Chapter 41: A Test of Grace
“And this is the Lily Palace, which is used to house visiting dignitary, royalty, and other important guests,” Lady Elouise explained as she led the candidates towards the towering entrance gates. Another of the Dowager’s ladies-in-waiting, Lady Elouise, had replaced Lady Sabella so the senior attendant could enjoy her lunch.
“Wow,” Tiffany gushed as she and the other young woman rushed past the two knights who opened the gates before them. “I can’t believe we’ll be staying here!”
“Are they all this massive?”
“The same architect oversaw the building of each palace over five centuries ago, so they are proportional in size,” Lady Elouise answered. “The King’s Peony Palace lies to the north end the royal city. The Queen’s Rose Palace is to the east, and the Dowager’s Iris Palace resides to the west.”
“Why are they named after flowers?” asked the young woman beside Tiffany.
“You don’t even know that much, Lady Gemma?” Evelynn replied in astonishment.
“The flowers each represent unique qualities and characteristics,” Carina answered patiently. “The first kings and queens of Lafeara chose these flowers as a visual reminder for future monarchs. For example, Lily represents ‘purity and passion.’ Purity illustrates the Royal Family’s openness to any peaceful alliance and friendship. Passion represents their pursuit and ambition in all negotiations and trades between our allies.”
“Is she a parrot?” exclaimed the noblewoman beside Evelynn. “What else is she trained to recite?”
“Lady Meredith!” Evelynn shushed as the other ladies sniggered and brushed past Carina inside the palace.
“Is that a ballroom?” Tiffany squealed from the front of the pack.
Carina suppressed a sigh as she joined them beneath the vast open archways, which revealed a grand ballroom that occupied half of the palace’s lower floor.
“Candidates, please!” Lady Elouise blocked them from entering the glittering room with a stern look. “You will have a chance to look at the ballroom later. Now, the Queen Regent has prepared a room and lunch for each of you upstairs so, please, follow me.”
Lady Elouise led the way towards the stairwell, and the candidates reluctantly followed.
“I can’t believe they gave us rooms in a palace!” Meredith whispered as she brushed past Carina to link arms with Evelynn. “And I can’t believe that thing is still here.”
“A virgin half-blood,” Evelynn murmured with a mocking smile. “Quite a rare commodity these days.”
Carina ignored the looks cast in her direction as she ascended the stairs.
“Don’t pay attention to them,” Tiffany urged beside Carina. “It was Lady Meredith’s cousin that got axed during the virtue examination after all.”
Meredith shot them both a withering glare before she turned back to Evelynn and asked, “Do you think the Earl will come to pay you a visit after the Selection is over?”
“I don’t know. Lord Percy has been terribly busy of late,” Evelynn answered as she blushed.
Maura frowned as she tried to work out the apparent connection between the Countess’ son and Lady Evelynn.
‘What had Acheron said? Something about Lady Evelynn being Percy’s pet?’
“Oh, I do hope he will,” Tiffany gushed as she closed in behind the chattering pair. “I hear he’s just as handsome as Lord Acheron and Crown Prince Nicholas. Though I’ve yet to catch a glimpse of him myself at any social gatherings.”
“As I’ve already said,” Evelynn replied coldly. “Lord Percy is a busy person. He just recently became the leader of the Aristocratic Party and will soon become a member of the House of Lords.”
“I thought he had only been nominated to the House of Lords?” Tiffany said, then hastily added, “He is truly a talented noble to be considered at only twenty years old.”
“Will you look at this one, I do believe she’s set her eyes on the poor Earl,” Meredith observed.
“What? N-no I—”
“A brand new baron’s daughter thinks she can become a Countess?” Meredith chortled in good humor. “That’s almost as comical as a half-blood acting like she’s a noble.”
“Excuse me,” Tiffany said meekly as she pushed past them to mingle with the other candidates.
Carina stopped at the landing and allowed the remaining candidates to pass her as she leaned against the wall.
“Perhaps she’s finally ready to slither back to wherever she came from.”
Carina ignored them as she pulled out her fan and waved it absently against her face. When the gaggle of strutting hens had moved out of sight, Carina moved closer to the marble statue of a woman holding a large vase on her shoulder with effortless elegance.
Carina measured the distance from the back right-hand corner of the statue to about three feet to the left and then ran her finger along the wall at waist height. Sure enough, one of the carved marble leaves in the wall gave way beneath her touch, and a hidden door creaked open. Carina peered through the crack into the dark, musty passage, then smiled as she firmly closed the secret entrance once more.
The four palaces located within Lafeara’s fortress-like walls were almost an exact replica of each other—except for the ballroom built into the Lily Palace. Because the palaces had all been constructed by the same architects and builders, they followed the same basic structure and design all the way down to the servant’s passageways and the communal door locks.
While modifications and alterations had been made over the years under the whims of each reigning monarch, the core structure and less visible features of the palace remained largely untouched.
Her future plans thus enforced; Carina climbed the stairs to rejoin her competition.
As promised, after their lunch break, Lady Elouise gathered the candidates and brought them downstairs to explore the ballroom.
Carina gazed up at the midnight black canvas painted with gold and silver lilies that stretched across the vast ceiling and captured a breathtaking imitation of the heavens above. The more Carina studied the painting, the more she realized that some of the stars appeared to be the eyes of crows or ravens, whose dark wings blended almost perfectly into the background. The sight of such ancient artistry and royal history was enough to silence all the candidates who gazed around the room lost in wonder.
The ballroom walls were lined with pillars engraved with gold oak leaves. Marble wolf statues marked several open alcoves that rested along the east wall. Servants were busy washing the glass doors and mirrors, dusting the crystal chandeliers, and polishing the marble floor and tiered platform where the three royal thrones rested on a plum-purple rug adorned by vases of lilies, ferns, and baby’s breath.
“They are preparing for the arrival of the Ambassador from Vetrayna,” Lady Elouise explained.
“The Ambassador is Crown Princess Eleanora’s uncle, isn’t he?” Tiffany asked curiously.
“Yes, that is correct, my Lady.”
There was detail and history throughout the room, no matter where one looked. From the walls etched with the images of wolves and crows chasing down stags and boars. To the painting of kings and queens behind the thrones. Cracks in the marble floor had been filled with gold, as a reminder of the great war during the seventh king’s reign, when the royal family had almost been wiped out by a rebellion led by the first Saint.
“You can finish sightseeing another time, candidates,” Lady Sabella said as she appeared behind them and clapped her hands. “We have two tests to complete before supper and not a moment to waste.”
Lady Elouise curtsied to the senior lady-in-waiting and excused herself.
“The first test,” Sabella continued, “Will evaluate your poise, elegance, and balance. You will each be paired up with a male partner and dance for the length of a song. Your partner and I will evaluate both your dance, elegance, and ability to entertain. If you are crippled, uncoordinated, overly clumsy, and heaven forbid—boring, you will be marked accordingly.”
Sabella led them to the center of the ballroom and formed them into a line as she continued. “The Queen of Lafeara is the rose of his Majesty’s garden. Her ladies must be the lilies that adorn her. Though a woman’s elegance should have been taught to you from birth, the selection helps to ensure that common weeds are plucked and removed before they can tarnish her Highness’s reputation.”
“But, Lady Sabella,” Meredith interjected as Sabella moved her into place along the line. “If the Selection is worried about the future Queen’s image and reputation—then why is a half-blood allowed to compete?”
“A what?” Sabella asked sharply. “Half-blood? Who?”
The remaining six candidates all turned their gaze towards Carina, who resisted the urge to cringe.
Sabella quickly marched towards her with horrified eyes. “This—you—a half-blood?”
Carina smiled politely and curtsied. “That is what some call me, though I prefer to go by Lady Maura.”
“Do not get flippant with me, girl!” Sabella snapped as she pulled out her list and scanned the names. “But yes, it appears you were admitted, though I am sure this must be some mistake. You—stand to the side. I’ll deal with you later.”
“Even if Lady Sabella feels it is a mistake, I received a letter of acceptance with the royal seal,” Carina replied calmly. “A seal placed there by the Queen Regent’s own hand, I’ve no doubt.”
“That—” Sabella’s lips clamped shut as her anger withered. “We shall see,” she added sourly. “Very well, you may remain, but I will be looking into your candidacy—assuming you make it to the end of the day.”
“And why shouldn’t she, Lady Sabella?” Acheron appeared flanked by three familiar figures. Carina’s heart rattled painfully within her chest as an unfriendly pair of violet eyes turned towards her. She quickly lowered her gaze to the floor.
“Your Majesty!” Lady Sabella curtsied as Acheron and Nicholas approached, followed by two knights. Carina and the other candidates hurriedly curtsied behind her. “I—was not expecting—”
“You asked me to find some suitable dance partners for these fine ladies, Lady Sabella. I think I’ve done an admirable job,” Acheron interjected with his usual playful charisma.
Carina cautiously glanced up and caught Acheron’s gaze. He smirked, winked, and she quickly looked away.
“Is there a problem with one of the candidates?” Nicholas asked curiously. “And please do rise, Lady Sabella.” Acheron cleared his throat. “The other ladies—no candidates, may rise as well,” Nicholas added politely.
Carina and the other candidates rose as instructed, but only a few dared to lift their gaze to meet that of their future King.
“Why—I’m not sure, your Majesty,” Lady Sabella answered nervously. “This one—” her hand flicked in Carina’s direction. “It seems she is a half-blood.”
Carina clenched her jaw and kept her gaze glued to the floor. Even with her limited view, she was keenly aware of the knight who stood to Nicholas left. She could feel without looking, those violet eyes bore into her with hostile intensity.
Her clenched hands trembled against her dress as her heart flung itself wildly against her chest.
‘Enough. I said I was done hiding. Let’s see what your killers are made of, Maura.’
Carina lifted her chin. She ignored the sudden tightness in her chest as she met Captain Beaumont’s cold gaze with one of her own.