Chapter 12: The Poison of Royalty
They say 3 a.m. is the hour of poets and artists. Well, Alex would argue that it was also the hour of murder and subterfuge. At least, on any other night.
Instead of hunting down a gutless noble who had been raping and killing women in the slums, Alex was stuck inside his closed bar, watching wax melt off a candle. If he weren’t hoping or expecting a visit from Ghost tonight, he might have nursed off a few drinks while he waited.
Alex scowled at his collection of alcoholic beverages, all snug and secure in their glass houses behind the bar and sighed.
No, explaining to Ghost that his man Darwin had lost track of Lady Aconitum because he slipped on a patch of ice—would require a clear, booze-free mind.
‘Who the hell trips on ice in the middle of summer?’
He touched the note Lady Aconitum had left behind, tucked away in his jacket pocket, and heaved a heavy sigh. “Guess he’s not coming.” The candle flame flickered as Alex rose from the bar stool. His shadow danced about the empty bar cluttered with tables and chairs still sticky with alcohol.
Alex stretched like a cat, albeit one too old to be up this late. Then he grabbed his pistols from behind the bar and secured them beside the dagger and sword at his waist. With one last wary glance around the bar room, Alex grabbed his cloak and headed to the door.
The candle flickered and died behind him as the floorboard beside the bar creaked ever so slightly.
“Ghost,” Alex greeted as he turned. “You came?”
“Wasn’t that the point?” The assassin’s voice, younger and colder, flicked across the room like a whip. “You had every news paperboy from here to the Royal Gates shouting out that nonsensical story about Lady Arabella’s missing blue cat.”
“Ah, well, then what took you so long?” Alex retorted as he scratched his neck.
“I was occupied.”
As usual, Ghost was not forthcoming with the details of his clandestine work. Still, he had come, which meant Alex could pass on Lady Aconitum’s letter—something he suspected she knew he would be forced to do after seeing its contents.
“A message was dropped off for you today,” Alex explained as he pulled out the harmless-looking envelope.
“From whom?” Ghost sounded doubtful.
“A client,” Alex answered with a shrug.
“I don’t work for you,” Ghost growled.
“They asked for you specifically all the same,” Alex replied. “Look, just take a glance at the letter. The client is offering 30,000 crescents. If it doesn’t interest you, no harm done, I’ll turn her down if she shows up again.”
Ghost scoffed but approached the Master of the Fox Den.
Alex was an expert in sizing up his opponent by their slightest gesture and movement. Even in the dim moonlight, the assassin’s silent steps gave away years of training, probably as a soldier before he turned to assassin work.
Alex had crossed blades with Ghost before, but that was two years ago when they happened to be going after the same target. Although Alex had been confident of winning back then, the past two years had tempered the fury that burned inside the young man before him. The number of nobles, slavers, and traffickers that had vanished over the past year was a testament to Ghost’s persistence and skill.
But there was something sinister that clung to the assassin before him that Alex couldn’t quite identify. Something intangible that lingered just beneath the eerie blue ghoul mask that stared at Alex tauntingly as Ghost held out his hand.
Alex handed over Lady Aconitum’s note with a silent last-minute prayer to the Saints.
“This had better be good,” Ghost muttered. Apparently, Alex had interrupted something important. The assassin flipped over the letter and stared at the broken seal. “You read this?”
“Just to confirm it was worth bringing to your attention,” Alex replied with a shrug.
Ghost grunted and pulled out the letter.
They both stared at the drawing that had driven Alex crazy for the better half of the day. The artist’s sketch work was precise and flawless. The steady lines, near-perfect measurements, and shading made the star-shaped sapphire necklace appear remarkably lifelike.
Alex had identified the infamous royal jewel in a heartbeat. And, not that he was surprised, Ghost appeared to recognize it as well.
“The North Star—” The assassin’s hands trembled visibly.
And now that ghastly blue mask was staring at Alex with murderous intent.
“Who sent this?”
“She went by the name Lady Aconitum,” Alex answered.
“Acon—” Ghost choked as he crumpled the drawing in his hand. “That name! This necklace! Tell me you didn’t just let her walk out of here?”
“I sent two of my guys to tail her,” Alex replied defensively.
“She—evaded them.” Alex offered a helpless shrug. “Who knew a kid would be so slippery?”
“They lost her!” Ghost roared as he reached for Alex’s throat.
The older assassin deftly blocked him and danced away. “Calm down,” Alex advised with a cautious tone. “I understand why you’re upset. I underestimated her importance, for that I am sorry.”
“You let a child outwit you?” Ghost spat incredulously. “What is the point of our alliance if something this important can slip so carelessly through your fingers?”
“Easy!” Alex hissed as a faint sweat formed along his brow. “I get it. You’ve been looking for that necklace since your mother died. I didn’t realize Lady Aconitum’s connection until after they had already lost her trail. I would have shadowed her myself if I’d known.”
Ghost let out a shuddering breath and stared at the crumpled drawing. “You said she was just a kid, are you sure?”
“Tell me more,” Ghost commanded.
Ignoring the arrogance of his tone, Alex sighed and rolled off what little description he could give. “Female. Fifteen, possibly older. Five-foot two. Couldn’t give you a body description. She wore a pretty thick cape. By her footsteps though maybe ninety pounds give or take. A noble and loaded obviously if she can afford 30,000 crescents, and uhh—” he scratched his head.
“That’s it?” Ghost’s voice rang with incredulity.
“She was sharp, calm, composed, more than you’d expect someone of her age to be. She knew who you were before she even walked in here. And yeah, evidently, she knows about your connection to that necklace.” Alex threw up his hands. “That’s all I got. But Lady Aconitum said she’d be back later to check your answer. It seemed like she was in a hurry to get in touch with you.”
“And what did she want? Did she mention a job?”
“She did,” Alex answered hesitantly.
“And what was it?”
“She—mentioned something about killing Crown Prince Nicholas. Your brother.”
Dawn spread like a pale halo across the horizon outside Turnbell Manor. Carina sat tucked beneath a blanket in the corner of the tiny window nook with a book in hand.
After her nightmare and the disturbing scene in Josiah’s study, sleep had eluded Carina. But if there was one place Carina could slip away from the troubles that weighed down upon her—it was between the pages of a book.
Ivy roused from her sleep and rubbed her eyes. “What are you reading, Miss?”
Carina stifled a yawn as she glanced up. “Hmm, just a book on poisons and their cures.”
“Poison?” Ivy’s voice held a hint of concern. “Are you going to poison someone, Miss?”
“Not any time soon,” Carina replied as she resumed her reading.
“Then—” Ivy adjusted the pillow beneath her, “—why read such a dreadful book?”
“Have you ever heard the saying, ‘Knowledge Is Power’?”
“No, Miss. What does that mean?”
“The more knowledge you possess, especially when it comes to your enemies, the better your odds of survival,” Carina explained as she turned the page.
Ivy considered this and bit her lip. “Then—should I read it too, Miss?”
Carina lowered the book to her lap with a thoughtful expression. “That’s a good idea. We need to keep up with your reading lessons.”
Ivy watched with growing apprehension as Carina left her spot by the window and quickly settled down on the bed beside her.
“Here, let me show you this one,” Carina whispered as she turned to a page that contained a watercolor of a blue flower. “It is a very precious and rare flower. Can you read the name?”
“Aconitum,” Carina corrected. “But close.”
“And it’s poisonous?” Ivy asked as she combed through the page for words she recognized. “Flower. Royal? Death?”
“Exactly right, this flower is a rare poison used exclusively by the royal family.”
“But—” Ivy looked up from the page “—why?”
“You’ve been taught that the royal family is special because Heaven’s will ordains their position as Lafeara’s monarchs?”
“Well, those same legends that claim the Divine Right of King’s also tell us that the Aconitum flower was used by the first Saint to punish the seventh King and Queen of Lafeara during the great war.”
“The Saint killed them with poison? How come I’ve never heard this story before?”
“The royal family doesn’t like to advertise the mistakes of their ancestors.” Carina replied with a shrug, “But yes, the legend I read said that the Saint gave them a choice. Either they drank this poison that would lull them to sleep and kill them—or face the people’s choice of punishment, beheading.”
“So they chose to drink the poison.”
Carina nodded. “And since then, if a member of the royal family faces execution, the Aconitum flower is offered to them as a painless option.”
“I suppose if you had to choose your manner of death—falling asleep doesn’t sound so painful,” Ivy mumbled, distracted as she reached over her shoulder.
“Ah!” Carina caught her hand. “Is it itching again?”
“Yes!” Ivy admitted with a soft groan.
“That means its healing, and the treatment is working,” Carina explained patiently.
Carina closed her book and tapped her fingers against the cover. “I’ve got an idea. Roll onto your belly.”
Ivy pushed the covers aside and slowly stretched out on the bed.
“You’ll feel a slight chill,” Carina warned as she spread her hands over Ivy’s back and exhaled slowly. Her breath turned white, and her fingernails shifted from pink to purple. But beneath her hands, a sparkling mist spread across Ivy’s neck, back, and waist.
“That’s—much better,” Ivy whispered. “But you’ve been using your magic too much, Miss. Isn’t this too risky?”
“This little is nothing.” Carina cupped her hands to her mouth and blew against them. “Anyway, the faster you heal, the sooner we can both get out of this house.”
Ivy looked over her shoulder. “You mean?” she asked breathlessly.
“We’re nearly free,” Carina answered as she picked up her book and rose from the bed. “Just be patient.”
Ivy nodded. Hope, joy, and uncertainty danced like wildfire within her jade eyes. Even if her Mistress wasn’t free to impart all the details of her plans, Ivy had faith in Maura. Because in Ivy’s caged world, Maura was her Saint.