Chapter 25: A Trace of Poison
“Is this true?” Eleanora asked, turning her gaze to Carina instead of Evelynn.
“It is a rule by tradition, not law, your Highness,” Carina replied with a grimace. “There are certainly stories throughout Lafearian’s history of court noblewomen who carried blades and used them for self-defense.”
“Then, I do not see a problem. It is practical even,” Eleanora said with a satisfied smile. “Especially given our so-called knights have proven less than reliable at their duty.” Her smile quickly faded as she finished.
“Indeed, your Highness.”
Eleanora drummed her finger against the desk for a moment, then shrugged with a melancholy expression. “I would only have myself to blame if I placed further trust in my husband’s knights after today.” She opened her letter book with a determined expression, dipped a quill in ink, and scripted down a short letter.
“Your Highness?” Evelynn murmured uncertainly as she attempted to read the letter’s contents. “What do you—mean to do about the matter?”
“I mean to write to my father, Lord Alastair Kensington, and request that he send a squadron of Kensington soldiers to protect me.”
Evelynn’s hand hastily shot out to stall the crown princess’s pen. “Your Highness, you cannot! If you make such a request—it could be viewed as treason!”
“What Lady Evelynn means to say,” Carina interrupted with no less urgency. “Is that you would need permission from the Crown Prince to hire bodyguards and bring them inside the palace. So before you write to Lord Kensington—it would be best to get permission from the future King.”
Eleanora’s expression pained as she set down the quill and leaned back into her chair to fix them both with an unhappy gaze. “My palace has been invaded. My people were injured. My attendant was forced to use a blade because the Crown Prince’s knights abandoned my property and their duty in my absence. And you are telling me I need another’s permission to hire soldiers who will not hesitate to fight for my safety?”
“That is the law, your Highness,” Carina confirmed.
“And no one is above the law,” Evelynn echoed with a note of relief.
“There is, however, an alternative,” Carina added after a moment’s thought.
“What?” Evelynn and Eleanora demanded in unison.
“The Earl of Hawthorne,” Carina answered confidently.
Evelynn scoffed. “It appears Lady Maura is mistaken, your Highness. Even the Earl cannot bring armed men inside the royal palace.”
“But he can petition the House of Lords on your Highness’s behalf,” Carina explained. “As your cousin and leader of the Aristocratic Party. He can force the matter or expose them to any blame should another threat appear.”
“That—” Evelynn exhaled in defeat.
“I see,” Eleanora murmured as her amber eyes moved between them thoughtfully. “Then that is what I must do. I will also write to my father and ask him to speak to the Earl regarding the best way to achieve our goal.”
“But surely that would only needlessly escalate the conflict between your Highness and the Dowager,” Evelynn protested half-heartedly.
Eleanora’s gaze swung towards Evelynn, who flinched beneath its invisible blow. “Are you suggesting I sit back and allow the Dowager to mock me, my people, and my position as future queen?”
“No, your Highness,” Evelynn whispered.
“Good. You may all leave.” Eleanora waved her hand to the study door. “Lady Maura, remain behind a moment.”
Carina bowed her head in acceptance and, upon seeing Evelynn’s unhappy frown, offered her opponent a smug smile. ‘You wanted to use this to discredit me, but now it is your position beside the Crown Princess that has weakened instead.’
Evelynn scowled as she turned and swept from the room. Tiffany hastily followed, her eyes still glued to the carpet. The dazed blonde attendant almost banged into the door frame but was saved by Robbi, who pulled her onto a clear path before he shut the door behind them.
“Please, Lady Maura.” Eleanora nodded to the vacated seats. After Carina sat down, the crown princess gestured to the crate of bottles left on her desk. “Explain.”
“Your Highness knows the cellar is kept locked and secured,” Carina answered, “And that the only person with a key is Mrs. Poppy, who does not lend it out to anyone.” Carina paused for a moment.
“Tell me all, Lady Maura,” Eleanora commanded. “Do not keep secrets from your Queen.”
‘Easier said than done.’ Carina sighed. “It may have been unintentional, but it was Lady Tiffany who told Lady Sabella that Mrs. Poppy had the key.” Eleanora blinked in surprise as Carina continued. “However, in the royal palace, it is fairly common for the head of staff to be responsible for such a task, though it is not unusual for a lady-in-waiting to be given charge over the royal’s cellar instead.”
Eleanora frowned but nodded. “And did you learn why the Dowager sent her henchmen to steal my wine?”
“According to Lady Sabella, they wanted to acquire a few bottles of Caligo wine for the Dowager’s pleasure. Nonetheless, I suspect their true goal was to tamper with the wine remaining inside your Highness’s cellar.” Carina rose from her seat, lifted one of the Aswan bottles from the crate, and turned it to show Eleanora the already drying cork stopper.
Eleanora took the bottle and looked perplexed as she examined the wrinkled wax paper decoration, then attempted to free the cork without success. “It hasn’t been opened,” she confirmed. “Perhaps the label was damaged some other way.”
“Your Highness, the cork itself is uncharacteristically damp, and these wet rags were found hidden away in the cellar, six of them in total.” Carina picked up a pencil from Eleanora’s desk and used it to lift a red handkerchief from the crate. “I believe the rags carried some unknown toxins which were then soaked into the corks of several bottles of your Highness’s wine.”
“Poison?” Eleanora’s tone rippled with anger. “Would the Dowager actually dare? Was the Caligo wine damaged?”
“One bottle was opened, but the other eleven remain undamaged. I would recommend disposing of the open bottle.”
“That would be prudent.” Eleanora eyed the damp rag as its weight carried it off the end of the pencil Carina held, and it dropped back into the crate. “We should have these corks and rags tested for poison then. Perhaps we can use this to our advantage and strike a blow at the Dowager.”
“I agree that having an alchemist test the corks would prove beneficial to identifying the toxins used— But I would not accuse the Dowager at this time.”
“Whyever not?” Eleanora demanded sharply.
“The witness to today’s events are but two of your Highness’s attendants recently appointed to the palace, and both recently made nobles as well, along with a few members of your Highness’s staff,” Carina explained patiently. “By number alone, Lady Sabella and the knights she brought would be more than a match. If they countered our accusation with a story of their own, it would be a matter of hearsay and slandering the Queen Regent. They could just as easily accuse us of tampering with your Highness’s wine to harm you or frame the Dowager.”
“You mean—” Eleanora sighed exasperatedly. “She will get away with this.”
“Testimony is only as strong as its backer in the palace,” Carina murmured as she folded her hands patiently. “Which is why I would advise your Highness to gather what evidence we can about the poison used—and wait.”
Eleanora nodded stiffly, her gaze distant. “The old wolf still has too much power.”
“We will take it from her,” Carina replied reassuringly.
“A child would help in that regard,” Eleanora growled with a sharp look at Carina. “I hope you have been preparing to aid me in that matter.”
‘Must you jump to playing the same game as the Dowager? It will be both of our necks and the lives of others in peril if we fail.’ Carina folded her arms and smiled patiently. “All the more reason we should keep today’s events under wraps. The moment word gets out that poison appeared inside the Rose Palace, vigilance around his Majesty would increase. Not to mention, it could give the Dowager an opening to take control of your household servants.”
The latter had certainly happened in Maura’s past. Eleanora, naturally suspicious of the Dowager’s every move, had taken the open wine bottles to Nicholas, who confirmed they were poisoned but placed the blame on Eleanora’s household staff, most of whom came from Ventrayna with the Princess.
‘This was the Dowager’s first successful blow against Eleanora. Now it shall be our first defensive victory. We can avoid her trap and remove the other tampered bottles in one fell swoop.’
Eleanora grimaced and nodded reluctantly in agreement. “Of course. But I still believe the best time to act will be during the Ambassador’s visit. Since his brother’s death, Nicholas rarely drinks alcohol, but he is known to indulge quite heavily when Ventrayna is stripping the royal treasury of its riches.”
‘Any monarch would with the heavy taxes Ventrayna extorts.’
“But taxes this year will be lessened due to your Highness’ marriage to the Crown Prince,” Carina mentioned cautiously.
“And you would think Nicholas would be more grateful of that fact,” Eleanora muttered darkly. “He saves his kingdom a small fortune while that old she-wolf is allowed to harass me.”
‘Be patient, your Highness. This is but the first of many blows the Dowager will inflict upon us.’ Carina sighed and brushed back her hair.
“You did well today, Lady Maura. You were as brave as any Ventrayna knight—take that as a compliment,” Eleanora said firmly.
“I will. Thank you, your Highness.”
“It is also reassuring to no longer have to worry about the Dowager winning you over to her side,” Eleanora added with a smirk. “That said, having made yourself her enemy—you should be careful.”
“I will bear that warning in mind, your Highness.”
‘But I’m not sure the Dowager is done with me yet.’ Carina frowned as she recalled Tiffany’s guilty expression. ‘Though—if she already has a spy among us—it is possible she has no further need of me.’
A sharp rap at the door interrupted her thoughts.
“Come in,” Eleanora called out with an anxious frown.
Mrs. Poppy entered, followed by an unfamiliar man who hastily swept a bow towards the crown princess.
“Forgive me, your Highness!” the man exclaimed nervously. “I was sent with an urgent message—for the Baroness of Averly.”
Carina turned towards him, surprised. “I am the Baroness. What message do you have?”
“His Lordship, Lord Acheron Hargreve, and the Sir Baltmore, the Mayor of Averly, urgently request your presence to deal with a crisis in your province. They have sent a carriage which awaits outside—” the man dropped hastily to his knees, “—forgive my rudeness, but the matter is grave and cannot wait.”
“It seems quite serious,” Eleanora observed with a hint of reservation.
“Your Highness?” Carina turned back to the crown princess uncertainly. The messenger’s presence and message had caught her completely off guard. Then again, the town of Averly itself had never been a part of her original plans. ‘Is this a move from the Dowager? Surely it’s too soon for her to retaliate.’
“You should go, Lady Maura,” Eleanora said with a sigh. “It is your province, after all.”
“But I can’t leave the Royal Palace without a royal pass!” Carina protested.
“Ah, Lord Acheron sent one with me!” the messenger announced as he hastily untied a small silk pouch from his belt and held it out to her.
Inside, Carina found not just a pass but a ring with Hargreve’s family insignia engraved upon it.
‘It must be quite urgent if Acheron sent his family ring along with the messenger.’
Carina nodded. “I will also need to take one of the knights with me as an escort.”
“We have so few at our disposal,” Eleanora replied sarcastically. “However, rules are rules. You may take Sir Jordan with you.”
“Are you sure, your Highness?”
“I still have Major Garrett to keep me safe. He can round up a few trustworthy knights to fill our ranks until the Earl can acquire men with more loyalty to my family.”
“Thank you, your Highness,” Carina replied promptly with a low curtsey. “Then I shall be on my way.”
“Thank you, Baroness!” the messenger said with evident relief as he bowed his head to the floor. “And—Thank you, your Highness!”