Chapter 60: The Road to Failure
Acheron squinted against the bright morning light that poured down from the irritatingly cheerful blue summer sky as he descended the steps of Gilwren Manor with far less enthusiasm than when he arrived.
‘All this after that strange thunderstorm last night….’ He shook his head and winced as the movement triggered the pounding in his head while aggravating the stiff muscles in his neck, shoulders, and lower gut. ‘I should really stop drinking….’
A cynical smile twisted across his face as the Rogue sauntered over to where the Prime Minister’s steward had prepared horses for father and son. “Charlie!”
The servant glanced towards him curiously, a faint frown furrowed against his sweaty, sunburned forehead before he masked it with a smile. “Good morning, Young Master.”
“Yes, I suppose it is….” Acheron muttered, shielding his eyes with his hand. He surveyed the busy manor grounds where horses, carriages, and wagons had gathered around the circular road on the estate’s front lawn. “Where is the old man, anyway?”
“If you’re looking for me, I was just finishing breakfast.”
The Rogue flinched and turned slowly to face the Prime Minister walking towards them.
“Son, might I suggest you grab something light to fill your stomach before we begin our journey?”
The idea had merit, but Acheron wasn’t sure his stomach could handle even the thought of food right now. “Just have Charlie pack a few snacks for me to munch on later.”
“Very well,” Attwood replied with a faint frown. “Charlie, could you grab some of the dried apples, nuts, and bacon inside.”
The steward sighed heavily to emphasize his already busy workload but trudged off to complete his new task as ordered.
“We have at least an hour before we head out, so—try and stay out of trouble,” Attwood added as he moved past his son to check the horses’ tact.
“Yes, yes, I’ll be resting in the garden then—where it’s hopefully quiet,” Acheron retorted, blocking the chaotic noise of their surroundings with his hands as he wandered around the manor towards the garden’s cool shade and water fountains. The rush of wind through the fragrant crape myrtle trees was almost soothing as the cool breeze tickled the Rogue’s cinnamon-brown curls against his ears and neck.
The echoing crunch of footsteps upon the gravel path behind him confused the sluggish noble until a man’s voice called out, “Good morning, Lord Acheron Hargreve.”
Something in the way the man uttered his family name put Acheron immediately on edge as he turned to face the nobleman. Although he couldn’t recall the man’s name, he had undoubtedly seen him lingering around Earl Coldwell of late. “And you are?”
The Rogue’s honest but cutting response caused the nobleman’s expression to stiffen momentarily. “Viscount Callum Norley, at your service,” the man replied with a mocking bow and political smile that sent a shiver down the hungover nobleman’s spine.
“Yes, I see. Did you need something?” Acheron demanded bluntly, hoping to rid himself of this unwanted company quickly. His gaze was drawn curiously to the bandage around the Viscount’s right hand as the nobleman straightened his riding jacket.
“As it happens, I do,” Norely replied as he took a step closer. “I need your help ensuring the position of Lady Priscilla Borghese as Nicholas’s first Royal Consort.”
“You—What?” The Rogue shook his head incredulously, half wondering if he had heard the nobleman wrong. “Did you just—say what I think you said?”
“Despite the copious amount of wine you swilled down last night to dampen your disappointing loss, yes, I am asking that you use what minute influence you have to ensure the Crown Prince fulfills his promise to the Duke.”
“I see,” Acheron murmured as he scratched his neck. “You’ve got balls, friend—oh wait, you’re not, my friend. So why the fuck would I do you a favor?”
The Viscount’s hazel-grey eyes narrowed over a sinister smile. “Straight to the point, how appropriate.”
Acheron flinched as the nobleman lifted his riding cane, which the Viscount pressed into the Rogue’s shoulder.
“You’ll do me this favor because you don’t want the Crown Prince—your friend—learning about the unfortunate entanglement you had with his Mistress last month,” Norley all but hissed as he twisted his cane into the stunned nobleman’s shoulder.
The Rogue took a few moments to bat his eyes as a trembling hand rose toward the cane, then he lurched towards the nearest bush to vomit. The Viscount observed his loud suffering with a scornful sneer before pulling a handkerchief from his sleeve, which he draped over the heaving noble’s shoulder.
“Clean yourself up,” Norley snapped impatiently as the Rogue fumbled with the offered cloth. “You’re a Hargreve, so I have no interest in destroying you. But if you want me to keep this secret from spreading more than it already has—I think it’s time you aligned your interest with those of the Royal Faction and Duke, who have shielded you from other similar mistakes in the past.”
“Who—who else knows?” Acheron sputtered as he turned, still doubled over, to face the Viscount.
“Well, given that the Noble Faction hasn’t used such a scandal to their advantage yet, I think it’s safe to say the only people in the know are myself, the Duke, and the servant employed by the lady in question.”
‘Wait—the maid saw me?’ The Rogue grimaced as he wiped his chin.
“I can’t say for sure that other eyes weren’t watching the house the morning you demonstrated your incredible agility climbing down from Lady Rosamund’s window in a—rather disheveled state—but I can assure you that no one on our side will breathe a word of this—as long as you fulfill your role.”
‘I knew this day would come. Fuck!’
“Once you’ve composed yourself, I suggest you return to the foyer and behave as you normally would,” Norely continued in a dull, monotone voice that hardly matched the weight of the threat he had just delivered. “For now, we recommend you remain close at hand to the royal couple. They’re bound to have another falling out, and that’s when you’ll remind Nicholas of his obligation to Lady Priscilla—in more amenable words. You could try mentioning the importance of heirs and the benefits of having a supportive wife—”
“Because clearly, I would know about such things,” Acheron retorted weakly.
“On that note, it would help if you behaved and treated your fiancée, Lady Evelynn, with a bit more respect. We want to recruit the lady and her father to our side. She could be a useful tool as the Crown Princess’s only lady-in-waiting.”
“Your mad—if Nicholas knew of this—”
“The Crown Prince doesn’t trust anyone, nor should he,” Norely rebuffed quickly. “Given how even his best friend has betrayed him in the most horrendous way imaginable.”
“You fucking bastard!” Acheron roared, lunging, rather badly, with his fist toward the Viscount.
Norely caught the enraged noble’s wild swing in step and steadied the stumbling man before delivering a firm punch to the Rogue’s face, knocking him off his feet.
Acheron stared blankly at the gravel path he’d fallen upon. Stars danced before his eyes as the taste of blood replaced the traces of vomit in his mouth. The shock wore off quickly as he rolled over to face his blackmailer with a glare.
“You’ll have to use your own handkerchief to wipe away the blood,” Norely observed coolly as he examined the signet ring on his right hand. “I’ll be leaving now as I have other pressing matters to contend with. If you create a fuss, we’ll see just how quickly your pathetic existence implodes. Or you can keep quiet, learn to behave in a manner that befits your status, and the Duke will reward you and your new family appropriately.”
The Rogue stared at him blankly, then rolled over to spit the blood out of his mouth. “Your insane.”
“From where I’m standing, you’re the one to blame for your current position, Lord Acheron.” The Viscount tipped his hat mockingly towards the kneeling noble. “I hope you make the right decision this time—for your father’s sake.”
Sometime after the detestable Viscount wandered off, Acheron managed to regain his footing. He continued toward the garden’s regal water fountain, clutching one of the white stags as he knelt and plunged his head beneath the water’s cool surface.
A black newt with a blue tail scampered away, disappearing beneath the cluster of leaves that had fallen into the fountain. The Rogue hardly noticed it as his gaze remained fixed on the dark bottom of the reservoir, barely conscious of the sting along his lower lip. For a time, silence prevailed while the steady thud of his heartbeat hammered dully against his ears. As he lingered in depressive melancholy, Acheron briefly wondered if he was capable of drowning himself here and now.
With a sharp gasp, the Rogue pulled his head free and turned to slump against the water fountain as water dripped from his hair and face onto his disheveled, absurdly hot shirt and jacket. The idyllic view of the garden and the cozy country manor before him blurred into the background as Acheron clutched his shaking hands into fists.
‘It’s over. Either I comply with the Duke’s commands, or—I face Nicholas and risk my life and everything my father has worked so hard to build. And Mother—’ The image of Lady Lucy’s concerned, loving gaze only twisted the knife of guilt deeper. ‘There has to be another way!’
Acheron found it incredibly difficult to think, much less formulate a plan to escape the consequences of his actions, as his thoughts collided with the pounding headache between his ears and the nausea that rose every time he contemplated unburdening himself before his friend.
‘Maybe Nicholas won’t kill me. He’s certainly gotten closer to Eleanora over the last few days. A few weeks ago, he wouldn’t even blink at the idea of bringing in a royal consort—and now he’s actively delaying the matter to spare his wife’s feelings.’
The Rogue ran his fingers through his damp curls as he let out a whimpered breath.
‘But that doesn’t mean his feelings for Rosamund are completely gone either. They were together for years. And even if he has grown bored of her, that doesn’t erase the fact that I slept with her and then kept it a secret from him.’
“So what do I do? If I speak the truth—there’s a good chance I’ll end up dead. If I confess and Rosamund denies or tries to twist the facts to save herself, there’s an even bigger chance Nicholas will have me castrated—with my father’s blessings.”
Acheron groaned as he wrapped his arms around his skull, fighting the familiar urge to find a liquor bottle and numb himself into blissful catatonic oblivion. In what felt like very little time, and yet an eternity, he was jolted from his muddled thoughts by the approach of Charles.
The squire nudged the Rogue’s boot and raised a brow as the nobleman lowered his arms. “Your father sent me to fetch you. It looks like we’re about ready to depart.”
Acheron nodded wordlessly, then reached toward the servant’s offered hand before rising to his feet. It wasn’t until the squire glanced at his mouth for the third time that the Rogue remembered his throbbing split lip.
‘Shit. So much for acting normal.’
Thankfully, most of the nobles and servants were too focused on finding their place behind the royal carriage to pay any attention to the infamous Rogue, whose foolish past only lent itself to dismiss his current disheveled state. The Prime Minister, on the other hand, was not so easily fooled.
“What happened?” Attwood demanded as he turned in his saddle. “I told you to stay out of trouble.”
“I did! I—tripped over a root and fell,” Acheron retorted, wincing as his lip and jaw protested.
“Saint’s Mercy.” The Prime Minister hung his head with a heavy sigh before motioning for them to take their place behind the royal carriage. “You would—tell me if you were in any serious trouble—wouldn’t you?”
If the Rogue hadn’t been clinging tightly to the pommel of his saddle already, he might have fallen from it in surprise. The frantic pounding of his heart seemed to increase tenfold as he avoided his father’s gaze.
“Are you—in trouble?”
“Have I—done something else to disappoint you?” Acheron muttered defensively.
“No. No, that’s not what I meant—it’s just—your behavior of late—”
“Ah, yes. I’m sorry that my woes of being forced into a marriage with Lady Evelynn—who wasn’t the first noblewoman I’ve slept with, by the way—have left me in a sour mood.”
“Acheron…. I understand that you’re unhappy, but you must agree that—however the unfortunate event occurred—Lady Evelynn is the one who will suffer the most given the publicity of your misdeeds.”
“I understand the reasoning behind my punishment, Prime Minister. No need to rehash it now.”
Attwood sighed and turned his focus ahead. “I just want you to know that if you’re in trouble—you can come to me for help. I may be Prime Minister, but I am a father and husband before that.”
‘It’s your brother, the Duke, who’s threatening me with blackmail, but you think you can help?’ Acheron scoffed, then narrowed his gaze at the Viscount riding towards them.
“Good morning, Prime Minister, Lord Acheron,” Norley greeted with a passing respectful nod as he continued to the back of the line.
The Rogue’s grip tightened around the reins as he curiously observed the Viscount’s progress.
“That man,” Attwood murmured, “I can’t explain why—but he unsettles me.”
‘Then you have good instincts.’
Acheron’s brows furrowed as he observed the royal knights escorting a relatively clean but haggard-looking Lord Borghese out of the servant’s door. “The traitor is traveling with us?”
“Yes, at least part of the way,” Attwood replied, reaching over to rein in his son’s horse as they reached their destination. “The Crown Prince has agreed to let him stay with Earl Coldwell under house arrest until a more permanent lodging can be arranged somewhere along the east coast.”
“So, the old boar’s being forced into retirement—at least until Priscilla becomes a Royal Consort and gains enough power to bring him back.”
“Acheron,” the Prime Minister hissed in warning. “There are some thoughts that you should keep to yourself.”
“I can’t be the only one thinking it….” The Rogue trailed off as the royal couple approached from the other side of the waiting nobles. It seemed odd to him that Elenaora had chosen to wear a heavy cloak with its hood up on such a warm summer’s day.
Nicholas nodded to them in passing, his gaze hovering over Acheron’s split lip for a second before he smirked, shook his head, and then focused on escorting the Crown Princess into the carriage.
The Kensington Knights followed on horseback, led by Lord Alastair Kensington, and aligned themselves directly behind the Prime Minister and his son. The rest of the nobles adjusted themselves and soon fell in line further back before the drumming sound of hooves pulled everyone’s attention to where the Duchess road towards them while her knights formed a double line on either side of the royal procession.
“Is this everyone?” Lady Kirsi asked as her excited white mare circled restlessly beside the carriage.
“It is your Grace,” Major Garrett confirmed, looking a bit flustered as he glanced over his shoulder toward the Prime Minister and Kensington knights.
“Well, there is—ahh, here’s the last one now,” Attwood commented, nodding to where the newly minted Marquess rode up, wearing his usual royal knight uniform and giant dragon sword. Beaumont nodded toward the Prime Minister, glancing briefly in the Duchess’s direction as he took his position beside the royal carriage opposite Major Garrett.
“Well then,” Lady Kirsi murmured as she glanced at the Colonel beside her. “With your Majesty’s permission, we are prepared to head out now.”
Nicholas flicked her a glance through the open curtains of the carriage window, then waved his hand with an annoyed scowl before pulling the cover shut.
“Good enough,” the Duchess muttered before turning her mare around.
“Is that a new horse, your Grace?” Attwood called out curiously.
“It is,” she replied, attempting to calm the energetic creature. “A parting gift from my cousin, Lord Bromwell, to replace the mare I lost.”
“It doesn’t look fully broken in yet,” Acheron observed with a hint of worry.
“She will be by the time we return to Bastiallano,” Colonel Isaac retorted with a faint smirk. The Duchess adjusted her reins and then tapped her heels gently against the white horse’s side. The mare needed little urging as it tossed its head and galloped toward the front of the hundred knights standing in formation ahead of the royal carriage.
“Hopefully, she doesn’t fall off.”
“Lady Kirsi will be fine,” Attwood responded with a faint chuckle that faded as he grimaced, coughed, and then rubbed his chest. “The Colonel is keeping a close eye on her.”
The Rogue shook his head and stared after the already disappearing Duchess and her white horse, then frowned thoughtfully.
‘Maybe, just maybe.’
“Are you sure about this, your Grace?” Isaac murmured as they took their position at the front of the formation. “It’s not too late for me to send Lieutenant Hadley ahead with two hundred knights to route the cowards from their hiding place. They’ll think twice before engaging an elite trained unit, especially if there’s no prize to be had.”
“As much as I appreciate the suggestion, if the fire witches are with them, that’s a risk I’m not willing to make. And I think this is something Nicholas needs to see for himself,” Carina replied firmly. “I’ve tried to approach this threat diplomatically, which only resulted in the Crown Prince offering the Marquess leniency. I won’t let him escape a second time.”
“Understood.” The Colonel turned to signal the bugler two rows back to sound the advance. The Duchess’s white mare shied away from the blast but was easily corralled when the ice witch allowed her to move from a trot to a slow gallop along the road. “She spooks too easily.”
“She’s not used to troops or this much noise,” Carina replied, enjoying herself despite the danger ahead. “And she gives me the perfect excuse to break away and circle behind this Shadow Army.”
The Colonel’s expression soured as he inhaled disapprovingly. “I wish you’d let me come with you.”
“The men need you more,” she countered quickly. “And I can look after myself.”
“Against two pureblood fire witches?”
“Luring them away is the best way to protect my men and the royal couple. Besides—” the Duchess’s lips twitched with the hint of anticipation as she touched Viktor’s bracelet, “—I’m not alone.”
Isaac sighed but appeared to relent as he glanced over his shoulder to where the royal carriage flags were just visible over the heads of the grimly determined cavalry knights of Bastiallano.
Carina’s smile faded as an uneasy sensation of being watched by something non-human prickled against the white hairs along her neck. She turned her head sharply and stared into the red eyes of the old man shrouded in dark robes who watched them from within the forest’s shadows. Even from a distance, she understood the words whispered from Veles’s thin lips.
“You are running out of time, Kirsi—we are running out of time. Viktor’s heart must be returned to protect the balance. This—is your last warning.”
The immortal specter vanished behind a tree a second later as the Duchess stared after him.
“Your Grace?” Isaac murmured, turning to follow her gaze. “Is something wrong?”
Carina shook her head and focused on her connection to Lumi and the Unforgiven, who waited ahead. “Nothing that can be dealt with now.”