Chapter 46: Tears of Humility

Nicholas had consumed probably one too many cups of wine by the end of the evening festivities, which consisted mostly of the Nobel Faction magnanimously pouring wine into the cups of the defeated Royal Faction until the latter stumbled off to their beds, completely inebriated.

“I do believe we—may have drained Rykard’s cellar—to the bottom,” Acheron grunted cheerfully, demonstrating remarkable resilience as he guided the swaying Crown Prince down the hall to his rooms.

“You should have them count—the bottles we emptied,” Nicholas replied with a heavy nod. “I’ll bet….” The Crown Prince blinked, forcing the Rogue to a stumbling halt as Eleanora appeared in the hallway before them, escorted by Major Garrett and Lady Evelynn. “I’ll bet it was more than a hundred!” he whispered, enjoying the view of her chest, now damp with a faint sheen of sweat.

“Your Highness,” Acheron greeted with a bob of his head.

“Thank you for assisting my husband to his rooms, Lord Hargreve,” Eleanora murmured, eyeing Nicholas with an awkward mixture of concern and embarrassment. “Well, I’ll—see you in the morning.”

“Elly, wait!” Nicholas called out, attempting to stand straight as he pressed a hand against his rumpled dinner jacket. The Crown Princess paused as Lady Evelynn unlocked the bedroom door before her. “You—look beautiful.”

The smile Eleanora offered in response did not quite reach her eyes. “Thank you, your Majesty. Good night.”

The Crown Prince blinked in disbelief as she promptly vanished inside the bedroom. “Saint’s mercy,” he clutched his head as Acheron resumed their journey, “I think I’m going to hate myself in the morning.”

“Just sleep it off. I don’t think anyone will be in the mood to go hunting come first light.”

“Fuck the Royal Hunt! And those damn nobles! All of them—making a mockery of what should have been a peaceful, diplomatic competition.”

“Yeah. Well—perhaps you’ll do things differently when you become King,” Acheron grunted, leaning against the wall as Beaumont unlocked the door and entered before them. “In we go.”

“I’m fine!” Nicholas grumbled, shoving the Rogue away and nearly falling flat on his face in the process. His royal face was saved from the floor by the Knight Captain’s firm arm. “This—stupid carpet!”

“It’s not the carpet, your Majesty,” Beaumont replied firmly as he lifted the Crown Prince onto his shoulder and transported the babbling monarch to his bed. “You just need rest.”

“How can that be? It’s still light out!” Nicholas retorted angrily before his head bounced against the pillows. “Oh, that’s soft….”

“I’ll leave him in your capable hands, cousin,” Acheron called out with a mocking salute, already heading for the open door. “Best to keep a chamber pot handy, though.”

Beaumont grunted dismissively as he tugged off the prince’s right boot.

“What are you doing?” Nicholas grumbled, kicking the Knight Captain’s hand away as Beaumont reached for his left foot. “Who said I’m going to sleep.”

“It is dusk, your Majesty. You have no other duties to attend to until morning.”

“No, no!” The Crown Prince shook his head emphatically, then paused. “Yes. That’s true—then slippers! Fetch my slippers!”

The Knight Captain sighed as he yanked the last boot free and carried both over to the wardrobe where the prince’s nightgown and slippers had been laid out by the royal steward, who was strangely absent. Nicholas was sitting up with both socks in hand upon Beaumont’s return. The Crown Prince traded the socks for slippers and stood up slowly, taking slow breaths as he focused on walking towards the sleek burgundy lounge that faced the bedroom fireplace.

“I may have no official duties to perform—but I am expecting a visitor,” Nicholas announced as he fussed over the pillows arranged on the sofa. “Where is Peyton?”


Serilda ignored the uncomfortable feeling of déjà vu in her stomach as she followed the royal steward up the servant’s staircase and down the darkening hallway towards Nicholas’s bedroom. The Crown Prince’s intimidating shadow stood by the doorway, monitoring their approach with wary violet eyes that glimmered beneath the dying sun.

“C-captain Beaumont?” the steward stammered as the knight captain refused to budge from the door.

“Peyton?” Beaumont retorted with a deep rumble of disapproval.

“His Majesty is expecting me,” Serilda tacked on helpfully as she pulled back the hood of her robes. She shivered and tried to ignore the sensation of danger that shivered down her spine as the knight’s sharp gaze ran over her with little interest before he turned and knocked on the bedroom door.

“Your Majesty, a guest has arrived for you.”

“Let her in, Captain,” Nicholas responded with a hint of amusement.

Serilda entered the large, opulent bedchamber with her head held high and smiled down at the Crown Prince draped across a stack of pillows lined up between the large, granite-marble fireplace, now adorned by several freshly lit candles. Behind the flushed monarch sat an ornate sofa and table, where a tray of poured wine waited beside a plate of cheese and chocolate truffles.

“Come,” Nicholas beckoned amiably, motioning for her to join him as he gestured to the pile of pillows opposite the small round card table set up before the hearth. “Please, make yourself comfortable, Marchioness.”

“Thank you, your Majesty,” Serilda replied as she untied and removed her cloak, draping it over the sofa behind Nicholas before taking the offered seat. She smiled at his glassy eyes and rosy cheeks. Percy’s efforts to manipulate the memories of the Royal Faction would also work in her favor tonight. “Will anyone else be joining us?” she asked as she pulled out the deck of cards.

“No,” Nicholas replied with a heavy sigh that suggested some sort of inner turmoil.

“Are you sure that’s wise?” she teased relentlessly, smiling as his hungry gaze trailed down her neck towards her other prominent assets.

“Probably not,” he mumbled, nervously loosening the silk scarf around his neck as the Marchioness opened the brand-new deck. “I suppose it depends on the rules of the game.”

“Have you played Save the Jester before, your Majesty?”

“Yes, but—I believe you play by a different set of rules, my Lady.”

Serilda noted the hesitancy in his voice and offered him an encouraging smile. “Then why don’t I clarify the rules before we begin?”

He nodded along agreeably, his reddened eyes drawn to the graceful movements of her hands as Serilda began shuffling the cards.

“Each player can only hold eight cards. A minimum of five cards must be played on the table, while no more than three can be held in reserve. Each face card represents a member of the royal court. Shield up means they can only defend. Sword up means they can only attack. Cards in reserve can neither attack nor defend, but they can be sacrificed.

“All duplicate cards below the royal family must be returned to the middle of the deck during your next hand. Duplicates can neither attack nor defend but may replace a card lost in the current round. A winning hand retains the highest members of the court while preserving the life of the Jester. Oh, and a Jester can neither attack nor defend. Any card may be sacrificed to protect the Jester or the King and Queen—”

“Ahem. Isn’t there an alternative way to—protect the royal court?” Nicholas interjected with a raised brow.

“Yes, if the hand you are currently playing is too weak to defend the Jester—you can sacrifice an article of clothing and draw an extra card to increase your odds of survival. If you hold the King’s Mistress in your deck,” she held up a card with a painted young woman dressed in a gown of red roses, “then you can draw three cards for each article of clothing removed.”

“That’s what I thought,” Nicholas replied with a low chuckle as he watched her insert the card back into the middle of the deck before shuffling once more.

“You’ve seen me play this game before, haven’t you?” Serilda observed coyly as she finished shuffling and began dealing out the cards.

Nicholas scratched his head sheepishly as he avoided her gaze. “Acheron might have mentioned that you were the one who added this rule to the game.”

“Yes, I did, in fact,” she replied, unabashed. “It irritated me how quickly and easily the King’s Mistress was sacrificed—so I invented a rule to make the game more enjoyable and keep her around longer.”

Serilda picked up her cards, smiling at the Jester in the tiny crown and frumpy frock. She quickly laid down five members of her court, the Bull Royal Chamberlain, the Crow Prime Minister, and one of the Rat Privy Councilors, along with two dog knights. Her fingers paused over the last playing card with its painted depiction of the Northern Duchess, dressed in armor bearing the sigil of the wolf, her strongest playing card by far. She placed the card down, sword forward, while keeping the Jester and Crown Princess in her hand.

Nicholas whistled softly as she played the Duchess and then laid out his own court: a Crown Prince, a Rooster Bishop, one Rat Councilor, one cat lady-in-waiting, and one dog knight. He kept three cards in his hand and, despite the weakness of his playing cards, appeared quite satisfied with the results.

“Well,” Serilda murmured as she tapped the Duchess card. “Who will you sacrifice first?”

“So aggressive,” he growled playfully as he picked up the lady-in-waiting card and tossed it toward her.


A short while later, Nicholas had the upper hand, with the Southern Duke and his bear sigil accompanied by an attacking King. As tempted as Serilda was to surrender her Duchess, she needed the game to last long enough to achieve her true objective. With a lamenting sigh, she sacrificed yet another one of her Rat Councilors.

“I would enjoy this loss much more if it were a boar instead of a rat,” she commented before sacrificing her remaining glove to draw an extra card from the deck.

“I would think a rat much easier to sacrifice than a boar,” Nicholas retorted, smiling as she replaced her fallen councilor with the Royal Goose Physician.

“Even if that Boar stamped his little foot all over your Royal Hunt?”

The Crown Prince lowered his hand and exhaled slowly as he studied the pile of jewels and gloves on the edge of the table. “Court politics are a bit more complicated than a mere game, I’m afraid.”

“Because, in reality, you can’t afford to sacrifice either the Duke or Duchess?” Serilda teased, hiking up her dress slowly to untie the lace ribbon that kept her silk stocking in place. She removed the thin fabric, adding it to the pile, and then drew another card, smiling as she placed down the King’s Mistress.

“In the game, the Duke and Duchess’s only purpose is to protect their King. In reality, they serve as the backbone of the factions that play tug-of-war with the crown’s authority. Nobles like Marquess Borghese, Earl Hawthorne, and yourself, Marchioness Kensington.”

“Hmm,” Serilda removed her second stocking, allowing the prince a glimpse of the freckle along her inner thigh. “Somehow, I don’t see you inviting the Marquess to a late night of cards, your Majesty.”

Nicholas scoffed, then frowned as she drew her three cards and laid down a Queen and Bishop.

“Although,” Serilda murmured thoughtfully as she discarded her last Rat Councilor. “Lady Priscilla might be a more delectable option.”

The Crown Prince rubbed the skin between his brows thoughtfully as he studied her court. “You have one too many cards, my Lady.”

“Do I?” Serilda pouted as she tapped the seven cards laid out before her. “Oh dear….” She paused over the Bishop, smiling at her opponent’s confused frown as she discarded the useful rooster. “A King can never have too many Consorts.”

“Careful, a King can execute a Queen—not the other way around,” Nicholas cautioned, waving his hand to indicate it was now her turn.

“True.” The Marchioness smiled as she tapped the King’s Mistress. “Unfortunately, I’ll need a bit of help to keep playing this card.” She turned her back towards him, pulling her loosened hair out of the way to reveal the buttons of her dress.

There was a brief, pregnant pause before Nicholas laid down his cards and shuffled around the table toward her. His fingers froze against the top button even as his breathing intensified against the back of her neck.


“Are they too difficult for you? Perhaps we should call in the steward instead—” She gasped softly as his left arm tightened around her waist, pulling her against him. The fingers of his left hand slid around her throat, rising to cup her chin and then turn her face towards him. Serilda stared up into the troubled hazel-blue eyes, fighting between rationality and temptation. “There, there, Nicky. What are you afraid of?”

“I—don’t know,” Nicholas murmured as he caressed her cheek tenderly.

The Marchioness smiled as she clasped the hand digging into her hip and rose to her knees while turning to face him fully. She cupped the Crown Prince’s face in her hands as her voice softened into a breathy whisper that slid past his defenses with ease. “You have your father’s eyes but your mother’s gentle nature.”

Nicholas’s expression hardened for a moment, his eyes never leaving hers as his thumb brushed over her lips with longing. “He was not kind to you. I hated him for it.”

“I know,” Serilda murmured, catching his hand and drawing his thumb back to her lips. “You protected me whenever you could. You even tried to stop them from sending me away.”

“I’m sorry that I failed—”

“We both know what it is like to be betrayed by family,” she whispered, pulling his hand down her slender neck towards the porcelain skin of her bosom.

“Seri,” Nicholas exhaled harshly as she eased his fingertips beneath her corset. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

She smiled at his naivety, then kissed his neck before teasingly hooking her finger between his shirt and trousers. “You could never hurt me, Nicholas.”

He grabbed her fully then, leaning in for a kiss that Serilda dodged expertly.

“Do you submit to me, your Majesty?”


“Do you—submit—” she wrapped her arms around his neck, straddling him fully as she reached down to stroke his rising arousal, “—to me?”

Nicholas sucked in his lip. His hands pulled at the burgundy silk impatiently as the buttons of her dress strained to hold. He blinked against the stars that seemed to shimmer into focus beneath her dark curls as she smiled at him, waiting for the answer she knew he would give.


His body succumbed to her will in an instant, toppling over onto the pillows as Serilda cradled his head and carefully lowered it onto her lap. “That’s it. Well done, Nicholas.” The Marchioness trailed her fingers gently over his eyes, closing them as Nicholas slipped further into the illusion of her magic. “Now, tell me, your Majesty, what are your plans for Marquess Borghese?”

“That—depends on what his daughter can offer me.”

“Lady Priscilla? What do you want from her?”

“She will replace her father as acting head of the Royal Faction.”

“Priscilla?” Serilda rolled her eyes. “You mean she will become the Duke’s puppet.”

“No,” Nicholas growled softly, squirming restlessly beneath the pleasure of his internal fantasy. “She will become my puppet. I will make her a Royal Consort and tie the Royal Faction to the crown where they belong.”

“I see.” The Marchioness exhaled slowly as her green eyes narrowed. “So you will forgive the Marquess and marry his daughter?”

“Forgive?” A note of scorn rolled off the Crown Prince’s tongue as his pupils fluttered beneath her fingertips. “He’ll be poorer than a priest by the time I’m done with him, and still, he will kiss my feet in gratitude for marrying his daughter.”

“What if Priscilla doesn’t want to marry you?”

Nicholas’s head bounced against her legs as he let out a full laugh that carried with it a note of cruelty that gave Serilda a moment’s pause as it stirred old, unpleasant memories.

“Then—what if the Duchess demands his arrest?”

“Kirsi will be satisfied once the Marquess is stripped of his title, wealth, and lands. She understands that killing him will only complicate the political balance at court. Lord Borghese will be arrested and punished, just not for treason, since that would make his daughter unsuitable for marriage and tarnish the Hargreve’s reputation before the entire kingdom.”

‘So the Duke will sacrifice the Marquess to promote his niece as Royal Consort.’ Serilda mused silently, ignoring the desperate groans that slid past his lips as he clutched her ankle. “You must know the Noble Faction will see this as an insult to Eleanora, especially since neither of you has yet to be coronated. And what if the Duke and Priscilla end up wanting more? What if what they really want is Eleanora’s crown?”

“The Duke has no more desire to be at war with Emperor Arius than I do. He only wishes to see his niece happy and secured in a position that grants the Royal Faction continued access and power.”

‘I suppose that’s true enough. What a pity. I needed to find a reason to push Kirsi further into our camp.’

The Marchioness leaned down until her nose hovered over Nicholas’s brows. She whispered a spell of slumber and smiled as he grew still. Soft snores soon filled the space between them. After setting him down comfortably on the pillows, Serilda scanned the room carefully and noted the ornate desk tucked into a corner by the door. On a whim, she searched the sleeping monarch’s trousers and liberated the small ring of keys she found there.

A few key turns, and a search through several stacks of official papers resulted in the discovery of an envelope that contained the official seal of the Holy Church, a lightning bolt striking two raised wings above praying hands. Serilda felt her pulse quicken as she pulled the three thick pages free and scanned the immaculate, masculine penmanship.

Her moss-agate green eyes widened in surprise at the mention of the Duchess and a certain Viscountess. Then her brows furrowed as she read the proposal exchanged between the two monarchs.

‘So—Nicholas wants to reinstate the practice of having two queens at court, and—judging by the Pope’s terms—it doesn’t seem like our negotiations with Ventrayna will hold up for very long.’

The Marchioness smiled as she laid the pages flat and then rolled them up tightly before slipping the parchment between her breasts. She returned the empty envelope to its hiding spot, locked all the desk drawers, and flinched as a firm hand banged against the bedroom door.

‘What now?’

Serilda scanned the desk carefully as she stood, ensuring that everything was as before, then returned to Nicholas’s side, sliding the keys back into his pocket before laying his head on her lap.

Beaumont’s heavy fist pounded against the door a second time before he called out, “Your Majesty?”

The Crown Prince’s eyes fluttered open, dazed and confused, as he blinked up toward Serilda’s smiling face.

“Did you sleep well, your Majesty?”

“Did I?” Nicholas echoed groggily, glancing down at his still very pronounced manhood.

“Your Majesty?” Beaumont called out again, with a bit more tension to his words. “Are you awake?”

“He seems quite insistent,” Serilda observed, slipping out from beneath the prince’s head with a feigned yawn. “I suppose it has gotten late.”

“I can’t believe I fell asleep,” Nicholas growled, covering his erection with a pillow before sitting up with a frustrated groan.

“Your Majesty, should I open the door?” the impatient knight boomed

“Just a moment, Captain,” Serilda called out, slipping barefoot into her shoes before picking up her cloak.

“Your leaving?” Nicholas grumbled sourly.

“Well, yes, since it appears that someone has urgent business with you.” She smiled at his gloomy expression and then bent down to kiss his forehead. “Will you have the rest of my things sent to my room, please?”

He grabbed her wrist in response, looking ready to argue when another persistent knock came at the door. “Damn it!”

“Your Majesty is welcome to invite me back another time,” Serilda murmured, stroking his light auburn hair affectionately.

Nicholas sighed in defeat and kissed her wrist in response before releasing her. “Do let the Captain know I am well and available for whatever disruption this is.”

Serilda quickly whisked herself over to the bedroom entrance, tapping down on the document crushed beneath her corset, then intentionally smearing the corner of her lipstick before she slid the bolt back and opened the door. Standing beside the rather irritable knight captain was a pale and cowering Lady Priscilla, shadowed by the grim and calculating Viscount Norley.

“Ahh, it seems your Majesty was expecting another guest tonight!” Serilda commented brightly as Priscilla gawked at her in shock.

“Marchioness,” Norley greeted with a polite incline of his head.

“It is good to see you looking well, Priscilla,” Serilda murmured as she stepped forward to take the startled lady’s hand, noting the sheer nightgown beneath her cloak as she did so. The Marchioness chuckled as she leaned in to give the trembling girl a sisterly kiss on the cheek. “Don’t worry. I got him good and ready for you.”

Priscilla’s entire face lit up with embarrassment as her mouth dropped open in horror. The Marchioness stifled a laugh and then blinked in surprise at Priscilla’s tears before the foolish mortal retreated awkwardly, bumping into the Viscount, who held onto her firmly as if to prevent the young lady from fleeing.

‘I suppose I ruined whatever romantic setting they had planned.’

Serilda threw the disapproving knight captain a triumphant smile as she circled past the staring nobles and then headed toward the main staircase. Her disheveled chestnut hair and smeared makeup drew more than one pair of eyes after her as she glided beneath the watchful gaze of both the Royal Knights and Bastiallano dogs to deliver her report to her sweet cousin.

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