Chapter 56: An Exchange of Princes
“Ladies and Gentlemen!” Lord Rykard called out as the orchestra died down following the sixth dance of the evening. “If you would follow me outside, we have another surprise prepared for you waiting in the garden.”
‘It’s rather admirable how easily he can command a room of nobles, most of whom are equal to or of a higher rank than he is,’ the Duchess observed as she watched the Viscount’s guests slowly gather themselves and head toward the back double doors.
Hana quickly interlocked arms with Carina and Ivy as they moved to join the crowd. They were still out of breath, having shared the last dance together with Lady Alice Gladestone, Viscount Gladestone’s wife. The latter waved farewell before moving off to join her husband and the other nobles who seemed to orbit constantly around Earl Hawthorne.
A bit of congestion at the back doors held up progress for a while. Carina forced a smile as a few of the nobles, crammed in around them, took advantage of the opportunity to introduce themselves to the Duchess and her friends. Between Hana’s curt replies and Colonel Isaac’s unfriendly glare, the nobles quickly changed tactics and stared ahead to avoid eye contact.
A small wave of boredom rolled over Carina’s tired shoulders as she glanced curiously behind them, searching for the tall ash-blonde Marquess with violet eyes. Beaumont had been called back to the Crown Prince’s side shortly after their third dance together, where he had remained, despite the fervent attempts of several senior ladies to introduce the new Marquess to their eligible unwed daughters.
She soon found the popular bachelor standing between the Crown Prince and Prime Minister, who appeared to be engaged in an intense discussion as they waited for the ballroom to clear. The Crown Princess remained in her chair beside Major Garrett, reading over a small, rolled document with focused attention.
‘That’s right. Eleanora was planning on giving a speech about the charity for orphans this evening.’
For a moment, the Duchess contemplated holding back to wait out the crowd and assist the princess in her preparations, but then Colonel Isaac raised his hand and snapped his fingers loudly. Four Bastiallano Knights left their positions in the corner of the small ballroom to join the two lieutenants, and between them, created a clear path through the nobles to allow the Duchess and her companions safely through.
“Goodness, how convenient,” Hana commented with audible relief. “I was beginning to feel suffocated.”
Ivy smiled in agreement as they entered the back garden, where the flickering light of lanterns reflected along the gravel garden paths. Above the tree line, a full moon glowed brightly above ghostly clouds that glided through the night sky. The pale moonlight seemed to transform the forest skyline into a rippling silver sea that stretched out across the horizon. The same silver light sparkled upon the flowing water of the garden’s three fountains, creating an almost romantic setting.
The nobles before them quickly spread out in their respective groups, their laughter and conversations adding a note of gaiety to the scenic atmosphere as they wandered off to admire the fountains or the blooming crape myrtle trees and bushes that encircled the small garden.
“We should have a water fountain installed at the Fortress,” Carina commented as the three young women approached the first spherical fountain, its lower reservoir framed by four white stags standing on their hind legs, antlers reaching towards the flowing silver water that poured down from the two tiers above. “It would provide a means of travel for Larissa and her coven.”
“It would also provide access to any bog witches itching for another go at you, your Grace,” Isaac retorted as he settled into his usual position behind her.
“Perhaps, but surely there must be some way to seal access to limit who can pass through? Like a spell barrier that only grants access to those with a key?”
The Colonel tilted his head thoughtfully at her suggestion, then stiffened as the sky above them exploded into a burst of red colors. Ivy flinched and stumbled back with an audible gasp. Her left shoe heel caught on the hem of the Viscountess’s sunset butterfly gown, causing her to trip over. Startled, the Duchess quickly grabbed Hana’s arm to stabilize the Viscountess while Lieutenant Quinn stepped forward to support the disoriented Ivy as a wave of sparkling lights crackled and burst across the night sky above them.
“Are you alright?” Carina asked as Ivy straightened, blushing furiously. The new Viscountess nodded with embarrassment before bursting into a sudden fit of giggles.
“I think she’s a bit drunk,” Hana observed with mild amusement as she shook out her skirt, only to find a long rip along the hem. “Tsk. I suppose there will be no more dancing for me tonight.”
“Oh…Nooo!” Ivy gasped, covering her continued giggles with her gloved hands. “I’m sooo sorry, Lady Hanna!”
“It’s fine. It’s just a bit of fabric,” Hana replied dismissively as she swished the skirt back and forth before dropping it with a disappointed sigh. “It would probably be best if we retired soon anyway. Lady Ivy needs her rest.”
“But the fireworks!” Ivy whined.
“Let her stay until the show is over,” Carina urged, smiling as she brushed her thumb across Viktor’s broach. A pale blue spark streaked into the dark firmament with a soft whistle, where it exploded into a pandemonium of silver and blue lights that splattered across the moonlight skyline. Other colors quickly followed from purple to an almost neon green and then gold.
Ivy applauded enthusiastically, joined by several other nobles around them. No one seemed to notice the arrival of the royal couple, who had moved out onto the balcony, escorted by their host, Viscount Gilwren, Marquess Borghese, and the royal knights.
The easily amused audience oohed and awed as the pyrotechnics took on more complicated shapes, presenting the howling image of a silver wolf, a purple crown, a white stag, then a red bear, and finally, a golden bird with its wings outstretched.
“Is that a crow or a phoenix?” Wyatt Gladestone, from the Royal Faction, called out, slurring his words as he pointed towards the fading image. “Or perhaps a chicken?”
“Funny, now that you mention it, Brother, it looks like they removed the boar from this year’s display,” retorted Henley Gladstone from the Noble Faction. “Perhaps they left him tied up in the barn?”
Jeers and boos quickly dampened the festive atmosphere, and Ivy’s smile of delight slowly faded beneath the boisterous arguments and hurtled insults.
“They can’t just let it rest, can they?” Lieutenant Hadley remarked with a heavy sigh.
“No more than we can when the Hargreve Knights try to show off at the border,” Lieutenant Quinn pointed out with a suspicious grin.
“Do we have much conflict with the Duke’s knights?” Carina asked curiously, stepping back beside the Colonel.
“Only on very rare occasions,” Isaac replied with an annoyed look at his lieutenants. “But it does happen, usually when one side or the other chases Tharyian raiders across our connecting borders near the mountains.”
“So, it’s more of a territorial dispute?”
“And then there’s the knight jousting matches every two years,” Lieutenant Olund supplied quickly, ignoring the Colonel’s pointed glare. “The victor wins the royal purse, which is more than enough to retire on if you’re frugal. But whenever the Duke hosts the event, we have to be extra careful they don’t play any underhanded tricks and tamper with our gear or horses.”
“I thought the Dowager and Duke were allies?” Carina murmured in confusion.
“It would be more accurate to say they tolerate each other. The Duke’s sister, Lady Aliana, was a personal favorite of the Dowager Queen, as was the Duke’s previous fiancé—” Isaac coughed suddenly as if he’d swallowed a bug. “But Lord Stryker—well, young as he was then, he didn’t shy away from applying pressure to the Dowager when she refused to yield her throne to King Henri after he came of age.”
The Duchess forgot about the dazzling spectacle in the sky and the quarreling nobles around them as she ingested this bit of history that even Countess Constance had never been privy to—or, perhaps, had simply chosen not to tell her.
‘It’s strange that the Countess never reached out to me since entering the palace. Even stranger that she wouldn’t try to make contact now after I became a Duchess. Perhaps she did choose to retire after Percy took over the reins of the Noble Faction.’
Carina’s brows furrowed as she turned to scan the crowd for Earl Hawthorne and soon found him staring in her direction. When she didn’t look away, Percy raised an inquiring brow, prompting the ice witch to turn in his direction.
“Your Grace?” Hana called out as the Duchess walked past her.
“The Colonel is with me. Please wait here. I’ll be right back,” Carina replied swiftly, weaving her way through the nobles, who had finally calmed down enough to enjoy the symphony of exploding fireworks that deafened the garden around them.
Percy seemed to realize her intent as he whispered to Marquess Winifred and then headed in her direction, signaling toward the back of the crowd near the myrtle trees. The Duchess nodded her understanding and altered her route accordingly, somehow arriving after him.
“Your Grace?” Percy murmured as he pulled his untied mask free.
“Earl Hawthorne, I was—” Carina paused as she felt his gaze move towards the wrapped broach in her hand. She quickly tucked it behind her back before continuing. “I was wondering how the Countess is fairing. I heard that she was ill?”
The Earl blinked slowly, then exhaled as his gaze turned toward the distant forest. “My mother is still—unwell, unfortunately.”
“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that. Is it serious?”
“I have every reason to hope she’ll recover—though the illness has left her too weak to travel or receive visitors at the moment.”
“That—sounds serious,” Carina commented, observing the furrow of his brows as the Earl continued to avoid her gaze. “Do let Lady Constance know that I am thinking of her. Perhaps I could send a gift, some flowers, or—”
“I’m sure Mother will be flattered to know the Duchess of Bastiallano remembers her at all,” Percy interjected with a hint of bitterness.
The Duchess pressed her lips together, feeling guilty and annoyed by the rather unprovoked accusation. “Well, as soon as Lady Constance can receive visitors, please let me know. I would be happy to pay her a visit. I have a lot to thank her for.” She turned to leave but stopped as she noticed the sudden increase of knights around the royal couple still watching from the balcony.
A flurry of gasps and shrieks, less jubilant than those triggered by the fireworks, snapped Carina’s gaze to where the nobles now rushed away from the garden. The ice witch blinked in disbelief, Lumi’s name on the tip of her tongue, as she watched four water witches emerge from the flowing waters of the stag fountain.
“Your Grace,” Isaac muttered sharply, drawing his sword from its sheath.
“No, wait, Colonel!” Carina exhaled as her gaze focused on the male water witch, dressed in ridiculous finery, who stepped down into the flower bed below the fountain. “That’s Prince Llyr.”
‘What the hell is he doing? Showing up at a royal ball unannounced, arriving by magic, in front of nearly a hundred nobles?’
“Follow me,” Carina growled as she charged toward the crowd, only to be repelled by the fearful nobles that pushed back toward the safety of the manor.
“Your Grace!” Percy reappeared at her side, catching the Duchess as she was nearly bowled over. The Earl and Colonel shielded her as best they could, then sought refuge amongst the myrtle trees.
Carina had to stand on her tiptoes to catch a glimpse of the befuddled Strugna Crown Prince, who surveyed the fleeing nobles with a bemused half-smile. Only the Noble Faction stood firm, their expression far from welcoming as they moved to block the intruders’ path with Marquess Winifred, Marchioness Serilda, and Lord Eustice at their front.
The Duchess turned her gaze towards the balcony and sighed with relief as she watched Beaumont whisper into Nicholas’s ear.
‘No, wait—Beaumont doesn’t know that Llyr is Jasper, does he?’
Whatever the new Marquess conveyed to Nicholas, it appeared to smooth over the Crown Prince’s initial fear as the monarch quickly raised his hands to calm the nobles huddled before him, held back by the line of royal knights that maintained a barrier around the royal couple.
“Calm yourselves, please,” Nicholas urged as he moved with Eleanora to the top step, where he addressed their uninvited guest. “Sir, please identify yourself and your reason for being here.”
“Gladly,” Llyr boomed back, his voice crisp and conveying far more authority than it had when he dressed in the simple garments of a huntsman. “I am Llyr Alagona, son of the late King Alexios Alagona, Crown Prince and future King of the Sea Witches of Strugna. I come in peace.”
Carina sucked in a quiet breath as her gaze swept from her newest ally back to Lafeara’s royal couple. Judging by Beaumont’s raised brows, Nicholas’s dumbfounded expression, and even the Prime Minister’s blank stare—the sudden appearance of Lafeara’s long-time ally had caught them all entirely off guard.
“Ah—the Duchess can vouch for my identity, if necessary,” Llyr continued smoothly, gesturing to where the ice witch stood between the Earl and Colonel.
‘Thanks for that.’ Carina narrowed her gaze at the foreign prince before turning to face the confused looks of both Lafeara’s Crown Prince and Princess. “Your Majesty,” she called out, resisting the urge to stand on her toes so that she could see them all equally. “I can confirm that this is Crown Prince Llyr of Strugna.”
“How?” Nicholas demanded bluntly. “When the devil have you ever been to Strugna, Lady Kirsi?”
“When she came to open a trade agreement with my kingdom under her business alias as Frost,” Llyr replied as he stepped forward confidently, nodding to the Noble Faction, who bristled in response as they refused to make way.
‘Did he just….’
A tangible silence fell over the witches and nobles as the Duchess felt her heart drop into her stomach. Her ice blue eyes cut towards Llyr with a warning glare, though at this point, she wasn’t sure there was anything left for him to spill—except perhaps her identity as the Witch of Calamity.
‘Saint’s mercy. Are all royals this insufferably dense and self-centered?’
“I’m afraid you are mistaken—Prince Llyr,” Nicholas countered, shaking his head with an amused laugh as he moved down the steps. The monarch waved aside Lieutenant Olund and the other royal knights as he proceeded through his frightened nobles towards Llyr, with the lieutenant and Marquess Beaumont, who had regained his sword, close behind him. “Lady Kirsi works for Frost under the alias of Lady Aconitum. While she does represent Frost to some degree in his business dealings, they are not the same person.”
“Oh, but they are one and the same,” Llyr interjected with an almost pitying smile. He blinked, apparently realizing his mistake, and quickly turned to offer a bow in the Duchess’s direction. “Forgive me, Lady Kirsi—it would appear that I have spoken out of turn.”
“Lady Kirsi,” Nicholas growled, pulling off his white mask as he turned in her direction. “Kindly correct our guest.”
Carina’s grip tightened once more around Viktor’s broach in frustration as cold magic seeped from her fingers. She blinked in surprise as the broach quickly absorbed the frigid ice, then shook her head with an internal groan.
“Your Grace?” Attwood murmured hesitantly as a tense silence filled the garden of nobles around them.
“Your Majesty,” Carina responded with forced calm as she raised her gaze to meet Nicholas’s narrowed hazel-blue eyes. “I’m afraid there is nothing to correct in Prince Llyr’s statement. I am, in fact, and have always been, the investor you know as Frost.”
A belated whistle serenaded the stunned audience of nobles as the last firework climbed its way through the thin night clouds and then exploded, illuminating the Lafearian Crown Prince’s shocked face in a pale green glow. The Duchess maintained a neutral expression as she held the monarch’s gaze for several long moments before turning her attention back to Crown Prince Llyr, who now circled the Noble Faction towards Nicholas.
“When I heard that your Majesty would be vacationing here before your coronation, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to drop by and introduce myself as one future king to another,” Llyr explained with an apologetic smile as he offered his hand to the silent prince.
“Still, this—this is highly irregular,” Attwood pointed out hesitantly, glancing nervously from Nicholas to the Duchess the Crown Prince remained firmly focused on. “For one sovereign to enter another’s domain unannounced—”
“I apologize, Prime Minister,” Llyr replied, placing a hand over the pale blue sash worn across his navy-blue jacket, adorned with gold epaulets and what looked like two miniature sharks carved of black stone. Beneath the coat was an elaborately embroidered black velvet vest that depicted the tentacles of a sea monster, Strugna’s national emblem. “I meant no harm. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. I do hope that I have caused no offense?”
‘Are you asking Nicholas or me?’
Carina continued to avoid the Crown Prince’s glaring gaze as she pressed her lips and brows together in confusion. So far, none of the members of her hunting party seemed to recognize Jasper. Then again, the Huntsman appeared to have undergone a slight transformation beyond the simple change in wardrobe. Jasper’s short, scruffy dark brown hair had been replaced by long, dark, glimmering braids, several of which were woven into a crown with miniature sea stars around the prince’s forehead and ears, while the rest fell down his back, reaching just between his shoulder blades. Even his face appeared younger and more refined with his clean-shaven jawline and groomed brows.
The other water witches on either side of Llyr sported the same braided locks of varying colors of blue and green, along with their elaborate woven garments. Each layer of fabric seemed to carry with it some piece of Strugna’s history, from embroidered shells to seagulls, ships, sea monsters, and even castles beneath the ocean’s waves. Every button appeared to be crafted from the mollusk of a mother-of-pearl.
The women’s earrings and hair accessories were simple yet beautiful, from shimmering shells, colorful glass ornaments, carved driftwood, and multicolored pearls. Most of the shells had been left with their natural color. A few pieces contained miniature paintings, while other tulip shells were etched with barely visible magic runes inscribed along their curved inner chambers.
‘Rather than gold or silver, they appear to repurpose nature’s natural beauty into a fashion all of their own,’ Carina observed curiously.
The Duchess also noticed that each woman’s belt came accessorized with an ornate dagger and a familiar small bottle of water, which she suspected would allow them to escape with their prince at the first sign of danger.
‘Are these members of Llyr’s court or Larissa’s coven? I’m assuming the former since she’s not here herself.’
“We—are delighted by your visit, Prince Llyr,” Nicholas replied, finally breaking his silence as he accepted the pureblood’s hand firmly. “Why don’t you join us for the remainder of tonight’s ball? I’m sure there is much we can discuss as critical allying nations.”
“You are most generous, Prince Nicholas. Thank you,” Llyr responded with an enthusiastic grin. “I’d be happy to converse with you regarding our shared experiences preparing to inherit our father’s throne and kingdom. But I think other political matters should wait for a more appropriate and formal setting. Ahh, of course, any trade matters you’d care to negotiate may be directed to Duchess Kirsi, as I have signed an explicit agreement with her Grace allowing her full control of such matters.”
‘Since when?!’ Carina wanted to scream as the Prime Minister and royal couple directed their stunned expressions toward her once more. ‘My only trade agreement with Strugna is—was limited to soap and herbs.’
“Forgive me, your Highness,” Earl Coldwell interjected stiffly as he moved to stand beside the Prime Minister. “But surely all matters regarding trade between two nations should be handled between the monarchs or government officials—”
“That is the common approach, but given Frost—I mean, Lady Kirsi’s expertise in the matter, I simply feel more confident allowing her to work as a mediator between our countries while I focus on more critical matters closer to home,” Llyr replied with a faintly condescending smile as he released Nicholas’s limp hand. “For now, my only purpose for visiting is to better acquaint myself with Lafeara’s future King and Queen on a more personal level.”
Eleanora raised a brow as Llyr turned to offer her a polite bow.
“Yes,” Nicholas muttered stiffly, struggling to compose himself after being gut punched by one surprise after another. “That would certainly be most agreeable. Then please, Prince Llyr, why don’t you join us inside.”
The foreign prince smiled politely before inclining his head toward the wall of royal knights blocking his way. “After you, Prince Nicholas.”
“Is it me, or are they both intentionally playing down each other’s titles?” Carina murmured to the Earl beside her.
“I’ve heard it’s customary between princes,” Percy replied with a faint shrug. “Especially those of equal rank. It establishes a standard of equal footing while also removing the necessity to address each other by their full title.”
‘Interesting. So why is it their exchange felt so stiff and unnatural?’
“Well, this has been a fascinating evening,” Hana observed quietly as she slipped between the Duchess and Earl to take the ice witch’s arm. “What is Jasper doing here, and why is he pretending to be a prince?”
“If I knew that, I’d be less inclined to strangle him,” Carina replied in a low growl. She glanced past the Viscountess to confirm Ivy and the other two lieutenants had found them, then whipped her gaze back to Hana upon realizing the Viscountess had recognized the foreign prince as the Huntsman. Before she could check to confirm if Percy had also seen past the water witch’s disguise, the Earl moved on, melding into the crowd of witches and nobles making their way back up the balcony steps into the ballroom.
‘I suppose it’s possible that all witches would be able to see through it, but—’ The Duchess observed the Viscountess curiously from the corner of her eye. ‘—why is it the more I learn about witches, the more I find similarities between them and Ramiel’s Saints.’