Chapter 59: A Promise of Betrayal
Morning came with an unnatural stillness that clung to the dew-covered grounds of Gilwren Manor in a dense fog, which glimmered with the moving torches of Bastiallano knights, who had begun to break camp at the crack of dawn.
The nobles roused much later, laden by their own liquor-induced struggles. Those who could move trod up the gravel path to the manor for the Viscount’s promised breakfast, leaving their servants to scurry about in their wake, packing and prepping to return to their respective estates.
Carina observed them through the vision of the silver hawk scriva that circled above the manor as the ice witch waited beneath the open canopy of the officer’s tent. Just hours ago, she had bid an early farewell to both Hana and Ivy as her friends were conveyed back to the Duchy’s fortress with Captain Silas and half of her troops.
The glamorous gowns that the Duchess had worn during the Royal Hunt were now replaced with a chest plate adorned with Bastiallano’s winter wolf, chain mail sleeves, and split skirt, with studded leather cuisses beneath and plated metal greaves strapped around her riding boots.
The ice witch’s unfocused ice-blue eyes blinked as she disconnected with the hawk. Her gaze quickly narrowed in on the hunched man in muddy traveling garments that was being escorted towards her by Lieutenant Olund. Carina rose from her seat, the fingers of her right hand inching reflexively toward the hilt of the sword worn on her left, until she noted the faint image of a burning blade painted on the scruffy man’s ragged jacket shoulder.
“Your Grace,” the grubby spy wheezed out as he offered her a clumsy bow. “They doubled back just like you thought they might. They’re waiting for you at the bridge crossing over Vesper River.”
The ice witch nodded as she turned to examine the small map pinned down by rocks on a table before her, the only furniture left in the tent beside her chair. She traced the return road to the capital and tapped on the marked bridge and river. “And their number? Still six hundred?”
“A bit less than that,” the spy replied as he shuffled closer to the table. “Some of them didn’t like how the Marquess changed his mind after issuing the command to withdraw. Some of them were worried about the rumors of elemental beasts under your Grace’s command. Sixty or so left, our men included. But Captain Weylin remained, and most of the men followed him. Those that stayed are eager enough for a fight.”
‘As am I.’
“Tell Sir Iker I will visit him after the dust settles to repay my debt.”
The shabby man, who looked like he hadn’t bathed in weeks, scratched the matted stubble along his neck and shrugged. “Last I heard, since their target was the Crown Princess, and you’re doing your part to keep Princess Eleanora safe, Master Iker considers this as fulfilling your promise to Ghost. Since our goals align, he won’t charge you for the aid or even the gift, but he would like to meet with you regardless to catch you up on recent developments in Ventrayna.”
“Recent developments?” Carina pressed curiously.
“A new dragon is rising,” the spy replied with a cynical smirk. “But Master Iker can tell you more than I.”
“Understood.” The Duchess turned to Lieutenant Olund. “Give this man rations and a horse, then send him on his way.”
“Oh, before I go,” the spy whispered as he plucked a small silver badge from inside his tattered jacket. “Seems I should return this to you first.” He placed the small snowflake token on the map and bobbed his head toward the ice witch once more. “Can’t say it wasn’t useful. Your knights were a bit on edge when I showed up just now.”
“I apologize if they were rude to you.”
“No apologies necessary, your Grace. It’s nothing I’m not used to.” The grubby man smirked with a side glance at Olund. “These Knights have always looked down on us common soldiers. Can’t say I blame them, given how better they’re treated.” His brown eyes returned to the Duchess with a relaxed smile that implied no ill intent. “I shall pass your message on to Master Iker. Thank you for the horse, your Grace, and—good luck to you.”
The lieutenant quickly beckoned over one of the knights tearing down a nearby tent, and sent him off with Iker’s spy to where most of Bastiallano’s cavalry horses were saddled. The Duchess watched the pair fade into the dense fog before marking the bridge on the map and directing three of her wolves to each side of the river and forest.
‘They could hit us before the bridge or after, depending on their objective. Our progress will slow as we pass through, so an attack from behind would ensure mass casualties, but if they’re after either Nicholas or Eleanora, then hitting us after crossing the bridge while our line of defense is thinned out would make the most sense.’
“Has the royal carriage been prepared?” Carina asked, glancing up to where Lieutenant Hadley now stood, waiting outside the tent.
“It has, your Grace. Though his Majesty expressed some reluctance to return that way.”
“Tell his Majesty that we’re expecting a bit of rain and that for security purposes, a carriage is a much safer means of travel for him and the Crown Princess.”
The lieutenant nodded as he moved off, not exactly thrilled but resolved to carry out his task as the Duchess’s messenger.
‘Here’s hoping that Eleanora will be more amenable to our plan’
The Duchess sighed as she rolled up the map, frowning as Lieutenant Olund cleared his throat loudly. “What is it?”
“Earl Hawthorne appears to be paying you a visit, your Grace.”
“Ahh, of course, one more unneeded distraction.” The ice witch tucked the map inside its container and passed it to the lieutenant as she circled the table to join him outside on the dew-covered ground. “Take this to Colonel Isaac and inform him of our spy’s message.”
“Yes, your Grace,” Olund replied with a respectful salute and one last look at the swiftly approaching Earl before he left the Duchess to meet her guest.
“Earl Hawthorne,” Carina greeted with a tired smile, grabbing her riding gloves as three knights appeared to convey the table and chair to a waiting wagon. “What brings you by on such a busy morning?”
“I just wanted to congratulate you on a job well done, your Grace,” Percy replied after offering her a polite bow. “You’ve kept the royal family safe and most of the nobles as well, the ones who behaved at least. Quite the commendable achievement considering how many troubles we faced on this year’s hunt.”
The Duchess clenched her jaw silently for a moment as Hana’s brush with death flickered through her thoughts. “It’s a bit early for that, don’t you think.”
The Earl raised his brow inquisitively. “Well—I suppose the job’s not done until you return the happy couple to Knight Commander Quentin at the Capital.”
“I do hope that next year we can compete on a more level playing field,” Percy continued as he examined her military attire. “Perhaps we might even join forces.”
“There’s fair, and then there’s magic,” Carina retorted with a faint scoff. “How did you manage it anyway?”
“Ahh.” The Earl’s winter-grey eyes twinkled with a smile. “You weren’t the only one interfering with Lord Borghese’s hunt.”
The ice witch raised her brow at his simplistic answer. “Still…”
“A bird’s eye view offers a marvelous perspective on most things,” Percy continued with a faint smirk. “It gives you all the information you could possibly need to corner and cripple your prey or—simply nudge them in the right direction.”
‘Are these more riddles or….’
“The falcons were just for show. Capable hunters, don’t get me wrong, but nowhere near as lethal or obedient as my crows can be.”
The Duchess nodded, glancing at the few remaining tents around them for a glimpse of her usual winged shadow. “If Captain Silas hadn’t just rescued a pair of nobles from the forest earlier this morning—siblings raving about a pack of murderous crows—I might find that hard to believe.”
“Is that so?” Percy murmured, unable to hide the smile that played along his lips. “I trust they were still alive?”
“They were covered in scratches and completely exhausted, but—alive.” The ice witch tilted her head as she studied him curiously. “Do you enjoy tormenting mortals?”
“I enjoy targeting those who torment others,” he replied with a faint grimace. “When a bully finds themselves cornered by a bigger bully—let’s just say the aftermath of devastated, inflated pride is an experience I am happy to relive when given the opportunity.”
“And just who were Lady Valarie and Lord Rufous Hearish tormenting?”
The Earl arched his brow slightly before responding, “Why, your half-sister, Lady Sophya Gilwren.”
‘Gilwren?’ The Duchess scoffed, then frowned as she recalled her conversation with Sophya’s grandfather. ‘I suppose there are more benefits to taking the Viscount’s name after breaking off the engagement with the Winslets. And to think, Maura tried to warn Sophya about Asher’s true behavior in the past—only to end up scarred for life.’
“You look—mildly disappointed,” Percy observed quietly. “Should I not have intervened?”
“I’m simply surprised that you did,” Carina replied honestly.
“Ahh.” The Earl nodded slowly. “What a monster you must view me as to find that so surprising.”
“That’s—not what I meant.” The Duchess sighed as she began pulling on her riding gloves, eager to move on from this uncomfortable topic. “So—have you decided what you’ll ask Nicholas for?”
“For…?” The pureblood squinted for a moment in confusion. “Ahh! The Royal Favor.” He turned to the side, observing as the last handful of military tents collapsed beneath the efficient work of her knights. “Honestly, I haven’t decided yet.”
The ice witch raised both brows. “Now that I do find shocking.”
“It’s true,” Percy replied with a hint of amusement. “I had an objective in mind initially, but—now I’m torn between the thing that I want and—well, the other thing that I want more.”
The Duchess frowned at the second glove in her hand while considering his vague comment. “So, what’s the trouble? Wouldn’t choosing the thing you want most be the obvious answer?”
“Not always.” The Earl turned back to face her with a hesitant smile. “Not when it involves another person who may not want the same thing.”
“Ah,” Carina murmured, suddenly very focused on her second glove. ‘Was this his reason for coming here?’
“Precisely,” Percy whispered after a moment of silence.
‘If he’s still holding on to the ridiculous notion of me becoming his queen, then I suppose I should squash that idea here once and for all.’
“Perhaps,” she began hesitantly. “It would be best if you spoke to that person and laid out your thoughts and intentions clearly—”
“I’ve tried that already,” the Earl interrupted bluntly.
“—while speaking from the heart,” Carina continued determinedly. “This way, you can at least rule out the option before making your request to Nicholas.”
‘Was that too vague? Maybe I should just outright turn him down. But wouldn’t it be pretentious to assume I’m the person he’s talking about?’
“The dizzying circles you talk yourself through astonishes me to no end,” the Scarlet Witch interjected with evident bewilderment.
‘Thanks for that oh-so-helpful bit of advice, Kirsi.’ The Duchess refrained from rolling her eyes as she looked away from the Earl and noticed with relief Colonel Isaac approaching them, leading a white horse. ‘Ah, it looks like Lieutenant Olund sent him to my rescue.’
“Nicholas has—given me until his coronation to make my request,” Percy commented quietly as he stepped closer while blocking her view of the Colonel. “I’m just unsure if now is the right time to express my feelings honestly.”
“Then I wish you good luck,” Carina responded quickly, sidestepping what looked like an attempt to grasp her hand. “Though it’s possible you already know the other person’s answer.”
“Subtle,” Kirsi commented with a faint snicker.
‘I’m so glad this amuses you….’
A familiar but unpleasant sensation of the air prickling and pressing in around her crawled along the Duchess’s skin as she heard a faint but audible snap. She blinked and nearly jumped out of her skin as Percy appeared suddenly, directly in front of her, holding both of the ice witch’s wrists in his hands.
“What just—” Carina’s words trailed off sharply as she caught a glimpse of the empty space beneath their feet. The knights, wagons, and nobles’ tents shrouded in fog were so far away they looked like miniature toy models on a far too realistic territorial map. “What the hell, Percy?!”
“I can’t wait a week,” Percy replied tensely as his grip tightened. “I need to know if you’ll give me a chance or, at least, a reason to hope. That’s all I want. That’s all I need from you. I know that I’ve messed up—on more than one occasion. I know we don’t always see things the same way. And yes, I know that not all mortals are evil. But the only consistent treatment they have shown our kind throughout the years is betrayal and cruelty. I was taught to hate them for what they did to my Father. I was taught to view them as tools, as servants, as a barrier to protect myself and the Coven. And the only emotions they have ever shown me in return are fear, hatred, and resentment.”
The Earl paused to draw in a quick breath, his gaze moving toward the faint glow of Viktor’s immortal heart. “Am I so undeserving? Is there really nothing I can do to convince you? To show you that I can do better, that I am worth the risk!” His troubled winter-grey eyes finally returned to meet her gaze. “Please, can’t you give me another chance?”
The Duchess drew in a slow breath, fighting the urge to look away, even as she dreaded giving her answer. “I do not have much experience in such matters—but from what little I know—it is not something that can—or should be forced.”
“But I love you! I am willing to fight the gods with you—for you—if that is your wish.”
Carina’s heart and stomach seemed to trade places momentarily, even as she focused in on the strange red gleam that flickered behind the Earl’s winter-grey eyes. “I—”
“He is willing to reject his own god to earn your trust, Carina!” Kirsi hissed frantically. “He is paying the penalty for his betrayal even as he speaks!”
The ice witch gasped as blood dripped from the pureblood’s nose, running down his lips and chin, as his face visibly paled. “Percy, stop this! We need to return to the ground!”
“I will—” he barked weakly, “—when you give me your answer.”
“And you thought pressuring me for an answer up here in the bloody sky would do the trick?”
The Earl straightened with effort to meet the Duchess’s skeptical gaze. “Like I said—I don’t have a week. There are too many plans—too many things in motion—things you will hate me for—but if I cannot choose you—then I must choose the only fate left to me.”
Carina clenched her jaw as Viktor’s heart flickered in warning. “That—sounded dangerously close to a threat.”
“A threat?” Percy echoed weakly before releasing her left wrist to wipe the blood from his face. “I came prepared to risk it all just to stand by your side….” His brows clenched together as a deep pain resonated across his face, forcing him to draw in a sharp breath of air. “No matter which path I am forced to take…I will never hurt you, Carina. I swear it on the Hawthorne name!”
“Clever boy,” Kirsi murmured almost approvingly as the Duchess’s heart flickered erratically in response. “You could choose far worse for a political partner as both a noble and witch.”
‘It’s not your decision to make, nor do I want your advice on such matters.’
“Percy,” Carina forced out through clenched teeth. “You and I—want different things.”
‘How the hell did he learn my true name?’
“Do we, though?” The Earl responded as he pressed a handkerchief to his nose and lips. “Surely, this past week has only emphasized just what sort of weak king Nicholas will turn out to be. If he can bow so easily to the pressure of the Royal Faction—” he grimaced as another spasm of pain seemed to rip through him, “—just how long do you think—he’ll remain standing beneath the influence of the Pope?”
The Duchess shook her head, frustrated by his suffering and the validity of his claims. “I still think that is a choice we should let Nicholas make.”
The Earl chuckled and nodded. “Yes, I agree with you on that.” He smiled at the ice witch’s confused expression before adding, “I just don’t believe in him like you do.”
“It’s not belief,” Carina growled out with a forced exhale. “I just don’t want to judge someone for a crime they may not commit while risking the lives of countless—” She flinched as the Earl doubled over and bit back a scream as they suddenly plummeted towards the distant campground below. “Percy?!”
Their descent came to an abrupt halt as the pureblood took hold of her waist firmly. “Sorry, I—must be weaker than I thought.”
“Percy, please, stop hurting yourself like this!” The Duchess tried to turn him around to determine his condition, but the pureblood merely locked his arms around her stomach, holding her imprisoned against him.
Carina clenched her jaw and closed her eyes, mentally preparing Lumi to catch them should the worst happen. “If you are going to demand an answer from me now—”
“Think this through, Carina,” Kirsi hissed persistently. “With the water and air covens at your disposal, we could do some serious damage to—”
“—then my answer is no.”
Their position in the sky faltered momentarily as the Earl sighed against the Duchess’s braided white hair. “I suppose,” Percy whispered, “that this is the answer I deserve.” His arms relaxed around her waist but did not let go as they slowly descended toward solid ground. “Thank you.”
“For what?” Carina asked cautiously, her mind now focused on the possible outcomes of her rejection.
“For liberating me,” he responded as the fog enveloped them. “And for removing any lingering doubt—of what I must do.”
Percy silently released her the moment their feet touched the damp ground. The Duchess quickly stepped away and spun around to face him. But the Earl collapsed to his knees before she could form a retort, clutching his chest with a bitter laugh as he wavered, on the verge of collapse.
“Earl Hawthorne?” Carina murmured uncertainly as the camp slowly came alive around them. “Are you—what can I do?”
“Nothing!” The sharp retort came with Marchioness Serilda’s sudden appearance as the pureblood moved swiftly to support her pale cousin. “I’ll take care of him.”
“Lady Serilda, I—”
“I told you, didn’t I—that you would bring pain to the people I care about,” Serilda retorted with a sharp glare in the ice witch’s direction. “Percy may have irrevocably damaged his core—but you were the one who chose to break his heart. Don’t rub salt in his wounds by pretending you care about him now.”
Carina clenched her fists but stepped back as the Marchioness lifted the Earl to his feet with little difficulty.
“We’re going to head out before the main party,” Serilda declared, turning in their camp’s direction. “We’ll travel much quicker without the mortals you protect weighing us down.”
The Duchess nodded, then blinked as she raised an arm to protect her eyes from the sudden gust of wind that carried the purebloods out of her camp.
“Well, that went—splendid,” the Scarlet Witch observed cynically. “I suppose that means we’re stuck with Captain Beaumont.”
“All Percy wanted was a chance. You could have easily strung him along long enough to help our cause.”
‘That—wouldn’t be right!’
“Right? Carina, you naive, deluded little girl. Isn’t it part of a god or goddess’s job description to offer their believers hope?”
‘Shut up, Kirsi.’
“And you do know that Tharyian witch tribes sacrifice mortals to appease the malicious spirits of the dead that have slipped free from Minerva’s prison. Which makes allying with them an odd choice if protecting mortals from death is your true purpose.”
‘I’m not concerned about Tharyians, nor am I trying to ally with them.’
“But you picked Captain Beaumont, who is directly linked to them!”
‘Since when did I pick anyone?’
“Of course, you would pick the most dangerous option available to us,” the Scarlet Witch muttered, apparently no longer listening.
‘Beaumont isn’t a witch, so I have no idea why you’re bringing Tharyian witches into this discussion.’
“Because he is the only one those pagan warriors will follow if we want their help in this war.”
Carina waved away a confused Colonel Isaac as she focused on her internal debate. “What do you mean?”
“I’m talking about your plan to unite the air, water, ice, and earth covens to fight Arachne. Or at least, I thought that was your plan until you threw away the easy crown Percy offered you.”
‘And how exactly does allying the Covens to our cause help me fight against literal gods?’
“You still haven’t figured it out. What do the gods have that you don’t, Carina…?”
The Duchess tilted her head for a moment, conflicted. ‘You mean—beyond immortality?’
“Alright, let’s try a different question. What do the other five gods have that Viktor doesn’t have anymore?”
The ice witch was silent for a moment before her eyes turned to where the flags of Percy’s hunting camp hung stagnant in the still breeze. “Their—Covens?”
“Exactly,” Kirsi all but purred. “The fastest way to recover the power Veles lost is to take it from the gods themselves by cutting them off from their covens and rebuilding our own.”
‘That’s why Llyr and Larissa were so eager to pledge their Covens to me. They did it to weaken Arachne?’
“It’s the only way we stand a chance against her. And it’s the only option we have at winning.”