Chapter 42: A Game of Pawns


Nicholas lowered his canteen. The lukewarm water had long since lost its refreshing taste, which only enhanced his growing hunger. Thankfully the hunting party was making its way back to the campgrounds and manor for a brief lunch break that would allow him to check on Lady Kirsi’s recovery.

“That doesn’t look good,” Attwood commented from the prince’s left, gesturing to where a Bastiallano Knight and Lieutenant Olund waited at the edge of the forest with tense expressions.

The Crown Prince nudged his stallion from a leisurely walk to a swift canter, overtaking the Huntsman, Jasper, and Walter, who made way for the monarch on the narrow path.

“What is it?” Nicholas demanded sharply as the Bastiallano Knight stepped forward with a courteous head bow. ‘Now they bother to follow proper etiquette? Why does that worry me….’

“A message from her Grace,” the knight responded promptly as he offered a sealed document to the prince. “She awaits you at her camp with the prisoners.”

“Prisoners?” Nicholas’s hazel-blue eyes quickly shot over to the lieutenant for answers. “What prisoners?”

“Duchess Kirsi has arrested Marquess Borghese and the majority of his hunting party,” Olund replied grimly. “She is interrogating the nobles as we speak inside her camp.”

“What?!” Attwood sputtered, turning several shades paler as he reigned in beside the Crown Prince.

“On what grounds?!” Nicholas demanded incredulously.

The lieutenant hesitated as the rest of the hunting group pulled in behind them.

“Her justification is in the writ I gave you, your Majesty,” the Bastiallano Knight answered with rigid politeness. “High Treason.”

A deathly silence passed over the tired and sweating group of nobles and knights, broken only by Viscount Gladestone’s breathy whistle. The Bastiallano Knight appeared to take that as his cue. He offered the stunned monarch another polite bow before moving promptly to Colonel Isaac, who quickly dismounted for a very brief, whispered conversation.

‘What has she done?’ Nicholas blinked rapidly as he sucked in a quick breath, unable to rationalize this sudden development, then ripped open the arrest writ. The Duchess’s familiar neat writing awaited him, listing the names of each noble arrested and their crimes. ‘Murder? Attempted Assassination? Employing foreign agents? Rebellion against the Crown? Sedition against the State? What in the Saints happened while we were away?’

“Your Majesty,” Isaac interjected quietly. “I should rejoin the Duchess.”

“What?” Nicholas snapped, tearing his eyes away from the arrest warrant. “Yes. Yes, go!” He sighed, waving the Colonel off dismissively before passing the official document to the waiting Prime Minister. “It’s doubtful we’ll get any more hunting done today until this matter is resolved, so the rest of you are excused as well. Damn it!” A sharp kick sent his stallion into a full gallop as the Crown Prince turned toward the Duchess’s military encampment.

His emotions swayed between anxiety, frustration, and bubbling anger. ‘Kirsi should know better than to act without my consent. This arrest isn’t even legal without the royal seal. She’s practically forcing my hand in the matter. And for what? Is she claiming the Marquess had something to do with the bear that attacked her or did something else happen in the few hours I was gone?!’

The Crown Prince glanced back just once to confirm that the Prime Minister and Knight Captain were following him, then frowned as he caught a glimpse of Viscount Gladestone heading towards Earl Hawthorne’s tents. ‘I need to resolve this before Percy and his Noble Faction can interfere.’

“Your Majesty,” Attwood called out, nodding to where three riders now rode to intercept them along the manor grounds. “It looks like Viscount Norley.”


‘If Norley knows, then you can bet a message is on its way to Duke Stryker and Borghese’s sister at this very moment. I’m supposed to be relaxing before my coronation, not dealing with this political nightmare. Damn it, Kirsi! This is not how I wanted to handle the Marquess!’

“Your Majesty,” Norley called out with a surprisingly friendly smile as he moved boldly to block the prince’s path. “I wish to ask for a private audience.”

“Now is hardly the time, Viscount,” Nicholas snapped as he settled his startled, irritable stallion.

“I believe it is, your Majesty. You must know that I have been granted authority on behalf of his Grace while he remains tied up at the border. His instructions were that I should step in should any unexpected emergencies arise, and—given that your Duchess has just arrested half the leading members of the Royal Party—I believe this constitutes an emergency.”

‘Just who the hell is this man that Lord Stryker would choose him as his proxy?’

“Not that I wish to question your position or loyalty, Viscount,” Nicholas responded cautiously. “But if what you say is true—surely the Duke gave you something to demonstrate his trust and authority?”

“Ah. Of course,” Norley replied with a low chuckle as he reached inside his jacket. He quickly presented the necklace and medallion of office granted to each Duke of Hargreve.

‘Well, whoever he is, Stryker appears to trust him more than Duchess Verity.’

The Crown Prince sighed restlessly before nodding his acknowledgment.

“Perhaps we might speak indoors?” Norley suggested as he tucked the medallion back inside his jacket. “I have requested the dining room to be kept empty for us.”

“Very well,” Nicholas grumbled. “But whatever you have to say better warrant delaying the liberation of my counselors.”

The Viscount offered a faint smile that seemed almost amused as he and his men turned back the way they had come, leading the Crown Prince and Prime Minister to the manor.

Nicholas left Lieutenant Olund and several royal knights on guard outside while he, Attwood, and Captain Beaumont joined Norely inside the dining room. The Crown Prince and Prime Minister moved behind the same seats they had occupied during the previous night’s celebration before turning to face the Viscount, who appeared distracted by the presence of the silent but imposing Knight Captain.

“Well,” Nicholas snapped with audible impatience. “Get to the point, Viscount.”

Norley coughed and straightened as he shifted his focus to tugging the riding gloves loose from his fingers and hands. “Very well, your Majesty. Please allow me to be blunt for the sake of brevity. You are less than two weeks from your coronation. The church’s emissaries will begin their journey to Lafeara within a week, or even sooner if the rumors of a plague spreading in the slums are to be given any credit. Now is not the time for an internal dispute among this kingdom’s governing factions.”

“You speak as if I had any choice in this matter!”

The Viscount arched his brow slightly, then sighed as he tossed his gloves onto the bare table between them. “Your Majesty—your actions would suggest otherwise. You have openly supported the Duchess since the Dowager named Lady Kirsi as her heir. And, given how yesterday’s trial played out—”

“Careful!” Nicholas growled as he locked both hands around the top rail of his chair. “You may act as the Duke’s representative, but that by no means grants you the same protection and immunity it does him.”

The Viscount nodded with the same infuriating calm before he pulled out a chair and sat down. “His Grace very recently became aware of your investigations into Lord Borghese’s slave trade. You even took advantage of the Royal Hunt to have the Dowager raid his properties, manor, and private office. If you weren’t looking for a reason to arrest him, what were you looking for?”

The Crown Prince drew in a slow breath, then mimicked the Viscount’s actions as he slumped into his chair wearily. “A leash.”

“Ahh,” Norley murmured with a faint frown. “I see. So, the Duchess did, in fact, arrest Marquess Borghese and Earl Coldwell without the crown’s approval.”

“Her Grace isn’t known to act rashly or without cause,” Attwood interjected hastily. “I’m certain she will provide better clarity on the matter should we ask for it.”

“But not before arresting and interrogating my nobles!” Nicholas barked furiously. “Yes, the Duchess’s decision to arrest the Marquess and his nobles was done without proper approval and authorization. I will deal with that—her—as soon as we finish here.” He stood up promptly, keenly aware of the Prime Minister’s cautioning gaze as he stared down the Viscount before them.

There was something about the nobleman’s placid demeanor that bothered him, something that resembled the same cold disinterest and acknowledgment that Colonel Isaac grudgingly exhibited whenever he was forced to tolerate the Crown Prince’s presence.

“Then, might I suggest we discuss an appropriate measure of punishment before your meeting with the Duchess,” Norley responded, making no move to leave his seat.

“Viscount Gilwren! You vastly overestimate what limited authority you have as the Duke’s temporary representative,” Attwood retorted sharply. “His Majesty will deal with any decisions related to the accusation and punishment of the Marquess with the support of the House of Lords—”

“Ah! Would that be the same House of Lords, half of whom sit chained together beneath this blistering sun at the Duchess’s camp? That House of Lords?” Norley interjected coldly. “If you want to force the Duke into an impossible position by arresting his family, peers, and supporters, then by all means—continue that line of thought to its conclusion.”

‘He has a point.’

Nicholas raised his hand as Attwood sputtered out a protest. “What action would you suggest then?” The Viscount leaned back to assess the Crown Prince for a moment before gesturing silently to the monarch’s seat. The monarch ground his teeth but complied as the prime minister rose to pour a glass of water from a waiting tray.

“I have looked at the Duchess’s arrest warrant and report,” Norely explained patiently. “It would appear Lady Kirsi’s reasoning for arresting the Marquess is linked to the occupation of the north-western borders of Gilwren Forest by a sizeable group of unidentified mercenaries.”

“Mercenaries?” Nicholas hissed incredulously.

‘Is it possible? Could the Marquess have brought the Shadow Army here?!’

“Yes. It would seem the Duchess’s scouts stumbled upon their encampment sometime early this morning. And on their way back to report this discovery, they were attacked by the Marquess and his hunting party.”

“Gods,” Attwood whispered hoarsely after forcefully swallowing his water. “Then the Duchess’s arrest is justified.”

“Justification alone does not make her arrest legal,” Norley muttered with a flicker of uncertainty. “If she had detained them quietly in the forest until your Majesty was informed—that would have been one thing. But to publically parade them in chains across the campgrounds?”

Even the Prime Minister grasped the severity of the Viscount’s words as he sank into his seat with a heavy sigh.

“If Lady Kirsi wasn’t an enemy of the Hargreve family before today, she certainly is now.”

“Now see here,” Attwood retorted swiftly. “My brother would have done the same thing were he in the Duchess’s shoes. Treason is treason!”

“I’m surprised how quickly you forget your own niece, my Lord,” Norely murmured with faint bemusement. “Lady Priscilla is the only living child of your late sister and one of two potential heirs with a legitimate claim to the Hargreve Duchy.”

Nicholas drew in a slow breath as he met the Prime Minister’s speculative gaze. “So, the Duke’s concern is for Lady Priscilla?”

“Yes. Having her father publicly arrested for treason—well, the implications of that couldn’t be more disastrous for her reputation,” Norley replied with a solemn shake of his head. “As it would for the Hargreve family, the Prime Minister included.”

“Then—are you imploring me to forgive the Marquess in order to spare Lady Priscilla and the Hargreve name?”

“Ah-ha, no.”

The Crown Prince raised his brows in confusion. “Then—”

“Certainly, a harsh punishment must be dealt out, but not for treason. That carries a sting that even death cannot erase,” Norely replied swiftly. “But if you were to punish the Marquess for abusing his authority, for dereliction of duty, or the failure to lead his party civilly and lawfully.”

“That would lessen the blowback on the Royal Party and the Duke’s family.”

“Precisely.” The Viscount offered what might have been a genuine smile of appreciation as he leaned toward the young monarch. “Borghese has far overstepped the benefits of his title and office. He should be stripped of them accordingly. The Shadow Army will be surrendered to the crown, and the men separated and conscripted into the royal army. Her Grace may even conscript a few herself to enforce our northern borders.”

The Prime Minister scoffed but said nothing as the Crown Prince listened to the Viscount’s suggestion quietly.

“Borghese’s power and influence will disappear in an instant. You could even exile him to his territory if you choose. He will be dead in all but name.”

‘It’s not an unreasonable suggestion. Sparing Borghese might even earn me the respect and appreciation of the Royal Faction. It would certainly prevent the possibility of destabilizing the balance of power between the two factions.’

“And what of Lady Priscilla?” Attwood pressed. “She will lose her title as well. And she cannot stay in the capital without a guardian or proper escort.”

“The Duke and Duchess of Hargreve have every intention of adopting Lady Priscilla regardless of which decision you make. Lady Verity will serve as her chaperon and guardian until an appropriate spouse is found for the Duke’s niece.” The Viscount tapped his fingers lightly against the table as he once more assessed the silent prince. “Your Majesty might consider taking advantage of the young lady’s predicament to secure the Royal Party’s loyalty going forward.”

“An advantage?” Nicholas echoed through gritted teeth. ‘Why is it the more he speaks, the more I feel as if I’m being led by the nose.’ “I have no desire to do anything to Lady Priscilla beyond what is necessary to appease your master.”

“Ahh, I did not mean to imply anything unsavory—just that the Lady is likely to replace her father as a leading figurehead of the Royal Party.”

The Crown Prince exhaled slowly in understanding. “Meaning—she will replace the Marquess as a thorn in my side.”

“Not if you play this right.”

Attwood coughed sharply.

“Your Majesty,” Norley amended while pointedly ignoring the Prime Minister. “If you want full control over the Royal Party—then you need to control the one who leads them. Consider this an opportunity to replace the Marquess with someone—more amenable.”

“Easier said than done,” Nicholas retorted with a growling snort. “The Lady is just as difficult and headstrong as her father. And soon, she will have the protection of Duke Stryker to fall behind.”

‘A headache I do not look forward to dealing with.’

The Viscount smiled at the prince patiently as he folded his arms and leaned back comfortably in his chair. “Did you know, your Majesty, that I have never partaken in the Royal Hunt before? I can’t say I enjoy the sport, as you call it.”

The Crown Prince blinked uncertainly and shook his head in confusion.

“Animals, deer, in particular, are hardly a challenge,” Norley continued with a pensive sigh. “But I do enjoy training capable hunting dogs, some of the finest in the kingdom—at least according to the Duke. Did you know that when training beasts, it is just as important to offer pain as it is pleasure?”

“I—can’t say I’ve thought of the matter much,” Nicholas replied stiffly. “Nor do I understand how it relates to the present conversation.”

“Trust and loyalty are the most difficult traits to acquire in any subordinate. They tend to think that, just because they can tear your throat out in a single bite, there is no reason to fear or respect you.” The Viscount paused, but neither the Crown Prince nor Prime Minister had anything to add as the nobleman rose from his seat. “The carrot and stick approach works on humans just as much as it works on animals. I suggest you give it some thought when dealing with both the Marquess and his daughter. What is it they want most? What is it they fear most?”

“Is this—a recommendation from Duke Hargreve?” Nicholas responded incredulously.

“Not entirely, but it is in your Majesty’s best interest.” The Viscount adjusted his jacket before bowing across the table to the Crown Prince. “Thank you, your Majesty. I believe I have taken up more than enough of your time. I do hope that you will our discussion all due consideration.”

Nicholas grunted in acknowledgment and watched the nobleman leave before turning to the Prime Minister seated beside him. “What did you make of that?”

“It seems his Grace either knew or suspected that the Marquess might act inappropriately during the Royal Hunt. That would explain why he chose Viscount Norley over his own Duchess to act as his representative,” Attwood replied thoughtfully. “In either case, it would appear the Duke is prepared to cut off his brother-in-law this time.”

The Crown Prince nodded. “And what do you make of him?”

“The Viscount?” The Prime Minister folded his arms with a quizzical frown. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d suspect he was one of my brother’s bastard sons.”

Nicholas scoffed and then rose from his chair with a tired groan. “They look nothing alike—but I see your point. They both seem to view family as tools to be used or disposed of in order to win.”

‘But what sort of battle is the Duke fighting that would make him willingly sacrifice the Marquess?’

“That and the striking similarity of hobbies,” Attwood replied with a faint grimace. “Stryker’s favorite pastime used to be raising and training war hounds for the battlefield.”

“The carrot and stick, huh?” The Crown Prince mused as he stretched his tired, aching back and then glanced over to where Beaumont now moved to join them. “Perhaps that is worth looking into.”

“I find that treating people as animals tends to have the opposite effect, your Majesty,” Attwood replied cautiously as the trio left the dining room and made their way to the Duchess’s encampment.


A uniform line of armed Bastiallano knights, garbed in silver and white tabards, barred the way of several inquisitive or furious nobles seeking entrance, among them a very upset and vocal Lady Priscilla, who stood flanked by Lady Meredith and several of the Marquess’s private guards. Viscount Gilwren paced near the back of the crowd and appeared almost relieved when he caught sight of the approaching monarch.

“Your Majesty,” Rykard began before the Crown Prince even dismounted. “I have no idea what she’s doing. She won’t let anyone enter—”

“Be at ease, Viscount Rykard. I will not hold you accountable for Lady Kirsi’s actions,” Nicholas responded grimly as the royal knights began clearing a path forward. “It’s not as if you had any hand in her upbringing and education.”

The Viscount managed to look both pained and relieved as he bowed and made his way back to the manor. The Crown Prince continued forward, followed by the Prime Minister, Captain Beaumont, and Lieutenant Olund.

Nicholas felt a moment of trepidation as he approached the unyielding line of knights, but the four men who stood in his immediate path offered a sharp salute before parting to allow him entrance. A sergeant waiting nearby on horseback quickly dismounted and hurried forward to greet them with a similar salute.

“Her Grace asked that I escort you to the prisoners upon your arrival, your Majesty,” the sergeant explained bluntly.

“Excellent.” The Crown Prince glanced once more towards the crowd of onlooking nobles and watched as Viscount Norley pulled a protesting Priscilla towards the back of the line in the direction of the manor. ‘At least someone is keeping an eye on her.’


The Duchess eyed the turbulent surface of the water trough as Lieutenant Hadley pushed Viscount Kendall’s head below the murky liquid once more. She tapped the gold-painted feathers of the broken cross-bolt against her dress as she watched the bound, submerged man struggle until a surge of bubbles rushed through his panicked lips, then waved the feathers upwards, ignoring the spray of water that followed as the prisoner’s head and shoulders were lifted free.

“P-please! S-stop! No more—I can’t—”

“I’m sure the men would be happy to stop if you give them a reason to do so,” Carina replied with a cold smile as the lieutenant grabbed a fist full of the noble’s hair and forced the Viscount to meet her gaze. “Tell us what you know about Lord Borghese’s reason for bringing his Shadow Army to Gilwren Forest, and we will even provide you a nice dry chair and a change of clothes to wait in.”

“You—you can’t do this!” Kendall sputtered. “If anyone should be drowned in water, it’s you, you witch!”

“Tsk.” The Duchess flicked the broken cross bolt impatiently, and Lieutenant Hadley quickly pushed the prisoner’s head below the water before the foolish nobleman could even attempt to hold his breath. The dull thuds of his boots banging against the wooded trough faintly muffled the approaching footsteps at her back. Carina glanced over her shoulder briefly, then rose leisurely to her feet as a somewhat irritated Crown Prince and anxious Prime Minister joined them.

“What exactly is it you think you’re doing?” Nicholas growled, attempting—and yet failing—to keep maintain a low voice.

“Solidifying our evidence against the treasonous Marquess,” Carina responded calmly with a nod of greeting to the Prime Minister. “Did you not receive the arrest writ.”

“No, we received it,” Nicholas retorted sharply. “It just doesn’t explain why you felt compelled to act in my absence and make a public arrest without the consent and authority of the crown!”

‘So, that’s what he’s mad about.’ The Duchess pressed her lips together. ‘Well, it’s not as if you sought my consent before burning down my hospital with my doctors, nurses, and their patients inside.’

“I have prepared a more detailed report if you wish to read—”

“You will explain yourself here and now, Lady Kirsi!” Nicholas interjected, stepping in close enough that his angry breath washed over her face. “This is not the sort of move I can ignore or put off while you go digging around for evidence to back your hasty decision!”

“The Marquess brought his very illegal mercenary army to Gilwren Forest. I hardly need more evidence than that to arrest—”

“Only the crown can issue an arrest for noble families with the ranks of Earls or higher!”

“I did not wish to allow him the opportunity to bury any incriminating evidence or silence my witnesses.”

“So you decided to arrest half the members of the House of Lords and interrogate them—in the same water trough that your knights use to water their horses?”

“It seemed a safer option to whipping or the hot iron.”

Nicholas blinked in disbelief, clearly thrown off by the Duchess’s hostile tone and demeanor.

“I arrested these nobles because they all partook in the Marquess’s attempt to murder one of the scouts who uncovered the Shadow Army’s location,” Carina continued resolutely before signaling Lieutenant Hadley to pull the prisoner up before he drowned. “Other than an aversion for water, they are all unharmed.”

“Attempted murder? Your writ didn’t mention that—”

“The scout I rescued was one of three. The other two did not survive their encounter with the Shadow Army.”

“Lady Kirsi!” Nicholas sucked in a breath and held up his hand as he exhaled slowly. “Just because the nobles were present for this alleged attempt to kill your scout does not automatically implicate them all. Neither does the death of your scouts at the hands of the Shadow Army. Only the man holding the bow—”

“Pistol, actually.”

“—or pistol can be held responsible for murder or attempted murder unless you have evidence that they were directly ordered to do so by another party. Guilty by association or close proximity is not a precedent covered by Lafeara’s laws.”

“No? I assumed it was, seeing how easily you justified the killing of plague victims along with the doctors and nurses caring for them,” Carina snapped back. She relished the look of shock that flickered across the Crown Prince’s face as he physically recoiled.

“How—” Nicholas clamped his jaw shut. The Duchess watched curiously as his hazel-blue eyes shifted nervously in Beaumont’s direction. “We can discuss that matter another time. For now—you will release all the nobles you have arrested immediately!”

The ice witch’s grip on the broken cross bolt tightened as she stared back at the monarch incredulously. “All of them? Does that include Borghese?”

“The Marquess will remain a prisoner of the crown,” Nicholas corrected quickly. “I will decide what happens to him—not you.” He stepped in closer once more, then placed a firm hand on her shoulder. “I appreciate your enthusiasm and sincerity, Lady Kirsi, but this is the last time I shall forgive you for overstepping the limits of your authority.”

“And the attempt on my scout’s life?”

“Provide me with the evidence and witness statements, and we shall see that justice is done—together.” The Crown Prince offered her a reassuring smile, then squeezed her shoulder and withdrew his hand to leave.

“If the Marquess was planning a rebellion—he would not have acted alone,” Carina stated bluntly as Lieutenant Olund stepped forward to untie the rope binding Viscount Kendall’s limbs. “Several of the prisoners I’ve already interrogated have all but admitted as much, though they refuse to implicate one another. Several of them suggested that the Marquess’s intent was to assassinate Crown Princess Eleanora to make way for his own daughter.”

“A confession obtained through an illegal arrest is inadmissible. Do you have anything else to serve as evidence against them?”

The Duchess pressed her lips together before responding flatly. “No. Not yet.”

“Well, then—” Nicholas offered a shrug. “You will need to release them.”

“At least, not until my scout wakes up.”

The Crown Prince nodded amiably as a drenched and panting Lord Kendall collapsed to the ground beside the water trough. “I dearly hope your man survives, Lady Kirsi. If only to justify the actions you have taken up to this point. I may be ready to forgive your—passionate enthusiasm. But you have made an enemy of the Royal Faction and possibly the House of Hargreve.”

Carina clenched her jaw but said nothing as Lieutenant Olund pulled Viscount Kendall to his feet and handed him over to one of the royal knights.

“Now, take me to Marquess Borghese and release the rest of the nobles.”

The Duchess drew in a slow breath, aware of the attention focused on her from all directions as she faced the Crown Prince. Her knights, in particular, seemed worried, but then—given what they and the nobles had witnessed in Gilwren Forest—they had every reason to be.

“Lieutenant Hadley,” Carina called out stiffly. “Inform Colonel Isaac that all the prisoners are to be released except for the Marquess, who will be transferred to the royal knights.”

“At once, your Grace.”

The Crown Prince offered her a relaxed smile and a faint nod of approval. “Lieutenant Olund, join him and collect the Marquess personally.”

“At once, your Majesty.”

Carina sighed as she resumed her seat, restlessly twirling the broken bolt in her fingers.

“You were rash and overly hasty,” Nicholas observed as the two lieutenants left. “We can either work as a team—or resume the limited, strict hierarchy of our stations.” The ice witch said nothing as he moved closer to her seat. She eyed the broken bits of grass floating along the rippling surface of the water trough that reflected the blinding sunlight above them. “I want to be your ally. Trust me, as I trust you.”

“You ask for my trust in one breath but keep secrets from me the next?”

“I’m sorry for not telling you about the hospital. I—wanted to spare you the pain for as long as I could.”

The Duchess stiffened as the prince’s hand fell upon her shoulder once more.

“You still have my trust and support, Lady Kirsi. Saints willing—we will get through this present trial before the Royal Hunt is over.”

“Over?” Carina echoed incredulously. “With an army of mercenaries at our doorstep—the hunt ought to be canceled!”

“I would prefer to avoid that,” Nicholas replied grimly. “We still have another day left and then the Hunting Ball.”

“They could attack at any moment, your Majesty! They might even be here before nightfall once they learn of Borghese’s arrest.”

“And you will have your knights fortify the forest and manor grounds to ensure we are protected until I reach my decision regarding the Marquess’s punishment.”

“What do you mean, reach a decision?”

“It’s not as simple as demanding his head,” Nicholas explained with nauseating patience. “The punishment is usually based on the level of threat, danger, and damage done to the kingdom and crown. And then there is the Marquess’s position and influence to consider. The options range from imprisonment to exile, or even public execution.”

“He hired two fire witches from Ventrayna,” Carina growled. “Purebloods from the look of it. Employing a foreign agent suggests he was planning something he intended to pin on witches, either Ventrayna or the Covens here.”

“Fire witches?” Nicholas echoed hoarsely. “Are you certain?”

“The scout wasn’t in very good shape when we found him, but he made sure to inform me of the imminent danger they presented before losing consciousness. He was also seriously burned during his escape.”

The Crown Prince nodded stiffly and turned his attention to Attwood. “Have Viscount Rykard withdraw all hunting parties from the forest. Send the Royal Knights to ensure Princess Eleanora’s safe return and see that she is secured inside the manor.” The Prime Minister nodded and quickly jogged towards the camp perimeter. “Lady Kirsi, I am trusting you to ensure our safety. If either the Shadow Army or these fire witches show themselves here—do whatever you need to do to put them in the ground.”


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