Chapter 43: The Erosion of Faith
‘Are you sure that’s the kind of sovereign you wish to serve?’ Kirsi inquired with audible cynicism.
“I don’t know,” Carina whispered back honestly. “Sometimes it feels like he’s working against me rather than with me.”
‘Why are you surprised? He is Lafeara’s future king. He was born believing the world revolved around him.’
“I can’t say he’s wrong. I did act rashly.”
The Scarlet Witch scoffed. ‘Now you’re just looking for excuses to justify his behavior.’
Carina didn’t bother to respond. Instead, her attention shifted to the subtle change in the wind that carried with it a distinctly airy scent that was both crisp and clean.
‘How strange. It smells like nothing, and yet it possesses a compelling energy.’
The Duchess rose from her chair and turned to watch as Earl Hawthorne appeared from behind a tent only a few feet away. “Lord Percy?”
“I wanted to congratulate you on making such a bold, decisive move—but I see our Crown Prince is hard at work undoing your efforts,” Percy replied before offering her a respectful bow.
“Marquess Borghese remains under arrest. We may have released a few lower nobles, but we have still caught the raging boar.”
“Borghese’s arrest will certainly deal a heavy blow to the Royal Faction. However, they now have even more reason to hate and oppose you.”
“They have opposed me since I became Duchess, so nothing has changed in that regard,” Carina retorted with a bemused snort. She turned to watch the line of nobles now being roughly escorted out of her camp. “Now they know they won’t be able to act freely without opposition.”
“That may be true, but you should never give your enemy ammunition to use against you. For now, the charge of treason and conspiracy to commit treason will tamper their anger, but eventually—they will find some way of using today’s events against you.”
The Duchess frowned pensively as she thumbed the feathers of the broken cross-bolt. “I’m afraid they have more testimony to use against me than that.”
The Earl turned towards her sharply, his confusion quickly solidifying into uncertain fear as he drew in a sharp breath. “Did you—”
“Not directly, but—they saw enough of to draw their own conclusions.”
Percy’s eyebrows shot up as he moved to face her directly. “What precisely did they see?”
“My scrivas—up close—and then a bit of ice fog.”
“You set your elementals on them?”
“I had to—I couldn’t get there fast enough with my knights.”
“Veles’s breath—what have I told you?” The Earl closed his eyes briefly and then nodded. “But you didn’t use magic openly—directly in front of them.”
“By now, everyone knows that I’m using wolves in place of hunting dogs for the hunt.”
“Right. I will need the names of every noble who was there, Kirsi.”
“They’re all written down on the arrest writ, but—” Carina tilted her head speculatively. “What are you going to do?”
“Give them nightmares,” Percy replied with a devilish smile. “It’s not a complicated curse, though using it on this many mortals will be a first. Basically, the subject repeats the same nightmare over and over until they can’t differentiate between reality and fantasy.”
‘Why does that sound familiar?’
“The sooner we set the spell in place, the better. After being arrested, tortured, and then released, I’m certain most of them will be tired and in need of a good drink. A few hallucinogenic mushrooms and herbs will ensure a drowsy state and obtain stronger, faster results.”
The Duchess watched as the Earl lifted his right hand to his lips and whispered into the onyx signet ring that flickered briefly with a crimson light. “What if—I don’t want them to forget?”
Percy offered her a bewildered look as he lowered his hand. “What do you mean?”
“They have a reason to fear me now,” Carina responded neutrally as she turned to gaze at the dispersing crowd of nobles that gathered around the released prisoners along the camp’s perimeter.
“Nothing good will come of them believing you are a witch, Kirsi. Especially with a plague and Nicholas’s coronation on the horizon. The Pope is expected to journey to Lafeara to give his blessing. You’ve already declared your identity to him—don’t give him the support of half the nobles in Lafeara as well!”
The Duchess sucked in her lower lip. ‘It was Kirsi that revealed herself—not me.’
“Trust me on this, Kirsi,” Percy pressed softly, studying her with apparent concern. “Sometimes it is better to be underestimated and overlooked—they will have reason to tremble with fear soon enough, but only when we are ready to step out of the shadows together.”
“Whether we hide in the shadows or not—we are blamed for everything,” Carina countered bitterly.
“I understand that completely, but—now is not the time. If Borghese were to use this to turn Nicholas against you—”
“If Nicholas turns on me just for being a witch, then he is no friend of mine or the Covens, now or ever!”
The Earl blinked in surprise at the certainty in her voice, then nodded slowly in acknowledgment. “And if the Marquess were to press the issue, the Crown Prince would be forced to finally take a side.”
“Nicholas can either choose me as his ally or that traitor,” Carina muttered coldly as she turned away from Percy to signal to a patiently waiting Colonel Isaac. “He can’t have it both ways.”
“Understood, your Grace.” The Earl’s smile stretched across his face as he watched the Duchess move off in the direction of the main tent. He turned toward the silently observing crow resting on a nearby tent beneath a fluttering Bastalliano flag. “Perhaps we shall join together to make a new Lafeara after all.”
“What exactly do you think you are doing!” Priscilla all but screamed as Viscount Norley pushed her inside the privacy of the Marquess’s ransacked tent. “You should be rallying the Duke’s army to free my father from that witch immediately!”
“Lower. Your. Voice!” Norley hissed, pausing briefly at the threshold as he signaled his men to ensure their privacy. “You’re not exactly doing the Marquess any favors by creating a scene so soon after your public and humiliating loss to the Duchess.”
“That bitch arrested my father for treason, Callum! Treason!”
“I am aware!” Norley snapped, momentarily satisfied as the spoiled young lady flinched and wilted before him.
“What do I do now? Tell me how I can stop this. With my uncle still away at the border—I must send a message to Lady Verity! She will come to my father’s aid!”
“You will do no such thing!”
“What?” Her chartreuse-green eyes snapped up towards him with renewed outrage. “How dare you! Who are you to tell me what I can and cannot do to protect my family? You—a man with no family or influence outside what little authority my uncle gives you!”
“Lady Priscilla,” Norley retorted aggressively. “Exactly how much influence and authority do you expect to keep once the Marquess is either exiled or executed for raising an army against the crown?”
She wilted again. This time moved to tears that quickly became sobs as she collapsed onto her father’s empty bed. “I—I can’t bear it! I won’t! How—how do we stop this? My father doesn’t deserve this! I need him—He’s all I have!”
“Calm yourself and listen.” The Viscount sighed, then walked away to allow her time to compose herself as he unearthed the toppled chair beside the Marquess’s ransacked wardrobe and dragged it over to the bed. “Your father has only one chance, one card to play that will allow him to escape this mess—relatively unscathed.”
“What—card?” Priscilla sobbed between broken hiccups.
“You. His beloved, beautiful, and loyal daughter.”
Somehow his praise had the opposite intended effect as the young noblewoman broke down into tears once more. The Viscount raised his gaze to the heavens, absently rubbing the thin scar across his left ear as he looked everywhere but at the blubbering young woman, then pulled a small silver flask of wine from his jacket pocket, which he offered to her silently.
“I need you to be the bridge between the Crown Prince and your father,” Norley explained patiently, nodding encouragement as Priscilla wiped her damp cheeks and looked from him to the alcohol he offered her. “You need to convince Rupert to accept a lesser crime, one that will allow him to retain his title and ancestral lands while handing everything else to the crown in a show of humility and loyalty.”
“W-what do you mean? Everything else?”
“His mercenary army. The deeds to any lands not part of his ancestral home. And all hidden funds related to the bartering of slaves and children.”
“That—is ridiculous! You would have us endure poverty!”
“You will lose it all, down to the last panel of wood and block of stone, if your father is found guilty of treason, Lady Priscilla. Your land, titles, wealth, jewels, and all those pretty dresses you enjoy wearing—everything.” He watched patiently as his words sank in. The Marquess’s spoiled heir appeared to teeter between internal panic and outward rage before snatching the flask from his hand and drowning her spinning thoughts beneath the strong, spiced wine.
“You don’t—know my father. He would rather die—than live in humiliation!” Priscilla sputtered out between coughs as she grimaced and returned the flask to him. “As would I.”
“What if I told you that taking a small hit to your pride and reputation would allow you both to obtain what you truly desire?” Norley kept his expression neutral as he watched her jumbled thoughts spin behind those brilliant chartreuse-green eyes.
“Are you—referring to—”
“Sometimes a small sacrifice is necessary to achieve a greater victory.” The Viscount tucked his flask away as he leaned back against the fur-lined chair to observe her. “Your family was promised an engagement to the crown. Unfortunately, that promise was rescinded for the sake of peace and our alliance with Ventrayna. Still, there is no reason it cannot be upheld after Nicholas’s coronation, when he is allowed to take in royal consorts, especially given how tumultuous things have been between the royal couple.”
“And what—makes you think—Nicholas will marry me now?” Priscilla retorted in a hoarse whisper. “When he has eyes for every woman except the one who stands as his equal!”
“You see yourself as his equal?” Norley retorted, barely able to contain his amusement at her laughable claim. “So does Eleanora.”
“That barbaric half-witch has been disastrous for him since—”
“Which is why you shouldn’t compete with her!”
“What?” Priscilla mumbled in startled confusion.
The Viscount shook his head at her naivety, then sat up and leaned towards her. “Even from an outsider’s perspective, it’s clear the Crown Prince and Princess are too headstrong and stuck in their ways to yield to the other. Nicholas is Lafeara’s future King. He does not need someone else competing for his power and position. He’s put up with a lifetime of that with his brother, the Dowager, and even your father. What he needs—what he wants—is a wife who will do anything to support him—no matter the cost.”
Priscilla shook her head and laughed bitterly. “All we have done since my father obtained a seat in the House of Lords is support Nicholas. Yet we have been ignored, slighted, and even punished for our efforts to protect him and bring him to power.”
“A King is not ‘brought into power.’ His fate is to obtain it,” Norley corrected. “The Marquess’s arrogance is what led him to fall into this current predicament. Yes, your family helped Nicholas secure his position over the bastard Frist Prince—but your father refused to let Nicholas forget it. He lorded it over the Crown Prince, expecting the future King to grovel and be grateful.”
“And what is wrong with that?”
“You do not ask a King to grovel!” The Viscount bellowed. He sucked in a sharp breath as she flinched away from him, then took out his flask for a quick drink to numb his frustration. “The only way the monarchy works is when the nobles fall in line and support their sovereign. When a subject believes that they have earned the right to control their monarch—the hierarchy crumbles internally and externally. Your father and the Dowager pushed King Henri into a corner in order to depose the First Prince. Now the Marquess wants to push Nicholas into another corner in order to force him to marry you and name you as Queen. He has replaced reason with arrogance and greed, and now he is suffering the consequences!”
The Viscount paused momentarily to allow his words to sink in, only to be met with more sniveling.
“It’s not fair,” Priscilla whimpered as she absorbed the falling tears with her handkerchief. “King Henri broke his promise to us. Then Nicholas broke his promise to me—and they can just—get away with that!?”
“That is the privilege of power and position, my Lady. You’re old enough to know that blame and punishment only roll downhill. How many maids have you gone through who suffered similar fates as this last attendant?” Norley sighed as he eyed the mess she was making of her handkerchief and face. “Tears won’t help the Marquess now. You need to appeal to Nicholas’s better nature. You grew up together as children. Remind him of that friendship. Show him that you are still loyal to him, even if that means sacrificing your own father—”
“Nicholas already has one wife who refuses to see him as a capable monarch and husband. It would be better if you played the opposite of Eleanora. Be obedient, meek, flexible, sweet, and adoring—listen to him and demonstrate that you will put Nicholas first and foremost in all matters.”
“That won’t change anything,” She whispered in audible defeat. “You haven’t seen the way Nicholas looks at me, how he speaks to me. Why would he even consider marrying me?”
“Because you have something he needs, my Lady,” Norley replied confidently, offering her his handkerchief.
Priscilla accepted his token but stared at him bewildered. “I don’t—understand. If I sacrifice my father—and Nicholas takes all that we have—what am I left with?”
“If you can convince Lord Borghese to plead guilty to a lesser crime—the Duke and Duchess will take legal guardianship over you. You will have their power and influence at your back. You will also have the support of Earl Coldwell, the Royal Faction, and the endorsement of His Holiness.”
“Everyone benefits if Nicholas takes a second wife from a prestigious Lafearian noble family who reveres the Saint,” Norley affirmed confidently. “I have already broached the matter with the Crown Prince tentatively, though—it would be best if Nicholas believes this marriage proposal to be his own idea.”
“Then—” Priscilla mumbled, lowering the fresh handkerchief from her suddenly sober expression. “You’re saying that you want me to sacrifice my father, the Marquess, to become a Royal Consort?”
“Once you are a Royal Consort, we will be in a position to leverage your candidacy as Lafeara’s next Queen.” The Viscount smiled reassuringly as he rose from the chair and offered her his hand. “Once you establish yourself as the second most powerful person in Lafeara, you will be able to reinstate your father’s lands, title, and influence. You could even make him Lafeara’s next Prime Minister if you so choose—but first, you must marry the Crown Prince.”
The Marquess’s daughter stared at the Viscount’s hand for a long moment before accepting his offer. Her chartreuse-green eyes held only determination and certainty as she rose to face him.
“I will do whatever it takes to become Queen,” Priscilla declared, pausing to brush the stray locks of strawberry-blonde hair away from the makeup that smeared her cheeks. “And then I will aid the Pope in ridding Lafeara of our enemies once and for all.”
Norley smiled approvingly, then bent to kiss her hand before moving to the tent entrance, where he signaled to one of his men. “Fetch Lord Hendrix’s daughter and send her to the manor to attend to Lady Priscilla.” He watched the man stride off and then offered Priscilla his arm. “I will escort you inside, my Lady. Get yourself cleaned up and presentable. Stay in your rooms until I come to fetch you.”
To the Viscount’s surprise, she nodded and accepted his arm willingly.
‘You just might prove to be a useful pawn after all.’
Carina sighed as she looked up from the battle plans that Colonel Isaac and Captain Silas had prepared. After withdrawing the knights and scouts from the forest, they had more than enough numbers to enforce security at Gilwren Manor.
“The nobles aren’t going to like being surrounded on all sides,” Captain Silas commented as he surveyed the crowded map.
“They’ll get used to it. Just remind them it’s for their safety if they complain,” Colonel Isaac countered dismissively.
“If Nicholas decides to resume the Royal Hunt,” Carina responded. “Then we will resume the previous strategy, with heavier emphasis around the quadrants containing the royal couple.”
“Odds are they’ll wait maybe a day, then either attack the manor or move to ambush us on the road where we’re spread thin.”
“We have them outnumbered at least 2 to 1,” Lieutenant Hadley observed as he fidgeted with the carved wooden horses that represented the front of their cavalry line. “Surely, they’d be foolish to attack the manor.”
“Numbers aren’t much of an advantage against two fire witches,” Isaac countered grimly. “We’re far from the river with only two wells to draw from should they set the campgrounds or manor on fire. They’ll use their flames to split us apart and strike when their target is vulnerable.”
“Well—thankfully, we have an ice witch on our side,” Captain Silas commented with a side glance at the Duchess. “Who has proven to be a fairly capable and lucky Commander.”
“Our odds would be better if we can count on Lord Percy and the Covens to help subdue any blaze.” The Colonel glanced towards the Duchess curiously as she continued to toy with the broken cross bolt in her hand. “That is—if they can be trusted.”
“I will deal with the fire witches personally,” Carina replied, deflecting his not-so-subtle inquiry. “The knights will focus your efforts on the mercenaries. Take prisoners if they surrender but do not allow them to escape.”
“It would help if we had some way to predict when and where they’ll attack,” Captain Silas commented. “Taking our eyes out of the forest gives them the freedom to choose where they will approach and engage us.”
The Duchess shook her head. “I still have eyes in the forest. We won’t be caught off guard.”
‘I can only hope that the men Sir Iker inserted into the mercenary army leave before things get dangerous. I should send him a message just to be sure.’
The tent flaps opened, drawing the attention of the Duchess and her officers as Lieutenant Quinn entered with a hasty bow.
“Your Grace, Sergeant Cooper is awake and asking for you.”
Carina’s grip on the cross bolt tightened as she sighed in relief. “Thank you, Lieutenant. Colonel Isaac, would you join me.”
The Scout Sergeant lying on his stomach in a cot, looked little better as he turned stiffly to greet them. The Duchess ignored the prepared chair and knelt beside the injured knight, grasping his hand gently as she pressed her palm to his temple, easing the fever there with her magic.
“Th-thank you,” Cooper whispered hoarsely. “The doctor said—you saved my life—”
“I merely froze the bolt in place so you could be transported safely,” Carina countered ruefully. “Sergeant Ryver deserves all the praise for removing it and keeping you alive.”
The injured sergeant nodded and grimaced as he slumped down against his pillow. “Your Grace—I saw someone at the river—a Royal Knight—I didn’t get a good look at his—face—”
‘What? But the only Royal Knights here are those assigned to the Crown Prince’s palace.’
The Duchess’s expression hardened as Cooper coughed, pulling his hand free from hers as he grasped the sides of the cot in agony. “Can’t you give him something for the pain?”
“I offered him poppy tears,” Sergeant Ryver replied softly. “But he wanted to remain lucid until he finished his report.”
“Give it to him then.”
“Your—Grace—” Cooper wheezed out through clenched teeth.
“You’ve endured enough, Sergeant Cooper. You have my thanks.”
He shook his head stubbornly as tears pooled along the lines of suffering etched upon his face. “I’m—sorry—”
“You have nothing to apologize for,” Carina quickly interjected. “You performed your duty, and, more importantly, you came back to me alive. I will never ask for anything more than that.”
The sergeant stared at her silently until another round of painful coughs forced his eyes closed. The Duchess withdrew and watched as Ryver administered the liquid opiate to the quivering man.
“Your Grace,” Isaac murmured softly to her left.
“They will pay for this, Colonel.” The Duchess turned to meet his ice-blue eyes. Her icy grip tightened around the shaft of the cross bolt until it snapped in two. “I don’t care what Nicholas decides. I will make them pay. Starting with Marquess Borghese.”