Chapter 87: The Heart of a Diamond
Tiffany sighed as she touched the inflamed skin on her left cheek, now carefully hidden beneath a layer of light powder. ‘Does it look—puffy?’
A knock on the bedroom door disturbed her thoughts. Tiffany turned, inwardly dreading another interaction with Lady Isabella. “Yes?”
“Lady Tiffany?” Maura’s voice called out. “Her Highness asked for you.”
‘Am I in trouble?’ Tiffany rose from the cushioned chair and hastily checked that all her golden curls were in place. ‘Did that old cat complain about me?’ She frowned but moved toward the door, resolved to face whatever lay ahead. ‘I mustn’t let the Dowager down. Not when she is working so hard to help Captain Leo.’
Tiffany smiled as she recalled the first day she had met the handsome knight, then just an unknown lieutenant, shortly before the infamous battle that had made him the hero of every noblewoman’s fantasy. It had been just a glance, and at the time, Leo had seemed nothing more than a handsome soldier off to face the perils of war—but the stories that followed his victory had changed that single glance between them into a moment of fate for Tiffany.
‘If the Dowager can convince General Stryker to make Leo his official heir, then my parents will have no reason to reject Leo’s proposal, and we can finally be together.’
Tiffany touched the simple silver ring that hid behind one of the diamond rings her mother had gifted Tiffany to celebrate passing the Selection. She wore them both with equal pride, though she valued the simple promise ring more.
‘One day, I will be Leo’s wife and then maybe even a Duchess if Leo succeeds in his battle for inheritance.’
Tiffany hummed distractedly as she opened the bedroom door and blinked at Maura’s worried expression. “Is everything alright, Lady Maura?”
“I’m not sure,” Maura murmured and then offered a quick smile. “We should hurry. His Majesty is also waiting downstairs?”
‘The Crown Prince?’ Tiffany touched her cheek worriedly as she followed the Baroness.
She had always admired both princes, though she had seen little of either. By the time her father amassed enough wealth to buy a proper title that allowed his family to enter noble society, the First Prince had already perished in battle. Meanwhile, Nicholas was kept safely protected inside the fortress that remained a barrier between the royal family and Lafeara’s lower nobles and commoners.
‘I suppose every girl wonders if they might marry a prince, but I prefer my Captain.’ Tiffany hid the glow of her dreamy smile behind a fan as Maura paused outside the library door to glance at her.
“Did—something happen?” the Baroness asked with a hint of concern.
“What?” Tiffany blinked back at her in confusion.
“Your—cheek,” Maura gestured towards the still stinging skin along Tiffany’s face.
“Oh!” Tiffany frowned. ‘I thought I hid it quite well.’ “It’s nothing.”
“I have some herbal balm upstairs that will help reduce the pain and bruising if you’d like some.”
Tiffany blinked, surprised at Maura’s sudden generosity and kindness. ‘She always had her guard up before. Why would Maura worry about me now, especially after Lady Priscilla tore into her.’
“That is kind of you, Lady Maura, but—”
“It’s fine,” Maura cut her off. “Just let me know if you want some later. It’s no bother at all. I have more than enough bottles in storage.”
Tiffany blinked at Maura’s awkward rambling. ‘Does she collect bruise ointment as a hobby?’ The blonde attendant shook her head and refocused as Maura knocked on the library door before them. Eleanora’s calm, commanding voice promptly ordered them to enter.
Tiffany placed a practiced smile on her face as she followed Maura inside and curtsied before the royal couple seated together on a couch.
“Lady Tiffany,” Nicholas greeted warmly.
Tiffany raised her gaze uncertainly and flushed beneath the crown prince’s hazel-blue eyes that studied her with apparent curiosity.
‘Wait—was it actually possible? Is that why Lady Isabella was so angry before? Did I do something to—encourage Nicholas’s attention?’
“You are to be congratulated, Lady Tiffany.” Tiffany dropped her gaze quickly as Lady Isabella’s cold voice came from the corner of the room.
“Indeed,” Nicholas concurred with a note of approval as he rose from his seat. “I believe you have found a suitable choice, Eleanora.”
Tiffany squeaked as she drew in a sharp breath and tried to stop her exploding imagination. ‘It-it can’t be! Oh dear, but what will I do about Leo? Becoming a royal consort—’
“Eleanora has decided on a husband for you, Lady Tiffany,” Nicholas explained, his words shattering the golden imagines behind Tiffany’s startled gaze. “To celebrate this union, you shall be given the title of Viscountess, provided you and your family agree to the match.”
‘Eleanora—chose—a husband for me?’ Tiffany attempted to look past Nicholas towards the silent crown princess but quickly dropped her gaze as Nicholas stepped closer and leaned in towards her.
“I hope, Lady Tiffany, that you will give this marriage proposal all the serious consideration it deserves. It goes without saying that you have the approval and support of the royal family should you agree.”
“I—” Tiffany struggled to find her voice. As she took a step back to find some space to breathe, she saw Isabella’s confident smirk and knew her foolish assumptions were horribly wrong. “Who?”
“My cousin, Lord Marco Emerson,” Eleanora explained as she joined Nicholas and took her husband’s arm fondly. “Soon to be Viscount of Vishera.”
‘Wait—’ Tiffany blinked as she clasped her chest, her lungs tightening with terror and realization. ‘They want me to marry a foreigner—a half-witch?’
“No—no, I—” The room spun, and she found herself leaning against Lady Maura as the younger attendant held her firmly.
“Oh my, Lady Tiffany is overcome with delight,” Isabella said with coy satisfaction. “Barely the daughter of a Baroness for half a year, and now she’s to become a Viscountess!”
‘No, this—this has to be a horrible dream. A nightmare!’
“I—I don’t want to—” Tiffany whispered, but only Maura’s cold blue eyes, which held a strange gleam of sympathy in them, were left to console her as Isabella escorted the royal couple out of the library.
“Are you sure you can’t stay for dinner, your Majesty? Well then, at least spend some time together outside. Eleanora has been cooped up all day working out this arrangement.”
Tiffany let out a strangled gasp as she tried to keep her legs from crumbling beneath her.
“Breathe, Tiffany,” Maura urged quietly. “You’ll faint if—”
“That’s enough dramatics from both of you!” Isabella snapped as she returned to the library and shut the doors behind her promptly. “Lady Maura, let Lady Tiffany stand on her own two feet. She’ll have to show more spine than that if she is to become a Viscountess.”
“Lady Tiffany has had a shock, Lady Isabella,” Maura replied as Tiffany gripped the attendant’s arms tighter still.
“I don’t—I love Leo—this can’t—” Tiffany sobbed.
“Leo? Who’s Leo?” Isabella demanded with a threatening glare between them.
“A knight captain who serves the Dowager,” Maura explained. “The son of Duke Stryker.”
“Duke Stryker? Oh—you mean one of his bastards.” Isabell sniffed dismissively. “What nonsense. Do pull yourself together, Tiffany. How can you be so naive? Do you truly imagine you are the first noble daughter to fall for someone beneath you? How do you think half-bloods like Lady Maura come into this world?”
Maura’s eyes flashed with anger, and for a moment, Tiffany wondered if the Baroness still had that dagger she had wielded so readily to defend Eleanora’s wine cellar. ‘No, of course, Maura wouldn’t risk her position here for me.’
“It is up to Baron Clemont and Lady Tiffany, who she will marry,” Maura replied calmly. “Captain Leo is also a suitable match, and I’m sure Baron Cleamont and his wife want their daughter to be happy—”
“Oh? Has this bastard already proposed?” Isabella interrupted as her sharp amber eyes pinned the floundering Tiffany in place.
“N-no,” Tiffany whispered.
“Ha! As expected, he’s merely playing with you,” Isabella shook her head with a resigned sigh. “Well, if the captain is serious about you, this proposal will encourage him to act. In any case, the engagement will last three months. That’s more than enough time for you to get to know Lord Marco.”
“Why so suddenly?” Maura asked with a note of suspicion. “Lord Marco has only just arrived in Lafeara. Why is it so imperative that he have a fiancé?”
“Because my greedy sister-in-law desires a strong marriage for her son as part of negotiations between Ventrayna and Lafeara,” Isabella explained with a note of resentment. “In any case, as Eleanora’s ladies-in-waiting, it is your duty to serve your future queen’s best interest.”
Maura let out a sharp, dark laugh. “We are not cattle, Lady Isabella.”
Tiffany trembled as the Baroness’s arms seemed to spread a chill around them. Strangely enough, the cold air was much easier to breathe. Strength returned to her legs as Tiffany took in a few steady breaths and straightened.
‘No one else is defending me. No one else seems to understand.’ Tiffany stared at the defiant half-blood beside her and steeled her own resolve. “I will marry Captain Leo,” She declared with a rebellious glare at Lady Isabella. “And I’m sure—my family will support my decision.”
Lady Isabella glanced between them and then raised a hand to her brow with a snort. “Oh, to be young and naïve again.” She stepped closer, and Tiffany shrank behind Maura as the Baroness glared at the taller foreign woman with imperious disdain that made Tiffany admire her all the more.
“Lady Tiffany, once your family hears that the title of Viscountess is within reach,” Isabella murmured in an almost motherly tone. “They will realize all the benefits this marriage has to offer. Why risk your advancement and reputation on the bastard son of a duke when you can have a brand new Viscount protected by the royal family? After all,” Isabella leaned past Maura towards Tiffany. “Marco is the cousin of Lafeara’s future Queen.”
“A future queen with so few supporters should be careful not to turn allies into enemies,” Maura replied coldly.
“Enemies?” Isabella laughed as she turned to Maura. “A half-blood and some self-bought noble’s daughter? Please.” She turned and picked up a cloak of furs from her chair. “History remembers kings, queens, tyrants, and rulers—not the help.”
With those parting, humbling words, the crown princess’s mother swept out of the library. Tiffany promptly sank to the floor with a broken sob.
“Oh, Leo, my Leo.” She stared down at the silver ring on her finger. “What am I to do?” Her wavering gaze rose unsteadily to Lady Maura, still frozen in place beside her. “What can I do, Maura?”
Maura pressed two pale fingers against her temple and sighed in apparent frustration. Then she turned and knelt beside Tiffany. “There’s only one way to stop this now.”
“A way? How? Tell me, Maura, please!” Tiffany grasped Maura’s cold hands and clung to them tightly despite their frigid chill.
Tiffany flinched despite the lack of accusation in Maura’s tone. “How did you—” she cut off abruptly and pressed white knuckles against her lips.
Maura sighed. “I told you that you were a terrible liar.”
“I never betrayed the crown princess! I only—”
Maura held up her hand. “Now is not the time to discuss your loyalties. Come with me first.”
“But—where are we going?” Tiffany shivered as Maura’s cold hands wrapped around her wrists. The Baroness stood and quickly pulled Tiffany to her feet.
“To Iris Palace,” Maura replied as she led Tiffany towards the library door. “You have to explain to the Dowager what’s going on. Ask her to take you in as an attendant—and to instate your engagement to Captain Leo—” she paused and turned to Tiffany “—if that is what you want?”
“Of course, that’s what I want!” Tiffany replied as tears poured suddenly down her cheeks. “But I-I don’t understand why you’re helping me? I thought you hated the Dowager—and me.” She looked down, suddenly feeling wretched and guilty for leading Maura into Priscilla’s trap.
“Lady Tiffany, if you don’t want to be used as a tool by other people for the rest of your life, then find a way to grasp your own power,” Maura whispered sharply, then leaned against the library door to listen. “I’ll go with you—but we have to leave now. Eleanora won’t let you break this off willingly.”
“But if you come with me—” Tiffany caught her breath as she looked down at Maura’s cold hand wrapped around her wrist. “No, I’ll go alone. I can’t jeopardize your position here.”
Maura hesitated with her other hand on the door handle. “Are you sure?”
“Yes! You-you’re right. I need to stand up for myself—and the Dowager is the only one who can help me now. She can convince my parents to give Captain Leo a chance. I won’t give up that easily.” Tiffany smiled determinedly as she wiped the tears from her cheeks.
“You know—you’re a lot stronger than I thought,” Maura murmured with a faint smile that quickly faded as her ice-blue eyes hardened. “I’ll escort you to the gate. If anyone asks, you’re stepping out to send a letter to your parents about the engagement. Now, move quickly—don’t stop for anyone.”
Tiffany nodded. Her heart pounded sharply inside her tight chest as Maura pulled open the library door, and they proceeded through the greeting room towards the foyer.
The towering figure of a knight cut them off just as the front door came into view.
“Lady Maura?” the man called out, glancing between them uncertainly.
“Yes?” Maura replied, motioning behind her back for Tiffany to keep going. “Is there something I can help you with, Lieutenant?”
“This is for you,” the knight replied as he passed over an envelope with the golden royal seal. “His Majesty requests your presence. The details are written inside.”
Tiffany gawked, then winced as Maura stepped back, the Baroness’s heel pinching the tip of Tiffany’s toes. “Ahh-I should be going—” Tiffany turned and grimaced as she walked briskly towards the door.
‘Why would Nicholas want to meet with Lady Maura? Why send an official letter when he’s here and can talk to her right now—is he trying to hide it from Eleanora? Should I tell the Dowager about this?’ Tiffany pushed open the door and smiled brightly at the knights outside as she continued her brisk walk towards the gate. The painful throb of her toe helped keep her mind focused even as she silently reprimanded herself. ‘No, Maura just helped me. I won’t betray her over some silly letter. Anyway, it’s probably nothing. The Dowager has spies watching her grandson already, so she’ll find out on her own. I’ll just pretend I left before Maura got that letter.’
Tiffany smiled as the knight at the gate opened it ahead of her with a polite bow. Once on the other side, she paused to gaze back at Rose Palace, no longer enamored by the glamor and pristine marble pillars that had seemed like a dream to her only weeks before.
‘If the Dowager can save me, I’ll leave the palace and never come back. I’m done being used by other people.’