Chapter 84: The Wisdom of Diplomacy
Nicholas barely had time to worry about Eleanora’s somewhat rushed and distracted exit after his wife informed him that Lady Lavinia was ready to speak with him. The crown prince glanced towards the still open bedroom door, where one of the Ventrayna guards now looked back at him expectantly.
‘Why did Lady Lavinia want to speak to Eleanora first?’ The thought prickled down Nicholas’s neck as Knight Commander Quentin moved closer.
“Should I accompany you, your Highness?”
Nicholas glanced briefly at the imposing Knight Commander and shook his head. Lady Lavinia might be a witch, but she was also a grieving woman whose husband had just died. If Eleanora’s aunt did indeed have the authority to take the lead on the negotiation as Ventrayna’s Ambassador, the last thing he wanted to do was act intimidated in front of a widow.
‘There’s only so much time before the Dowager, Borghese, and the other House of Lord’s learn of this. If only Attwood were here.’
“I’ll be fine,” Nicholas said determinedly and then headed inside the palace guest room.
Lady Lavinia rose from her husband’s death bed to greet him with a polite curtsey. “Your Majesty.”
“Please, rise, Lady Lavinia,” Nicholas urged, blinking as he focused on her expression beneath the dark shroud. “I must offer my condolences and—my remorse that your husband should meet his end far from home.”
Eleanora had offered no hint as to how Haemish died, but Nicholas could think of no reason for the Dowager or any other noble in Lafeara to wish the Ambassador dead. Any risk to the treaty with Ventrayna would put them all in jeopardy. Quentin’s report would have to wait; for now, Nicholas would have to choose his words carefully and play a neutral part.
‘Never allow your opponent the first blow simply because of sympathy or handicap. People are rarely as they appear to be, and a crippled limb often hides a poisoned blade.’ The Prime Minister’s warning from the crown prince’s first meetings with the House of Lords echoed in Nicholas’s ears as he studied the proud woman before him.
“Thank you, your Majesty,” Lavinia murmured as she rose and moved to the chair by the writing desk to sit. “I wanted to speak to your Majesty before word of Haemish’s death spread to the rest of your council.” She paused and glanced around the room. “Forgive me. There appears to be only one chair.”
“You need not concern yourself, Lady Lavinia,” Nicholas replied quickly. “Was there something you wished to speak to me about—regarding your husband’s death?”
Beneath the veil, Nicholas thought he saw the corner of Lavinia’s mouth twitch upwards for a moment as she focused her gaze on him. “I’m sure Eleanora told you that I am now in a position to take over my husband’s authority regarding negotiations between our countries. I was invested with that unlikely responsibility by the Emperor and Empress before our journey here.”
“Unlikely and unfortunate.”
Lavinia stared at him for a moment in silence.
“Given that it cost you your husband,” Nicholas amended hastily as he hid a grimace at his tactless response.
“Your Majesty need not be so nervous,” Lavinia replied with a gentle, almost sympathetic smile. “I aim only to secure the demands the Emperor gave Haemish, and I have no desire to drag out such unpleasant matters in public as my husband did.”
Nicholas ground his teeth together but remained silent, unable to forget that this woman had been in the room when he and Eleanora had consummated their marriage.
“I have an offer for your Majesty that I think will benefit us both,” Lavinia continued when he gave no response.
Nicholas raised a brow. “If you insist, Lady Lavinia. I would gladly hear it.”
“I would like to discuss and finalize the logistics of this negotiation between just the two of us here and now before you leave this room. No outside politics, no charades. Just two adults discussing the mutual benefits to a relationship between our respective kingdoms.”
Nicholas raised both brows and stood for a moment in stunned silence. He had perhaps expected Lady Lavinia to be overwrought with grief or even threaten him with her husband’s death.
‘If her offer is sincere, this is likely the only opportunity the two of us will have to settle the matter privately. However—’
It would also be the first time Nicholas had handled anything related to Lafeara’s government by himself without Attwood, Octavia, or some member of the House of Lords watching over him.
‘Well, it couldn’t hurt to listen. After all, my father’s legacy will continue or end with me.’
Nicholas nodded slowly. “I would be happy to discuss the matter between our countries with you, Ambassador Lavinia.”
Lavinia raised her veil and smiled, perhaps the first genuine smile he had seen since her arrival to Lafeara, and Nicholas found himself noticing the warmth of her honey-brown eyes for the first time. “Then please, your Majesty, send for a chair. We have a great deal to discuss, and my neck already aches from looking up at you.”
Nicholas smiled back, bowed, and went to the door.
“With your consummation to Eleanora officially witnessed and dealt with, all that remains with regards to the Emperor’s demands is your separation from Zarus,” Lavinia began practically after Nicholas had settled into his chair. “But before I press the matter, I would like to hear your Majesty’s counter demands. What does Lafeara want from the Emperor?”
“The Emperor’s promise to cut back the taxes he instated after Queen Catalina’s death would be the first matter of concern for Lafeara, obviously,” Nicholas answered confidently as he crossed his legs.
“Consider that matter settled then, your Majesty.” Lavinia waved her hand gracefully with an appeasing smile. “A marriage consummated for lower taxes. A fair deal, even given the uncomfortable arrangements my husband insisted on.”
Nicholas flexed his jaw and offered a diplomatic smile in return. ‘That was on Haemish, not his wife. There’s no point in getting riled up over what is already past.’
“Anything else?” Lavinia pressed with a raised brow.
‘Is she challenging me or encouraging me?’
“I wish to expand Lafeara’s armies,” Nicholas answered truthfully. “As you know, we lost a third of our forces when my older brother fell in battle against Tharyn.”
“Ah, yes,” Lavinia nodded as she looked down at her manicured nails. “It happened at the border of Ventrayna, after all. The massacre of Wolf Thorn Forest and the death of Lafeara’s First Prince is a spectacle remembered by even the Emperor.”
‘Spectacle?’ Nicholas’s brow twitched as he studied her.
Lavinia’s gaze was distant for a moment, regretful even before her honey-brown eyes returned to his. “King Henri was unable to restore those lost troops due to the Emperor’s taxes and internal conflicts amongst his nobles.”
Nicholas offered a sardonic smile. “You are well informed, Ambassador Lavinia.”
“The Emperor makes it his business to measure the stability of each kingdom he dominates,” Lavinia explained with a slight tilt of her head. “And my late husband, as you may have guessed, had a great interest in Lafeara’s government due to Eleanora’s engagement.”
“And how does Lafeara measure up?”
She offered him a rather patronizing, if not sympathetic, smile. “Your Majesty is still a young, inexperienced ruler who has—inherited his father’s demons.”
‘What an apt way to put it.’ Nicholas tapped the armrest of his chair for a moment in silence.
“Your Majesty could easily replace and expand Lafeara’s armies with the finances saved by your marriage,” Lavinia observed neutrally.
“Yes,” Nicholas agreed. “But the strains on Lafeara’s finances this past decade have left other matters of public health and safety in disrepair. And while I certainly wish to stabilize the border disputes between Lafeara and Tharyn, to do that, I need weapons and armor that won’t break beneath their steel.”
“Your Majesty wants our witch steel?” Lavinia raised a brow as her lips curved in approval.
“It is the strongest form of metal I know,” Nicholas admitted. “One crafted and purified by witch fire.”
“And Ventrayna is a nation of fire witches,” Lavinia said thoughtfully. “While that is true, not every witch knows how to cure metal to remove all of its impurities properly. And those witches who have mastered this craft do not sell their work cheaply, your Majesty.”
“But where Ventrayna is bountiful in ore and steel,” Nicholas countered swiftly. “Lafeara has an overabundance of crops, wool, linen, and other products not found in the desert.”
Lavinia leaned against her hand as she offered him a bemused smile. “Your Majesty wishes to barter one kingdom’s wealth for another?”
“Trade between Lafeara and Ventrayna already exists,” Nicholas replied with a casual shrug. “Ventrayna has well over fifty-thousand troops, so I’m told. An army of that size requires plenty of resources to keep well-fed.”
“An army that size could easily crush your Lafearian forces and take what they need,” Lavinia reminded him coolly. “Why would the Emperor agree to such a deal when he could easily take what he wants by force?”
‘That is the question I’ve asked myself since Tristan’s death.’
Nicholas clenched his jaw, but somehow, after Eleanora’s constant nettling, Lavinia’s truthful claim carried less of a sting.
“Of course,” he nodded slowly. “If that had been the Emperor’s intentions, he would hardly have sent Queen Catalina and then Princess Eleanora to marry into Lafeara’s royal family.”
‘Or so Father and Grandmother would have me believe.’
Lavinia said nothing as she folded her hands together and glanced for a moment towards the bed and its decorated corpse. “It is a reasonable offer and a smart use of trade, your Majesty, but one the Emperor will be less inclined to agree with while Lafeara maintains its alliance and trade routes with Zarus.”
‘And we’re back to that.’ Nicholas nodded slowly as he uncrossed his legs and leaned towards her. “Ambassador Lavinia, this request places me in a rather precarious position. As I’m sure you are aware, my kingdom was built upon the religion of the Saints.”
Lavinia offered him another patronizing smile. “Lafeara was built the same way as any other kingdom, your Majesty. Through power, control, cunning, betrayal, sacrifice, and the sweat and blood of mortals and witches alike.”
Nicholas frowned as he folded his fingers around the oak armrest and then tried again. “To sever Lafeara from Zarus and its Pope could be seen as a declaration of war upon the Saints and the faith of my people.”
Lavinia nodded slowly and then shook her head. “Perhaps, your Majesty is not yet aware, but before Lafeara bent its back beneath the oppression of the Saint, it once boasted of a powerful monarchy of witches that were said to be immortal.”
Nicholas blinked back at her in surprise.
“It was your ancestor,” Lavinia continued as she leaned against her armrest to study him, “The first Havardur King, then just a noble, who joined forces with the Saint to rebel against the Isbrand King. They plotted together to poison the royal family. They even kidnapped and threatened a princess to force the king to surrender himself.”
“I am—unfamiliar with that version of history,” Nicholas confessed with a quick smile.
Lavinia scoffed. “Naturally, the church would prefer to label the Isbrand Royal family as tyrants worthy of dethronement and death. They even devised a parable to mask the obliteration of the entire family—how does it go? A flower which pulled the family into a death-like sleep.”
Nicholas shook his head but refrained from contradicting her. “What does this have to do with our negotiations?”
Lavinia locked eyes with him for a moment and then sighed. “Your Majesty, Lafeara was once a nation of witches, much like Ventrayna—no, perhaps better than Ventrayna.” Her voice dipped lower for a moment as her gaze drifted once more to the bed. “You believe your people to be united under one faith, but I have no doubt the old Covens of Lafeara still thrive here within the capital.”
“You’re telling me there are covens of witches hiding in Lafeara?” Nicholas asked carefully. He was more than aware of their existence. “And that’s your argument to persuade me to deny entry to the Pope and his witch hunters?”
“Your Majesty, for the sake of these negotiations, there is no other way forward. If you deny the Emperor’s request—” she nodded towards Haemish and let the weight of her words hang in the air between them.
“I have no choice,” Nicholas relented and held back a sigh.
“Consider it a conflict of powers,” Lavinia said softly.
“Pardon?” The crown prince raised a brow.
“Your Majesty could stop trade out of concern for your merchants and citizens who might be caught up in the war between Ventrayna and Zarus,” Lavinia explained reasonably. “Your Majesty might also permit the Emperor to build a garrison near Fog Tooth Mountain to help safeguard Lafeara from Tharyn while you rebuild your army and build up your supply of witch steel.”
“That would give the Emperor a garrison on two sides of Zarus’s borders—which would allow him to shut off all trade to the Holy City,” Nicholas said hesitantly.
“Except by sea,” Lavinia replied with a shrug.
“I hear the Emperor already has water witches blockading any aid along the coastlines,” Nicholas observed with a cynical smile. “And the Tharyns hate the Pope just as much as Ventrayna does—so if Lafeara closes its borders.”
‘The Holy City would starve. So even if witches can’t use their magic on holy ground—they won’t have to if their opponent has already been weakened through starvation.’
Lavinia smiled. “It would seem your Majesty understands the Emperor’s intentions perfectly. Arius does not require you to sever alliances publicly. Allow the Emperor to monitor the border and starve the Pope’s army and witch hunters to end this unholy war. You need only caution your citizens from trading with Zarus as it may—place their lives in unnecessary danger.”
‘It could also be seen as a gesture of goodwill towards the witches of Ventrayna and Lafeara alike. I just threw out the Pope’s witch hunters, and now I’m inviting the Emperor to build a garrison to strengthen our borders.’ Nicholas leaned back slowly as unease twisted in his gut. ‘At the same time, a garrison would only make it that much easier to invade if the Emperor ever changed his mind.’
The crown prince unclenched his hands and scratched his neck as he contemplated his choices. ‘A war now—or war later. At least this way, I buy myself time to rebuild and properly outfit our armies with the same steel as our potential enemies. Perhaps I might even find a way to unify Lafeara’s witches behind me secretly. But—’
“My coronation is almost two weeks from now,” Nicholas said with a heavy sigh. “The Pope or his delegate must be allowed to come to Lafeara to coronate myself and Eleanora.”
“That is a matter easily dealt with,” Lavinia replied with a dismissive gesture. “I will delay my return to Ventrayna to hold my husband’s funeral here. A corpse does not keep well under Ventrayna’s desert sun. And since Haemish’s ancestors were also Lafearian, it makes perfect sense.”
“Yes, they were slaves, as I’m sure you heard. The grandmother was purchased from Lafeara’s slave market,” Lavinia waved a hand dismissively. “After the funeral, our journey across the desert might also be delayed by a heartbroken widow’s poor health. It could easily be a week or longer before I am able to stand before the Emperor and Empress and deliver my report.”
Nicholas frowned at Lavinia’s casual use of her husband’s death for diplomacy but remained silent.
“You can have your scribes draw up a document detailing our agreement. With the right legal wording, these terms will not take effect until the Emperor has sent his first shipment of witch steel. You might also ask for a supply of finished weapons so that your blacksmiths have something of a prototype to compare our blacksmith’s work with.”
Nicholas nodded slowly. “A return trip with that sort of burden—”
“Would likely arrive well after your coronation,” Lavinia confirmed with a cunning smile. “By then, you and Eleanora would be King and Queen of Lafeara in every way that matters.”
“But if the Pope should learn of this,” Nicholas murmured hesitantly. “I would be deceiving the descendant of a Saint and betraying his alliance.”
“If the Pope breaks his alliance with Lafeara because you choose to trade for stronger steel to safeguard your borders from Tharyn witches—at least the common people might blame you less,” Lavinia argued reasonably. “And in any case, you would already be King.”
“Assuming Pope Jericho does not find out beforehand.”
“Why do you think I asked your Majesty to deal with this matter privately between just ourselves?” Lavinia asked as she gestured between them. “I fear your Majesty has yet to take full control of your government. Perhaps you should consider how the late king and his father maintained their power over the nobles. King Henri did not hesitate to destroy those who betrayed him, remove those who were a threat to him, and reward those who proved their loyalty. The Emperor himself follows similar principles, albeit with a great deal more fear and respect from his people.”
“You are saying I should become a tyrant?” Nicholas inquired as he narrowed his gaze.
“It is easy to be loved when the fields are ripe with crops, taxes are low, justice is upheld, and the kingdom prospers,” Lavinia replied calmly. “You will feel that love in the coming days, your Majesty. You will likely feel their admiration and devotion as you rebuild Lafeara to the glory of your father’s youth.” Lavinia sighed and stroked her veil as she met his gaze solemnly. “But suffer a famine, be forced to raise taxes, fail to provide the correct verdict, or lose a battle against your enemies—and your Majesty will witness how quickly sheep become wolves.”
Nicholas looked away for a moment. It wasn’t hard to recall the day his father fell from the Fortress walls, the same day Henri had burned entire noble families at the stake as witches.
“I’m just not certain I wish to be feared in the same way,” he admitted hesitantly. ‘Feared and hated.’
Lavinia shrugged, then rose and moved to her husband’s side. “In my experience, your Majesty, there is only one thing that can stop a more powerful force from dominating a weaker force.”
“And what is that?”
The widow was silent for a moment as she stared down at her husband’s folded hands. “You and Eleanora are trapped on the same boat whether you want to be or not,” she said, deftly changing the subject. “You can either work together or sink together.” Her honey-brown eyes turned to regard him critically as Nicholas adjusted himself awkwardly.
“Eleanora hasn’t been—the easiest person to talk to.”
“Well, for now, all that is required from both of you doesn’t necessarily require talking,” Lavinia returned pragmatically. “But if your Majesty would listen to the advice of a widow—”
Nicholas rose to his feet and hid a sigh as he nodded towards her. “Please, Lady Lavinia.”
“Find out what makes Eleanora happy and encourage it,” Lavinia said softly. “Find out what makes your wife smile and gift it to her. If you want a happy wife, make Eleanora happy.”
“And if I can’t?” Nicholas replied tensely.
“Eleanora is difficult,” Lavinia admitted as she moved away from the bed to look out the window. “Even Tristan struggled with her from time to time.”
Nicholas blinked. “I—didn’t know that. They were always—” His hands clenched at his side, “—They seemed made for each other.”
“Fate has a way of playing with our expectations and often delivers the best results in the way we least expect,” Lavinia replied as she traced the etched flowers in the window glass. “I will grieve my husband privately for the rest of the day. If your Majesty should care to accompany a widow for dinner with certain papers prepared for my signature—” she glanced over her shoulder at him and smiled “—then my husband’s soul might rest a bit more at ease.”
Nicholas bowed before the Ambassador silently. Humility, sympathy, and even a measure of respect held him there for a moment longer than was necessary. Lavinia crossed the room towards him and held out her hand, which Nicholas accepted as he rose.
“Of course, I have one small request to make of your Majesty before I sign our agreement,” she added carefully as the crown prince kissed the back of her hand.
Nicholas smiled, not at all surprised. It was already apparent to him that Lavinia was no stranger to politics. The crown prince straightened and leveled his hazel-blue eyes with hers. “And what might that request be, Ambassador?”