Chapter 49: A Severing of Loyalty
A humid film of rain clung to the windows of the banquet hall, blurring the first rays of morning light that lit up the otherwise quiet and gloomy space. The glistening floors, chairs, and tables suggested that the staff had been hard at work well before dawn, cleaning up the aftermath of last night’s festivities.
Nicholas tossed back the last of the sweet and creamy Brandy Milk Punch meant to help ease the hangover pulsating behind his eyes. “Aaaahh! That’s better,” he said with a relieved sigh, passing the empty glass off to one of the departing servants.
“Are you sure about this, your Majesty?” Attwood murmured as he followed the Crown Prince to their seats at the head of the table, trailed by two royal clerks still hastily organizing the documents for the approaching meeting.
“Am I sure that I want to clear the air and put this matter to rest so that we can enjoy what remains of this long-awaited holiday?” Nicholas replied dryly as he pulled out his chair, adjusted the pillow cushion, and promptly sat down. “Yes, I’m sure.”
The Crown Prince noted the Prime Minister’s heavy sigh and reached out to clasp his trusted advisor’s shoulder as the man bent down to take his seat. “I appreciate the early hours you’ve put into this, Attwood, and I appreciate your council as always, but as we’ve already discussed, I’m in no position to make enemies this early on in my reign.”
“I understand, your Majesty,” Attwood replied as he rested a hand over the monarch’s. “However, you should never become so focused on your enemies that you lose sight of the allies who already stand beside you.”
“Of course not!” Nicholas scoffed lightly as he pulled his hand away. “The Royal Faction loses one of their prominent figureheads. Their loss helps the Noble Faction gain more power at court. Meanwhile, Borghese gets to keep his head while living in exile.”
‘Of course, I’ll keep the proposed engagement with Lady Priscilla a secret until we return to the Capital. There’s no need to rush things since I can’t legally take a second wife until I’m officially crowned King.’
He signaled to Lieutenant Olund, who waited by the closed dining doors to summon the councilors who stood outside. They entered at a glacial pace. Nicholas eyed the pale and drawn faces of Viscount Tomberline and Viscount Kendall, who staggered to their chairs with the energy of old, sickly men dragged from their beds. The previous late night of heavy drinking appeared to have hit the Royal Faction far more severely than either the Crown Prince or the Noble Faction.
“Whose idea was it to call a meeting this early in the morning?” Acheron grumbled as he stumbled through the doors, offering the Crown Prince a rushed bow before he stomped over to his seat at the corner of the table, crossed his arms against it, and slumped down to sleep.
Lord Percy, Marquess Winifred, and the other members of the Noble Faction, although in remarkably better shape, were surprisingly quiet and grim as they took their seats with a respectful nod toward the monarch and Prime Minister. Nicholas returned the gesture in kind as he waited, reclined against the armrest, determined to make the most of this impromptu meeting.
The awkward glares, hoarse coughs, and Acheron’s whistling snores filled the stifling silence that stretched as they waited for the last member of the Royal Faction to arrive. Nicholas was just about to order one of his knights to drag Earl Coldwell from his tent when the nobleman appeared, walking briskly towards the open doors while conversing with none other than Viscount Norley. The pair parted ways as the Earl rushed to his seat at the table, bowing towards the Crown Prince and House of Lords apologetically as the royal knights shut the doors behind him.
“My Lords!” Attwood began, his voice booming loud enough to jolt Acheron from his sleep. “Thank you for attending this emergency meeting. By now, I trust you all are aware of the recent arrest of Marquess Borghese.” The Royal Faction quickly affirmed this with glowers and muttered curses that the Prime Minister ignored. “What you do not know is that the Duchess’s actions stem from a cooperative investigation into the Marquess’s finances let by the Crown Prince and Dowager Octavia, and assisted by myself, Duchess Kirsi, and Lord Commander Quentin of the Captial Knights.”
Animosity quickly stirred into confusion, although certain members on both sides of the table appeared less than surprised by this sudden revelation.
“During our investigations,” Nicholas replied, taking over as the Prime Minister signaled a clerk to pass out the prepared documents. “We found evidence of unspeakable crimes against the citizens of Lafeara, not just in the Marquess’s territory, but across the kingdom. Violating the Peasant Governance Code, Enslavement Regulations, and Labor Laws, while also threatening the integrity and authority of the crown.” He paused for a moment to allow each noble to peruse the written testimonies and the new official arrest warrant, listing the Marquess’s crimes, before handing the floor back to Attwood.
“Over the last ten years, Marquess Borghese has abused his position as Trade Minister of Slave Commerce to build an illegal branch focused on the abduction and trade of children for the deplorable purposes of sexual gratification. This underground slave ring not only reaches inside the Capital but spans to nearly every border of the kingdom!” Once more, the Prime Minister’s voice boomed throughout the room, heavy with discomfort and disgust, as he moved down the list. “Lord Borghese is well aware of the regulations regarding the enslavement of vulnerable children for such criminal acts. We believe this is why he did not report the earnings of this new endeavor to the government for taxation. Thus, circumventing slavery luxury taxes owed to the crown while profiting from the evils committed on children as young as three years of age.”
Nicholas glanced around the table, pleased to see that all in attendance, Acheron included, had sobered up completely as the Prime Minister continued.
“Additionally, we found evidence that these illicit funds were used to build a private army of convicted mercenaries utilized to bribe and, in some cases, intimidate judges and other officials, who in turn concealed the crimes of gambling dens and secret lending businesses used by the Marquess to lure commoners into taking out loans with unlawfully high-interest rates. When these impoverished, gambling fools could not pay their debts, they were coerced into selling off their own children. Some even resorted to kidnapping the children of distant relatives or strangers to pay back what was owed and preserve their miserable lives.
“In many cases, the parents who reported these crimes were either beaten to death or thrown in jail for failing to pay off whatever debt they owed the loan companies. Some of them, out of fear, shame, or sheer desperation, resorted to taking their own lives, leaving their children orphans with nowhere to go until they vanished, only to reappear on the Marquess’s slave market….”
The Prime Minister’s voice cracked as he paused to drink from his glass of water. “This is an affront to both our legal system, noble status, and moral beliefs as a nation. The abuse of any government position to impose cruelty, corruption, and such reprehensible acts upon Lafeara’s citizens is a crime that threatens the very heart of this kingdom and all that it stands for.”
Silence filled the room as Attwood stiffly took his seat and then folded his hands over the document he had just finished reading.
Earl Coldwell was the first to break the silence as he cleared his throat. “Your Majesty, the accusations laid against the Marquess are grave and heinous in nature. But I must question this rush to any verdict or punishment before this evidence can be verified and corroborated. The Marquess deserves to present his defense in a court of his peers—”
“Lord Chase,” Nicholas interrupted sharply. “The private ledger kept in Marquess Borghese’s private office indicates that nearly ten-thousand children, citizens of our kingdom, have been sold into slavery over the past ten years, either through coercion or corruption. Children, the most innocent subjects of my kingdom, were forced to endure the unspeakable—their tears lined the pockets of Marquess Borghese and any corrupt nobles foolish enough to support him.”
A deathly silence filled the room as several lords on either side of Coldwell lowered their gaze and shifted uneasily in their seats. The Crown Prince turned his attention to the Earls on either side of the table as he tapped his finger slowly, hoping he had done enough to satisfy their curiosity.
“I have conversed with the prisoner,” Nicholas continued assertively. “He has expressed remorse for his crimes.” A faint scoff echoed from Acheron’s corner of the table that was ignored by most. Lord Percy, in particular, continued to watch the Crown Prince with calm, unsettling, winter-gray eyes that gave away nothing. “I have discussed the options of this case at length with my trusted council and decided that it is in the kingdom’s best interest to settle the matter of Marquess Borghese’s undeniable guilt as well as his much-deserved punishment before our return to the Capital.”
Marquess Winifred placed his hand on the back of Earl Hawthorne’s chair as the Noble Faction seemed to brace themselves for the monarch’s decision. Similarly, Earl Coldwell and his constituents visibly held their breaths as they clenched their fists and straightened stiffly in their chairs.
“As of this morning,” Nicholas declared, raising his voice so that it could be heard clearly around the room. “I have determined that Lord Rupert Borghese is guilty of official corruption to the highest degree. Additionally, I find him guilty of embezzlement, child kidnapping and endangerment, as well as unlawful enslavement and trafficking. I do, therefore, strip him of all offices and titles. Lord Borghese shall be exiled to his ancestral estates of Brigovia. All lands attached to his estate shall be audited and auctioned at the soonest available possibility until all taxes withheld from the crown have been repaid.
“Additionally, his illegal business will be shut down, and all debts incurred through his gambling dens will be expunged. Similarly, all properties and businesses within the Capital are hereby forfeited to the crown. They will be sold to fund the building of at least five orphanages that will be used to house the three-hundred children the capital knights have identified and are attempting to recover under Lord Commander Quentin’s leadership.”
Silence prevailed once more as the Crown Prince finished his speech and sat back to catch his breath. Although Nicholas knew better than to expect either side would be thrilled with this outcome, he found the continued, deafening silence oddly disquieting.
Given Norley’s presence outside his chambers last night with Lady Priscilla and then again outside the banquet hall with Earl Coldwell earlier, Nicholas had anticipated that the Royal Party had been warned, at least in part, about what to expect. However, Earl Hawthorne and the Noble Faction appeared equally unphased, even if still visibly disappointed.
The tense hush ended when Lord Percy carefully cleared his throat and then raised his hand for recognition to speak.
Nicholas hastily cut off the Prime Minister, who moved to recognize the well-respected councilor. “Earl Hawthorne, I’m afraid this matter is concluded and no longer up for discussion.”
“Of course, your Majesty,” Percy replied respectfully as he lowered his hand. “I just had a question on behalf of myself and my esteemed colleagues.”
The Crown Prince sighed as he considered the request. Overall, the Noble Party was handling this news with surprising restraint. “Very well, one question.”
“Thank you, your Majesty.” The Earl bowed his head in understanding and then rose to his feet. “My question relates to the private army mentioned among Lord Borghese’s crimes. Would this be the same army of mercenaries lying in wait at the border of Gilwren Forest that was the reason behind Lady Kirsi’s initial arrest of the Marquess?”
Nicholas pressed his lips together as he complicated the pros and cons between truth and deception. His father’s sage advice once more whispered cautiously through his thoughts, “Never try lying to a Hawthorne. They will find a way to use it against you.”
With a faint sigh, the Crown Prince acknowledged the Earl’s question with a simple nod. “Yes, Lord Percy, I suppose they are one and the same.”
“So, it is possible that the Duchess was right,” Percy stated with sudden vigor as murmurs spread throughout the room. “About the Marquess bringing his illegal army of convicts to Gilwren in order to threaten and intimidate the crown.”
“I gave you one question, Earl Hawthorne,” Nicholas retorted sharply.
“Forgive me, your Majesty.” The Earl’s lips twitched into a cynical smile as his gaze moved toward the members of the Royal Faction. “But that was more a statement of fact than a question.”
“Lord Percy!” Nicholas clenched his hand, realizing too late the trap he had walked into. “Our investigation found no justification to accuse the Marquess of treason! That said, we are willing to recognize the Duchess’s reason for making the arrest, given the unknown threat she was presented with.”
“I see.” The Earl’s lips curled into a cold smile as he held the monarch’s gaze for a long moment. “Then, since the matter is concluded and no longer up for discussion—may we be excused?”
“That—” Nicholas blinked in stunned disbelief as the entire Noble Faction rose from their seats, cutting off his approval, which they outright ignored as they threw the dining room doors open and stormed out. “This—this is absurd!”
“It is, your Majesty,” Percy replied firmly, standing alone against the Royal Faction and Crown Prince. “The point of the House of Lords is to make decisions regarding threats to the kingdom and crown together. But it seems your council on this matter did not include even a single member of the Noble Faction.”
“I did not—”
“If our voice doesn’t count!” Percy interjected loudly, silencing even Earl Coldwell, who rose from his seat to protest. “Then what is the purpose of this council?”
The Crown Prince blinked in surprise beneath the cold gaze of his once close friend. There was something dark and sinister in Percy’s winter-gray eyes, which seemed to demand, ‘And what the hell is the purpose of you?’
The Earl’s feet echoed softly against the wooden floor as he took two steps back, bowed towards the frozen monarch, and then spun promptly to exit the room.
“This is unacceptable!” Earl Coldwell roared, rousing the stupefied Royal Faction to their feet. “Earl Hawthorne should be stripped of his seat at once!”
“You wish!” Acheron interjected in a jeering tone.
“I am being serious, Lord Hargreve! That he would dare to rally his Majesty’s nobles and councilors against him—”
“That is enough!” Attwood bellowed, slamming his fist against the table before rising to face the quibbling nobles. “The meeting is adjourned. You may all—get out!”
Nicholas held his breath until the last of the glowering lords made their way through the doors, which Lieutenant Olund wisely shut behind them. Only when their grumbling voices faded into the distance did he rise stiffly from his seat and turn to glare at the blisteringly beautiful sunlight that spilled across the Manor grounds.
“We—can remedy this,” Attwood said reassuringly. “Earl Hawthorne is reasonable—”
“They turned their backs on me.”
The Prime Minister spread his hands and then clasped them together. “He is young—as you are, your Majesty.”
“And as I age, mature, and grow in power, so will he. Percy has half of my nobles twisted around his pinkie just because he carries the Hawthorne name!” Nicholas exhaled in exasperation as he raised his fist, relaxed his grip, and then turned to face the empty table before him. “I think it’s time we added more nobles to the House of Ministers. Councilors who are loyal to me above all.” The Crown Prince ignored the Prime Minister’s agitated expression as he moved briskly around the table to the silently waiting Lieutenant. “Tell me, Sir Olund, where is Captain Beaumont?”