Chapter 101: A Treacherous Path Forward
Her limbs were still numb as Carina ripped free from the painful memory with a gasp. The dark walls of the servant’s passage greeted her with a heavy silence filled by her own panted breath. “You never—showed me that before,” Carina whispered as Maura removed her arms.
“I’m showing you now.”
“How could she—” Carina sucked in a breath as she rubbed her shoulder tenderly where the arrow had struck Maura “—what right did she have to leave you behind.”
“I did not show you before because I feared you would change your mind. I am showing you now only to remind you to be wary. You may have risen above me, to the rank of Baroness, but you are still a half-blood and disposable to Eleanora.”
Carina exhaled slowly and nodded. She fumbled around in the dark for another matchstick, lit the candle, and placed it in the closest empty lantern fixture. With her light source secure, Carina returned to study the tiled roses. “Six down three over, the instructions are easy enough to follow—but if it takes two, this might be difficult,” she muttered. “It’s not like you can help me.”
“I am stronger now that I have returned to the palace.” Maura materialized beside the right window and placed her pale right hand against a center tile. “At the manor, my power was much weaker.”
“Because you died here?” Carina mused on that for a moment then shook her head. “Well, we’re here, so might as well give it a shot.”
She moved to the left tiled window, counted and located the trigger tile, then placed her palm against the smooth carving.
“Okay, found it,” Carina confirmed. “On three then. One, two, three—”
The ghost beside her flickered in and out of view as they both pushed against the tiles. Carina watched as Maura came more clearly into focus until only her skin’s pale blue hue distinguished her from a living, breathing person. It also made the horrid acid scar on the left side of Maura’s face more painfully visible. Carina moved her gaze to the carved window as she strained against the immovable tile.
“It’s not—working,” Maura panted, as her solid form flickered and quickly faded back to its ghostly transparency.
“Perhaps I have the wrong one?” Carina recounted the titles only to confirm her choice as accurate. ‘Could Eleanora have misled Maura with inaccurate information? But why would she if she wanted Maura to help Hana escape through this passage.’
“I am not strong enough,” Maura lamented as she faded further from view. “I am useless.”
“Don’t say that. Don’t give up just yet,” Carina replied determinedly as she placed her hand back on the tile. ‘Six down and three over might be correct, but perhaps Eleanora counted from the right side instead of the left?’ Carina shook her head. ‘Rather than guess, let me see if I can detect the trigger.’ She closed her eyes, took in a slow breath, then exhaled. A thin cloud of mist appeared beneath her hand and spread across the tiles.
Carina focused as the cold vapor seeped through the wall’s cracks and illuminated the void behind a stone rose tile two spaces to the right of her hand. “I have it! It was on the—” She paused as the tile she located flickered. The rose momentarily illuminated with a faint blue light. ‘Weird, did it react to my magic?’
“Then let’s give it another try!” Maura said eagerly.
“Wait, wait,” Carina removed her hand from the wall and stepped back. “Let me try something first.” She retreated until she stood beneath the lantern’s candle.
“What are you—”
“I just need a moment,” Carina murmured as she closed her eyes again, extended her hands, and focused on the cold magic in her chest. A pale frigid glow illuminated her face as the frozen heart’s magic filled the passageway with a ghostly cloud of mist. Frost spread along the stone-paved floor, walls, and outlined the curvature of each rose. “Just a little bit more.”
Two blue roses glowed in the muted darkness behind Carina’s closed eyes. She focused upon them until the void behind each tile filled with magic, and a faint click echoed in the walls.
Carina ripped her eyes open and felt her heart crumble with defeat as the frost-covered wall remained still. “Damn it. I guess that would have been too easy.”
But the marked tiles still glowed before her as the pale magic Carina had injected behind them spread outwards until each rose-patterned window glowed with the same pale blue light she had seen before.
“Maura?” Carina whispered uncertainly as she took a step back.
“It’s reacting to your magic,” the ghost confirmed with a note of disbelief.
And then, just as in Maura’s memory, a door formed between the two glowing sets of tiles and slowly descended into the floor.
Carina stared into the tunnel as the light of her frozen heart slowly faded. In the darkness, the spectral figure of the ghost beside her glowed eerily. Carina shook her head as she glanced between the two glowing stone windows. “It was built to function with or without magic.”
‘I thought only mortal kings and queens had led Lafeara since the Second Saint’s rebellion?’ She touched the Winter Rose at her neck. ‘What had Percy said? Something about this being a royal heirloom?’ Confused and feeling like she had stumbled upon something important, Carina turned towards Maura.
Her questions withered and scattered the moment Carina caught sight of Maura’s face, now twisted with an expression of seething anger. A chill ran down her spine as Carina averted her gaze from the ghost’s blackened eyes and fumbled inside her bag for another match to relight the candle her magic had extinguished.
“You really are quite lucky.”
The matchstick in Carina’s hands snapped as she whipped around to find herself alone in the darkness. The malice that coated those words lingered long after she lifted the flickering candle from the lantern and approached the secret tunnel.
Carina paused outside the narrow passage to look back at the spot where Maura had fallen with an arrow in her shoulder. “I’m sorry,” she whispered to the empty shadows, then squeezed through the grimy stone walls and pulled the lever to seal the secret entrance.
A narrow flight of stairs led Carina down into the damp, cold underground tunnel. She followed the single path forward silently as she wrestled with Eleanora’s decision to condemn Maura. ‘Had the queen really expected a half-witch maid to rescue Hana from prison and execution?’
Another thought soon occupied her thoughts as Carina reached the second flight of stairs that led back up to the surface. ‘If Eleanora made it inside the secret tunnels—then why didn’t she escape? And how did she die?’
At the top of the steps, a second false wall and lever awaited her. Carina gave the metal bar a hard yank, determined to see this journey through to the end. The secret door opened, but this time she came out beneath one of the small archways that lined the fortress walls outside the royal palace.
“This will most definitely come in handy,” Carina whispered as she stepped out to examine the vine-covered archway. Sure enough, more rose tiles appeared beneath the growth of creeping plants. “I suppose it’s fairly discrete. Unless someone is lucky enough to push the correct tiles at the same time.”
‘Or they use magic.’
She stepped back and felt a stone click beneath her left foot. Carina watched the passage seal itself once more and then examined the paved ground that stopped at the edge of the archway. She smiled as she located a solitary rose tile. Stepping on it did not open the secret tunnel, so its apparent use was simply to close the hidden door.
Satisfied her escape path would not be so easily detected, Carina pulled a stick of charcoal from her bag and sketched a small rose onto the ceiling. With her way back marked well enough for the return trip, Carina pulled out her pocket watch and frowned at the minute hand that flagged her fifteen minutes late.
‘Hopefully, Stitcher is still waiting for me as planned.’ She slid away from the wall and dashed beneath the ghostly limbs of cherry trees that separated the palace from the surrounding capital and sheltered her from the soldiers who patrolled the fortress walls high above.