Chapter 62: The Claws of Guilt

“Your Majesty!” Beaumont appeared beside him and gripped Nicholas’s shoulder with a worried look. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” Nicholas snapped as he shook the knight captain’s grip lose and stormed towards Maura. “But you—”

“That’s enough entertainment for one evening,” Octavia interrupted sharply as she rose from her seat. “His Majesty has had too much to drink and is tired.” She glanced to where Eleanora smirked over her glass of wine. “Perhaps he should remain here at Rose Palace tonight and get some rest.”

“Grandmother!” Nicholas protested as he spun around. Eleanora glanced between the two with a sour smile and downed the rest of her wine silently.

“Thank you, Lady Maura, for the memorable performance,” Octavia continued with a sharp look at the candidate, who hastily curtsied and turned to leave.

“You—” Nicholas quickly blocked her path. Maura flinched away from him, stumbled, and almost fell—but Beaumont caught her arm and steadied her.

‘One trick after another.’

Nicholas shook his head and stepped between them as he grabbed Beaumont’s arm. “With me now, Captain!” He turned sharply, left the stage, but paused for a moment when he reached the bottom to ensure that Beaumont had followed.

Nicholas left the courtyard and banquet behind as he marched briskly through the palace towards the front doors. Servants started and bowed as he swept past, inwardly seething as he clenched and unclenched his hands.

‘How? How did she do that? How did she even know—’

Nicholas shoved past the servant attempting to open the front door and stumbled out into the cool night air. He filled his lungs with a deep breath as he pressed a hand over his erratic heart.

He could still remember the empty look in Tristan’s eyes the day the Red Wolf Commander left to fight the Tharyn horde—the day he died. The proud, resilient, unstoppable older brother Nicholas had always known had never looked so pale and defeated.

And when Nicholas had embraced him for the last time, Tristan had whispered those same words.

“Long live the King.”

“Damn it!” Nicholas hissed as he spun in a quick circle and waited for Beaumont, who slipped out the front door behind him.

“Your Majesty,” the knight captain repeated with a worried look. “What happened?”

Nicholas stared at his faithful knight and smothered the guilt and fear at war within his chest. “Nothing—it’s nothing. I simply wanted to—we’re leaving the palace to visit Lady Rosamund,” he snapped as he turned towards the stairs.

“Yes, your Majesty,” Beaumont replied obediently.

But Nicholas didn’t miss the note of disappointment in the knight captain’s voice. He stopped and turned to face the giant with a disapproving scowl. “I don’t know what it is you like about Lady Maura, but I suggest you keep your distance. She is a charlatan, a cheat, and a half-blood!”

Beaumont paused on the palace steps beside him. The lanterns along the marble railing glinted against the steel of his blade as the knight captain exhaled slowly. “Your Majesty,” Beaumont said quietly as he moved past. “You should remember that I am little better than a half-blood myself.”

Nicholas blinked and swallowed his anger as the knight captain continued down the steps. He stepped after Beaumont, wanting to correct his old friend, remind him there was a difference between half-blood and bastard—but the words died in his throat.

After all, while Tristan had still been alive—Nicholas had felt little better than a bastard himself.

Carina watched as Nicholas stormed off the stage. Beaumont paused beside her, his violet eyes momentarily conflicted, then gave a small bow and left to follow his prince. A trickle of anger ran through her as the knight captain left, but Carina dismissed it as she turned to face the ghost standing beside her on the stage.

‘Damn it, Maura. What did you do?’ Carina clenched her fists as she returned to the table and picked up her cloak.

How fitting to see them together once more. The prince who ordered my death and the man who carried out that order without question,” the ghost whispered as she faded from view.

Carina grit her teeth and moved slowly across the stage. For the first few steps her ankle seemed to hold just fine, but as she continued it began to wobble even though she tried to keep her weight off it.

‘Okay, I just have to get backstage—then I can go back to the Lily Palace with the other candidates and rest.’

Resolved, Carina focused on the hop step hop movement that seemed to support her best. ‘Anyway, I don’t need Beaumont anymore since the Selection’s over so it’s good that he left on his own.’

Maura had a point after all, that man was still Carina’s potential executioner if things went wrong.

She glanced towards the banquet where Eleanora seemed more than pleased as she called for another round of wine. The guests resumed their meal and somewhat tense chatter as they humored their hostess. Carina looked away as her gaze almost caught that of the Dowager, whose attention remained focused on the stage.

“Lady Maura.” Acheron appeared in front of her as he hopped over the last step and extended his hand with a smile. “Would it be alright if I escorted you backstage?”

Carina’s lips twitched between relief and annoyance. ‘I might feel more grateful if your last attempt to help hadn’t landed me with your cousin and this ankle.’ But she nodded as she silently took his arm and leaned against him for support.

The daunting steps appeared ahead, and Carina clenched her jaw.

“Permit me,” Acheron whispered as he pulled her arm around his shoulders and slid his arm around her waist. With her bad ankle propped up between them they managed to reach the bottom quickly.

“Thank you,” Carina said as they pulled apart. ‘At least he isn’t trying to sweep me off my feet.’

Acheron winked, as if he read her thoughts, and offered her his arm again.

Lady Sabella and Lady Hana waited behind the stage curtains with mixed expressions of shock and disbelief. The senior lady-in-waiting was the first to step forward as her angry eyes raked over Carina.

“Do you have any idea who you have insulted?” Sabella demanded. “You—a half-blood—”

“Lady Sabella,” Acheron cut in with a strained grimace, “The Dowager already thanked Lady Maura for her performance. If your Mistress has no reason to object, then why should you?”

Sabella glared at him as she pressed her lips together tightly, and then spun around.

“Well, that was certainly reckless, Lady Maura,” Hana said softly as she stepped forward with a curious smile. “But something tells me your boldness will appeal to Crown Princess Eleanora.” She inclined her head politely and then turned towards the banquet beyond the curtains.

Carina followed her departure over Acheron’s shoulder and smiled.

“Candidates!” Sabella snapped as she stormed towards Evelynn, Tiffany, and Meredith. “All of you! Back to the Lily Palace!” The candidates flinched beneath her tone but rose and followed her towards the courtyard exit. Sabella stopped and turned to shoot Carina a vicious glare. “And you—if you know what’s good for you—you’ll leave the palace tonight!”

“Don’t listen to her,” Acheron remarked wearily. “Although, once again, you appear to have ignored my advice.”

Carina shrugged. “You heard Lady Hana. It’s the result that counts.”

“Oh yes, you’ve made the future King of Lafeara hate you—but his wife’s a fan! Can’t wait to see how that pans out.”

Carina laughed as she pulled her cloak around her shoulders. Her trembling fingers fumbled with the strings and Acheron quickly took over and tied them for her.

“If you know enough to be afraid than I suppose lecturing you won’t do any good,” he muttered.

“Lady Maura.” They both turned as the Prime Minister appeared through the curtains. “My dear, I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your performance,” Attwood said cheerfully as he smiled between them. “It has been a long time since I’ve seen someone daring enough to preform anything close to magic here—not that you should ever do something like this again in the future.” His eyebrows rose higher as he emphasized each word.

“I understand, Prime Minister,” Carina replied with a curtsey. Her ankle wobbled on the way up and Acheron held her up quickly.

“My dear, your injury!” Attwood said as he took her other arm. “Acheron, take her back to the Lily Palace in our carriage.”

“Happily, Father.”

Attwood frowned at his son and then turned to Maura. “As his father, I feel it is my duty to warn you to be wary of his charms, Lady Maura.”

“I will try—Prime Minister,” Carina replied awkwardly as she held back a laugh.

Acheron sighed and turned her towards the courtyard path. He matched his pace with her hobbled steps as they made their way through the archway, inside the palace, and turned down a long hallway.

“Ignore the old man,” Acheron murmured with a disarming smile as they strolled through the white marble walls lit by candles. “I’m as harmless as they come.”

“And as subtle as a fox in the hen house,” Carina replied dryly.

Acheron laughed. After a long, tedious period of silence, the front foyer finally appeared before them. “You know,” he said hesitantly, “not all the rumors you’ve heard about me are true.”

“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

“You’re so judgmental,” Acheron said reproachfully.

Carina cast a hesitant glance towards him and bit her lip.

‘To be fair, if anyone understood what it was like to be judged by public perception, I would.’

“You’re right, I’m sorry.”

He offered her a slow warm smile in return and she quickly averted her gaze. They reached the palace doors and stopped to rest on a bench outside as Acheron sent a servant to fetch his carriage. Carina leaned against the stone wall behind her and closed her eyes for a moment with a sigh. Even if she couldn’t feel pain, exhaustion was another matter. After a long day in the sun and then the long wait backstage to face off against Lafeara’s royalty, Carina was ready for the bliss of sleep—provided it came without the usual nightmares.

“That dress and makeup,” Acheron commented with a mischievous smile as he took a seat beside her. “You really put some thought into this act of yours.”

Carina eyed him warily and cleared her throat. “Permit me to express myself freely and clearly, my Lord.”

“Oh dear,” Acheron murmured with a cringe.

“I’m not interested in either you or your cousin,” Carina said bluntly.

Acheron exhaled slowly and pressed his curled fingers against his lips as he nodded. “Message received.”

The awkward silence between them continued through the carriage ride back to the Lily Palace, where Acheron insisted on escorting Carina safely to the guestroom.

“Thank you, Lord Acheron,” Carina said politely as she stepped inside and turned to shut the door.

His hand caught the edge as he stopped her. “One last question, Lady Maura.”

Carina frowned at his hand and met his steel-blue gaze. “If you insist.”

Acheron glanced at the empty hall behind them then shifted his weight against the door as he leaned back towards her with an inquisitive stare.

Carina backed away, as the faint whiff of wine hit her face. ‘Was he really going to try something foolish?’ She glanced towards the chest as she edged away from him.

Acheron appeared not to notice her unease as he drummed his fingers against the door and then blurted out, “Why do you hate the Crown Prince?”

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