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Chapter 54: A Note of Resistance

 

“Announcing, his Majesty, Crown Prince Nicholas Havardur, and her Highness, Crown Princess Eleanora!”

Nicholas smiled as the thrum of voices, footsteps, and swish of silk and lace skirts all turned in their direction before falling silent. He turned to glance at his partner as Eleanora’s grip on his hand stiffened. The Crown Princess’s cheeks were still faintly flushed from their earlier activities, and she looked radiant in her high-neck formal black gown embroidered from head to toe in golden flowers that seemed to drip tears or nectar onto the closed white petals of smaller flowers that bloomed along the hem of the skirt. As much as the Crown Prince appreciated the curious design, his gaze was more drawn to how the mid-drift section of the dress tapered down tightly, hugging her sensuous hips before the open slit halfway up her thigh offered more flexibility and movement.

“I see your designer is becoming more daring by the day. Is this dress her influence or yours?” Nicholas whispered as he wrapped her hand around his arm before proceeding into the ballroom. He smiled at Eleanora’s focused steps beside him. The Crown Princess seemed very conscious of the Phoenix Crown she wore, which pulled the gaze of nearly every noble in the room toward her.

“Both?” Eleanora whispered, managing to respond while simultaneously moving her lips into a smile to greet their audience. “She sent me a pamphlet, and I chose the designs I liked and suggested some ideas for patterns—although that was before I met Lady Aconitum in person.”

“Why on earth did she have to use an alias?” Nicholas murmured absently. “Being a designer chosen by the Crown Princess seems like a suitable profession for any noble lady, let alone one from an untitled family.”

“You really know nothing about her,” Eleanora retorted, mystified. “And yet you made her a Duchess.”

“I know enough.” The Crown Prince smiled and nodded as various nobles stepped forward to bow and congratulate him again on his prize. His hazel-blue eyes drifted over their heads to where the Silver Stag’s antlers gleamed beneath the ball chandeliers. His fears of the hunt ending in either disappointment or disaster now seemed but a distant memory as he reveled in his success—minus one or two irregularities.

“By the way,” Eleanora murmured as they turned to join Viscount Rykard and Duchess Kirsi, who waited by the refreshment table. “Where is your giant shadow?”

“Hmm?” Nicholas blinked, then realized her meaning as the Crown Princess glanced back toward Lieutenant Olund, who followed them alongside Lady Evelynn. “Oh, Captain Beaumont. He’ll be down soon. Acheron is getting him all prepared.”

“Prepared—for what—exactly?” Eleanora pressed, narrowing her beautiful amber eyes suspiciously.

“That is a surprise you will have to enjoy with everyone else here,” he returned, grinning slyly, before composing himself as they greeted their host. “Viscount Gilwren.”

“Your Majesties,” Rykard returned with a deep bow mimicked by the nobles and ladies around him, save Lady Kirsi, whose shallow curtsey and dipped head met the minimum requirement expected from one of her station.

‘At least she remembered to greet us this time.’

“Are we all here?” the Crown Prince asked, motioning for them all to rise.

“Well—” Rykard glanced worriedly in the direction of Earl Coldwell and Viscount Norley, who lingered by the door as if waiting for someone.

“Now, now, Viscount,” Nicholas said with mock reproach, “We’ve made our guests wait long enough. Let the first dance begin!”

The Viscount bowed his head and then turned to signal the orchestra with a permissive nod. The tempo changed to the more lively melody of a waltz as the Crown Prince and Princess moved together into the center of the room to officially open the ball with its first dance.

The nobles retreated to the outskirts of the room at a leisurely pace, already gossipping behind their gloved hands and fans.

“I think they got the message,” Nicholas whispered, even as Eleanora nervously touched the heavy crown on her head.

“Are you sure it’s safe to dance in this?”

“You’ll be fine.”

“But what if—”

“Announcing her ladyship, Lady Priscilla Borghese,” the courier at the door cried out with some degree of hesitation.

“What the devil?” Nicholas murmured as he turned to where the nobles hastily parted around the door.

“Of course, she would show up late just to upstage us,” Eleanora muttered under her breath, rolling her eyes as she turned her attention to where Priscilla stood beneath the candlelight in a champaign golden gown adorned with silk white roses that glittered with diamonds. She wore a similar crown of white roses on her head, complete with a veil that fell around her loose strawberry-blonde locks, swept up in a flattering braid that cascaded down her back. “Did she actually come here dressed as a—”

Nicholas quickly took the Crown Princess’s left hand and spun Eleanora back into his arms with a wink. “Ignore her. Priscilla’s not a consort yet. Why should you pay any attention to her now?”

“But I thought—”

“The crown is on your head, not hers. A queen waits for no one.”

“Not even a King?”

He pulled her wrist to his lips with a wink. “I’m the one waiting for you to dance with me, Elly.”

Eleanora’s lips twitched with amusement as she allowed him to pull her right hand to his shoulder. His left hand then moved to her back, grazing against the fabric above her spine to rest just beneath her right shoulder blade. Nicholas’s lips moved into an inaudible count, giving her plenty of time to mentally prepare before he guided Eleanora into the first steps of the waltz.

The nobles applauded, their attention now focused on the royal couple as Earl Coldwell stepped forward to offer a disconcerted Priscilla his arm before escorting her around the room to greet the other members of the Royal Faction.

❆❆❆❆❆

“I don’t know how they do it,” Viscount Gladestone commented as he and the Prime Minister moved to join Carina and Lord Rykard. “How do you go from hating each other one moment to being nearly perfectly in sync the next?”

“They are trying,” Attwood commented with a heavy sigh. “That’s all that matters.” He waved away the tray of alcohol as a servant paused to refresh their glasses, then scanned the room worriedly. “Has anyone seen that troublesome son of mine?” The nobles, knights, and ladies present all exchanged glances, and Attwood closed his eyes with another weary sigh. “When will that boy grow up?”

Carina shook her head with a faint twinge of sympathy as the Prime Minister broke away to circle the ballroom toward the exit. She turned to watch the royal couple as they continued their waltz. The smiles on their faces seemed genuine, almost as if they were truly learning to care about each other, which only made the events of Maura’s timeline all the more painful to consider.

‘It was Lieutenant Leo who broke into Rose Palace to arrest Eleanora, but for what reason? And was it the Dowager who sent him or the Royal Party? It can’t be both, not when Octavia played such a vital role in Borghese’s downfall—unless that is something I altered by pushing Nicholas to investigate the Marquess?’

The Duchess’s fingers move restlessly over the broach clutched in her hand. Another burning question to add to the nest of uncertainty buzzing inside her skull. She started as a fan tapped her arm and turned to face a beaming Serilda, who had joined them, accompanied by Lord Eustice.

“You seem distracted, your Grace.”

“Sorry, Lady Serilda,” Carina murmured apologetically, blinking as she took in the Marchioness’s dress. “You look—quite stunning.”

“Of course, you would say that, it’s your design,” Serilda deflected, coyly hiding behind her fan as she turned to survey the royal couple beside the Duchess. “Tell me, Lady Aconitum, how does it feel to stand in a room where the Crown Princess and half the nobles are wearing gowns inspired by you?”

“It feels like the boutique should be more selective in who they sell my designs to.”

The Marchioness snorted, then laughed, the melodic sound drawing the attention of several nearby noblemen, who turned their admiring gaze towards the group of finely dressed ladies. “I hope my name remains on the lists of those permitted to visit your stores.”

The Duchess smiled, clutching Viktor’s broach as she turned to face the pureblood squarely. “My doors are always open to friends.”

The Marchioness smiled in return as her moss-agate green eyes slid toward the Duchess with a glimmer of understanding. “And your enemies?”

“My enemies can force their way through to their own detriment.”

Serilda chuckled as she closed her fan slowly and tapped it lightly against her chin. “And what about those who stand somewhere in between?”

Carina arched a brow, suspecting there was more to the pureblood’s question than mere playfulness. “What would you do, Lady Serilda?”

The Marchioness tilted her head thoughtfully as her unfocused eyes turned to span the room until they settled upon Earl Hawthorne, who watched them from a distance. She quickly averted her gaze before smiling at the Duchess. “I think it is preferable to have more friends than enemies. So I would remain neutral and helpful as long as I do not expose myself or those I care about to harm.”

“That sounds like a good answer.”

The Marchioness’s dazzling green eyes focused intently on Carina as she offered the Duchess a curious smile. “Normally, I would suggest that women of our background should stick together. But what a shame—” Serilda circled the ice witch, leaning towards Carina’s ears as she brushed past, “—I fear you will bring a great deal of pain to those I love.”

❆❆❆❆❆

Nicholas smiled at Eleanora’s shaky sigh of relief as the couple finished their dance. “So?” He teased.

“It’s not a terrible Lafearian tradition,” she admitted, reapplying her smile as they parted to face the applause of the nobles. “But it is awfully slow and tedious. Though anything faster and this crown would have ripped half my hair out.”

“You did well,” Nicholas replied, struggling to contain his laughter. He kept his hand on the small of her back as he guided the Crown Princess over to the roped-off chairs. “Unfortunately, we only get the floor to ourselves for the first and last dance of the evening, and I’m not sure I trust your footwork when there are other dancers around.”

“My footwork is fine. Dodging is a part of the Ventrayna sword style. Besides,” she offered him an arched brow of reproach, “Aren’t you supposed to be leading me.”

“Well—I do try,” he murmured dryly, holding her hand as the Crown Princess turned to take her seat. “Refreshments?”

“Yes, Lady Evelynn!” Eleanora turned to where her lady-in-waiting stood near the edge of the rope. “Some wine.”

“Some champagne first, for both of us,” Nicholas amended with a nod to the attendant. “It is a celebration, after all.” He almost felt sorry for Acheron’s betrothed as Evelynn’s expression twisted between panic and frustration as her gaze darted between the royal couple frantically.

“Fine, champagne,” Eleanora relented with a sigh, dismissing the girl with a wave.

“You should get more ladies-in-waiting. That one looks ready for a nervous breakdown at any moment.”

The Crown Princess narrowed her eyes as she watched the attendant weave her way through the crowd towards the refreshment. “You’re right. And Lady Evelynn will need time away to plan her wedding too, I suppose.” She sighed, leaning back to rub her temple. “But the last selection was stressful enough.”

“That’s because Grandmother made such an ordeal out of it,” Nicholas responded encouragingly. “Now that you have experience with what is required, you can handle the process and make it as simple as you like. Just—nothing dangerous, Elly.”

Eleanora scoffed as she cast him a scornful look, but a moment later, her eyes were practically glittering with mischief as she hastily covered a smile with her fan.

‘Right… Maybe I should have Octavia step in just to establish some basic ground rules for safety.’

The Crown Prince took his seat, tapping his fingers impatiently against the armrest as he glanced towards the ballroom door, searching for his two missing companions.

‘How is it possible for one man to take this long to get ready?’

His hazel-blue eyes lit up hopefully as Attwood reappeared. The Prime Minister looked flustered and bemused as he circled the dance floor, already filling with couples waiting impatiently for Viscount Gilwren to signal the second dance.

“Your Majesty,” Attwood whispered, skirting awkwardly between the rope and Lieutenant Olund standing guard.

“Did you find them?”

The Prime Minister’s steel-blue eyes narrowed in suspicion. “So, you did have a hand in this?”

“I’m just providing an old friend with a bit of help,” Nicholas responded quickly with a sheepish grin. “Are they ready?”

“They are here, and Beaumont certainly looks—different but—”

“Excellent!” The Crown Prince waved his advisor to the side as he half-rose from his seat, scanning the ballroom door until Acheron’s head peeped into view. The Rogue sent him a flourishing hand gesture they had not used since childhood, and Nicholas quickly gave him the go-ahead signal before sitting back down on the edge of his seat.

“What—are you up to?” Eleanora asked, noting the Crown Prince’s odd behavior and quickly glancing toward the corner of the room where Priscilla sulked between Lord Norley and Earl Coldwell.

“Nothing,” the Crown Prince deflected with a malicious grin. “Just reminding these bastards who’s King.”

❆❆❆❆❆

Priscilla nursed her champagne, forcing a smile despite the looks and whispers that seemed to swell around her, none of them positive.

“This may very well be the last ball Lady Priscilla attends, poor thing. Honestly, I’m surprised she even dared to come out in public so soon after her father’s arrest.”

“They say the Marquess—I mean, Lord Borghese is still being held prisoner in the barn alongside the animals. Can you imagine?”

“I hear he has to eat his meal from the trough with his bare hands!”

“Good! I can’t imagine being linked to someone who does that sort of thing to children. The thought absolutely turns my stomach.”

“It’s not as if Marquess Borghese participated in the act. All he’s guilty of is covering the debts for loans ignorant commoners take out to feed their gambling addiction!”

“Buying children as slaves is one thing. Selling them to be used as—” the noblewoman glanced around before whispering loudly, “—child prostitutes?!”

“Shocking!”

“My father told me that the Borghese family has a history of mixing their legitimate businesses with the black market. Their downfall has been a long time coming. Why, they’ll be lucky to keep their ancestral lands once this is all over.”

“Still, I wouldn’t count the Borghese’s out for good. Priscilla is Duke Hargreve’s niece, after all. And look, she has Earl Coldwell and that Viscount sent by the Duke to keep her safe.”

“It must be nice. Say, since she and Lord Acheron are the only legitimate nephew and niece of the Duke, doesn’t that mean they stand an equal chance of inheriting the Dukedom since Duchess Verity is rumored to be barren?”

“Nonsense. It will be one of the Duke’s bastards. Everyone knows that.”

“Why choose a bastard over a legitimate nephew? Lord Acheron is the most natural choice.”

“I know, right? It makes me rather envious of Lady Evelynn. Despite being engaged to a notorious rogue, she just might end up a Duchess. That would certainly turn around her family’s current financial struggles.”

“Not to mention the embarrassment of her one-sided engagement to Earl Hawthorne. That lucky girl got jilted and still managed to trap Hargreve’s legitimate heir as a husband.”

“At least that means Earl Percy Hawthorne is still available.”

“You can’t seriously be considering him? You know what they say about the Hawthornes.”

“True, but with a face like that, I wouldn’t mind being bewitched.”

“But—isn’t he bewitched by the Duchess at the moment?”

“Right,” the woman giggled nervously. “I suppose there are other eligible, safer men to consider.”

“Like Earl Chase Coldwell?”

“Hmm. I suppose being a Countess would balance out his age, thin hairline, and boorish conversation.”

Priscilla rolled her eyes and quickly raised her drink. Only a day ago, she would have thrashed these hussies for even daring to mention her family name. ‘I’ll just remember their faces for when I become a Royal Consort. So you want to gossip about me? Well, you can spend the rest of your lives gossipping in misery while married to the old, ugly men I’ll arrange for you.’

She blinked as the last drop of champagne trickled against her tongue, then sighed and glanced about for a servant before giving up and setting the glass on the edge of the pillar holding a pot of red hydrangeas. “I’m bored, and I’m suffocating,” she whined as Lord Norley glanced in her direction.

“Just stay put. It would be best to keep a low profile until your public image and position are secure. I’ll take you to his Majesty once the second dance ends.”

Priscilla pouted and chewed her bottom lip anxiously as she tried to find a comfortable position that would prevent her corset from pinching her waist. The loud voice of the courtier booming from the entry door soon drew their attention to the tall, handsome man with pale-blonde hair, who entered the ballroom dressed in a striking tailcoat of purple regal leaves embroidered on black silk.

“Announcing, Captain Beaumont Hargreve.”

“What the devil?” Norley growled, straightening and blocking Priscilla’s view of the imposing knight.

“Why the hell are they introducing that bastard with the Duke’s name?” Coldwell echoed in a tense whisper as the ballroom settled into stunned silence.

The Knight Captain glared over his shoulder to where a grinning Lord Acheron could be seen, giving what looked like an encouraging thumbs up as he hugged the giant sword the king’s shadow always carried with him. With a resigned sigh, Beaumont rolled his shoulders back and marched through the middle of the floor, parting the sea of nobles before him, his head always clearly visible even above the enormous feathers worn by some of the older women.

The Crown Prince smiled at his bodyguard’s approach while the Crown Princess merely raised a brow as she studied her husband curiously. When the Knight Captain came to a stop before the seated royal couple, he bowed his head in greeting and then—to the surprise of all—knelt to the floor before Nicholas.

“What is the prince doing?” Coldwell fussed tensely, rubbing his hands together anxiously as he bobbed up and down, attempting to gain a better vantage point.

Priscilla also rose from her seat and glanced towards the oddly quiet Viscount. Norely stared in the kneeling knight’s direction with an expression somewhere between a laugh and a snarl. She shivered, inching away from him before returning her focus to whatever spectacle lay ahead.

The Crown Prince had left his seat and now stood at the edge of the small platform above his kneeling knight. Nicholas then raised his gaze to the audience around them, offering a reassuring smile as he clasped his hands and addressed them all.

“My Lords and Ladies, I’m afraid the dance you’re all waiting for has been momentarily delayed due to a very special circumstance I wish to share with you all this evening. Today, I recognize the years of service, loyalty, sacrifice, and hard work of the man who kneels before me. A Captain among men and a truer friend than I could ever ask for. He has been my shadow, my protection, and a true knight, ready and willing to stand in the face of danger for his country and his King.”

The Crown Prince turned and nodded to the royal clerk waiting behind Lieutenant Olund. The clerk promptly stepped forward, opening the flat velvet case he carried and presenting a familiar chain of office which Nicholas lifted free.

“In acknowledgment of all those years of service, both on the battlefield and here at my side, I have decided to honor Captain Beaumont Hargreve, son of Duke Stryker Hargreve, with the title of Marquess and the lands of Brigovia. I have complete trust in his stewardship and his ability to exorcise the corruption that has grown within those lands these past ten years.”

An audible gasp rippled through the room as Nicholas placed the chain of office around Beaumont’s broad shoulders.

Priscilla’s fan fell from her numb fingers. Her chest tightened in disbelief as her lips sputtered soundlessly in protest. ‘A bastard is taking Brigovia? Nicholas is giving my father’s lands and title—to a fucking bodyguard?’

The sound of glass shattering to her left caused both Priscilla and Lord Coldwell to jump in surprise. They both gaped at the broken champagne glass clutched in Norley’s hands. The Viscount blinked, the momentary look of rage fading from his features as he stared down at the blood dripping from the cuts along his hand and fingers.

“My lord!” Coldwell hissed anxiously as he yanked a handkerchief from his pocket and hastily moved to bandage the Viscount’s wounded hand, tossing the broken glass towards the approaching servants who supplied a towel while cleaning up the mess.

“It seems I must depart immediately to inform the Duke of this great honor,” Norley growled, barely flinching as Coldwell pulled a few shards of glass from his palm.

“You should get this looked at first and use my messenger bird if necessary. It will reach the Duke faster than any man on a horse.”

“I shall, thank you, Lord Chase,” Norley murmured, his anger dissipating even as a dark chuckle slid past his lips. “I should have seen this coming.”

“It’s not a complete disaster,” Coldwell reasoned as he wrapped and tied the handkerchief. “Beaumont can well be considered one of ours.”

The Viscount shook his head and grimaced as he flexed his injured limb. “Have you never considered why, despite all Beaumont’s achievements, victories, and merits, the Duke has never personally acknowledged or assisted him beyond his early years training as a knight?”

“Well—” Coldwell hesitated, glancing to where the Knight Captain now stood, towering above the nobles around him, even as he bowed his head to the Crown Prince. “I assumed that was due to some resentment from Duchess Verity, considering he was the first bastard the Duke brought home from war.”

“The Duke takes pride in all his bastards, regardless of Lady Verity’s opinions on the matter. He has never acknowledged Beaumont because there are no blood ties between them.”

“What?” Priscilla and Coldwell blurted out in the same breath.

“Lord Stryker was bewitched by a Tharyian priestess that he took prisoner more than twenty years ago. He brought back the witch and her child and kept the priestess as a mistress until she died of illness. Despite the bastard not being his, the Duke never corrected the rumors of Beaumont being his son.”

“But why—” Coldwell shook his head, “—why keep the boy? Surely he had multiple opportunities to send the bastard back to the mountains.”

“Even in death, that witch still had a powerful grip on him,” Norley muttered darkly. “By the time Lord Stryker was free of her will, Beaumont was already in service to the crown. To admit his deception at such a crucial time, when the Captain was already lauded as a war hero by the Duke’s own men, seemed inadvisable.”

“No wonder my aunt never liked him,” Priscilla murmured, the rage of her family’s loss stung all the more beneath this insulting reveal.

“Yes. Once Duchess Verity learned the truth, she resented Beaumont more than any of the Duke’s other bastards. For a war orphan with the pagan blood of Tharyians running through his veins to pretend to be the son of a Duke—was unforgivable.”

“Then—is the Crown Prince aware of this?” Coldwell asked cautiously.

“That I cannot say. But given how freely he handed Bastaliano over to a witch, what little difference does the title of Marquess mean?”

“It matters because Brigovia belongs to the Hargreve territory!” The Earl shook his head, his hand trembling slightly as he wiped the blood from his fingers onto the towel.

“Yes, Nicholas has taken advantage of Lord Stryker’s absence and the Marquess’s rapid fall to force his knight into the heart of the Duke’s territory.” Norley shook his head, letting out another dark chuckle as he rubbed the scar beneath his left ear. “It seems our future King has just declared war on the Hargreve family.”

 


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