Chapter 88: The Mantle of a King


Nicholas looked up as Prime Minister Attwood shoved his way past Lieutenant Olund into his office.

“Your Majesty!” Attwood protested as Olund caught his shoulder in a firm grip.

“It’s alright, Prime Minister. I asked Olund to ensure I wasn’t disturbed,” Nicholas commented and continued reading over the terms of negotiation that he had commissioned a trusted, discrete scribe to prepare. “Was there something important you needed to discuss?”

Attwood shook of the knight’s hand and marched up to the desk. “Only that I was concerned. Your Majesty, the Ambassador’s death—”

“Natural causes, it would seem,” Nicholas replied. “Unfortunate, but—”

“Unfortunate?!” Attwood leaned against the desk, his gaze dropping down to the document Nicholas was reading. “The Emperor’s Ambassador dies mysteriously in the middle of the night, and his wife keeps our knights from—Wait—what is this?”

“Terms of negotiation between Lafeara and Ventrayna,” Nicholas replied calmly as he flipped a page. “I had Senior Brockley write them up for me.”

“Terms of—what terms?” Attwood reached for the stack of paper Nicholas had finished reading.

Nicholas sighed as he nodded to Sir Olund and motioned for the knight to wait outside. After the door closed, Nicholas leaned back and studied Attwood, who was rapidly skimming over one page after another with a speed the crown prince was rather envious of.

“This is—when did you get Haemish to agree to this?” Attwood murmured as his steel-blue eyes moved from the document to Nicholas, baffled. “And why wasn’t the House of Lords informed?”

“You might want to finish the rest before I answer that.” Nicholas gestured to the stack of papers still before him. “It’s everything we wanted, Attwood—and a little bit more.”

The Prime Minister needed little encouragement as he picked up the rest of the papers and blindly reached for a chair behind him which he sat on crookedly as his eyes skimmed down each page at breakneck speed. He paused only twice to reread a section, muttering, “This—unbelievable,” or “No, no, this won’t—Ahh, no—I suppose that could work.”

When Attwood finally reached the last page, he slowly, painstakingly stacked the document pages together, then stood up awkwardly and set them in front of Nicholas once more. “This—is better than we planned for.”

“I know,” Nicholas held back a grin, cautiously waiting for the “but” that lingered in Attwood’s tone.

“Your Majesty, how did you get Haemish to agree to this?”

“Not Haemish, but his wife. Lady Lavinia is the acting Ambassador now, since her husband’s unexpected death.”

“The Ambassador’s widow?” Attwood stared at the crown prince for a moment in tense silence. “You—made a deal with her—in private?”

“Those were her terms, Attwood. Lady Lavinia wanted this settled quickly and quietly so that her husband could receive an official funeral before his corpse started to rot,” Nicholas explained. He left out the fact that he and Lavinia had both seen the wisdom of a closed-door discussion, far from the meddlesome hands of the House of Lords.

“What about Haemish’s demands that we end the alliance with Zarus?” Attwood pressed as he stared at the documents, clearly conflicted.

Nicholas tapped the stack of papers. “You saw the request for Ventrayna aid against Tharyn?”

Attwood grunted and gave a slight nod.

“Part of that aid will be a garrison built on the Emperor’s coin in what remains of Wolf Thorn Forest. The Emperor’s forces will be stationed there to monitor the border. They’ll keep Tharyn raiders away from our border villages and towns and block any trade headed through the mountains to the Pope.”

“No, absolutely not!”

“It’s the only way forward, Prime Minister, whether we like it or not! The Emperor can ensure a swift end to this war. If we allow his troops to secure our borders from Tharyn, then we get a shipment of witch steel our blacksmiths can forge into weapons needed to make Lafeara’s armies strong again. Without a military force to protect our border, we’ll never stand independent of the Emperor’s goodwill.”

Attwood clasped his hands together and motioned towards the document. “Yes, but agreeing to give the Emperor a permanent foothold in Lafeara will also make it difficult to become independent of his reign in the future.”

“Arius already has a permanent foothold in Lafeara!” Nicholas scoffed and pushed back his seat. “You made her my wife!”

Attwood snapped his mouth shut and dropped his gaze as he rubbed his jaw anxiously. “Eleanora isn’t the Emperor’s daughter by blood, Nicholas. Now—I won’t deny she gives the Emperor a foothold inside our government, but the crown princess will only have as much power as you give her.”

“Eleanora is to be Lafeara’s Queen,” Nicholas reminded him sourly. He stood, moved around the desk towards the waiting pitcher of wine, and filled a glass. “I can’t exactly limit her power unfairly. If anything, I should be encouraging her to gain influence among the nobles so she can help me rebuild Lafeara’s future.” He took a drink and rolled his neck back with a sigh. “Eleanora needs the nobles and commoners to love her if she is to be a good queen. How can they begin to give her a chance if you and I won’t?”

“The people will not love her when they see how the Emperor used her marriage to cut Lafeara off from the Holy City and the Pope!” Attwood replied grimly.

Nicholas shook his head and turned to face his Prime Minister. “Lafeara can’t afford to be immobilized between the Pope and the Emperor forever. If I am going to choose a side, it might as well be the winning side that will allow my kingdom to grow.”

“Yes, but—how do we know for certain Ventrayna will win?” Attwood protested as he spread his hands open. “If a Saint were to appear—”

“A Saint?” Nicholas laughed and took another long drink. “Are we making policies based on fairytales and superstition?” The crown prince shook his head. “Maybe there were Saints, and maybe there weren’t. If they’re real, then let them protect the Pope. I am not canceling our alliance, merely ensuring my country survives whatever outcome the future holds.”

“Call it what you will, but Pope Jericho will see it as a betrayal,” Attwood warned. “And if he declares you a heretic—”

“Then I am a heretic!” Nicholas raised his nearly empty glass in a mocking salute. “I am sick to death of the church’s superstitions, these endless inquisitions, the fear, lies, and death they spread in the name of their dead, merciful Saint.”


“I do not believe you are a religious man either, Prime Minister,” Nicholas added with a warning glare. “But perhaps I am wrong. Tell me then, swear upon the name of all the Saints, that my father did not use the inquisition as an excuse to kill those nobles because they opposed me taking the throne from my dead brother?”

Attwood clenched his fists and exhaled sharply before looking away. “The past is the past, your Majesty. Neither you nor I can do anything to change it. But if you turn your back on the church—even if you call it diplomacy—you will lose the people. I fear they won’t believe or forgive you easily if you do this, Nicholas. And many of the nobles will openly turn against you if they discover you harbor such unpopular views about witches.”

Nicholas’s cup scraped against the oak table as he set it down, then crossed his arms. “Prime Minister, you told me yourself that some of the most powerful families in Lafeara are witches. You counseled me that to control the masses, I must earn the respect and loyalty of the great families that rule them. I am king by birth, but only as long as they find me a convenient ruler. That is what you told me.”

“I warned you to be cautious, your Majesty. King Henri pushed the covens too far—and we both know how that ended for him,” Attwood whispered back sharply with a nervous look around the room. “Yes, the Hawthornes, Kensingtons, Winslets, and many older Lafearian houses are secretly witches. You can be sure that they would support this bill in a heartbeat—” he gestured towards the terms of negotiation, then dropped his hand with a sigh. “Perhaps your right. Perhaps this is the only way forward.”

“I’m glad you understand,” Nicholas replied with a faint smile.

“But Nicholas,” Attwood continued with a note of unease as he clenched his fists. “Your father tried the same tactics. That’s why he married Lady Catalina—to change the views of the people and unite mortals and witches—but he changed his mind in the end.”

“Queen Catalina died,” Nicholas replied as the Prime Minister fell silent. “As did my mother. In the end, the King turned on Lafeara’s witches out of suspicion. Father took his grief and rage too far, and they punished him for it.” He sighed and traced the heavy gold ring on his left hand, a circlet of wolves devouring each other. “In any case, Eleanora is not a full witch. The old families admired Catalina, that much was clear even to me, but Eleanora is not Catalina.”

“All the more reason that we should be cautious of cutting ourselves off from the church,” Attwood pressed as he moved closer to Nicholas. “Your Majesty, there are other powers in Lafeara that do not wish to see a witch take the throne again.”

“Again?” Nicholas echoed with a confused frown.

“At all!” Attwood hastily corrected. “The point is—how will you prevent the Pope from learning about this deal? Jericho could renounce you before your coronation! He could turn the people against you, Nicholas!”

“If my people love the Pope more than they love Lafeara or their king, then they can go fight the Emperor alongside the Pope’s witch hunters!” Nicholas replied in a flat tone.

“Your Majesty,” Attwood sighed wearily, then placed both hands on his hips.

“In any case, you and I are the only ones who have read that document—” Nicholas said reassuringly, “—aside from Sir Brockley, who I have sent on a long and comfortable journey into the countryside to visit his family.” The crown prince grasped the Prime Minister’s shoulder with a confident grin. “So, unless you tell the House of Lords or anyone else outside this room, the Pope need not find out until after I am coronated as Lafeara’s King.”

“It’s a risk, a dangerous one,” Attwood muttered as he glanced from Nicholas to the document. “But if the Ambassador will sign her name to those terms and the Emperor upholds his end—perhaps it will be worth the risk.”

Nicholas smiled with genuine relief. “I knew I could count on you, Prime Minister, and I’m glad you approve. Now—I need to prepare. I’m to meet Lady Lavinia within the hour.”

Attwood raised both brows in surprise and laughed. “I have to admit, I’m—very impressed, your Majesty. This may be the quickest and most favorable negotiation in Lafeara’s history.”

“Speaking of quick,” Nicholas remarked with a raised brow. “What’s this about Acheron suddenly being engaged?”

“Ah,” Attwood sighed heavily and rubbed a hand down his face. “I’m embarrassed to admit that it was not at all expected—or planned.”

“Oh?” Nicholas frowned, both concerned and confused.

“Acheron—got a little drunk at the ball last night—as did the lady in question. They—crossed a line that required both families to step in and set things right.”

“Oh—” Nicholas closed his eyes and sighed. “And this was with Lady Evelynn Hendrix—correct?”

“Yes. Viscount Hendrix was quick to agree to the marriage. We’ve already negotiated a suitable dowery despite their current financial situation—”

“But—what about Lord Percy?” Nicholas interrupted with a frown. “I was under the impression that he and Lady Evelynn were to be engaged.”

“I believe that to be powder room gossip, your Majesty,” Attwood replied as he returned to the chair and sat down. “In any case, the Earl sent Acheron a bottle of wine and a small gold dagger with a note of congratulations this morning.”

‘A gold dagger?’ Nicholas scoffed and shook his head as he leaned against his desk. “I wonder what Percy was thinking.”

“Mmm, you and the rest of the kingdom,” Attwood muttered as he crossed his legs and flicked a speck of lint from his trousers. “I heard the Earl also sent a bouquet and pair of bracelets to Lady Evelynn to congratulate her as well.”

‘I suppose it’s fine as long as Percy wasn’t upset by the news.’ Nicholas shook his head and resolved to speak to the Earl at the next House of Lords gathering. “Oh—that reminds me. Lady Tiffany Clemont is to become engaged as well.”

“Clemont?” Attwood tilted his head, momentarily confused. “Oh! Baron Clemont. Yes, wasn’t Lady Tiffany one of her Highness’s ladies-in-waiting?”

Nicholas nodded.

“And who is the intended groom?” Attwood asked politely.

“Eleanora’s cousin, Lord Marco, who is to be made Viscount of Vishera.”

Attwood’s polite interest quickly sharpened into understanding. “I see, well.” The Prime Minister gave a begrudging nod of approval. “As far as negotiations go, Lady Lavinia appears to know what she wants and how to get it. At least her demands are easy enough to fulfill.”

“Agreed. Lady Lavinia is much easier to manage than her late husband,” Nicholas added with a sour grimace and then glanced towards the small clock on the mantel. “And I really should get these papers over to Lily Palace for her signature.”

Attwood shook his head as he stood up and watched Nicholas place the pages into a thin painted, wooden box. The crown prince tied the oaken container with a ribbon and then tucked under his arm. “As much as I appreciate the speed and assurance these documents will provide. To negotiate with a widow the same day her husband has died—”

“And I am just a monarch paying my respects while making sure the bereaved has everything she needs,” Nicholas replied confidently as he grabbed his jacket from the desk chair and then headed to the door. “That’s what you’ll tell the House of Lords if any of them start asking questions.”

“You’ve done well, your Majesty,” Attwood cautioned as the crown prince grasped the door handle. “But the House of Lords have been moving this government since before you were born. Even if I say nothing—they will learn of your deception eventually.”

“Well, as they are such great Lords of Deception themselves, I’m sure they will come to understand and support my decision,” Nicholas replied with a cynical smile and then opened the office door. “For the good of Lafeara.”


Carina folded her hands as she waited behind her chair in the dining room. It had already been several hours since Tiffany had fled the palace. Fortunately, Eleanora had been too busy entertaining her mother upstairs to take notice. Like the rest of the crown princess’s household, Carina took care to avoid interrupting Lady Isabella’s interest as she and Mrs. Poppy provided for the Ventrayna woman’s endless demands.

‘Unfortunately, Eleanora is bound to notice when Tiffany doesn’t show up to serve them for dinner.’

Carina took in a deep breath and sighed as Mrs. Poppy swept into the dining room and hurriedly motioned the maids to escape into the kitchen.

“I’m sure Robbi will have prepared all your favorite dishes.” Eleanora’s voice floated towards the door as she and Lady Isabella descended the stairs. “I am so very thankful you recommended him to me.”

“Only the best for my girl,” Isabella responded with a fond smile, her cheeks flushed from an afternoon of drinking. “But you must come and visit me in our summer house sometime, Eleanora. Your father is away so much these days with his family business.”

Eleanora sighed as she glanced around the room and frowned to find only one of her ladies-in-waiting in attendance. “I’m sure Father will come home once he’s confident Serilda won’t burn down—Umm, where is everyone?”

“Your Highness,” Carina curtsied and moved to pull out the crown princess’s chair while Mrs. Poppy did the same with Hana’s vacant seat.

“I seem to recall having four ladies-in-waiting at one point,” Eleanora muttered in disbelief as she sank into her chair. “And now I’m suddenly down to one?”

“Ah well, perhaps you should take in a bit more,” Isabella said stiffly as her eyes narrowed in on Carina. “Where is Lady Tiffany?”

“I have not seen her since earlier, my Lady,” Carina replied demurely as she stepped back.

“Since earlier?” Eleanora repeated sharply. “Is she hiding away in her rooms?” She turned her flashing amber eyes to Mrs. Poppy, who shook her head.

“No, your Highness. I checked all the rooms before coming down to prepare supper. Lady Evelynn said she was feeling better but would be unable to serve your Highness tonight. Lady Tiffany was not with her—but one of the knights told me she left the palace earlier to send off a letter to her family.”

“And has the lady not returned since mailing this letter?” Isabella demanded incredulously. “Are the servants meant to oversee my daughter’s needs allowed to come and go as they choose?”

“They are not servant’s mother—” Eleanora sighed and motioned towards her empty glass. “Some wine, please, Lady Maura.”

Carina curtsied and moved towards the pitcher of wine that waited on the serving table.

“I seem to recall Lady Maura was the last person I saw with Lady Tiffany,” Isabella said pointedly. “And she had rather a lot to say on the subject of your Highness marrying off her ladies like cattle.”

Eleanora blinked and turned to stare at Carina as the Baroness brought over her glass. “Lady Maura—do you—know something about Lady Tiffany’s absence you are not sharing?”

“As Mrs. Poppy said, Lady Tiffany went out several hours ago to mail a letter to her family,” Carina replied calmly as she set down the glass.

Eleanora grabbed her wrist as the Baroness moved to retreat. “And—why hasn’t she returned?”

“Perhaps Lady Tiffany thought it more prudent to discuss the matter with her family face to face?” Carina suggested as she met Eleanora’s suspicious gaze. “I cannot say, your Highness. She did not confide in me—but she was understandably upset by the engagement to Lord Marco.”

“Understandably upset?” Eleanora scoffed. “You make it sound as if I’m dragging the poor girl into a marriage with some abusive, shriveled, older man.”

‘Says the miserable princess set to become Lafeara’s queen.’ Carina bit her cheek and held her tongue.

“Oh, I see—” Eleanora laughed darkly as she released her grip, “—you disapprove, Lady Maura. And why shouldn’t Lady Tiffany do the royal family this favor? We made her family nobles did we not?” The crown princess’s amber eyes glittered as she pointed a long red fingernail at Carina’s chest. “And I made you into a Baroness just so you could stay inside the palace.”

“They are much too ungrateful,” Isabella said scornfully. “I warned you, Eleanora. Dress them up all you like, but blood will always out. Commoners and half-bloods rebelling against their mistress? Lafeara’s nobles won’t take your reign seriously if you let these interlopers walk all over you.”

Carina stared at Isabella incredulously as she gritted her teeth. ‘Your background is hardly a pedestal on which to speak.’

“And look at how this half-blood glares at me!” Isabella laughed sharply. “At the mother of Lafeara’s future queen.”

“Major Garrett!” Eleanora shouted so suddenly that Isabella jumped in her seat.

The Major entered the dining room promptly and bent his head towards the crown princess’s chair. “Your Highness.”

“Send a knight to the fortress gate. Find out if Lady Tiffany left the Royal Palace and report back to me immediately!”

“Right away, your Highness.”

Carina exhaled quietly as the Major left the room. Eleanora focused on her wine while Isabella watched her worriedly.

“Well—even if Lady Tiffany left the palace grounds—the engagement will still go through,” Isabella said optimistically. “A Baron family should be easy enough to persuade—with the appropriate amount of pressure.”

“I don’t believe Baron Clemont would appreciate being threatened over their daughter’s future marriage,” Carina observed coldly.

“I was not speaking to you!” Isabella’s gaze turned hostile as she grasped her empty glass and slid it across the table. “Do your job and be silent!”

Carina caught the glass before it toppled over and turned mutely towards the waiting pitcher. ‘There’s no point in talking to either of them. Let’s just get through dinner and hope Tiffany’s absence means the Dowager has given her sanctuary.’

“Now, where is our dinner?” Isabella demanded with a sharp look at Mrs. Poppy. “Or has the entire kitchen staff abandoned us for the evening as well!”

The housekeeper opened the side door and stepped back. Chef Robbi emerged from his kitchen, carrying a tray with a large bowl of creamy white stew beside something that resembled powdered fudge and a plate of soft buttered bread.

He set the tray down on the serving table and nodded grimly to Mrs. Poppy, who moved alongside Carina to help prepare two sets of dishes. “Oyster stew, at Lady Isabella’s request,” the housekeeper explained as she polished one of the silver spoons. “It’s probably best if you delivered Isabella’s meal first if you don’t want to end up with a bruised cheek like Lady Tiffany.”

‘Is that what happened?’ Carina clenched her jaw and shut her eyes tightly. She opened them again with a deep breath, forced on a smile, and carried over the glass of wine.

Lady Isabella tapped the tablecloth impatiently and snatched the wine from Carina the moment the Baroness set it down. “Took you long enough. Can I get my dinner now too, or must that go cold before I get a taste?”

“I’ll have it ready in just a moment,” Carina replied demurely as she stepped back. A glance at the crown princess showed Eleanora finishing off her first glass of wine, then staring into the empty cup with a scowl. ‘I suppose Eleanora gets her drinking habits from her mother.’

“Wait—what in Kritanta’s name is this? Am I drinking wine or piss mixed with water?”

Carina turned back towards the complaining woman just as Isabella turned the glass over and dumped its contents onto the carpeted floor below.

“Mother!” Eleanora protested as she pressed a hand to her temple. “Must you?”

“Patience, Elly, dear,” Isabella replied as she turned in her chair towards Carina. “Well, what are you waiting for? Clean it up, Lady Maura?”

Carina blinked, her smile slipping. One of the maids hastily darted inside the kitchen and returned with a few gray towels.

Isabella snapped her fingers and offered Carina a smug smile the Baroness would have happily slapped. “Well, half-blood, get to work.”

A glance at Eleanora revealed only a look of indifference as the crown princess raised her glass and turned to Mrs. Poppy.

‘Right, so this is your way of putting me in my place?’ Carina swallowed down a laugh as she accepted the towels from the maid and slowly knelt on the floor beside the fragrant, soaked carpet. ‘I thought that you were worth saving because of Hana.’

A hand settled upon Carina’s shoulder as she pushed the first towel against the soaked rug.

“And stay down there until you get every last drop,” Isabella hissed venomously as her nails dug into the Baroness’s shoulder.

The towel clung to the damp rug as the wine hardened into shards of red ice. Isabella appeared not to notice as she removed her hand and resumed a somewhat forced conversation with her silent brooding daughter.

Carina pulled the towel away from the carpet, wincing as the cloth fabric tore. She swallowed down the bitter anger burning at the back of her throat and grabbed another towel as numb acceptance took its place.

‘I made the wrong choice.’

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