Chapter 61: The Fortune of Fools
Nicholas strode confidently towards the stage and Lady Maura. Now more than ever, he wanted to expose her for the fraud she was.
‘Pretending she could see the future? Was she out of her mind? They still burned witches in Lafeara.’
He grabbed the chair, pulled it back, and sat down. A chill fell over him, but he shook it off as he examined the half-blood. Up close, Maura seemed small and feeble, almost childlike, but beneath the blindfold, those pink lips curled into a less than innocent smile.
“The spirits and I welcome you, your Majesty,” She greeted as she bowed her head. The audience murmured in surprise, but he saw the faint smirk on her lips and scoffed. “I only hope you’re ready to hear their answer,” she continued ominously.
‘Do you really think your tricks will work on me?’ Nicholas smiled as he leaned over the table and flicked his fingers in front of her nose.
Maura gave no reaction, and Nicholas sat back slowly. ‘The Blindfold appears authentic. Attwood wouldn’t lie, especially to me, and certainly not over something as petty as this.’ He frowned and pushed the chair back as he leaned over and raised the table cloth.
Nothing underneath looked suspicious, but he would double-check the floorboards later. With a disappointed sigh, he straightened and examined the crystal ball’s glass curiously. Although clear, the longer he gazed into its translucent surface, the more he seemed to detect moving shadows.
‘But isn’t that the point of these props, to deceive the uneducated with illusions.’
Maura cleared her throat and held a small pale hand towards him. “Are you ready, your Highness.”
‘Well, let’s see what clever prediction she can come up with then.’
He reached across the table and froze. A cold sensation, like invisible fingers, slid around his neck and tightened against his skin. Nicholas spun sharply, but the stage behind him was empty.
“Are you afraid of ghosts, Crown Prince Nicholas?”
Her question drew a few chuckles from the banquet table as Nicholas turned around stiffly and rubbed his neck. ‘Why does my name sound like an insult when she says it?’
“Let’s get this over with,” he snapped and grabbed her hand. Her cold slender fingers wrapped around his wrist. Her arm trembled as she turned her covered gaze away from him and seemed to shrink away.
‘More play-acting—why is she stalling for time?’
Nicholas glanced over the table and stage again then watched as she moved her left hand towards the crystal ball.
“Ask your question, your Majesty,” she commanded in a flat tone.
Nicholas shifted as he considered his options. He could trick her into saying something treasonous, but that might be a step too far, especially with Beaumont watching them both at the other end of the stage.
‘Something simple but generic will do. It’s not like she can actually predict the future.’
“What will my reign be like?” he replied.
He could feel her gaze beneath the blindfold as Maura turned towards him, and the silence lengthened. Nicholas held back a laugh as he waited patiently—for something.
Maura’s chin slowly lowered against her chest while her grip on his hand went slack. Confused, Nicholas leaned towards her, then glanced towards the banquet. The Prime Minister looked faintly worried as he focused on Lady Maura. While Eleanora—Eleanora was smiling?
The soft sound of footsteps echoed on the stage behind him as the air went suddenly cold. Nicholas turned towards the empty stage and started as Maura’s hand jerked awake and gripped his wrist with surprising strength.
“Your coronation closes in, but for your answer, look within,” she murmured.
Her tone was husky, older, and strangely seductive as her hidden eyes turned from him to the crystal ball.
“Future events that you should fear are chosen by she whom you hold dear.”
Maura slid her fingers across the clear dark glass. Against his better judgment, Nicholas followed her gaze and stiffened.
Inside the crystal, he could see shadows like snowflakes whirling and dancing. ‘An illusion?’ His lips twisted into a cynical smile. ‘Is that the best she can do?’ But before he could pull his gaze away, the flurry merged into the figure of a pale woman dressed in red. He blinked and peered closer, but the shape vanished beneath the glass as the crystal orb clouded over with a layer of frost.
‘Hell’s Teeth. What was that?’
Maura chuckled. The raspy sound sent a chill down Nicholas’s spine as a mist of fog slid past her lips and evaporated in the space between them.
“As to the future, who can say? The dance of fate is still in play.” Her song like tone faded as Maura’s grip went limp, then her chin dropped, and she slumped against the chair.
The audience gasped in a mixture of surprise and concern while Nicholas pulled his hand free and stared down at the faking girl.
“A riddle?” he mocked. Annoyance and anger brimmed behind his words.
‘She whom you hold dear? Was she referring to Rosamund?’
“That’s the best answer you could give? You didn’t give Acheron a riddle!”
Maura sat up slowly, then reached back and tugged the blindfold free. Her ice-blue eyes clashed with his as a wave of anger poured from her gaze.
“Would it matter either way, your Majesty?” She challenged bitterly. “You weren’t willing to listen to the spirits.”
“Ha!” Nicholas snapped as he pushed his chair back and shook his head. “What a clever excuse.”
Applause erupted from the silent audience as Eleanora rose from her seat and clapped her hands together loudly.
“Eleanora!” Isabella hissed with a worried glance at Nicholas.
Acheron stared at Eleanora for a moment, then stood and clapped as well. Prime Minister Attwood and Lord Alastair both added their applause as Nicholas stared back at them in disbelief.
‘Were they buying into this farce?’
Maura swept from her chair with only the slightest hint of uncertainty in her right foot as she approached the edge of the stage and curtsied to the audience.
“Thank you, lords and ladies, and please thank his Majesty for so graciously agreeing to take part.” She gestured towards Nicholas, and the dinner guests continued their applause as they all rose from their seats.
Nicholas grit his teeth at their absurd display. ‘Do you not realize she’s mocking me, you fools?’ He pressed his hand against the table but froze as the invisible cold touch returned once more to slither around his neck.
A frigid breeze, a sound so similar to human breath, tickled against his ear as a taunting voice whispered, “Long live the King.”
Nicholas bolted upright and pivoted to face the empty stage once more. “What is this—how are you doing this?” he demanded as he spun towards Maura.
“Your Majesty?” She tilted her head and glanced from him to Beaumont, who studied the stage warily as he approached the crown prince.
“Is someone hiding under the stage?” Nicholas demanded as he stomped his foot against the panel floor. “Is that how you did it?”
Maura stared at him for a moment baffled, then her gaze slid past his shoulder to focus the space behind him, and Nicholas’s chest tightened in fear.
‘No—it wasn’t real—it couldn’t be him!’