Chapter 33: A Dangerous Deviation
Carina took a moment to clear her throat as she analyzed this unexpected pile of information. Of course, she had always assumed Maura’s father was a witch given Carina’s magical powers, but to hear he was dead, that he had died at nearly 350 years old, and that the Pope had eaten his heart? Well—that was just a little unexpected, if not overwhelming.
But was the Pope more dangerous than the Fire Goddess, Kritanta, who hunted ice witches for their hearts? And what about the cannibal witches who would no doubt find Carina’s heart a rare delicacy impossible to resist?
‘It’s too much. Also, why does it sound like Percy knew exactly who Maura’s father was all this time? That means he knows that I’m an Isbrand descendant, right? Why would he keep that from me all this time? More importantly—does he know I have Viktor’s heart?’
Carina glanced towards the Earl, who continued to study her with a troubled expression. Serilda glanced between them worriedly and appeared about to speak—when a knock came at the study door.
Russell entered and hastily bowed. “Forgive the intrusion, my Lord, but a knight from the Crown Princess has come with an urgent message for you.”
Percy uncrossed his legs and stood. Then he sent a silent glance to Serilda, who smiled and offered him a curtsy before leaving through the study door past Russell. “Send him in,” Percy commanded after she had gone.
Carina rose hesitantly. “Should I leave as well?”
“No,” Percy replied and motioned to her seat. “I suspect this news involves both of us.”
Carina frowned but sat down willingly. She rubbed her hands against the blanket above her still numb legs as she processed all the information she had gained in the last few hours.
‘I would be a fool to think these gods, the Six, won’t affect my plans one way or another. But—becoming Queen?’
Sir Jordan entered the room and bowed respectfully to Percy while the knight’s mismatched eyes moved worriedly towards Carina.
“Sir Jordan?” Carina greeted uncertainly.
“Lady Maura. Earl of Hawthorne,” Jordan replied breathlessly. His brow and cheeks glistened with his nostrils flared with the effort to breath normally as he remained in a lowered bow.
“Rise. You have a message?” Percy replied authoritatively as he moved closer to Carina’s chair and tucked the blankets tighter around her legs.
“Ah—Yes, Earl Hawthorne.” Jordan shifted his gaze between them as he straightened. “The Crown Princess sent me with a request that you both return to Rose Palace. Immediately.”
“What is it? What’s happened?” Carina asked swiftly with alarm.
“News has just reached the palace,” Jordan explained as he focused on her. “The Ambassador from Ventrayna was seen at the border with over five thousand of the Emperor’s soldiers.”
‘Five thousand?’ Carina glanced at Percy, who raised his eyebrows as he thoughtfully twisted the signet ring on his hand.
“That is far more than Lord Haemish has ever brought before for such a visit,” Percy replied slowly. “Her Highness is worried?”
Jordan looked incredulous for a moment, then quickly cleared his throat. “Everyone is worried, my Lord. The Crown Prince and House of Lords called for an emergency meeting when I left. Her Highness made use of the confusion to slip me outside the palace to fetch you and Lady Maura.”
“Very well,” Percy said with a hint of disappointment as he glanced towards Carina. “Russell, prepare a carriage for our journey.”
The butler bowed and departed.
“Lady Maura,” Percy held out his hand. Carina accepted it as she stood, somewhat awkwardly, and unwound herself from the blankets.
‘The Ambassador was already here? Wasn’t his original arrival date still another week away? Why had he brought so many soldiers instead of his usual escort? Five thousand soldiers—’ She glanced at Percy and did not miss the look of tense concentration on his face. With five-thousand troops, especially if many of them were fire witches, the Ambassador could easily invade Lafeara, who kept most of its military forces to the west to fend off Tharyn invaders.
‘Rather than a peaceful negotiation—this feels more like the intimidating move of a tyrant. Something else has changed from the original timeline, but what? Damn it! Is this the meddling of the gods?’
“My Lord, they are bringing the carriage around momentarily,” Russell said as he returned with two heavy cloaks. Percy accepted the smaller cloak and wrapped it around Carina’s shoulders.
“Ah—Thank you,” Carina murmured as she reached for the mantle’s ties and found the Earl’s fingers instead. She retracted her cold hands quickly.
“Allow me,” Percy murmured as he slid the tassels through their loops and pulled the hood gently over her hair. Past the Earl’s shoulder, Carina noticed Russell beaming with contentment while Sir Jordan appeared to be staring rather intently at the carpet below his feet. “This is one of the Countess’s cloaks,” Percy said as he stepped back. “It looks good on you.”
To Carina, the Earl’s countenance seemed painfully conflicted before he turned to accept the last cloak from Russell and draped it around his shoulders. “We should get going.” Percy’s expression was once more calm and composed as he turned to offer his arm to Carina. “If the House of Lords has called an emergency meeting, things will start moving very quickly, and I believe Eleanora will need our help shortly.”
“Yes,” Carina agreed as she took his arm. “I fear you are right.”
Lady Tiffany greeted the Earl and Carina at the door with a surprised look before she hastily stepped back. “Welcome, Lord Percy! The Crown Princess is waiting for you in the study.”
“Thank you,” Percy replied as he secured Carina’s hand around his arm once more and led her through the door. Carina was too distracted to care about the wide-eyed stare the blonde lady-in-waiting gave them as they moved swiftly towards the library.
Catching a glimpse of Lady Evelynn waiting inside the crown princess’s study, Carina quickly pulled her hand free. Percy looked momentarily annoyed, but he entered the office ahead of her without protest. Carina followed silently but did not miss the seething look Lady Evelynn sent in her direction.
“Cousin!” Eleanora breathed out with relief as she left her desk to greet him.
Percy took the crown princess’s hand and kissed it with a brief bow before he asked abruptly, “Did the Ambassador send you any word of his intent?”
“No,” Eleanora answered with evident frustration as she folded her arms around her waist. “I have no idea what my uncle or the Emperor are thinking. I have done everything they asked of me—” She cut off abruptly as her gaze swept between Carina and Evelynn. “Lady Evelynn if you would fetch Lady Hana down for me?”
“I—” Evelynn frowned but dipped a quick curtsey. “Of course, your Highness.” She slid out of the room with another glare in Carina’s direction.
“Lady Maura, the door,” Eleanora whispered.
Carina quickly obliged and shook her head at Tiffany and Sir Jordan, who waited anxiously outside.
With the door secure, Eleanora hastily continued. “The Emperor’s orders were quite clear. If Nicholas married me, then peace between Lafeara and Ventrayna would continue so long as I become Queen. The Coronation is but a few weeks away. I don’t understand what purpose the Emperor would have to invade—”
“Who says it’s an invasion?” Percy countered with a quick smile. “Perhaps the Emperor is merely applying pressure—to the alliance and your marriage.”
“But why now?” Eleanora countered with an uneasy frown.
“What better time for Arius to remind Lafeara of their difference in strength than when his Ambassador comes to collect the Emperor’s taxes and renegotiate the terms of allegiance?”
Eleanora shook her head and rubbed her temple as she returned to her desk. “It could also be because the marriage remains unconsummated.”
“Your uncle is aware of that?” Percy asked curiously as he pulled out a chair and motioned to Carina. “Please, sit down, Lady Maura. You are still in shock.”
“Oh—” Eleanora glanced between them. “Lady Maura, if you are unwell, you may leave—”
“I’m fine,” Carina answered quickly and took the offered seat.
Eleanora frowned and shook her head again as she wrapped her right hand around a letter opener and tapped the small dagger against her palm. “My uncle arranged all the servants I brought with me from Ventrayna, so I would assume he is well informed of the state of my marriage.” She glanced towards Carina with a rueful smile. “Hence my desperation to find a means of getting an heir.”
Carina swallowed and nodded reluctantly.
“And what means were you considering?” Percy asked curiously with a glance between them.
“Well,” Eleanora said hesitantly. “Lady Maura is familiar with certain aphrodisiacs—”
“Are you insane?” Percy hissed sharply and turned quickly to Carina. “Did you make such a potion for her Highness?”
“I—” Carina shifted uncomfortably. “I made a small amount—as a last resort.”
“Maura!” Percy hissed and then glanced sharply at the office door. He twisted his hand in a similar gesture as before in his study. “Anyone who uses any form of medicine against the royal family without their express consent will be found guilty of treason and executed! How could you—” His eyes shot towards Eleanora accusingly, then returned to pin Carina beneath their fury. “Maura, you will collect every shred of evidence that you ever made any such thing and give it to me before I leave tonight.”
“Percy!” Eleanora protested as she slammed the small dagger onto her desk. “You are overreacting.”
“You may have the Emperor’s protection in the event you are caught, Eleanora, but Lady Maura does not!” Percy snapped back, his tone vicious enough to stun the crown princess, who silently gawked at him. Percy ignored Eleanora as he wrapped his hand around Carina’s wrist. “Is it here? In your rooms?”
“Yes—the potion is in a secret compartment in my room,” Carina answered reluctantly. “I already burned the remaining herbs I used to make it.”
“How did you go about obtaining those herbs?”
Carina pulled her hand away and sighed. “I have a trusted associate—a physician—who helped me obtain some of the ingredients, but most of the incriminating ones were among the herbs your mother gave me.”
“A physician? Who?” Percy asked sharply.
“Never mind who,” Carina retorted as she rose from her chair. “He would not know their purpose, nor could he betray me without exposing himself.”
“We’ll deal with that later,” Percy growled as he took her arm and pulled her upright. “Go fetch whatever herbal concoctions you have made and bring them to me at once—all of it!”
The fury in the Earl’s winter-grey eyes suddenly sank in as Carina dropped her gaze, embarrassed. She had taken on such a risk blindly; and only because Eleanora had demanded her help.
‘How could I forget that I’m the only one at risk here?’
A chill washed over her as she recalled Maura’s warning and the vision of Eleanora pushing Maura from the safety of the hidden escape tunnel to her fate.
“I’ll fetch it right now,” Carina murmured as she pulled away from his grip.
“Thank you,” Percy replied with evident relief.
“Wait?” Eleanora protested. “I did not agree to this?”
“Trust me, Cousin,” Percy growled as he turned to face the crown princess. “You do not want to risk your future, and that of your future children, on such a desperate move.”
“I won’t have a future if I can not have children!” Eleanora snapped as Percy led Carina to the door and opened it.
Lady Hana stood outside and immediately focused her attention from the Earl to Carina. “Maura! Are you alright?”
Percy stepped aside as Hana quickly took Carina’s arm and pressed a worried hand to her forehead. “You don’t look well at all, Maura. You’re positively freezing! What in the Saints—”
“Lady Hana,” Percy interrupted with a polite bow. “If you could escort Lady Maura to her room, she needs rest.”
“I do not need you to tell me that,” Hana replied sharply. “You should have brought her back much sooner. How could you be so reckless with—”
“Hana,” Carina whispered worriedly. “The Earl is not to blame.”
“Very well, if you say so, Maura,” Hana murmured as she slid an arm around Carina’s waist and led her through the library towards the hall. “Is it true—they were burning witches in Averly?”
Carina swallowed—the taste and smell of ash and burnt flesh would likely haunt her nightmares—and nodded.
“What a shame they did not mistake you as one of them,” Lady Evelynn whispered sinisterly as they passed by her.
The arm supporting Carina’s waist slid free, and she turned just in time to see and hear Hana slap Evelynn across the face—with satisfying effect.
“Be careful of your words, Lady Evelynn,” Hana hissed coldly as she stood over the stunned Evelynn, who held her cheek as she leaned against the bookshelf behind her for support. “They are unbefitting of a court lady.”
The tears in Evelynn’s eyes burned with righteous indignation as they turned from Hana to Carina and then to Percy. The Earl stared back at Evelynn with cold disinterest before he reentered the crown princess’s office and shut the door.
“Come, Lady Maura,” Hana said gently as she replaced her arm around the speechless Carina’s waist. “Let’s get you upstairs in bed where you belong.”