Chapter 68: An Oath of Loyalty
“Pardon?” Eleanora replied with raised eyebrows as she eyed the trembling document the panting senior lady-in-waiting held out to her.
Carina clutched the iron knight tightly as Sabella passed over a document sealed with the emblem of the Holy Church.
‘What? How? Why?’
“This—” Eleanora frowned as she read silently and then offered it to Carina, “—perhaps you should read this?”
Carina stepped forward slowly. ‘This has to be a mistake.’ Her numb fingers wrapped around the document as she unfurled the stiff parchment and read over its contents. ‘What could possibly—’
Dissolution of Marriage sprawled across the top in elegant calligraphy awaited her as Carina’s racing thoughts crashed into cold certainty that was confirmed by the names and signatures at the bottom of Lady Helena and Lord Josiah.
“They were divorced early this morning before Abbess Mercy, who witnessed the proceedings and then sent a copy of the official divorce papers to the palace,” Sabella explained. “And since the Viscount of Gelwren disowned Lady Helena, she has no title of her own to claim which means—” Sabella turned to face Carina with a vindictive smile, “—that her half-blood has no title as well.”
The parchment twisted beneath Carina’s stiff fingers as she swallowed back an angry laugh. ‘It seems, to the bitter end, Maura’s parents are determined to ruin her.’
“Nonsense,” Eleanora muttered.
“Pardon?” Sabella turned towards the crown princess, startled.
“I said its nonsense,” Eleanora repeated as she snatched the document from Carina and crumpled it into a ball. “I already choose Lady Maura as my lady-in-waiting. I don’t care when or if her parents are divorced. And I little care what you, the Dowager, or the rest of Lafeara’s nobility have to say on the matter.”
Eleanora tossed the rumpled paper at Sabella, who almost caught it with her gaping mouth.
“My decision is final,” Eleanora replied firmly.
“You—you can’t! Tradition—”
“Oh, for the Love of Kritanta!” Eleanora stormed past Sabella to Garrett and pulled the knight’s sword from his sheath.
Sabella dropped the divorce edict with a surprised whimper as she cowered away from Eleanora. But the crown princess brushed past her and stood before Carina once more.
“Kneel, Lady Maura,” Eleanora commanded.
Speechless for perhaps the first time in her second life, Carina’s eyes darted from the sharp blade of the sword to the impatient gaze of the crown princess. Her throat tightened, but she managed to kneel, careful of the ankle that wobbled just before her knees found the floor.
“If a title is what is required for you to serve by my side, then I shall grant it.” Eleanora tapped Carina’s shoulders twice with the flat of the blade. “I name you Baroness of Averly—a small estate which belongs to my family—raise your head, Lady Maura.”
Carina looked past the blade now placed at her throat to meet the amber eyes of the crown princess.
“As your future queen, I grant you title and land, and with these all the privileges and responsibilities of nobility. I command that you obey me, that you remain loyal until your death, and that should the need ever arise, you will die to protect my body, my crown, and my country.”
Every plan Carina had painfully pieced together over seven long years crumpled beneath the weight of Eleanora’s gaze.
“I swear my life, fealty, and body to your Majesty,” she whispered.
The blade moved aside, and Eleanora extended her hand. “Rise Baroness,” she commanded.
Carina obeyed, with difficulty as her ankle caught halfway up, but Eleanora’s grip steadied her. No sooner had she regained her balance, then Eleanora stepped forward and kissed both of her cheeks.
“I will ensure you keep that oath, Lady Maura,” the crown princess whispered as she plucked the purple rose from Carina’s hair and crumbled it in her fist.
“You—you can’t!” Sabella protested.
Eleanora sighed as she stepped back and tossed Garrett his sword.
“Your Mistress has meddled in my affairs long enough, Lady Sabella,” Eleanora replied coldly. “If she continues to do so—” Garrett sheathed his sword with force and stepped up beside Eleanora and Carina “—I will retaliate.”
Sabella backed away and then, with a feeble expression of disdain, hurriedly retreated through the open door.
“Major Garrett, please take Lady Evelynn and Lady Tiffany outside. I wish to have a private word with the new Baroness.”
“Yes, your Highness.” Garrett bowed. Evelynn and Tiffany clutched their chess pieces as they hastily curtsied and followed the Major. A servant shut the door behind them, and Carina barely had a moment to catch her breath before Eleanora spoke.
“Do you know why I choose you, Lady Maura?”
“Your Highness,” Carina said hesitantly. “I am not certain—”
“Really?” Eleanora smirked as she returned to her chair and crossed her legs. “Surely, you could at least guess at something.”
‘Because I performed a magic act? Because I insulted Nicholas?’
Carina studied the knight in her fingers and focused her thoughts. “Because of my connection to the Countess of Hawthorne?”
Eleanora studied her thoughtfully then shrugged. “That, of course, weighed heavily in your favor. If I am certain of one thing, its that the Hawthorne family wish me to succeed as queen.”
“Then—was there another reason?”
Eleanora shrugged and smiled. “Fatum.”
Carina blinked as her hand tightened around the chess piece. “Your Highness?”
“It is something the Vetrayna people hold in high regard,” Eleanora replied as she toyed with the iron black queen. “Not everyone can control their future. For women, that goes doubly. We must rely on our families, our husbands, or even our children to secure our place in this world.”
Carina remained silent as she studied the foreign beauty.
“I thought I was in control of my fatum, my future, but then I lost—” Eleanora sighed as she flicked over the black king and moved the white king in his place.
“You lost the First Prince,” Carina murmured.
Eleanora’s amber gaze regarded her with a faint smile. “You are insightful, clever, bold, and a bit reckless, Lady Maura. I admire those qualities. Even more so because I understand what you had to overcome to get here.”
The crown princess picked up the white king and rose to her feet.
“I have not given up on my fatum. I want to build a world where women don’t have to bend the knee simply because of our sex.”
“Your Highness,” Carina murmured with a worried glance about the room. “You should be cautious of what you say within the palace walls.”
“Because even these walls have ears?” Eleanora smiled. “Not for much longer.” She tilted her head as she studied Carina. “Your visit with the Dowager—”
Ice-blue eyes met gold amber flames, and Carina refused to be the first to blink. “It was at her request.”
“She wished to recruit you.”
Eleanora smirked. “She even gave you one of her precious roses.”
“She knows how to manipulate someone with a flower,” Carina replied with a sardonic smile. “She is not to be underestimated.”
“Indeed.” Eleanora reached up around her neck and pulled a necklace from beneath her jacket. “Well, it is not a flower, but—” she extended the black-golden pendant of a scorpion.
“Your Highness—I do not need—”
Eleanora took Carina’s hand and pressed the necklace into it. “Your oath was not lightly given nor lightly taken, Lady Maura. What I aim for—I can not attain it on my own.”
Carina studied the detailed scorpion as Eleanora withdrew. “Then may I ask, your Highness, what it is you wish to obtain?”
“Power,” Eleanora replied as she settled back into her chair. “I may have the Emperor’s backing, but I am alienated on all sides by Lafeara’s nobility because of it. I need my own source of power here within Lafeara’s court if I am to survive as queen.”
“Of course,” Carina was quick to agree. “You have the Hawthorns, and Viscount Hendrix, as well as the newly titled and wealthy Clemont family.”
“Yes, obviously they have their advantages,” Eleanora said dismissively. “But the favor of nobility can come and go. Only one thing will ensure my crown.”
“Oh!” Carina hesitated, “Does your Highness mean—”
“I need a child,” Eleanora stated bluntly. “But I can make no progress there while Nicholas refuses to share my bed and spends his seed in some commoner’s barren womb.”
‘Blessed Saints, had she always been this blunt?’
Carina twisted the chain of the necklace around her fingers. “I understand, but—”
“My aunt tells me you are knowledgeable in poisons, herbs, and powders—perhaps even the sort to help stimulate a man into bed.”
Carina sucked in a sharp breath. It was an option she had considered—and dismissed, given the risks it involved. “Wouldn’t it be better to build a more natural relationship, your Highness.”
“I don’t have the time nor the stomach for such games.” Eleanora shook her head. “Anyway, between us, such forced emotions would never feel genuine or real. I need a prince, Lady Maura. And you will help me get one.”