Chapter 35: Shadow of the Scorpion
The inner chamber of the Ministry was almost equal in size to the reception area and modestly decorated. Ornamental weapons, shields, maps, and treaties were arranged around the room as a reminder of the weight of responsibility placed upon the House of Lords and the royal family.
A platform on the far wall held three thrones of mahogany wood that faced the doors through which the candidates and their representatives entered. Between them lay a long broad table of blood oak where the seven seats of the House of Lords were half-filled with men representing the most powerful noble families in Lafeara.
Such men were of little consequence to the nobles who entered and directed their attention to the dowager and the crown prince who occupied two of the thrones. Neither dowager nor crown prince appeared to notice their subjects’ attention as they continued their hushed conversation. However, the dark expression on Nicholas’s face suggested discord between the old monarch and future king.
Beside Prince Nicholas, Carina watched Captain Beaumont survey the crowd. She quickly chose a spot behind one of the taller candidates and waited as the doors shut with a firm thud behind them.
The Prime Minister, Attwood Wilder, stood and cleared his throat. “Your Grace. Your Majesty. If you are ready to begin?”
Nicholas waved his hand with a flicker of irritation and sat back with a heavy sigh.
Dowager Octavia turned serenely towards the Prime Minister and nodded her head permissively. “Yes, I believe we are all here. You may begin Prime Minister.”
Attwood glanced from the graceful dowager to the sulking crown prince and did not comment. He had served under two kings and was familiar enough with the behavior of royalty not to let their petulant behavior affect him. Indeed, Attwood would rather focus his energy on maintaining the strength and prosperity of Lafeara. Still, he could not ignore the struggle between the cunning old wolf and her intemperate grandson forever.
Attwood cleared his throat and addressed the room. “Very well, then as to the matter of candidates—”
The doors banged opened behind Carina as the page brushed through and bleated, “Her Highness, Crown Princess Eleanora!”
Carina turned and dropped into a low curtsey before the two young women who swept into the room with commanding grace.
Crown Princess Eleanora wore a gown of flowing gold and purple silks that set off her dark curls and fiery amber eyes. She stared down the House of Lords and the royal family with the confident grin of a woman who knew what she wanted.
“It appears we’ve arrived just in time, Lady Hana,” Eleanora announced as she turned to the lovely fair beauty behind her.
Lady Hana wore a soft lilac-blue gown. Her blond curls were twisted into a loose braid woven with pearls that fell over her shoulder and stopped just at her waist. The lady-in-waiting’s turquoise-blue eyes flickered briefly over the candidates and House of Lords before they timidly returned to the floor.
“Crown Princess Eleanora,” Attwood greeted with forced politeness. “I wasn’t aware that you would be joining us.”
“Why wouldn’t I?” Eleanora asked as she strode towards him. “After all, it is my ladies-in-waiting you mean to choose here.”
The candidates parted before their future queen, several of them forgetting to curtsey as they gawked at her appearance. Her amber eyes, dark sandalwood skin, and the proud aura she possessed was not something the nobility of Lafeara were accustomed too.
Eleanora turned towards the ladies and their representatives. Beneath her hardened gaze, the nobles’ knees trembled as they remembered not just her rank, but Emperor whose authority had made her royalty.
“Greetings, Crown Princess!”
Eleanora’s gaze lingered over their bowed heads with a satisfied smirk. Then she swept around the House of Lords, who rose and bowed as she passed. Lady Hana followed at her heels.
“Grandmother,” Eleanora greeted Octavia with a shallow curtsey. Then her gaze swept to Nicholas, and her lips twitched as she murmured, “Husband.”
Nicholas scowled but rose and offered his hand to her. “Crown Princess, a pleasure—”
Eleanora immediately turned her back on him as she moved to Octavia’s left and sat down in the empty throne. “So,” she chirped as Lady Hana finished bowing to the royal family and moved to stand beside her. “How does this work? Do I just pick the ones I like?”
Nicholas closed his hand into a fist with a sharp glance at the dowager, who ignored him as she addressed Eleanora.
“No, my dear, we have a well-established process by which to eliminate those who do not meet the palace’s standards. You may choose four from the remaining candidates at the end of the selection, or fewer if you prefer,” Octavia explained patiently.
“I’m confused,” Eleanora replied with a frown. “Are you picking ladies for the palace or me?”
“All ladies-in-waiting are ladies of the court and must be held to the same standard regardless of which mistress they serve,” Octavia answered with a tight smile. “As the future queen, you must learn and uphold these standards.”
Eleanora raised a dark eyebrow and sighed. “Very well, then what’s first? Do we have them walk through fire or shoot a moving target from a thousand paces?”
The candidates and escorts murmured in shock as they struggled to maintain their curtsy. It was forbidden to rise without permission or, at the very least, until the monarch had left the room.
Noticing their distress, Octavia quickly cleared her throat. “You may rise!”
Carina did so with a sigh of relief. A hand touched her shoulder, and she looked back, surprised to find Acheron had taken his place beside her once more.
“Where did you go?” he whispered.
“I could ask you the same thing,” she deflected and returned her gaze to the royal squabble before them.
“We are selecting ladies to wait upon you, not knights or bodyguards,” Nicholas said with a baffled shake of his head. “Noble ladies-in-waiting are meant to provide you with company and knowledge. They can help teach you our customs, etiquette, and the history of Lafeara.”
“I have lived here for the past three years, Husband,” Eleanora said with an overly sweet smile, “And I have already learned your fascinating history. Though, to be honest, I found it tiresome to read.”
A murmur of disapproval passed through the House of Lords as the Prime Minister cleared his throat.
“Your Highness,” Attwood said as he turned to address Eleanora. “The selection examines their quality as women of nobility. As his Majesty explained, they must be able to teach you our customs and etiquette as well as advise you on future matters.”
“Are they military strategists?” Eleanora asked with feigned excitement, though her smirk gave away her sarcasm.
“Perhaps you should return to horse riding and playing chess,” Nicholas muttered as he sank into his seat.
“Perhaps you should return to your mistress and learning to rule the kingdom,” Eleanora snapped back.
A noticeable gasp filled the room as Nicholas shot up in his chair. “You really are barbaric,” he growled, “Perhaps that’s why my brother ran away. Who would want a savage as a wife!”
“Nicholas!” Octavia chastised.
“Please, we both know Tristan didn’t run away,” Eleanora returned with a cold smile. “Though I’d hate to wish him dead, it is a far kinder fate than to let him see the pathetic man you’ve grown up to be.”
“Your Highness!” Octavia rose from her seat as the room filled with shocked silence.
“This—” Nicholas hissed as he pointed towards Eleanora, “—is why I’ve been against this marriage from the very beginning. This is the wife you’ve saddled me with!”
He left his chair and stomped towards the side chamber door with Captain Beaumont at his heels. The House of Lords followed his departure with concerned stares and murmured disapproval.
“Eleanora!” Octavia turned towards the crown princess, who rose leisurely and stretched.
“I think I’ll take my husband’s suggestion and go play a game of chess,” Eleanora remarked cheerfully. “When you’ve done combing through them, do send the survivors my way.”
She held out her hand as she descended the steps, and Hana moved wordlessly to support her.
“Oh,” Eleanora paused as she circled the candidates. “In Vetrayna, we have a custom when dealing with traitors. We skin the flesh from half of their body and face to expose their treacherous nature. If they survive the ordeal, we let them go, but thankfully most do not.”
Her cold amber eyes surveyed the women before her and paused briefly upon Carina. “I tell you this story because it is a tradition that I intend to bring to Lafeara when I become Queen. So, if you still wish to serve me after hearing that—I welcome you.”
With a charmingly dangerous smile, the crown princess sailed past them with a wide-eyed Hana at her side.
“Saint’s protect us,” Viscount Hendrix murmured anxiously.
“Oh my!” Gasped Tiffany, as the young brunette woman beside her dropped to the floor in a faint.
“There’s the first one gone,” Evelynn observed as Lord Robert rushed to his daughter’s side. “So much for the Marquess’s candidate.”
“Yes, someone,” Attwood muttered with a sigh. “Please carry the poor young lady out.”
“But—Prime Minister!” Lord Robert protested.
“If she faints within minutes of meeting the crown princess, do you honestly think she’s capable of lasting a week with her?” Attwood demanded.
Lord Robert glanced at Lady Priscilla, but the Marquess’ daughter merely rolled her eyes and headed back to the reception room. With no alternative, Lord Robert lifted the unconscious Lady Sylvia in his arms and carried her outside.
The knights at the door shut it firmly behind him.
“Poor, Lord Robert,” Acheron whispered. “So much for Lady Sylvia earning him merit.”
Carina cast him a quizzical look, but he merely winked and refocused his attention on the dowager, who had resumed her seat.
“Well,” Octavia said as she rubbed her temple wearily. “Now, shall we begin?”