Chapter 16: A Battle of Queens
Lady Hana entered the private chapel, used exclusively by the royal family and the House of Lords, and watched her shadow lengthen between the pews towards the alter where Grand Dowager Octavia knelt in silent prayer.
To the Dowager’s right was her head lady-in-waiting, Lady Sabella. The senior attendant turned as Hana approached and whispered in the Dowager’s ear.
Hana waited a respectful distance three pews back from the alter. A nervous glance about her found the benches and prayer alcove’s empty, which should have made her feel better, were it not for the purpose which brought her here.
Lady Sabella stood and assisted the Grand Dowager to her feet. Hana curtsied as the old but still powerful monarch turned towards her.
“So, you finally came to your senses?” Octavia muttered with a hint of impatience.
Hana rose sharply. “I came to ask you to stop,” she replied. “Stop sending me letters. Stop sending your maids to threaten us. I will not be used by you against Eleanora.”
Neither the Dowager nor Lady Sabella seemed surprised by her outburst.
Octavia sighed and shook her head with a pitying look. “My dear, I have no idea what threats you are referring to. My offer of friendship and guidance was as much for your sake as it was for Eleanora.”
Hana pressed her nails into her closed, trembling fists as the Dowager moved to stand beside her.
“Be wary of what you put your faith in, my dear. Love is a fragile thing. It blooms like spring yet withers so easily at the first touch of winter. You were not the first to capture her heart. Eleanora still has not let go of him, even after all these years.”
Hana fought to keep her expression neutral as the glittering stained glass windows of the church seemed to compress in around her.
“Our love is not that fragile,” she replied as she forced herself to meet the Dowager’s gaze.
Those cold blue eyes sparkled with power, cruelty, and an ugliness Hana recognized all too well. Pity.
“Every lover imagines their story will end differently. But it’s time for you to face reality. Eleanora is married and will be queen. Soon, Heaven’s willing, she will have children. She will love them as all mothers do. She may even grow to love Nicholas through them.” Octavia sighed and took Hana’s closed trembling hand in hers. “But you—your beauty will fade. Your novelty will lose its sparkle. And someone younger will inevitably replace you.”
Hana hastily withdrew from her grip. “If you think that some cautionary tale of lovers doom will convince me to become your spy—”
“And what about your dead child?”
Hana’s breath caught in her throat. A cold vice wrapped around her heart as her gaze dropped to the floor.
“Does Eleanora even know who the father is or that you were once pregnant?” Octavia asked casually as her fingers brushed Hana’s blonde hair from her face. “If your love is not fragile, then why are you keeping secrets from her?”
“Is that your plan?” Hana demanded. “To blackmail me with my dead child?” She shook her head and stepped back.
“My dear, why do you insist on turning my words into threats?” Octavia’s expression turned sorrowful as she tilted her head. “I merely mentioned this to remind you that all secrets have a way of wandering into the light. Whether we want them to or not.”
“I imagine your Grace has more secrets to worry about than I do.”
Octavia’s gentle expression withered. Then she laughed. The sound, oddly distorted within these hallowed walls, sent shivers down Hana’s spine.
“It seems no matter what I do, others will assume I am a villain,” Octavia lamented as she accepted the handkerchief Sabella held out and dabbed at the corner of her eyes.
“Forgive my impertinence, but perhaps if you hadn’t sent those maids to poison our food this morning—”
“And why did you assume I sent those maids?”
“They said—you sent them,” Hana replied hesitantly.
“My dear child.” Octavia smiled with amusement as she turned to Sabella. “Does everyone imagine my time to be so free that I would bother myself with servants?”
“Lady Hana,” Sabella said with an admonishing tone. “The maids of each palace are chosen by their Mistress. In the absence of the Mistress, the royal steward selects the staff. Why would you assume the Dowager’s influence just because of the words of a maid?”
‘Because everyone knows it’s the Dowager, not the Crown Prince who holds power in the palace.’
“Even if what you say is true,” Hana replied. “I will not work for you. I have one Mistress, and that is Crown Princess Eleanora.”
Octavia’s lips twisted in disapproval. Beneath the Dowager’s icy glower, Hana felt her heart seize with panic.
Applause echoed through the chapel behind them. Hana turned and stared in surprise as Eleanora, dressed in her riding gown, approached them, still clapping with a smug expression on her face.
“Eleanora,” Octavia greeted with a hint of disappointment.
“Grandmother,” Eleanora returned with a twisted smile. “I was wondering where my sweet one had gone.” She moved between Hana and the Dowager and hugged the startled lady-in-waiting against her side with a firm arm. “Did you come to pray for my lost soul, Grandmother?”
Octavia smiled, however stiffly, and sighed. “I pray for all my grandchildren, no matter how proud, delusional, and misguided they are.”
“And do the Heavens listen to the prayers of blackmailers?”
Hana stiffened. She realized with a sinking heart that Eleanora had heard most, if not all, of their conversation.
“I suppose it’s no wonder Lady Hana misunderstands me when your opinion of me is this low,” Octavia replied as she rubbed her temple wearily. “And how has your progress been with my grandson, Nicholas?”
“You should know that better than me,” Eleanora replied as she turned to leave, gently pulling Hana along with her. “I’m sure you have eyes among his attendants as well. Surely they’ve told you that he neglects his wife and spends most of his evenings with that other woman.”
Hana cast an uneasy glance back and caught a glimpse of the anger in the Grand Dowager’s gaze. She whipped her head forward and shivered.
“It is your duty as a wife to see his attentions remain closer to home,” Octavia replied coldly. “After all, without a male heir, your position as queen will never be stable.”
Eleanora paused and then turned to look over Hana’s shoulder at the Dowager. “Perhaps you can discuss your view of my future with my uncle, Ambassador Emerson when he comes to collect the Emperor’s tribute.”
“And what would your uncle say of the woman you’ve distracted yourself with instead of winning your future king’s affections?” Octavia snapped.
Eleanora turned to face the Dowager. Then she leaned towards Hana and pressed her mouth against her startled lover’s lips.
“You—” the Dowager sputtered.
Hana blinked up at Eleanora, stunned and terrified.
“My uncle will be happy that I am happy. And wonder why your grandson can’t prove himself a true man in this marriage,” Eleanora replied. “As to your veiled threats against Hana. Allow me to repeat myself. I will fulfill all my duties as the crown princess and in the future as queen, but Hana is mine, and I will not give her up. So keep your cold, wrinkled paws away from her!”
Once more, Eleanora turned them towards the chapel exit, and this time the Dowager did not attempt to stop them.
Hana clung to Eleanora’s arm. Her useless legs wobbled, unable to keep pace with her lover’s determined stride. Her heart a painful cascade of alarm that beat beneath her tightened chest.
‘What do I do? What do I say? What did she hear?’
A few noble lords and ladies stared after them, and Hana’s pale cheeks flushed with realization.
“Just a little bit further,” Eleanora replied sharply.
The force of her reply silenced Hana’s protest, and inwardly her fears eroded her wavering confidence.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
Eleanora looked down at her then pulled her abruptly inside a building.
“Your Highness?” a man’s voice echoed beyond Hana’s blurred vision.
“Out! All of you. Now!” Eleanora commanded.
A scurry of feet fled the premises as Eleanora guided Hana into a chair.
“Sweet one,” Eleanora said, her gentle voice breaking the last of Hana’s strength.
“I’m sorry! I should have told you—I haven’t kept anything else from you, I promise. I—I just couldn’t—” she hiccupped and shook as Eleanora gently wiped the tears falling down her cheeks.
“Would it help if I told you I already knew,” Eleanora said gently.
Eleanora sighed. “First, let me say, it wasn’t my doing, and I asked him not to—but my uncle Emerson looked into your past when he found out we were intimately involved.”
Hana blinked as ripples of fear and relief washed over her.
“Here.” Eleanora pressed the handkerchief into her numb fingers. “Wipe your tears, sweet one. I do not blame or hold against you anything from your past. I am only sorry I could not find you sooner and protect you from that animal and the pain he put you through.”
“No buts!” Eleanora said as she cupped Hana’s face gently in her hands. “What were the words you used? Our love is not that fragile.”