Chapter 47: An Examination of Truth
Nicholas sighed as he finished marking yet another question wrong on the candidate’s test. Then he rolled his neck from side to side before he flipped the page over and skimmed the very brief essay on What would make a valuable trade commodity for Lafeara?
“To make the Holy Maiden Boutique a nationally recognized treasure,” Nicholas read aloud with sarcastic bravado. “Are all women this obsessed with clothes?” he asked as he held the essay up for Acheron and Attwood.
“I don’t know,” Acheron snickered. “When’s the last time your mistress asked for a dress?”
“She doesn’t ask for gifts,” Nicholas replied as he tossed the exam aside to pick up the next one. “Rosamund isn’t one to fuss over such nonsense.”
“Well, she is a commoner,” Acheron quipped with a shrug. “I’m sure she’s satisfied with other things.”
Nicholas grabbed an apple from his half-eaten plate and flung it at the rogue who caught it and grinned cheekily.
Attwood cleared his throat discouragingly as he continued to mark and read through his pile of exams.
“At least Lady Evelynn scored well,” Nicholas said with a satisfied smirk. “I should hate to think the future Countess of Hawthorne would be a complete nitwit.”
Acheron scowled at his apple. “I didn’t think that match was official yet?”
Nicholas shrugged. “It is if Grandmother has anything to do with it,” he said glumly. “Even I can’t escape a marriage arranged by the Dowager.”
Acheron shook his head and stabbed the apple with a knife before cleanly cutting it in half. “Must she make all my friends miserable.”
Nicholas chuckled at his friend’s sour expression. “You’re one to talk. Don’t think I didn’t notice your attempts today.”
Acheron chewed on a piece of apple with a puzzled frown. “What do you mean?”
“Lady Maura and your cousin,” Nicholas replied with a nod to where Beaumont slept awkwardly by the door on a sofa too small for his massive size. “You’re trying to set him up with her, aren’t you?”
Acheron blinked. “I—what? No—no, no, no!” He snorted and laughed. “Whatever gave you that idea?”
Nicholas narrowed his eyes. “Then why did you drag him along to that dance? And you paired him up with Lady Maura? You know Beaumont hates dancing.”
“Where you go, he goes,” Acheron answered with a shrug. “And I thought she’d be less intimidated by someone closer to her social status.”
Nicholas frowned and returned to the exam before him. “I see, well that’s a shame.”
Acheron chuckled and shook his head. “Which of us is playing matchmaker?”
Nicholas shrugged. “I thought they looked rather good together.”
“My cousin?” Acheron raised both of his eyebrows to the heavens. “The emotionless giant?”
Attwood’s chair scraped against the floor as he stood, eyes glued to the page he had been reading for a while.
Nicholas and Acheron went silent as they watched him carry the exam to his private desk and rifle through the papers there.
“Something wrong, Prime Minister?” Nicholas asked.
“A moment, your Majesty,” Attwood muttered with a distracted look at the exam.
Acheron rolled his eyes and sighed as he returned to grading his test. He squinted at the scribbled answers and groaned. “I swear a pig wrote this one!” He spun the exam around and shoved it to Nicholas. “Can you read that?”
Nicholas leaned across the table, squinted, and shrugged. “Looks closer to a chicken’s writing if you ask me.”
“Do I mark it as right or wrong if I can’t read it, Father?” Acheron yelled across the room.
“How would I normally score an answer I can’t read?” Attwood barked back as he rummaged through his drawers.
“Got it,” Acheron replied. “Sorry, Lady Saffron, better work on penmanship next time. Wrong, wrong, wrong—nope still wrong.”
Nicholas finished grading his test, added it to the pile, and pushed back his chair to stand and stretch.
“Ah-ha!” Attwood exclaimed triumphantly.
Acheron and Nicholas both glanced over as he rushed back to the table, pushed the exam papers aside, and placed an official document before Nicholas.
“This is a recent business proposal and application for a Royal Ambassador sent to the Royal Merchant’s Guild by a Mr. Frost,” Attwood explained.
“Okay?” Nicholas raised a brow as he glanced over the document. “Why is this important?”
“Mr. Frost is someone the Merchant’s Guild regard as a soothsayer. Every business, invention, and trade commodity he has ever invested in has achieved unparalleled success. What’s more, he recently submitted this patent of his own design by which to make and mass-produce soap.” He paused and held out a small polished wood box to Nicholas. “Like this one.”
The crown prince accepted the box and opened the engraved lid.
“Is this soap or cake?” Nicholas asked as he lifted the pink bar decorated with petals from the paper-lined box.
“Soap, your Majesty.”
Nicholas sniffed it. “Hmm, it’s quite refreshing.” He passed the bar to Acheron, who sniffed and nodded his approval. “I assume the Merchant’s Guild approved his request.”
“Well, not as yet,” Attwood explained hesitantly. “Mr. Frost’s request for a Royal Ambassador was very specific. He means to fund the entire enterprise for the product and future shops, so the ambassador would only need help the product attain popularity in the capital and among the nobles.”
“Oh, so who did he ask for?” Nicholas took the soap back from Acheron and smelled it again. “And can I keep this one? I know someone who would enjoy it.” He smiled at the thought of Rosamund lathered in soap bubbles and smelling like flowers.
“Ah, that—” again Attwood hesitated. “This bar of soap and the proposal for ambassador were to be given to the Crown Princess.”
Nicholas’s jaw tightened as he passed the soap back to Attwood and sat down. “By all means, send it to her,” he said with cold disinterest. “I’m sure she’ll enjoy being Patron of another store that women will flock to.”
Acheron smiled sympathetically at his friend before he regarded the exam paper his father still held curiously. “Why did you show this to us now?”
“Oh—Ah!” Attwood held out the exam to Acheron. “Lady Maura’s essay covered the importance of soap to public health as well as its benefits when used as a luxury trade item. For example, it can be stored indefinitely and has medicinal benefits when mixed with the right herbs. Some of the details she listed reminded me of Mr. Frost’s application for a Royal Patron.”
Acheron took the exam and read over it with eager interest.
“Honestly, it was refreshing to read such a well thought out argument,” Attwood continued as he folded up the patent application and returned it and the soap to his desk. “She also got perfect marks on the exam.”
“She—what?” Nicholas sat up and snatched the exam from Acheron.
“Hey, I was reading that!”
Nicholas flipped to the front and scanned the questions and answers one by one. The exam was designed to cover a broad range of topics and served as a grading tool for squires who wished to become knights as well as nobles who wanted to become court officials. While there were different passing requirements for each vocation, no one had ever attained a perfect score on the exam before.
He flipped to the math section, grabbed Lady Evelynn’s test, and compared the two. “Hell’s Teeth,” he muttered.
Acheron snorted at his friend’s coarse language. “I can’t believe Lady Maura scored better than I did,” he murmured wryly. “Or you for that matter,” he added with a grin.
“Shut up,” Nicholas growled and tossed the exam to the center of the table. “Isn’t it obvious?” he added with a confident sneer as he leaned back in his chair. “Lady Maura cheated.”
“What?” Acheron froze as he reached for Maura’s exam.
“Your Majesty!” Attwood protested.
“She’s a half-blood, Attwood!” Nicholas snapped. “Even if Countess Constance tutored her, that doesn’t explain these scores!” He jabbed at the exam and snorted in disbelief. “You said her answer reminded you of this Frost’s patronage application? Perhaps she merely read that and borrowed from it as well.”
Attwood smiled patiently as he sat down beside Acheron. “And how do you propose she did that? The document was kept locked up in the Royal Merchant’s Guild due to Frost’s prominent status in the Trade Industry. Afterward, it was brought here and locked in my desk drawer.”
“Well, if that’s the case, the only possible way Maura could have seen it would be if she knew Mr. Frost herself,” Acheron muttered and quickly snorted. “Which is highly unlikely. Honestly, Nicholas, you do her a disservice.”
“Then how do you explain her scores?” Nicholas snapped.
“For someone pushing a commoner as your future consort, you show a lot of prejudice to Lady Maura just because she’s a half-blood,” Acheron remarked sourly.
Nicholas’ hand over the exam tightened into a fist. “Leave Rosamund out of this,” he snapped.
“Boys—” Attwood said cautiously. “It’s late. Perhaps you should both head off to bed.” He nodded to the corner of the room, where Beaumont snored peacefully. “And take that one with you.”
“And Lady Maura’s exam?” Acheron asked as he pushed his chair back.
“I understand she was injured during the dance evaluation,” Attwood remarked thoughtfully.
“Yes,” Acheron confirmed.
“Then she will have enough challenges ahead without us assuming the worst of her.”
“So, you’re not going to investigate this?” Nicholas snapped.
“I never said that,” Attwood replied. “Indeed, I’ll be watching her results in the rest of the Selection quite closely.”
“To catch her if she cheats again?”
“To see just how clever she is.” Attwood stood up and bowed. “Good night, your Majesty.” The Prime Minister silently gathered up the exams. He placed Maura’s on top when he finished.
“Good night, Prime Minister.” Nicholas turned and headed towards his sleeping bodyguard. He kicked the knight captain’s foot impatiently. “Up, Beaumont, we’re headed to the Peony Palace.” The knight grunted and hugged the pillow trapped in his massive arms.
Acheron stepped past the crown prince and slapped Beaumont’s cheeks. “Get up, you big oaf!”
“I’m awake!” Beaumont growled as his eyes snapped open and he glared at Acheron. Then his gaze shifted to Nicholas, and he hastily climbed to his feet. “Sorry, your Majesty.”
“Never mind,” Nicholas shook his head and headed for the door.
Acheron moved to follow, but the knight captain caught his arm.
“How did Lady Maura do?” Beaumont asked groggily.
Acheron smirked. “She got a perfect score. Though some—” he glared after Nicholas, “—believe that she cheated.”
Beaumont dropped his hand, looking equally stunned and worried. “But that’s—impossible,” he murmured.