Chapter 65: A Shiver of Dread
A quick dress change was simple enough for Carina once she got upstairs. However, getting the wine out of her hair took a bit more time. The flustered attendant muttered a curse as she dabbed her face dry and took in the red irritation around her ice-blue eyes that made it look as if she had been crying.
“Well, that’s annoying,” Carina muttered as she tossed the towel aside. She hastily washed her face in a basin, then cooled her eyes briefly with a bit of ice magic and added a fresh layer of light makeup. Redoing her hair only slightly improved its disheveled condition, but Carina decided it would do, especially given all the guests would likely be drunk before the night was through.
The attendant unlocked her personal chest and pulled out a small box from which she withdrew the makeshift hairpin with its icy, poisoned point. Sliding the ornament into her hair, Carina quickly shut and locked the chest, leaving the ruined dress and towel on the floor as she rushed to the door and back downstairs.
The muffled thud of her shoes down the steps and through the hall did nothing to help ease the tension that built up inside Carina’s chest. As she approached the banquet courtyard, more than a few servants offered her sympathetic glances, which confirmed the wine incident had already circulated through the palace staff.
‘Never mind, it will likely be forgotten by tomorrow if all goes well.’
Carina raised her chin resolutely and was about to march back out through the main doors when Mrs. Poppy caught her arm and quickly pulled her back.
“Her Highness says you are not to return to the banquet until the first course has finished,” the housekeeper explained as she led Carina firmly towards the kitchen.
“Those noble lords and ladies have been talking about nothing else since you left. I’m sure you know how vicious they can be. You should give yourself some time to calm down before offering them more scraps to feed off of.”
Carina let out an irritated hiss as she crossed her arms and then blinked down at the handkerchief the housekeeper offered her.
“You look as if you’ve been crying,” Poppy said, not unsympathetically.
Carina closed her eyes and bowed her head gratefully as she pushed the handkerchief away. “No. I’m fine. I just got a bit of wine in my—” One look at the housekeeper’s face told Carina the older woman wasn’t buying a word of her excuse. “Thank you all the same, Mrs. Poppy.” Carina cleared her throat awkwardly as the woman withdrew her handkerchief. “Is there—anything I can assist with while I’m stuck waiting?”
“I suppose that’s one thing I do like about you, Lady Maura,” Poppy admitted with a slight smile. “You like to keep busy. Far too busy to be getting tangled up in the Earl’s business, I’m sure. This way.”
Carina maintained a forced smile as she followed the head housekeeper inside the kitchen. ‘One way or another, I need to find a way to squash this rumor.’ She stopped short as a room full of kitchen staff turned and glanced towards her awkwardly. Then one of the maids brought over a small cup of water and patted Carina’s shoulder sympathetically.
Carina nodded her thanks for the cup and sighed. ‘I wouldn’t even be this embarrassed if people would stop jumping to such ridiculous misunderstandings. Though the person best equipped to clarify things would be the Earl and his “not-my-fiancé.”’
Carina snapped free from her thoughts as a soft whistle pulled her attention towards the sound of a chair being dragged down the hall by a servant. Carina blinked in recognition as Saul bobbed his head inside the kitchen door towards them both. “Ah—excuse me, ladies. Where do the extra chairs go?” he asked with a hopeful glance between them.
“To the yard!” Poppy snapped as she spun towards him. “And aren’t you with the musicians? There is no reason you should be on this side of the palace at all!”
“I’m sure he just got lost,” Carina said hastily as she set down her cup and circled Poppy. “Why don’t you follow me. I can show you the way back and which door you should take.”
“Thank you, Miss.” Saul bobbed his head, looking sufficiently chastised beneath the housekeeper’s disapproving glare.
“Just take him to the end of the hall, then rejoin me in the kitchen, Lady Maura,” Poppy called out with a hint of worry as Carina hurried into the hall.
With a quick look about to make sure they were unobserved, Carina whipped about, pulled the poisoned ornament from her hair, and extended it to Saul. The bodyguard deftly tucked the hairpin into his long dark braids that were pulled halfway up and away from his rather sharp cheekbones.
“I know my way from here, Miss,” he said with a polite nod, though his tone was less subservient as he turned and retraced his steps back to the end of the hall alone.
‘Alright, that’s done.’ Carina breathed a sigh of relief as she watched him disappear. ‘Let us hope there are no more mishaps tonight.’
Chef Robbi was the calm at the center of the storm as he directed the kitchen staff with the skill of a conductor capable of instantly pinpointing the slightest wavering note. Carina quickly found a corner of the kitchen to hide away in and observe the organized chaos. One of the maids quickly provided her with a spare bed sheet to wrap herself in and protect her dress. Carina couldn’t help but imagine she looked rather like a hurricane victim wrapped up in her tiny corner of the world.
‘This is ridiculous. I’m of absolutely no use here, and the first course is only getting started.’
The attendant glanced up as Mrs. Poppy reentered the kitchen with a quick round of instructions for the serving staff. “Mrs. Poppy—” Carina called out to her above the din of commands and reports that fired back and forth across the kitchen like a firing range. “I’m really of no help here—Can I return to the banquet now?”
Mrs. Poppy appeared not to hear—or simply ignored Carina—as the housekeeper meticulously eyed each plate of food placed upon the waiting dinner trays and scornfully discarded a fork or knife that had not been polished enough.
Despite being trapped inside the chaos, Carina enjoyed herself immensely as she watched the staff at work. The cooks took turns offering her snacks from plates that did not meet the housekeeper’s approval. Trays were filled, and dishes covered in a framed gold mesh cloth before they were carried out.
The menu consisted of roasted swans that had been cooked to perfection and decorated with an elegant garland of berries and herbs for the Ambassador and royal family. Carina couldn’t help but feel sorry for the unfortunate pair of birds that had been sacrificed for this occasion. For the rest of the guests, cooked geese artfully decorated with carved vegetables and fruit soon followed as the line of servants in gold and silver rapidly disappeared back down the hall towards the courtyard.
“The first course is complete. Clear away and begin preparations for the final course!” Robbi shouted as he smacked his hands together like a drum.
“Robbi!” Poppy called out in surprise, and Carina noticed the line of red staining his rolled-up sleeve. Carina recalled the wound the Dowager’s knights had given the Chef only a week before. “Be mindful of your injury! What if you bleed on the dinnerware!”
“It’s just a bit of blood!” The Chef grumbled in Ventrayna as he was pushed onto a crate in the corner while the head housekeeper hastily covered the offensive stain beneath a clean towel. “Ventrayna culture requires a bit of blood with our meat, Lady Maura,” Robbi added with a mischievous wink in Carina’s direction. He yelped as Poppy slapped his injured arm soundly. “Damn it, woman, could you be any gentler!”
Carina hid a smile as the Chef resumed his post and soon had deserts rolling from prepped ovens onto the cleaned counters. A sponge-like coconut cake lined with walnuts and plums that smelled of rich vanilla syrup and something she couldn’t identify other than it being overly sweet. The aroma itself was enough to make Carina hungry again. She crossed both arms over her distracted stomach as the staff cut each tray into serving size pieces then returned them to the resting ovens to stay warm.
“I made enough for everyone, Lady Maura,” Robbi called out with a cautious glance towards Mrs. Poppy. “But perhaps it’s time you should return to the banquet.”
“But—” Mrs. Poppy interjected, “—the guests haven’t finished the first course yet.”
“I can’t hide in here all night,” Carina replied determinedly as she removed the protective tablecloth and headed for the hall.
‘Besides, once the first course is over—the real battle begins.’
“Ah, so good of you to obtain the Caligo wine,” Haemish praised as he lifted his glass to Eleanora. “You have a very thoughtful wife, your Majesty. This wine is very hard to obtain, even in Ventrayna. It is reserved for pure-bloods and members of the royal family.”
Nicholas choked on his first sip and lowered the glass. “It is—certainly exotic—”
“Perhaps a bit too strong for your taste,” Haemish appraised with a scornful smile.
“Taste is relative,” Octavia interrupted as she waved away Lady Tiffany, who had been assigned to pour out the Crown Princess’s special wine. “Appreciation and respect are far more difficult to acquire.”
Eleanora raised her glass with a sardonic grimace. “To the Queen Regent, who can turn a discussion on wine into a lecture on human relations.”
Nicholas shot the crown princess a glance, but Octavia quickly raised her glass of Lafearian wine with an amused smile.
“To the wisdom of age that comes too late,” the Dowager recited. “And the folly of youth who will not listen.”
‘Save your lectures for another day, old wolf.’ Eleanora hid a scowl behind a forced smile as she tilted her glass to Nicholas. “To the unification between our two great countries. May our marriage bring mutual appreciation and respect.”
This time it was Octavia who almost choked on her wine. Nicholas glanced over at the ever-observing Ambassador and tapped his glass to Eleanora’s before taking another tentative sip of Caligo wine.
“An excellent toast,” Haemish boomed and emptied his glass enthusiastically. “Good wine, family and friends, splendid music, and a beautiful palace. It makes traveling across that cursed desert seem but a distant dream.”
A flurry of whispers and turning heads pulled their attention to the doors where Lady Maura reappeared in a fresh gown, noticeably free of wine.
“Ahh, and that lady is?” Haemish asked curiously.
“One of my attendants,” Eleanora spoke up quickly. “Lady Maura.”
“Oh?” Haemish leaned back as he lifted his empty glass for Lady Tiffany to refill hurriedly. “She seems a bit young to be an attendant.”
“Lady Maura is perfectly capable,” Eleanora replied. “But yes, she still has much to learn,” she added with a glance to Nicholas, who was also watching the attendant’s approach. Eleanora frowned, but the crown prince merely turned and motioned to Captain Beaumont, who leaned forward to whisper something against Nicholas’s ear. The knight captain then stepped back to resume his post. Eleanora’s attention was soon diverted by Marco’s approving laugh as he clicked glasses with the young nobleman seated beside him.
‘At least Marco is enjoying himself.’ Eleanora sighed with relief, then paused with her chalice half-raised when she caught the worried frown on Lady Lavinia’s face as the woman observed her son from across the banquet table.
“Do all of your attendants come from well-established noble families?” Haemish asked, pulling the crown princess’s attention back to her uncle.
“Yes,” Eleanora replied quickly. “That is—Lady Maura is a Baroness in her own right.”
“Oh?” Haemish frowned. “She’s already married?”
“No, Eleanora was kind enough to give Lady Maura a title along with the province of Averly so she could remain a noble after her parent’s divorce,” Nicholas supplied helpfully.
“A fallen noble then?” Haemish queried with a hint of scorn.
“I think you’ll find Lady Maura more than capable of rising above any form of opposition, with or without a title,” Nicholas replied confidently and then returned to his meal.
‘Why was he praising Lady Maura?’ Eleanora wondered as she adjusted the crown that had begun to weigh uncomfortably upon her head and neck. ‘I thought Nicholas didn’t like her.’ She glanced back to where Maura had obtained a pitcher of wine and soon joined Lady Tiffany to keep up with the constant demand.
“You must take me to these famous royal hunting grounds you wrote so much about, Eleanora,” Haemish demanded after swallowing down another lump of swan meat. “I am eager to see these formidable boars you’ve been terrorizing.”
“I should be delighted to show you—” Eleanora hesitated as she glanced towards Nicholas “—if my husband permits it, of course.”
Nicholas fork nearly slipped from his fingers as he hurriedly pressed a handkerchief to the food that had nearly tumbled out of his open mouth. “Ahem—after the negotiations, I would be delighted to join you both—if my wife doesn’t mind the additional company.”
The awkwardness of his tone and shifting gaze revealed his discomfort, but Eleanora smiled and lifted his empty cup towards the passing Lady Maura. “Of course, dearest husband. I should be delighted to receive the pleasure of your company.”
She glanced back as the wine pitcher withdrew and did not miss the surprised look of approval on Maura’s face before the attendant withdrew to focus on the other guests.
‘That’s right—It’s just a few days. As long as Nicholas is willing to act along with me, this much shouldn’t be too difficult.’
Eleanora passed her recovering husband his glass, and Nicholas dipped it towards her in a silent salute as his hazel-blue eyes regarded her with a hint of uncertainty. While masking her victory with the blandest expression she could muster—certainly, that was how all other obedient wives appeared to the crown princess anyway—Eleanora glanced over to gauge her uncle’s reaction. She was surprised and somewhat annoyed to find his gaze still focused on Lady Maura, who was chatting away with Lady Lucy at the corner of the table.
“You should invite your ladies-in-waiting to ride along as well,” Nicholas suggested suddenly. “It will help them prepare for the Royal Hunt.”
“A capital idea, your Majesty,” Haemish quickly agreed with a satisfied grin as he turned to salute the crown prince with his chalice of wine. “It’s as if you read my mind.”
“A skill that will prove rather useful tomorrow, no doubt,” Nicholas returned without missing a beat.
The Ambassador chuckled, apparently in good spirits, as he resumed his silent stalking of a certain blue-eyed attendant.
‘Not good,’ Eleanora reflected all too late as she glanced towards Lady Lavinia for help. Her aunt appeared all too focused on Lady Hendrix’s conversation as they both whispered over the steady flow of wine. ‘Haemish has only ever fooled around with blondes before. I thought he might take an interest in Lady Tiffany, but she has a family to protect her. If he asks for Maura, I—’
A sudden chill ran down her spine as Eleanora’s gaze drifted behind Nicholas’s chair to where Captain Beaumont was staring—simply staring—at the back of the Ambassador’s head. Trapped behind the man’s amethyst eyes was something altogether terrifying and far from human.