Chapter 14: History Cautions Ambition
Carina looked up from her light reading on the practical methods of extracting, diluting, and using venom to paralyze, blind, disorient, and kill. She traced the notes she had made over the years on shop locations, their prices, and other concerns with some of her favorite concoctions. The language from her original world seemed foreign beside Lafeara’s scripture, but at least she could rest easy knowing no one else could read these words.
The sound of distant footsteps in the hallway, headed in her direction, pulled her attention from the book.
Carina glanced at Ivy, who dozed beside her in bed and tucked the book under a pillow. As the footsteps grew closer, she pulled on a robe and moved to wait beside the door.
“Maura, can you open up, please? You have an important guest,” Helena’s voice, oddly pitched, came through the door, followed by a timid knock.
Carina ignored her request as she went to the window and glanced out through the glass. Although difficult to see from this angle, she could make out the familiar aristocratic carriage with its family crest of twin white ravens, taking up most of the driveway.
Carina smiled and quickly returned to the door. She took a moment to tidy her ash brown hair before she unlocked and turned the handle.
“Mother,” Carina greeted and then turned her gaze to the tall, intimidating woman who stood behind Helena. “Countess Hawthorne. It’s a pleasure to see you, is there something you need?”
“Accompany me for a walk outside, Lady Maura,” Constance replied in a commanding tone. “You require some fresh air.”
“But she—” Helena broke off under the Countess’s sharp gaze.
Carina glanced back inside to where Ivy still slept and hesitated.
“I will leave my attendant here to guard the door if you are concerned for that child’s safety,” Constance replied as the manservant, who accompanied her, stepped forward and bowed.
“Let me just change my dress,” Carina replied. She stepped back and shut the door, ignoring the alarmed look on Helena’s face as she did so. Just to be safe, Carina locked the bolt as well.
Then she scurried to the wardrobe where she tore off her robe and nightgown and then grabbed the nearest dress with buttons that went down the front. She had just finished lacing her boots when Ivy roused from her nap with a confused expression.
“Miss? Are you going out?”
“The Countess is here,” Carina answered as she finished the last boot and rushed to her desk. There she grabbed her jewelry box, dumped out the cheap jewels she never wore, and then, using a letter opener, peeled back the velvet bottom.
“What are you doing?” Ivy asked as she sat up stiffly.
“Making sure you’ll be safe,” Carina answered distractedly. “Stay in bed and trust me. Alright?”
Ivy nodded sleepily and covered a yawn as Carina finally pulled the velvet free to reveal a folded document inside.
“Okay,” Carina murmured as she tucked the document inside her cloak, kissed Ivy abruptly on the forehead, and then rushed to the door. There she paused briefly and composed herself before she stepped outside and locked the door behind her.
It was midday judging by the warm sun that hung overhead. Blue and brown birds flittered about with excitement as they chirped pleasantly over the garden.
Carina led Constance past the honeysuckle bushes towards a small path that provided a suitable place to walk for a short distance.
“I apologize for descending upon you without warning,” Constance said as they walked side by side. “But my news was great, and you could not come to me.”
“Think nothing of it, rather, your arrival was timely as I have a matter to discuss with you,” Carina said truthfully. “But please tell me what urgent news brings you here, Countess?”
“The selection for the Crown Princess’ ladies-in-waiting has been moved up,” Constance replied. “I know we originally intended for you to stay with me for a week before entering the royal palace, but now you will enter it in three days.”
“Three days?” Carina repeated with surprise.
‘Why? What had altered the timeline? No, perhaps it is better this way.’
Carina shook her head. “Then—we do not have much time to finish preparations.”
“My thoughts exactly,” Constance said firmly. “I’ve arranged the necessary papers for your deliverance. A suitable court official will deliver them tomorrow. Someone that will keep your Father and Mother in their place should they choose to protest.” She took Carina’s hand and patted it gently as her expression grew serious. “Now, I know you are fond of your maid, but she cannot follow you inside the royal palace. Other arrangements will have to be made.”
“I know,” Carina replied as she pulled the folded document from her cloak and passed it to Constance. “Which is why I have a favor to ask.”
Constance took the document and raised an eyebrow in surprise. “Ivy’s slave papers? You mean to sell her to me?”
“Yes, but on the condition that you treat her well and release her within six months.”
Constance chuckled as she tapped the document against her hand. “You want to take advantage of my rank?”
“I know only an earl or higher may release a slave from their contract. And as a countess, your rank is equal to that of an earl on such legal matters.”
“Quite right, though I’ve certainly never used it for such a favor before,” Constance admitted with a curious smile. “I do sometimes wonder if you have grown too soft for the task ahead.”
“As you have shown me, Countess. One may be merciful to those who deserve it, yet ruthless to those who make me their enemy.”
“I can’t argue with that,” Constance said with a pleased smile. “Very well, then sell her to me after we return.”
“The transfer has already been made out in your name and legally witnessed by my attorney.”
Constance blinked at her in surprise, then opened the letter to confirm before she shook her head and laughed. “Your ability to look ahead and prepare never ceases to amaze me. But that is why I chose you.” She folded the document again and placed it inside her handbag.
“Very well, Lady Maura, you have my promise. I shall release the maid in six months and set her up with a suitable job to support herself before that time is up. So you—” she gestured to Carina with a cautionary tone, “—don’t lose focus. You need to keep your wit and intellect sharpened if you are to survive the trials ahead.”
“Thank you,” Carina said as she let out a tight breath. “Then, although I should not ask for more, I have one other request.”
Constance tilted her head with a coy smile. “Speak freely, child. I doubt I will have cause to refuse you.”
“I need you to buy another slave from Lord Josiah.”
Carina blinked. “Don’t you want to know who it is?”
“My dear child, with my wealth and connections, do you think the details matter?” Constance scoffed as a sneer slid across her lips. “If I demanded that Lord Josiah give the slave up for free, do you think he would dare refuse me?”
Carina could already imagine Lord Josiah’s reaction. She relished the image with a cold smile.
Constance was living proof that a woman could hold power in this world. Her position since birth may have given her the advantage of rank and wealth, but it was her skillful manipulations and mastery of politics that had earned her the respect of the late King.
The nobles either admired or feared her ruthless ambition. Constance had made more than a few enemies when she took over her deceased husband’s position as the leader of the Aristocratic Party. She successfully maintained that party’s course and power until her son, Lord Percy, was ready to assume the reigns.
Although the Countess of Hawthorne had retired from the political field, she still retained an immense amount of power and respect, not least of all was her position as Crown Princess Eleanora’s favorite aunt.
“Now that you have laid out your terms,” Constance replied as she slid her hand around Carina’s arm and turned her back on the path. “Let me make a few stipulations of my own.”
“Of course, Countess.”
“Be wary of my son, Lady Maura. Keep him at a distance.”
Carina blinked but nodded. “I have no interest in becoming entangled with Lord Percy or the Aristocratic party.”
“Good,” Constance nodded. “I have no desire to yield my first and only protege to him so easily.” She squeezed Carina’s arm lightly with an approving smile. “I know I have pressured you immensely over the past six years, but that was because I saw your potential. And you haven’t let me down, not even once, so I will continue to believe and invest in that clever mind of yours.”
“I will be forever grateful for your wisdom and guidance, Countess.”
“As you should,” Constance murmured as she tapped Carina’s nose.
“I am counting on you to help guide my niece. Eleanora may be strong-willed and intemperate at times, but she is a clever girl and will make a fine queen.” Constance’s proud smile faded as they reached the end of the path. “However, as we both know, the queens of Lafeara have a habit of dying young.”
Carina nodded. She was more than aware.
The late King Henri had two queens, neither of which lived to see their sons grow into men. Queen Catalina was the first queen and mother of the first prince, Prince Tristan. Catalina married King Henri at the age of eighteen and died at the age of twenty-three from a strange illness that took her suddenly mid-winter.
Her death shook the king and the nation. Prince Tristan, only five years old at the time, had been placed in the care of the king’s second wife, Consort Rosalinda, who was later promoted to queen after the six months of mourning had passed.
Queen Rosalinda had her own son, Second Prince Nicholas, who was two years younger than Tristan. She embraced her new role and raised both boys with equal love, compassion, and a firm hand. Then, nine years later, Rosalinda died in her sleep after experiencing a sudden mysterious illness. She had been only twenty-eight.
Amid the rumors that both queens had been poisoned, Dowager Octavia, the king’s mother, took over raising both of the young princes. And whether from grief or guilt, King Henri refused to take another bride, focusing instead on preparing Prince Tristan to succeed him as king while strengthening Lafeara’s ties with the Empire of Vetrayna.
Thus, in order to establish permanent peace between their nations, King Henri and Emperor Constantine forged an alliance sealed by the engagement between Prince Tristan, then only fifteen-years-old, and Lady Eleanora, the Emperor’s adopted niece.
And this was why the countess had groomed Maura to enter the palace and serve as a lady-in-waiting. To watch over her niece and future queen, Crown Princess Eleanora, and guard her against the dangers that lurked within the royal palace.