Chapter 77: A Matter of Trust
Ivy still clung to Percy’s arm as the Earl’s carriage pulled up in front of Hawthorn Manor. The footman approached their door, but Percy waved him away. A silent tension filled the carriage that accented Ivy’s pounding heart as she self-consciously unhinged her fingers and shifted away from him.
“S-sorry,” Ivy whispered.
“Why is the church involved in Lincoln’s death?” Percy asked sharply, his posture still rigid. The shadows that outlined his handsome features filled her with a strange sense of trepidation.
Ivy shivered and shook her head. “I—I don’t know.”
Percy slowly exhaled as he rubbed a hand down his face. “I know Mother invited Knight Commander Quentin’s wife over for tea recently. I thought it strange at the time.” He pressed a finger to his tense lips thoughtfully. “If she got involved with the investigation—this must be linked to Maura somehow.”
Ivy swallowed in an effort to calm the telltale beating of her heart that filled the silence between his words.
“The Holy Church only involve themselves in Lafeara’s affairs when a great atrocity has been committed—or if they suspect the use of witchcraft.” He turned towards her, and Ivy quickly lowered her gaze to the floor. “Miss Ivy, if Lady Maura is in danger, you need to tell me what you know so I can protect her.”
His words lacked anger, desperation, or any hint of threat. Instead, his patient tone laid an invisible weight upon her conscious. Ivy twisted the cords of her purse around her fingers as she battled against her conflicting instincts to trust him and protect her mistress.
“I—” Ivy sucked in a breath “—I really don’t know what happened. Lady Maura came home upset and—and the next day, Lincoln was dead. That’s all I know.” Her words trailed off as the anger and fear of that night returned to her. Her fingers tingled numbly with guilt as the cords tightened painfully against them.
“Why was Maura upset?” Again, his patient, tender tone pierced through her troubled emotions, but Ivy shook her head silently and glanced towards the carriage door.
‘I can’t tell. I can’t tell. I can’t tell!’
“Ivy, please!” Percy’s tone turned suddenly anxious as his warm fingers wrapped around her wrist. “I know—I know Maura’s a witch.”
Ivy’s neck snapped towards him so sharply that she saw stars. She ignored the flickering pain as she tried and failed to form words into a question or answer that would not betray her mistress.
“I told you before I saw her dance,” Percy explained patiently. “Sometimes, when Maura danced, she would let out a little ice magic—I’m not even sure she knew she was doing it.”
‘Ice magic? He knew—He really knew!’ Ivy gaped at him as disbelief, hope, and terror overwhelmed her ability to speak.
“I have known for a long time now. So please, Ivy, if something has happened to her, you have to tell me.”
His hands were gentle as they wrapped around her numb fingers. His winter-gray eyes filled with such tenderness, worry, and an unquestionable desire to protect her mistress.
The familiar cold ache in her chest shook Ivy free of his gaze. She looked down at his signet ring.
‘Why am I hesitating? This is the Earl of Hawthorn, one of the most powerful families in Lafeara. He already knows Maura secret and he wants to protect her!’
She exhaled, shut her eyes, and whispered. “Years ago, Lincoln raped me.” She could feel his confusion as the pressure of his fingers around her wrist slackened for just a moment.
‘Forgive me, Maura, but I cannot protect you on my own.’
“The night he died—Maura returned home covered in blood and bruises.” Percy’s grip tightened painfully, but Ivy kept her eyes closed as she continued. “I believe—that Maura killed Lincoln.”
“And with that,” Attwood said with satisfaction, “I think our preparations for negotiations with Vetrayna’s Ambassador are complete.”
Around the table of the House of Lords, a mixed reaction of tired sighs and disgruntled complaints wove into each other as Attwood took his seat and glanced towards Nicholas. The Crown Prince sat in a relaxed manner with his chin resting in his right hand as he silently watched the noble lord’s bicker and snipe at each other.
It had been a weary round of discord and arguments as the divided lords could never seem to reach a unanimous agreement. Attwood sighed as he tossed down the documents that he and Nicholas had prepared with the new list of terms before the meeting.
As usual, the House of Lords was divided down the middle with just enough support behind Marquess Borghese that Nicholas would have to compromise—again—in order to bring this discussion to a close.
‘If only we had one more vote on our side.’ Attwood glanced towards the empty seat between himself and Acheron. The last position in the House of Lords was a seat of power desired by many nobles.
But prominent lords on both sides of the divide had blocked Attwood’s many attempts to fill that seat over the years. “It belongs to the House of Hawthorne,” they would remind him bluntly before unanimously shutting him down. Even Borghese could not muster enough votes to steal the seat reserved for the young Earl.
“I don’t understand why we have to yield so much,” Marquess Borghese ranted as he rose from his seat. “Remind me again, why Nicholas agreed to marry that savage?”
A few of the Lords that surrounded the Marquess rumbled their agreement.
“Marquess Borghese,” Attwood replied with strained patience. “Certain conditions attached to the royal marriage have yet to take effect and won’t take effect until she is crowned Queen.”
“Like what?” Borghese demanded with an incredulous smile. “Such worthy accomplishments should have been brought before the house before they were married!” He gestured to the lords around him as the voices backing him increased. “Are these conditions worth the unhappiness this marriage has placed upon our future King?”
Even Acheron appeared swayed by the Marquess’s argument. ‘At this rate, Borghese will have no trouble mustering support for a bill of divorce.’
“The Emperor will cut our taxes in half,” Nicholas interjected coldly. “How’s that to start?” His sharp response quickly silenced the Lords, who glanced at each other in stunned surprise.
“Then the Emperor is quite generous to his adopted niece,” Borghese replied as he bowed courteously to Nicholas. “We have tired your Majesty. I suggest we adjourn this discussion for today.”
Nicholas waved a hand permissively, and the other members of the House of Lords rose from their seats and bowed in unison. “Saint’s blessing upon you, your Majesty.” They filed through the double doors one by one, a few still murmuring their dissatisfaction on the way out.
“Thank the gods that’s over,” Acheron groaned as he slid his chair back and stretched.
“Ha!” Nicholas shook his head as he handed the scroll of Lafeara’s negotiation terms over to the Prime Minister. “By tomorrow afternoon, Borghese will have riled up half of them to protest or appeal the conditions of these negotiations again.”
“Then your Majesty will simply have to veto their demands as we are drawing too close to the Ambassador’s arrival,” Attwood said firmly.
“Do that, and the Marquess will create an even bigger fuss saying you don’t listen to the House of Lords,” Acheron cautioned as he loosened his neck scarf. “Perhaps if you yielded on the issues of increased taxes for the nobles. If the Emperor is reducing our yearly tax, that leaves a bit more coin in the treasury for us to work with. And if we reduce the amount you wish to spend on increasing the size of the army—”
“No, I need to strengthen Lafeara’s military forces so I can ensure the nobles stay in line,” Nicholas returned sharply. “You know as well as I do the Marquess has been building a private army. Though where he obtained this sudden flow of funds remains a mystery.”
Acheron scratched his neck and shrugged. “Even if the Marquess dared to revolt, General Stryker would cut him down in a heartbeat. And no private army of slaves is getting past him.” He gestured to where Beaumont pushed the giant double doors closed with little effort and then took his position beside them.
“Regardless, I will ensure my reign and the Royal Palace remains well-fortified in the face of any attack,” Nicholas continued. “And the additional funds we gain from this marriage will be put to another purpose. Lafeara’s finances have been stretched thin for far too long. Many of the schools, hospitals, orphanages, and shelters my mother built have been neglected and abandoned over the years. And yet the burden on Lafeara’s churches to feed the poor has never been greater.” He dragged a hand through his hair and stood up. “I intend to bring back the charities both Queens established during their reign.”
“That—will be expensive,” Acheron observed.
“Your father and I have a plan to cover the difference.” Nicholas turned his gaze to Attwood. “If the Prime Minister can manage to find a certain individual.”
“That task may prove more difficult than I originally anticipated,” Attwood confessed as he gathered up the documents from their meeting. “It would appear Mr. Frost has gone to ground recently. Even his lawyer doesn’t know when he will emerge.”
“Is that so,” Nicholas muttered with a flicker of irritation. “Well, as long as he’s not dead, he’ll resurface eventually. Make sure both Merchant Guilds pass on my request when he does show himself.”
“Yes, your Majesty.”