Chapter 13: The Scorpion of Vetrayna
Eleanora relaxed into the cushioned chair and studied the confused expression on her lover’s face as she enjoyed the fresh morning air through the open lattice windows.
Hana’s pale brows furrowed as her turquoise blue eyes focused on the game of chess between them. The lady-in-waiting pushed back the stray curls of her honey blonde hair and sighed. Her soft pink lips distracted Eleanora, whose mind slipped from the game between them to the game they had played beneath the sheets last night.
“Your Highness, please stop staring,” Hana muttered as she reached for her knight, changed her mind, and moved the rook forward instead.
“Only when you stop blushing,” Eleanora countered as she effortlessly knocked Hana’s rook off the board.
Hana cringed as she fussed with the blond curls that continued to slip free from her braided updo and dance against her face.
Eleanora followed the movements of those slender hands. Her gaze lingered on Hana’s delectable long neck. The urge to reach across the short space between them and set those angelic curls free shivered down her spine.
Another useless Lafeara custom that forced women to wear their hair confined in buns and hairnets. And why? Because men were intimidated by a woman’s beauty? Because mandating that a woman could only wear her hair down in front of her husband was just another way of controlling the weaker sex?
“Why do you make me play this game,” Hana demanded with a pout. “You know I’ll never beat you.”
Eleanora chuckled as her lover sulked and flipped over her king.
“Sweet one, you won’t survive very long at court if you walk around and take things at face value,” Eleanora replied. “Chess teaches you to look beyond the simplicity of a single move and predict your opponent’s strategy. Know your enemy’s end goal, and you can anticipate their moves and control them. The same principle applies to life and the people here in Lafeara’s royal court.”
The door to her private chambers opened as two palace maids entered with the morning breakfast trays. Eleanora shifted her gaze towards them, and her smile tightened.
‘And here comes the enemy’s first move.’
“So, this is practice for you becoming queen?” Hana asked.
“Your Highness, Lady Hana,” the senior maid greeted as she bowed her head respectfully over the tray of tea. “The chef has sent up your breakfast.”
“Highness,” echoed the younger maid. The timid creature raised her gaze curiously, found Eleanora’s amber eyes focused upon her, and quickly diverted her attention to the floor.
“Breakfast! Thank Kritanta!” Hana rejoiced as she abandoned the game. “Let’s have it by the window.” She led the maids over to the sunlit breakfast table and helped them set out the plates and cups.
“And what did my chef prepare for us this morning?” Eleanora asked as she rose and stretched lazily. Her amber gaze focused on the two maids who stood on either side of Hana.
“Looks like blueberry scones and chocolate mousse!” Hana answered as she held up a scone and sniffed it hungrily. “Chef Robbi makes the best pastries!”
The young maid raised her gaze again. This time her pupils fixated on the pastry that Hana held and was preparing to bite.
‘Even without rattling your tail, your eyes betray you.’
Eleanora caught Hana’s wrist and snatched the pastry away. “Major Garrett!”
The door banged open as a knight dressed in gold and purple colors entered and bowed before them. “Your Highness,” he greeted respectfully.
“Detain these maids,” Eleanora commanded.
“What?” the senior maid gasped.
“No—” the younger maid spun away, but not before Garrett caught her arm.
“Kneel!” Garrett growled as he forced them both to their knees.
“Elly—Your Highness?” Hana whispered in stunned confusion.
“Not to worry, sweet one,” Eleanora murmured as she pulled Hana to a chair beside their untouched breakfast and motioned for her to sit down. “I will explain.”
Hana sat obediently and watched as Eleanora placed the pastry on a plate. The Crown Princess pulled a small dagger from the exotic gold scorpion-shaped hairpin nestled amongst her thick, licorice-black hair. With little hesitation, Eleanora plunged the small blade into the innocent-looking scone and ripped it open.
Blueberries oozed onto the breakfast plate as their delicious aroma filled the room.
“Your Highness, it’s just a pastry,” Hana whispered in disbelief.
Eleanora flicked through the sauce of berries, noting the smaller blacker fruit that did not match the size or color of their blue counterparts. “It’s not just a pastry, Hana,” she said as she scraped several of the suspicious seeds into a teacup and carried them over to Garrett. “Looks like you were right.”
“Belladonna berries,” he confirmed with one look.
The senior maid gasped while the younger maid squirmed under Garrett’s grip.
“Bell—Belladonna?” Hana stammered and turned her gaze towards the plate full of scones.
“Your Highness!” The senior maid scrambled forward on her knees. “I had nothing to do with this. I didn’t even touch your breakfast. I merely brought up the tea.”
“Ah yes, the tea,” Eleanora returned to the table where she set the cup of poison berries down and filled another with tea. She added two spoonfuls of sugar, a dash of prepared milk, then brought the cup back to the senior maid and offered it to her. “Go on, drink,” Eleanora urged with a malicious smile.
“I—” The senior maid dropped her gaze and looked away.
Eleanora laughed and poured the tea onto the floor, splattering the murky brown fluid on the woman’s skirt. “That’s what I thought.”
“I—I don’t understand,” the younger maid wept. “I didn’t do anything! It was the chef who made the food, not me!”
“My chef was sick last night, and last I heard, unable to get out of his bed this morning,” Eleanora replied with a bitter smile. “No doubt, his sudden illness was also the work of your Mistress.”
“I—I don’t know what you mean?” the young maid whimpered.
“That was your chance to confess and name the mastermind who put you up to this,” Garrett said gruffly as he shook her shoulder.
“We did nothing wrong,” the senior maid snapped stubbornly. “And you can’t punish us based on a simple coincidence!”
Eleanora snorted with amusement and shook her head.
‘Was it loyalty or fear that bound their tongues?’
She turned to where Hana still sat by the breakfast trays, her turquoise gaze vacant as her blonde curls ran unchecked against her pale cheeks. “Lady Hana.” Eleanora returned to her side and took her hand. “You should go rest. Garrett and I will deal with this.”
“What—what will you do to them?” Hana asked breathlessly.
“What is necessary,” Eleanora said gently. She pulled Hana from her chair and slid an arm around her waist. “Nothing you need to witness. Please go lie down.”
“No. No—I want to hear,” Hana protested.
“No, sweet one,” Eleanora murmured as she opened the door and nodded to the two knights in the hallway. “Escort Lady Hana to her room and remain on guard outside.”
“Yes, your Highness!”
Hana looked fearfully over her shoulder as Eleanora released her and shut the door.
With determined focus, Eleanora faced Garrett and the two frightened maids.
“Your orders, Highness?” Garrett asked grimly.
Eleanora glanced down at the small dagger in her hand and sighed. “I suppose I should try to be merciful—they’re only servants.” She strode towards the quivering women and eyed them each in turn. “So, I will spare the first one who talks.”
The senior maid glanced sharply at her companion, and the young girl lowered her eyes.
‘So both of them were in on this.’
“No one?” Eleanora asked.
“Let the prison torture chamber have a crack at them,” Garrett suggested ruthlessly. “They’ll talk.”
“Torture does not guarantee the truth,” Eleanora replied rationally, as she examined the sharp blade of her dagger and her two would-be poisoners. “Last chance to spare yourself unnecessary pain.”
“We have nothing to say,” the senior maid said firmly.
“I see,” Eleanora replied. “Then, I’ll start with you.”
“What?” the elder maid gasped as Garrett pushed her forward on the floor.
Eleanora swiftly pressed a knee down upon the maid’s back and pinned the left side of her face against the floor. The woman flinched as Eleanora traced the tip of her dagger over the maid’s exposed cheek.
“Make sure the other one watches,” Eleanora instructed Garrett, who held the struggling young maid in place. “Eyes open, young one,” Eleanora urged sweetly. “I’m not going to kill her. I’m just sending a reminder to your Mistress that simple ploys like this won’t work on me.”
Lady Helena had always prided herself on her capabilities as a noblewoman, mother, and hostess. As she and Sophya chatted happily through the foyer about their intention to visit the Holy Maiden Boutique, she could not have known how utterly unprepared she would be for the visitor that rang the doorbell ahead of them.
“Well, who could this be?” Helena murmured as she passed her parasol to Sophya and followed the butler to the door.
The woman that waited outside wore a maroon dress embroidered with golden silk and laced ruffles that brushed behind her in a train. A gold emerald necklace glittered in the sun around her neck below dark sable brown hair tinted with gray, swept up in a golden hairnet. Her sharp blue eyes fixated upon Helena with instant disapproval that froze the unfortunate woman and her servant in place.
Countess Constance stared, unmoving, from the doorway as the silence lengthened. Then she lifted an elegantly painted eyebrow with unmistakable reproach.
“Countess,” Helena gasped, “I—we were just going out.”
“Out?” Constance repeated, her tone radiated disgust as if the idea that they would contemplate departing their home when she had come to visit offended her.
“Yes, to the Holy Maiden Boutique,” Helena explained hastily. “I’m sure you’ve heard of it.”
The painted brow lowered as the Countesses expression darkened, and a perceptible gloom filled the small foyer. “You are going shopping?”
Helena, who hadn’t felt this uncomfortable since her last confession in church, swallowed as she struggled for a reply. Sophya nudged her with an impatient expression—and suddenly, Helena realized her blunder.
“Ah, forgive me, Countess. Allow me to introduce my eldest daughter, Lady Sophya.”
“Greetings, Countess Hawthorne,” Sophya greeted with an elegant bow that made Helena’s heart sing with pride and restored some of her confidence.
“You are going dress shopping?” The Countess repeated with marked skepticism as she ignored Sophya’s greeting. “While your youngest daughter is left injured in her bed unattended? Lady Helena, I had not thought you so heartless.”
All the blood drained from Helena’s face as she stood, trembling with embarrassment and humiliation, before the woman who, up until a few years ago, had controlled the Aristocratic Party with the support of the late King.
“How astonishing,” Constance said as she stepped across the threshold.
The mother and daughter retreated further inside the manor.
“I—ah—would you like a cup of tea, Countess?” Helena replied out of sheer force of habit as she struggled to regain her composure.
“No,” Constance answered. Her gaze blanketed the small foyer and its occupants with clear disapproval. “I am here to visit Lady Maura.”
“Maura?” Sophya gasped sharply.
“I—I don’t understand,” Helena whispered.
It had been six years since the Countess first expressed an interest in having Maura work at her estate as a maid. Helena had not questioned her motives. After all, who was she to deny the Countess of Hawthorne a simple request?
The decision proved mutually beneficial when the Countess’s demands for Maura’s visits increased. The monthly payment she gave Helena as compensation was also a sizeable amount.
Helena had pocketed the fifty crescents a month, without her husband’s knowledge, to save up for her children’s future and her own. After all, she knew better than to count on Josiah for financial stability. This simple arrangement had gone on for several years, and the Countess’s check for Maura’s work had never been late.
But perhaps the arrangement hadn’t been so simple after all?
‘Why would the Countess come all this way just to visit a half-blood who works as a maid?’
“Well?” Constance snapped wearily as her gaze focused back on Helena. “Can you guide me to Maura’s room, or do you not even know where that is, Lady Helena?”