Chapter 45: Jewels of Victory
Sophya stood frozen beneath Asher’s screams. Lord Rykard’s voice echoed dully against the blood pounding against her ears as he barked orders to the staff rushing around the bed where her injured, bleeding fiancé squirmed, clutching the bandaged stump of his right hand as he wept in agony.
“Do something! Help him!” Valarie shrieked, standing at the foot of the bed, twisting her handkerchief with a pained expression as her cousin let out another deafening howl.
“Tie him down,” Rykard ordered as he knelt over the thrashing young nobleman, pinning Asher down by his shoulders while a physician leaned in to check the patient’s temperature.
“His fever grows worse,” the doctor observed with surprising calm. “The infection runs deeper than we thought.”
“What does that mean?” Valarie demanded.
“What are our options?” Rykard replied, ignoring the young woman’s outburst.
“The hand is beyond saving. I removed as much shrapnel as I could from his arm and torso, but—if you want to save this young man’s life—we need to remove the mangled flesh and bone so his arm can heal properly.”
“What are you saying?” Rufous demanded from where he crouched by the doorway.
“He’s saying we have to amputate a part of your cousin’s limb in order to save his life,” Rykard explained, glancing hesitantly in his granddaughter’s direction.
Sophya stared back blankly, hardly moving or breathing as she watched the scene unfold before her like a waking dream.
‘How did this happen? Is this karma? If so, why Asher and not Maura?’
Her fiancé went still for a brief moment as the Viscount’s words sank in. “No—no, you can’t! Sophya! Sophya, stop them!” Asher bellowed as the servants carried rope into the room to bind the unwilling patient to his bed.
“You can’t do this!” Valarie shrieked, shoving the footmen aside as they moved to bind Asher’s legs. “You should at least get permission from his mother!”
“The longer we wait, the more of his arm we will have to take as the infection spreads,” the physician replied adamantly.
“This is the precise reason why I do not allow guns at the Royal Hunt,” Rykard snapped viciously at the pale, whimpering patient. “Since you decided you were man enough to ignore my instructions, you can make this decision yourself, Lord Asher. You can either save your arm—or your life.”
Sophya watched as her fiancé’s fading bravado broke beneath the terrifying ultimatum. Asher sobbed and sputtered incoherently as tears rolled down his pale cheeks into the floral green pillow, then shut his eyes and shook his head.
“Fine. If you won’t make a decision, then I will.” Viscount Gilwren removed his grip as the servants bound the patient’s torso beneath a folded quilted blanket and rope. Sophya watched as her grandfather tested the tension of each bind, then sighed before turning to the physician. “Prepare what you need.”
“No! He didn’t choose!” Valarie shrieked as she charged after the departing physician. Walter stepped forward quickly to block the frantic young woman whose belligerent rants rang sharply in Sophya’s numb ears. “You bastards! He didn’t choose! You can’t do this to him!”
“Sophya,” Rykard whispered gently as he approached his pale, trembling granddaughter. “My dear. You don’t have to stay for this. I promise we’ll do everything we can to ease Lord Asher’s pain and help him recover. But this is not something you should see.”
Sophya looked up into her grandfather’s hazel-green eyes, brimming with concern. She wanted to tell him that she didn’t care. Her feelings for Asher died the moment she learned of her fiancé’s true nature from his own lips.
‘Just let him rot. If Asher dies, at least I can play the grieving fiancé.’
“Sophya?” Rykard murmured, touching her arm gently.
‘No, maybe it’s better this way. If he lives, I can just break off the engagement and tell him I refuse to be married to a cripple. Let’s see what Lady Florence has to say when a penniless orphan rejects her precious son!’
“Walter, please escort your cousin to her room.”
Sophya barely registered Lord Bromwell’s presence as the man who had stolen Lincoln’s inheritance placed his arm around her back and gently turned her towards the closed door.
“You’re—leaving him?” Valarie blurted out, inserting herself directly in their path. “They’re about to—cut off part of Asher’s arm, and you—you’re just going to walk away? He’s your fiancé!”
“Not anymore.” The words left Sophya’s lips in a barely audible whisper, but Valarie recoiled as if slapped, then gasped in apparent shock as she stared at Sophya’s numb expression, dumbfounded.
For the first time in an incredibly long time, Sophya felt the sudden ridiculous urge to laugh. The sensation faded almost as instantly as it appeared, yet the air around her felt remarkably lighter and easier to breathe. She turned to her silent cousin, who shared Valarie’s shocked expression and offered him a plaintive smile.
“Cousin, I would like to lie down and be alone for a little while, if— that’s all right?”
“Of—course,” Walter replied swiftly, navigating their way around the stupefied young noblewoman. “Take all the time you need.”
“You really were—completely useless,” Valarie snarled as a maid opened the door before them.
Sophya ignored the comment, smirking as Rufous skittered through the door ahead of them to puke in one of the potted plants in the hallway. She clung to Lord Bromwell’s arm as two physicians sped around them, carrying bags of bottles, bandages, and sharp instruments that clinked together ominously. Asher’s protesting screams echoed out across the third floor until the bedroom door closed, muffling the bloody chaos within.
“Ahh, Mrs. Lister,” Walter called out suddenly, drawing Sophya’s attention to a senior maid carrying a stack of linen up the staircase. “When you’re done, would you fetch some of that delicious tea you used to make for me and bring it to Lady Priscilla’s room?”
“The—Valerian tea?” Mrs. Lister replied hesitantly.
“Yes. To help the lady sleep.”
The maid raised her brows, then turned as Asher’s panicked shrieks leaked through the closed bedroom door. “Of course, Master Walter. I’ll bring it up straight away.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Lister.”
Sophya watched as the woman continued with her chores, neither rushed nor insolent in her demeanor toward the Viscount’s heir. She pulled away from Bromwell’s arm the moment he opened her bedroom door and left him at the threshold as she stumbled toward the neatly made bed and promptly slumped down across its fragrant pillows, with no regard for the shoes she still wore.
A long silence followed where Sophya hardly dared to breathe as she focused on holding back tears she could not explain. She prayed silently for him to go and leave her in peace. Then shut her eyes, hoping it would convince him she was asleep. Just when Sophya felt her chest might burst for want of air, Walter cleared his throat.
“Ahem. About what you said to Lady Valarie—”
“What about it?” Sophya retorted wearily, her words muffled by the pillow.
“Did you mean it?”
The concern in his voice irritated her, and the wave of tears burning against her eyes and cheeks subsided. Sophya drew in a slow breath, then rolled over to sit up and face him directly. “Yes.”
Walter’s hazel-blue eyes and ash-blonde brows, strikingly similar to Lord Rykard’s, furrowed in obvious confusion and concern. “Can I—ask why?”
Sophya raised a brow in return, far too tired to argue the non-existent complexities of canceling an engagement that had never been made official. “My mother spent her life chained to a cheating, lying, drunken, crippled brute.” She blinked slowly as the honest words spilled out of their own accord. “The shame of leaving him once—only to be forced to return carrying a bastard….”
The old dull ache of anger and resentment for being abandoned by her mother took Sophya’s breath away, even as it merged with her inescapable grief and Asher’s cutting betrayal. Sophya’s trembling lips moved hesitantly into a smile as she clenched her fists. Tears fell freely down her cheeks before her forest-green eyes rose to meet Walter’s troubled gaze.
“I—am not—my mother.”
The evening started off well enough, and yet, before its conclusion, Nicholas was sorely tempted to cancel the remainder of the Royal Hunt.
Despite Lord Rykard’s late arrival to the banquet hall, the staff presented yet another memorable feast of smoked salmon, stuffed mushrooms, a vibrant summer salad with fresh berries and candied walnuts, and, the obvious highlight of the meal, the roasted tenderloins of the mountain bear, which had been marinated in a blend of red wine, garlic, and herbs, and served with a savory red wine reduction.
No, there had certainly been nothing wrong with the food or the wine. The banquet attendees, however, were a different matter entirely.
At the start, the Royal Faction sat stone-faced, only responding briefly to pointed questions from their host, the Crown Prince, or the Prime Minister. Otherwise, they appeared to be silently protesting, though they emptied their plates and cups just fine, making vicious use of the cutlery whenever possible. Lady Priscilla Borghese remained absent, her chair beside her father’s empty seat left vacant, almost reverently so, as Earl Coldwell made a point of staring at them throughout the night while shaking his head.
As for the opposing Noble Faction, in a striking display of unity, each member of the representative families had come to the banquet dressed in their finest silk, with the red scarf of Percy’s hunting group worn around their arm or neck like a badge of victory.
Nicholas could not deny the prickle of jealousy he felt when the young Earl Hawthorne arrived to the Noble Faction’s enthusiastic applause with the beautiful Marchioness Serilda on his arm, dressed in a spellbinding burgundy ball gown of sumptuous silk velvet, with a fitted, hourglass bodice, that clung to her figure as tightly as the black lace evening gloves she wore to match the beaded black birds that adorned her dress and the jeweled combs tucked into her chestnut curls.
The moment quickly turned awkward as the Earl and Marchioness were forced to step aside as the Crown Princess made her appearance. Eleanora swept into the room wearing a breath-taking scarlet ballgown with a plunging neckline framed in the shape of an embroidered golden serpent studded with rubies that coiled against the glistening sandalwood skin of her shapely and shockingly half-exposed breasts. Golden serpent earrings, a matching, coiling bracelet, and silk ribbon sandals completed the look.
“Saint’s mercy,” Acheron whispered as he quickly averted his gaze.
“Is that one of Lady Aconitum’s designs?” One of the noblewomen seated near Earl Coldwell whispered.
“The Duchess? I suppose it must be unless the Crown Princess has a new designer.”
“How shocking. This must be the Ventrayna fashion.”
“I think she looks stunning!”
“Perhaps Lafeara’s infamous Rose will soon be replaced by a Serpent?”
Nicholas glanced anxiously towards Serilda, but the Marchioness appeared unbothered by the comment as she gave her younger cousin an almost approving nod before curtsying beside the already bowing Lord Percy.
Unsurprisingly, Eleanora paid the Marchioness no mind as she strode toward the host’s table, shadowed by the rather tired and meek-looking Lady Evelynn.
“Your Majesty,” Attwood murmured, nudging the Crown Prince’s foot beneath the table and prompting Nicholas to rise and escort his wife to her chair.
For a moment, the Ventrayna princess appeared surprised as her husband approached and offered his arm. But she accepted his gesture smoothly, pointedly avoiding his gaze as she directed her beaming smile to the nobles around them before waving precociously at Acheron.
“I hear you spent the afternoon displaying the Ventrayna sword style,” Nicholas blurted out as he led her around the table toward their seats.
“Yes, I quite enjoyed myself. However, I can’t say the same for the other competitors. How is it that a noble status qualifies these men to join the military as officers when they can barely keep hold of their swords.”
“Not all officers lead at the front of the battlefield, Eleanora. And only the second or third son enlists. Most of them only serve at the borders for six months to a year before returning to finish their contract as knights at the palace.”
“I see,” Eleanora murmured with a hint of scorn. “How gratifying it is to know we are protected by such brave and experienced soldiers.”
“You have Major Garrett watching over you and your father’s knights,” Nicholas pointed out as the Prime Minister pulled out her chair. “You are safe, Eleanora.”
“If I am safe, why are you on the verge of canceling the Royal Hunt?”
“Why does everyone think I’m canceling the last day of the Royal Hunt?” He muttered in exasperation as the Crown Princess took her seat.
Eleanora shrugged before glancing towards the Duchess’s vacant table. “And where is Lady Kirsi?”
Nicholas glanced over at his Prime Minister, who shook his head, then sank into his chair with a sigh. “I’m sure she’s on her way.”
“Did you know she attached a retinue of ten knights to follow me throughout the day?” The Crown Princess nodded to the heavy presence of Bastiallano Knights that lined the wall around the banquet hall. “I suppose I should be grateful Lafeara doesn’t believe in knighting women, or I wouldn’t be able to get a moment’s peace.”
“It’s just a precaution,” Nicholas replied, making a mental note to tell Kirsi to tone down the number of knights inside the manor.
“Hmm,” Eleanora murmured as she picked up the glass of wine beside her plate.
“Excuse me, your Highness.” The royal couple turned in surprise as Major Garrett approached the Crown Princess’s chair. “Please allow me to confirm the drink is safe.”
Eleanora sighed but passed the wine glass over willingly, with a pointed look in her husband’s direction. “I have eyes and ears, you know. I am aware of the fact that everyone’s been on edge since this morning. And the rumors surrounding Marquess Borghese’s arrest—”
“Are exactly that—just rumors!” Nicholas interjected with heavy exasperation.
“So, there wasn’t a plot to assassinate me in order to name Lady Priscilla as Crown Princess and future Queen?”
“W-what? Who told you such a ridiculous—”
The abrasive, forceful cough coming from Acheron’s direction turned the Crown Prince’s gaze toward the troublesome Rogue suspiciously. His attention was promptly diverted from his sweating friend by the arrival of the Duchess and her entourage.
Lady Kirsi, flanked by her two ladies-in-waiting, was dressed in her usual colors of silver and white. The form-fitting ballgown, embroidered with metallic leaves layered upon each other like scales, was divided from sternum to navel by a thin scarlet sword. A crown of silver and scarlet leaves adorned the Duchess’s hair, which appeared to have turned whiter since Nicholas last saw her. Oddly enough, Kirsi’s pale skin seemed to shimmer beneath the light fixture above her table, adding an almost ethereal effect to her appearance as three knights, Colonel Isaac included, took their positions behind her.
The hostile glares of the Royal Faction permeated the silence that followed the Duchess’s entrance before resentful not-so-subtle whispers filled the awkward void.
“How dare that bitch show her face here so brazenly after what she did!”
“Is that a dress or a threat?”
“Honestly, why the Crown Prince hasn’t stripped the half-blood of her title already is beyond me.”
“Who knew that power would turn such a little girl into a blood-crazed tyrant? Oh wait—I did!”
“I’m telling you—that white hair is proof of her witch powers!”
“They say the church opposed her appointment as Duchess, and now we know why.”
“Did you see that? She didn’t even greet the royal couple!? How much more disrespect is the Crown Prince going to allow?”
“Ahem!” Lord Rykard finally appeared behind his chair, glancing towards the Crown Prince for permission before addressing the unsettled banquet hall. “As we are all here, I thought that I would use this opportunity to update you all on where each group stands point-wise in the competition.”
Grumbles from the Royal Faction collided with whistles and applause from the Noble Faction as Earl Percy offered Earl Coldwell a smug grin.
“The total accumulative points of each group from fourth to first place is as follows,” Rykard continued, his voice dull and flattened as if weary of dealing with his troublesome guests. “For Marquess Rupert Borghese’s hunting party. A total of 83 points.”
A round of cantankerous snorts and snickers filled the room as the Royal Faction simmered in bitter silence before the Viscount briskly continued.
“For Viscount Acheron Hargreve’s hunting party. A total of 349 points.”
The Rogue sighed in exasperation before nodding his head towards the scattered supporting claps from the nobles. Eleanora offered her hunting companion a sympathetic smile before returning her attention to their host.
“For Duchess Kirsi Valda’s hunting party—”
The Crown Prince stiffened as a round of boos and hissed murmurs of, “witch,” filled the banquet hall.
“—462 points,” Rykard finished, scowling as the pervasive boos grew louder, drawing the angry glares of several knights and many members of the Noble Faction.
Nicholas glanced to where Lady Kirsi continued to pick at the raspberries in her salad, offering no reaction whatsoever to the blatant insults and accusations. Beside the Duchess, Viscountess Hana trembled in visible anger as she clutched her dinner knife and silently stabbed the unfortunate salmon on her plate. To the Duchess’s left, Lady Ivy sat as still as a statue, neither eating nor blinking, though it was difficult to tell given how she slouched towards her plate.
“Your Majesty,” Attwood murmured anxiously as the nobles from the Royal Faction grew louder and bolder in their delivery.
The Crown Prince could only grit his teeth in frustration as he gripped the arms of his chair—then blinked in stunned disbelief as the Crown Princess erupted from her seat beside him.
“Silence!” Eleanora roared, her chest rising and falling with each angry breath as her amber eyes glared dangerously toward the offending party’s table.
“Elly,” Nicholas whispered anxiously, taking her hand as he rose to stand beside her.
“No, your Majesty,” she retorted with evident fury. “I will not stand by silently and hear the word witch hurled around like an insult when I come from witches myself. These—cowards, who use words as daggers to attack a subject of the crown, should remember that half my blood burns with the magic they so despise. That the Emperor to whom this little kingdom pays taxes yearly is a witch with blood purer than any witch before him or since!”
As much as her comment about Lafeara’s size stung Nicholas’s pride, he couldn’t help but admire the boldness with which Eleanora faced the court before her. It was the same strength and certainty that had glowed from the foreign princess during the six-month period she had visited Lafeara as Tristan’s fiancé. How many hours had he spent enviously watching them as they shared their dreams and visions for the kingdom that they would one day rule?
‘You may have survived, Brother, but I still won in the end.’
The Crown Princess’s confident, angry gaze faltered as Nicholas’s hand slid around her waist, pulling her close as he bent to kiss her neck.
‘And everything you thought you were destined to have is now mine.’
“Your—Majesty?” Eleanora whispered, flushing with embarrassment as he laced his fingers through hers before turning to face the nobles, who sat in stunned silence.
“As the Crown Princess said, there will be no more derogatory talk of witches in our presence,” Nicholas announced, focusing on Earl Coldwell, who bowed his head in disgruntled submission. “Now, Viscount Gilwren, I believe you were about to announce this year’s likely victor?”
“Ahh—yes, your Majesty,” Rykard responded quickly, his relief palpable as he adjusted his neck scarf. “Finally, in first place, with a grand total of 750 points, Earl Hawthorne’s hunting party.”
The Noble Faction nearly brought down the roof as they stomped their feet and banged their fists against the table while audibly cheering and congratulating each other.
‘I think I know why everyone assumes the Royal Hunt is over,’ Nicholas mused irritably as he watched Serilda throw her arms around Percy’s neck before peppering the Earl’s face with red lipstick marks.
Thankfully, Viscount Gilwren wisely signaled the stringed quartet to start playing, helping to mask the awkward silence from the Royal Faction’s side of the room. Trays bearing slices of chocolate mousse with fresh strawberries or lemon tart with whipped cream were brought out shortly as attendants hastily opened several more bottles of wine in the corner to ease the turbulent celebration.