Chapter 102: The Beginning of the End { Part 1 }

Carina wandered through the silent plane of white cherry blossoms, conscious of each step that tread upon the grass and fallen petals below. The fragrance helped soothe her beating heart as her gaze darted amongst the shifting shadows of the trees. The distant lights of the capital, which had faded to only a few lit windows and streetlamps, greeted her as she reached the other side of the pale forest.

Carina brushed the ghostly petals from her shoulders and hair, then quickly crossed the road and headed in the direction of the capital’s belltower.

The towering structure loomed over the sleeping shops and residential houses, illuminated by the wavering moon that climbed above the net of clouds woven across its path. Carina exhaled and tied on her black silk mask, obscured her gown and face within her cloak, and headed towards the set rendezvous location.

A single carriage waited beneath the belltower’s shadow. The soft glow of smoke pipes in the darkness drew Carina’s attention to its driver and passenger, who turned at her approach.

“There she is, only a half-hour late,” Stitcher commented dryly as he knocked his pipe against the carriage wheel and smothered out the remaining tobacco.

“Let’s be on our way then before the capital knights give us another warning,” replied the driver as he rammed his pipe beneath his teeth and climbed up to his seat.

“Apologies—for the delay,” Carina panted as Stitcher opened the carriage door and assisted her inside.

“You can apologize by telling me how you managed to slip outside the castle in the middle of the night,” Stitcher muttered with evident interest as Carina quickly sank into her seat.

“You seem to have your own way,” Carina replied evasively. She waited until Stitcher closed the carriage door, then knocked on the glass panel behind her.

Stitcher caught himself against the opposite seat as the carriage lurched forward and sat down with a rueful grin. “This is how I get in and out—” he held out a palace pass, a steel bar stamped with a golden wolf “—being one of the few royally licensed physicians in the knight’s compound has its perks.”

‘It might be helpful to get one of those from Eleanora later,’ Carina mused as she tucked the bag beside her.

“But even these don’t work after curfew,” Stitcher continued as he tucked the pass inside his jacket, “Not to mention court ladies require a knight to escort them whenever they leave the palace—which tells me you must have another method or exit.”

“Were you able to get in contact with Ghost?”

Stitcher’s smile stretched into a grin as he caught the topic change. He shook his head. “Unfortunately, it seems my Master has left the country.”

“Left?” Carina’s hand tightened around the satchel bag. “Lafeara—just like that?”

“Something came up that requires his presence in Ventrayna,” Stitcher replied with a helpless shrug. “But my orders to assist and protect you still stand, so make use of me as you will.”

Carina sucked in her bottom lip as she leaned back against the carriage seat and rubbed her temple. ‘Another piece of the chessboard—my strongest ally so far—has taken himself out of the game.’

Percy’s face rose unbidden in her mind, and Carina shook herself quickly. ‘No, I can’t rush to judgment just because he happens to be a witch. I still don’t understand the extent to which his political powers influence the future.’ She sighed and refocused on the assassin-physician, who sat across from her silently polishing his pipe. “I won’t deny that you have value to me while your Master is—inaccessible.”

“Excellent, then may I inquire as to who we are meeting in the dead of night?” Stitcher responded with a cat-like smile.

“I might be forced to rely on you, but our destination is all you need to know—for now,” Carina replied promptly.

Stitcher nodded. “I suppose that’s fair, given my loyalties lie with my Master and not you. I will do my best not to pry—directly anyway.”

“You have orders to spy on me then?” Carina asked sharply.

“I am just a curious person by nature, Lady Maura,” Stitcher answered with a casual shrug. “And you are a person who inspires many questions.” He wrapped his clean pipe in a handkerchief and tucked it inside his jacket—all while intently observing her.

“Curiosity killed the cat,” Carina muttered.

“That’s an interesting expression,” Stitcher replied as he scratched his chin. “But I don’t like cats.”

Carina shook her head and glanced out the window. “We should be arriving at the boutique shortly. Here—” She reached into her bag and pulled out a mask with gold stitching “—wear this and don’t take it off until we’re back in the carriage.”

“Are we going to a masquerade?” Stitcher joked as he held the mask in front of his face.

“Consider this a necessary part of protecting my identity,” Carina answered with strained patience. “Where we are going, I am only known as Lady Aconitum, and that is how you will address me—if you must speak at all.”

“Very well,” Stitcher slid the mask on and tied it in place. “Then call me—Lord Hell.”

Carina refrained from rolling her eyes.

“Is that the Master’s dagger?” Stitcher gestured to the black flame hilt that peeped out of her bag.

“Yes, though it’s bothersome to carry without a sheath,” Carina answered as she pulled out the blade, wrapped in cloth and leather and bound with twine. “Witch steel is incredibly sharp.”

“Ghost did refer you to the Master Blacksmith, Sir Ikes, did he not?”

“I’ve been a bit busy,” Carina muttered as she stowed the dagger away and adjusted her bag.

“So I have observed. How is your ankle?”

“Holding up. Is the prototype brace I asked you to make coming along?”

“It was simple enough to construct with your drawing,” Stitcher admitted. “I left it with a leatherworker at Master Ike’s weapon shop. He’s fairly good at custom jobs. Said he’d try to have it done by tomorrow or the next day.”

“Soon enough, I suppose.” Carina checked her mask as they pulled up in front of the Boutique shop.

“The lights are out,” Stitcher observed. “Are you sure we’re in the right place?”

“Save your questions for when we return,” Carina muttered as she opened the carriage door and stepped down. As always, her ankle chose the most inappropriate moment to buckle beneath her.

Stitcher chuckled as he caught her arm and steadied her. “Give me a moment before you go running off,” he requested patiently as he dismounted the carriage behind her and turned to speak to the driver.

Carina huffed, and after a few cautious steps, circled the shop and waited by the metal gate that separated the boutique’s back yard from the street’s traffic. When Stitcher caught up, she pulled the necessary key from her bag, opened the gate, then shut and locked it from the other side.

Stitcher followed without comment as Carina headed down the moonlit path that led to a storage shed shadowed by a bowed oak tree in the back of the fenced yard. She knocked on the shed door and waited until the metal window slap slid open. A pair of eyes accompanied by candlelight peered down at her.

“Lady Aconitum wishes to enter the Artist’s Lair,” she greeted neutrally.

The man behind the door grunted in acknowledgment and closed the window. The sound of bolts being drawn back proceeded the door opening towards them.

A tailor from the boutique stepped out and hurriedly bowed. “Welcome back, Lady Aconitum.”

Carina nodded and entered the shed, followed by her silent shadow. She glanced over the boxes of thread, dyes, buttons, lace, and various rolls of silks and cloths. She wove her way between them and headed to yet another door at the back of the shed.

With a quick check over her shoulder to confirm Stitcher had not gotten lost, Carina opened the door, entered the tight space, and lifted the trap door inside to reveal a staircase that led below the surface.

“As I said,” Stitcher muttered as she took the first step. “You inspire a lot of questions.”

Carina smiled, pressed a finger to her lips, then motioned for him to follow her into the darkness.

Three men waited below, armed with pistols, and seated around a table playing dice in the light of a solitary candle.

They turned and rose as Carina reached the last panel of the staircase. “They are waiting for you inside, Lady Aconitum,” said the youngest while his companion’s eyed Stitcher curiously.

“Kritanta’s flame,” Stitcher whispered as he caught Carina’s elbow and gently held her back. “Are you leading some secret rebellion?”

“Lord Hell is here for my protection,” Carina announced to the guards as she shook off Stitcher’s grip. “Please provide him with a seat as he will be waiting outside with you gentlemen.” She turned and added to the assassin in a low whisper, “This is as far as you can accompany me tonight.”

“Or as far as you trust my Master and me?”

Carina smiled. “I trust no one, Lord Hell. Please don’t take it personally.” She left the assassin to fend for himself and headed to the opposite end of the room, where she opened another door that led to a short hallway trapped between two doors.

With the first door sealed behind her, Carina took a few slow breaths, then knocked on the final barrier. The metal slab opened just a fraction as a familiar voice asked, “Who seeks entrance?”

“One who would glimpse paradise,” Carina replied and tilted her masked face up as the slab opened further. “All beauty is pain.”

“All beauty is pain,” the man echoed back. “We have been waiting for you, just a moment.”

The window shut abruptly. The sound of metal grating filled the silence before the door finally creaked open. A middle-aged timid looking man, dressed in bright colors of arctic-blue and chartreuse-green, peered over his spectacles as he greeted her with a relieved smile. “I was beginning to worry. You’ve never been this late, Lady Aconitum.”

“I had to come by a different route,” Carina replied as she stepped through the opening. “How are you, Sir Everly?”

“Excellent, excellent, but let’s not keep your other guests waiting.” Everly closed and bolted the door. Then he led her down a narrow hallway that brought them to an open room where four men and two women waited around a large table in hushed discussions.

The whispers died the moment Everly and Carina appeared.

“My apologies for the lateness of the hour and my unfortunate tardiness,” Carina said as she dipped a curtsy to the members of Frost’s secret organization, Cerberus—otherwise called, Watchdog.

“Not at all. It is a pleasure to see you again, Lady Aconitum,” greeted the extravagantly dressed noble as he set down his pipe, which had filled the meeting room with its usual rare and exotic aroma. Lord Seymour, one of the leading members of the Royal Merchants guild.

“Who are we to reproach the trusted partner of Mr. Frost,” replied Lady Charity with a welcoming smile. The second daughter of a fallen noble family, Lady Charity had made a name for herself when she managed to snag Baron Price for a husband and reclaim her noble title. At twenty-six, she now secretly controlled the Commoner’s Merchant Guild through her husband, who many mistakenly believed held the reins of both the business and their marriage.

“Despite the lateness of the hour, I’m sure we are all thrilled to be here,” assured the handsome rogue, Lord Austin. Captain of the Golden Lion, and co-owner of three other merchant ships: Dancing Fairy, Lost Pearl, and Fair Weather, which were also co-owned by Mr. Frost. “So please don’t trouble yourself over a few minutes.”

“We appreciate your apology, Lady Aconitum,” added Lady Ursula, Sir Everly’s wife, backbone, and business partner. “Though some of us seem to regard their time as more valuable than others.” Ursula’s disapproving glare turned in the direction of the two noble lords seated at the furthest end of the table.

Carina smiled as she turned her gaze towards the remaining members of Cerberus, who had not yet spoken. Lord Walter, Viscount and Lord Principal of the Royal Medical Office, which controlled all hospitals within Lafeara. And Lord Tobias, a notable, ambitious physician as well as the newest member of their secret organization. Both gentlemen nodded in her direction with the barest gesture of respect. They were here for the sake of Mr. Frost’s name, not some designer who appeared to have more connection to the elusive investor than anyone else at the table.


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