Chapter 34: Pride of the Fallen
Nicholas blinked in surprise as he was greeted by a swarm of nobles, each scraping and bowing as they jostled against each other to approach him. “Damn it, why is the Ministry such a mess?” Nicholas snapped as Beaumont stepped forward to shield him.
“Your Majesty,” the page murmured as he bowed. “The selection for her Highness ladies-in-waiting begins today.”
“Oh—that.” Nicholas sighed and tapped Beaumont’s shoulder. “Clear me a path.”
Beaumont offered a sharp nod and placed his hand on the massive broad sword strapped to his back. The crowd stiffened and instinctively retreated, though they still offered their greetings and sought to catch Nicholas’s attention with their words, smiles, and alluring gaze.
Across the thicket of pesky nobles, Nicholas caught sight of a familiar profile against the far wall. “Acheron!” Nicholas shouted.
Beaumont paused, surveyed the crowd, and quickly spotted his cousin.
“Acheron!” Nicholas shouted again to no avail as the rogue seemed to be enamored by the young woman he stood beside.
“Shall I clear a path, your Majesty?” Beaumont asked.
“Yes, do as you must.” Nicholas waved his hand permissively.
Beaumont turned, and like a great whale that commanded the tide, the nobles adjusted to his course and cleared a path. The captain stood a head taller than every man in the room. His silver-blonde hair and violet eyes made him stand out even more. However, his position as the bastard son of General Stryker and Nicholas bodyguard made him a recognizable figure of little importance to these nobles—who feared him none the less.
“Prince Nicholas!” The ginger-haired Lady Priscilla stepped forward and scowled as Beaumont held a restraining arm between them. “What are you doing here?”
“Looking for my grandmother, Lady Priscilla,” Nicholas politely replied as he walked around Beaumont towards Acheron.
“But—” Priscilla tried to follow and smacked into Beaumont’s arm instead. “Hands to yourself, bastard,” she snapped then spun on her heels.
Nicholas shook his head, but Beaumont remained unaffected as he positioned himself in front of the crown prince and monitored the crowd with wary eyes.
They had almost reached Acheron, who leaned over a young woman in a lavender dress that stood with her back to them. She appeared unwell, judging by the way she leaned upon the wall.
“Acheron!” Nicholas repeated impatiently, not used to being ignored, least of all by his childhood friend.
“Nicholas!” Acheron greeted them with an innocent smile as he finally turned.
Beaumont scowled at his younger cousin. ‘There he goes again, dropping the prince’s title.’
“Did the Dowager interrupt your outing?” Acheron asked with a playful wink as he slid an arm around Nicholas’s shoulder.
“Doesn’t she always,” Nicholas returned with a bitter smile as he smacked the back of Acheron’s head playfully. “Why are you here, you rogue?”
“I—” Acheron glanced over his shoulder and blinked in surprise. Beaumont followed his gaze and was bewildered to find the young woman gone.
‘Odd. When did she slip away?’
Beaumont scanned the crowd of nobles around them, his height offering the perfect vantage point even in this crowd. He spotted a few purple dresses—not unpopular given the proximity to royalty—but did not find one of a matching lavender hue.
“Just here to offer emotional support,” Acheron muttered as he watched his cousin with a hint of unease.
Beaumont narrowed his gaze. Acheron looked away and flashed his usual charismatic smile, which was enough to suggest he was up to no good. Now Beaumont was doubly curious about this missing young woman.
“Please behave, you know how grandmother can be when it comes to ladies of the court,” Nicholas said with obvious concern.
“I may be a rogue,” Acheron scoffed as he raised his hands. “But even I know better than to cross the Wolf Queen herself.”
Nicholas snorted, clearly unimpressed. “Since you’re here, you might as well join me,” he said as he locked an arm around Acheron’s neck and steered his friend towards the inner chambers of the Ministry.
“Your Majesty, I’ll be just a moment,” Beaumont called after them. He didn’t miss the look of alarm Acheron threw in his direction as the Crown Prince dragged him firmly away.
‘What are you hiding, Cousin?’
Beaumont followed the wall as he searched the crowd once more. His gaze caught sight of a banner in the far corner that stirred as if something or someone hid behind it. He smirked as he closed in, grabbed the fabric, and jerked the banner aside. A servant’s door, slightly ajar, stared back at him.
“Hag’s Breath,” Beaumont muttered as he pushed the door outwards and stooped to pass through the small entryway. An empty side hallway that served as a servant’s passage awaited him with no one in sight. He retreated into the reception hall and stared at the door bewildered. ‘I never even knew this was here.’
With a grunt of disappointment, he pulled the door shut and dropped the banner back in its place.
Something cold touched the back of his neck. As Beaumont rubbed his fingers against the sudden chill, specs of snow fell before his violet eyes and melted against his cheek and armor.
Beaumont felt a shiver run down his spine as he stared at the perfectly normal ceiling above and then scanned the reception room. Giving up on his quarry, for now, the knight captain made his way through the crowd of nobles towards the inner chambers to find the crown prince.
Back in the servant’s passageway, another door further down the hall opened, and Carina cautiously peeped out.
She exhaled as she stepped down and closed the door behind her. ‘It was lucky I noticed the maid came this way.’
A network of servant’s passages ran throughout the “Royal City.” Some sealed off, abandoned, or simply forgotten, but most in use as nobility preferred not to be bothered with the coming and going of servants.
Maura had embraced them like a rat eager to escape a pack of hungry cats. If Sophya and Lincoln had been cruel, then the nobles within the royal city, who had viewed Maura as a source of amusement or disgusting eyesore—had been inhumanely sadistic. Learning to escape and hide had been Maura’s only method of survival. One that Carina was quick to adapt to when needed.
Carina gently pressed a hand to her chest and noted with relief that her frozen heart had finally calmed down. The onslaught of pain Captain Beaumont had unexpectedly awaken had also faded. Still, Carina had no time to dwell on its meaning. She needed to return to the reception hall before a servant found her here. Servants tend to notice everything, and one could never be sure who they would report back to.
She slipped beneath the banner and rejoined the party without drawing attention. The crowd was focused on the opening doors through which the candidates now headed into the inner Ministry chambers.
Carina followed at the end of the line as she glanced about for Lord Acheron. Not finding him, she shrugged and refocused on the battle ahead.
Sophya wiped the fallen tears from her cheek as she walked into Maura’s all but barren room. The humiliation, anger, and fear that had kept her up all night showed in the dark circles beneath her eyes.
She surveyed the plain accommodations. The made bed with its unsightly patched blankets, the old furniture and scattered open drawers now emptied, a lopsided wardrobe where a single hanger dangled awkwardly inside, and an empty bookshelf where only a copy of the Holy Saint’s scriptures remained.
This was the room of the Turnbell’s unwanted child. The half-sister Sophya had always been ashamed of. The common enemy she and Lincoln had grown up resenting and punishing at every opportunity. And yet here Sophya stood, biting her already chipped nails, trying to work out who that half-blood actually was.
Maura had made of fool of them. The miraculous transformation in her appearance yesterday still haunted Sophya like a waking nightmare.
Maura had somehow turned Lord Percy and Lord Acheron against her family. Indeed, the more Sophya thought about it, the half-blood’s behavior had changed of late. Standing up to Josiah had been one thing, but that little witch had teased Lord Percy into destroying her father’s hand.
And now Maura was at the palace. This more than any other thought that swirled through her brain was driving Sophya to distraction.
‘Was this the Countess’ doing? Or was this the real Maura?’
And why had Lord Acheron, who flat out rejected Sophya as a potential candidate, changed his opinion of Maura and accepted her after a single glance?
“Maura, Maura, Maura!” Sophya hissed. “Ouch!” She winced with pain as she bit into the cuticle of her finger.
“Young Mistress,” a maid called timidly from the doorway.
Sophya whipped around and curled her lip in disgust at the sight of the woman’s bruised face. “You—” she tilted her head as the memory returned to her. “Ah yes, the maid who spilled the tea. What do you want? Did Mother send you?”
“No, Young Mistress,” the maid said hesitantly. “I assumed—that is, I came to offer some advice.”
“Advice?” Sophya choked out a laugh. “And what advice could a slave give me?”
“You are looking for something to use against the half-blood,” the maid replied with strange confidence as she entered the room, walked past Sophya, and pointed to the trashcan left by Maura’s desk.
“You think I want her trash?”
The maid shook her head, picked up the can, and tipped it over. The odd contents it held scattered across the floor.
Sophya stared at the strange-looking cosmetics and what appeared to be some sort of dirty mask. “What is that?”
The maid scooped up the mask and held it against her face. The holes cut into the tacky fabric reminded Sophya instantly of the blemishes that had once covered Maura’s face.
Sophya stepped forward, snatched the mask from the maid’s hand, and flung it to the floor. “You fool! What good does any of this information do me now?” she hissed as she slapped the maid across her cheek.
“Forgive me, Mistress!” the maid dropped to her knees. “There is more than this. Something far more precious than trash. Something—no someone she was forced to leave behind.”
“Someone?” Sophya winced as she flexed her stinging hand. “She took her precious maid with her. So, who did she leave behind?”
“A stable boy, Gus. My brother John saw them meeting at night a few days back. He did not hear what they were saying, but Gus has always been close to the half-blood and Ivy.”
“Are you telling me Maura was frolicking with a servant?” Sophya laughed sharply.
“Mistress, although their meeting was of a secretive nature, I cannot say they were romantically involved. Most of the servants know that Gus was overly fond of Ivy.”
“Oh?” Sophya’s lips drooped with disappointment. Then she narrowed her eyes at the servant kneeling before her. “You were Mother’s personal maid.”
“Not anymore, Mistress, she—cannot stand the sight of me,” the maid answered with a hint of bitterness.
The maid winced but answered obediently. “Judith, Mistress.”
Sophya nodded. “Well, Judith, I thank you for your loyalty to this family. I shall inform Father of this news. Meanwhile, tell the butler to fetch that stable boy to the house.”
“Yes, Mistress!” Judith rose and curtsied.
“And one more thing,” Sophya added as a sinister smile curled across her lips. “Tell the butler to bring my father’s whip.”