Chapter 13: The Color of Fear
A cacophony of pedestrians, salesmen, carriages, and the sweat of honest, hard-earned labor washed over Carina as the crowds thickened, and the fortress walls of the palace grew closer with every passing street. Beneath the surreal blanket of normality, she found herself enjoying the steady pace at which Beaumont and his beautiful gelding navigated their way through the chaos. It was oddly satisfying to move so slowly in a sea of tumult and excitement.
The warm sun sparkled off the gelding’s soft grey mane that almost perfectly matched the grey leather gloves Beaumont had gifted her. Carina adjusted her grip on the saddle’s pommel and relaxed her fingers as the sun cast a pale glow about Beaumont’s silver blond hair, a color as odd and as rare as his violet eyes.
Beaumont slightly turned, as if sensing her gaze, and Carina resumed surveying the buildings around them. Only licensed shops and specialty stores were permitted this close to the palace, and only a noble could purchase such a license. The Royal Merchant’s Guild heavily regulated the ownership of all buildings in this precinct, but the market streets were open to all who wished to trade. Modest apartments, built onto the back of the exclusive shops, provided living quarters for shop managers chosen by the nobles who owned or co-owned the business.
Aside from the Holy Maiden Boutique, Carina owned another shop in this district. An apothecary run by a Mr. Lambert but owned on paper by Mr. Frost. That shop, however, was on Radieux street. Currently, they appeared to be wandering down Peindra Street, where department stores of furnishings, tableware, lamps, and linen shops could be found in abundance.
Going off the map in her memory, Carina determined that they would reach the capital Justice Square very soon before taking Kings Street, the most direct route back to the palace.
“Is your ankle better?” Beaumont asked as they circled two boisterous women, who ogled the knight captain and whispered conspicuously.
“Yes,” Carina replied and glanced down at her right foot. The hem of her dress had shifted in the breeze, and the brace Stitcher’s craftsman had fashioned at her request was slightly visible. Carina pulled the black ruffles back over it quickly. “It’s manageable,” she amended. The bruising was still fading, but she could move about without hindrance while the brace supported any weakness in the joint.
“That’s good.” The gelding nudged the knight captain’s arm. Beaumont scratched the stallion’s neck as they paused to let a cart cross. “How was—the funeral?”
“It was fine,” Carina replied as her grip on the pommel tightened. However well-meaning his question, it also reminded her of the information Beaumont had intentionally withheld about Helena’s death. “It was a closed casket because of the fire.”
Beaumont glanced back at her uncertainly, then offered a nod before he led them through the open street.
‘Oh, so now you don’t want to talk.’
“I heard some interesting rumors while I was there,” Carina continued determinedly.
“What sort of rumors?” was Beaumont’s cautious reply.
“Oh, nothing out of the ordinary, just that a witch caused the fire that killed my parents.”
Beaumont exhaled sharply as he dropped back so that he stood level with her waist. “You should probably not mention that so openly,” he advised in a low tone. “People react strongly to those associated with witches, even if they are only victims.”
Beaumont’s violet eyes looked up at her, his concern visible, and yet it only confirmed her suspicions.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Carina scowled as the knight captain dropped his gaze and glanced around them. “Clearly, you knew when you delivered the death notice.”
“I—” Beaumont drew in a deep breath “—we didn’t feel it was necessary to burden you with that information until the fire had been fully investigated. In fact, it would be better that no one knew—given your proximity to the royal family.”
“We?” Carina echoed back with a hint of bitterness. “The Crown Prince?”
Beaumont brushed a hand along the back of his head, his long fingers disturbing the usual tidiness of his hair. “Yes.”
“Is that why—you’re angry at me?” Beaumont asked softly. Those violet eyes fixed upon her now with a hint of confusion.
Carina narrowed her gaze at him. “Are you saying I shouldn’t be angry?”
“No.” Beaumont refocused on the street ahead of them and moved up closer to the gelding’s head. The stallion nudged his shoulder as if offering sympathy.
The earlier euphoria of witnessing life so freely beneath the summer sun wore off as the awkwardness between them lengthened. Carina sighed and tried to refocus her mind on other matters as the narrow line of buildings opened up to reveal a massive market square ahead.
The sea of pedestrians hardly moved as people gathered on benches, picnic blankets, and an assortment of chairs to gossip or sell their wares to those who rested leisurely in the capital’s busiest corner.
And there, at Justice Square’s bustling center—surrounded by flowers, dancers, entertainers, and even a liquor salesman, who appeared to be making good coin from a rowdy band of knights—the execution scaffold loomed in all its oppressive glory.
Carina had known to expect it, but the cold fear that came from Maura’s nightmare induced memories compressed around her. A passing cloud darkened the cries of merriment as another crowd roared in her ears. A multitude of bloodthirsty voices that would cheer her death, even if they never knew her name.
“Shoeshine! New shine!” A middle-aged man with a box tied around his neck broke off from the crowd of knights, scanned the multitude of potential customers, and settled his hungry gaze upon them. “Walking around in all this dirt will muck up those lovely booties, Sir. Just six crescents, Sir, and they’ll shine as brightly as your lady’s lovely smile.”
“No, thank you,” Beaumont waved the man away.
“Four crescents then! Give a hard-working man some work, Sir. I’ve got kids to feed back at the house—not that it has a roof, Sir. Cute as pups they are, but always hungry.”
“Another time perhaps,” Beaumont replied firmly.
“Leave them be, Wart!” cackled an old woman nestled comfortably in the shadow of her flower cart. “Can’t you see you’re ruining their date? Madeline!”
A young girl of about ten years appeared from behind the cart with a bushel of daisies. “Yes, Madam?”
“There’s a lost man in need of your guiding touch. What flowers would you say match his pretty lady?”
“Oye, so you’re stealing my customers now, are you, Rose?” the shoe shiner hollered as the little blonde girl swapped her daisies for a bushel of purple bellflowers.
Carina loosened the strings of the coin purse at her waist as the girl rushed over, shying away hesitantly as she looked up into Beaumont’s stony face.
“Don’t forget to ask for coin!” Rose snapped before her attention shifted to the musicians who had picked up a lively tune.
“F-flowers—for—the lady?” Madeline whispered.
Beaumont sighed and reached for his pocket.
“Madeline is a pretty name,” Carina called out as she leaned down and held out five crescents between her fingers.
“Your flowers, Miss!” the child beamed as she eagerly swapped her flowers for coin. “You are pretty too!”
“You’ll make an excellent saleswoman,” Carina murmured as she studied the flowers she now held.
Madeline appeared to have read her thoughts. “I picked them because they match his eyes,” she explained with a timid smile and glance in Beaumont’s direction. Then she scampered off as Rose called her name once more. The shoeshiner also moved on to try his luck on a group of merchants.
Carina’s attention shifted from the curious color that grazed Beaumont’s cheeks to the three knights that now jogged in their direction.
“It must be the Captain’s birthday!” the first of the knights called out as they circled Beaumont.
“No, wait, I believe he could be on a date?”
“Not a chance.”
Carina ignored the men’s inquisitive stares as she tucked the bellflowers into her purse.
“I am simply the lady’s escort,” Beaumont corrected them sharply. “And you should know better than to besmirch a noblewoman’s reputation with such idle words.”
“Steady on, Captain, we meant no harm.”
“Since when did his Highness loan you out to escort anyone other than himself?”
“I’m telling you it’s the Captain’s birthday. That’s the only day he ever wanders off the Crown Prince’s leash.”
“If you have nothing of importance to say, we’ll be moving on,” Beaumont growled. “Enjoy your time off.”
The knights moved back with cowed grins, their fun prematurely cut short, but Carina felt their stares linger until the gelding passed beyond the buildings that lined King’s street.
“Sorry if they made you uncomfortable,” Beaumont said with an awkward, backward glance.
Carina held back a smirk. “They were no bother.” She glanced back just once at the disappearing platform as the sun returned to brighten its stained surface. ‘What will be will be.’
“I’ll give them a proper grilling tomorrow,” Beaumont muttered under his breath.
The cold left her limbs as Carina bit back a laugh. “Is today your birthday?”
“Ah—yes, it happens to be.”
“Happy Birthday then, Captain.”
“Thank you.” His words seemed hesitant as his gaze remained focused on the road ahead.
“Are you going to celebrate?”
Beaumont turned towards her with a wry smile. “No one celebrates the birthday of bastards.”
Carina smiled back. “Or half-bloods.”
He nodded and rubbed the back of his head. “Ah—when is your birthday, Lady Maura?”
Carina blinked and exhaled slowly. “In a few weeks.”
“Really?” Beaumont glanced back at her with interest.
Of all the birthdays that had gone by without remark since her arrival in Lafeara, Carina had no intention of celebrating Maura’s seventeenth birthday. It was a date that marked the downfall of Maura’s previously dismal life. And if the future did not change, this would be Carina’s last birthday as Maura, the half-blood ice witch.
“Before or after Holy Saints day?” Beaumont pressed inquisitively.
“A few days after,” Carina replied with a half-smile. ‘Only a week until the real count down begins, but first, I have to ensure Hana and Eleanora make it through the Ambassador’s visit.’
The buildings dispersed as the open field of cherry trees, which separated the palace-fortress from the capital, emerged. The wind picked up and tousled Carina’s dark ash-brown hair into her face. She attempted to tame the mess while still maintaining a secure grip on the saddle.
The sound of horses and a carriage glided up behind them like a tide. Beaumont carefully guided the gelding to the side of the road to allow the transport room to pass. Carina glanced up just as the carriage’s first escort galloped by; his scarlet cloak and armor glistened in the sunlight as the man tipped his head politely to Beaumont.
A carriage of glistening white, trimmed with gold, embedded with red gems, and marked with the Pope’s emblem of a Saint slaying a dragon, filled Carina’s vision. The Winter Rose flickered as cold rushed from her chest, and her limbs trembled in terror.
‘The Church is here.’
Behind the carriage, three more riders in scarlet armor and robes jostled by without a glance in their direction. Carina turned her head and coughed beneath the dust left in their wake.
“The Pope’s Emissary,” Beaumont confirmed with equal distaste. “He’s early—though expected.” He pulled the gelding back onto the road and looked up at Carina. “They’ll be held up at the gate for a while. I need to get back quickly to deliver word to his Majesty.”
“Of course—I can make it from the gate on my own,” Carina replied nervously.
‘Four witch hunters. Four!’ She reached towards the Winter Rose. ‘I guess I’ll find out if this works.’
“Pull up your hood,” Beaumont said as he placed his hand against the gelding’s shoulder beside her leg. “Scoot forward a bit.”
Beaumont lifted his foot into the stirrup, and Carina wiggled forward in the saddle as he lifted himself effortlessly behind her. “Bear with me until we’re past the gate.”
“Alright.” Carina pulled the hood of the cloak over her face. ‘If it means getting past those witch hunters, then this much is—’ Her breath caught in her throat as Beaumont’s long arms reached around her to adjust the reins. The warmth of his chest pressed against her back, accompanied by the scent of earth, pinecones, and mint mixed with a smell that could only be his.
“Hold on tight.” Beaumont’s deep voice grazed her ears, but the tension in it refocused Carina on the danger and the carriage ahead, that as predicted, slowed to a halt outside the fortress’s tunnel gate.
Beaumont urged the gelding forward with a soft whistle. Carina’s back found Beaumont’s solid chest once more as the stallion lunged forward with a mischievous snort. The carriage and its four scarlet nemeses drew closer, and fear pricked against Carina’s cold chest as a knight stepped around the Emissary’s carriage with an upheld hand to restrain them.
“Let me through!” Beaumont shouted as he held up the crown prince’s royal pass.
“Let Captain Beaumont through!” the knight shouted as he scampered out of the way.
The gelding flicked its ears and tossed its head as it danced nimbly across the cobblestone, around the witch hunters, through the wall of knights, and down the dark gullet of the Wolves Den.