Chapter 58: A Thread of Treachery
A cold numbness seemed to well up at the back of Carina’s throat before it spread down her neck and limbs. The Duchess stared blankly at the Viscountess’s limp figure for a split second. Then she staggered forward a step, the movement unlocking her stiff legs enough to move toward Hana’s body. The Viscountess was in her dressing gown, her blonde hair spilled freely across the gravel path, her turquoise blue eyes open and unblinking as she stared off toward a honeysuckle bush with an empty expression of surprise.
A frigid stab of pain pierced through Carina’s chest as she registered the blood pooling slowly beneath Hana’s head, staining her golden locks. The Duchess pressed her shaking fingers against Hana’s throat, hoping, praying for a sign, but she felt nothing and could hear nothing beyond her glowing frozen heart beating so loudly it sounded like a drum raging against her ears.
The question came out in a feeble, pleading breath. Carina blinked slowly, drawing in the cold air that welled around her, shutting away everything except the fear and panic that coursed through her body like an electric current. She shook and rubbed her useless fingers before reaching for the Viscountess’s wrist.
It was then she saw the strip of black cloth clutched in Hana’s stiff white fingers. The Duchess ignored it, searching once more for a pulse, but her body was too cold, too numb and rigid as if she were the one slowly bleeding out and dying.
“Hana, please. Say something. Anything. Can you blink? I need you to show me you can hear me.”
Carina hated how far away her voice sounded, how small and frail like a child pleading for their parent to wake up. She kept forgetting to breathe as time around them slowed to an almost glacial pace. ‘What do I do? Should I call for help? Is there even a medical procedure or healing spell for such an injury in this stupid magical world?’
The Duchess gripped Hana’s hand tightly, kissed the Viscount’s forehead above her vacant blue eyes, then pleaded in one broken breath after another.
“Please, Hana…. Please breathe…. Please…. Wake up!”
“She’s gone, Carina.”
The ice witch jumped as Kirsi’s voice echoed through the numb cloud of chaos in her head. “No, no, she’s not.”
“There’s no pulse. She fell from the third floor and hit her head.”
Carina’s gaze swept upward to where, as the Scarlet Witch had indicated, Hana’s bedroom window stood open. “Someone pushed her.”
“Then maybe you should be looking for them instead of cradling a dead body?”
“Shut up!” The Duchess snarled, gripping Hana tighter. ‘How did this happen? There should have been knights outside her room. But no one appears to have noticed she was attacked?’
“You’re losing control, Carina. Look around you.”
The ice witch blinked as she registered the dense carpet of frost spreading all around them, glittering against the pebbles, manor wall, and the roots and lower limbs of the honeysuckle bushes. She looked down at the black fabric trapped in Hana’s hand and gently tugged it free.
“Lumi.” The giant scriva appeared and knelt at a distance cautiously. Carina beckoned the elemental wolf closer and held the torn fabric towards the scriva’s nose before issuing her commands. “Find them. Bring them to me—alive.”
The giant wolf sniffed the handkerchief and snarled, its gaze snapping towards Hana’s windows above, then spiraling out toward the noble’s tents as it stood, ears pricked forward. With a low, affirming growl, the scriva shimmered into its invisible form before its paws raced across the frozen gravel path toward the forest.
In the silence that followed, Carina melted back into numbing emptiness as Hana grew colder in her arms. She made a conscious effort to reign in her magic, but the frost left behind receded at a languid pace. Kirsi tried to reason with her three more times, but the Duchess was beyond caring and eventually sealed the Scarlet Witch inside the frozen cortex for some peace and quiet.
Somewhere, beyond logic, reason, or even blind desperation, Carina knew Hana wasn’t gone. She saw it in the golden spirals that slowly filled the Viscountess’s open turquoise-blue eyes and shimmered within the frozen blood on the ground. And so, despite every misgiving that gnawed and protested against this feeble ray of hope, the Duchess pressed her forehead against Hana’s and whispered the one name she knew Ramiel would hear.
“Nesta, please—come back.”
Nothing happened in the long silence that followed, and yet, every tiny strand of hair on Carina’s arms and neck slowly stood on end as the silence around them filled with a faint but unnatural crackling current. A deep rumble pulled the Duchess’s gaze to where dark clouds rolled in to blot out the sinking moon. Ripples of lightning followed, flickering at a distance, but no arm of doom descended towards the earth or the tiny patch of ice on which the ice witch knelt holding her friend.
“What are you waiting for, Ramiel?” Carina whispered numbly as the first raindrops pattered dully against the manor’s stone walls and the honeysuckle bushes nearby. “I’m right here. I know Nesta is your Saint. If you want to kill me, you’ll have to bring her back to do it. So please—let her live!”
The deep resonating thunder boomed closer in response, rattling against the windows of Gilwren Manor and startling the horses and animals corralled in the barn. The Duchess held her breath as a metallic taste filled her mouth, and a sickening buzzing current shivered down her spine.
The Duchess turned numbly to where Beaumont ran towards them. Her ice-blue eyes widened as she watched the Marquess draw his sword. A streak of lightning descended, blinding her even as it spiraled around the ice witch and Viscountess. Time stopped for a moment as the coils of an electric serpent seemed to sew itself between Carina and Hana.
What felt like an eternity ended as Beaumont appeared with his sword outstretched, standing between them and the cracking whip of the divine. A deep resonating boom, loud enough to shatter buildings, exploded in Carina’s ears before she was flung against the ground so hard she saw stars.
The dazzling lights danced before her eyes with an almost ethereal glow, burning painfully against her vision as their distorted voices sang out strange words she couldn’t understand. She tried to curl her fingers around the red star that danced on her fingertips, but her body refused to comply as the lights slowly faded.
For a time, there was only darkness, a bottomless abyss that yawned before her like a waiting, hungry malignant force. But then, gradually, the world came into focus as Carina blinked up at the giant Marquess kneeling beside her.
Beaumont panted with effort. Smoke rolled off the singed fabric of his tailcoat in waves as he clung to the hilt of his glowing sword, half-buried in the ground before them. He let out a faint whisper that sounded like a prayer and reminded Carina of the words the stars had been singing inside her head. She blinked, slowly drawling in a thin whisper of air, as she watched the giant unlock his fingers from the blade that still flickered with unnatural energy.
“What were you thinking?” Beaumont growled. His voice strained and tired as he turned to face her, his complexion paler than she’d ever seen it before. “You could have died!”
The ice witch stared up at him silently, still processing everything that had happened. She rolled her stiff neck slowly to the side and stared at Hana, who lay unmoving on the ground beside her, eyes closed as if in sleep. And then—as if some figment of her desperate delusion, the ice witch watched as the Viscountess’s chest rose and fell ever so slightly.
“Fuck,” Beaumont growled as he staggered back to sit on the ground and then bent his head between his knees.
“What—happened?” Carina whispered hoarsely.
“You were struck by lightning!”
“She is mending,” Beaumont snapped, glancing at the Viscountess to his right before twisting around to face the Duchess fully. “Are you alright?”
Carina took a moment to assess her current situation, but numbness was all she could feel. ‘That should be a good thing, though, since I only feel pain when near death.’ Moving slowly and tentatively, the Duchess inched herself into a seated position and then blinked down at the rising tendrils of smoke from the destroyed broach clutched in her left hand.
“That charm saved you,” Beaumont observed quietly as he followed her gaze. “It kept you alive long enough for me to intervene.” He sighed, shook his head, and then shifted his hands and feet to move closer to the ice witch.
The Duchess stared down at the ruined heirloom as a strange sense of loss filled her chest. “How?”
“If I had to guess—that was probably a relic built to store magic—though how such a small trinket could absorb that much of an immortal’s power….”
‘Perhaps because a god made it?’
“I don’t understand,” Carina murmured as she turned the broach over to stare at the scorch marks that had erased all but her name. “It was destroyed. So how—how did we survive?”
In answer, the Marquess pointed towards his glowing sword, still half-buried in the ground, flickering unnaturally as tendrils of electric current rippled up and down the dragon steel blade. “We got lucky,” he replied, his voice hoarse with fatigue and pain. “Our—charms combined—seemed to have spared us from the worst of it.” His violet eyes narrowed as they snapped back toward the ice witch. “For someone so surprised to still be here, why would you do something so reckless?”
“It will take much more than a fall to kill a Saint,” Beaumont muttered darkly. “If Ramiel wants her to live, she’ll live. If he wants her dead—well, he has only to reverse the first time he brought her back to life.”
“What do you mean? I checked—she was dying! She didn’t have a pulse!”
The Marquess sighed, then grabbed Carina’s hand and pressed her fingers to his neck. She blinked slowly in realization as her numb fingers detected nothing, then stiffened as he wrapped his arm around her shoulder and pressed her head against his smoldering chest, where his pounding heart raced like the panicked hooves of deer crashing through the forest.
“Your magic must have reacted to your emotions and overloaded. Viktor’s heart numbed your body to protect you from yourself,” Beaumont said softly, his voice rumbling against her cheek and ear.
The Duchess pushed away, still conflicted and confused. “But—Hana wasn’t breathing either—”
‘And even Kirsi said she was dead!’
“Ever have the air knocked out of your lungs after falling from a horse?” Beaumont responded patiently, rubbing his throat with another grimace of pain. “Well, falling from three floors up is probably much worse.”
His words made sense, and yet, the panic that still coursed through Carina like an electric current made it harder to accept. The uncomfortable pressure inside her chest, where her glowing heart still beat erratically, eased gradually as Viktor’s magic seeped back inside its frozen cortex. The ice witch shook her head, then turned to examine Hana.
The Viscountess’s pale cheeks were now flush with color as her chest rose and fell in slow succession.
‘Is it really that simple? She’s improved so quickly. Was it Ramiel’s lightning, or were Hana’s latent Saint powers already keeping her alive? Then—right now, I almost—’
“Hey.” The Marquess’s voice cut through Carina’s stumbling thoughts as he turned her cheek to face him. “Hana’s fine. You’re fine. Everything’s fine, so just—breathe, okay?”
The Duchess nodded numbly, her vision blurring with tears as she sucked in a shaky breath.
“Fuck,” Beaumont growled before pulling her closer.
A tingling spark ignited in her stomach as the Marquess’s lips closed over hers. At first, she felt nothing but the firmness of his kiss until her jaw finally unclenched and her mouth opened. A current of magic passed between them, Beaumont’s magic, warm and comforting, like the first ray of sunlight after a long hard winter’s night. His lips were warm and gentle at first, then seemed to grow curious as he tilted his head and pressed deeper.
A sputtering cough snapped Carina from her daze as Beaumont pulled back with a wry smile. She watched numbly as he rolled to his feet and could have sworn she heard him mutter something which sounded like, “figured that would do the trick.”
A feeble cough quickly snapped the Duchess’s attention back to her unconscious friend as the Viscountess’s blue eyes fluttered open. “Hana!?”
“Kirsi…” Hana groaned, a faint spray of golden blood tainting her lips as she hastily raised a hand to her mouth.
‘She’s talking and moving—thank the gods….’ Carina almost doubled over in relief before she forced a smile across her numb face and gently turned Hana’s head slightly to the side to check the back of her skull. Beneath the blonde hair, still damp with blood, a perfectly intact scalp and a faint bruise were all she could see. ‘That’s—incredible….’
“She should be alright to move in a little bit,” Beaumont commented as he pulled his sword from the charred gravel path with a grunt. “Looks like your Colonel finally found you.”
The Duchess turned to where Isaac appeared around the side of the building, followed by Captain Silas and two other knights. The half-witch took one look at the ice witch sitting on the ground surrounded by smoldering earth and quickly bolted toward them.
“Your Grace? What—what happened? I was told you were upstairs!”
“Who told you that?” Carina retorted sharply. “I told the knights at the door to tell you I went for a walk—no, never mind that now. Someone attacked Hana in her room. I need you to find out what happened to her security.”
“She—what?” The Colonel’s gaze spun towards the open window on the third floor. “Veles’s fangs. Did she fall?”
“She was pushed,” Carina snapped incredulously. “We need to get her inside without arousing too much suspicion.”
The Duchess and knights whirled towards the back of the manor to where a drunk, half-naked Acheron staggered towards them with a bottle in each hand, his steel-blue eyes squinting in confusion before he stumbled over into a honeysuckle bush with a loud, “Ooff!”
“I’ll handle him,” Beaumont growled as he quickly sheathed his sword and headed toward the squirming pair of bare feet and trousers.
“Colonel, your cloak,” Carina urged tensely as she rose to her feet. “We’ll use it as a stretcher.”
Isaac quickly unclasped his dress cloak and laid it on the ground before he and Silas gently lifted Hana while the Duchess carefully supported the Viscountess’s head and neck.
“Go on ahead, your Grace,” Isaac urged as the Colonel, Captain, and two knights lifted the makeshift stretcher by each corner. “Have the men at the door keep the guests away from the foyer while we bring her inside. Then send one of them to fetch Sergeant Ryver.”
“Why are we keeping this a secret?” one of the knights whispered as the ice witch eased Hana’s head down onto the taunt velvet fabric. “Shouldn’t we be sounding an alarm?”
“Lumi is hunting down her attacker,” Carina replied as she brushed the Viscountess’s loose hair away from her face. “I don’t want people asking questions when they see her walking around just fine tomorrow after falling from a window.”
The knight’s eyes widened, looking more confused, but he quickly nodded and pressed his lips together.
“Don’t ask questions you don’t want answers to,” Isaac commented dryly as he nodded for them to start moving.
The tendrils of smoke covered their exit as the Duchess and her men circled to the front of the manor. Behind them, a crow swooped down to land on the broken earth, where it pecked the charred broach abandoned on the ground before scooping it up and carrying it away.
“I’m really fine,” Hana repeated for perhaps the tenth time since they’d brought her back to her room.
“Everything does appear to be in order,” Sergeant Ryver confirmed as he removed the wooden stethoscope from the Viscountess’s back. “Her heart rate is good and strong, lungs sound clear and unobscured, and her pupil reaction is well within the normal range.” He leaned in to examine the back of Hana’s skull, where the bruise Carina had seen earlier was already fading. “It’s incredible, really. Are you sure she fell from the third floor?”
In response, the Duchess offered a tense smile as she twisted the black cloth the Viscountess had ripped from her attacker’s garments. Upon closer inspection, it was a remarkably plain bit of fabric made from cotton, but it was the stitching found on this benign piece of material that caught the ice witch’s attention. It was a lockstitch style with uncanny perfection that was usually only seen in mass-produced, machine-stitched clothes. Certainly not the sort of material used by nobles. But—also not the sort of garment worn by servants either, given that most of the noble houses present at the Royal Hunt had specific and unique uniforms that would be hand stitched rather than mass-produced.
‘If I eliminate the nobles and their servants, that leaves only two possibilities. On the one hand, if a witch knew of Hana’s true identity, they might have reason to consider her a threat, but the air covens are our allies, and none of the bog witches wore material like this either. The more logical answer, and the only one that matches the evidence in my hands, would be that one of Lord Borghese’s men—somehow—slipped past security and managed to get inside. They might have mistaken Hana’s room for mine, or they could have gone after Hana as some form of retribution. Given how they went after Ivy to get to me, I wouldn’t put it past the Borgheses. And this ripped sleeve—’ she looked down at the torn black fabric, ‘—would likely match perfectly with the mass-produced uniforms made for an illegal army of mercenaries dressed in black.’
“Kirsi,” Hana murmured as she placed a hand over the Duchess’s fist, covering the ripped black cloth. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
Carina smiled as she clasped the Viscountess’s hand tightly, then drew in a slow breath before asking, “Can you tell me what you remember?”
Hana’s smile faded as she turned her turquoise-blue eyes over to the corner of the room by the window. “I—had just finished Ivy’s treatment for the night. I left her to get some sleep.” She paused, tilting her head slightly. “I remember Lieutenant Olund was in the hall outside speaking to the knights on duty. I saw that the ball appeared to be ending and so went into my room to finish packing—but the window was open, and the candle that I lit earlier while changing had been blown out.”
The Viscountess shook her head, her fingers tensing around the Duchess’s hand as she continued, “I thought it was strange because even the oil lantern by the door had also been extinguished. But I assumed I’d left the window unlatched and went to close it.” Hana closed her eyes and exhaled slowly. “That’s when I heard him. A man, dressed all in black, his face—he was little more than a shadow with glowing yellow eyes—like a cat or—demon.” Hana shivered and reached for her left arm. “He just grabbed me and—pushed me out the window so quickly—I couldn’t even scream.”
“Yellow eyes?” Isaac echoed curiously. “Are you sure?”
“It’s—what I remember,” Hana replied with a faint shrug. “He was right behind me, but they were all I could see of him.”
“Does it mean anything to you, Colonel?” Carina asked tensely as she squeezed her friend’s hand comfortingly.
“Yes,” Isaac murmured hesitantly. “It does.” He moved away from the bed, prompting the Duchess to kiss Hana’s hand before following him. “Sergeant Cooper,” the Colonel explained quietly as the ice witch joined him by the window. “He mentioned seeing two Ventrayna fire witches with the Shadow Army. And he described one of them as having—yellow eyes—that glowed like an owl in the dark.”
“I don’t understand,” Carina murmured tensely. “I thought those witches were sent here to target Eleanora.”
“It’s just a hunch,” Isaac replied slowly. “But if the assassin were to confuse the western hall with the east hall, then placement-wise, Hana’s room in the east wing would be where Eleanora’s room was in the west wing.”
The Duchess’s ice-blue eyes darted rapidly back and forth as she tried to work out the manor’s layout. “Even if your hunch is correct. How the hell would an assassin make that sort of mistake?”
“The more pressing question is how they got in.” The Colonel nodded to the window latch as he flipped it into place. “According to Lady Hana, this window should have been locked, and the knights at the door swear to me they never left their post.”
Carina glanced around quickly. “There’s no water in the room either. That rules out bog witches, I suppose.”
“But fire witches aren’t exactly known for their subtlety,” Isaac continued grimly, folding his arms with a quizzical frown. “Although—”
The Duchess held her breath and then nudged his arm impatiently. “What?”
“There is a very, very small chance we could be dealing with a rare breed of witch that blends the elements of wind and fire. They serve the royal family of Ventrayna, but they only answer to the Emperor—possibly the Empress.”
“Wind and Fire? So, what—smoke and ash?”
“I don’t know. The only people outside of Ventrayna’s royalty to have witnessed their existence did so before they died. But the rumors suggest they evaporate in a cloud of smoke after killing their victims.”
Carina’s grip tightened around the torn piece of the assassin’s garments. “If the witches from Ventrayna are still here, then what are the chances that Borghese’s men remain somewhere close by?”
“You think they doubled back?” The Colonel’s ice-blue eyes turned to the window where the setting moon cast a pale glow above the forest skyline. “If they wanted a second chance to get rid of Eleanora, they wouldn’t give up now after mistakenly entering the wrong room.”
“Meaning they might try again—tonight?” The Duchess paused as she reached subconsciously for the connection to her scriva. “But Lumi ran toward the forest when I gave her their scent.”
“So, they might wait,” Isaac murmured as he tapped the window ledge. “They might have assumed that we’d react differently and increase security after finding Hana’s body.”
The ice witch winced at his choice of wording but nodded in agreement. “What do you think they’ll do now, assuming they haven’t fled back to Ventrayna?”
“If they still want another shot at the Crown Princess, there’s always tomorrow. They could take their chances on the road, use the Shadow Army to ambush us and create enough chaos that an assassin could slip through and target Eleanora.”
“Or even Nicholas.”
The Colonel raised a brow inquisitively. “Unless the royal couple travels together, there should be very little risk of that.”
“True, but if Borghese’s army is going to take such a risk, they won’t do it just to clear the way for Priscilla to become Queen.”
“Why settle for a queen’s crown when the Royal Faction possesses enough power to seize the throne?”
The Duchess nodded as she tapped her chin, a plan forming behind the white brows that framed her narrowing ice-blue eyes. “I still have a spy nestled inside the Shadow Army. I think it’s time we gave Nicholas the opportunity to see just how loyal the Royal Faction really is.”
[Author Note: Could really use feedback on this since this scene wasn’t a part of the Patreon Rough Draft.]