Chapter 100: A Specter of Betrayal
The ghost of Carina’s breath twisted before her eyes as she followed Maura through the hidden door behind her bedroom dresser. A dark, narrow passageway of cobwebs lurked inside the palace’s bedroom wall. Carina lit a candle and held it out to illuminate the hidden staircase that led down to the first floor.
A shoulder bag slung around her chest clinked faintly as Carina cautiously took each step. The wood was old and creaky, but otherwise sturdy. Still, it would not do if a servant were to hear something through the walls.
‘Fortunately, they are all sleeping blissfully right now.’
At the bottom of the staircase, another hidden door with a broken handle met her peering gaze. Carina decided to tie her handkerchief around it rather than risk cutting her hand on the rusty metal. With a few firm tugs, the frame yielded and moved inwards. A tapestry obscured the dining room beyond from view.
Carina waited a moment and listened breathlessly to the silence. She shivered as Maura impatiently passed through her into the room.
‘Well, it’s not like anyone else can see her except me.’
Carina blew out her candle, and cautiously followed.
The dining room was blanketed in darkness and shadows. Carina pushed the heavy woven fabric aside again as she tugged the door closed and left her handkerchief squeezed between the stone frame and the wall. When the tapestry dropped into place once more, she was reasonably satisfied no one would notice the passage entrance or her handkerchief, that served as a marker—at least, not before her return.
“Someone is coming!” Maura warned in a ghostly whisper.
Carina ducked down behind the table and chairs as a torch appeared outside the dining room window accompanied by muffled footsteps. The weight of the diamond necklace that Percy had gifted her hung around the taut muscles of Carina’s neck and shoulders as she waited for the knight patrol to move past.
When the room’s shadows stopped moving, Carina rose and followed Maura from the dining room into the dark foyer.
Although the glass windows were difficult to see through, even in the daylight, getting caught wandering about in the middle of the night as a royal attendant was not something Carina wanted to explain. Especially given the knights on patrol would likely report her misdemeanor to either the crown prince or the Dowager.
The muffled voice of a knight brought yet another torch past the window to her left. ‘Had they doubled back? Why?’ Carina slid behind the stairwell’s curved wall and crouched against the floor as she watched the salmon-colored flame shimmer against the glass panes by the entrance doors. The knight paused for a moment and exchanged a short, muffled conversation.
It was reasonable to assume they had not seen her, but Carina waited until they had moved on before she stood up again. Meanwhile, Maura flickered in and out of view beside her with an expression of impatience.
Carina huffed and shook her head. ‘Ever since we’ve arrived at the castle, she’s become more active and a lot more opinionated.’
Satisfied that there was no one within earshot, Carina straightened and brushed her fingers over the painted white, wooden molding of roses that stretched horizontally half-way up the wall. With silent footsteps, she continued her search for a hidden trigger like the one she had found at Lily Palace during the Selection.
‘The passage entrance should be about here, I think. Or perhaps it’s on the other side?’
Carina focused on the knotted buds closest to the stairwell wall and pressed her fingers against them. When nothing moved, she continued her search, careful to avoid skipping one accidentally.
Maura clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth—an odd distorted sound—then gestured at a rosebud beside her.
Carina hid a smile as she edged closer and pushed against the indicated trigger. A section of the stairwell popped out and then swung open.
‘Alright. So far, so good.’ Carina grasped of the edge of the door and pulled it towards her. Another yawning darkness greeted her gaze. ‘Let’s hope the rest of the night goes as smoothly.’ She retrieved another matchstick from her bag, lit the candle, and then entered the servant’s passageway.
A properly mounted door handle had been affixed to the interior frame. Carina used it to pull the door shut firmly.
The servant’s passage divided the front palace into two sections. The left side faced the receiving room, library, and royal study; while the right encompassed the dining room, kitchen, pantry, cellar, and back servant’s door.
Carina’s candle illuminated the small space and the first two doors, which were marked with metal plates inscribed with a number and letter—L1 for the receiving room, R1 for the dining room, L2 for the library, and so on.
It was a system designed to be simple enough for servants to follow, most of whom could not read, when summoned to attend to their Master or Mistress’s needs, and then disappear from view afterward. Maura was intimately familiar with these passages, having served the remaining years of her life in Rose Palace as a cleaning maid before prison and execution.
“Let’s hope your hunch about a secret exit proves accurate as well,” Carina whispered as she continued down the gloomy hallway. The candle flickered as Carina reached the far back wall of the passage that marked its end. She looked about for Maura, but the ghost was nowhere to be seen.
‘Again?’ Carina sighed and studied the wall before her, which was decorated with two narrow strips of rose-patterned tiles shaped like arched windows. ‘Perhaps she used up too much energy when she pulled that prank on Nicholas during the Selection?’
Icy arms slid around her neck as the candle flickered again. Although Carina could not see Maura, she could feel the dead girl’s urgency. Carina closed her eyes and plunged into the ghost’s cold memory.
The palace hallway lanterns flickered erratically as if protesting the chaos and death that had intruded upon its peaceful domain. Maura watched the shadows dance across the blood-splattered palace walls as the ringing in her head faded. A heavy weight, which trapped her against the floor, brought Maura’s attention to the still warm Lafearian knight’s body draped over her lower back and legs. The sounds of battle echoed in Maura’s ears as the blurred image of a woman in gold ran towards her.
Maura barely registered the licorice black curls that swayed beneath Eleanora’s crown as the queen raced past. Another figure emerged. The blue ghoul mask turned in Maura’s direction for only a moment. The soulless black eyes pinned her in place long after the assassin continued to chase after the fleeing queen.
The memory blurred and faded as it always did.
Maura huddled inside the servant’s passageway, trembling against the wall as she watched Garrett struggle to keep hold of Eleanora. The queen held Ghost’s dagger in her hand. The front of her gown now stained with blood.
“We have to go back!” Eleanora shouted. “Hana is still out there.”
“Your Majesty, if you go back now, you will be killed!” Garrett snapped. “It’s you they’ve come for.”
“No—wait!” Eleanora’s amber gaze turned towards Maura curled up against the wall. “You! Maid! They won’t pay attention to a servant like you.” Eleanora grabbed Maura’s arms and pulled her to her feet. “You must find a way back to Lady Hana’s room. There is a secret passage along the west wall that leads to the pantry. If you can slip her outside unseen—”
The passage door, which led to the receiving room, burst open as the king’s knights stormed inside.
“Queen Eleanora, by the King’s command, you are under arrest!” Captain Leo bellowed as he pushed towards the front of his knights. “Major Garrett, unless you wish to die a traitor’s death, you will put down your sword.”
“Your Majesty,” Garrett whispered as he pushed Eleanora and Maura behind him. “Run!”
Eleanora stood rigid as the Major charged towards the crammed pack of Lafearian knights that moved swiftly to meet him.
Captain Leo dodged Garrett’s first attack and slid along the floor past him towards Eleanora, who spun in an instant and raced towards the end of the passage. Maura’s legs buckled as she stared after the queen, and then, in a moment of blind stupidity, she stuck out her leg as the knight captain drew closer. He stumbled and slammed against the floor while Maura scrambled to her feet and chased after the queen.
“Bitch!” Leo roared.
Maura glanced back just once to see the captain already climbing back to his feet. Three knights slammed Major Garret against the wall, where they ripped away his armor and proceeded to gut him like a fish.
The passage’s candles flickered as the darkness crept in, and the memory blurred again.
Only, instead of waking as she had before, Carina slipped deeper into Maura’s memories.
Maura peered through trembling arms as Eleanora pulled Ghost’s dagger from Leo’s dead body. A wall of ice obscured them from the knights battering away on the other side.
“I knew you were a witch,” Eleanora whispered, her eyes strangely agleam with hope.
Maura only stared in silent horror at her trembling hands before she raised her gaze to the knights trapped within the wall of ice, their skin and eyes a strange discolored blue.
“Come here. I need your help!” Eleanora grabbed Maura’s wrist and dragged her over to the wall of tiled roses. The queen shivered then released Maura to tap the dagger’s hilt against a few rose-patterned stones. “Okay, six down, three over, and then—” Eleanora paused with the knife over one of the center tiles, “Yes—it should be this one. Come here and push this stone when I tell you too.”
Maura moved over obediently. She stared at her hand with confusion as Eleanora placed it against one of the many rose carved stone tiles.
“Don’t move, just a moment,” Eleanora urged as she moved over to the left set of tiles. “They have to be pushed at the same time now, get ready—and—push!”
Maura pushed as instructed. The tile resisted for only a second, and then the stone shifted inwards as a narrow hidden door opened between them and slid down into the ground.
“He was right,” Eleanora whispered in relief. She ripped a long piece of cloth from her gown with the dagger, then wrapped the fabric around her hand. Maura anxiously watched as Eleanora lifted one of the candles from its lantern and held it inside the narrow passage to reveal a flight of stairs that led deeper into the earth. “A secret tunnel for monarchs to use in the event of another rebellion or assassination. Hold this!”
Eleanora passed the candle to Maura, who winced as hot wax spilled onto her worn, rough fingers.
The queen wasted no time squeezing through the narrow opening. “I suppose I should be grateful that bastard never got me pregnant,” she muttered with a dark laugh. “It’s damn tight even for me now. Alright, pass me the candle.”
Maura handed the light over willingly as the sound of heavy footsteps drew closer. “Your Majesty, they’re about to breach the side passage doors.”
“Can’t you seal them off with your magic?” Eleanora muttered impatiently.
“I—have never been able to control it,” Maura whispered and self-consciously twisted her fingers into her skirts.
“A half-witch after all then.” Eleanora sighed as she scanned the wall inside the secret tunnel. “Ahh, there we go, there’s a lever here that should close the door behind us.”
“Then, we should hurry and escape, your Majesty.” Maura moved cautiously between the walls, her heart racing as claustrophobia, a gift from childhood, threatened to freeze her legs in place.
A hand grabbed her shoulder, and Maura turned towards the queen with a weak smile. “Thank you—”
“Forgive me,” Eleanora answered suddenly. “But I can’t leave her alone.”
Maura blinked in confusion as she studied the queen’s unreadable expression. The sound of metal grinding proceeded the odd sensation of the floor rising beneath her feet.
“You’re the only one I can trust to help her escape—even if you’re only a half-witch.”
The tunnel blurred as Eleanora pushed her firmly back into the passageway. Maura landed on her side, stunned for a moment, but quickly scrambled to her feet.
“Lead Hana here!” Eleanora pleaded even as Maura attempted to jump and catch the top of the rising door. Her fingers found the edge, but she lacked the strength to pull herself up, let alone hold on. Maura dropped down and raced towards the stone rose tiles as she tried to prevent the nearly closed exit from disappearing. “Six down, three over. It takes two to open. You must bring her here!”
The heavy thud of metal battered against the passage door to her left as Maura watched the secret stone door seal into place, once more indistinguishable from the rest of the passageway. A cold fury coiled in her gut as she stumbled forward, slammed her fists against the barrier, and screamed.
“Why? Why? Why me? You don’t even know my name!”
The passage door to her right groaned and shattered beneath the weight of a battering ram. Maura scampered away from the wall then turned towards the left passage door, which led to the queen’s study. It burst open before her.
Light poured over the looming armored figures of the king’s knights before an arrow zipped through the air and punctured her shoulder. The force knocked Maura off her feet and slammed her against the floor. Her head spun as she clawed weakly at the arrow and fell back with a gasp of pain.
When Maura opened her eyes again, the blade of Captain Beaumont glimmered through her teary vision.