Chapter 62: The Gift of Family
“That man is nothing more than a pompous, glorified tax collector,” Nicholas seethed through clenched teeth as he stormed out of Iris Palace, where Octavia had voiced her need to retire and rest before the oncoming “pleasantries.”
“Your Majesty, we must be patient,” Attwood counseled as he followed the Crown Prince down the steps. “Let Ambassador Haemish enjoy making a show of his relationship to Crown Princess Eleanora. He is nothing more than a lowborn nobleman whose mother earned favor with the Emperor.”
“Do remember that lowborn nobleman’s niece is my wife,” Nicholas retorted and grimaced as he loosened the heavy cloak about his shoulders. “Any word on the witch hunters’ movements?”
“Acheron reported that most of them had moved further out into the countryside. No doubt they wished to avoid encountering the Emperor’s witch army—though they appear to have burned an alarming number of church members along the way. I had some knights takeover to watch them while Acheron and Lord Tomberline return for the negotiations.”
Nicholas scowled at the news and nodded. “At this rate, the Pope will dig a trench of blood between Lafeara’s faithful and his holy war.” The crown prince paused as he reached Beaumont, who held the reins of the prince’s stallion while Nicholas placed a polished boot into the stirrup and mounted. “How many witch hunters remain inside the capital?”
“That is what concerns me, your Majesty,” Attwood answered as he took the reins from Beaumont and steadied the prince’s energetic steed. “The Emissary returned to the capital with Acheron. It seems this Ripper has taken an interest in a certain noble family who reside just outside the capital.”
“Which noble family?”
“The Turnbell daughters.”
The horse beneath Nicholas let out a startled snort and bucked sideways away from Captain Beaumont. The beast’s sudden movement nearly sent Attwood tumbling to the ground as the Prime Minister lost hold of the reigns that Nicholas quickly collected as he calmed the panicked animal. The rest of the waiting entourage shied away from the quiet but intimidating knight captain, who turned without a word towards his speckled gelding.
Nicholas let out a tense breath as he patted the stallion’s neck reassuringly, cast a worried glance towards Beaumont, and then focused on his Prime Minister. “Have Lord Commander General Stryker remind this Ripper that he is not allowed near any of my citizens without my express permission. That goes especially for the daughters of the Turnbell family!”
“I would suggest placing a knight beside Lady Sophya Turnbell then, so that we may keep a close eye on the situation,” Attwood replied as he adjusted his disheveled robes. “Lady Maura will be safe enough as long as she remains inside the palace.”
“The older sister is with Baroness Winslet, is she not?”
“Yes, I believe the official engagement between Lady Sophya and Lord Asher will be announced soon,” Attwood confirmed with a disinterested shrug. “They wouldn’t risk sullying the girl’s reputation by having her live with them otherwise.”
“Likewise, we should obtain permission from the Baroness before placing one of our knights under her roof. Be sure to inform the Baroness that our man will remain discreet.”
“Very well, I—” Attwood broke off and turned towards the palace’s outer gate as a carriage pulled up sharply in front of it. “Is that Viscount Gilwren?”
Nicholas glanced towards the carriage and identified the family sigil of a golden stag. He clicked his tongue and urged the still restless stallion towards the gate to meet the Viscount. Attwood quickly rushed over to his waiting horse as Beaumont trailed behind the crown prince.
Nicholas reigned in front of the gate and motioned to the guards to open it as the carriage door flew open. Lord Rykard, the previous head of the Royal Merchant’s Guild, descended from the carriage, followed by his successor, Lord Seymour.
“Your Majesty!” Rykard hastily dipped into a formal bow, looking somewhat out of breath for a man who had arrived by carriage. “Forgive our unannounced visit.”
“It must be important, Viscount,” Nicholas replied as he dismounted, inwardly wondering what new headache was about to fall into his lap.
“It is, your Majesty,” Lord Seymour replied as he held out a rather large and elegantly embellished letter.
Nicholas recognized the glittering outline of a snowflake upon the silver seal and hastily snatched the message free from the hands of the Royal Merchants Guild Master.
“It seems Mr. Frost—” Rykard whispered excitedly as he stepped in closer to Seymour and Nicholas “—would like to meet with your Majesty, personally.”
Nicholas had already cracked the letter’s seal when he recalled his surroundings and the many watchful eyes of the Dowager’s servants. The crown prince composed himself and secured the letter firmly inside his jacket. “Would you noble lords care to join me for tea at the palace to discuss the contents of this letter?” he asked with forced casualness.
“We would be most honored, your Majesty,” the two lords unanimously agreed before they hastily returned to their carriage.
‘So, Frost is finally willing to meet.’ Nicholas let out a sigh of relief as he turned back towards his horse with a satisfied grin. ‘Not only will I unearth this so-called clairvoyant’s secret identity, but Frost, whoever he may be, might give me the edge I need to push back against Marquess Borghese and the Dowager.’
The crown prince eased himself up into the saddle once more and dismissed Attwood’s inquisitive stare. As the Viscount’s carriage circled the drive and headed out towards Peony Palace, Nicholas refocused on the disquieted expression that covered his bodyguard’s face.
“Chin up, Beaumont. Lady Maura is perfectly safe inside the palace,” Nicholas said encouragingly as he turned his horse around the knight’s speckled gelding.
“Of course, your Majesty,” was Beaumont’s short reply before the knight fell in beside the prince, a permanent glower still in place.
Nicholas shook his head as he led the way back and wondered if the knight captain’s mood would ever improve.
“Well, they are certainly small,” Lady Lavinia commented as she turned about the rooms arranged for her, which matched the other rooms prepared for the Ambassador and his family. “But with an elegance and quality without match in Ventrayna.”
Eleanora let out a small sigh of relief and nodded to the servants waiting by the door with trays of prepared food, presents, and vases of fresh flowers.
“Oh, you sweet child, you shouldn’t have,” Lavinia protested with a pleased smile as her maids stepped forward to accept—and inspect—each gift.
“I would not have made it this far without your guidance and discerning ear,” Eleanora replied with a sad smile. “That said, I don’t want to keep you from your rest after such a long journey. Please make yourself comfortable, Aunt Lavinia.” The crown princess stepped back with a humble incline of her head as she retreated towards the bedroom door.
“Wait, I have a present for you as well, Eleanora,” Lavinia called out before her niece crossed the threshold. “But it is a gift for—discerning eyes.”
Eleanora smiled in understanding and signaled for her attendants to leave. The staff quickly followed the noble attendants from the room while Lavinia similarly dismissed her maids and motioned for Eleanora to join her before the bedroom vanity desk and mirror.
“It is something Haemish commissioned for you,” Lavinia explained as she unlocked a jewelry box laid out before the mirror. Eleanora’s smile faltered as her aunt opened the box, but the crown princess’s gaze quickly caught upon the gold circlet adorned with large eye-catching rubies. “A crown fit for a Queen. Haemish requested that you wear it to the banquet tonight to remind yourself—and your husband—of the reason you were sent to Lafeara.”
Eleanora inhaled sharply as Lavinia lifted the sparkling heavy circlet from its satin cushion. “I’m afraid such a crown will not complement the dress my designer has picked out for this evening.”
“You have plenty of dresses,” Lavinia scolded gently as she raised the crown and placed it carefully against Eleanora’s dark curls. “But only one Husband and one Emperor.”
“Is this a gift or a lesson?” Eleanora remarked bitterly as she examined her reflection. She had never worn such an adornment before. The weight of the crown was both exhilarating and frightening.
“My dear, where our families are concerned, is there any difference between the two?” Lavinia smiled affectionately as she tucked a lock of Eleanora’s licorice black hair beneath the crown and leaned closer to the crown princess’s ear. “And I’m afraid I must also warn you that the Emperor is displeased with your—progress.”
Eleanora shivered and turned away from the mirror towards her aunt. “What does Arius know?”
“That your marriage to Nicholas remains unconsummated—and that you may be at fault in this matter.”
Eleanora scoffed softly. “As always, the Emperor’s spies have a rather keen insight into my private life.”
“It is no small matter to be sure, and yet one easily remedied,” Lavinia reasoned as she took Eleanora’s arm and guided her towards a couch set outside the bed-chamber. “If anyone can understand the unpleasantness of marriage, it is I.”
“And yet it is no simple matter to bring an unwilling husband, let alone a crown prince, to my bed.” Eleanora removed the crown and sighed as she sank into the corner of the couch.
“Eleanora, you were both engaged to another before—” Lavinia’s gaze drifted from the crown to the bedroom door. “In any case, you both have lovers for passion. The marriage between you need not be anything more than a formality to be endured when necessary.”
“Believe me, I have tried,” Eleanora said bitterly.
“Try harder!” Lavinia’s tone turned harsh, but her honey-brown eyes remained sympathetic. “You cannot hold onto the throne or your crown without an heir, Eleanora.”
“We—I have thought of a remedy to that,” Eleanora replied hastily as she shifted to face her aunt. “I could adopt one of Nicholas’s other children.”
“You—would replace a child’s mother—instead of having a child of your own?” Lavinia raised a brow in surprise as she studied her niece. “Have you not considered that the child’s mother could just as easily replace you.”
“I—” A knock at the door interrupted Eleanora’s reply, and Lord Marco entered. His scowling expression quickly shifted into a grin as he sprinted across the room and lifted Eleanora from the couch before spinning her into a hug.
“Marco!” Eleanora protested, gripping the crown gingerly as she was crushed against her younger cousin, who had grown quite a bit in the last two years, and was now taller than her.
“Marco—please show some restraint!” Lavinia scolded as she observed them with a worried frown.
“Oh, will both of you stop lecturing me!” Marco grumbled as he reluctantly set Eleanora down and retreated. “Forgive me, Cousin—no—your Highness. I have been holding that back since earlier.”
“Elly will do while we are alone,” Eleanora protested with a defeated smile.
“Hmph, not if the Ambassador catches wind of it,” Marco sulked as he stole Eleanora’s seat beside his mother. “Oh, I see you got his present.” The young half-witch’s mood sharply darkened as he eyed the crown in her hand.
“Yes—It seems I will have to change my wardrobe to match for tonight’s festivities,” Eleanora replied as she carried the crown back over to its box and shut the lid firmly.
“Must I wait that long for a drink?” Marco called after her as he pulled away from his mother’s restraining hand to join Eleanora. “Or to meet those pretty maids of yours, Elly?”
“Marco, they are attendants. Daughters of noble families, not maids you can play frivolously with,” Eleanora reproached sternly as she folded her arms.
“Even better since Mother is determined to see me engaged—if not married—before this visit is over,” Marco replied with a devilish grin as he turned towards Lavinia. The latter appeared to be nursing a headache.
“A marriage?” Eleanora echoed in surprise as she glanced between them. “To a Lafearian family.”
“The further from Ventrayna, the better,” Marco remarked with forced optimism as he opened the jewelry box to admire the crown.
While he stood so close beside her, Eleanora could not help but notice the makeup Marco wore around his eyes and down his cheeks. Her cousin also appeared to have lost some weight, though whether that was due to his sudden growth or illness, she could not be sure. The discoloration beneath Marco’s makeup she could only attribute to one of Lord Haemish’s foul moods.
“I will see what I can do,” Eleanora whispered as she reached for her cousin’s hand. “It would certainly be wonderful to have you here with me.”
“Oh, you have enough troubles on your plate, Elly,” Marco replied dismissively as he dropped the lid and retreated from her touch. “Though I must say, my compliments to whatever designer convinced you to wear that dress.”
“Ha!” Eleanora shook her head at Marco’s impish grin and watched as he disappeared inside Lavinia’s bedroom chamber. “I will have to introduce the two of you later,” she called after him before turning a worried gaze to Lavinia.
“If you could recommend a suitable family,” her aunt said softly as she rose to join Eleanora. “A family that—can keep Marco happy. I would forever be in your debt, Eleanora.”
“Of course,” Eleanora murmured as she clasped Lavinia’s hand, sensing an unspoken urgency to her aunt’s request. “You know I would do anything for my cousin.”
“Yes, I do.” Lavinia’s honey-brown eyes fixed upon Eleanora as firm resolution settled over her worried expression. “Which is why I must warn you, Eleanora. Do not let Haemish see the cracks in your marriage. Paint on whatever smile you wish—but he must leave convinced that you and Nicholas have a future together.”
Eleanora swallowed and drew in two short breaths before she whispered, “Or what?”
“Or it will be a head instead of a crown he rewards you with.”