Chapter 86: The Pearls of Stratagem


The Ventrayna noblewoman stared disapprovingly down her aquiline nose as she arched a brow. “Goodness, what do they teach these ladies-in-waiting? I am the Crown Princess’s mother! Eleanora sends such an urgent letter asking for my help, but you can’t even tell me what’s wrong?”

Tiffany offered a submissive smile. It was surprisingly easy to put up Lady Isabella’s rude behavior, given that the crown princess resembled her mother to such an extent, though with fairer skin from her father’s side. Still, if Tiffany compared Eleanora to a panther, young and dangerous, muscles always coiled, taut, and ready to strike at the slightest hint of danger, then she could only describe Isabella as a toothless old cat. One who thrashed readily at any passing shadow just to demonstrate her existence.

Since the moment Lady Tiffany had shown up at Lord Alastair’s summer estate, where Lady Isabella appeared to be residing alone without her husband’s company, the crown princess’s mother had done nothing but complain.

“Is it really necessary for you to wear your family’s wealth everywhere you go? Are you that proud of becoming a baronial family?”

“Must your sleeves be so short? Are you trying to catch a man by showing off such pasty skin?”

“I thought the crown princess’s ladies were supposed to wear their hair up? Why is yours appear as if a bird has nested in it? Are you inept? Perhaps you should wear a bonnet. Or is this some pathetic ruse to tempt the crown prince who has a fondness for blondes?”

‘It’s fine. I just have to get her back to Eleanora, and then I can slip away.’ Tiffany all but sighed with relief when Lady Isabella’s maids finally had her ready to depart and head back in the royal carriage. ‘Honestly, I’m not sure why the crown princess summoned her. But, then again—I suppose the Ambassador was Isabella’s brother.’ A tingle of remorse and guilt flushed across Tiffany’s cheeks as she glanced towards the older woman walking ahead of her. ‘I can’t say I liked the Ambassador from what little experience I had being around him—but I can only imagine how wretched I would feel if Malcolm died.’

“Why are you slowing down? Didn’t the crown princess say the matter was urgent?” Isabella demanded with a sharp glare over her shoulder. “Get a move on, girl.”

“Yes,” Tiffany increased her pace and actually managed to reach the carriage ahead of Isabella. She nodded to the waiting knight, accepted his offered hand, and then raised her foot to the carriage step. She quickly let out a sharp squeal as fingers seized her hair and yanked her back with such force Tiffany nearly fell over.

The attendant barely managed to regain her footing, thanks to the knight, who caught her arm and shoulder when a hand slapped viciously across her face.

“I will not be insulted in front of my own home!”

Isabella’s shrill voice pierced past the unexpected pain that burned across Tiffany’s cheek and face as the attendant raised a trembling hand to her cheek. ‘Did she just—hit me?’

“How dare my daughter’s servant attempt to board the carriage before me! Have you no sense of your position? To dare to insult the mother of your mistress and future queen!”

‘Ha?’ Tiffany sucked in an angry breath as she pulled away from the knight’s steadying hand and stared at the savage woman who had attacked her. ‘You, the daughter of a slave, want to lecture me on my position? You only became a noble because your grandmother had the sense to save the Emperor while he was a child!’

“Are you glaring at me?” Isabella asked with a sinister smile.

Tiffany flinched as the crown princess’s mother took a step towards her.

“I suggest we hurry. My daughter is waiting, and I have a great deal to tell Eleanora about her ladies-in-waiting when I arrive.”

The ride back to the royal palace seemed to blur as Tiffany focused on remaining silent and still as possible. The burning sting along her cheek only added to the humiliation in her stomach as she presented her pass to the knights at the gate and identified herself, “I am Lady Tiffany Clemont returning from an errand for her Highness, Crown Princess Eleanora.”

The knight nodded, his gaze lingering for an uncomfortable moment on Tiffany’s cheek before he turned towards Lady Isabella.

“This is Lady Isabella Kensington, the Crown Princess’s mother, whom I was sent to fetch,” Tiffany supplied quickly.

The knight grimaced but turned away without comment as he signaled the knights ahead and shouted up to the driver. “On you go then, inside.”

Tiffany pressed a hand to her cheek and sat back with clenched teeth, practically counting the minutes until she could escape this confined space and the crude woman she was forced to share it with. The knights at Rose Palace greeted them and bravely escorted Lady Isabella through the gate. Tiffany kept a hand pressed to her inflamed cheek as she trailed behind.

“Don’t dawdle, are you an invalid, Lady Tiffany?” Isabella called back sharply as a knight opened the palace door.

‘Foreigners.’ Tiffany sighed and glowered at the woman’s back as she continued up the steps, resolved to cover this blemish with makeup as soon as she could return to her room. ‘Too bad Lady Evelynn isn’t here. I wouldn’t mind seeing her suffer beneath the Crown Princess’s mother. Lucky bitch.’


Mrs. Poppy greeted them in the foyer. The housekeeper’s sharp eyes noted Tiffany’s reddening cheek without comment.

“Her Highness is waiting for you in the office, Lady Isabella,” Poppy announced as she stepped back towards the library entrance. “Lady Tiffany, you should take her back.”

“Of course,” Tiffany responded brightly as she stepped forward, then remembered her earlier mistake, and gestured to the left hallway as she smiled at their guest. “It is that way, Lady Isabella.”

“Good,” Isabella replied with a satisfied snort. “You are learning. And of course, I know where my daughter’s office is. Do you think this is my first time coming to Rose Palace?” She added something foreign after that, which was probably just another demeaning insult.

“I’ll bring some tea along in a moment,” Poppy said neutrally as they passed her.

“Don’t be daft, Poppy. Bring up some of that Caligo wine we had at the banquet,” Isabella corrected as she swung sharp eyes towards the housekeeper. “I’m sure Eleanora has a few bottles left.”

‘So, this is what poor people do when their children become wealthy?’ Tiffany kept her expression neutral as she waited for Isabella to turn back towards the library.

True to her word, Isabella appeared to know her way around as she strode up to the shut office door and knocked. “Eleanora, it’s your mother. I’m coming in.”

Tiffany gritted her teeth to stop herself from gawking at the brazen lack of etiquette. ‘No wonder Eleanora doesn’t invite her over more often.’ She followed the rude woman inside and curtsied as Eleanora greeted them with a smile of relief.

“You’re finally here, Mother!”

“My goodness, Elly, what is wrong? You look unwell,” Isabella cried, suddenly the picture of a loving, gentle motherly figure.

“It’s—uncle Haemish. Mother—he is—”

Tiffany stepped back silently and shut the office door to allow them some privacy. ‘I might feel sorry for Lady Isabella if she hadn’t been such a brute.’ A sudden cry of distress ripped past the oaken wood frame. Tiffany stiffened as the sound of an object crashing to the floor echoed from within the office.

“Not to worry,” Poppy called out as she approached with a bottle of wine in one hand and two cups in another. “Best to let them grieve in private. You go on now and find something cold to put on that cheek.”

Tiffany needed no further encouragement to escape. She offered Poppy a grateful smile, winced, and then rushed in the direction of the kitchen.


“I can’t believe it!” Isabella sobbed as Eleanora helped her mother back to her feet and then assisted her to the nearest chair. “Haemish? But how? He was—perfectly healthy—only yesterday—”

Eleanora sighed and rubbed her mother’s back soothingly as the office door opened. Mrs. Poppy slipped inside, set down the bottle of wine and cups without a word, then curtsied and left.

‘Well, Poppy did serve Mother back in Ventrayna, so she is familiar with her mood swings.’

“Lavinia believes he was assassinated,” Eleanora whispered the moment the housekeeper’s footsteps were out of earshot.

“What? No—I mean, of course it was an assassination! Haemish wouldn’t just suddenly die!” Isabella sat up and pressed a red silk handkerchief against her cheeks as her amber eyes stared into the distance. “It must have been Lavinia then! That bitter, black-hearted, two-faced cunt!”

“Mother!” Eleanora gasped. “Why would Lavinia murder her own husband? Be reasonable!”

“Oh, you grew up idolizing Lavinia, so of course you were blind to her true character. Lavinia has resented being tied to Haemish since the day the Emperor ordered them to marry,” Isabella snapped. “Always thought she was better than us—even treated us like we were slaves before—but Haemish soon put her in her place.”

“Mother, Lavinia is the Empress’s cousin. And she and Haemish have three sons. They may have had their issues just like any couple, but they’ve always been a strong, happy family—”

“You’ve been away in Lafeara these past two years,” Isabella cut her off. “Lady Lavinia and her sons all moved out of Haemish’s palace almost a year ago.”

“What?” Eleanora’s hand stiffened around the bottle of Caligo wine.

“Last I heard, they were living in the guest rooms of Prince Consort Farrell’s palace and threatening to leave the Empress’s coven.”

“Why would they leave the Coven? What happened, Mother? And why am I only just hearing about it?” Eleanora demanded.

“You have had enough to worry about here with your marriage, the Dowager, and Nicholas—” Isabella broke off as her eyes suddenly lit up. “Oh, I almost forgot. How did last night go? Did you finally—”

“Yes, Mother, our marriage was officially consummated,” Eleanora snapped as she opened the bottle then carried it to her desk. “Don’t change the subject. Why would Lavinia leave Haemish and then her family Coven just to follow him here to Lafeara?”

“Because of her son—Marco!” Isabella broke off again, this time covering her lips. “I wasn’t supposed to speak of this. Haemish warned me not to.”

“Haemish is dead, Mother!” Eleanora replied sharply as she narrowed her eyes. “Because of Marco? Mother—does this have something to do with why Lavinia brought Marco with her? And why she’s demanding that Nicholas and I arrange a marriage for him as part of her negotiations?”

“Her negotiations!” Isabella snapped. “Haemish isn’t even cold, and she’s already taking over his work—his position?!” The woman rose from her seat as a spark of fire flickered behind her eyes. “I knew it! She had him killed! That soul-sucking siren—”

“Mother, hush!” Eleanora hissed as she grabbed Isabella’s hands and glanced towards the door. “Keep your voice down or be silent. You know the Dowager has spies watching my every move. Would you give her more ammunition to use against me?”

“That is why your father gave you tools to ensure secrecy,” Isabella scolded softly. “Well now, go on then, activate the barrier, or I will have nothing further to say.”

Eleanora let out an exasperated sigh then returned to her desk to pick up the letter opener. She traced her fingers across the runes engraved beneath the silver ornamental blade and whispered, “Fustibus Saxisque.”

Isabella glanced around the room as an invisible, thin pressure filled the office. “You were always better at wind spells than fire, but at least you inherited my good looks.”

Eleanora leaned against the desk tiredly to face her mother. “Well? Are you going to tell me or what?”

Isabella sighed. “I don’t know the full details, only what Haemish chose to write to me. As I said, it all happened a year after we left Ventrayna to accompany you here for your marriage. Marco—offended one of the sons of Lord Zenaku.”

“What?” Eleanora sank into her chair and gripped the small knife tighter. “Duke Zenaku?”

“It nearly started a blood feud between the Burning Viper and Dragon coven, but the Emperor and Duke Tyrrell stepped in to settle things.”

Eleanora let out a slow, uneasy breath.

“But things didn’t end there—” Isabella continued hesitantly “—everyone knows that Duke Zenaku isn’t one to let go of a grievance. Even more so since the entire incident started because of a half-witch—”

Eleanora narrowed her eyes as a cold fear covered her arms and neck in goosebumps. “What happened, Mother?”

“Well, the covens decided that in order to achieve a peaceful resolution, a sacrifice was required from Haemish and Lavinia—in the form of Marco—since he was the spark that ignited this dispute.”

“What? What did they do?” Eleanora half rose from her seat and leaned across the desk. “Mother, what did they do to Marco?”

“Duke Zenaku made Marco his—slave,” Isabella whispered.

“Slave?” Eleanora echoed. Her amber eyes studied the uncomfortable and conflicted expression on Isabella’s face. Her knees went weak as understanding hit her. “He—to Marco?”

Isabella nodded with an apologetic smile. “I know how close you were with him, growing up, Eleanora—but—”

“Mother! Why would Haemish or Lavinia agree to this?”

“Lavinia didn’t know—not until after—it was Prince Farrell who recovered Marco from the Duke’s palace.”

Eleanora covered her mouth as she sank back into the chair and fought the sudden urge to puke. “That’s—why you think—Lavinia would kill Haemish.”


Eleanora took in one steadying breath after another before she slowly raised an accusing gaze to Isabella. “And do you blame her?”

“I—” Isabella caught herself and looked away. “It was the decision of the Covens. Haemish did what he had to do to resolve the conflict and restore peace—”

“He sacrificed his son! Marco was—he was only sixteen!” Eleanora tore her gaze away with a bitter laugh as she rose unsteadily to her feet. “But then—Haemish was always good at sacrificing family for his ambition.”


“It’s true, Mother, and you know it. Your marriage to Father might have been a happy occurrence, but—” Eleanora looked back at Isabella as she fought to control her breathing “—but what about mine?”

“Haemish made you a future queen!” Isabella quickly rose to her feet and circled the desk to embrace Eleanora. “You just have to give it more time, Elly. Love isn’t found in the exchange of words or promises. It is forged as you come to understand, appreciate, and admire each other.” Isabella pulled back with a motherly smile as she stroked Eleanora’s cheek soothingly. “And children help, Elly. Soon enough—you will understand what I mean.”

“I think you are confusing your fantasy with my reality,” Eleanora remarked angrily. “In any case, Lavinia didn’t kill Haemish, but his assassins were marked.”

“Marked? Oh!” Isabella blinked slowly. “I had forgotten about that spell entirely. That still doesn’t exclude Lavinia. She might have hired someone else to do it!”

“Mother,” Eleanora pressed a hand to her face. “If she was going to be that reckless, she could have easily done it in Ventrayna. In any case, one of the assassins appears to have perished crossing the Serpentine River—” Eleanora sighed. Her mind felt like it was being pulled apart by taffy between thoughts of finding Haemish’s killers and Marco. “The other assassin is still here in the palace—somewhere.”

“Then we will know who it is when the curse activates,” Isabella replied with a satisfied smirk.

“Mother, if the curse activates here, and it is a Lafearian—or one of my people—” Eleanora crossed her arms as she turned to face the woman, “—what do you imagine the Emperor will do?”

Isabella’s smile vanished in an instant as she retreated to her chair and sank into it. “Oh.”

“That is why I brought you here, Mother, to ask for Father’s help. He still holds sway in the Twilight Coven, does he not?”

“That—” Isabella shook her head wearily as she leaned against her palm “—there appears to be some difficulties with the transition of power.”

“What?” Eleanora frowned as she turned around. “What transition? It should be Father’s by right, especially if the Countess is ill?”

“No—not the Countess,” Isabella explained hesitantly. “Marchioness Serilda has returned to stake her claim to her family birthright.”

“Serilda?” Eleanora echoed with a hint of disbelief. “That madwoman? Mother, you said Lady Constance had locked her away.”

“Madness and power often go hand in hand,” Isabella replied with a dismissive shrug. “Anyway, when the Countess locked her up, Lady Serilda was indeed beyond reason. But it appears the Marchioness recovered and grew stronger during her years of isolation. Serilda also managed to obtain the support of Earl Hawthorne, who now leads the Coven of Nocturnem and the Coven of Crows.”

‘Percy leads two Covens?’ Eleanora blinked in surprise. ‘Wasn’t the Coven of Crows ruled by some cannibal witch?’

“But that means—” Eleanora hesitated and then grimaced.

“Indeed,” Isabella replied with a gesture of defeat. “With the leader of two covens supporting her, Serilda has the votes necessary to reclaim what was hers by right of inheritance.” She rose from her chair, took Eleanora’s hand, and pat it gently. “And you know your father. Alastair has already resigned his claim and even agreed to support Lady Serilda as she put her house in order.”

“Father is supporting her?” Eleanora seethed in disbelief. “Over his own sister?”

“Countess Constance has made some—questionable decisions in the past. Were it not for Serilda’s insanity, Constance’s position as Ethan’s wife, and your father’s position as Lafeara’s Ambassador, the Countess would not have been granted that position so easily,” Isabella explained with a note of resentment. “In any case, Alastair refuses to put up a fight. But now that your cousin, Percy Hawthorne, holds two powerful covens in his grasp. You could ask him to help you track down this assassin.”

“Of course, I should have thought of that,” Eleanora whispered, still inwardly overwhelmed at Serilda’s sudden good fortune. ‘I knew there was a reason she showed herself at the Royal Ball last night. That lucky bitch.’

“Is there anything else I can help you with?” Isabella asked as her gaze drifted towards the opened bottle of Caligo wine. “If not—”

Eleanora smiled as she retrieved the two cups and set them beside the bottle. “There is one other thing you might be able to help me with.” She filled the glasses and handed one to her mother before leaning against the desk to sip her drink. “Lavinia wants Marco married, to someone highly placed among Lafeara’s nobles, preferably someone close to me.”

“Ah,” Isabella smiled sympathetically. “I suppose that would keep Marco here, far from Duke Zenaku’s grubby hands.”

Eleanora sighed and pinched the skin between her brows. “I wish I had known sooner, Mother. I can’t believe I sat there complaining about my marriage while he—”

“Marco is a survivor,” Isabella replied grimly. “He inherited that quality from his grandmother, but I’m sure the experience is still very raw. A marriage this soon—”

“An engagement will suffice for now,” Eleanora agreed grimly. “But as for the bride.”

“What does Lavinia want?”

“A Viscountess,” Eleanora responded and smiled as Isabella scoffed loudly.

“I’m surprised she didn’t ask for a Marquess.”

“Other than Priscilla Borghese, there’s no one available that would make a suitable match—not to mention the political danger Marco would get dragged into,” Eleanora replied distractedly. ‘There’s no way Marquess Borghese would suffer Priscilla to marry a foreigner half-witch.’ “What if—we made a Viscountess for him.”

“You have someone in mind?” Isabella asked curiously.

“Marco needs a gentle wife who will support him. Someone without years of arrogance and snobbishness bred into them.”

“I heard he likes blondes, like his father,” Isabella commented with a glimmer of cunning. “One of your attendants is a pretty blonde.”

“Hana?” Eleanora asked, startled.

“What? No. Don’t be ridiculous. Hana’s too old for Marco, and she has no political support to offer you,” Isabella dismissed the idea quickly. “The one you sent to fetch me. Her family is new and wealthy from the looks of it. They wouldn’t turn down the offer of a Viscountess’s title for their daughter. It would only raise their future prospects after all.”

“Tiffany?” Eleanora tilted her head slightly as she considered this. “She is timid—”

“I’ve seen drowned cats with more fight in them,” Isabella scoffed.

“They are the same age.” Eleanora drank some more of her wine. “I would rather let Marco choose—”

“Is Lavinia giving you enough time for that?”

“No, she wants it settled before she signs the negotiation papers tonight with Nicholas,” Eleanora replied. “And she—intends to hold Haemish’s funeral tomorrow.”

“What? Here?” Isabella banged her glass against the armrest, and Eleanora frowned as some of the wine spilled onto the floor.

‘What a waste.’

“Mother,” Eleanora said soothingly. “She’s giving him a proper Ventrayna fire burial. You know his body won’t keep for a journey across the desert.”

“There are other ways to preserve—”

“And if the Emperor were to inspect the body, discover that Haemish used his Death Mark and became suspicious,” Eleanora pressed.

Isabella sighed. “Yes, yes, I understand.” She finished her wine, rose, and offered the glass to Eleanora. “But they had better do Haemish justice!”

“I shall ensure they do, Mother.”

Isabella nodded. “Choose the diamond girl. She is already one of your people. Marco will ensure she and her family remain faithful to your reign.” She patted Eleanora’s arm and headed towards the office door. “Marry off Hana too while you’re at it.”

“Mother!” Eleanora growled.

Isabella turned to offer her daughter a cold, unnegotiable glare. “I’ve said this before, but she is a distraction and danger to your marriage, Eleanora. I turned a blind eye to it while you were grieving for Tristan, but I will not allow you to jeopardize everything Haemish—everything we have worked for over such foolishness. You need children, Nicholas’s children.”

Eleanora drew in a slow breath and exhaled. “I—will think about it.”

Isabella nodded, satisfied, and opened the office door.

Mrs. Poppy curtsied on the other side. “Lady Isabella, your Highness. His Majesty has returned.”

“Good, send him in. Eleanora has a suitable candidate in mind for him,” Isabella ordered as she brushed past the housekeeper.

“Won’t you stay for dinner, Mother,” Eleanora urged as she set her finished glass down on the desk and followed.

“Nonsense,” Isabella countered as she reached inside her purse and pulled out a small pouch. “You should use this opportunity to get closer to your husband. And drink this every day for the next few months. The herb is good for fertility, so it will help when the time comes.”

Eleanora accepted the pouch with a sharp glance at Mrs. Poppy, who nodded and left to fetch the crown prince. “Mother, no more herbs or powders.”

“What’s wrong with ensuring your womb is as healthy as it can be for the next royal heir?” Isabella demanded sharply but then smiled as she placed a hand against Eleanora’s stomach. “You know how much I’ve looked forward to being a grandmother. Make me proud, Elly.”


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