Chapter 63: Weight of the Dead

“Pardon?” Carina murmured after an awkward moment’s pause. She gripped the folds of her cloak and fought to maintain a neutral expression while her mind raced over the past few days and the last few hours.

‘Where did I slip up?’

Acheron’s perplexed expression turned wary as his steel-blue eyes danced over her face. “The way you provoked him tonight—no one in the right mind would do that without good reason,” he continued persistently.

‘So it was my performance?’ Carina drew in a breath as she sucked in her lip and lowered her gaze. ‘I suppose I was reckless in more ways than one, but—’

“I don’t hate the crown prince,” she replied with a sigh. Acheron’s frown deepened as he raised an eyebrow, clearly unconvinced. “But I don’t like him either. The way he treats Eleanora, how he prioritizes his personal feelings over the welfare of his kingdom—”

Acheron’s eyes widened in shock as he stepped over the threshold and pressed a hand against her lips quickly. “Are you insane!” he hissed.

Carina scowled and shoved his hand away. “If you recall, I was sent here by the Countess of Hawthorne to serve and protect Eleanora.”

“Okay, okay, I see where you’re coming from!” Acheron raised his hands and quickly retreated to the hallway. “But you cannot criticize a member of the royal family publicly, Lady Maura!”

“You asked,” Carina replied as she crossed her arms.

Acheron opened his mouth, shook his head, and tightened his lips into a weary smile. “I simply wanted you to be careful. Cleverly mentioning the future king’s mistress, in a magic show no less, is not being careful.”

“Well, I appreciate your concern.”

“Really?” Acheron scoffed.

“If you’ll excuse me, I am quite tired,” Carina said pointedly as she stepped towards the door. “It’s been a long day, and I would like to get off my feet.”

Acheron caught the door again as she pushed against it. “Don’t just live for the Crown Princess or the Countess, Lady Maura.” His worried tone grated her nerves even as she smiled at him politely. “Nicholas is my friend, but he has the temper of a king. He can smile at you one moment and order your execution the next.”

Carina blinked and lowered her gaze. The smell of blood lingered in her memory even as she envisioned the steps that led to the gallows. “Thank you for the warning, Lord Acheron, and good night.”

He stepped back and watched her shut the door between them. Carina slid the bolt in place, then turned and hopped over to the bed. She collapsed against the silk sheets and muffled her frustration into the fragrant soft pillows.

“Why do you hate the Crown Prince?”

“Ha!” she laughed as she rolled back up and sat on the edge of the bed. “At least the Selection is almost over.” All that remained was for Eleanora to make her final decision tomorrow.

She will choose you,” Maura whispered against Carina’s hair, barely disturbing the ash-brown locks.

“If not—it will be difficult to approach Hana once I’ve been kicked out,” Carina murmured distractedly.

Ice-cold fingers slid over Carina’s shoulders and pulled her down onto the bed covers. “You are tired. You should sleep, what will come will come.”

“Not until we’ve talked about what happened. Your little prank went too far, Maura. What did you say to Nicholas anyway?”

What’s done is done—”

“We have waited seven years for this! The plan means nothing if I have to worry about you playing ghost games,” Carina interrupted as she rubbed her empty stomach.

You don’t need to worry.”

“Easy for you to say, you can’t die a second time,” Carina grumbled. She shivered as the ghost leaned over and kissed her forehead.

I won’t interfere again. We only have each other. You know I would never betray you.”

Carina’s frustrations ebbed away as the ghost silently stroked her hair. She struggled to keep her eyes open even as the hunger in her stomach faded beneath a cloud of fatigue.

Between her fluttering eyelids, Carina studied the marble carved ceiling above her. “What’s it like being back?” she mumbled as she stared at the circle of white crows.

Maura’s fingers stilled for a moment then resumed their silent dance. “Everything is different nowand yet it all remains the same.”

Carina frowned and lifted her head. “What do you mean?”

My past—your present—they are not alike.”

“Wasn’t that the point?” Carina slumped back against the bed. “The future will be different as well.”

“Yes, it will be.

Maura had long become numb to the clang of prison doors and screams of her fellow inmates. She barely stirred when the prison guard paused by her cell and banged the bars with his wooden stick.

“Still alive, half-blood?” the foul man sneered. “Won’t be much longer now. You and the rest of these filthy traitors will meet the ax soon enough.”

Her nails dug into the grime beneath the moldy straw upon which she lay, but she lacked the strength to stand.

“Oye!” the guard yelled and banged the bars again. “I’m talking to you, you ugly sow.”

Maura ignored him as she stared at the other naked women, who lay against the floor. Some asleep, some weeping, some barely clinging to life. All of them terrified of what was to come.

Warm liquid sprayed upon her back and stung against day-old whip lashes. Maura flinched and gagged as the smell of urine overwhelmed the already putrid filth that piled in the corner of the cell.

“There you go, half-blood, nice and fresh!” the guard taunted. “If you’re thirsty, why don’t you lap it up.”

Maura’s lip bled as she bit down upon it and closed her eyes. Time no longer had meaning in this hell. Humiliation, pain, and hunger coated every poisoned breath even as she lay here and waited for her death.

The cell door behind her clanged, and Maura’s eyes snapped open as fear lurched through her body. She crawled onto her elbows and knees as the knights dragged in Poppy’s naked body and dropped her in the middle of the cell.

“Ventrayna bitch!” The knight snapped and spat at the unmoving prisoner.

“Enough, let’s get out of here—this place is worse than the plague in the slums.”

“You would know. Still visiting your lady friend down there? What’s her name—”

“Shut it—don’t get me in trouble with the captain!”

The cell doors clanged as the knights left. Their muffled voices disappeared behind another prison door.

Maura slumped against the ground and exhaled. If they hadn’t taken anyone else that meant interrogations were done for the day. She watched Poppy for signs of life, but the dark-skinned woman barely breathed behind her matted hair and swollen face.

The only way to determine day from night was when they were left alone. In the quiet shadows of the torchlight, Maura waited for the only glimmer of joy that remained.

The song began barely above a whisper as Hana’s voice silently filled the darkness. The foreign words meant nothing to Maura, and yet the comfort they provided made her soul flicker awake, and her dry eyes weep.

“Guess that means she’s still alive,” Poppy whispered hoarsely against the straw.

Maura ignored her as she inched her way towards the cell bars.

“Must she sing every night?” muttered another maid. “I can’t even understand what she’s saying.”

“A lot of good it will do her,” whispered another. “They’re only saving her for last.”

“Last?” Maura whispered. “What do you mean?”

“She was the queen’s lover after all,” Poppy answered through cracked lips. “And she killed the Consort’s unborn child.”

“That is a lie!” Maura hissed angrily.

“Does it matter?” Poppy snapped back and then wheezed with pain. “Now that Eleanora is dead—there’s no one left to protect her.”

The rattle of keys cut off the song as the women fell into a tense silence. Maura shrank down onto her belly and pressed her face against the floor as the torchlight moved.

The crown of Lafeara’s king glittered beneath the flame as Nicholas strode between the cells. Dark shadows emphasized the grief, paranoia, and lack of sleep etched upon his face. Nicholas waved the torch against the cell bars as he examined their occupants behind a handkerchief held over his nose. The light moved on as his shadow stretched across the floor.

“We meet again, Lady Hana!” His muffled voice echoed through the prison as Maura tilted her head to listen. “Confess your crimes, witch!”

“My only crime is loving the woman you hated!” Hana’s trembling voice replied. “And I am no witch.”

“The Conclave of Cardinals found otherwise, Lady Hana.”

“They saw what they wanted to see—as do you. I did not kill Eleanora, nor did I harm your child!”

Nicholas laughed. “So, you will deny it to the very end.”

“If I am to die, so be it. Why punish the other servants? They have committed no crime against your Majesty!”

“They have all confessed to their crimes and yours.”

“Under torture and threats made against their families!”

“The result is what matters,” Nicholas snapped. “Death is all that awaits you now. Perhaps you’ll even meet again to serve your queen in the afterlife.”

“Then you are truly beyond redemption. What kind of king would torture and condemn the innocent while hiding the true killer?”

“I will do what I must to protect Lafeara,” Nicholas growled. “A few deaths to save thousands more—I can live with that.”

Hana’s bitter laugh echoed through the prison. “You called King Henrie a coward—yet look at what you’ve become!”

The torchlight flickered as it struck the prison bars. “Yes, I’ve become a monster, but it was your mistress and this cursed throne that made me thus.” The torchlight flickered again as Maura strained to peer beyond the bars. “Give Eleanora my regards when you next see her. Your execution is tomorrow. May you both burn in hell.”

‘Tomorrow?’ Maura sucked in a shallow breath. ‘Is that when we will all die?’

“It will be my pleasure to burn with my Queen—rather than live one more moment in the shadows of a false King!”

Maura’s grip tightened on the bars as a long moment of tense silence followed.

“Even a bitch like you can’t tell when to be silent.” Nicholas laughed softly. “Very well, let your pain and humiliation be my last gift to Eleanora.”

The torchlight swept in her direction. Maura cowered against the floor as the king swept past. The prison doors opened but did not shut as the women waited nervously.

The muffled scuffle of feet proceeded another torch. Maura lifted her eyes as the four men sauntered past, their faces covered by white plague masks.

“Who-who are you?” Hana demanded.

Maura’s grip slipped from the bars as a key turn in a lock, and a prison door opened.

She curled against the prison floor and wrapped bruised arms around her ears to shut out the panicked screams that followed, but her dirty, trembling limbs did nothing to block out the soul-shattering sounds of Hana’s rape.

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