Chapter 42: A Dance of Courage
“I see,” Nicholas said gravely as he turned his gaze towards Carina. “That is most unusual.”
Carina couldn’t be bothered with the crown prince right now. Her gaze was locked in a silent battle with the violet eyes of the knight captain beside him. Captain Beaumont stared back at her with the same callous expression Carina remembered from Maura’s memories and her own nightmares.
‘The look of a butcher appraising his future kill.’
She could already feel the ice forming like tiny splinters under her fingernails as Carina tightened her grip on the folds of her dress.
‘Damn it. Calm down, Carina.’
“Lady Maura,” Acheron greeted her as he stepped forward. “Allow me to introduce you.”
The annoyingly helpful rogue obscured Beaumont from her sight. Carina blinked rapidly as her clenched fingers slowly relaxed though her muscles remained taut and coiled.
Acheron took her hand and offered an encouraging smile as he held her ice-cold fingers between his thumb and forefinger. His grip was warm, and when Carina looked down at her fingers, she was relieved to see no trace of frost upon them.
“This handsome devil here,” Acheron said as he wrapped her hand around his arm and pulled her from the line of cadets towards Nicholas. “Is my oldest friend and—rumor has it—our future king, Crown Prince Nicholas.”
Nicholas raised an eyebrow at Acheron but extended a polite smile to Carina as he tilted his head towards her.
‘Well—wasn’t he unexpectedly polite.’
“Greetings, your Majesty,” Carina returned with a graceful curtsey.
“Lady Maura is Countess Hawthorne’s protegee,” Acheron explained with enthusiasm as if he were revealing some dark secret.
The polite mask Nicholas wore shifted ever so slightly. “Countess Constance?” Nicholas murmured with a sardonic smile. “So, you have the backing of my future queen’s family, Lady Maura?”
There was something in his tone that implied he was less than impressed by this. Carina’s grip on Acheron’s arm tightened as she pondered—not for the first time—if the rogue was actually trying to sabotage her.
“Ah well—” Acheron appeared caught off guard by Nicholas’s sour disapproval. “She has my backing as well.’
‘Helpful or not, Acheron appears determined to meddle…’
Nicholas turned to his friend with a concerned expression then laughed loudly. “That isn’t much of a recommendation, by comparison, Acheron,” he chided with a relaxed smile. “Perhaps we should resume the evaluation. Lady Sabella, I believe you needed us to dance with the candidates?”
“I—yes, your Majesty,” Sabella answered. “But—for them to dance so easily with their future king—”
“I am here as a humble dance partner, nothing more,” Nicholas interjected quickly.
Carina bit back a laugh at his self-description. ‘Humble? That will be the day.’
“That’s the spirit, Nicholas,” Acheron approved cheerfully. “And we have Captain Beaumont and Sir Malcolm as well, Lady Sabella.”
“I’m sure the ladies will be ever so grateful,” Sabella answered. “But—” she glanced over towards Beaumont, who towered above them all. “Are Captain Beaumont and Sir Malcolm adequate dancers?”
“You wound me, Lady Sabella,” Acheron replied as he clutched his chest. “Though I’ve just met Sir Malcolm today, I’ve been assured he possesses impressive footwork.”
Sir Malcolm blushed as he bowed his head in greeting.
Sabella scoffed and shook her head. “Very well, my Lords, please select two partners. You will dance with each of them once for the length of a song. Afterward, I would ask that you fill out these slips with an appropriate score for each category. Please mark your evaluation score between one and ten.”
Sabella handed them each two slips of paper and then turned back to the candidates who nervously whispered as they eyed up their potential dance partners. “Candidates, your scores will be added to the results of the second evaluation that will take place right after we have finished here. The two candidates with the lowest total combined scores will be eliminated from the Selection.”
The candidates glanced at each other in alarm.
“Though,” Sabella continued with a glance at Carina, “That is not to say you cannot be cut for other reasons.”
“You have a fan, I see,” Acheron whispered as Sabella moved off to speak with the pianist.
Carina shrugged. She wasn’t exactly surprised by the biased behavior of nobles anymore.
“Then, please, my Lords,” Sabella called out, “Choose your first partner.”
As the crown prince and knights considered the candidates before them, Carina glanced at her hand wrapped around Acheron’s arm. For once, she was grateful for his company, especially considering who the other alternatives were.
“Not to worry,” Acheron said with a mischievous smile. “I know better than to offer my assistance when unasked. Besides, I have a much better partner in mind for you.”
“Lady Maura, I’ve been dying to introduce you two. This is my cousin, Captain Beaumont!”
Beaumont blinked down in surprise as his cousin promptly deposited the equally startled Lady Maura before him.
“Have fun, you two,” Acheron said with a smirk as he turned on his heels and left them to greet Lady Meredith. “A dance, my Lady?”
“Lord Acheron,” Meredith giggled as she accepted his offered hand. “You do have quite a sense of humor.” She glanced over to where Maura and Beaumont stood frozen facing each other. “A bastard and a half-blood? How perfectly matched they are.”
The knuckles in Beaumont’s hands popped as his fists tightened. He exhaled sharply and glared down at the young woman, whose bright blue eyes stared back up at him with an expression of alarm.
“Whenever you’re ready!” Lady Sabella called out as Nicholas led a delighted Evelynn to the floor, and Malcolm matched up with his sister, Tiffany.
The piano began to play, and still, Beaumont could not move as he stared awkwardly over his silent partner’s head.
‘What is a half-blood doing here? Why was she dumped on me? Is this what Acheron had in mind all along to humiliate me?’
“Don’t worry, Captain Beaumont,” Lady Maura murmured. The coldness of her tone pulled his gaze back to her face as she stepped forward boldly and pulled his right hand to her waist. “It’s just a dance. It will be over soon.”
A chill ran down his spine as she linked the fingers of her right hand with his left. Caught off guard, he followed as she stepped to the side. The many dance lessons his mother had forced him to endure took over, and they were moving to the music before he could recover and voice his protests.
Maura was shorter than most of the other contestants, which made him feel all the more a giant by comparison. It took them a moment to match their strides, but not once did she falter or step on his toes. Her expression was tensely focused, but her gaze remained averted as if she were just as annoyed by their pairing.
‘Why? It’s my reputation that’s at risk here. This is all my stupid cousin’s doing. As always, Acheron thinks of nothing but his own amusement.’
The ridiculousness of Acheron’s meddling distracted Beaumont from the waltz. A sudden gust of wind through an open ballroom window muted the sound of the piano, and for a moment, he lost his place in the rhythm. His foot trod upon something small, and Maura gasped, stumbled, and almost tripped into his chest. Beaumont cringed as he caught her and quickly retracted his foot from hers. Embarrassment flooded his cheeks as he steadied her, and they fell out of step with the other dancers. Her frigid-blue eyes shot him a reproachful look as she straightened her spine, and they finished their dance to the last sequence of a dying song.
“Very good!” Lady Sabella’s voice brought Beaumont back to the ballroom, and he quickly released Maura as he stepped back.
“Thank you, Sir Beaumont,” Maura muttered as she offered him a stiff curtsey.
He bowed in response but made no offer of empty platitudes, not that she seemed to notice or care as she turned to leave him.
Beaumont sighed as he faced the remaining three candidates. Hopefully, he’d be lucky, and the other three would fill in so he wouldn’t have too. He observed Acheron and Nicholas filling out some slips of paper and recalled Lady Sabella’s instructions. Pulling the crumbled scorecard from his pocket, Beaumont eyed the columns uncertainly.
Out of the corner of his eye, Beaumont saw Lady Maura stumble. He looked up quickly as she straightened, but then a few feet later, she stumbled again, seemingly on nothing. Her back was rigid as she paused for a moment and shifted her weight onto her left foot.
She took another step forward, and this time—she collapsed.
“Lady Maura!” Acheron rushed to her side as the entire room shifted its attention in the half-blood’s direction.
‘Don’t tell me…’
“I’m fine,” Maura said as she reached towards her right foot.
“Are you sure?” Acheron asked as he followed her gesture. “You appear to be injured.”
“I may have—twisted my ankle,” Maura replied.
“What nonsense,” Meredith called out as she followed her dance partner. “You tripped over nothing just then. Please stop this disgusting act—no matter how poor your dancing was, that’s no reason to feign an injury.”
“Quite right,” Sabella added with a satisfied smirk.
“Wait,” Beaumont said hastily as he approached his cousin. “I—I did accidentally step on her foot while we were dancing.”
“You big oaf,” Acheron said, exasperated. “Lady Maura, you should have said something.”
“I didn’t think it was serious,” Maura replied as she sucked in her lip. But it wasn’t pain that flashed across her ice-blue eyes only frustration. When she glanced in his direction, Beaumont averted his gaze.
‘No, wait, why should I feel guilty? It was an accident. She should be grateful I admitted to it!’
“Getting stepped on is just a part of dancing,” Evelynn said with a sigh as she walked over with Nicholas at her side. “Either way, we should get a physician to examine her. Then we’ll know if Lady Maura is faking or actually injured.”
“No need to call a physician,” Nicholas stated as he knelt beside Acheron.
Meredith gasped, and Maura stiffened as Nicholas tossed aside the hem of her dress and examined the foot she had been holding.
“She’s not lying,” Nicholas observed with a hint of sympathy as he touched the already swollen joint. “That’s a pretty bad sprain.” The crown prince glanced over his shoulder towards Beaumont with an amused smirk. “Just how hard did you step on her, Captain?”
Beaumont could feel his face bleeding like a tomato, but he directed his anger at the one who most deserved it—his troublesome cousin, Acheron.