Chapter 67: Chosen by the Scorpion
“And she’s back,” Meredith observed with a note of disappointment as Captain Leo returned carrying Carina. “Oh, my if it isn’t Captain Leo Stryker!”
Leo smirked like a cat about to enjoy a free bowl of cream while Meredith fanned her suddenly flushed cheeks.
“Captain,” Carina said pointedly as she squirmed in his arms. “You can put me down now.”
“It’s no trouble at all, Lady Maura. You’re as light as a feather.”
Carina’s polite smile tightened as she contemplated her chances of removing the Dowager’s shadow.
“Excuse me, but—” Tiffany spoke up hesitantly, “—are you the Captain Leo, the Lion who defeated the Tharyn horde at Dead Man’s Hollows?”
“I assure you those rumors are an exaggeration,” Leo replied as he turned his confident smirk towards Tiffany. “And who might you be, my Lady?”
“I—Lady Tiffany, daughter of Baron Clemont.”
“Ah, a new Baron family, much like myself!” Leo smiled warmly, and Tiffany’s cheeks reddened.
‘Unlike his half-brother, he certainly knows how to charm people,’ Carina observed as she crossed her arms and sighed. Leo glanced down at her inquisitively, but before he could comment Lady Elouise rushed through the door.
“Candidates, it’s time, follow me please.”
A maid greeted Elouise and the candidates at the front door of the Rose Palace and led them through to the courtyard. The banquet had been cleared away except for the stage that now sat in the far corner. Curiously enough, several servants could be seen cutting and ripping up strips of grass while others poured out bags of sand over the exposed soil.
“What on earth are they doing?” Meredith whispered to Evelynn.
A knight appeared from the far corner of the courtyard and moved towards them.
“Oh my, it’s the infamous Major Garrett,” Leo greeted with a hint of awe and curiosity.
The senior knight offered Leo a blank stare and then bowed stiffly to the rest of the group. “Greetings, candidates. If you will all follow me, I’ll lead you to her Highness.”
“Major,” Elouise said as she walked briskly beside him. “Why is the Crown Princess tearing up the courtyard?”
“She’s installing a life-size chessboard,” Garrett replied calmly.
“You heard me.”
Elouise blinked at the sharpness of his tone and then shrieked as servants walked past carrying uprooted rose bushes. “But—the garden! The roses! The Queen Regent herself had these installed—”
“Her Highness has no use for flowers,” Garrett explained with a hint of impatience. “This way.” He quickened his step and led them up a flight of stairs to a balcony that circled the courtyard from above. The major stopped beside an open archway door and gestured for them to enter before him.
Crown Princess Eleanora, dressed in man’s pants, chain mail and armor turned to greet them with a broad grin. “Ah, the candidates!”
Carina hid a smirk as the other candidates gawked at Eleanora’s daring apparel.
“Y-your Highness!” They recovered and curtsied.
Carina wiggled uncomfortably in Leo’s arms. “Please put me down now!” she hissed.
“As you wish, my Lady.” Leo set her down but stepped in front of her as he bowed respectfully to Eleanora. “Your Highness, I am Captain Leo.”
“You’ve changed horses, Lady Maura,” Eleanora observed with a twisted smile. “I think I preferred the other one.”
Leo’s jaw clenched, and his cheeks flushed as he straightened and stepped back.
Carina coughed as she smothered a laugh and stepped into line with the other candidates. “Greetings, your Highness.”
Eleanora’s amber eyes wandered up to the purple rose in Carina’s hair.
Carina cringed as she straightened. As often as she had considered throwing the Dowager’s mark away, she could not do so with Leo there to report her every move. And throwing away the Queen Regent’s flower was as good as throwing away her offer.
Eleanora smiled as she removed the black leather sparring gloves and then waved them at Elouise and Leo. “Thank you. I will speak to the candidates alone for a moment.”
“But—” Elouise stiffened as Eleanora pinned her beneath a golden stare. “Yes, your Highness.”
Leo stiffly followed the Dowager’s lady-in-waiting outside. Garrett shut the door behind them both and stood on guard beside it.
“Lady Hana is not feeling well this morning,” Eleanora explained as she paced around the four candidates. “Which is a shame as I value her opinion. But since the final decision would be mine—” she moved towards a table where an unfinished game of chess rested and studied the pieces critically.
The silence lengthened, and even Evelynn started to shift uncomfortably. Carina was just starting to feel a buildup of pressure in her left-ankle when Eleanora plucked three pieces from the board and turned to face them.
“I will accept three of you,” the crown princess proclaimed with a confident grin. “First, Lady Evelynn!”
Evelynn breathed a sigh of relief and blinked as Eleanora placed an iron bishop in her hand. “T-thank you, your Highness.”
“Second, Lady Maura.”
Carina curtsied and accepted the iron knight Eleanora held out to her. “I am honored, your Highness.”
Eleanora continued without comment as she held the small pawn between her fingers and studied the remaining two candidates. Tiffany stood rigidly with eyes lowered. Her hands trembled visibly against her dress. Meredith blinked rapidly as she struggled to maintain a confident smile. Both refused to meet the Crown Princess’s gaze.
‘And one of them is Octavia’s spy. But wait—’ Carina studied the pawn in the crown princess’s hand, ‘—is it possible Eleanora already knows?’
“Lady Tiffany!” Eleanora announced as she stopped in front of the quivering blonde girl.
Tiffany gasped and wobbled as she blinked up at the chess piece Eleanora offered. “T-Thank you!” She accepted the token and curtsied. “Thank you, your Highness!”
“What?” Meredith gasped as she stared dumbly at the iron pawn Tiffany held. “But—you—she—” she clutched her chest as she struggled to draw in a breath of air and turned towards Evelynn, who only shook her head silently.
“This can’t be—” Meredith protested as she spun towards Eleanora. “You would choose a baron’s house over that of a viscount? And a half-blood over a true noble-born lady?”
Carina ignored the finger pointed in her direction as she watched the crown princess approach Meredith with a cold smile.
“I’ve made my decision, Lady Meredith,” Eleanora said firmly. “And I think it’s time you showed me some of that famous Lafeara etiquette by leaving quietly and gracefully. I will not tolerate another insult to my ladies.”
“Ha!” Meredith spat bitterly. “This whole Selection has been nothing but a farce. No granddaughter of a maid would be the queen of anything if it weren’t for the Emperor pressuring the Royal Family.”
Eleanora stepped forward and, with frightening calm, brushed her fingers along Meredith’s bangs and down her cheek and throat. “I will remember those words, Lady Meredith.” Her voice was devoid of any hostility, and yet Meredith trembled as she hastily stepped back. “See the ugly thing out, Major.”
“With pleasure, your Highness.” Garrett grabbed Meredith’s arm and pulled the still fuming girl towards the door.
“Don’t think this is over—my father is friends with Marquess Borghese. You’ll regret this—”
Garrett slammed the door in Meredith’s face and exhaled slowly.
“Let it be, Major,” Eleanora said calmly. “When I am queen, she will eat her words, as will the rest of her family.” She sighed and turned back to her new ladies-in-waiting. “Well, I suppose I should give you a tour of your new home.”
“Your Highness!” Evelynn interjected. “Surely a maid would do—”
The door beside Garrett burst open. Carina turned, half expecting Meredith or Captain Leo. Instead, Lady Sabella swept inside with a triumphant look.
“Your Highness!” Sabella brushed past the new ladies-in-waiting and held out a rolled document. “I’m afraid Lady Maura can no longer take place in the Selection. She has been disqualified!“