Chapter 57: The Final Challenge Begins
“And then there were four,” Evelynn quipped with an amused smile as the candidates gathered around a table prepared with lunch back at Lily Palace. “Or—three and a half,” she added with a wink to Meredith. Her companion laughed uneasily as she cast a nervous look in Beaumont’s direction.
The knight captain stood in the doorway just out of earshot. Carina glanced over Evelynn’s shoulder at him and shook her head. She hoped he would at least eat something before the final round of eliminations began.
“Why is there one more test?” Tiffany asked nervously as a maid refilled her glass with water. “I thought they only had to narrow us down to four?”
“The Crown Princess prepares the last one,” Evelynn answered as she cut a portion of meat from her quail. “I suppose it’s her way of evaluating us before she makes her final selection tomorrow.”
“As long as she’s not making us walk through fire,” Tiffany said with a weak laugh and then guzzled down her water.
“For a princess, she sure acts like a savage sometimes,” Meredith muttered in agreement as she fanned herself.
Evelynn glanced after the maid now headed towards the kitchen, then leaned across the table and whispered, “You know she’s not a real princess.”
“I’ve heard the rumors—but isn’t her mother married to Lord Alastair Kensington?” Tiffany asked.
“Yes, and the Countess of Hawthorne is his sister,” Meredith affirmed, “So, why would such a high-born noble marry a maid?”
“It wasn’t Lady Isabella who was a maid, but the grandmother, Lady Kyrith,” Evelynn corrected.
“Wait, I’m confused,” Tiffany interjected. “So, the Crown Princess’s grandmother was a maid?”
“Yes, and her daughter Lady Isabella was made a noble by the Emperor,” Evelynn said with a shrug. “They do things differently over there, I guess.”
“But—could that mean—that Eleanora is related to the Emperor?” Tiffany whispered cautiously.
“What?” Meredith snorted. “Where did you get that idea?”
“Lady Kyrith was made a noble because the Emperor owed her a life debt,” Carina interjected. “And Lady Eleanora was given the title of princess in order to marry the next king of Lafeara. Not because of any blood relation between them, Lady Tiffany.”
“Oh,” Tiffany murmured, looking disappointed.
“Did the Countess tell you that?” Evelynn asked curiously. Carina shrugged and resumed eating her quail and salad.
“So then what’s the story with Lady Hana?” Meredith pressed with a curious glance between Carina and Evelynn. “I hear her parents are from Lafeara, but she grew up in Vetrayna.”
“Why do you suppose I know?” Evelynn shot back with an annoyed look.
“Because you’re going to be engaged to the Earl, Eleanora’s cousin,” Meredith replied as she rolled her eyes. “I thought you might have heard something.”
Carina looked up from her fork of food.
‘Lord Percy was engaged—to Lady Evelynn? Did I miss that somehow in Maura’s memories?’
“Wait, you’re engaged to the Earl of Hawthorne?” Tiffany squeaked.
“It’s not official, so please don’t repeat this to anyone,” Evelynn said quickly with a glare at Meredith. “Our families are discussing the engagement, but the Dowager has already given her approval.”
“Which means it’s as good as official,” Meredith retorted with an impatient smirk. “But fine.” She pinched her fingers against her lips. “I won’t breathe a word.”
“You already did,” Evelynn reminded her sharply.
“But—” Tiffany looked perplexed “—can you be a lady-in-waiting if you’re already married?”
“I expect I’ll be engaged for at least a year since I just turned seventeen,” Evelynn replied with a shrug. “Even after I’m married, that would be up to Eleanora as to whether I would best support her here at court—”
“Or as the Countess of Hawthorne?” Tiffany interjected with a note of awe. “But surely you’d be busy helping your husband with your estates and political affairs.”
“Exactly,” Meredith replied as she waved a tomato on the end of her fork. “I suppose Eleanora will just have to replace you when the time comes. You’ll be as good as family once the engagement is official, so I’m sure she won’t mind.”
Carina bit into her fork of herbs and dressing and chewed despite the bitter taste.
So far, the past and future Evelynn hadn’t exactly impressed her. But if she was the bride that the Countess and Dowager had picked out for Percy, and he had no objections, then who was Carina to object?
‘It’s not like I’ll be visiting Hawthorne very often once my official duties as lady-in-waiting begin.’
Carina picked up her glass and sighed as she thought of Ivy. At least by the time Evelynn took over as Countess, Ivy would be free from her slave contract and starting a new life somewhere else.
A tightness spread across her chest as she recalled Ivy’s worried face, followed by a wave of fatigue as she pushed around the remains of her meal absently.
“Ladies,” Sabella said as she swept into the room, looking a tad flustered and displeased. “The final phase of the Selection has been decided.”
“Oh, do tell, Lady Sabella,” Meredith said eagerly.
“The Crown Princess wishes for each of you to present your best talent as entertainment for a private gala she’ll be holding at Rose Palace tonight,” Sabella explained. “So, spend what time remains here in your rooms preparing.”
“What? Like a talent show?” Tiffany asked curiously.
“I suppose that makes sense.” Evelynn murmured with an amused chuckle. “I hear the Emperor is fond of street performers, especially dancers. Perhaps the Crown Princess inherited her strange exotic tastes from him.”
“But we only have four hours left to prepare!” Meredith said breathlessly after checking her pendant watch.
“Well, whatever you decide to show her, you better have it planned out and ready within that time frame,” Sabella replied unsympathetically. “I will pick you up here in three and a half hours, then take you to the Rose Palace to perform.”
Looking distracted, Sabella spun back to the door, her skirt swishing around her figure as she made her exit.
Carina pushed her chair back and tried not to flinch when Beaumont presented himself beside her instantly.
“Let’s hope you can sing, Lady Maura,” Evelynn observed with a wry smile. “Unless you intend for Captain Beaumont to perform with you as a puppet?”
Meredith snorted out her tea while Tiffany appeared too lost in thought to react.
“I am no one’s puppet, Lady Evelynn,” Carina returned as she nodded to Beaumont, who lifted her with care. “And there’s no need to worry on my account,” she added once settled against the knight captain’s arms. “Besides, I hear you have a perfectly lovely singing voice, so the rest of us would be wise to choose a different talent to compete with.”
Evelynn blinked at her, surprised. “Did Lord Percy mention that?” she asked curiously.
Carina observed the glimmer of hope which seeped past Evelynn’s usual smug expression. “No, Lady Evelynn,” she answered honestly. “He’s never even mentioned your name.”
Carina had just woken up from her nap when a knock came at the palace bedroom door. She yawned and stretched across the comfortable sheets, then slid off the bed and hopped towards the door.
Beaumont stood outside, looking better rested himself in a fresh uniform.
“Did I wake you?” he asked uncertainly as he studied her hair.
“What time is it?” Carina replied as she stifled another yawn
“You have thirty minutes still,” Beaumont answered. “Should I have waited?”
“No, I wanted you to wake me up early so I’d have time to change,” Carina replied as she turned and hopped over to where a bag rested against the wall by the door.
“Have you been sleeping all this time?” Beaumont asked worriedly. “Do you have something planned for the gala?”
“Originally, I had planned to dance if such an occasion arose,” Carina replied as she held out the bag to him.
“Oh—” he sucked in a breath as the guilt returned to his eyes. “I’m sorry—”
“Not to worry, Captain Beaumont,” Carina replied, unable to torment him further. “I had a backup plan arranged.” She gestured to the bag. “It’s all prepared in there. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I still need to change and freshen up.”
Beaumont accepted the bag and then shut the door as Carina hopped over to the wardrobe. A quick dress change, hair touch up, a bit of makeup and dark eyeliner around her eyes to give them a mysterious smokey look, and she was ready.
Carina turned to the mirror and smiled confidently at her reflection. The dark gown, which the Countess had cautioned her to save for later, had come in handy after all.
She added on a light application of the perfume gifted to Frost by the designer of Holy Maiden Boutique. It held a musky scent of vanilla, amber wood, and jasmine. Perhaps a bit mature for a sixteen-year-old, but she was going for dark and mysterious.
“Let’s hope this works,” Carina whispered to her reflection.
‘Because if Eleanora does not choose me, this will all have been for nothing. And this time, there was no backup plan.’
Carina flashed the ghost in the mirror a winning smile. “Let’s knock them dead, Maura.”