Chapter 82: A Prelude of Misfortune
Dowager Octavia was in a curiously good mood when she swept inside the dining room of Rose Palace. The Crown Prince, already seated at the table, hastily rose from his chair to greet her.
“Grandmother,” Nicholas said gruffly in surprise. “What brings you here so early in the morning?”
“Just a bit of interesting news,” Octavia replied with a glance towards Eleanora’s empty seat. “Is your wife still in bed, Nicholas?”
“Ah—” Nicholas coughed, shook his head, and then moved to escort the Dowager to her seat. “No-no, Eleanora is awake, but I’m afraid she was feeling—rather tired when I left her. I’m sure she’ll be down any moment.”
“Well, I certainly hope she doesn’t intend to make her husband, the future king, wait for his breakfast!” Octavia said with an arched brow raised in the direction of the housekeeper, who lingered in the dining-room corner.
“I’ll let the chef know that breakfast should be served at once, your Majesty!” Mrs. Poppy responded promptly with a deep curtsey. The housekeeper then turned and headed through the side door into the kitchen.
Nicholas resumed his seat with an awkward glance between the Dowager and the dining-room door.
“I hope you don’t mind if I join the two of you for breakfast?” Octavia queried as she watched her grandson attempt to mask a yawn by stretching his neck to the left. “I wanted to congratulate you both on getting through such a trying ordeal. We shall put the unpleasant memory behind us now and focus on your future as a royal couple.”
“I—that sounds—fine.” Nicholas let out a slow breath, then rose abruptly to his feet as Eleanora appeared in the dining-room door. “There she is! Good morning—Eleanora.”
“Your Majesty,” Eleanora’s response was short and brief as her amber eyes narrowed in on Octavia. “Grandmother?”
“Ah—” Nicholas wavered uncertainly as the crown princess moved swiftly to her seat. A fatigued Lady Maura and Lady Tiffany were left standing at the door.
“Good morning, your Majesties!” The ladies-in-waiting greeted with a respectful curtsey before they followed their mistress to her seat.
“Oh, my,” Octavia murmured as she glanced over the trio of young women. “From the looks of your staff, Eleanora, you two were at it for a good long while after myself and Lady Lavinia left.”
“Grandmother!” Nicholas protested in an alarmed voice.
“Oh, but that’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of!” Octavia replied with a laugh and a shake of her head. “It would be good for the kingdom after all if the two of you were to have more good news.”
“And what brings you to my palace, Grandmother?” Eleanora inquired with acid sweetness as Maura pulled out the crown princess’s chair.
“Oh, you don’t mind, do you, Eleanora?” Octavia offered the tired-looking princess a coy smile. “Why I was just telling Nicholas I came over to deliver some interesting news I thought the both of you might be interested in.”
“So early in the morning?” Eleanora raised a cynical brow as her ladies separated to serve either end of the table. “I can’t wait to hear it.” Her tone implied otherwise, but Octavia let it slide.
‘I imagine sleeping in a room that smelled of smoke would make even the most saintly princess cranky.’
Octavia turned her attention to Lady Maura, who stood at the corner of the table between the Dowager and Nicholas. “I’m afraid the information I bear will prove shocking to everyone present. Certainly, the poor Prime Minister must have been caught off guard.”
“Attwood?” Nicholas furrowed his brows in confusion, then closed his eyes with a weary sigh. “What has Acheron done now?”
“Oh, but you both must be famished!” Octavia said dramatically as she scanned the empty table before her. “What is taking the staff so long?”
The door separating the dining room from the kitchen swung open as the housekeeper returned to hold the door open for Chef Robbi, who pushed out a loaded trolly that quickly filled the room with a mouthwatering fragrance.
On the trolly were two breakfast trays, the first of which was prepared with plates of bacon, boiled and scrambled eggs. The second tray contained a plated strawberry shortcake with flakes of chocolate. Nestled between them was a basket of cinnamon buns with glistening icing drizzled on top.
The Chef pushed the trolly over to the preparation table and laid the trays out while the housekeeper appeared again, this time carrying a tray with a steaming pot of tea. A kitchen maid accompanied her with a pitcher of cooled honey milk.
“What a feast,” Octavia said approvingly as Maura and Tiffany quickly set themselves to preparing drinks for each member of the royal family.
“Fortunately, it would seem my chef has prepared more than enough food for the three of us,” Eleanora observed with a nod to the Ventrayna cook, who bowed and followed the housekeeper and maid back into the kitchen.
“Oh, thank you, darling,” the Dowager murmured as Maura placed a cup of tea before her. “I suppose it cannot have escaped your notice, Eleanora, that Lady Evelynn isn’t present this morning?”
“I did notice,” Eleanora replied with noted disinterest. “Lady Evelynn has been—feeling poorly as of late.” She smiled briefly in gratitude as Tiffany placed a cup of honey milk before her. “Does one of my ladies have something to do with this shocking news you’ve come to deliver?”
Octavia stirred her tea with a curious smile. “Let’s just say last night saw the unification of more than one couple.”
“Grandmother,” Nicholas admonished with a look of disapproval. “I would ask that you refrain from making such crass comments at the expense of my wife. If something has happened to one of Eleanora’s ladies, don’t beat about the bush. Just tell her.”
The flow of movement in the dining-room stilled as Octavia turned a raised eyebrow towards her grandson. Eleanora blinked, her brows furrowing in surprise as she glanced between the Dowager and Nicholas.
‘Since when did this pup dare to lecture me?’ Octavia’s ice-blue eyes narrowed even as she offered them both a bemused smile. “It seems I have been indelicate.” She tapped her spoon lightly against the teacup and then set it on the saucer with a sigh. “Very well, I shall get straight to the point. The Prime Minister announced Lady Evelynn’s engagement to Lord Acheron at the ball last night.”
“What?” Nicholas’s jaw hung open as he stared at the Dowager, hardly noticing the cup of tea Maura placed beside him. “Acheron?”
“Yes,” Octavia confirmed, then frowned as Lady Tiffany dropped a piece of silverware on the floor. The lady-in-waiting hurriedly retrieved the utensil while a maid darted into the kitchen to fetch a replacement.
“Acheron?” Eleanora echoed with a similarly stunned expression. “But—isn’t Lady Evelynn—wasn’t she engaged to my cousin, Percy?”
Maura returned to the preparation table to assist Tiffany as the two set about filling plates with food and then carried them over to the table.
“Countess Constance and Viscount Hendrix have certainly made no secret that they hoped for such a union,” Octavia replied with a dismissive shrug. “But the engagement between their families was by no means official. And last night, the Prime Minister publicly announced Lady Evelynn and Lord Acheron’s engagement before Lord Hendrix and Lady Constance herself. So it would seem all parties were in agreement.”
“Countess Constance was at the ball last night?” Eleanora asked in surprise as Tiffany carried over her plate with a fresh pair of silverware. “I thought she was away in the country.”
The Dowager smiled as Maura remained still beside the preparation table, a scoop holding two cinnamon buns just above the plate before her.
“I am told the Countess’s stay was very brief,” Octavia explained with a dismissive shrug. “She arrived sometime after we left and then departed immediately after the Prime Minister’s engagement announcement with her son, Earl Hawthorne. Although—” She paused to tilt her head thoughtfully, “—Lady Delphine did mention that the Countess appeared unwell. I suppose that means those rumors about her poor health were not unfounded.”
“How strange,” Nicholas murmured. “I was aware that Attwood was searching for a suitable match for Acheron, but to think he would—” he trailed off as Maura placed two slightly steaming plates of food in front of himself and the Dowager.
“It’s absurd!” Eleanora snorted as she sliced through a boiled egg. “Becoming engaged all on her own without a word to me? After all that fuss about how my cousin jilted her?” The crown princess chewed the piece of egg savagely as Tiffany withdrew to stand beside the wall. “So—Ungrateful!” Eleanora muttered between mouthfuls.
“It might turn out to be a good thing,” Nicholas countered as he dug into his food. “Acheron—needs a wife to steady him. And this will stop all those foolish rumors about Percy Hawthorne!”
Behind Nicholas, Octavia observed Captain Beaumont’s face furrow into a dark frown. ‘Interesting.’
“It will certainly help to put some of the court’s most recent gossip to bed,” Octavia concurred. “I do believe Lady Maura has suffered most unfairly due to the exaggeration of Lady Evelynn’s plight.”
“Your Majesty is kind to say so,” Maura answered with a polite smile as she bowed her head humbly.
‘Kind?’ Octavia hid a smirk behind her cup as she studied the attendant. ‘My interest in your progress goes beyond kindness, Lady Maura.’
“Grandmother is right. Those rumors marred the reputation of two fine nobles who serve the royal family,” Nicholas agreed grimly. “I think a notable accomplishment is just the thing to reverse these negative rumors about you, Lady Maura.”
“Your Majesty is most gracious,” Maura answered with a hint of uncertainty.
“It would appear my grandson has an idea,” Octavia observed with a smile of approval. “Please do share it with us, Nicholas.”
“You may not yet be aware, Grandmother,” Nicholas said as he lowered the silverware to his plate. “But recently, the Earl purchased Lady Maura’s family home with the intent to turn it into an orphanage. Eleanora has agreed to sponsor this charity, and Lady Maura has exerted significant effort herself into setting up the establishment and getting things in motion.”
“An orphanage? What a delightful idea!” Octavia beamed at Maura, who seemed to shift slightly away from the Dowager.
“I believe we should allow Lady Maura to publicly take charge of preparing the orphanage for the opening day celebration,” Nicholas continued as he turned his gaze from Maura to Eleanora. “She is not only familiar with the residence, but she also has a good head for numbers, costs, and budgets. I feel confident she would do an admirable job. And, if Eleanora would mention Lady Maura’s efforts during the Royal Hunt, it will go a long way to redeeming her in the eyes of the public.”
‘It might clean up her public image, but the noble’s opinions of Maura won’t improve just because of a single charity.’
“My dear Nicholas,” Eleanora replied with a hint of irritation as she lifted a fork of bacon, “I fear you are overestimating Lady Maura’s abilities. She is a marvelous designer and skilled with herbal teas, but managing finances and restructuring—”
“You forget that your aunt, Countess Constance, supervised Lady Maura’s training,” Nicholas interrupted as he turned to the lady in question with a rueful smile. “Lady Maura also achieved perfect scores on the official’s test during the Selection. In any case, I can certainly recommend someone with experience to assist her should you feel it necessary. Perhaps her grandfather, the Viscount of Gilwren. He has plenty of financial experience and has all but retired to his estate.”
“I—see,” Eleanora murmured and set down her untouched bacon. “Well then, it hardly feels like I’m needed—”
“You forgot about our deal, Eleanora,” Nicholas interrupted with a cynical smile. “Your job is to influence the other nobles to support this charity during the Royal Hunt.”
Eleanora’s thin smile dropped into an instant scowl.
Octavia’s ice-blue eyes danced between the pair. The Dowager hid a smile behind her napkin as she delicately wiped her lips and then rose to her feet. “Well, I think it’s a wonderful idea, Nicholas. It would be such a shame to lose someone as competent as Lady Maura to such malicious gossip. Just think of the harm it would do to her future marriage prospects.”
For a moment, the violet eyes of the knight behind the crown prince flickered in Octavia’s direction, but the movement was so brief the Dowager wasn’t sure if she had imagined it.
“Thank you, Grandmother.” Nicholas rose as Octavia dropped the napkin on her untouched plate. “I suppose I should be leaving as well—to prepare for today’s negotiations.”
“No, no—” Octavia quickly waved her grandson back into his seat with a glance at the silently sulking Eleanora. “Today’s meetings won’t start for another two hours. Stay. Enjoy breakfast with your wife. Both of you will need to put on a show before that dreadful Ambassador. Do try to stand your ground this time, Nicholas. You’ve already given him something he asked for. It’s time Lord Haemish reciprocated.”
The attendants and servants curtsied as Octavia swept towards the dining-room door. The Dowager paused in the threshold for a moment to add, “And again, congratulations to you both. I hope to hear more good news later concerning an heir, so keep at it.”
After the Dowager made her exit, Carina let out a sigh of relief. She watched Mrs. Poppy carry away Octavia’s untouched plate and half-finished tea as an awkward silence built up inside the dining room. Neither Nicholas nor Eleanora seemed particularly interested in finishing their breakfast, speaking, or even looking at each other.
‘Come on, Eleanora. You finally got the opportunity you wanted. Make an effort here—you won’t get pregnant after just one night!’
The fact that Lady Rosamund had gotten pregnant first in the last timeline had always been a sore point for Eleanora and her greatest weakness. So when Rosamund miscarried her child after being poisoned, the first suspect in everyone’s eyes had been the spiteful Queen who openly resented her husband’s consort.
“About—last night,” Eleanora said hesitantly as she finally raised her amber eyes towards Nicholas.
“We don’t need to talk about it,” Nicholas interrupted gruffly. “I told you I wouldn’t hold it against you.”
Eleanora’s response was cut off as Major Garrett entered the room, followed by a knight Carina didn’t recognize. However, she had an inkling she knew what information would make a knight brave enough to interrupt the royal couple’s breakfast.
‘And now it begins.’
“Your Majesties,” the knight greeted as he bowed. “I bring grave news from Lilly Palace. The Ambassador—was found dead in his room this morning.”
“What?” Eleanora’s fork clattered against her plate then toppled to the floor with a thud as she turned towards the knight. “Dead? Lord Haemish?”
“How?” Nicholas demanded with a strangled, angry breath.
“We are uncertain, your Majesty. The Ambassador’s wife will not permit us to enter or examine his body until she has spoken to your Majesties—both of you,” the knight answered promptly.
‘Lavinia is taking control of the situation—as expected.’ Carina drew in a slow, steady breath as she folded her hands together and observed the royal couple.
Eleanora and Nicholas stared at each other for a moment in silence; then, both bolted up from their chairs to pace towards each other. Major Garrett quickly dismissed the knight from the room.
“I should return to Peony Palace first—” Nicholas began as Eleanora swept past him, her expression confused as she stared off into the carpeted floor, then turned around to face the crown prince.
“I need to get changed. Something black—I must wear something black—Lord Haemish was my uncle—” Eleanora’s voice caught as her confusion shifted suddenly to conflicted grief and anger.
“I’ll be back with a carriage to pick you up as soon as I am ready,” Nicholas replied as he caught her arm and turned the dazed crown princess towards him. He stepped closer, hesitated, then kissed Eleanora’s cheek awkwardly. “I’m sorry for your loss—but we need to get ready for whatever disaster awaits us.”
With those parting words, the crown prince left the room with Captain Beaumont close behind.
Carina and Tiffany hurriedly followed behind Eleanora, who rushed up the stairs and then threw open her bedroom doors, panting as she spun in a circle.
“I can’t believe he’s dead. How? Who would have—”
Carina moved calmly past the frantic crown princess to search the closets for an appropriate black dress. As a member of the royal family, Eleanora was expected to be ready for any occasion. Knowing what was to come, Carina had prepared three black dresses as part of the wardrobe arranged by the Holy Maiden Boutique. She selected two mourning dresses and carried them over to Eleanora, who stared blankly at the garments for a moment before choosing the gown with long sleeves and a high neck.
“What about jewelry?” Tiffany asked as she pulled out her key then unlocked the dresser drawers. The attendant stared uncertainly at the six sets of jewels within them. “The black diamond earrings?”
“That will do. The dress doesn’t require a necklace,” Carina agreed as she glanced over Tiffany’s selection.
“A veil?” Tiffany asked uncertainly after laying out black diamond earrings beside the gown Eleanora had chosen.
“No. That won’t be necessary,” Eleanora replied as she threw off her robe and then turned so Carina could unbutton her dress. “I’m not the widow—poor Lady Lavinia. She must be feeling—” the crown princess trailed off with a conflicted expression as Carina finished the buttons at her back and then eased the dress off the distracted woman’s shoulders.
“We should hurry, your Highness,” Carina urged as she waited for Eleanora to come to her senses.
The crown princess drew in a deep breath, nodded, and then focused on preparing for this next unexpected hurdle. They had just finished tidying Eleanora’s hair into a formal updo when Mrs. Poppy knocked on the bedroom door.
“His Majesty is waiting outside in a carriage,” the housekeeper announced through the barrier.
“Time to go,” Eleanora confirmed as she glanced over her two attendants. “Grab a black shawl from your rooms, quickly now.”
Carina curtsied and followed Tiffany out of the room but stopped long enough to catch Mrs. Poppy before the housekeeper could head downstairs. “Will you check in on Hana for me today. I don’t know how long we’ll be tied up at Lilly Palace.”
“Of course,” Mrs. Poppy confirmed with a firm nod, then leaned in suddenly to whisper, “I know the Ambassador was family to her Highness but allow me to be the first to say I’m glad that terrible man is dead.”
Carina smiled stiffly then nodded before slipping into her room to retrieve a black shawl.
‘You weren’t the first, Mrs. Poppy, but you won’t be the last either.’
With her bedroom door locked behind her once more, Carina glanced towards Hana’s room. A sudden urge to hold the unconscious woman’s hand and share the good news burned inside her. ‘Perhaps it will motivate Hana to wake up.’
“Lady Maura, hurry!” Tiffany beckoned from the top of the stairs.
“I’m coming.” Carina followed the blonde attendant down into the foyer and then outside Rose Palace to where Nicholas was already escorting Eleanora inside the carriage that waited to take them towards a disaster of Carina’s own making.
‘I suppose I’ll know what to expect soon enough. It’s your move, Lady Lavinia.’