Chapter 82: A Clash of Wills

The bustle of servants greeted Eleanora and her ladies-in-waiting as they circled the courtyard on their way towards the stables. Men and women, dressed in leather aprons of green and brown, poured and scraped fine gold and white sand into the squares of the chessboard carefully outlined in red string.

“Ahh, they’re finally getting it laid down today!” Eleanora exclaimed as she paused to survey the work. “And they’ve completed a fair amount already.”

A quarter of the field now gleamed in a pattern of shimmering gold and pearl-white sand as the sun crept closer to claiming the full courtyard below.

“Excuse me, you Highness,” Evelynn said as she nudged past Carina to stand beside Eleanora. “But why such a large chessboard? Surely a garden would be better for entertaining guests.”

“You Lafearians and your love of flowers,” Eleanora scoffed as she moved closer to the glittering squares with a distracted frown. “Major, would you ask Lord Lane why they have not applied the glue yet? It should be done square by square to ensure the lines remain intact.” She gestured with a black satin riding boot to where white sand had blown under the red string onto the gold square.

“I’ll inform the Lord Architect,” Garrett replied and stepped carefully through the red thread squares that had not been filled, towards the nobleman making a fuss over a bucket of white sand.

“Honestly, what is that architect thinking? If the wind doesn’t make a mess of it, the servants will,” Eleanora muttered as she continued her stroll of the courtyard. She had been in a tense, distracted mood since breakfast that had prompted her decision to go for a ride to “clear my head.”

“I suspect it’s the first life-size chessboard Lord Lane has ever installed,” Carina replied as she pulled Tiffany out of the path of two servants carrying small buckets of white sand.

“How do they give the sand that rainbow-white color?” Tiffany murmured curiously. “It almost looks like crushed pearls.”

“Crushed opals, not pearls, Lady Tiffany,” Eleanora corrected as she stopped one of the servants, lifted a pinch of white sand from the bucket, and dropped it into Tiffany’s hand. “Not as precious as a diamond but highly valued by artists as a more practical medium for creativity. My father sent them from Ventrayna when I told him of my plans for the courtyard, but they have other uses. For example, I know of a designer here in Lafeara who uses black opal to paint detailed designs onto her gowns.”

“You are referring to Lady Aconitum!” Tiffany guessed quickly. “I have two gowns designed by her! My mother has about seven!”

Carina coughed and cleared her throat as Eleanora smiled down at the beaming girl.

“Indeed, it was her subtle designs that lured me into becoming the Patron of The Holy Maiden’s Boutique,” Eleanora explained as she waved the servants on and continued towards the back door of the courtyard. “The owner, Sir Everly, sent me a purple muslin gown to wear for the royal honeymoon. Of course, every designer in Lafeara sent a gown to represent their store of either gold or purple, but it was the black scorpions painted onto the sheer sleeves of Sir Everly’s gown that caught my attention. No other designer bothered to present the aesthetics of Ventrayna in my gowns. Opals are also a natural resource from Ventrayna, so for me, it was like receiving a gift of home.”

They reached the arched doorway, which led out to the back entrance of the palace. Eleanora stopped again to wait for Garret, who was carefully making his exit through the field of red thread.

“Anyway, to answer your original question, Lady Evelynn, I simply wanted to repurpose the courtyard with something that I could enjoy. The Royal Palace has plenty of gardens as it is, and while I may not be able to hunt and duel as freely as I could in Vetrayna, I shall endeavor to keep my mind sharp with whatever tools available to me.”

“Of course, your Highness,” Evelynn replied with a defeated sigh.

“It was my uncle, Ambassador Haemish, who taught me to play chess.” Eleanora’s gaze grew distant and withdrawn as she considered the incomplete battlefield before them. “I have yet to beat him, but one day, I hope I will be in a position to claim victory.”

Carina silently glanced at Eleanora’s clenched jaw and determined gaze.

“Perhaps the Crown Prince also plays chess?” Tiffany remarked with her usual naive optimism.

Carina frowned as a vision flashed before her eyes. The completed chess field stood before her lined with servants dressed in gold or white to match the pieces of the board, and at its center, Eleanora and Nicholas faced each other with swords drawn. She shook the foreboding thought from her head.

“I suppose he at least knows how to play,” Eleanora replied with a disinterested shrug. “But I have never had a match with him. Not many people in Lafeara appear to have an interest in chess—except for Lady Hana, of course.” Her expression grew pensive as Major Garret jogged up and bowed before her.

“Apologies for the wait, your Highness,” Garrett said as he raised his head.

“Is he going to fix it.”

“Naturally, your Highness.”

Eleanora nodded and turned to her attendants. “So, which of you will ride with me today?”

“I would be delighted too, your Highness,” Evelynn volunteered quickly.

Eleanora flicked a glance over the eager lady-in-waiting and nodded. “Garrett, would you see to it the stable prepares a comfortable lady’s saddle for her.” She turned to Tiffany and Carina. “And you two may do as you wish as long as you stay inside Rose Palace. Please see to it that no one aside from Mrs. Poppy disturbs Lady Hana while she’s resting.”

“Yes, your Highness.”

“Crown Princess!” Mrs. Poppy’s clear voice proceeded the visage of the Ventrayna woman running towards them. “Thank—Kritanta—I caught you.” She stumbled to a halt with what might have been a curtsy or an attempt to catch herself. “The Dowager sent a knight—Captain Leo—to summon you—an invitation for tea.”

“Ahh, no doubt to put me in my place after thwarting her servant’s attempts to have Lady Maura dismissed,” Eleanora muttered. The distracted worry that had clung to the crown princess’s expression all morning vanished as her lips twisted into a smile of acceptance. “Well, this will certainly be a lot more fun than hunting rabbits.”

“Should we go greet the Dowager’s messenger?” Tiffany asked hesitantly.

“You may if you wish, Lady Tiffany,” Eleanora said with a permissive wave. “Lady Maura do go with her to receive the invitation officially. Lady Evelynn, it appears that I shall need to change.” She glanced down at her men’s pants with a rueful chuckle. “Grandmother is a bit old fashioned when it comes to appropriate garments for young ladies.”

“Of course, your Highness.”

Captain Leo turned towards them with the faintest glimmer of disappointment, before his usual charming smile took hold and beamed upon Tiffany and Carina with equal measure. “Good morning, beauties.”

“C-Captain Leo.” Tiffany blushed and quickly dropped her gaze as the knight directed his attention towards her.

“You have an invitation for her Highness?” Carina asked pointedly as she stepped forward and held out her hand.

“I was instructed to deliver it to her Highness personally, Lady Maura,” Leo replied with a flirtatious wink.

“A servant does not dictate the actions of their master or mistress,” Carina answered with a polite smile. “I am here on my mistress’s behalf to receive the invitation.”

Leo scoffed. “Dowager trumps Crown Princess, Lady Maura. So, I’ll have to insist.”

“Queen trumps Dowager; perhaps you should reconsider, Captain,” Carina returned as she stepped closer and folded her arms.

“She’s not queen yet.” Leo smirked as he closed the distance between them. “But I do admire your stubbornness, Lady Maura.”

“What a shame,” Carina murmured, then shrugged as she sighed. “If you are not going to hand over the invitation, then I must ask you to leave now, Captain.”

“What?” Leo blinked down at her as his smile faltered. “You can’t—”

“This is the Rose Palace, and I represent its mistress, who was instated here by marriage and the full authority of Lafeara’s future King and the House of Lords,” Carina chided with a note of boredom. “Since you have refused to hand over the official invitation, I shall inform her Highness that she may resume her earlier plans, which will take her away from Rose Palace for most of the morning. Do convey this unfortunate turn of events to the Dowager on your return trip.”

She spun around and caught a glimpse of Tiffany’s goldfish stare before the knight captain caught her arm.

“No, wait!” Leo firmly pushed the invitation into her hand. “It seems the Crown Princess’s servants are just as arrogant as their mistress,” he muttered as he stepped back. “I’ll be taking my leave then.”

“Do try to remember your place in the future, Captain,” Carina advised him with a cold smile. “Although—I do admire your stubbornness.” She held up the invitation between her fingers and smirked at his enraged glare.

Only after the palace doors had closed behind the knight captain’s stormy retreat did Tiffany speak up. “Did you have to treat him so coldly?”

Carina turned towards her with a frown. “Should I have asked the Crown Princess to come down and greet a simple servant?”

“N-no,” Tiffany murmured. “But you—didn’t have to provoke him.”

Carina tapped the invitation against her open palm as she considered the golden-haired young woman, who was physically a year older than Maura, but mentally still a child in many ways.

“In court, if you yield an inch, you only reveal your weakness,” Carina explained patiently.

Tiffany blinked her lilac-blue eyes and sighed. “Maura, I am only worried that you have made an unnecessary enemy when you already have plenty in the palace.”

Carina smiled ruefully as she turned towards the stairs. “I suppose that’s true.”

“But not me!” Tiffany added as she caught up and linked her arm through Carina’s. “At least, I hope we can be friends.”

Carina felt her chest tighten as she considered Tiffany’s hopeful and innocent gaze.

‘But are you truly naive and innocent, though? Is it just a coincidence that you become engaged to Captain Leo in the future and escape before the queen’s death?’

“Of course,” Carina replied, ignoring the painful twist in her gut as she lied.

‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.’

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