Jeanine offers the Duchy of Gaunner in exchange for her friends’ release.
A wave of triumph surged through my body overwhelming every other sensation.
“Done!” I crowed.
Jeanine gave a brief shake of her head, “I wasn’t finished, Olivia. That offer comes with certain non-negotiable conditions.”
Of course, it did. Damn. I quelled my elation. “Name the conditions bearing in mind that my acceptance of your terms is no longer valid.”
Jeanine smiled, “I expected an emotional response to those words and agree it holds no weight in our discussion.”
I’d expected a smile from Jeanine — something haughty with condescending and predatory overtones. It’s what I would have worn in her place. The smile she offered was none of those things. It was understanding and almost friendly. A smile of superiority would have whetted my appetite for cutthroat negotiations. This unexpected and humane reaction simply confused me.
Was it an act meant to throw me off my game?
I locked gazes with Jeanine and her eyes told me her smile was sincere. Her words meant exactly what she said, hiding nothing. Raised among nobles whose every word carried concealed daggers, I habitually examined every statement for pitfalls and landmines.
But, in a flash of revelation, I finally understood that the woman on the screen before me didn’t think that way.
She was quick-witted and cunning, all the more so if she felt she’d been backed into a corner. But she was also…honest. Open. Sincere. Somehow, despite her frequent demonstrations of those qualities, I’d never truly understood how different she was from every other noble I knew.
With that realization, another thought emerged from the back of my mind. Jeanine truly believed what she’d told me about the Star Stone. She truly believed it was an alien artifact — something the first few pages of the Star Stone report made clear. But she also believed it was working against the best interests of humanity.
Against the best interests of the Star Kingdom.
Against the best interests of my baby.
And that led to the most disturbing thought of all.
What if she was right?
Struggling to keep the sudden surge of concern out of my voice, I asked, “What are your conditions?”
She watched me for a couple of seconds, almost as if she was privy to my inner turmoil. “I have three conditions, two major and one minor.”
I nodded, “Go on.”
“First, you and I will select the next Duke or Duchess of Gaunner. We must both agree on the choice and then announce it to the public. Only then will I renounce my claim.”
During my brief visit to Gaunner, I’d seen Jeanine’s evident concern for the people of Gaunner. Without a second thought, I said, “Agreed.”
She nodded as if she’d expected nothing less. “You won’t find my next condition nearly so agreeable. You and I both know a civil war is brewing. The Star Kingdom is too large, too all-encompassing, and too intent upon controlling lives rather than governing wisely. The simmering anger has no outlet because the populace has no refuge from the nobility. Even the frontier worlds are governed by members of that chosen class. And for every noble such as Lord Lockridge and, I hope, me, there are a dozen who more closely resemble your late brother or my late father’s other children.”
I couldn’t deny her interpretation of the current situation within the Star Kingdom. Nor did I try. “That’s why you’ve chosen to throw in with the budding rebellion. You do realize the Star Kingdom will crush them if it comes to a fight?”
She didn’t waste time denying her association with the rebels. “Possibly, though I think you greatly underestimate the groundswell of support we’ll receive should the situation deteriorate that far.”
“Your second condition is obviously tied to this. Please name it.”
“The Duchy of Neert must be granted sovereignty as an independent star nation.”
“You know I don’t have the authority to do that.”
“True, but if you and William publicly support my petition for independence, it will eventually happen.”
“I see two problems with that, Jeanine. First, I cannot speak for William.”
Jeanine actually laughed at my protest. Waving a hand dismissively, she said, “William will say what you want him to say. Furthermore, he’ll mean every word.”
I inclined my head, acknowledging her assessment. “You’re probably right in William’s case, but I think you overestimate my persuasive powers over the rest of the Royal family, much less the nobility.”
“No, I don’t. However, provided you sincerely support my request — and you’ve got to admit you’d rather have me as far from Star Kingdom politics as possible — I’ll consider this condition met.”
Out of habit, I examined her offer for hidden meaning. Then I cut myself off after only a few seconds. Jeanine’s eyes still radiated sincerity and…I believed her offer was genuine. “I accept that condition, as well. You also mentioned a minor condition?”
“Yes. You know that Drake and I are planning a public wedding, one fitting for a Duchess?” When I nodded, she continued, “I’d like to use the event to further the story that you and I have put our enmity behind us.”
“William and I will, of course, attend.”
“That’s a start, but I’d like to do the truly unexpected.” Jeanine leaned forward and said, “I’d like you to be part of my wedding party.”
My mouth opened and closed twice and still I couldn’t quite find my voice. Tilly, forgotten by me during this discussion, didn’t have that problem.
“You want her to do what?” she cried.
“I want her in the wedding party as a bridesmaid.” Jeanine flashed a friendly smile at Tilly, “I want you as a bridesmaid, too.”
Tilly swallowed her planned retort and, obviously surprised by the request, simply said, “Sure. I’d love to be in the wedding.”
Finally over my own surprise, I discovered a smile spreading across my face. “By the time you hold the wedding, you realize I’ll be enormously pregnant. Do you really want a waddling bridesmaid?”
“I’m certain you will waddle gracefully, Olivia. Does that mean you accept?”
“Excellent. As you’ve accepted all my conditions, I believe this negotiation is at an end. When shall I tell Jana and her friends to meet you at the Rising Star?”
Thinking back to everything I’d learned about Jeanine and, especially Jana, I felt certain neither of them wanted to leave Xapreathea with the Star Stone intact. Surprisingly, I didn’t want them doing that, either.
I asked, “How much time do you think Jana will require to…um…wrap everything up and prepare for departure?”
Jeanine gave me a hard look before saying, “Why don’t we err on the side of caution. How about tomorrow morning at eight?”
“Agreed. Until then, Tilly will simply be my guest in the palace.” I turned to Tilly and added, “A real guest. You will not be returning to RIA custody.”
After we ended the call, I sat back in my seat and considered what I’d just done. Unless I missed my guess, I’d just countenanced the destruction of the Star Stone and the partial dissolution of the Star Kingdom.
God, would Mother ever forgive me?
Meanwhile, how goes Jana’s assault on the Star Stone?