Chapter 10: The Mark of a Master
The capital bell tower rang out midday as the carriage pulled away from Sir Bryson’s new office building. Stitcher, who had barely moved from his relaxed pose stretched across the seat, tipped his hat up to study Carina. “You’re awfully quiet.”
“Yes,” she answered without comment, still mulling over the weight of information that had landed upon her since the funeral. Carina had no wish to swoop in and rescue Maura’s half-sister from her plight. There was a touch of karma to the idea of Sophya becoming a slave, given how she and Lincoln had treated Ivy and the other servants, not that it was likely to happen.
Nobles instituted the common law under the king and used it to govern the populace. They were not above the law themselves, though they fought with every advantage at their disposal to avoid its worst ramifications.
‘Better for Sophya to enjoy a quiet, blissful married life than to lose it all and take her misguided desperation and hatred out on me.’
The question now was how much help to give? 20,000 crescents was by no means a small amount of money. If Maura was to raise such an amount to pay off Josiah’s debts, more problems and questions were likely to arise.
‘An anonymous donation might work—but I’m rather curious as to where the original loan went. As far as I know, Josiah did not have time to buy back his business, so most of those funds should be stored in a bank.’
“I have something I need you to look into,” she mumbled thoughtfully. “A local matter that concerns my family.”
Stitcher’s ears perked up as he leaned across his legs. “I’m all ears.”
Carina relayed the conversation she had just had with Bryson and her suspicions concerning the misplacement of the debt Josiah had taken.
Stitcher nodded as a slow grin crossed his face. “If we find those funds, you should keep them.”
Carina laughed and shook her head. “No, far better for me to return them to Sophya and put this matter behind us.”
Stitcher shrugged and unhooked his legs. “Tracking down a few small-time crooks should be no problem. Do you want me to find out who their backer is?”
Carina raised a brow inquisitively.
“Even crooks know better than to force a noble into a corner. They can get away with loans like this when they only target commoners. For them to even let a noble like Josiah sign that note—they would need permission from their financial backer. Chances are their money purse is a noble himself—someone willing to risk public exposure to trap Josiah in debt.”
“It’s possible,” Carina conceded.
‘Josiah had done a lot of damage to more than a few marriages over the years. If he hadn’t been so good with pistols, one of those husbands would have put him in the ground years ago.’
“Find out who it is and what they intended to do now that Josiah is dead and Sophya is left holding the debt.”
“Will do,” Stitcher replied cheerily. “Where are we headed to now?”
“To see the Master Blacksmith about a scabbard.” Carina opened her purse and pulled out a sketch of Ghost’s dagger.
Bringing the assassin’s blade along with her to the funeral, had presented far too many complications. The dagger cut through just about anything, let alone the fabric of a silk purse. And the mark of a Ventrayna Master Blacksmith, imprinted just below the hilt, would likely be easily recognized by another skilled craftsman.
Ghost’s connection to Ventrayna was still somewhat of a mystery to Carina. Until she knew what sort of story lay behind the beautiful but deadly blade, she wasn’t keen to show it to anyone she didn’t trust.
And so, with a roll of parchment and a charcoal pencil, Carina had made an outline of the weapon instead.
‘I just hope it’s enough for them to fashion an adequate scabbard to match.’ She sighed and rubbed her fingers between her furrowed brows. ‘Really, this dagger is more trouble than its worth.’
During the late hours after Eleanora dismissed her ladies, Carina had practiced throwing the knife against a pillow on a chair. Her aim wasn’t half bad, though the trick to getting the dagger to impale the pillow with the sharp end still eluded her.
Her attempts to become a skilled assassin were soon cut short after she nicked her fingers and the palm of her right against the blade one too many times. Now Carina had to wear sheer gloves during the day to cover her mishap, along with the excuse that she had cut herself in the kitchen.
“About time,” Stitcher grumbled with a curious smile. “Master Iker is an old friend of the First Prince. He made Tristan his commander’s sword.”
“What an honor,” Carina replied as she studied him. As always, it felt as if the assassin was withholding some piece of information from her. ‘We all have our secrets.’
The flash of dark wings across the capital’s rooftops pulled Carina’s attention out the window. A black crow landed on a street lamppost and cawed at her carriage as it rolled past.
Carina grimaced as she pulled the curtain over the window.
“Something wrong?” Stitcher asked observantly.
“No, nothing,” Carina said dismissively. ‘Would he believe me if I said we were being watched by birds that might be under the control of a witch?’
‘Probably not.’ Carina wasn’t exactly sure the birds were being controlled by magic and even less confident as to who they belonged to.
Her first suspect was Percy Hawthorne. The Earl always seemed surrounded by crows and had raised a few of them since childhood.
The second was the mysterious woman who had snuck up on Carina during her bath in the Hawthorne bathhouse. There was something sinister in that woman’s aura that still clung to Carina’s mind, and the mysterious lady also appeared to command some sort of power over the crows.
Carina still remembered the message that woman had left behind on the bell. Fatum. Eleanora had also mentioned that word right before she asked Carina to drug Nicholas so Eleanora could conceive a royal heir.
‘One problem at a time.’ Carina sighed and leaned her head back against the carriage seat. ‘And to think, I’ve met one, possibly two witches while Maura never had the chance to meet any. Why?’ The steady bump of the road beneath the carriage wheels soon eased the tension in Carina’s shoulders as she relaxed against the leather seat.
At least, for now, Percy seemed to be on her side. However, his behavior and over-familiarity with Maura was no small cause for concern. ‘Maura’s background is poor enough, to begin with. If her reputation is ruined as well, Eleanora and the Countess will withdraw their support and leave me to the vultures.’
Beaumont kept his knight’s hood pulled low as he rode through the capital streets. He made sure to keep the palace’s fortress walls to his left as he circled aimlessly in no particular direction.
Even with his silver-blonde hair hidden, people noticed his size and violet eyes if they got too close. Beaumont ignored their stares and whispers as he contemplated how to spend his day off.
“It’s your birthday,” Nicholas had reminded him somewhat reproachfully when Beaumont dared to show his face at the Rose Palace first thing in the morning as always. “You are not allowed back inside the palace until sunset, so go do something fun.”
Beaumont growled as he sucked in a deep breath, frightening the nearby pedestrians who carefully circled away from his giant, grey speckled gelding.
If it weren’t for the fact Nicholas did this every year and already had a replacement knight on standby, Beaumont might have been more than just irritated.
‘What the hell am I supposed to do now?’
Usually, Beaumont would have gone to the Knight’s Compound for sword practice, but this year Knight Commander Quentin had forbidden him access, “On account of all the swords you break in the arena, you damn giant.”
‘Is it my fault Lafearian steel cannot withstand the strength of my dragon blade?’ Beaumont pulled gently at the gelding’s reins as a sudden thought occurred to him.
During Nicholas’s weeklong meetings with the House of Lords, there had been some discussion on upgrading the palace knights’ armory and weapons for the Ambassador’s visit. Nicholas had complained that the order was running behind schedule, though that was not uncommon given Master Iker’s reputation.
“I deal with quality, not punctuality. The blade is ready when it’s ready,” was the Master Blacksmith motto.
The ghost of a smile appeared on Beaumont’s face as he turned the gelding away from the fortress walls. ‘It’s been a while since I visited Master’s shop. Might as well drop in and check on the order—see if he’s invented a blade that can withstand my dragon steel?’
It would, at the very least, kill an hour or two of the very long day ahead of him.
The faint echoes of blacksmiths beating sweat into their craft soon flowed into the street as Beaumont approached the three-story shop. The department store took up the front half of the first floor, while storage and the blacksmith’s working area took up the shop’s back section. The second floor housed the blacksmiths and apprentices that worked under Iker, while the top floor served as Master Iker’s residence.
Beaumont circled the carriage parked at the corner and found a post to tie the gelding to. He flipped a crescent to one of the usual lads that hung around Iker’s store. The gaping boy quickly jumped up with a sharp salute and assumed his duty of guarding the knight’s horse. Beaumont smothered a smile at the child’s serious expression before he headed through the front door, stooping a little out of habit.
A mountain of crates branded with the Master Blacksmith’s mark, a phoenix with raised wings that embraced a burning sword, filled most of the open floor space at the front of the shop. The stamp of three devouring wolves, the royal family’s crest, signified these crates were an order meant for the palace.
‘Looks like Nicholas will be getting that new armor before the Ambassador gets here after all.’
“Captain?” A burly, bald man with a ginger beard looked over an inventory roster towards Beaumont. “Been a while since you last visited.”
“Robert.” Beaumont nodded as he made his way over to the retired ex-soldier. “Just dropping in to check on the crown’s order.”
Robert snorted as he flipped the stack of inventory sheets closed. “Sure you are.” The ginger man crossed his arms and turned, his wooden prosthetic leg dragging just a little as he stepped over to give Beaumont a firm shoulder slap. “Let me guess—it’s your birthday already.”
Beaumont sighed. “It—might be,” he grumbled as he scanned the store.
“Then let’s have a drink to celebrate. I’ve got time to kill until those rosey knights from the palace show up to collect the crown’s order,” Robert said enthusiastically as he draped an arm around Beaumont’s shoulder.
Robert was perhaps the only person tall enough to accomplish such a feat and not look like he was hanging on for dear life.
Beaumont turned reluctantly in the direction the shop manager had suggested but froze as his gaze settled on two figures standing in the corner of the shop by the knife display.
He knew it was her even before Lady Maura turned to speak to the man who stood beside her. The black dress she wore made her seem paler, and though he couldn’t be sure from this distance, her expression and posture seemed haggard and weary.
‘What is she doing outside the palace?’ He took half a step towards her and halted.
“Are you coming or—” Robert followed his gaze and turned an inquiring brow in Beaumont’s direction. “Someone you know, Captain?”
“Ah—yes.” Beaumont glanced over at Robert then away, torn between finding out why Maura was outside the palace and the insecurity he felt at the very thought of approaching her.
“Why don’t I go see if they need some help?” Robert suggested with a sly grin.
Beaumont spun, but the ex-soldier danced away from his grip with deceptive agility, given his wooden limb, and headed towards Lady Maura.
“Wait!” Beaumont hissed futilely, only to be ignored. With a resentful glare at the manager’s back, he reluctantly followed behind.
“Saints blessing to you, lord and lady!” Robert greeted as he nodded to the assistant behind the display. “What might we help you with today?”
“I’m trying to obtain a scabbard for a blade recently gifted to me,” Maura explained, with only the faintest glance at Robert’s left leg.
“However, the young lady failed to bring the weapon with her,” the assistant explained in a patronizing tone.
“It’s not something I can carry about without a scabbard,” Maura replied tersely as she tugged off a pair of flimsy gloves. “The blade is very sharp.”
Robert grimaced as he took in the numerous small cuts along her fingers and one deep but healing wound against her right palm. “It might be too much of a blade for you then, gentle lady.”
‘Why does Maura have such a dangerous weapon to begin with?’ Beaumont fretted silently as he attempted to appear intrigued by a display of short swords nearby.
Maura sighed in exasperation as she turned and dragged a scroll across the counter towards Robert. “Since I couldn’t bring the blade, I traced the outline, thinking you could get a measurement off that.”
“While I appreciate your creativity,” Robert said with a faint chuckle. “An outline will only give us the length of the blade, but the width—” The ex-soldier trailed off as he focused on her drawing and smoothed out the edge of the parchment that outline the dagger’s hilt, which resembled a flame. “Shepherd, get the lady and her companion a drink,” Robert ordered with a sharp glare at the assistant.
Beaumont narrowed his gaze as he edged closer and glanced from the ex-soldier to the drawing beneath Robert’s hands.
“My Lady,” Robert straightened as he turned and offered Maura a courteous head bow. “Would you mind if I showed this drawing to Master Iker? I believe he would be able to provide something suitable.”
“It—hardly seems like an issue to bother a Master Blacksmith with,” Maura replied hesitantly.
“I believe he would be most interested in the design of this blade,” Robert pressed with a magnetic smile. “If you could spare me a few minutes to speak with him.”
Maura frowned but nodded her assent. “I can spare a few minutes, please.” She gestured to the drawing, which the ex-soldier eagerly snatched up and then turned on his heel.
“Robert?” Beaumont whispered as the manager swept past him.
“We’ll have that drink in a moment, friend,” Robert called over his shoulder, engrossed in his task.
Beaumont exhaled, baffled, then froze as he turned and met a pair of ice-blue eyes that pierced through him with evident displeasure.
“Captain?” Maura said stiffly. The man beside her turned, and Beaumont recognized him in an instant.
The recently appointed physician’s hazel-brown eyes widened in surprise. Samael hastily straightened and tapped a closed fist to his chest as a sign of respect. “Captain Beaumont.”
‘What is he doing with her? When did they get so close? Isn’t he older than me? Did he give Maura that dagger? Why—’ The cycle of questions that spun through Beaumont’s head splintered into a dazed confusion as he faced Maura’s cold gaze again ‘—why is she angry with me?’