Chapter 40: A Gift of Clarity
The hours between dawn and midnight passed by in a blur of restless tranquility. Carina had never slept so deeply before. One moment she was lying against her pillow at Gilwren Manor, and the next, she floated within the frozen cortex, weightless as she listened to the rhythmic sound of Viktor’s heart while sinking deeper into Kirsi’s memories.
The lives of the Scarlet Witch paraded before her like an illuminated crosscut film, centering around key moments and important individuals long forgotten by history. The names and faces of these strangers burned into Carina’s memory as Kirsi presented several lifetimes of allies and enemies but very few friends. After the betrayal of the Icebound Coven, even the ice witches that swore oaths binding their lives to that of their queen were kept at arm’s length.
‘Other than the descendants of the Isbrand family that she monitored over the years—Kirsi doesn’t really appear to care about anyone on a personal level.’
Just as Carina was beginning to grasp a deeper understanding of her co-spirit, the memories blurred and scattered beneath the grip of someone shaking the Duchess awake in her bed. The ice witch let out a faint snarl of irritation as the bedroom ceiling that framed Hana’s face came into view.
Forgive me, Kirsi. His Majesty heard you were awake and insisted on seeing you.”
“I wasn’t exactly awake just now,” Carina muttered, accepting the Viscountess’s assistance as she sat up stiffly. “Who told him I woke up?”
Hana blinked, then shook her head uncertainly.
‘Someone must have seen me visiting Percy’s tent last night.’
“Nevermind.” The Duchess sighed as she flung aside the blankets, wincing beneath the dull ache behind her eyes as she blinked towards the sound of voices in the front room. “After breakfast, I would like to return to the privacy of our tents on the grounds. It was a lot more peaceful there.”
“I’m not sure that Viscount Gilwren or his Majesty will agree,” Hana replied with a hint of annoyance as she assisted Carina to her feet and presented the ice witch with a suitable robe for greeting guests.
“I’d like to see them stop me,” Carina replied as she slid into the furlined garment. “How is Ivy?”
“She was still sleeping last I saw her.”
“Let her sleep in then. It will give us time to finish preparations.”
“Lady Kirsi!” Nicholas greeted with evident relief as the Duchess joined them in the sitting room. “It is so good to see you awake and standing on your own two feet again. I am so sorry you missed out on last night’s banquet. It was quite the celebration.”
“I am sorry to have missed it, your Majesty,” Carina replied with a forced smile as she offered him a shallow curtsey. It was hard to reconcile the beaming, overly friendly Crown Prince standing before her with the gruesome fates of Physician Devin and Physician Eckard, along with the staff of Bridgewater Lane Hospital and its unfortunate plague patients.
‘Then again, can I claim to be any better? I just killed a woman and destroyed her soul to prevent her from ever hurting Ivy again.’
“I hear your grandfather is preparing a winter coat out of the bear you took down,” Nicholas prattled on as the Viscountess guided the Duchess over to an empty chair. “No doubt we’ll enjoy a fine feast of bear roast for supper later tonight.”
“I’m grateful to your Majesty for paying a visit so early in the morning,” Carina replied, masking the headache growing behind her tired eyes. “But I’m afraid that I will be unable to join you on the hunt today.”
“Oh?” The Crown Prince appeared momentarily crestfallen as he took the seat beside her. The Duchess’s attention shifted to Captain Beaumont, who bowed politely in greeting before he moved to stand by the sitting room window. “Of course. Take all the time you need. It’s pretty much a given that Lord Percy will win the contest at this point, although the Earl is being dreadfully coy about what request he’ll make of me.”
‘Percy is certainly competing with some goal in mind. Given his ambition, I’m not sure I want to know what that is.’
“I may not be able to ride out with you, your Majesty, but Colonel Isaac and my knights will continue to act as your escort. My wolves are also hard at work, ensuring that we do not fall behind.”
“Really? You can control them even from a distance?”
The Duchess shifted in her chair as she adjusted her robe. “Hunting is second nature to them,” she explained with a dismissive shrug. “They won’t stop until the forest is empty.”
“What a shame they weren’t with you when that bear attacked.”
Carina did not miss the note of doubt in the Crown Prince’s voice as he leaned back in his chair with a pondering expression. Given the size disparity between an overgrown bear and the monstrous remnants, she hardly blinked when Earl Hawthorne revealed the corpse of the beast rumored to have attacked her.
‘The story would have probably been a lot more believable if they had claimed the knights helped me take down a mountain bear.’
The Duchess rubbed her temple as she fought the urge to close her eyes. She needed to recover her energy and quickly before the Royal Hunt finished.
The Viscountess returned with a pot of fresh tea. “A drink, your Majesty?”
“Ah—No….We should get going.” The Crown Prince glanced hesitantly toward the window and the ever-silent Beaumont before rising to his feet. “I’ll be sure to visit during lunch break to see how you’re doing, Lady Kirsi.”
‘I’d rather you didn’t. I might not be so forgiving the next time you drag me from my sleep.’
“If you feel it is necessary, your Majesty,” Carina said flatly as she accepted Hana’s offered arm and rose to her feet. “Allow me to wish you good luck on today’s hunt.”
“Get some rest, Lady Kirsi,” Nicholas replied with a gentle touch to the Duchess’s shoulder. “You were lucky enough to escape death without a scratch, but the shock has clearly put a strain on you physically.”
Carina ground her teeth together as the Crown Prince pressed a lock of her white hair between his fingers.
“It’s nothing Lady Kirsi can’t recover from,” Hana interjected politely. “Who knows, highlights might even become a trend before the season ends.”
Nicholas scoffed at the Viscountess but withdrew his hand as he turned to leave. “Well then, the Prime Minister and what remains of our small hunting party are waiting below. Ah—” he paused and half turned towards them, “—turns out that huntsman Jasper you were looking for returned just when you needed him.”
“Your Majesty?” Carina responded with genuine confusion.
“Wasn’t he with you when you took down the bear?”
‘I’m not imagining this. Nicholas is testing me. But I have no idea when Jasper returned, only that he was being held by Percy last night.’
“Forgive me, your Majesty, I’m afraid my memory of the event is a bit jumbled,” Carina replied wearily with an apologetic bow of her head. “I do not recall seeing the huntsman at all yesterday. Though I am certainly happy to hear he has been found.”
“I see.” The Crown Prince smiled politely as his gaze drifted to the painted forest walls around them. “Well, we are fortunate the he did return. It seems our replacement huntsman wandered off and disappeared during the night.”
The memory of Harry and his gray mare melting beneath the remnant’s venom flashed through Carina’s memories as she maintained a neutral smile.
“A man prone to drink wandering off and getting lost is one thing,” Nicholas continued with a hint of cynicism. “But Lady Priscilla’s attendant, who was to be released this morning, also disappeared from the wine cellar last night. A phenomenon which the Royal Knights who guarded the cellar cannot explain.”
‘Ahh. So that’s what’s bothering him.’
Carina frowned thoughtfully as she folded her arms around her waist. “I don’t understand. How is that even possible? Who was the last person to see her?”
“According to the knights, a maid brought in her dinner, and then Viscount Rykard’s physician checked on her injuries, but both were escorted by a knight and never left alone with the prisoner.”
‘It seems Percy’s little memory spell worked. Good, at least Ivy’s in the clear.’
“It’s not a question of who had a motive or why they’d want to get rid of her,” Nicholas continued, frustration leaking into his words. “I simply don’t understand how they managed to make her disappear without leaving a single trace behind. The whole thing—smells of magic.”
Against her will, the Duchess felt her gaze drift toward the Crown Prince’s bodyguard. Captain Beaumont’s violet eyes met hers with an expression of concern rather than doubt or accusation. She quickly looked away.
“I see. Well—”
The sound of the first bell rang through the manor, signaling the start of the day’s morning hunt.
“Nevermind,” Nicholas grumbled, waving his hand dismissively. “If Borghese used magic, the chances of us linking the attendant’s disappearance to him are slim to none. But for him to use such methods that go against his religion—is cause for serious concern.”
‘Borghese might oppose anything and anyone related to witches, but I’m beginning to suspect his true loyalty lies with his own greed for power and wealth rather than any religion.’
“Understood, your Majesty,” Carina replied as she returned to her chair. “I will have my men look into these disappearances.”
“Excellent. In the meantime, do get some rest, Lady Kirsi.”
Carina found it difficult to focus her magic amidst the bustle of servants, decorating the small sitting room with banners of silk ribbons and flower wreaths while a small table was prepared with a floral cloth, silk napkins, and pastel porcelain dishes.
The Duchess closed her eyes, attempting to connect with her scrivas yet again, only to flinch and roll her eyes in exasperation at yet another knock on the door as the manor’s chef appeared carrying the requested breakfast of Strawberry Shortcake adorned with a fresh dollop of whipped cream. Other servants and knights came in and out of the room constantly, bearing fresh bouquets of roses and a few wrapped parcels, which Hana arranged around the prepared table.
With a resigned sigh, Carina retreated to the muted privacy of her temporary rooms inside Gilwren Manor, leaving the finishing touches of the surprise party to Lady Hana.
Maintaining a connection with the eleven scrivas that now roamed across Gilwren Territory under her command was no easy task. The Unforgiven had proven to be an unexpectedly useful resource. Once their corrupted souls had been purified within the frozen cortex, Carina fashioned them into elementals of various shapes, from field mice to falcons, to wolves and even a bear similar to the beast rumored to have attacked her.
Two mice that could change size as needed to fit through even the smallest crack explored and monitored the guests within the Manor. She kept one near the royal’s rooms on the second floor and sent the other to explore Borghese’s tent.
The three falcons, which replicated the birds of prey used by the Bastiallano knights to monitor the border and deliver urgent messages, covered the tent grounds and roads around the manor. Lumi and five other elemental wolves continued to patrol the hunting quadrants while the giant bear made its way toward Vesper River and the Shadow Army that waited beyond it.
The Duchess was relieved to discover that, like Lumi, each scriva could move and react independently while following simple instructions. But the effort required to maintain a connection with all of them soon overwhelmed her, forcing Carina to alternate her focus between the scrivas as they alerted her or when she sensed an unexplained disturbance.
‘I still haven’t recovered enough to use them efficiently, but—this will do for now.’
“Why not leave monitoring them to me?” Kirsi asked, her voice annoyingly energetic and clearer than Carina’s own thoughts.
‘Sure. Pay attention to the northwestern territory—’
“And make sure the Marquess’s men stay on their side of the river? Yeah, I can handle that—though I have to ask—why are you protecting this Havardur king? You’ve seen what he’s capable of in this life and in Maura’s memories.”
Carina sighed. She was still coming to terms with the idea that as she learned more about Kirsi’s past lives, the Scarlet Witch gleaned the same knowledge from her own, which included all the memories, accurate and otherwise, that Maura’s ghost had shared.
“He executed all of Eleanora’s servants and attendants, nobles and commoners alike, just to hide the true nature of her death?”
‘To protect his kingdom from war,’ Carina countered wearily.
“And now he’s burning plague victims and the physicians and nurses who risked their lives to help—for Lafeara’s protection?” Kirsi chuckled. “There is a pattern here that you’re either too naive to see or accept.”
“Neither,” Carina hissed as she took a seat on the bed, resisting the strong urge to collapse on it and shut her eyes for another few hours.
“It won’t be long before that boy turns on the witches of Lafeara to appease the Pope. Mark my words. The more lives this plague claims, the quicker he’ll turn against the Covens in order to obtain a cure and protect his reign.”
‘Nicholas knows better than to turn against the Covens. The witches of Lafeara barely tolerate his leadership as it is. The day Nicholas sends one witch to the flames—Percy will have the perfect excuse to start a civil war.’
“Perhaps the Earl has the right idea. With a witch King or Queen ruling over Lafeara, this seditious alliance between the Pope and Emperor Arius will finally end. And if Lafeara and Strugna stand together as they have in the past, even Ventrayna would be forced to accept their independence.”
Carina couldn’t argue with that.
“Besides, Arius has much bigger fish to fry, given how long he’s been stuck in this drawn-out war against the Pope and his hounds. It would be in his best interest to unite the witch nations against their common foe rather than reignite past enmity.”
‘If it were that simple, why didn’t you rally the witch nations behind you and overthrow the church in your past lives?’
“Because I am the dethroned queen of a fallen nation,” Kirsi replied bitterly. “And because there is only one residing god that would willingly fight Ramiel and his Saint.”
Carina didn’t even have to guess who that could be. “Kritanta.” A flicker of light drew the Duchess’s gaze to the burning candle on the windowsill. She left the bed and extinguished the flame between her fingers. The fading whisp of smoke rose before her ice-blue as a discussion from the previous night resurfaced. “What promise did you make to the Royal Family of Strugna?”
A momentary silence ensued, and the Duchess braced herself for another deflection or change in subject.
“In exchange for their assistance in my quest to become an immortal, I promised King Alexios and Queen Lorelei that I would defeat Arachne and free them from her tyranny for good.”
Carina didn’t know how to respond to that. It wasn’t anything close to the answer she had expected, nor was she surprised by it. Kirsi’s ambitions had always been crystal clear, along with her hatred and resentment of the remaining gods.
‘But how exactly do you kill a god?!’
The Duchess started as Hana appeared through the door, looking mildly distracted but determined. “Ivy has woken up. The maids are bringing her now.”
Ivy’s jaw went slack as she entered the small sitting room brimming with flowers, ribbons, and other decorations. She barely registered the manor servant, who retreated and shut the bedroom door behind her.
The maid blinked, transfixed by what she was certain was a dream. Maura walked towards her, garbed in a pastel blue gown that glittered beneath the sunlight pouring through the bedroom window. Behind the Duchess, Ivy saw a table set for three, with what looked like a strawberry cake and a small pile of presents. “W-what is all this? Oh! Today’s your birthday, isn’t it, Lady Maura?”
The Duchess’s smile faltered as the ice witch hesitated before the gawking maid. “No. That is—this party is for you, Ivy.”
“Yes.” Maura chuckled as she reached for Ivy’s arm, paused, and then awkwardly withdrew her arm. “Come, sit down, and I’ll explain.”
“All right,” Ivy mumbled. ‘There was certainly no harm in indulging this strange dream.’ She frowned as Lady Hana appeared with a pitcher of iced lemonade. The Viscountess offered a friendly nod in greeting as she poured the drink into three prepared glasses, adding a spring of mint to each one as the Duchess and maid took their seats.
“There’s no need to be nervous,” Maura commented teasingly as the Viscountess joined them. “I promise it’s nothing but good news.”
“That’s good—after last night—” Ivy trailed off, berating herself for disturbing this pleasant dream with her recent, unforgivable blunder. “What’s this surprise all about?”
“Perhaps we should get right to it, Kirsi,” Hana suggested with a gentle touch to the ice witch’s shoulder.
Ivy blinked as the memory of her mother’s disfigured body flattened against the cellar wall, sharpened suddenly into focus. ‘Ah, that’s right. Maura is Kirsi now. I suppose that makes sense. The Maura I knew couldn’t have done such a terrible thing.’ She pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve and twisted it anxiously as the Duchess pulled two envelopes, one blue and one yellow, from the pile of presents beside them.
“Here. Open the blue one first,” Kirsi explained as she set the envelopes before the silent maid.
Ivy stared at the blue wrapper, embossed with the Bastiallano’s sigil of the winter wolf, and picked it up carefully. A growing suspicion that this wasn’t a dream crept up the back of her throat as she opened the unsealed envelope and pulled out a single faded, folded page tucked inside.
As foreign as the document was to her, Ivy’s heart raced painfully beneath the unsettling nostalgia of its contents. Her fingers trembled as they pressed into the wrinkled parchment. Her jade-green eyes lowered to the fresh ink added to the bottom of the legal document of ownership. Percy’s seal and signature stared back at her from the box that declared the nullification of her slave status. In the witness box, Marchioness Serilda’s seal and signature rested just above those of Duchess Kirsi.
‘Then—if this isn’t a dream—if this is reality—I’m—I’m finally free?’
Ivy’s vision blurred as she lowered the document to the white tablecloth embroidered with a variety of bright summer flowers. She looked up hesitantly towards the Duchess, who smiled at her patiently. “This is—is this real—” her voice cracked as the dull wet sound of tears falling upon the tablecloth filled the sudden silence.
‘I am truly free now. From my shameful past and from my mother. And it’s all thanks to you, Maura.’
“You have nothing to thank me for,” Kirsi replied firmly, though her eyes glimmered above a beaming smile. “I made you a promise, and now—I’ve fulfilled that promise.”
Ivy nodded, too overcome to speak, and quickly buried her tears into the handkerchief as her shoulders shook with sobs of happiness.
“There, there,” Hana hushed gently as she rose from her seat to pat the maid’s back reassuringly. “Take your time.”
An absurd sensation of bliss turned Ivy’s unintelligible cries into jumbled peals of laughter that crumbled once more into heart-wrenching sobs as tears filled the smile on her face.
‘If this is a dream—then I pray to the Saint and all the gods—I never wake up.’
Once Ivy had a chance to calm down and compose herself, she moved on to the yellow envelope, which contained ennoblement papers dated before the Royal Hunt.
“But—Viscountess?!” Ivy gasped as she read the title on the elegantly written document three times, unable to believe her eyes. She might have bluffed her way past the Royal Knights with a similar story, but Ivy would have laughed if anyone told her that a slave would rise to the level of Viscountess overnight.
‘My father worked his whole life in academics just to rise to the level of Baron. This—this is too much!’
“Umm, your Grace, surely the title of a Baroness would suit me better.”
Hana arched her left brow and turned to the Duchess, who frowned at Ivy’s request.
“The title and benefits are mine to give,” Kirsi replied firmly. “Although, presently, yours is an honorary title. I did not see the point in splicing off a section of land for you to oversee while you’re otherwise occupied with the task of running Rose Dawn Orphanage. But given that you’ll need to interact with other nobles during charity and other public events, the title of Viscountess will come in handy and remind people of your importance.”
“I see,” Ivy murmured as she stroked the raised letters of her name, Viscountess Ivy Koresh. “It’s just—given my poor health—I wasn’t sure if it would be appropriate for me to continue in such an important position.” A pregnant pause followed that only affirmed Ivy’s growing doubt.
‘Surely even Kirsi wouldn’t risk losing the support of the royal family by placing me in charge of such vulnerable children.’
“Lady Hana tells me that as long as you maintain treatments, your health and stamina will improve,” Kirsi replied with a questioning gaze between them. “And you have been feeling much better since you started the treatment, haven’t you?”
“That’s—” Ivy couldn’t deny that. “It’s still a lot to take on. I had thought, given how things are now—that I might continue as your lady-in-waiting—”
“But you’ve always wanted to teach children. That’s been your dream and ambition for as long as I can remember,” Kirsi interjected, her tone hardening as she raised her left hand to her temple with a notable frown.
“It is and—I do, but,” Ivy drew in a shaky breath as the room temperature suddenly dipped. “If I only have a few years—”
Ivy blinked as the Duchess sprang from her seat, swaying slightly as she clutched her left eye while gripping the back of her chair for support.
“What is it, Kirsi?” Hana said anxiously as she rose to support the suddenly pale Duchess.
“I—I need to go. I’m sorry, Ivy. Something—urgent—has happened,” Kirsi rasped, flinging the chair aside as she turned towards the bedroom door. “We will speak more when I return!”
“But what is—” Ivy trailed off as Kirsi flung the door open and left, quickly trailed by Captain Silas and two other knights, “—wrong?”
Hana sighed as the remaining knight offered them a bow before closing the bedroom door. The Viscountess returned to her seat and picked at the remains of her strawberry shortcake with pursed lips for a few minutes before her turquoise blue eyes rose to meet Ivy’s puzzled gaze. “Kirsi has gone to great lengths to secure a position for you at this orphanage. And, as I understand it, Earl Hawthorne has invested quite a bit of time and energy into training you for this position as well.”
“Yes—that’s true,” Ivy murmured as she placed the two documents that had drastically altered her circumstances into the blue envelope. “But—if nobles like the Borghese’s try to use my family’s past—to harm Lady Kirsi—”
“The Duchess can take care of herself,” Hana interjected with a cynical laugh. “Rather than continuing to burden her, it would be better for you to strive for some semblance of independence while pursuing this dream we’ve all worked so hard to bring to fruition.”
‘We?’ Ivy shivered as the Viscountess’s words echoed those of the frightening shadow that stalked her dreams. ‘It’s true—given the witch mark I carry, keeping me by her side would not be in Kirsi’s best interest either. I can’t risk exposing her again like I did last night. Perhaps I should accept the position—if only to prove my value too—’
“Oh, I almost forgot!” Hana stated suddenly as she rose from her seat to select a small present from those resting on the empty chair. “Here. You might as well open it now.”
The maid accepted her gift with a nod of gratitude, then untied the ribbon and opened the box to stare at the six vials of medicine neatly spaced within.
“While you’re at Rose Dawn Orphanage, I’ll have these delivered to you every six days,” Hana explained in an almost businesslike tone. “If you wish to continue the treatment, they must be taken daily to avoid your condition regressing—or getting suddenly worse.”
“I see,” Ivy whispered, covering the box with its lid. “Thank you, Lady Hana.”
“This is for the dose you missed last night,” the Viscountess continued with a cold smile as she took the maid’s hand and placed an extra vial against it. “How you choose to use or abuse this gift is entirely up to you. But if I find that you’ve given my blood to anyone else—I will recent my help immediately. Is that understood?”
Ivy swallowed and nodded as her cheeks flushed in shame.
“Good. Now, as to whether you pursue this position at the orphanage,” Hana murmured as she closed Ivy’s fingers around the vial. “I think you know which decision would be best for everyone.” There was no escaping the message in the Viscountess’s turquoise blue eyes that glinted with gold from the sunlit window.
Ivy shivered as the foreigner turned away to select another present from the pile.
“Now, why don’t we open these while we wait for Krisi to return.”