Chapter 41: The Taste of Emptiness


The anticipation of the royal couple’s first dinner together in Rose Palace created an atmosphere so quiet and tense that Carina found herself almost whispering as she complimented Mrs. Poppy over the table decorations.

“It all looks very grand, Mrs. Poppy. Well done.”

A few mini halos of white flowers around three scented red candles in golden candlesticks set just the right lighting with the curtains drawn. A light purple table cloth with silver napkins and silverware completed the simple but elegant settings. The wine table had been prepared with glistening crystal glasses and a freshly opened Monvua bottle that was rumored to be Nicholas’s favorite vintage.

“Well, yes, it’s not every day I have to set the table for a king.” Mrs. Poppy replied, attempting to appear calm and unaffected. “Lady Evelynn provided the candles, and Tilly, the maid, helped weave the flowers together.” The housekeeper circled the table and paused to examine each piece of silverware for any scandalous hint of a smudge before measuring both sets to make sure they were precisely an inch apart and three inches from the end of the table.

Eleanora swept in, and both Carina and Mrs. Poppy blinked in surprise at the glittering red dress, which complimented the crown princess’s womanly figure. Eye-catching ruby jewels glistened beneath Eleanora’s stylishly curled hair that framed her diamond-shaped face, narrow neck, and hung loosely around her provocatively exposed shoulders.

“Kritanta’s flame,” Mrs. Poppy whispered under her breath. “It’s a shame Lady Isabella isn’t here to see her daughter looking so radiant in a dress.”

“It is a bit daring by Lafearian standards,” Carina murmured, happy none-the-less at the pleasant transformation from the usual plain dresses and trousers her Highness preferred.

Evelynn appeared behind Eleanora and draped a sheer golden shawl over the crown princess’s shoulders while offering whispered compliments. Lady Tiffany shadowed them both with a timid look in Carina’s direction as Eleanora cleared her throat.

“Is everything ready?”

“Yes, your Highness,” Mrs. Poppy replied as Carina moved behind her chair.

“We should light the scented candles first,” Evelynn suggested. “Give them time to fill the room before his Majesty arrives.”

“Quite right. Mrs. Poppy, would you please?” Eleanora gestured to the red candles.

“I’ll light them right away, your Highness.” Mrs. Poppy slipped through the side door, where the bustling sounds of the kitchen staff finishing their preparations billowed out with audible anticipation and a savory aroma.

“What scent did you choose?” Carina asked as she curiously studied the red candles.

“Oh, just a little something romantic,” Evelynn replied with a dismissive wave. “Are you sure you’re dressed suitably, Lady Maura? Your appearance is quite—forgettable.”

Carina glanced down at the day dress she was still wearing from her trip with Tiffany. Compared to the evening dresses and jewels that Evelynn and Tiffany wore, while careful not to outshine their mistress, her appearance was indeed lacking. “I suppose I haven’t had time to consider an evening dress. I was busy helping Eleanora review the papers on the orphanage, visiting Hana, and helping the staff prepare.”

At the mention of Hana, Eleanora’s confident smile dipped, and she shot an uncertain look towards Carina. “You should go change, Lady Maura. There is time enough,” the Crown Princess said stiffly as Mrs. Poppy returned and lit the three candles with a long, narrow matchstick.

“As you wish,” Carina curtsied and circled the table. She noted Evelynn whispering into Eleanora’s ear as she left and wondered over their sudden closeness. ‘Then again, with Hana’s illness and Tiffany’s timidness—is it any wonder Eleanora has had to rely on Evelynn to get preparations finished.’

Back in her room, Carina stifled a yawn as she opened her closet door. The wall of rainbow-colored dresses seemed a mundane task after the chaos of the afternoon.

‘I wonder when Stitcher’s delivery will arrive. I did say before sunset. I wonder what this something blue will be?’

Her hand settled on a pale blue evening dress, and Carina pulled it from the closet with a shrug. “Might as well dress for the occasion.” It took longer than she would have wished to pile her hair up into a stylish evening look.

Carina lacked the jewels that Evelynn and Tiffany, in particular, had in spades but then she had always viewed them as a risk while living at the Turnbells. Dresses had been an occupation and distraction while formulating Frost’s empire and waiting for the Selection to begin.

Carina’s hand settled on the Winter Rose against her chest as the humiliation of that morning returned. She stared at her reflection as she reached towards the clasp and pulled the necklace free. A rush of cold seemed to explode from her chest and spread throughout Carina’s body. She set the jewel down and watched as frost crept along the polished wood beneath her fingers.

‘Was it suppressing my magic?’ Carina wondered as she picked up the jewel and held it in her palm curiously. She regarded her shadowy reflection within the intricate depths of the diamond rose and sighed. ‘Take it off or wear it publically?’

The rumors would spread soon enough. Without Lord Percy to counter Priscilla’s story, Carina had little influence to speak in her own defense. And because of her unsavory birth and status, no one would believe her. All the previous rumors about a woman splitting up the Earl’s engagement had paved the way for this rumor to ravage her just growing reputation.

‘Even the Countess is beyond my reach.’ Carina sighed as she closed her hand around the jewel. ‘If I wear the Winter Rose publically, I confirm my relationship with the Earl. If I continue to hide it—that will only confirm that our relationship is an affair.’ She placed the Winter Rose on the desk with a groan and left it there as she pulled an ivory-cream shawl from the closet.

Carina had just finished wrapping the shawl around her shoulders when a knock came at her bedroom door. “I was just coming,” she replied and opened the door to find the maid, Tilly, waiting outside.

“His Majesty has arrived,” the maid quickly blurted out, her cheeks glowing with excitement.

“Ah,” Carina sighed. “Then I should head downstairs to greet him—” she stopped halfway through the door and stepped back. “Just a moment.”

With the door closed, Carina picked up the Winter Rose, then hurriedly tucked it inside the secret compartment of the bookshelf. ‘I’ll deal with it later. Here’s hoping dinner will be a boring but pleasant affair.’


Nicholas frowned at the foreign housekeeper, who greeted him at the door. ‘I forgot Eleanora brought her palace staff from Ventrayna. Saint’s mercy, I hope dinner is edible.’

“We are honored to have you, your Majesty. Her Highness has been looking forward to sharing a meal with you since we received your notice,” the housekeeper, a Mrs. Poppy, said as she led him to the dining room off the foyer.

A pungent floral scent mixed with cedar undertones hung heavy in the air with a pleasant effect. Nicholas forgot the smell quickly as he entered the dining room and caught a glimpse of Eleanora in a stunning red evening dress.

“Your Majesty,” Eleanora murmured as she curtsied. The candlelight gleamed off the two ruby earrings that dangled beneath the gorgeous black curls that gently caressed her neck.

For a moment, Nicholas found himself reluctantly acknowledging why Tristan would have fallen in love with this foreign beauty.

‘If only she behaved more like a queen and less like—’ Nicholas shook himself and stepped forward to assist Eleanora up from her curtsey. “Thank you for agreeing to host this dinner.”

“You make it sound so formal, husband,” Eleanora replied with a teasing smile. “As your wife, I am delighted that we can finally share a private meal together.”

“Private?” Nicholas echoed as he glanced past her towards the two ladies-in-waiting who stood along the wall and noted with a frown that Lady Maura was absent.

“My attendants will be serving our meal as is custom,” Eleanora replied as she stepped closer. “I hope your Majesty has brought a hearty appetite.”

Nicholas frowned at her odd behavior. ‘Is that a threat—or is she being—friendly?’ He cleared his throat and nodded towards the table. “I admit, I’m rather curious to see what sort of dinner your chef has prepared, your Highness.”

“Oh, Nicholas, please,” Eleanora sighed as she placed a hand on his arm. “Can we not do away with titles for one evening?”

‘Well, she’s not wrong. Even Henri preferred to drop titles when dining with his wives.’

“Very well, Eleanora,” Nicholas replied graciously as he tucked her hand around his arm and led the scarlet beauty towards her seat at the end of the table. “I shall do my best, but it is only acceptable when we are alone.”

“Of course, Nicholas.”

The way she said his name and the smile that curled across her painted lips made Nicholas’s stomach turn unpleasantly. He stepped away and pulled out her chair with a polite gesture for her to be seated.

“Thank you, Nicholas.” Her hand trailed down his arm before Eleanora swept past him and settled gracefully into her chair.

Nicholas maintained a neutral smile as he moved to the opposite end of the table, where Beaumont pulled out a chair. Nicholas sat down and gripped the armrest tightly as he faced his legal wife.

‘She outright rejects me on our wedding night, is little more than a vicious, cold scorpion for the past month, and now she’s flirting with me mere days before her uncle arrives to empty the royal coffers? I’ll never understand what goes on inside this woman’s head!’

Nicholas cleared his throat and glanced towards Beaumont, who seemed oddly focused on the candles that decorated the table. “Captain?” Nicholas whispered curiously.

Beaumont stepped closer and bowed as he whispered in Nicholas’s ear, “I don’t recognize this scent, but I suspect it may have a peculiar effect if inhaled for too long.”

“Is it harmful?” Nicholas hissed as he stared at the melting red wax.

“Is something wrong?” Eleanora asked as she signaled to Lady Evelynn, who picked up the bottle of wine, filled one of the crystal glasses, and brought it over to the crown prince.

“The Captain was just curious as to the herbs used in these candles,” Nicholas replied casually. “It is not a scent he is familiar with.”

“Oh my,” Eleanora laughed. “That is likely because they are herbs specially grown in Ventrayna. The candles were a wedding gift from my uncle, the Ambassador. I thought it appropriate to use them tonight to celebrate our first dinner together.”

‘Plausible deniability.’ Nicholas cracked a smile and glanced back at his captain. Beaumont shrugged, which Nicholas took to mean the candle wasn’t harmful. “While the smell is pleasant, it is a bit strong, Eleanora. I do hope it won’t conflict with dinner.”

Eleanora’s smile tightened. “We haven’t even served the first dish, and you’re already criticizing, Nicholas?” She sighed and gestured to Lady Tiffany. “Very well, blow the candles out since they displease his Majesty.”

Nicholas frowned at the apparent attempt to make him feel guilty. Lady Evelynn hesitated beside him with the glass of wine, placed it on the table, and then dropped to her knees on the dining room floor.

“Your Majesty, please don’t be upset with her Highness,” the attendant blurted out as Nicholas whirled towards her, surprised. “She has been preparing for this meal all day intending to please you. However little time you have spent together since your Majesty’s wedding, her Highness has done her utmost to understand and learn your preferences. That is why she prepared this Monvua wine, which she heard was your Majesty’s favorite. Please try to understand her feelings as a wife and a stranger to Lafera’s customs.”

“I—” Nicholas reigned in his annoyance as he clenched his jaw and stared down at the top of Evelynn’s bowed head. ‘Understand her feelings as a wife?’ He glanced towards the crown princess, who leaned against her hand in silent protest and thus kept her expression hidden. “Perhaps I was too critical,” Nicholas murmured reluctantly.

‘Anyway, Beaumont would have told me if the candles were poisonous. I’ll ignore it this time.’ He glanced at the cup of wine, picked it up, and smiled bitterly before he took a quick sip.

‘Even if this was Tristan’s favorite wine.’

“Lady Evelynn, please rise,” Nicholas instructed with a wave to the attendant. “I am grateful to see my wife has such skillful and passionate ladies who support her.” He turned his gaze towards Eleanora and smiled at her relieved expression. “I did not mean to offend you, Eleanora. But—perhaps we could blow out one of the candles? Three in such a small room is quite strong.”

Lady Maura entered the room silently as he finished speaking. She curtsied gracefully and moved behind Eleanora with a curious glance at Lady Evelynn, who was rising from the floor.

“Lady Maura,” Nicholas greeted with a raised brow. “I am pleased to see you are not too unwell to attend to your Mistress after your visit to Averly.”

Maura stiffened but avoided his gaze entirely as she curtsied again. “Forgive my late arrival, your Majesty. Rest assured, I am well enough to carry on my duties to her Highness.”

“Yes, it seems you are rather immune to most events that would devastate a more delicate lady,” Nicholas mused with a worried frown. “I do hope you took some time to rest and recover after your parent’s death.”

“Lady Maura has had plenty of time to rest,” Eleanora interjected with a hint of impatience. “Though I am grateful to her for spending some of that time with Lady Hana, who has been unwell recently. My other ladies have stepped forward to fill Hana’s shoes in preparation for the Ambassador’s arrival.”

“Commendable indeed,” Nicholas replied as he turned his attention to the crown princess. “I am sorry to hear Lady Hana is ill. She was the noblewoman you brought with you from Ventrayna. Should I send over a royal physician to examine her?”

“No need,” Eleanora returned. “Hana is not comfortable around male physicians and has been recovering quite well under Lady Maura’s care.”

“Very well,” Nicholas inclined his head as he tapped the violet table cloth. “But I would like to speak to Lady Maura after supper regarding her visit to Averly. I wish to hear her own account of the witch hunter’s actions in her province.” Nicholas raised his glass towards Eleanora with a smile. “I hope that will be alright, Eleanora.”

The warmth she had displayed so readily moments ago seemed to wilt as Eleanora raised her empty glass to his. “Of course, Nicholas.”

Dinner continued as Lady Maura and Lady Tiffany brought out the prepared dishes and placed them before the royal couple. Maura remained firmly at Eleanora’s side while Tiffany nearly spilled Nicholas’s glass of wine as she placed the plate of decadently sliced boar before him.

“Forgive me, your Majesty,” Tiffany whispered fearfully as she retreated.

Nicholas steadied his almost overturned glass and moved it a safe distance to his left. “Never mind,” he murmured dismissively. “Is this another kill of yours, Eleanora? The royal forester tells me you’ve had quite the lucky streak.”

“It isn’t luck but skill,” Eleanora replied with the ghost of a smile as she nursed her wine and all but ignored the meal before her. “In Ventrayna, wildlife is much harder to find and hunt.”

“Really? I would have thought the royal forests more challenging given the denseness of the trees compared to the desert.”

“A dense forest provides for an abundance of animal life. In the desert, the prey knows how to camouflage themselves and very often won’t move until you step upon them,” Eleanora said quietly and gestured to her plate. “This boar thought it could intimidate me with its size and fierceness. It didn’t run. It welcomed death.”

“How poetic,” Nicholas murmured as he lifted a morsel of the boar to his mouth and chewed. “Mmm,” he nodded his approval and quickly finished the surprisingly delicious bite. “The rumors about your royal chef were not at all exaggerated. Exotic but quite delicious.”

“He will be pleased to hear your praise,” Eleanora murmured and set her wine aside to eat some of the boar. Instead of sharing Nicholas’s enjoyment, she seemed to sigh in disappointment as she picked up her wine again and left the rest of her meal untouched.

‘Rosamund would at least pretend to enjoy it.’ Nicholas frowned and focused on his meal instead of the moody wife who sat across from him. ‘Never mind, the quicker we finish dinner, the sooner I can speak to Lady Maura and return to my own bed.’


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