Chapter 42: A Menu for Disaster
“While I have you here, Nicholas, I wanted to discuss an idea for a charity event,” Eleanora announced as her ladies cleared away the plates to prepare for dessert.
“A charity event?” Nicholas echoed in surprise as he rubbed his thumb against the smooth crystal glass in his hand. “This is the first I’ve heard of you being interested in charities, Eleanora.”
“Really? Tristan and I talked about it quite a bit,” Eleanora replied with a hint of bitterness. “But if you’d rather not—”
“No, no!” Nicholas countered quickly as he set down his glass and straightened his posture attentively. “I would very much like to hear what ideas you and Tristan had on the matter.”
‘Please, feel free to remind me of my dead brother as much as you like.’
Eleanora regarded him for a moment as if trying to determine if his words were sincere. Perhaps it was the wine, but she appeared more relaxed than when this awkward dinner had begun.
For that matter, Nicholas was feeling less opposed to her company, and—if he was being honest—it was a nice change to be able to talk about Tristan without being measured up to his brother’s shadow in the same breath.
‘I’m enjoying this—oddly enough—how strange. Maybe it is the wine—or the candles?’
“To start, I’d like to open an orphanage,” Eleanora explained with a determined glint in her amber eyes. “I think it would set a good example for the other nobles. It is our duty, after all, to care for the children of Lafeara who are endangered by sickness, starvation, sex traffickers, and often sold into slavery to pay off their parent’s debts.”
Nicholas nodded absently as Evelynn refilled his glass. ‘Was that my fourth or fifth glass? I’ve lost count.’ He resolved not to touch it and focused on responding to Eleanora instead. “While the custom of selling children to pay off debts is detestable, it is not unlawful. There are laws in place to ensure only children old enough to work are sold. They are given clothes, food, and lodgings from their employer, which is often more than their parents could provide. They also have the right to purchase their freedom once they pay off the amount of their purchaser’s fee.”
It might have been the wine, but Nicholas could have sworn he heard Maura scoff as she returned to the dining room from the kitchen holding another bottle of Monvua wine.
“I do recognize that these homeless children,” he continued, “particularly those abandoned by their parents and orphans, are at risk even here in the capital. Providing them with a stable home, food, clothing, and care would—”
“We should also provide medicine and an education,” Eleanora interjected as she raised her glass to signal another refill. “Along with a trade skill to ensure they will have a place in society when they come of age.”
‘How many glasses was that?’ Nicholas shook his head. He was confident that Eleanora was well ahead of him. “That would work for the boys, but girls cannot learn a trade.”
“Why ever not?” Eleanora retorted in annoyance. “They can become teachers, seamstresses, or even maids for nobility.”
“Servants and maids are positions often filled by slaves among lower nobility,” Nicholas explained patiently. “Why would they pay more to commoners who can quit whenever they like or demand higher wages, as opposed to buying a slave who all but works for free?” He shook his head at her naivety. “As for the upper nobility, they usually only hire from the commoner families that have earned their trust through generations of service or take in a lower noble who has been properly educated.”
“What about tailors and seamstresses then? Teachers and even midwives?”
“There is only so much use for teachers and midwives. All of Lafeara’s tailors are men who would probably not be keen on the idea of training up a female apprentice. Seamstresses are a dime a dozen as well among commoners and work for meager wages.”
“This is ridiculous,” Eleanora muttered as Evelynn filled her glass. “Boys have the option to enlist and become soldiers or pick up a trade, but all that’s left for the young women in your country is enslavement or prostitution.”
“You’re being overly dramatic. Most women don’t have to work if they marry well,” Nicholas added pointedly. “Only girls from noble families receive an education, and even then—it usually revolves around needlework, homemaking, arts, and fashion.” He gestured to the attendants around them. “And these fine ladies are a result of that education.”
“In other words, Lafearian women are trained to serve men,” Eleanora retorted flatly, followed by a derisive, mocking laugh. “No wonder you’re afraid to teach them to wield a blade.”
“Women don’t learn swordsmanship or archery because it isn’t considered a ladylike activity.”
“Yes, I’m sure if Lafeara is ever invaded, the tea making and flower arrangement skills of your womenfolk will make Lafearian’s enemies quiver in their boots.”
Nicholas drew in a slow breath as even the attendants moved stiffly about them in the tense silence.
“Perhaps—” Maura spoke up hesitantly. “We could train the children to help run and manage other orphanages. As teachers, groundsmen, cooks, and even nursemaids?”
“That’s a bit of a long term goal,” Nicholas mused as he rubbed the sore muscles in his neck. “But who better to guide and teach homeless orphans than someone who experienced the worst that life had to offer?”
“They could always become physicians,” Eleanora pressed with a determined smile. “I, for one, am not opposed to the idea of being cared for by a female doctor rather than some strange man.”
“Do you think a woman could handle the horror that comes with true medical skill?” Nicholas countered with a snort of disbelief. “A midwife is one thing, but imagine having to cut off a rotting limb or patching up a gunshot wound or even a punctured gut.” He shook his head and watched as Maura struggled to open the new bottle of wine with a corkscrew. A glance at the knight captain behind him showed that Beaumont was also focused on the silently struggling attendant.
‘If you’re going to stare, you might as well help her, you fool.’
“Lady Maura is competent enough,” Eleanora countered, observing the subject of his attention.
Nicholas refrained from rolling his eyes as he regarded his stubborn wife. “Lady Maura received exceptional training from the Countess, as I’m sure you know. But she is not capable of dealing with anything more than a mild cold or ailment. Do you honestly think she could handle a patient suffering from hysteria or even the plague?”
Eleanora laughed and finished her glass with a mocking smile. “In Ventrayna, women fight and kill men in battle. Princess Aurelia, well—” she nodded to Beaumont “—she could easily best all your knights, including your giant.”
‘Now you’re just trying to provoke me.’
“Princess Aurelia is a well-known pure-blood fire witch,” Nicholas growled as he reached for his glass—then caught himself and leaned back in his chair. “You can not compare a witch or even a half-blood to those born without magical powers. The same is true of comparing the physical and mental capabilities of a man to a woman.”
“A woman can run a shop surely,” Eleanora countered with evident frustration. “I hear this is becoming common practice in the capital.”
“There are more women in shops, certainly, but they cannot run or own a shop without a man’s co-signing signature. The physical labor aside, how would a woman protect the shop or herself in the event of a robbery?”
Eleanora laughed. “You truly believe that a woman can’t defend herself with a blade the same way a man can? Perhaps you should try dueling me on occasion.”
“I beg your pardon?” Nicholas returned through clenched teeth. He picked up his glass and took a long drink without remorse. The tangy taste mixed with honey and an earthly oak flavor helped to numb the growing headache behind his eyes as Nicholas swallowed and set the glass down with a sigh. “There were rumors that you’ve been going around dressed as a man and entertaining yourself by forcing the knights assigned to your palace to duel with you. I suppose they were true after all?”
“I did not force them,” Eleanora replied tartly. “Mostly, I train with Major Garret.”
“And where is the Major?” Nicholas shot back. “I heard he kicked out quite a few knights yesterday, yet he doesn’t seem to be here to ensure your Highness safety.”
“He spends his evenings training several new recruits in the Knights Barracks with my permission,” Eleanora answered with a mocking smile. “Since the other knights that you assigned me were incapable of stopping the Dowager’s men from breaking into the cellar to steal my wine.”
The sudden pop of the wine cork echoed through the silence, followed by a faint mouse-like squeak from Lady Tiffany.
Carina froze. She barely noticed the wine that spilled from the bottle and ran down over her hand as her gaze shot to the crown princess, who appeared to have realized her mistake. ‘A little too late. Damn it, Eleanora!’
“What did you say? Why would my grandmother need to steal your wine?” Nicholas asked sharply. Behind him, Beaumont glanced towards Carina as she hastily set down the bottle and motioned to Tiffany to start cutting the cooling cherry pie.
The knight captain had been stealing glances at her all night, but Carina was far too preoccupied in the ping-pong match between the royal couple to give him any notice.
“I meant to deal with the matter on my own,” Eleanora said with an apologetic glance at Carina. “But yes—there was an incident yesterday while I was away from the palace hunting down this boar. One of the Dowager’s attendants barged in with several knights to take the Caligo wine my father sent to me specifically for the Ambassador’s banquet.”
Nicholas shook his head, baffled. “Did you not have enough to share? I don’t understand the problem.”
Eleanora’s timid smile withered as she regarded the crown prince with an expression of disbelief. “The problem was that I wasn’t here, and her people forced their way inside. They injured two members of my staff in the process and tampered with the wine in my cellar.”
“Tampered?” Nicholas’s voice raised an octave higher as he leaned upon the table towards the crown princess. “I’m not sure if I understand your Highness’s implications. Are you saying the Dowager’s servants maliciously tampered with the wine your father sent over for the Ambassador?”
‘So much for smoothing this over.’ Carina sighed as she watched Tiffany butcher the cherry pie with shaking fingers.
“Lady Maura can explain this better than I,” Eleanora deflected. “She and Lady Tiffany were the only ones here when the Dowager’s people broke in.”
‘Just great!’ Carina closed her eyes and took a quick breath before she turned to face the crown prince’s inquisitive stare.
“We discovered several suspicious rags that were carried in by the Dowager’s knights. The cloth appeared to have been soaked in some sort of—herbal component, your Majesty,” Carina explained slowly. “Several bottles including some of the Caligo wine meant for the Ambassador were suspiciously damp, and their corks had been soaked—”
“Wait!” Nicholas held up a hand quickly. “Lady Maura, are you accusing the Dowager of tampering with the crown princess’s wine just because you found a few rags and the bottles were wet?”
“As understated as you have made that sound,” Eleanora countered acidly. “What if the rags we found were soaked with poison?”
‘Damn it, Eleanora!’
“Poison?” Nicholas took in a sharp breath. “Do you still have—these rags?”
“I do,” Eleanora replied confidently. “I was going to have them inspected by an alchemist today, but—” she faltered and brushed her licorice black hair over her shoulder “—I had to prepare for your Majesty’s arrival.”
“Let me get this straight,” Nicholas scoffed softly as he lightly rubbed his temples. “You claim the Dowager forced her way into your cellar to steal—no, poison your wine. Instead of bringing the matter to my attention and having these suspicious rags analyzed by an authority—you waited a whole day and did nothing because you were focused on preparing dinner?”
‘And when he puts it like that.’ Carina cringed and glanced towards Eleanora, who looked equally embarrassed.
“You said Lady Maura was here when this happened—I thought she was in Averly yesterday morning?” Nicholas continued with a frown.
“This happened before I received Lord Acheron’s message that Averly was in danger,” Carina answered promptly.
“Nevertheless, you were here when the Dowager’s servants came. Why wouldn’t you let them have a few bottles of this Caligo wine?”
“I wasn’t at the palace when they arrived,” Carina explained as she folded her hands. “I had gone out to mail a few letters, and when I returned with Sir Jordan, the palace appeared abandoned with not a single knight in sight.”
“What?” Nicholas snapped, and this time he appeared genuinely angry. “Are you saying my knights abandoned their post, Lady Maura?”
“I am saying the gate and front palace doors were left unguarded, your Majesty,” Carina replied firmly. “When Sir Jordan and I entered, we heard a noise coming from the cellar, and by that time, two servants had already been injured and half the pantry destroyed by the Dowager’s knights.”
Nicholas sighed heavily and glared at his mostly empty glass of wine. “I admit, I am having some difficulty following this story at the moment.” He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment as if in pain. “If the Dowager’s servants entered the palace without permission and injured your staff, Eleanora, then I cannot overlook the matter. And if the knights I assigned to this palace abandoned their post, they will be dealt with harshly.”
He drained his cup and waved Lady Evelynn aside when she stepped forward to refill it. “I will speak to the Dowager regarding the issue tomorrow. I’m certain she would not brazenly order her servants to force entry into the Crown Princess’s palace just for a few bottles of wine.”
“Lady Maura said the Dowager—” Eleanora began but was caught off by Nicholas’s sharp glare.
“Lady Maura wasn’t here when the servants arrived,” Nicholas corrected with a glower. “You also delayed reporting the matter, Eleanora, which means any evidence you may have collected could have been tampered with. I can punish the knights and ask the Dowager to reprimand her servants properly, but I would strongly suggest you drop the matter.”
Eleanora’s expression stiffened, and her nostrils flared with an angry breath before she slumped against her chair and gave an angry nod. “As you wish, your Majesty.”
“And Lady Maura—” Nicholas paused and frowned as he appeared to struggled to focus in on Carina, “—you—you should not leave the palace for the time being. In fact—I forbid it. Until the witch hunters have left—not one foot outside, is that understood?”
‘What was this about?’ Carina curled her fingers against the fabric of her dress as she offered a submissive curtsey in reply. “Yes, your Majesty.”
“Your Majesty,” Beaumont whispered as he leaned towards Nicholas, who appeared to be fighting a headache as he rubbed his temples. “Your Majesty, I believe you are overtired. Perhaps we should return?”
“Nonsense,” Eleanora replied quickly as she sat up. “If his Majesty is feeling unwell, he can stay here for the night.”
“Your Highness—” Beaumont protested.
“No!” Nicholas added loudly and cringed. “No, I have had too much to drink.” He leaned upon the table as he stood and held his head. “And those candles are too damn strong to be used at dinner.” He pushed away from the table with an awkward nod to the crown princes. “Thank you for the lovely meal, Eleanora.”
“But—” Eleanora left her chair as she rushed to cut off his escape through the dining-room door.
Nicholas sighed heavily as he regarded her for a moment between the fingers pressed to his forehead. “I thought you found the very sight of me repulsive, Princess?”
Eleanora swallowed, and her cheeks flushed with embarrassment, then anger, before she stepped forward, took Nicholas’s hand, and raised it to her lips for a kiss. “I’m only asking for a chance, Nicholas. Can’t you give me that?” She raised her troubled amber eyes to his, and for a moment, Nicholas’s expression softened, and he turned her hand over and kissed the back of it.
“Good night, your Highness,” Nicholas murmured and then brushed past her towards the foyer with Beaumont close behind to steady his drunken steps.
Carina leaned against the serving table and pressed cold fingers to her flushed cheeks. She wasn’t sure if she should count the meal as a success or failure, but she was also struggling to focus underneath the heavy scent that seemed to have left them all a little flushed and muddled.
Her ice-blue eyes narrowed in on the red candles at the center of the dining room table once more.
“I’m sorry, your Highness,” Lady Evelynn said softly as she supported Eleanora gently.
“A waste,” Eleanora seethed as she reached up and pulled the pins from her hair. “This was all—one ridiculous—pathetic—humiliation.”
“Your Highness,” Carina said quickly as she circled towards the distraught crown princess. “Give it time. Tonight wasn’t a complete disaster—”
“All we did was argue and drink,” Eleanora whispered hoarsely as she wiped her cheek.
“His Majesty enjoyed the meal,” Carina pointed out. “And he didn’t leave angry.” ‘Which was a miracle in and of itself.’ “You need time to get to know each other. The charity will give you something in common to work towards.”
“He didn’t even come here to see me tonight, Maura!” Eleanora laughed as she pulled out the ruby earrings and threw them in Tiffany’s direction. “He came here to talk to you about the witch hunters—not that he managed to do that after a few cups of wine.”
“His Majesty did look unwell as he was leaving,” Carina added with a pointed look at the candles. “Perhaps next time, we should avoid unnecessary stimulants.”
“The candles were just to help set the mood,” Evelynn protested, though her own cheeks were flushed and her pupils suspiciously enlarged. “But it might have been too strong—it looked like they gave the crown prince a headache.”
“Never mind,” Eleanora sighed and almost bumped into the doorframe as she headed towards the foyer. “I’m tired—I’m going to bed. Maura—check-in on Hana for me, will you?”
“Of course, your Highness.” Carina watched Evelynn guide the stumbling, sulking crown princess up the stairs and turned to find Tiffany collapsed on the floor beside the dining room, fanning her red cheeks, still holding the cherry covered dinner knife. “Oh, for mercy’s sake,” Carina muttered as she snatched the blade from Tiffany’s hand and walked over to the dining room table to blow out the candles.
She gave Mrs. Poppy firm instructions to open the lower floor windows and air out the palace for a good two hours. Then she helped Tiffany upstairs to her room. After dumping the giggling blonde into her bed, Carina went across the hall to check on Hana.
Her patient was sleeping once more and looked remarkably improved after her bath. Carina picked up the book, which lay face down on the bed beside Hana, and slipped a ribbon inside to mark her place before returning it to the nightstand. Then she slumped down beside the sleeping woman to contemplate the night’s events.
“It’s probably best you couldn’t attend. I’m sure it would have been uncomfortable for you to watch Eleanora’s failed attempts to seduce Nicholas,” Carina whispered as she brushed back the loose golden curls from Hana’s face. “If only I could convince you to leave her behind. You deserve better, Hana.”
The cool breeze from the window teased the back of Carina’s neck. She frowned and stretched her tired shoulders as she rose to shut it. When she turned back to the bed, Maura was sitting in the spot she had just left. The ghost’s pale fingers lay wrapped over Hana’s hand as the specter stared silently at the sleeping woman.
Carina left Maura to guard Hana’s dreams and returned to the hallway just as the maid, Tilly, appeared carrying a blue vase filled with white lilies.
“This arrived for you, Lady Maura,” Tilly said with a curious smile.
“Expect something blue and slightly inconspicuous.”
Carina smiled as she accepted Stitcher’s gift and dismissed the maid for the night. She returned to her room, where she pulled the lilies from the vase and found not water but a rolled stack of parchment inside.
Unable to wait, despite the heavy fatigue that weighed upon her shoulders, Carina carried the secret documents to her bed and slowly began to read. It did not take her long to understand just what sort of a detestable man Marquess Borghese was. As the night stretched longer still, Carina continued to digest each piece of information Stitcher had given her as she formulated a plan of her own to bring the Marquess and his family to ruin.