Chapter 22: The Sounds of Discord
Carina opened her eyes as the first pale rays of morning light crept across the stone and carpeted floor towards the edge of her poster bed. She roused herself from the haze of dreams that included memories of high school and a time when she and Jade had been inseparable—before the pandemic that shut down schools and led to the biggest economic and political divide between Trog and Verdine.
“A lifetime ago,” Carina muttered as she rubbed her eyes and pushed back the tangled curtain of her hair. ‘Still, it’s not often I remember my past life these days.’
After a quick stretch and a tired yawn, Carina tossed the bed covers aside. She paused with both legs dangling over the edge of the bed to examine her right ankle. After nearly two weeks, the swelling was gone, and most of the injury’s discoloration had faded.
“I’ll need to start some strength exercises and stretches soon if I want to get back in dancing form,” Carina murmured as she flexed the ankle carefully.
Since she did not permit the palace’s maids to enter her room, Carina spent these early hours before dawn tidying the bed and any books or papers she had left out. Then she changed into a day gown, washed her face, and brushed and tamed her hair. All the while, she mentally formulated a plan of tasks to be accomplished before sundown.
‘Iker’s man should be arriving this morning, so the first thing on my list will be offloading Ghost’s dagger.’
Knowing that the main gate wouldn’t open for another hour yet, Carina settled down at her desk to write out addresses on four cream envelopes. Then she pulled out a few fresh pages and, ignoring the black ink well, selected a perfume bottle tucked beside two books on A Ladies Etiquette Vol I & II. Carina dabbed a fresh quill inside the aromatic vial and scripted a hidden message onto the first page.
To Stitcher, she scribbled out a request for two unique powders found only on the black market. While Carina was far from delighted with the prospects of drugging the crown prince, Eleanora had made it quite clear she was tired of waiting for results.
‘It wouldn’t hurt to see if a non-detectable drug can be produced that would pass royal inspection.’ She thought of Beaumont’s stern, vigilant gaze and grimaced. ‘With any luck, I won’t have to test that theory, but better to have—I suppose.’
“In any case, I need to prepare that for the Ambassador.” She included a notice for payment request upon receipt for Stitcher to cash in at the Holy Maiden Boutique and hoped that the assassin wouldn’t gossip about her unusual request to Ghost.
‘I wonder, would Tristan be more annoyed with Eleanora or me if he knew what these powders were for?’
In her next letter to Lord Austin, Merchant Captain of the Golden Lion, Carina included another request for four benign herbs from Strugna. She also added a large order for plant bulbs of a rare herb called Spector’s Breath.
The temperamental plant grew along Strugna’s northern coastline and could be detected at first light when it gave off a cloud of blue mist due to its unusually cold properties. If harvested at dawn and kept out of the sun, the plant would retain this chilling effect for months at a time. The bulbs could then be transplanted into any soil kept in a dark room and create a basement “fridge” of sorts.
This unusual but resourceful trait made the plant a costly commodity of luxury for Strugna’s nobles and wealthy merchants. But Carina hoped to use the plant in hospital storage units she was building for the medication that had already arrived and was being prepared by Lambert’s alchemists.
She also planned to use her recently appointed domain of Averly to build a suitable enclosed greenhouse environment to grow the herbs more locally. ‘After all, according to the Herbal Encyclopedia I studied, they once grew in Lafeara in abundance. If I can cultivate enough here, they will prove invaluable not only for storing medicine long term but with the added benefit of cooling down patients with fever.’
With her invisible yet detailed request complete, Carina signed the letter as Lady Aconitum and set it aside to dry with Stitcher’s message. She considered the empty pages still before her and pulled out another envelope, which she addressed to Ruttenberg Inn and her old mentor, Madame Maylea. Then, using a single sheet of paper and black ink, Carina wrote the prearranged message.
‘The songbird has reached her desired perch but lacks the grace to dance before the crown. Would that my old instructor might provide a more suitable candidate to please this foreign prince.
Satisfied that all messages pertaining to her plans and business were suitably arranged and hidden beneath benign requests or letters of gratitude, Carina closed the perfume bottle and composed her final letter to Ivy.
Thank you for your last letter. Rest assured that all is well here. I’ve recently learned that Lord Percy purchased Turnbell Manor. He intends to donate it to the Princess to be reopened as an orphanage. I find the idea quite practical and appealing and thought it would be of interest to you. I should like to think you could become a teacher there one day if your studies improve. Though I imagine working in such a place might be uncomfortable given its many unhappy memories.
I hope you are enjoying life at the Hawthrone Estate. Your penmanship has certainly improved remarkably. I promise to visit at the earliest opportunity, although that might have to wait until the Ambassador has returned to Ventrayna…
Carina added a few happier details about her palace life to distract Ivy from any thoughts of worry, then signed the letter as Lady Maura. She stared at the name for a moment as her quill hovered over the page. Her thoughts drifted unsteadily from the identity she had taken in this world to her dreams of Jade and her old life in Trog.
She carefully set the letter aside to dry, then watched as the ink pooled at the edge of her quill. Carina had long given up any hope of returning to her old world. Her old body, or whatever husk remained, was no doubt beyond repair, her organs split up between dozens of strangers who had purchased them off the black market shortly after her death.
‘But—what happened to Jade?’
Her fingers tightened around the quill as the enlarging drop of ink quivered free and splattered on the wooden surface of her desk. Carina set the quill aside with an impatient sigh and wiped the mess clear with an ink smudged rag as she shook the foreboding thought away. Her past had no place in this world.
‘But I can still live by my own principles and try to protect the people that matter to me—if only my new life had not been complicated by a promise to a ghost.’
Carina glanced about the room cautiously but detected no sign of Maura’s lingering specter. It was unsettling enough to wake up in the middle of the night and find the body’s previous owner watching her sleep from the foot of the bed.
She shivered and returned the rag to its drawer with a quick check at the bedroom window. The warm glow of the rising sun soon chased away uneasy thoughts as Carina tucked the dried letters inside their respective envelopes then placed them in a silk purse.
After securing her bedroom door, Carina headed down the steps, nodding to the maids that greeted her as they carried up Eleanora’s morning tray.
‘Looks like Eleanora will be out hunting again today,’ Carina observed as she reached the foyer and turned left towards the kitchen. There she found Mrs. Poppy and the chef discussing breakfast for the other ladies-in-waiting.
“Lady Evelynn will be riding with her Highness this morning, so send up a breakfast tray for her as well,” Mrs. Poppy instructed as the kitchen maids hastily prepared another tray.
“Ah, good morning, Lady Maura,” Chef Robbi greeted with a friendly wave. “You’re up early as usual.”
“Good morning, Chef Robbi. Mrs. Poppy,” Carina returned with a smile. “I just wanted to inform you that I’ll be going out this morning to post some letters. If breakfast isn’t ready, then please don’t trouble yourself.”
“Oh, but it’s no trouble,” Robbi replied with a charismatic smile. “I’ll have the maids send up a tray when you’re back. The food will keep well enough as long as it’s kept warm. It shouldn’t take too long to walk to the post office and back.”
“Stop indulging her. She has a big enough head already that one,” Poppy muttered sharply in Ventrayna.
“You judge too harshly. The lady is capable and kind, and our Princess favors her. Look at the remarkable job she’s done getting Lady Hana back on her feet,” Robbi countered in a lower voice as he shot Poppy a warning glare.
Carina kept her expression neutral as she turned and headed back down the hall to the front door. She found it odd that Mrs. Poppy, who had insisted on treating all the new ladies-in-waiting equally, now seemed to view her in such an unpleasant light.
‘As near as I can put it, her behavior changed when I took over Hana’s care.’ Carina frowned as she stepped outside the kitchen. ‘Perhaps I’m overthinking it. There are plenty of reasons for Poppy to have her guard up against me.’
Tilly rushed up to her with a look of relief. “What lucky timing, my Lady. There is a man outside who says he has a delivery for you?”
‘Right. Master Iker’s delivery.’
“I’ll go see him at once.”
Carina’s eagerness to swap Iker’s promised delivery of new daggers for Ghost’s politically volatile blade—evaporated the moment she caught a glimpse of the messenger. A single, piercing olive-green eye stared at her beneath the black bandanna that obscured most of the man’s face from view. She instantly recognized him as one of the soldiers from Iker’s workshop. ‘What was the name Iker called him, Timmy?’
“Lady Maura,” the soldier rumbled in a far from friendly tone. “I believe you have something for me?”
The knight’s guarding the palace door focused their distrustful gaze on the burlish looking man.
“Do you know this fellow?” One of the knights asked as he shifted closer to Carina.
“Ah—I don’t know the gentleman’s name, but I was expecting his delivery,” Carina replied with a quick smile.
“Tully, my Lady,” the soldier replied with a stiff nod.
“Ah yes, Mr. Tully.” Carina offered a friendly smile that was not returned. “I—just need to step inside to fetch the payment.”
“Then please,” the soldier muttered as he placed a key on top of the ornate box and held it out. “Master Iker said you could leave your payment in this box if that’s all the same to you.”
“Why can’t she keep the box?” one of the knights asked suspiciously.
“Couldn’t afford the extra coin,” Tully replied with a sly grin.
‘Was that the best excuse he could come up with?’
“Thank you!” Carina cut in as she snatched the rather heavy box from him. “I’ll be just a moment.”
It took but a few minutes to return to her room and open Iker’s promised delivery. Still, Carina was caught off guard by the beautifully crafted twin daggers that rested against the black silk. With an appreciative sigh, she placed them aside and lifted the black cloth clear. Beneath the silk, Carina found a simple notch in the wooden panel below that opened the false bottom. Inside lay a simple note that read, A trusted friend is like a well-placed blade.
Carina scoffed and set the letter beside her new daggers before upending nearly all the books tucked away in her locked chest as she located and retrieved Ghost’s dagger. She let out a sigh of relief when the troublesome weapon fit—just barely—inside the hidden compartment. After replacing the false bottom and black silk covering, Carina added a purse of two-hundred crescents on top and locked the lid once more.
The amount was more than she would earn in a month as Eleanora’s attendant, but Carina was determined not to owe the leader of Burning Blade any favors.
Besides, the daggers really were the perfect size and came with a simple strap to secure them out of sight beneath her skirts.
The unpleasant Mr. Tully left with a curt nod the moment Carina returned with the box. Judging by the glare he sent one knight in particular, her absence had not gone by without incident.
Carina waited until the man had reached the gate before turning to the knight that had defended her earlier. “Sir Knight, whatever did you say to him?”
“Sir Jordan,” he bowed politely and straightened. “I simply reminded the unpleasant fellow that it is not his place to be disrespectful to the future queen’s attendants.” His unusual heterochromia eyes of brown and blue shifted from the cloak she wore and the silk purse she carried. “Might you be going outside the palace this morning, Lady Maura?”
“Yes, I was on my way to the post office,” Carina replied as she continued down the steps. With Ghost’s dagger removed from her possession, she had one less matter to worry about should someone decide to search her bedroom.
‘Just in time for me to pick up a poison or two.’
Carina let out a weak laugh and then took a steadying breath of fresh air as the gravel path crunched loudly underfoot. Across the horizon of Rose Palace walls, the rooftops of the other two royal palaces, the house of ministry, the great cathedral, and the giant, protective fortress walls, a clear summer’s day was blossoming into view.
The echo of footsteps on the stone path behind her pulled Carina’s attention from the otherwise optimistic view. She frowned as Sir Jordan jogged up beside her.
“Ah, pardon, Lady Maura, but we’ve been instructed to provide you with an escort for any trips away from Rose Palace,” Jordan explained with an apologetic smile.
“By whom?” Carina demanded quickly with a sharp glance towards the palace she had just left. “Your post is here protecting the Crown Princess and Rose Palace, is it not?”
“Not to worry, there are still plenty of knights left to guard the Crown Princess.” He shifted uncomfortably then offered another polite bow. “I apologize if my presence is offensive, but these are the orders I was given, Lady Maura.”
“By whom?” Carina repeated stiffly.
“His Majesty—” the knight trailed off, but there was something in his demeanor and the way his eyes shifted away that suggested there might have been another name attached to this request.
‘But who?’ Carina sighed. ‘Never mind, this probably relates to the witch hunter’s presence. And it’s not as if I’m not already used to being watched inside the palace.’
“Very well, Sir Jordan, as I said, I am on my way to the post office, so this will be a short trip,” Carina explained briskly, then turned back towards the gate.
“Ah, that—couldn’t the servants deliver the letter for you, my Lady?” Jordan observed in an almost hopeful tone.
“Is there something wrong with me leaving Rose Palace, Sir Jordan?” Carina returned suspiciously as she studied his evasive gaze once more.
“No, nothing at all, forgive me.”
The letters were posted without further disruption, and since Carina had no other business to attend to with her new shadow attached, she returned promptly to Rose Palace.
Halfway back to their destination, it occurred to Carina that having a friendly knight on her side inside the palace might be useful, even if only as an escort for her more official visits to the capital.
‘At least it will be a far more comfortable option than having Captain Beaumont escort me again.’
As close as Carina could estimate, Jordan was anywhere from his late twenties to late thirties. His skin remained deceptively youthful while more than a few laugh lines hugged the corners of his mismatched brown and blue eyes, and an odd patch of silver was already apparent in his groomed sideburns and trimmed beard.
“How long have you been a knight, Sir Jordan?”
He scoffed softly. “Not long, my lady. I was promoted just two years back.”
‘That would explain why he hadn’t yet received a promotion.’
“And before?” she asked curiously.
“Just a regular foot soldier, my Lady.”
Carina blinked in surprise and focused on the road. The noble’s bloodline was considered far too valuable to be sacrificed to the affairs of war, which was why any noble interested in military service almost always became knights and never went anywhere near the front lines of battle.
‘Meanwhile, commoners are seldom knighted unless they had achieved some high merit in battle.’
She studied Sir Jordan again, and this time noticed the broach curiously pinned on the inside trim of his knight’s cape. The jewelry’s simple bronze surface was faded, and most of the paint had chipped away, but the visage of a wolf was still visible. “Were you—a member of the Red Wolf Army?”
Jordan glanced at her sharply, then looked down at his broach and tucked it out of sight. “Ah—no, my lady. That honor fell to my older brother.”
Seeing his discomfort, Carina left the matter there, and the conversation soon ended. Still, she continued her silent observation as the Rose Palace gates came into view, taking note that Jordan was already capable of bending a few rules.
Since any mention of the First Prince and the Red Wolf Army were all but publicly forbidden—the broach itself could be considered contraband. ‘But to wear it while in uniform? Is that defiance or simply for sentimental reasons?’
The absence of knights at the palace doors distracted Carina from her musing. She halted abruptly and quickly scanned the exterior palace grounds but located none of the palace guards in sight.
“That’s odd,” Jordan muttered as his sword hand shifted warily to the hilt of his knight’s long sword. “The front doors should never be left unguarded. We have more than enough knights to cover it even with my absence.”
“We should head inside,” Carina said determinedly.
“Yes,” Jordan agreed tensely. “But please stay at least three feet behind me, Lady Maura.”
Carina nodded and trailed behind him as the knight approached the door and opened it cautiously. The moment they entered the foyer, the distinct sound of raised, angry voices echoed back down the servant’s hall.
“That’s Chef Robbi. It’s coming from the kitchen!” Carina confirmed hastily. “That way.” She slipped past the knight and moved briskly in the direction of the commotion.
“Lady Maura!” Jordan hissed as he followed at her heels.
Carina ignored him as she focused on the other voices that echoed through the hallway. She recognized Tiffany’s protests, though they were oddly high-pitched and anxious. Robbi’s angry bellows, which consisted mostly of curses in his native tongue, drowned out the other voices mixed into the chaos. Her heart nearly leapt up her throat as Tilly bolted through the kitchen door and crashed into her.
“Oh! Lady Maura!” the frightened maid panted as Carina caught herself against the wall. “Please, you must help them!”
“First, tell me what is going on,” Carina said sternly.
“The Dowager’s people came demanding access to our wine in the cellars. Mrs. Poppy wouldn’t give them the keys, but they took it anyway by force.”
“So they are in the cellar. How many?”
“I—I think six knights and the Dowager’s attendant.”
“Alright, I’ll handle this, Tilly. You go upstairs and keep Hana from leaving her room. Can you do that?”
“Yes, my Lady.” Tilly nodded eagerly.
“Don’t disturb or alert her. Just stand outside her door. If Lady Hana asks what’s going on—lie.”
“Yes, Lady Maura.”
“Good girl. Now go.” Carina pushed the maid past Jordan and focused on the knight. “Where are the rest of the palace guards?”
“I—” Jordan shook his head, baffled.
“Go find them and bring them here!” Carina snapped impatiently.
“You can’t go in there alone!” Jordan protested in a forceful whisper. “You have no idea what you’re walking into.”
‘Actually, I have a pretty good idea.’
“The sooner your round up more help, the sooner we can resolve the issue. I doubt the Dowager’s people are here to start a war. Now go,” Carina ordered before she swept through the kitchen doors. She could already see the cellar door, generally kept under lock and key, wide open through the pantry before her.
The first person to greet her gaze as Carina crossed the threshold was Tiffany, held firmly restrained by Captain Leo in the pantry’s left corner. To the right, racks of grain and storage shelves were crushed and broken. Grains and vegetables lay scattered and trampled beneath the two knights, who held their drawn swords warily at Chef Robbi.
The chef sat with his back against the broken storage shelf. The fallen grains clumped against the blood that flowed from a gash in his left arm, while his right arm supported a pale and unconscious Mrs. Poppy.
“What is going on here?” Carina demanded as she turned her ice-blue eyes to Captain Leo.
“Lady Maura!” Tiffany gasped with mixed relief and worry.
“Ah, so you’ve returned,” Leo remarked with a wry grin.
“And so what if she has?” The cold, imperious tone came from a familiar face Carina had not seen since the end of the Selection. Lady Sabella walked calmly through the cellar door to glower at Carina. “It seems we meet again, Half-blood.”