Chapter 65: A Garden of Secrets
The candidates ate their breakfast with tired eyes and pale faces. Only Evelynn appeared relaxed as she spread butter on her blueberry bagel, while Meredith picked out the berries and flicked them at her plate. Tiffany nervously sipped her tea at a volume much louder than necessary and then added her fourth or fifth cube of sugar.
Carina silently stirred her own tea as she contemplated Captain Beaumont’s absence outside her door that morning. No doubt, this was just the beginning of the repercussions for her predictions last night.
“Good morning, Candidates,” Lady Elouise greeted as she entered the room.
“Oh, where is Lady Sabella?” Evelynn asked as she set down her bagel.
“She—” Elouise’s gaze shifted towards Carina then quickly away, “—had something urgent to attend to.”
“I see,” Evelynn also glanced at Carina with a curious smile. “That’s too bad.”
Carina sipped her tea and focused its fragrant mix of vanilla and spices. She sensed something was off with Sabella’s absence, but as to what—well, she would likely find out soon enough.
“Excuse me, Lady Elouise.” Another woman entered the room with vibrant red hair that, for a moment, reminded Carina keenly of her half-sister Sophya.
“Good morning, Lady Delphine,” Elouise greeted the scarlet beauty with a smile. “Candidates, this is Lady Delphine. She serves the Queen Regent along with myself and Lady Sabella.”
“Greetings, Lady Delphine.”
“Good morning, candidates.” Delphine flashed them all a friendly smile, then stepped closer to Elouise and whispered in her ear.
“Oh—I see,” Elouise smile tightened as she drew back. “Lady Maura, it seems the Queen Regent would like to speak with you.”
“If you’ll follow me, Lady Maura,” Delphine said as she elegantly waved her hand to the door.
“I—” Carina looked down at her wrapped ankle, which she had only just managed to slip into a shoe today. “I’m afraid it’s still difficult for me to walk,” she explained apologetically.
‘Perhaps the Captain abandoning his post would be a double blessing.’
“Oh, of course, I almost forgot,” Delphine said with a nervous laugh. “Captain Leo, will you come in, please?”
The dark-skinned knight entered the room and inclined his head respectfully to the Dowager’s ladies-in-waiting.
“The Queen Regent sent the Captain along with me in case you required an escort. Captain, Lady Maura, is unable to walk,” Delphine explained as she gestured to Carina. “Would you mind assisting her? The Dowager has requested her presence.”
“Not at all,” Leo replied as he moved swiftly behind Carina and pulled out her chair. “Permit me, my Lady.” Not giving her a chance to respond, he scooped Carina from her chair and carried her towards the door.
“Enjoy your breakfast, candidates!” Delphine said sweetly before she followed after them.
Of the three men who had carried her in this life, Carina preferred Leo the least. His hand seemed to slide uncomfortably low on her back, which forced Carina to wrap her arms around his neck or fall.
Delphine paid no attention to Carina’s discomfort as she guided them towards the Royal Gardens. The palace walkways were quiet as most servants were busy indoors while their masters and mistresses enjoyed breakfast. The garden itself was oddly vacant and covered in lingering mist that clung to the hedges and covered the landscape in glittering dew.
Carina’s unease only increased as the knight and lady-in-waiting led her down the path towards the forbidden corner of the garden. The paradise around them was quickly forgotten in the presence of the iron door. The suffocating feel of despair that exuded from its dark metal surface sent an ominous sharp pain through her chest.
As often as Carina had wondered what lay within the garden enshrouded by the spiked iron fence and dense box hedges, now the very thought of that door opening made her mouth run dry.
The wind rustled through the towering shrubs, and the distant echo of a thousand despairing sobs lingered in its breath. And then a woman, so transparent and pale she might have been a trick of the light, appeared through the gate.
The hair along Carina’s arms stood on end as the specter lifted the hem of her dress and ran through Delphine towards Carina and Leo. The ghost vanished before Carina could identify her face, but there was no mistaking the crown the woman had worn—that of Lafeara’s Queen.
“You’re trembling,” Leo observed as he adjusted his grip. His gaze remained focused upon the gate even as Delphine stopped beside a marble bench that waited outside the forbidden garden. “Not that I blame you. This place disturbs even a soldier like me.”
Carina glanced at him curiously. “Do you believe in ghosts?”
“I’ve seen a thing or two on the battlefield,” Leo replied evasively. “Enough to believe there is more to death and life than what my eyes can see.”
“You may set her down here, Captain,” Delphine instructed as she glanced towards them with a curious smile. Leo complied and eased Carina down to the marble surface before he helped smooth out her dress.
“I’m fine, thank you, Captain,” Carina said sharply.
Leo raised his hands with a disarming smile. “Forgive me. You—remind me of my younger sisters. I meant no offense.” He straightened and turned to Delphine. “Shall I wait at the end of the path as usual?”
“Yes, thank you, Captain,” Delphine replied with a nod.
“A pleasure to meet you, Lady Maura.” He offered a polite bow, winked at her, and then strode confidently away.
“Isn’t he lovely?” Delphine murmured with a sigh. “If I was only ten years younger,” She fanned her flushed cheeks and sat down beside Carina on the bench. “The hero of Dead Man’s Hollows. That accursed crater made by inbred pagan magic.”
“Indeed,” Carina murmured curiously, distracted by the iron gate. “That is the battlefield where Prince Tristan died, is it not?”
Delphine flinched and snapped her fan closed. “We do not speak that name within the Palace.”
“Ah—yes, forgive me,” Carina replied quickly as she turned to face the lady-in-waiting. “What was it you were saying about Captain Leo?”
Delphine smiled, but her gaze remained unsettled as she slowly unfurled her fan and continued. “That he is a hero, and a recently titled Baron as well. He’s also the bastard son of General Stryker.”
“Then he’s—Captain Beaumont’s brother?”
“More or less,” Delphine murmured with a frown. “I suppose you could say Leo is the General’s official son since his wife, Lady Verity, adopted him. In either case, the General clearly favors Leo more.”
“What makes you say that?” Carina asked curiously.
“Well, he’s about to be promoted again to a Colonel I hear. That’s why he was summoned back to the palace anyway. Can you imagine, skipping from Captain straight to a Colonel?”
“Mmm,” Carina responded distractedly. ‘Is that why Beaumont is so obedient to Nicholas? Because his own father refuses to acknowledge him.’
“—Did you know the pagans worship dragons? As if such creatures really existed. Captain Leo told me they built their palace around some old bones. Apparently, they sacrifice slaves and pray to this ancient dead being. Can you imagine? It’s probably the bones of some old bull or a wolf, perhaps.”
“Captain Leo knows better than to believe in such fairy tales. He also quite a good conversationalist. A practical man of promising potential, despite his unfortunate birth—but if Lady Variety can look past the identity of Leo’s birth mother, then so shall I.”
“Oh, who was she?”
For a moment, Delphine appeared to struggle against the tide of her tongue, but then she edged closer to Carina as she shielded them both behind her fan. “A pagan woman—the one who gave General Stryker that scar on his cheek.”
Carina remained speechless as Delphine pulled away and continued her prattle unchecked. As much as she knew she ought to focus on whatever information leaked so freely from the Queen Regent’s aid—her mind instead focused upon the sudden perplexity of Beaumont’s family that had presented itself before her.
A child of pagan blood was considered lower than a slave. And yet, General Stryker had promoted such a son over Beaumont, who held the favor of Lafeara’s future King. ‘The question was—why?’ Carina could only imagine that the fault, as always, lay within the identity of Beaumont’s mother.