Chapter 64: A Banquet in Red
A symphony of music mingled with the rumble of saturated conversation as Carina walked past the knights stationed at the courtyard’s back exit. The interior space had filled up rapidly in a short period. Noble lords of Lafeara mingled around the prepared banquet tables and greeted those of higher rank. The women mingled in small circles as they listened to the band of musicians while pointing at the artful decorations of sculpted purple glass crowns filled with small flickering golden candles.
Carina paused to catch her breath as she studied them, attaching names to the faces of those she knew. The most notable among them was Marquess Borghese, father of the notable gossip manipulator, Lady Priscilla. The Marquess stood just behind his seat at the table, surrounded by a group of noble lords who each listened with rapt attention to whatever Borghese was telling them.
‘On the surface, the Marquess is the leader of the Royal Party in all but name. It’s no wonder he can influence a vast majority of nobles. But I wonder how many of them are aware of his involvement in the sex trade market.’
Carina turned away from the disgusting noble, then cringed as she caught sight of Borghese’s ginger-haired daughter. Lady Priscilla stood flanked by two other young noblewomen as she stared down her fan at a middle-aged nobleman who appeared to be doing his best to flatter her. ‘Strange that she hasn’t become engaged yet. What are the odds Priscilla hasn’t given up on becoming Nicholas’s queen?’
The discouraged nobleman withdrew with a scowl, and Carina averted her gaze as she circled the banquet on the opposite side of the Borghese father and daughter pair. She had just reached the main door connecting to the palace’s interior when Tiffany appeared, escorting the Dowager herself.
Instant relief flooded the blonde attendant’s face just as Octavia called out, “Ah, we appear to have found the missing Lady Maura.”
“Your Grace,” Carina descended into a deep curtsey. “I was just seeing to the arrangements for tonight’s entertainment.”
“Oh, I see.” Octavia smiled placatingly as if she were agreeing to an obvious lie. Carina’s gaze caught on the rare glimpse of a wrinkle upon the Dowager’s otherwise immaculate and far too youthful skin. “Tonight certainly promises to be quite entertaining in more ways than one.”
Carina tried not to shiver at the cunning amusement in those words. Her all too recent and vivid meeting with the Dowager in that secret, morbid garden still fresh in her memories.
“Would you escort me to my seat, Lady Maura?” Octavia asked as she held out a hand expectantly.
Carina stepped back and glanced from Tiffany, who had already turned to leave, to the attendants behind the Dowager, and was surprised to find Lady Sabella was not among them. “Certainly—your Grace.” Carina accepted the Dowager’s hand and led the monarch around the courtyard towards the banquet table’s vertex, where the royals and their esteemed guest were to be seated.
The lords and ladies all bowed respectfully as they passed. Marquess Borghese scowled faintly before he dipped into a bow alongside his daughter. ‘It appears the two heads of the Royal Party are still at odds,’ Carina mused.
“Have you ever seen a more foolish pack of jackals?” Octavia asked and raised a thin brow above her ice-blue eyes. “I’m surprised your Crown Princess deigned to invite the Borghese family—given they voiced the loudest disapproval of her marriage to Nicholas.”
“Her Highness is required to invite all members of the House of Lords to greet foreign dignitaries. Even the ones she doesn’t like,” Carina corrected reflexively, then caught her breath as she glimpsed the Dowager’s amused smile. “Forgive me. I meant no offense—”
“You’re quite outspoken for someone with so little political backing, Lady Maura,” Octavia observed as her cold grip around Carina’s hand tightened. “Or perhaps you are relying upon your connections to the Earl of Hawthorne?”
Carina offered an apologetic smile. “I spoke without thinking, your Grace. Please allow me to apologize.”
“Now, now,” Octavia’s grip relaxed as she patted Carina’s hand affectionately. “I’d rather see your true colors, Lady Maura. If only to enjoy how they clash with the values of the upper echelons of so-called nobility.”
‘Is she—encouraging me?’ Carina glanced towards the Dowager uncertainly.
“At any rate,” Octavia continued with a smirk, “I would advise you to keep an eye on our Guest of Honor this evening. I have heard whispers that his intentions are far from friendly when it comes to that woman Eleanora is so fond of.”
‘Hana?’ Carina tensed but shook the thought away as she pulled out the Dowager’s chair, two seats down from Eleanora’s with Nicholas placed between them. “Please, your Grace.”
Octavia nodded as she took her seat and waved Carina away dismissively.
Grateful to have regained her freedom, Carina briskly returned to the front palace, determined to slip away to her room for the hairpin and then check in on Hana.
Unfortunately, the Dowager’s arrival marked the quick succession of many other important guests that Eleanora greeted at the front of the palace, with Major Garrett stationed on guard behind her.
Carina, Tiffany, and Evelynn were tasked with escorting each important guest to their marked place at the banquet, where the servants dressed in gold and silver would serve the lords and ladies their first course of wine. The steady rumble of conversation and gossip soon muffled out the musician’s otherwise delightful sonnet as the courtyard quickly filled.
All seemed to be progressing well, except that Carina could not find a gap between arrivals to slip upstairs to her room. She smiled almost robotically as the Prime Minister and his charming wife, Lady Lucy, greeted Eleanora at the door.
“I must apologize for Acheron’s absence. He’s still tangled up in the muddy affair of this inquisition,” Attwood explained with a brief smile from Eleanora to Carina. “But he shall be joining us tomorrow for the Dowager’s ball—”
“If Acheron can manage to stand on his own two feet,” Lucy interrupted worriedly. “Every time I see my poor boy’s tired face.”
“I’m sure Lord Acheron must be worn out from such a straining task, Lady Lucy,” Eleanora said sympathetically. “Let us hope the church does not linger for too much longer in Lafeara.” She turned her narrowed eyes to the Prime Minister. “Have they succeeded in tracking down the priest’s killer yet? Or are they simply content to burn the nuns of their church as they go?”
“Prime Minister,” Carina cleared her throat and stepped forward. “May I escort you to your seat?”
“Yes, thank you, Lady Maura,” Attwood replied with a polite smile before he turned and bowed to Eleanora. “I share your concerns, your Highness. I also wish the relationship between the church and witches could be improved.”
Eleanora pressed her lips together but gave Carina a curt nod before she turned to greet the next approaching guest.
Carina found herself escorting not so much the Prime Minister as his wife, Lady Lucy, who attached herself to Carina’s arm and babbled on about Acheron the entire way. Carina motioned Acheron’s adoring mother and the prime minister to their seats with a slight twinge of jealousy. Attwood thanked her as he pulled out a chair for his wife.
“I know my son, Lady Maura, and sadly, I’m not sure he’ll ever settle down long enough to find a suitable wife,” Lucy lamented with a pointed stare at her husband as she took her seat.
“Not all young men have to marry in their twenties,” Attwood sputtered with an embarrassed smile to Carina.
“Acheron will have to if I am to see my grandchildren!”
“Please, do enjoy the banquet, Lady Lucy,” Carina interjected and excused herself to return once more to the front. A quick glance around the courtyard showed that nearly every seat at the banquet tables was filled. The only guests still missing were the Ambassador’s family, the Crown Prince, Eleanora’s parents, and of course, the Earl of Hawthorne.
‘I suppose the important ones do tend to arrive last.’
Circling the end of the banquet table, Carina started as a noblewoman spun suddenly into her path, and a glass of red wine splattered down the front of her dress.
“Oh! Oh, my word!” The noblewoman gasped as she hurriedly pushed her now empty glass off onto the nearest servant. “Oh, dear me, I did not see you.”
“It’s—it’s fine—” Carina stammered as she pulled out a handkerchief and attempted to dab up the worst of the mess. ‘Well, that’s another dress ruined.’
“Here, use mine as well,” the noblewoman said hastily as she stepped closer and offered her own silk handkerchief. “I’m sure a woman of your status is used to using other people’s things.”
The words were so unexpected that they took Carina completely off guard as she stared from the offered handkerchief towards its owner and only then recognized Evelynn’s mother.
“Perhaps you should go change, Lady Maura,” Lady Hendrix added with an apologetic smile that did not match the sudden disapproval in her tone. “Though it will take more than a new dress to repair one’s reputation once lost.”
Carina trapped a cynical laugh behind a stiff smile as she brushed past the insulting noblewoman and continued towards the main doors. Even with a handkerchief pressed over her ruined bodice, Carina was keenly aware of the room full of nobles, who whispered and stared after her.
‘Never mind, it was bad luck I ran into her—’ Carina reeled back as Lady Priscilla walked directly into her path, and a second cup of wine flew into Carina’s face. ‘Again?!’
“Oh, how unfortunate!” Priscilla snickered as she stepped away from the now dripping attendant. “For the wine, that is.”
Carina blinked past the alcohol. The stinging red liquid quickly stiffened against her eyelashes and skin as her body temperature dropped rapidly.
‘No—hold it in, Carina!’
A familiar voice filled Carina’s ears as Priscilla retreated, looking rather furious for someone who had not been doused in wine. Percy stepped between them as he swiftly wrapped his dinner jacket around Carina’s shoulders.
“Come, let’s get you back inside,” the Earl said gently, even as the stunned silence of the guests around them crescendoed into a buzz of gossip. Their whispers were not loud enough to silence the dramatic sob from Lady Evelynn, who rushed past Percy and Carina out the banquet doors.
‘More pointless drama,’ Carina seethed through gritted teeth, ‘that’s the last thing I need on today of all days!’ With one last scathing look in Lady Priscilla’s direction, Carina pulled away from Percy and headed to the halls filled with Evelynn’s nerve-straining wails. ‘Once I’m done with the Ambassador, I’ll deal with Lady Priscilla and her detestable father. And then Lady Evelynn—you and your family had better watch yourself.’
“Maura?” Percy whispered as he strode up quickly behind her.
Carina stopped so abruptly the Earl almost walked into her. The dripping attendant spun around as she removed his jacket. “I appreciate your hospitality, Earl Hawthorne, but it is wasted on someone like me.”
Percy blinked down at her, his brows furrowing in confusion as she thrust the dinner jacket towards him.
“You should ask one of the maids to tend to your jacket. Hopefully, it isn’t too badly stained. I’m going to change now. You should return to the banquet.”
“Please, Earl Hawthorne, do not speak my name so intimately in public where others will misunderstand!”
“Is that why you ran off so quickly?” Percy snapped as he grabbed his jacket. “Are the concerns of other people so important that you refuse to wear the necklace I gave you, which is meant to keep you safe?”
‘You mean the necklace you enchanted to make me fall in love with you?’
Carina sucked in a breath and turned away from him to find Eleanora and Nicholas headed in their direction with dumbfounded expressions.
‘Wonderful. A royal audience.’ Carina quickly dipped into a curtsey as she focused her burning gaze on the floor.
“Maura? What?” Eleanora’s baffled voice fell over her.
“One or two of the guests seemed to have had far too much wine already,” Percy answered, his voice oddly strained. “I was just walking Lady Maura back to ensure no more drinks accidentally found their way onto her dress.”
“Too much wine can be a bad thing,” Nicholas replied with a tone of disapproval. “Please, Lady Maura, do not wait on our account.”
He stepped aside, and Carina glanced up as he motioned for her to leave. She bobbed another quick curtsy and murmured her thanks as she rushed past, grateful that this time, Percy did not follow. So distracted was Carina by Lady Evelynn’s performance at the front of the hall where the weeping attendant leaned against Lady Tiffany’s shoulder that she barely noticed the knight captain who stared after her in rigid silence.
‘Well, I suppose it could be worse. Lady Hendrix could have dumped her wine on me at the Dowager’s Ball in front of every single noble household in Lafeara.’
Just as Carina reached the end of the stairwell, a curtain of purple fabric flooded her vision. She stumbled to a halt as the Lafearian Knight’s cloak swirled into place around her, quickly burying her ruined dress. With a flicker of confusion, Carina turned around to find Captain Beaumont standing behind her, his annoying height forcing her to look up.
“You don’t have to return it,” the knight captain said gruffly as he hastily removed his hands. “I have another.”
Before Carina could reply, Beaumont spun around so quickly that he almost smacked into the stairwell wall. The knight captain steadied himself and then marched at a near run back towards the banquet while Carina stared after him dumbfounded.
‘No, never mind, him. I need to focus. I have the perfect excuse to go upstairs and get the hairpin now. I just need to grab it, find Saul, and hope he can get it to Lilaru and Griselda before the main event starts.’