Chapter 47: The Spoils of Matrimony
“My Lady!” Tilly whispered urgently as she slid past the kitchen staff, who were hurriedly preparing the final touches for dinner. Eleanora had brought back three quails and a rabbit from her hunt that morning, and the chef had been rather excited to present a dish of quail. The rabbit he would use for a stew later.
“Has his Majesty arrived?” Carina asked, still focused on draining the leaves from the pitcher of peppermint apple tea. She was determined to keep wine off the menu as much as possible tonight, though that wouldn’t stop Eleanora.
“Yes! His Majesty went to the Crown Princess’s study to discuss something.”
Carina frowned as she set the strainer down. ‘They’re probably discussing the charity for orphans. In any case, the fact that Nicholas came early is a good sight. As long as they can avoid arguing tonight.’ She sighed and then turned carefully as she extended her arms to the side. Tilly skillfully untied the apron’s string, pulled the cover’s straps from Carina’s shoulders.
“Dinner will be ready to be served at any minute,” Mrs. Poppy observed as Carina joined her in the hallway with Tilly close behind.
“Yes, I was just on my way to tell their majesties,” Carina explained as she motioned for Tilly to follow. Once out of the housekeeper’s hearing, Carina leaned closer to the maid and inquired, “How did they seem?”
“The royal couple? They were—polite,” Tilly whispered with an anxious look about the library as she folded the apron over her arm. “And Lady Hana is with them.”
“Lady Hana?” Carina paused as she caught sight of Evelynn pacing outside the study door. “I wasn’t aware she had gotten out of bed. Stay here a moment. I’ll let them know dinner is ready and see if they would like the chef to keep it warm a bit longer.”
“Yes, my Lady.” Tilly moved to the nearest wall and bowed her head as if the gesture would somehow make her less noticeable.
Carina moved towards the study door determinedly, and Lady Evelynn turned at her approach. Evelynn didn’t say a word, but her light hazel-brown eyes flickered from Carina to Tilly with visible annoyance as Carina brushed past her to knock on the study door.
It was only after the door opened and Carina met the knight captain’s violet eyes—that she realized she had forgotten one rather embarrassing element.
Beaumont stared down at her with an expressionless mask for a long awkward moment before he stepped back to allow her entrance.
Carina entered the study and was careful to avoid looking in the knight’s direction as she moved past him. Nicholas sat behind the crown princess’s desk and appeared quite comfortable in the seat. At the same time, Eleanora leaned against the corner of the desk beside him as she gestured to something on the documents separated in three stacks on the desk. Hana sat in a chair further away, where she appeared to be taking notes on their conversation with a charcoal pencil and rolled notebook.
“I still think we should apply as much emphasis on education for girls whether they become teachers or maids. They shouldn’t have to rely on marriage and a husband to keep food on the table and a roof over their head. We should also give the children a finance class so they will be better able to calculate the cost of living and use that to determine what amount of pay should be exchanged for their work,” Eleanora argued confidently. “When I was out riding today, we stopped by the trading market on our way back where I discovered a rather absurd practice that was forcing several commoners out of business.”
‘Ah, so she did end up taking my advice.’ Carina smiled and patiently maintained a respectful curtsy before them.
“Did you know that nobles are allowed to promise payment instead of paying upfront for work?” Eleanora continued passionately. “Even when the commoner needs that money to provide supper for their family, it is a noble’s right to delay payment if it is inconvenient.”
“It is rather standard practice when dealing with nobles,” Nicholas replied with a distracted glance towards Carina as he motioned for her to stand. “But these shops are well within their right to decline if such deferments put them in a difficult position.”
“Even when declining a noble’s request could see them blacklisted by all other nobles?” Carina inquired as she stood.
Eleanora frowned and crossed her arms as she faced Carina. “Was there a reason for your interruption, Lady Maura?”
“The chef—was wondering if dinner should be postponed?” Carina replied hesitantly, detecting a hint of annoyance in Eleanora’s words. ‘Perhaps I should have waited outside.’
“No, no reason to put the chef out trying to keep our meal warm,” Nicholas said as he rose from his seat. “Besides, I’m rather looking forward to what meal has been prepared this time.”
“But we were making such progress,” Eleanora murmured with a hint of sarcasm as the crown prince circled past her.
“No need to rush these things,” Nicholas said with a patient smile as he extended his arm politely. “Allow me to escort you to dinner, Eleanora. We can continue this discussion later. In any case, I should thank you for bringing this practice of delayed payment to my attention. If it is forcing commoners to give up their business and livelihood then it is a privilege easily revoked by the House of Lords.”
“Of course,” Eleanora replied softly as she accepted his arm. “I am happy to be of help.”
Hana’s scribbles stopped as she glanced up from her notes towards them with a conflicted expression. She quickly looked down and shut the pencil inside the notebook to mark her place.
‘I should be relieved that Eleanora and Nicholas are getting along so well,’ Carina thought as she retreated towards the door, still avoiding Beaumont. ‘But why must Hana watch this? She should be upstairs resting.’
“I’ll let the staff know that your Majesties are on their way,” Carina announced hastily as she spun around the knight captain and left the office.
Carina wasn’t the only one to notice the sudden calm between the royal couple. Even Mrs. Poppy looked hopeful as she peeked in from the hall before slipping back to the kitchen. With Hana back on her feet, the attendants split themselves evenly to serve the couples dinner. Evelynn and Tiffany attended to Nicholas’s side of the table while Hana and Carina saw to Eleanora’s meal.
The iced tea Carina prepared was brought out and served, though the crown princess declined the offer in favor of her usual wine, which Hana poured.
“I trust you are looking forward to the Royal Hunt this year,” Nicholas said after quenching his thirst on a cup of cool minty tea. “I remember you did rather well at last year’s event.”
“Yes, I am,” Eleanora replied with a smile. “In fact, I’m rather confident about winning this year.”
“Bold words.” Nicholas cut into his quail thoughtfully. “There are quite a few experienced and skilled hunters amongst my nobles.”
“So I have observed.” Eleanora tilted her head with a smile. “But I’ve spent the last year growing comfortable and familiar with the forests around the capital.”
“You should go out less,” Nicholas observed with a sigh. “You are meant to be a queen, not a huntress, Eleanora.”
Eleanora laughed as she traded her cup for silverware. “In Ventrayna, those occupations complement each other quite well. A noblewoman must know how to fight and defend herself in the event of a slave revolt.”
Nicholas paused with a fork of meat half-way to his mouth, then resumed eating without comment.
“Do you know where this year’s hunting festivities will be held?” Eleanora pressed in an attempt to continue the conversation.
“Viscount Gilwren has been preparing all year,” Nicholas answered promptly. “Though with his daughter’s recent death—” His fork scraped against the plate as he paused and glanced towards Carina “—but Rykard has expressed his fervent wish to continue the tradition.”
Eleanora nodded thoughtfully as she chewed her food then swallowed. “I would like to bring my attendants as well.”
“Naturally,” Nicholas conceded, then frowned as he lowered his knife. “Do you mean for them to take part in the hunt?”
“Why not?” Eleanora raised her brow. “Lafearian noblewomen are allowed to hunt, as I recall.”
Nicholas tilted his head with a wry smile. “As long as they are appropriately dressed.”
Eleanora scoffed. “It is ridiculous to expect women to compete with men while hampered by skirts, frills, and those absurd corsets.”
“You are allowed to participate—no one expects you to compete,” Nicholas corrected with a hint of restraint. “Keep in mind, Eleanora, you are Lafeara’s future queen. Behaving like a savage in public will only harm your image further. I know you think rumors and such beneath you, but you need to win the support of the people and above all the nobles.”
“I find Lafearian’s laws on propriety rather one-sided,” Eleanora commented as she lifted her glass with a cynical smile. “You express such concern about my image because I like to hunt and duel, yet a king is allowed to keep a public mistress without either of them being shamed or rebuked?”
The sound of staff closing the stove door in the kitchen echoed through the suddenly silent dining room. Carina raised her gaze to the ceiling in quiet prayer. ‘Please, Eleanora, don’t blow your chances again.’
“I have done no such thing,” Nicholas replied with uneasy calm. “For the sake of your reputation, I have kept Lady Rosamund out of the public eye.”
Eleanora scoffed as she stabbed her fork into a piece of quail. “Let us not pretend that you haven’t kept that woman anonymous as much for your sake as mine. In any case, I was referring to Lady Serilda, your father’s mistress.”
Nicholas blinked in surprise, then exhaled slowly. “It is not uncommon for a king to have mistresses, Eleanora. Marchioness Serilda was a comfort to my father after the death of the two queens.” He leaned back in his chair slowly and studied her. “And I seem to recall Lady Serilda was an excellent huntress who could easily keep up with my father—while wearing a dress.”
Eleanora glared at her wine and remained silent.
“Since we need more funds to open additional orphanages under this charity,” Nicholas continued as he returned to his meal. “Perhaps you should make use of the Royal Hunt.”
“To raise funds?” Eleanora queried with a frown.
“And gather nobles to your cause. If you want the charity to succeed and outlive you, then you must rally their support.” Nicholas motioned his fork towards her with a tense smile. “You could give a speech, Eleanora. After all, the charity will be operated under your name. Appeal to them as a noble and their future queen.” He lifted the bit of quail to his mouth and chewed it meticulously.
“I see,” Eleanora murmured as she set down her glass. “But how would a public speech work with the hunting event?”
“We always hold a ball after the hunt. This time it will be at the Viscount’s estate. The manor is large enough, and only the most powerful and influential families of Lafeara have been invited to the hunt,” Nicholas answered confidently. “We’ll hold the ball on the final night, serve the winning stag to our guests, and then you can present a speech to the nobles over supper.”
‘It’s not a bad idea,’ Carina reluctantly admitted as she shifted her attention to Eleanora. ‘Though it puts a lot of pressure on her Highness, if she succeeds, the charity will be viewed as her first achievement as crown princess. And if the royal couple are seen working together on this charity, that will help mitigate the damaging rumors about their marriage.’
Eleanora appeared to reach the same conclusion as she lifted her glass with a crooked smile. “I must thank my husband for his thoughtfulness and advice.”
Nicholas scoffed and waved his hand dismissively. “Happy to help. It is a good charity and a good opportunity for the nobles to see you act like a queen. Actions speak louder than words to our people.”
“Indeed, they do.” Eleanora lowered her glass. “Though I can’t help but wonder whether your sudden change in behavior towards me is motivated by your desire to help orphans—or my uncle’s presence at the border with five-thousand Ventrayna soldiers?”
‘By all the Saints—Eleanora—why?’
Carina sucked in a quiet breath as she resisted the urge to bury her face in the platter of chocolate custard pie before her on the serving table. Beside her, Tiffany stared gloomily at the two cut pieces of dessert that would likely never be eaten.
Nicholas laughed abruptly as he lowered his silverware, pulled the napkin from his lap, and tossed it on his plate. “You really do have a remarkable talent for chasing me away,” he commented dryly.
Eleanora’s expression hardened as she continued to stare into her wine. “Run away then—if you’re scared,” she mocked softly.
Carina pressed a trembling fist to her lips and shook her head at Tiffany as the sound of Nicholas’s chair scraping against the floor signaled the end of the dinner. The attendants turned and curtsied as the future king left his seat and, instead of heading to the door, circled the table slowly towards Eleanora.
“If I were your Highness,” Nicholas said coldly. “I would take great care to see the ball is a resounding success. Consider it a final test to prove you are worthy of being Lafeara’s queen.”
Eleanora met his gaze with an indifferent expression as she raised a single brow. “Worthy?”
“I’ve already explained the charity is an opportunity for you to show the nobles and the kingdom your capabilities as queen. If you cannot rally the nobles behind this cause, your lack of political power will be dangerously visible. And if you cannot put aside your pride to support me as a wife and queen, then you will be judged by all the nobles as unfit to hold that place and title.”
“So rather than an opportunity, this is an ultimatum—one you intend to impose on me after my uncle has granted your tax reprieve and all other benefits that came with my marriage,” Eleanora countered with a bitter smile. “But your Majesty should remember, those benefits are also conditional on my becoming queen.”
“And I see no reason why you should not succeed,” Nicholas replied with an impatient sigh. “The Royal Hunt does come after your uncle’s visit, but before Holy Saints day. If you wish to be by my side when the Pope coronates me as King, then you must conduct yourself appropriately during the Ambassador’s visit and rally the nobles behind you and this charity.” He stepped closer and leaned against her chair as he whispered. “That is the least you can do since you refuse to act as my wife.”
Eleanora’s cheeks turned cherry red as she rose from her chair and faced him with burning amber eyes. “And if I don’t? What will you do? Get rid of me and make that little whore your queen?”
Nicholas released the chair and stepped back with a scornful laugh. “At least Lady Rosamund has an interest in providing me with heirs.”
Eleanora inhaled sharply as she pressed a trembling hand against her chest. “Get out!”
Nicholas raised a brow but nodded and even bowed before he swiftly exited the dining room with Captain Beaumont close behind.
“Your Highness,” Hana whispered worriedly as the sound of the palace door closing behind the crown prince echoed throughout the palace.
With a single, violent push, Eleanora sent her chair crashing to the floor before she turned and swept out of the room towards the stairs. Hana and Evelynn followed her swiftly while Carina abandoned the chocolate custard pie and sat down in her chair beneath the windows.
“Another disaster,” Tiffany lamented as she too took a seat beside Carina with an expression of defeat.
Carina stood and poured herself a glass of Eleanora’s wine. The rustic flavor swirled around her tongue and eased her dry throat but offered little respite to the situation that had played out before her very eyes.
‘At this rate—how long will it take Nicholas to seek a divorce? If Eleanora keeps burning bridges—Rosamund won’t have to do anything to knock her down.’
“Well, I’m going to have some pie,” Tiffany announced with an attempt at levity. “I’ll ask the servants to prepare trays for the other ladies.”
“Thank you,” Carina murmured absently. “Tell the servants to eat whatever’s left. No point in letting a good meal go to waste.”
Carina remained where she was until her glass was empty, and the sun had faded from view behind her. By then, the servants had cleared the table, and Carina had turned down the offered tray of food.
Her thoughts returned to the events of the last disastrous meal the royal couple had shared—and Vicktor’s words.
“Become what you were destined to be. Daughter of Frost. Queen of Winter. Ruler of Lafeara.”
Carina left her empty glass on the table and headed up the stairs towards her room. The idea of taking Lafeara’s throne held no appeal to her. The list of people between her and such a lofty endeavor included not just Lafeara’s royalty and nobility but the Emperor of Ventrayna.
‘No monarch is overthrown without a high cost, and I do not have the power to face down the Witch Emperor and his army of witches.’