Chapter 68: The Pendulum of Power
The House of Lords sat with grim expressions around the table of counsel. The more senior in years appeared to be nursing the remnants of last night’s banquet rather poorly. The newly appointed Earl Percy Hawthorne leaned over his chair towards Marquess Winifred as the two exchanged a hushed and hurried discussion. The returned, but visibly fatigued, Lord Acheron and Lord Tomberline were also present and rose to their feet with the rest of the council lords as the Ministry chamber doors swept open. Crown Prince Nicholas entered and escorted Crown Princess Eleanora beside him into the room.
More than a few unhappy glowers trailed behind the remarkably amicable couple as Nicholas led his crown princess towards their elevated chairs. But then all gazes turned swiftly towards Ambassador Haemish, who appeared none the worse after all the wine he consumed at the crown princess’s banquet. Lady Lavinia joined her husband as they were escorted by the Prime Minister towards two regal, cushioned chairs placed between the royal dais and the counselor’s table.
Nicholas left Eleanora in her seat and nodded to his council as he moved past the larger middle chair, reserved for the acting monarch, the Queen Regent, and took the empty seat to its left. His stomach grumbled, still somewhat squeamish after the swan and one too many cups of the Caligo Wine.
‘What exactly was in that Ventrayna wine?’ Nicholas wondered as he rubbed against the headache that sparked behind his squinted eyes. The long walk across the palace grounds from Rose Palace to the Ministry had done little to improve his condition.
The Dowager arrived a short while later, looking rather refreshed if not a bit annoyed as she surveyed the many haggard faces and sighed. ‘Grandmother will probably have a few words to say to Eleanora about last night’s banquet.’ On impulse, Nicholas rose from his seat to head the Queen Regent off with a flourished smile and greeting.
Octavia raised a brow as the crown prince clasped his stomach and grimaced. “Yes, perhaps you should escort me to my seat and rest, Nicholas. I will speak to your wife later.”
Nicholas sighed with a defeated smile as he offered his arm and led her towards the monarch’s chair.
“No,” Octavia said as she patted his arms. “I believe it would be best if the future King led today’s proceedings.”
Nicholas blinked as he studied her with a sudden tinge of uneasiness. “Are you sure?”
“The future of this kingdom should be decided by the one who is to rule it. Not some white-haired temporary monarch who will only hold the crown for a few more weeks. I will continue to offer you what wisdom and advice I can, Nicholas. But you must learn to make your own decisions and live with them.”
‘This was—unexpected.’ Nicholas forced a smile as he guided Octavia to the chair he had just vacated. “Are you tired, Grandmother?” he asked after a moment’s pause.
The Queen Regent snorted as she pulled her hand from his arm. “I may be old, but I suffer from neither illness nor—overindulgence that so many appear to be struggling with this morning.” Her ice-blue eyes trailed over to the Prime Minister, who was circling two fingers against his temple as he leaned over the documents before him.
Nicholas studied his grandmother and wished his head would stop throbbing long enough to let him think properly. ‘For someone who clung to power at every opportunity—why would she suddenly thrust such an important matter upon me now?’
As if sensing his doubt, Octavia smiled and stepped past the crown prince to address the table of noblemen. “For today’s negotiations, I relinquish my position as temporary ruling monarch to my grandson, Nicholas, your future King. I trust you will afford his Majesty all the assistance and respect you would offer the late king, myself, and all future monarchs.”
The House of Lords rose once more and bowed towards Nicholas as they uttered a single reply of solidarity, “We are at your service, Your Majesty.”
“Then the matter is settled. Take your seat, Nicholas,” Octavia said as she gestured to the center raised chair.
“Very well. Thank you, Grandmother.” Nicholas bowed and kissed her hand, then turned and sat confidently upon his father’s throne. He ignored the chill that spread through his fingertips as he clasped the carved armrest shaped like snarling wolves. The goosebumps spread up his arms as the crown prince faced the Ambassador and the House of Lords, who all watched him with varying degrees of approval. Nicholas straightened his spine self-consciously, keenly aware of his heart racing, and offered them what he hoped was the undaunted smile of a king.
‘The decisions we make here today will echo throughout Lafeara’s future.’ Nicholas exhaled as the Dowager took her seat to his left. Then he turned to Attwood, who observed the crown prince with an expression of pride. Nicholas offered the Prime Minister a nod to begin.
Lord Haemish coughed and adjusted his robes as he studied the mood of the room. Lady Lavinia remained poised and silent though she sent Eleanora a quick smile as Prime Minister Attwood rose from his seat to begin the proceedings.
“Your Majesties, Your Highness, esteemed guests, and my Lords,” Attwood began after clearing his throat. “We are gathered here on this auspicious day to discuss the future terms for the alliance under the reign of Crown Prince Nicholas Havardur, future King of Lafeara. The Emperor has sent his Ambassador, Lord Haemish Emerson, uncle of our Crown Princess Eleanora Kensington, to supersede the Ventrayna Empires’ interest in these matters. Besides the Ambassador, his wife, Lady Lavinia Zenon, cousin of Empress Alexandria, is also recognized as a diplomatic official of the Ventrayna Empire.”
The Ambassador snorted as Lady Lavinia rose and curtsied to the room. “I am merely here to support my husband as an official witness of these proceedings.”
Nicholas smiled at her careful reply. ‘Lady Lavinia comes from the Empress’s coven. No doubt Alexandria sent her here to safeguard Crown Princess Aurelia’s future interests.’
Lord Haemish coughed as his wife sat back down, seemingly annoyed that she had spoken at all, but quickly turned and nodded to the Prime Minister to continue.
“All twelve members of the House of Lords are present for today’s proceedings. Marques Borghese, Marques Winifred, Earl Hawthorne, Earl Coldwell, Viscount Bronte, Viscount Kendall, Viscount Tomberline, Viscount Marlowe, Lord Enfield, Lord Gladstone, and—” he nodded to his son, Acheron, “Lord Hargreve.”
Nicholas glanced towards the unusually quiet rogue. Acheron slouched in his council chair. The young nobleman appeared rather pale and even more miserable than the last time he had dropped by Nichola’s office to complain about the witch hunters. Judging by the haunted expression on Acheron’s face, he hadn’t fared much better since. ‘I’ll need to get a report from him and Lord Tomberline later.’
“Then we shall begin,” the Prime Minister continued after receiving a nod from the Dowager, “By discussing the Emperor’s promise of reduced taxes for the Kingdom of Lafeara for the next five years.”
Nicholas leaned against the armrests, only subtly aware of the cold that seemed to seep from the chair into his back and legs, and waited for the Ambassador’s answer. As the crown prince and Prime Minister had discussed, before any new terms of the negotiations were raised, they would first confirm the Emperor’s promise regarding Eleanora’s dowry.
“Ah, yes!” Haemish replied with an amused smile. “The Emperor’s most generous offer to reduce Lafeara’s annual tax from 9 million crescents to 6.3 million crescents.” He leaned forward and thoughtfully stroked his beard as he turned to regard Eleanora seated beside Nicholas. “Then, my esteemed noble lords, you will be happy to hear that the Emperor has offered to reduce Lafeara’s taxes even further to a mere 4 million crescents!” The startled whispers that stirred around the counselor’s table were of no surprise to the Ambassador. “That is—after Eleanora’s future son is named crown prince and heir to his father’s throne.”
Nicholas buried a frustrated sigh behind his hand as he leaned back and regarded the Ambassador silently. ‘Always the carrot before he shows his stick.’
“Such matters,” Attwood interjected quickly, “Can certainly be discussed in the future when the royal couple is blessed with such a son. We are humbled and grateful to receive the Emperor’s generosity, but still—” Several nobles nodded along as they shifted their attention between the Prime Minister and the Emperor’s Ambassador. “It is the next five years which concern us today.”
“The next five years concern me too, Prime Minister,” Haemish retorted with a snort. “Especially given my niece has been married for a month, and yet the marriage bed remains unconsummated!”
An unnatural silence descended upon the great room as Nicholas’s numb fingers clutched the armrest and felt his cheeks burn.
“The Emperor is also uneasy after hearing that your Majesty—” Haemish turned towards the crown prince “—would so readily welcome the Pope’s witch hunters into your kingdom when you are married to a princess of our beloved Witch Empire.”
“Lord Haemish, we appear to be getting off-topic here,” Attwood attempted to intercede.
“Why does Lafeara continue to cling to an alliance that offers neither riches, nor protection, nor even a swift coronation after King Henri’s death. It cannot have escaped anyone’s notice that Zarus and Ventrayna have been at war for nearly a decade.” Haemish ignored the Prime Minister’s attempt to interrupt as he rose to his feet. “How could the Emperor possibly turn a blind eye and agree to continue this alliance given this—cowardly neutrality.”
“Ambassador—” Nicholas fought back an angry retort as he faced Haemish’s rather smug face. “It is not so easy to cut off an alliance that is deeply tied to the faith and religion of Lafeara’s people.”
“But it is easy for your Majesty to allow the heinous, prejudicial oppression and public execution of Lafeara’s witches?” Haemish countered, his voice rising passionately as he fixed his gaze on the crown prince. “Do you know how many burnt-out pyres my family encountered on our way here? How many witches, citizens of your kingdom, fell at their knees and pleaded for the Emperor’s protection?”
“Ambassador!” Nicholas cut in harshly once more. “I expressly forbade the Pope’s Emissary from harming those who do not fall under the church’s jurisdiction. My citizens and their property will not be harmed, detained, or questioned without my approval.” Nicholas snapped his attention towards Lord Tomberline and Acheron. “Were my orders not followed?”
Acheron’s narrowed eyes remained glued to the table while Lord Tomberline attempted to speak but dropped his gaze with a helpless sigh as Haemish continued.
“Your Majesty, just because they wear holy cloth—does not mean they are citizens of Zarus. They are still your people, some of whom happen to be witches,” Haemish protested in a reasonable tone.
“And if any of my citizens are guilty of a crime—of killing one of the Pope’s priests—then witch or not they should pay!” Nicholas countered as he unclasped his stiff fingers from the chair to rub the throbbing ache swelling behind his left eye. “It does not fall to the crown to govern the internal matters of the church.”
“A crime?” Haemish echoed in weary disbelief. “Has anyone yet been convicted of the priest’s murder?”
Haemish shifted his attention from Nicholas to Lord Tomberline, who shook his heads in a solemn negative.
“Then, is your Majesty at least aware of the number of witches burned as part of this inquisition?” Haemish pressed.
Nicholas tensed and turned his attention to Acheron. The Ambassador quickly followed his gaze.
“Do you, Lord Hargreve, have the answer?” Haemish demanded.
Acheron raised shadowed eyes from his curled fist and glanced from Haemish to Nicholas before answering, “Thirty-seven sisters of Lafeara’s church have been slau—killed—by our last count.”
A quiet gasp filled the room as Acheron turned his gaze to Lord Tomberline, who nodded in agreement.
“At least that many, your Majesty,” Tomberline responded aloud affirmatively.
A rumble of discord spread across the council table. Haemish swept his regal robes behind him as he turned between the royals and the House of Lords. “And what were the crimes of these—Thirty-seven—sisters of the cloth?”
“Well, they—” Acheron looked again towards Nicholas with a glimmer of remorse in his steel-blue eyes, “—were found to be witches.”
Nicholas shook his head and almost shut his eyes as he grimaced at the Ambassador’s clever performance. Haemish turned with arms outstretched to the ministry’s painted ceiling as if seeking heaven’s judgment while the mood of the room became uncomfortably silent.
“Then they were not guilty of any crime—aside from being born—a witch!” Haemish declared as he lowered his arms and turned back to face Nicholas. “And if Eleanora, my beloved niece, the Emperor’s adopted princess, were found to be a witch—you would allow your allies to burn her as well?”
“Lord Haemish, please—” Attwood protested.
“Clearly, my wife is not a member of the church,” Nicholas cut across him with an impatient snap. “As I have already said, the internal affairs of the church—”
“Fall outside your Majesty’s influence,” Haemish interrupted with a cynical shake of his head. “And if a member of the church were to rape and butcher that pretty mistress you keep in the Ayshil District—”
Nicholas slammed both hands against the snarling wolves but managed to restrain himself from leaving his seat.
“—that person would fall outside your Majesty’s power and influence to bring to justice?” Haemish finished with a satisfied smirk.
‘One day—I look forward—to ripping that bloody smile from your face.’ Nicholas seethed as he turned his glare to the Prime Minister, who stood stiffly, half-risen from his chair.
Attwood nodded and smoothed out his official robes. “I believe the Ambassador has made his point.”
Haemish turned from the crown prince to the prime minister and nodded. “I am glad to hear it. Then no further discussion is necessary to explain why the Emperor demands Lafeara withdraw from this alliance with the Pope, immediately.” A quiet wave of protest stirred among the counselors as Haemish continued. “Additionally, henceforth, no offer of trade for goods, resources, information or—” the Ambassador’s opulent-blue eyes drifted towards Marquess Borghese “—slaves shall be given to Zarus or the church.”
“You would have us drive out the representatives of the church and cut ties with the Pope, the last descendant of the Saints?” Earl Coldwell protested incredulously as several other lords added their voices behind him.
“This is what happens when we invite foreign powers to interfere in Lafeara’s politics!”
“The people will revolt—this will lead to an internal civil war!”
“I do not ask that you shut the doors of your churches here in Lafeara!” Haemish shouted out over the rising tumult. “Merely your borders and trade routes.”
“If we turn our back on the Pope, what is to stop his Eminence from denouncing the Crown Prince as a member of the church and Lafeara’s future king!” Borghese demanded, instantly stirring up the lords on his side.
Marquess Winifred opened his mouth to protest, but Percy laid his fingers on the nobleman’s sleeve, and the Marquess fell silent with an expression of resignation.
Nicholas watched the Earl with confused disappointment, then shook his head and raised his hand to silence the room. “We understand the Emperor’s unease and concern, but this is not a matter that can be decided in one sitting. Therefore, before we break for lunch, I will go ahead and ask the Ambassador to declare any other requests the Emperor has for this negotiation.”
“Very well, only two other matters, your Majesty,” Haemish replied as he folded his arms and faced the royal family with a neutral expression. “The coronation of Lafeara’s future Queen.”
A distinct rumble passed through the lords beside Borghese at these words.
“And the immediate consummation of your Majesty’s marriage to Crown Princess Eleanora,” Haemish finished, with only the faintest glint of a cynical smile as his sharp eyes turned towards his pale niece.