Chapter 24: A Breach of Trust
Soon after giving Sabella the final push out of Rose Palace, Carina stepped back so Jordan could slam the front door shut.
“Okay,” Jordan whispered as he leaned his weight against the door. “Now what?”
Carina exhaled as she studied the door, searching for more than a flimsy lock to prevent another forced entry. ‘Then again, that’s what the royal knights are supposed to be for.’
She turned her attention to the room about her and set her dagger down on a small table by the window as she climbed the chair and, after a bit of struggle, pushed the curtain rod off its metal hook.
“Sir Gawen, the door!” Jordan urged, then swapped places with the blonde knight as he hastened to Carina’s side and helped her settle the heavy curtains and rod down onto the floor. Together they heaved the burdensome material and hooks free, then Jordan carried the rod over to Gawen, and the two knights quickly eased it into the loops of the door handle.
“That should hold them off for a bit,” Jordan muttered as he moved to the window that they had just un-curtained.
“They won’t barge in a second time today,” Carina answered confidently as she pulled the heavy fabric into a neat pile beside the chair. “We should return the swords they left quickly so they can leave the premises.”
“Oh, of course, hand over swords to a bunch of angry knights,” Jordan hid a chuckle under a heavy sigh. “How do you propose we do that, Lady Maura? Through the window?”
“After all that effort we put into securing the door,” Gawen muttered. “The window works just fine for me.”
“Have they gone?” Tilly whispered as she crept down the stairs to where they had all gathered by the door.
“Yes, for now. And let’s do as Sir Jordan suggested,” Carina confirmed with a nod to the unveiled window. “Sir Gawen, if you and Tilly wouldn’t mind retrieving the knight’s weapons.”
Gawen nodded, still looking a bit dazed, then headed down the hall with Tilly right behind him.
Lady Tiffany looked dejected as she wavered by the steps, still holding Captain Leo’s sword.
“Lady Tiffany,” Carina called out as she retrieved her dagger. Almost instantly, the blonde attendant’s gaze leapt to the small blade, and she flinched. “Lady Tiffany?” Carina repeated.
“Sorry, yes?” Tiffany squeaked as she raised her gaze to Carina’s face.
“You can give Sir Jordan the captain’s sword,” Carina replied calmly.
Jordan stepped forward and held out his hands. Tiffany glanced up at the knight uncertainly, then nodded as she handed over Leo’s property.
“Now then, Lady Tiffany, if you would help me round up the servants and bring a few helping hands to the pantry for clean up. I need to go attend to Chef Robbi and Mrs. Poppy.”
“Yes—Yes, of course.” Tiffany turned slowly and wandered for a moment in no particular direction before she took the steps upstairs.
‘Hopefully, she’s not running off to hide in her room.’ Carina sighed and shook her head as she turned to Jordan. “Stay by the door. When they’ve gone, lock the outer gate, and either you or Sir Gawen will need to remain outside to let Eleanora back in when she returns.”
“What should we tell her?” Jordan asked uncertainly as Carina turned towards the steps.
“The truth,” Carina replied wearily as she propped her left foot against the steps and returned the dagger to the strap above her knee.
Robbi had moved Poppy from the pantry to a kitchen chair. His tense expression shifted from uncertainty to relief as Carina stepped through the door. “They are gone?”
“The knights are outside the palace doors waiting to have their weapons tossed out to them,” Carina answered with a nod to where Gawen and Tilly were pulling swords from the pantry shelves. Moving to the head housekeeper’s side, Carina quickly checked Poppy’s pulse.
“She’s just unconscious, nothing serious—though we’ll have to wait for her to wake up,” Carina murmured to the anxious-looking chef. “Could you double-check and make sure the servant’s back door is locked while I examine her?”
“Oh, yes—” Robbi set down the large kitchen knife and headed towards the pantry.
Carina placed her hand against the swelling at the back of Poppy’s head. A quick dose of cold magic coated the woman’s scalp and seeped into the small open wound as the housekeeper shivered and blinked sluggishly. The wound soon closed beneath a sheet of ice, and Carina wiped the frozen blood from her hand onto a nearby towel.
By the time Robbi returned, Poppy was awake but still groggy. “What am I—” she turned her gaze from attendant to chef “—what happened?” she demanded in her native tongue.
“You fell and hit your head on the pantry shelf,” Robbi replied with a barely suppressed anger.
“I did not fall—I was pushed!” Poppy grimaced as she clasped her neck and straightened gingerly. “That blonde vixen must have sold me out—if she hadn’t summoned me, they wouldn’t have known who had the keys!”
Carina had a good idea which blonde Poppy was referring to. “Mrs. Poppy, you have a slight abrasion on the back of your head. There is a little blood, but thankfully the wound has already closed. With your permission, I should like to examine your mental focus.”
Poppy turned to her, surprised, but nodded slowly. “Yes, alright. What do I need to do?”
“Your speech is improving quickly,” Carina observed with a relieved smile.
“Was there anything wrong with it to begin with?” Poppy muttered with a disdainful sniff.
“Follow my finger with your eyes, please, Mrs. Poppy.” Carina held up her finger and moved it back and forth at a distance of one foot.
Poppy frowned at the request but complied. Her hazel-brown eyes trailed the attendant’s finger with apparent boredom.
“Good, now hold up your arms like so.” Carina demonstrated for the housekeeper by extending both of her arms until they were perpendicular to the floor.
Poppy turned a befuddled glance towards Robbi, who scowled and motioned for her to get on with it, though his lips twitched with signs of laughter as Poppy mimicked Carina’s posture.
“Excellent. Keep your arms there, and don’t let me push them down.” Carina took Poppy’s wrists and applied a measured amount of force to the woman’s arms. Poppy grimaced as she resisted Carina’s weight but kept her arms straight. “No obvious signs of muscle weakness,” Carina said with satisfaction as she released Poppy and stepped back. “But it would be best if you took the rest of the day to rest. Also, avoid falling asleep until after supper.”
“You want me to rest?” Poppy scoffed and dropped her arms. “After such a ruckus?” She gestured to where Gawen and Tilly now edged carefully through the kitchen, their arms filled with swords. “How could I possibly take the day off?”
“If you insist, Mrs. Poppy, but please don’t push yourself. Rest if you feel dizzy at all. If you should fall and hit your head again, the consequences will be more severe,” Carina replied firmly. “I shall prepare an icepack to help with the swelling, but a royal physician should examine and treat the wound properly.”
“Why can’t you treat it?” Poppy demanded with a scowl.
‘Because my supplies are limited, and I don’t want to broadcast my abilities outside Rose Palace.’
“Practicing medicine without an official license inside the palace is expressly forbidden,” Carina reminded her patiently.
“Then what of your treatment for Lady Hana?”
“All I have provided to Lady Hana is herbal tea and a specialized diet,” Carina replied with a wry smile. “I don’t need a medical license to pour tea.”
Poppy scoffed and shook her head. “Oh well, never mind me, Robbi is the one still bleeding.”
“It’s just a scratch,” Robbi countered with a gesture to his arm already neatly tied with a kitchen towel. “And listen to the Lady. She has healing skills.”
“That child just said that she only knows a few herbs and how to pour tea.”
Carina exhaled slowly and turned to the chef. “Would you come with me to examine the cellar?”
“You think they managed to smuggle out some of the Caligo Wine?” Robbi asked already on his way to the cellar door.
Carina followed him and shook her head. “It’s the red handkerchiefs that knight was carrying that have me worried. Perhaps they came not to take something, but to leave something behind.”
“Poison?” Robbi murmured, not sounding at all surprised. “Royals don’t change no matter where you go.”
“For now, let’s check each bottle and barrel to ensure they are still properly sealed. Anything with a broken label or suspicious substance should be set aside and disposed of.”
“There are almost a hundred bottles in her Highness’s cellar,” Robbi lamented with a resigned sigh.
“Then we better get started.”
While Carina and Chef Robbi made their way through each bottle and barrel, Mrs. Poppy soon rounded up a few footmen and maids to reorganize the pantry and carry out the broken shelf pieces. Carina shut the door between them to ensure none of the servants disrupted their work and continued along the cellar walls from left to right.
Halfway down the second shelf of carefully organized wine, Carina caught a glimpse of something red beneath the lower shelf. She knelt and pinched the corner of cloth between her fingers, then pulled the heavy damp rag free.
“Chef,” she called out quickly as she turned and held up the wet red fabric. “Does this look familiar to you?”
Robbi frowned and shrugged. “A rag or a lost handkerchief?”
‘No, it’s too similar to the handkerchief that suspicious knight had.’
“Please look around and see if you can’t find any other rags like it.”
Robbi nodded and resumed his search. A short while later, he pulled a similar damp cloth from behind a wine bottle. “I found another,” he announced with a troubled frown.
Carina quickly joined him and took the wine bottle the chef held in his hand. She eyed the cork and damp bottleneck, then compared the stopper with the wine bottles nearby. Except for two other bottles, most of the corks were several shades lighter and dry to the touch.
“They’ve been soaked in something—probably whatever these handkerchiefs are filled with—” Carina snapped her attention from the bottles to the rag Robbi held. The chef quickly dropped the fabric as if it had transformed into a snake.
“Flames protection—are we poisoned?” Robbi whispered hoarsely.
“Go, wash your hands, then find some garden gloves and return,” Carina replied calmly. “Bring a servant or two with you—only those you would trust her Highness’s life to that are capable of keeping a secret.”
Robbi nodded, already slightly pale, and quickly darted through the pantry door.
Carina glanced down at the invisible layer of ice that coated her fingers and sighed as she approached a lit candle on the wall sconce by the back door. She held her fingers over the flame and watched the ice melt and drip into the wax.
‘If the handkerchiefs were previously soaked in poison, then dried and carried here, dosed with another agent or water, and then wrapped around the bottle corks.’ Carina removed her fingers from the flame as she thought back to the short knight and the gloves he had been wearing indoors. ‘As long as the corks absorb enough of the poison, it would eventually seep into the wine while any sign of disturbance would disappear once the corks and bottles dried.’
Carina laughed as she stared down at her dry fingers, somewhat impressed by the Dowager’s plan. “So you forced your way into the palace to steal some valuable wine, but your real purpose was to poison the other wine reserved for Eleanora and her guests. You couldn’t use a spy because Mrs. Poppy controls the cellar keys and won’t lend them to anyone.” She paused for a moment and frowned. “But the poison can’t be anything lethal when yourself, your grandson, and other important guests stand a chance of drinking the wine.”
Carina rubbed her fingers together and paced slowly back towards the red handkerchief on the floor. “Your poison would need to be undetectable, even after such an uproar, so you could avoid suspicion. That makes using something immediately lethal out of the question. But still, for you to make such efforts, you must have prepared something worth the risk. Something specifically designed to harm your intended target.” She closed her warm fingers into a fist as her gaze narrowed. “Something that wouldn’t affect a visiting dignitary, the Crown Prince, or yourself, but would be harmful to a Crown Princess, who has a fondness for wine and a habit of overindulging to mask her loneliness. A poison that will affect Eleanora and Eleanora alone.”
Carina hastily resumed her frantic search, pulling out any bottle that looked remotely damp and setting them on the floor behind her.
By the time Robbi returned with one of the footmen, she had finished two shelves, which left another five for them to comb through. Carina gave the chef and servant strict instructions of what to look for, and soon another three rags were discovered, shoved between one of the shelves and the back wall. Robbi carefully moved them into an empty crate.
By the time their search concluded, twelve bottles were set aside. Six rags and four open bottles were also removed, one of them the Caligo wine.
“We just got these in last week. None of them should be open. They were reserved for the Ambassador’s banquet,” Robbi explained as he hastily pulled out the inventory log. “And according to this, only two of the Aswan Wine should be open at all.”
“Perhaps our visitors got thirsty?” the footman suggested with a tired shrug.
“It can’t be the servants. Only Mrs. Poppy has keys to the cellar, and she maintains the log strictly,” Robbi murmured as he turned to Carina.
“Let’s mark them and put them aside with the others,” Carina ordered promptly. “They might have been opened as a ruse to distract us from the other tampered bottles. Either way, nothing that is open can be trusted.”
Robbi nodded, and he and the footman gathered up the marked bottles then stacked them into emptied crates.
“Lady Maura,” Poppy called out briskly as she opened the cellar door, “the Crown Princess has returned, and she would like to see you in the study.”
Carina took in a slow breath as she examined the crate of damp scarlet handkerchiefs and nodded. ‘This could go one of two ways.’ “I need to bring one of the rags and a few of the marked bottles with me.”
“Not to worry, Lady Maura,” Robbi replied as he gathered the requested items into a small barrel. “I shall be a witness on your behalf.”
“The rest of the rags and bottles need to remain in the cellar under lock and key. Mrs. Poppy?” Carina turned back to the housekeeper, who raised a brow at the pile of discarded wine bottles.
“Very well, I’ll keep the rest of the staff out of here until you’ve explained whatever you’ve discovered to the Crown Princess.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Poppy.”
Sir Jordan was just leaving the library as they approached. He stepped aside and offered Carina a formal bow before he moved on down the palace hallway behind them. Poppy continued forward without comment and knocked on the crown princess’s study door.
“Come in!” Eleanora’s voice called out sharply.
Poppy cast an uncertain glance towards Carina then opened the door and stepped aside to permit the attendant and chef to enter.
Inside the crown princess’s study waited Eleanora, Evelynn, and Tiffany, the latter of which seemed to shrink into her chair as Carina entered.
“Lady Maura,” Eleanora greeted behind tensely clasped hands as she leaned on her desk. She was still dressed in her riding attire and, judging from the grim expression on the crown princess’s face, not in a good mood. Eleanora’s amber eyes narrowed as they shifted from Carina to Robbi. “Why have you brought my chef here?”
“Your Highness, I brought myself,” Robbi answered swiftly in his native tongue. He offered a modest bow, then moved confidently towards the desk, where he set down the barrel with a soft thud.
Eleanora’s gaze narrowed further as she lifted one of the bottles of Aswan free. “Is this what they came for? I thought they wanted the Caligo Wine?”
“They were here to plunder and possibly do far worse,” Robbi answered grimly as he lifted the bottle from Eleanora’s hand. “I would not drink that, Princess.”
Eleanora’s expression shifted from annoyance to anger, but she nodded stiffly as the chef returned the bottle to the crate. Her brows furrowed further still as she noted the now bloody towel around Robbi’s arm. “Was anyone else injured?”
“Mrs. Poppy took a rather hard crack to the head and was unconscious for a time. Lady Maura examined the injury and advised her to rest and see a royal physician, but you know how Poppy is with these foreign doctors.”
Eleanora scoffed as her expression softened with worry. She waved him back. “Tell Poppy that I command you both take a few hours to tend to yourself and see a Royal Physician.” She shifted back to Lafearian as she continued, much to the relief of Tiffany and Evelynn, who squinted with confusion every time the language barrier disrupted the flow of conversation. “I want this attack investigated and put on public record before the Dowager attempts to brush it under the rug.”
“Attack, your Highness?” Evelynn repeated in shock. “Surely, that is a bit of an exaggeration. Especially when it was Lady Maura who escalated the situation with threats and violence.”
‘Why am I not surprised you would be the first to throw me into the fire—even though you were not here.’ Carina smiled grimly.
“Mrs. Poppy was already unconscious, Chef Robbi injured, and the pantry heavily damaged by the time I arrived,” Carina explained calmly. “As Sir Jordan, Chef Robbi, the maid Tilly, and Lady Tiffany can attest.”
“Indeed,” Eleanora murmured as she turned her gaze to Tiffany. “Perhaps you’d like to clarify your earlier statement, Lady Tiffany?”
“I—” Tiffany continued to stare at the carpet as she twisted the lilac handkerchief in her hand. “Yes, it is as Lady Maura says.”
“Perhaps you should also consult Mrs. Poppy about the events leading up to my arrival,” Carina suggested as she continued to study Tiffany. “And how it was Lady Sabella learned who had the cellar key.”
Tiffany’s eyes widened in alarm but still refused to lift her gaze from the floor.
“What are you going on about? We already know what happened,” Evelynn snapped as she pointed a finger at Carina. “You actually dare to carry a dagger on your person like some thug or assassin? And you used it to threaten and injure one of the Dowager’s attendants!”
“Please, Lady Evelynn,” Eleanora interjected with a raised hand and a warning look. “Permit Lady Maura to tell us her story first. Neither of us was present when these events transpired, so we should not be so quick to judge her actions.”
“You’re just going to take her word for it?” Evelynn demanded as she whirled to face the crown princess.
“There are others I trust who can bear witness as to whether her words are true,” Eleanora replied with a nod to Robbi.
Evelynn sucked in a breath and wisely held her tongue as she sank stiffly into the chair opposite Tiffany.
“Lady Maura, if you would,” Eleanora said with a permissive wave.
“Of course, your Highness,” Carina replied. “I left early this morning to mail some letters. Sir Jordan was gracious enough to accompany me to and from the post office. Upon our return, we found both the gate and the front door of Rose Palace were unguarded.”
Eleanora’s expression darkened as she intertwined her fingers together.
“We entered and heard the sounds of an argument coming from the kitchen. The maid, Tilly, informed us that Lady Sabella had stormed in with six knights.”
“Six?” Eleanora interrupted, then quickly shook her head and motioned for Carina to continue.
“I sent Jordan to locate our missing knights, but they had been sent away on some errand—though by who or what errand I have yet to discover. Lady Sabella’s knights were already inside the pantry when I confronted her. Lady Tiffany appeared to be held hostage by Captain Leo, and, as I mentioned, Chef Robbi and Mrs. Poppy were already injured and held at sword point.
“Lady Sabella informed me the Dowager had sent her to obtain some of the Caligo Wine. I asked that she return the cellar keys and take her men outside. Lady Sabella refused to comply with my request.” Carina paused and turned to Tiffany. “Do you wish to contradict anything I have said thus far?”
Tiffany timidly glanced up from the carpet and shook her head. “No. I—You did as you said.”
Carina nodded and continued. “I also asked Lady Sabella why the Dowager did not send a formal written request, as is custom, instead of a squad of knights. Lady Sabella replied that the Dowager had the power to do as she pleased and take whatever she wanted.”
Tiffany paled at those words, and even Evelynn looked shocked while Eleanora chuckled darkly and leaned her chin upon her folded hands. “I see. And the knife?”
“A recent purchase delivered this morning,” Carina replied as she lifted her skirt, pulled the blade free, and laid the silver dagger on the desk before Eleanora. She did not miss the shocked expressions of either Evelynn or Tiffany as she did so.
Eleanora, however, appeared unphased as she picked up the delicate but sturdy dagger. “An excellent piece. This is—one of Master Iker’s work, is it not?”
“It is your Highness.”
“A rather expensive purchase for someone who has just become my lady-in-waiting,” Eleanora added as her gaze moved from the dagger to Carina.
“I am not without my own means of earning an income, your Highness.”
Eleanora raised an inquiring brow but nodded, “You will have to share your methods with us another time.” She extended the dagger back to Carina, who returned it to the small sheath above her knee. “In either case, I see my aunt has taught you how to defend yourself. Ah—you can uncover your eyes now, Robbi,” Eleanora instructed with a chuckle.
The chef lowered his hand and coughed against it awkwardly. “Lady Maura is not as shy as most Lafearian women.”
“Your Highness,” Evelynn interjected as she rose from her chair forcefully. “Surely, you are not okay with this? Only knights are permitted to carry weapons inside the royal palace! And Lady Maura injured the Dowager’s attendant all over a few bottles of wine? This can’t go unpunished!”