Chapter 51: The Spice of Discord


The arrival of a crow letter, promising the imminent return of Lord Percy along with his esteemed guest, Ambassador Haemish, and only two thousand out of the five thousand Ventrayna troops as the Ambassador’s escort, prompted a stir of mixed relief and panic throughout the royal palaces.

Each time Carina found the opportunity to leave Rose Palace with her usual escort, Sir Jordan, it seemed the palace streets were awash with new carts of flowers, provisions, decoration, furnishings, and carts stacked with barrels of wine. Tailors and perfumers were pressured to meet the suddenly rushed demands for products from every attendant, lord and lady, within the palace.

Even the palace knights showed noticeable polishing as they strutted about in their new armor and uniform. Their increased numbers could be noted and found on every street and corner within the fortress.

Additional knights had also added to both the Rose Palace’s main gate and the servant’s side door. They kept a ledger on them in which they noted each time Carina and Sir Jordan left, along with their destination and purpose.

“This is rather excessive, isn’t it?” Carina murmured to Jordan, inwardly frustrated by the heightened security. “It’s starting to feel like we’re living in a prison.”

“A well-fortified and luxurious prison,” Jordan replied jokingly. “The Ambassador will be arriving and residing in Lilly Palace in three days,” he added with a note of unease. “With witch hunters still lurking throughout the capital—his Majesty probably just wants to be extra vigilant against any unexpected altercations between the church and Ventrayna.”

Carina scoffed as she entered the palace postal office. The natural enmity between the church and Ventrayna’s Ambassador did not explain the sudden increase in security and vigilance around Rose Palace. ‘It’s almost like they’re afraid Eleanora will do something—like run away.’

She also found it highly suspicious that this sudden change occurred after Percy’s letter arrived from the border.

‘Perhaps this was part of Percy’s negotiation? To increase security around Eleanora, but—why now and who are they protecting her from?’

A certain illusive individual with a blue ghoul mask came to mind, but a long-awaited distraction presented itself when the mail clerk handed over a letter from Madam Maylea. Carina quickly shoved the letter from her favorite dance instructor inside her sleeve, then collected a letter addressed to Eleanora from Lady Isabella, the crown princess’s esteemed mother. The latter resided outside the palace-fortress at Lord Alastair Kensington’s estate.

Having no other tasks to prolong her return Carina hastened back to Rose Palace, where she placed Eleanora’s letter in the office as the crown princess was still out riding as usual. The rest of the palace staff was far too preoccupied with cleaning the outside grounds and the chessboard courtyard for the Crown Princess’s banquet to pay the attendant much notice as she slipped upstairs to read Madam Maylea’s reply in the privacy of her room.

‘Baroness Maura,

Belated congratulations on your promotion. As to your request, I believe I have the perfect candidates that will suit your needs perfectly. They will be arriving at the palace with the letter of recommendation you sent me shortly after this letter reaches you. I highly recommend both their skill and discretion, but you may trust them with your commission’s details after meeting them personally. I wish I could come myself, but I am presently tied up with a prior engagement in Strugna.

Rest assured, my ladies are quite capable of ensuring their own safety. Should the commission prove successful, I trust you to hold up your end of the deal and provide them with both the financial and physical means to take an extended vacation far from Lafearian borders.

Should you wish to handle the matter personally yourself, do let them know in advance. My girls can advise and prepare you appropriately. It goes without saying that I hope you understand what you are doing, Maura. The Ambassador may have many enemies, but he also has many powerful and influential friends.

I look forward to hearing your good news and shall send word next time I happen to be visiting Lafeara.

Many blessings,

Madame Maylea.’

Carina exhaled in relief, then promptly lit a candle and burnt the letter.

If Madame Maylea’s dancers arrived before Evelynn found suitable entertainment, then Carina’s plans to liberate Hana from her past and permanently remove a threat from the board were set.

‘But I still need the Crown Prince to take the bait.’ Carina fretted silently over this unexpected delay and watched the blackened parchment crumple upon the metal plate as she contemplated her next move. She jumped slightly as a knock came at the bedroom door. Silently cursing her frayed nerves, Carina rubbed her throbbing chest. Her encounter with the Dowager last night and the frequent lack of proper sleep had weakened her naturally impervious heart.

“Lady Maura,” Tilly whispered frantically through the keyhole.

Carina rose from her seat with a steadying breath, then slid back the inner bolt and opened the door. “Yes, Tilly, what is it?”

Tilly stepped back, her shoulders hunched and expression timid as she focused on the floor. “I think you had better go downstairs, my Lady,” she whispered nervously.

Carina narrowed her eyes as she stepped out and turned to lock her door. “What’s happened?”

A crash below silenced Tilly’s relatively slow response. Carina turned towards the unusually quiet servant and raised a sharp brow.

“Kitchen!” Tilly whispered. “They are fighting in the kitchen.”

Deciding she would get a more straightforward answer quicker by heading to the source of the problem, Carina dashed down the steps and then squeezed past a line of rather inquisitive servants who lingered near the kitchen, listening to the furious shouts that came from within.

“Lady Hana—this is beyond unreasonable!” Evelynn shouted with evident frustration and shock.

“Unreasonable?” Hana shot back. “You had no business interfering with my work—”

“I was simply trying to help—”

“I was placed in charge of the banquet’s menu by her Highness because I know the preferences of all the Ventrayna guests, the Ambassador’s family, along with Lord Alistair and Lady Isabella.”

“I simply offered some suggestions and made a few changes more suited to the majority of our guests who are Lafearian!” Evelynn rushed out defensively. “You do realize that his Majesty, the Dowager, and many other esteemed nobles will be dining with her Highness and the Ambassador.”

“The chef and I have already made adjustments to the second dish, which was to be served to these Lafearian nobles, but the theme of this banquet is classical Ventrayna dishes,” Hana replied coldly. “If the nobles do not care to try something different, they need not bother coming to a banquet meant to celebrate the unity between Ventrayna and Lafeara!”

“That is ridiculous! Her Highness needs the support of these nobles! To drive them away because you’re sensitive about the food is—”

“Sensitive!” Hana’s voice rose shrilly.

Carina rounded through the kitchen door and took in the broken crate of spices, which lay in a heap between the two fuming noblewomen.

“Need I remind you,” Hana carried on furiously, “that her Highness was also forced to adjust to a completely different culture of food. How is it that your nobles can’t be bothered to respect her origins and appreciate some of Ventrayna’s culinary history for one night?”

“Please, those chefs were all nomads until the Emperor founded Ventrayna barely three decades ago,” Evelynn responded with a snort. “Which would explain why they bury every bite of food in a bucket of seasoning to hide the poor quality of their cooking.”

“What is going on?” Carina asked wearily as Chef Robbi shot her a pleading glance from behind the reddening Hana, who quickly responded to her question.

“Lady Evelynn decided to make changes to the banquet without checking—”

“Lady Hana is overreacting—” Evelynn interrupted, only to be cut off herself.

She changed the supply order I had prepared for the banquet’s menu!” Hana cried, looking more flushed and furious than Carina had ever seen her before.

“You changed the order?” Carina snapped with a sudden feeling of dread as she rushed to the documents on the counter beside Robbi.

“It’s not a big deal—we have everything we need,” Evelynn retorted with a note of smug victory.

“Where is the original menu?” Carina demanded, and Robbi hastily slid both Hana’s menu and the amended menu from Evelynn onto the counter beside her. “This—” Carina stared in disbelief at the two completely different menus “—did you run this past Eleanora?” She whirled around on Evelynn, who blinked at her in surprise.

“I—mentioned it to her,” Evelynn said hesitantly. “They are all dishes made by the best chefs in Lafeara—”

“But did you get her Highness’s approval?” No response as Evelynn seemed suddenly intrigued by the mess on the floor that had covered the hem of her blue dress with a muddy clay powder. “Did you at least run them past Chef Robbi?” A glance at the chef, who raised his hands as he stepped back and shook his head firmly, answered this. “You—” Carina turned back to the menu and leaned against the counter “—I assume then that you hired a chef or two with experience making these dishes?”

“No. Why would I need to hire more chefs?” Evelynn protested with a scoff. “We have enough staff here to prepare everything we need—and all the necessary ingredients!

The urge to fling a handful of spices in Evelynn’s smug face swept through Carina as she turned to Robbi. “Have you made any of the dishes on Evelynn’s menu before?”

“Other than the items previously approved by Lady Hana—No.” Robbi crossed his arms and glared pointedly at Evelynn.

“So, you expect a chef with limited experience in Lafearian culinary taste and no experience at making these dishes to prepare a meal suitable for the royal family—without even verifying that they are something the ambassador could eat!?” Carina demanded with rising impatience as she turned to face Evelynn.

Evelynn looked confused. “What do you mean?”

“Ventraynians do not eat fish!” Hana snapped and then smothered a dark laugh behind her hand.

“What?” Evelynn turned towards the laughing attendant with a suspicious frown. “Why wouldn’t they—”

“Because most Ventraynians are fire witches, and fish contain heavy water essence,” Hana retorted as if this were basic common knowledge. “Fire witches don’t eat anything that comes from the ocean, rivers, or other water sources.”

Carina raised a brow but said nothing. As far as she knew, the Ventrayna royal family was allergic to practically anything that lived in the water. The connection to the witch’s elemental affinity—she hadn’t thought of that. ‘Perhaps that’s why I don’t like spicy food? The heat?’

For once, the overconfident Evelynn had no response to give. Instead, she nervously brushed her fingers through the curls of coffee brown hair that fell over her left shoulder.

“You stupid girl,” Hana remarked bluntly and then turned to Carina. “What do we do now?”

“We—can’t we just—hire a chef?” Evelynn suggested. “We can still serve the fish to the Lafearian nobles—and the royal family.”

“And force their most important guest to eat food that could make him seriously ill?” Carina shot back incredulously.

“We can follow the original menu for the Ambassador and his family—” Evelynn suggested hastily “—this way, we only have to replace half of the ingredients.”

“Does your family have such a capable chef available?” When Evelynn shook her head and shrugged, Carina closed her eyes and sighed. “The best chefs in Lafeara all belong to the highest noble families. The same families we need to win to the Crown Princess’s side. How do you propose we ask them to hand over their highly valued chefs at the very last minute to handle a task entrusted to her Highness without embarrassing the Crown Princess?”

Evelynn grimaced and twisted the ends of her braid. “We could ask the Dowager—”

“No!” Hana and Carina responded sharply.

“Well then—I don’t know!” Evelynn snapped angrily. “Just follow the original menu and order—”

“It would take a week for the herbs we need from Ventrayna to reach here!” Carina snapped. “That’s why the order was sent out weeks ago to ensure its early delivery—and that was before the Ambassador arrived early!” She stared at the floundering girl incredulously. ‘Was it really worth the effort to snatch this responsibility from Hana’s grasp while she was unwell, only to fail so spectacularly and jeopardize everything?’

“We will have to adjust the menu based on the ingredients and what we have,” Hana stated with a note of resignation. “Robbi, here’s the inventory of the supplies received for the order. Check it against our stocks and see what you can come up with.”

“If there are ingredients you know of that can be substituted for what’s missing, please let me know,” Carina suggested quickly. “I’ll send someone to scour the markets for whatever supplies we lack.”

Robbi’s head pivoted between them. With a heavy sigh, the chef collected the menus from the counter, the inventory roster from Hana, and then headed for the pantry, already looking haggard and understandably stressed.

“Have you even finished selecting and preparing the entertainment for the banquet?” Hana asked Evelynn pointedly as she crossed her arms. “I’d assume so since you have enough free time on your hands to take over my responsibilities.”

“No—but that’s not my fault!” Evelynn protested. “Two of the musicians I had lined up suddenly canceled due to the Ambassador’s change in schedule, then the singer, Sir Lorenzo, fell ill, and the stage actors are rushing back from Strugna but have been delayed.”

Carina hid a smirk. ‘That would be Madam Maylea’s doing, no doubt.’

“So we have no food and no entertainment,” Hana said incredulously and rubbed her fingertips against her forehead. “Just perfect.”

“Let’s go talk to Eleanora,” Carina urged as she took Hana’s arm. “I need her permission to leave the palace anyway and scavenge for whatever ingredients we lack.”

“Wait—do we have to?” Evelynn pleaded with a note of fear.

“You would prefer that her Highness was blindsided and publicly humiliated instead?” Carina demanded incredulously.

“I think Lady Evelynn wants to delay the inevitable so that we can share some of the blame and responsibility,” Hana remarked with an unusual amount of cynicism.

“That’s not fair!” Evelynn shot back with what looked like tears forming in her eyes.

Hana scoffed and advanced upon the emotional attendant. “If we were in Ventrayna, trust me when I say you would have been whipped for undermining my authority. If being forced to hear the truth is all you face here, then count yourself extremely fortunate, Lady Evelynn.”

Evelynn blanched but raised her chin haughtily. “Well, thank goodness this isn’t Ventrayna—and you have no authority over me!”

“But I do,” Eleanora responded calmly from the kitchen doorway.

They all turned, Evelynn’s face going a sickly gray hue, as the crown princess entered the kitchen with a timid Tilly and an annoyed looking Mrs. Poppy behind her.

“I made it clear very early on that Hana has the highest authority in this palace under me,” Eleanora continued as her long legs, clad in dusty riding trousers, moved past Carina and Hana and brought her before the trembling Lady Evelynn. “You should have brought your suggestions to Hana or myself before making any changes to such an important order!”

“Your Highness, I’m sorry—I didn’t think it through—I only wanted to help!”

“And yet what you have done has disastrously affected my ability to host a banquet for the Ambassador and our other guests in a manner befitting a crown princess,” Eleanora reflected coldly.

Evelynn nodded glumly and hung her head. “That was not my intention. I am very sorry, your Highness.”

“Lady Hana, work with Robbi to resolve the issue with the menu. Lady Maura, since we still lack entertainment for the banquet—see what you can do there over the next few days.”

“Yes, your Highness,” Carina and Hana replied in unison.

“Lady Evelynn,” Eleanora turned her gaze back to the wilting noblewoman. “Pack your belongings. I will have a carriage prepared to return you to your family within the hour.”

“What? No!” Evelynn’s light-hazel eyes snapped up quickly. “Your Highness, please!” She crumpled to her knees and clutched Eleanora’s somewhat dusty hand imploringly. “Please give me another chance! I can’t return to my family like this—it would be a disgrace! Please—reconsider! If I lose face now—my engagement!” She sobbed incoherently as she bowed her forehead and pressed it against the back of Eleanora’s hand. “My life will be over—”

Eleanora closed her eyes as a grimace of pain crossed her face. She drew in a breath, opened her amber eyes once more, stared down at the weeping Lady Evelynn, and then sighed. “You may remain if you choose—”

“Thank you! Oh, thank you, your Highness!” Evelynn gasped quickly.

“But you will have no authority over my staff and must follow all instructions given to you by Lady Hana and Lady Maura as if they were my own.”

Evelynn’s ecstatic expression faltered, but she swallowed her protest and masked her emotions with a grateful smile. “As you wish, your Highness!”

Eleanora pulled her hand free and wiped the back of it against her riding jacket. “This is your last chance, Lady Evelynn. The next time you disobey either myself or your betters—” she gestured to Carina and Hana “—not only will I kick you out of the palace for good, but I will have your family stripped of their noble title as well.”

Carina’s eyes widened even as Evelynn’s face grew deathly pale. For the first time since she had met the overconfident noblewoman, Carina felt a moment’s sympathy for the fear etched into Evelynn’s face. The loss of a title was as good as a death sentence for a family as impoverished as Viscount Hendrix.

Eleanora considered Evelynn’s reaction coldly as she leaned closer to the still kneeling noblewoman. “The choice to stay or leave is yours, Lady Evelynn. But do not disappoint me again.”


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