Chapter 53: A Glimmer of Regret
The lightly playing string orchestra with its enchanting flutes, clarinets, and single oboe player set the mood for the evening as the manor guests filtered into the cleared-out banquet hall with a single table set up beneath the windows that offered light refreshments in the form of miniature cakes, plated salmon, oysters, asparagus, roasted chicken, and other delectable, miniaturized snacks. The freshly polished wooden floor gleamed, reflecting the light of the three hanging chandeliers above. Tall floor candelabrums flickered welcomingly all around the walls, sectioned off between decorative tables of potted lilacs to deter any accidental fires.
On the room’s south side, a single platform with two regal chairs was roped off for the guests of honor. Above it hung the Forest Monarch’s silver antlers, decorated with purple ribbons and silver bells, sat mounted on a slab of red cedar wood.
On the north end of the banquet hall, drawn curtains framed two oak doors that led into the manor’s back garden, its paths and water fountains lit up with lanterns.
Lord Rykard led the way into the festive ballroom, followed by his heir, Lord Bromwell, who escorted his partner for the evening, Lady Sophya. They were followed by their guests in order of rank and status, minus the royal couple, who were late in their arrival.
Carina glanced towards Maura’s half-sister curiously as she followed the Viscount’s party, escorted by Colonel Isaac, who wore the Bastiallano dress uniform, complete with medals of honor earned while defending the northern strip of Fogtooth Mountain that bordered the Tharynian territory.
The Duchess wore a glittering silver gown with an open back. Dark green embroidered forest ferns covered the bodice and tapered down the skirt, swishing with the movement of the fabric as she walked, as if blown by the wind. The tiny emeralds, sewn into the tip of nearly every fern, sparkled with each movement and matched her diamond and emerald choker necklace, as well as chandelier fern earrings that dangled beneath the curls of her nearly all-white hair, which had been twisted and braided into an intricate updo, accessorized with a few emerald fern hairpins.
“You look lovely, your Grace,” Walter murmured as they settled into their position between the orchestra and refreshment table, with their guests following suit, partaking of the champagne glasses being brought out on trays by the staff.
“Thank you, Lord Bromwell,” Carina replied, raising a brow at his sudden use of formality. Her gaze returned to Sophya just in time to catch the older girl admiring her dress before her forest-green eyes darted swiftly away. “You look lovely as well, Lady Turnbell.”
Sophya smiled hesitantly as she nervously touched the rose-pink diamond necklace around her neck. “T-thank you. They were my mother’s—I mean—our mother’s…” She trailed off, her eyes darting around the room as she shrank fearfully behind Lord Bromwell, clutching her necklace.
‘Saint’s mercy—she looks as if she expects me to throw a tantrum and demand my share of Helena’s jewelry.’ Carina had to resist the strong temptation to roll her eyes at the ridiculous notion.
“Why don’t we get some of that champagne,” Walter suggested gently as he patted Sophya’s hand that clung to his arm tightly. “Excuse us, your Grace.”
“Sophya has had a rough go of it,” Rykard murmured as they left. “Walter barely managed to convince her to come out of her room and join the ball tonight.”
‘Ah yes, the unfortunate melodrama that is Sophya’s sad life.’
“She, ah—broke off her engagement with Lord Asher only yesterday.”
Carina blinked in surprise as her gaze snapped towards the Viscount. “Really? Why?”
Rykard tapped his stag cane softly against the floor as he raised his chin imperiously. “Because, unlike her mother, Sophya sees the fool for exactly who he is. A skirt climber, just like Josiah.”
The Duchess blinked slowly, feeling an odd mix of befuddled amusement and relief. While she had seen little of Maura’s half-sister, even during their short time together at the hunt, what she had seen of Lord Asher and the company he chose to keep had only made her detest Sophya’s fiancé all the more.
‘Perhaps she’ll manage to avoid ruin after all.’
“The Winslet family has invested quite a bit into this secret engagement,” Carina murmured quietly, conscious of the nobles milling about around them. “The Baron and Baroness might not be so willing to let go without a proper justification and reimbursement.”
“Bah! Gilwren is not so poor that we cannot pay back the pittance those social climbing pirates invested. For a Baron family that came from wealthy smugglers, they were awfully stingy when it came to providing Sophya with a proper wardrobe, much less covering any of the debts left by that no-good lout of a father.”
‘I suppose his distaste and resentment for Josiah remains the same. At least he’s able to look past that now, for Sophya’s sake.’
“Then—Sophya will be staying here?”
“Naturally,” Rykard affirmed with a prompt nod. “I am her only maternal guardian, after all. I shall find Sophya a husband of her equal or better. I owe at least that much to your mother.”
The Duchess pressed her tongue against the roof of her mouth to reign back a sharp retort at the Viscount’s sudden interest in his daughter’s offspring. ‘I suppose he has been keeping closer tabs on us since Helena’s death. It looks like Bryson was correct about Lord Rykard settling Josiah’s blood debt.’
“Of course,” Rykard added hesitantly, twisting his cane as he glanced towards her. “If you’d like me to assist you with—”
“I can manage my personal affairs on my own,” Carina interjected swiftly, accepting the glass of champagne that Colonel Isaac had brought over.
The Viscount blinked, then cleared his throat as he quickly turned to gaze out across the room full of guests. “Yes. Yes, I suppose that is true. You will have no difficulty in finding a husband. If anything, your only obstacle may be choosing which of your suitors will be the most appropriate match for your position.”
The Duchess sputtered, half-choking on the sweetly pear-flavored drink, as she covered her mouth with her hand. Rykard and Isaac hastily offered her a handkerchief, prompting the ice witch to choose her escorts, while the Viscount withdrew his with a faintly hurt expression.
“Have I—” Carina murmured incredulously, dabbing her chin and neck “—so many suitors?”
“Well,” Rykard looked suddenly away, and the Duchess followed his gaze to where the heads of the Noble Faction had gathered around Percy and Serilda. “I suppose that depends. I cannot count on both hands the number of lords who have approached me with questions concerning your courtship.”
“Ignore them,” Carina muttered, resisting the urge to rub the headache forming near her temple. “Better yet, have them address their concerns to Bastiallano’s Fortress. My knights can make use of the paper to light their campfires.”
“If that is your wish, your Grace, then I shall comply. By the way—” the Viscount shifted uncomfortably before reaching into his jacket and pulling out something small wrapped in a satin pink handkerchief. “This—I realize it’s a day late—but it’s a gift—to celebrate your seventeenth birthday.”
‘Another relic of Helena’s past, no doubt.’
“It was your fathers,” Rykard explained hastily as if reading her thoughts. “Something he gave to Helena during their brief tryst. She was too afraid to pawn it but even more afraid of Josiah discovering it, so she sold it to me—years ago—when I so thoughtlessly sent her back to him.”
The genuine grief in his voice touched something in Carina, who reached out silently to accept the gift as the Viscount turned away to rub the corner of his eye.
“I’m ashamed to say I paid her nowhere near its value,” Rykard continued after composing himself. “I left it amongst her other jewels locked away in her room for years. I only had it brought out and properly appraised after her funeral.”
Intrigued, the Duchess opened the pink silk wrapping to find an impressive broach of diamonds the size of her fist, crafted into the familiar shape of a snowflake.
“I was quite shocked to learn it belonged to the dynasty of Isbrand Kings. The seal and inscription on the back confirm this. That fool must have been mad to give away such a precious treasure to a mere fling.”
Carina could feel her heart pounding within her chest and fingertips as she turned the broach over to stare at the miniature snowflake adorned by a crown carved into the silver metal above the faded inscription written in the language of witches. The runes shifted before her as the words burned into her mind, echoed by Viktor’s voice.
To my beloved Carina,
My heart. My Treasure. My Glory.
It took a moment for Carina’s heart to stop racing and focus on the distant voices echoing around her. She blinked in surprise at Hana and Ivy’s sudden appearance beside Colonel Isaac, accompanied by Lieutenant Hadley and Lieutenant Quinn, who had volunteered to serve as their escorts for the evening.
Viscountess Hana looked radiant as always in a sunset blue sleeveless gown. The ruffles of royal blue fabric crisscrossed over the bodice and continued down the skirt, which faded into a creamy orange hue, creating the illusion of butterfly wings. Dozens of blue and gold embroidered butterflies fluttered around the full-length dress, matching the sapphire earrings and jewels adoring her golden curls.
“The bows and arrows you prepared for us are delightfully cute, Lord Gilwren,” Hana said politely as she tapped the miniature bow and quiver wrapped in a corded belt around her waist, similar to those worn by the Duchess and a few other noble ladies. The small weapon was more suited for the hands of a child but was still functional, though the arrows themselves were tipped with harmless sandbags. “I assume they are no more than decorations.”
“Yes, Lady Hana, just part of the costume to celebrate the end of the hunt,” Rykard replied politely as he took her hand in greeting.
“Well, we’ve had a delightful time, thanks to your splendid hospitality, Lord Rykard. But as much as I’ve enjoyed the quiet and warmth of the country, it will be nice to return to Bastiallano with its stable beds and weather.”
“Yes, I suppose I must apologize for Gilwren’s rather unforgivable temperament. The weather has been most peculiar for this time of year.”
“Oh, but it’s not your fault,” Ivy interjected quickly with an apologetic smile before Hana nudged an elbow into her side. “I mean—You’ve been a marvelous host!” The new Viscountess smiled timidly, looking remarkably refreshed in her sage green gown embroidered with bright summer flowers. The sheer, laced sleeves running down her arms matched the translucent cover gliding over her dress, creating an almost ethereal look. Fresh roses and ribbons adorned her hair which had been pulled back into a loose bun that covered her neck while allowing several light blonde curls of hair to frame her narrow jawline and chin.
Carina glanced cautiously at the ruffles added to the cleavage of Ivy’s gown to conceal the faded but still present bruising of the curse’s mark. She had offered her friend a lace shawl for further protection, but Hana quickly argued that it would only draw more unnecessary attention, not to mention add to the lingering heat of the summer evening. Surprisingly, Ivy seemed only too eager to follow the Viscountess’s recommendation.
“And I’ve enjoyed getting to meet the other members of Kirsi’s family,” Ivy added with a nod to where Lord Bromwell had returned with Sophya.
Carina hastily rewrapped the Isbrand broach and tucked it behind her back, torn between anxiety that others would see it and ask questions and her growing desperation to leave the ball, find Viktor, and demand answers.
Sophya glanced over the new members of their gathering and then did a double take upon recognizing Maura’s old maid beneath her mask. “You! You’re—”
“Viscountess Ivy Koresh,” Ivy replied with a glowing smile that silenced the already stuttering girl. “Delighted to meet you—Miss?”
“I say,” Walter interrupted as his gaze swept between them inquisitively. “Excuse me but aren’t you—” Sophya looked about ready to faint, while Ivy blinked with a glimmer of hesitation, “—wearing the same dress?”
Carina exhaled and then chuckled as she made the connection. Both dresses were of similar styles with the same floral design and lace covering, minus the alteration of ruffles, but Sophya’s dress was sky blue, whereas Ivy’s was sage green.
“It—was a gift—from the Viscount,” Sophya rushed to explain as she unfurled her fan and drank her champagne.
“How kind of the Viscount to support his granddaughter’s designs!” Ivy replied with genuine delight, causing Sophya to choke and nearly spit out her drink.
“I—well—” Rykard cleared his throat and turned to scan the crowd of nobles. “I do wonder what’s holding up their Majesties.”
“Why so restless, Cousin?” Percy inquired as he brought over a pair of champagne glasses. The Earl smiled beneath his black mask, shaped into the familiar silhouette of a crow, as he offered the Marchioness a drink.
“Our guest of honor is late,” Serilda commented, accepting the glass with a brief smile but not drinking from it. She looked dazzling, as always, in her glittering navy blue gown, covered with silver and gold stars, bejeweled with diamonds and sapphires.
“Oh, Nicholas will show up when he’s ready,” Percy murmured with a sardonic smile as he tapped one of the sapphire earrings she wore. “He’s just busy enjoying the spoils of a political marriage.”
“As you would have me do?” The Marchioness shot her moss-agate green eyes towards him with a cutting look. “To Marquess Winifred’s son?”
“Lord Eustice is an honorable man. His bloodline is as pure as your own. He is young, intelligent, brave, and blessed with a handsome face, and, most importantly, he is not a man ruled by greed or ambition,” Percy whispered as he circled his cousin, then tapped his glass to her own. “I do not demand you marry him, merely consider the offer that has been made in good faith by our allies. He would make a good husband for you—”
“But he is not the husband I want!”
The Earl’s winter-grey eyes darkened as he turned to face her directly. “Pursuing a crown doomed to fall will only lead you to ruin, Seri. I would not see it so.”
The Marchioness scoffed in disbelief. “Have you become so embroiled in your schemes, Cousin, that you can no longer tell the difference between genuine emotion and acting?” She passed her untouched glass off to a passing servant, then stepped towards him, gently brushing her fingers through the curls of his mahogany-brown hair. “I told you when we were children that I would wait for you to become a man worthy of pursuing me.”
“But you didn’t—” Percy tilted his head away from her touch as he took a deliberate step back “—wait for me to come to power.”
Serilda’s fingers trembled as she curled them into a fist. Her moss-agate green eyes glimmered like chaotic jewels as she repressed the storm of pain his words had roused in her. Then she smiled, the same smile she always wore to appease the ego of men in exchange for their flattery. “You know who and why I was forced to submit to him.”
“If it was such a burden to you—then why debase yourself further by flirting with Henri’s son?”
Serlida eyes widened in shock at the quiet rage behind Percy’s words. Then her brows softened as his resentment lit a flicker of hope within the dark prison of her hardened soul. “I did it for you, Percy! Everything I’ve done since you’ve brought me back has been for you, for the future of your reign, and the liberation of our covens.” She stepped forward to grasp the Earl’s wrist desperately, pleading with her heart and soul as she gazed into his beautifully cold eyes and pressed his fingers to her throat. “Hear me, Percy. You know I speak the truth.”
“Our agreement was for my support in reestablishing you as the leader of the Twilight Coven.”
“So that I could use it to serve you!”
“And—your demand to torture and kill my mother, the Countess?”
“Percy?” Serilda gasped, blinking slowly as she registered the turmoil that writhed beneath his words. “Are you—changing your mind? You know—what Constance did to me—to my—unborn child….”
“I know my mother was not the only one involved in your downfall. The Dowager is most likely the mastermind, and she had just as much access to your food and drink as the Countess. And yet, of all the people involved who had anything to gain from your suffering, the only one you fixated your vengeance on—”
“Because I trusted her! I trusted Constance because she was your mother! Even my father trusted her! He named her my guardian! I spent so much of my early years between your home and mine. I looked up to her—I even thought of her as my mother. And she betrayed me!”
Percy flinched beneath the painful truth of her words and moved his free hand restlessly, silencing their conversation from the inquisitive ears of purebloods and coven witches around them. “My mother was not in her right mind, Seri. The aconitum herb had weakened her—it made her vulnerable to the influences of others—”
“And that justifies her using the same poisonous herb to kill the baby in my womb?”
“What good could possibly come from a half-witch with Havardur blood in their veins?” The Earl flinched as Serilda’s fingernails dug into his skin. He met her horrified gaze and blinked as she dropped his wrist and recoiled. Regret cut him like a knife even as his throat tightened beneath self-loathing and remorse. All he could do was stare into the Marchioness’s beautiful eyes—and the bottomless chasm of anguish and loneliness that he had pushed her back into. “Seri, I’m—”
“You really are just like her,” Serilda hissed, shaking as she backed away, her gaze flickering erratically as she quickly looked anywhere but at him. “If you did this to make me give up on my revenge, then fine—you win. You and your mother can rot together!” She spun, the stars on her gown twinkling bewitchingly, as she turned her back on him and stormed away.
“Seri, no—that’s not what I—” The Earl groaned even as he snapped his fingers and swiftly pulled from Veles’s power to freeze the ballroom of mortals and witches. He stepped forward quickly, releasing the Marchioness from the spell as his fingers closed around her wrist.
Serilda stumbled forward half a step, then whirled around to face him, stiffening as her wide eyes registered the frozen room around them. “You would waste Veles’s power on this?”
Her scornful words stung against his ears even as Percy tightened his grip. “I didn’t mean it, Seri! I spoke without thinking….”
“You only voiced what every witch in our covens was thinking when Constance pushed me aside,” Serilda retorted, her voice breaking even as it cracked with anger. “If this was your way of telling me to give up my one-sided obsession with you—then I hear you!” Her moss-agate green eyes threatened tears as she pulled against his grip, then stopped as her chin slumped toward her chest with a strained whimper. “I understand. I shall marry Lord Eustice. You are right, after all.” She exhaled forcefully, straightening as she met the Earl’s gaze with empty, soulless eyes. “He will make a fine husband.”
“Seri, please!” Percy murmured pleadingly. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.”
“But the only things I’m allowed to do are the things that please you?” She countered with a twisted smile. “Well, I would wish you all the misery that comes with having your heart broken so cruelly—but I know it won’t be long until you stand where I am now and experience this suffocating misery to its fullest.”
He heard the threatening magic building behind her words and shook his head before releasing her wrist. “I’m sorry. What I said was cruel, thoughtless, and uncalled for. Any child of yours—would be the most precious child in existence.”
“Provided they don’t taint the pureblood line,” the Marchioness retorted as she raised her chin defiantly. “Well, go on then, King Percy. Snap your finger and tell us where we should line up and die for you, just like you did with Mercy and her hags.”
“You agreed to that plan!”
“Because Mercy was untrustworthy and dangerous! And because it helped you take control of Lafeara’s third coven—however unpleasant they may be.” Serilda sucked in a breath and laughed as she scanned the frozen ballroom around them again. “Enough of this. You’ll reach your limit soon, and this is a waste of Veles’s power.”
The Earl gritted his teeth, but the strain pressing against his core only confirmed her observation, so he complied. The rush of noise and movement around them was almost startling, yet the two purebloods remained locked in a silent contest of wills as they stared at one another.
Percy dropped his eyes first and bowed his head, far too ashamed to meet her gaze. “I’ll make it up to you, Seri. I’m sorry.”
“I know.” The Marchioness glided towards him. The stars on her dress shimmered just as she did so effortlessly. The proud pureblood’s scarlet smile was little more than a thin veil worn to conceal the empty soul drowning beneath the glitter of opulence and power. The Earl resisted the urge to grab her hand as Serilda placed it lightly on his shoulder before leaning in to whisper in his ear, “But if you ever speak of my children, dead or alive, in that way again, I will slit your throat while you sleep.”
Percy blinked as the image of his naked corpse draped across the disheveled sheets of his bed flickered behind his eyes. Blood poured freely from the jagged cut along his exposed throat and dripped onto the floorboards below. He blinked again, and the image was gone, yet visibly present in Serilda’s smile, before she turned and sailed towards the approaching Marquess Winifred and a beaming, hopeful Lord Eustice.
“Was it a mistake to bring her back?”
The Earl stiffened beneath the invasive thought, an intense rush of guilt and rage curling his free hand into a fist as he watched the Marchioness pull Eustice off towards the open back doors which led to the manor garden.
‘It’s fine. It’s nothing she hasn’t heard before. Serilda will find a way to punish me, and then we’ll be back on good terms.’
“I believe the reason those words had such an effect on her is because they came from you, Earl Hawthorne.”
Percy scowled, finishing his drink as he attempted to brush the sinister whispers of his demanding god aside.
“It would be a simple matter to control her. Serilda’s mind is already broken.”
‘I could ask you the same thing, Veles. You’re a god—yet you rely on mortal witches to do your bidding? Why not simply take choice away from us and treat us like the puppets we are?’
“Don’t tempt me, Hawthorne. You are already pushing the boundaries of our agreement.”
‘Agreement?’ The Earl’s lips twisted into a smirk as he raised his glass and stared at the ghostly image of Veles in its reflection. ‘When you find another Hawthorne to take my place, just let me know. I’ll happily transfer your blessing to him.’
“You wouldn’t dare!”
‘You’re right. I’d probably kill the bastard just to stop you from using them to harm Kirsi.’
“Still a fool, after all.”
‘Am I?’ Percy shrugged as the six-eyed crow disappeared beneath the fog of his breath on the glass. ‘Perhaps that is just the privilege of being mortal. We dream of the future, no matter how uncertain it might seem. Our sense of worth comes from the pursuit of the unknown and the impossible.’
The Earl resisted the urge to toss the tainted glass aside as he would if he were in his own manor, scanning the room for a nearby servant, which he flagged down for a fresh cup. Marquess Winifred joined him soon after, looking especially pleased, just as the courtier standing by the banquet doors announced the arrival of the late royal guests of honor.