Chapter 91: An Alliance of Convenience
“Your brother is dead, Nicholas,” Dowager Octavia’s cold voice rebounded off the throne room walls as she stood beside Henri’s empty chair. “That means you will be Lafeara’s next king.”
“Dead?” Nicholas echoed back as he processed this shocking news his grandmother presented so emotionlessly. His own stomach was a cauldron of anger, relief, and guilt.
“Prince Tristan is alive, your Majesty—will return to Lafeara.”
‘No!’ Once more, anger, disbelief, and guilt raged through him as Nicholas stared at the attendant before him, who offered this earth-shattering secret with quiet, calm composure. The blood rushing to Nicholas’s head made it feel heavy. His lungs were far too light and empty as his limbs went numb and the library tilted.
He mumbled out something about Eleanora as Beaumont caught his arm and assisted the crown prince down into the sofa. There Nicholas locked his shaking hands together and pressed them against his lap.
“How?” Nicholas demanded hoarsely. The vague singular question cracked beneath the intensity of the storm that threatened to submerge him. ‘How could Tristan be alive? How could the Dowager’s spies have gotten it so wrong? Why hadn’t Quentin’s spies picked up on such a glaringly pertinent bit of information after two years?’
The crown prince unlocked his hands and pressed all ten fingertips against his pounding forehead as he focused on breathing through the sharp ringing sound that echoed in his ears.
‘So Emperor Arius was Tristan’s father? Well, if Tristan is still alive, he will likely be in Ventrayna. But why stay hidden? Why let me marry Eleanora? What game are you playing, Tristan?’
“Your Majesty?” Lady Maura’s wavering voice broke through the haze of questions as Nicholas became aware of Beaumont’s burning grip on his shoulder.
“T-thank you, Captain. I’m quite alright,” Nicholas said as he moved to push the hand away. ‘Why is it so bloody hot?’ The crown prince shook his head and refocused. “Might I ask—how Frost came by this information, Lady Maura?”
The attendant folded her hands together before answering. “Frost has expanded his businesses into Strugna and Ventrayna. One of his associates came across information regarding the Emperor’s newly acknowledged son, who was recovered from the border two years ago.”
“Information or rumors?” Nicholas snapped quickly.
“Your Majesty, the information is reliable,” Maura countered firmly. “If your Majesty requires further proof that your brother is alive, I am willing to stake my life—”
“Ha—” Nicholas held up a hand and shook his head, “No, that’s quite alright. I suppose the famous clairvoyant wouldn’t dare make such a claim without proof. After all, such a deception would amount to treason. Even if I couldn’t find Frost to execute him, the law would allow me to confiscate all of his business, properties, and wealth. Along with yours, of course, Lady Aconitum.”
Maura blinked, a faint expression of annoyance flickered across her ice-blue eyes—that reminded Nicholas eerily of his grandmother’s—and then quickly vanished.
The crown prince looked away first. His spinning mind pulled to the distant memory of Tristan’s funeral.
A heavy weight of silence hung about the day, infiltrated by malicious whispers no matter where Nicholas turned. King Henri placed an empty casket marked with Tristan’s name beside Queen Catalina’s sealed marble coffin. The ceremony was brisk, the tomb sealed without fanfare, while the period of public mourning was shortened from the usual week to a mere day.
Even without a royal order, the country mourned their lost First Prince. The Red Wolf Army token was draped from nearly every window and post in silent tribute—until the capital knights ripped them all down and burned them.
Nicholas watched it all from the safety of his carriage as he traveled to visit Rosalinda. His brother’s death changed everything. The kingdom’s loss had propelled Nicholas from the shadows, where he had resigned to live his easy life as the second prince. Strangers he had never known—or who had never taken note of him before now rushed to offer their condolences.
But neither the King nor the Dowager shed a tear for the fallen crown prince who had perished valiantly protecting Lafeara’s borders. Nicholas had attributed their stony expressions to shock. He himself had joined the hunt for Tristan’s body leading up to the funeral. It took one look at the devastation of the utterly transformed landscape of Wolf Thorne Forest, burned by a deluge of hellfire called down from the heavens, for Nicholas to accept the futility of such a hope.
His brother hadn’t just died; Tristan had vanished. Evaporated into thin air or burned to ash that mingled with the muddy, bloody ground.
So Nicholas settled for burying a bottle of bloody ashes in the ground along with his foolish enmity and resentment to his older brother. Three days after Tristan’s official burial, Nicholas, the Second Prince, was coronated as Lafeara’s Crown Prince and future King.
In light of Tristan’s death, the transition of power was to be expected, yet more than one faction of the noble families spoke out against it. Nicholas’s lack of experience, training, preparation, the unresolved engagement to Princess Eleanora, and, of course, the fact that Tristan’s body remained unrecovered—the clamor of excuses was without end.
‘Even with Tristan removed as an option, they still didn’t want me.’ The weight of this reality had been a bitter pill for Nicholas to swallow.
“It is not up to the nobles to decide if my living son is more fit to rule than a dead one,” had been Henri’s reply to the noble’s protest. The dispute was made all the more complicated when the King invited Pope Jericho’s witch hunters into Lafeara to subdue the so-called witches’ rebellion among the noble families who stood against Nicholas.
First was the public arrest of key nobles. Then the public execution of prisoners who were not granted a trial. “Criminals” and their families were burned without any form of physical proof presented to show guilt. It didn’t take long for nearly every noble house in Lafeara to turn against Henri, and by association, Nicholas. Death threats soon followed, yet still, Henri continued to eradicate entire bloodlines.
The discovery of the King’s body, after he had fallen from the ramparts of the fortress wall, came as no surprise to anyone. Rumors that Henri had gone mad from the shock of losing Tristan, the son of his favorite queen, gained the dead monarch very little public sympathy or pity. The bodies of the nobles and their children that Henri burned were not soon forgotten.
With the king gone, Nicholas found himself at the mercy of his grandmother, Dowager Octavia, and the members of the House of Lords, who all—in their own way—made every effort to show Nicholas where they found him lacking as a monarch.
Nicholas buried his father in the royal tombs beside Queen Rosalinda’s coffin. With the House of Lord’s support Nicholas forbid any form of public mourning as a demonstration of remorse for the many who had suffered at the late king’s hand.
With the help of Countess Constance of Hawthorne, Nicholas made peace with the noble families. At the House of Lords’ insistence, he accepted the Emperor’s proposal to take Eleanora as his queen to guarantee the continued alliance with the Ventrayna witch nation. Under the Dowager’s advisement, Nicholas limited his visits to Rosalind to once every other week and moved his mistress into a suitable house where she would be comfortable.
The pressure of filling Tristan’s shoes, ensuring the safety of the kingdom, sacrificing his own personal wants and desires all to prove he was a prince worthy of inheriting Lafeara’s throne had weighed upon Nicholas’s shoulders since the moment the Dowager had informed him of Tristan’s death.
‘And all for what? Tristan is alive. If he is Arius’s son, he’ll have the Emperor’s backing. What the hell can I do if he decides to come back here to take Eleanora, the throne, and all of Lafeara from me?’
Nicholas dragged a hand down his face and sighed as his gaze wandered around the splendorous royal library, a room that had been forbidden to Nicholas when he was but a second prince.
‘No, it need not come to that. Tristan will likely inherit the Emperor’s throne. What would he want with Lafeara then? I don’t see him going to war with the very armies he fought beside to win back a lessor kingdom’s throne. And Eleanora—if Tristan had wanted to save her from this marriage, he had two years to do so!’
The sound of metal shifted Nicholas’s attention to where Maura was pouring water into a cup. She brought the drink over and offered it to him. “Here, your Majesty, please drink this.”
Nicholas stared at the silver cup, the craftsmanship of etched wolves upon a silver metal material meant to warn him of any potential poison. The crown prince accepted the cup and raised it over his shoulder to Beaumont.
“The water is pure, your Majesty,” the knight captain replied faithfully.
“You need it more than I do,” Nicholas grumbled with a glance back at the sweating knight. ‘I can’t afford to lose you if Tristan is on his way back here.’
Beaumont hesitated, then accepted the drink and downed the entire cup in a single gulp. The metal was warm when the knight captain passed it back to the crown prince, who returned it to Maura.
The attendant smiled apologetically as she returned the cup to its tray. “I’m sorry for startling your Majesty with this information—but it was something you needed to hear.”
Nicholas sighed and offered a thin smile. “I admit, I find myself unwilling to believe you—but then I’ve lived the last two years believing my older brother was truly dead. Now you’re telling me that we were never related at all—and Tristan is still alive! How?”
“How?” Maura tilted her head questioningly as she sat back down.
Nicholas sucked in a breath and clenched his fists. “How is it that everyone believed he was dead? Why was such a mistake made, and why has Tristan kept himself hidden from us—from me?”
“I believe the events at Fog Tooth Mountain two years ago were a bit more complicated than a battle between two armies,” Maura explained cautiously. “It’s possible that an attempt was made to assassinate the First Prince, which is why Tristan chose to keep his survival secret. It is also possible that the Emperor rescued Tristan before the Wolf Thorn Forest was destroyed. However, we are certain that three Tharyn princes and their armies perished along with the First Prince’s Red Wolf Army. The fact that such overwhelming forces were lying in wait for Tristan raises other questions.”
‘Right, of course. Though General Stryker already determined that there may have been a Tharyn spy in the Red Wolf Army who betrayed the prince.’
“So Frost doesn’t know what happened or how Tristan survived, only that the First Prince is still alive and will be returning to Lafeara?” Nicholas pressed, moderately dissatisfied. “Even if Tristan chose to keep his survival a secret from Lafeara and most of the world, why would he turn his back on Eleanora?”
‘Why would Tristan let me marry her? Eleanora was his fiancé, and after last night, I’m certain they slept together. If I had known that he was still alive—’ Nicholas pressed a hand to his mouth as a wave of nausea hit him. ‘Fuck, oh fuck! What is Tristan going to do when he finds out Eleanora and I consummated our marriage?’
“H-how can I be sure this is true?” Nicholas asked shakily through his fingers. “Surely not all of Frost’s visions come true. It makes no sense for Tristan to abandon Eleanora. Surely your father has more tangible proof than visions and rumors?”
Lady Maura appeared to consider this question for a moment, then shrugged. “I know that Frost and Tristan have met face to face.”
“What?” Nicholas’s hand snapped away from his mouth, and he sat up straighter. “But—how does Frost know he wasn’t speaking to an imposter pretending to be the Frist Prince?”
“Because—Frost met the First Prince before—while he was still Lafeara’s Crown Prince,” Maura answered hesitantly.
‘Of course, Tristan would be the first person to meet the mysterious investor—but why does it feel like Maura’s withholding something from me?’
“In any case,” Maura said quickly before Nicholas could fire off another question. “I would be happy to answer any further questions for your Majesty after you agree to my—to Frost’s terms.”
Nicholas exhaled slowly as he slumped back against the sofa and gazed up at the painted ceiling above them. ‘I need to figure out why Tristan met with Frost. Also, if Tristan is returning to Lafeara, I need to know when and why? Is Tristan a threat or an ally? Damn it!’
“I agree,” Nicholas muttered with a note of defeat as he sat up slowly. “But I’ll need a plausible excuse to grant a promotion in rank to Lady Hana and yourself. Normally marriage is the only way for a noblewoman to rise.” He glanced towards Beaumont, whose withdrawn, stony expression betrayed nothing, and sighed. “I don’t suppose you might have a suggestion to get around that, Lady Maura?”
“I believe any excuse will do as long as the appropriate land is provided to support the title of Viscountess,” Maura replied. “More importantly, I want your assurance that Lady Hana and I will remain free to choose our future marriages, should we wish to take a husband.”
Nicholas half-coughed, half-choked on a laugh and then nodded somberly. ‘Ah—good luck, Beaumont.’ “Anything else?”
“As Frost’s representative to your Majesty, it would be best if papers were drawn up permitting me to leave the Crown Princess’s service,” Maura continued confidently. “I would like to request Lady Hana’s release as well, given her continuing poor health. There is still enough time to train our replacements before Eleanora becomes queen.”
“Quitting already, Lady Maura?” Nicholas leaned against his hand and raised a tired brow. “After you worked so hard to become Eleanora’s lady-in-waiting?”
“I don’t believe I am capable of supporting Eleanora as I had hoped to when I first entered the palace,” Maura replied. For the first time, she directly avoided the crown prince’s gaze and stared instead at her small hands splayed across the fabric of her dress. “We have—different opinions on too many important matters to work well together. I would be happy to support her Highness wherever I can, but not from within Rose Palace.”
Nicholas pursed his lips, intrigued but not very surprised. He decided it would be best to leave questions about the particulars of Maura’s decision for another time. “What about Lady Hana? How can you be sure she wants to leave Eleanora? They are very close friends—or so I’ve been told.”
Lady Maura glanced up at him and appeared to be searching for something for a moment before she replied, “Lady Hana has already expressed her desire to withdraw from service to me personally. In any case, given the recent attack on her person, Lady Hana requires calm and rest to recover. Something that she won’t find inside the palace.”
“Ah yes,” Nicholas nodded sympathetically. “Well, unfortunately, being attacked by assassins does not warrant a promotion—”
“Then your Majesty can call it a reward for Lady Hana’s years of service to the Crown Princess here and in Ventrayna,” Maura interrupted with a tight smile.
“Fair enough. And what about your title?” Nicholas queried hopefully.
Maura tilted her head thoughtfully. “I will continue to work towards opening the orphanage for Eleanora’s charity. That is one good merit. I’ve also designed the Crown Princess’s wedding dress, so you could add that on as well if need be. In any case, unless your Majesty wishes to make my connections to Mr. Frost public, any further assistance I might provide to the crown would likely remain discreet.”
“True,” Nicholas nodded and tapped his fingers against the couch. “I think it would be best if Lady Hana also helped you with the orphanage as much as possible, once her health recovers, of course.” The crown prince narrowed his eyes and rubbed his thumb along the leather molding of the cushion beneath him absently. “In the meantime, I will think of something a bit more convincing to add to your list of good deeds. While I wish more nobles would participate in charitable acts, I would have a flood of titles to give out if a single raised orphanage were enough to buy the title of Viscount or Viscountess. It will also take a few weeks to determine which lands to grant you both and deal with the legal paperwork.”
“Of course, your Majesty,” Maura replied. “Though I fear I may need to leave service before the week is out.”
‘Things are that bad at Rose Palace?’ Nicholas frowned and scratched his neck as he studied Maura curiously. “I’ll see what I can do, but I am curious, Lady Maura—why did Frost request a royal pardon for Lady Hana and yourself? Have either of you done anything that warrants such precautions?”
Although he said it lightly, Maura’s guarded smile told Nicholas that there was more to the request than met the eye. He could also tell that Lady Maura would not give him a straight answer even if he pressed her for one.
“Frost just wants to ensure our future safety,” Maura replied neutrally as she rose from her seat. “When dealing with a powerful monarch, a subject should always be mindful of their neck.”
Nicholas snorted at her response and crossed his legs. “You treat me so cautiously, Lady Maura. I’m beginning to think you view me as some sort of Tyrant?”
“I dare not, your Majesty,” Maura replied somberly, once more missing the teasing note in his voice. Nicholas shook his head as she curtsied. “I believe we have discussed enough for one night, your Majesty. I should return to Rose Palace before the night grows darker, and I’m sure your Majesty has much to prepare for tomorrow.”
“Yes,” Nicholas sighed and rubbed his temple. “I have the pleasure of delivering the finished negotiations to the House of Lords tomorrow and then listen to them bellyache about being left out in the cold. In the afternoon, Eleanora and I will have to host the late Ambassador’s funeral outside the capital.” The crown prince uncrossed his legs and rose to his feet. A moment of lightheadedness followed as he rubbed down the back of his neck. “I’ll have Sir Olund escort you back to Rose Palace if you don’t mind, Lady Maura.”
She glanced towards Captain Beaumont, whose face was covered in a sheen of sweat, and quickly nodded. “Yes. That will be more than sufficient. Thank you and good night, your Majesty.”
“Good night, Lady Maura.” Nicholas dismissed her with a wave of his hand. She turned gracefully with no sign of hesitation from her earlier injury during the Selection. ‘I’ve underestimated Lady Maura then and perhaps misjudged her too harshly,’ he admitted ruefully with a sigh. ‘Still, how strange that just as I find myself accepting her, Maura appears to be on the outs with Elea—‘ He stiffened as the attendant disappeared behind the bookshelves, then rushed to his feet. “Lady Maura!”
Maura reappeared with a confused expression as the crown prince reached the end of the bookshelf.
“About Tristan—” Nicholas panted as he leaned against the solid oak, “—don’t tell Eleanora.”
Maura nodded slowly, though her expression appeared conflicted. “It’s not my place to tell her, your Majesty.”
‘Then is it mine?’
“Thank you,” Nicholas replied as he stepped back awkwardly. “Have a safe journey back, Lady Maura.” He turned around and listened to her departing footsteps for a moment before returning to his desk. The language book he had been studying waited for him, a beginner’s guide to speaking and understanding the Ventrayna tongue. Such a simple thing that should have been a part of Nicholas’s education had anyone even considered the slightest possibility of the Second Prince becoming king.
‘Now I’m learning it in order to forge a better relationship with my wife.’ Nicholas laughed cynically as he pressed his fingers against the leather cover and then shoved the book off the desk before sinking into his chair. ‘I’m such a fucking idiot.’