Chapter 59: A Gala of Discord
Nicholas winced as Lady Meredith played her violin off-key. They had been serenaded with what could only be described as a ballad of discord for the longest five minutes of his life. True to form, none of the nobles around him expressed their displeasure visibly. Instead, they avoided looking at the stage as they drank their wine with blank expressions.
Nicholas rolled his neck uncomfortably and glanced towards Acheron. The rogue hid a smirk behind his closed fist, though his trembling hand and shoulders betrayed his internal struggle.
‘Of course, he finds this funny.’
Originally Nicholas had planned to slip out as soon as the festivities began. But Acheron had convinced him to stay until the end of the talent show at least so that Beaumont could watch Lady Maura’s presentation.
‘And he says that he’s not trying to set his cousin up with her.’
Nicholas snorted and clapped along with the other dinner guests as Lady Meredith finished her mediocre performance.
‘One down—three to go.’
Lady Tiffany was next to take the stage, and she trembled like a leaf in the breeze. “Your Majesties—my Lords and Ladies,” Tiffany gushed out. She blinked for a moment in panic as she nervously adjusted the paper in her hand. “I—ah—will recite a poem—that I wrote.”
“This should be brilliant,” Acheron whispered beside Eleanora.
The crown princess looked bored as she played with a braid in her dark hair and sipped her wine. Nicholas frowned as she finished the glass and signaled the waiter.
‘What was that, three glasses already so far?’
“Tsk, maybe you should slow down,” Nicholas commented loud enough for her to hear him.
“Why?” Eleanora whispered back. Her amber eyes flickered towards him as her plum lips twisted in a mocking smile. “Are you planning on taking advantage of me if I get drunk?”
Nicholas drew in a sharp breath and focused on the stage.
‘Why do I even bother speaking to her?’
Tiffany, who hurriedly rushed through most of her poem, a remarkable feat given that she barely paused to breathe, nervously twittered out her last lines.
“Though rough around the edges it may be
A diamond has value which all can see.”
The dinner guests applauded as the poor girl scurried from the stage, looking particularly pale if not a bit green.
“I can’t quite tell if you’re torturing them or they’re torturing us,” Acheron murmured to Eleanora as a servant refilled his glass.
“Does nobody dance or sing in Lafeara?” Lady Isabella complained as she raised her own empty glass and tapped it impatiently. “Or at least play an instrument moderately well?”
Nicholas glanced from the clearly drunk woman to her husband and marveled at Lord Alastair’s calm demeanor as he reached over and lowered his wife’s hand with an amused smile. Then again, Lord Alastair had lived in Vetrayna for almost a decade, so he was probably used to his wife’s unorthodox behavior.
The servants laid out fresh plates of spiced venison and braided bread accompanied with small tubs of butter, cooked vegetables, and sliced potatoes coated in gooey cheese.
The guests happily filled their plates as Lady Evelynn entered the stage.
“Your Majesties, Lords, and Ladies,” Evelynn greeted with composed grace. She was dressed in a champagne evening gown with ruffled beading that complimented her complexion, light makeup, and tasteful jewelry.
‘She really would make a fine Countess,’ Nicholas thought as he glanced at the Dowager, who also smiled at the young lady in approval. Evelynn touched her throat nervously as she gazed over the crowd and focused on Eleanora, who raised her glass in silent acknowledgment.
Nicholas glanced from his wife to Evelynn and said a silent prayer. ‘Please, Saint Minerva, let her do better than the other candidates.’
Evelynn cleared her throat hesitantly and then began to sing.
Her tone, both soft and delicate, quietly pulled the attention of the whole room with captivating resonance. Nicholas felt the stiff muscles along his neck relax as he leaned back to enjoy her gentle voice. It was an old song that covered Lafeara’s great war and the love story between a noble and a commoner.
The first time he had heard the piece had been at a summer festival with Rosamund. The Lover’s Return was one of the few popular songs which touched on the barriers between nobles and commoners. Even now, he could not hear it without wishing Rosamund were here beside him—instead of the drunk savage, who stared into her wine glass with somber eyes.
“Her rose petal lips with summers dew. Command me to prove my love is true.” The bittersweet ending was made even more palpable by Evelynn’s angelic and vibrant voice.
Nicholas clapped enthusiastically as Evelynn blushed and curtsied to the applause of the dinner guests. Only Eleanora remained unmoving as she regarded the candidate with a sour expression.
Nicholas shook his head. ‘True art is wasted on this desert savage.’
He stood and continued his applause until the young lady left the stage. Eleanora shot him a look of disapproval as he sat down, but Nicholas paid her no mind. One more performance and he would be gone from this banquet. Nicholas had been missing Rosamund all day, and he’d be damned if anyone else tried to block his path back to her tonight.
“Next will be Lady Maura,” Hana announced as Beaumont appeared carrying the last candidate onto the stage.
Nicholas frowned as he studied the dark cloak that all but swallowed the half-blood from head to foot. Servants brought out a table and two chairs as Beaumont lowered the candidate to her feet. The girl wobbled as she leaned on the knight captain’s arm and gestured to the bag he held. Beaumont opened it at her command, and Maura pulled a sparkling purple cloth free. She passed it to the servants, who spread it over the table, and then reached back inside the bag to pull out a large crystal ball which she gave to Beaumont.
“What is she doing?” Lady Isabella tittered nervously.
“Mother, shh!” Eleanora hissed, her gaze attentive upon the stage.
The last item pulled from the bag was a simple black pillow. Beaumont stacked the cushion and crystal ball in the center of the table as Maura turned to face the dinner guests.
“Your Majesties, Prime Minister, Lords, and Ladies,” the candidate greeted calmly as she pulled back her hood. “I am Lady Maura.”
Carina stared down at the silent audience focused upon her. The apprehension in their faces helped ease the anxiety that had coiled in her gut as she waited backstage. She focused her attention on Eleanora. The Crown Princess’s golden gaze burned back at her with a wry smile, as if daring Carina to finish what she had begun.
“For my talent tonight,” Carina explained as she untied her cloak to reveal the sparkling black dress beneath. “I have decided to perform a bit of magic for you all.”
“Magic?” gasped Lord Alastair with a worried glance at the Dowager.
“Is she mad?” Lady Isabella demanded in a failed whisper.
“I think you should choose your words more carefully, Lady Maura,” Nicholas said coldly. “Magic is forbidden in Lafeara.” Despite his harsh words, his expression remained doubtful.
“As one of Lafeara’s subjects, I am familiar with its history,” Carina replied with a polite smile. “Which is why, for my performance, I seek only to look into the future.”
“Preposterous,” Nicholas snorted. “And still highly condemnable, Lady Maura.”
“Surely, your Majesty is aware that the Saints and even the Pope each claimed to have second sight,” Carina replied promptly. Despite the confidence of her words, her grip on Beaumont’s arm tightened, and he stepped closer.
‘As reckless as this may be, given my judge and executioner stand in the crowd—nothing will appeal to Eleanora more than magic. After all, the whole world knows the Emperor is a witch.’