When she finished, Mariella looked at her hands.
As Sierra had said, she had grown up in the countryside and had no exposure to witches or magic, and she wondered how far a fragment of truth could go.
Does it only go as far as what the indoctrinated person believes, or does it delve deeper into the truth.
If the former, could they catch her deliberately withholding information or twisting answers.
How much pain she’d suffer if caught lying.
A minute passed.
In the meantime, nothing has changed in her body.
Not surprisingly, no pain.
“I think that’s a good enough answer.”
Mariella stared at Sierra as if asking what to do next.
Sierra gave her a look of disbelief.
“No way, one more!”
“She seized the vessel containing fragments of truth from the witch behind her. Just as Sierra was about to mix water with a new fragment, she heard the matriarch’s shout.
“But matriarch, this doesn’t make sense. Other than us, this, this…!”
“I worked hard to get this for Josef. Are you going to waste it on this nonsense?”
Sierra’s head bowed at the matriarch’s rebuke. Mariella stepped quietly between them.
“Once the proof is done, I’d like to take it to the next level. How did you get the idea to negotiate with me?”
The matriarch smiled softly again.
Apparently Mariella had calmed down from her tirade with Sierra.
“That you have big plans for the dark mages has been proven by the blood of Ladarsi, so I won’t probe further, but I’m not without my suspicions.”
“That you’re strangely trying to drive a wedge between Greenard and us, as if you’re the one who should be in control.”
The matriarch snapped her fingers.
At the same time, pillars of water rose up from the floor around Mariella. They became ropes, and in an instant, they bound her ankles and wrists tightly together.
“What the hell!”
“We’ve blocked your magic, because we don’t want you to use it against us. As you know, our Farni specialise in stopping the magic of mages, whether it’s the black magic of witches or the white magic of priests. That’s why we’re called the Farnis of Defence, though, well, that’s all a shadow of its former glory.”
With a sweeping motion of his hand, the matriarch eased her back into her chair and placed a magical parchment and pen in front of her.
“Let’s answer the second question: what should go in an apple pie and what should go out?”
Mariella asked eagerly.
“Do you think I’m going to give you a straight answer?”
“I don’t know the truth of whether or not you killed the princess’s mother and her maids due to lack of… information, but there are other things I do know with certainty.”
The matriarch stepped up behind her back and kindly placed an inked pen in Mariella’s right hand. She was uncomfortable from being bound but still capable of writing.
The matriarch whispered softly in Mariella’s ear.
“That you are very close to Princess Marianne.”
“So it is said.”
When Mariella stiffened and denied it, the matriarch gave a small chuckle.
“Whether it is known or true, I will judge for myself.”
The matriarch turned and ordered the witch at the door.
“Bring me Princess Marianne. I will weigh the price of her life here and now.”
“You’d better think about it. Because what you’re doing now is nothing more than playing games with us.”
The matriarch smirked at Mariella’s insistence.
“You don’t understand, this isn’t about pretending.”
The matriarch bent her knees to make eye contact with Mariella.
This allowed Mariella to get up close and look into the matriarch’s eyes, which melted into a complex mix of emotions. To Mariella’s surprise, the emotion that flashed most brightly within him was not anger or vengeance.
Her eyes were sunken with age.
Regret and doubt swirled endlessly within his tired eyelids.
“Infiltrating the Order and the royal family? That’s probably just a sidebar, because if you’d been digging, you wouldn’t have known about ‘it’.”
Mariella frowned, echoing the matriarch’s words.
“What we want to get from Derschabach. Or rather, what we want to… dig up and destroy.”
The matriarch whispered to her in a low voice.
“The secret of the White Stone.”
* * *
“That’s why I’ve had my knights lay siege to the Marquis of Arell’s manor as a matter of urgency …”
Josef calmly explained the events.
Leaving out important details, of course, such as the magical parchment they had sent, or the magical shield that had been created as a result of sending assassins in secret during the negotiations.
The faces of the deputies grew sombre as they heard that the princess had been kidnapped.
Marquis Alphonse, the merchant, asked cautiously.
“So, what happened to that magical shield…?”
Josef shook his head helplessly.
“We don’t know either.”
To a stranger, he looked like a helpless, innocent prince who really didn’t know anything.
Marquis Arell, who knew the whole story, was confused, wondering if the man in front of him was the Josef he knew.
The nobles who heard Josef’s words murmured among themselves.
“Could it be a witch?”
“Let’s not say.”
“But if it’s not that, how did they create such a huge magical shield…”
“Isn’t that mansion owned by the Farni family? Maybe it’s not the dark mages, but the house itself that’s a finely crafted magical item.”
“Let’s not be rash. If the Order finds out about this…”
The nobles all nodded heavily.
They had all been through the Holy War.
Thry still remember vividly what it was like during the war.
The black smoke that filled the sky, the pillars of fire and icy meteorites that rose indiscriminately.
They were deeply horrified by the extraordinary powers of the witches, which were far beyond human imagination. But even more terrifying was the ruthlessness of Baredesha’s witch trials after the war.
How many women were slaughtered under the false accusation of witchcraft.
A time of madness.
At the beck and call of an angry populace and a triumphant Church, many irrational things were done.
At that time, it was still acceptable. No, it was necessary to think that way in order to survive.
The nobles remember their cowardly silence.
The air before dawn shivered under their breath, not knowing when their wives and daughters would be accused of witchcraft.
When Princess Marianne purged the families linked to dark mages, they feared a repeat of the madness of the last war, so they decided to be cautious this time.
“The first thing we need to do is find out the identity of the kidnappers.”
They tried to determine whether the men who had taken the princess were witches or not, so that they could decide whether or not they should seek the Church’s help in this matter.
Someone asked the most obvious question.
“You said they were Marquis Arell’s servants.”
The eyes of the nobles turned to the Marquis of Arell. His face flushed red at the sudden attention.
It was Josef who saved the stuttering Marquis.
“The maids and servants that Marquis Arell brought with him from his homeland were unable to overcome their homesickness and returned to Greenard, so he had his servants recruit new ones. Coincidentally… they are Ashakals.”
The nobles’ faces contorted.
Josef tossed out the information, and the nobles bit off more Ashakal than they could chew.
“Is it possible that the Ashakal royal family is trying to pin all the blame on Greenard?”
“That would make sense. When things went wrong, they tried to clean up the mess…”
“But that doesn’t mean…”
Just as public opinion was about to lean one way, someone spoke up.
“That’s too big of a scale to be true.”
All heads turned towards the source of the voice.
The voice was Edmund Pakal’s.
Edmund Pakal was currently on amnesty, and the Ashakal royal family, fearful of being implicated, had chosen to keep him at arm’s length.
Verdan had lost much in the civil war, including its people, but it was still the dominant power on the continent, and the risk to Ashakal of aligning itself directly with Verdan was too great.
Furthermore, this was not a matter for the Ashakal royal family. They were furious that Duke Pakal had stoked the flames against them by doing his own thing.
Rumours were rife in Ashakal society that Duke Pakal would be severely chastised for his actions when he returned to Ashakal. Whether true or not, he was already a laughing stock. He would not be able to return home unless he got this right.
There was another problem. The royal family’s abandonment of him meant that his connection to the Marquis of Baumann, his source of funding, had also been severed.
As Marianne had once told him, he had fled to Ashakal before he could inherit his father’s dukedom, and he could not inherit his father’s estates because of Verdan’s special law that the estates of nobles without heirs is now in possession to the royal family.
Ashakal had many more barren lands than Verdan, and his estate was one of them. Without the Marquis of Baumann’s financial support, he could not enjoy the same affluence as before.
‘If we don’t turn the tables here, we don’t stand a chance.’
That was why he had come to this meeting today with his sword sharpened. If he was to get his life back on track, the prince and his wife had to fall.
Backed into a corner, Edmund Pakal raised his voice brazenly.
“The Ashakal royal family staged a kidnapping to cover up the poisoning of the crown prince, and they did it using black magic? You’re making a big deal out of it. It’s too obvious, don’t you think? I wouldn’t do it if I were them.”
For once, Duke Pakal had brought a topic to the surface that people had been talking about behind their backs. When he thought he had the attention of the room with his provocative story, he said what he really wanted to say.
“Here’s what I think. Those people who are infiltrating the Marquis of Arell’s mansion and staging the kidnapping are witches.”
The backlash was immediate.
“How can that be, surely all the witches are dead by now?”
It was the question he’d been expecting. Without blinking an eye, Duke Pakal retorted.
“Nothing in the world is completely dead, which is why the Pope is travelling the continent with the Paladins. To find the dark mages who have fled to other lands.”
Again the nobles murmured.
“One, you have no proof, do you?”
Someone asked cautiously.
To Duke Pakal, it felt like a fish taking the bait. He frowned, and spoke back in an exaggerated tone.