Chapter 40: A Mark of Enmity
Carina was still pacing beneath a cherry tree outside the stables at the back of Rose Palace when Stitcher found her.
“Well, it’s certainly a beautiful morning, Lady Maura,” he said with an exaggerated bow. “I received a message from a rather handsome captain that you wished to speak with me?”
“I have a list of people I’d like you to look into, carefully and quietly,” Carina explained as she held out a folded piece of paper. “They are nobles of Lafeara.”
“Someone dared to offend you?” Stitcher joked as he opened the document and read the names with a soft whistle. “Well, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised considering who you asked me to investigate in Ventrayna.” He closed the paper and tucked it inside his jacket. “Why Marquess Borghese?”
“His daughter is coming after me, possibly by the Dowager’s request,” Carina replied as she crossed her arms defensively. “Priscilla’s social status and power come from her father. If I want to scare her off permanently, I’ll have to weaken her position, which means aiming for the Marquess.”
‘It would certainly make for a smoother future if Priscilla Borghese no longer has access to the palace.’
“Clearly, I’m missing something,” Stitcher commented with a wry laugh. “You don’t go against a Marquess just because his daughter offended you over afternoon tea.”
“Samael.” Carina gritted her teeth. “Do you honestly think I would recklessly put everything at risk without a good reason?”
Stitcher frowned and tilted his head. “Fair enough—but as long as you acknowledge that this is reckless.”
“For now, I just want to know who I’m dealing with.”
“Oh, I know more than enough about Marquess Borghese to give you a good place to start,” Stitcher replied with a cautious glance towards the stablehands washing and brushing down two horses a few yards away. “But now is hardly the time or place.”
“Whatever you know, write it down and deliver it to me before sunset.”
Stitcher drew in a deep breath and sighed. “Alright, as long as you promise not to act without running your plan by me first. My Master has been looking for a way to remove Borghese from government, so I’m more than happy to aid the Marquess’s downfall—However, neither of us want you getting tangled up in the aftermath.”
“If Ghost had discovered a weakness I can use—that is exactly what I need.”
“Knowing a man’s weakness doesn’t just make you his enemy. It makes you his primary focus,” Stitcher cautioned. “A man like Borghese would rather take out a potential threat than wait to retaliate after the fact.”
“I’ll be careful,” Carina replied confidently.
“And these other names. Viscount Hendrix and Baron Clemont?”
“I want to know everything about their family wealth and any connection to the Dowager.”
“These are the families of the other ladies-in-waiting,” Stitcher observed with a hint of worry. “You’re looking for a spy?”
Carina gave him a grim nod but held her tongue.
Stitcher raised a brow and pursed his lips as he frowned thoughtfully. “This last name I’m not familiar with, Marquess Serilda of Berxley?”
“She was King Henri’s last mistress,” Carina supplied. “She recently returned to Lafeara.”
Carina shrugged. “I’m not sure where she falls at the moment. The Marchioness is cousin to the Earl of Hawthorne. I want to know more about where’s she’s been for the last several years. What social circle she was a part of before her sudden departure from the capital six years ago. There was a rumor that she went mad after a miscarriage, but that might have just been malicious gossip.”
“That shouldn’t be a difficult request,” Stitcher replied with a rueful smile. “The mistress of a King will have certain luxurious habits that should make tracking her movements easy enough. I’ll deliver what I have on Borghese tonight, but I would avoid meeting anyone outside for a while—especially at night.”
“Why?” Carina frowned at his sudden change in tone.
Stitcher smiled and shook his head as he picked up a broken branch and tapped it against her forehead. “Always assume your enemy is one step ahead of you, Lady Maura. If you’re watching them—chances are they’re watching you as well.”
Carina scowled as she waved the branch away. “Then how will you get the information to me?”
Stitcher tilted his head thoughtfully and tossed the branch aside. “Hmm. What’s your favorite color?”
“I don’t know—blue?” Carina shrugged.
He nodded and strolled away from the cherry tree. “Expect something blue and slightly inconspicuous tonight. My delivery will be inside.”
Carina watched the curious assassin disappear around the stable and returned to pacing amongst the fallen petals of the three. The cold anger inside her chest had still not receded, but she could no longer delay her return. With a deep, drawn-out sigh that sent a gush of cold hair through the cherry blossoms above, Carina ducked beneath their branches, headed towards the corner of the stable, and then back towards Rose Palace.
Carina found that Tiffany had already returned and ignored the attendant who sat in front of the silent piano in the receiving room as she headed upstairs. Tiffany made no effort to follow or call out to her, so Carina decided it best to continue ignoring the girl for now. She checked in on Hana instead and smiled when she saw her patient was awake and reading.
“Another tragedy?” Carina asked as she moved to sit beside the tired-looking young woman.
“Maura,” Hana smiled. “Yes, though I haven’t gotten very far. Reading makes my head hurt, but I’ve slept enough today.” She shut the book and studied Carina curiously. “Did something happen? You look—upset.”
“My outing with Lady Tiffany ended early thanks to a nasty run-in with Lady Priscilla,” Carina answered honestly.
“Oh, that pesky shrew—” Hana grimaced. “Did you know she called Eleanora a harlot the first day the Princess arrived in Lafeara? I thought Elly would cut out her tongue there and then, and she might have if the Marquess hadn’t dragged his daughter from the room.”
‘So Lady Priscilla has always been hot-headed and arrogant.’ Carina shook her head. ‘Then again, that would have been around the time her engagement to Nicholas got canceled, so she was probably more than a little enraged.’
“I hear the Dowager is her godmother. The late Marchioness was a lady-in-waiting before her marriage, and the two were supposedly very close. Other than the Dowager and the Marquess, I’m afraid there are very few people who can keep Priscilla’s temper in check,” Hana continued with a weary sigh. “After that incident, they barred her from entering the palace without prior permission from the Dowager.”
‘The Dowager is her godmother?’ Carina laughed softly. ‘That’s one suspicion confirmed. Then taking down the Borghese will likely turn the Dowager against me as well if I’m not careful.’
“How are preparations for the banquet going?” Hana asked with a sudden worried look.
“Well—I think,” Carina replied. “Eleanora and Evelynn have been working at it all day.” She glanced down to where Hana was refolding the corner of a book page and frowned. “Has Eleanora been up to visit you?”
“No, but I expect she’s busy,” Hana replied with a weak smile. “Mrs. Poppy dropped in a few times to make sure I’m still breathing and see if I needed anything.” An empty laugh as she abandoned the corner and absently traced the embossed letters on the book’s cover. “Mrs. Poppy can be quite prickly, but beneath it all, she’s very sweet and caring.”
“Mm,” Carina returned noncommittally. “Do you need anything?”
“A proper bath would be lovely,” Hana replied with a hopeful gleam. “And if someone could remove all these flowers. I feel as if I’m breathing in more pollen than air.”
Carina laughed. “Very well, I’ll have the maids prepare a bath and removed some flowers. No open windows until your hair has dried.”
“And more of that Valerian tea, if you wouldn’t mind,” Hana added as Carina left the bed. “It seems to help with the nightmares—I mean the headaches.”
Carina nodded slowly. “I’ll have some waiting for you after your bath. Tomorrow we’ll take a stroll around the palace and get you out of this room.”
“Oh, it’s fine. I don’t want to get in the way,” Hana replied as she opened her book. “I’m sure you all are very busy preparing and planning your dresses and accessories.”
“Make that two strolls around the palace,” Carina said firmly and smiled back at Hana’s surprised face before she left the room.
‘Honestly, Eleanora, you could take a break to check in on her at least once! She’s lonely, bored out of her mind, and has nothing to think about except—him!’ Carina exhaled as she shut the door and turned to find Mrs. Poppy marching up the stairs towards her.
“There you are—the maid said you had returned,” Poppy commented sourly. “You’re needed downstairs, Lady Maura. Apparently, his Majesty has decided to dine at Rose Palace tonight. Eleanora is looking for you.”
‘Thank all the Saints Percy took that aphrodisiac with him yesterday!’ Carina smiled with relief as she nodded. “I’ll head down then.”
In the hallway off the foyer, Eleanora was speaking in Ventrayna with Chef Robbi regarding a dinner menu that would suit Nicholas’s taste.
“Just make whichever Lafearian dish you think will do,” Eleanora said impatiently as an anxious Robbi sighed and shook his head.
“I can do that, but in the future, it would be good to know what dishes your husband prefers!” The chef raised an accusing brow at Eleanora, whose scowl only deepened.
“His Majesty is the same as any other Lafearian nobleman,” Carina said reassuringly. “He likes high-quality meat, but sparingly seasoned and sliced into small portions, so he doesn’t have to cut it himself. Vegetables should be fresh, skinned, uncooked, and set aside on a separate plate. A hearty sauce and pasta that works well with whatever meat and wine pairing you have in mind. He’ll also expect a desert, something with fruit, light seasoning as well, though with a sweet sauce.”
“Thank you, Lady Maura. I will follow your suggestions,” Chef Robbi said with mixed surprise and relief.
“Robbi will push the blame on you then if it goes badly, Lady Maura,” Eleanora commented dryly as she watched her chef retreat to his kitchen. “That man has cooked for the Emperor. He should be more confident in his skill.”
“He is in a foreign country now serving a foreign monarch. A little caution is wise,” Carina replied, switching to Lafeara’s native tongue.
“Your dialect was painful, but you have a good grasp of our language,” Eleanora observed with a smile. “But for this matter, I would prefer your discretion. Do you have any more of that special tonic we discussed earlier?”
‘I knew it,’ Carina blinked rapidly and maintained a somewhat stiff smile. “No, your Highness. Lord Percy took all that I had prepared.”
“Kritanta’s flame,” Eleanora snapped. “Can you make another?”
“I only had enough ingredients for the vial I gave him. I didn’t want anything left behind that would—identify the tonic.”
“As smart as you are, Lady Maura, you could have given the Earl a dupe and kept what is mine. Now, what am I supposed to do?” Eleanora sighed and pinched the skin between her brows.
“Pardon my bluntness, your Highness, but is now the time to be taking such risks?”
“When will be the right time, Lady Maura?” Eleanora shook her head and took in a slow breath. “Well, there is still plenty of wine. I suppose I can work with that.” The crown princess turned back towards her study with a faint groan.
“At least see why his Majesty has come to dinner before you try to get him drunk?” Carina called after her worriedly. “This is the first time he’s come to Rose Palace for a meal. You should ensure he has a pleasant experience so that it will happen again more often in the future.”
“I am aware of the importance,” Eleanora called back and waved aside a maid carrying fresh linen down the hall to the dining room. “I plan on discussing the charity event that you and Lord Percy presented to me. I still have the documents Percy left on my desk.” She folded her arms as she continued towards the study, “Nicholas has always had an interest in charities because of his mother. The late Queen invested a great deal of time and effort into establishing many great works before her death. I hope it will be a good conversation point to break the ice between us.”
“An excellent idea, your Highness,” Carina answered with renewed hope as she followed behind. Perhaps if Eleanora and Nicholas found something they both agreed on and could work towards together, it would help eliminate the barriers between them—that is, if they could keep from arguing about it.
‘Baby steps, it’s just one dinner, Carina. What could go wrong?’