Chapter 55: A Dance of Rivals
Beaumont tapped the heavy golden chain of office that hugged his shoulders and frowned as he noted the red mountain bear symbol engraved into the medallion centerpiece, the sigil of Duke Stryker’s household. He glanced to the side, an intense dislike welling inside him as he met the piercing gaze of the whispering nobles around them. While Beaumont had grown accustomed to standing out due to his height alone, more often than not, he was just as quickly dismissed into the background as a mere royal knight, little more than an ornate piece of furniture that happened to carry a sword—but not anymore.
The newly minted Marquess lifted his violet eyes questioningly to the Crown Prince as Nicholas made use of the raised platform to grant the giant a friendly embrace. “There, that wasn’t so terrible, was it?”
“Your Majesty,” Beaumont murmured as the enthusiastic monarch pulled back. “How exactly am I meant to clear out corruption in Brigovia while simultaneously serving as your bodyguard?”
“Ah,” Nicholas’s smile shifted into a rueful grin as his arms dropped to his side. “Well, I suppose I’ll have to find a trustworthy replacement from among the Royal Knights to take your position—and quickly. But that is a worry for another day. For now—” the Crown Prince took the new Marquess’s arm as he stepped down from the platform and turned the compliant giant in the direction of the scattered nobles. “The second dance is about to begin, so you should claim your partner quickly before someone else beats you to her.”
Beaumont’s eyes darted toward the Duchess standing off to the side beside Viscount Gilwren, flanked by her knights and ladies. Kirsi’s ice-blue eyes met his as she tipped her head towards him in acknowledgment with a curious smile that prompted him to move quickly in her direction.
Behind the new Marquess, Nicholas hastily signaled Acheron, who waited beside the orchestra as planned, still holding the knight captain’s sword, which appeared to be weighing the nobleman down and wearing him out. The Rogue, however, appeared distracted from his task. His steel-blue eyes gazed yearningly in the direction of Marchioness Serilda, who stood amidst a crowd of laughing noblemen. The Crown Prince groaned and turned in desperation to Attwood, who raised his brows in confusion at the prince’s curious hand gestures.
“The dance—tell them to start the next dance!” Nicholas hissed loud enough to draw the gaze of a few confused nobles.
Beaumont’s lips twitched with amusement at the Crown Prince’s frustrated voice that soon faded behind him amidst the crowd. With most Lafearian balls, the second dance, which followed the royal family’s opening waltz, was usually reserved for couples who were either married, engaged, or at least in the process of courting.
An excited murmur spread through the nobles as the orchestra shifted from the soft melody used for the interim between dances to playing the intro of another waltz. A round of applause soon followed as couples joined hands and glided to the center of the room, though those near the towering Marquess were careful to avoid blocking his path.
Beaumont’s eyes narrowed as he noticed movement from one corner of the room and quickly spotted Earl Hawthorne’s lanky figure gracefully cutting through the crowd toward the Duchess.
‘Oh no, you don’t.’
With his mother’s sword no longer within close proximity, Beaumont had been struggling to keep his powers firmly restrained. But—now that he had a reason to use them…. His next foot on the ballroom floor sent a ripple of invisible energy through the wooden planks until he found, pinpointed, and locked the Earl’s feet to the floor.
Percy nearly fell over, maintaining his balance only at the last second as his eyes widened in confusion and alarm. Beaumont chuckled as the confounded air witch attempted to yank his limbs free, which only intensified the pressure bolting his feet to the ground. A flicker of pain surfaced on the Earl’s face before his winter-gray eyes narrowed, tracking the magic at play and following its trail back to the grinning Marquess.
Beaumont offered a nod of acknowledgment to the trapped pureblood, whose jaw dropped open in realization. Satisfied that there would be no interference this time, the Marquess focused on the remainder of his journey to Kirsi, who observed him curiously over her shoulder as she conversed with her attendants.
“Why hello, Captain Beaumont,” Hana greeted, stepping forward to offer him a shallow curtsey. “Or should I call you Marquess Beaumont?”
“Ah, Lady Hana,” Beaumont accepted her offered hand and bowed his head politely before it. His eyes narrowed at the golden veins that spread down her wrist, along her arms, and on towards the beating glow of her golden heart, which pulsed with the slowly awakening power of the divine. The Marquess’s polite smile stiffened in recognition before he withdrew his hand and focused on the Duchess, who had turned to greet him. “I am still the Crown Prince’s bodyguard. Captain will suffice for now.”
“Still?” Kirsi murmured, offering him one of the bubbling glasses of champagne she had liberated from a passing servant. “Does that mean you’ll be leaving your position here at the palace?”
“Eventually, yes,” he replied, carefully accepting the fragile drink and tapping it against her own. “Though I’ll still visit the palace in the future as a member of the House of Lords—if Nicholas has his way, that is.”
“Goodness,” Hana murmured, sliding her arm around Kirsi’s as she gazed up at the new Marquess with a look of awe. “From a mere knight captain to a leading member of the House of Lords.”
“You’ll be very busy in the coming months, Marquess,” Lord Rykard interjected as he stepped forward to offer his hand.
Beaumont hesitated, then shook the Viscount’s hand carefully, conscious of the mortal’s brittle bones and the slight inflammation in the older man’s joints. He reflected then, as he had when Lady Jasmine breathed her last, on how incredibly delicate mortal lives truly were.
His anxious gaze darted over to Kirsi, who continued to observe him over her drink. Her flawless eyes, like the spring blue sky reflected on a mountain peek, narrowed inquisitively as she met his gaze without flinching. He felt the pull then, as he always did. An indescribable feeling of bliss and comfort, like returning to the open door of his mother’s prayer cottage, fresh with the scent of flowers and shrubs, as the earth below his feet hummed in greeting like a childhood friend.
The sound of the orchestra, the nobles, and even the irritating whispers of ghosts that meandered around the ballroom unnoticed, as oblivious to the world of the living as it was to them, faded slowly into the background as Beaumont passed his untouched drink to the surprised Viscount, and bowed his head toward the glittering Duchess.
“May I—have this dance, your Grace?”
Kirsi arched a brow as she considered the hand he offered toward her. “Are you sure that’s a good idea, Marquess? The last time we danced—I didn’t exactly walk away unscathed,” she added with a teasing grimace.
“The last time we danced, I was distracted,” Beaumont replied, subtly increasing pressure on the trapped Earl struggling to remain upright several yards away from them. “I won’t get caught off guard again.”
“What in the Saints is happening to Lord Percy?” Ivy murmured anxiously, pulling the gaze of their group to where Marchioness Serilda knelt beside the sweating Earl Hawthorne, who had been pushed to his knees on the floor.
‘Looks like he’s just about at his limit.’
The Marquess straightened as he turned to regard the struggling pureblood with feigned ignorance. When he glanced towards the Duchess, she appeared equally amused, though also faintly concerned. That irritated him, so with a flick of his gaze, Beaumont released the tether that bound the Earl to the magnetic core of the earth, setting the witch free.
Lord Percy staggered to his feet, swaying and panting with effort as he pressed a hand to his chest.
‘Hmm, did I, perhaps, apply too much pressure?’ Beaumont pondered absently, ignoring the Earl’s pointed glare as the Marquess turned his focus back to the Duchess.
“Your Grace.” He took the half-finished glass from the ice witch’s hand, dumped the remaining champagne down his throat, and handed the empty glass to a dumbstruck Hana before taking the Duchess’s hand and leading her onto the floor.
“You’re being strangely assertive today,” Kirsi murmured, glancing to where his hand rested gently below the exposed skin of her shoulder blades. He nodded in response, noting with interest the pink silk handkerchief she clutched against the glittering silver fabric of her dress, which appeared to be wrapped around something small and flat.
“You have no idea what I had to endure just to have the chance to dance with you,” Beaumont replied, leading her into the swirling group of dancers. The ridiculous memory of Peyton trying to ambush him after Acheron lured the knight captain into the private baths tickled against the back of his throat. The royal steward was now unconscious with a broken nose and a swollen eye and even more reason to flinch at the sight of the giant knight. “I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity.”
The Duchess’s brows furrowed slightly as she spun away from him in time with the other dancers around them. The green ferns of her skirt swirled like branches beneath a storm before he pulled her back and gazed into her startled eyes. “You’re—too close,” Kirsi murmured, inching away as they continued with the dance.
“Am I? My apologies.”
She averted her gaze, falling silent for a moment before blurting out awkwardly, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you without your sword.”
Beaumont felt his chest tighten at the reminder. His violet eyes darted to where he had last seen the Rogue and his dragon blade, but both had since left the orchestra behind. His jaw clenched as he resisted the urge to track its location. No one but him could pull the dragon tooth free anyway.
“Are you all right?” Kirsi asked, picking up on his frustration.
“Ah, yes. Forgive me. I haven’t been separated from my sword in nearly a decade—I feel half-naked without it,” Beaumont mumbled absently. His hands moved to her waist as he spun and lifted her above him. By the time the Duchess’s feet touched the ballroom floor again, she was blushing furiously and pointedly ignored his gaze. It took Beaumont a moment to realize what he’d said, which led him to recall the last time she had seen him half-undressed.
‘I wonder what it would take to earn another kiss?’
“So, now that you’ll no longer be serving as the Crown Prince’s bodyguard—I suppose that means you’re free to choose your own path forward,” Kirsi commented, finally dragging her gaze back toward him.
“Ahh, the freedom to choose.” The Marquess chuckled. “Initially, my deal with Nicholas was that I would be his sword and protector until his official coronation as king. But now that he’s made me a Marquess—I suspect he’ll still be directing my choices in the future.”
“What led you to make such a deal with him, to begin with?” Her inquisitive stare held a hint of wary uncertainty that furrowed her delicate brows.
‘She really is nothing like the Kirsi I remember.’ It was strange how much that thought comforted him and filled the Marquess’s chest with worry.
“My mother,” Beaumont answered with a faint sigh. “She told me my fate would find me in Lafeara’s palace.”
“Fate?” Kirsi’s tone shifted quickly from surprise to cynicism.
“You may have heard that my mother was a Tharyian Priestess of Minerva,” he explained hesitantly. “I barely remember the day we became prisoners of the great Duke Stryker, but—she always told me it was her fate to meet him and bring me to Lafeara. Then, shortly before she died, she told me it was my fate to enter the palace and serve the Second Prince.”
“Your mother—was she a Seer?”
Beaumont raised his brow and shrugged. “Priests and Priestesses of Minerva are said to receive visions of the future in times of great need. Lady Jasmine always told me her visions came from the Moon Goddess, the mother of all immortals. When I was younger, I believed my mother because I trusted her. Then, as I grew older, I wondered why her visions didn’t save the priests of our village from the General’s ambush.”
A hostile presence pulled his gaze away briefly to where Earl Hawthorne watched them near the open back doors.
“I had half a mind to leave Lafeara completely after securing the means to transport my mother’s remains—but then Nicholas made his ridiculous request, and—I remember Lady Jasmine’s vision that I would serve the Second Prince. So I stayed and waited—and then you appeared.”
A slow smile crept across the Marquess’s face as he watched her expression flicker between confusion and embarrassment.
“Are you saying—that we were fated to meet?” Kirsi retorted with a faint scoff.
“I think our meeting was just the beginning of the future my mother saw for me,” Beaumont responded, spinning her closer to his side as the music’s tempo eased toward its conclusion.
“You’re—changing the dance steps!” Kirsi stammered, momentarily off balance.
“And you’re keeping me at arm’s length,” he countered, elongating his stride to move in closer to the startled ice witch.
“You’re being difficult!”
“Then why do I feel like I would gladly do anything you asked of me?”
Her eyes widened in surprise as she held her breath, then blinked as applause echoed around the small ballroom, signaling the end of the dance. “Please, stop.”
“Flirting,” Kirsi hissed, pushing against his chest while glancing at the nobles around them.
“Didn’t you say that you’d do anything I asked of you?”
Beaumont tilted his head in acknowledgment as he allowed her to wriggle free while holding onto her right hand. “I was thinking more along the lines of toppling a monarchy or eradicating the Pope and his army. You know. Something reasonable.”
The Duchess’s gaze, momentarily focused on the hand that restrained her, snapped up to the Marquess’s face with a look of alarm as her mouth dropped open. She hastily composed herself while shooting him a look that suggested he must be insane.
“I don’t suppose I could ask you to indulge me for one more dance?” Beaumont murmured, noting his rival’s steady approach.
“It’s not often I get the chance to put my mother’s lessons to good use,” he continued, overriding her protest with a pleading look. “I’ve been little more than a wallflower for the past seven years.” The Marquess held his breath as the Earl drew nearer and heard his victory in her soft, reluctant sigh.
“Fine,” Kirsi relented as the orchestra’s melody changed. “But the next dance is the minuet, so you had better stay in step.”
“As you command,” Beaumont replied, lifting his gaze to offer Percy a victorious grin. The pureblood stumbled to a halt as the Marquess led the Duchess toward the line of nobles waiting in pairs to participate in the next dance.
“It seems you’ve been regulated to the background,” Serilda whispered behind her fan as she joined the quietly trembling Earl. “Unless you’d like to pair up with me and join them? Perhaps we could make a quartet.”
Percy scoffed as he slowly reigned in the dangerous air current whirling around the fingers of his left hand. “As much as I’d love to, I think I’d better get some fresh air.”
“Goodness, you almost sound as if you’re giving up.”
“Not now, Seri,” Percy replied with a note of weariness as he headed towards the open back doors. He gritted his teeth as the nobles parted out of his way respectfully. Some peace and quiet in the open air was what he needed, that and the pounding in his chest to go away.
‘What the hell was that anyway? Certainly not air magic. Earth then? Why the hell doesn’t he smell like a witch if he has that much power?!’
The tendrils of conversation that tickled distractedly against his ears suddenly caught his attention as Percy focused in on a familiar man’s voice. “The Pope will support us if necessary.”
The Earl’s gaze snapped towards a group of Royal Faction nobles gathered around the annoyingly persistent Viscount Norley. ‘That man is like a coyote, constantly sniffing about for an opening. And here I was hoping the Royal Faction would direct its focus on Nicholas after the stunt he pulled.’
Percy sighed restlessly as he passed through the doors, welcoming the vacuum of quiet that washed over him as he sealed away the noise of the ball. The pureblood descended the stone steps slowly, inhaling and exhaling on each alternate slab until his heart rate eased back into its normal rhythm as his polished dress shoes crunched against the gravel below.
The humid night air hummed with the tranquil symphony of melodic chirps, croaks, and a few distinct hoots. The scent of the forest was all around him, blissfully absent of any disturbing odor related to remnants, bog witches, or even a fire witch.
The Earl’s lips curled into a cynical smile as he allowed his keen senses to relax in this rare moment of peace. ‘This is just the calm before the storm.’
A whispered breath and the faint sound of a shoe grinding in place against the pebbled ground whipped Percy’s attention over to where Sophya Turnbell crouched in the shadows behind a yew bush. The pureblood quickly focused his senses on her and smiled at the palpable frantic heartbeat that thudded before his presence.
“Well, well—if it isn’t the one that got away.”
Like a cornered rabbit sensing its end, the Turnbell girl lurched upright and sprinted toward the ballroom door. The instinct to trip the foolish mortal’s feet and watch her smash her brains open on the stone steps trickled through his thoughts, but Percy subdued them, settling for cutting her off a few feet from the open doors and dragging her back into the shadows of the dimly lit balcony.
“And just what are you doing out here all alone?” He growled, enjoying the scent of tears and terror that rolled down her cheeks before the strong whiff of alcohol overwhelmed both. “Are you—drunk?”
Sophya hiccupped against his fingers but shook her head furiously. It was only then that Percy realized the smell came from her damp bodice, where more than one glass of champagne appeared to have spilled across her dress.
Understanding followed, and with it, the irritating sense of pity that compelled the Earl to release her and offer his handkerchief instead.
Sophya stared at the white silk handkerchief, her expression shifting comically from terror, to confusion, to disbelief. “W-w-why?”
“Because your face is a mess, and there’s no fun in tormenting someone else’s prey.”
A bit of pride and spirit returned to the Turnbell girl’s forest-green eyes before she snatched his handkerchief, then attempted to bolt for the door again. Percy grabbed her arm and quickly shoved Sophya back against the balcony railing.
“I didn’t say you could go.”
“W-what do you want from me?”
‘Good question.’ The Earl gritted his teeth, his expression silencing the Turnbell girl, who wiped her face in silence before holding out his handkerchief in a trembling hand. “You’ve soiled it now. Just keep it.”
Sophya clenched her jaw but remained silent, careful to avoid meeting his gaze.
“So, who is tormenting you?”
Percy rolled his eyes. “Never lie to a Hawthorne. Besides, it’s obvious just from looking at you. Is it this fiancé?”
“No, I’m—no longer engaged.”
‘Really? And after all that effort I put into ensuring the Winslet family went bankrupt after their merchant ships sank in the harbor.’
“Why do you care anyway? You hate me—don’t you?”
“I hold a strong distaste for anyone with the Turnbell name,” Percy replied with a growl. “Maybe you should marry the Winslet boy and be rid of it.”
“Never,” Sophya responded stubbornly as she straightened her spine. “May I leave now?”
“Not until you explain this.” The Earl gestured at her ruined dress.
“It doesn’t matter. I won’t see any of them ever again after this.”
A strong sense of déjà vu made Percy smile despite himself. The Turnbell girl’s reckless, stubborn nature was remarkably similar to that of a certain half-blood Duchess.
Sophya suddenly stiffened as two mortals passed through the sound barrier across the balcony’s double doors behind them. The Earl blinked in surprise as the Turnbell girl grabbed the lapel of his jacket, shrinking behind him even as a young woman’s voice rang out.
“I’m telling you she went this way. Bitch!”
“Valarie, leave it. Asher doesn’t want us doing anything yet until he’s had a chance to try and convince her.”
“He’s not going to change her mind, Rufous! That stuck-up little orphan has struck gold with Viscount Gilwren. Now that she has money, jewels, and Lord Rykard backing her—she won’t give a poor, crippled Baron a second glance.”
“Since when was Asher poor?”
“Shut up! Just help me find her!”
“Val—what are we supposed to do when we find her?”
“I don’t know. But that bitch owes Asher big time, and I’m not leaving without my pound of flesh.”
‘Ah!’ Percy sighed, connecting the very obvious dots as he watched the two nobles storm out towards the water fountains. “Friends of yours?”
“They’re—Asher’s cousins,” Sophya whispered, trembling as she circled behind him to watch the pair drift further away.
“And I’m guessing—she did that to you?” He gestured to her gown, and after a moment’s hesitation, the Turnbell girl nodded. “Well then, why don’t we get even?”
Sophya blinked, her gaze snapping back to him and quickly registering how dangerously her grip on his jacket had pulled his head closer to hers. The Turnbell girl hastily released him and stepped back, dropping his handkerchief in the process. “No. I-I’m fine. They can’t do anything to me as long as they don’t find me.”
“Strange,” Percy murmured as he turned to watch the mortals. A twist of his fingers sent Valarie tripping over her own dress, planting face-first onto the path. From the corner of his eye, he saw Sophya flinch, but she said nothing as Rufous rushed to his sister’s aid and, for seemingly no reason, tripped and fell on top of the prostrate girl, causing the unfortunate Valarie to squawk in protest.
A snort of laughter escaped the Turnbell girl’s lips. She hastily hid her smile behind her hand as her forest green eyes darted toward him worriedly.
“You know, it used to be Maura, hiding in the shadows, trying to avoid being found by you and your brother,” Percy observed quietly as he studied her, already bored with the simple-minded mortals in the garden. “I still vividly remember the day I visited Turnbell Manor, and Maura greeted me drenched in red wine.” He nodded toward the siblings, who were now quarreling with each other. “You’ve experienced a bit of that torment for a day. Imagine living with it day in and day out for years on end.”
Sophya’s gaze quickly dropped to the ground as she visibly paled. “Are you—going to kill me?”
“I haven’t decided. Maura doesn’t want me getting any more involved in her affairs than I already am, so—presently, disposing of you would cause more trouble than it’s worth.”
She smiled weakly as her eyes teared up in relief. “I understand. I won’t be bothering Maura anymore. We’ve had nothing to do with each other ever since she became a Duchess—”
“See that it stays that way,” Percy interjected sharply. “And stop cowering in the shadows waiting to be rescued. You’re the granddaughter of a Viscount and the half-sister of a Duchess. Act like one.”
The Turnbell girl blinked up at him in disbelief, then glanced down toward his fallen handkerchief, which she bent to pick up. “Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it,” Percy retorted, stepping aside to allow her to pass. “You should head back inside now.”
“Y-yes, thank you.” Sophya bobbed her head and quickly rushed toward the door, pausing at the threshold to glance at his back before disappearing from view.
The Earl scoffed as his attention returned to the rowdy pair, still bickering as they abandoned their search to return to the manor. Percy watched them from the shadows of the balcony, then pressed his lips together and uttered a low, commanding whistle that roused the murder of crows lingering in the trees nearby.
Valarie and Rufous stared up in confusion at the cloud of wings, talons, and beaks that suddenly descended toward them. Their screams of terror and curses of pain drew a laugh from the pureblood’s lips as he watched the brother dive into the water fountain, abandoning his sister, who shrieked, dancing erratically as she thrashed her arms overhead before bolting into the dark Gilwren Forest.
“Valarie!” Rufous shouted, giving up on the useless fountain as he rushed after the screaming brunette, both of them still heckled and battered by the throng of fowls. “Valarie, wait!”
A low soft whistle called the crows back from their sniveling, bleeding prey. The lethal birds returned to the shadows to guard the forest tree line, where the Earl instructed them to prevent either sibling from returning to the manor until dawn.