Chapter 44: The Lord of Flies


Nicholas watched as various flies and other pests danced along to the fading notes of the modest string quartet playing beneath the tent canopy. The invasive scavenger insects soon gorged themselves on what had been a savory lunch, the fatty remains of tender wild boar loins and the picked-over bones of succulent braised ribs, accompanied with asparagus and lemon zest, served with a refreshing sparkling wild berry punch.

Humidity and the disappointment that followed the sudden halt to the day’s hunt hung heavy in the air. By now, most of the nobles had quietly finished their meal and retired to the manor to escape the heat—and likely, gossip on the day’s events.

No story was large enough to cover the Duchess’s arrest of Marquess Borghese and his nobles. Even worse were the rumors that followed the return of several dazed and exhausted attendants belonging to Borghese’s hunting party that limped back from the forest just as the late midday banquet had started.

At the Crown Prince’s insistence, Earl Coldwell and the other released nobles had joined the tense and quiet meal, though they ate little and seemed to glare pointedly at the Duchess’s empty seat.

‘I don’t know how much longer I can play this off as a misunderstanding. And the longer I delay dealing with Borghese, the more likely it is that the Royal Faction will pressure me to release him.’

“So—is it true then?”

Nicholas blinked in surprise as the Prime Minister’s son sat beside him in Eleanora’s vacant chair.

“Everyone’s saying that the Royal Hunt is over, and you’ve already selected a winner,” Acheron continued, waving away a fly that lingered near a sauce stain on the tablecloth.

“That is just a rumor,” Nicholas responded tensely. “We’ve only halted the hunt this afternoon due to a—unexpected complication.”

“Right. And this—unexpected complication, would it have anything to do with the rumor that Marquess Borghese has been arrested?” The Rogue’s steel-blue eyes flashed with surprise as he read the Crown Prince’s face. “No! So, it is true! Saints—I wish I could have been there to see his face!”

“This is no laughing matter, Acheron,” Attwood interjected with a shake of his head. “Nor is it something for you and your drinking companions to gossip about.”

The Prime Minister’s son rolled his eyes with a dramatic sigh. “More than enough tongues are already wagging, Father, so mine will hardly make a difference.” He quickly leaned in closer to Nicholas. “Is it true that the Duchess spent half the day torturing the Marquess and nearly half the Royal Faction?”

“Come now, Acheron, they were all here just now eating lunch with us, save for the Marquess,” Nicholas countered as he signaled a steward for a refill on his drink. “Do they look as if they’ve spent the morning being tortured?”

“Well—no,” Acheron relented, sounding oddly disappointed.

The Crown Prince shook his head. While the released nobles had been sworn to secrecy regarding their unlawful arrest and the unjust treatment some of them had endured, he knew it would not be long before some version of the truth spread throughout the Capital.

“This is a sensitive matter we are still dealing with,” Nicholas replied sternly. “So I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t spread such exaggerations further.”

The Rogue nodded along complacently, still frowning. “But—what reason did Lady Kirsi have for arresting the Marquess? And why halt the Royal Hunt? Borghese wasn’t going to win even if we gave him an entire afternoon to hunt by himself.”

“Whether we continue or not, it’s pretty obvious you don’t stand a chance of winning yourself,” Attwood retorted dryly. “Lord Percy has yet to utter a single word of complaint.”

“Ah, yes, well, let’s just wrap the royal favor up in a pretty bow and hand it over to Lord Percy then,” Acheron retorted scornfully, snagging a drink from the waiter who refilled the Crown Prince’s glass. “Well, if the hunt is canceled for the rest of the day, the least they could do is give us something stronger to drink.”

“I thought you were turning over a new leaf?” Nicholas commented with a mocking brow.

“I certainly tried,” Acheron retorted flippantly. “But then I remember I’ll be getting married in the spring—and all that motivation to rectify my past behavior—” The Crown Prince raised both brows as the Rogue downed his entire glass in a single go. “Aaah!”

“Ahem!” Attwood cleared his throat loudly with a pointed glare. “My son lacks the willpower and mental fortitude to abstain from any form of destructive behavior for long.”

“Hmm, yes. Guilty as charged!” Acheron muttered sarcastically as he tossed the empty glass over his shoulder. “Now, I believe Viscount Gilwren is organizing some competitions for the afternoon. Archery, croquet, and even fencing, I hear. He’s offering up some top-notch vintage wine to the winners, so—”

“I think I have a better idea, your Majesty!”

The Rogue stuttered to a halt and quickly straightened in his seat as Marchioness Serilda floated towards them in a pink muslin dress with a sheer tulle overlay embroidered with songbirds and flowers. Her moss-agate green eyes practically danced with mischief as she held up a maroon deck of cards with the golden silhouette of a jester on the cover and offered them a sultry wink.

“Can I entice you gentlemen with a game of risk?”

“You—want to play Save the Jester?” Acheron stuttered out with a worried look in his father’s direction. “Here?”

“Well, I was thinking of a more intimate setting,” Serilda replied as she circled the table toward the Crown Prince. “I thought perhaps we might escape this heat and make use of your Majesty’s private chambers?”

Nicholas laughed softly as the Marchioness teasingly walked her fingers up his right arm. “I’m afraid I have other matters that need attending to, my Lady.” He pretended to ignore Acheron’s aggressive nod of approval, though he was quickly distracted by the pouting rose-pink lips that leaned in toward him.

“Then—later?” Serilda pressed with an imploring look that was both adorable and strangely alluring.

“Fine,” Nicholas relented, enjoying the sense of ease and lightheartedness she seemed to evoke effortlessly. “Later.”

“Tonight?” The Marchioness’s pouting lips moved into a coy smile as she leaned back. The warmth of her fingertips grazed along his upper arm, sending a shiver down his spine. “After supper?”

The Crown Prince sighed and hesitated, feeling the weight of the Prime Minister and Acheron’s silent gaze. He shrugged helplessly. “Why not?”

“Your Majesty,” Attwood exhaled with audible disapproval.

“Good. I’ll hold you to it, Nicholas,” Serilda replied with a beaming smile that halted further protest. “I shall use the hours in between to practice for a sound victory.”

The Crown Prince couldn’t stop the grin that crept across his face as he watched her twirl and walk away, drawing the gaze of nearly every noble still inside the tent. His mind raced with burning thoughts of an intimate candlelit night in the Marchioness’s company until the sound of a chair dragging through the dirt snapped his attention back to the present. The Rogue stormed off without a word, nearly knocking over a noble with poor timing who rose from his seat.

“What’s his problem?” Nicholas muttered with a shake of his head.

The Prime Minister sighed as he leaned against his chair and stared blankly at the canopy above them. “Your Majesty—you should put more thought into how this looks. There are already rumors spreading about your—affection for King Henri’s mistress—and now you want to invite her to your rooms—at night—for a game of cards?”

It took everything in Nicholas not to roll his eyes. “Lady Serilda is no one’s mistress but her own. And the Marchioness has always been a dear friend to the crown.” He paused, fumbling over the awkward wording as the Prime Minister winced. “At least she knows how to improve the mood, unlike your son, who only knows how to sulk and cause trouble.” He knew he had said too much when Attwood’s exasperated expression turned stony, reminding Nicholas eerily of the enigmatic knight captain who stood behind them. “I’m sorry. I’m just—done with worrying about who is saying what.”

“I understand, your Majesty. But rumors only become more poisonous when given weight.”

“And what sort of rumors were circling when my father, at forty, made a barely sixteen-year-old his mistress?”

The Prime Minister sighed heavily and then turned to face the Crown Prince directly. “If you wish to keep your word with the Marchioness, then may I suggest you invite one or two other members of the court to your card game—so as to still any wagging tongues.”

The Crown Prince offered his trusted advisor a forced smile of compliance. “I’ll bear that in mind.”

‘At least he’s not suggesting I bring Eleanora.’

A sudden surge of movement drew Nicholas’s attention to where Lord Norley had entered the dining tent and appeared to be summoning Earl Coldwell and the rest of the lingering nobles from the Royal Faction. “Well, since my evening is booked, why don’t we go see if Marquess Borghese is ready to answer some questions.”


“Seri, wait!” Acheron hissed as he jogged after the brunette vision in pink, heading towards the manor.

The Marchioness’s magnetic green eyes flashed with a hint of irritation as she halted and turned to face him. “Was there something you needed, Lord Hargreve?”

The Rogue sighed in exasperation as he slowed and strode towards her. “Just to ask what it is you’re doing?”

“Heading indoors,” Serilda retorted, gesturing with the deck of cards toward the manor. “I thought that was obvious.”

“That’s not what I meant, and you know it!” He closed the distance between them, trying not to notice how quickly she retreated when he got too close. “What are you doing with Nicholas?”

The Marchioness arched her brows with an almost innocent expression that shattered the moment her lips burst open with a peal of laughter. “Oh, really now? The Capital’s notorious skirt-chasing philanderer wants to know what my intentions are with the Crown Prince?”

“Oh, so you’re aware of how it looks?”

Serilda rolled her eyes with audible incredulity before stepping boldly toward him. The Rogue froze as her fingers grazed lightly along the stubble beneath his left ear, tracing the outline of his jaw as she leaned closer to whisper, “You’re not the only one with a reputation to maintain.”

Her words stung all the more as she withdrew her touch with a mocking smile that vanished the instant Acheron seized her wrist. “Please,” he whispered hoarsely. “I can’t watch you do this to yourself again.”

Serilda raised her free hand sharply to cut him off. “If this is another pathetic attempt to ‘save me,’ then I don’t want to hear it.”

“Well, maybe you should, given how disastrous your last jaunt at playing a King’s mistress went!” Acheron regretted the words as soon as they left his lips yet felt a sick tingle of relief at the pain that blossomed from the depths of her moss-agate green eyes. “What is it you’re after this time? The approval of your family? If it’s power you want, then—”

Her rigid expression shattered beneath another wave of laughter that rang distortedly against Acheron’s eardrums. He clutched his stomach, suddenly nauseous and dizzy, but clung to her wrist stubbornly.

“Power?” Her cold fingers wrapped around the hand clinging to hers as the Rogue collapsed suddenly to one knee. “And so what if I am? At least I have ambition.”

Acheron blinked as his vision blurred, and the air around them grew thin and harder to breathe. Even stranger was the sudden dullness that coated the meticulously groomed lawn around them in a grayish hue. He wasn’t even aware of the moment he let go of the Marchioness’s wrist, only the building pressure ringing in his ears as the Rogue pressed both hands against the ground.

Serilda knelt over him. The faintest touch of her hand sent him careening onto his side as the world spun maddingly while her distorted, almost demonic voice rang in his ears. “And what have you been chasing all these years, Archie? Failure?”

Acheron could only sputter incoherently in response as the air suddenly rushed back into his lungs. The blinding vibrance of the blue and green skyline burned against his corneas as the Marchioness stood above him, staring down with a look of disgust.

“That reminds me,” Serilda murmured as she tapped the deck of cards against her chin. “I haven’t yet congratulated you on your engagement, have I?” She straightened with a smirk, glancing briefly towards the nobles hovering near the dining tent, staring in their direction. “At least try to play the dutiful fiancé in public, for your father’s sake, if nothing else.”

The songbirds and flowers embroidered in her dress twirled against his numb fingers as she spun away and continued towards the manor, leaving him in the dirt.

‘Right where I belong.’

Acheron watched the Marchioness until she disappeared, then rolled over onto his back to stare at the disgustingly blue sky scattered with cotton-like clouds that sailed serenely across the horizon. The Rogue glared at them and rubbed away a tear as the sun reemerged directly above him.

“Fuck!” he growled hoarsely before draping an arm across his face. More than a few groups of nobles circled past him, whispering and shaking their heads in obvious disapproval. He ignored them, certain they would conclude he was simply drunk, which suited him just fine.

It wasn’t until a rather pointy boot pressed sharply against his ribcage that he finally removed his arm to meet the inquisitive gaze of the Crown Princess.

“I’m competing in the fencing competition,” Eleanora announced as she removed her foot.

Acheron raised a brow slowly as he took in the sheathed long sword hanging from the sword belt looped through her trousers. “Yes—I can see that you are.”

“As it happens, I also need a squire.” Her amber eyes stared at him expectantly before she leaned in to offer him her hand. “You don’t seem busy, so—come along.”

“I—” He bit back an angry retort and sat up reluctantly, relieved to find the world no longer spinning. “Why not ask your cousin, Lord Marco?”

“He’s gone,” Eleanora retorted flatly. “Called away on some urgent business about his lands. Something to do with cotton and bottle beetles—or was it weasels? Anyway, he’s left.”

Acheron raised his brows incredulously, then glanced past her open hand to the grim-faced Major Garrett, who stared back at the Rogue with a pensive, disapproving stare that seemed to suggest Acheron should just roll over and play dead.

“Well?” Eleanora persisted, demonstrating a remarkable amount of grace and endurance as she maintained her offered gesture.

‘Assisting the Crown Princess in embarrassing the nobles is bound to piss Nicholas off, so—why the hell not?’

“Your Highness.” Acheron accepted her hand with his usual charismatic smile and then rolled onto his feet, stumbling slightly as he stood. “Consider me at your disposal.”


After Priscilla’s attendant miraculously escaped from the manor’s wine cellar, Nicholas had been reluctant to use the same venue as a temporary holding cell. Lord Rykard had done his best to tidy up one of the empty horse stalls in the barn, but a stable was still a stable. A very miserable Marquess sat on an overturned water bucket, chained to the dusty feeding trough next to the stall door.

With ten of the Duchess’s knights standing guard outside the barn while four Royal Knights kept the prisoner under close watch, Nicholas was fairly confident Borghese wouldn’t slip through his fingers as easily as a maid had. The Crown Prince waved the knights away as he approached, smirking at the sight of the nobleman’s disheveled hair and beard adorned with stray bits of straw while flies climbed along the sweat stains running down the back of the proud nobleman’s jacket.

“I thought you might be hungry,” Nicholas commented as Attwood twisted the key in the single iron lock that barred the stall door closed. The Marquess straightened stiffly. His chartreuse-green eyes darted toward the wooden plate prepared with braised boar ribs and sliced apples with evident hunger, but he shook his head resolutely as he resumed glaring at the barn floor.

“I can see that you’re still upset.” The Crown Prince sighed before setting the plate down on the corner of the trough. “Imagine how I must feel after finding out you brought a small army of five hundred mercenaries to Gilwren Forest. Then imagine my shock at hearing that two fire witches have joined them under your bidding.”

“If you can marry a half-witch, barter with a Witch Emperor, and elevate a half-blood witch to Duchess—then why can’t I employ them?” Borghese muttered with a cynical smirk.

“You think Lady Kirsi is a witch?” Nicholas retorted with a snort. “Why? Because she outsmarted you?”

“Because she used her magic in front of all of us in the forest!” The Marquess turned to level his chartreuse-green eyes at Nicholas. “Have you seen her wolves up close yet, your Majesty? No. I very much doubt you have. There is nothing natural about those beasts. They do not possess souls as other living creatures do. They are spun from mischief and malice. They are demons!”

“Yes, I’m certain Viscount Gilwren would agree with that assessment,” Nicholas returned dismissively. “Some might say the same of the mountain bear that attacked Lady Kirsi. Did you know that during Lord Rykard’s examination of the beast, he found marks around its neck and limbs, suggesting the creature had been chained up recently? Possibly even transported.”

The Crown Prince smiled as the Marquess lowered his gaze silently.

“Mountain bears are more commonly seen near Fogtooth Mountain. For example, they are more likely to be seen in the rocky regions of the Hargreve territory. As I recall, the Duke has quite a few specimens mounted at his estate. I can’t help but wonder—how such a territorial creature traveled this far east?”

“I tell you that Bastiallano’s Duchess is a witch, and all you care about is some dead bear?!” Borghese snapped incredulously as he rose from the bucket. “I suppose it comes as no surprise that you would want to shield her along with all the other devils that hide among your court.”

“I think your time would be better spent worrying about your own neck rather than the noble members of the witch covens,” Nicholas growled while maintaining a victorious grin. “The only reason I don’t have you drawn and quartered for their entertainment after your blatant disregard for the crown and Lafeara’s laws is that I don’t want to hand Lord Percy and the Noble Faction more power than they already have.”

The Marquess’s glare faltered for a moment as he gripped the chains that bound him to the stall wall. “You—would actually dare to execute me?”

“That is one of the options you made available to me,” Nicholas replied grimly, folding his arms as he leaned against the stall wall facing the prison. “I suppose it depends on your answer. So, Lord Borghese, why did you bring your Shadow Army to Gilwren Forest?”

The Marquess drew in a slow breath. His weary gaze drifted to the rafters above them before he turned and leaned against the stall wall to face the young monarch. “To protect my interests and—if necessary—to kill.”

“Kill who?” Attwood interjected sharply.

“Do you know when I began building the Shadow Army?” Borghese countered, ignoring the Prime Minister.

The Crown Prince scoffed. “You’re not going to give me another lecture on loyalty and hard work, are you?”

“I just assumed that after all the effort spent digging up evidence to prove my disloyalty, such an important detail would not have escaped your notice.”

Nicholas rolled his eyes. “Long enough.”

“Ten years, to be exact.”

“I’m more interested in how you maintained such secrecy while recruiting so many men. Most of your mercenaries are prisoners with military experience, either as knights or soldiers. You must have bribed someone in the justice system to liberate them. Drunkards, rapists, murderers, and even petty thieves. Many of them are supposed to be dead. The records even say their execution was carried out! You’ve had your hands in quite a few pockets to keep this quiet for so long.”

“I offered men of skill a second chance in exchange for their loyalty,” Borghese replied gruffly. “I did attempt to recruit those who had retired from either the knight service or army, but it turns out free people have more to lose than the threat of treason hanging over their neck. My Captain, Weylin, gave me the idea of repurposing society’s trash, and he was right. Give a dead man dependable lodging, a full stomach, and plenty of slaves to satisfy his base desires on—and he’ll serve you, gladly and soberly, without complaint, because he knows he is expendable.”

“Which also makes them the perfect weapon to ensure discretion and secrecy,” Nicholas observed grimly.

“Why ten years ago?” Attwood interjected curiously. “The Royal Faction had just reached the height of its power then, and Tristan was in line for the throne.”

“Ten years ago, King Henri agreed to the engagement between my Priscilla and—” Borghese’s shrewd gaze returned to the young monarch, “—the Second Prince. I knew then that allowing Tristan to succeed the throne would place our kingdom deeper in the mire of witchcraft. Protecting Lafeara’s future King and Queen was my highest priority, so I built a secret army, ready to rise at a moment’s notice, to protect my daughter and her fiancé.”

Nicholas scoffed in disbelief. “So, you built this army to protect your dreams and ambitions. And now that Priscilla and I are no longer engaged?”

“My ambitions haven’t changed, your Majesty.”

The Crown Prince’s expression hardened as he met the Marquess’s unflinching gaze. “So—your target was the Crown Princess.”

“What?!” The Prime Minister spun between them with apparent alarm. “Are you mad?! Assassinating the Crown Princess would all but ensure Lafeara’s destruction!”

“Not if she died at the hands of a fire witch with links to Ventrayna,” Borghese countered with a sinister smirk. “You’ve been so focused on the problems here at home that you’ve overlooked recent political turmoil within Ventrayna’s court. The Witch Emperor no longer holds absolute power. The battle between his eldest child, Crown Princess Aurelia, and some bastard they call the Dragon Prince, who appeared out of nowhere, has nearly dragged the entire witch nation into civil war. So, when a member of Ventrayna’s royalty offered to help remove the sole obstacle to my plan—I accepted.”

“Your Majesty!” Attwood called out in alarm as the Crown Prince rushed forward to grab the prisoner’s collar before slamming the Marquess’s head into the stable wall.

“Who?!” Nicholas bellowed as Borghese crumpled to his knees with a hand pressed to his bleeding forehead. “Who made the offer?!”



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