Chapter 11: A Blade of Secrets
Carina stared up into the knight captain’s violet eyes and stony expression, and held back a laugh. ‘Of all the people to run into today.’
“Physician Samael,” Beaumont said as his gaze slid back to Stitcher. “Are you her escort?”
“Yes,” Stitcher answered casually as he leaned back against the display beside Carina. “Is that a problem?”
The knight captain eyed Stitcher from head to foot and scoffed. “Somehow, I doubt you were approved as her escort.”
Stitcher straightened, his expression a mixture of annoyance and curiosity. “I wonder why the Captain would say that?”
“Have you taken the knight’s sword mastery qualification test?” Beaumont replied in a deadpan tone.
Stitcher straightened again and crossed his arms. “Not yet.”
“Not yet,” Beaumont echoed sarcastically. “Then can you explain why Lady Maura is outside the palace without an approved escort?”
The maliciousness of his tone and glare sent a shiver down Carina’s spine, and even Stitcher looked sufficiently cowed as he shot her a confused glance.
“It was—my mother’s funeral today,” Carina interjected quickly. “We did have an approved knight, Sir Clemont, but he returned with Lady Hana as I had some errands to run.”
“If you knew you were going to get separated, then you should have requested two knights.” Beaumont’s scowl only deepened as his violet eyes pinned her in place.
Somehow feeling like a student being reprimanded by a teacher, Carina clenched her jaw, smiled sweetly, and replied, “Thank you for telling me, Captain. I’ll be sure to do that next time.”
Beaumont blinked, temporarily caught off guard by her change in expression. Carina circled past him without another word and decided now would be an excellent time to explore the blacksmith shop.
Stitcher jogged up beside her with a worried smile. “Maybe it would be best if I left,” he suggested hesitantly.
“What? Why? I thought you were determined to be my escort until I returned to the palace,” Carina retorted sharply.
“Ah—that is—the Captain just explained—you need an actual knight to get back into the palace. If the Dowager finds out you’ve been wandering around without one—you could get in trouble.”
‘You have got to be kidding me.’ Carina exhaled and glanced over to where Beaumont was shadowing them at a discrete distance. “Let me guess. The Captain offered to escort me back.”
“As soon as you’re finished here, yes,” Stitcher answered with a sheepish grin.
“And why do you have to leave?” Carina all but growled in irritation.
Stitcher’s eyebrows danced almost comically as he fought to control his expression. “I’d rather not have the captain, ah—paying more attention to me than he already is.”
Carina sucked in a breath, exhaled, and gave a single, rigid nod. “Fine.”
Stitcher bowed politely with a sly wink, then turned and retreated past Beaumont towards the front door.
Resisting the urge to follow his retreat, Carina resumed her exploration of the store and continued to ignore her unwanted shadow.
“Ah, Lady Maura.” The shop manager, who had taken her sketch, reappeared, followed by a tall, muscular, dark-skinned man with braided onyx hair and golden eyes. “Lady Maura, this is Sir Iker, our Master Blacksmith.”
Iker’s amber eyes, a darker shade than Eleanora’s, flicked over Carina and tightened with apparent curiosity.
“Master Iker,” Carina bowed her head politely.
“Robert tells me you require a scabbard for a dagger you were recently gifted?” Iker’s deep tone shifted at the last word as if he were seeking clarification on how she obtained the dagger.
“Yes,” Carina confirmed. “The original owner referred me to your shop to obtain an appropriate scabbard.”
Iker and the man named Robert exchanged a glance. The look of surprise that passed between them only made Carina more curious. ‘What was the reason Ghost referred me to this particular store?’
Iker was not the only Master Blacksmith in Lafeara. However, he was the only one recognized by the royal crown, which meant he had the distinct privilege of crafting a unique armor and sword for the king and each prince. Iker also presented each Lafearian knight officer with a sword after their knighting ceremony and was obliged to fulfill any other request made by the crown.
“I believe our mutual friend referred you to me because I have the scabbard for that blade in my possession already,” Iker explained with a quizzical smile. “If you had brought the dagger with you, I could confirm this—” his amber eyes slid over to Beaumont, who stood two steps behind Carina “—but perhaps this is something we should discuss privately in my office.”
“Oh?” Carina was even more convinced there was more to Ghost’s referral than picking up a scabbard. ‘If only Stitcher hadn’t run away so quickly, I could get confirmation from him.’ She smiled and curtsied. “If it’s not too much trouble, Master Iker.”
Iker stepped forward and offered his arm with a polite nod to the knight captain. “You don’t mind if I steal the lady away for a moment, do you, Captain Beaumont.”
A troubled scowl formed around Beaumont’s violet eyes, but he sighed as his gaze refocused on Carina. “I will wait for you here, Lady Maura.”
‘Don’t bother,’ Carina almost said aloud. Instead, she battled down the frustration and lingering unresolved anger towards the knight captain and accepted Iker’s offered arm. The Master Blacksmith led her past Robert towards the back of the store.
A pair of black double doors led down a long hallway lined with rosters of marked inventory sheets. At the end of the hall, another set of double doors opened, and two men appeared, each dressed in a worker’s smock, carrying small crates of metal bars or coal. They jostled against each other with playful banter then snapped to attention when they caught sight of Iker.
“Commander!” they greeted tensely.
“Don’t pay them any mind,” Iker said as he waved the workmen onwards. “They might be lazy and prone to misbehaving like children—” he inflected his voice once more, and the men scampered towards the back yard with renewed haste “—but they’re good men.”
The workmen dashed through the double doors at the end of the hall, and a muffled crash followed by several harsh curses floated back into the hallway. The doors opened again to reveal two other men headed towards Carina and her escort.
A slouched, pale-skinned fellow with pale-blue eyes and silver-gray hair and beard leaned on his crutch as he struggled with the door. The man’s left arm was missing, while his right hand tightly gripped a crafted crutch of leather and metal.
His companion, a tall, tanned fellow with half his head wrapped behind a black cloth that concealed his left eye, held the door open for his hampered comrade and nodded his head towards Iker. “Master Blacksmith.”
“Tully,” Iker nodded back and slowed as his gaze settled on the disabled, elderly man. “Dolan, how are we faring today?”
“I’m ready to return to work, Master Iker,” Dolan replied stiffly.
“Don’t overdo it,” Iker reproached gruffly. “If you fall ill again, we’ll only fall further behind. Rest if you need to.”
“Rest won’t finish my work nor see our goal achieved,” Dolan muttered but nodded his head. “I appreciate your concern, Master Iker, but if I can stand, I’ll work.”
“I’ll keep an eye on him,” Tully said as his right olive-green eye slid over to Carina. “We shouldn’t hold up Master Iker’s guest.”
Iker smiled tightly and guided Carina through the double doors that opened to a small back foyer and a stairwell that led up to the second floor. “My office is just upstairs.”
Carina nodded but turned as the door closed behind them to find Dolan still staring after them.
Iker turned, followed her gaze, and tugged her arm gently. “I suppose you want to ask why I employ such men?”
“I assumed they were ex-soldiers,” Carina replied. “It’s generous of you to give them work.”
“They’re a bit more than that,” Iker replied as they continued up the stairs. “All the men here are survivors of the Red Wolf Army.”
Carina recognized the name, but then so would anyone else in the capital. The demise of the Red Wolf Army was forever publicly linked with the death of Prince Tristan. “I wasn’t aware that any members of the Red Wolf Army survived,” she admitted.
“None of General Liam’s regiment did. These men served under Colonel Durante. They returned from the mountains sometime after the entire army was declared dead. It’s not surprising for you or anyone to be unaware of this, considering the palace doesn’t approve of any public discussion that concerns the First Prince,” Iker replied.
‘The First Prince?’ Carina glanced at the man beside her curiously. Although Iker dressed like a Lafearian noble, his hairstyle, accent, and appearance were distinctly Ventrayna.
“When these men crawled back from the mountains two years ago, I gave them shelter and care here. Colonel Durante was a close friend of mine. Looking after his men—it was the least I could do to honor his memory. Though even I didn’t expect that the palace would fail to compensate these soldiers for their injuries—not to mention the families of the fallen men who never received the death benefits they were owed.” His amber eyes turned towards her. Carina averted her gaze to focus on the steps that led to the second floor.
“That’s quite a responsibility you took upon yourself,” Carina observed as they reached a small balcony that overlooked the foyer below. Another set of double doors led to what resembled a mess hall.
“That’s where the men eat during breaks. Their dorm rooms are just beyond. Once I realized the palace wasn’t going to make good on their promises, I reached out to the nobles of Lafeara and began taking on special commissions. The nobles were happy enough to exchange their gold for one of my masterpieces.
“The Earl of Hawthorne, in particular, donated quite generously. The palace wasn’t happy, of course, but when I threatened to take my work to Strugna, they let the matter drop. The funds I obtained paid for the remodeling of the shop and a few of the neighboring buildings where the men better able to move about reside.” Iker paused as they reached the landing and the next flight of steps that continued on to the third floor. “Nearly there, my Lady.”
Carina nodded, distracted by the wall lined with swords and shields that glittered in the sunlight. “Are these your work?”
“No, these were done by the men to remember their fallen friends and family. It began as a means of training them to be blacksmiths and metalworkers, but they put their heart and soul into the work, so I let them continue.
“The shields with house sigils belong to fallen nobles, bastards mostly. The swords belong to commoners. If we can, we track down the family and gift these commemorations to them and any other help that we can provide. The ones still hanging on the wall either had no family or were never claimed.”
It was a sobering thought to see all these shields and swords crafted by the Red Wolf Army survivors but otherwise forgotten by the rest of Lafeara. A weight of regret seemed to settle upon Carina as they finally reached the third floor.
Iker glanced down at her solemn expression and chuckled as he flicked one of the golden tassels on her cloak. “So how is life as a lady-in-waiting to the Scorpion Princess?”
Carina stared at him in surprise. “You know who I am?”
“Our mutual friend said you might be dropping by,” Iker replied as he released her arm and approached another set of double doors. A padlock secured access, but Iker pulled out a key worn about his neck and unlocked it. “Here we are.”
He held the door open and gestured to Carina, who felt oddly relieved that Beaumont waited for her below as she entered.
A cluttered office awaited her, filled with crates of scrolls and scraps, bookshelves lined with odd metallic objects and rocks, a half-assembled suit of armor with varying detailed embellishment, and a desk covered in books and parchment.
To the room’s left, a thin curtained wall did nothing to obscure the view of an unmade bed, a tray of half-finished food, several empty wine bottles, and a woman’s red stocking.
Carina refocused on the office as Iker shut the door behind her.
“Give me a minute to find it,” Iker said confidently as he walked past her and opened one of four chests crammed between the bookshelves. “I have that box tucked away somewhere.”
“Take your time,” Carina replied as she approached the desk. Several sketches of armor, sword hilts, and even saddle stirrups filled the pages before her, along with other designs of pistols, cannons, and, oddly enough, a map that appeared to detail some sort of underground tunnel system.
“Would you like a seat?” Iker asked as he walked past her and set an ordinary, medium-sized box down on top of the map. “Just a moment,” the Master Blacksmith flashed her a disarming smile as he headed to the curtained side of the room and returned with a simple wood chair. “There we are.”
“Thank you,” Carina murmured, and since she did not wish to be impolite, took the offered seat. “You mentioned earlier that a mutual friend said I would be paying your store a visit.”
“I did—” Iker replied as he leaned against the desk beside the curious box “—though I didn’t expect you to arrive with the Crown Prince’s trusted bodyguard.”
Carina laughed. “An unhappy coincidence.”
Iker narrowed his eyes and shrugged. “Well, I wouldn’t want to hold you up unnecessarily—if you can identify our mutual friend, then I’ll be happy to provide what you came for.”
Carina narrowed her eyes. She realized Iker was testing her, but, somehow, it did not sit right to reveal Ghost’s identity so quickly to a stranger. “I’ve only met him under his assumed name,” she explained as she folded her hands against her lap. “That name being Ghost.”
Iker crossed his arms and offered her a wry smile. “You know a bit more than that, Lady Maura, or he wouldn’t have trusted you with that dagger.”
It was becoming more apparent Ghost had set up this meeting, though for what purpose Carina could not grasp. The sense that she had been led unknowingly into something not entirely safe only made her more cautious. “I apologize, Master Iker, but I’m not comfortable discussing such information with a man I’ve only just met.”
“Even though he referred you to me?”
“It would appear he referred me to you as well,” Carina pointed out patiently.
Iker chuckled. “Very well, I said I’d give you the scabbard, and I consider myself a man who keeps his promises.” He pulled a small key from his trouser pocket, unlocked the box, and lifted the lid. “Here it is.”
Carina rose slowly as the glittering scabbard with a black diamond scorpion adorned by a golden crown came into view. Her heart plunged from her chest down into her gut as one of the biggest mysteries about Tristan’s past came fully into view.
‘Damn it—I should have known.’
Carina had always known through Maura that Ghost was Tristan, the First Prince of Lafeara, and the half-blood son of Queen Catalina. But now she knew something Maura didn’t know—that Tristan was also the bastard son of Arius, Emperor of Ventrayna.
Carina continued to blink rapidly as her mind quickly raced over every implication this new identity revealed. ‘Did the Emperor know Tristan was still alive when he switched Eleanora’s engagement to Nicholas? If so, then why?’ She raised her gaze from the dangerous ornament that linked the deceased First Prince of Lafeara to the Emperor of Ventrayna and stared at the man who had exposed a witless stranger to this truth.
As much as she wanted to ask Iker why he was showing her this—acknowledging that she understood the scabbard’s meaning would only pull her deeper into the dagger’s secret.
“It’s a beautiful piece of craftsmanship,” Carina said carefully. “But I believe you are mistaken; this is not what I came here for.”
Carina curtsied and circled the chair to leave. As soon as she got back to the palace, she would find a box to throw that bloody dagger into and return it to Ghost through Stitcher.
“Come back and take a seat, Lady Witch.”
Carina froze. Her cold hands tightened into fists as she turned slowly to face the smirking Master Blacksmith. ‘Damn it, Tristan, what have you dragged me into?’