Chapter 36: The Scales of Kinship
Ivy pulled her shawl close, shivering as rain pelted against the manor window, illuminated by the two large floor candelabras tucked away in the corners of the bedroom. The candlelight cast long shadows across the large four-poster bed where Lady Hana knelt worriedly beside the unconscious Duchess. The Viscountess had taken over Lady Kirsi’s care the moment the royal physicians had finished their discreet examination and left with grim expressions.
The howling wind outside the manor whipped against the forest, and the cluster of tents laid out upon the ground, some of which collapsed or tipped over beneath the storm. Ivy turned away from the miserable weather and flinched as a broken twig smacked against the windowpane.
Her attention returned to the beady-eyed crows interwoven with the decorative foliage, exotic flowers, vines, and fruits painted on the bedroom wall. Curiously enough, the more she studied the painting, the more she discerned the camouflaged figures of women hidden behind the vines, their green fingers clawing blindly after the fleeing crows that carried away jewels, garments, and what looked shudderingly close to human eyes.
Ivy jumped at the loud knock on the bedroom door. Her gaze returned to the bed, where Lady Hana frowned at yet another unwanted disturbance. The Viscountess sighed as she moved the damp cloth and washbowl to a nightstand before rising to answer the door.
So far, the unconscious Duchess had received visits from the Crown Prince, Prime Minister, Viscount Gilwren, Earl Hawthorne, Marchioness Kensington, who, along with several other seemingly curious nobles, had been turned away rudely at the door by Colonel Isaac, who stood guard outside.
‘I can’t tell if they’re worried Kirsi won’t wake up or that she will.’
Ivy moved nervously to the foot of the bed, where she got a good look at the Crown Princess, who now stood outside the open door.
“Please, Lady Hana,” Eleanora whispered urgently as the Viscountess nearly closed the door in her face. “I only wanted to check to see if dinner had been brought up.”
“Yes, your Highness. Viscount Gilwren has seen to all our needs,” Hana replied with forced politeness.
“That is good. Then—umm—I wonder if I might—have a private word with you?”
The Viscountess frowned and crossed her arms in apparent disapproval. “Now is not a good time, your Highness. I must attend to the Duchess.”
“Oh—well—surely.” The Crown Princess stepped closer, her amber gaze cutting sharply to Ivy. “The Duchess has more than one attendant who can look after her.”
Ivy quickly averted her gaze. She knew better than anyone why she was of little use to Lady Kirsi in her present state. The maid’s hand tightened around the vial of medicine hidden beneath her shawl that Hana had given her after they had settled into the Duchess’s temporary rooms in the manor.
“Surely Lady Ivy has more experience caring for Lady Kirsi, given that they grew up alongside each other,” Eleanora pressed, the confidence in her voice drawing Ivy’s gaze back towards the door. “It will only be for a moment, Hana. My rooms are just down the hall.”
“I have said all that I wish to say to you, your Highness,” Hana responded with surprising calmness. “And surely, on a night like tonight, when Nicholas is celebrating an important milestone, you should be at his side—as his wife and crown princess.” The Viscountess steps back, clearly intending to shut the door, only for Eleanora to force her way forcefully into the room. “Your Highness!”
“Stop calling me that! Please, Hana! I can’t accept that you would do this—to us—all over a misunderstanding! Please, can’t you just—can’t you give me another chance.”
Ivy’s cheeks flushed at what was clearly a lover’s quarrel.
“This is neither the time nor place!” Hana hissed, no longer bothering with titles. “You have your duty, and I have mine.”
“A duty I did not choose, you know that! I need you—”
The Viscountess laughed mockingly, shaking her head as she glanced back to where Ivy stood awkwardly by the bed. “As much as I understand your reluctance to let go—We both know that I was nothing more than a distraction while you grieved for the death of the First Prince.”
“That’s not fair!”
“Isn’t it?” The Viscountess took a step toward the Crown Princess, who blinked in surprise. “Then do tell me, Elly, if Tristan and I both stood before you now—who would you choose?”
Eleanora continued to blink rapidly as if she were fighting back tears. “That’s—why does that matter? Tristan is dead. Why would you even ask me that?!”
“To help you understand,” Hana replied coldly as she met the princess’s gaze squarely. “You should give up on me, your Highness, because, as far as I’m concerned, you are dead to me.”
The tickling urgency to breathe strained against Ivy’s frozen throat and lungs as the Viscountess’s cutting words stretched into awkward silence.
The Crown Princess drew in a sharp breath and appeared about to speak but then changed her mind. Ivy blinked as the proud princess spun on her heels and retreated down the hallway towards the stairwell. Eleanora’s ex-lover remained still for a few heartbeats before marching to the door and shutting it firmly.
“Hopefully, that will be the last interruption for this evening,” Hana muttered as she returned to Kirsi’s side to gently wipe the Duchess’s cold skin with a herbal mixture meant to stimulate blood flow.
“I—” Ivy’s grip on the vial beneath her shawl tightened, “—need to use the restroom—Lady Hana.”
The Viscountess barely spared her more than a glance before nodding permissively. “Take one of the Bastiallano Knights with you then. It’s best not to be alone on a night like tonight.”
“Of course. I—might stop by the kitchen for a bit more food—do you want anything?”
Hana frowned in frustration before turning to face her squarely. “It’s good that you’re feeling better, Ivy, but don’t push yourself. Let one of the servants bring up a tray. No need to risk exposure more than necessary until we’ve resolved your—condition.”
Ivy nodded, her gaze dropping to the floor even as the Viscountess’s attention returned to the barely breathing Duchess, ignoring the maid altogether.
“I’ll be back quickly then,” Ivy whispered before moving to the door, resolved to obtain whatever closure she could from the one person she had hoped never to lay eyes on again.
The Banquet in the main hall was still going strong, judging by the chaotic din that greeted Ivy as she reached the first floor. The nobles appeared eager to make the most of the extended curfew to celebrate Nicholas’s victorious hunt. Ivy pulled her shawl over her face and shoulders as she dipped into the servant’s passage, heading towards the back of the manor.
While the Gilwren estate was significantly larger than Turnbell Manor, it was simple enough to surmise where the cellars were located, given the constant traffic of servants with trays of food and wine that flowed back and forth from the kitchen. The maids and footmen glanced after Ivy curiously but made no attempt to accost the noblewoman wandering alone through the halls.
The presence of two royal knights standing guard on either side of what Ivy guessed to be the cellar doors confirmed the whispers she had overheard among the household staff during their earlier visit to the manor while Lady Kirsi had been away on the hunt.
‘Now I just have to hope they’ll believe my story.’
Ivy took a steadying breath as the knights both noticed her approach.
“Are you lost, my Lady?”
“No,” Ivy responded firmly, lowering the shawl to her shoulders where it grazed against the witch mark that burned beneath the fabric of her dress. “I am here to ascertain the condition of the prisoner.”
The knights frowned in confusion before the one that had addressed her before chuckled. “Pardon my bluntness, your ladyship—but regardless of Lady Priscilla’s concerns—no one is allowed access to the prisoner without his Majesty’s permission.”
“What? No, I—” Ivy sucked in a quick breath as her fingers tightened around the shawl clutched to her chest. “I do not work for Lady Priscilla.”
“Of course not,” the knight responded with gentle dismissal as he gestured with his chin to the hallway behind her. “All the same, we cannot let you in. It would be best if you returned to the banquet—”
“I meant that I am here on behalf of Duchess Kirsi Valda!” Ivy snapped, opening her shawl and raising the necklace beneath it that Kirsi had gifted to her before they set out for the hunt. “I am Lady Ivy Koresh, one of her Grace’s ladies-in-waiting, and I am here to ascertain the condition of the prisoner.”
The knight raised his brow incredulously before leaning in to examine the snowflake obsidian carving of a wolf head. “What’s this trinket supposed to mean?”
The second knight coughed awkwardly as he suppressed an amused laugh. “I believe it’s supposed to prove that she works for the Duchess?”
“Even if that’s true,” the first knight replied with a sardonic note of disapproval. “The orders of the Duchess do not trump those of the Crown Prince.”
‘No!’ Ivy could feel her heart rate increase as the chances of her speaking to the woman she had once called mother slipped through her fingers. ‘What do I do? How do I convince them?’
“Was it Lady Koresh?” the knight continued, studying her curiously. “Strange, I know that name from somewhere—”
“Another untitled noble family like yours, perhaps,” his comrade replied dismissively.
Ivy was actually afraid she might break the vial in her left hand if she gripped it any tighter. Anger and frustration, coupled with the familiar weight of chronic fatigue and illness, pushed away all hesitation as she raised her gaze to meet those of the men openly mocking her.
“It seems you are ill-informed, or you would know that both of the attendants who serve her Grace are Viscountess with lands and titles.”
The knights both blinked in surprise before glancing at each other hesitantly.
“Be that as it may, surely you have heard that Lady Kirsi is unwell, which is why she has sent me to act in her stead and with her authority—which means that you are both currently blocking the path of the Lady Protector of the North.” Ivy arched a cynical brow, channeling the smug, confident expressions she remembered from what felt like a lifetime of serving under the Turnbell family. “Of course—if you feel it is necessary, I could interrupt his Majesty’s celebration and drag him here to explain all this to you in person—”
“What is it that you need to do exactly, Lady Koresh?” the first knight interrupted hastily with an appeasing smile. “If it’s just a quick look to verify that the prisoner is well—”
“I will also need to speak to her,” Ivy interrupted, attempting to look bored with the conversation as she approached the door expectantly. “Privately.”
The ghost of a life Ivy barely remembered flickered behind her eyes as she took in the woman huddled and chained into one of the barred stalls that lined the cellar walls, which had been emptied of wine barrels. Miranda Koresh, the once proud noble wife of Lord Spenser Koresh, a royal historian, and mother to a small bright child, was nowhere to be seen.
Bitterness and the sudden fall in status had aged her, while the years of struggle and menial labor had marred her skin and hands, adding more than a few silver strands to her caramel-brown hair. A pair of bleary hazel-blue eyes flicked over Ivy with a brief expression of confusion and wariness before narrowing in recognition. Whatever words the woman meant to voice, they came out in a hoarse, distorted groan as the prisoner clutched her throat pitifully.
“So it’s true you cannot speak,” Ivy muttered, clenching down on the treacherous emotions battling against her resolve. “I never thought I’d see you again—after what you did, I’m surprised you would even show your face.”
Miranda pressed her lips together in a familiar scornful look of disapproval before turning pointedly away from her visitor.
“I suppose there are those who would prefer that you never be able to speak again,” Ivy whispered as she examined the chains looping through the bars connected to the cuffs on her mother’s wrists. “But I am not one of them.” She extended the medicine vial mixed with Hana’s blood toward the chained woman, who eyed the bottle warily. “This is a rare, powerful medicine. If you drink this, it will heal your injuries and allow you to speak.”
Miranda scowled and quickly looked away.
“I couldn’t care less about how you got involved with the Borgheses or what role you played in their attempts to frame the Duchess. None of that matters now that you’ve been banished from the capital.” Ivy sighed as the woman refused to acknowledge her presence. “No one need know your injuries are healed aside from me. At least this way, you’ll have the option to speak if you choose.”
Miranda half-turned toward her daughter with a conflicted expression before extending an open hand toward her. Ivy glanced down hesitantly at the dose Hana had prepared for her evening treatment but handed the vial over without comment. The prisoner pried the small cork free with her fingers, sniffed the strange liquid inside, and glanced once more toward Ivy’s neutral expression.
“It’s not poison. I may hate you, but I have no reason to wish you dead.”
This appeared to convince the prisoner, who quickly tipped the vial’s contents down her throat.
Ivy flinched as her mother flung the empty bottle down on the stone basement floor, shattering it as she clutched her throat and coughed loudly. Ivy almost laughed at the brief look of alarm and suspicion that crossed Miranda’s face before the beneficial tonic effects kicked in and her mother’s coughs subsided.
“A-aah—ahhh!” Miranda squeaked out as the gurgled distortion in her voice faded. “I—I can—speak?” Her hazel-blue eyes swung wildly from the broken vial to Ivy. “What sort of—medicine—was that?”
“Does it matter? Your throat is healed, and you can speak,” Ivy replied as she folded her hands at her waist, clutching her fingers as the burning itch along her spine grew more challenging to ignore.
“Why—heal me? What do you want?”
Ivy drew in a slow breath, struggling to compartmentalize the emotions of betrayal, pain, and abandonment that had resurfaced with her mother’s reappearance. “To ask—why?”
Miranda scoffed as she swept back her messy bangs. “I thought you didn’t care about—”
“I’m not speaking about yesterday’s events. I’m asking about what you did to me all those years ago when I was barely more than a child!”
The prisoner scowled, her narrowed gaze moving over the luxurious fabric of Ivy’s dress. “Why are you complaining? You seem to have done well enough for yourself.”
“I am where I am because of Lady Kirsi—not because of you!”
“Ungrateful—” Miranda muttered before shaking her head. “I’ve nothing to say to a sinner like you.”
Ivy half-choked out a mocking laugh. “Really? You want to claim a religious, moral high ground? Which one of us is a chained prisoner?”
“I was pardoned!”
“The only reason your head remains attached to your body is because I asked her Grace to show mercy! Not that you deserve it,” Ivy retorted, her words coming out harsher than she intended as her guilt ate away at her.
Instead of looking admonished or even humbled, Miranda only looked more enraged. “Well, at least I didn’t sell my soul to a witch that killed my child!”
Ivy flinched as her fingernails bit deeply into the back of her hands. “What?!”
“I know what you did, you whore! Murdering my grandchild—all so you can continue to serve that demon!”
“Your—grandchild?” Ivy echoed, bewildered. “What possible right could you have to lay claim to any child of mine after you sold me into slavery?!”
“I had no choice. We had no food! What would you have me do? Prostitute myself like you did just to keep a roof over our heads?!”
“I—” Ivy nearly bit her tongue as she fought against the wave of bile rising up the back of her throat. “I never—prostituted myself.”
Miranda laughed scornfully. “You still don’t realize why the Borgheses got me involved. They showed me proof that you purchased herbs meant to kill an unborn and unwanted baby. If you weren’t selling yourself, then how did you become pregnant? You’re not married or engaged, so why—”
“Shut up!” Ivy snarled as she staggered back, her hands pressed to her stomach. “How—how could you even think that?! Did it never occur to you what terrible things could happen to a girl abandoned by her only living parent and sold to become the property of men?”
“Don’t spin your transgressions against me. You were meant to be the companion of Lady Edith. Maybe if you had taken better care of her, you wouldn’t have ended up with the Turnbell family. What noble would bother to interact with the spawn of a traitor—much less touch you unless you seduced them first!”
“Shut up! Shut up!” Ivy screamed, flinching as her voice echoed throughout the cellar around them. “I can’t believe—Lady Kirsi was right—you really are a monster.” She fumbled about in the shadows as her vision blurred, clinging to the metal bars to remain upright as her breath grew shallow and tight beneath the invisible vise of pain wrapped tightly around her lungs. “How could you be this cruel and heartless—to your own child?”
“I suppose I should be grateful,” Miranda retorted with a resigned sigh. “Despite whatever poison that witch has dripped into your ears, you still know to help your mother when she’s in need.”
Ivy turned away, sickened by the very sight of the despicable woman, who continued to prattle on without so much as a flicker of remorse.
“Since that witch gave you the authority to come down here—she can grant you the authority to set me free and expunge my record.”
“Your life has already been spared. Your injuries healed—what more could you want?” Ivy forced out through clenched teeth as she hurriedly wiped the trail of tears from her cheek. Her mother’s scornful laugh set her teeth on edge as she turned to face the snickering prisoner.
“I still know your sins, child,” Miranda spelled out with a sinister smirk. “If you want me to disappear quietly, then the least you can do for your dear old mom is give me enough to survive—comfortably.”
Ivy stopped breathing again as she stared at the woman incredulously.
“I lost my position because of you and that witch,” Miranda continued, fussing with the hem of her skirt as she rose to her feet. “Given my age and the fact that you’re unfit to be married to anyone capable of supporting us both—the least you could do is give me enough to retire and buy a small cottage along the south shore. Warm weather and a decent maid will help me enjoy my final years. Slaves are cheap enough these days, so perhaps even a footman.”
“You—” Ivy pressed a cold fist against her lips as she nearly vomited.
“Well, it’s not like you’ll be coming along to look after me, and any other children you might produce are likely to be useless bastards.”
“What? It’s not like I’m asking to live with you. I wouldn’t want to step anywhere near your little witch Duchess.”
“Of all the evil I have seen in this world,” Ivy hissed as she dragged her fingers down her lips and chin. “You—are the absolute worst.”
“Tsk!” Miranda admonished with an eye roll as she stepped towards the pale young woman. “I may be in chains presently, but only one of us has ever killed someone. And an innocent babe at that.”
‘I should never have come here.’ Ivy shook her head, feeling dizzy and shaken by the rage coursing through her veins. ‘I can’t believe I wasted Hana’s precious blood on this woman.’
“I heard the father was a nobleman,” Miranda continued as she placed a hand on Ivy’s shoulders. “Foolish girl. You would have been better off giving birth and living as a mistress. Who knows—he might have even married you.”
Ivy’s broken laugh echoed through the dimly lit cellar as she shoved her mother’s hand away. She stepped back from the prisoner, determined to leave before her illness and regret sapped the rest of her energy.
“That’s right, go ahead, run away and cry. You’re just as weak as your father was. Always blaming your failures on other people. Just make sure the funds are ready by morning before I depart, or else—I may have to reveal my miraculous recovery.”
Ivy froze beneath her mother’s taunting words as the cellar walls swayed precariously around her. “No.”
“What?” Miranda demanded softly.
“Was that not clear enough? I meant I won’t be giving you a single crescent.”
The prisoner chuckled uneasily. “Now, now, Ivy. There’s no need to be greedy. Your Duchess has more than enough—”
“Lady Kirsi won’t give you anything either.”
“That—would be foolish—”
Ivy gripped one of the stacked barrels as she turned around. The jumbled peel of her own mocking laughter echoed oddly in her ears. “No, mother. Impugning the honor of a noble would be foolish.”
“You? You’re nothing but a slave!”
“No, not anymore. Lady Kirsi liberated me before making me one of her ladies-in-waiting,” Ivy lied with a cynical smile. “I am neither a commoner nor a slave—unlike you.”
“What? B-but you’re—the daughter of a traitor!”
“Father was accused of treason. We were reduced to commoners. It was you who drank and spent away his savings. You exploited the sympathy of his friends and acquaintances for money until they all turned their backs on us. Then you racked up debts you couldn’t pay, trying to maintain the lifestyle of a noblewoman without any means to pay for our basic needs. And it was you who forced us to flee in the middle of the night to avoid being thrown into debtor’s jail!”
Miranda sputtered wordlessly as Ivy advanced towards the prisoner with her fists clenched.
“It was you who sold your daughter, your own flesh and blood, into a lifetime of servitude to pay off the debts you incurred—all for what? So, you could continue pretending to be a noble still?”
“That was—you—you cannot—speak to me this way! I am your mother!”
“No—not anymore,” Ivy whispered hoarsely. “Our relationship died the day you exchanged me for a bag of coins. I do not owe you anything now. In fact, I never want to see you ever again! And if you dare to speak against me or the Duchess, rest assured that next time, I will beg for your execution!”
Miranda’s eyes widened with a glimmer of fear as she pressed her back against the cellar wall away from her trembling daughter.
“Wherever you go from here, you are no longer my concern. Whether you live or die has nothing to do with me. You are a monster—and I can only hope that the rest of your life will be as miserable as the years of torment and humiliation you subjected me to.”
Ivy spun away, teetering unsteadily as a faint ring spread through her right ear to mingle with the pain spreading along her back. She paused to steady herself and regain her composure before facing the knights waiting outside—then blinked as the blurred tangle of chains dropped over her vision and tightened viciously around her neck.
Miranda dragged the flailing Ivy back into the cellar stall, where mother and daughter tumbled back against the stone floor. “I thought there was nothing in this world I regretted more than marrying your imbecile of a father, but now I realize—giving birth to you—was my greatest sin.”
Ivy sputtered helplessly as she clawed against the metal links biting into her throat, unable to reach past Miranda’s legs wrapped tightly around her torso.
“But now I shall atone for my sins by sending your corrupted soul into the arms of the Saints to be purified!”
Ivy kicked her feet against the ground, twisting and squirming against the chain in her mother’s grip. The pain of the witch’s curse along her back and lack of air hindered her ability to focus and think as her vision darkened.
“You should have just paid me the money,” Miranda admonished with a faint grunt as she leaned back, exerting more force on the chain. “Once you’re dead and the Duchess stands accused of trying to kill a prisoner of the crown—the Borgheses will have every reason to reward me with a life I deserve.”
A flicker of light pulled Ivy’s fluctuating gaze to the snowflake obsidian wolf pendant against her bodice. She grasped the necklace frantically, recalling Kirsi’s warning when she gifted the pendant to her.
With what little strength remained, Ivy yanked the necklace free and pressed it between her lips before silently crying out the Duchess’s name.