Chapter 20: The Divide of Power
A shrill whistle jolted Carina from her thoughts, and she focused on the steady pillar of steam that rose from the kettle before her on the kitchen stove. The palace servants did not comment as they worked around her, preparing for dinner. They had grown accustomed to Carina’s daily visits when preparing medicinal food and tea for her still-recovering patient. A corner stove and table for preparation were kept relatively clear and clean for her use.
Carina lifted the kettle from the stove, barely feeling the heat through the towel wrapped around the handle and poured the boiling water over the prepared sieve of dried herbs, which rested on top of the open porcelain teapot. The aroma of sweet vanilla and medicinal herbs soon mingled in with the succulent fragrance of dinner being prepared by the Chef and his staff.
It was well known among the palace servants that Lady Hana’s health had dramatically improved under Carina’s care. And they all knew better than to offend someone who had earned Eleanora’s favor and gratitude—for the most part.
“There you are,” Mrs. Poppy said as she appeared through the kitchen doorway. “Her Highness is asking for you.”
“I’ll be just a moment,” Carina replied as she checked her watch pendant. “The tea needs another two minutes to brew.”
“Lady Hana’s tea can wait,” Poppy replied impatiently. “The Earl of Hawthorne is in the study with her Highness. There is some important matter the Earl wishes to discuss with you before dinner—” Poppy paused to check her own watch pendant “—which is only twenty minutes away. Let the servants finishing making the tea and take up Lady Hana’s tray when it’s ready.”
‘Right, Lord Percy did say he would be dropping by earlier.’ Carina grimaced as she watched the second hand on her watch creep closer to the finish line.
“Lady Maura? I said—”
“To get the full effects of these herbs, the tea needs to be brewed for exactly eight to ten minutes. Too little and the medicinal benefits will be diminished, too much, and the tea will become too bitter and unpleasant to drink.”
Poppy inhaled a slow restraining breath and sighed. “I’m sure the kitchen staff can handle making a single cup of tea, Lady Maura.”
Carina smiled as the second hand finished its course and tucked the pendant into her waist pocket. “That won’t be necessary. The tea is finished now.” She removed the sieve from the porcelain pot and set it aside on an empty plate as one of the palace maids, a quiet but eager girl named Tilly, brought over a prepared tray with a light sandwich and two pieces of sweet candy. Carina covered the rising steam with the pot’s lid and placed it on the tray beside the matching set of teacups.
“Shall I take it up, my Lady?” Tilly asked with a hesitant look a Mrs. Poppy.
“Yes,” Poppy interrupted sharply. “The Crown Princess and Earl are waiting, Lady Maura.”
“Very well,” Carina replied with a quick smile to Tilly. “Tell Lady Hana I shall check in on her later.”
“Yes, Lady Maura.” The maid bobbed, lifted the tray carefully, and slipped past the head housekeeper out into the hallway.
Carina removed her apron and hung it by the door before she too walked past the impatient Mrs. Poppy and headed towards the front of the palace.
“The servant’s passage would be quicker,” Poppy muttered as she followed behind with sharp footsteps.
“You seem to forget that I am not a servant, Mrs. Poppy.” Carina turned and leveled the woman with a cold stare. “I am a noble.”
“Don’t forget who made you one,” Poppy retorted with a snort. “You wouldn’t be here at all if her Highness hadn’t made you a Baroness.”
“Is that what bothers you?” Carina asked with a slight smile. “That your Mistress made me a Baroness while you remain her servant?” The housekeeper’s face contorted with visible anger as Carina turned and continued through the foyer, around the twin staircase that led to the upstairs rooms, and down the second hall towards the library and co-joined study.
“What is given can be taken away,” Poppy muttered as she halted beside the stairwell. “I have dinner to attend to.”
Carina ignored the housekeeper’s comment as she adjusted the sheer white shawl around her shoulders and then opened the library door.
The sofa by the library window was empty, but a familiar low masculine voice drew her attention towards Eleanora’s study.
“I just worry about the timing of their arrival so close to the Ambassador’s visit,” Percy continued gravely as Carina caught sight of him seated in one of the chairs before Eleanora’s desk.
“But you know there is nothing I can do about an inquisition. Not with my current lack of power,” Eleanora replied in a weary tone. “Whether Nicholas allows the witch hunters to burn Lafeara to the ground or not will depend on his mood, I suppose.”
Carina’s grip tightened on her shawl as she approached the open study door. Even now, she could recall in vivid detail the Emissary’s carriage with its ominous scarlet robed escorts. ‘Somehow, it feels as though I brought them here.’
She shook the foreboding thought from her head and tapped on the doorframe. “Your Highness, you asked for me?”
Eleanora glanced up from Lord Percy, who straightened in his seat. “Lady Maura, it seems you forgot to inform me that the Earl would be joining us for dinner?”
“Oh, yes, I—” Carina curtsied as Percy rose from the chair to face her “—forgive me, Lord Percy. I must have forgotten in the—excitement earlier.”
“Yes, I understand you encountered those barbaric witch hunters on your return trip to the palace, Lady Maura,” Percy replied with a note of concern as he stepped around the chair towards her.
“Only briefly,” Carina replied softly and frowned as he extended his hand to her. “I believe the Earl had some business to discuss before dinner?”
“Rise, Lady Maura,” Eleanora urged with a faint smile. “Cousin, if you would share this proposal of yours now that my attendant has joined us.”
Carina thought she heard a soft chuckle as she moved past Percy’s extended hand towards the crown princess.
“Ah—Yes. As you mentioned earlier, Cousin, your power as Crown Princess of Lafeara is all but nonexistent.”
“Thank you for reminding me, Cousin,” Eleanora replied with a sarcastic smile.
“If you want to make Lafeara your home and become its true Queen, winning the heart and support of its powerful noble families is necessary,” Percy continued with a patient smile as he relaxed into his chair.
“I am aware!” Eleanora retorted with a hint of impatience. “But I suspect that you have prepared a rather explicit idea as to how I could accomplish this?”
“I do. Though it is but the first step and not a miracle by any means.” Percy lifted the leather satchel by his chair and held it out to Carina, who obediently stepped forward to accept it. “The last great queen’s each championed works of charity for the betterment of Lafeara’s people. Queen Catalina established an education system for the women of nobility. Queen Rosalind championed trade jobs for the commoners; housing and food for the poor and homeless.”
Carina pulled a thick, bound document from the leather bag and stared at the deed that rested beneath the scarlet red ribbon. A flourish of masterful penmanship red, Certification of Land Ownership for Turnbell Manor.
Carina looked up from the document over to Percy, who offered her a mischievous smile. ‘So—you were the anonymous buyer.’
“I believe that is for me, Lady Maura,” Eleanora interjected as she held out her hand impatiently. Carina offered an apologetic smile as she presented the documents, then waited patiently nearby as the crown princess untied the bundle and flipped through the papers. “Cousin, you—wish me to open an orphanage?” Eleanora glanced from Percy to Carina, “And you purchased the deed of Lady Maura’s family home for this purpose?”
“From her sister, Lady Sophya Turnbell,” Percy confirmed with a dismissive shrug. “The late Lord Turnbell left behind a significant amount of debt. Lady Sophya is presently already engaged and moved into her fiancé’s family home, so I thought taking the old estate and most of the family debt of her hands a commendable gesture of goodwill.”
‘Goodwill?’ Carina narrowed her ice-blue eyes at Percy, who seemed content to stare back at her quite blatantly as if he enjoyed watching the emotions she was struggling to hide behind her composed expression.
“So, you asked that Lady Maura be here to—get her consent after the fact?” Eleanora queried with mixed disapproval and confusion.
“I have no wish to offend Lady Maura,” Percy replied somberly as he leaned forward with a hand to his heart. “If she is against the idea, then I will gladly sign the deed over to her right now. There are other houses I can purchase in the country, though Turnbell Manor is by far the largest estate I could obtain for such a—modest price.”
The sincere, steady gaze of his winter-grey eyes made Carina uncomfortable. Beneath her shawl the Winter Rose seemed to echo her unsteady heart as she avoided the Earl’s gaze. Instead, Carina focused on the paperwork in Eleanora’s hands though she did not miss the curious side stare the crown princess was giving her.
“I see,” Eleanora murmured. “So, your plan—is that I open an orphanage for Lafeara’s children, and the nobles will open their hearts to me?” Her incredulity was audible.
“It’s a start,” Percy replied confidently. “And a task I believe Lady Maura is more than capable of handling.”
“Oh, is she?” Eleanora leaned across the desk as her trouble smile turned into a disapproving glare. “I’m surprised that you would recommend her and not your fiancé.”
The hair on the back of Carina’s neck stiffened as the Earl’s sharp gaze turned towards his cousin.
“I am not engaged to Lady Evelynn,” Percy stated bluntly.
“The Countess and Dowager have expressed otherwise,” Eleanora pointed out. “In fact, I dare say there are very few nobles within the capital that are unaware of the engagement between yourself and the young Lady Hendrix, Cousin. And—given the display I witnessed between the two of you just last week and my lady’s sudden drop in spirits—I should wonder at your persisted ignorance of this fact.”
‘What display?’ Carina glanced towards Percy and was momentarily caught off guard by the dark glint of anger in his eyes.
“It seems my words hold little value when compared to a noble lady her Highness has only just met,” Percy observed with a disappointed smile.
“That is not what I meant, Cousin,” Eleanora replied as she folded her arms across the documents. “I trust you, but—these rumors do far too much public weight—and I have no interest in seeing Lady Maura tangled up in such detestable gossip.”
“Your concerns are not necessary, cousin,” Percy replied coldly as he tilted his head with an almost mocking smile. “As it stands, I have no interest in being publicly connected to this charity. The purchase of Turnbell Manor was made anonymously to avoid revealing my involvement. Instead, I have reached out to the investor, Mr. Frost, in hopes that he will also join us on this endeavor.” His winter-grey eyes shifted back to Carina with a playful smile that sent a sudden chill down her spine.
‘Did he—know about Frost too? Or—perhaps he’s merely referring to the connection between Lady Aconitum and Frost.’
“The elusive investor?” Eleanora replied with surprise. “Why would he support an orphanage?”
“He has already made your Highness an Ambassador of his two most popular businesses,” Percy replied with a casual wave of his hand. “His intention to support you has been made quite clear. A collaboration on a public charity event would help solidify that support and gain both of you the goodwill of the people. And you, dear cousin, could take advantage of the many nobles who wish to become acquainted with Mr. Frost. Why—even the Crown Prince is eagerly searching for him.”
Once more, his gaze slid towards Carina with a knowing, playful grin.
‘So the Countess did let you in on my secret,’ Carina realized with an anxious frown. ‘Or perhaps you found out some other way—’ She started and flushed, suddenly aware that she had been staring at the Earl, and quickly snapped her attention to Eleanora. ‘What on earth has come over me?’
“True,” Eleanora murmured with sudden interest. “Perhaps with Frost’s support, enough nobles would take notice and attend such a nonprofitable charity.” She turned to Carina. “But, the question remains, Lady Maura, are you comfortable with us using your family home for such a public spectacle?”
“I have no lingering attachment to the estate,” Carina answered confidently. “It would be rather satisfying to see it put to some good use. But one estate cannot house all of Lafeara’s orphans.” She started to turn towards the Earl as she finished her reply but quickly refocused on the crown princess.
‘Don’t encourage him. Percy is toying with you. He could have bought any house, but he chose to purchase the Turnbell manor for this?’
“No,” Percy replied with an amused tone, “but it will be enough to provide a comfortable home for the children recently recovered from that abominable child sex ring the Knight Commander rounded up.” The chair creaked faintly, and the Earl moved into Carina’s line of view as he pulled out a list of names from the pile of documents. “The names notated with a cross have been confirmed as having no living family, while the other twelve here were sold by relatives to pay off debts.”
Carina stared down at the list of names with a column of numbers to indicate their age, which ranged from six to sixteen. Disgust turned her stomach as she recalled Josiah’s plans to sell her to Lord Lennox as a wife.
“Ah yes, I have heard of the Knight Commander’s recent arrests,” Eleanora commented as she studied the list and turned it over. “A worthy charity. We have the house, the children, and if Mr. Frost joins our cause, the funds and notoriety as well. I fail to see how I can add anything of worth to the matter.”
“You can support it as a noble and member of the royal family while publicly condemning child slavery, as Lafeara’s future Queen,” Carina spoke up passionately.
Eleanora raised a surprised brow at her outburst and tapped a finger upon the documents thoughtfully. “Slavery is as deeply engrained in Lafeara’s history as it is Ventrayna and even old Zarus. To take such a public stand as Lafeara’s future queen—would erode my support from the Emperor.”
“But you would gain Nicholas’s support,” Carina countered quickly.
“The Crown Prince has expressed his wish to see the taxes recovered by your marriage put towards the restoration of the late queen’s charities,” Percy added his agreement. “And he is very much against the abduction and forced slavery of children.”
“We could ask him to attend a public event to raise funds for the charity,” Carina added eagerly. “It would be common ground for you both to work on as future monarchs. Such a public display of unity would also help diminish the rumors about your marriage and having the Crown Prince’s support will go a long way to ensuring the charity is a success.”
“And how am I to convince my husband to show his support publicly?” Eleanora demanded with a hint of aggravation. “Every invitation I’ve sent him these past few days has been ignored or rejected with some excuse about the kingdom’s never-ending affairs and responsibilities.”
“His Highness has been busy,” Percy replied reasonably as he returned to his seat. “Even his mistress has been feeling neglected of late.”
Carina winced and glanced at the crown princess, who stiffened as she picked up a list of expenses.
“You seem quite informed of his Highness’s activities,” Eleanora murmured curiously without raising her gaze. “Perhaps my cousin has more political connections than the Countess has led me to believe.”
“Mother sheltered me as a child, but I have taken great pains to reconnect with the leading families of Lafeara since I received my late father’s ring. I am pleased to say that the Hawthorne name still holds weight.”
“Ha!” Eleanora smirked as her amber eyes flicked over him. “If only you had been born a woman, they might have married you to Nicholas instead of some foreign princess.”
Percy’s smile thinned as he unclasped his hands and rose from his seat. “If we have reached an agreement on using this orphanage as your Highness charity, then I would like to recommend another cousin of mine to help your Highness and Lady Maura host it. The Marchioness of Berxely.”
Eleanora dropped the list of expenses and leaned back with a frown. “Marquess Serilda? King Henri’s old mistress?”
“She is twenty-six, hardly much older than you,” Percy corrected with a patronizing smile. “And she has just returned to Lafeara.”
“Didn’t the Dowager banish her—oh no, that was the Countess, wasn’t it?” Eleanora pressed with a malicious smirk as she rose from her chair. “On suspicion of drugging the late King?”
Carina could hardly keep her gaze focused as her head spun between them. ‘King Henri had a mistress who may have poisoned him? But—didn’t he die from a fall?’
Percy gripped the back of his chair tightly. “No one had more to lose from Henri’s death than the Marchioness.” The sharpness of his tone did not escape either Eleanora or Carina.
“While the Countess had much to gain from the Marchioness’s banishment,” Eleanora responded with a cryptic smile.
“Perhaps Mother was merely clearing the way for your engagement to the First Prince,” Percy shot back with a darkening scowl.
“Ahh, I meant no disrespect, Cousin,” Eleanora said apologetically. “These are simply the rumors which spread even to Ventrayna. Marchioness Serilda may very well be innocent of these claims—but to align ourselves with a fallen noblewoman—one who is rumored to be insane—I fail to see how that would be beneficial for my crown or this charity?”
Percy exhaled slowly as he relaxed his grip and straightened. “It seems my advice is no longer valued.” His expression was cold as he faced the crown princess and bowed. “I will excuse myself then, your Highness.”
“Percy!” Eleanora circled the desk quickly. “Please do not leave angry with me.”
“Your Highness should make use of the orphanage and charity event if nothing else,” Percy responded without a glimmer of warmth as he avoided her outstretched hand. At the doorway, he turned to Carina and offered a brief smile and bow. “Good night, Lady Maura.”
“My Lord,” Carina replied as she dipped into a curtsey. When she rose, Eleanora was standing in the study room door, and the Earl was gone.
“Damn it,” Eleanora muttered as she pressed her fingers to her lips. “I forgot how close Percy was to that woman. I’ll have to think of some way to make it up to him later.” She turned, studied Carina, and laughed. “Then again, I also have you to help smooth things over.”
“Excuse me?” Carina replied with a quizzical brow.
“Lady Maura, I’m going to be blunt. I like you, even though you have yet to earn the many graces I have given you. I do, however, trust that you are working on the mission I gave you before and that you will have what I need prepared in time for the Ambassador’s visit.”
‘So she’s still determined to drug the Crown Prince?’
“But I am not blind.” Eleanora sighed impatiently as she gestured towards the shawl left behind on the desk chair.
Carina lifted the pale golden material and carried it over to the crown princess silently.
“It has become quite clear to me that the woman my cousin jilted Lady Evelynn for—is you,” Eleanora continued with a mocking laugh. “Therefore, if you do not wish to mire your Mistress in the scandal and gossip of a sordid affair and damage your own reputation in the process, I would advise you to distance yourself from the Earl—immediately.”
“Start by addressing him as Earl instead of Lord Percy. Whatever relationship you had while under the Countess’s care, you are a mere Baroness.” Eleanora patted Carina’s cheek. “A talented one that I have high hopes for—but the position of the Earl’s wife is beyond your reach.”