Chapter 80: A Brotherhood of Sorrow

The morning breeze barely subdued the heat of the rising sun as Nicholas arrived at the Iris Palace, accompanied as always by Captain Beaumont. The Hawthorne carriage, with its immaculate twin white raven crest, was parked beside the palace gate. The Earl’s retainers bowed their heads respectfully as the Crown Prince approached.

‘To think I haven’t seen Percy in person since Tristan’s funeral.’

Nicholas shook off the gloom that memory carried and offered the servants a faint smile as he urged his horse to canter past them. The palace steps loomed towards them. Nicholas couldn’t help but remember a time when he and Percy had played here under the watchful eyes of servants.

Once the boys had gotten older and wise enough to slip away from their escorts, they spent their time chasing after Tristan. The eldest prince was always climbing up one building or another, locked away in his studies, or mastering the sword under Colonel Durante’s tutelage. How jealous Nicholas and Percy had both been of Tristan, the golden Crown Prince.

But Nicholas had also been envious of Percy. Earl Ethan Hawthorne had no greater love than that for his country and his son. The Earl brought young Percy to the palace as soon as the boy could be separated from his nursemaid. He even went so far as to parade Percy on his shoulders during meetings before the House of Lords, a move which had inspired King Henri to invite Tristan into those meetings as part of his education to become Lafeara’s future king.

‘I was the only one who remained invisible.’

Nicholas dismounted and fidgeted with his ceremonial robes and sword. He didn’t have to dress up for such a small meeting, but this was Percy Hawthorne. King Henri had always treated Earl Ethan, his friend, and political ally, with the utmost respect.

“The jewel in every king’s crown is his queen, his strength is the might of the Lafearian Army, but the security of his reign lies in friendship to the House of Hawthorne.”

Those had been King Henri’s final words after yielding the crown and throne to Nicholas on his death bed. As if Nicholas needed further reminding that he was unworthy to be Henri’s successor.

Since childhood, Nicholas had grown up under the shadow of two names. One, his deceased older brother, the other, his estranged childhood friend. Now the added weight of the crown, and the ghosts it carried, rested uneasily upon his head.

‘And I haven’t even been officially coronated.’

“Your Majesty,” Beaumont said patiently as he waited behind the crown prince at the foot of the stairs.

“Have you got the documents?”

“I have.” Beaumont held out the white leather satchel. “Nervous?”

Nicholas snatched the bag of official documents. “No.” He slung the strap over his shoulder—decided it looked ridiculous against his ceremonial robes—took it off and adjusted the golden chain which bore the royal sigil of Lafeara’s three circling wolves. “You carry it.”

Beaumont accepted the satchel and tucked it under his arm without comment. Nicholas glared at the knight captain’s masterfully blank expression and turned to march up the steps.

‘Perhaps I should have worn something less formal. Will Percy think I’m trying to throw my position about?’

Captain Leo greeted them at the door of the Dowager’s palace with a respectful bow. “Good morning, your Majesty.” His gaze shifted past Nicholas to the silent giant. “Captain Beaumont.”

Nicholas glanced curiously over his shoulder, but Beaumont’s impenetrable expression remained in place as he ignored his half-brother’s greeting. Nicholas turned back to Captain Leo and loudly cleared his throat. “I assume the Earl of Hawthorne is already inside with the Queen Regent?”

“He is, your Majesty. The Countess of Hawthorne is also here.”

‘Lady Constance?’ Nicholas frowned but did not comment as the knight led them through the foyer. If there was one person that could match the Dowager’s imposing presence, impossible to please personality, and cold disapproving sneer—it was Lady Constance.

‘And to think, my reunion with Percy would be in a room with them both.’ Nicholas sighed and rested his hand on the hilt of the ceremonial sword.

Captain Leo bowed and stepped aside just outside the open dining room door. Nicholas stepped past him, trying to appear confident, even as he peered around the frame at the room’s occupants. A glance revealed his grandmother, the Countess, and Lord Percy all seated silently together as a servant poured tea. And Lord Percy, Nicholas noted with a flood of relief, was also dressed in his official ceremonial robes.

The page, who had been patiently waiting for Nicholas’s permission, caught the crown princes signal and announced, “His Majesty, Crown Prince Nicholas!”

The Countess and Earl both rose courteously to greet him. “Good morning, your Majesty.”

“Good morning, Countess,” Nicholas inclined his head to Percy’s mother and then turned to greet the Earl with a warm smile. “Lord Percy, it’s been a long time.”

“It has, your Majesty,” Percy replied with deference. “I apologize for not visiting sooner.”

“No need to be so formal,” Nicholas joked as he moved around the table to greet his old friend with a quick embrace. “You’ve been busy taking over leadership of the Aristocratic Party and doing an excellent job of it, I hear.”

“Thank you, your Majesty.” Percy stepped back from Nicholas’s reach and inclined his head respectfully.

Nicholas frowned as he lowered his arms. ‘Is this how things will be now between us?’

Compared to the two princes, Percy had always been better at following the rules of court, but he had never let them stand in the way of his friendship with Tristan and Nicholas.

Nicholas studied the young man before him. They were the same age, and both shared similar education, overly dominating mothers, or grandmother in Nicholas’s case, and the expectations of title and office. Still, by all reports, the Earl was a perfect model of noble ambition, intelligence, and perseverance—minus the temper he inherited from his father.

‘When this meeting is over, I should make some excuse to take him about the palace. Perhaps a visit to the royal library or the House of Lords? Somewhere he can relax and come out of his shell.’

Nicholas glanced between the Dowager and Countess, who watched them with unnerving concentration.

‘Somewhere not here…’

“Now that his Majesty has arrived,” Octavia said as she signaled the servant to prepare a drink for Nicholas. “We are ready to begin.”

“Some breakfast would be wonderful,” Nicholas grumbled as he moved over to kiss the Dowager’s cheek and then took his seat between her and Percy.

“The tea is more than sufficient for me,” Constance said with a stiff smile. “Thank you, your Grace.”

“And I also have another matter to deal with once we’ve finished here,” Percy replied apologetically. “Another time, your Majesty.”

‘So much for catching up later.’

“I’ll hold you to that,” Nicholas replied ruefully. He glanced between the Earl and Countess, not missing the awkward tension between them. “I suppose we should just get started then. These are the terms for renegotiation with Ventrayna. They passed through the House of Lords only yesterday, with some difficulty, so one or two minor things may change before Ambassador Haemish arrives.” Nicholas snapped his fingers, and Beaumont stepped forward to present the file from the satchel he carried. “But I believe the main points will remain relatively unchanged.”

Nicholas passed the document to Percy, who opened it without hesitation and read its contents with interest.

“Actually,” Octavia interjected as she stirred her tea. “There was another matter we wished to discuss with Lord Percy before we moved onto that.”

Nicholas turned towards her with a perplexed frown. “Was there something else we needed to discuss?” ‘If so, she certainly neglected to inform me.’ Nicholas shifted in his seat uneasily.

“It is an important matter the Countess and I have been working towards with the greatest hope and patience.”

“Indeed,” Percy remarked with a hint of cynicism as he rolled up the negotiations and turned his cold gaze towards his mother.

‘What on earth is going on between those two? I thought he was the perfect son.’

“Yes,” Constance replied with an unwavering smile of confidence. “The Dowager and I would like to move forward and officially announce Percy’s engagement to Lady Evelynn.”

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