Chapter 76: Secrets of a Lady
“I trust you are all moved in and comfortable with your rooms?” Eleanora said as she greeted her new ladies-in-waiting in the foyer. She had changed from her men’s apparel to a light-gold evening gown that shimmered like armor in the candlelight.
“Yes, your Highness,” the three newly appointed ladies-in-waiting replied. Carina curtsied carefully behind Tiffany and Evelynn, mindful of her ankle. Stitcher had double wrapped the injured joint earlier that evening. Her inquiry into Ghost’s efforts to throw off the church had yielded only vague answers, and Ghost’s continued request that she remain invisible.
‘Well, I can certainly try to lie low for a few days until this ankle becomes stable again.’
“Shall we have dinner first?” Eleanora murmured with a tired smile; her amber eyes distracted as she fidgeted with one of her heavy, gold diamond earrings. “Unfortunately, Lady Hana still is not feeling well, so I will do my best to provide you with some guidance in her place. I trust you are all hungry?”
“Yes, your Highness.”
“Excellent, then if you’ll follow me.” Eleanora proceeded to lead them down the hall towards the dining room.
Carina glanced worriedly up the twin stairs case as she passed by. ‘I wonder if this is the same illness Hana suffered from before?’ She shook her head and followed the other ladies silently. An opportunity would present itself soon enough for her to evaluate Hana’s condition.
The grand dining room was three times the size of the foyer with ample space for a grand piano as well as the long, dark oakwood table that seated ten. A majestic crystal chandelier hung overhead. Its flickering candles illuminated the polished redwood surface below and the purple decorative table runner that ran down the middle.
Eleanora took the seat at the head of the table and gestured to the chair at her right. “This is Lady Hana’s chair. Lady Evelynn if you would sit on my left, please.”
Evelynn beamed as she stood behind the indicated seat. Only earlier, she had been quite distraught to learn Carina had been given the room closest to Lady Hana and Eleanora’s.
‘Perhaps this is Eleanora’s way of balancing her favor between us.’ Beside Carina, Tiffany sighed worriedly, as she played with her diamond bracelet.
‘Still, it’s to be expected,’ Carina mused. ‘Eleanora may wish for me to be her poisoner, but out of all of us, Viscount Hendrix has the most political support to offer.’
‘Not to mention, Evelynn also has the potential to become the Countess of Hawthorn, which will secure Hendrix’s support in the future.’
“And then Lady Tiffany, if you’d take the seat next to her. Lady Maura, you will be seated next to Lady Hana.”
Carina bowed her head respectfully and moved around the table behind her chair. She could feel Evelynn’s cold gaze focused upon her as Eleanora motioned for them all to be seated. The new ladies-in-waiting quietly pulled out their chairs and sat down. ‘Just what I needed to start this new journey, a new enemy and an awkward first meal.’
“You ladies are in for a treat. Major Garrett and I stumbled upon a boar early this morning. I shot it myself,” Eleanora said with a nod to Mrs. Poppy. “I should warn you that you may find the flavor of the food at Rose Palace different from your traditional Lafearian palate. My chef comes from Vetrayna’s royal kitchen. While he has learned a few popular Lafearian dishes for when we have important guests, he is accustomed to preparing what I hunt or whatever he can dig up in the royal food storage.”
“Your Highness is fond of hunting?” Evelynn asked curiously.
“I shot my first desert rabbit at eight-years-old and my first rebel at ten,” Eleanora replied with a wry smile. “Do any of you ladies care to hunt?”
“I’m afraid it is not customary practice for noble ladies too—” Evelynn hesitated “—stain our hands with blood.”
Eleanora snorted. “And yet I hear poison is quite the commodity among noble ladies.”
A quiet tension settled upon the room as Carina choked on a startled laugh and cleared her throat, Tiffany went pale, and Evelynn lowered her light-hazel eyes to the silverware before her. The staff appeared with plates of mouth-watering dark red meat, slabs of cheese melted between skewered slices of potatoes, and an assortment of raw vegetables that had been scrubbed and peeled.
The ladies-in-waiting eyed the hefty portion before them timidly while Eleanora surveyed the food before her with pride.
“While you ladies dig in,” the Crown Princess said with an encouraging smile, “I’ll give you the rundown on some of the rules here at the Rose Palace. You will eat breakfast and dinner in this room with me every day, except when I must entertain guests. And then it will depend on their rank and relationship to the Royal family.
“Naturally, when it comes to the Dowager, Nicholas, members of the House of Lords, and high-ranking visiting dignitaries—you will not be permitted to eat with us. Instead, your job will be to attend and serve these guests in place of the regular palace staff.” Eleanora gestured to the maids and footman, now carrying in baskets of fresh bread and pitchers of wine. “The same is true if I were to visit the Dowager at the Iris Palace. You would be present as my attendants and would help serve my food if needed but would not share a meal nor have a seat at the table.”
“We—will be treated like servants?” Tiffany asked uncertainly.
“It is a long-standing tradition of the royal families,” Evelynn cut in quickly as she lifted her glass to the maid who carried the wine bottle. “The nobles serve the monarchs and members of the House of Lords, while commoners and slaves serve the nobles.”
“Indeed,” Eleanora murmured, her attention preoccupied with the empty seat to her right. “In any case, Lady Hana will explain the finer details of etiquette involved when serving such high-ranking guests. I expect all of you to respect her experience and seniority in such matters. Regardless of your titles and positions in Lafeara, in the Rose Palace, I am King, and she is my Queen—is that clear?”
Evelynn’s smile twitched faintly, but she joined the others in responding affirmatively. “Yes, your Highness.”
“Excellent.” Eleanora raised her glass with a satisfied smile. “Then please, enjoy your meal.”
After a satisfying supper, Carina followed Evelynn and Tiffany as Eleanora led them towards her private study that adjoined the library. “Feel free to browse and read the books here as much as you wish in your spare time,” the crown princess said with an open gesture to the shelves of leather-bound volumes that covered the walls around them.
“Perhaps you can brush up on your poetry,” Evelynn whispered smugly with a side glance at Tiffany, who blushed but said nothing.
“And this is my study where we will end tonight’s tour as I have work to do.” Eleanora pulled on a rope tassel, which opened the heavy curtains of the study window. The fading sunlight illuminated the piles of letters and documents stacked haphazardly across the regal desk, which had served many of Lafeara’s past queens.
“Is there anything we can help you with, your Highness?” Carina inquired. A glance at an open letter before the throne-like chair confirmed they were written in the Vetrayna language.
“Well—” Eleanora hesitated as she took a seat behind the desk “—as I’m sure you’ve all heard, my uncle, the Ambassador of Vetrayna, will be visiting within a few days. As his niece and Lafeara’s future queen, I am expected to host a dinner party during his three-day visit. Lady Hana and I have already begun preparations, but I am hoping to ease the burden on her now that you ladies are here.”
“Of course, your Highness,” Evelynn agreed brightly, as she stepped forward and blocked Carina’s view of the crown princess. “Anything we can do to help.”
“The banquet meal has already been planned by Chef Robbi, who is familiar with my uncle’s tastes and preferences,” Eleanora explained. “We have already stocked the necessary ingredients along with his favorite wine.
“Lady Evelynn, if you could help by preparing a list of suitable nobles to invite as well, aside from the royal family and members of the house of lords who are already on the list of guests. There is also the matter of entertainment. My uncle has a fondness for dancers, but I have yet to track down anyone suitable. If you could look into alternative forms of dinner entertainment, that would be helpful. Keep in mind most of the courtyard will be off-limits while my new chess-field is under construction.”
“I’m sure I can come up with something to satisfy the Ambassador,” Evelynn said confidently. Behind her, Carina raised her eyebrows and gently bit her lip to hide a smile.
“The Ambassador will also be traveling with his wife, Lady Lavinia, and his third oldest son, Lord Marco.” Eleanora picked up the opened letter and tapped it against the desk. “Now Marco may be only eighteen, but unlike the men of Lafeara, who don’t get married until they reach twenty—in Vetrayna, eighteen is old enough for a male to marry and take in concubines.” She paused and folded the letter absently before slipping it inside her desk. “So I would highly recommend that all of you avoid being alone with Marco at any point as he—is quite bold for his age when it comes to pretty women, especially blondes.” Her gaze settled on Tiffany as she finished, and the timid girl blushed.
‘Like father like son,’ Carina thought darkly as she limped out from behind Evelynn. “Is there anything I can help with, your Highness?”
“I believe I’ve already given you an important matter to think over,” Eleanora replied as her amber gaze dropped to the foot Carina was favoring. “As it stands, your injury still needs time to heal, so I would prefer that you rested. It would be a shame for you to miss the banquet due to further injury.” A cunning look flickered behind the crown princess’s eyes as she rose to her feet. “Lady Evelynn and Lady Tiffany can manage the normal day to day duties here at the Palace while you recover.”
‘She’s not—planning on me drugging the Crown Prince at the Ambassador’s royal banquet—is she?’ Carina maintained her demur expression as Eleanora’s gaze returned to the paperwork on her desk.
“Perhaps when you’re no longer a hindrance to the rest of us, you can be of some use, Lady Maura,” Evelynn whispered with a faint smirk.
“This is the list of nobles already invited to the dinner,” Eleanora explained as she passed the rolled document to Evelynn. “Lady Maura, my aunt tells me you’re fond of reading and that you’re quite familiar with Ventrayna’s language, culture, and beliefs. Perhaps you can help Lady Evelynn narrow down a list of other ideas to entertain our guests.”
Once more, that cunning expression flickered across Eleanora’s face, and now Carina was certain she knew exactly what the crown princess had planned for the royal banquet.
“Happily, your Highness,” Carina replied. Beside her, Evelynn rolled her eyes and heaved a sigh. Carina ignored the annoyed older girl as she folded her hands against her stomach. As long as she had an excuse to be involved in the banquet, her original plans would remain intact.
‘I’ll worry about drugging the crown prince after we survive your first obstacle to becoming queen, Eleanora.’
“Well then, we can go over the other arrangements in more detail tomorrow. I am sure the Selection must have worn you all out,” Eleanora said with a dismissive smile. “Feel free to explore the Rose Palace as you like, but make sure to retire by the evening bell. I rise early to ride or hunt, depending on the day. And then there are my palace duties that begin after breakfast. I shall have Mrs. Poppy wake you all come first light tomorrow so you may begin your duties.”
“Yes, your Highness.”
Evelynn swept out of the room, holding the scroll of guests like a torch of victory. Carina followed slowly behind, preoccupied with the complicated future that lay before her.
“Here, lean on me,” Tiffany whispered as she took Carina’s arm. “And don’t worry about Evelynn or the banquet. The sooner your foot recovers, the better for all of us.”
‘If only it were that easy.’ Carina smiled as she accepted the girl’s assistance. ‘If only I knew for sure that you weren’t the Dowager’s spy.’