Chapter 54: The Queen of Wolves
“Greetings, Queen Regent,” Sabella paid her respects as she and the candidates curtsied before the Dowager. Captain Beaumont bowed beside Carina, who bent at the waist while seated.
“Good morning, Lady Sabella,” Octavia greeted warmly. She patted Lady Hana’s hand firmly and smiled at her reproachfully as the lady-in-waiting attempted to pull away. “Candidates, allow me to introduce you to Lady Hana, who will be a senior lady-in-waiting to those of you fortunate enough to win the Crown Princess’s approval.”
The candidates glanced up curiously at the fragile beauty beside the cold, domineering Dowager and kept silent. Behind the Dowager stood five knights, who each carried a white porcelain vase.
“No doubt you’re all wondering why you’ve been brought to the Royal Garden as part of your evaluation,” Octavia said and motioned for them to rise. “Allow me to present the answer.” She clapped her hands, and the knights presented a vase to each candidate.
Carina smiled with relief as Beaumont accepted her vase. Another phase of the Selection, the flower arrangement evaluation, was unfolding according to plan. With the Hawthorne garden at her disposal and Constance’s guidance, Carina had more than enough experience with floral displays. She had also made use of her work by sending them as gifts to various members of Mr. Frost investment company like Sir Bryson.
What Carina didn’t understand was how flower arrangement served as an appropriate means of evaluating a lady-in-waiting?
Maura’s memories had only glimpsed the victors and their vases when they left the Royal Garden in the original Selection. She herself had never seen past the garden’s stone archways which left Carina little in the way of knowledge to work with, aside from a map of the garden that Constance had slyly planned out in advance. The map detailed the location of specific flowers, paths, exits, and even the blank western corner of the forbidden garden.
Carina had thought such preparation overkill—but now, given her current limitations, she was grateful to Constance for making her commit that piece of paper to memory.
“You have two hours to gather and present a display of flowers using what nature and the royal gardeners have provided you inside this garden,” Octavia explained as she fanned herself and walked, arm in arm with Lady Hana, before them. “When you are finished, Lady Hana and I shall judge the results. Isn’t that right, Lady Hana?”
“Yes, Queen Regent,” Hana whispered, her discomfort palpable.
“But before we send these ladies off to fill their bouquets, we should appreciate what lovely flowers they are,” Octavia cooed with a wink at Evelynn and an appreciative nod at Tiffany. She paused in front of Carina and eyed Captain Beaumont behind her. “This—is the half-blood, Lady Sabella?”
“Yes, Queen Regent,” Sabella said with a tight smile.
Carina stiffened as Octavia released Hana’s arm and moved closer. A sickeningly sweet fragrance filled the air between them as Octavia stroked Carina’s cheek with a soft chuckle. “This one is especially delicate and pretty, isn’t she, Lady Hana?”
Hana’s eyes narrowed at the Dowager, but she remained silent as she refused to look at Carina.
“Forgive me for not greeting you properly, Queen Regent,” Carina said, almost choking beneath the awkward tension.
“Nonsense,” Octavia murmured with a sweet smile. “I’ve already heard about your unfortunate accident—”her cerulean-blue eyes flicked towards Beaumont, who flushed and lowered his gaze, “—but I see you are in capable hands. Good luck, Lady Maura.”
Carina’s nails tightened into the fabric of her sleeves as she smiled back and bowed her head politely. “Thank you, Queen Regent.”
“Now then,” Octavia swept back towards the center of the candidates and clapped her hands. A knight presented each candidate with a pair of pruning scissors and gloves. “Your two hours starts now. May the Saint smile upon you all.”
With those words, the Dowager nodded to Sabella, who lifted a bell and shook it. The sharp ring startled the candidates, and Tiffany almost dropped her vase with a gasp.
“Ah,” Octavia said with a faint cringe. “Perhaps you should leave the vases here while you gather up flowers. Sabella and I will keep an eye on them.”
“Thank you, Queen Regent!” Tiffany said as she and the others set their vases down carefully and scurried off into the garden.
Carina turned and raised her left arm as Beaumont lifted her up once more.
“Where to?” he asked once she was comfortable.
Carina bit her lip as she recalled the map committed to memory. “I have an idea,” she murmured, “but—”
‘Is the evaluation really meant to be this simple? With the Dowager overseeing this evaluation herself—there has to be more to it than flower arrangements.’
Carina pointed to the vase left on the bench “We need to bring that with us.”
Beaumont raised his eyebrows worriedly. “Are you sure.”
“I can carry it,” Carina answered firmly. “As long as you don’t drop me, we should be fine.”
His arms tightened around her as he muttered, “I won’t drop you.”
Hana squirmed uncomfortably on the edge of the water fountain.
‘Surely, Eleanora will be back soon.’
The Crown Princess had gone horseback riding to, “work up an appetite.” Hana, who was terrified of horses, remained behind and decided to go for a morning stroll in the Royal Garden. A decision she quickly regretted after bumping into the Dowager.
Hana sighed as she stroked the clear water of the fountain’s pool. She enjoyed the cold that nipped against her slender fingers as the warm sun and a gentle breeze caressed her neck and arms.
“You look tired, my dear,” Octavia observed as she sat beside Hana with a concerned look. “And paler than normal. Is everything alright?”
Hana shifted away from the Dowager. “I—didn’t sleep well—it’s nothing.”
She wasn’t about to tell Octavia about the nightmare that had plagued her of late. She couldn’t even bring herself to mention it to Eleanora, not that her lover would take something as silly as dreams seriously.
‘Besides its probably just my nerves acting up again. Eleanora’s marriage, moving to the castle, the Dowager’s threats and games, Eleanora and Nicholas fighting…’
“Well, fresh air and a hearty breakfast should do the trick,” Octavia murmured sympathetically. “Speaking of which, I trust the candidates haven’t eaten yet, Lady Sabella?”
“No, Queen Regent,” Sabella answered with a curtsy.
“Excellent,” Octavia said and chuckled. “Have the knights bring something for Lady Hana and myself.”
Sabella nodded and moved to where two knights remained attentively by the garden path.
“Hunger has always been a great motivator,” Octavia observed as she brushed a loose lock of Hana’s blonde hair behind her ear. “It wears down the mind, body, and spirit without leaving a trace.”
“Are you going to starve them?”
“Oh hardly,” Octavia replied with an amused smile. “But two hours in the sun on an empty stomach should more than do the trick.”
“I don’t understand—what’s the point?” Hana asked. “They might not even take two hours to finish.”
“Patience,” Octavia replied with a smile. “Flower arrangement isn’t the only part of this exam.” She opened her parasol and held it over Hana. “The sun will make her hot. The effort of hunting down flowers will make her limbs tired and her skin sweat. And just when she thinks she’s finished—she’ll start to compare her bouquet to the other candidates. That’s when the hunger will bring out her baser instincts to win.”
“What if it makes them want to quit instead?” Hana suggested uneasily.
“They wouldn’t have made it this far if they weren’t capable,” Octavia responded confidently. “Each candidate has her reason for wanting this position. Unlike yourself, their motivations are focused on obtaining something from the Crown Princess. Power and influence that is their end goal. They will only continue to support her as long as she is of use to them. The more desperate they are to obtain her power, the more they will risk to get it.”
Hana shivered beneath the shade of the parasol. “You want them to turn on each other?”
“I want to uncover the weakest among them,” Octavia answered with a confident smile. She turned her attention to the vases. “Lady Sabella, have a table brought out and place all the vases on it together.”
“Yes, Queen Regent.”
“Let’s give them as much access to each other as we can.”
Carina sat upon the garden lawn beneath a cherry tree as she finished tucking the last lavender rose into her bouquet. Beaumont ducked under the cherry blossoms to silently check on her progress.
The arrangement of purple hydrangea, lavender rose, purple alstroemeria, purple stock, and pink cherry blossoms accented with green eucalyptus was the result of the last hour spent combing, pruning, and gathering from the garden’s abundant resources.
“What do you think?” Carina asked as she brushed loose hair from her face, unaware of the smudge of green she left behind in its place.
“I—” Beaumont dropped his gaze and shrugged. “It’s purple.”
Carina smirked at his response and played with the remaining lavender stocks in her lap. “Yes, that used to be my favorite color.”
Carina shook her head and pulled a small pendant watch from her waist pocket. “There’s still an hour left,” she noted aloud.
“Should we head back?” Beaumont asked, self-consciously tugging at the uniform that now clung to his bulky arms and chest after walking around in the sweltering heat.
“No, there’s no need to rush back.” ‘The less interaction I have with the other candidates the better.’
She glanced up at the knight captain who towered above her and wondered what she would have done without his help—or to be more specific, his legs.
“Captain.” Carina patted the ground beside her. “Why don’t you rest for a while?”
“I’m fine,” he said gruffly as he attempted to straighten and bumped into the lower branches of the cherry tree.
“But—” she tried not to laugh “—it’s difficult to speak to you when you’re all the way up there.”
Beaumont glanced down, uncertainty visible upon his face, and then slowly descended to kneel in the grass beside her.
Carina flicked a glance towards him. The edge of his silver-blonde hairline was damp with sweat, as was his collar, and the sides of his jacket where the heavy fabric hugged his body. She didn’t envy him the fancy uniform. At least her dress, ridiculous though it was in this weather, allowed her some room to breathe.
His violet eyes wandered towards hers, and Carina shifted her gaze to the bouquet before her. “The shade here is nice.”
“Yes,” he answered.
‘Not much of a conversationalist,’ Carina observed with a sigh. ‘Not that I want to have a conversation with him.’ She frowned as she brushed away the strands of ash-brown hair that the wind kept blowing against her eyes and cheek.
Other than the occasional glance in her direction, Beaumont remained stoically silent.
“Did you—” she brushed back her hair again to look at him, “—want to go back?”
“Not particularly,” he replied and slowly shifted from his knees to sit comfortably in the grass beside her. “You don’t want to, so this is fine.”
He turned towards her, and his violet eyes once more fixated upon her face.
They were an odd color that matched the bouquet at her feet quiet well, but the intensity of their gaze made her uncomfortable.
“What is it?” she asked defensively.
“You have—” his gaze narrowed intently below her eyes “—dirt on your cheek.”
“Oh?” Carina reached up just as Beaumont leaned over and brushed his fingers across her skin. Caught off guard, Carina fell awkwardly away from him, and her knee bumped into the vase of flowers.
Her eyes widened as Beaumont reached across her with agile swiftness, caught the rim of the vase, and held it steady. He exhaled sharply in relief and then looked down at her, pinned against the ground beneath him. His cheeks blushed scarlet.
‘You have got to be kidding me…’
Carina remained where she was, trapped beneath Beaumont’s chest as he hastily steadied the vase and then rolled off the grass onto his feet.
“We should head back,” Carina agreed quickly.