Chapter 89: The Lips of Fate
“Is this—dessert?” Eleanora asked as she poked the small powdery pink squares on her plate that neither she nor Carina could identify.
“Don’t play with your food,” Isabella scolded even as she waved away the second plate Carina had prepared. “I had the chef prepare this especially for you, so eat every morsel. I’ll send another batch around each month until you’ve finally conceived.”
“But what—is it?” An uneasy tone of dread filtered through Eleanora’s question.
“Does it matter? It is deer liver, Eleanora. The doctors claim that it’s good for fertility.”
Eleanora promptly set down her fork and sighed. “Mother—is this really necessary?”
“It wouldn’t be if you and Nicholas were less shy about sharing a bed,” Isabella retorted as she left her seat and placed a hand on Eleanora’s shoulders. “You know how much I struggled to get pregnant with you. We can’t afford to wait and let nature take its course.” Isabella reached down and pinched one of the slightly jiggly squares between her fingers, then offered it to Eleanora. “Come on then. Best if swallowed quickly, the texture is—less than appetizing.”
Eleanora visibly cringed, then closed her eyes and awkwardly opened her mouth. Carina resisted the urge to cover her mouth as Isabella slid the piece of deer liver between Eleanora’s lips. The crown princess’s reaction seemed to confirm her mother’s warning that the texture was not particularly palatable.
“Swallow it quickly,” Isabella commanded sharply as she wiped her fingers on a handkerchief and reached for Eleanora’s glass of wine.
The crown princess swallowed down the nutritious bite, grabbed the glass, sipped, and grimaced as she pressed a hand against the edge of the table.
“Nevertheless, the method has proven effective,” Isabella replied without an inch of remorse. “I ate a plate of this once every month for six months before finally getting pregnant.”
Eleanora shot her mother a look of sympathy that quickly crumbled as she stared back at the liver waiting on her plate. “But—you had a willing partner, Mother. How long will I be stuck eating this?”
“Don’t think about that now. And men are never as averse to the task as they like to put on. But if Nicholas’s abilities prove lacking, I can recommend one or two means of stimulation that worked on your father—”
“Mother! Please!” Eleanora raised a hand with a look of terror. “I get it—you did everything in your power to produce an heir to the Kensington bloodline, but can we please stop talking about it—I can barely manage to eat as it is.”
“Oh, very well,” Isabella replied dismissively as she returned to her seat. “But only if you promise to eat every bite.”
Eleanora took in a sharp breath and nodded.
As the crown princess stabbed a fork slowly into the next piece of liver, her face seemed to melt into an expression of dread and disgust. Carina felt a tinge of sympathy but quickly turned back to the serving table and shook her head.
‘What good does it do to feel sorry for her?’ While it was likely that Eleanora had inherited her mother’s fertility issues, given the young queen never got pregnant even once before her death, that did not excuse Eleanora’s behavior or choices.
“Lady Maura—more wine!” Eleanora called out weakly.
Carina lifted the bottle of Caligo wine Mrs. Poppy had brought up from the cellar and moved over to pour it into Eleanora’s shaking glass. The plate was half-finished, but the crown princess looked just about ready to purge her progress.
“Take a moment to breathe,” Isabella said encouragingly, then tapped her own glass as Carina turned to leave. The Baroness promptly filled the noblewoman’s glass and then returned to her station. “There is one other sensitive matter I need to discuss with you while I’m here, Eleanora.”
The crown princess managed a grunt as she pressed one palm to her forehead and her other hand against her stomach.
“It’s about Hana, Elly. I think it’s time you let her go.”
Carina half turned as her gaze danced from Isabella to Eleanora, who actually seemed to recover from her nausea as she straightened.
Isabella sighed and shook her head. “Must you insist on clinging to old things? You brought Hana here to give her a better life, but how is keeping Hana trapped in the palace beside you a better life? Must she grow old and alone while you are pulled away to serve your husband and then raise your children?”
“Hana’s not trapped,” Eleanora retorted stiffly. The crown princess grabbed her napkin and dabbed it against her glistening neck and forehead. “And I’m not keeping her here against her will.”
Isabella massaged between her brows and sighed. “Yes, but would you deny Hana the opportunity to find her own happiness and become a mother?”
“Hana doesn’t want children, Mother!” Eleanora snapped angrily. She stared down at her plate and the four remaining bites of liver, then shoved it aside. “And neither do I, for that matter.”
“What?” Isabella whispered, her expression horrified. “Have you gone mad, Eleanora? Do you imagine you can keep the position of queen without an heir?!”
“Nicholas will take in other consorts eventually,” Eleanora replied with a glance in Carina’s direction. “Women from Lafeara’s noble families. I can adopt one of their children, whichever one he favors most if need be, and still maintain my throne.”
“Ah-ha-ha!” Isabella laughed cynically as she buried her head in her hands. “Oh, you poor foolish child. Who put such a ridiculous idea into your head?”
“It’s not ridiculous!” Eleanora protested defiantly. “The Dowager wasn’t Henri’s biological mother either!”
“The Dowager held power through the Duchy of Bastiallano,” Isabella corrected sharply as she straightened in her chair. “And quite a few of Henri’s queens and favorite concubines died before Octavia claimed the title of queen.”
“Yes, well. Nicholas only has one favorite at the moment. Fortunately, Lady Rosalinda is a commoner and therefore of no threat to me.”
“Lady Rosalinda grows older by the day!” Isabella retorted angrily. “She’s seven years older than Nicholas. Soon enough, he will replace her with someone younger, and if they are of noble blood and give him a son, Nicholas might decide to replace you!”
“But—the Emperor’s alliance!”
“The Emperor won’t live forever!”
Eleanora flinched and watched as Isabella took a long drink from her glass.
“The price of a fire witch’s power is a shortened life span,” Isabella explained grimly as she lowered the cup. “The Emperor is fast approaching his twilight years, and Haemish told me—that Arius lost Kritanta’s favor a long time ago—”
“With that said, the Empress has been actively preparing for Princess Aurelia to inherit the throne.”
“But—” Eleanora swallowed with effort, “—if Aurelia becomes Empress—”
“Nothing is certain,” Isabella replied reassuringly.
“Mother, Aurelia lives for war! She’s always hated the idea of leaving the other kingdoms as independent nations.”
“Aurelia does not have Kritanta’s favor either—”
“But she will still command the Witch Emperor’s army when she is named Arius’s successor!”
“Well, if Empress Alexandria had produced a son instead of a daughter, there would be no doubt over successorship!”
“But Aurelia is the Emperor’s only living child!”
Isabella went still, her hand wavering slightly over her plate as her gaze shifted away from Eleanora. “That is—no longer the case.”
Eleanora’s brows shifted together in confusion as she frowned. “No longer the case?”
“When you were sent to Lafeara—two years ago—another heir was found. A son that Arius welcomed into the imperial palace.”
“That’s—” Eleanora took in a slow breath and reached for her wine, “—that’s incredible. I thought Alexandria successfully killed off any contenders.”
“She may still try to remove Prince—but enough of Ventrayna’s affairs,” Isabella deflected sharply. “Until you’ve had at least one child, boy or girl, it’s best to keep all other women away from Nicholas!”
“You know I have no power to stop him—”
“Then you must entice him, Eleanora. You are a beautiful young woman with more than enough to offer a young man with a healthy appetite!”
Eleanora groaned and drank more wine.
“That—” Isabella pointed her finger sharply at Eleanora, “—is the problem right there. Your privileged attitude has spoiled this marriage from the very start. You need to focus on your responsibilities and your future, Eleanora. Hana is one less distraction that you do not need right now. Marry her off and give Nicholas an heir! You can always summon her back to court after you’ve secured your position and produced a crown prince.”
‘Unbelievable.’ Carina pressed the Caligo wine bottle against the serving table as she tried to control her breathing. ‘After killing the ambassador to prevent Haemish from dragging Hana back to Ventrayna, now his sister is trying to have Eleanora marry Hana off. Haa—For a family who was once slaves, you’d think they’d have a bit more respect for personal liberties.’
“Mother—you know I can’t,” Eleanora replied stiffly. “I told you and Haemish—that I would only agree to marry Nicholas if you allowed me one request—”
“To bring Hana with you, yes I know—”
“To keep Hana beside me!”
“Eleanora, she is not a pet!” Isabella snapped with strained patience. “Honestly, I don’t know what your father was thinking when he allowed you to bring home that useless half-dead mute from the temple.”
“That’s because Father has a heart,” Eleanora muttered under her breath.
“Eleanora!” Isabella’s hand slammed down on the table with enough force to send her fork jittering off the plate and onto the floor. “I am trying to help you! You should be marrying off all your ladies-in-waiting. If they are loyal to you, then they will accept whatever husband you choose! Once they’re tied to a marriage, even if Nicholas picks up his father’s wandering habits, any bastards produced would be disqualified from inheriting the throne!”
“Fine! But not Hana!”
Isabella groaned and then reached over to grab Eleanora’s wrists. “Use your head, Eleanora! Of your ladies, which two bear the most resemblance to Lady Rosamund? Hmm?”
“Hana has no interest in men, Mother,” Eleanora replied angrily as she yanked her wrist away. “And Lady Tiffany will be engaged to Marco soon enough. So please drop the subject.”
Isabella raised her hands with an exasperated sigh. “Alright. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. In the meantime, marry the rest of your attendants to houses that will strengthen your position as queen.” Her sharp amber gaze wandered over to Carina, “Starting with this one.”
“Mother, Lady Maura is only sixteen,” Eleanora countered quickly as Carina turned slowly to face them.
“When is your birthday, child?” Isabella demanded with a snap of her fingers.
Carina had to unclench her jaw to answer, “In two weeks.”
“Two weeks?” Eleanora echoed thoughtfully. “That’s around the time of the Royal Hunt.”
“You can announce an engagement for Lady Maura then, to someone of suitable status for a half-blood Baroness,” Isabella replied with a note of cynicism.
Eleanora glanced from Carina to her mother and then to her unfinished plate of liver and nodded.
“As it happens—” Eleanora said thoughtfully, “—the Earl of Hawthorne has made it abundantly clear he fancies Lady Maura.”
“Lord Percy Hawthorne?” Isabella scoffed in disbelief. “What would he want with a half-blood?”
“Percy has declared his affections for Lady Maura to me on three different occasions.”
“Oh, well, I suppose she is pretty,” Isabella said with a somewhat resentful tone. “But still—he can’t seriously mean to make her a Countess!”
“Maura’s maternal grandfather is a Viscount and close family friend of the Hawthornes,” Eleanora answered with a shrug. “In any case, whether he marries her or not, it would be a better option than alienating him as an ally by giving Maura to someone else.”
Isabella turned to study Carina with a bewildered expression. “He’s really that serious?”
“Serious enough that I wouldn’t dare risk it. As you said, Mother, Percy has grown powerful among our—family. I can’t afford to lose him as an ally.”
“But she’s a half-blood,” Isabella whispered, still apparently trying to wrap her head around the idea. “Would the Earl really risk spoiling the Hawthorne bloodline—”
“Maura has enough of the right bloodline to be a better match for him than Lady Evelynn could ever be,” Eleanora replied with a pointed glance towards the kitchen. “In any case, there are very few other nobles who can rival Percy’s political influence.”
“Well, Yes—” Isabella glanced back at Carina with a resigned expression, “—I suppose you’re right.”
Carina laughed darkly as she unclenched her hands from the table that had supported her throughout their conversation. “So—neither of you are going to ask if I want him?”
“If you—,” Isabella burst into a fit of laughter as she leaned back in her chair. “Are you honestly saying you would refuse if the Earl offered to marry you, Lady Maura?”
“Yes,” Carina replied without hesitation. “More to the point, I have no interest in marrying anyone. I have my own property and wealth, and I can take care of myself—”
“By property, you mean the Town of Averly?” Isabella returned sharply.
“I have other property that belongs to me exclusively.”
“Oh? Perhaps that boutique you send your pretty little designs to?” Isabella snorted. “Would your little shop even be successful if the crown princess had not chosen to become its Patron?”
‘And here I thought I couldn’t possibly hate anyone more than Haemish and Maura’s family.’ Carina blinked as her fingers dug deeper into the fabric of her dress.
“I told you, Eleanora,” Isabella continued with a long-drawn-out sigh, “This is what happens when you take in an ungrateful half-blood.”
“Mother, please,” Eleanora whispered sharply before turning to Carina. “Lady Maura, I find it hard to believe that you have been unaware of Percy’s interest all this time. I know I counseled you against forming any attachment to him, but—given the Earl’s persistence—you could hardly ask for a better match!”
Carina offered a strained, polite smile as she turned to face the crown princess. “And I appreciate your counsel, but whether I get married or not is my choice, and I can assure you—that it will not happen any time in the near future.”
“But, Maura, you must realize—you would become a Countess, the Countess of Hawthorne if you married Lord Percy.”
“I did not enter the palace to be auctioned off for your benefit or the Earls!”
“Then why did you enter the palace, Lady Maura?” Isabella snapped. “If you have no ambition, no desire to advance beyond the station of an attendant, clothes designer, and Baroness. A title which you only gained through lands gifted to you by her Highness.”
‘I am aware—you don’t have to keep reminding me!’
“I came here to help Eleanora become Queen and—” Carina sucked in a shaky breath as she leaned against the table behind her once more. The room seemed to press in around her as she struggled to compress her anger.
‘Enough of this.’
The Baroness focused her ice-blue eyes on the crown princess then pushed off the table. Eleanora blinked in surprise as Carina knelt suddenly on the floor beside her chair.
“Lady Maura, what—”
“I wanted to support your Highness and offer whatever council and aid I could give you until your position as queen was stabilized. But—can you rule, Eleanora? Can you stand up for what you believe in without letting the influences of others dissuade or confuse you? Do you even care about the people who have entrusted their lives and future into your hands? That is the question I’ve been wondering of late.”
“The impertinence!” Isabella slammed her hand against the table and lurched upright. “A servant dares to question her mistress? This half-blood actually has the audacity to refer to a royal family member by their first name? Ha!” Isabella smiled dangerously as she glared down at Carina. “I must thank you for opening our eyes to how brazen you truly are, Lady Maura! Eleanora, I don’t care if the Earl does fancy her. You cannot allow such a vixen anywhere near the Earl.”
Eleanora and Carina both ignored the ranting woman as they stared unflinchingly at each other, then Eleanora cracked a sad smile and laughed.
“So this is your way of showing gratitude, Maura?” The crown princess tilted her head with a cynical smile as she reached for her glass. “I took such a risk on you. I ignored your past, your half-blood status, your mother’s dishonorable divorce—I gave you every advantage I denied others with twice your worth.”
Carina smiled back bitterly and replied. “If being a Baroness means giving up my freedom—then you can keep your titles and the town of Averly.”
Surprise flickered across Eleanora’s face as Carina rose slowly to her feet. Anger swiftly followed, but whatever Eleanora was preparing to say was cut off the moment Isabella’s hand struck Carina’s face and sent the attendant staggering towards the wall.
“Stop! Mother, you cannot abuse my ladies!”
“I will not stand idly by and watch my daughter be insulted!”
Carina laughed against the loose locks of hair that fell across her face as she touched her numb cheek and straightened.
“A little force now and then is necessary to keep servants in line, Eleanora. Otherwise, they will lose all—” Isabella broke off as footsteps rushed towards the Baroness.
Carina blinked as two pale hands cupped her face and turned her towards a vision of turquoise-blue eyes surrounded by a halo of golden-blonde hair. “Hana?” She grasped the pale attendant’s wrists, surprise and disbelief giving way to concern as Hana trembled before her. “What is it—are you alright?”
Hana let out a soft, angry breath. Then tears rolled suddenly down her cheek as she whispered hoarsely, “You—you came back!”
Carina blinked in confusion as the crown princess rushed towards them.
“Hana, when did you—” Eleanora whispered as she pulled one of Hana’s hands towards her, “—when did you wake up?”
A still crying Hana stared at Eleanora blankly, then pulled her hand away and wrapped both arms around Carina as she bowed her head towards the Baroness’s neck and half-whispered, half-sobbed, “I’m so glad you came back!”
‘What is—going on?’ Carina flinched as Eleanora’s shocked and hurt expression shifted to fury.
“Hana, that’s Lady Maura.” The crown princess took the attendant’s shoulders gently. “You’re having a relapse. We should get you back upstairs to re—”
“Why?” Hana’s cold voice answered. “So you and your mother can arrange my marriage while I’m still unconscious?”
The three women fell silent as Hana finally pulled away from Carina’s damp neck to face the crown princess with a glare.
“How could you, Eleanora? All those nights you wept and raged about how being forced to marry someone you didn’t love was so terrible you wanted to end your own life—and now look at you!”
Eleanora flinched as her expression twisted between guilt and pain. “I wasn’t going to—You know I would never send you away, Hana!”
“But if marrying me off made your marriage easier—”
“That is not true!” Eleanora shouted as her grip on Hana’s shoulders tightened.
“Why not?” Hana countered defiantly. “Am I so different from the rest of your servants? Was it because I was so broken and helpless that you kept me close to comfort you whenever you felt lonely and missed Tristan.”
“She’s lost her mind!” Isabella whispered as she retreated from them. “I warned you she might slip back into her old ways if she—”
“If I what?” Hana sneered as she turned to face the quivering woman. “Remembered what your brother did to me?”
A sickening silence filled the room as the color drained slowly from the crown princess’s face.
“W-what?” Eleanora’s voice cracked. “Haemish didn’t—No-no-no—” she released Hana and staggered back to lean against her chair as she clutched her stomach.
“Didn’t what? Rape me along with countless other Zarus girls?” Hana continued mercilessly, her turquoise-blue eyes cutting into Isabella, who retreated further away. “Haemish beat a child from my belly and then left me in a pile of horse shit to die.” Hana laughed, the beautiful melancholy at odds with the horror painted by her words. The silence that followed was interrupted by an avalanche of vomit as Eleanora puked onto the floor.
“Elly!” Isabella whispered in shock but made no move to approach any closer.
Carina and Hana watched as the crown princess reached blindly for the napkin she had left on the table. Eleanora wiped her mouth roughly, then raised her horrified eyes to Hana. “You-you said you didn’t remember—you were unconscious for nearly a year after it happened!”
“I remembered fragments after I woke,” Hana replied dispassionately. “I simply had no desire to remember more. But I recognized his voice the first time he came to visit you while I was but a servant in Ambassador Kensington’s house.” She shook her head with an empty smile as she stared at Eleanora with distant eyes. “I didn’t want to leave you just because of him. You who saved me. You who brought me back into the world and sheltered me. I wanted to keep loving you to repay you for your kindness—even if you were his family.” Hana reached a hand back blindly towards Carina, who grasped the offered hand firmly, “But then Haemish sent his assassins to kill me on the night of the banquet.”
“The assassins!” Eleanora gasped as her gaze turned suddenly towards Isabella. “Mother—did you know?”
“Haemish is dead,” Isabella said numbly, her gaze focused on the chair she gripped tightly. “Whatever crimes he committed died with him. You can’t punish us for that, Hana.”
“Dead?” Hana whispered. She looked confused as she turned towards Carina and searched the Baroness’s ice-blue eyes for the truth. “Lord Haemish is—dead?” Her blonde brows twisted as her turquoise blue eyes filled with pain, fleeting hope, and something darker still.
“Ambassador Haemish is dead,” Carina whispered back firmly as she tightened her grip on Hana’s cold hand. “He’s gone.” She reached out carefully and wiped the tears from Hana’s cheek. “He can do nothing further to harm you.”
“But—” Hana’s tormented eyes closed for a moment. “My nightmares—” her words choked as tears fell down her cheeks.
“I will protect you,” Carina promised as she stepped closer and wrapped an arm around the shaking attendant’s shoulders. “I came here for you, Hana.”
Hana opened her turquoise blue eyes, smiled past her tears, and nodded wistfully. “Yes—you came back!”
‘Back from where?’ Carina shook her head, but Hana’s strange choice of words seemed to tug at something inside her.
“Hana!” Eleanora pleaded as she crept closer and touched the attendant’s elbow. “I didn’t know—”
“I know,” Hana replied tiredly without looking in the crown princess’s direction. “We all hid it from you, but now you know—and now I know.”
“What?” Eleanora whispered, confused.
“You’re not who I thought you were, Eleanora.” Hana’s grip on Carina’s hand tightened as she brushed past the crown princess and led them both through the open dining room door.
‘Whoa, what-what is going on?’ Left with no choice but to follow, Carina focused on keeping up with Hana’s quickening stride.
“Where are you going?” Isabella called after them shrilly. “Hana!”
Carina glanced back haphazardly as Hana continued to pull her hand and lead them up the stairs. ‘Okay, I was rather hoping we would leave through the front door, but—’
Eleanora pushed past Isabella as she rushed towards the steps. “Hana, please!”
Carina stumbled for a moment and caught herself against the railing. Hana paused, then slid her arm around Carina’s waist and kept moving. They continued down the hall towards Hana’s bedroom door, which remained ajar.
‘Wait—where are the knights Nicholas left to guard her?’ Carina wondered as they entered. Hana finally released her hand and then spun around quickly to slam the door shut and slid the lock into place.
“Hana,” Carina whispered uncertainly, her mind still spinning to understand their rather dramatic exit. “That was—” Her thoughts and words died as Hana turned towards her, cupped Carina’s cheeks again, and then leaned in to kiss the Baroness’s lips.
Eleanora’s fists pounded against the door behind them, followed by an angry, tearful protest. “Hana! Hana, open the door! Please, talk to me. Don’t shut me out like this—”
Carina stood as stiff as a tree while Hana embraced her tightly and once more buried her face against Carina’s neck and shoulder.
“I missed you, Kirsi,” Hana whispered.
Carina shivered. Her arms moved around Hana of their own accord as her voice answered confidently, “I told you I’d come back—Hana.”