Chapter 36: A Prison of Fear
“So, Eleanora is writing a letter?” Carina clarified as Tilly, the maid, cleared away the tray of dinner she had just finished.
“Yes, my Lady. And Lord Percy will be taking it to her uncle at the border,” Tilly replied as she covered the plate, silverware, and cup with a heavy linen fabric that both hid the mess and kept the dinnerware from shifting about too much.
“I see. Thank you for telling me, Tilly,” Carina replied with a distracted smile. Of all the maids who worked in Rose Palace, Tilly had become the most reliable at passing on information when asked. That didn’t diminish the fact that Tilly’s curiosity often had her listening in outside of doors when she shouldn’t, but Carina made use of the information the clever maid gathered all the same.
“Of course, my Lady. Goodnight.” Tilly called over her shoulder as she balanced the tray against her hip while she opened the door with her free hand.
‘But am I the only one you tell your stories to, Tilly?’
“Goodnight.” Carina smiled back at the maid and waited until Tilly had shut the door. In an instant, the bedsheets were tossed aside as Carina moved swiftly across the carpeted floor towards the bookshelf.
She selected a large book ambiguously titled Lafeara’s Great History from the lower shelf and then pulled a folded map free from beneath its cover. Using the history book to hold down one side of the map while a candlestick and ink well held down the other corners, Carina traced the distance from Lafeara’s capital to the Serpentine River, and beyond to Ventrayna’s border, following the inked routes most often used by merchants and travelers.
‘On horseback, without a carriage or marching troops, it will take the Earl two to three days to reach Widow’s Tree Pass where the Ambassador and his army are currently camped. Which means I have about a week to finish my preparations.’
Carina straightened, nervously toying with the Winter Rose necklace chain as she paced behind the desk chair, and mentally ran through her plans.
“Madame Maylea’s caravans are expected to arrive in the next three days. I’ll need to send a message before she gets here to explain the shift in our schedule—” Carina let a short laugh as she sank into the chair. “Then again, this is Madame Maylea. Something of this magnitude happening in Lafeara, she will no doubt have heard.”
A smile crossed Carina’s face as she thought of her old dance instructor. A woman who lived like a gypsy queen, with a reputation for producing the most desirable performers and exotic dancers. But underneath the silk skirts and painted faces of Maylea’s troupe was a network of information gathered from the most remote corners of the continent that could be sold, for a fair price, but only if Maylea wished the information to be known. And that was just one of many services she offered her favored clients.
“Maylea’s performers would fit in perfectly at the banquet and would certainly match the Ambassador’s taste. Evelynn has yet to secure anything beyond a four-person string band to play during the banquet. The chances of her finding any available performers that would suit Eleanora’s expectations in the next few days is slight at best, and the Crown Princess won’t happily settle for a mediocre entertainment.”
Getting Eleanora to agree to allow Maylea’s dancers into the palace would not be a problem. The real trouble would start the moment the Ambassador reached the city. Although Hana was holding up well, Carina could only imagine how the woman truly felt about facing her attacker again.
The fading sunlight cast a strange burnt-red glow over the ceiling as the curtains’ shadows and furniture stretched across the floor, then twisted against the far wall. The smell of fire and burning flesh filled the room with the echo of suffocating screams as cold fingers wrapped themselves around Carina’s neck.
She bolted from the chair and ran to the window as a familiar pain stabbed through her chest. Carina’s vision blurred as her cold fingers fumbled with the stiff latch. Frost crept over the windowpane and along the wooden frame with each strained pant. When she finally flung the window open, Carina leaned her head outside to drink in deep mouthfuls of air.
“You must use your magic regularly. Ignoring your gift will only bring you agonizing pain that even my heart can’t protect you from.” Viktor’s parting words of warning echoed through her pounding ears as Carina sagged and leaned her forehead against the window frame.
‘How long has it been since I last intentionally used this magic?’
The image of Lincoln’s frozen, bleeding mouth and shocked expression came to mind, but this time Carina felt no lingering distress from the memory. If she hadn’t killed him, Lincoln would have done worse to her. And if she had let him live, it would be Carina burning at the stake with the other witches.
‘Maybe, if I had been discovered and burned—those other women would have been spared.’
Carina stared out the open window at the rigid structures of the palaces. The dark silhouettes of history stood like great giants against the fading red horizon.
“Become a queen?” Carina exhaled and rubbed her cheek as she straightened. “A half-blood? Ridiculous. How many people would have to die for that to even be possible?”
‘None if you become Nicholas’s queen,’ Maura’s voice whispered behind her.
Carina whipped around to find Maura standing in front of the bedroom mirror. The specter appeared to be preening as one of Carina’s dresses materialized around her ghostly form. “Maura?” Carina greeted cautiously.
The dream from Anthraticus still lingered in her mind like a warning, but even without it, Carina had felt a bit on edge around her resident ghost lately.
‘Call me, Queen Maura!’ the specter replied with a chilling smile as she bobbed a clumsy curtsy to the mirror.
‘At least she’s in good spirits now.’ Carina moved from the window to the bed to watch Maura fidget with her cloudy dark hair. ‘She’s been a bit moody ever since that night in the secret tunnel.’
“You know that becoming queen is impossible, Maura,” Carina replied carefully. “We agreed to protect Hana by making sure Eleanora becomes queen and removing all threats to her reign.”
‘Does that bitch really deserve to be queen?’ Maura replied as her head rolled unnaturally in Carina’s direction. ‘I showed you what Eleanora is really like. She would even put your life at risk just to help her bed the crown prince.’
“I appreciate the warning, Maura. But I’m just trying to be practical here. You—” Carina cut off as a sudden thought flickered awake. “Maura, your father—his family bloodline—”
‘Yes?’ Maura loomed closer. The layered skirt of the dress she had copied floated across the floor like a dark shadow.
“You don’t know who they were?” Carina pressed curiously.
‘No.’ Maura sighed as she reached towards the Winter Rose around Carina’s neck, then halted with a frown as her dark eyes slowly rose to meet Carina’s. ‘Do you?’
Instinct stopped Carina from answering. From spilling every detail of her discovery and Viktor’s secrets.
“Just that they are witches,” Carina answered with a forced smile, trying not to feel guilty but unable to ignore the warning that prickled along her throat and deep in her gut.
The ghost smiled, sharp teeth glistened behind lips rubbed with too much rouge. Even in death, Maura could not replicate the etiquette and training of a lady. Carina’s guilt twisted deeper as the ghost gently cupped the ice witch’s cheeks and kissed Carina’s forehead.
‘You should get some sleep. You are looking run down.’ Maura suggested as she floated back towards Carina’s closet of dresses. Maura replicated the Winter Rose against her dress with a gesture of her hand and smiled in glee like a little girl playing dress-up.
“Yes,” Carina whispered, feeling tired enough to sleep for a week at least. ‘If only there were time.’ She sighed and cleared her throat, unable to chase away the taste of smoke, then rose to shut the window.
Once under the covers, Carina tried to relax as the sound of Maura’s humming filled her ears. The ghost’s playful suggestion floated up through the sea of troubled thoughts, which kept her awake long after the night sky had locked the sun from view.
‘Marry Nicholas? That is equally impossible.’
Winter chased Carina as she ran through the halls of Anthraticus. A howling storm of snow and ice roared down the tunnels behind her. The shrieking tsunami echoed with the snarls of a hundred wolves whose red eyes glared after the ice witch.
Carina ran on, stumbling into one dead end after another. Each time the runes carved into the walls flared awake to guide her through yet another secret door which led deeper into Anthraticus.
“You’re running out of time,” the familiar voice from her nightmare echoed in Carina’s ears. “Give me what is mine, Kirsi!”
Viktor’s doors appeared before her, and Carina almost collapsed against them in relief as she pressed a hand against the marbled green barrier and shouted, “Immortalitatis Potentia!”
The doors didn’t move.
Confused, Carina pressed both her hands against the stone’s surface and reached for her magic—only to find it gone.
“Maura.” Hana’s soft voice turned Carina from the door to where the blonde-haired woman stood in her nightgown on the tunnel steps. A faint glow filled the dark space around her and illuminated Hana’s golden hair, but it was her eyes, blinding with light, that was painful to look at as her lips spread into a sorrowful smile.
“Hana?” Carina whispered, eyes moving fearfully down the tunnel where the hungry sounds of winter were closing in on them. “What are you doing in my dream?”
A glimmer of pain flashed across Hana’s face as she raised a trembling hand to her throat and whispered, “It’s not your fault, Kirsi.”
Carina froze as Hana’s eyes rolled back, and her body convulsed just before the storm of ice and wolves devoured her.
Carina snapped awake, once more in her bedroom in Rose Palace, and stared down at the sheets that were covered in frost. Maura materialized at the foot of her bed, the ghost’s face twisted in warning as her black lips shouted, “Hana!”
Carina bolted from the bed to her desk, stubbing her foot against the chair as she nearly ripped out the drawer of quills and chalk. She fumbled in the dark, found and grabbed her room key, then unlocked the door before racing across the hall towards Hana’s room. A distorted thud echoed from behind the door, followed by a gargled groan as Carina hurriedly shoved her key into Hana’s door and unlocked it.
With no source of light, she could make out little inside the dark room. Shutting the door behind her none-the-less, Carina fumbled through the darkness, listening intently. “Hana?”
Sounds that were not quite human came from the direction of the bed as the disturbing thud continued.
“Hana!” Carina repeated as she continued forward and stopped when her foot found a hand on the floor. With a stifled cry, Carina stepped back and illuminated the room with a flash of ice magic.
Hana’s pale face gazed up at her from the floor. Foam pooled between her purple lips, and the whites of her rolled back eyes glowed beneath Carina’s magic. The fallen attendant’s legs were twisted up in blankets and sheets half pulled from the bed. Her entire body was rigid and awkwardly posed as Hana lay on her stomach against the floor. Painful uncontrolled jerks banged the side of the attendant’s head against the carpet as she convulsed.
‘She’s having a seizure!’
Carina grabbed a pillow from the bed and quickly dropped down beside Hana to slip it under the woman’s head.
“It’s okay, Hana,” Carina whispered as she untangled the blankets from the woman’s legs, “I’m here. You aren’t alone. It will pass.”
Gargled grunts that were not words conveyed the woman’s desperation, pain, and fear through the darkness. Carina cast another flare of magic into the air above them and ignored the small falling snowflakes as she gently grabbed Hana’s hip and shoulders, then turned the woman carefully on her side to prevent her from choking.
“You’re doing great,” Carina said as reassuringly as she could. “Everything’s going to be alright—it will be over soon.” The panicked tension in her chest faded as Carina sat down beside Hana and grasped one of her stiff hands. There was nothing she could do but watch Hana suffer and illuminate her pain with the soft glow of ice magic that filled the room with a flurry of cold snow.
When the worst of Hana’s convulsions passed, Carina slipped her fingers through Hana’s hair and gradually cooled down her neck, scalp, face, and the tormented brain within. Hana calmed gradually, and Carina removed her hands once the woman’s body began to show signs of relaxing.
“Maura,” Hana croaked as her hand fumbled through the darkness and found Carina’s leg.
“I’m here. It’s alright now.” Carina stroked the woman’s hair gently as her fingers slowly returned to their normal temperature.
“I couldn’t—be alone—again,” Hana whispered heartbrokenly.
“You should have told me you weren’t feeling well,” Carina admonished gently.
“I thought—some sleep—would be fine.”
“How could you be fine.” Carina sighed as she bent over the woman and placed her forehead against Hana’s shoulder. “You don’t have to fight this all on your own.”
“I can’t—be a burden.”
Carina closed her eyes as tears of frustration threatened to pour free. She took Hana’s hand and held onto it tightly. “You’re not a burden. You are my friend, Hana. Please—know that I will always protect my friends.”
“Maura,” Hana’s trembling voice whispered back. “Snow?”
Carina laughed shakily. “What do you know of snow, Hana? You are from the desert. It’s just a bit of ice I used to cool your head down.”
“I saw—Maura.” Hana’s hand tightened around Carina’s fingers. “Cold—but beautiful.”
Carina sighed and gently brushed her fingers through Hana’s hair.
“I won’t tell,” Hana whispered tiredly. “I’ll protect—you too.”
“Of course,” Carina whispered back, somehow certain Hana would do exactly as she promised. “Let’s get you back in bed. I need some light to—”
The door opened, and Carina froze as Eleanora appeared with a candle in hand.
“Hana!” Eleanora whispered as her gaze flickered over them, and she hurriedly shut the door. “Maura, why didn’t you send for me?”
“I didn’t want to leave Hana alone while she was suffering,” Carina replied quickly as Eleanora set the candle on the floor and pulled Hana gently into her lap.
“She needs a bath,” Elenora ordered, her voice still groggy from sleep. “Wake Mrs. Poppy and help her fetch some buckets and towels. Bring up some of that herbal tea you make if it will help.”
“Yes, of course.” Carina rose to her feet and anxiously surveyed Hana’s dress and the floor. Most of the snowflakes had already melted into the carpet, and Eleanora appeared far to be too focused on Hana to notice. ‘Let’s hope she doesn’t.’ Carina turned to the door and opened it silently.
“And Lady Maura,” Eleanora called after her sharply. “Not a word of this to anyone.”
“I know, your Highness.” Carina curtsied, shut the door, and slipped across the hall to retrieve her own candle.
Thanks to the Holy Church’s teachings, epilepsy and seizures were often viewed as signs that someone was possessed by a witch’s ghost. ‘What a convenient excuse to condemn an ill person to death.’ Carina’s fists tightened around the candlestick as she descended the palace steps and turned towards the servant’s quarters. ‘Hana took a great risk in coming here—but she had no choice. Even this superstitious country is safer than the palaces of Ventrayna.’