Chapter 39: The Scent of Manipulation
Dowager Octavia smiled as she pinched the stem below the delicate blue petals and pruned the still closed flower from the garden bed. She placed it alongside two other not yet woken blooms in the ornamental jewelry box that Lady Sabella held open.
“There, that should be enough to hold the Countess over until her return,” Octavia said with a resigned sigh. “She should make use of this time away to meditate. I did warn that her short-sightedness would come back to haunt her one day.”
“You won’t summon the Countess back?” Sabella asked curiously.
“Gracious, why would I do that?” Octavia shut the box and placed her pruning shears on top. “If Constance can’t rein in that son of hers, what use is she to me?” she added as Sabella helped her mistress to her feet. “Right now, the Pope’s Emissary and the Emperor’s Ambassador are more than enough cause for my concern.”
The Dowager removed her garden gloves as she walked down the path that led away from her small bed of unique blue flowers towards the line of purple roses that filled the mid-morning breeze with a soft sweet fragrance.
“Besides,” Octavia smiled as she leaned in to smell a freshly bloomed rose, “when dealing with an intelligent, headstrong young man, one should never face them directly. The more you push, the more they resist, but once you grasp their weakness—well, they are little better than worms forced from the ground by the rain and left to be eaten by birds.”
“I don’t understand why the Earl has to marry the Hendrix daughter?” Sabella mumbled under her breath. “Surely any daughter from the upper noble families would do.”
“Because Percy’s mother fears his ambition,” Octavia answered as she passed over her gloves with a cold smile. “The Hendrix family has a title, but the title of Viscount is useless to Percy. They have no wealth and no seat in government. The Viscount’s lands have barely produced the crown’s taxes after the Viscountess’s family lost their merchant shipping rights due to a bad investment. And then there is the lingering rumor that the first Hendrix Viscount was the grandson of a smuggler.”
“So, in other words, Evelynn’s family would be a burden, not a stepping stone for the Earl,” Sabella reasoned out loud.
“I’ve no doubt the Earl will handle the engagement in a manner that suits his future interests when the time comes,” Octavia murmured as she raised a hand to shield her eyes and regarded the voluminous white clouds in the clear blue sky above them. “Come, we should return.” The Dowager announced briskly as she turned towards the shrubs that obscured the door to her forbidden garden. “Lady Priscilla Borghese was to pay me a visit before lunch.”
“Yes, your Majesty. Will you be inviting the lady to stay for lunch?” Sabella asked as she hurriedly unlocked and opened the garden door while balancing the box, prunes, and gloves against her hip.
“I don’t know that I like the Marquess’s daughter well enough for all that,” Octavia replied with an arched brow. “Lady Priscilla will certainly be of use to me in the future, but right now, that child has a lot of growing up to do if she wants to become Queen.”
“I can’t help but feel sorry for the young lady,” Sabella commented sympathetically as she set down the Dowager’s items on the bench and turned to secure the gate. “When King Henri broke off her engagement to Nicholas, the poor thing was so heartbroken.” Sabella sighed and gathered up the box and other items once again. “If only Eleanora wasn’t in the way.”
“Eleanora is the Emperor as far as you or Priscilla’s hopes are concerned,” Octavia remarked sourly as she accepted the key from Sabella. “Well, one never knows what the future will hold,” she amended and tucked the key inside her sleeve. “It would not be the first time a Queen of Lafeara was found to be barren and forced to resign her position.”
The murmur of angry voices turned the Dowager’s attention from her attendant towards two figures at the end of the footpath. Her smile dimmed as she recognized the figure of Lady Priscilla standing beside General Stryker’s bastard son. “Captain Leo, you’re back early. Weren’t you supposed to be escorting one of Eleanora’s attendants this morning?”
“Your Majesty,” Priscilla greeted quickly with a curtsy as the knight bowed beside her. “I happened to meet Captain Leo on my way in today.”
“How strange, Lady Priscilla, your letter mentioned you would drop by before lunch, but I did not expect you at this hour,” Octavia replied coldly. “Weren’t you visiting that popular boutique before coming to the palace?”
“Yes! Well—I had an unfortunate encounter there,” Priscilla replied as her polite smile faltered beneath a grimace of annoyance.
“Lady Priscilla happened to run into Lady Tiffany and Lady Maura while Sir Eustis and I were escorting them on errands for her Highness,” Leo supplied with an accusing glance in Priscilla’s direction.
“Oh?” Octavia replied with less warmth. “It seems you may have given the Crown Princess’s ladies a hard time, Lady Priscilla.”
“I—” Priscilla drew in a sharp breath as she glared at Leo. “I merely wanted to confirm the rumors Lady Sabella shared with me regarding the Earl giving Lady Maura the Hawthorne Winter Rose.”
“And did you—” Octavia turned towards her attendant, and Sabella trembled as she cast her eyes to the ground “—confirm this rumor?”
“No, the half-blood threatened Captain Leo with the Earl’s name, and he balked.”
“I—” Leo exhaled sharply and bowed his head. “Forgive me, Queen Regent, but you know I can’t afford to anger a member of the House of Lords.”
“You made the right decision,” Octavia replied with a smile that did not reach her eyes. “Imagine what your father would say if you suddenly lost your position as a knight before the Lord General could name you his legal heir.”
Leo nodded stiffly and clenched the hilt of his sword tightly without comment.
The Dowager’s smile twisted, and she laughed against her frail fingers before turning to Sabella. “It seems our little half-blood has outwitted the pair of them.”
Priscilla flushed furiously as she fanned herself. “Well, it little matters. I called that half-blood out for the temptress she is. Soon enough, the capital’s gossip mills will have her reputation in tatters—just as I had planned.”
“And why set yourself against Lady Maura?” Octavia asked with a curious smile. “Shouldn’t Eleanora be our target?”
“You told me to be patient regarding Eleanora,” Priscilla replied with a shrug. “So I’m distracting myself by taking down a half-blood who dared to offend me.”
‘Short-tempered and short-sighted, just like her father.’ Octavia sighed as she stepped forward and brushed between the two completely useless goons, who hastily retreated from her path. “Patience is the virtue of a queen. Without it, one is little better than an infuriated boar plunging herself into a hunter’s pit.”
“I understand, godmother.” Priscilla curtsied again, this time dipping much lower as Octavia turned slowly towards her. “I am trying to learn from you.”
“You listen, but you do not hear,” Octiva replied with disinterest. “A potter’s hands will have little effect if the material is of poor quality.”
“Have I—done something wrong, godmother?” Priscilla asked hastily as she rose to her feet. “I was trying to follow the advice you gave me. All those stories you shared about your rise from fourth consort to Queen and now Queen Regent.”
Octavia smiled and gently stroked Priscilla’s cheek. “It’s not your fault. You inherited your mother’s beauty but not her brain.” The Dowager glanced over the disappointed girl’s shoulder towards Captain Leo, who glared silently at the ground. “You seem upset, Captain?”
“I only worry—I hope I have not greatly disappointed you, Queen Regent,” Leo answered somberly with a bow.
“Oh, you dear boy,” Octavia shook her head as she left Priscilla to pat the knight’s shoulder reassuringly. “That’s not what’s troubling you, is it, Leo? You’re worried about your little diamond lady, aren’t you?”
Leo sighed. “Lady Tiffany is—rather upset with me.”
“And what have you told her?” However soft the Dowager’s words, their meaning did not escape the shrewd captain.
“Nothing,” Leo replied hurriedly. “But I could tell she suspected it was all arranged. Lady Maura will certainly have worked it out. Even Lord Eustis has been giving me the cold shoulder.”
“Never mind Eustis Winifred. Lady Maura may be clever, but it will take more than cleverness to silence gossip unleashed like a spark set upon dry grass.” Octavia smiled as she took his chin and forced him to meet her eyes. “Do you know what makes the best present for a girl who has all the diamonds she could ask for?”
“What?” Leo asked gruffly. “Flowers?”
Octavia chuckled and shook her head. “While some of those wouldn’t hurt, I would wait a few days before attempting to buy her affection. Let Lady Tiffany see that her suspicion hurts you. Apologize for not defending Lady Maura the next time you meet. Then give it time. If you have done your job properly, Lady Tiffany will miss you long before those flowers start to wilt.”
“And then we will continue to use Lady Tiffany as planned. Marry the girl if you like. Once we’ve removed the Emperor’s hook from Nicholas’s crown, I will have no further use for either of you.” Octavia stepped back and held out her hand. “Rest assured, if you perform well, I will ensure Stryker names you as his heir.”
Leo took the Dowager’s hand obediently and bowed as he kissed the gold diamond ring upon it.
After the knight captain had led Lady Priscilla back down the garden path to escort the troublesome young noblewoman to her father, Octavia held out her hand expectantly, and Sabella carefully laid a clean handkerchief over the Dowager’s pale fingers.
“I do not care for careless gossip, Lady Sabella,” Octavia said as she wiped the ring and fingers that bastard knight had touched. “But I have even less patience for loose lips among my people.” The Dowager discarded the handkerchief and trod upon it as she turned to face her trembling attendant.
“Forgive me, Dowager.” Sabella dropped to her knees, ignoring the prunes and gloves that fell from the box in her hands. “I wasn’t thinking—I was just venting—”
“This is the second time you have acted without my permission against Lady Maura,” Octavia cut the attendant off sharply. “If I find there has been a third, I will turn you into fertilizer for my garden. Is that understood?”
“Y-yes! Your Majesty!” Sabella lowered her head to the ground as Octavia brushed past her. Lafeara’s oldest reigning monarch smiled brightly once more as she drank in a deep breath of fresh air from her garden and surveyed the palaces of her kingdom with impatient ice-blue eyes.
Captain Beaumont looked up as footsteps rapidly approached Nicholas’s study. A frantic series of sharp knocks soon followed as Nicholas looked up from the map he had been studying with Lafeara’s military forces marked out in small clusters of painted metal wolves.
“Who is it?” Nicholas asked with a hint of irritation as he rubbed the red wolf marker between his thumb and index finger.
“It’s me!” Acheron announced as he opened the door and shut it firmly behind him.
Beaumont nodded to his cousin and noted with some concern the dark circles that lined the younger man’s eyes.
“Saint’s Mercy, were the witch hunters torturing you?” Nicholas joked as he set the red wolf down on the edge of the map.
“You try watching women burned, battered, and killed for a day and a night,” Acheron snapped, then quickly held up an apologetic hand as he covered his mouth. “I—Forgive me. I need a drink.”
Nicholas nodded, speechless, and gestured to the waiting pitcher of wine.
“Thank you,” Acheron responded then quickly poured himself a glass that he downed without any enjoyment.
Beaumont raised a worried brow as the crown prince circled the map table and leaned against it with a heavy sigh.
“How bad is it?” Nicholas asked gravely.
“I don’t rightly know. The first thing Ripper did was split up his witch hunters and scatter them to each nearby province. I went to Averly.” Acheron poured another glass and nursed this one slowly. “Nicholas—it’s not my place, but I don’t think you should have let them into Lafeara.”
“If I denied them entrance, the Pope could renounce Lafeara and excommunicate me. Then not only would I lack the Pope’s blessing as Lafeara’s next king, but I would become its first heretic king.” Nicholas pushed away from the table and crossed his arms tensely. “Do you imagine the nobles and citizens of Lafeara would willingly follow the rule of a heretic king?”
“Do you remember when your father let them in,” Acheron replied softly. “After your brother died. They rounded up all the noble families opposed to naming you Crown Prince and had them burned without a trial.”
“You know I remember,” Nicholas growled. “Which is why I gave strict instructions they were not to touch any of Lafeara’s citizens. Have they disobeyed me?”
“Nicholas—they nearly threw an infant down a well in Averly.”
“What?” Nicholas dropped his arms with an expression of shock.
“If Lady Maura hadn’t interceded—”
“Lady Maura?” The crown prince and Beaumont echoed in alarm.
“Ah—I wasn’t supposed to mention that,” Acheron replied meekly as he refilled his not yet finished glass and sank to the floor to lean against Nicholas’s desk. “By the gods, I’m tired.”
“You can sleep later,” Nicholas said as he cut off Beaumont’s rapid steps towards his cousin. The knight captain exhaled but remained still as the crown prince knelt beside the pale noble and pulled the glass from his fingers. “First, tell me what happened in Averly.”
The crown prince and Beaumont listened with rapt attention as Acheron recounted the lockdown of Lafeara’s cathedral. The subsequent orders from Ripper to interrogate all church members and isolate those suspected of being witches. Then, the Ripper’s new orders to have the witch hunters spread throughout each nearby province and cut off communication among the churches.
This was followed by Acheron’s account of events in Averly, the burning of two accused witches, and the equally disturbing manners in which the witch hunters continued to execute any who carried the scent of a witch.
“After Lady Maura threw them out of Averly, I followed the witch hunters to Dunbroke, where they quickly sent word back to Ripper. I’m worried that he’ll return personally to Averly, to draw Lady Maura out and punish her as a heretic.”
“But how did Lady Maura even know the witch hunters were in Averly?” Nicholas asked, baffled. “And how did she get out of the palace?”
“I—sent Lady Maura a message—also my carriage and a palace pass,” Acheron explained hesitantly.
Beaumont growled and refrained from punching the desk or his cousin’s face. “You dragged Lady Maura away from the palace in front of witch hunters!?”
“I only wanted to help Maura protect the town, which she did—quite splendidly at that!”
Beaumont’s right eye twitched slightly when Acheron casually dropped Maura’s title. “That was your job! How do you always—”
“Okay, I think that’s enough,” Nicholas interjected with a sharp look at Beaumont. “Acheron, go home and get some rest. I’ll assign more knights to watch Ripper and track down all of his witch hunters—which shouldn’t be hard if they’re burning their way through Lafeara’s churches.” The crown prince sighed as he rose to his feet. “We’re already stretched thin, but the last thing I need is to lose track of any witch hunter while the Ambassador is in Lafeara.”
“You’re going to let them stay?” Acheron asked with evident concern. “What if they start drowning babies or burning children?”
“By now, any witch in Lafeara will have gone underground,” Nicholas growled as he dragged a hand down his face. “The first two days of inquisition are always the worst.”
“And the nuns trapped in those chapels?”
“They won’t burn them all,” Nicholas replied with uneasy certainty. “Hard to convince the citizens of Lafeara to continue to pay and pray to the merciful Saints if all the church’s sisters are suddenly burned as witches.”
“Then what about the Abbess?” Acheron continued to protest. “Ripper has all but proclaimed that he intends to burn her publicly.”
“The Abbess?” Nicholas echoed in disbelief. “Does he honestly believe Mercy is a witch?”
“I don’t know. I’m not a half-witch!” Acheron climbed to his feet and took the wine glass back from Nicholas. “I can’t tell who’s innocent and who deserves to be burned alive.” With a pained expression shadowed by the horrors he had no doubt witnessed, the young noble drained his cup, dropped it on the floor, and headed unsteadily towards the office door. “I’m going to find some more wine—I won’t be able to sleep—but maybe I can forget for a little while before I have to go back—” Acheron mumbled to himself before yanking the door open and slamming it shut behind him.
“Should I look into it?” Beaumont asked carefully as he turned to the crown prince.
“One of the knights—the lieutenant they say is a half-witch,” Nicholas said thoughtfully.
“Lieutenant Declan,” Beaumont replied.
“Let’s have him shadow Ripper,” Nicholas replied as he moved to his desk and wrote out a quick message. “And have this sent to Captain Huxley. He can assign as many knights as he needs to keep the other witch hunters under careful watch.”
“And if this Ripper and the other witch hunters continue to defy you?”
Nicholas sighed as he poured wax over the letter and stamped it with his seal. As the golden circle of wolves dried against the parchment, he looked up towards Beaumont and replied, “Then I’ll send you to deal with them in whatever way you deem necessary, Captain.”
Beaumont smiled grimly. ‘I was hoping you’d say that.’
Nicholas picked up the letter and handed it over to him. “And we will visit Rose Palace tonight so that I can have a word with Lady Maura regarding this incident.”
“Very well,” Beaumont replied with a hint of relief.
“You still have feelings for Lady Maura?” Nicholas observed with a sly smile. “Even though she already turned you down.”
Beaumont pressed his lips together as he bowed and swiftly left the room.