Chapter Twenty Nine
“What happened?” Leopold asked, in a tone that indicated he would brook no further arguments or delaying tactics.
Felip hesitated for a brief moment, taking the time to stir sugar into his tea. He settled in his chair, bracing himself for the coming onslaught. “Where would you like us to begin?”
We were sitting very nearly in a circle, strewn around a tight cluster of sofas and chairs in one of the more private salons. Even so, it felt as if Leopold stood alone, apart from the group, almost in opposition. Leopold leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees with the ropes of muscle in his upper arms taunt beneath the sleeves of his tshirt. “Yesterday it was mentioned that Fred went to Arcadis,” he prompted.
“Yes, I did,” I replied before anyone else had the chance to do so for me. “The day of Guillaume’s funeral.”
“And why was it decided that you should go?”
“I agreed to go; I wanted to,” I reminded him, but Leopold wasn’t paying attention. His eyes flickered expectantly between Felip, Hector, and Remi.
Felip sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose, he admitted bluntly, “Her presence was already expected, it was a simple way for us to get in.”
A muscle in Leopold’s jaw jumped and he licked his lips before responding, “For what purpose?”
“You remember Antoine giving Winifred Queen Winifred’s necklace?” Hector asked. He leaned forward and passed something to Leopold. “Well, he gave her this figurine at Guillaume’s funeral. It is also from the lost collection of Sinclair artifacts.”
Leopold turned the tiny doll-like figure around in his palm, frowning down at it. He closed his fist around the little statuette. “You suspected that they were up to something?”
Remi spoke this time, his tone and expression as stoney as ever. “There was enough evidence at this point for us to believe that Antoine and Richard may have been involved in illegal dealings. We knew that they had displayed some suspicious behaviors before the accident and that Antoine was the individual responsible for administering your examination. It was enough to encourage our previous suspicions that Richard and Antoine were attempting to sabotage the DuMont family.”
Leopold’s lips pressed into a fine line, “So you suspected that they were involved in an attempt to murder me?”
“Yes, we thought it was a possibility,” Felip confirmed. He was holding his son’s gaze, defiantly holding his ground against the palpable anger that was slowly building. The air was thick with it, like humidity hanging heavy and low before a summer storm.
“And your best idea was to let Fred go after them?” Leopold said, his voice like steel. He pushed himself up, moving to stand behind me.
“It was the best option we had. Everything was all set for her to go,” Felip explained, taking a sip of his tea. “We did not have strong enough physical evidence to make a claim against them, Leopold.”
“So you sent my fiancée to lie down and sleep next to them?” Leopold’s voice was low and deadly.
“We needed more evidence,” Remi cut in. He had shifted closer to Felip, muscles tight as his eyes tracked Leopold’s movements. “We thought that Mademoiselle might be able to procure some evidence we could use against them, whether it be surrounding your accident or illegal dealings with the lost artifacts.”
“That still does not justify what you did,” Leopold turned to Hector, eyes flashing. “I trusted you to keep her safe.”
Hector deflated, as if he’d taken a blow. His face darkened slightly, sobering. “You know I wouldn’t have agreed if I didn’t think it was okay, if it wasn’t safe.”
“How is anything about it safe? You were all just thinking of yourselves. What risk is the fate of one girl compared to an entire monarchy?”
I sat frozen in my chair, too shocked to move. I knew that Leopold was going to be mad, but I thought it would be about us keeping things from him, not about the fact that I personally had gone. I hadn’t expected him to defend me so vehemently.
Hector stood now too, “I’ve already been through that battle, Leopold, you know where I stand. I would never have let Winifred go if I thought she would have gotten hurt. They can’t harm her, brother.”
“How can you know that for sure?” Leopold demanded. “You had nothing to base any of this off of. Nothing you were sure of.”
“Leopold,” Felip warned, “the situation was handled as best as it could be at the time. We could not let our emotions interfere with the welfare of the country. As much as we did not want to accept that you might not make a full recovery, we had to have contingency plans, not just for Solis, but also for Winifred. Should you not be able to marry her, she no longer is allowed to return home, since she is to be Queen of Arcadis. We love her too much to allow those unscrupulous and ruthless scoundrels to make her their pawn. If Antoine married her, the two would control both countries. Once this occurred, they would no longer need her and she could potentially be in danger. They have shown that they will do anything to get what they want, even murder. Your recovery just makes you the current primary target.”
“Exactly, they need Fred safe and unmarried if they want their plan to work,” Emmet cut in, gesturing toward me. “Why would they hurt her now?”
The room fell into silence, the men looking back and forth amongst each other. I could hear Leopold’s carefully measured breaths behind me and felt the back of my chair shift as his fist clenched around the frame. “You would have done the same,” I said quietly.
“Pardon?” Leopold spoke just as quietly, but twice as deadly.
Hector sat back down on the edge of his chair, eyes still on his brother.
I cleared my throat, pivoting in my seat so that I could look up at Leopold. He towered over me and our group, looming over us, as mighty Zeus watching the world from atop a thundercloud. “You would have done the same for me,” I repeated, voice stronger this time. Leopold didn’t deny me, didn’t interrupt, so I continued. “They are right. Me going to Arcadis was the best option that we had to get evidence that we could hold against Antoine and Richard. It was the only thing I could do that could help you and your family. I had to do it.”
“There should have been another way,” Leopold fought back.
“No other option that wouldn’t have tipped them off that we were on to them. Besides, I was in no danger, really, other than dying of boredom. Antoine wants to marry me, not kill me. The Arcadian Liberation doesn’t go through unless I am involved.”
Leopold let out a long breath. He pushed off the back of my chair, running a hand across his hair as he started to pace. “What did you find then?” he allowed, after a minute.
Hector sat back down in his chair. “That is sort of the problem. There was nothing there. They had so much of the castle locked down that Winifred was more or less confined to her suites.”
A muscled in Edwards jaw feathered but he ground his teeth, bitting back his words.
“I had just started to figure out how to use the service tunnels and get outside when I was called back here,” I explained.
“Antoine and Richard did nothing suspicious?” Leopold asked.
“They were barely there. I was left alone with two creepy servants most days. The only strange thing was that Beaucage had a meeting with Antoine at the castle.”
“Governor Beaucage?” Leopold repeated and frowned. He stopped his pacing, perching instead on the arm of my chair.
Hector reached for the tray of tea on the coffee table. He poured some for himself before refilling Felip’s cup as well. “We were hoping you would be able to give us more information when you woke up. We still have nothing that can firmly be used against them besides our word against theirs.”
“So you want us to go to Arcadis and see if we can finish the job? Catch them in the act this time?” Leopold asked.
“No,” Felip denied instantly. “I do not want either of you going back, but I think that Winifred must go. She cannot turn down meeting the President of France without attracting suspicion.”
“I must go with her,” Leopold countered. “There is no need for her to go alone now. Besides, if it is me they are after, maybe my presence can force their hand further.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Hector said, holding up the teapot in offering. I shook my head. Hector shrugged, “You’re not going to sacrifice yourself, Leopold.” Hector paused before carefully admitting, “Besides, you can’t be seen, especially not by Antoine and Richard.”
“You didn’t,” Leopold groaned after a moment, understanding why he was taken home from the castle dressed as a security guard.
It was Felip’s turn to shrug.
“You’re letting the whole planet think that I am still on my death bed?” Leopold shook his head, exasperated.
“Better than you actually being dead,” Hector countered.
“We needed time for you to heal and to regroup,” said Felip. “I will not have threats such as this following you around for the rest of your life. We must find a solution now.”
“When’s the party?” I asked, hoping to bring everyone back together. We needed to form a plan.
“In three days,” Felip replied, pointing to the invitation on the tea tray.
I picked it up and quickly scanned the swirling font. “It’s a masquerade ball?”
“There will be meetings as well, but yes, the main event of the weekend is the ball,” Felip explained.
“We have been sent the full itinerary to work with,” Remi added.
Leopold scoffed, “How cute.”
“This meeting will secure Arcadis’s liberation from the French and the reinstitution of the monarchy,” Felip reminded, gently chiding Leopold. “Winifred will primarily be working.”
“That will leave me with plenty of time to look around then,” Leopold retorted.
“You’re not going,” Hector reminded him.
“Yes, I am,” Leopold replied. “If Fred goes, I go. She will not be attending alone.”
“We can not have them recognize you,” Remi said.
“You snuck me out of the hospital, you can get me into a party,” Leopold challenged.
The room fell into silence, everyone turning to Felip. The King sighed and ran a hand through his hair. He put town his teacup. “You are going to need Phillipa and Hector’s help in order for you both to be prepared on time.”
Hector shook his head, but smiled up at Leopold. Remi had pulled his phone out of his pocket and started typing away on the screen, presumably setting in motion arrangements for the King’s plans.
“Thank you,” Leopold inclined his head towards his father.
“Just be careful,” Felip warned. “I am going to do some further investigation once you go. There may be some leads in some of the information you gave us. I will keep both of you informed should we find anything of significance while you are gone.”
“First things first,” Phillipa announced as she strolled into Leopold’s room with Hector close behind her. She stopped at the foot of the bed, looking down at her twin. “We need to make you unrecognizable.” Hector stood beside her, holding a paper bag in one hand and a file folder in the other. Leopold, who had been half asleep, groaned and pushed himself upright, rubbing at his eyes blearily.
“Come on,” Phillipa chirped. She took the paper bag from Hector and disappeared into the bathroom. “Don’t worry,” she told me as she passed the sofa, “you will have your turn next.”
Leopold held his hand out to me as he trudged by. I put down the book I had been reading and let him lead me into the bathroom.
“Let’s have a look at you,” Phillipa announced. She took Leopold’s arm, pulling him to the center of the bathroom. I released my hold on him and went to the counter, jumping up to sit on the marble. Hector looked on, bemused, from his spot perched on the edge of the tub, while Phillipa circled Leopold, predatorily.
“Yes, I think this will work just fine,” Phillipa decided after a moment.
“What will work?” Leopold asked, a little uncertain.
Phillipa opened the paper bag and pulled out a little box. “Hair dye.” Leopold raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms over his chest. Phillipa rolled her eyes. “We have to make sure no one will know it’s you. Your hair is too distinctive. At first, I thought we could just shave it off again, but realized that the scars may lead to some questions. We have to dye it.” She pointed towards the sink. Leopold said nothing but did as he was told. He bent over the basin, arms braced on either side. Phillipa smiled and emptied the contents of the box out onto the counter. “It’s a good thing that you haven’t shaved for a while,” she said, mixing the dye. “A little bit of facial hair will work in our favor.”
“So will your new eyes,” Hector added softy from the bath.
“What exactly is the plan?” I asked.
Phillipa stood on her tiptoes as she squeezed a glob of inky dye onto the back of Leopold’s head. “It seems that the royal guard thing went so well last time, that it was decided to keep with it.”
Hector lowered himself into the empty tub and opened the file, resting it in his lap. “Leopold is going to pose as one of your security guards. It is not unusual that we would send more guards to go with you at such a public event. We can also claim that we are upping your security detail due to Leopold’s unknown status.”
“So I should pretend like he’s still not doing well?” I verified.
“Correct,” Hector confirmed. “According to you, Leopold is still in the hospital and we are starting to lose hope that he will recover. You must be sure to make it clear to them that you still intend to become Queen of Arcadis even if you are unable to marry Leopold.”
I swallowed thickly. “I can do that.”
“The masquerade is the main event of the weekend,” Hector continued, “but it is the last event. Day one and two will consist mainly of meetings to officialize Acadian liberation. Fred, you will be expected to be present at all of these as well as all meals. Richard will complete the negotiations for you. He will still be under the belief that anything that is decided in the meetings will be for his eventual benefit, so you have no need to worry about him sabotaging the deals with the French. All you have to do is be present and do everything that you have been taught.”
“How am I supposed find information when I am stuck in meetings?” I asked, slightly deflated.
“You won’t. You need to concentrate on making the weekend and the agreement run smoothly. You are the distraction,” Hector said. “Hopefully one of Felip new leads will turn something up.”
“Twenty minutes,” Phillipa said, tapping Leopold on the shoulder. He straightened and turned, leaning on the counter beside me.
“We will be on the look out as well,” Leopold said. “One of the guards may see or overhear something during the weekend that you might miss. We will have access to different parts of the palace than you.”
“That doesn’t mean you should go looking for trouble,” Phillipa warned, looking pointedly at Leopold as she washed her hands.
“If everything goes well, the masquerade will act as the big unfolding of the announcement of Arcadian liberation from France. It will be the first public unveiling of the intent to have Winifred instated as the future Queen of Free Arcadis,” Hector explained. “The Acadian people have been waiting for this day for centuries. Nothing must interfere with the completion of the contract.”
“Understood,” Leopold said as I nodded. The importance of the whole thing was really starting to hit me. Not only were we going to be trying to take down attempted murderers, we were also trying to win a country back their freedom.
“Now for the ball,” said Phillipa. “Mme. DuBeche is having your costumes prepared. You are going to be in a gown, Winifred, with a very simple masque. The personnel are expected to be in costume as well, which works in our favor. All of the guards will be wearing black tuxedos with tails and matching masques.
“Fred, you will be expected to enter with Governor Richard. He will be your escort for the evening. You must share your first dance of the evening, however, with the President of France.”
She turned to Leopold. “You just remember your manners. You can’t go blowing your cover due to an etiquette infraction. You are a guard now. You have to bow to Winifred, speak only when spoken to, and follow orders.”
“I will behave,” he assured her.
“Questions?” asked Hector. No one replied.
At the sound of the timer, Phillipa clapped her hands together, “Good! Let’s wash that hair and see how it looks!”
Leopold picked at the plate of food in front of him, moving the broccoli around more than he was actually eating it. Since I had already finished dinner, I pulled out a copy of the agreement between France and Arcadis that Felip had procured for me. I was supposed to go through it and try to understand what I could, before Felip and I went through the entire document together. I was finding it hard to concentrate on the work though, with Leopold fidgeting, so obviously distracted. My eyes kept sliding from his plate to his now very black hair, instead of on the document. After a while, he abandoned his attempt at eating and slowly put his fork down on the edge of his plate. Hands clasped together, he looked up at me. “Fred, I -” he started, then bit his cheek and tried again. “There is something I want to propose to you.”
I put the contract down on the coffee table. “Shoot.”
He smiled slightly, twisting his hands together. “Don’t feel like you have to say yes.”
“I never do,” I replied. Though my voice stayed even, my stomach knoted.
“Marry me,” Leopold said.
I laughed lightly, “I already am.”
“No,” Leopold said. “Marry me before we leave for Arcadis.”
When I didn’t reply right away, Leopold rushed to continue, to explain himself. “Just a very small private ceremony, to make the Old Decree complete. I don’t know what is going to happen in the coming days, and I want to make sure that no matter what, you will be safe. If you say yes, then we are bound. There will be nothing that Antoine or Richard can do to change that; they will not be able to make you their pawn. I fear that if Antoine succeeded in marrying you, once he secured the thrones, you might be considered expendable. If we marry, the DuMont line will be secure and they will have the power to help and protect you. If anything were to happen to me, you would be allowed to become the Queen Regent and rule both countries until Phillipa’s children were old enough to ascend to the throne. You would be safe, my family would get to keep the throne in Solis even if I wasn’t able to be King, and your throne in Arcadis would be secure, while Antoine and Richard would be bypassed completely.” Leopold paused, holding my gaze now, pleading with me. “I know it’s a lot to ask of you, but for my peace of mind, I...”
His words cut off as I rose and walked over to him. I stood between his legs as he stared up at me, waiting. I couldn’t believe that this was what had him so worried. I put my hand on his jaw, feeling the stubble bite into my fingertips. “Yes, of course I will.”
Leopold’s hands wrapped around the back of my thighs as he leaned forward and rested his head on my stomach. “Thank you.”
“You have to tell Phillipa, though.” I wasn’t about to take the blame for ruining all of her hard work.
“Oh no, we will still have our official wedding as planned,” Leopold said, and chuckled as my face dropped.
“What’s the point if we are already married?”
“No one will know but us, the priest, and Felip. Everything will continue on as if it had never happened. It is purely for security purposes,” Leopold assured me, though there was mischief in his eyes.
“Purely for security, huh?” I echoed.
Leopold pinched my rib playfully. “Safety first, Winifred.”