with a single shot? Just look at the scarring—this bear has survived more than one encounter with a hunter.”

“Alas, by the time I came within range, the beast had already turned tail,” Gladstone continued, looking solemn and shaken, believably so. “I followed the blood trail after the Duchess had been secured. It seemed a shame to leave such a prize behind given the enormity of Lady Kirsi’s feat.”

Isaac swallowed a laugh at the Viscount’s rather believable performance. ‘Then again, given what Kirsi actually survived, a bear is nothing by comparison.’

“Just what were the knights of Bastiallano doing?” Rykard bellowed as he whirled away from his unconscious granddaughter. “Her Grace could have been killed! Why was she even left alone long enough to be exposed to such a risk? If she had been gravely injured, crippled, or even—”

“Lord Rykard,” Nicholas interjected soothingly. “I’m certain the Colonel feels the weight of his failure far more than you or I could express. Right now, what’s important is having a physician examine the Duchess.”

Isaac did not miss the accusatory tone or the cutting glance the Crown Prince sent his way. His jaw twitched even as he bowed his head. ‘Bear or Remnant, it’s true enough that I failed to keep the Duchess safe.’

Viscount Gilwren inhaled sharply, then nodded feebly as he released the stretcher leaving Beaumont alone beside the Duchess and her knights. “Yes. Of course, your Majesty. I would like to take her to the manor immediately!”

“Excellent, I will have our royal physicians sent over to examine—”

“That will not be necessary!”

The nobles and monarch turned in surprise as Viscountess Hana strode towards them beneath a pink parasol that did little to shield the bottom of her dress from the steady drizzle.

“The Duchess will be well looked after in her own tent with those she trusts!” Hana continued with surprising authority as she strode towards the stretcher, forcing Beaumont to withdraw as she took Kirsi’s hand, holding the parasol over the unconscious Duchess to shield her from the rain.

“A tent is no place for an injured noblewoman!” Rykard retorted sharply. “And how dare you imply that Maura will not be well cared for by me, her grandfather!”

“Lady Kirsi!” The Viscountess corrected with a notable curl of disgust. “And she is no longer your granddaughter!”

“Lady Hana, please. I must agree with Lord Rykard,” Nicholas interjected placatingly as he grasped the angry Viscount’s shoulder. “Surely it would be more advisable to have the Duchess rest indoors away from the damp and cold to prevent further illness while in her weakened state.”

Hana narrowed her turquoise blue eyes. While Isaac understood her protectiveness of Kirsi and distrust of the monarch, he was still surprised at her flippant display of disrespect.

‘Fortunately, the Crown Prince isn’t making an issue out of it now, likely due to the Duchess’s fondness for Lady Hana.’

The Viscountess appeared to rethink her position as her gaze swept over the frowning nobles around them. “Very well then, your Majesty. But as the Duchess’s ladies-in-waiting, Lady Ivy and I will remain at her side and handle all matters related to her care.”

Lord Rykard looked ready to protest, but Nicholas swiftly interjected. “I’m certain that can be arranged. Let’s get Lady Kirsi indoors and out of this blasted rain!” The Crown Prince tapped the Viscount’s shoulder reassuringly before moving to intercept his distracted bodyguard. “I’ll send over the royal physician to examine the Duchess shortly.”


Marquess Borghese’s mood only darkened with each squelching step of his return to camp. Upon entering his tent, he immediately peeled off the drenched hunting jacket, paying no attention to the tired, similarly depressed nobles who trudged off to their respective quarters to escape the rain.

“Damnable weather!” Borghese hissed as he flung the jacket to the floor and then slumped into the fur-lined chair adorned with the antlers of deer he had previously hunted.

The squire who shadowed his master’s footsteps slid out of his muddy shoes before moving to attend to the irritable Marquess’s boots.

“Get these damn things off and see to it their dry by tomorrow morning!”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Just when will this perpetual misfortune cease?” Borghese clenched the armrests tightly as the servant struggled to remove each muddy boot, careful to avoid spilling rainwater on the woven black carpets below. “First, the forest is practically barren of deer, and now there’s a bloody rainstorm.”

The Marquess had finally bagged his first deer late in the afternoon. Another four deer had been added to their tally after the party split into smaller groups to cover more ground. Their assigned huntsman, a commoner with barely any hair on his cheeks, had tried to keep the nobles together based on Viscount Gilwren’s rules, but Borghese quickly put the upstart in his place. As long as they could verify their kills with specifically marked arrows, there was nothing a mere Viscount could say to counter their claim.

‘It’s not like Lord Rykard will cause a fuss anyway, given how far behind we are in this competition.’

As the squire carried the boots over to a drying rack in the corner of the tent, Borghese began the tiresome process of stripping off his wet clothes, which he flung in the servant’s direction as he brooded over the many slights he and his daughter had suffered in the last twenty-four hours.

‘Things will go differently once my Shadow Army arrives.’ The Marquess’s chartreuse-green eyes narrowed as he stepped out of his soaked undergarments and kicked them over to the squire. “Were any messages delivered while I was away?”

“I do not know, my lord.”

“Well, find out!” Borghese snapped as he yanked the towel from the servant’s offered hands. “Send for Lord Norley while you’re at it. Bastard’s been sniffing about the women folk all day instead of joining the hunt. He should be aware of any pertinent news.”

The squire bowed and hastily exited the tent leaving the Marquess to mutter impatiently as he wiped down his naked body and shriveled manhood. His steward and other attendants entered promptly and set about making their master comfortable. By the time the squire returned, Borghese was wrapped in a velvet robe, seated in his fur chair, enjoying a glass of brandy by a lit brazier while the servants laid out his evening garments.

“Took you long enough,” Borghese muttered as he set aside the empty glass. “Well—did you find out anything?”

“My Lord. The manor butler informed me that Lord Norley was summoned away by Duke Hargreve but is expected to return before nightfall,” the squire explained hastily. “No letters were delivered to the manor from your estate, but—one of the mercenaries passed me this message on my way back.”

Borghese snatched the offered letter from the servant’s fingers and promptly snapped the wax seal in half. His mood brightened considerably as he read over Captain Weylin’s brief message, which stated the Shadow Army had arrived at the border of Gilwren Forest and now awaited further instruction.

“Ahha!” The Marquess chuckled, grinning as he tossed the message into the brazier. “Finally, some good news.”

“My Lord,” the steward announced as he returned with more dry wood for the brazier. “Earl Coldwell is asking for permission to enter.”

Borghese stood quickly, then paused and glanced down at his undressed state. “I am not fully decent, Lord Chase. But you may come in out of the rain if it pleases you.”

Earl Chase Coldwell stepped through the tent flap with his gaze discreetly averted as he bowed and then turned to face the canopy walls. “Forgive the intrusion, Marquess. I thought I should check in with you before the celebratory banquet.”

“What’s this?” Borghese scoffed as he removed his robe while his servants rushed to dress him. “I wasn’t aware we had anything to celebrate this early on in the hunt.”

‘It’s not as if the Crown Princess could be with child.’

“It seems the Crown Prince brought back the Silver Stag during the first hour of the afternoon hunt.’

The Marquess stiffened halfway through his cotton shirt. He pulled the material down roughly and exhaled. “The Silver Stag, you say?”

“It’s said to be the main course of tonight’s feast, which his Majesty is generously sharing with all of us.”


‘How unfortunate. That arrogant boy will only behave more insufferably after this.’

“I would suggest the Marquess and his daughter both tread cautiously until you are certain of your next move,” Coldwell continued reasonably as he brushed raindrops from his jacket.

“You need not worry, Lord Chase. I am a cautious man by nature, and I certainly have no intention of setting my ambitions on fire any time soon,” Borghese retorted as he stepped into a clean pair of trousers. “Everything is in place. Including the gift my sister sent over from the caves of Fogtooth Mountain.”

“Ahh, yes. Quite the risky investment—not to mention dangerous. I’m honestly surprised my Lord would put so much faith in a simple beast.”

“You heard Lord Acheron’s comment this morning. They must have already come across the tracks of our mountain bear.” The Marquess smiled cynically as he perched on the corner of the bed while the steward pulled on his evening shoes. “One can only hope that the reckless, brainless barbarian princess took the bait and went after it. That beast took down six huntsmen before they finally managed to drug and cage it. I’ve no doubt it will do far worse to a hunting group of amateurs after being cooped up for a week and fed only scraps.”

“A masterful plan if fate works in our favor.” Earl Coldwell shook his head before casting a glance over his shoulder. “But what if the beast wanders into a different hunting quadrant?”

“If it tries to return west to the mountains—wouldn’t that take it through the Crown Prince’s quadrant,” Borghese replied dismissively as he pulled on his dinner jacket. “Whatever tragedy occurs need not concern us. The blame will be placed on Viscount Gilwren. In any case, we left a small barrel of fish and a few special berries to keep the beast bewildered long enough for the barbarian princess to track him down.”

“I suppose that if the Crown Princess manages to shoot the creature, it would be but a small loss.”

The Marquess chuckled. “You may turn around, Lord Chase. Rest assured. That beast has survived more than one hunting party. Tharyn mountain bears will tear through anything they consider a threat until their last breath. If we’re lucky, the Crown Princess won’t return from today’s hunt. Even if she survives—the claws on that creature would leave her disfigured if not scarred for life.”

Earl Coldwell clapped his hands thoughtfully as he turned to face the acting head of the Royal Party. “My Lord intends to take advantage of Lafearian’s tradition that forbids a King from marrying any woman with blemished skin, but—they are already married.”

“I am a patient man, Lord Chase. If Eleanora is disfigured, how long before Nicholas can barely stand to look at her, much less lie with her? Once she is pronounced barren and infertile, it will become a political issue to choose a more suitable Queen that can provide Nicholas with an heir.”

“At which point, our party can push forward Nicholas’s previous engagement to Lady Priscilla and ask that it be honored,” Coldwell murmured with an understanding smile. “Despite today’s unfortunate events, your daughter remains the best candidate among the noble ladies. Who could be more suitable than the niece of our Lord Protector to sit on the Lafearian throne beside the King?”

“I’m glad you agree.”

“But—if the beast should fail?”

“If a blunt instrument will not work, I have alternative moves to make.” The Marquess hesitated as he adjusted the signet ring on his left pinky. “I had hoped to use the royal favor to push Priscilla forward as a Royal Consort. Whatever sins I have committed, my daughter is blameless after all, and even a King would hesitate to accuse his father-in-law of treason.”

“There is time yet,” Coldwell replied. “And Attwood is a smart man. He knows better than to push a dangerous, ruthless opponent into a corner with nowhere to retreat. I trust he will see sense and the benefits of such a union.”

“The Prime Minister may be a man of diplomacy—but the Duchess is another matter. Her knights have nearly overrun the entirety of the Gilwren Estate. She even has them watching the borders of Gilwren Forest.”

“Lady Kirsi is barely more than a child of ten and sixteen years,” Coldwell retorted. “It is Percy Hawthorne we must be wary of. The Duchess is little more than a paramour he has dressed up to distract us.”

“Paramour or not, that half-blood has risen far above her station and made herself a public enemy of my family,” Borghese growled as he refilled his cup with brandy. “That cunning bitch holds too much power for us to ignore or challenge her directly.”

Both nobles flinched in surprise as Viscount Kendall burst into the tent, nearly colliding with them.

“Oh—forgive the intrusion, Marquess,” Kendall apologized hastily as he wiped the rain from his face. “I thought you’d want to know right away.”

“Well, go on then,” Borghese grumbled as he eyed the muddy water already overrunning the trenches dug around the tent.

“The Duchess—she was thrown from her horse. They have her up in Gilwren Manor. Apparently, she’s unconscious, and the royal physician isn’t sure she’ll wake up!”

The Marquess blinked in stunned disbelief while the Earl quickly pressed for more information.

“What happened? Was she attacked? How did she fall?”

“They said it was a mountain bear. I haven’t seen it, but it’s caused quite a stir—apparently, the creature is absolutely monstrous! Everyone’s saying the Duchess was lucky to have survived—let alone kill it!”

“She—killed it?” Borghese sputtered.

“That’s what everyone’s saying. Her huntsman confirmed the kill, and the examiner pulled out a silver bolt that Lady Kirsi uses—so—” Kendall trailed off uncertainly as the Marquess’s face darkened with rage.

“Thank you for telling us, Lord Kendall,” Coldwell replied reassuringly as he pushed the Viscount firmly towards the tent exit. “You should return to the manor and let the others know we’ll join them shortly.”

“What? Oh—yeah.” Kendall bid a hasty farewell and stepped back into the rain, which appeared to be finally letting up.

“How? Tell me how?” Borghese snarled in disbelief as he glared after the Viscount.

“Her knights must have saved her,” Coldwell responded calmly. “Either way, this is an unexpected bonus for us. With the Duchess unconscious and likely too injured to continue the hunt, our only competition is Lord Percy.”

“Who will be impossible to beat! Bastard is probably using witchcraft to win.”

“We can pressure Lord Rykard to send an official observer to monitor the Earl’s party. Ensure there is nothing dubious about his kill count. In the meantime, we can also take advantage of the Shadow Army to increase our lead.”

“No. Any restrictions we apply to Lord Percy’s hunting party will only be applied to our own. And I’ll not risk exposing my men for a few deer!”

The Earl sighed but nodded in agreement as he tapped his cane against his leg. “Very well, we’ll do things your way. But for now, we should show ourselves, congratulate the Crown Prince, and attempt to appear as concerned as possible for the half-blood.”

“Concerned? I hope the bitch dies!”

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