Chapter 48: An Anchoring of Trust
Carina felt strangely delirious as she opened her eyes to the blinding sunlight that breached the pale blue clouds that stretched lazily above her, casting a halo of light around her vision. She blinked slowly, mesmerized by the woman kneeling over her, whose bright blue eyes and smiling face glowed with warmth and familiarity. A tingle of pain ran down her neck as a cough sprang up the back of her throat, opening her lungs fully.
When she opened her eyes again, the shrouded wall of men kneeling around her was all she could see. The Duchess blinked up at them slowly. The unsettling sensation of coming from somewhere—of losing time, tickled against her brain as the smell of smoke, blood, and rain crashed against her awakening senses.
The muddy, pale faces of her knights, Colonel Isaac in particular, took shape around the Duchess as she raised her head carefully from the cold hard earth below. They were all drenched and in various states of disorderly dress, though only a handful looked as if they had rushed straight from their beds without grabbing a single piece of their armor kit.
“You’re awake, your Grace,” Isaac murmured with relief as she turned to regard his pale wet hair curiously.
“Yes, but—why am I on the ground?”
“You don’t remember?”
The Duchess frowned as she pressed her hands against the dirt. Her muscles were stiff and weak as if she’d slept in far too long. The Colonel placed a hand against her back, supporting Carina as she sat up. She rested there a while, embarrassed and confused, and then brushed a hand against the back of her skull to check for any unexplained lumps.
‘It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve woken up after being knocked unconscious…no wait, that’s Kirsi…not me….’
“Let’s give her some space,” Isaac called out, prompting Lieutenant Quinn to usher the men away.
The knights shuffled back to a more reserved distance, clearing her line of sight to the half-collapsed, smoldering military tent behind them. Carina immediately connected the dots as she grabbed the back of her neck where the bog fly had bitten her, then swung her gaze back to the Colonel questioningly.
“Our Huntsman, Jasper, brought a bog witch to save you,” Isaac explained, standing up fully before offering his hand to her. “She drew out the poison, but there’s—we have a new complication to deal with.”
The Duchess accepted his hand, allowing the Colonel to pull her to her feet and steady her as Carina took in the unfamiliar woman standing only a few yards to their left, cornered by none other than Captain Beaumont.
Of all the witches Carina had seen in Lafeara, this young woman’s waist-length red braids, black scale armor, and pale skin lined with dark veins certainly looked the part. A corded belt that appeared to be made of green and purple seaweed adorned her waist, clinking with a colorful assortment of shells, fish skulls, and various small bottles that contained foamy, murky water, though one appeared to hold sand and a few moving, small crustaceans.
The bog witch stood rigidly with a pale hand pressed over her mouth, her expression somewhere between terrified and needing to vomit. The Knight Captain, who stared her down with a threatening glare, appeared unphased as he held the tip of his sword against her sternum.
Beside the Duchess, Lumi whined petulantly as she wiggled her snout under Carina’s hand for attention. The sound drew Beaumont’s gaze towards them, draining the cold, threatening energy from his eyes as his shoulders relaxed.
“Captain, what are you doing?” Carina pressed cautiously as she took a few steps towards them, shrugging off Isaac’s cautioning grip and dismissing her scriva. “This lady is our guest. More to the point, she has done me a great service by removing poison left by Arachne’s assassins.”
“She is one of Arachne’s chosen,” Beaumont growled as his violet eyes returned to the bog witch frozen before him. “Her true intentions will always be in service of her goddess.”
“Arachne chose me, not the other way around,” the bog witch hissed through clenched teeth. She quickly hid her mouth, grimacing as a thin black substance seeped free and spread along her gums.
“You lie! I know eel blood when I smell it, sea witch!”
“What are you doing?”
The Duchess turned to where the perspiring Huntsman raced towards them, Lieutenant Hadley not far behind, leading, of all things, two reluctant cows in their direction with the help of a few other knights.
“Get your sword away from her!” Jasper snapped as he pushed the bog witch back, stepping protectively between her and the Knight Captain’s blade. “Larissa is not your enemy!”
‘I need to control this situation before it gets out of hand. While I’m inclined to trust Beaumont’s instinct, these two are my best chance at coming up with a decent strategy to vanquish a witch plague.’
“Captain Beaumont put away your sword,” Carina intoned authoritatively, circling the witches towards the royal knight, who flinched with uncertainty as she placed her hand on his sword arm. “If she wanted me dead, she more than had her chance just now. She took a greater risk helping me.”
Beaumont turned his violet eyes towards her questioningly. The Duchess offered a smile of reassurance as she moved her fingers to his sword hand and guided the blade down slowly.
“Kirsi!” The sudden crushing arms of Hana wrapped themselves around Carina as the Duchess staggered away from the knight captain. “Are you alright? Captain Silas took us to the manor but wouldn’t say what was happening.”
“I’m perfectly fine,” Carina replied, her answer muffled by the folds of the Viscountess’s night robe and her loose golden curls. “All is well. Captain Silas made the right choice. I just—” the Duchess grunted with effort as she attempted to pull Hana’s arms away, “—have a few things to sort out with the knights and our guests. Why don’t you and Ivy get dressed and prepare for breakfast?”
The Viscountess slowly relaxed her grip, blinking back tears as she took a step back to examine the ice witch critically. Carina offered her a brief smile of assurance before turning her attention to Ivy, who stood huddled in her own bedrobe, examining the aftermath of their brief but violent clash with Arachne’s minions.
‘So much for a relaxing vacation before Ivy starts her new life as a school matron.’
The Duchess grimaced before turning her attention to the man beside her friend. “Thank you, Captain Silas. How are things up at the manor?”
“The staff were concerned by our unexpected arrival and state of dress,” Silas responded sheepishly as he scratched his head. “They informed Viscount Gilwren, who was most insistent with his questions. I couldn’t think of a convincing excuse so—”
“Lady Kirsi, your—tent?” Ivy murmured, still apparently in a state of shock as she pointed towards the smoldering structure. “Your clothes and—shoes!”
“Ahh, yes,” Carina murmured absently, shaking her head as she turned to Colonel Isaac. “Could you have the men salvage whatever they can find?”
‘I’m going to need more than a nightgown and ice armor to get through the rest of this absurd holiday.’
“Kirsi—what is one of them doing here?” Hana demanded suddenly, her voice threateningly low as her turquoise-blue eyes narrowed in on Larissa.
‘Now Hana has a problem with her too?’
“Look, I think we should really discuss how we’re going to deal with this?” Silas interjected bluntly, speaking over the Viscountess. “I don’t think we’ll be able to cover up something of this scale.”
“We can’t just openly say we were attacked by a group of bog witches out of nowhere,” Lieutenant Hadley argued with a shake of his head. “There are already enough rumors about the Duchess—”
“We should focus our efforts on making sure we’re better prepared for the next attack if—when they come back,” reasoned Lieutenant Quinn.
“We can’t keep his Majesty in the dark about this either,” Silas argued emphatically. “And with this, we have a justifiable reason to end this pretentious royal hunt, get the royal family safely back to the capital, let them deal with the nobles there, and then fortify ourselves at Bastiallano.”
“We will do whatever the Duchess decides,” Isaac growled, passing the Bastiallano Captain a warning glare.
“Whatever you decide! Why are you discussing it out in the open—in front of them?!” Hana interjected, the venom in her voice startling the Duchess from the barrage of problems and conversations happening all around her.
“Your Grace,” Beaumont murmured, squeezing past the Viscountess towards her. “I’d like a word.”
“Stop! Just stop!” Carina snapped, raising her hands, half tempted to freeze them all in place for a few minutes just so she could think. Her strained voice hushed the murmurs of knights waiting all around them as Isaac and his officers straightened and fell into a respectful silence. “I realize that a lot has happened—on top of the mess of issues we already have to deal with—but handling it like this is not the answer!”
The Duchess exhaled slowly, avoiding Beaumont’s confused look as she turned to address her officers in turn. “Captain Silas, you will resume today’s security for the manor and royal family as planned. Please see to it each patrol is properly prepared, and any losses from this morning—are filled with the appropriate men.” The Captain nodded, looking faintly deflated as he bowed his head. “While you are monitoring his Majesty, you will keep me informed of his every move and notify me immediately if there are any plans to resume the hunt or return to the Capital early. No one is to speak of what has occurred here this morning to anyone without my permission. Is that understood?”
The knights all nodded in obedient silence as Carina cast her glance over their grim and resolute faces.
A weak and muffled groan pulled the Duchess’s attention to where Larissa stood, partially collapsed in the Huntsman’s arms.
“I—we need to deal with this!” Jasper blurted out, concern ringing through every word.
“Lieutenant Hadley, please see to it our guests have everything they need,” Carina ordered swiftly. “I will speak to them later once Lady Larissa has recovered.”
The bog witch raised her murky blue eyes to meet the Duchess’s with a cynical, baffled snort before her hand dropped weakly to her chest. The black stain that coated her lips and chin and the dark veins spreading down her jaw and neck sent a shiver down Carina’s spine.
‘It’s—almost the same as Ivy’s curse. Perhaps—’
Jasper wasted no time as he lifted his companion into his arms and rushed towards the cows, lowing impatiently as they wandered back in the direction of their field. Lieutenant Hadley snapped a quick salute to the Duchess before jogging after them.
Carina exhaled worriedly, hope and fear clawing against reason and caution as she glanced toward Ivy before turning her tired gaze to Colonel Isaac.
The previous Commander of Bastiallano’s knights offered her a quick nod of understanding before turning to address his men. “Lieutenant Quinn, continue seeing to our wounded and dead. Those of you not on shift recovery or scheduled to patrol this morning report to the Lieutenant. Get yourselves properly dressed, and then get this camp organized! I don’t want to see a single bug, dead or alive, within a mile of us! Sergeant Darnell, organize the Duchess’s belongings, list down any damaged items that need to be replaced, and carry whatever you can salvage to the manor.”
“I-I can—help with that,” Ivy offered timidly as she raised her hand.
“That would be most helpful. Thank you, my Lady.”
“You are moving Lady Kirsi back to the manor?” Hana questioned quickly.
“We do not have another tent appropriate for her Grace to use in the field,” Isaac replied before meeting the Duchess’s questioning stare. “And stone walls make a better barrier against—rain and pests.”
“All the same,” Carina murmured. “Prepare a temporary tent for me here. I don’t think it would be wise to meet so openly with our guests in front of the nobles.”
“Perhaps if we offered her different clothes to wear?” Ivy suggested, her voice barely loud enough to register.
“Perhaps.” The Duchess glanced awkwardly to where Beaumont stood silently as if waiting his turn to be addressed. “Ivy, you and Hana should see to your things as well. Your tents might have been damaged in the skirmish—get dressed and then start moving our things into the manor. Just tell the Viscount the storm did some damage, and we decided it would be better to take him up on his offer of shelter. I’ll join you in just a moment.”
“But—Wait, Kirsi!” Hana protested as the ice witch turned to address the royal knight.
“Captain Beaumont, I would also like to speak to you privately for a moment if you’d care to follow me?”
The knight captain nodded silently, his expression reserved as the Duchess walked towards him. It was only when Carina absently reached for his arm before correcting herself and simply striding past him that she saw the corner of his mouth twitch slightly with the hint of a smile.
“I’ll be quick,” Carina began promptly, only stopping to face him after they had walked to the edge of the camp. “I need to know what Nicholas is planning. There is too much at risk with a private army of mercenaries standing idly on one side and now more than one group of hostile witches appearing out of nowhere. This is no longer a safe jaunt through the woods to blow off steam, the royal family could very well be in danger.”
Beaumont nodded slowly as he turned to survey the busy camp of knights behind them. “Marquess Borghese claims his target has always been the Crown Princess. According to his testimony, the fire witches your men encountered were sent by a member of the Ventrayna Royal family—although who and why, the Marquess would not say.”
‘Is that what happened in the original timeline? I thought Acheron’s death was strange, especially if it was Lord Marco who was the foreign noble arrested, but what if Eleanora was the true target? Lord Marco is part of her hunting group along with Lord Acheron.’ Her brows knitted in confusion as each theory only presented more questions. ‘But why set Marco up if foreign witches were to blame? Also, Maura didn’t mention anything about the Crown Princess being in any danger during the Royal Hunt, though—she was stuck at Rose Palace while the royal couple was away.’
“What does Nicholas intend to do then?” Carina exhaled tensely. “Targeting Eleanora is still an attack on the crown—not to mention the risk to national security if Ventrayna were to use this as an excuse to invade….”
“That—I don’t know,” Beaumont admitted reluctantly. The disinterest in his voice irked the Duchess, who narrowed her gaze at him in disbelief. “I can only tell you what I’ve witnessed and overheard, your Grace. His Majesty has been in talks with Viscount Norley on more than one occasion. The Viscount serves as a temporary representative of Duke Hargreve. There was talk of punishing the Marquess for a lesser crime—and the suggestion of Nicholas taking Lady Priscilla as a Consort to appease the Royal Faction and Lord Stryker.”
Carina stared at him in disbelief, momentarily distracted by the detachment in his voice as Beaumont spoke of his own father, then slowly registering what it was he actually said. “Wait—are you saying—the Marquess is going to get away with it?!”
“Not entirely. I believe Nicholas intends to strip the Marquess of his title and power—”
“—yes, while in the same breath granting Borghese and the Duke more power by making Priscilla a Consort!” The Duchess turned away, folding her left arm across the elemental chest plate as she pressed the cold fingers of her right hand against her lips. “Is this a move against me? Is Nicholas trying to ensure that I, and by extension, the Noble Faction remain the weaker of the two? Does he—” she paused, returning her ice-blue eyes to the knight captain, “—know that I’m a witch?”
Beaumont frowned as he considered her question. “It’s possible that Nicholas suspects, but—he’s made no mention of it in my presence.”
‘Then, if he does know or is at least suspicious, Nicholas is circling around the issue. His stance beside Eleanora last night seemed to suggest that he still wants to maintain a balance of power between the two factions while ruling over both. So, letting the Marquess off and marrying Priscilla is what—another attempt to maintain influence over one party while appeasing their opponents?’
The Duchess pressed her fist against her lips with a groan before dropping her head in exasperation.
“I will say that although Nicholas criticized your arrest of the Marquess and his nobles, he stands firm in his support of you as Duchess,” Beaumont added as if hoping to reassure her. “The Crown Prince has been pinned in his entire life by one force or another. He views you favorably as an ally that can help him obtain a bit more freedom and power.”
“So, is he afraid of the nobles, or is it just Duke Stryker? Because rewarding someone for breaking the law isn’t much of a deterrent to stop them from trying again!”
“I think Nicholas just wants to avoid the possibility of a rebellion on any front before his coronation.”
‘That makes sense. Challenging the Royal Faction now could lead to problems that would drag over into his coronation. But once Nicholas becomes King…no, if he was planning to weaken the Royal Faction permanently, he wouldn’t make the Duke’s niece his Consort.’ Carina shook her head as she crossed her arms and paced restlessly beside the knight captain. ‘This is a disaster either way. Priscilla became a Royal Consort after the Royal Hunt in Maura’s timeline. Her entry into the palace was the beginning of the Crown Princess’s downfall. And Eleanora’s brief disappearance and death happen only a few days after Nicholas is crowned king, forcing the Pope to extend his visit.’ The Duchess spun in place, reversing the direction of her tight circle as she compared recent events to those of Maura’s past life. ‘Small events may have been altered or averted, but the main events that led to Maura’s execution appear to be falling into place.’
“So what?” Kirsi murmured, stirring irritably beneath Carina’s troubled thoughts. “You got Hana away from her for a reason. Let Eleanora sink or swim on her own.”
“Your Grace?” Beaumont pressed cautiously as he inched towards the smothered circle of grass left beneath her pacing feet. “If there is anything else I can do to help?”
“No.” The Duchess sighed as she slowed to a halt, then turned to face him. “Thank you, Captain, for being open and honest with me.”
He took a step closer, smiling slightly as he eyed the new streaks of white spilling out of her ash-brown hair. “I told you I won’t lie or hurt you.”
“Then, can you also keep Larissa’s identity and presence here a secret for me?” Carina watched as his violet eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched before he looked away and nodded silently. “Thank you, Beaumont.” The knight captain’s focused gaze drew her attention toward the line of knights baring covered stretchers, carrying the dead towards the edge of the forest where they were laid out for burial preparations. “Oh, one more thing, Captain.”
Beaumont raised a brow as she stepped up beside him.
“The scout that encountered the fire witches said there was a royal knight among them acting as a messenger for the Marquess.”
His violet eyes hardened with understanding as he straightened and sighed. “So, the Royal Knights has a traitor in our midst.”
“I wish I could tell you more, but—the scout didn’t get a good look at him.”
“This was yesterday morning?”
The Duchess nodded.
“I should be able to narrow it down,” Beaumont replied with a hint of frustration. “Though it will take some time to dig up any connections they might have with the Marquess. If your scout remembers any other details—”
“Sergeant Cooper’s been sleeping mostly, but if he does remember anything else, I’ll let you know,” Carina promised as her gaze moved to the cloud of crows swooping low over the vibrantly swaying green crown of Gilwren Forest.
‘Now then, before the next unexpected crisis, I should speak to our guests.’