Chapter 52: A Conflict of Interests
After Mrs. Poppy escorted the deflated Lady Evelynn up to her room to contemplate her choices, Carina followed Hana and Eleanora back to the crown princess’s office. Carina couldn’t help but wonder what choice the distraught noblewoman would make. To be kicked out of a position at the palace would leave a noticeable stain on any noble’s reputation, but if the alternative was to risk her family losing their status as nobles—it hardly seemed a difficult choice to make.
‘Then again, it would take more power than the crown princess currently possesses to strip an entire noble family of their title, status, and wealth.’
Hana’s soft laugh pulled Carina’s attention, and she was surprised by the smugly satisfied expression on the older attendant’s face.
‘Well, I suppose as far as payback goes—seeing Evelynn demoted and publicly reprimanded does help make up for the mess we now have to clean up.’
Hana was still smiling as she opened the office door for Eleanora. The crown princess chuckled as she sank into the chair behind the desk, looking far too composed and relaxed considering the predicament they faced.
“Hana, you look like a cat that finally ate the mouse,” Eleanora pointed out as she scratched a bit of mud off the sleeve of her riding jacket.
“And I would be enjoying my catch thoroughly if you had kicked her out as planned,” Hana responded with a sudden frown as she took one of the empty chairs that faced Eleanora’s desk.
“Wait—” Carina paused behind the second chair as she looked between them sharply. “You planned this?”
A knock at the door followed as Eleanora and Hana exchanged smug glances.
‘Oh, wow, okay,’ Carina shook her head in astonishment.
“Come in,” Eleanora commanded as she straightened her spine.
Chef Robbi entered with a perplexed expression on his face, still holding the inventory roster and the menus. “Your Highness?” he greeted with a deep, quizzical bow.
“Did you find everything in order?” Eleanora asked with a coy smile.
“Ah, yes—all the necessary ingredients are there—but—,” Robbi looked from Eleanora to Hana as he lowered the paperwork to his side with a resigned sigh. “I see. Yes, everything is in order, your Highness. I’ll tell the staff to proceed as originally planned.”
“Just keep this under wraps until tomorrow morning,” Eleanora cautioned as the chef turned towards the office door. “There’s no reason for Lady Evelynn to relax just yet.”
“As you wish, your Highness.” Robbi bowed once more and then departed.
“You—both of you set her up,” Carina whispered in stunned realization as she sank into the chair beside Hana. “When did you know?”
“The moment that arrogant girl tried to bribe one of the kitchen staff while I was confined to bed,” Hana replied with a delicate snort.
“The staff here have little respect for Lafearian nobles,” Eleanora explained casually as she loosened the buttons of her riding jacket. “Least of all a noblewoman who treats them like ignorant conmen. Their loyalty lies with me as long as I can provide them with security.”
‘In other words, as long as you remain the crown princess and become queen?’ Carina laughed softly as she rubbed her temple tiredly. ‘Then again, I hold the same amount of loyalty. The moment Eleanora loses her power here, I will be forced to abandon her to save Hana and avoid following Maura to the executioner’s block.’
“I still don’t know why you allowed her to stay,” Hana grumbled, appearing more unsatisfied by the minute. “Who is to say Evelynn won’t do something like this again or outright betray you next time?”
Eleanora sighed, rose from her seat, and circled the desk to kiss Hana’s forehead affectionately. “I gave her a choice, that’s all. If she stays—we will cross that bridge when we have to. But I can’t completely burn bridges with Viscount Hendrix, not yet anyway. I need to retain what little support I have to secure my future.”
“So if she leaves, that will be her choice—and in a way—she would be admitting she was at fault if she left,” Carina reasoned aloud thoughtfully. “But if Lady Evelynn chooses to stay—”
“She will think twice before disobeying or undermining me a second time,” Eleanora interjected confidently. “Or Hana.” She leaned towards the still pouting attendant and kissed her.
‘I didn’t know Eleanora had this kind of cunning and foresight in her,’ Carina admitted ruefully as she averted her gaze from the affectionate couple. The sound of their intimate kiss was a little too audible inside the small office.
Carina cleared her throat awkwardly and rose from her seat. “Well, I suppose I should start looking for some suitable entertainers for the banquet then.
“Ah yes,” Eleanora finally pulled away from Hana’s flushed face. “There isn’t a lot of time to find anything too extravagant, but a banquet without entertainment would be a disaster.” She straightened, moved behind Hana’s chair, and played with the attendant’s golden curls. “In retrospect, I should have assigned this task to you to begin with since you’re more familiar with Ventrayna’s customs.”
‘Well, lucky for me, I already have Madame Maylea’s dancers on standby. Still—’
“Might I have permission to leave the palace, your Highness?” Carina requested hopefully. “There are a few local performers that have worked with the Countess before that I’d like to reach out to personally.”
“I can’t get you a pass,” Eleanora reminded her with an annoyed grimace. “But—if I explained the situation to the Prime Minister, perhaps he might be persuaded to arrange for an official palace pass for me—finally.” She continued to tug playfully at Hana’s hair until the blonde attendant swatted at her hand and rose to lean against the crown princess’s desk.
“You should be able to obtain one certainly, given you are already a member of the royal family,” Carina remarked thoughtfully. “And given the present situation and the importance of this banquet, the Prime Minister may be more agreeable to the request.
Eleanora scoffed and crossed her arms. “Well, if Nicholas hears that the pass is for you, he may veto it on the spot—he doesn’t want you leaving the palace for some strange reason, Lady Maura.”
There was something in the arch of her brow and the sarcastic tone of the crown princess’s voice that suggested Eleanora knew exactly why Nicholas didn’t want Carina going outside the palace.
Carina opened her mouth to ask why but then thought better of it and remained silent.
“I’ll send a messenger over to the Prime Minister right away,” Eleanora said with a dismissive wave, “but your trip outside the palace will likely have to wait till tomorrow.”
“At first light then,” Carina responded hopefully, and with a quick curtsey, she left the two love birds to celebrate their small victory away from prying eyes.
The Prime Minister was surprisingly sympathetic to their plight. Still, he could only loan them one of his passes, but he also provided a letter of approval to hire the entertainers on behalf of the crown and grant them entry. He sent the pass and letter over by messenger shortly after dinner and promised to discuss a more permanent solution with the crown prince as soon as possible.
As per Eleanora’s instructions, Carina waited until the following morning to leave the palace—with Sir Jordan once more in tow.
“Let’s try not to run into any witch hunters today,” Jordan suggested with a hint of nervous humor as he climbed into the palace carriage behind Carina.
“We are headed to the Hawthorne family estate,” Carina reminded him as she settled into her seat. “Somehow, I doubt the witch hunters would dare trespass on the Earl’s estate.”
“Even while the Earl is away at the border?” Jordan pressed with a doubtful frown.
Carina shook her head at his unnecessary concern and turned her attention to the window as the carriage pulled away.
The Prime Minister’s pass got them through the Fortress gate quickly, though their identities, purpose for leaving the palace, and date of expected return were all noted by the knights just as they had been when they left Rose Palace.
‘A record of who enters and leaves will prove troublesome in the future,’ Carina mused. ‘Thankfully, I have my own way to leave and return to the palace without being documented.’
Like the palace, the number of knights in the capital streets had doubled—perhaps even tripled in size. About two-thirds of their number were dressed in the military uniforms of soldiers.
“They recalled a few battalions from the borders in case of an invasion,” Jordan explained when Carina questioned the increased presence of soldiers. “Of course, the soldiers have been instructed to say they’ve returned for the celebration of peace that is to follow these negotiations, rather than for defensive purposes.”
“As long as their commanders can keep them in line and ensure they don’t provoke the Ventrayna soldiers,” Carina murmured worriedly.
“I don’t think any man here wants to provoke a war with a country of witches or the Emperor,” Jordan replied with a reassuring grin.
Carina glanced out the window, filled with a sudden surge of unease. ‘I suppose I’m far more likely to create a rift between Lafeara and Ventrayna than a few drunk soldiers.’ She sighed and checked her pendant watch for the third time since departing, the increased number of pedestrians on the street slowing their progress.
“Why are we headed to the Hawthorne Estate?” Jordan pressed with an inquisitive stare, noting her anxious behavior.
Carina frowned at his tone. “Lady Serilda requested that I pay her a visit, and I want to check in on that mother and child we rescued in Averly,” she explained. “Also, the staff should be able to help me find the references Countess Constance kept of local entertainers she’s used in the past. They should be suitable for the Crown Princess’s banquet.”
Jordan raised a brow and appeared unconvinced.
“Is there some other reason I would be visiting?” Carina challenged with her own raised brow.
“I suppose not—seeing as the Earl isn’t home,” Jordan muttered as he leaned back and crossed his arms.
‘What?’ Carina flushed and whipped her head towards the carriage window. ‘Damn it. I had almost forgotten about those annoying rumors.’ She reached absently for the Winter Rose—then remembered the necklace was still tucked away in the hidden drawer of her bookshelf.
‘I hope the Earl is well. As strong as Percy is—he is still only a new political power in Lafeara. Still, Lord Haemish is known to hold a great deal of respect for pure-blood witches. I suppose even the Ambassador would consider the influence of the Hawthorne family before carelessly offending them. I just don’t know if that influence will be enough to convince Haemish to leave most of his troops at the border.’
She frowned and studied the approaching countryside with growing impatience.
‘I’ve spent eight years preparing for this visit and everything that is to follow—but I know nothing about the hierarchy of witches or their covens. It would be unreasonable to assume they hold no influence inside the current government, but who and how are they wielding this influence?’ Carina pressed her lips together determinedly as she straightened her spine. ‘Lady Serilda is my best source of information while Percy is gone, but first, I need to find out what happened the night Serilda promised to meet me.’
Apparently, Lady Serilda was just as eager to consult Carina about the failed meeting. The Marchioness dismissed Sir Jordan with barely more than a nod of acknowledgment as she pulled Carina into Percy’s office.
“Where were you last night? I sent a crow to your room, and you were gone!” Serilda whispered anxiously as she shut the office door.
“It would appear the Dowager has one or two spies inside Rose Palace. One of them must have overheard our conversation,” Carina answered with some amount of relief. “She left a note, addressed it from you, and had me meet her near the forbidden garden.”
Serilda turned a bit pale upon hearing this news. “The forbidden garden? Tell me you didn’t go inside! Did she make you drink anything?”
Somehow, the fact that the Marchioness was so terrified of the garden and appeared to know about the aconitum flowers which grew there only made the event more harrowing in Carina’s memory.
“The Dowager showed me her secret garden. There must have been thousands of aconitum flowers there—but no, she did not offer me anything to eat or drink,” Carina replied with forced calm. “She—wanted me to reconsider joining her side.”
Serilda exhaled with relief as she pressed her fingertips between her furrowed brows. “That is—good. I’m glad you got away unharmed.” She shook her head and stepped closer to Carina before whispering viciously. “Don’t trust a thing the Dowager tells you. She is no better than the Countess when it comes to—”
Carina narrowed her eyes as the Marchioness cut off abruptly. “What do you mean? What has the Countess done?”
A flash of pain mixed with anger surged behind Serilda’s moss agate eyes, but she only closed them and shook her head with a sigh. “Nevermind that, with the way things are—it will be difficult for us to meet again—” she paused and glanced up at Carina. “So, how did you manage to get away from the palace? I thought Nicholas had forbidden you from leaving.”
Carina frowned at Serilda’s casual use of the crown prince’s name. She explained her cover story with regards to needed entertainment for Eleanora’s banquet and added that Russell, the butler, should know where the Countess kept records of suitable performers that would more than supplement their needs.
“Ahh, I’ll ask Russell to look into that immediately,” Serilda said quickly. “But—may I see the pass the Prime Minister gave you?”
Carina handed over the bronze tablet with the Prime Minister’s engraved golden seal and watched curiously as Serilda carried the pass to Percy’s desk, rummaged through the Earl’s drawers, and then pulled out an odd box along with two small blocks of clay.
“I can make a duplicate of this,” Serilda explained as she unwrapped the clay and pressed each block into the lid and bottom of the box.
‘That’s not a bad idea,’ Carina admitted though she quickly shook her head. “They document everyone entering and leaving the palace, even those with official passes. It would be the end of my career if I got caught with a duplicate.”
Serilda nodded but made a press of the pass anyway. “Just in case then, you never know when you might need a quick escape.”
Carina raised her brows but said nothing as Serilda brought the Prime Minster’s pass back over to her. “It might come in handy,” she admitted, though she couldn’t help but wonder if Serilda had some ulterior purpose for obtaining a copy of the Prime Minster’s pass.
Serilda patted Carina’s cheek affectionately and led her back towards the door. “Why don’t you take a moment to drop in on your real purpose for being here. And if you wouldn’t mind, Maura dear, remind that woman that she is here because of my cousin’s charity, not because she is entitled to the clothes, food, and roof we have given her and that bastard child. For some reason, Miss Jade appears to be under the delusion that I am obligated to look after her needs now that Percy is gone.”
Carina frowned as she followed Serilda from the study. ‘Surely Jade hadn’t behaved that badly.’
The muted sounds of another tense argument awaited Carina as she followed the maid towards one of the guest’s rooms along the back of the Hawthorne house. She recognized both voices involved and dismissed the maid quickly.
“I don’t care who you used to serve, Miss Ivy. I am not a slave or a servant, and I refuse to be treated like one!” Jade’s voice cut through the air sharply. “If the Marchioness is going to continue these threats, then I demand to see the Baroness. Lady Maura promised to set us up with a house of our own. Why hasn’t she come back?”
“Lady Maura is busy with her obligations at the palace,” Ivy replied with restrained impatience. “In the meantime, Lady Serilda is only asking that you help around the house—”
“And is Lady Serilda going to pay me for my work?” Jade retorted. “No? Then how is that any different than treating me like a servant? And who will watch Benjamin while she has me cleaning this enormous house?”
“The other servants’ children are looked after in the servant’s quarters. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind looking after Benjamin for a few hours while—”
“Absolutely not!” Jade’s voice rose with incredulity. “How do I know they won’t ignore or abuse him? And why should Benjamin be raised with a bunch of servant children while I’m forced to do hard labor?”
Carina held back a snort of disbelief. ‘Honestly, how many times did Jade have me running errands and cleaning up the house while she gave me a free place to stay? How is her current situation now any different from then? Does she expect strangers to give her a free room and board for nothing?’
“I may not have been here for very long,” Jade continued in a superior tone, “but I can see quite clearly the difference between you and me, Miss Ivy. I am not a slave or a servant, and I will not be dressed, spoken to, or treated like one!”
“And there is no reason you should be,” Carina interrupted as she entered the room with a calm smile.
Jade spun towards her. The anger quickly withered from her old friend’s face as she burst into tears. “Baroness! Oh, thank god! I thought you had forgotten about us. Do you know how we have been treated in your absence?”
As if on cue, Benjamin, who was resting on the bed, suddenly dropped the toy he had been playing with and shrieked his grief to the world.
Carina cringed at the unexpected vocal assault and turned to Ivy as Jade rushed to her child. “Are you alright?” she mouthed softly.
Ivy smiled and nodded, although her expression looked troubled as she folded a gray dress and placed it on a chair beside the bedroom door. The garment’s style was the same as the one Ivy wore, which marked her as a member of the household staff.
“I’ll leave you to speak with Miss Jade,” Ivy murmured as she moved to exit.
“No, stay,” Carina caught her wrist quickly. “I would like to hear why Jade was shouting at you like that.” She turned her sharp gaze on Jade, who was bouncing the mollified Benjamin against her hip.
“I didn’t mean to shout,” Jade protested quickly as she glanced between them. “I’m just exhausted. Taking care of Benjamin keeps me up all night. Now I’m also expected to do hard labor during the day while worrying about his wellbeing—it’s just too much!”
“Lady Serilda only asked that Miss Jade help clean around the Manor a few hours each day to help cover her expenses,” Ivy explained with a tired sigh as she placed a hand over Carina’s grip and squeezed it gently.
Jade snorted, “For a woman who is another guest in this house, Lady Serilda certainly acts like the Manor is hers.” She appeared to think better of her comment when neither Ivy nor Carina voiced their agreement. “Anyway, have you come to take us away, Baroness? Did you find a suitable house?”
‘Do you also expect me to house you for free while providing all your needs?’ Carina felt a moment of troubled unease as she tried to reconcile this new side of Jade with the friend she remembered. ‘I understand her concern for Benjamin, but even in our previous world, single and married mothers had to put their children in daycare centers while they worked forty-hour weeks to pay mortgage or rent.’
“Jade, perhaps you were not aware of this fact, but the Marchioness was placed in charge of Hawthorne estate while her cousin, the Earl, is away,” Carina explained patiently as she released Ivy’s arm and stepped closer to the frowning mother. “Surely asking for a bit of help as a means of repayment isn’t too unreasonable.”
“But why must I learn a servant’s work? I will soon have a house of my own after all.” Jade demanded bluntly. “If I must work—then I can be an accountant or a teacher. I taught pre-school in my old w—” she cut off abruptly, and Benjamin piped in with a delighted squeal as he pulled at the necklace chain around Jade’s neck. The small rare pink diamond caught Carina’s attention. The necklace was of Lafearian design, and the chain appeared to be made of expensive silver. She was reasonably certain that Jade hadn’t been wearing it the day they brought her to the Manor.
‘Oh, please don’t tell me—’
Carina drew in a deep breath. “Getting you a small house to live in is one thing. But you will have to earn a living to pay for food, firewood, and other necessities, Jade.”
While it was true, she could easily set Jade up with a comfortable life—that care would only last as long as Carina remained alive. ‘And in any case, for her to already assume I will take care of everything just because I saved her—what else will she expect from me when she finds out that I am Carina?’
The hopeful urge to be reunited with her old friend faded as Carina studied the grumpy woman before her, trying to remain sympathetic but annoyed at the entitlement which did not belong in this world.
“How familiar are you with the education system here in Lafeara?” Carina inflected their current location pointedly. She knew from personal experience that the language, social studies, what passed for science, and even mathematics differed from their original world.
Carina frowned, suddenly curious as to how Jade could speak the local language so naturally. ‘I always assumed I could because I inherited Maura’s memories. But Jade arrived here as herself. It doesn’t make sense.’
“I—” Jade trailed off miserably “—but that doesn’t mean I have to become a servant—does it?” Her confidence faltered as a bleak expression covered her face.
“No, no,” Carina replied quickly. “You could certainly become a teacher with time and training—”
“Really? That would be wonderful! Perhaps I could even be a governess—those positions exist here, don’t they?”
“A governess requires special training, education, experience, and recommendations from schools and other teachers,” Ivy replied with a dubious glance at Jade.
“What would you know?” Jade snorted. “If it is working with kids, I can do that. But I will not have myself—or my child—treated like a servant or vagabond!”
Ivy sucked in a breath and turned to Carina as if to signal the end of her patience.
“For now—” Carina replied calmly as she glanced between them “—Jade and Benjamin still need time to recover. Once you are well enough and I’ve had time to locate a suitable house, I will send a tutor there to help you prepare to become a teacher, Jade. When you have enough experience and the right recommendations, then we can talk about a governess position.”
“Of course,” Jade seemed satisfied. “I will do whatever is necessary to prove myself to you, Baroness.”
“Please address me as Lady Maura,” Carina corrected with a patient smile as she glanced at the silver chain now wrapped around Benjamin’s fist. “That’s a pretty necklace,” she said, happy to shift the conversation.
“Oh, this?” Jade’s lips twitched curiously as she tugged the necklace free. “It was a present from the Earl before he left.” Carina watched the smug expression Jade threw at Ivy, who turned promptly and left the room.
‘Had Jade—really always been like this?’
Carina shook the confusing thought from her head and focused on the necklace. It was far too expensive for Percy to gift to a stranger.
‘And it honestly looks like something Serilda would wear. It certainly looks as dated as the rest of the Marchioness’s wardrobe.’
A shiver of unease and apprehension filled Carina as she studied the young mother and her child, followed quickly by guilt and confusion.