Chapter 37: The Web of Politics


A windowpane of gray clouds awaited Carina when she twitched awake, half expecting to find Maura lurking by the side of her bed again. With no specter in sight, Carina pushed herself up and glared at the tangled mess of blankets and pillows. She was still wearing the bathrobe and nightgown she had worn earlier while tending to Hana, who had finally managed to fall asleep a few hours before morning.

Unfortunately, that meant that Carina, Eleanora, and Mrs. Poppy had gotten just as little rest before the rising sun as well.

‘Sleep is a crutch anyway,’ Carina reflected as she stretched tiredly and rose to prepare for another long day. It was well after her usual waking hour, so it didn’t surprise Carina to hear from Tilly, whom she met in the hall, that everyone else was already awake.

“Her Highness and Lady Evelynn went riding,” Tilly explained. “Though judging by the bow and arrows she carried, the Crown Princess will likely stay out until she catches something.”

‘Hopefully, that won’t take all day.’ Carina nodded, though mildly irritated that Eleanora would choose to spend the morning outside of the palace rather than keeping Hana company. ‘I suppose if she lingered around Hana too much, it might draw suspicion.’

She checked in on the older attendant and was relieved to find Hana sleeping peacefully beneath a curtain of tangled blonde hair. The carpet on the floor had been removed for cleaning, and several fresh flowers were spread around the room to mask any odor of Hana’s illness.

Carina went over and opened a window to help freshen the room but kept the curtains closed to keep out the already brightening sunlight.

“There you are,” Mrs. Poppy called as she pushed Hana’s bedroom door open further. “Lady Tiffany is looking for you. She needs some help with a task her Highness left for her today.”

“What task?” Carina asked distractedly as she returned to the bed and tucked Hana’s right arm under the blanket. “With her Highness away, I’ll need to stay with Hana. Why can’t Lady Tiffany complete her own tasks?” Carina did not miss the annoyance, brought on by the lack of sleep, which crept into her voice.

‘I’m not whining. I’m just tired, and I already have enough on my plate.’

“Well, I can certainly relay that to Lady Tiffany if you wish,” Mrs. Poppy replied with an arched brow. “You’re not the only one who lost sleep last night, Lady Maura, and I’m perfectly capable of looking after Lady Hana myself. I did so for several years before you blessed us with your presence.”

Carina cringed under the housekeeper’s sharp sarcasm.

“I cannot,” Poppy continued, “Be of much use to her Highness in a fancy boutique or expensive jewelry store. Those duties fall to the Crown Princess’s noble ladies-in-waiting, not her common housekeeper!”

“Point taken, Mrs. Poppy,” Carina replied quickly with a raised hand. “I’ll go see what help Lady Tiffany requires. But I will be making a tray of breakfast for Lady Hana before I go anywhere. Please avoid giving her the same medication you did before.”

“Oh, of course, Lady Physician,” Poppy snarked and promptly left the room.

Carina turned back to the open window, drew in a deep breath, and exhaled. ‘It was going to be a very long day.’


“I hear that Lady Hana’s illness relapsed?” Tiffany said curiously as Carina finally settled into her seat at the dining table after preparing Hana’s breakfast of brown sugar and cinnamon porridge that could be reheated, along with some Valerian tea and soft caramel cookies.

“Yes, her fever got much worse last night,” Carina replied as she scraped a bit of butter to the mix-berry muffins Robbi had baked for breakfast.

“Did—Mrs. Poppy explain—that I need to go out of the palace today?” Tiffany pressed hesitantly.

“She mentioned you might need some help with the tasks the Crown Princess left you.” Carina took a bite of food and leaned back as one of the maids brought over her requested cup of ice raspberry tea. “Thank you.”

The maid smiled and dipped a brief curtsey before retreating to stand by the wall.

“Her Highness asked me to check up on the dresses for the Ambassador’s banquet,” Tiffany explained and tapped her empty plate to signal the maid to clear away her finished breakfast. “I was also going to stop by my family jewelry store to check on some pieces I had made for the upcoming Royal Ball.”

“Ah, the one the Dowager is hosting for the Ambassador’s visit?” Carina frowned, mentally running over the previous arrangements for the upcoming negotiation.

Eleanora was to hold the first banquet on the day her uncle arrived. As the future queen and Lord Haemish’s relative, she was tasked with making the Emperor’s dignitary feel welcomed. The following morning negotiations between the two kingdoms would begin when Lord Haemish met with the Crown Prince, and of course, the House of Lords followed by the Dowager’s Royal Ball, held in the evening.

Negotiations would resume the following morning with either a celebratory feast held by Nicholas once a new alliance treaty was signed or another banquet hosted by the Prime Minister if negotiations had still not reached mutual concessions.

Depending on how well Nicholas and the Ambassador yielded to each other’s demands and requests, the visit could last up to a full week or could be as short as three days. Unfortunately, as far as negotiations went, the Ambassador had the Emperor’s interests to uphold, and thus the most power.

“Lady Maura?” Tiffany called out.

Carina blinked as she snapped out of her thoughts and realized she had missed whatever Tiffany had said before. “Ah, I’m sorry, Lady Tiffany. I’m still a bit tired.”

“Yes, of course, you are.” Tiffany smiled readily. “I wanted to ask if you wouldn’t mind joining me for this trip. I confess I’m not very familiar with her Highness’s fashion sense nor certain what her expectations are. I wouldn’t want to disagree with something the Crown Princess might like or add something she would detest, so—”

‘She really is hopeless.’ Carina set down her unfinished muffin, she didn’t have much of an appetite, and sighed. “Alright, I can come with you, but I can’t be gone for very long. Mrs. Poppy will need a break from watching Lady Hana at some point.”

“Oh! That shouldn’t be a problem. It’s just the Holy Maiden Boutique and the Royal Tiara Jewelry store.”

Carina narrowed her eyes at Tiffany, who looked strangely relieved, as a sudden thought came to her. “That’s quite a bold choice in store names, given your family lacks a royal patron of any sort.”

“Oh? No, but we do!” Tiffany froze, her lilac-blue eyes widening before she lowered her gaze and hastily dropped her napkin on her plate. “Well, I should go get ready. Do enjoy your breakfast, Lady Maura.”

‘It is you.’ Carina nodded and smiled as she watched the blonde attendant flee the dining room. ‘It all makes sense now. The Dowager was behind your family’s rise to nobility. She even patroned your family store; of course, you would agree to spy for her.’


Hana was awake by the time Carina went back upstairs, though the pale attendant looked far more drained and lethargic than Carina felt. She sent for Hana’s breakfast and lingered long enough to ensure her patient had a few spoonfuls of porridge before Mrs. Poppy shooed her out of the room.

“Lady Tiffany is waiting for you downstairs,” the housekeeper informed Carina crossly. “Do try to get back before her Highness returns. I have other duties to take care of. This palace doesn’t run itself, you know.”

“At least let me fetch my cloak before you throw me out the door,” Carina grumbled and quickly darted into her bedroom for her cloak, dagger, and a drawstring purse with a fan and few letters she needed to mail tucked inside.

Tiffany beamed with joy as Carina joined her in the foyer. “I already called the carriage around. Thank you so much for doing this, Lady Maura. I know I’m a year older, but you’re so much more confident about these things.”

‘The word you’re searching for is assertive.’

“I don’t have your family’s experience with jewelry,” Carina deflected as they walked through the front door past the two knights on duty. Sir Jordan was not among them, and judging by the new faces, these appeared to be the new knights Major Garrett had selected.

“What is it about a knight’s uniform that just makes them seem so—mature?” Tiffany whispered as she linked arms with Carina and led her down the steps.

‘Maybe because the uniform symbolizes their rigorous training and the responsibilities they have sworn to take on?’ Carina kept this thought to herself as she pondered the blonde attendant’s happy smile. ‘You’d think we were headed out on a casual afternoon picnic.’

“You’re in a good mood,” Carina commented lightly as she matched her pace to Tiffany’s.

“It’s a beautiful day,” Tiffany replied with a sheepish smile as she gestured to the clearing blue skies above where the gray clouds had thinned into white wisps of wool. “I’m just excited to get out of the palace,” she added in a whisper.

Carina could understand that feeling. “Will your brother be escorting us?” She glanced towards the gate and saw one of the Crown Princess’s carriages waiting for them as promised.

“Ah, yes, Malcolm offered to come—but he got reassigned at the last minute, so—” Tiffany blushed as two knights appeared ahead of them and opened the gate.

Carina immediately recognized the smug grin and honey-brown eyes of Knight Captain Leo, who stepped forward to take Tiffany’s hand, which he bowed and kissed with affection.

‘Is this an official outing or a date for you two?’ Carina scoffed as she took in the Captain’s companion, who appeared only mildly interested in them as he surveyed the Rose Palace with aloof dark grey eyes.

“Lady Tiffany,” Carina said as she turned back to the blushing attendant. “Could I speak to you for a moment?”

Captain Leo sighed, though laughter lurked behind his eyes as he watched Carina pull Tiffany a safe distance inside the gate.

“Are you insane,” Carina demanded as she whirled around on the attendant. “You asked, Captain Leo? Did you forget all about how he forced his way into Rose Palace only yesterday morning?”

“Leo hardly forced his way inside,” Tiffany grumbled as she twisted her fan. “I let them in. It was the servants who created a fuss over a few bottles of wine.”

“Tiffany—” Carina swallowed down the tidal wave of angry words that would only wreck their shaky relationship further. ‘Don’t forget. Tiffany is very likely the Dowager’s spy. Of course, she wouldn’t have a problem flirting with one of the Dowager’s knights.’

“Leo’s not a bad person, Lady Maura!” Tiffany protested quickly, reading Carina’s expression. “He apologized for upsetting me last time and offending her Highness. He wouldn’t have taken things that far if it weren’t for the Dowager’s order.”

‘Are you really clueless, or is all this naivety an act?’ Carina wondered bitterly as she turned back towards the palace. “You may believe that, but I don’t trust him.”

“No—wait, Lady Maura!” Tiffany quickly caught her arm and held her back. “Please don’t leave. Just give him a chance to apologize.”

“I have no interest in anything he has to say,” Carina replied flatly. ‘Surely even Mrs. Poppy would understand why I refused to leave with someone who assaulted her and Robbi.’

“Oh, Lady Maura, tsk,” Captain Leo called out as he strolled casually across the stone pathway towards them. “It’s not like you to run away from a fight.”

“Oh dear, would my leaving deprive the Captain of his new hobby, fighting defenseless women?” Carina shot back with an icy glare.

“You are hardly defenseless,” Leo countered with a wry smile. His gaze descended to study her cloak and the dress she wore with interest. “Where does such a fiery young lady keep a dagger, I wonder.”

“That is for a lady to know and hardly the concern of a gentleman!”

Leo’s smile turned coy as he crossed his arms and leaned in closer to Carina. “Perhaps you will show me one day, Lady Maura.”

Carina smiled back as she pulled out her fan, pressed it against Leo’s cheek, and pushed his face away. “The day you wear a dress, Captain Leo, I’ll be happy to show you how to hide a dagger beneath it.”

A burst of laughter came from behind Leo, who scowled towards his companion, as the knight wandered up behind them. “Is something funny, Eustis?”

“Oh, I—” the knight choked on a snort of laughter as he held up a hand “—forgive me, Leo. You did say she had a sharp tongue, but this—” he waved his hand vaguely in Carina’s direction “—was beyond my expectations.”

Leo sighed as he flicked an annoyed glare at Carina. “Lady Tiffany Clemont, Lady Maura—” he gestured towards the recovering knight “—this is Captain Eustis Winifred.”

“Beautiful Ladies,” Eustis bowed politely as he glanced between them and winked at Leo. “And now I know why you’re always slipping away to Rose Palace, Leo.”

“Ahem,” Leo cleared his throat and straightened his jacket. “If you’re both ready to leave?” He turned his honey-brown eyes on Tiffany, who lost her troubled smile in an instant.

“We are, aren’t we, Lady Maura?” Tiffany pleaded with a hopeful stare.

‘She really is trying too hard. And if I leave her alone with Captain Leo—’

“Fine,” Carina sighed, resigned to whatever unknown lay ahead. “Just to the boutique and the jewelry store, then right back to the palace.”

“Of course!” Tiffany smiled with relief and pulled Carina past the knights towards the waiting carriage.

Leo jogged past them and swiftly held the carriage door open. Tiffany blushed as he offered her a hand and assisted her inside. Carina ignored the same hand offered to her, and Eustis cackled as Leo shut the door behind them and headed back to the knights’ horses.

“Sir Eustis is handsome,” Tiffany chirped the moment the carriage pulled away.

Carina raised a brow but said nothing.

“Don’t you agree?” Tiffany pressed.

“There’s nothing visually wrong with him,” Carina grumbled. ‘Though he has an odd sense of humor.’

Tiffany raised both brows in exasperation as she leaned over her seat towards Carina. “Lady Maura. Sir Eustis’s father is one of the House of Lords’ leading members, Marquess Winifred.”

‘Who is also Marquess Borghese strongest political opponent.’

“I know who he is,” Carina replied with a shrug, then narrowed her gaze at Tiffany. “What is the real reason you wanted me to join you on this trip?”

“Hmm?” Tiffany blinked and sat back quickly. “I just—wasn’t confident about going out on my own. That’s all.”

“And Captain Leo just happened to bring along an extra knight before knowing that I would be accompanying you?”

“I—didn’t know he would bring a friend,” Tiffany replied as she twisted the family ring on her finger.

“You’re a terrible liar,” Carina observed with a sigh.

“I—” Tiffany flushed, “I just wanted you to meet someone—more suitable. Eustis is not attached in any form, and he’s the Marquess’s second son, so—he wouldn’t mind all those unfounded rumors about—”

‘So, this was a different kind of set up.’ Carina laughed incredulously and shook her head. “What rumors?”

“Oh, Maura!” Tiffany moved across the carriage to sit beside Carina and grabbed her hand tightly. “The most scandalous rumors are circling the court that you caused the Earl, Lord Percy, to break off his engagement with Lady Evelynn.”

“What? That’s ridiculous! They were never even engaged!” Carina protested.

“Even if the engagement hasn’t been officially announced, the agreement between their parents isn’t something that can be ignored either. Especially when the—other woman—falls much lower in status than Lady Evelynn. Lord Percy can get away with a casual affair before the announcement, but this could irreparably damage your reputation,” Tiffany continued with a tone of urgency.

Carina shook her head, dumbfounded and more than a little annoyed. “As much as I appreciate your concern, Lady Tiffany, nothing is going on between Lord Percy and myself.”

“And yet you nearly spent an entire night at his estate the other day—”

“That was only because I had a bit of a shock after encountering witch hunters and—” Carina sucked in a sharp breath “—you try watching a woman fall from a church steeple to her death and bleed out in front of you.” She pressed a hand against her cold lips as the image resurfaced and threatened to upend what little breakfast she had eaten.

“What?” Tiffany’s face paled as she covered her mouth and stared at Carina. “No wonder you looked—” she shook her head. “While that does explain where you were yesterday—why did Lord Percy visit your room before he escorted her Highness to the palace? A servant saw you pass him something.”

“A servant?” Carina raised a brow skeptically. There had been no servants in the hallway when Percy had dropped by the other day, but someone must have witnessed their exchange for Tiffany’s report to be this accurate.

‘I’m certain the hallway was empty, but if either Tiffany or Evelynn were watching from their bedroom door—I might not have noticed since their room is across the hall.’

Carina pulled her hand free and shifted away from Tiffany. “I have nothing to say as it was a private matter that concerned her Highness and the Earl, but I promise you, there is no romantic relationship between myself and Lord Percy.”

Tiffany sighed, returned to her seat, and thoughtfully arranged her skirt. “I will take you at your word, Lady Maura. I have certainly never seen you do anything that would support this story before yesterday. But, in the meantime, it might help to refute these rumors if you were seen spending time in the company of another man—like Captain Eustis.”

Carina refrained from rolling her eyes and stared out the carriage window instead.

‘As if I haven’t seen similar ploys in dramas before. Only, in this world, it’s far more likely to earn me the reputation of a loose woman rather than clear me of suspicion.’

“I have no interest in romantic entanglements of any kind, least of all a fake one meant to counter a falsehood,” Carina replied calmly. “I am used to having a bad reputation already because of my birth. Rather than worry about what lies others have chosen to spread, I will remain focused on serving her Highness.”

“Of course,” Tiffany replied with a faint smile. “But, Maura, it was her Highness who suggested you get to know Captain Eustis.”

Carina wanted to laugh, but she couldn’t. She watched Tiffany shift uncomfortably, and this time she could tell the young woman was telling the truth.

It shouldn’t surprise Carina that Eleanora might try to win favor and support from one of Lafeara’s politically influential families. But what did surprise her was the sudden suspicion that Eleanora might have chosen her ladies—not just because of their family background or loyalty—but because she could marry them off to further strengthen her position.

‘Is that the real reason she gave me the title of Baroness—so that I would make an acceptable bride for the second son of a Marquess?’

Carina smiled ruefully as she stared out the window and watched the tunnel of the palace-fortress swallow them in its web of darkness.


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