Chapter 52: A Crown of Thorns
Nicholas raised his chin to allow the royal steward Peyton room to adjust the flamboyant royal-purple cravat tied around his neck that contrasted nicely against the silver and white costume piece the prince wore. The invitation for the Royal Hunt Masquerade Ball lay on the bed. Although Nicholas was disappointed in Viscount Gilwren’s decision to wrap the Royal Hunt up a day early, it was clear that all the nobles had lost their enthusiasm for the hunt. Which only made the theme for the Masquerade Ball all the more amusing.
The Crown prince’s costume, meant to symbolize the Forest Monarch he had been fortunate enough to claim as a prize, was just one part of the theatrical charade. The Silver Stag’s antlers would be placed on full display at the ball while a smaller, lighter replica carved from wood would be worn as a crown with his flashy mask and outfit.
All the men were expected to wear costumes representing animals of the forest. However, the women tended to split between those who wished to dress as huntresses, complete with toy bows and arrows, and those who did not, who could pretty much wear whatever they liked.
The idea of women dressing as hunters while men dressed as wild animals was one of many satirical themes used to celebrate the Royal Hunt throughout the years, though not a particular favorite. Still, the idea of Serilda competing with Eleanora to hunt him down did tickle a slight fancy.
“Your evening cloak,” Peyton said, carrying over a luxurious white cape trimmed with the white fur of the rare winter stoat. The royal steward fastened the tassels of the cloak to the top buttons of his dress coat, then polished each silver button until it shined before standing back to examine his work.
“What do you think?” Nicholas asked as he held out the elaborately embroidered sleeves of silver oak leaves complete with diamond cuffs. The royal steward beamed with pride and appeared about to comment when the Crown Prince turned abruptly to the silent knight captain standing by the bedroom door. “Captain Beaumont?”
“I thought silver and white was the Duchess’s color?”
“Goodness,” Nicholas scoffed as he dropped his arms and stepped down from the dressing block. “How chivalrous of you to defend her colors.” He slapped the knight captain’s arm with a good-natured grin, still chuckling at the odd remark. “Tonight is all about having fun with our disguises. Why, you could dress as a bear or wear a crown, and no one would blink an eye.”
“I find my present costume more than sufficient, your Majesty.”
“Are you sure?” The Crown Prince tilted his head with a teasing look. “I could ask the Viscount for the skin of that mountain bear so you could entice Lady Kirsi into hunting you down.”
“Your sense of humor never ceases to amaze me,” Beaumont drawled out sarcastically as he gazed towards the ceiling.
“Speaking of the Duchess,” Nicholas murmured as he patted the knight captain’s chest, glancing at the royal steward, who quickly moved into the side dressing room to give them privacy. “When are you going to get serious about Lady Kirsi?”
“What?” Beaumont retorted with a confused scowl.
“Courting? Marriage? Things of that nature.”
The knight captain’s brows shot up as his violet eyes darted around the room with a look of exasperation. “I have no such thoughts, your Majesty.”
“Bullshit, you don’t!” Nicholas rolled his eyes in frustration as he stepped back from the royal bodyguard. “Part of the reason I accepted Lady Kirsi as the next Duchess of Bastiallano is because I had every faith you would one day stand beside her as its Duke.”
Beaumont’s shocked gaze snapped back to the Crown Prince before he stepped curtly to the side. “I don’t believe that is a fair expectation of myself or Lady Kirsi. She has done a commendable job—”
“Yes, she stirred up the Royal Faction and gave Earl Hawthorne the clout he needs to turn the Noble Faction against me. That’s why I need you to become a Duke, Bastiallano or Hargreve—I don’t care which. I just need you to claim one. For now, I’m giving you Brigovia.”
“The Marquess’s territory?” Beaumont echoed in disbelief as he turned to face the prince. “Are you trying to use me to provoke Duke Stryker?”
“If I don’t choose a new steward to govern the estate, the Duke will find a way to slip it back into Borghese’s pocket. Besides, making you a Marquess will give you the status you need to claim a seat in the House of Lords. Borghese’s seat, in fact. And the Royal Faction can hardly protest because, by all appearances, I will be promoting one of Duke Stryker’s sons.” The Crown Prince waved his hand emphatically as each breath sharpened his plan into focus. “This will also give you a leg up in the competition with your brother, Lieutenant Leo, as the Duke’s potential heir. At the same time, you’ll gain the status you need to court a Duchess.” Nicholas spread his hands wide with a look of triumph. “Two Dukedoms, one loyal Duke.”
“You would trust me with the power of two Dukedoms?” Beaumont muttered with a faint scoff.
“Who better than the one man I know and trust with no political ambitions for status or power?”
The knight captain’s lips drew into a thin line as he met the monarch’s expectant gaze. “Just because I have no personal ambitions for power doesn’t mean that I’ll willingly hand over my life to you to be used as a pawn—your Majesty.”
“Beaumont!” Nicholas growled as he stepped forward to grip the giant’s shoulder. “You’re already caught up in this whether you like it or not. The Duke must choose either you, Leo, or Acheron—and we both know Acheron isn’t suitable for the job, and Leo has no experience at court or with politics. You have been with me every step of the way for the last two years as my protector, but we both know this position is beneath you. For now, Lady Kirsi isn’t interested in marriage, but eventually, that will change.”
“How can you be sure?”
The Crown Prince scoffed. “All women want babies. Look at how much Eleanora tolerates my presence just to have one.” Nicholas sighed as the knight captain’s expression darkened with palpable doubt. “ Look, I’m not comparing the two, but having you by her side, serving as the Commander of her armies, will only strengthen the Duchess’s position at court.”
“The knights of Bastiallano already respect her as their Commander—”
“But the nobles at court do not. All they see is a half-blood with no experience dressed up as a Duchess.”
“And how would I be any different as the Duke’s bastard?”
“Because you’ve been to war! Because you have years of experience leading armies to victory against the Tharyian Pagans!” Nicholas retorted with both hands raised in exasperation. “All those months of battle, medals of valor, a military rank that you earned through blood, sweat, and skill. Lady Kirsi doesn’t have that. She has Colonel Isaac and other officers with experience to guide her—but that’s not the same thing. However ambitious, tenacious, and cunning she may be—the battlefield is no place for a woman!”
The Crown Prince clasped his hands together and turned away to calm himself while the knight captain growled in frustration. A knock at the door interrupted the awkward tension. Beaumont moved quickly to open it and then stared down at Viscount Norley with a potent glare that froze the startled nobleman in place.
“Who is it?” Nicholas snapped, having moved to the mirror to try out his masquerade mask. The knight captain stepped silently to the side, allowing the Crown Prince to see the Viscount’s reflection in the mirror. “Ah, Lord Norley. What is it?”
“Forgive the intrusion, your Majesty. I just wondered if you’d heard any news—concerning Lord Borghese’s stray dogs?”
Nicholas smirked as he turned to face the Viscount fully. “Both the Royal Knights and the Duchess’s men reported that the campsite was cleared out and abandoned by midday as agreed. I suppose you’ll want to inform the Duke of the good news.”
“A letter I will happily write following the success of tonight’s festivities, your Majesty.”
‘Meaning you want to wait until I announce my engagement to Lady Priscilla.’ The Crown Prince smiled at the Viscount’s subtle nudge and noted with interest the faded signet ring on Norley’s hand as the nobleman bowed to depart. “Is that a family ring, Lord Norley?”
“Ah—it is, your Majesty. Passed down from my mother’s side of the family. Her father was the Viscount of Sheridan, which the Duke passed onto me when I came of age.”
“Really? Usually, the title of a Viscount would pass to the son rather than the grandson.”
“Yes, but both my parents died when I was young and my grandfather soon after them,” Norley replied, his smile straining slightly as he pulled the black lace cuffs of his costume over the ring.
“My word, how unfortunate,” Nicholas murmured, tossing the mask next to the antler crown on the bed. “That must have been incredibly hard on you.”
“I landed on my feet with the help of the Duke, who sent me to one of the church-run orphanages near his estates. He graciously sponsored my education and allowed me to reclaim Sheridan when I came of age. I’ve served him loyally ever since.”
“Lord Stryker is a good man and a capable leader. He’s always been very good at spotting talent,” Nicholas mused as he rubbed the golden royal signet ring on his finger. “Though he always preferred my brother over me—when the First Prince was still alive.”
The Crown Prince glanced towards the Duke’s man, searching for any sign the Viscount knew of Tristan’s survival.
“The Duke respects a political strategist as much as a military strategist, though he understands the latter more,” Norley replied with a relaxed shrug. “That’s why he’s so wary of any changes that could disrupt the current political balance.”
“And yet, the Duke’s brother, Lord Attwood, has always taught me that a country unwilling to accept change will never advance.”
“The Prime Minister is a man of sound advice and judgment. It’s just a shame his son has turned out to be such an utter disappointment.”
“Careful, Viscount. Lord Acheron is my friend,” Nicholas returned with a dry chuckle. “However quarrelsome and hardheaded he may be, he is loyal to me.” His smile faded at the strange look that flickered across the nobleman’s face before the Viscount’s gaze dropped to the floor and then wandered around the room. An expression of cynicism—or perhaps smugness—twisted the blade of uncertainty that had been tickling distractedly at the back of Nicholas’s mind since Acheron’s sudden change in behavior nearly a month ago.
“And how was your night with Lady Priscilla?” Norley asked, catching the Crown Prince off guard with his sudden change in topic.
“We spoke,” Nicholas murmured, adjusting his cravat as the shadow of uncertainty slid back into the recesses of his preoccupied thoughts. “Discussed the benefits of marriage for both of us and what would be a reasonable timeframe for an engagement before we wed, etc.”
The Viscount raised his brow as he listened, almost expectantly, before bluntly asking, “Is that all?”
“What?” The Crown Prince shook his head as he chuckled in disbelief. “You can tell the Duke that I respect him too much to tarnish the reputation of his niece, however misguided her current councilors may be.”
The flicker of surprise that appeared on Norley’s face, followed by what was unmistakably disappointment, irritated Nicholas. ‘It’s as if they think I’m some dog in heat that will jump on any bitch they set before me.’ The Royal Faction’s intentions had been obvious the moment Priscilla arrived at his doorstep, barely dressed beneath her fox-furred robe. However drunk he may have been, Nicholas knew better than to fall for such an obvious honey trap.
‘If they try to claim I’ve taken her virginity, I can simply have Priscilla subjected to an examination by the church to prove my innocence. The scandal would ruin her far more than it would hurt me.’
The Viscount opened his mouth to speak but stopped as Beaumont cleared his throat loudly beside the bedroom door. Nicholas turned to frown at the rude knight, then stiffened as the sound of footsteps receding echoed softly in the hallway outside. The Crown Prince rushed to the door and flung it open just in time to see the Crown Princess, dressed in her changing robe, making a hasty retreat.
“Eleanora, wait!” Nicholas glared at the useless royal knights standing guard outside before he chased after his angry wife. ‘Damn it. What are the chances she overheard us?’
His answer came when Eleanora spun around to face him, her amber eyes practically dancing with rage as she offered him a ruthless smile that promised pain should he come any closer. “I’m sorry if I interrupted your very important conversation, your Majesty. I simply wanted to see what outfit you had selected so I might find something suitable to match.” Her burning gaze raked over his silver and white outfit with a look of evident scorn. “Unfortunately, white has never been my color. Perhaps your new consort will be a better partner for you tonight.”
“Elly, please. I can explain—”
Major Garrett cut suddenly in front of Nicholas just as he was about to reach the Crown Princess. The Crown Prince met the Major’s condemning glare with a warning scowl of his own.
‘Spare me your hypocritical disappointment. Tristan would have been forced to make the same choice were he in my shoes. I’ll bet he’s building his own harem up there in Ventrayna even as we speak!’
“Don’t you dare insult me by uttering a single pathetic excuse!” Eleanora growled as she stepped around the Major toward him.
“I’m not. I won’t,” Nicholas protested, stepping back with his hands raised. “I—I have a gift for you—in my room.”
The Crown Princess narrowed her eyes in bewilderment, disbelief turning sharply into suspicion as she echoed cynically, “A gift?”
Nicholas nodded, shifting uncertainly between advance and retreat. “Yes. It’s something special I brought to celebrate our last evening here. Can I show it to you?”
“I should—be getting ready for the ball,” Eleanora responded tiredly as she averted her gaze, her voice husky with anger and what Nicholas suspected were tears.
“It will only take a moment. I promise,” he murmured, inching forward until his fingers slid gently around the warm, sandalwood skin of her arm.
The Crown Princess’s angry glare snapped toward him as she jerked her arm away, then stormed off in the direction of his room. “Very well. Show me this gift!”
Somewhere between relieved and terrified, Nicholas followed, grateful that Viscount Norley had made himself scarce during the disruption. He snapped his fingers at a rather anxious Peyton, who thankfully grasped the situation and hurriedly pulled one of the treasury chests from the side dressing room.
Eleanora sat behind the office desk and scanned the documents left out from Marquess Borghese’s sentencing. Nicholas sucked in a slow breath as he watched the princess cross her legs, the thin draping of her silk burgundy changing gown slid open to reveal her long brown legs and slippers. He took his time, appreciating their shape and the way the sun seemed to glow against her skin. The golden chain on her right ankle caught his attention as her foot began to sway up and down in agitation.
Then the Crown Princess cleared her throat, pulling Nicholas’s gaze back up to her face where he enjoyed in equal measure her thick licorice-black hair, braided loosely down her shoulder, the fullness of her soft pink lips, and the brilliance of her sharp amber eyes that even now still held a glimmer of turmoil.
She was beautiful, and she was his.
“Your Majesty.” Peyton held out the medium size red oak box, which Nicholas accepted with careful reverence. He carried it over to the desk and set it down in front of Eleanora, who arched a brow inquisitively but remained silent.
“I thought you might wear this tonight when you address the nobles about donating to the orphanage charity,” Nicholas explained as he took the small golden key offered to him by the steward and unlocked the container. “This is a gift as well as a declaration of my commitment to you as Lafeara’s future Queen.”
He smiled as the Crown Princess’s foot froze and then dropped to the ground when he opened the box before her. The evening sun lit up the golden tiara shaped into the four folded wings of the phoenix, adorned by nearly a hundred blood-red diamonds ranging in size from a small kernel of corn to the most prominent centerpiece, as large as a child’s closed fist.
“This—this is—” Eleanora breathed out nervously as she touched the pillow upon which the stunning diadem rested.
“The Phoenix Crown that my father had made for Queen Catalina Karmine,” Nicholas finished, his shoulders relaxing beneath an internal sigh of relief as the Crown Princess stared at the tiara, mesmerized. “It was locked away in the royal treasury after her death—and now it is yours.”
‘Not even my mother was permitted to touch it—or anything else that once belonged to Henri’s favorite wife.’
“You—want me—to wear this?”
Nicholas chuckled as he nudged the box towards her. “Eleanora, you are my Crown Princess, and this is the crown of a Queen. I think the nobles will get the message if you wear it to the ball tonight.”
Her amber eyes narrowed slightly as they finally rose to his. “All this time, you’ve been taunting me and pushing me—”
“And I’ve seen how much you’ve changed for the better these last few days. You put your pride aside to mend your relationship with Lady Kirsi, and you’ve been on relatively good behavior around the nobles.” The Crown Prince reached out carefully for her hand, which he clasped and brought to his lips. “There’s a lot we both still need to accomplish before either of us can sit safely on the throne, but there is no one I’d rather fight this battle with than you, Elly.”
He observed her silently, enjoying the way her emotions always played out so honestly on her face.
“And Lady Priscilla?” Eleanora pressed through gritted teeth.
“No consort will ever be able to challenge a Queen,” Nicholas replied smoothly as he leaned against the desk beside her. “And I believe that you’re more than capable of keeping someone like Priscilla in line.”
The Crown Princess pulled her hand away as her jaw clenched. Her gaze returned to the dazzling Phoenix Crown with a look of uncertainty.
“I know this isn’t the marriage you envisioned with Tristan,” Nicholas whispered, resenting the words even as they left his lips before he moved slowly to kneel at her feet. “And I’m sorry that, as a husband, I lack the strength to spare you the hardship that comes with being the ruler of a small kingdom.”
Eleanora stared down at him, mystified, then shook her head and folded her arms as she stared into the large red diamond. “So, you want me to accept Priscilla as your consort?”
“It won’t happen until after the coronation, but yes—I believe accepting Priscilla as my first consort will help us keep the Royal Faction happy and on our side.” He rested his right hand around her right ankle and teased his thumb beneath the golden chain. “Once you are Queen, both of the factions will try their best to win you over to their side politically.”
She shifted restlessly but refused to look his way. “Assuming the Royal Faction doesn’t try to kill me first.”
“The Royal Faction doesn’t want a war with the Emperor any more than I do,” Nicholas reiterated with a hint of exasperation as he released the anklet chain and slid his hand up her warm, smooth skin.
“Yes, I’m well aware of the conditions that forced you to marry me!” Eleanora snapped back as she uncrossed her legs, knocking his hand away with a dangerous glare.
“That’s—” The Crown Prince raised his hands in mocking surrender as he rose to his feet. “Eleanora, what will it take for us to work together as partners? Because the longer we fight this marriage, the more others will see it as an opportunity to interfere.”
“You want to know what it will take?” The Crown Princess rose to her feet, forcing him to step back as she firmly closed the crown case. “I want you to promise that no matter how many consorts you take in to keep your reign secured, none of them will ever threaten my crown or position as Queen. Do that—and we can forge a peaceful alliance of mutual support in place of a marriage.”
“Elly,” Nicholas growled as he circled around to pin her against the desk. “I think we both know that there is more involved in securing your crown than maintaining a peaceful alliance between us.”
Her eyes glared daggers as he reached down to tug open the fold of her thin gown. “What are you doing?”
“Our coronation is in a week,” Nicholas replied, pushing her against the desk. “Priscilla is pushing for a short one-month-long engagement, but the Prime Minister and I agree that waiting a minimum of three months would be safer. However long we can manage to delay this, the Royal Faction is bound to use that time to strengthen Priscilla’s position among the people, so—” He leaned in to kiss her lips, enjoying their sweet fullness as he grabbed her waist and lifted the Crown Princess onto the desk. “I’d like to put a baby in you before that happens. An heir that would secure both our reigns and Lafeara’s peaceful alliance with the Emperor.”
“Because you know the Emperor would take it as an insult if you got a consort pregnant before me?” Eleanora pointed out cynically as she pushed him back firmly with a hand to his chest.
The Crown Prince smiled, then shot the frozen royal steward a glare. “I’m a bit more concerned about you getting jealous and pushing Priscilla down a flight of stairs.” Peyton glanced at the royal treasure directly behind the royal couple but wisely exited the room, followed swiftly by Beaumont, who closed the door while keeping his gaze averted.
“And why would I be jealous of that pale-skinned, doltish, simpering girl?”
“I can think of absolutely no reason,” Nicholas growled as he pulled her hand toward his stiffening manhood.
“I still have to get ready for the Masquerade Ball, your Majesty.”
“There’s plenty of time for that,” Nicholas murmured, nudging her legs open as he leaned in to kiss her again. “And—as our subjects—the least they can do—is wait.”