Chapter 48: The Fate of a Queen
“Elly,” Hana whispered as she followed the fuming crown princess into her bedroom.
Eleanora didn’t respond as she paced the lush purple carpet and frantically pulled the jeweled hairpins from her hair. Her expression darkened even as the tightly, erratic sounds of her restrained breathing seemed to reach a breaking point.
“Let me help,” Hana said quickly as she grasped Eleanora’s arm.
“I know what I’m doing,” Eleanora snapped as she flung Hana’s arm off and continued to hurl the emerald pins to the floor, followed by the matching earrings and necklace. “I know—I just can’t—”
Hana folded her hands against her waist and remained patiently still. She was surprisingly tired after only being on her feet since lunchtime. Still, she was relieved to be here for Eleanora, who appeared to be struggling.
“I can’t do this,” Eleanora whispered hoarsely as she turned back to her silent attendant. “Why did I think I could do this?”
Hana smiled sympathetically. She understood better than anyone Eleanora’s rather destructive behavior. “Because they didn’t give you a choice.”
Eleanora shook her head as she sank slowly onto the edge of the bed.
“‘If I didn’t need you to become Queen of Lafeara, why would I require a second princess.’ Those were the Emperor’s words,” Hana reminded her gently as she drew closer and knelt beside Eleanora on the floor. “We do what we must to survive.”
“But it—It should have been Tristan!” Eleanora exhaled sharply even as she reached down towards Hana, who grasped the crown princess’s trembling hand and held on silently.
“What do I do now? I keep—driving him away—”
There was a note of desperation in Eleanora’s voice that was not unfamiliar to Hana. She lifted her hands to her mistress’s face and cupped Eleanora’s cheeks tenderly. “Tell Lady Maura.”
Eleanora expression tensed for a moment before she laughed weakly. “You trust her that much?”
“Don’t you?” Hana countered as she tilted her head. She couldn’t explain why she trusted the young attendant so readily. There was just something about Maura that felt familiar and reassuring. “You trusted her to take care of me, knowing it could expose my secret,” Hana reminded gently.
“But she hid the fact that she and Lady Aconitum are the same person!” Eleanora hissed bitterly.
“And yet, no matter which name she used, Maura has always supported you, Elly.”
Eleanora grimaced and bowed her head. “I suppose it is only fair that we all know each other secrets.”
Hana smiled and remained by Eleanora’s side until the crown princess lifted her gaze once more.
“Send her to me.”
Hana nodded, kissed Eleanora’s forehead gently, and left the room.
Carina took in the mess of jewels scattered across the floor and silently repressed her frustration. ‘How can Eleanora expect to be treated like a queen when she throws a tantrum like a child?’
Crown Princess Eleanora sat by the bedroom window, still in her evening gown. Her undone hair curled around her shoulders in dark tresses that reflected the light of the fading sun and revealed traces of tears on her cheeks.
“You sent for me, your Highness,” Carina greeted with a curtsey.
“I am aware that I have disappointed—all of you—tonight,” Eleanora said quietly, her tone weary and deflated.
Carina sighed as she glanced to where Hana waited in the bedroom doorway. The older attendant nodded encouragingly before she retreated to the hall and shut them in together.
Still not entirely sure why she had been summoned, Carina straightened and took a few steps towards the crown princess. “May I help you change for bed, your Highness?”
Eleanora brushed a hand against her cheek and then turned to face Carina with a conflicted expression. “Before that—there is something I would like to confess, Lady Maura.”
“Confess?” Carina raised her brows in confusion.
“The truth is I had the opportunity to sleep with Nicholas on our wedding night, but I—” Eleanora’s voice trembled for a moment as she smoothed out the sleeve of her dark green gown “—I was too proud and—too ashamed to go through with it.”
“Your Highness?” Carina stepped closer as the crown princess’s voice dipped into a whisper.
Eleanora sighed. “I told Nicholas that if he wanted to sleep with me—he could not—keep his commoner mistress.” She laughed mockingly as she raised her gaze to Carina’s. “I made him choose between us—knowing he would refuse to leave her.”
‘Where is she going with this?’ Carina wondered as she sat down on the window seat beside Eleanora and offered the crown princess a handkerchief. Eleanora stared at the pale blue cloth for a moment, then accepted it with trembling fingers.
“It doesn’t matter that he chose her—I’m the one that drove him away, and I knew what I was doing,” Eleanora continued bitterly. “I didn’t—I couldn’t—” she twisted the handkerchief in her hand as she fought for the words “—do that—to Tristan. With his brother—I just—”
‘Right. She doesn’t know that Tristan is still alive.’ Carina felt a prickle of guilt as she took Eleanora’s hand, pulled the handkerchief free, and used it to wipe the tears glistening down the crown princess’s face. “It’s alright. I understand—”
“You don’t,” Eleanora cut in angrily. “If my uncle finds out—if the Emperor believes I am at fault—” her voice pitched frantically as she pressed a hand against her stomach. “If I fail to become Lafeara’s queen—they will have—no use for me. They will kill me, Maura—and my parents—even Hana!”
“Lord Alastair Kensington is Lafeara’s ambassador and brother to the Countess of Hawthorne,” Carina protested. “If the Emperor killed your father, he would unify all the noble families under Nicholas, and we would be at war.”
Eleanora shook her head. “Do you know why Lafeara and Ventrayna became allies, to begin with?”
“Be-cause of the marriage between King Henri and Queen Catalina?” Carina answered hesitantly.
“Lady Catalina Karmine, the Burning Phoenix. The second most powerful pure-blood in Ventrayna,” Eleanora muttered with a note of awe and bitterness. “And why would the Emperor offer his most prized general to the King of Lafeara as a common queen?”
Carina remained silent for a long moment before admitting, “I don’t know.”
‘There are many pieces of Tristan’s history that Maura and I could only guess, which is why I’ve avoided anything connected to Ventrayna as much as possible.’
Eleanora pulled her hand free and folded her arms as she leaned back against the window frame and stared at the rising moon. “The covens unified under the Emperor because they believed that he gained his destructive powers from the Goddess Kritanta herself. Before Arius received the Goddess’s Blessing, he was little more than a mid-tier pure-blood witch.”
‘There are tiers?’ Carina frowned.
“Although Catalina had no such blessing, her family, the Karmines, can trace their bloodline back to Kritanta’s last witch consort, so one could say the blood of a goddess runs in her veins. In any case, the Karmines were the strongest, purest witches ever to walk the desert.” Eleanora’s expression grew distant as she drew in a breath and continued her story. “To witches, bloodlines are more important than individual power—even power granted by a Goddess. Catalina served under Arius in his battle against the church, but among the witch covens, she was considered more deserving to rule.”
“Then—why didn’t Arius make Catalina his Empress?”
“Oh, he offered,” Eleanora replied with a dark chuckle. “And Catalina turned him down—twice.”
Carina stared back for a moment in stunned silence before croaking out softly, “Why?”
Eleanora shrugged. “Perhaps she considered Arius’s bloodline beneath her. Perhaps she didn’t like him as a person. No one knows the reason, only that Arius loved her. They were cousins, albeit very distant ones, but after her rejection—they became enemies.”
Carina tucked her knees beneath her and leaned in, “Then what happened?”
“When Arius sacked old Zarus and killed Pope Ivan, he obtained an ancient artifact forged by the Second Saint. An artifact that witches both fear and desire because it can strip any witch of their magic and reduce them to living corpses.” Eleanora shivered and wrapped her hands around her bare shoulders. “Arius used this artifact to punish Catalina. He nearly drained her dry but—spared her, if you can call it that. Catalina was reduced to the level of a low-tier coven witch and offered to King Henri as a concubine. For a descendant of the Karmine family, it was a fate worse than death. The blood of a mortal would forever taint any offspring of such a union.”
“Then, Tristan?” Carina said hesitantly.
“If Catalina had not been weakened by the Witch Star, Tristan would have become a powerful coven witch at minimum,” Eleanora explained with a note of pity. “Instead, the descendant of the Burning Phoenix was cursed with the fate of a half-witch.” She shook her head with a sad smile. “It didn’t take long for the Emperor to feel remorseful for what he had done, but by then, he had already married Catalina’s cousin, Empress Alexandria Zenon.”
Carina frowned as she thought of the scabbard Master Iker had revealed to her. ‘This doesn’t make sense. If the purpose behind the dagger means what I think it means—then Tristan is Arius’s son. That would make both of his parents pure-blood witches. How could he be just a half-witch? Did Tristan also hide his powers?’
“If Catalina’s marriage to King Henri was a punishment—why did Ventrayna and Lafeara become allies?” Carina asked after a moment of silence.
“Arius swore that as long as Catalina and her descendants lived, Ventrayna would not break peace with Lafeara.”
‘That makes sense—especially if the Emperor realized that Tristan was his son.’
“But—the death of the First Prince?” Carina pressed hesitantly.
“Perhaps the Emperor has become sentimental, or perhaps he is just waiting for the right moment to send Princess Aurelia to invade and conquer Lafeara.” Eleanora shook her head. “My uncle said that my marriage was but a means for a peaceful annexation. But after Tristan’s death—I’m no longer sure those words hold any truth.”
‘So it was never the Emperor’s intent to remain peaceful allies. He did double Lafeara’s taxes after Queen Catalina’s death, which crippled any attempt by King Henri to sustain or expand his military force. But why force Eleanora to get married after Tristan’s presumed demise? Was that just to buy time while Arius dealt with the church, or—’ Carina’s fingers tightened against the fabric of her dress as Eleanora rose from the window-seat and wandered towards the bed ‘—does the Emperor know that Tristan is still alive.’
“In any case, I’ve decided to give up on—having Nicholas’s child,” Eleanora said with a shaky laugh. “What point is there to bring a child into this destructive world? Who knows what sort of fate the Emperor would impose upon any heir I conceived.”
“That’s probably for the best,” Carina admitted with a sense of relief. “But, your Highness. Forgive me for asking this so bluntly—but why did you insist on using drugs?”
“Ah, that.” Eleanora’s expression sobered as she turned back towards Carina. “If Nicholas were sober, then he might notice that I—”
‘Notice?’ Carina rose from her seat slowly as a ripple of fear and understanding ran through her. “You’re not—”
“A virgin? No,” Eleanora admitted with a twisted smile. “I gave my maidenhead to my future husband and my first love.”
“Tristan?” Carina whispered, disbelief and understanding uniting as she shook her head.
“Tristan,” Eleanora echoed as she offered a sad smile. “And Nicholas can never know of this.”
Carina nodded and rubbed her neck as a cold chill slid down her spine. ‘But what would Eleanora do if she knew Tristan was still alive?’ She shook her head and sighed.
“Eleanora—if anyone finds out—you could be deposed and executed for treason,” Carina whispered urgently as she stepped closer to the crown princess. “Who knows of this?”
Eleanora sank onto the edge of her bed with a distant gaze as another tear fell down her cheek. “My uncle knows. It happened at his palace—when Tristan came to visit me on my birthday. Lord Haemish—encouraged it.” She shook her head and wiped her cheeks impatiently. “I was drunk on love, wine, and dreams of our future together. I was—stupid and foolish.”
Carina heaved a heavy sigh as she crossed to the bed and grasped the post. “Does anyone else know?”
“Hana, but—she will keep my secret.”
‘Just like you have kept hers.’
“Your parents?” Carina pressed gently.
“No, after I sobered up—I was too ashamed to tell anyone. My father, Lord Alastair, is very Lafearian when it comes to the sanctity of marriage. If he knew—he would have risked his own life to stop me from marrying Nicholas.”
“That’s why your uncle gave you those candles,” Carina murmured.
“Yes,” Eleanora laughed. “Not that they did much good. They only gave me a headache. I had hoped to try a more subtle method, but Nicholas always has his guard up around me.”
‘Who can blame him? Nicholas grew up in a palace where kings and queens tend to die from unnatural deaths.’ Carina crossed her arms and turned to face the crown princess. “No more drugs Eleanora,” she said firmly.
Eleanora stared back for a moment, then nodded.
“Of any kind!”
The crown princess sighed and nodded once more. “But—what do I do now?”
“You can still become queen. Nicholas has given you a way.”
“But without an heir—”
“The queen can adopt an heir from among the king’s concubines,” Carina interjected forcefully. “Dowager Octavia reigned through Henri using that method.”
“But—his mother died during childbirth.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Carina interrupted impatiently. “Prove to Nicholas that you can be a good queen. Use the Ambassador’s Banquet, the Royal Hunt, the Ball, this charity—all of it. Win the nobles to your side first. When the time is right, I will help you become a mother.”
Eleanora shook her head quickly. “If Lady Rosamund has a child before I do, I will lose whatever political power I gain here. And there is no way Nicholas would let me take her child either.”
“Any child born of a commoner would only be a bastard,” Carina replied as she sat on the bed beside Eleanora. “In the end, it’s probably best you don’t love Nicholas. There will be other mistresses after Lady Rosamund. Women of noble blood Nicholas will take if only to ensure he has a legitimate heir to appease the House of Lords and the nobles. One of those women will bear him a son, and you will adopt that son as your prince and heir.”
“What a charming thought,” Eleanora murmured with an empty smile.
Carina gently touched the crown princess’s cheek and turned Eleanora’s gaze towards her. “A king can have many concubines but only one queen. So take the crown, Eleanora—or someone else will.”