Chapter 28 [Part One]: The Penalty of Perjury
“Are there any more surprises you’d both like to fill me in on before we continue?” Nicholas muttered as he glanced between the suspiciously amiable Crown Princess and Duchess. Kirsi offered him a faint shrug while Eleanora sipped her wine and pretended that she hadn’t heard him. ‘Not at all surprising.’ The Crown Prince decided to forgo commenting on the Crown Princess’s rather unorthodox drinking habits—for now.
“Well,” Borghese interjected before awkwardly clearing his throat. “We appreciate the Duchess’s generosity. Then—since the matter has been resolved—”
“Oh? What led you to believe I was finished?”
The Duchess and Marquess both looked at him with apparent confusion.
“Was there something else you wished to discuss, your Majesty?” Borghese replied with a puzzled frown.
“You seem to forget about the accusations that Lady Priscilla hurled at the Duchess without cause or proof in front of the ladies of every household here,” Nicholas replied with a sardonic smirk. “Insulting and falsely accusing a member of the royal household is not something I can easily overlook, Marquess.”
“But she—” Borghese’s frustrated gaze returned to the seated half-blood, “—is not royalty, your Majesty!”
“Do you deny these charges, Lady Priscilla?” Nicholas continued, shifting his focus to the young woman standing beside her fuming father.
“I—” Priscilla swallowed, becoming almost timid beneath the Crown Prince’s stern gaze. “I vehemently deny the accusation, your Majesty. And I have witnesses that will defend my honor if needed.” She gestured quickly to a group of ladies who had gathered beside Earl Coldwell, her voice gaining confidence as she continued. “It was my attendant, stricken with fear after her injury, who rashly hurled such vicious slander. I can only assume her poor choice of words resulted from the many rumors circulating about the Duchess.”
‘Still trying to pin the blame on Kirsi?’
“I see,” Nicholas’s lips twisted into a bemused smile as he tapped his fingers lightly against the mahogany wood of his armrest. “Yet the Prime Minster tells me that the Duchess has just as many witnesses willing to testify that it was you and not the attendant who made such claims.”
Lady Kirsi glanced toward the Prime Minister, who flashed her a reassuring smile.
“I—I can only assume that they misheard, your Majesty,” Priscilla replied hastily. “Or that their bias towards the Duchess swayed their testimony in her favor.”
“Ha!” Rykard snapped angrily as he stomped his cane against the ground between his feet. “The same could be said of the ladies who came to your defense, Lady Borghese!”
“Viscount!” Nicholas cautioned sternly, gesturing toward their host while his hazel-blue eyes remained locked on the Marquess’s daughter. “Lady Priscilla, I will give you one last chance to rectify your official statement. I must also warn you that you are under oath. Any deviation from the truth shall be regarded as perjury. More importantly,” he leaned his head towards her with a cautioning smile, “Since I am the one asking the questions, you should know that lying to the crown can be considered an act of treason.”
“Your Majesty, I must protest!” Borghese bellowed as he stepped in front of the suddenly pale Priscilla. “Your words might be misconstrued as an attempt to intimidate my daughter.”
“I find your tone and suggestion distasteful, Marquess,” Nicholas retorted sharply as his expression soured. “I have offered you and your family leniency to make this matter right with a mere apology. Whether you choose to seize that opportunity or squander it—is up to you.”
‘I’ve humored your obvious greed and entitlement long enough, Borghese. It’s time you were reminded who holds the true power in this monarchy.’
“What say you, Lady Priscilla Borghese?” Attwood pressed in a patient tone as he faced the trembling young noblewoman. “Is there any part of your testimony that, upon reflection, you wish to alter or clarify?”
Nicholas glanced curiously at the Duchess, who leaned against her right hand, studying the Marquess and his daughter with strange intensity. Borghese stepped hesitantly toward Priscilla and briefly whispered something unintelligible into her ear that drew a scowl upon the young lady’s face. When the Marquess stepped back, Priscilla drew herself up and faced the Crown Prince with forced calm.
“Your Majesty, I stand beside my earlier statement. I regret the actions of my attendant but cannot help but pity the poor woman given the injuries she has suffered.”
A murmur of disgust surfaced among the nobles gathered beside the Earl of Hawthorne. Lord Percy scoffed quietly as he glanced scornfully from daughter to father before returning his attention to the Crown Prince and Duchess.
“Very well,” Nicholas commented dryly before nodding to the Prime Minister. “I suspected there might be some attempt to protest my decision or shift blame to prevent Lady Priscilla from taking accountability for her actions, so I asked my Royal Physicians to examine the attendant in question with Viscount Gilwren’s approval.”
Attwood turned and summoned three senior nobles dressed in the gray and purple robes of the Royal Medical Office. The physicians bowed politely towards the royal couple, then the Duchess, and finally, the heads of the two factions present.
“According to these reputable lords,” Nicholas continued with an acknowledging nod to the royal physicians. “It would have been impossible for the attendant to speak, given the extent of the damage done to her throat, before Lady Kirsi removed what blockage she could. Even Borghese’s physician has said that she will be unable to speak for weeks with medical treatment. So you see, Lady Priscilla, I find it difficult to believe that a woman, injured to the point of vomiting up blood, could have uttered the salacious accusations heard by all the witnesses brought forward today.”
“The accounts given in defense of the Duchess were also all consistent as to when Lady Borghese uttered the accusation,” Attwood explained critically. “Which happened after the maid had already fainted. Unfortunately, the ladies who came forward in defense of Lady Priscilla could not consistently remember when the words were said, whether before or after the maid vomited up blood or before or after she fainted. The only detail they could all agree on was Lady Priscilla’s innocence.”
A ripple of understanding passed through the nobles gathered around the dueling grounds as even Borghese grimaced.
“As I said—” Priscilla stammered. “Perhaps they remembered it differently. It was a very chaotic and—frightening incident.”
“Perhaps.” The Crown Prince nodded his head thoughtfully. “But it could not have been your attendant who uttered those words. So the question that remains is, who, in fact, did?” He traced his fingers lightly over his freshly shaved cheeks as he masked a victorious grin. “Perhaps it was one of the other noble ladies present at the baths?”
As Nicholas had predicted, it didn’t take Priscilla long to grasp the bait he so carefully dangled in front of her. The Marquess’s daughter turned her panicked gaze toward the same noble ladies who had gathered to testify on her behalf. The look of shock and fear that surfaced among her supporters, who realized one of them was about to be sacrificed on Priscilla’s behalf, was laughable.
‘Even the most loyal friend would hesitate to offer up their neck in place of another.’
“Your Majesty!” The first of Priscilla’s witnesses stumbled forward, then hastily dropped to her knees on the grass. “Your Majesty, I have committed perjury. My testimony was a lie forced upon me by Lady Priscilla Borghese, who did, in fact, accuse the Duchess of being a witch and harming her attendant.”
Carina bit back a laugh as three more ladies rushed forward to confess to perjury, each accusing Priscilla of either blackmail, threats, or bribery before correcting their statement of the events. The astonished expressions of Borghese, Earl Coldwell, and many of the other supporting families of the Royal Faction suggested they had either taken Priscilla’s account at face value or had never considered the possibility of the lower noble families turning against the Marquess’s daughter.
“Well, then,” Nicholas remarked grimly as he glanced from the four kneeling ladies to the two who remained beside the Marquess’s daughter and refused to raise their gaze. “It would appear that Lady Priscilla has been less than truthful, even when offered the chance to correct her statement.”
“It would certainly not be the first time Lady Priscilla’s temper caused her to behave in an uncivilized manner,” Percy remarked, stepping forward to address the royals and nobles. “Both the coincidental happenstance of the attendant’s mysterious injury as well as Lady Borghese’s attempts to shift blame suggest that this incident might have been staged to frame the Duchess.”
“Since the Earl is neither a witness nor a related party, I’ll thank him for keeping his wild accusations to himself!” Borghese snarled as he gripped his frozen daughter’s shoulder tightly.
‘Nothing you say can save her now, Marquess,’ Carina thought grimly, silently impressed by the Crown Prince’s foresight and planning. ‘Not when her own allies have turned against her.’
“Enough,” Nicholas called out, clasping his hands together as he rose from his chair to face the cornered father and daughter. “Lady Priscilla, my offer of leniency still stands. Consider this my last act of consideration for all the care and support you and your father have given me.”
Priscilla blinked her chartreuse-green eyes in conflicted alarm before wincing beneath the Marquess’s grip. “I—I don’t understand, your Majesty.”
“You may either apologize to Lady Kirsi now before all those present, as agreed. Or I shall impose the appropriate penalty. Per the laws of Lafeara, such a crime mandates a term of five years in prison or, for a noblewoman such as yourself, ten years of solitude and reflection within the church.”
“Your Majesty, I must protest!” Borghese hastily caught Priscilla as the young woman swayed unsteadily on her feet. “Strictly speaking, the Duchess is not a member of the royal family, so the punishment is unjust—”
“The penalty for lying to the crown and committing treason is either life imprisonment or death,” Nicholas interjected with a daggerlike grin. “Perhaps the Marquess would prefer it if I impose that sentence instead.”
A stunned silence fell across the nobles gathered as even the Noble Faction gazed upon the young monarch with expressions of astonishment and perhaps even a glimmer of respect. Carina leaned forward, clutching the arms of her chair in anticipation as she awaited a response from the Borghese family.
“My daughter—will apologize—for her immaturity—and failure to uphold the standards of etiquette expected from a noble of her station,” Borghese forced out grudgingly. The pale Priscilla broke free from her temporary stupor and turned to gaze at her father with an expression of horror. “However,” the Marquess continued hesitantly, unable to meet his daughter’s gaze, “Your Majesty, might we invoke the right of representation in this matter?”
“Your request is denied,” Nicholas countered, shaking his head in disbelief. “Or does the Marquess believe he has a knight capable of besting either my Captain or Bastiallano’s Colonel?”
Borghese clenched his jaw as he turned from Captain Beaumont to Colonel Isaac, then shook his head wordlessly.
Colonel Isaac shifted behind the Duchess as he glanced curiously over at Captain Beaumont with an accessing gaze that was ignored by the, as usual, silent giant.
“Well then, Lady Priscilla, if you would. We still have a duel to get to before we can resume the Royal Hunt. Or should I make preparations for the Marquess and his daughter to return to their estate and prepare for the young lady’s confinement.”
Surprisingly enough, Priscilla looked ready to protest but was caught off guard as Borghese pulled her head into his shoulder and whispered roughly into her ear. The young noblewoman trembled as she shook her head stubbornly, only to flinch beneath some unintelligible threat.
Carina adjusted the hem of her dress as she recrossed her legs and leaned back leisurely to await the puerile woman’s response.
With heavy reluctance, Borghese dragged his obstinate daughter towards the Duchess’s chair. Isaac moved soundlessly between his Mistress and the Marquess, who hissed a final warning to his daughter before departing. “Get it over quickly.”
Priscilla winced beneath his twisting grip, then stumbled as her father set her free and retreated before the Colonel’s warning glare.
The Duchess tapped her chin and cheek thoughtfully as she and Priscilla engaged in a silent battle of wills while the nobles gathered around, whispering ominously.
Nicholas sighed as he pulled out a pocket watch to confirm the already rising sun on the horizon. “We haven’t got all day, Lady Borghese.”
Priscilla glared in his direction before returning her gaze to the dusty grass beneath the Duchess’s boots. Carina let out a weary sigh as she turned to the Colonel beside her. “Perhaps kneeling would be more suitable for this situation? It might even aid the lady in finding the appropriate words.”
Isaac smirked as he stepped forward promptly and forced the noblewoman to her knees with a single hand upon Priscilla’s shoulder. A few murmured gasps of outrage broke out among the Royal Faction. Borghese took a few steps towards them but was stopped by Earl Coldwell, who held him back with a cautioning look and grip.
The Duchess waited until Eleanora had finished her cup of wine, then leaned towards the trembling Priscilla. “It stands to reason that those who cannot apologize for their misdeeds will forever remain unable to recognize their mistakes. And unfortunately,” Carina’s ice-blue eyes rose from the young woman’s bowed head to the Marquess’s cold glare, “those who cannot or will not acknowledge their mistakes are doomed to repeat them.”
“Well said, Lady Kirsi,” Nicholas commented with an amused smirk.
The Duchess’s gaze drifted to where Lord Norley, the strange nobleman who had invited himself to her table the night before, appeared beside the Marquess and whispered in Borghese’s ear. She narrowed her eyes as the Marquess nodded his head submissively in response, then swiftly averted her gaze as the mysterious nobleman turned and offered her an acknowledging smile and bow.
“Well, Lady Priscilla?” Carina pressed cooly as she refocused on the kneeling noblewoman. “Do you still have nothing to say?”
“No!” Priscilla clenched her fists against her knees and grimaced. “That is—I—I was—wrong.”
The Duchess raised her brow and let the silence hang uncomfortably as her opponent struggled between anger and forced humility.
“The words I said to you—were unbecoming of a noble. I—humbly ask—for your—forgiveness. Your Grace.”
Carina smiled as Priscilla strangled out the last two words, acknowledging her title and position. The Duchess then turned to the Crown Prince, who tilted his head questioningly as if awaiting her verdict. With a faint smile of gratitude, the ice witch leaned back in her chair and tapped the armrest thoughtfully as she leveled her gaze with the nobles gathered around them.
‘After seeing Nicholas openly support and back me as Duchess, hopefully, the rest of them will think twice before challenging me again so openly.’
“Well then,” Carina declared with a dry chuckle. “Shall we get on with the duel?”
A surprising number of nobles on both sides cheered with a mixture of relief and eagerness. The Duchess watched as Borghese turned angrily away from the spectacle Priscilla had made of herself. Earl Coldwell and other members of the Royal Party followed him as the Marquess left the gathering.
‘So much for supporting his daughter until the end.’
Carina raised a brow in silent surprise as one of Nicholas’s Royal Knights, Lieutenant Olund, stepped forward to offer the trembling and abandoned noblewoman a hand.
“Please, Lady Borghese, allow me,” Sir Olund murmured as he took her arms gently and raised Priscilla to her feet. Lady Meredith Stafford stepped forward reluctantly to support the pale noblewoman before leading her away from the Duchess and Crown Prince.