Chapter 83: A Union of Trust
Nicholas refrained from asking Eleanora to hurry for the third time as he led the crown princess briskly through the doors of Lilly Palace. The sound of the servants greeting them upon the stairs alerted the knights above, and Knight Commander Quentin came quickly into view as he met them at the top of the stairs with a bow.
“What do we know?” Nicholas demanded tensely as he released Eleanora’s arm and then pulled the Knight Commander further down the hall. “How did the Ambassador die?”
“We know very little at the moment, your Majesty,” Quentin answered in a low but calm voice. “The Ambassador left the ball fairly early. According to the palace staff, it was only a short while after the Prime Minister announced his son’s engagement. The Ventrayna witch bodyguards found him dead this morning and alerted the Ambassador’s family. We received word of his death sometime later when Lady Lavinia sent a letter requesting that her husband’s room be sealed off and left undisturbed until she had spoken to your Majesty and her Highness.” Quentin nodded towards Eleanora.
“Right, that’s why we’re here,” Nicholas nodded as well and released the Knight Commander’s arm. “Keep investigating as much as you can for now.”
“Thanks to one of the palace servants, we know that the Ambassador was originally discovered on the bedroom floor,” Quentin added with a hint of irritation. “He has since been changed into fresh official robes for burial and moved to the bed before we were allowed access to investigate. As far as I am aware, there were no signs of forced entry—but I haven’t been able to look further than the bloody door.”
‘This is a political nightmare.’ Nicholas drew in a shaky breath, then shook his head as Eleanora moved closer with an inquisitive frown. “Nothing to report yet, your Highness. Quentin hasn’t been able to begin a proper investigation because the Ambassador’s wife has stonewalled him until we arrived.”
“My aunt is a bit more than the Ambassador’s wife now, your Majesty,” Eleanora replied with a hint of reproach. “With Haemish dead, Lady Lavinia will be in charge of the Emperor’s negotiations.”
Quentin raised a curious brow while Nicholas looked stupefied.
“I suppose—that makes sense,” Nicholas said slowly as he pinched the bridge of his nose. “In which case, we shall have to move very carefully.”
“Your Majesties,” a knight interrupted them with a polite cough. “One of the Ambassador’s guards said that Lady Lavinia wished to speak with the Crown Princess alone first. With your permission.”
Quentin and Nicholas exchanged a glance and then stared at Eleanora.
“Well—” Eleanora said as she nervously touched her black diamond earrings. “Lady Lavinia is my aunt—and she is grieving. I’ll see what I can find out.”
Nicholas nodded and watched as Eleanora exchanged words briefly with her attendants, then turned to confidently approach the bedroom door guarded by the Ambassador’s bodyguards. The two witches stepped aside without so much as a nod to the crown princess. Nicholas watched as one of them opened the door and then shut it promptly behind Eleanora.
‘Strange, she’s a princess from their country, yet they seem to hold very little regard for her,’ Nicholas mused uneasily. ‘Well, I suppose all that remains is to see whether the Ambassador’s death will benefit our negotiations or doom us to war.’
The crown prince shook his head and turned towards the knight captain who shadowed him. Nicholas frowned as he took in the sweat that glistened against Beaumont’s face and rolled down his cheek towards his uniform collar.
“I say—Captain,” Nicholas stepped closer and placed a hand on the knight’s shoulder, “Are you alright?”
“Just—tired, your Majesty,” Beaumont answered stiffly. His violet eyes rose from the floor, but the knight’s gaze seemed unfocused.
‘Right—Beaumont has been up for nearly a day and a half—if he got any sleep last night.’
“Knight Commander Quentin will find a replacement to guard me for the rest of the day,” Nicholas commanded with a heavy sigh. “As for you, Captain. Go see a physician and then get some rest!”
Beaumont bowed his head without comment and turned unsteadily towards the stairs.
It was only for a moment, but Nicholas observed Lady Maura staring after the knight captain with a hint of concern before she returned her ice-blue eyes to the Ambassador’s door.
“Huh.” Nicholas shook his head and returned to pacing the hallway while Quentin sent for Beaumont’s replacement.
Haemish had been groomed with care. Every strand of hair from head to beard combed into place, the braids redone, the golden adornments and rubies replaced with simple amber pearls. His eyes were closed beneath a black weighted cord of silk. His hands had been refreshed with scented oil, nails cleaned and perfectly trimmed, and folded across his chest. The Emperor’s dagger was clutched between them as a poetic testament to Haemish’s loyalty to his master. He lay dressed in official garments of red and black velvet and satin gold cloth, which bore witness to the Ambassador’s position of power and influence, despite his weak bloodline.
‘It is more than you deserve, you sadistic dog,’ Lavinia reflected as she studied the dead man from beneath the raised black veil that fell to her waist as she lowered it. Beneath the shroud, Lavinia’s black gown made her appear small and muted beside her husband’s adorned corpse.
Lavinia eased down onto the bed with a sigh as she awaited her niece’s arrival. As much as Eleanora might resent Haemish for pushing her into this marriage after Tristan’s death, the crown princess still respected her uncle as the male patriarch of her mother’s family.
‘Eleanora never had to live with you.’ Lavinia eyed the cord over Haemish’s closed gaze. ‘Even though your niece was born a half-witch, you always treated her better than Marco because you planned to use her to gain power for yourself.’
Her lips twitched before Lavinia pressed her gloved fingers against them to smother a cynical laugh.
‘Now, I will be the one to take advantage of Eleanora’s position to get what I need. I’ll no longer sacrifice my position, dignity, and family for the sake of you and your sister’s ambitions, Haemish.’
A timid knock came at the door. Lavinia folded her hands and corrected her posture as she turned to face it. “Come in.”
“Oh, Aunt Lavinia!” Eleanora whispered as she rushed to Lady Lavinia’s side and gently hugged her aunt. “I don’t know what to say. This has come as such a shock. How are you? How is Marco?”
“Marco is—resting. I had our physician prescribe him a sedative to help him sleep,” Lavinia answered solemnly. “This—has taken us both by surprise. Haemish seemed fine just last night when we both saw him at the ball.”
“Of course, I was surprised as well.” Eleanora glanced hesitantly at the space beside Lavinia on the bed but chose to remain standing as her gaze wandered towards the Ambassador’s exotically dressed corpse. Her skin prickled as she glanced from Haemish’s folded hands to the black cord across his eyes, half expecting him to reach up and pull it away to yell at them both for accepting his death so easily.
Despite Haemish’s arrogance, greed, and unflinching drive to pursue power, Eleanora had never wanted him dead. She had certainly hated him, Haemish had given her more than enough reason for that, but now that the link between her reign and the Emperor’s support lay cold and lifeless on the bed, Eleanora couldn’t help but wish this were all some terrible nightmare.
‘What was the point of last night, my marriage, everything if the Ambassador winds up assassinated while on a diplomatic mission of peace? What happens to me if Lafeara and Ventrayna end up going to war?’
A shiver of dread ran down the crown princess’s spine. She drew in a quick breath and focused on the widow’s face beneath the veil. “Aunt Lavinia, do you—know what happened?”
Beneath the shroud, Lavinia wiped her cheek. “I’m afraid—there are rather a few peculiarities about his death, Eleanora.”
Eleanora grimaced and let out a shaky breath. ‘I was afraid you’d say that.’
“My husband wasn’t alone in his room last night,” Lavinia continued with a muffled sniff. “The two dancers from your banquet. Haemish had his guards bring them up to his room while we were all downstairs enjoying the ball. As you know, I was at your palace until—well, when I returned, I spoke with him briefly through the door, and this morning he was—dead.”
‘Maura’s exotic dancers?’ Eleanora swallowed and nervously twisted her hands. ‘That’s right, Mrs. Poppy did mention Haemish’s guards came looking for them yesterday. I sent her up to ask Maura where they might be found.’
“So, the dancers were the last to see my uncle alive then,” Eleanora queried. “But if they had done anything, surely your guards would have heard something. And Haemish is—was—quite capable of protecting himself.”
‘What could two wandering harlots possibly have to gain from killing my uncle anyway?’
“I found traces of a wind enchantment on the door and windows,” Lavinia answered grimly. “It’s clear they were placed there to prevent any sound from escaping the room.” She sighed and turned her gaze from the dead man to Eleanora. “I’m well aware of my husband’s appetites. I’m not proud of them either, but at the moment, those women are the most likely suspects. And none of the guards saw either of them leave this room before finding Haemish’s body this morning.”
“What? They—disappeared?” Eleanora said incredulously. “But they weren’t witches!”
“That may be true, but their disappearance—”
“We have to find them!” Eleanora interjected quickly. “I should tell Nicholas!”
“Wait, child!” Lavinia caught the crown princess’s hand quickly and pulled Eleanora down on the bed beside her. “You recruited those dancers, did you not, Elly?”
“I—No! They were hired by my attendant, Lady Maura, just a few days before the banquet.” Eleanora frowned as she thought back on the night of the banquet, the way the dancers had seemed so oddly focused on Haemish to the exclusion of even Nicholas and other powerful lords. “But Lady Maura had nothing to do with them being here tonight! It was my uncle who sought them out.”
“I’m not denying that,” Lavinia replied calmly. “But they were presented to him—perhaps with that purpose—so they could gain an opportunity to get closer.”
“Your uncle had many enemies, Eleanora.” Lavinia patted the crown princess’s hand gently. “Many of whom knew his preferences and that he would be here in Lafeara for this negotiation.”
“Aunt Lavinia, you know I would never—ever do something like that!” Eleanora breathed out weakly as she grasped the older woman’s hands. “How would his death benefit me? Even if I escape implication—if Lafeara is in any way blamed.”
“The Emperor will have cause for war—and a justified reason to break off your marriage with Nicholas,” Lavinia answered slowly. “Perhaps that is what you wanted.”
“Stop!” Eleanora hissed then pulled her hand away as she stood. “If I am implicated in Haemish’s assassination, my parents—my father!” Her voice broke with fear as her mind filled with frightening images that tightened around her chest like an invisible steel web.
“Hush. Hush, child!” Lavinia rose and wrapped an arm around the crown princess as she gently rubbed Eleanora’s back. “I did not think it was you, Elly. But the dancers and your attendant, of them I am less certain. Even if the person I most suspect is—” Her hand stilled as she let out a tired sigh.
“What? Who?” Eleanora demanded as she pulled away, torn between hope and fear of Lavinia’s answer.
“Nevermind that now.” Lavinia took Eleanora’s hands once more and held them firmly. “You must look into the background of these dancers, Eleanora. Find out where they are, where they came from, and how your attendant found them.”
“Yes—Alright,” Eleanora nodded rapidly.
“And I would advise you to be cautious of Lady Maura until you know for certain she is not in any way involved.”
Eleanora nodded again. ‘Lady Maura never even met Haemish before yesterday, so why would she be involved?’
“And not a word to anyone else until we know for sure what happened. Promise me, Elly!”
“I promise,” Eleanora whispered, still nodding vigorously. “Nicholas is waiting to speak with you. I’ll make an excuse and ask my father, Lord Alastair, to help me track down those women—”
Lavinia pulled her back as Eleanora turned away. “One more thing, Elly. Haemish used the Death Mark before he died.”
Eleanora turned slowly to stare at her aunt as the cold knot in her stomach tightened. “Then he was murdered.”
“Keep this knowledge to yourself. The assassins might not be aware that they have been marked yet.”
“Have you traced them?”
Lavinia nodded slowly. “One got as far as the Serpentine River where the Death Mark vanished. Presumably, they died caught up in a storm. As you know, the Death Mark can’t be neutralized, except by death.”
Eleanora nodded. ‘If it was the dancers, then one of them is dead.’ “And the other?” she asked anxiously.
“Only one other person was marked, and they remain here, somewhere inside Lafeara’s palace,” Lavinia answered somberly. “When the Death Mark activates, they will be revealed no matter where they hide.” She squeezed Eleanora’s hand reassuringly and stepped closer as she whispered. “Which means you have a few days to make sure they are not hiding among your people before the curse detonates and exposes them to the kingdom.”
“I understand,” Eleanora whispered weakly, feeling numb as Lavinia released her. “I will search—very carefully. Thank you, Aunt.”
“You may send your husband in on your way out,” Lavinia called after her as Eleanora shuffled towards the door. “Don’t worry. I will keep all connections to you hidden as best I can. But when the Death Mark claims Haemish’s last killer, their exposure will determine whether Ventrayna and Lafeara remain at peace.”
“What if—” Eleanora turned around slowly with both fists clenched at her side, “—we kill them first. Before the Death Mark activates?”
Lavinia smiled as she sat down once more beside her dead husband and folded her hands gracefully across her lap. “That would be the best possible outcome and likely the only way to avoid war—if you can find them, Eleanora.”