Chapter 99: A Dangerous Pedestal
Eleanora would have been less surprised to see a camel seated comfortably beside the Dowager rather than Lady Maura. Worse yet, the half-blood had shed her hesitant demeanor entirely. This other Maura, who sat facing a room of nobles, had a proud, confident demeanor as she surveyed the Dowager’s guests with an expression of arrogance.
“Where does that little vixen find the nerve?” Isabella hissed, having noticed the same offensive sight. “She ought to be shivering in the corner of her prison cell.”
“Isabella,” Alastair growled as he took Eleanora’s arm and nodded towards the corner of the tent where a pale Percy and extravagantly dressed Serilda stood close together, gazing in their direction. “We should go and greet them.”
“What?” Eleanora turned towards her father in surprise. “What do you mean. They should be coming to greet me!”
“Eleanora,” Alastair hissed with restrained impatience and then lowered his voice. “When it comes to Lafeara’s Covens, they don’t care where you sit on Lafeara’s throne. They will never pledge allegiance to anyone other than a Witch King and Queen.”
“That’s absurd,” Eleanora retorted quickly. “They bow before Nicholas all the time!”
“For appearances only,” Alastair replied with narrowed eyes and a cautioning motion for Eleanora to lower her voice. “Do bear in mind that it was a member of one of Lafeara’s covens who threw King Henri from the palace’s fortress walls.”
The crown princess blinked rapidly and gripped her father’s arm tighter as Lord Alastair turned her in the direction of the Earl.
“Crown Princess Eleanora!” the Dowager called out from her throne-like chair as she and the rest of the nobles looked towards Eleanora and her parents expectantly. “Are you not going to greet me?”
Alastair cleared his throat and gave Eleanora an affirming nod as he corrected their course. The Crown Princess did her best to ignore the unpleasant sight seated beside the Dowager as father and daughter stepped forward to bow and curtsy before the Dowager.
“Greetings, Queen Regent.”
“Good, now that all necessary parties are here,” Octavia said brightly as she turned away from Lord Alastair and Eleanora to face the gathered nobles around her. “I have an important announcement to give before the funeral is underway.”
There were a few mutters, but for the most part, the nobles remained silent and grim, as if expecting the worst.
‘What on earth has she summoned us all here for?’ Eleanora wondered nervously as she rose to her feet beside her father and glanced to where Nicholas stood beside the still seated half-blood, conversing with Maura quietly. ‘And when did they get to be so close? I still haven’t had the chance to ask Nicholas why he summoned Maura to his palace after curfew.’
“As most of you know, I submitted an official request to make Lady Maura my goddaughter early this morning,” Octavia continued as she gestured towards her grandson. Nicholas straightened but remained firmly beside Lady Maura.
“That request is still up for discussion,” Prime Minister Attwood replied with a hint of unease. “There are many other pressing matters which the House of Lords must deal with first given recent events—”
“Your excuses were neither requested nor are they necessary,” Octavia interrupted him sharply with a cynical smile. “I made the request simply to be polite, not because I am required to by any Lafearian law.”
A sudden silence fell over the room as the audience of councilors quickly grasped her meaning.
“Your Grace,” Borghese stepped forward with a grim expression. “With all due respect—and before this goes any further—I must protest. The child in question is a half-blood!”
“She is not even a noble!” grumbled Viscount Kendall.
“Perhaps if the lady were at least married to a suitable noble family,” suggested Lord Enfield.
“I see,” Octavia murmured as she turned from the nobles to approach Lady Maura. “Although the House of Lords did not publicly refuse my request, their position on the matter has been made abundantly clear.”
“Your Grace,” Marquess Winifred said as he too stepped forward to address the Dowager. “It is merely a matter of properly investigating Lady Maura’s past and character. After all, we also only recently learned that the Crown Princess removed Lady Maura from her post and had her arrested.”
Several eyes turned towards Eleanora, who retained her defiant pose as she ignored the nobles and focused instead on Nicholas. Somehow the look of disapproval in her husband’s eyes did not surprise Eleanora.
‘Why? Why choose her over me of all people, Nicholas? I’m your wife. You ought to be taking my side!’
The Crown Prince looked away first as he turned his attention back to the Dowager.
‘So that’s how it’s going to be? You’re going to side with a half-blood over me now!’ Eleanora’s grip tightened around Alastair’s arm, and her father glanced down at her worriedly.
“As I have already stated, my request was merely an empty gesture of respect,” Octavia continued with a coy smile as she turned to face the nobles once more. “Now, I will tell you exactly what I will do.”
“Tell us—what exactly?” Lord Acheron asked curiously from beside the Prime Minister.
“That I am officially adopting Lady Maura as my grandchild,” Octavia replied to the mingled gasps and protests around the room.
“Your Grace!” Borghese protested as he strode forward to face the Dowager directly. “You cannot—”
Octavia’s ice-blue eyes flashed as she raised a hand sharply to cut him off. “Do you, Marquess Borghese, presume to tell a ruling monarch what I can and cannot do?” Her words were quiet, but they echoed around the room as Borghese clamped his mouth shut and hastily bowed.
“I meant only—that this half-blood is of no relation to the Havardur royal family—”
“I think we can all agree on that!” Octavia replied smugly.
“She cannot possibly inherit the throne, or any other title related to the royal family,” Borghese continued hesitantly, his gaze narrowing in suspicion at the Dowager’s sudden agreeability.
“Dear Marquess,” Octavia murmured with a chuckle. “I never said I would make Lady Maura a princess. But as my grandchild—” she smiled and extended a hand towards Lady Maura, who rose obediently to take it, “—surely the title of Duchess of Bastiallano will do since I have no other children to inherit my ancestral lands.”
“Saints preserve us!” A voice whispered from somewhere in the crowd behind Eleanora, who turned to her father out of confusion.
“What is Bastiallano, Father?”
“Hush, Eleanora,” Alastair said tensely, his gaze focused on the Dowager and Lady Maura.
“But—” Borghese appeared to choke on his words as the nobles around him turned to one another with expressions of disbelief. “Surely those lands now belong to the crown—to Lafeara!”
“Actually,” Prime Minister Attwood stepped forward with a courteous nod to the Dowager. “King Henri returned those lands to her Grace shortly after he took his father’s throne. They have remained the sole property of the Queen Regent ever since.”
“But—for a half-blood to become a Duchess!” Earl Coldwell whispered with a suspicious glance directed towards the Earl of Hawthorne seated quietly at the back of the tent. “The lands of Bastiallano provide more than half the grains which feed his Majesties army.”
“Not to mention the military forces of Bastiallano’s armies,” added Viscount Kendall. “Surely that much power can not be passed on to some beggar’s child.”
“Careful, Viscount,” Octavia said sharply as her ice-blue eyes narrowed in on the offending nobleman. “That is my grandchild you are insulting.”
Kendall blinked as if somehow caught off guard by this remark then stepped back behind Marquess Borghese.
“The lands of Bastiallano will continue to provide supplies to Lafeara’s armies as we always have,” Octavia replied with disinterest. “As to Lady Maura’s parentage, must I really trace back each and every one of your family trees?” She raised a sharp brow as she stared down Borghese. The Marquess bowed again before he gripped his cloak in silent anger and stepped back in defeat.
“The position of Duchess still requires the blessing and approval of the King, does it not?” Earl Percy called out hoarsely from his corner of the tent. “I’m not sure if a temporary Regent has the power to make that appointment, even if you are permitted to adopt the noble in question.”
Eleanora sighed in relief as Octavia appeared to hesitate for a moment at the unexpected protest. ‘At least Percy can still see sense—though I am rather surprised, given how such a title would make Lady Maura an even more desirable match for him.’ She shivered at the thought, then frowned as Octavia smothered a sudden laugh behind her fingers before turning towards Nicholas.
“Well, your Majesty?” Octavia inquired with a bemused smile. “Do you approve?”
Nicholas blinked, apparently caught off guard as he glanced from Maura to Percy, and then back to the Dowager. “The Queen Regent is within her rights to choose a successor for her ancestral lands since both the property and title do not belong to the crown,” he replied hesitantly.
Eleanora felt her blood run cold as Maura tilted her head at the crown prince with a sultry red smirk. “But the Dowager needs your approval so I can inherit her title, lands, and—everything else that goes with it, your Majesty.”
Nicholas appeared to find the attendant’s behavior amusing. Eleanora watched in disbelief as he laughed and shook his head before facing the audience with a somber expression. “I see no reason to disapprove of my grandmother’s choice, so I suppose—I do approve. Congratulations, Duchess of Bastiallano.”
“Hereafter to be known by her new name!” Octavia announced as she raised Maura’s hand with a victorious smile. “Lady Kirsi Valda, my granddaughter!”
“What?” Eleanora hissed out in disbelief as the newly minted Duchess smiled at the Dowager as if they were old friends.
The noble lords all murmured their disbelief as the Dowager released Lady Kirsi’s hand, and the Duchess turned and curtsied elegantly before Nicholas as she intoned the formal words, “Thank you, your Majesty. Long live the King.”
Kirsi rose as the tent erupted in chaos. Captain Leo and Lieutenant Olund quickly pushed through the crowd of nobles to create a barrier around the new Duchess, Queen Regent, and Crown Prince. Nicholas hastily supported Kirsi and stepped in front of her with arms outstretched as the nobles thronged towards them.
“Noble Lords! Please remember who you are and before whom you are standing!” Nicholas shouted back at the crowd.
‘Really now, Nicholas is such an obedient grandson.’ Kirsi smirked as she studied the puny mortal who stood before her in some foolish display of bravery or chivalry. ‘It’s a shame he had to come from the Havardur family.’
“Stand back!” General Stryker shouted as he and a fresh group of knights quickly shoved their way inside the tent, creating a path through the nobles towards the royal family. “Calm yourselves, noble lords, or I will have you dragged out in chains.”
A heavy disquiet filled the tent as Stryker moved purposefully towards the Dowager with a hand upon the hilt of his sword.
“Your Grace, if you have nothing further to discuss with these dogs, then I request your permission to have them disperse,” Stryker announced grimly with a respectful bow to the Queen Regent.
“I will not be silenced!” Borghese snarled and glared at Kirsi. “I’m afraid I find it rather difficult, if not ridiculous, to acknowledge that of all the young noblewomen who have shown great admiration and respect to your Grace over the years, you would choose to adopt her. A half-blood who already stands accused of poisoning a member of the royal family!”
“Accused without evidence,” Nicholas growled. “And need I remind you of the penalty of accusing a noble, let alone a member of the royal family, without evidence Marquess Borghese?”
“Well—what if it is a member of the royal family that accused Lady Maura—”
“Lady Kirsi,” Nicholas corrected impatiently.
“—of the poisoning!” Borghese continued without repentance as he directed a trembling finger towards Eleanora, who stood between Alastair and Isabella near the front of the crowd.
“Yes, I will get to the bottom of that shortly,” Nicholas replied with a sharp glance towards his crown princess. “But as to the evidence submitted by the Crown Princess on the matter—you will have to wait to hear the results of Knight Commander Quentin’s findings at another time.”
The crown prince glanced towards Octavia, and the Dowager nodded as she turned to address the tent filled with nobles and knights. “My purpose for summoning you all here has concluded,” she announced with a smug smile. “The Ambassador’s funeral will be starting at any moment, and we would not want our grieving guest to feel slighted by our absence. You may depart.” She gestured towards the tent flaps, which two knights promptly held open as Viscount Bennet and Viscount Kendall glanced towards Borghese for their cue.
“I certainly have no desire to see all of his Majesty’s efforts for a favorable negotiation go to waste,” Lord Percy announced as he shouldered his way free from the corner. The Earl stepped lightly down the path cleared by Stryker’s knights and bowed courteously before the royal family; the blue-gray pallor of his skin more transparent up close. “Congratulations once more on your successful negotiations, your Majesty.”
“Thank you, Earl Hawthorne,” Nicholas replied, his shoulders relaxing as he nodded to the Earl.
‘The Earl of Hawthorne,’ Kirsi’s lips twitched with a smile as she caught the Earl glancing in her direction once more. ‘I once fought beside this boy’s ancestors. Perhaps the current Earl of Hawthorne may prove useful to me as well.’
Percy lowered his gaze as he straightened and turned swiftly towards the exit. Marchioness Serilda curtsied behind him and hastily followed the Earl outside. The rest of the nobles gradually followed suit, including Marquess Borghese, who looked far from pleased as he bowed sharply and then stomped an angry retreat.
Only when they were alone, aside from the few knights that General Stryker left stationed inside the tent, did Kirsi brush past Nicholas’s protective arm and move to the Dowager’s side.
“You did well, Kirsi,” Octavia murmured, looking a bit tired from the ordeal. “As did you, Nicholas.”
“Queen Regent,” Nicholas murmured with a shake of his head. “I don’t know whether to congratulate you or—you, Lady Kirsi. Marquess Borghese has long assumed that my grandmother intended to make his daughter, Lady Priscilla, the next Duchess of Bastiallano.”
“Well,” Octavia replied as she leaned on Kirsi’s arm for support. “That may have been the case when she was your fiancé, but now I find Lady Kirsi more suited to the position.”
Kirsi repressed a snort at the blatant lie. ‘There’s no way Octavia would hand over the lands and wealth I left behind to a mere mortal.’
“In any case,” the Dowager continued, “It was my fault that the Marquess felt confident enough to make such an assumption, so it was only right that I informed him of my decision personally.”
Nicholas scoffed. “I doubt he will thank you for it. Still, anything that makes Borghese easier to deal with is a good thing.”
Kirsi snickered as she helped the Dowager settle into her seat. “Oh, I very much doubt the Marquess will give up such wealth and power to a half-blood so easily.”
“Yes,” Nicholas agreed ruefully and scratched his neck. His gaze remained locked on Kirsi with a confused expression as she poured a glass of wine for his grandmother.
Kirsi ignored the crown prince’s stare as she leaned in to whisper against the Dowager’s ear, “Your Grace, I must leave for a moment to—check on something important.”
“Oh?” Octavia raised a worried brow but nodded. “Try not to miss the funeral, Kirsi.”
Kirsi kissed the Dowager’s cheek and whispered, “I make no promises, Grandmother.” She stepped back confidently and gave the Dowager and crown prince another curtsey before she turned sharply and headed past Lady Delphine and Lady Elouise through the tent exit.
Once outside, the Scarlet Witch turned immediately left and circled the tent away from the gathered crowd. A field of untouched rows of leafy beans stretched before her towards a tree line of woods.
“Lumi,” Kirsi whispered as she touched the bracelet once more. The translucent white wolf appeared and bowed its head before her. Kirsi cast a cautious glance around before grabbing the wolf’s fur, simultaneously turning translucent and then invisible as the scriva shifted its appearance.
The scarlet witch hastily climbed onto the elemental wolf’s back as Nicholas rounded the Dowager’s tent. He stumbled to a halt as he took in the vast empty field, scanned the surroundings in confusion, and then returned towards the crowd as Lieutenant Olund hastily jogged after him.
“Well, I’ll have to thank Viktor for creating such a capable scriva next time we meet,” Kirsi whispered cynically as she turned the wolf towards the forest. “Now, take me to this knight Carina is so worried about.”