Chapter 48: A Gift of Friendship
Carina lay restless upon the bed as she visually traced the moonlight upon the detailed ornamental plasterwork of the ceiling. A circle of crows adorned the moon from which a small iron chandelier hung with unlit candles.
“What is it with crows?” she muttered to herself as she recalled the feathered thief and his strange companion who had intruded upon her in the Countess’s bathhouse. “Fatum?”
Carina laughed as she sat up and stared at her wrapped ankle. ‘So far, my fate has been one obstacle after another.’
She slumped against the pillows. No matter how comfortable, clean, and welcoming the bed—her mind would not rest. Every conceivable test the Selection could throw at her would require, bare minimum, that she be able to walk.
Carina had considered a crutch, but given the logistics of her dress skirts, that was just another accident waiting to happen. She could invent the wheelchair—but that would draw the wrong sort of attention, and realistically she didn’t have time.
‘So, Maura’s executioner gets to carry me around bridal style till—when exactly?’
She had tried walking on her ankle after Beaumont dropped her off outside her bedroom door. Despite the secure wrapping, every tentative step felt like her ankle would give way. So hopping was the best she could do for now.
‘I miss Ivy.’ Carina drew in a deep breath and scowled at the crows and the strange flat clouds that stretched across the length of the ceiling like a—
A rap on her bedroom window snapped Carina’s gaze towards its ghostly pale glass. She rolled slowly over the covers, putting the bed between her and whatever danger lurked outside as she contemplated the speed by which she could reach the door on one foot.
The knock returned, and this time a shadowy figure with a blue face appeared behind the glass. Carina’s breath caught at the sight of the ghoul’s grinning face. Recognition quickly sank in, followed by confusion as she slowly hopped around the bed to the window.
He motioned at the small hook that kept the window shut and then gestured to himself.
Carina nodded, though she was sure he could hear her, the window wasn’t that well insulated. She flipped the small hook free and pulled the window open.
“Sorry to intrude,” Ghost whispered as he crawled through the window with surprising agility given its size and his broad shoulders. “How’s the Selection going? Since you’re still here—” He broke off as he watched her hop back towards the bed. “Ah, that doesn’t look good.”
“It’s nothing, a sprain,” Carina replied as she sat down. “Why are you here?”
Ghost scoffed as he turned to close the window behind him. “Isn’t this why you hired me? Because I know my way around the palace?”
“I thought you would have taken a more discrete passage?”
“Alas, none of the servant’s passages lead to your room, and two maids were left on guard outside—so I made do with the roof and your window.” He moved closer and without a word of warning knelt to examine her ankle. “And it’s not just a sprain. Stitcher told me you tore a ligament or two.”
Carina scowled and narrowed her eyes at him. “I thought Stitcher was Alex’s man.”
“Not originally,” Ghost replied as he straightened. “He’s someone I inserted into the Fox Den to help Alex.”
“But now he’s working here in the palace?”
“I wanted someone closer to you in case you were in danger.” Ghost moved to grab the chair from the vanity desk. “Turns out his skill as a physician also came in handy.” He set the chair down and straddled it. “But that’s not the reason I came tonight.”
The heavy shift in his tone sent goosebumps down her arms. “I see,” she replied. “Does it have anything to do with you smelling like a bonfire?”
“No.” His unsettling ghoul eyes shifted away as he tapped the chair. “A priest and his witch hunter are investigating the death of your half-brother, Lincoln.”
Carina’s fingers tightened into the sheets. ‘A witch hunter?’ A part of her had hoped they were just a fairy tale or childhood story meant to scare children. ‘What did you expect? If witches are real, surely witch hunters exist.’
“Alex and I are doing what we can to throw them off the scent. As it happens, being inside the palace is probably the safest place for you right now. If you can win a position beside Eleanora, then you will be even safer.”
“Because the Crown Princess despises the church,” Carina muttered thoughtfully.
Ghost considered her quietly for a moment. “You know a lot about her. You know a lot about me.”
Carina looked up to meet those devilish black eyes and cracked a smile. “I don’t know what you look like.”
He shrugged his shoulders and rose from the chair. “Stay focused on the Selection. Don’t use your magic in front of anyone—or at all, for that matter. If things take a turn for the worse, Stitcher will get you out.”
“What evidence do they have that it’s me?” Carina asked curiously. “My mask?”
“Your brother,” Ghost replied solemnly. “Bastard admitted he was looking for his sister before he—” The assassin cleared his throat. “I don’t know how far the knight’s investigation has gone, but they are working with the church now. I can’t promise that we’ll be able to fix this—but Alex and I are doing what we can.”
Carina nodded numbly and crossed her arms.
“How is—Elly, by the way?”
She looked up at him, surprised. Carina pondered her first real introduction to the Vetrayna princess and laughed. “She’s confident, beautiful, full of herself, and in good health.”
His blue mask gave away nothing as he nodded slowly. “And Nicholas?”
Carina shrugged. “Not getting along with his new wife.”
“You still think he’s a threat to her,” Ghost observed quietly.
“I think your brother is preoccupied with his mistress, and Eleanora is dealing with the pressure of being his unwanted crown princess.”
“Nicholas has a lot of pride, and he can be stubborn—”
Carina snorted. “Eleanora has a lot of pride as well. Too much to run after a man in bed with another woman.”
Ghost laughed ruefully. “Probably the worst match as far as marriage goes.” He ran a hand down the back of his neck and sighed.
“You miss her,” Carina observed.
The ghoul’s eyes slid in her direction. “I understood her. We—shared a dream for Lafeara—for when we became its next rulers.” He glanced about the room silently before his gaze returned to her. “I should let you sleep.”
“Are you going to tell her that you’re still alive?” Carina asked bluntly.
His hand hovered over the back of the chair. Then his fingers curled around the wood tightly. “No.”
Ghost lifted the chair and slid it carefully back under the desk. “Because any possible future we had together died when I became a ghost, and she became my brother’s wife.”
Bitterness coated his words. Anger rippled off him like a wave as he circled back to the window and opened it. Carina watched him pause as he reached for the ledge. He turned abruptly, and her heart stopped as he drew a blade and approached her.
“Here.” He dropped the small dagger onto the bed beside her. “You shouldn’t be unarmed.”
Carina exhaled sharply as she looked away from the blade and glared at him. “I’m not helpless, you know.”
“If you use your magic, even in self-defense, they will burn you. You’re a witch, Lady Maura. The fewer people that know this, the better.” He picked up the blade, grabbed her wrist, and pressed the hilt into her palm. “So be armed and be silent.”
Carina clenched her jaw. The vivid memory of Ghost’s blade effortlessly opening Lincoln’s throat flickered before her eyes. She closed her fingers around the hilt and nodded.
Ghost released her and stepped back. “There’s a blacksmith right before the royal city exit. He can make you a proper sheath. Something to carry—” he glanced down her body, took in her nightgown, then turned abruptly away. “Whatever works for you.”
Without another word, he returned to the window, slid out with the grace of a cat, and vanished, leaving only the moonlight and his dagger behind.