Chapter 58: A Banquet of Wolves
Nicholas looked up from the mountain of expenses neatly marked and filed, all related to the requirements for the Ambassador of Vetrayna’s visit.
“We’re spending 370,000 crescents for an ambassador to visit us?” he muttered in disbelief to Prime Minister Attwood, who sat across from him reading over the list of tasks that still needed to be accomplished.
“Yes, though another 30,000 might be added if he brings any of his wives or children along,” Attwood replied.
“He’s not even royalty!” Nicholas protested. “Does he mean to bankrupt the Lafearian royal treasury?”
Attwood raised an eyebrow without comment.
Nicholas sighed and sagged back into his chair. “400,000 crescents just to let that man prance around with his niece? And he’ll collect Lafeara’s tax on top of that which is another 1,800,000 crescents.”
“We’ll manage somehow,” Attwood said with a shrug. “The harvest has been good. The people have been paying their taxes. The Royal Merchant’s Guild has been pulling in more royalty fees since the Crown Princess became a Royal Ambassador of the Holy Maiden Boutique.”
“You honestly think Eleanora will let us touch her earnings from that dress shop?” Nicholas snapped.
“Your Majesty, since she became an ambassador as a member of the royal family she will have too,” Attwood answered calmly. “But hopefully, it won’t come to that.”
Nicholas frowned as he studied the figures in front of him.
“Perhaps I could reason with her to at least share the earnings from the new soap shops Frost is opening?” Attwood suggested.
“I will not beg my wife for money,” Nicholas snapped.
Attwood raised his eyebrows and returned to his list.
Nicholas tapped his heel against the floor and leaned forward. “What if we obtained exclusive rights to all of Frost’s inventions?”
Attwood blinked. “You mean—make him a Royal Merchant?”
“Yes, why not,” Nicholas replied quickly. “You said yourself he’s clairvoyant. He’s already reached out to Lafeara’s future Queen, why wouldn’t he be interested in an offer like this from its future King?”
“Perhaps,” Attwood said thoughtfully. “But as we would be the ones profiting from such a partnership. We would need to prepare a substantial counteroffer to convince him.”
“That’s easy, isn’t it,” Nicholas said with a smirk. “We make him a noble.”
“There are rumors he already is one, your Majesty.”
“What?” Nicholas frowned. “Then why doesn’t he use a title?”
“I’m afraid I don’t have that answer, your Majesty. The Royal Merchant’s Guild has only been able to determine that Mr. Frost is an alias. For now, his true identity remains a mystery.”
“I see,” Nicholas said with a frown. “But then—how do we find him?”
“He makes contact with the Royal Merchant Guild now and then through his lawyer, a Sir Bryson, who appears to be the only person to have met Mr. Frost in person. Unfortunately, according to Sir Bryson, Frost wishes to remain anonymous for the time being.”
Nicholas scoffed and stared at the stack of bills once more. “Find him, Attwood. I want to speak to him personally. How can I offer anything suitable enough to tempt him if I know nothing about the man?”
“If we could use the royal investigators, perhaps—”
“You know they still answer to the Dowager,” Nicholas interjected quickly. “I want to bring Frost to my side personally, without the Queen Regent’s or Eleanora’s interference.”
“As you wish, Your Majesty. But—” Attwood pursed his lips thoughtfully “—looking into his identity might have the opposite effect.”
Nicholas snorted and raised a sarcastic brow. “Do I look like I care? If he wants to continue peddling his products in my kingdom, he can come greet his King, by royal command if necessary.”
Attwood rolled up his list and tapped the scroll to his chin thoughtfully. “I could perhaps assign this task to Viscount Gilwren. As the leader of the Royal Merchant’s Guild, he would be in an ideal position to negotiate a meeting with Frost.”
A knock at the door interrupted Nicholas’s reply.
“Just keep our interest in him discrete for now, Prime Minister,” Nicholas said impatiently as he rose and barked, “Come in!”
Acheron entered with a smug expression and bowed politely. “Your Majesty. Father. I hope I’m not—”
“What is it?” Nicholas asked as he circled Attwood, eager to escape the unending pile of responsibilities that had kept him chained to his desk all day. “Please tell me you have a good reason to drag me away from here,” he whispered as he slapped Acheron’s shoulder in greeting.
The rogue winked. “I was hoping you had both reached a breaking point in your work,” Acheron said loudly for the Prime Minister’s sake.
“There’s still a lot of assignments to be completed,” Attwood answered with a knowing glare directed at his son.
“Hear me out—” Acheron replied swiftly “—we’ve been invited to attend a special gala at the Rose Palace tonight.”
Nicholas’s hopeful expression soured.
Attwood glanced from the crown prince to Acheron curiously. “What special gala?”
“The candidates for the crown princess’s ladies-in-waiting are presenting a sort of talent show to entertain Crown Princess Eleanora tonight, and she has invited us to join in on the festivities.”
“That’s very generous of her Highness,” Attwood said with a careful look at Nicholas. “I suppose we can forgo a few more hours of work so that your Majesty can enjoy a pleasant evening with the future queen.”
Nicholas rolled his head back, closed his eyes, and sighed.
‘First Beaumont, now even the rogue has become unreliable.’
“Fine, when do we have to be there?” Nicholas relented unwillingly.
“If we don’t want to miss the show, we should head over now,” Acheron replied as he patted Nicholas’ shoulder and steered the sulking crown prince out the door.
“Husband,” Eleanora called out with a hint of surprise as Acheron and Nicholas entered the inner courtyard of the Rose Palace. Behind the crown princess, servants had finished preparing the stage in the center of the yard with decorative lanterns that lit up the enclosed area.
‘Well, this is a surprise—I didn’t think he’d actually accept this time,’ she thought ruefully as the crown prince took her hand and lightly kissed her fingers.
“Eleanora,” Nicholas greeted with forced politeness. “Thank you for inviting us.”
“I’m pleased you were able to make it,” Eleanora returned with an amused smile. “Do take a seat.” She gestured to the large banquet table that had been set up several feet away from the stage.
“The Queen Regent!” shouted the page at the courtyard door.
‘The old wolf and her cub both graced me with their presence? This evening should be very entertaining.’
“You invited my grandmother?” Nicholas said, surprised.
“Since she already inserted herself into this Selection, I thought she’d like to see it through to the end,” Eleanora replied with a shrug then left him to greet the Dowager.
“Eleanora!” Octavia gushed as she kissed each of Eleanora’s cheeks.
“Grandmother,” Eleanora said brightly. “Thank you for coming!”
“I was surprised when I heard you were having the candidates put on a talent show?” Octavia murmured as she stepped back. “You do know the palace has performers for this sort of thing.”
“Well, I had to come up with something, and this was the one suggestion the Prime Minister and I could agree on,” Eleanora explained with a nod to the Prime Minister, who waited by the banquet table.
“Of course, whatever helps you make your decision, Eleanora. I just don’t want the ladies to be—embarrassed.”
“Oh, I’m sure the fine ladies of Lafeara’s nobility have at least one talent they can show off for us,” Eleanora replied confidently. She glanced over to where Nicholas remained beside Acheron, whispering into the rogue’s ear.
‘What are they planning?’
“Excuse me, Grandmother,” Eleanora said as she returned to her husband’s side.
Nicholas looked up as she approached and quickly brushed past her to greet the Dowager. Eleanora followed him with narrowed eyes but continued towards Acheron, who looked less than pleased about something. He promptly masked his discomfort behind his usual charismatic smile and offered her his arm.
“Shall I escort you in, your Highness?” Acheron asked brightly.
“What were you two whispering about?” Eleanora queried as she accepted his arm.
“The wonders of marriage life.”
Eleanora laughed, and Acheron studied her worriedly.
“I know you’ve not had the easiest transition into the Royal Family,” he said carefully. “And you’ve made it painfully obvious you know about his Mistress.”
“Mmm, I suppose I did.” Eleanora chuckled.
“Doesn’t it bother you?” Acheron whispered as they drew closer to the table.
Eleanora raised an eyebrow then tightened her grip on his arm as she leaned closer. “Do you want to know the secret to a happy marriage?” she whispered back.
“Umm, yes?” Acheron answered.
“Don’t love your husband or wife.”
Acheron frowned as he studied her composed smile. “That seems—lonely,” he observed.
Eleanora patted his arm and shook her head. “Not if you’re both open-minded,” she replied with a smirk.
Acheron tilted his head, confused. “But you—you can’t—”
“Can’t what?” Eleanora asked with a teasing grin as she left him to take her seat at the table.
Nicholas held out her chair and maintained a neutral expression of politeness until the last guests arrived. Eleanora rose and circled the table with restrained grace as her parents entered the courtyard.
“Oh, Eleanora!” Lady Isabella cried as she embraced her only child. They mirrored each other quite well apart from the difference in age, although Eleanora’s aristocratic nose and additional three inches in height came from her father, Lord Alastair. “I’ve missed you these past few weeks.”
“And your mother has done nothing but shop to fill your absence,” Lord Alastair remarked. A hint of disapproval clouded the cerulean-blue eyes he had inherited from the Kensington family, but they brightened as he smiled at Eleanora. “You look lovely, Elly.”
“Thank you, Father,” Eleanora murmured as she hugged him tightly. “I’ve missed you both more than I can say.”
“How are—things?” Isabella asked nervously as father and daughter pulled apart.
“Things, Mother?” Eleanora replied with a suspicious brow.
“You know—between you and Nicholas,” Isabella whispered. “Have you—”
“Isabella,” Alastair interrupted as he took his wife’s arm. “That is not a dinner topic, and we should be heading to our seats.”
‘Thank you, Father.’ Eleanora touched his arm gratefully as he led the protesting Isabella away.
Her eyes caught on the figure of Hana, who peered from behind the stage curtain and signaled to Eleanora.
“It appears the candidates are ready, everyone,” Eleanora called out as she moved to join her guests at the table.
‘Please, Kritanta, let it be entertaining enough to wash down wine and sorrow.’