Chapter 97: The Veil of Diplomacy
Lavinia smiled behind her veil as she turned to survey the luxurious tent that had been set up for the late Ambassador’s bereaved family. “Well, at least we have some privacy,” she murmured to Marco, whose arm she held if only to ensure the boy remained upright. While Lavinia had finished up the finer details of negotiations with Crown Prince Nicholas that morning, Marco had taken advantage of his mother’s absence to empty quite a few bottles of wine provided to him by the over helpful staff in Lily Palace.
“It’s a nice tent,” Marco commented somberly before his face cracked into an absurd smile as he snorted and laughed against his hand.
“Marco, please,” Lavinia hissed as she guided her intoxicated son over to a table with two chairs. “You can’t behave like this in public.”
“Yes, Ambassador—” Marco snorted again and reached for the bottle of wine left in a gift basket on the table. Lavinia swiftly snatched it from his fingers and carried the basket over to a table prepared with some light snacks and a pitcher of water. She filled a glass with the clear fluids and carried it over to Marco, who slouched against his armrest, still giggling.
“What did you take?” Lavinia asked as she took one of his hands and pressed the glass into it. “This is more than just wine.”
“Oh, just some—fine Lafearian smoke,” Marco replied between chuckles before he frowned at the glass in his hand. “I paid one of the staff an exorbitant amount of Ventrayna gold to get me something to help brighten my mood.”
Lavinia pressed her lips together as she straightened the black pearls around her dress and smoothed out the silk fabric of her mourning veil and gown. “Well, whatever flower you’re smoking, it should burn out quickly thanks to the fire in your witch blood—”
“Half-witch blood,” Marco corrected.
“Just—drink the water, Marco. You’ll need it,” Lavinia urged and moved back to the table to fill a plate with some bread, cheese, and sliced cooked meat. “Here, something for your stomach. Eat and rest while you can. They should be almost finished with preparations soon.”
Ventrayna General Garold had taken charge of preparing the ambassador’s ceremonial funeral pyre. A simple two-tier structure formed from timber the general’s men had cut down from the nearby woods with the crown prince’s permission. A suitably high hill had been cleared of crops, and the farmer paid more than triple the harvest worth out of Lavinia’s own pocket.
The timber was stacked, creating a bottom layer for the precious treasure, usually silks, tapestries, food, books, and other burnable material and sacrifices. The pyre’s top tier was built with lighter wood but was still sturdy enough to support a woven bed upon which the deceased body now rested, wrapped in fine gold cloth, with two Ventrayna coins placed over Haemish’s eyes and a sword wrapped in the dead man’s hands, laid upon his chest.
‘If I’m going to burn Haemish’s body before the Emperor’s men get a chance to examine it, then its best I do so before a public audience who will witness the respect with which I send the bastard off. I’ll be sure to scatter the ashes across the desert on our return trip while I play the part of the grieving widow.’
“You’re giving him the funeral of a noble warrior. Father would be pleased,” Marco observed with a hint of mockery as he sipped water from his glass.
“It is the Emperor I’m trying to appease not—” Lavinia moved back to the closed tend entrance and glanced outside. “It appears we have some uninvited guests on their way. Watch your tongue, Marco.”
Marco grunted as he picked up a strip of bacon with his fingers and shoved it unceremoniously into his mouth.
“Manners, Marco. The people here already view us as savages. Must you enforce that perception,” Lavinia hissed as she moved to sit across from her son.
“Why are you so concerned? We’ll be leaving after the funeral, so does it even matter?” Marco growled as he wiped his fingers on a napkin.
“We’ll talk about this later,” Lavinia replied as she watched him anxiously. “You can be elegant and well-mannered when you want to be, Marco. Let’s do our part to show these Lafearians we are more than just savage witches.”
“By offering sacrifices and burning a corpse?” Marco snorted as he stabbed a piece of cheese with a small two-pronged fork.
“By allowing them to partake in one of our most sacred customs.” Lavinia sighed as she picked up a napkin and leaned across the table to wipe grease from his chin.
“Mother!” Marco growled as he shoved her hand away. “Please stop—treating me like a child!”
“Then stop behaving like one!” Lavinia snapped as she threw down the handkerchief and rose to her feet. “You expect me to leave you here on your own when you’re behaving like this!”
“On my own?” Her son’s countenance clouded over as he lowered his gaze and glared at the black boots he wore trimmed with gold. “So that was the plan you devised in your secret meetings with the crown prince.” He nodded grimly and took a drink of water. “Well, I’m ever so grateful for your concern, Mother. But it’s a bit late for you to be worried about my safety—isn’t it.”
“Excuse me, Ambassador,” the bodyguard, Reith, called out as he slid through the tent’s flaps. “Lady Isabella Kensington and her Highness, Crown Princess Eleanora, are here to see you.”
Lavinia pressed a hand against her stomach as she subdued her frustration and composed herself. “Send them in.”
Reith bowed and quickly stepped back outside.
“Let’s see what my dead husband’s sister wants now,” Lavinia muttered as she retook her seat and tucked the handkerchief back into the sleeve of her black mourning dress.
Marco snorted as he set down his glass and straightened in his chair with an air of indifference.
Lady Isabella swept into the tent and glanced about with a frown at the lavish furnishings. “You always did travel in style, Lavinia. I shouldn’t be surprised to find you so comfortably situated for my brother’s funeral.”
“You’re mistaken, Isabella. This tent was prepared by your daughter’s husband, the Crown Prince. Still, after suffering needlessly while Haemish was alive, I see no reason to continue living in self-imposed purgatory now that he is dead,” Lavinia replied with a calm smile.
“That would certainly explain why you’re in such a hurry to hold his funeral here,” Isabella growled as she crossed the tent towards them.
“Mother!” Eleanora cut in after wiping the mud on her boots onto the rug by the tent door. “That is not why we are here.”
“Why are you here then, dear Eleanora?” Lavinia inquired curiously as the crown princess lowered the hem of her black gown and moved to join Isabella.
“To ask why you did not consult me before finalizing negotiations with Nicholas!” Eleanora replied sharply as she folded her arms. “You know how unstable my position is currently. We could have worked together to ensure—”
“Your marriage is consummated,” Lavinia interrupted in a flat tone. “Any stability I could have given you would have only ensured the noble families of Lafeara resented you more than they already do.”
“But you had no problem using your power to ensure a beneficial marriage alliance for your son!” Isabella accused sharply.
Marco grimaced but remained silent as his gaze spanned between the three women, then turned towards the wine bottle on the table across the tent longingly.
“I asked his Majesty for a favor. I did not make any demands,” Lavinia countered with a dismissive snort. “I’m not the one in bed with his Majesty, Eleanora.” She ignored Isabella’s indignant gasp. “If you want something from your husband, you must learn how to ask him for it yourself.”
“That’s not fair, Lavinia!” Isabella protested.
“You’re right!” Lavinia snapped as she rose to her feet. “Marriage isn’t about fairness. It isn’t about being spoiled, treated like a princess, or given even one ounce of respect, kindness, love, or pity. Marriage is all about endurance and who holds the most power.”
“Speak for yourself,” Isabella muttered as she looked away.
“I am, Lady Isabella,” Lavinia replied as her voice trembled. “My marriage was not of my choosing, Eleanora, and neither was yours.”
The crown princess stiffened as her amber eyes flickered over to Marco and then away.
‘Ahh, so Isabella finally told you.’
Lavinia brushed past the two women to pour herself a drink of wine and distract them from Marco. “Make no mistake, Eleanora. I have done everything in my power to help you, but when it comes to the throne of Lafeara—if you want to be considered a worthy Queen, then you must earn that position for yourself.”
Eleanora nodded gloomily while Isabella snorted in disbelief. “And what exactly have you done for Eleanora, Lavinia? Aside from cover up my brother’s murder?”
Lavinia swallowed the bittersweet wine and smiled as she lowered the glass. “For starters, I’ve convinced Nicholas to allow your husband to retire from his position as Ambassador—”
“What?” Isabella protested.
“—so that Lord Alastair might remain in Lafeara with his wife and married daughter,” Lavinia finished as she turned and raised her glass towards them. “That way, Eleanora will have a strong source of support among the Kensington family.”
“How dare you meddle in my—”
“Isabella!” A man’s sharp voice turned them all towards the tent flap, which opened as Lord Alastair stepped inside. “Forgive the intrusion, Lady Lavinia Zenon. And pardon my forwardness, but I just placed a ward around the tent. Your conversation could be heard by anyone passing outside.”
“Thank you, Alastair,” Lavinia replied with a relaxed smile.
“Zenon?” Isabella growled in disbelief.
“Yes, as my husband is dead, I’ve taken the liberty to return to my maiden name,” Lavinia replied with evident satisfaction. “As has my son, Marco.”
Isabella glanced at the boy, who avoided everyone’s gaze as he picked up his cup of water and glared at it resentfully.
“I trust you were successful, Lord Alastair?” Lavinia continued as the pure-blood noble stepped forward to kiss the back of her hand formally.
“Husband?” Isabella echoed, confused as she and Eleanora glanced between the pair.
“Yes,” Alastair replied as he released Lavinia’s hand and stepped back. “I am to be Marco’s guardian until such time a suitable bride and family are found. Nicholas has agreed to draw up the papers granting Marco the province of Vishera and the title of Viscount, to be granted tomorrow in a special ceremony he intends to use for that purpose.”
“A Viscount?” Isabella gasped. “Just like that—”
“And where is Vishera?” Marco interrupted with an inquisitive frown.
“It’s not far from the capital. I will take you there tomorrow after the ceremony,” Alastair replied with a casual shrug. “The position of Viscount grants you lordship over three Barons and their provinces. I will arrange a meeting with them later. I chose Vishera for you because those Barons already have a strong connection to Ventrayna through trade, and they will not be so opposed to a foreign Lord with such useful experience becoming their master.”
“Or so you hope,” Marco murmured with a faint snort. “Why not just give me the title, a house, and some gold. I don’t want to be in charge of other people who will resent me because of my—” he dragged three fingers down his cheek and shrugged “—ethnicity.”
“Because titles mean responsibility in Lafeara,” Alastair replied with a shrug. “And your mother wanted you to have one.”
“A title represents power, wealth, and position here among nobles,” Lavinia hastily explained. “It will keep you safe, Marco.”
“There is no guarantee of that, here or anywhere else,” Alastair replied bluntly. “But—as agreed—I will ensure that Marco has everything he requires to take over his new position. I will also provide him with a suitable number of guards to ensure his safety.”
“And what about me?” Eleanora cut in; her voice strained as she blinked past tears to stare at her father. “Who will keep me safe?”
“Why do you think I accepted Lavinia’s offer to remove me from my post as Ambassador? Eleanora!” Alastair quickly moved to stand beside his daughter and gently took the crown princess’s hand. “You will have Lord Percy and myself backing you now. Not to mention Lady Serilda is set to take over the Kensington household and coven. If you can pull the Marchioness into your circle, you will have the support of the coven nobels without question.”
“Serilda is not to be trusted. She wanted the position of the queen for herself not so very long ago!” Isabella interrupted sharply.
“That was neither Serilda’s intentions nor her doing,” Alastair growled. “And I will remind you not to speak such malicious gossip about my dead brother’s child, Isabella!”
His words echoed with the sharp sound of a whip, and Lavinia smiled, quite satisfied to see that Isabella’s “happy marriage” was not all smiles and roses.
“Don’t you dare use your magic to shout at me, Alastair!” Isabella hissed with a sharp look at Lavinia. “We should be going. You should have brought a tent for us as well! The ground here is practically mud.”
“If you want to camp out by your brother’s ashes, be my guest,” Alastair growled as he offered his arm to Eleanora. “I will be escorting her Highness to the Dowager’s tent. My original purpose for coming here was to inform you that you have been summoned, Eleanora. We should get going.”
“Summoned?” Eleanora faltered as her hand dropped away from her father’s arm. “Why?”
“The Dowager has an announcement she wants to make before the members of the House of Lords and the royal family—which now includes you.”
“Then we should get going!” Isabella declared as she took Eleanora’s arm and pulled her daughter towards the tent entrance. “We mustn’t keep this deprived mother and son from grieving,” she added with a parting glare over her shoulder.
Lavinia laughed and nodded to Alastair, who bowed his head politely then followed his family beyond the tent flap. “Well, that was something,” she muttered as Marco left his seat to join her and picked up a bottle of wine. “Marco—”
“If you can drink, so can I,” he growled and yanked the cork free with his teeth before downing the fine wine from the bottle itself. “Fuck facing that lot of self-absorbed, preening nobles sober.”
Lavinia sighed and shook her head in defeat. “Just—try to keep an eye out for someone suitable, pretty, and rich,” she muttered as she held her glass towards him for a refill.
“Not someone titled?” Marco inquired with a raised brow as he added more wine to her glass.
“Why do you think you were made a Viscount,” Lavinia returned with a quick smile. “But bear in mind, Marco, the sooner you marry a noble here, the less likely you will be pulled into a marriage arranged by the Empress.”
Marco scoffed. “No one back in Ventrayna wants to marry a half-witch—”
“They might try if it means forcing you to go back to appease the Duke,” Lavinia cautioned.
Marco’s grip on the wine bottle tightened as his arm trembled ever so slightly. “I’m never going back,” he whispered. “Not alive, at least.”
Lavinia set down her cup and embraced him gently as Marco lifted the wine bottle once more and did his best to drain half of its remaining contents. “It will get better, my son. Once you find your place here and make some new friends—”
“Mother,” Marco cut across sharply and hastily wiped his chin. “This title, lands, wealth, a marriage—none of it is going to fix me.”
“I know, but it will keep you safe.”
Marco shook his head as he wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Why must you go back, Mother? It’s not like the Emperor will keep you on as his Ambassador. My brothers will inherit all of Father’s wealth and lands. What is there in Ventrayna for you to return to?”
“I chose to fill the role of Ambassador,” Lavinia replied as she pulled the bottle from his hand and set it on the table behind them. “However temporary, part of the Ambassador’s responsibility is carrying the negotiations back to Ventrayna and delivering them to the Emperor personally.”
“And then you’ll return to Lafeara?”
Lavinia smiled, grateful for every word that assured her she would be missed. She nodded and offered him the kindness of a lie, “I’ll be back before you know it.”
‘After Duke Zenaku’s body lies dead in the street.’