Chapter 53: Wolves in the Garden
“I see we’re all here,” Sabella observed as Beaumont and Carina joined the remaining candidates on the first floor beside the ballroom. “Well, then as some of you may have noticed, we are now down to five candidates. Lady Saffron and Lady Viviana were eliminated early this morning and will be leaving after they’ve had a chance to pack.”
“Wait—” Meredith stammered “—you mean the half-blood isn’t cut yet?”
The gaze of the other four remaining candidates, which included Lady Meredith, Lady Evelynn, Lady Tiffany, and a Lady Kaitlin, all turned towards Carina with various degrees of surprise, suspicion, and disappointment.
“Not to worry, Lady Meredith,” Sabella answered, her expression turning sour. “We still have two more evaluations to get through today. Those of you who manage to make it to the end will meet Crown Princess Eleanora tomorrow when she will make her final choice for her ladies-in-waiting.”
“I just don’t understand why the half-blood hasn’t been cut when she’s practically a liability,” Meredith whispered loudly to Evelynn. “Not to mention, disabled.”
Evelynn frowned and shrugged. “Perhaps she appealed to the Countess of Hawthorne for help,” she replied with a sharp glance towards Carina. None of the other ladies offered their opinions as they trailed after Sabella towards the front door.
“Ignore them,” Beaumont whispered as he followed at the end of the line of skirts. “You’re smarter than all of them combined.”
Carina glanced up at him curiously and quickly lowered her gaze. It was the first time since she had entered the palace that anyone had paid her a genuine compliment. Not that she had much experience before coming here.
“I’ll catch up with you later, Captain,” Nicholas called after them as he pulled a reluctant Acheron in the opposite direction.
“Good luck, Lady Maura!” Acheron shouted as he waved—and winked, in their direction.
“Are you sure you shouldn’t be watching over them?” Carina asked, troubled by the odd behavior of both the crown prince and the rogue.
“If it’s—to uncomfortable for you—” Beaumont’s violet eyes flickered down to hers with a conflicted expression. “I can—ask another knight too—”
“No,” Carina replied quickly. “I mean, it doesn’t matter—I’m grateful to you for assisting me. I’m sure you’d rather be with the crown prince.”
“Actually,” Beaumont hesitated “It’s nice to have someone else worry about him for a change.”
A laugh snuck past Carina’s lips and Beaumont looked down at her surprised.
“Sorry, you—” Carina chuckled and shook her head, “—reminded me of someone I used to know just then.” His brows furrowed curiously, and as his stare lingered, Carina felt her stomach grow cold. She quickly averted her gaze. “Never mind.”
Lady Sabella led them towards the center of Lafeara’s Palace stronghold and a towering wall of trimmed box hedges.
“Candidates, this will be the first time here for most of you,” Sabella said with a hint of pride. “Behold, the Royal Garden.”
They passed through a stone edged archway overgrown by creeping burgundy vines and entered a utopia Carina had only ever glimpsed from the outside in Maura’s memories.
A vast courtyard of floral trees, bushes, and flowers bloomed and sparkled beneath the morning dew. The wind carried a paradise of bird songs and nectar as it swept toward them in greeting. Stone carved pathways circled the hedge borders and led towards the magnificent Royal Fountain at the center of the garden.
“Follow me,” Sabella ordered, looking refreshed herself as she led them forward. “Remember, only members of the royal court may enter here freely. Otherwise, you must avoid entering without permission.”
“Wait, who’s that over there? Isn’t that Lady Priscilla?” asked Kaitlin as she pointed towards an elegantly dressed noble lord and young lady.
“And I believe that’s her father, Marquess Borghese,” Evelynn confirmed as the distant pair strolled towards an alternate exit.
“The Marquess is a member of the House of Lords, so Lady Priscilla is almost always here,” Meredith said with a hint of bitterness.
“Speaking of which there is something I’ve always been a bit confused about,” Tiffany chimed in. “Wasn’t Lady Priscilla engaged to the Crown Prince Nicholas previously?”
“Not officially,” Evelynn corrected as she extended her fan to cover her mouth. “But if Tristan had remained the Crown Prince—it’s possible they might have been married,” she added in a whisper.
“You would do well not to speak of the late First Prince,” Sabella cautioned as she turned towards them. She cleared her throat and gestured with her fan towards another row of hedges and a closed iron door. “That is the western garden which is reserved exclusively for the royal family—” she fixed them all with a sharp, warning stare, “—it is forbidden for anyone else to enter. So keep to the rest of the garden unless you care to have your neck pruned by an ax.” She snipped her fingers dramatically, and Tiffany hiccupped as she clutched her throat.
“That seems—excessive,” Kaitlin said hesitantly.
The closer they drew to the fountain, the quicker all thoughts of forbidden gardens and bloody axes faded from the candidates’ minds.
An intricate marble work of art portrayed the first Queen of Lafeara dancing in a pool surrounded by wolves who played beside her or drank from the glimmering basin.
“This is Queen Narah,” Sabella said as the candidates circled the fountain. “The first Queen of Lafeara and the Mother of Wolves.”
The candidates crowded in closer to examine the worn smiling expression on the queen’s marble face. The statue’s crown glittered in the sunlight with sapphires and diamonds embedded within its carved royal tiara. The intricate details of her flowing dress, and the fur of her wolf companions against the moving water created the illusion they might break free from the fountain at any moment.
After a while, the candidates soon grew bored and wandered off to explore the wide variety of roses that grew around the fountain.
“You can set me down there,” Carina suggested as she pointed to a bench by the fountain.
“Ah—yes,” Beaumont murmured. He lowered her with unnerving care and awkwardly stood a few feet from her.
‘It’s like I’ve inherited a permanent shadow,’ Carina observed with a sigh.
Sabella’s gaze flickered between the candidates and the garden as she glanced at her pendant watch anxiously. Then her eyes caught upon a small group approaching them, and she hastily called out, “Candidates! Back in line, quickly!”
Carina raised a hand to shield her eyes from the sun and identified the cause for Sabella’s concern. The Queen Regent of Lafeara, Grand Dowager Octavia, was headed in their direction, and she was accompanied by none other than Lady Hana.