Chapter 23: A Prick of Cunning
“Lady Sabella,” Carina greeted as she squared off against the Dowager’s senior attendant. “Perhaps you could explain to me what is going on here?”
“How amusing that you believe I need to explain anything to you?” Sabella replied with a sarcastic smirk. “Your empty Baroness rank may have saved your skin, but here in the palace, I outrank you as much as the Dowager outranks the crown princess.”
“Not in this palace.” Carina stepped forward and held out her hand with a nod to the keys tied to Sabella’s belt. “Now I’m going to ask this in this nicest way possible out of respect for the Dowager’s rank. Lady Sabella, please return those keys to me. If there is something that your Mistress requires, you may submit a formal request for my Mistress’s approval. Now I must ask that you and these knights you brought with you, to leave Rose Palace and take nothing with you that belongs to the Crown Princess.”
“Impudent little half-blood,” Sabella hissed as she advanced on Carina. “I am the senior lady-in-waiting to the Dowager! I am here on her orders!” Sabella leaned in closer with a narrowed gaze and whispered. “Or have you chosen the barbarian princess over the Dowager’s offer?”
“Perhaps I’m merely curious what the Dowager hopes to find in the Crown Princess’s cellar that warrants sending such clumsy buffoons?”
Sabella left eye twitched, but then she leaned back and crossed her arms with a sigh. “The Dowager sent me to fetch some of the Caligo wine that the Crown Princess recently obtained. You have a dozen bottles here, far more than is necessary for her Highness to host the banquet. The Dowager merely wished to borrow one or two.”
‘If that was all the Dowager wanted, she could easily make a request without Lady Sabella stepping foot in Rose Palace. Clearly, there is another agenda here,’ Carina thought bitterly.
“When I explained my Mistress’s request to these heathens, they were the ones to put themselves in my way and create a ruckus that resulted in their injuries,” Sabella continued impassively.
‘That is because servants have no right to hand out the Crown Princess’s property!’
“Surely, the Dowager could have made such a request in a more orthodox manner. Such as a formal written request.” Carina pressed as she leaned against the door frame to her right.
“Why on earth would she?” Sabella countered with an arched brow. “If the Dowager wants something, she has the power to take it. You will learn this soon enough, Half-Blood.”
‘Is that all this is? A power play to remind the servants here who holds the most power in Lafeara?’ Carina glanced over to where Leo’s attention was diverted for a moment to the scuffling sounds in the cellar. ‘Then perhaps it is time to show our enemies that we are not so easily intimidated.’
Carina lowered her head with a defeated sigh and gestured Sabella closer with her left hand. Her right hand, tucked behind her back, tightened its grip on one of Iker’s silver daggers.
Leo refocused on Carina suspiciously, then released Tiffany as he cried out, “Lady Sabella, wait—”
Unwilling to let this opportunity slip away so easily, Carina leapt forward and yanked Sabella off balance towards the kitchen door. The senior attendant banged her chest into the doorframe with a surprised squawk, then went stiff as Carina tapped the silver blade against her shoulder.
“What-what are you—” Sabella gasped as Carina shifted the startled attendant between herself and the frantic knight captain that bounded towards them.
“I tried asking nicely,” Carina answered calmly as she shifted the blade closer to Sabella’s neck, stopping Leo in his tracks. “Now I think it’s time you took me seriously. Hand over the keys, Lady Sabella, and have your men put their weapons away at once!”
“Have you lost your mind!” Leo shouted.
Carina exhaled slowly, the Winter Rose trembled as her racing heart seemed to pulse through it, yet her hands remained steady—as if threatening a room full of people with a dagger and hostage was the most natural thing in the world.
“You injured two of the crown princess’s people to force your way into her cellar and rob her of wine?” Carina countered with a cold laugh. “I could ask you the same thing.”
“Captain Leo, d-don’t just stand there!” Sabella screeched. “Do—something!”
Leo’s uneasy brown eyes shifted from Sabella to the silver dagger in Carina’s grip. He took a cautious step closer. Carina quickly pressed the blade against the soft flesh of Sabella’s neck above her carotid artery, and both the knight captain and the senior attendant froze.
Leo exhaled sharply and laughed. “Do you expect me to believe you’re willing to kill her, Lady Maura?”
Carina’s smile faltered. An uneasy disquiet filled her as she envisioned severing the heartbeat that rattled against her blade chaotically. A cold dissonance of emotions—a callous indifference that was not her—seemed more than prepared to take that step.
‘It’s almost as if someone else is holding this dagger through me.’
Instinctively she moved the blade away, but a groan from Mrs. Poppy reminded her that weakness had no place in political negotiations.
“You’re right,” Carina replied with a bitter smile. “The Crown Princess would probably prefer that I scar her face as a warning to anyone else who would blatantly move against her.” She raised the dagger to Sabella’s cheek, and the attendant squeaked. “I would certainly never threaten to kill the Dowager’s servant—” Leo took another step closer, “—but if you were to jump at us with my blade in this precarious position, Lady Sabella might lose an eye—or worse, Captain.”
“N-no, don’t!” Sabella gasped and raised a trembling hand to halt Leo. “Don’t you dare cut my face, you little bitch!”
“Tsk. Language, Lady Sabella,” Carina murmured in a reproachful tone as she leaned closer to the older woman’s ear. “As the Dowager’s senior attendant, you should be setting a better example for the rest of us.”
“Lady Maura!” Captain Leo growled as he shifted his right hand to his knight’s sword. “Think very carefully about what you’re doing.”
“Perhaps a little bloodshed is required to make my point,” Carina observed coldly as she turned the tip of the knife against Sabella’s skin. The senior attendant gasped softly in alarm as a small drop of blood appeared beneath the blade. “What do you think, Lady Sabella?”
“Put your weapons—away at once!” Sabella gasped wretchedly. “Captain, do as I say, or you will be made to bear the consequences!”
Leo nodded to the knights, who—with evident reluctance—sheathed their swords.
“The keys, Lady Sabella?” Carina prompted.
“Yes—Here!” Sabella panted as she slowly moved her left hand to her belt, slipped the keys free, and passed them back to Carina.
“Good.” Carina moved the dagger away, and a small trickle of blood poured free. “Now, Captain Leo, have your men remove their swords and leave them on the racks.”
“This—” one of the knights protested.
“They will be returned to you after you exit the Crown Princess’s palace,” Carina interrupted with a patient smile. She slid the dagger across the blood that slowly trailed down Sabella’s cheek, then spread the scarlet color across the older woman’s pale skin. “Do I need to give another demonstration?”
“Stop—dawdling and—do what she says!” Sabella snapped urgently.
The knights turned to their captain, who sighed and once more gave his men a nod of approval. Leo himself unbuckled his sword but passed it to Tiffany rather than place it on a shelf. He whispered something to the pale, trembling lady-in-waiting. Tiffany shot him a startled looked before she moved quickly away.
Leo turned back to face Carina. “There,” he said with a dramatic wave of his hand. “Are you satisfied?”
“Not quite,” Carina returned with a knowing smile. “Six knights came with Lady Sabella, but only two and yourself stand before me. Have the others remove their weapons and leave them behind in the cellar before they join us here in the pantry.”
Leo clenched his jaw. His dark gaze narrowed as he lowered his hands, which curled into fists at his side. “You heard Lady Maura. Do as she commands,” he growled in the direction of the cellar door.
Carina listened intently to the movements inside the cellar as the footsteps approached behind her.
“Lady Maura!” Jordan’s voice held a mix of anxiety and worry. “What are you—”
“Captain Leo and his men are removing their weapons,” Carina interrupted sharply. “Did you find our missing knights?” She checked over her shoulder to find two other knights accompanied Sir Jordan. “Is this it?”
“The others were—sent out on an errand,” mumbled the blond knight behind Jordan.
“This ain’t right!” complained an older knight with a full silver beard. “She’s threatening one of the Dowager’s people. Jordan, what have you dragged us into?”
“If you don’t want to be involved, then leave Rose Palace and don’t bother returning,” Carina snapped as she shot the cowardly knight a scathing look. “At once!”
The older man stiffened, then promptly turned on his heels and left.
Carina refocused on Captain Leo, who wore an annoying smirk. The other two knights stood with raised hands and impatient, resigned expressions.
‘They think I’m going to regret this?’ She realized and scoffed.
“Is your friend with us, Jordan?” Carina asked over her shoulder.
After a moment’s pause, Jordan moved up alongside her. “Yes. Sir Gawen is with me.”
“Good. Captain Leo, you can call the other knights out of the cellar now. They should open their jackets and keep their hands raised to the ceiling so I can ensure they haven’t stolen anything.”
“Do as she says and come out,” Leo called out wearily.
Three more knights lumbered into the tiny pantry, the white cotton blouse beneath their unbuttoned jackets visible as they stood shoulder to shoulder before her. Carina eyed the gaps between their coat and shirt and thought she detected a small bulge beneath the jacket of a knight who stood a head shorter than the rest.
“What are you carrying there?” She asked sharply as she gestured her dagger towards him.
The knight scowled and glanced towards Leo.
“Just—show her,” the knight captain sighed, though his gaze narrowed.
The knight’s face twisted, then he shrugged and opened his jacket further. A bundled clump of red cloth jammed into an inner pocket came into view.
“Pull them out and open them,” Carina ordered.
The knight complied without protest as he pulled what turned out to be three large handkerchiefs from his pocket. A quick shake revealed nothing visibly hidden inside them.
“Satisfied?” Leo asked with a hint of impatience.
Carina glanced from him to the short knight, unable to pinpoint why the idea of a knight carrying extra handkerchiefs on his person unsettled her.
‘Anyway, should there be three or four Knights? Did the six Tilly counted include Captain Leo?’
Her gaze shifted towards the blonde attendant, frozen in the corner of the pantry. “Lady Tiffany,” Carina called out with a neutral smile. “Would you come this way, please?”
“I—” Tiffany glanced uncertainly towards Leo, then dropped her gaze. “Yes, I’m—coming.” She slid past the captain and the other knights with Leo’s sword hugged to her chest.
Carina moved aside, and Jordan assisted Tiffany through the door before returning.
“What now?” Jordan asked anxiously.
‘Must I do everything myself?’ Carina sighed. “Now, we shall have our uninvited guests leave the palace the same way they came in.”
“And Lady Sabella?” Leo demanded.
“Will be released into your care along with your weapons the moment you exit the palace,” Carina repeated with a grim smile.
Leo shut his eyes and appeared to consider her offer and its alternatives for a moment, then he opened them and nodded. “Fine, we’ll do it your way.”
“An excellent choice!”
“But I’m going to enjoy watching you suffer for this,” Leo added with a twisted smile.
Carina’s smile tightened as she moved the flat of her blade against Sabella’s neck. The senior lady-in-waiting whimpered as her back stiffened. “I’m going to take Lady Sabella outside into the hallway. These knights will escort you and your men to the front door. The less fuss, the better as I would prefer not to be startled and accidentally injure the Dowager’s senior lady-in-waiting further.”
“Harmonia protect me,” Sabella mumbled unsteadily.
Leo turned his gaze from Carina to the knight holding the three red handkerchiefs. The short man sent the knight captain an almost undetectable nod.
‘What does that mean? That can’t be good.’ Carina focused on the cellar door. ‘My count might be off. Tilly said there were six—but there might be one more knight hiding—’
“We’re ready when you are, Lady Maura,” Leo announced.
“Alright.” Carina pulled on Sabella’s arm and tapped the knife lightly against the woman’s jaw. “Step back slowly over the threshold now, Lady Sabella.” Her captive complied, a bit clumsily. Carina shifted the knife to a safer distance from the attendant’s neck as they moved backward. “Okay, now turn around and head to the kitchen door.”
Jordan nodded to Carina and drew his sword as she passed.
“Through the door to the right, Lady Sabella.” Carina kept her voice light and calm. With her visual attention focused on her captive, Carina’s ears remained trained on the sounds of the knights in the pantry. When they were a safe distance down the hall, she called out, “Escort our visitors outside, Sir Jordan!”
A few moments later, the first three knights left the pantry with their hands raised under the watchful eye of Sir Gawen. The last three, which included Leo and the suspicious knight, soon followed, with Jordan taking up the rear.
‘So far, so good.’
“Eight steps forward,” Carina ordered. Sabella, who appeared to have regained her courage with the possibility of release, huffed angrily but complied with the request.
“I knew you wouldn’t last long in the palace—but to think you would dare to cross the Dowager?” Sabella prattled off with mixed relief and outrage. “People tend to disappear after offending the Queen Regent. Especially pretty little things like you who imagine yourselves superior. Whatever did she see in you to allow you to remain in the first place.”
“Oh, dear. The shock appears to have muddled your thoughts, Lady Sabella. Surely you have not forgotten your attempts to throw me out of the Selection at the last minute,” Carina countered sarcastically.
“I—was acting in the palace’s best interest. Your unfortunate status demeans the importance such a position holds for the rest of nobility who are honored to serve the royal family as attendants.”
“Mmm, stop here, please.” Carina pulled her captive to a halt beside the kitchen door. “And do be quiet.”
“I will not be told what to do by a—”
Carina ignored the rest of the senior attendant’s ramble as she released Sabella’s arm for a moment and flicked her left wrist and fingers inside the kitchen. A dense cold mist glided from her hand up towards the ceiling, where it pooled and then turned towards the pantry and cellar beyond. As the mist moved beneath her will, it thinned until it was invisible to the human eye, yet Carina could sense everything the cold magic touched.
It registered the presence of Chef Robby, who now knelt over the still unconscious Mrs. Poppy. Once inside the cellar, the mist stretched until it filled every corner of the room. Detecting no lingering heartbeat of a hidden foe, Carina exhaled, took Sabella’s arm, and nudged her towards the palace doors. “Let’s go. You’ll be free soon enough.”
“Oh! Why is your hand so cold! Just you wait—” Sabella stumbled, and Carina jerked the blade away from the senior attendant’s neck with an exasperated sigh.
“Slowly, or do you want a permanent scar as a reminder of today?”
“D-did you forget you already cut me!” Sabella demanded through quivering lips
“A small prick,” Carina responded with strained patience. “Hardly worse than anything suffered while learning needlework.”
“I hardly stab myself in the face with embroidery!”
“If you are going to complain, perhaps I should give you something to complain about.”
“Just see what the Dowager will do to you if you dare!”