Chapter 45: A Test of Knowledge
“Welcome Candidates,” Prime Minister Attwood said as the young ladies filed into the small room filled with desks and chairs. “This is where we conduct examinations of all noblemen who wish to serve as officials in court. As some of you might know, knowledge and wisdom are the cornerstones of the House of Lords and a widely respected characteristic of—” Attwood fell silent as Beaumont entered the room with Carina in his arms. “Ahh—ahem—if you’ll take a seat at any of the empty desks, I’ll explain the test you’re all about to take.”
“Test?” Tiffany asked with a hint of panic.
“What sort of test?” Meredith echoed uncertainly.
“Take your seats, Ladies,” Sabella snapped impatiently. “We’ve already held up the Prime Minister long enough. I won’t tolerate any further delays.”
Carina ignored the glare directed in her direction. She was heavily preoccupied with fighting the never-ending panic that rattled away inside her chest. Right now it was all she could do to focus on something—anything—but the man who held her.
‘Breathe. Just breathe.’
Beaumont glanced around the room and selected a desk near the back by an arched window. He headed towards it and glared at the unfortunate candidate who attempted to slip past him to claim it. The startled girl halted rigidly, then spun around to find another seat.
“Thank you,” Carina murmured as he set her down and pushed in her chair. She adjusted her injured foot cautiously beneath the desk as she avoided looking in his direction.
“I’ll be right outside,” Beaumont replied with a nod towards the window.
Carina offered a tight smile, nodded, and exhaled with relief when he turned and left the room.
“I wasn’t aware the first evaluation would be so dangerous?” Attwood observed as Sabella moved to stand beside him at the front of the room.
“A mere accident,” Sabella replied hastily.
“That giant of a bastard stepped on her foot,” Meredith explained as a few candidates sniggered around her.
Sabella cringed as Attwood focused his attention on Lady Meredith.
“Perhaps you should focus on passing the exam before you cast insults at my nephew,” Attwood remarked with an acidic tone.
The room fell deathly silent as Meredith dropped her gaze to her desk. Behind her, Evelynn shook her head sympathetically.
“As I was saying, knowledge and wisdom are two traits we look for in nobility,” Attwood continued. “Today, we will be evaluating the extent of your education as well as your ability to read and write.”
A few of the candidates groaned in protest.
“I’m aware that not all of you were given education beyond primary learning, which is why this score and the score from your last evaluation will be combined to calculate your total score for today’s evaluation.”
The young women whispered as Attwood lifted a stack of papers and walked between the desks to place an exam face down in front of each candidate.
“Answer each question to the best of your knowledge and ability. We’ve also left an essay question at the end that is optional. I encourage you to share your thoughts on that topic freely.”
Carina focused on the test before her as Attwood walked by her. She kept her gaze lowered as Sabella circled the room behind him. The senior attendant passed out ink wells, and quills to each candidate and then took a seat in the corner of the room.
“Well then, if everyone is ready,” Attwood said with a glance at his pocket-watch. “You may begin.”
Carina picked up her quill and dipped it carefully into the vial of ink. Around her, the flutter of pages and muffled groans filled the room. With a deep breath, Carina picked up her test, flipped it over, and scanned the first question. A satisfied smirk spread across her face as she wrote in the first answer with practiced, elegant penmanship.
Beaumont paced between the cherry trees outside the Ministry window. Once again, his height offered him an advantage, but the closed glass window frame made Maura little more than a blur.
He sighed as he glanced towards the setting sun. With any luck, he could drop her off at the Lily Palace and still make it back in time to escort the crown prince to dinner.
“Still here?” A familiar voice greeted.
Beaumont closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. Then he exhaled and turned to face his cousin.
“Is the test not over yet?” Acheron asked as he stopped beside Beaumont, grabbed the knight captain’s arm for support, and stood on tiptoes as he strained to look inside. “Can’t see a bloody thing through those windows.”
Beaumont shook off Acheron’s grip. “They had two hours to complete the test; there should still be ten minutes left.”
“Ahh, that’s good then,” Acheron replied with a nod towards another figure approaching them.
“Your Majesty,” Beaumont greeted the crown prince with a bow.
“They’re still not done?” Nicholas asked in a bored tone.
“A few more minutes left,” Acheron answered.
Nicholas stretched and stifled a yawn. “It’s about damn time.”
“Why don’t you let me replace you, cousin,” Acheron said with a conspiratorial wink. “Nicky boy wants to pay another visit to his mistress.”
“What did you call me?” Nicholas snapped.
“Your Highness,” Beaumont cut in quickly. “The Dowager made it clear you were to join her and the crown princess for dinner tonight.”
Nicholas sharp glare cut from cousin to cousin, and Beaumont knew they weren’t going to make it to the Rose Palace tonight—again.
The side Ministry door opened, and Lady Sabella appeared followed by a string of tired-looking candidates.
“Your Majesty!” The young women quickly recovered once they caught sight of Nicholas and Acheron.
Beaumont walked past the tide of skirts as they assaulted the crown prince with their gaze and flirtatious smiles.
‘Just what I need, another distraction to keep Nicholas from his duties.’
The door of the testing room stood open. Prime Minister Attwood looked up from his desk as Beaumont entered. His uncle smiled and nodded to where Maura lay against the desk with her eyes closed. Beaumont stared down at her mystified.
“She was the first one done,” Attwood observed as he tied the stack of tests together. Beaumont swiveled towards him, alarmed.
‘Had she simply given up because the questions were too hard?’
“She filled them all out,” Attwood said as if reading his mind. “You better get her back to the Lily Palace before the other candidates get too far ahead.”
“Yes, Prime Minister.” Beaumont inclined his head politely before he turned and gently touched Maura’s shoulder.
Her eyes fluttered open. Their icy-blue depths focused on his face as her confused expression shifted into one of terror. “You—!”
Beaumont retreated as his hand shifted reflexively to his sword. He stopped himself just before he gripped the hilt. The ominous pressure of danger sent a shrill of alarm through his blood as he stared back across the short distance into Maura’s intent, fearful gaze.
“Lady Maura!” Acheron’s voice crashed against Beaumont’s ears as his cousin stepped between them. “How was the test? I’m sure you did fine. Does your ankle hurt? You’re looking a bit pale.”
The tension evaporated, and Beaumont exhaled slowly, then stared, mystified, at the frozen breath of air before his face.
“Will you pick up the injured lady already so we can get going?” Nicholas called from the doorway. “You’ll have to escort Lady Maura back to the Lily palace since the other candidates have already left.”
“Ahh, your Majesty,” Attwood called out as he turned back towards them. “Any plans for the evening?”
“No—Prime Minister,” Nicholas said tensely.
“Good, then you can help me evaluate these tests. I included an essay on possible trade commodities. Since women spend more coin and time shopping compared to men, this should be an enlightening read. Acheron, you can help as well. Three pairs of eyes are better than one.”
Acheron and Nicholas exchanged resigned glances.
“Yes, Father,” Acheron replied first.
“Yes, Prime Minister,” Nicholas echoed with a sigh. His gaze moved sharply towards Beaumont with a glare that seemed to suggest this was somehow his fault. “Well? Are you going to carry Lady Maura, or do you need me to do that as well?”
“Ah—yes, your Majesty,” Beaumont replied gruffly. His legs seemed unsteady as Acheron stepped back, and Maura appeared before him once more, though her blue eyes remained averted. The venomous fury in them had faded, but as he reached down to lift her in his arms, he couldn’t help but notice the way she flinched.