Chapter 73: The Fragility of Faith
Eight black flags waved above the distant gray fortress walls of Lafeara’s Palace. Each flag was embroidered with the silver emblem of a shield supporting a crown, surrounded by a wreath of vines and roses that symbolized the office of the eight Prime Ministers that had served Lafeara and its many kings over the last five hundred years.
Miniature versions of the Prime Minister’s flag were sold at six a crescent on every corner of the market streets. By sunrise, nearly every citizen in the capital carried the miniature black flag as they left their homes to line the main street of the capital and witness the parade of Capital Knights, followed by Hargreve’s finest cavaliers and the three luxurious carriages marked with the house sigil of great red bear that symbolized the strength and ferocity of the Hargreve family.
Duke Striker Hargreve rode at the front of the funeral procession. The Lord Protector of the South had traded his impressive military armor for the black silk and velvet garments of mourning. A silver and gold ornamental sword hung at his waist, glinting beneath the sunlight as the Duke’s powerful black war horse pranced majestically in front of the grand black and gold funeral carriage that carried the late Prime Minister Attwood Hargreve inside a glass coffin.
Crimson flags streamed down over the Prime Minister’s pale features. The glass walls around him reflected the thousands of civilians waiting along the silent streets that led toward the great cathedral.
Each commoner wore their best garments beneath a black scarf or jacket as they waved the tiny black flags held towards the passing funeral carriage. Only the children were allowed to enter the street and approach the Prime Minister, which they did separately and in small groups to lay the blue speculum feather of the mallard duck, tied to either a white carnation, lily, or a simple short stick to keep it from flying away, as a token of prayer beseeching the Saints to bless the departed with a new and happy rebirth.
The children carefully avoided the two priests who walked on either side of the coffin. The thurible incense burners they carried that hung from golden chains swayed with each measured step, leaving a trail of frankincense and myrrh in their wake.
Behind the funeral carriage came the two family carriages, the first covered in black drapes and curtains drawn back to allow the Prime Minister’s widow and son to wave at the crowd as they passed. The second carriage of gold and red conveyed Duchess Verity, who occasionally tossed coins out the window towards the children who lingered after laying down their feathers. The mounted knight officers behind her carriage danced precariously away from the more desperate children, who rushed toward the glinting coins heedless of the startled horse’s hooves.
The chaos was quickly controlled by the officers on foot, who shoved the children out of the street before the rows of marching knights that followed stomped over the glittering crescents without breaking rank as they maintained their military discipline, leaving the coins in the dust to be collected at the end of the procession.
The grand display of power, wealth, and influence finally reached the end of its long journey as the carriages circled in front of the great cathedral, where the knights carefully lifted the glass coffin free. At the same time, Lord Acheron Hargreve assisted his mother down from their carriage to follow his father’s coffin inside. Duke Stryker and Duchess Verity followed close behind them, shadowed by the ever-present Viscount Norley.
Bishop Murdock, dressed in rich purple robes of brocade and damask, spread his arms benevolently to welcome the grieving family, then placed his hands over the bowed heads of the veiled widow and her son as he issued a prayer. “May the Saints grant you strength and clarity through your grief. Know that she will soon welcome the soul of your esteemed husband and father into the gates of paradise.”
“Thank you, your Excellency,” Lucy murmured gratefully as she bent to kiss the ruby ring on the Bishop’s hand. Acheron shadowed her movements but avoided touching the ring with his lips. The Bishop appeared to pay no mind as he handed them off to one of the priests, who then shepherded the family into the sanctuary where Crown Prince Nicholas and Crown Princess Eleanora waited near the gold-plated altar that stood before the marble statue of the First Saint, a woman veiled in white with a golden crown of thorns that pierced her mantel as she raised a detachable ornamental jeweled sword toward the cathedral’s painted ceiling of clouds that ranged in color from blissfully peaceful white to gloomy dark gray.
“Lady Lucy Hargreve,” Nicholas murmured softly as he wrapped the frail widow’s gloved hands in his. “I am—so incredibly sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you, your Majesty,” Lucy replied with a faint smile beneath her veil. “Were my husband still here, he would apologize for creating such an enormous inconvenience so close to your coronation day.”
“I believe you,” Nicholas retorted with a dry laugh. “Lord Attwood was the kindest, most selfless man I’ve ever known. I can only begin to imagine the depths of your grief. Please know that Lafeara grieves with you, my dear lady.” The Crown Prince raised his gaze to the Rogue’s pale, drawn face and quickly embraced his friend with a tight hug. “If your family needs anything, anything at all, Acheron, please let me know.”
“Thank you, your Majesty,” Acheron responded hoarsely. “My mother and I are planning to retire to our family estate near the eastern coast following the funeral.”
“Of course. Yes, take all the time you need.” Nicholas squeezed the Rogue’s shoulder firmly. “Just put it off until after the coronation. We need to hold an election sooner versus later to fill your father’s position, and all members of the House of Lords are required to attend and cast their vote.”
“I—understand, your Majesty.”
The Rogue stepped back as the Crown Prince turned to his Crown Princess, who murmured a soft condolence to mother and son before the royal couple moved to the safety of their balcony seats above, escorted as always by the silent Captain Beaumont, now dressed in the Royal Knights ceremonial uniform. Acheron blinked in surprise as the Knight Captain paused beside him for a moment before offering the Viscount a small satin black bag.
“Would you place this in his coffin for me? It’s my farewell gift,” Beaumont said simply as he met the Rogue’s startled gaze. “Your father was a rare man of integrity. He will be impossible to replace.”
“T-thank you, Cousin.”
The Knight Captain offered a brief smile and nodded before moving on, catching up to the royal couple easily with his long strides.
In the choir loft above, a group of boys began to sing the angelic lyrics of Grace and Mercy through the Storm, their voices melding out the silent arrival of hundreds of noble families that took their marked seats in the rows behind the Hargreaves.
For once, Acheron was grateful for Verity’s insatiable need for attention. The Duke and Duchess of Hargreve remained by the door, greeting each arrival as if they were hosting an event at their estate. The Prime Minister’s son placed an arm gently around Lucy’s shoulder and then guided his mother into the protected corner of their pew. After he had arranged her seat cushion comfortably, Lucy sat down and then smiled as she grasped his hand and patted it reassuringly. Acheron smiled silently in return, then straightened as he moved to ward off the first wave of well-wishers headed in their direction.
Captain Leo observed the Rogue with sympathy from where he stood in uniform beside the Duke and Duchess. He soon received his own fair share of congratulations on his recent promotion from Lieutenant to Captain in preparation for his new position as the Crown Prince’s bodyguard.
“A well-deserved honor, I’m sure,” Lord Wyatt Gladstone gushed emphatically, ignoring his wife’s rather obvious attempts to pull him away and find their seat.
“Thank you, Viscount,” Leo replied politely as he pulled his hand firmly away. “I have some rather big shoes to fill once I officially take over for the Marquess.”
“Marquess? Ahh, yes, Marquess Beaumont—” Wyatt’s hazel-green eyes shifted covertly toward the Duke as he continued. “Is it true that he’ll be taking the Hargreve name officially now with his new position?”
“Not without our blessing!” Duchess Verity retorted sharply. “The only son the Duke has ever recognized stands before you.”
“My Lady,” Stryker whispered in a cautioning tone. “Perhaps you should—”
A murmur from the back of the line of incoming attendees drew the Duke and Duchess’s gaze to where the royal knights forced the noble guests briskly to one side as Dowager Octavia made her appearance. The soon-to-retire Queen Regent, all but invisible behind the heavy black lace veil she wore, was dressed in a regal mourning gown of black silk, complete with an impressive black walking stick curved into the head of a black serpent with red and green black-opal gemstone eyes.
Octavia leaned on the ornate walking stick rather heavily while her ladies-in-waiting, Lady Delphine and Lady Tiffany, assisted her on either side. The Dowager paused upon reaching the back pews, where she offered the Duke and his family a simple nod of greeting before turning in the direction of the side stairs that led up to the private balcony seats of the royal family.
“I think you should assist the Dowager upstairs, Captain,” Stryker commented sternly as his steel-blue eyes turned in Leo’s direction. “Her Grace doesn’t look well.”
Leo grimaced. No matter Octavia’s position in the Royal Faction or how much she had assisted with smoothing over his engagement to Lady Tiffany, he found something about standing in her presence uniquely discomforting.
“Go on then, Captain,” Viscount Norley joined in with a curious smirk. “It’s only right to pay your respects to the senior member of the royal family whom you previously served. Especially if you wish to keep seeing your fiancée more in the future.”
‘He does have a point…’
“Then I shall—see if the Dowager requires any assistance,” Leo replied with a forced smile as he turned to offer the Duke and Duchess a respectful bow. “Please excuse me, your Grace.”
Octavia cursed the heavy veil she had chosen as she labored up the white marble stairs, which were far too narrow and steep for both of her attendants to assist her. The elaborate rose lace that sucked in with each gasp of air seemed determined to smother the already trembling Queen Regent as she clung to the polished mahogany railing at her left while Lady Delphine supported the old queen on her right.
“Nearly there, your Majesty,” Delphine murmured cautiously as the Dowager paused to catch her breath and angrily yanked the veil away from her face.
“I can—barely breathe in this,” Octavia wheezed sharply.
“We can always remove it once we’re inside the private rooms.”
“So, they can all gawk at me from below?”
“I did suggest that you send flowers rather than—”
“But this may be my only opportunity—to speak to Kirsi!” Octavia panted furiously, reaching for her chest where her pounding heart raced between exhaustion and panic. It had been two days since the old queen had woken up to the sight of her beautiful white hair falling out in clumps and the sudden appearance of age spots and wrinkles on her face and arms. The unexpected loss of what little magic she had retained after years of ingesting the aconitum flower had left the Dowager devastated, as had the realization that Viktor was dead.
The Dowager drew in a slow, ragged breath and then turned, gritting her teeth at the painful grating stiffness of her joints as she straightened to observe the newly promoted Captain Leo standing below them on the stairs.
Even with her limited vision, Octavia could see that the Captain’s gaze was focused on the pretty young Lady Tiffany, who stood on the steps below holding the Dowager’s cane. The sickening, blossoming love that radiated between them felt like a bucket of boiling salt water dumped onto Octavia’s raw loss and suffering.
“Captain Leo,” Lady Delphine reproached with an almost fearful frown as she glanced between the knight and her mistress. “The Dowager still retains her title as Queen Regent until the Crown Prince’s coronation. See to it that you continue to address her appropriately.”
‘The feckless fools—must they constantly remind me what a powerless, shriveled old woman I’ve become?’
“Ahh, forgive me, your Majesty,” Leo murmured with another respectful bow. “I shall bear that in mind.”
‘How did you manage to forget it so easily when you only left my service two days ago? No doubt Stryker and that dreadful wife of his has been dripping poison into your ears.’
The old queen clenched her chipped, yellow teeth and bit back a snarl as she clung to the railing, her black laced gloves twisted against her wrinkled hands, now tarnished with unsightly age spots that had overtaken her once flawless skin.
“Well then, Captain Leo,” Octavia muttered sharply, wincing at the raspy texture of her voice, which had become so deep and foreign of late. “What brings you?”
“Ah! Well, I—thought that I might offer my assistance to you throughout the funeral, your Majesty,” Leo replied, already moving up the stairs toward her. The Dowager held back a sinister laugh as Tiffany accidentally dropped her handkerchief, which the Captain swiftly retrieved as he returned it to her with a folded slip of paper tucked inside and a tender, besotted smile.
‘Could they be any more obvious?’
“Thank you, Captain,” Tiffany murmured with a ridiculous smile of her own as the knight’s fingers lingered on the diamond ring Leo had picked out with the help of his future mother-in-law.
“I thought you promised to call me Leo.”
“That—” Tiffany flushed and quickly rapped his fingers lightly with the Dowager’s cane. “Not in public.”
“So when can I see you alone then?”
“Ahem,” Lady Delphine cleared her throat sharply, perhaps sensing the strained thread of Octavia’s patience that threatened to snap. “Your assistance would be most welcome, Captain. The Dowager has not slept well lately due to a persistent headache.”
“Ahh!” Leo managed to pull his gaze away from his blushing fiancée and quickly cleared his throat as he moved to take Lady Delphine’s place beside the Dowager. “Please, lean on me, your Majesty.”
“What a handsome and reliable husband you will make,” Octavia murmured coldly, noting with a smile the uncertain pinch of his brows as she looped her frail hands around his muscular arm. “You may stay to visit your fiancée if you wish, but kindly assist me to my seat first while I still have the strength to stand.”
Dowager Octavia’s anxiety only grew as she watched the pews below steadily fill with nobles. Some noble families arrived with their entire litter of children and grandchildren, while most families were represented by only the most senior husband and wife. Yet still, not a single knight of Bastiallano could be found among them.
The old queen picked at the lace tangling around her fingernails as her ice-blue eyes returned restlessly to Duchess Kirsi’s seats in the third row as if expecting the Isbrand Queen to appear out of thin air magically.
Clearly, she was not the only one who noticed the Duchess’s absence. Nicholas frowned at Lady Kirsi’s seat repeatedly while the Duke and his shadow, Viscount Norley, glanced over occasionally while exchanging private whispers. Soon enough, the Captial Knights closed the back doors of the sanctuary. Bishop Murdock promptly took his position in front of the golden altar, and the funeral service officially began with the congregation of nobles singing In the Arms of the Saints and Rest Eternal, my Sweet Soul.
“Where is she?” Octavia seethed as she turned to the trembling Lady Delphine beside her. “Did the Duchess not receive an invitation?”
“I’m not sure—your Grace. I did check the invitation list, and Lady Kirsi’s name was added. Perhaps she’s running late or is busy with—”
“We both know that Kirsi has been ignoring Nicholas’s summons for nearly a week now, using the plague as an excuse. But to think she’d ignore me as well and avoid—” Octavia cut off sharply as her ice-blue eyes darted to the chairs behind them where Captain Leo and Lady Tiffany stood beside each other, singing from the same hymnal. Fortunately, the couple appeared so engrossed in each other’s company that there seemed little chance of them listening in on the Dowager’s hushed conversation. “You must send another letter to Colonel Isaac. Stress to him the urgency of our situation!”
“He may yet still appear, your Majesty. It takes at least a day for a letter to reach Bastiallano.”
“How much longer would you have me wait? Or do you enjoy watching me wither away into a living corpse?”
“Of course not, your Majesty! I—” Lady Delphine cut off abruptly as the hymnal finished.
The nobles silently took their seats as Bishop Murdock began his sermon, a familiar piece on the importance of obedience to the Church and its Saints when facing the final days of Judgment. Octavia inched forward to study the back pews of the church where Earl Percy Hawthorne and his masquerade of witch nobles sat grim-faced or expressionless as they no doubt tuned out the majority of the Bishop’s preaching.
‘Where are you Kirsi? If Viktor’s dead, why haven’t you come for the Isbrand Throne? Why are you punishing me? Have I not been faithful? Have I not given you everything you asked for? Where is my promised immortality?’
Octavia’s cold nails scratched against the mahogany railing before one of them snapped off, sending a jolt of sharp pain straight up the frail woman’s arm into her chest. The Dowager’s startled inhale pulled Lady Delphine’s gaze toward her worriedly as blood streaked from beneath the ice witch’s dislodged fingernail.
‘Something is wrong. This can’t be right. If Kiris has become a god, why am I falling apart?!’
A soft knock at the door pulled Lady Delphine’s worried gaze away as Octavia quickly wrapped her bleeding finger in a black silk handkerchief. Captain Leo handed Lady Tiffany their hymnal before rising to answer the door. The Dowager felt a moment of light-headed relief as Colonel Isaac’s familiar long white hair and cold blue eyes appeared on the other side.
“Lady Delphine, some privacy, please,” Octavia hissed urgently.
Her senior attendant quickly ushered Lady Tiffany and Captain Leo outside as the Colonel entered the private seating room and respectfully bowed his head toward her. “Your Majesty.”
“You no longer kneel, Colonel?”
“A Knight of Bastiallano only kneels to the Duchess of Bastiallano.”
The Dowager cackled out a weak laugh. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. You were always swift to shift your allegiance.”
“My allegiance has not changed, your Majesty. The person who holds the title and authority of Duchess has.”
“Tsk! Never mind that now. What news of Kirsi? Has she succeeded? What of her plans for the throne?”
“Things are—still in flux at the moment,” Isaac answered as he moved to the corner of the balcony, where he pulled the curtain over to hide his presence from the crowd below.
“What does that even mean? Has Kirsi taken Viktor’s position as an immortal or not?”
“You will have to ask Kirsi yourself—when she wakes up.”
“Wakes up?” Octavia blinked slowly as she struggled to grasp his meaning.
“Her Grace is sleeping. She appears to be undergoing some form of regenerative transition. I have checked her progress daily, and Kirsi’s powers are clearly growing, but—the Duchess has not opened her eyes for the past two days.”
“She’s—sleeping?” The Dowager echoed dully, exhaling a weak laugh as she clutched her chest. “I don’t understand—if Kirsi is an immortal, what need would she have for a mortal’s body?”
“None of us could possibly know what to expect. No records of purebloods becoming immortals even exist—but I can assure you that Kirsi is well looked after and fiercely guarded. Even the Pope himself would not recklessly challenge the military defenses of Bastiallano.”
“Is that all you can think of? Your fortress and your knights?” Octavia hissed venomously. “While Kirsi gets her beauty sleep, the remnants of Viktor’s covens are no doubt rotting away as I am!” She turned and lifted her veil, anticipating a fearful reaction similar to the horrified expression Delphine wore every morning when she assisted the Dowager from her bed and every night that she removed the old queen’s veil.
Colonel Isaac offered no such reaction as he assessed the heavy wrinkles, nonexistent brows, brown spots, ghostly strings of white hair, transparent dry scalp and skin, and the sunken, bruised eyes of the once proud Queen Regent. “It seems old age has caught up with you, your Majesty.”
Octavia stared at him incredulously, stunned by his daring callousness, before realizing this cold bluntness was precisely what she should have expected from him. A sinister laugh tickled at the back of her throat as the Dowager lowered her veil, snickering almost manically at the depths to which she had fallen.
‘I should have never put my faith in that half-breed bitch.’
“Your letter mentioned a matter of urgency,” Isaac continued emotionlessly as he absently straightened the hymnal Delphine had left on her seat.
‘So the fact that I’m dying isn’t urgent enough, it seems.’
The Queen Regent’s dry lips coiled cynically before she gazed toward the Bishop below. “I think it’s time you paid a visit to Helmtree.”
The Colonel drew in a resigned breath but then nodded. “I had hoped to do so before Kirsi began her awakening. But now—I believe it would be prudent to wait. Several groups of the Pope’s Witch Hunters have already been spotted crossing the border. Ripper’s second in command, the Hound Master, was seen not far from the capital only yesterday.”
“Since when did you fear the church? I’m surprised you dared the journey here if you were so worried.”
“Yes, a wasted trip, it seems. I shall send word to Helmtree if you like, but if they have become as weakened as you have, they will likely wish to remain in seclusion until Kirsi finishes her ascension.”
“So you will me to wither and die alone?”
“My priority must be keeping Bastiallano secure until the Duchess wakes—”
“And what of me? What of your oath to protect me? Or do I no longer deserve such loyalty?”
The Colonel turned his emotionless gaze toward the quivering Dowager and then offered her a shallow bow. “I’m afraid that as a half-witch, I lack the ability to aid in this particular matter.”
“No, you don’t, Colonel. You can serve me as you did before. Provide me with the ingredients I need to—”
“If your Grace requires more virgins for your secret garden, then I’m afraid you must find someone else to accommodate your request.”
“You fucking bastard!” Octavia hissed, rising unsteadily from her seat as Isaac turned and circled the small space toward the door. “Kirsi will hear of this! She will see you for the faithless, spineless dog that you are!
“In my experience, no dog barks more loudly than those that have lost their teeth,” Isaac observed cooly as he paused with his hand on the handle, then turned to offer her a look that seemed to hold a glimmer of pity. “We all must pay for our sins one day, your Majesty. At least Kirsi gave me the opportunity to atone for my past rather than force me to carry her sins as you did.”
“Ha! Go on then, run, you fool, like the cowardly traitor you are! I will throw you to the Pope and his hounds if it’s the last thing I do!”
The Dowager grasped the back of her chair tightly as the private balcony door closed behind the Colonel with a soft click. She panted forcefully against the veil that once more hindered her ability to breathe. A foreign, salty fluid seeped down her cheeks and stained the black lace of the old queen’s mantle as she wavered between laughter and strained shrieks of rage.
Lady Delphine appeared through the door, looking hesitant and meek as usual, as she returned to the Dowager’s side. “Is—everything all right, your Majesty?”
“Her brother, Sir Malcom Cleamont, came and asked if she could sit with her parents during the service. They’re among the guests below,” Delphine explained with hesitant reluctance. “Captain Leo offered to escort her down to join them and bring her back once the service ended.”
“And you just let her leave?” Octavia hissed, digging her frail nails into the attendant’s arm. “Does my position and authority matter so little to even you now?”
“No! I only thought—since Lady Tiffany hadn’t seen them in so long. I’m sorry! I’ll go and fetch her—”
“And leave me here to rot?!”
“No! No, your Majesty,” Delphine whimpered as she knelt before the shaking Dowager. “Please, your Majesty. The Crown Prince is about to give his speech.”
“I am well aware,” Octavia growled between rasps of air before turning to watch the young monarch who appeared through the side door below to join the Bishop beside the altar. “Nicholas loved that man as much—if not more—than his own father—but since I am—presently suffocating inside my own skin—I really don’t give a shit!”
“I’m sorry! Forgive me! Shall I fetch Lady Tiffany and prepare to dep—” Delphine flinched away from the Dowager’s bloody hand as the old queen reached for her throat and then stopped.
“No,” Octavia wheezed out dryly. “Let the young couple visit with the Cleamont family as they wish. We will return to Lily Palace after the service ends.” She paused, fumbling about for a chair to lean on as she caught her breath. “And then—you will prepare the ingredients needed to feed my garden—before the full moon tonight.”
“What?! But I—”
“If you cannot do as I ask, then prepare to offer yourself as fertilizer instead!”
Delphine visibly paled and then quickly bowed her forehead towards the carpeted floor. “Forgive me, your Majesty, but—Marquess Winifred has yet to process my request for additional maids. There is nothing I can do—”
“Then we will use—what we have at hand,” Octavia retorted with a cold sneer as she turned to scan the crowd of nobles below. “The younger the better!”