Chapter 33: The Thorns of Nobility
An unsurprisingly similar cast of candidates flocked inside the reception of the Ministry in quick succession. Each escorted by a male family member or official representative. Barons, Viscounts, even the daughter of a Marques was present, and every gaze inevitably turned towards Lord Acheron and his unknown female companion with whispers of curiosity.
“So much for them not gawking,” Acheron murmured as he sipped from the glass of wine a servant had provided him.
Carina smiled as she observed the palace maid slip unnoticed towards the hidden servant’s entrance in the corner of the room. Acheron seemed to find this sort of special treatment typical and, like most nobles, barely paid the palace servants any attention. He finished his drink and when it did not magically disappear from his extended hand, settled for placing the glass inside a small nook in the wall that held a tiny statue depicting a Saint praying over a wolf.
“Come on then,” Acheron said as he took her arm. “Might as well give them what they want.”
Carina grit her teeth, exhaled and put on a friendly smile as Acheron moved towards the other nine contestants—six of which would be eliminated before the selection finished.
“Lady Evelynn,” Acheron greeted the Viscount and his daughter again. “Forgive my rudeness earlier. I don’t believe I introduced you. This is Lady Maura, Countess Hawthorne’s protegee.”
Lady Evelynn’s polite smile stiffened as her gaze shifted over Maura with an expression of distrust. “Lady Maura—?” Her pause extended an open invitation for Carina to offer Maura’s family name, which of course, she did not have.
“A pleasure to meet you,” Carina replied as she released Acheron’s arm and curtsied.
“So, you’re the one we’ve heard rumors about?” Lady Tiffany exclaimed as she slid closer with a glass of wine. “The Countess’s pet half-blood.”
And just like that, the air was sucked from the room as every whispered conversation died, and a host of unfriendly eyes focused upon Carina with various degrees of surprise and disgust.
“Forgive my sister, Lady Maura!” Sir Malcolm stepped forward and pulled Tiffany behind him. “She meant no offense. I apologize.”
“It appears that what the Clemont’s have in diamonds they lack in manners,” Acheron observed in a threatening tone.
Malcolm’s face paled as he bowed hastily. “Forgive my rudeness. I am Sir Malcolm Clemont, at your service, Lord Acheron.” He straightened. “And this is my sister, Lady Tiffany.”
“Ahh, the newly blooded Baron family,” Evelynn commented with a faint sneer.
“Let go of my arm Malcolm, you’re embarrassing me,” Tiffany hissed as she struggled against her brother’s grip.
“You’re embarrassing yourself. And if you continue to do so, I will drag you home even if I have to carry you out like a sack of potatoes,” Malcolm shot back.
Tiffany’s cheeks blushed scarlet as her lilac-blue eyes dropped to the floor. She offered no resistance but sulked as Malcolm pulled her firmly away through the crowd. The aloof gaze of the room followed brother and sister but quickly returned to Carina, who tensed beneath the weight.
“Well,” Lady Evelynn murmured as she surveyed the unfriendly tension around them. “Even if you’re not the highest-ranking woman in the room, you’ll certainly be the most infamous by the end of the day, Lady Maura.”
“Excuse me, Lady Evelynn. Viscount,” Carina murmured as she left Acheron to deal with them and moved off on her own towards the open space at the back of the room.
Acheron meant well, but Carina wasn’t planning on befriending any of these ladies. Maura had dealt with them all before as a cleaning maid. Even if these women couldn’t remember, Carina could still hear the insults they had hurled at Maura then, some of which they whispered even now as she walked by.
“I heard her mother slept with a goat.”
“Does that make her human or livestock?”
‘As clever and unoriginal as your past selves.’ Carina shook her head. As she wandered through a gap in the crowd, a woman in a scarlet dress crashed suddenly into her.
“Oh, Blessed Saints, look where you’re going half-blood!”
Carina barely registered the woman’s familiar ginger hair and chartreuse-green eyes before the lady’s companion stepped forward and shoved Carina back roughly.
“Do you not know how to speak half-blood?” Lord Robert demanded. “You barged into Lady Priscilla, surely some sort of apology ought to be given.”
“My Lord, I believe she walked into me,” Carina answered calmly.
“What?” Lord Robert blustered in surprise.
“My, but it looks like we’ll have to send you back to the Countess for retraining,” Priscilla said with a snicker. “Do be a good pet and run back to your Mistress, half-blood.”
Carina ignored the laughs and chuckles from the nobles around them. She had expected this much, but she wasn’t backing down that easily.
“Perhaps Lady Priscilla would like to give the Countess of Hawthorne pointers on proper etiquette?” Carina replied. “Since my Mistress failed to train me adequately.”
For a moment, fear flickered in Priscilla’s eyes before she squashed it with a laugh. “You think I’m afraid of that old Bitch?” She mocked. “My father is Marquess Borghese, the same Borghese who helped build this kingdom. So, run along little half-blood before I lose my temper and have you whipped for impudence.”
“Your father’s title didn’t do you much good when you lost the position of Crown Princess to Lady Eleanora,” Carina pointed out with a sly smile. “Losing to the descendant of a maid? Are you sure you want to lose to a half-blood next? Perhaps it is you that should run home to Daddy.”
Once more, all sound died around her, but Carina kept her gaze level with Priscilla’s shocked green eyes. Then Lord Robert stepped between them once more with his hand raised.
“The Grand Dowager!” a page cried as the door swept open before the imposing monarch. “Her Grace, Queen Regent Octavia.”
Lord Robert hastily lowered his hand and pushed past Carina to join the rest of the nobles who bowed respectfully before Lafeara’s longest-ruling monarch.
Carina stepped back into the crowd and curtsied. She noted with amusement that Priscilla’s gaze followed her as the enraged girl became the last noble to greet the Dowager respectfully.
“Lady Priscilla?” Dowager Octavia’s voice boomed across the quiet room.
“Queen Regent!” Priscilla whipped around and hurriedly dropped her gaze as she curtsied.
“What are you doing here, child? The selection is for daughters of lower nobility who wish to serve the Crown Princess,” Octavia continued as she moved towards the trembling Priscilla. The crowd of lords and ladies parted before the Dowager while maintaining their respectful bow.
Carina refrained from laughing at their awkward movements, keenly aware of her proximity to the Grand Dowager.
“Do you wish to serve Crown Princess Eleanora as a lady-in-waiting?” Octavia asked with cold amusement.
“No, your Grace,” Priscilla answered.
The Dowager pursed her lips in silent disapproval.
“Forgive me, Queen Regent,” Lord Robert interjected without raising his head. “Lady Priscilla is here to support another candidate.”
“Oh?” Octavia murmured. “Which candidate?”
“My daughter, Lady Sylvia,” Robert answered as he gestured towards the young brunette curtsying beside Lady Tiffany.
“Indeed,” Octavia replied with a hint of coldness. “Well, I can’t wait to see how far a candidate chosen by Marquess Borghese will go.”
“Thank you, your Grace.” Lord Robert sounded pleased as Octavia turned, the crowd parting before her once more, and entered the inner chamber of the Ministry.
A hand grabbed Carina’s wrist. Acheron pulled her back through the crowd as the lords and ladies rose to their feet.
“I know I said you shouldn’t avoid their attention, but this is not what I had in mind,” Acheron snapped when they reached the far wall.
Carina smirked as she pushed his hand aside.
“Do you even realize who you just made into your enemy?” Acheron pressed with a note of concern.
“Are you referring to one particular person or…” Carina let her words hang in the air as the hostile gaze of the entire room settled upon her once more.
Acheron pressed a hand to his face and sighed. “Is this some sort of strategy?” he asked. “Make the entire court hate you so you can what—what’s the plan here?”
“It’s not a strategy,” Carina answered with a sigh of her own. “I don’t care if they hate me. Why should I prostrate myself to those who are enemies of the Crown Princess?”
“Okay,” he said with a faint growl. “No one was asking you to prostrate yourself. Just don’t—” he pressed his knuckles against his lips then leaned closer, “—don’t poke a sleeping wolf as the expression goes.”
“I think you mean bear.”
“What?” His brows furrowed in confusion.
“You’re not taking this seriously!” Acheron paused and then groaned. “And now I sound exactly like my father, thank you for that.”
Carina smirked and patted his arm reassuringly. “I got it from here. You don’t have to babysit me.”
Acheron pressed his knuckles against his lips and stared at her with frustration and perhaps a hint of worry. Then he laughed, and his usual playful charisma returned.
“Are you trying to get rid of me?” he asked.
“Yes,” Carina replied without hesitation.
Acheron laughed again and leaned against the wall as the crowd around them glanced over curiously. “Oh, I can’t wait for my cousin to meet you,” Acheron said as he wiped a stray tear from his eye.
“Cousin?” Carina felt her gut clench.
“Yes, Captain Bea—”
“The Crown Prince!” shouted the page at the door. “His Majesty, Prince Nicholas!”
An audible gasp of surprise and delight scattered across the room as Acheron straightened and looked over Carina’s shoulder. “Speak of the devil, and he appears,” Acheron said as he gestured towards the entrance behind her.
Carina didn’t look. No, she couldn’t look. She clutched her chest as her expression twisted in confusion.
For the first time since Carina had woken up in this world, her heart was beating frantically. But even more bewildering than this unexpected reaction was the searing pain that spread from her chest throughout her body.
Carina inhaled sharply as she pushed past Acheron and clung to the wall. Her heart stabbed against her ears and chest, and when she gasped, a white mist appeared before her eyes. The stone surface beneath her fingers turned cold as frost spread from her fingertips.
‘Damn it, Maura, please calm down!’
Whatever part of Maura’s ghost or memory that lingered, it wasn’t listening, and Carina knew why it was afraid. There standing in the doorway behind the crown prince was the man who had killed Maura.