Chapter 63: A Blade of Mercy
Even at the northern side of the ice bridge where Bastiallano’s knights had hastily erected a medical tent, the stench of burned flesh and death still permeated the air. The Duchess ducked through the canopy’s closed flaps to join Sergeant Ryver and his patient inside. The medic knelt over the injured Lady Priscilla, who lay on her stomach, her injured right arm and face draped over the edge.
“Here, some cool water with a bit of soap diluted into it,” Carina murmured as she set the metal pail down and watched as he cut away the fabric and hair that clung to the blistering wounds. “How is she?”
Sergeant Ryver shook his head with a sigh as he set aside his scissors. “It could have been worse. She might have stood a better chance if she jumped into the river when his Majesty did.” He tested the water and nodded approval before lifting the prepared metal ladle and pouring the clear liquid gently over Priscilla’s arm.
“Will it scar?”
“I’m afraid it’s very likely. I’ll do what I can, but someone with more experience dealing with burns might be able to give you a more accurate guess.”
“You’re doing fine. I’ve sent a knight ahead to the capital to purchase some calendula ointment from one of my apothecaries.”
“That will be helpful. For now, I’ll cool down the burns slowly with this,” Ryver murmured as he focused on his task. “Then we just need to keep it covered with sterilized bandages.”
The Duchess grimaced sympathetically as Priscilla trembled and flinched even in her unconscious state while the cool water ran over her burned, inflamed skin. The sound of horses and raised voices quickly pulled the ice witch’s attention, and she left the tent to be greeted with the sight of Nicholas, Eleanora, and Beaumont at the head of the Kensington knights.
“Lady Kirsi!” Nicholas greeted, looking worn and weary as he reined in the horse with Eleanora behind him. “I have a task for you?”
“A task, your Majesty?” Carina echoed curiously, frowning at Eleanora’s knight uniform. ‘So, the Crown Princess was disguised as one of her father’s knights. But why—and why wasn’t I informed?’
“The Marquess—I mean—Lord Borghese has escaped. The coward fled during the attack and was last seen headed west.”
“West?” The Duchess’s ice-blue eyes quickly narrowed. ‘Is Borghese fleeing to Duke Stryker’s territory for sanctuary?’
“Duchess Kirsi Valda, I order you, as the Crown Prince and Lafeara’s future king, to find that bastard traitor and—” Nicholas hesitated, drawing in a slow breath as he grasped Eleanora’s wrist at his waist, “—do with him what you will.”
“Your Majesty!” Lieutenant Olund protested, almost dropping the bucket of water he carried toward the medical tent.
Carina raised her brows slowly, meeting the Crown Prince’s enraged gaze for a moment before nodding silently in response. She turned wordlessly and dipped her fingers in the lieutenant’s bucket, cooling the water suitably for its waiting patient. Olund stared at her. The look of horror and concern in his pine-green eyes stayed with the ice witch as she moved to her task.
Bastiallano Knights cheered after their Duchess encouragingly as she summoned Lumi and quickly rode across the ice bridge back towards the western wood. Colonel Isaac promptly scrambled to grab his horse and follow after her, but Carina wasn’t waiting for anyone. As much as her heart pounded at the thought of settling her debts with Marquess Borghese once and for all, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was—wrong.
“You finally have permission to end that miserable rodent’s life—so why are you hesitating?” Kirsi demanded scornfully. “We both know you’ve been dreaming of this day for weeks.”
‘I don’t know.’ The Duchess exhaled forcefully as she connected to her other scrivas and sent the elemental wolves and falcons on ahead to hunt down the escaping traitor. ‘You’re right. All that matter’s now is removing this thorn from my side.’
Rupert Borghese heaved loudly against the side of a pine tree as he wiped the sweat from his forehead that seemed to stream down endlessly from his damp, ash blond hair. The fear which had fueled his initial flight had drained away from his weary bones and limbs with each mile he covered. Even now, he struggled to move from one tree to the next, hampered by the limp from his earlier fall. A few yards later, he stopped again to check the compass Viscount Norely had slipped to him along with a bag of coins the night before, “just in case.”
‘Did that bastard have something to do with this insanity? Why on earth did Captain Weylin disobey me? Everything was moving in the right direction despite that damn half-blood’s interference—but now—’
“It’s all gone to hell!” Borghese bellowed into the still forest around him before coughing up another lung. The dry tickle in the back of his throat continued to burn. He spat up dust and what little moisture his mouth could make before continuing forward wearily. Reaching safety was all that mattered now. His escape had been dangerous enough. While the knights on Stryker’s payroll quickly assessed the situation and slipped the former Marquess the key to his cuffs during the chaos, someone else had shot his horse out from under him before Rupert even reached the forest.
‘At least I got away. Now I just need to keep moving. I should have some time before that bitch, and her knights come after me. I might be slower without a horse, but I’m also much harder to track.’
A distinct unnerving caw froze the stubborn nobleman in his tracks as Borghese’s chartreuse-green eyes rose anxiously toward the dark specter that fluttered just above the trees.
The smoldering black arrow that had shot down his horse had been suspicious enough, but the constant sighting of crows—the symbol of the Hawthorn’s ancient witch bloodline—unnerved Rupert more than he cared to admit.
‘Percy wasn’t with the royal procession. Is it possible he left early to set some sort of trap?’ Rupert quickly shook the frightening thought from his head as he continued forward. ‘Let’s just focus on reaching the border of Stryker’s dukedom. It will probably take me a good three to five days on foot, but I’m bound to run into a town or village and have more than enough coin to purchase a horse or mule. Even the Duchess can’t come after me once I step foot on Hargreve territory.’
A lone howl echoed through the forest, freezing Borghese in place once more. The crow that shadowed him fluttered off as if similarly startled, leaving the panting noble standing alone in the eerily quiet forest.
‘It can’t be—damn it, I should have asked Norley for a gun or weapon.’
With renewed fear and desperation, Rupert forced his already tired limbs into a brisk jog, mindful of his footing as he favored his throbbing right leg. The thrashing sound of his feet through the leaves and underbrush filled his ears—heightening the nobleman’s already frayed senses as the tense echo chamber of the forest seemed to close in around him with a threatening pressure. The terrain dipped and rose, draining the ex-Marquess with each rise and nearly tripping him with every descent.
Borghese’s lungs and throat were burning as he reached weakly for the support of a slender birch tree, pressing his back against its stripped bark, rubbed away by the antlers of a deer, as he tried to quiet his breathing and thudding heart. A flash of white in the corner of his eye dropped the nobleman to his knees as he clutched his injured leg, trembling as he scanned the forest for any sign of the Duchess’s deadly white wolves.
His chest throbbed painfully with every panicked drum of heartbeat and barely eased even after his search resulted in the discovery of a white-tailed deer that bounded gracefully out of sight.
“What would Aliana say—if she could see me now,” Rupert wheezed out sarcastically, pushing himself upright and stumbling forward with a grimace and a glance at his compass. He stared down at the swaying needle and frowned as the glass cover fogged over beneath a sheet of frost that stung against his numb fingers.
The low, threatening, rumbling growl only a few feet back sent a cold shiver down Borghese’s spine as his limbs stiffened in place. He gasped as the cold rush of the monster’s breath rolled over his shoulders, freezing the damp sweat clinging to his hair, neck, and back.
“And just where were you headed, Lord Borghese?” The ice witch’s cold voice called through his pounding heart, confirming his dreaded fate.
The once proud Marquess closed his eyes as he clenched his fist around the useless compass. ‘I should have taken my chances and shot the witch earlier when I still had a fighting chance.’ He blinked slowly, drew in a shallow breath, and turned to face the Duchess with her blindingly white hair and cold ice-blue eyes.
“Your Grace,” Borghese began hesitantly, his voice barely clinging to its usual arrogance and bravado. “I assume—his Majesty sent you here to arrest me?”
“Arrest you?” Kirsi echoed as she arched her brow curiously. “Why on earth would I bother with that? Look around you, Marquess. There’s no one here. Not a single soul within miles. You could fall through the face of the earth, and no one would be the wiser.”
Rupert swallowed but clenched his jaw, wavering before the soulless eyes of the elemental wolf that appeared to be grinning down at him. “So, you mean to kill me.”
“Yes,” Kirsi replied in barely a whisper. Her lips twitched into a smile as she leaned against the elemental wolf’s neck toward him. “To be perfectly frank, Marquess Borghese, my only regret—is that I’ll only get to kill you once.”
“Fine!” Rupert snapped, attempting to match her smile but failing miserably as his expression jerked awkwardly between panic and despair. “Go ahead then. Give the Duke the excuse he needs to kill you—witch!”
The Duchess chuckled maliciously, then leaned back and slid down the giant wolf’s side. “Even if the Royal Faction blames me for killing you, what can they do about it? I have his Majesty’s blessing.”
“He—the Crown Prince?”
“Who else?” Kirsi shrugged as she tugged off her riding gloves while walking gracefully toward him. “Now, while I’m feeling remotely merciful, allow me to present you with a choice. I can offer you a quick, clean, and relatively painless death—in exchange for the name or names of all individuals responsible for the presence of the fire witches targeting Eleanora.”
“A choice?” Borghese spat out cynically.
“The second option, in which you foolishly decide to hold your tongue, involves being torn apart by my wolves,” Kirsi continued with a ruthless smile.
The soft tread and low growls around them alerted Rupert as to which wolves she meant. He could see two before him and another two at the edge of his peripheral vision but dared not look at the ones gathering behind him.
“They won’t kill you quickly,” the Duchess explained as if reading his thoughts. “They’ll pull you apart slowly so you can experience the unique sensation of feeling your skin and ligaments stretched until they snap. Once they’ve torn off your limbs, they’ll rip open your chest and stomach, leaving your head, eyes, and ears perfectly intact to witness your death.”
The nobleman shuddered and stiffened beneath the crunch of leaves at his back. “You—can’t do this,” Borghese sputtered out hoarsely. “I didn’t—order any attack! I didn’t give the command to assassinate the bitch either!”
“I don’t care,” Kirsi retorted curtly as she took another step toward him with an emotionless smile. “You brought the Shadow Army and fire witches here. You invited this—calamity upon yourself. So, spare me your sniveling excuses and tell me which member of the Ventrayna Royal family ordered you to attack Eleanora!”
“The Empress—and Crown Princess,” Rupert stammered, flinching away from the ice witch.
“Why? What reason do they have to target Eleanora?”
“To—distract the bastard prince—challenging Aurelia for the throne.”
Borghese blinked, confusion overwhelming fear at the mention of Lafeara’s dead First Prince. “W-what…?”
The Duchess turned away from him, her gaze unfocused as she ran her hand over the back of one of the white wolves. “Perhaps this is more than just an attempt to start a war. Perhaps they targeted Eleanora so Tristan would have an excuse to return to Lafeara to determine the manner of her death. That would give the Emperor an excuse to break the peace treaty and invade—while also allowing the Empress’s coven an opportunity to assassinate Tristan—but why now?”
“Why now?” Rupert echoed incredulously. “Because of the Ambassador’s death! That bastard’s wife did her best to cover it up as an accident—but nothing gets past the Empress. More importantly—since when was Tristan still alive?”
“It looks like the Empress didn’t tell you everything,” Kirsi responded dismissively. “You should have known better than to assume his death when they never even recovered his body.”
“But even Major Garrett believed he was dead. He said Tristan was buried beneath a rockslide. And Eleanora’s grief was genuine enough. No, I hired one of the best assassins I knew to ensure that bastard’s death—now he’s what—a prince of Ventrayna?” Borghese exhaled forcefully as he dragged his fingers down his face. “Does Nicholas know?”
The Duchess laughed incredulously. “Why would you care? Ahhh. You removed the First Prince so that Nicholas would become King in his stead, making Priscilla, his fiancée, Lafeara’s next future Queen.”
“Yes, only Tristan’s death—presumed demise resulted in unexpected complications.”
“So, killing Eleanora now was just a means of restoring things to your original plan.”
“It would have worked! The Duke would have ensured it…Mercy’s tit! Why did Weylin ignore my orders and ruin everything?”
“I don’t know. But I do know this,” Kirsi replied grimly. “Because of you, Priscilla will spend the rest of her life with burn scars on her face and body that will ensure she never becomes queen—or even a royal consort.”
“What?!” Borghese stared up at her aghast as his trembling hands slowly dropped to his side. “N-no. No! How? Priscilla is—burned? But how?!”
“She was riding with the Crown Prince when the Ventrayian witch set their carriage on fire.”
The nobleman staggered back, his lips trembling between protests of denial and apology as he crumbled down to the forest floor. Kirsi watched silently as he buried his face in the leaves below with a savage cry before falling silent. “Kill me—just kill me. My death will at least release her from my sins.”
The stillness of the forest returned to offer the once proud Marquess its quiet embrace as the elemental wolves disappeared one by one until only the ice witch stood before him.
“So be it,” Kirsi muttered placidly as she summoned a pure white elemental sword that glittered beneath the speckled sunlight of the forest. “I will offer Nicholas your head in exchange for a royal pardon for what remains of your family.”
Borghese exhaled forcefully as he sat up, bowed his head towards her, and nodded in gratitude. “T-thank—” His eyes widened in surprise as the blade cut through his neck. The world spun dizzyingly. The vibrant colors of the forest swirled into a dark fog as cold numbing darkness crept in to claim his fading consciousness.
“It’s too early to thank me,” the ice witch’s voice echoed thinly through the afterlife. “Even if Priscilla is spared, the road you have set her upon will most likely lead to her undoing.”
The Duchess turned her gaze away from the dead man’s head and sighed as she dismissed her elemental blade, standing alone in the forest beside her defeated enemy. It took a moment for relief to set in, but the ice witch quickly busied herself with removing the Marquess’s cloak, which she used to wrap his still-dripping head before sealing the parcel with magic.
The giant scriva returned and quickly caught the frozen head she tossed before wagging its tail.
“It’s not a toy,” Carina chided as she resumed searching the dead man’s garments, finding a bag of coins, a map, and a compass. “It looks like he had help,” she mused before glancing at his wrists. “And given how he managed to slip out of his shackles, I’m guessing more than one of the royal knights tasked with escorting him is on the Duke’s payroll.”
‘Perhaps one of them is the spy Sergeant Cooper saw.’
Her thoughts briefly returned to Lieutenant Olund’s unhappy expression before shaking her head. “I can’t rule him out either, but he wasn’t a part of Borghese’s escort.”
Before leaving his body to the forest, the Duchess removed the Marquess’s family signet ring, which she added to the bag of coins to pass on to the man’s daughter.
‘Though why I’m suddenly so concerned about Priscilla’s well-being is beyond me.’
With a frustrated eye-roll, Carina turned to join her scriva and then froze as Lumi dropped Borghese’s wrapped head and growled in warning. Quickly summoning her sword, the ice witch whipped around to stare, mystified, at the glowing white stag that stood upon the next ridge. The strangely beautiful creature flicked its white ears towards them as it stared down at the ice witch and elemental wolf with two vivid white eyes that glowed like freshly fallen stars.
The Duchess swayed unsteadily as the forest around them darkened. The color of the trees and wood drained away as the glowing white stag approached. It was then Carina noticed the path of gray, colorless, wilted grass, moss, and leaves it left in its wake. She inched back slowly, ready to jump on Lumi’s back and flee at her earliest opportunity—when the creature spoke.
“Greetings, Daughter of Frost, Heir of Viktor.”
The Duchess sucked in a shaky breath as she reached for the comfort of Lumi’s fur before responding. “W-who are you?”
The quiet melodic laugh that followed seemed to echo through the pitch-black forest around them, the trees now little more than pale white specters that trembled beneath the immortal’s mirth.
“My name cannot be given to a mere mortal,” the stag responded as its ears flicked back and forth as if indecisive. “Though—I suppose you are a rare and special case, Carina.”
The Duchess shivered, still not used to hearing her true name tossed about in this world. “H-how do you know—”
“Because I gave it to you on the day you were born.”
“Carina Morana Valda. The first and the last Isbrand Queen.”
Carina no longer had words to respond with. A deep resonating tremor ached within her chest even as the glimmer of something forgotten seemed to return to its place.
“You seem surprised?”
“I’m just—trying to understand. I thought my—our name—was Kirsi?”
“Ahhh. That was the name your first vessel was given before your first rebirth into the body of a mortal. Your true name was taken when Arachne stole a fragment of your soul to weaken you.” The glowing stag halted two yards away from them and shifted its gaze to Lumi. “Just as your father weakened himself by splintering his soul to give you this fine specimen.”
Carina’s grip on Lumi’s fur tightened as the scriva trembled and lowered its head to the ground with a feeble whimper. “Why—are you here?”
The stag’s glowing eyes resumed their focus on the ice witch as the immortal’s voice reverberated through her head. “Because of a promise. Because Viktor’s lifeforce has nearly reached its end. Because—you are finally ready to walk the moonlit path.”
“I—don’t understand your meaning.”
“You will.” The glowing stag lowered its head toward Borghese’s body and, with a single breath, turned the corpse and garments into a pile of gray dust that was quickly swept away by some unseen wind. “I shall be waiting with Viktor when you are ready to say your goodbyes.”
The Duchess’s hands curled into fists as the immortal turned to leave, its hooves ground leaf and brush into pale white ash that glowed like snow beneath the creature’s illuminating light. “W-what do you mean, goodbye?”
The stag halted, its star-like eyes returning to the trembling ice witch. “It is time you were whole and accepted your birthright. Which means it is time for Viktor and Kirsi to yield their place to you fully.”
“But why must Viktor—”
“Because that is the Maker’s will.”
“The—Maker?” Carina echoed quietly.
The stag’s ears flattened beneath its glowing antlers before its gaze rose to the unseen skies above. “My brother, the one who rules the skies by day. The one who grants the power of life and creation to the six immortals. The one who gave his blessing which allowed you to exist, the offspring of an immortal and—” A crackle of lightning splintered through the blanket of darkness above them, followed by the dull boom of thunder. The glowing stag chuckled mockingly in response. “Always so dramatic, Ramiel.”
Carina shivered beneath the threatening sound. “Is—Ramiel the Maker?”
‘What the hell—then does that mean there are two more gods?’
“Then—if your brother is the Maker—what does that make you?”
The blazing star-like eyes returned to the Duchess once more as the stag’s ears flicked toward her. “Why, that would make me the Unmaker, which is why I have decided to guide you on your path to immortality, Carina.”
“To put it closer to the language you might understand. I am Death. And you are the witch I have blessed with the curse of Calamity. The ancient magic of destruction used to destroy mortals and gods alike. The immortal power I have granted you to undo this world and all the miserable souls that languish upon it. That is the prophecy I foretold the day I gave Viktor your name.”