Chapter 38: A Touch of Divinity
The sun shimmered in pastel colors through the stained glass windows of the Royal Chapel. Beneath its sacred archways, the candidates gathered between the pews and eyed the ancient glowing glass artistry with silent trepidation. After being dismissed by the Dowager, a palace maid led them here for the first phase of elimination.
“Good morning, ladies, I am Lady Sabella,” said the stern-faced woman who entered the chapel behind them. “Senior lady-in-waiting to the Queen Regent, Grand Dowager Octavia.”
She stopped before the altar and turned to face them, her every move precise and measured yet graceful. “The first stage of the Selection will be to weed out the impure. For this purpose, the Sisters of Holy Saints Church will take each of you to a private room for a brief examination. The results of your examinations will be documented for posterity. However, the House of Lords and the royal family are the only ones who will have access.”
The young ladies around Carina whispered nervously at her words.
“Naturally,” Lady Sabella continued, “This examination and its results may be unpleasant for some of you. So, at this time, if any of you wish to withdraw from the Selection, you may do so. We will strike your name from the list of candidates, and the matter will end there.”
She paused to let her words sink in as she gazed at each of the eight contestants, who remained silent and composed before her.
“Very well then, after the examination is complete, you may return here to the prayer room until the other candidates have also finished. Afterward, you will be taken to the rooms that have been arranged for you in the Lily Palace. Of course, if you do not pass the examination, you will be asked to leave the palace immediately.”
Once more, she paused and considered each of them carefully as if waiting for someone to speak up. The candidates remained silent, though a few fidgeted anxiously as they glanced over as four women entered the chapel through a side door, dressed in religious white-habits that obscured all but the center of their face. With a sigh of disappointment, Lady Sabella turned to the holy sisters and nodded.
The four nuns each stepped forward in front of a candidate and bowed. Then they led the candidates back through a side door and out of sight.
Tiffany exhaled slowly beside Carina as they waited with Evelynn and one other noblewoman. After what felt like an eternity later, the four girls returned with hurried steps and flushed cheeks and sat down silently.
“Next group,” Lady Sabella instructed as the nuns once more approached the remaining girls and gestured for them to follow.
Carina rose from her seat, determined to get the examination over with. The doe-eyed nun led her down a hallway filled with small doors that opened to private praying rooms. There was nothing glamorous about their furnishings, not even a pillow upon which to kneel and pray. Carina found the tight space and dark walls both uncomfortable and suffocating.
The nun stopped by an open door and gestured for Carina to enter. She did so, and eyed the simple bed with white sheets tucked behind a white curtain. The effect reminded her of a hospital room, and her stomach twisted with sharp unease.
The nun shut the door and circled her with a sympathetic smile. Then she patted the bed and motioned for Carina to come closer.
Carina frowned at her odd gestures. “Can you not speak?”
“These sisters have taken a vow of silence,” explained an elderly voice from behind the curtain. “They were chosen for this purpose because they cannot speak, and they are confined within this chapel for the next four years.”
Carina nearly jumped out of her skin as the curtain pushed back, and a woman dressed in a white and gold habit stood before her. It was difficult to pinpoint an age beneath the holy robes that all but consumed the woman’s appearance, but her dusk-blue eyes held a glimmer of hidden power.
“I am Abbess Mercy,” the woman said with a note of authority. “I was asked by the Countess to perform your examination to ensure its validity and discretion.”
Carina stared up at the woman, who exuded a foreboding presence rather than the peaceful aura of a nun, unable to think of an appropriate response.
“I—I thank you, Abbess,” Carina replied and curtsied.
“Save your gratitude, child. I have my reasons for doing so,” the Abbess said, her tone gentle none the less. “They say you are a half-blood?”
Carina’s smile tightened as she rose. “Yes, Abbess.”
“And do you know who your father is, child?”
Abbess Mercy’s sharp gaze cut through her, as a sudden weight seemed to descend upon Maura, who felt her hands tremble at her side.
‘What was this feeling?’
“I do not, Abbess,” Carina answered. As suddenly as it appeared, the weight vanished.
“So it would appear,” the Abbess said with a satisfied nod. “Then shall we complete what we are here to do?”
“Y-yes,” Carina answered and approached the bed.
The silent nun helped her get comfortable on the stiff surface while the Abbess washed her hands in a prepared basin then stood at her feet with folded hands and a patient smile.
“Whenever you’re ready,” the Abbess said.
Carina exhaled as she lay back against the white sheets.
‘It’s fine. It’s no big deal. Just think of it as a normal gynecologist appointment. Embarrassing as hell but forgotten as soon as it’s over.’
“Ready,” she replied tensely.
She arranged her legs per the Abbess instruction and lifted her dress when asked. The woman’s fingers were cold and uncomfortable as she examined Carina.
The feel of her touch brought back the memories of Lincoln and the alleyway. The cold magic within Carina’s chest sparked, and she closed her eyes to shut out the danger that hid within her emotions.
A warm hand wrapped around her own, and Carina looked up into the doe-eyes of the silent nun, who smiled angelically upon her.
“Intact,” the Abbess pronounced as she pulled Carina’s dress down and turned to wash her hands in a basin. “Sister Bree, I would like a moment with Lady Maura if you could wait outside.”
The nun helped Carina sit up and released her hand. Then, with a humble bow to the Abbess, she left the small room and shut the door behind her.
“My dear child,” the Abbess said, her tone grave as she moved around the table. “I would strongly advise you to drop out while you still can. The royal palace is no place for—someone like you.”
“Someone like me?” Carina returned sharply. “What? A half-blood?”
The Abbess snorted as she narrowed her eyes and folded her hands. “I know what you’re hiding, Child. And it is not the bruises or the condition of your birth that concern me but your mortal soul.”
Carina shifted uneasily but refused to look away.
‘Why is the Abbess concerned about my soul?’
“It’s not too late to turn back,” the Abbess cautioned. “They do not call the royal palace a den of wolves just to be poetic.” She reached out and gently tucked a strand of Carina’s hair behind her ear. “There is enough conflict, danger, and evil here to swallow up even the strongest soul.” The Abbess withdrew her hand, and for a moment, Carina thought she saw fear in the woman’s eyes. “Some paths one should avoid at all cost, Lady Maura.”
Carina blinked as she pulled away from the woman’s magnetic gaze and slid off the bed.
“I am too far down the path, Abbess Mercy,” Carina replied as she smoothed down her dress. “But, I thank you for the warning all the same.”
The Abbess expression shifted to one of neutral saintliness as she folded her hands and moved past Carina towards the door.
“Do not say I didn’t warn you,” the Abbess murmured as she passed. “And for your own sake, do not let them find out you’re a witch.”
Carina exhaled sharply as the Abbess opened the door and left. The silent nun waited outside with an inquisitive gaze.
Carina clasped her trembling hands together and stepped uncertainly towards the door.
Her mind scrambled to understand as she turned numbly to follow the nun down the hall.
‘No. It doesn’t matter.’
Carina hardened her resolve as the rose-colored sunlight of the chapel came into view.
‘Magic has always been a last resort. I don’t need magic to pass this stupid Selection or win the Crown Princess’s favor. I know the future. I’ve prepared for each and every scenario. I even know what will bring the royal family and Lafeara to its knees.’
She lifted her chin defiantly but smiled demurely as she entered the chapel and took her seat beside Lady Evelynn.
“And with that,” Lady Sabella said as she marked a name off her list. “We are now down to seven.”