Chapter 35: A Wave of Ambition
The hushed silence that fell over the House of Lords was in no part due to the Crown Princess’s expected arrival, but rather the Earl’s appearance by her side.
Percy ignored the stares as he surveyed the council room with a tingle of nostalgia. The last time he had entered these esteemed halls had been on his father’s shoulders when the Earl, serving as the previous Prime Minister, had introduced Percy to many of the noble lords who sat before him now in stunned silence.
‘It almost feels like you’re still here.’
Percy’s gaze settled on Marquess Winifred, who rose abruptly from his chair and bowed humbly to the Earl over the table.
“Your likeness to your father is remarkable, Young Percy—no, Earl Hawthorne,” Winifred said with a hint of sadness. “We are delighted to welcome your Grace and your Highness.” He bowed humbly to Eleanora, and the crown princess smiled back with a nod of her head.
“Grace?” Borghese remarked cynically. The other lords ignored him as seven chairs scraped across the floor, and seven of the ten council lords rose to bow in silent recognition of late Earl Ethan’s son and heir.
“Esteemed lords,” Percy replied hastily as he motioned for Winifred to rise. “I am humbled and undeserving.” The Earl smiled as he released Eleanora’s arm and bowed in return.
‘It is good to see the old ways are still respected here.’
“My Lords,” Eleanora greeted as the councilmen all rose, their gaze still fixated on Percy. “I received a summons to appear before you. I believe this is due to the presence of Ventrayna forces at Lafeara’s border?”
“Ah, yes—your Highness,” Attwood rose from his chair with a polite bow. “We wished to inquire if the Crown Princess had received any notice of your uncle’s sudden change in plans, but—” he turned his attention back to the Earl who was shaking hands with Marquess Winifred. “Why has Lord Percy chosen to accompany you?”
Percy turned his amused gaze towards Attwood as Winifred released his hand with a muffled snicker. ‘What’s wrong, Attwood? Do you see my presence as an omen of your demise? You who took my father’s seat at this table with the help of his killer.’
“I invited Earl Hawthorne,” Eleanora answered without hesitation. “I wanted my cousin’s council and understanding of Lafeara politics.”
“What would a boy know of politics?” Borghese responded cynically.
“That boy is Earl of Hawthorne,” growled Earl Coldwell with a warning glare to the Marquess he so often supported. Borghese inhaled a sharp breath, both caught off guard and annoyed to have been corrected by one of his own.
“Let the Earl stay,” interrupted Nicholas, looking rather relieved by the unexpected interruption. “We will need the support of all the nobles should the Ambassador’s actions lead us to war.”
“I do not believe things are quite so dire, your Majesty,” Eleanora protested with a soft laugh.
“And I would agree with her Highness’s assessment,” Lord Percy added as he escorted Eleanora to her seat beside Nicholas. “In fact, I have a suggestion if your Majesties and the House of Lords are willing to listen?”
“Of course,” Nicholas replied happily.
‘Still as eager to win me over as ever I see.’ Percy smiled politely at the crown prince, then turned to face the House of Lords and noted the anxious and annoyed expressions on Attwood and Borghese’s faces.
‘You both have exerted quite a bit of effort to keep me away from this room—but it is far too late to stop me from claiming what is rightfully mine.’
“With over a quarter of our army at the border of Tharyn in Wolfthorn Valley, we have only two thousand troops on hand to defend the capital,” Percy explained calmly. “Therefore, it would be to our advantage to determine the Ambassador’s intentions before he arrives at the capital.”
“That would be obvious,” snarked Borghese.
“And how are we to determine his intentions before he arrives,” Winifred cut in intently.
“That is quite simple, Marquess Winifred,” Percy replied in a patient tone. “We communicate with him. I would suggest asking her Highness to write a letter welcoming the Ambassador, her uncle, to Lafeara. I would be happy to volunteer to deliver this letter to the border in person to greet Lord Haemish and inquire as to his intentions.”
“Your Grace!” Winifred protested as the other lords raised their voices in protest. “The mission is far too dangerous to send a noble such as yourself!”
“Lord Percy!” Attwood stood and held out his hands to silence the council lords. “It would be against all protocol for you to undertake such a task. You are young—and not a member of this council—and as the Marquess said, such a mission could well be perilous.”
‘Not to me.’ Percy composed his face, careful not to show his overconfidence as he turned to face Nicholas. “I am well aware of the risks, but I believe the Ambassador will welcome me as family. That is why I offered to deliver her Highness’s letter.”
‘It’s not as if any of these other lords would volunteer to go themselves.’
Nicholas glanced from Eleanora, who nodded approvingly at her cousin, to Percy, who met his gaze with calm certainty. “But—”
“Lord Percy is still not a member of the House of Lords,” Borghese interjected as he rose from his seat. “Your Majesty, you cannot leave such an important mission to a mere boy—”
“Lord Percy is the same age as his Majesty,” Winifred interjected with a deadly calm that quickly silenced the room. Borghese choked on his words for a moment as Marquess Winifred rose from his seat to address Nicholas. “Your Majesty, we have three vacant seats with Lord Tomberline and Lord Acheron absent to deal with the witch hunters from the church. I believe it is high time we filled the last seat.”
“Hear, hear!” Seven other lords quickly drummed their fists against the table in approval.
‘And here it comes.’ Percy watched with silent delight as Attwood and Borghese glanced desperately at each other for aid. ‘Desperate times make for desperate allies.’
“Your Majesty,” Attwood protested.
“Prime Minister, Marquess Winifred has a point,” Nicholas called out with a chuckle. “So, I will approve his request. Let us put it to a vote.”
“But—we do not have a full house!” Borghese objected.
“We do not need the full house to carry a vote,” Winifred replied as he raised his hand into the air. “Just a clear majority. I shall start this motion by giving the first vote in favor. All who agree it is high time the Earl of Hawthorne reclaimed his ancestorial seat among the House of Lords, say Aye!”
“Aye!” “Aye!” “Aye!”
Percy smiled as hands rose without dissent all around the table until only Marquess Borghese and Prime Minister Attwood sat alone in their futile objection. The succession of office from father to son was widely accepted and a standard practice among Lafeara’s nobles. Even Borghese’s supporters would not dare oppose this tradition out of fear it would be held and used against them in the future.
As for the Prime Minister, who had only been appointed due to the Dowager’s influence, his support from Marquess Winifred came from their mutual interest in protecting the new crown prince from Borghese’s ambitions.
‘However, very soon, Winifred’s interest will align with mine, and then Attwood and the crown prince will have no one left to protect them.’
“Eight out of nine approve the motion,” Winifred counted off with evident satisfaction. “Does the Prime Minister recognize the results of this vote?”
Attwood pressed his lips together in silent frustration as he turned towards the throne in hopes of appealing to Nicholas one last time. Percy caught the Prime Minister’s worried gaze and offered him a mocking smile.
‘You know the Crown Prince will never choose you over the power of the Hawthorne name.’
“Prime Minister?” Nicholas inquired with a frown from behind the Earl. “Do you recognize the vote?”
Attwood nodded solemnly. “The House of Lords recognize Marquess Winifred’s motion to accept Lord Percy as the twelfth Lord of Council.”
“And I give my royal blessing and welcome to the Earl as well!” Nicholas declared eagerly as he leapt up and embraced Percy warmly.
“Thank you, your Majesty,” Percy answered stiffly as all the lords, including the reluctant Borghese, applauded for him. “And thank you, noble lords, for your gracious welcome.”
“Come, your Grace,” Winifred said enthusiastically as he vacated his chair and held it out. “Allow me to offer my seat.”
“I dare not, Marquess Winifred,” Percy protested with raised hands as Viscount Bronte pulled him over.
“Nonsense, I will take Lord Acheron’s seat—he is hardly present for such matters as it is,” Winifred countered without so much as a glance in Attwood’s direction. “And it would be a disgrace to your father’s memory for his son to be seated any lower at the table.”
The council lords nodded their approval, and friendly hands pushed him towards the chair as Percy, with a defeated laugh, sat upon the seat to Attwood’s left. A single look at the strangled expression on the Prime Minister’s face was almost enough to break the mask of humility Percy displayed for the other lords’ benefits.
“Well, then—” Attwood coughed and cleared his throat. “With that matter concluded, perhaps we should return to the pressing urgency of the Ambassador—”
“I would like to accompany the Earl on this journey, with his Majesty’s permission, of course,” Winifred interjected quickly. “My family holds several estates near the border, and I can provide a small retinue of well-armed guards to safeguard the Earl and myself.”
“I welcome your company, Marquess,” Percy replied with an appreciative nod to the councilman. “But if we are to be a welcome party, we must not appear to be on guard against our guest. I have a trusted group of eight mercenaries who can accompany me—”
“Only eight?” the other lords quickly murmured in disbelief.
“What the Marquess said has merit,” Nicholas interjected with a glance to Eleanora. “I will approve your suggestion, Lord Percy, if you accept the Marquess company and offer of protection.”
Percy sighed in modest defeat and bowed his head. “Of course, your Majesty. Then—if her Highness would write the required letter—I would like to depart for the border tonight.” He rose from his seat, and the other lords rose around him, startled.
“So soon?” Earl Caldwell protested with a worried look.
“Surely, first thing in the morning will be soon enough!” added Viscount Marlowe. “To travel at night with witches and witch hunters about—”
“I appreciate your concerns, noble lords,” Percy replied. “But the sooner I can put his Majesty’s concerns to rest, the sooner the court can focus on preparations to receive our guest and the vital negotiations that lie ahead.”
“Well said, Lord Percy,” Eleanora declared as she left her seat and curtsied to Nicholas. “Then, if you’ll excuse me, husband, I have a letter to write.” She swept towards Percy, who offered his arm once more and led the crown princess through the doors the knights hurriedly pulled open before them.
Attwood sat sullenly in his seat long after Nicholas and all the other lords had left following the Earl’s departure—all except Marquess Borghese. The Prime Minister rubbed his jawline thoughtfully and glanced towards the equally sullen and grim expression on Borghese’s face.
“You realize he’ll be after your seat next, Prime Minister,” Borghese announced suddenly.
“I am aware of the Earl’s ambition,” Attwood replied tiredly. “But it will take more than a majority vote for him to take my seat.”
Borghese roared out a bitter laugh as he dragged a jeweled hand down his face and sighed. “Did you not see how easy it was for him? How readily they all welcomed him back? As if he were the reincarnated Earl they all once worshiped.”
“Earl Ethan’s memory—his service to the crown and his terrible death—is not something easily forgotten.” Attwood pushed back his chair. “Even I, when I took this seat, merely hoped to live up to the example the Earl left behind.”
Borghese scoffed as Attwood stood. “Mark my words, Prime Minister. We will both live to regret this day.”
Attwood waved a hand dismissively as he headed towards the exit. “I may be in the Earl’s path—but I am not his enemy.”
“Is there a difference?”
Attwood shook his head but did not respond.
“It would be a shame to see you give up your seat without a fight after struggling to keep it out of my reach for so long!” Borghese shouted after him as the Prime Minister left the council room.
Attwood did not stop walking until he stood outside on the Ministry steps, alone. The evening sky filled his view, lined with crimson clouds that promised more clear days ahead, but deep in his bones, the Prime Minister knew a storm was headed their way.