Chapter 63: The Art of Seduction
“So somehow, I have to convince my uncle that my marriage to Nicholas is—well—a real marriage,” Eleanora explained as she finished her hurried summation.
“And it was the Ambassador’s wife who told you all this?” Carina clarified as Eleanora paced past the large vanity desk where the crown princess placed the jewelry box she had brought back.
Eleanora nodded as she uncrossed her arms and fidgeted with an earring. “I’m afraid I don’t understand the motivations behind such a warning—”
“The Ambassador probably assumed he would have more to gain from your marriage to the crown prince aside from strengthening political ties between Lafeara and Ventrayna,” Carina interrupted bluntly.
“Ah!” Eleanora sighed and dropped her hand with a wry smile. “When you put it like that, then it does make sense, I suppose.”
Carina studied the over-stressed crown princess. ‘Eleanora knows how much power the Ambassador has in these negotiations. ‘If Haemish doesn’t get what he wants, he’ll pick apart the royal couple’s marriage or target Hana, who is Eleanora’s weakness.’ Her folded hands tightened against each other as a grim memory from Maura’s past surfaced.
In the original timeline, the Ambassador nearly dragged a distraught Hana back to Ventrayna. Eleanora’s public rebellion against her uncle, to the extent that she used Major Garrett to hold Haemish at sword point while the crown princess retrieved Hana from his rooms, had nearly sent the two weeklong negotiations between the Ambassador and crown prince down the drain.
Haemish did leave without Hana in the end, but not without a public threat that he would report Eleanora’s infidelity with Hana to the Emperor.
At that point, the power Eleanora had held as the Emperor’s adopted princess weakened considerably, which opened the door for Nicholas to bring Consort Rosamund into the palace and soon after joyfully announced Rosamund’s pregnancy.
‘But this time, Haemish brought his family along. Why?’ Carina blinked as she pulled her clasped hands apart and focused on the still pacing princess. Aware of footsteps coming up the stairs in the hallway behind them, Carina swiftly turned and closed the door behind her. Then she guided Eleanora towards the seated window on the opposite end, where they were less likely to be overheard.
“Your Highness, the Ambassador, for all his fancy titles, position, and finery, is a businessman as much as he is a politician. I’m sure Lord Haemish was very much involved in your original engagement to the First Prince and probably considered that arrangement as an investment, not just for the alliance, but for himself.”
“Yes, I am aware of my uncle’s limitless ambition,” Eleanora replied with a cynical smile. “Though I am surprised to hear you are so familiar with him, Lady Maura.”
‘I know more about your uncle than I care to.’
“The background of your engagement was part of my training under the Countess,” Carina explained dismissively. “In any case, for a businessman, an investment can only be considered beneficial when it bears fruit. Right now, that investment—your marriage—may fall apart at any moment and the person the Ambassador will blame for such a failure—”
“Would be me,” Eleanora replied numbly as she covered a frustrated sigh behind one hand and pinched her eyes shut as if to block out a painful thought.
Carina smiled sympathetically, then turned to face the room as she rubbed her chin thoughtfully. “Your aunt has the right idea. If we can convince Lord Haemish that your relationship with Nicholas isn’t—”
“Utterly and completely beyond repair?” Eleanora quipped gloomily.
“—then we can buy ourselves time. Nicholas needs this alliance with Ventrayna to work just as much as you do. Even if the alliance only appears to be weakened, Lafeara faces the possibility of Tharyn testing our borders again. You are the key to Nicholas obtaining security for this kingdom and his reign.”
Eleanora pondered this silently as she stared out the window. When she did not speak, Carina continued patiently, “Your Highness—however unpleasant it may be—you have to play the dutiful wife until the Ambassador leaves.”
The crown princess scoffed as she turned around to face Carina. “I’m not even sure I know how to, Lady Maura,” she admitted with a hint of bitter frustration.
“Just—take Nicholas’s side whenever possible,” Carina suggested as she moved closer. “Even if he’s wrong, try to support him without correcting every little thing he does.”
“So treat my husband like a fool while behaving like a simpleton myself?” Eleanora chuckled as she rose from her seat. “Well, I suppose that shouldn’t be too hard.”
“Eleanora—your Highness,” Carina hastily corrected her impatient tone. “Nicholas is not a fool. Just because you both come from different cultures and have different views and expectations doesn’t make either of you foolish. You have to find some common ground if you want to work together as partners instead of enemies. And the only way you can begin to do that is by trying to see things through Nicholas’s eyes, from his perspective.”
“From the perspective of a privileged prince about to become King?”
“From the perspective of someone who was forced into this marriage and onto the throne in the same manner you were!” Carina inhaled sharply as she pressed cold knuckles against the creases forming between her brows. ‘Come on, Carina, it won’t do any good to lose your temper now.’ She exhaled slowly and folded her hands patiently at her waist as she studied Eleanora, hoping her words had left their mark.
“Perhaps I have been too judgmental,” Eleanora admitted softly, staring once more out the window. “But I can’t help—comparing him to Tristan.” She glanced towards Carina, and the ghost of grief shadowed her face. “As brothers, they couldn’t be more different, no matter how I look at them.”
Carina nodded and sucked in her lip as she considered another approach. “Perhaps it would help your Highness to think of this negotiation as a game of chess. Each move you make is pivotal to your overall strategy and goal. A battle should not be guided by emotions and fear but by observing and subduing the opposing player.”
“You—” Eleanora raised a brow, “—want me to think of my marriage as some sort of game?”
“Well,” Carina shifted impatiently, not exactly comfortable with the direction their conversation was going. “In chess, it takes more than one piece to win a battle. You must utilize the whole board. Often the most obvious path ahead is the least desirable.”
“My uncle is rather good at chess,” Eleanora murmured speculatively as she rose from her seat and moved over towards the jewelry box. “Perhaps you’re right, Lady Maura.”
‘Finally, progress.’ Carina offered a tired smile of victory.
“After all, in chess, the most valuable player is not the king but his queen.”
“Without the support of a queen, any king can fall,” Eleanora continued with a note of conviction as she turned towards Carina. The indomitable confidence Eleanora had displayed before when she casually discussed skinning traitors in front of the House of Lords had now returned. “Then, to start, we will need to prepare a suitable piece of armor for this queen.”
‘Armor?’ Carina glanced towards the golden gown already laid out for the banquet. “Well, we already have—”
“Armor to go along with this.” Eleanora slid the jewelry box open and lifted out a dazzling ruby crown.
Carina froze as she took in the scarlet diadem of a monarch. Her breath caught as her mind turned instantly to the familiar vision of Consort Rosamund rubbing her pregnant belly, the ruby crown, gifted to the Royal Consort by Queen Eleanora, glittered upon the expectant mother’s head.
“Your Highness,” Carina whispered tensely as she took a step forward. “Where—did you get this?”
“It was a gift from my uncle,” Eleanora explained as she turned to the mirror and held the crown above her head, admiring it.
‘So, the crown that poisoned Rosamund and killed her child came from Haemish?’
“May I—examine it, your Highness—please,” Carina asked anxiously.
“Examine it?” Eleanora’s bemused smile quickly faded as she removed the crown. “Oh—certainly.”
Carina took the offered ruby circlet and carried it over to the light of the window, where she trailed her fingers along the band and examined every crevice for foreign powder or magical runes.
“What exactly are you looking for?” Eleanora pressed uneasily as she moved closer to watch.
“My uncle might be a cold-hearted, greedy politician, but my Aunt would never allow him to harm me!” Eleanora muttered angrily as she snatched the crown from Carina’s hand. “Now, I need a suitable gown and adornments to match—something red.” Eleanora returned to the mirror and set the ruby circlet upon her head again, turning as she admired it.
“That crown is not poisoned or enchanted,” Viktor rumbled through the bracelet on Carina’s arm.
‘Then it wasn’t the crown that poisoned Lady Rosamund and killed her unborn child?’
Carina snapped her attention back to the scowling princess. “Yes, sorry, your Highness. I’ll prepare a new gown right away,” Carina replied hastily as she spun towards Eleanora’s closets and quickly located the two red gowns within it.
‘There’s no poison on the crown now, but—’ Carina glanced over as Eleanora returned the diadem to its jewelry box and then left the bedroom ‘—that doesn’t mean poison wasn’t added later before Eleanora gave it to Lady Rosamund.’
Carina’s hand trembled for a moment before she seized the gorgeous red satin dress embroidered with scarlet silk roses and blood diamonds. She hung it from the bed rafters and paused as Maura’s ghost filtered through the room with an impish grin as she floated over to the crown.
‘Do ghosts like shiny things?’ Carina wondered as she turned towards the locked dresser that held Eleanora’s jewels. ‘Right. Lady Tiffany has the key.’ Carina frowned as she stepped forward and ran a thumb over the keyhole on the top dresser drawer.
Lady Tiffany had been put in charge of all of the Crown Princess’s jewels since she could rely upon her family to repair or replace any damaged or lost pieces through their shops. ‘It makes sense that Tiffany would have held the same position in the last timeline as well.’ Carina stepped back and rubbed her forehead as she nursed a growing suspicion.
A flash of red pulled Carina’s eye to where Maura was wearing a ghostly copy of the ruby crown in front of the mirror. The specter turned and admired her reflection, mimicking Eleanora’s earlier movements.
‘If Tiffany was the Dowager’s spy, she would be perfectly placed to poison the crown before Eleanora gifted it to Consort Rosamund. But why would the Dowager be so bothered with the birth of a bastard?’
Carina watched the fawning ghost vanish as footsteps quickly approached the bedroom door.
“That one?” Eleanora called out inquisitively as she focused on the dress Carina had hung by the bed with a nervous frown. Tiffany entered the room and moved behind the crown princess to examine the ruby crown.
“You wore the other red gown recently, your Highness,” Carina reminded her, only to be interrupted.
“Oh, what a gorgeous crown, your Highness! These must be the scorpion rubies I’ve heard so much about,” Tiffany gushed as she lifted the circlet. “You absolutely must wear this tonight!”
Eleanora smiled, satisfied with Tiffany’s reaction. “Yes, I promised my aunt that I would, but I’m not sure about this dress.” She turned back to the gown Carina had selected with a petulant frown.
‘You wanted red,’ Carina refrained from reminding her.
“Oh, umm, perhaps the gold gown instead?” Tiffany suggested as she set the crown down with apparent reluctance. “The one with the least jewels adorning it. This crown and our crown princess must be allowed to shine!”
‘So, then the dress I originally picked out for this evening,’ Carina muttered to herself as she returned the red dress and pulled out the elegant gold gown once more.
“Oh, you will look divine, your Highness,” Tiffany praised with notable excitement as she unlocked a set of drawers and pulled out a collection of ruby jewels to complement the crown.
Carina watched the crown princess browse through her stash of jewels for an acceptable match and wondered how Eleanora would feel should her uncle be found dead the following morning.
‘Surely, Eleanora won’t miss him that much, even if they are family. Hana will certainly be relieved. But the real question is—’ Carina’s ice-blue eyes narrowed as she laid out a few makeup options for eyeliner, blush, and eye color in front of the vanity mirror, ‘—how will Lady Lavinia react to her husband’s death.’
‘A dress as armor?’ Carina smiled at the idea as she adjusted the rose-pink earrings in her left ear.
The gown she had chosen for this evening was made of steel-gray velvet with sheer teal-green silk chiffon layered over the skirt. The same material draped her bare arms and flowed the length of her skirt to the floor. A small slit in the dress’s sleeves allowed the fabric to hang around her elbows and permitted Carina to move her arms freely. Silver embroidery with white pearls, patterned in the shape of leaves, surrounded embroidered pink roses that adorned each shoulder and the dress’s waistline where the chiffon began.
The subdued but pretty colors suited Carina just fine as she would be serving wine with the other attendants tonight and wished to observe the Ambassador and Eleanora’s other guests without too much notice.
The chiffon and velvet fabric rustled like wind over tall grass as Carina descended the stairs, barely remembering to be cautious of her left ankle in her high heels. The attendant smiled tensely at her reflection in the mirror as she circled the foyer and headed down the back halls towards the courtyard.
The servant’s doors, which connected one side of the hall to another, were opening and shutting at rapid speed as maids and footmen rushed about dressed in silver and gold uniforms to match the highlight of the banquet, the courtyard’s chessboard.
Carina shielded her eyes as she stepped out into the sunlit space. A band of musicians rose from their arranged chairs to turn and bow towards her in greeting.
“Ah, are you, Lady Maura?” the conductor, Sir Craig, inquired as he stepped forward to greet her.
“Yes?” Carina replied briskly as she surveyed the arrangement of instruments. “Thank you for your efforts. I realize this was all very short notice. Do you all need anything?”
“Since we were allowed to select our arrangement, we are more than ready, Lady Maura. Thank you for your consideration and the marvelous accommodations provided,” the conductor replied enthusiastically with a formal bow.
‘Well, if you don’t mind living in a confined space with eight other people and no room to move about.’ Carina smiled and nodded. “Would you mind playing something for me now? I think it would help the staff relax, and our guests should be arriving at any moment.”
“It would be our pleasure.” With a sharp snap of Sir Craig’s fingers, the musicians prepared their instruments and joined together in a soothing, classical Lafearian tune that helped eased the tension weighing upon Carina’s shoulders.
“Lovely. Thank you,” Carina mouthed to the conductor with a grateful smile, then motioned for them to keep playing as she turned and continued through the courtyard towards the back exit.
Once upon the outer lawn, Carina caught a whiff of the fragrant aroma of Chef Robbi’s cooking through the open kitchen windows where the muffled clang of pots, knives, and plates mingled together beneath the Ventrayna chef’s booming voice. ‘Well, at least all arrangements for the banquet are set. Now to see if the main event is ready.’
Carina could easily make out a familiar large canopy tent set up against the boundary wall across the palace grounds’ back lawn. The twins had insisted on having a private and quiet place to withdraw and change into their dancing outfits. Although Major Garrett had been against the idea of them lounging freely upon the palace grounds, Eleanora was easier to persuade, in part due to the two Lafearian knights assigned as escorts to the twins and their musicians for the duration of their stay.
Unfortunately, this arrangement also meant that if the twins failed to snag Lord Haemish’s attention tonight, they would have to pack up and leave before nightfall.
‘No pressure, but I hope Madam Maylea picked the right exotic assassins for this job.’
The dancer’s bodyguards, Sedric and Harold, sat outside smoking and conversing in a relaxed manner with their Lafearian knight babysitters. As Carina approached, the knights straightened and bowed their heads politely in recognition while Sedric left his chair and slid inside the tent. A moment later, the midnight-blue flaps opened as the twin dancers preceeded Sedric outside to greet her.
“Ah, if it isn’t our generous benefactor. Do come in, Lady Maura.” Lilaru and Griselda offered a flourished synchronized bow to Carina. Their matching braided blond hair sparkled with sapphires that spilled over the sheer robes they wore that did nothing to hide the skintight garments beneath. What appeared to be a hybrid between lingerie and a full-body swimsuit left more than enough skin to draw the Lafearian knights’ shocked stare.
“Would you like to come in?” Griselda asked formally as she extended an eager hand towards Carina.
“We have been expecting you,” Lilaru added with a flirtatious smile to one of the knights. The man flushed as he and his comrade hastily spun to survey the yard.
“Thank you,” Carina replied as she accepted Griselda’s hand and found herself pulled inside the tent’s enchanted border. “The banquet will be starting at any moment. Once all the guests have arrived, a servant will inform you. When the first course has concluded, the other musicians will carry on an interlude piece of music while you and your musicians enter through the back door. You’ve already seen the space you will be performing in—between the banquet tables?”
“We have,” Griselda confirmed with a nod.
“You will have all the access you need to entice the Ambassador, but be careful of approaching the royal family who will be seated around him.”
“Do not worry, Lady Maura,” Lilaru replied with an amused smile as she settled into the cushioned hammock seat that hung from the tent’s rafter posts. “We have performed before royalty before.”
“Oh?” Carina tried not to sound surprised—or worried—as she watched the dancer spin in her chair. “Which royal family?”
“We changed our hair to the Ventrayna fashion to appeal to Lord Haemish,” Griselda effortlessly skirted Carina’s question as she ran a painted hand through the jeweled braids. “And we have prepared three different dances that are sure to get any man’s blood boiling.”
“If all goes as planned,” Lilaru murmured as she slid from the hammock to her sister’s side. “The Ambassador will call one or both of us to his bed-chamber. We will use the poisoned hairpins you provided to send him on his way to the underworld, then slip outside the palace without raising the alarm.” Lilaru pulled the cold hairpin from her coiled braids and lunged it playfully towards Griselda’s neck.
“We are, however, down to one hairpin,” Griselda replied with a sharp look to Lilaru.
‘Already?’ Carina flinched but nodded. “I have a spare in my bedroom. Though once I return to the banquet, it will be difficult to break away again without drawing suspicion.”
“Saul will find you inside. He entered with the musicians as a servant to carrying their chairs and instruments.”
“He did?” Carina blinked in surprise, followed by a small wave of relief. The twins weren’t taking any chances if they had already planned this far ahead.
“We thought it would be useful to have at least one pair of eyes and ears inside the banquet before our dance,” Griselda replied with a shrug. “Saul is very skilled at blending in.”
Carina smiled and nodded to the hairpin in Lilaru’s hand. “Do you remember how it works?”
“Break off the tip beneath the skin, and the poison will do the rest,” Lilaru recited, looking rather pleased as she returned the deadly ornament to her hair.
“The poison won’t immobilize the Ambassador immediately,” Carina cautioned as she anxiously rubbed the fabric of her long sleeves, “but it should work faster if you each administer a dose. Once it takes effect, Lord Haemish will fall into a sleep-like coma and perish before the sun rises.”
“That should provide more than enough time for you to slip us outside the palace,” Griselda said somberly. “We have a small craft hidden by the shoreline, guarded by one of Madame’s associates. As long as you can get us outside the palace, we will slip across the Serpentine River before the Ambassador takes his last breath.”
“Do not worry so much, Lady Maura,” Lilaru soothed as she swayed over to pat the attendant’s fidgeting hand. “We have handled far more frightening men than he.” The dancer motioned towards a table, barely a foot off the floor, where a pitcher of wine waited. “A drink—to steady your nerves?”
“No—I’m fine,” Carina replied with a sheepish smile, finding comfort in the twins’ confident demeanor.
“Are you?” Griselda remarked sharply. “We may be free and clear once we’re out. But after the Ambassador is found, any lingering suspicion will likely fall on you.”
“The poison is not one easily detected,” Carina replied as she met the dancer’s steady gaze. “Once it reaches the Ambassador’s heart, death will appear natural even to the most astute physician.” Her gaze shifted between them. “But to reach the heart quickly, you must be sure to aim for a major artery.”
“We are intimately familiar with the most efficient way to deliver poison,” Lilaru murmured as she brushed the fingers of her right hand against Carina’s earring while her left hand circled the bracelet on the attendant’s wrist. “The neck—” Lilaru graze her fingertips down Carina’s throat “—beneath the arm—” she lifted Carina’s arm above her head and traced her thumb beneath the attendant’s shoulder. “And my personal favorite—” Carina stiffened as Lilaru’s hand slid down her stomach and past her waistline. “—the blood flow here is particularly stimulated while a man is—agitated.”
Carina stared into the dancer’s seal-blue eyes, then removed Lilaru’s hand from her inner thigh and stepped away. “If you can’t deliver the poison—if it’s too dangerous—”
“We won’t fail, Lady Maura,” Griselda interjected with a hint of impatience. “Lord Haemish is not the first witch we have unmanned.”
“And he is barely a coven witch,” Lilaru added with a derisive snort.
“His bodyguards are coven witches,” Carina countered nervously. “And Lady Lavinia is a pure-blood.”
“I very much doubt Lady Lavinia will be joining us,” Griselda grumbled with a tone that indicated any further nagging on Carina’s part would be unnecessary. “We can handle things on our end.”
‘I suppose I’ll have to trust in their ability, not to mention Madame Maylea’s faith in them.’
Lilaru left Carina’s side to return to her sister. The mischievous twin tilted her head against Grilselda’s as she offered Carina an alluring smile. “We could even teach you, Lady Maura, how to render a man—weak and defenseless—if you wished.”
Carina glanced between the twins and exhaled slowly. “Another time, perhaps. You will both need to lay low for a while after the funeral until things die down.”
“Naturally,” Griselda replied with a firm nod to her twin sister.
“We look forward to it, Lady Maura,” Lilaru remarked with an excited grin as she escorted Carina back towards the entrance of the tent. The dancer pecked the attendant’s cheek as she opened the flaps. “And we are grateful for the opportunity.”
‘Grateful?’ Carina smothered a tinge of worry as she smiled at the bodyguards and knights before heading back to the palace to retrieve her backup hairpin.