Chapter 69: The Discomfort of Diplomacy
“Ambassador—you overstep your authority!” Prime Minster Attwood shouted as he left his chair to face the unimpressed Lord Haemish.
“As her Highness’s relative and the Emperor’s Ambassador, I have every right to speak on the matter,” Haemish replied coldly before turning back to Nicholas. “Your Majesty, this marriage was the foundation upon which the alliance between Ventrayna and Lafeara was built. If the marriage remains unconsummated—” he spread his hands wide “—Is it even a marriage?”
“This line of questions falls well outside the scope of this negotiation!” Borghese protested as he too rose from his seat.
“My lords should wait until I finish before throwing in your objections,” Haemish replied with a crooked smile. He turned towards Eleanora, who sat like a statue upon her seat while refusing to meet his gaze. “The Emperor, your legal father, demands a public demonstration of unification before negotiations may proceed.”
A small breath shuddered past Eleanora’s lips before she returned once more to her frozen-like state.
“A public demonstration?” Attwood echoed in confusion as he turned from the Ambassador to the royal family.
“The Ambassador is asking that the consummation between the royal couple be witnessed as proof that the marriage obligations have been fulfilled,” Octavia explained grimly as she glanced from the enraged crown prince to the unusually silent and pale Eleanora.
“Witnessed!?” Attwood gasped.
“A single witness from either family is the minimum required to fulfill such a simple formality,” Haemish explained calmly.
“Lord Haemish,” Percy interjected as he turned to face the Ambassador. “I must also voice my objection to this—rather offensive request. The Ventrayna royalty might enjoy a more—unconventional appetite for such displays—but this is Lafeara. We have—certain rules and expectations for privacy and respectability. This request is a bit extreme given the royal couple has been married for less than a month.”
“Give it another week, Earl Hawthorne, and it will be a full month since their wedding night,” Haemish countered grimly. “At which point, the reputation of both parties will be in jeopardy along with the alliance their marriage signifies.”
“How—” Octavia cut in coldly “—are we to choose these witnesses?”
Nicholas turned towards the Dowager in shock. “Grandmother?”
“You are already married, Nicholas. Must you quiver over such a mild indignation? Perhaps if you had treated your wife with the same care and attention as you do your mistress, we would not be faced with such a choice!”
Nicholas blinked, then faced forward as he exhaled his anger through clenched teeth.
Haemish looked mildly impressed by the Dowager’s scolding. “The royal couple may, of course, choose their own witness, so long as they are a family member that is the only requirement—”
“Then I request that Lady Lavinia be my witness,” Eleanora cut in abruptly.
“I—” Haemish stumbled to a halt as Lady Lavinia swiftly rose from her seat and moved to Eleanora’s side.
“I would be honored to support your Highness in this matter,” Lavinia murmured as she rubbed her niece’s hand sympathetically.
“Very well,” Haemish growled out with a sharp glare at his wife before he turned back to the crown prince. “And your Majesty?”
Nicholas glared back at the Ambassador, frantically searching for a means to escape this indignity. The heavy gaze of his council rested upon the crown prince with a mixture of resignation, nervousness—and pity.
‘Damn him! Damn them all. Why? Why must I suffer this humiliation? I should never have let the Dowager pull me into this marriage—this insufferable nightmare.’
“Might I perhaps recommend myself, Your Majesty,” Octavia suggested in a calm, soothing voice of reason. “I am, after all, the last of Lafeara’s remaining royal family—until you have children of your own. Unless—you would prefer that Duke Stryker sat in—”
Nicholas sucked in a sharp breath as he clasped his hands together and stared at the polished marble floor beneath his impatiently tapping right foot. The sharp sound echoed the protest barely restrained inside his tightening chest.
“If your Majesty is unable to comply with this request, then—with the Emperor’s authority—I am to escort the Crown Princess and her household back to Ventrayna. There Eleanora would immediately remarry to a suitable, loyal member of Ventrayna noble court,” Haemish explained with careful, exacting force.
‘At which point—I would have broken the accord between Lafeara and Ventrayna. And the Emperor would have the perfect excuse—to invade.’
Nicholas exhaled sharply as he slumped back against the cold throne and glanced to where Captain Beaumont stood behind him. The knight captain’s emotionless violet eyes remained focused upon Lord Haemish.
Nicholas knew from experience how fast the giant knight would move. It would only take one word for Beaumont to slam the Ambassador down his back and sever the insolent man’s head with the knight’s terrifying dragon blade.
‘If only—that were a possibility.’
Nicholas blinked the image away, and Haemish’s smug face reappeared before him as the uneasy murmur of the House of Lords reached his ears. Beaumont shifted his feet silently as he moved just a hair forward beside Nicholas, who stared at the Ambassador’s immaculate beard quivered as Haemish cleared his throat impatiently.
‘In the end—as always—I have no choice.’
“Perhaps—” Haemish leaned back and tilted his head inquiringly “—your Majesty is incapable of performing in the presence of three women?”
The vein throbbing against Nicholas’s temple nearly burst as the crown prince gripped the armrest with white knuckles. “I will do it, Ambassador. And the Queen Regent shall be my witness.”
“Excellent!” Haemish smacked his hands together like a merchant who had just secured a beneficial bargain. “Then we shall make arrangements for tonight!”
‘Tonight?’ The headache pounding behind Nicholas’s straining eyes forced him to cover his face as he fought to draw in a strained breath.
“Tonight will prove rather difficult,” Octavia spoke up hesitantly. “The Royal Ball has already been arranged for this evening to celebrate the royal couple’s union and our future alliance with Ventrayna. As well as the arrival of yourself and your family, Ambassador.”
“Ah! Yes, I recall,” Haemish hooked his thumbs through the belt of his robe as he considered this. “But that is taking place at Lilly Palace. Surely one of their Majesties’ palaces could be prepared. And if the royal couple and their two witnesses were to leave early—no one could object.”
“Well—when you put it like that?” Octavia glanced towards Nicholas with a hint of worry.
“That would also remove this minor hindrance to tomorrow’s negotiations, which I am more than prepared to discuss and agree to, provided the Emperor’s requirements are met,” Haemish added quickly. “With any luck, we’ll be finished before lunch tomorrow and then be free to celebrate our kingdom’s continued peace and prosperity on the hunting grounds!”
The image of Haemish stuffed full of arrows drew a dark smile from Nicholas as he straightened in his seat. “Then tonight it shall be—as long as my future Queen has no objections.” He turned to the crown princess, whose angry amber eyes whipped towards him before she rose abruptly from her seat.
“I have no objections, your Majesty,” Eleanora replied, her voice strained and shaky. “I shall leave now to begin preparations at Rose Palace—if that is acceptable.”
“Yes,” Nicholas replied with an abrupt, dismissive wave as he continued to glare at the Ambassador.
Eleanora hastily descended the steps with Lady Lavinia beside her and exited through the side door where her two ladies in waiting, Lady Evelynn and Lady Tiffany, hastened to support their pale crown princess.
After the doors slammed shut behind Eleanora’s retreating figure, Nicholas sighed and sat forward. “I propose that we retire here for the morning. After lunch, we can present Lafeara’s terms for an alliance to the Ambassador.” The nobles nodded their assent, and even Lord Haemish graciously bowed his head. “Then I expect to see you all at the Royal Ball tonight.”
Nicholas rose from his seat and felt a moment’s vertigo as the table of rising lords tilted before his eyes.
“I wish your Majesty the blessings of Kritanta’s flames,” Haemish said with a flourished bow. “Perhaps tonight’s union will secure you a much-needed heir as well.”
‘Perhaps tomorrow’s hunt will rid Eleanora and I of your insatiable greed.’ Nicholas nodded curtly to the standing nobles and stormed towards the side door, with Captain Beaumont but a step behind him.
‘Someday—I will remove the yoke that Emperor holds over this kingdom. I swear it, in the name of my late father, King Henri and all the Havardur kings.’
Earl Percy alighted from the carriage and approached Hawthorne with a smug grin of satisfaction that lasted long after Russell had removed his coat and jacket.
“Welcome back, Earl Hawthorne,” Ivy greeted as she entered the foyer and curtsied. “Are the negotiations going well?”
“Miss Ivy,” Percy replied with a nod. “They are going—as expected. How are you doing with your exams?”
“They are nearly finished,” Ivy replied with a brief smile. “Lord Barclay said that he is pleased with the results so far, but—I wanted to discuss—my future after the exams and studies are complete.”
“Haven’t I already told you?” Percy tugged off his gloves and added them to the hat in Russel’s hands. “You were put forward for the position of Matron at the new orphanage the Crown Princess is establishing.” He watched the uncertain frown form along her brow and sighed. “Not to worry, Miss Ivy, there will be other staff on hand to help you run the place and learn your new responsibilities. And, of course, you are more than welcome to come to me for advice or help in the future.”
“I—am just uncertain—how a slave can run an orphanage,” Ivy admitted as she lowered her gaze.
“You will be a free woman soon enough,” Percy reminded her. “Miss Ivy, it is time you looked forward and forgot about your past.” He approached her and tapped her chin up so that her jade-green eyes met his gaze. “Claim this opportunity before you. Use it to reshape yourself and lay the groundwork for your future.” Percy lowered his hand as his voice sharpened. “Or become enslaved to the past. The choice is yours.”
Ivy hardly dared to breathe as she nodded her understanding. “I will do my best, Earl Hawthorne.”
“Is my cousin giving out free lectures?” Serilda called down from where she leaned against the stairwell above them. “Perhaps you should save some motivating words for that wretched beggar woman and her child.”
“Cousin,” Percy smiled as he motioned for Ivy to leave. “How are preparations for the ball this evening?”
“Well, I can’t find the pink diamond necklace mother left me,” Serilda replied with a pout. The Marchioness’s sour expression brightened as she turned and glided down the steps towards him in a soft grey-blue ball gown. Pink vines woven along the hem stretched up towards her waist, and silver flowers scattered across the fabric’s surface that sparkled like stars with every movement.
“What do you think?” Serilda asked as she twirled, revealing pink dancing shoes and a low-cut back outlined in silver flowers studded with pearls.
“Is this one of Lady Aconitum’s designs?” Percy asked curiously as he studied the hem work.
“Yes,” Serilda replied with a hint of impatience.
“You make it look stunning, Seri,” Percy replied quickly and was rewarded with a happy smile and a light slap on his cheek. He caught her wrist and narrowed his eyes. “And tonight’s plans?”
“Everything is well in hand,” Serilda replied as her playful smile faded. “However, there is—another matter I need to discuss with you.”
The Marchioness twisted her hand free quickly and motioned towards his study. Percy’s frown deepened as he entered ahead of her, then turned and watched Serilda shut the door before sealing it with a wind barrier.
“Tell me, Seri,” The Earl muttered impatiently.
“It’s the Countess—” Serilda explained as she crossed her arms uneasily. “Your mother has—escaped her confinement.”
“What! How?” Percy snapped.
“The report is on your desk,” Serilda explained with a nod towards an unfurled letter. “But the gist of it is this. Someone slipped a heavy dose of Aconitum into the well of the country house where you placed Lady Constance. Most of the household servants were mortals and—died as a result. Those still living aren’t expected to last much longer. The witches we sent to guard her were all severely crippled by the Aconitum’s poison and will need a few days to recover.
“Meanwhile, it appears the Countess was unaffected—no doubt due to her long-time exposure,” Serilda remarked bitterly as Percy moved to the desk to read the report. “But your mother used the opportunity to obtain a key from her jailor and escape. The Aconitum and the carriage waiting for the Countess at the estate gates led us to believe your mother’s escape was all arranged by an outside party.”
“The Dowager.” Percy smiled grimly.
“The Queen Regent would be the most likely suspect.” Serilda shrugged. “We—lost track of the Countess—but by now—she is likely on her way to the border. The Kensington family has relatives in Strugna. Lady Constance will no doubt seek sanctuary with them.”
Percy sighed as he tossed the letter back onto the desk and sank into his chair.
Serilda moved closer hesitantly. “Mercy already sent her fastest crows to warn our spies at the border. They have orders to head her off and recapture the Countess on sight.”
“Mother isn’t running away,” Percy replied as he left his chair and moved past Serilda to stand in front of his father’s portrait. “She still believes she can guide me back towards the correct path.” He shook his head and rubbed the Earl signet ring on his finger. “The Countess will show her face soon enough, if only in some desperate attempt to wreck my plans.”
“Then perhaps I should—”
“Marquess Winifred expressed an interest in marrying you,” Percy interrupted, shifting the conversation away from its predictable conclusion. “He’s been a widow these past three years, and his family has gained enough power to rival Marquess Borghese.”
Serilda raised a brow and snorted delicately. “He’s far too old for me.” She waved a hand dismissively, then froze as her eyes narrowed on Percy. “Did you—promise him anything?”
“I told him my cousin was old enough to choose her future and any man she wished to share it with.”
Serilda relaxed as she moved to join him and hugged the Earl’s arm lightly. “Whatever did I do to deserve you, Cousin?”
Percy chuckled softly as he turned towards her with a mischievous smile. “Before you praise me, I was going to suggest you consider the Marquess’s second son. I think you might find Lord Eustis more to your liking. Eustis is a suitable pureblood, far more powerful and likable than his older brother, who is already married. In any case, Lord Eustis will be at the ball tonight.”
“Eustis Winifred?” Serilda contemplated this with a faint grimace. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to take a look. He is a pureblood—and not too old.”
“Younger than you, in fact,” Percy observed with a sly smile.
“And what is wrong with that?” Serilda replied with an arched brow.
Percy shook his head at her, then stared back at the portrait. His thoughts drifted back to the chaotic scene of dead assassins scattered around the hall, the blood splattered over the walls in Lady Hana’s room, and Maura’s pale, frightened face as she hugged the unconscious attendant.
“You are thinking of your little ice witch,” Serilda observed. “Have we learned anything about those assassins who broke into Rose Palace?”
“Only that they were Ventrayna fire witches—and their target appears to have been Lady Hana.”
“The Crown Princess’s personal maid?” Serilda echoed in surprise.
“Lady-in-waiting now and a Baroness,” Percy corrected distractedly. “I just don’t understand why the Ambassador would risk the assignment the Emperor gave him and the negotiation—over a mortal attendant?”
“Why would an attendant effect a negotiation between two kingdoms?” Serilda returned with a confused frown. When the Earl did not reply, she shrugged and considered the portrait before them. “Perhaps you should ask the Ambassador. You are more than capable of drawing the truth from him; however unwilling the witch might be. The ball tonight would be a perfect opportunity.”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right,” Percy nodded. “I need to make sure we avoid any further complications that could put this alliance in jeopardy.”
“I am curious, cousin,” Serilda added hesitantly. “Why choose the Empress as an ally? Why not Tristan? You did go through all that trouble to keep the bastard alive.”
Percy scoffed as he shrugged free from her grip and returned to sit behind his desk comfortably. “I merely sent Tristan a warning to keep him on his guard. I knew either the Dowager or Empress would try to eliminate him before he reached Ventrayna.” He leaned back and rubbed his sore neck, eager to visit the bathhouse and soak away the weeks’ worth of travel on horseback he was still recovering from. “Besides, I would not risk the future of our kingdom to the hands of two temperamental sadistic fire witches.”
“Ahh,” Serilda smiled. “So you’re getting closer to the Empress to uncover her weakness?”
“My spy in the Emperor’s court tells me preparations are already underway to make Tristan the next Crown Prince. If I help expose the Empress and remove her and Aurelia from power—won’t the Emperor and Tristan be indebted to me in the future?” Percy raised a brow and smiled confidently.
“Yes,” Serilda nodded approvingly. “From what you’ve told me, Tristan will make a strong and loyal ally after he claims Ventrayna’s throne.”
“We have our own throne to steal first,” Percy replied determinedly as he motioned towards the bellpull. “Call Russell for me. I need to bathe and change for the ball.”
“Of course—my King.” Serilda offered a deep, playful bow. Then she rose and turned gracefully to pull the rope by the door.
“That reminds me,” Percy murmured distractedly. “Lady Maura’s behavior seems to have changed while I’ve been gone. Did something happen? Have you two been getting along?”
Serilda paused for a moment as the rope slid from her hand. She smiled as she turned to face the Earl. “We have. And Lady Maura has—come a long way with her training. She can even summon a scriva now.”
“A Scriva?” Percy blinked in surprise then rubbed his chin thoughtfully. ‘Impressive. I’m not sure there is another pure-blood alive strong enough to form a pact with an elemental spirit.’ “What did it look like?”
“A wolf—though much larger. Closer in size to that of a bear. But the scriva can change its size to fit through doors and such,” Serilda rambled on quickly.
‘Seri seems—nervous about something.’
Percy frowned but shook the thought away as he heard Russel’s approach. “I look forward to seeing it. Perhaps tonight.”
Serilda tilted her head with a dramatic pout. “Perhaps I should find another escort to take me to the ball then, Cousin.”
“No,” Percy left his seat and quickly circled his desk towards her. “It would be my honor to reintroduce the Marchioness of Berxley to society.” He lifted his cousin’s hand and bowed to kiss it. “I want every noble family to know you have returned and that the House of Hawthorne supports you.”
Serilda smiled with a hint of sadness. “Where will I ever find a husband as charming, protective, and powerful as you?”
“Choose someone that will make you happy, Seri. You deserve happiness,” Percy replied solemnly. “I will be strong enough to protect you both.”
“You.” Serilda cupped the Earl’s cheeks in her hands and kissed his forehead as she used to do when he had been shorter than her. “You will make a wonderful husband someday.”
“Of course,” Percy replied with smug confidence. “But first, we must deal with the vermin who dared to smear the name of my future wife with their blasphemous tongues.”