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Chapter 90 {Part Two}: A Balance of Truths


Chapter 90 {Part Two}: A Balance of Truths


The library inside Peony Palace was reserved for the training of the royal children and each chosen successor. Constance had mentioned this as she laid out the curriculum of books selected to prepare Carina for the Selection examination.

“Each of these works resides inside the royal library along with many other valuable books of which there exists only a single copy. There is knowledge of the world that only the royal family, and those close to them, are permitted to read.”

‘Then why did Nicholas choose the library of all rooms to meet me?’ Carina wondered as she followed Beaumont’s tall figure. The distant glow of a lantern soon guided them to a corner in the library where several couches, a table for eating, and a large desk, currently occupied by the crown prince, were arranged for maximum comfort and privacy.

“Captain Beaumont. Lady Maura,” Nicholas greeted as he flipped the cover of the book he had been reading closed. “I’m pleased you could make it.”

“How could I refuse your Majesty?” Carina replied demurely as Beaumont bowed and moved off to stand behind Nicholas’s desk. ‘Like a dog returning to their master,’ Carina observed with a tinge of frustration. ‘And yet he hasn’t told the crown prince my secrets—or has he?’ She refocused on Nicholas as she curtsied respectfully.

“Rise, Lady Maura. We can dispense with formalities for this evening,” Nicholas said benevolently as he left his chair and gestured to the couch. “Please, take a seat and make yourself comfortable.”

Although she found his suddenly friendly behavior odd, Carina turned towards the couch and sat in the corner closest to her. She frowned when Nicholas chose to sit beside her rather than take the sofa opposite. ‘Okay, maybe a little too friendly?’ Carina folded her hands gracefully as she turned to face the young monarch with a polite smile.

“You don’t seem at all surprised that I summoned you,” Nicholas observed as he leaned back into the cushion of the couch. “Perhaps you expected it?” His face and hazel-blue eyes turned towards her with an inquisitive stare.

“Perhaps,” Carina replied carefully as she met his gaze. “I except it has something to do with a letter your Majesty received recently.”

“Ah yes, this letter, in fact,” Nicholas reached inside his jacket and pulled out the letter sealed with Frost’s snowflake emblem, though the seal had since been broken. The crown prince placed the note on the cushion between them. “I assume you sent it to Lord Seymour, knowing he would deliver it to me.”

“That is correct,” Carina answered calmly as she met his hazel-blue eyes and waited for Nicholas to connect all the dots of her carefully prepared introduction.

The crown prince crossed his legs and continued to study her with a curious smile that twitched beneath his splayed fingers. “I should have known,” Nicholas said begrudgingly. “All the pieces were there—and it would certainly explain much of the mystery which seems to surround you. Your skill as a designer, how you won the Countess’s support, that little act about seeing the future during the Selection—” he smirked and shook his head “—I should have put it all together much sooner.”

Carina repressed a smile of relief as she nodded. “Of course, it was necessary for me to keep this hidden as such an identity comes with many tedious complications and unwanted attention.”

“Well, it’s not something to brag about either,” Nicholas replied with a dismissive wave. “Though I suppose the identity of Frost’s bastard daughter might be considered valuable to many .”

Carina blinked as the tension in her chest deflated beneath the weight of disbelief. ‘What?’

“Still, despite your rather tarnished origins, your father wields a great deal of respect and admiration for someone who’s lived as a phantom all his life.” Nicholas grinned at her shocked expression. “I suppose that’s why your mother didn’t try getting rid of you or even putting you up for adoption. She must have been blackmailing him for money, though Saints know what she spent it on given the Turnbells current financial situation.”

Carina blinked as Nicholas suddenly leaned forward, closing the distance between them as he critically studied her face. “I’m told your other two siblings resembled Lord Josiah with their green eyes and red hair. I’ve also seen Helena’s portrait in your grandfather’s house, and you look nothing like her, which means these blue eyes and dark hair must come from your father.”

Carina resisted the urge to shove his face away as her emotions swung between disappointment and bitter relief. ‘Perhaps it’s best if I follow the narrative Nicholas has chosen. A monarch this stupid might not make such a great ally after all.’

“Y-yes,” Carina answered stiffly as she refocused on the crown prince’s expectant gaze. “I suppose I do resemble my father—”

“Ah-ha! And it was Sir Frost who provided you with a connection to the Countess,” Nicholas continued eagerly with a snap of his fingers. “Between Frost and Lady Constance, you were provided the proper upbringing Lady Helena denied you. Frost also financed your designs by investing in Sir Everly’s boutique to give you a place to sell them.”

‘Well, he’s not completely off base.’ Carina’s smile faltered as she looked away from Nicholas’s victorious expression and sighed.

“Did I get something wrong?” Nicholas queried with a frown.

“Your Majesty is—most perceptive, but—” Carina composed herself and offered him a polite smile “—perhaps we should discuss Frost’s proposal instead?”

“Your father’s proposal?” Nicholas corrected pointedly as he tapped the letter. “His demands were by far my biggest clue. Although, I was surprised to find that Lady Hana was also mentioned. Does she have some relationship with Frost?”

“In a way, you could say Frost has taken an interest in her future to repay a debt to an old, departed friend,” Carina replied without hesitation.

“I see,” Nicholas tilted his head and shrugged. “Well, his requests were not difficult, though I must admit I have some—unresolved doubts.”

“Then I hope your Majesty will share them with me, despite my lacking position,” Carina replied with a hint of cynicism.

Nicholas furrowed his brows for a moment at her tone but then sighed. “I suppose if Frost insists on continuing this little charade—I have no choice but to rely on you, Lady Maura.”

‘Well—perhaps I’ll enlighten you another day.’ Carina smiled with forced patience as she waited for him to continue.

“Frost mentioned that Lafeara’s future is unstable and that he has a means of helping me secure that future,” Nicholas explained hesitantly as he folded his hands around his knee. “Well, I’m sure you read the letter. What does he mean by that?”

“Exactly as was written. Lafeara is in danger,” Carina replied firmly. “It is threatened both from within and without.”

“Within being my unstable grasp on the throne?” Nicholas replied with a raised brow with a mocking smile. “And without—” he tilted his head, “—the Pope or the Emperor?”

“Who do your Majesty believe to be the bigger threat?” Carina queried curiously.

“The Emperor,” Nicholas replied immediately and then rose from the couch to pace around the table. “So, how can Frost help?”

“As far as national security. Frost will finance the cost to recruit and equip three thousand soldiers who will be added to your Majesties forces—provided the men are allowed to volunteer and not conscripted. Additionally, these men will receive their salary on the first day of training instead of two months later when they are officially recruited into the army.”

Nicholas sat down on the couch across from her; disbelief etched into his face as he slowly leaned forward against his knees. “You’re saying—that Frost has the means to build an army of that size—”

“Yes, your Majesty,” Carina replied. ‘Though the cost will dig quite a hole into my savings. It’s no secret that you wish to strengthen Lafeara’s military force.’

Nicholas leaned back with a weary expression. “Why doesn’t Frost recruit his own army then?”

Carina blinked, caught off guard by the question. “Because—only a Duke is allowed to hold a standing army under their banner—”

“There are other nobles who recruit and build forces in secret,” Nicholas replied with a cynical smile.

‘You’re referring to the secret army Marquess Borghese has been building since King Henri’s death.’

“If your Majesty is aware of such treason, why does he not have these nobles arrested and their army conscripted or eradicated?”

Nicholas laughed and gestured vaguely to the painting of King Henri garbed in battle armor on a glittering black warhorse. “My father would have done so without a second thought—but I have yet to gain enough support among the nobles to start what might amount to civil war.” He lowered his hand and laced his fingers together as he leaned towards her. “Not every member of the House of Lords was ready to accept me as crown prince and their future ruler following Tristan’s death.”

‘And Henri burned several noble families who protested against your promotion in public, further alienating many of the great families against you.’

Nicholas sighed and spread his hands. “I have no reason to reject Frost’s generous offer, but—I am curious,” His hazel-blue eyes narrowed in on Carina as if he had come to some realization. “If your father cares about you to this extent, then why did Frost leave you with the Turnbells all those years? As your blood parent, he could have staked his claim to you.”

‘You want me to explain why a figment of your imagination didn’t sweep me away to safety.’ Carina’s smile twisted as she dropped her gaze and sighed. ‘However, Maura’s real father is dead and probably never knew she existed.’ “My relationship to Frost and the Turnbells is—a bit more complicated than that.”

“Ah well, I suppose every family has their complications.” Nicholas straightened and ran his hands down his trousers. “But to offer so much and ask so little, I must admit—I’m curious as to Frost’s true motives?”

“Unfortunately, until your Majesty agrees to the partnership—I am unable to divulge much further.” Carina shifted in her seat as she watched Nicholas visibly weigh the offer in his mind. “But I did come prepared to offer you one other piece of information I believe your Majesty needs to hear.”

Nicholas studied her and then waved a hand permissively. “Then, please share this information, Lady Maura.”

Carina unfolded her hands and cleared her throat as she brushed back the hair tickling against her ear. “Before I begin, I must ask your Majesty’s forgiveness for any offense my words may cause.”

“Well, now you’ve definitely piqued my interest—and you have my forgiveness,” Nicholas replied dryly.

“Your Majesty has grown up in the shadow of the First Prince since the day you were born,” Carina began slowly. “But truth be told, even before King Henri named Tristan as Crown Prince, you were born as Lafeara’s next rightful king.”

Nicholas stared at her silently and then crossed his arms as his gaze wandered to the shelves of books behind Carina. “Your meaning, if I’ve understood you clearly, holds a rather dangerous accusation, Lady Maura. Perhaps you could clarify this insinuation further since you already have my forgiveness.”

Carina swallowed and clasped her hands together tightly once more. “You are Lafeara’s rightful king, not because of Tristan’s death, but because Tristan had no claim to Lafeara’s throne to begin with.”

“Ha—” Nicholas scoffed darkly as he leaned against the sofa and dragged a hand down his face. “I admit, I have heard such rumors before, Lady Maura. I was told the same sordid tale the day Tristan died on the battlefield facing the Tharyn hordes.” The crown prince pressed a hand against his chest as he met her gaze forcefully. “But I have never for a moment doubted that Tristan was my brother—not the bastard everyone else claims him to be now that he’s conveniently dead.”

“Tristan is not King Henri’s son. He was born the Emperor’s bastard.”

Surprise registered across Nicholas’s face, followed by a flicker of fear as the crown prince’s gaze dropped to the floor. “That’s—impossible,” the crown prince whispered and then covered his mouth.

Carina let out a slow breath as she waited for his reply, but Nicholas remained frozen in place as the candle on his desk flickered unsteadily.

“Those—” Nicholas began haltingly, “—Are easy claims to make.” He raised his head slowly, his expression blank and empty. “Seeing as the only people who could verify your words are all dead—except the Emperor, of course.”

“Your Majesty can confirm them yourself when Tristan returns,” Carina replied as she pressed her hands against her lap and steeled herself.

“What?” Nicholas looked lost for a moment as he wrestled with the meaning behind Carina’s words. “H-how—how could he return? Tristan is dead!” Nicholas’s hands trembled visibly as he shot to his feet and turned towards Beaumont. “He died when Wolfthorn Forest was burnt to the ground!” The crown prince whirled back to face Carina, cynicism brimming behind his furious expression. “They say the Emperor was the one who called down hellfire from the heavens to punish the Thrayn’s for trespassing into his territory—and now you’re telling me he’s Tristan’s Father? That Tristan is—”

Carina rose cautiously as the pale crown prince clutched his chest and drew in a harsh breath. “Prince Tristan is alive, your Majesty, and he will return to Lafeara.”

“Why!” Nicholas yelled frantically. “If he’s not my brother—if he’s not a prince of Lafeara. What possible reason could Tristan have to—” Although it hardly seemed possible, Nicholas grew paler still as his skin turned an odd shade of green. The crown prince pressed a fist to his stomach as he wobbled unsteadily to the side. “Elly—he’s coming back for Eleanora.”

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