Chapter 12: A Trade of Secrets
Iker smiled as he tapped the back of the chair Carina had vacated. “Please,” he added in a smoother tone. “Rest assured. I bear you no ill will, Lady Maura.”
“I would prefer to stand,” Carina replied tensely. “What do you want from me?”
“Merely to become friends,” Iker replied with a shrug.
“Friends?” Carina scowled. “With someone you just met. Why?”
Iker scoffed and scratched his neck. “I can see that I’ve unsettled you, then let’s even the playing field, shall we? You know Ghost is Tristan, the First Prince of Lafeara and the Emperor’s bastard son. I know you’re a witch as well as the Crown Princess’s lady-in-waiting.” He stood fully and offered her a bow. “I am Iker, the Master Blacksmith, previously a slave from Ventrayna, and currently the leader of the Burning Blade.”
“The Burning Blade?” Carina echoed as her cold fingers moved restlessly beneath her cloak. A rapid search of Maura’s memories possessed no knowledge of this name. “Is that name supposed to mean something to me?”
“Only if you are one of its members,” Iker replied with a sly smile. “The Burning Blade is a secret organization loyal to the First Prince. More than this, you need not know unless you agree to join us.”
Carina clenched her jaw and folded her arms. “It seems rather presumptions of you to tell me even this much.”
“Perhaps,” Iker agreed with another disarming smile. “But now we both possess a secret that can get the other person killed.”
Carina exhaled slowly and gritted her teeth. She wasn’t interested in leveling the risk between them. She just wanted to wring Tristan’s neck for revealing her secret to some apparent rebel leader.
‘Damn it.’ Her gaze focused back on the black diamond scorpion scabbard, then she closed her eyes and groaned inwardly. ‘I’m beginning to think hiring Ghost may have been a mistake.’
“Take a seat and take a breath,” Iker suggested with a nod to her chair.
“Thank you, but no,” Carina growled. “I’d like to leave now,” she added determinedly as she raised her gaze to his. “If you had some reason or purpose for showing me that scabbard, then tell me now before I go.”
“The political stability of Lafeara is crumbling,” Iker stated bluntly as he crossed his arms and leaned against his desk. “The corrupt nobles that once fearfully served under King Henri and the Dowager have grown bolder since the death of the King and the First Prince. There are factions among the nobles and common folk who do not believe Prince Nicholas can bring this corruption to heel. And if the prince should die without an heir—Lafeara will be torn apart by the nobles greed for power—or even more likely conquered and plundered by either the Emperor in Ventrayna or the old Witch Queen in Tharyn.”
“I came here for a scabbard—not a lesson in Lafeara’s politics,” Carina interjected uneasily.
“If you were not interested in Lafeara’s politics—why would you hire the First Prince to assassinate his brother?” Iker countered as he straightened with a knowing smile. “Why go through the trouble of becoming the Crown Princess’s lady-in-waiting?” He stepped closer, arms still crossed, a confident glint in his burning amber eyes. “Why ingratiate yourself with the Hawthorne family?”
It was an old lesson Carina had learned a long time ago in her other life. ‘The more people you trust, the more you become exposed.’ Yet who could have imagined the fallen first prince would have established an organization of loyal followers in the heart of Lafeara’s capital. ‘Well, the same could be said for a teenage half-blood.’
‘But why had Tristan returned after escaping death? To reclaim the throne or to seek revenge?’ Maura had only glimpsed Ghost after the plot to depose Queen Eleanora had come to fruition. ‘I’ve no doubt he entered the palace to save Eleanora when he realized her life was in danger—but what is his true goal?’
“I had hoped to reunite the scabbard with its blade,” Iker commented as he returned to the desk and shut the box. “Regrettably, it would be unwise for you to carry that dagger about in public, even with another scabbard. Your very life would be at risk if the Dowager or her circle of nobles were to discover it.”
“Then—I’ll give it to you,” Carina replied promptly. “It’s too much of a burden for me to keep and not at all useful.”
“I would have to agree,” Iker smirked and tapped the lid thoughtfully. “But a lady in your position will need something to defend herself. That palace, as I’m sure already you know, can be particularly dangerous to those who know too much.” He rapped his knuckles on the box and turned to her. “I’ll have a delivery sent to Rose Palace tomorrow morning. A set of daggers, much more suited to your size and skill. The box will have a lock and a false bottom. My deliveryman will provide you with the key. Return the box and key to him with the prince’s dagger inside. Will that suffice?”
“You can get it out of the palace that easily?” Carina questioned uncertainly.
“The privileges of having the crown as a patron,” Iker replied with another sly smile and a shrug. “I make special deliveries such as this all the time.”
‘Really?’ Carina decided not to pry. “Very well, I’ll be expecting your delivery tomorrow. May I go now?”
Iker scoffed. “In case it wasn’t clear earlier, I was extending you an invitation to join the Burning Blade.”
“One that I must politely decline,” Carina replied quickly. ‘One secret organization is more than enough for me to keep up with.’
“I would encourage you to think it over,” Iker answered unperturbed. “The world is a precarious place for a half-blood noble, let alone a witch. One day you or the Crown Princess may need the protection the Burning Blade can provide.”
‘If that were true, the Burning Blade would have aided Ghost in rescuing Eleanora before—’ Carina exhaled sharply. ‘What if they had?’
“I’ll think about your offer,” she answered stiffly.
“Good,” Iker nodded with a pleased smile. “You can send your answer tomorrow if you like. In any case, Tristan’s intent was for us to meet so you would know who to rely on while he’s—preoccupied in Ventrayna.”
“He won’t be returning for a while then?” Carina hid her disappointment as best she could. She would dearly like to smack that smug ghoul grin from Ghost’s face right about now. He deserved no less for revealing her secret. Not to mention the dozens of questions Carina wanted to ask about his relationship with the Emperor and the Burning Blade.
“Tristan has his own battles to fight for the time being,” Iker replied as he picked up the scabbard’s box and returned it to the open chest. “As do we all.” He turned to face her and smiled. “I shall escort you back downstairs if you are ready.”
“I can find the way myself,” Carina replied.
“Better for me to escort you,” Iker returned as he joined her and offered his arm. “By the way, just out of curiosity, just what type of witch are you, Lady Maura?”
“The kind you don’t mess with,” Carina snarked with irritation and reluctantly accepted his arm.
Beaumont rose from his seat on the crate as Iker and Maura came into view. Even across the store, he could tell she was far from happy. Maura curtsied to Iker before she moved, with surprising willingness, to Beaumont’s side.
“Captain Beaumont be sure she gets back to the palace safely,” Iker called out with a casual wave before he returned to the back of the store.
Beaumont glanced at Maura, who stared after Iker with an expression of unease. “Are you—ready to leave?” he asked.
She took in a slow, measured breath, then nodded as she answered, “Yes, please, can we go.” Without waiting for a response, she headed towards the shop door.
“As you wish,” Beaumont replied and followed behind her with a silent frown. ‘Just what had Iker done to make her this rattled?’
He resolved to get that answer from the Master Blacksmith on another visit as he caught the closing door Maura had already dashed through. He caught up to her impatient strides easily, then nearly crashed into her as Maura stopped abruptly.
“My—carriage is gone,” She whispered with barely restrained frustration.
“Did you leave anything inside?” Beaumont asked quickly.
“No—just some flowers.” Maura turned quickly to scan the street.
“That’s alright then. The palace gate isn’t far from here.” Beaumont took her elbow gently and steered Maura in the direction of the eagerly pacing gelding.
“What are you—”
“It’s nearly impossible to catch a carriage in this part of the capital,” Beaumont explained as he paid the small boy another crescent and watched the elated lad run off to show his friends.
“Are we riding—together?”
Beaumont made the mistake of looking at her then, and the discomfort etched across Maura’s troubled face made his own chest twist uncomfortably. “I’ll walk,” he answered and dropped his gaze. “As I said, it’s not far.” He interlocked his fingers together and knelt. “Up you go,” he urged.
He saw her shift from the corner of his eye and thought for a moment Maura might reject his offer and storm off, but then she placed a hand on his shoulder and lifted her small pointed shoe into his waiting grasp. With a silent sigh of relief, he hoisted her up carefully.
Maura gripped the saddle tightly as she struggled to position her legs comfortably. Her ice-blue eyes widened as she took in the world below her.
“I—how—” she looked around helplessly.
“Cross your legs, sit as close to the pommel as you can,” Beaumont urged as he took the reins.
“Okay, umm—do I just hold onto the saddle?”
“I think Titan would prefer that to you pulling on his hair,” Beaumont joked lightly.
Maura gave a weak laugh and squirmed cautiously against the saddle until her right knee was hooked over the pommel and her fingers securely locked around the horn beneath her skirts.
Beaumont glanced at the scars visible against the white knuckles of her small hands and reached into his pocket. “Here, wear these.” He held up a pair of small, dove-grey gloves.
“What?” Maura looked from the gloves to him in confusion. “Why are you—”
“I didn’t know what color you liked,” Beaumont interrupted as he stepped closer and held the gloves higher. “But they should protect your hands while wielding a knife—or riding a horse.”
Maura’s dark but delicate brows tightened together above her prism-blue eyes. With a hesitant smile, she sighed and took the gloves from his hand. “You’re a very peculiar person, Captain. Thank you.”
Beaumont turned away to hide his own smile and watched her reflection in the glass windows of the blacksmith department store until Maura had secured her grip on the saddle once more. His gaze turned sharply to the corner of the store where one of Iker’s men, a fellow with half his face covered in black cloth that obscured his left eye, watched them with a little too much interest.
The man’s olive-green eye flickered over Beaumont once before he turned and disappeared behind the store.
“Ready to go?” Beaumont asked casually as he reached behind his neck to loosen the strap at the hilt of his sword.
“As good as,” Maura murmured uncertainly as she looked down at him. “Are you sure you don’t mind walking?”
“I don’t mind at all,” Beaumont answered honestly. ‘Besides, walking will take longer.’ “Lady Maura, you don’t have to keep a death grip on the saddle, just enough to keep your balance.”
“Maybe I should just get down and walk,” Maura muttered with an unhappy glance at the ground below.
“Come on, Titan,” Beaumont called to the gelding encouragingly and clicked his tongue as he stepped forward. The speckled warhorse followed obediently with tempered, cautious steps as if it understood it was carrying precious cargo.