Chapter 57: To Barter with Fate


The table of snacks and drinks in the manor’s ballroom had been refreshed in the guests’ absence. Most of the nobles made their way over to both while covertly examining the mysterious witch prince that had crashed the night’s festivities. Nicholas played the part of the skillful diplomat well, introducing Prince Llyr to important members of the House of Lords, many of whom attempted to broach the topic of trade legislation, which the foreign prince politely but firmly shut down.

The Duchess bid Hana and Ivy goodnight as the pair returned to their rooms to change, rest, and prepare for tomorrow’s journey back to Bastiallano. Other guests appeared to come to the same idea, though whether prompted by nervousness or tiredness remained up for debate.

After Nicholas’s third pointed glare in her direction, Carina contemplated turning in early as well but hesitated as the Prime Minister broke away from the royal couple and their guest to head in her direction.

“Your Grace,” Attwood called out respectfully, offering the ice witch a nod as he positioned himself beside her. “Could I have a word with you privately?”

The Duchess drew in a tired breath, exhaled, and then nodded as she gestured toward the open back doors. Colonel Isaac followed behind them, remaining at the threshold to keep the rest of the guests from interrupting their conversation.

“I figured there would be questions after that unexpected reveal,” Carina murmured as she strolled to the edge of the balcony and then turned to lean against one of its pillars.

“Your Grace,” Attwood murmured as he rubbed his chest with a faint look of discomfort that might have been stress-induced heartburn or indigestion. “My dear, why didn’t you tell us?”

The Duchess blinked at his softening tone and felt a prickle of guilt as she met the man’s sympathetic gaze. “When I first met you and the Crown Prince—I was just a half-blood, fighting to earn a position as a court attendant,” she explained hesitantly. “I didn’t think anyone would believe me if I told them the truth—and there was far too much risk involved to lay out all my cards in the beginning.”

The Prime Minister nodded slowly, then sighed. “Given the attention Frost has gained in recent years and your own precarious position, I can understand the need for discretion and caution.” His cinnamon-brown brows streaked faintly with gray, furrowed slightly, even as his mouth twitched with amusement. “I suppose it all makes sense. The timing of your written proposal during the selection examination and the appearance of Frost’s new soap product soon after. One person predicting the oncoming pandemic was difficult enough to believe—but, by the time the plague arrived, we learned of Cerberus and just assumed you were involved with them as part of Frost’s plan.” Attwood moved to join her, facing the now quiet moonlit garden as he wrapped his fingers around the cast iron railing. “Does anyone else know?”

“You mean besides all the nobles Prince Llyr just exposed me in front of?”

The Prime Minister raised his brows at her annoyed tone and then chuckled. “I take it this wasn’t planned.”

“No, it wasn’t,” Carina affirmed quietly. “As to who knew before, just my maid, Lady Ivy, and my attorney, Lord Bryson.”

“What about Cerberus?”

“They only knew me as Lady Aconitum—and more recently, as Bastiallano’s Duchess.”

“That was quite the elaborate plan, pulling together key figures with enough authority to control both the distribution of soap and medicine, as well as the capacity to recruit physicians and build new hospitals, all while remaining ambiguously out of sight.”

“I started small enough initially,” Carina replied with a faint shrug. “I knew more about fashion than anything else, so I used the small inheritance left to me by a maternal aunt to procure herbs to create new fragrances, dyes, and simple cosmetics. Once I had doubled my fortune and carved out a sizeable monopoly in that area of commerce, I expanded into the more strictly regulated trade of medicinal and culinary herbs.

“After a few years, some wise investments, and connections made along the way through favors and loans, Frost’s reputation and name allowed me to gather information on the identity and background of nearly every person of note who controlled the use and practice of medicine. At that point, I began using my already established alias as Lady Aconitum to make contact and propose Frost’s plan to prevent and mitigate the genuine threat a plague would pose to the Capital and its economy, given the continued decline of the slums as well as our precarious relationship with Strugna’s court.”

The Duchess paused, awkwardly self-conscious of how self-important she sounded. ‘In the end, everything I did amounted to nothing because what Maura described as a relatively lethal but normal epidemic has evolved into a far more volatile witch plague. All I can do now is hope that Larissa and Llyr’s plan to track and lure out Morgana works.’

“A commendable endeavor, incredible really, far above what many men twice your age could accomplish,” Attwood observed with audible admiration. “It’s true, King Henri allowed our diplomatic relationship with Strugna’s monarchy to lapse after the death of Queen Catalina. He became resentful of magic and suspicious of all witches, even our allies. When Strugna’s court was struck by a sudden epidemic, instead of sending what aid we could, King Henri ordered our borders and ports to be closed to the water witches to prevent the plague from spreading into Lafeara.

“By the time Strugna’s plague ended, King Alexios and his eldest son were dead, and their Royal Consort, Lady Serenia, had taken temporary control of the throne. She used that power and the water witches’ resentment to turn away all attempts to aid in their recovery. Our Ambassadors who fled at the first sign of the plague were barred from entering the court, stuffed into barrels, and returned to our docks. After that, all lines of communication ceased. We’ve remained neutral to one another, but the absence of trade has negatively affected both kingdoms for some time.” He bowed formally before the Duchess before declaring, “I thank you, on behalf of his Majesty and the House of Lords, for opening a line of discussion between our nations once more.”

“There’s—really no need for that,” Carina murmured uncomfortably. ‘Especially since that trade agreement has been temporarily halted by Llyr’s stepmother, the Royal Consort.’

More importantly, Prince Llyr had appeared less than interested in establishing a close relationship with Nicholas’s court due to Lafeara’s continued ties with the church and the recent, however brief, inquisition.

‘So why the hell did he show up tonight without warning?’

“Nonsense, Prince Llyr’s respect and trust speaks volumes,” Attwood replied as he straightened. “In truth, Nicholas has decided to expand the number of seats in the House of Lords. I think it would benefit us greatly to invite you to join, given your experience, insight, and proven capability—”

“Me? A woman?” The Duchess scoffed as she folded her arms. “Nicholas would never allow that. I’m not even sure he believed me earlier when I said I was Frost. Not to mention the pre-existing rules restricting a Duke and Duchess from directly interfering in government affairs.”

“Ahh, true….” The Prime Minister frowned as he rapped his fingers lightly against the rail. “Well then, perhaps you might choose someone suitable who can serve as a representative of the Duchy? Perhaps that lawyer you mentioned before, Lord Bryson?”

‘I’m not sure Bryson would give up his new position as a country Viscount. Nor do I wish to risk his life by bringing him back to the Capital with the plague unresolved. I’ll already be interrupting his family vacation once news of my identity as Frost spreads throughout the kingdom,’  Carina mused silently as she played with the cord of her toy bow. ‘I wonder why Nicholas is suddenly so desperate to expand the number of councilors in the House of Lords?’

“Your Grace,” Attwood continued after the silence lengthened uncomfortably. “I wonder if I could impose on you by asking a question regarding your prediction of the plague. Was this all—a mere coincidence? Or was it calculated like so many other investments Frost has monopolized over the years?”

‘He got around to that quicker than I thought.’

The Duchess slowly tapped the tip of her toy bow as she considered the question and the many prepared answers she had in place for this moment. Out of all the people Carina had come to know inside the palace, the Prime Minister was one of a few she respected and even felt a degree of trust towards.

“What would you say if I told you that other people, besides the Saint and Pope, could foresee the future to some degree?”

The Prime Minister looked away from her for a moment, then inhaled a deep breath of the humid night air as he rubbed his chest again. “Most people would tell you that such a claim would be viewed as heresy by the church. But I firmly believe there is more to this world than a mere mortal like myself can ever hope to comprehend. I also understand why the church would be motivated to stamp out any individuals who possess the same gifts as their revered Saints.” He restlessly tapped his thumb against the chain of office he wore before turning to face the Duchess. “If you say you can see the future, then I would be inclined to believe you, Lady Kirsi.”

Carina let out a weak chuckle and shook her head. “Would you have believed me if I told you this when we first met?”

“Ahh….” Attwood cleared his throat. “As I said, I understand why you played those cards so close to your chest. But Nicholas—” He paused and glanced towards the ballroom door before continuing. “By the way, in these visions or—however it is, you see the future….”

The Duchess stiffened, recalling the story of Acheron’s unexpected death during the Royal Hunt. “Not all events transpire in the same way as I’ve seen them in my—visions,” she explained hesitantly. “And the length of future I can predict is also limited to a finite number of years.”

“Then—without telling me your specific limitations—is there anything in the future, beyond the plague, that his Majesty and I should prepare for?”

It was then, beneath Attwood’s innocent question, that the Duchess saw once more the board upon which she played. Only, instead of a chess game between two players, she faced a seemingly unlimited number of opponents. At first, Carina had viewed Nicholas and the Emperor as the only threats she would need to worry about along with the plague, but that quickly expanded to include Lafeara’s two ambitious factions, the Pope and his Witch Hunters, and then the six gods themselves.

The appearance of Strugna’s Crown Prince, while a welcome ally and source of information, had only split the board further while turning Arachne and her bog witches into a genuine threat. And after Nicholas went behind Carina’s back to burn down her hospitals and staff, she was no longer certain which side of the board she stood on, if she even had a side.

“Maybe instead of plotting to change the world, you should try ruling a corner of it instead,” Kirsi snickered as she slithered out of the icy cortex of Viktor’s heart. “Clear your enemies from the board one by one until the web becomes a single thread between us and our true enemies.”

‘Meaning the gods.’

The Duchess clenched her teeth as she glanced down at the broach in her left hand and sighed.

‘If Priscilla is the catalyst that will bring about Eleanora’s downfall and the future that led to Maura’s demise, ignoring that could lead Lafeara into a war with Ventrayna even if I successfully end the plague. But if I tell the Prime Minister about what I know—I can’t be sure that he or Nicholas will believe me, and I’m not sure I want to know how Nicholas will use that information either.’

“It seems you remain uncertain of what you should tell me,” Attwood observed quietly.

“Well, it’s just—” Carina hesitated as her memories spun between the death of Lady Rosamund’s unborn child and Royal Consort Priscilla’s rise to power. “A lot has changed—”

“But not the arrival of the plague?”

‘True, I may have mitigated my exposure to the Turnbell family’s cruelty to some degree, but everything that happened after I joined the palace as Eleanora’s lady-in-waiting has stuck pretty close to the future I know.

‘Ambassador Haemish’s arrival came as predicted, but he went from trying to abduct Hana to outright assassinating her. Then the plague came, but instead of being a contagion I could treat with improved hygiene, medicine, and inoculation—it evolved into a witch plague.

‘And now, because I bruised Priscilla’s ego and became Duchess, Marquess Borghese almost rose in a revolt, which has inexplicably pushed Priscilla onto the path to becoming a Royal Consort. It’s like for every move I make; the gods shift something in the background to counteract my efforts and force the future back to its original path.’

“Well, perhaps I’ve put too much pressure on you too soon,” Attwood murmured as he pushed away from the railing. “Shall I escort you back inside, your Grace?”

The Duchess accepted his arm with a grateful smile, inwardly at war between the turmoil of guilt and caution and the faint hope that granting the Prime Minister what insight she could, might help safeguard Lafeara’s future. It was then her thoughts centered on the events that would force Attwood to resign from his position.

“Prime Minister,” she murmured cautiously. “There is—one piece of the future I’ve seen that I think I should warn you about.”


As the Duchess and Prime Minister rejoined the nobles inside the ballroom, they arrived at the end of the Crown Princess’s speech.

“Finally, I would like to thank the noble men and women who helped establish Rose Dawn Orphanage as the first of many orphanages the crown will establish all across Lafeara,” Eleanora continued as she raised her glass to salute the Crown Prince beside her. “To my husband and your future king, his Majesty Nicholas Havardur, my cousin and loyal friend, Earl Percy Hawthorne, as well as the Marchioness Serilda Kensington. And, of course, the most important participant of this endeavor, who wears far too many hats for me to name them all, her Grace, Duchess Kirsi Valda.”

Carina presented the Crown Princess with a smile and curtsey as the nobles turned to applaud the Duchess politely. One of the manor servants hastily brought over a tray of champagne which the Prime Minister took two drinks from. They quickly raised their glasses to join Eleanora’s celebratory toast, after which Lord Rykard stepped forward to address the chattering nobles.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, that concludes tonight’s event. I welcome you all to make your way back to your respective beds for some much-deserved rest. There will be an early breakfast and a late brunch in this room tomorrow so that guests can enjoy one last meal before departure, along with a parting gift made from this year’s spoils. I thank you for joining us here at Gilwren and hope that you all leave with fond memories of this year’s Royal Hunt.”

The nobles applauded him, a few clinking glasses together before finishing their drinks and heading to the exit. The Duchess watched as Maura’s grandfather bowed to the royal couple before leaving the ballroom with his butler. Only then did she notice that Sophya had been absent for most of the festivities, but she quickly dismissed the thought from her mind as Eleanora moved toward her through the crowd of nobles.

“Your Grace.”

“Your Highness,” Carina replied as the Prime Minister bowed his head politely before excusing himself to deal with a very drunk Acheron attempting to pull a protesting Lady Evelynn into one last dance. “I’m sorry to have missed your speech.”

“Oh, there was nothing to it, really,” Eleanora replied with a dismissive wave as she stepped closer. “I’m not very good with words. It was Nicholas who made a few edits to improve my speech. I’m afraid the original draft was far too blunt and coarse for—never mind, that’s not why I wanted to speak to you.”

The Duchess raised her brows uncertainly as the Crown Princess folded her hands and drew in a quick breath.

“I wanted to apologize to you in person, Lady Kirsi before we return to the palace tomorrow. I’ve had some time to clear my head here, and—well, I’m embarrassed to admit it, but—I handled things very poorly with you. I was more than unfair. I was cruel, malicious, foolish, and at times a bloody tyrant—”

“Your Highness,” Carina whispered anxiously, glancing at the nobles still lingering around them before gesturing towards the balcony exit. “Should we speak in private?”

“Still worried about my image, I see,” Eleanora chuckled wryly. “I’m sorry I didn’t appreciate your loyalty when I had the chance, but—” she inched closer, placing her fingers lightly on the ice witch’s arm. “I ask that you please look after Hana for me. You’ve seen how delicate her condition can be.”

“Rest assured. I will do my utmost to keep Lady Hana safe.”

“I know. I—think she may be in love with you.” The Crown Princess’s amber eyes dropped to the floor as she withdrew her hand. “Although I am uncertain of your feelings in return—I hope that you will not push her away because of them, Lady Kirsi.”

“Lady Hana is my friend, and I love her as such,” Carina replied firmly, squeezing the broach still clutched in its handkerchief.

“Yes, well—I suppose I should leave you both alone since that is Hana’s wish,” Eleanora murmured uncertainly. “And, at least for the moment, Nicholas and I have found a way to work together. So I should stop behaving like a heartbroken maiden and give this marriage my full attention.”

The ice witch’s lips lit up with a genuine smile before the cold uncertainty of Maura’s past flickered behind her eyes.

The Crown Princess arched a brow at the unexpected silence. “No words of advice this time?”

The Duchess glanced over to where the lingering members of the Royal Faction, led by Earl Coldwell, remained with guarded expressions as they watched the two princes conversing with each other. Surprisingly, both Viscount Norley and Lady Priscilla were nowhere to be seen.

“I shall be busy for a time with my duties at Bastiallano and—an urgent matter that I must prioritize,” Carina began hesitantly as she turned to meet the Crown Princess’s curious gaze. “I would advise you to remain as friendly as possible with Nicholas while closely monitoring Lady Priscilla.”

“Of course, that is a given,” Eleanora replied with faint amusement. Then she blinked, realization sinking in as her dark brows furrowed. “Is a rumor already spreading about Priscilla becoming a Royal consort?”

The Duchess hesitated but nodded silently.

The Crown Princess reached up to touch the heavy crown she wore and sighed. “It’s fine. Nicholas has already promised to make me a priority until I safely carry his first heir.”

‘But someone else may already be carrying Nicholas’s heir.’

“What?” Eleanora murmured sharply as if reading the Duchess’s thoughts on her face. “Is there something I should know, Lady Kirsi?”

“The danger does not come from Lady Priscilla alone,” Carina replied, carefully lowering her voice. “If—Lady Rosamund were to appear at the palace, please contact me immediately.”

“Lady Rosamund?” The Crown Princess stared at her blankly for a moment before her amber eyes narrowed in recognition. “You mean Nicholas’s old mistress? He hasn’t visited her in nearly a month. If that barren vine has yet to bear any fruit in all this time, what makes you think she’ll present a problem now?”

‘That—is a good point. Was Rosamund just lucky then, falling pregnant just as Nicholas began to lose interest?’

“Nevertheless,” Carina persisted as she reached out to grasp Eleanora’s wrist. “You will send for me?”

The Crown Princess sighed as her gaze shifted uncertainly towards her husband. “Very well, I shall. And I would be delighted if you visited me in the meantime, with—or without Hana.”

The Duchess nodded, then made her way towards the two princes that stood admiring the mounted antlers of the Forest Guardian to bid goodnight and make her exit.

“Ahh, Lady Kirsi,” Llyr greeted as he turned to welcome her with a smile that the Duchess happily mirrored while glaring back at him.

“Your Highness. Your Majesty,” Carina murmured as she quickly composed herself. “I believe I shall retire for the evening since I will need to be up early to prepare for tomorrow’s security detail.”

“No need to stretch yourself thin on my account, Lady Kirsi,” Nicholas replied with a notable edge to his words. “Please, go enjoy your last night at Gilwren.”

“Oh, what a shame,” Llyr interjected, his smile dipping slightly. “I had hoped to speak to you privately before my return to Strugna. That is—” he turned to offer the Crown Prince an inquiring brow, “—if you’ll allow me to borrow the Duchess for a moment?”

Nicholas responded with a tense smile and impatient wave of his hand before he turned to make his way over to Eleanora, currently speaking to Marchioness Serilda and Earl Hawthorne.

“What are you up to?” Carina growled as the foreign prince offered her his arm.

“Why, allowing you to reprimand me as you so clearly deserve to,” Llyr responded with a faint smirk as he led them toward the hallway doors.

“Rather than reprimand you, I’d like to ask what the point of all this was—beyond exposing me?”

“To remind them of how valuable you are.”

The Duchess narrowed her eyes incredulously as Llyr turned her toward the manor foyer and front door.

“You’re distracted here, Lady Kirsi,” Llyr continued adamantly. “To use Nicholas’s words—you’re stretched thin and still ill-prepared for the battle ahead of you.”

The ice witch exhaled slowly as she glanced around the empty foyer, irritated by the validity of his claims. “I intend to focus on our mutual goals once the royal couple safely returns to the Capital.”

“Good. Larissa will make contact when you return to Bastiallano. In the meantime, I must deal with problems closer to home.”

“Your stepmother?”

“The Royal Consort has her own Seer, which she employs to monitor my every movement,” Llyr replied with audible frustration. “A fraud in truth, but one clever enough to support Lady Serenia’s efforts to have my younger half-brother replace me as Strugna’s Crown Prince.”

“I see. How old is your brother?”

“Twelve.” The foreign prince sighed as he turned to face her in front of the manor’s closed front doors. “Young enough for Lady Serenia to control him.”

The Duchess grimaced and nodded in understanding. “Then I shall wish you good luck. The sooner you claim Strugna’s crown, the better.”

“I intend to,” Llyr countered with a confident grin. “And when I do, I will offer you a position as my Prime Minister and whatever else you desire to return to Strugna.”

“When Morgana is dead and gone, and the plague with her, I will join you in your quest to eliminate Arachne as agreed. Nothing more.”

The pureblood shrugged, then nodded as he lifted her hand and touched the braids of his crown to her wrist. “The sooner you inherit all of Viktor’s power, the better for our plans, Lady Kirsi.” He stepped in closer before repeating with added emphasis. “All of it.”

Carina clenched her jaw as she clutched Viktor’s broach tighter while offering him a cold smile. “Safe travels, Prince Llyr.”

He nodded again, then turned to join the three water witches waiting in the hallway. The Duchess watched as they all joined hands and vanished from view in the blink of an eye.

‘That’s a handy trick. I should see if Kirsi knows how to master it.’

A heavy silence filled the foyer around the Duchess as Carina listened to the fading noise of the banquet hall. She turned toward the Manor steps, then paused. Something about the way the moon reflected through the windows onto the carpeted stairs turned her gaze back toward the closed front door.

‘I suppose a quick walk outside to clear my head wouldn’t hurt.’ Resolved, the Duchess quickly opened the door and stepped outside, where the four Bastiallano Knights standing guard swiftly turned to salute her sharply.

“Your Grace?”

“If Colonel Isaac comes looking for me, tell him I’m taking a walk around the grounds,” Carina called out as she passed through them. Her feet followed the gravel trail while sticking to the dirt-packed edges that were easier to navigate in heels. A few honeysuckle bushes graced by fireflies lit up her silver dress as she followed the path, her gaze drawn towards the dark shadows of the forest beyond the tents of nobles slowly heading off to sleep.

A strange, restless itch pressed at the back of her throat as the Duchess halted on the path halfway around the eastern wall of Gilwren Manor. She turned back, eager to return indoors and find Viktor in the comfort of sleep. But the oppressive weight of something, something wrong, creeping towards her in the shadows, kept her feet rooted where they stood as Viktor’s broach suddenly flared up in warning.

Carina whirled around to face the back corner of the manor, half expecting to find Veles, a bog witch, or some other nightmarish remnant glaring in her direction. Just as she was about to summon her ice armor and spear, the sound of something heavy striking the ground behind her echoed in the ice witch’s ears.

Carina’s heart stopped inexplicably as she turned around stiffly to gaze at Hana’s unmoving body sprawled across the gravel path.


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