Chapter 61: A Peddler of Betrayal
“It would appear the royal family is quite eager to greet us,” Haemish observed with a cryptic smile directed at the Earl of Hawthorne, who rode beside him down the road towards Lafeara’s capital. “I do hope I can continue to rely upon the Earl’s insight in the coming negotiations.”
“Certainly, Lord Haemish,” Percy replied with the same cold, indifferent demeanor he had maintained since the night he ambushed Haemish while the Ambassador was taking a private bath in a river away from his military forces. “I only hope the Ambassador will heed my advice in the future. It would be a shame for you to leave Lafeara with nothing to show for your many efforts.”
‘Arrogant pure-blood.’ Haemish swallowed a growl as his gaze flicked over to where Eleanora descended from her carriage, surrounded by pretty, young attendants. ‘But not the pretty one Lord Tyrrell sent me to deal with.’ The Ambassador’s frown only deepened as he observed the cloud of crows that littered the capital rooftops before him. ‘So bloody many.’
He had witnessed the savage barbarity of those fowl creatures when his private bodyguards made the mistake of trying to set the birds on fire. The crows had exploded with such ferocity that Haemish had been knocked off his feet even from several feet away. The Ambassador was dragged from what would have been his watery grave by Marquess Winifred. The noble’s smug expression of satisfaction as he dropped the Ambassador on his knees before Percy still filled Haemish with boiling humiliation.
At the time, Haemish had hoped the explosions would alert the army camped beside the river, but then he remembered that manipulating sounds was mere child’s play to air witches.
‘If I had been one of the Dukes from Ventrayna—or the Earl any other noble from Lafeara, we would be at war!’ Haemish sighed as he shifted his rump against the glittering saddle. For too long, he had toed a dangerous line between his two masters, the Emperor and Empress of Ventrayna. It was hard enough to wield the power Arius had given Haemish when he ranked so poorly compared to the three ruthless Dukes, who each governed their own formidable coven of witches. And now, barely a day across the border, he suddenly found himself pinned quite cleverly beneath the thumb of Lafeara’s new Witch King.
A smaller man might have crumbled beneath the unexpected pressure, but Haemish was used to dealing with pure-blood witches. They never failed to underestimate his cleverness and adaptability, blinded by their obsessed preconceptions about the Ambassador’s diluted witch blood.
Although Haemish barely possessed enough magical control to be considered a coven witch, not a day passed that he wasn’t grateful to Kritanta for this blessing. After all, his younger sister, Lady Isabella Emerson, had been born a half-witch.
How surprised and dumbfounded those pretentious old-bloods had been when Haemish helped Isabella snag Lord Alastair Kensignton as a husband. Now Isabella was married to one of Lafeara’s oldest witch bloodlines and mother to Lafeara’s next queen.
The Ambassador had also persuaded the Emperor to provide him with a pure-blood wife from the Empress’s family to strengthen the Emerson family line. After all, the Emperor did owe a life debt to Haemish’s deceased mother, who had saved Arius from assassination as a child. Something, Haemish would never let the honor-driven Emperor forget.
Favors, secrets, promises, and bribes were the coals Hameish willingly walked upon to survive and thrive in a world ruled by powerful pure-bloods. The Ambassador might not be able to burn down cities and decimate armies with the best of them, but he was still a coven witch—and that was all that was required to hold an official office and wield power under the Emperor’s new order.
Of course, Haemish considered it a shame that the Emperor had lost Kritanta’s favor so soon after establishing his empire. The Goddess of Flame’s blessing had paved Arius’s path to unify all fire witch covens behind his conquest of old Zarus. While the Emperor masked his loss of power well behind his potent pure-blood magic, others had begun to notice, the Empress among them.
And so Haemish was forced to split his loyalties and wait for a victor to emerge among Ventrayna’s monarchs, whose marriage had become a hostile battlefield ever since Arius had acknowledged Catalina’s bastard as his son.
‘Even with the Emperor’s acknowledgment. Tristan has no backing from any of the Dukes, while the Empress has her own coven, and Aurelia is married to Duke Tyrrell’s only son. Not sure the bastard has a fighting chance of surviving—let alone become Arius’s heir.’
Haemish was still trying to figure out how Tristan had escaped the assassination from two years ago. The Ambassador had carefully orchestrated an agreement between the Dowager and the Empress to remove the potential threat to Aurelia’s future reign. The bastard prince had proven surprisingly adaptive and resilient for a spoiled brat whose powers had been nullified by the aconitum flower.
‘Perhaps the rumors that he received his mother’s regenerative powers are true then?’
Haemish glanced up sharply as Percy broke away from the front formation. Marquess Winifred chuckled softly as the Earl dropped down from his prancing steed to sweep a regal bow to the Dowager and Crown Prince before he slipped past them towards Eleanora and her three pretty attendants.
“Is the Earl especially close to his cousin?” Haemish inquired curiously as he watched Percy grace Eleanora’s hand with a brief kiss.
Winifred shot him a disapproving frown. “They are as close as the Earl wishes them to be,” the Marquess replied, then glanced back towards his men mingled in with the Ambassador’s escort behind them. “I would caution the Ambassador to be careful with his words while inside our borders. The three covens have eyes and ears everywhere, even inside the palace.”
“Of course,” Haemish replied with a dismissive sigh as his serpent-like yellow-green eyes homed in on one of the pretty brunettes that Percy was paying particular attention to. “I would expect nothing less.”
Lord Haemish dismounted, dropping onto the back of a kneeling slave with little regard for the man’s grunt of pain. He swept a glance towards the carriage where his wife, Lady Lavinia, showed no signs of joining him.
‘Well, that suits me just fine. The less I see of them both, the better.’
With a dismissive snort, Haemish brushed past Marquess Winifred and strode towards the waiting Queen Regent Octavia and Crown Prince Nicholas. There was a moment’s pause as the two opposing parties sized each other up. Haemish relished the anxiety that lurked in the shadows beneath the crown prince’s hazel-blue eyes, but he was careful not to stare too long at the Dowager. A feeling that could only be described as a knife twisting in his gut greeted the Ambassador every time her ice-blue eyes passed over him with a wave of contempt.
‘When is the old wolf going to do us all a favor and die in her sleep?’ Haemish pondered resentfully as he flicked Octavia another uneasy glance then stooped to offer them a shallow bow. “Your Grace. Your Highness.”
“Ambassador.” Octavia annunciated the word with evident displeasure as if each syllable were a stone she was forced to grind between her teeth.
“Welcome to Lafeara, Ambassador,” Nicholas interjected evenly as he eyed Haemish’s extravagant ensemble. “I trust your journey here was—comfortable.”
“It was your—ah, forgive me, I must confess,” Haemish answered with a perplexed smile as he glanced between them. “I am still uncertain which monarch I should be addressing?”
Nicholas’s polite smile withered while the nobles behind the crown prince scowled.
“It would certainly set my mind, and thereby the Emperors, to know which monarch—” he glanced pointedly from the white-haired Dowager to her grandson, “—I will have the pleasure of discussing the new terms for Lafeara’s peonage.”
Nicholas’s hazel-blue eyes narrowed with evident resentment at Haemish’s choice of words.
The Ambassador’s smile only widened as he continued, “I see before me a grown crown prince who is married to my niece, and yet I hear the government still reports to the Dowager on all important matters.”
“Queen Regent,” Nicholas corrected tensely as he nodded towards his grandmother. “A wise ruler heeds the wisdom of their elders. My coronation as King will officially shift the full power of government into my hands soon enough. Still, even then, I expect I will listen to my grandmother’s experience and wisdom with all the respect she deserves as Lafeara’s longest-ruling monarch.”
“Longest indeed,” Haemish snorted under his breath. ‘Only because she was quick to remove anyone who stood in her path.’
“How lovely of you to bring your family along this time, Lord Haemish,” Octavia interjected with barely detectable annoyance. “But then, Crown Princess Eleanora will be delighted to spend some quality time with her aunt and cousin during these negotiations.”
Haemish followed her pointed gaze to where his youngest, Lord Marco, was assisting Lady Lavinia down from her horse-drawn litter. “Yes, I do hope their visit will not add too great a strain to the royal treasury,” he remarked absently. “Marco was very persistent about accompanying me to congratulate the Crown Princess. They have rather a lot in common as far as cousins go.”
‘Despite being useless half-witches, they’ve both proven to be rather useful tools for my ambition.’
“Uncle!” Eleanora appeared between the Prime Minister and General Stryker, who stepped aside but made no attempt to bow before the crown princess.
“Ah, there is our future Queen!” Haemish greeted proudly as he strode past Nicholas and kissed Eleanora’s hand and cheek affectionately. “I hardly recognize you all dressed up in Lafearian silk and jewels. It seems like only yesterday you were threatening to skewer a slave who rebelled in my palace.”
He laughed loudly, more at the shocked faces of the nobles and attendants around them than at the memory itself.
“Uncle!” Eleanora interrupted with a sudden grimace. “Now is hardly the time to reminisce on such matters. Come, I’m sure you and your family must be tired from your journey.”
“Famished and in need of some good wine,” Haemish replied jovially as he motioned for her to lead the way. But Eleanora ignored his unspoken command as she turned instead to greet Lady Lavinia and Lord Marco, who had joined them.
“Kritanta’s flame is this Eleanora?” Lavinia greeted with a motherly smile and a polite bow of her head. “I have missed your visits, my dear niece, but I am pleased to see you looking well. Married life suits you?”
“I am—still adjusting,” Eleanora replied reluctantly as she glanced towards one of her attendants, the brunette with striking blue eyes that had caught Haemish’s attention earlier. Eleanora’s smile brightened as she turned to their youngest guest. “Marco, how are you?”
“Well enough, Cousin. Ah—” Marco flinched as Haemish shot a glare in his direction, “Crown Princess Eleanora.”
“Well then,” Eleanora smile thinned as she turned towards Nicholas. “With his Majesty’s permission, I will escort the Ambassador and his family to Lilly Palace for refreshments and rest.”
“Excellent! Excellent!” Haemish quickly agreed, cutting off the crown prince’s response. “We have much to catch up on, your Highness.”
“Then—” Nicholas interjected with strained impatience, “—I shall look forward to seeing you all again at the Crown Princess’s banquet tonight.” The crown prince offered the Dowager his arm and nodded towards the Lord Commander General Stryker, who waited behind them. “My General shall oversee all accommodations for your troops are properly arranged.”
“All of them?” Haemish asked with a doubtful tilt of his brow as he turned towards the crown prince.
“Regretfully, we did not foresee the Ambassador’s sudden need for increased protection,” Nicholas replied somberly. “We have tents for one thousand troops and rooms for twenty officers as previously agreed upon.”
“What a shame,” Haemish replied, ignoring Lavinia’s attempts to pull him back towards his horse. “It seems our security will be a strain on Lafeara’s food reserves.”
“I’m sure we can find some means of compensation for any shortage left in your wake,” Nicholas returned with the glimmer of a smile as he guided the Dowager back to her horse.
Haemish felt his left eye tick at the flippant tone and arrogance in the crown prince’s demeanor. ‘It seems the wolf pup has grown overconfident in my absence. That will need to be corrected swiftly.’ The Emperor had given his Ambassador full authority over negotiations, but with two very particular terms that Haemish could not fail to obtain. ‘Let’s see how far that arrogance will get you when faced with the Emperor’s demands.’
“I look forward to our negotiation tomorrow, your Highness,” Haemish called with the cunning smile of a peddler who would bend Emperor, Witch King, and Crown Prince to his ambition by whatever means necessary. “But today should be a day of celebration of the peace and marriage between our two kingdoms—which was by no means cheap.”
“Haemish!” Lavinia hissed softly, then abandoned his arm altogether as she and Marco led a rigid crown princess back towards her carriage.
Nicholas glanced after Eleanora’s departing figure and then over to his Prime Minister. “Well, it is good that you are aware of it, Ambassador,” he replied with an unnerving smile.
“What?” Haemish growled in confusion.
“I was only referring to the Crown Princess’s marriage contract, which included many promises we trust the Emperor will keep.”
Haemish scoffed. “The Emperor fully intends to uphold his generous offer for the sake of his adopted princess, but you are not your brother, your Highness.” He relished the physical pain that crossed Nicholas’s face as the crown prince visibly paled. A pair of malevolent violet eyes settled their weight upon Haemish, who scowled at the giant blond knight that overshadowed the monarch who stood between them.
‘Where on earth did King Henri obtain such a specimen. Perhaps I should add him to my list of demands. He’d make an excellent fighter—for as long as he could last in Ventrayna’s slave pits.’
“I wonder,” Nicholas murmured as he stepped towards the Ambassador. “If it were my father or brother who stood here now—would you have shown a bit more respect?”
“I believe respect is measured by the power of those who deserve it,” Haemish replied with a sly smile. “And if your brother were standing here instead of you—I expect a great many things would be different—your Highness.”
Nicholas offered a tight smile and nodded as if he had expected such an answer. Then the crown prince turned and whispered something to his Prime Minister before remounting his horse and joining the Dowager for their ride back through the capital. The giant with unfriendly eyes quickly followed, but not without one last scathing look in the Ambassador’s direction.
“Are you sure you can handle him?” Percy’s cold voice rippled like a chill down Haemish’s spine. He twisted sharply, but the Earl was several feet away, assisting Lady Lavinia up into Eleanora’s carriage.
‘I hate when he does that.’ Haemish scowled, then watched with increasing curiosity as Percy turned his attention to the pretty brunette who waited outside the carriage holding the reigns of the Earl’s horse.
Haemish regarded the young attendant thoughtfully, drawn to those familiar ice-blue eyes that turned and focused upon him with an expression the Ambassador was all too familiar with. The gaze of someone with the desire to kill—but the temperance and cunning to wait.
A ripple of delight replaced his darkened mood as Haemish smiled back at her. Then, with a jolt, he whipped around as the Earl’s winter gray eyes turned towards him with a clear warning.
‘It would appear she belongs to the Earl, well, no matter. Negotiations will certainly be very entertaining this year.’ Haemish smiled as he swept his scarlet gold cap across the flank of his blood-red mare and rode into the heart of the country he would soon bring to its knees.