Chapter 38: Marked for Sacrifice
Ivy couldn’t stop shaking. Kirsi’s cold magic had penetrated her skin, leaving it dry and brittle. Miranda’s stifled scream of terror that ended with her being blasted against the cellar wall still rang in Ivy’s ears.
The Earl delivered the trembling maid back to the Duchess’s rooms, where an apprehensive and confused Hana greeted them. “Ivy—where have you been?” The Viscountess’s gentle turquoise blue eyes narrowed as she touched the maid’s arms. “Have you seen Kirsi?”
“Her Grace will join us in a moment,” Percy replied calmly, ignoring Colonel Isaac’s blatantly suspicious glare. “We should wait for her inside.”
The Viscountess stepped aside reluctantly as the Earl guided the maid over the threshold. Ivy flinched as the noblewoman’s gaze focused on the cursed mark hidden beneath her collar. ‘Has Hana already noticed that I missed tonight’s treatment?’
Percy led Ivy over to a comfortable chair by a dying brazier in the corner of the small reception room connected to the much larger inner bedroom. Ivy clenched her fingers tighter, flinching as the Earl wrapped a blanket around her. He offered the maid a pitying smile that only made Ivy feel even more guilty and loathsome. She shrank away from the Earl’s generosity, cowering beneath the blanket to avoid Hana’s disapproving gaze.
A flurry of movement from the hallway pulled their attention to where a drenched scout of the Bastiallano Knight saluted Colonel Isaac, who stepped away from the door to listen to the soldier’s report.
The Colonel returned a few moments later, his gaze drifting anxiously between Percy and Ivy. “Where is the Duchess?”
“Lady Kirsi is dealing with an urgent matter,” Percy replied neutrally as he took the empty seat beside the trembling maid. “Her Grace asked me to wait for her here. She’ll return soon enough.”
Ivy watched the Earl as he crossed his legs and glanced around the chambers with a bored expression as if he had come for a simple visit and not dragged Ivy away from the scene of a murder. The reality of what her foolishness had caused snapped the last threads of Ivy’s courage.
‘Because of me—Maura—Lady Kirsi will now be exposed as a witch!’
She quickly muffled her sobs into the blanket, but not before the Colonel and Viscountess glanced in her direction, mystified.
“Ivy,” Hana demanded sternly. “Where were you just now?”
Percy sighed as Ivy pressed her eyes shut, then shook her head and continued to sob like a child. Before returning to the Duchess’s rooms, he had used magic to interrogate the maid, which had given him enough information to understand her reason for being with the prisoner. According to Lady Priscilla and her father, Ivy’s mother had only started working for them recently.
‘It seems too coincidental for Kirsi’s political rival to have conveniently stumbled upon Ivy’s greatest weakness. If anything, this explains her Grace’s outright hostility towards Marquess Borghese at the beginning of the Royal Hunt.’
The Earl’s winter-grey eyes turned to where both the Colonel and Viscountess now stared at him expectantly. Percy offered them a bemused smile in return. He had already gleaned the crucial details of the scout’s report to Isaac about the arrival of Marquess Borghese’s Shadow Army, which had momentarily halted on the opposite side of Vesper River due to the weather.
Before either of the Duchess’s subordinates could press him for more information, the familiar cold tingle of Kirsi’s magic filled the room with a blinding light that dissipated to reveal the ice witch, still wearing only her nightgown.
“But—Kirsi!” Hana gushed out in relief as she rushed towards the Duchess, followed closely by Colonel Isaac, who removed and draped his cloak around the ice witch’s sheer garment. “Do you have any idea how worried I was? You just disappeared!”
“Ivy was in danger,” Kirsi replied, her ice-blue eyes quickly settled onto the trembling maid with a look of concern. “She needs medical attention—”
“Kirsi, your hair!” Hana interjected sharply, touching yet another new lock of white hair that had appeared along the hairline of the Duchess’s face. “You are overextending yourself.”
“I am fine, Hana. If anything, I feel stronger than ever.”
Percy rose from his seat, worried despite the nonchalance with which Kirsi brushed aside the Viscountess’s concern. He took the Duchess’s wrist, ignoring Hana’s hostile glare as he attempted to measure the magic remaining in the ice witch’s core.
Just as Kirsi had alluded to, her power had increased to such an extent that it seemed impossible for so much magic to be contained within such a fragile mortal body.
‘The change in her hair likely results from the physical strain of harnessing such power rather than her core being depleted. If so, how do we control it? The power of an immortal is immeasurable.’
“Are you satisfied, Lord Percy?” Kirsi inquired bluntly as she pulled her hand free.
“Your Grace, it—might be beneficial to channel some of that magic into jewels to lessen the burden on—” Percy trailed off as her ice-blue eyes focused their full attention on him, disrupting his train of thought with their mesmerizing brilliance.
‘Something about her is different—something beyond her growth in magic. I can’t put my finger on what exactly that is, but—I can’t tear my eyes away from her—and I don’t want her to look at anything but me.’
“Earl Hawthorne?” The Duchess tilted her head with a flicker of confusion. “You had something urgent you wished to discuss with me, did you not?”
“Ah, your Grace,” Colonel Isaac interjected as he stepped forward. “We just received a report—”
“More than one matter, in fact,” Percy replied, silencing the half-witch with a simple gesture. “Also, it would appear that the Borghese threat has arrived at the borders of Gilwren Forest.”
The Duchess’s eyes narrowed as she glanced towards Isaac, who scowled but nodded in confirmation. “I see. And what other matters did you wish to bring to my attention?”
The Earl tilted his head towards the inner bedroom with an innocent smile. “Might I request a private audience with your Grace? It would be best to discuss such matters away from questionable ears.” Percy ignored the outraged scoffs and glares of the Viscountess and Colonel.
‘One remains Octavia’s faithful dog, while the other will always be a potential threat to Kirsi’s future. Even Ivy has proven herself to be little more than a useless burden. The sooner I pry them away from the Duchess’s side, the better.’
Carina glanced guiltily over the disheveled satin sheets and damask blanket half-ripped off the large four-poster bed to the toppled cushioned chair on the floor. It was abundantly clear that her rapid departure had startled Hana out of her wits.
‘I should apologize to her later.’
The Duchess turned to face the Earl, who trailed behind her, sensing the magic barrier he had placed between them and the front reception room where the others waited. She folded her arms, pulling Isaac’s cloak tighter as she took note of her lacking wardrobe and bare feet.
‘Of all people, why did Percy have to see me in this state?’
“You have your private audience, Earl Hawthorne. Please get to the point.”
The pureblood winced beneath her cold tone but inclined his head politely toward her, adapting to the formal style of her greeting without complaint. “First, allow me to give you this, your Grace.”
Carina blinked at the baby blue envelope embellished with lace lilac roses that he held towards her. “What—is this?”
“Ahh.” For a moment, Percy resembled a bashful boy as he stepped forward to place the envelope directly in her hand. “An early birthday present—of sorts. I’m afraid I couldn’t in good conscious keep you waiting another day after—” He trailed off as the Duchess unceremoniously tore the letter open, discarding its pretty wrapping, which fell to the floor as she unfolded the parchment within.
“Oh.” Carina blinked again as she registered the legal writing of the faded but well-kept document that registered Ivy Koresh as a slave. Her gaze quickly dropped to the bottom, where the Earl had affixed his signature and family seal next to the box that declared Ivy a free woman. “You—”
“I thought you might want to do something special to celebrate this moment with Lady Ivy, so I decided it best to give it to you in private,” Percy explained hastily, with an apologetic bow.
“You made her freedom from slavery into a gift for me?”
His shoulders stiffened beneath the Duchess’s cutting tone. Then the Earl straightened abruptly, his bashful smile fading, as he averted his winter-grey eyes with a glimmer of disappointment. “I could think of nothing else that would please you, your Grace. You lack neither wealth nor power—and you did not appreciate any of the other gifts I got you in the past.”
‘He cannot be serious….’
Carina drew in a slow breath as she flipped to the second page, which contained Percy’s elegant penmanship in a short but beautiful poem wishing her a happy birthday. “By your last gift—are you referring to the Winter Rose? The necklace you enchanted to make me fall in love with you?”
“The Winter Rose was an heirloom from the Isbrand dynasty, a relic of your lineage and Lafeara’s true royal family—and you threw it away like a common trinket!”
The Duchess blinked in surprise beneath the harshness of his words. She folded her arms and met his gaze silently until Percy looked away. “You think it wrong? That I would value the life and happiness of a friend more than some ancient diamond necklace?”
“No, but—you act as if that was the only gift I’ve ever given you.”
Carina’s cynical smile froze for a second as his meaning sank in. “You have given me—other gifts?”
“Yes, on your birthday—every year since you—since you started your lessons under my mother.”
The Duchess’s brows furrowed in confusion before shooting up in realization. “The raven! That was you?”
Percy chuckled dryly. “I’m surprised you didn’t figure that one out—”
“Do you have any idea how much trouble you and that bird caused me!”
The Earl blinked in startled disbelief as she continued.
“One of the maids discovered the diamond bracelet you sent me while rummaging through my rooms. Helena and Josiah threw a fit! They were convinced I had hidden my inheritance from them—which I had—but they obviously didn’t believe that some insane crow delivered such an expensive gift to my window!”
“I had—no idea,” Percy murmured, sounding oddly sincere and remorseful. “Then what—happened to my other gifts?”
“I pawned them off every year to avoid arousing suspicion,” Carina replied with a shrug. “I had no way of knowing what sort of eccentric person that crow belonged to, only that they apparently knew my birthday. Initially, I thought it might have been Mau—my father.”
‘Does that mean Percy has been pursuing me since the gifts began? Is it possible those jewels were enchanted as well?’ The Duchess sucked in a sharp breath and pressed her lips together. ‘It doesn’t matter now. At the very least, those ‘gifts’ brought me to the pawn shop that introduced me to Alex and the Fox Den.’
“While I appreciate the sentiment, Lord Percy. I think it would be best if you stopped giving me gifts altogether from now on.”
The Earl shook his head and sighed in resignation. “I understood your rejection quite clearly when you threw the Winter Rose into the gutter, your Grace.”
“But I thought we had at least reached a point of mutual respect and cooperation. My personal failings aside, you need the support of the Air Covens to accomplish your goal—”
“My goal?” Carina tilted her head as she strode towards him. “Or Kirsi’s goal?”
“Are they not one and the same?” Percy retorted with unflinching resolve.
‘Perhaps—but our methods for achieving them are vastly different.’
The Duchess tilted her head and then returned her attention to Ivy’s liberation papers. The silence stretched uncomfortably between them as the Earl turned to stare at the curious rendering of a nude woman garbed in the skin of a deer on the bedroom chamber wall. “What else did you wish to discuss, Lord Percy?”
The pureblood sighed and then returned his gaze to her. “Before dinner, I received disturbing news from the capital. Frost’s hospital in the slums was burned to the ground, along with all the physicians, nurses, and plague victims who sought refuge there.”
Carina stiffened as the cold lucid energy within her chest suddenly hardened into a tight, painful lump as a brittle chill filled the air around them. “What?!”
“My spies tracked the men who barred the doors and set the blaze. They belong to a pack of mercenaries called the Royal Dogs, who secretly serve the crown. I suspect they were moving under Lord Commander Quentin’s command. The Capital Knights were actively present in the slums at the time of the fire but appeared only concerned with shutting down the roads to the hospital and preventing the fire from spreading.”
“That’s—impossible—they are—dead?” The Duchess abruptly turned away, then walked stiffly towards the vanity desk where she laid down Ivy’s papers. “Are you saying—that Crown Prince Nicholas ordered this?”
“Lord Commander Quentin would not have taken such drastic measures without the crown’s approval,” Percy replied evenly. “Of that, I am sure.” His winter-grey eyes shifted nervously towards the cold currents of ice magic that spiraled through the room like invisible tendrils of power, centering around the small Duchess.
“Why?” Carina growled.
“Why would the Crown Prince order them to set the blaze? Why burn the only hope those people had of surviving—”
‘It’s true that we have yet to discover a cure but to treat them with such cruelty and burn down a hospital in the process. How do we reach others who might have been infected? Why would they even come forward if this is the fate that awaits them?’
“My sources tell me that the plague has appeared in more than one location across the kingdom. To prevent public panic and the chance of this disease spreading to the capital, it seems the Crown Prince decided to eliminate the nearest immediate threat. Bishop Murdoch was also notified and has sent a request for aid to the Pope.”
“Haa—” The Duchess leaned against the desk for a moment as she exhaled in disbelief. “Even if Nicholas thought he had no choice—what right did he have to burn down my hospital? To kill the physicians and nursing under my protection!”
“According to the rumor spreading through the Royal Medical Office, mortals are incredibly susceptible to this disease. Both of the physicians and many of the nurses working at the slum hospital had begun to show signs of contracting the plague,” Percy explained grimly. “As of tomorrow morning, no licensed physician will be allowed to treat plague victims to prevent this epidemic from spreading to healthy patients.”
‘You mean the nobility.’
“Then how do we stop it? How—” Carina inhaled sharply as she sank into the chair to stare at her bleak reflection in the vanity mirror. ‘This is all my fault. I pulled my knights from the slums to enforce security at the Royal Hunt. Physician Devin and Physician Eckhard—they trusted me to keep them safe.’
“We both know what comes next,” Percy replied as he closed the distance between them. “The Covens all agree this sickness has many of the markings of a witch plague. Once the Royal Medical Office makes that ruling, they will defer all authority to the church and its cardinals, fanning the flames of superstition and hatred.”
The Duchess stiffened as she felt the Earl’s fingers brush against her hair when he gripped the chair behind her.
“If the church comes to Lafeara, another holy inquisition will follow. Our people will suffer for the actions of an outsider. And the Royal Faction will use this witch hunt to weaken our position and party.”
“Are politics and power all that you can think of at a time like this?” Carina demanded incredulously as she turned to face him.
“Politics and power—are the reason my father was murdered,” Percy retorted sharply. His unflinching winter-grey eyes met hers with an unshakable confidence that reminded Carina of just how much power the Hawthorne name controlled.
“Then—to prevent another witch massacre—we must stop this witch plague first.”
“You seem—rather confident,” Carina observed curiously.
“I’ve read enough about witch plagues to know where to start. As it happens, there is a water witch close by that I’d like you to meet, your Grace,” Percy explained with a neutral smile. “A pureblood from Strugna, where the witch who created this plague most likely originated.”
“You don’t say,” Carina murmured, recalling Hana’s suggestion that a water witch might help them find a way to undo Ivy’s curse. “Then please, take me to him.”
The Duchess was, perhaps, less than surprised to see Jasper tied up inside the main tent of the Hawthorne hunting party. The huntsman’s seal-grey eyes brightened above a cheeky grin as he dipped his head in greeting toward the ice witch.
“Your Grace. I am happy to see you awake and unharmed.”
Carina returned his greeting with a puzzled nod before turning to the Earl beside her. “Lord Percy, why do you have my huntsman tied up?”
“A precaution, your Grace,” Percy replied, frowning as he narrowed his gaze on the relaxed water witch. “We do not yet know the reason why this pureblood chose to disguise himself as a mortal and infiltrate Viscount Gilwren’s trusted huntsmen.”
“Don’t all of Lafeara’s witches live in hiding?” Jasper interjected with an audible smirk. “Pretending to be harmless mortals out of fear of persecution.”
“He was also not above bribery to obtain the position as your Grace’s huntsman,” Percy continued with pointed cynicism.
“Your name isn’t Jasper—is it?” Carina murmured as random memories from Kirsi’s life in Strugna flickered into focus. “Do I—know you?”
The huntsman’s charismatic grin faltered momentarily as he regarded the Duchess with an expression of wavering uncertainty. “Perhaps—though—I was still a child when the Scarlet Witch last resided in Strugna.”
“And why have you come to Lafeara?”
“You took Kirsi’s name—” Jasper shrugged nonchalantly. “It seemed like a good idea to figure out if you were the Scarlet Witch I remembered.”
‘Just what is his relation to you, Kirsi?’
Carina grimaced. It was clear that taking the Scarlet Witch’s name had drawn more attention than she realized. “Since you will not tell me your true identity, I shall continue to address you by the only name I know. Tell me, Jasper of Strugna, what do you know about witch plagues?”
The huntsman’s seal-grey eyes darkened instantly as his brows furrowed together. “Why do you ask—so suddenly?”
“We are not here to answer your questions, fish,” Percy interjected sharply.
“Well, for a bird who serves the god of knowledge, you seem rather uneducated if you need me to answer such a basic question,” Jasper retorted in a mockingly bored tone. “But—for your Grace’s sake.” His charismatic smile returned in a flash as he addressed the Duchess. “The witch plague is an ancient magic practiced by the Bog Witches of Solverga. It is devilry spawned from the depths of Arachne’s bowels used to punish mortal and witch alike at her leisure.”
“If I said that a plague has appeared in Lafeara, how would I determine if it were natural or witch made?” Carina pressed eagerly.
“That would depend on how much care the plague witch took in disguising their magic.” The huntsman leaned back, making a show of squirming his limbs, bound by ropes to the arms and legs of the chair. “The more heinous and cruel the symptoms, the more likely you are to be dealing with a witch plague.”
“Are there any other signs?”
“You mean, beyond the unnatural spread of the disease and piles of bodies left in its wake?”
‘Unnatural spread?’ The Duchess’s ice-blue eyes narrowed.
Jasper sighed and continued in a calmer tone. “A witch plague is generally identified by its first victim. The incubator of the plague and its source.”
“Go on,” Carina urged as Percy pulled over two chairs for them to sit comfortably.
“The incubation period varies from weeks to months. Generally, the longer it takes for the plague seed to ripen, the more contagious the resulting plague. But it is the condition of the incubator’s remains that will tell you how the plague will manifest and spread.”
‘The incubator’s remains?’ The Duchess recalled the putrid soup of rotting organs of the hospital’s plague patients. “We identified the source of the plague as coming from a contaminated well, but—all the bodies we found appeared to be victims.”
“Might be worth taking a closer look at what’s inside that well then,” Jasper replied. “If it is a witch plague you’re dealing with, you will find a plague seed in that well, which can only be purified by either the Saint’s blood or the unholy flames of Kritanta’s chosen. Although,” the huntsman studied her with a thoughtful expression, “it might be possible to seal it with an immortal’s ice magic.”
“You appear very well informed on such matters,” Percy observed cynically.
“The last witch plague that ravaged Strugna taught us much about Arachne’s methods.”
“Then—how did you stop it?” Carina interjected quickly.
“We didn’t,” Jasper replied grimly. “There are only three proven methods to ending a witch plague. The most well-known of which is the power of the Saint.”
The memory of a much younger Hana piercing Kirsi’s body with a bolt of lightning shivered down the Duchess’s spine as she sighed quietly.
“And the other methods?” The Earl pressed from behind his disapproving scowl and folded arms.
“Without the Saint, our only remaining options are to kill the witch who created the plague—or find and destroy the plague sacrifice—assuming they marked someone when the plague seed hatched.”
“A plague sacrifice?” Percy echoed with notable confusion.
“In the past, this was how the church resolved plagues without the Saint. If they couldn’t find the witch responsible, they found her second victim, marked by the plague witch’s curse, and executed them as a witch instead,” Jasper explained in a matter-of-fact tone.
“How—do we identify them?”
“The plague sacrifice will carry a curse mark on their body. As the plague grows stronger, the sacrifice grows weaker, and the mark becomes harder to hide, making them the perfect scapegoat—or sacrificial lamb to end the plague.”
Carina’s gloved fingers dug into the armrest of her chair as she connected the pieces of Ivy’s curse, Jade’s monstrous transformation, and the appearance of the plague in the slums. “Is there—anyway—to remove the curse?”
The huntsman blinked in surprise while the Earl frowned at the Duchess curiously. “I—well,” Jasper began hesitantly, “It’s not something that’s ever been recorded, but—I suppose theoretically, it’s possible the death of the plague witch would end both the epidemic and the curse.”
“Not all curses ended with the death of the witch who made them,” Percy countered resentfully as he traced a finger along his throat.
“Yes, but curses that last beyond death require an extreme amount of anger and resentment,” Jasper retorted quickly.
‘Like the Death Mark Haemish left behind.’
“Unless the plague sacrifice was specifically chosen as a form of grudge or resentment—the curse should end with the witch’s death—but no plague sacrifice has ever survived long enough to prove this method.”
“So, I only have one option then,” Carina stated grimly as she rose to her feet. “I must find and kill this plague witch.”
“That’s easier said than done, your Grace,” Jasper replied with a dry chuckle. “However, in nearly every record I’ve studied—there was evidence that suggests the plague witch lingers near the outbreak to monitor its destruction while keeping track of their chosen sacrifice. You see, in nearly every instance, a witch plague was released with a goal in mind. Once that goal has been achieved—well, that’s usually when the sacrifice is forced out of hiding and burned while the witch responsible slinks back to Solverga until their next mission.”
The Duchess narrowed her gaze thoughtfully as she summoned a small ice dagger in her open palm. The huntsman and Earl glanced at the elemental blade in surprise as she approached the bound water witch.
“I would like your help, Jasper, in tracking down this plague witch,” Carina stated bluntly. “If you agree, you will be under my protection—provided you mean no harm to Lafeara.”
“Lafeara and Strugna have long been political and trade allies, your Grace,” Jasper replied reasonably. “As to your request—” the huntsman raised his brows and averted his gaze, “—my reason for coming here was to ask Kirsi, the Scarlet Witch, to uphold her promise to the royal family of Strugna.”
“What promise?” The Duchess echoed, prodding the real Kirsi for answers.
“If you are the Kirsi I remember, you will know what that means. In the meantime—” Jasper tugged at the restraints on his arms. “With your permission, I will continue to serve as your huntsman for this competition.”