Chapter 66: A Test of Loyalty

“And it appears the Dowager—I mean, Queen Regent,” Delphine hastily corrected herself. “Is looking into a potential match for Captain Leo. Naturally, we can’t expect a true born daughter of Lafeara’s nobility to wed a half-pagan.” Delphine paused to brush away the hair that had slid inside the corner of her mouth and sighed. “Still, I’m sure the Dowager will find someone suitable. She has a soft spot for bastards and half-bloods.”

“I see,” Carina replied hesitantly. ‘Soft is not a word I would use to describe the Dowager.’

They had been waiting outside the iron gate long enough for Carina to circle all the possible reasons for the Queen Regent to summon her, none of which were favorable.

“I wonder if Lady Verity will throw a party to celebrate his promotion. I imagine she will. After all, she’s grown quite fond of Leo over the years and who can blame her since the poor woman could have no children of her own. But still, from Captain to Colonel? That skips over something—I can’t think of what rank though—but it’s certainly worth celebrating. Leo will become his Father’s right-hand man, which all but officially declares him as Stryker’s successor.”

“I believe the rank is Major,” Carina supplied when the woman stopped long enough to catch her breath. “Between Captain and Colonel.”

“What? Oh, yes, I suppose that’s it. How very clever of you to know. And to think some people believe the giant should be Stryker’s successor. Why though? He might be the elder bastard, but I swear I’ve never seen him so much as smile. And when he looks at you—” Delphine shivered, “—there’s something about his eyes that just isn’t human.”

“Yes, I suppose that’s true.” Carina had felt something quite similar during her first several encounters with Beaumont, but she had blamed that disquieting fear on Maura’s memories. She watched Leo pace at the end of the path with a weary sigh.

“Anyway, it’s no wonder Lady Verity chose Leo over him, even as a I child I heard he was as frigid as a block of ice. He never attended social parties until he became the Crown Prince’s bodyguard. Always training with the knights or looking after that invalid mother of his. But even when she died—he didn’t shed a single tear. Not one? Mind you he was about sixteen when she died—”

The iron door creaked open, and Delphine fell deathly silent even as Carina’s heart lept up the back of her throat. The Dowager appeared with a basket of purple roses draped over her arm and smiled warmly at them before she closed the gate and turned an iron key in the lock.

“Your Grace!” Delphine greeted as she curtsied. Carina stood slowly behind her and attempted a shallow curtsey on her ankle.

“Oh my! Please, Lady Maura, do rise child,” Octavia said quickly.

Carina obediently rose while Delphine remained awkwardly bowed.

“Thank you for bringing her, Lady Delphine. And now, please take these roses back to my room.” Octavia plucked a rose free and passed the basket to her lady-in-waiting. “I wish to speak with Lady Maura in private.”

“Yes, Queen Regent.” Delphine curtsied again and left to complete her task.

The Dowager clasped her hands and studied Carina with a thoughtful smile before she motioned to the bench. “Please, Lady Maura. We must not keep you standing unnecessarily.”

“Thank you, Queen Regent.” Carina sat down and tried to appear as relaxed as possible, given the formidable opponent who stood before her.

“Let us suspend with titles for the moment,” Octavia said generously as she sat down beside Carina and took the surprised girl’s left hand. “I’ll be blunt. I like you, Lady Maura. I see your potential just as Countess Constance did. You’re strong, intelligent, you don’t let men push you about—and from what I’ve gathered, you’ve survived a few battles before even coming to the palace.”

Carina held back a laugh as she tightened the smile on her face. ‘So that’s the angle she’s going for.’

“So, before Eleanora makes her decision, I wanted to offer you a place at my side as one of my people.”

Carina exhaled slowly as she looked away from the intimidating pair of cerulean-blue eyes. She hadn’t expected the Dowager to attempt such a move so soon, but then it made absolute sense to strike before she had formed any sort of loyalty towards Eleanora.

‘Unfortunately, you’re the last person on earth I would ever agree to serve.’

“I can see my offer has taken you by surprise,” Octavia said with a soft chuckle. “But let me assure you, I am quite generous to those who serve me. I might even be able to arrange a marriage offer for you that would match or even rival that of your sister’s.”

The Dowager nodded down the garden path towards Captain Leo, and Carina felt her stomach clench. It was eerie how similar the Dowager’s recruitment methods mirrored that of Constance—although Carina had been the one to approach the Countess of Hawthorne initially.

“As humbled as I am to have the Dowager consider such a matter on my behalf—I would prefer to remain unmarried for the foreseeable future.”

Octavia’s eyes narrowed as she assessed Carina critically. “I suspect it is not so much marriage that you oppose as it is the freedom you are reluctant to lose.”

Carina blinked, caught off guard by the Dowager’s perceptive intuition.

“I would caution you, child. If Eleanora does choose you, as I believe she will, your position will afford you many such offers.”

Carina swallowed as her free hand tightened into the folds of her dress.

“As long as you remain a child of that house, your parents can legally agree to any marriage on your behalf as suits them,” the Dowager continued with blunt honesty. “But if you had a powerful backer—” she smiled as she brushed the ash-brown curls behind Carina’s ear “—someone they would not dare to cross, then you may very well take your pick of the lot and have some semblance of future happiness.”

Carina pulled her left hand from the Dowager’s grasp as she cleared her throat. “Thank you for the advice.”

“Of course,” the Dowager murmured with a curious smile. “Still, marriage would have been the easiest way for you to escape that family of yours. To think you would choose the more difficult option.” She turned away and covered her lips behind her frail speckled fingers, but not before Carina caught a glimpse of her cunning smile. “I like you even more now, Lady Maura.”

“I’m humbled to receive your praise—but I’ve worked very hard to win this Selection, your Grace.”

“Tsk, you must not reject me so quickly, child,” Octavia said with a laugh. “And I have no intention of removing you from Eleanora. No, I need you there at her side—” she leaned forward and caressed Carina’s cheek with a knowing smile “—as my eyes and ears, Lady Maura.”

‘How does one become so conniving and cruel?’ Carina wondered as she shivered beneath the Dowager’s gaze. ‘Then again, to underestimate a woman who has outlived four monarchs would be a huge mistake.’

“Can I—think about it?” Carina said hesitantly.

“Hmm,” Octavia leaned back and studied Carina in silent contemplation. “I had hoped to convince you now, but I suppose you should take time to consider your future Mistress carefully. Very well, I shall give you a week, does that sound fair?”

“More than fair, your Grace.”

‘Even though I know you already have one spy among the candidates, it would appear that you don’t mind hedging your bets with two.’

“In the meantime, there’s no need to discuss this with Eleanora,” Octavia added as she lifted the purple rose to her curved lips and inhaled. “She already knows you’re here with me—or will soon enough. I had a maid deliver the news of our little meeting with Ivy early this morning.”

Carina bit back a laugh. ‘It appears I’ve already underestimated you. To think you would prepare to this extent for a half-blood.’

“I understand,” Carina replied with a tight smile. “I should be getting back, your Grace.”

“Of course!” Octavia replied as she rose from the bench. “Captain!”

Leo trotted over and knelt before her. “Queen Regent.”

“Take Lady Maura back to Lily Palace and stay by her side as her escort until the Selection is over,” Octavia commanded.

‘Well played. Even if I wanted to warn Eleanora that the Dowager has spies among the candidates—I couldn’t tell her with Captain Leo there to observe me.’

“Lady Maura,” Leo stood and extended his hand.

“Just a moment,” Octavia interjected as she snapped the pure rose from its stem. She cupped Carina’s chin and turned the girl towards her as she slid the royal rose into Carina’s dark hair. “Now, you are properly adorned, my child.”

It took every ounce of control for Carina not to rip that rose from her hair—but she endured and murmured her thanks. With Leo’s assistance, she stood and curtsied to Eleanora’s most deadly adversary. Then the knight captain lifted her once more, this time with his hands appropriately placed, and carried her back through the garden.

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