Chapter 32: A Den of Wolves
Carina woke before the sun and finished writing three letters. Two addressed to Sir Bryson and the other to Ivy. She left them in the hands of the countess as they watched Lord Acheron’s carriage pull up in front of Hawthorne Manor.
“Chin up,” Constance said as she brushed Carina’s cheek with a faint expression of pride. “You are my protégé, whatever your background. Never show them your fear.”
Her mentor nodded stiffly and waved her off as the servants finished fastening Carina’s trunks to the back of the carriage. Russell escorted her down the steps to the carriage and assisted her inside.
“Best of luck to you, Lady Maura,” the butler said and shut the carriage door behind her.
“Good morning, Lady Maura,” Acheron greeted with a stifled yawn as he stretched awkwardly in the seat across from her. “Why do these things always start so bloody early?” His gaze took in her lavender dress and styled hair, and he gave a nod of approval. “You clean up well. One evening away from that dreadful family of yours, and you’re practically glowing.”
Carina offered him a polite smile. “I should thank you again for your timely assistance yesterday.”
A sly grin slid across Acheron’s face, but he waved her gratitude aside as he leaned forward. “I still can’t believe the Countess is taking such a risk on a half-blood. If you fail to get selected, no one will bat an eye, but every noble in Lafeara will criticize her for even thinking you were worthy.”
“I am aware,” Carina replied with a raised brow. “Are your words meant to warn me or discourage?”
He chuckled and shrugged. “If I told you I was simply worried about your safety, what would you say?”
“You aim to take your father’s place as Prime Minister, do you not?” Carina asked as she settled back into her seat.
Acheron’s smile hardened but he nodded. “Isn’t it every firstborn son’s duty to follow in his father’s footsteps?”
“And how often does your father tell you that you’re not ready?”
Acheron pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes. Then he laughed, stretched out his legs, and propped his feet up on the seat beside her. “Point taken, Lady Maura, wake me when we get there.”
He closed his eyes, and though she watched him suspiciously, he did indeed appear to be sleeping. His features relaxed as the rising sun stretched across his legs and warmed the carriage.
Mansion after gated mansion drifted by in the distance. The driver had taken them along the road reserved for nobility to avoid the busy streets of the capital. A faint snore rose from Acheron, and Carina covered a soft laugh as she turned her full attention to the steadily approaching fortified walls of the palace.
The carriage stopped at three checkpoints along the road, though only briefly. Both the carriage and its driver carried the Prime Minister’s seal, so they were permitted to pass without disturbing the passengers, and thus arrived at the palace gates in less than twenty minutes.
A squadron of knights saluted the carriage after the driver presented his seal. The massive gate rattled and rose before them, and the carriage passed underneath.
The heart of Lafeara, or Royal City, as some called it, was enclosed within these castle walls, which served as the royal’s last line of defense. The parapets at the top of the walls were wide and strong enough to withstand the recoil of cannons, of which there were twenty that armed the fortress walls. The tunnel, through which the carriage wheels echoed and rumbled, was five to six carriages in length with iron bar gates on each end, capable of trapping any invading army.
Entry in and out of the Royal City was heavily monitored. Permission to enter and exit was granted only to those who possessed a royal seal or pass, which could only be obtained from the palace steward, knight commander, prime minister, or the royal family.
The sun returned as the end of the tunnel and glinted off the knights in uniform who waved the carriage through. The blinding white walls of the Ministry House of Lords that towered into view and beyond it the three royal palaces.
Echoes stirred in Carina’s memories. The deja vu of the ghost she carried who had gazed upon these same buildings less then a year before her death. But that Maura had walked in through west side gate meant for servants and commoners. She had no backing, training, carriage, or even a decent dress and shoes to wear.
Maura had stood on blistered feet and gazed upon this representation of Lafeara’s authoritarian government in awe and respect while Carina saw it for what it really was. A monument of sophistry aimed to cow the populace into blind subservient silence.
A cold smile coiled across her lips as Carina’s fingers tightened against the window ledge. The carriage pulled up in front of the Ministry and came to a halt.
“I see we have arrived,” Acheron murmured.
Carina tensed, unaware that he had woken, or maybe he had been feigning sleep all along. She faced him with a polite smile and asked demurely, “How did you sleep?”
“Well enough,” Acheron replied as he straightened and adjusted his jacket. “Lavender looks good on you,” he added with a wink.
Carina narrowed her eyes and quickly looked away, pretending to be distracted by this imposing new world. “There doesn’t appear to be anyone else here,” she observed, noticing the quiet around them.
“Good, that means we’re early,” Acheron replied as he reached for the door. “I’m going to step out and stretch my legs if you’d care to join me.”
Carina leaned back as he brushed past her and hopped down.
“Does the selection begin here?” she asked.
“Yes, at least initially,” Acheron answered as he rolled his neck and turned to face her. “Are you joining me? We could slip inside and take a look around while we wait.”
There was something in his gaze and tone that reminded Carina of his reputation as a womanizing rogue in Maura’s past life. Still, it would be foolish to waste such an opportunity to explore one of the few buildings Maura had never been permitted to enter. “Very well.” She accepted his hand as she stepped onto the carriage footstep.
Acheron intercepted her as he clasped her waist and lifted her down from the carriage.
“I—” Carina gasped as her feet touched the ground, and Acheron withdrew his hands. “I can manage just fine, thank you.”
“I’ll remember that next time,” Acheron replied with a sly grin as he wrapped her arm around his before leading her up the stairs.
Carina eyed him warily as they ascended towards the large double doors of the Ministry. She still wasn’t sure why Constance had chosen him to be her escort. Aside from Percy, Acheron was the capital’s most notorious bachelor now that Crown Prince Nicholas was married. Not that marriage had put much of a dent in Nicholas’s fan base. As king, he could add multiple consorts to his harem if he wished.
But Nicholas, either by determination, infatuation—or maybe even love—clung stubbornly to his commoner mistress, Lady Rosamund, and ignored the other ladies of nobility. A move that garnered him the love and affection of the populace while his favor among the nobles soured.
Acheron, on the other hand, welcomed their attention and played with their emotions, hearts, and virtue without punishment or consequence. After all, his father, the Prime Minister, was the third most influential person in Lafeara, under its Dowager and future King.
Two matching banners fluttered at the top of the steps. Knotted gold tassels adorned the purple silk fabric upon which the royal’s family crest of a golden wolf flickered in the morning light. The sound of carriage wheels reached them as they arrived before the Ministry’s doors.
Acheron turned with a disappointed sigh. “Looks like your competition prefers to be early as well,” he observed as a carriage pulled up behind theirs.
“Viscount Hendrix,” Carina murmured, recognizing the emblem on the carriage.
“Mmm, you’ve studied,” Acheron observed. “That will be Lady Evelynn, Percy’s little pet.”
“Pet?” Carina repeated. Acheron shrugged as he hid a smug smile.
“I’ll let him explain that to you. We should be polite and greet them.”
The carriage door opened, and an elder nobleman stepped down and bowed respectfully to Acheron before he turned to assist a young woman with coffee-brown hair from the carriage.
“That’s the Viscount himself,” Acheron whispered as father and daughter made their way up the steps.
“Lord Acheron!” Hendrix greeted with another bow.
“Viscount,” Acheron inclined his head slightly before he turned his gaze to the young woman beside the Viscount. “Lady Evelynn.”
“Acheron,” Evelynn replied with an acid tone as her light-hazel eyes flickered over Carina with a distasteful expression. “Is this one of your whores?”
“Evelynn!” Hendrix snapped aghast.
“It’s quite alright, Viscount,” Acheron said with a sharp laugh. “I am used to Lady Evelynn’s poor regard for me as we have met on many, many occasions.”
The confusion on the Viscount’s face abruptly shifted to horror as he turned to face Evelynn. “You—you haven’t!”
“Oh, Father, don’t be ridiculous,” Evelynn replied with a painful sigh. “I’d rather contract the plague than lose my virtue to this rogue.”
“Evelynn!” Hendrix hissed again. “Lord Acheron—I do apologize!”
“Oh, for mercy’s sake,” Evelynn snapped as she pulled free from her father’s arm and swept past them into the Ministry.
“I—we—my utmost apology, Lord Acheron!” Hendrix bobbed another bow and rushed after his daughter.
“Charming,” Carina observed as she exhaled slowly.
“And it only gets better from here,” Acheron said with a smirk as he nodded to the next carriage approaching.
Carina stiffened as she recognized the family crest. “Perhaps we should go inside and wait with the Viscount?”
“One moment,” Acheron said as he focused on the seal as well. “I don’t know this one—”
“Baron Clemont,” Carina supplied impatiently.
“Clemont, Clemont,” Acheron murmured as he furrowed his brows. “Ah—” he snapped his fingers victoriously. “The Diamond Family!”
“Yes,” Carina affirmed as a knight descended then turned to assist the young woman from the carriage. “Tiffany Clemont and her brother, Malcolm Clemont.”
“Huh,” Acheron said as he studied the siblings with matching blonde hair. “I take it you’ve met her then?”
“Not yet,” Carina replied as she pulled her arm free and turned to enter the Ministry, leaving him to stay or follow as he chose.
Acheron caught up to her quickly and secured her arm around his once more.
“For someone you haven’t met, you seem quite keen to avoid them,” he observed as they entered the reception room where the Viscount and Lady Evelynn waited. “I didn’t think you were afraid of anyone.” He pulled her into the opposite corner.
“You’re overthinking the matter,” Carina responded coldly. “I simply didn’t wish to be gawked at by everyone on their way up the stairs.”
“You’ll have to get used to being stared at,” Acheron retorted as he patted her hand patronizingly. “This isn’t the countryside, little half-blood. You are in the wolves’ den. If they are not paying attention to you, then they’re not afraid of you.”
Carina laughed as she tilted her head to meet his gaze. “Are you afraid of me?”
“No,” he answered with a sly smile. “But I am paying attention.”