Chapter 43: The Weight of Dawn
The ghostly light of dawn found Carina sitting behind Eleanora’s desk, still wearing the light blue evening gown, as she stared down at the two stacks of documents she had spent all night drafting and preparing. A pot of cold black tea waited on the corner of the desk beside a few unfinished sweetened pecan cookies. Carina rubbed her somewhat shaky fingers against her tired eyes. Beneath her ink smudged hands, a triumphant smile soon emerged.
‘I can’t believe I found a way to save Eleanora’s marriage, keep Hana safe, and, if I’m lucky, provide an escape route should things continue to follow the old timeline.’ Carina exhaled again as her tired shoulders slumped. ‘Of course, this is all assuming that Nicholas can be trusted to uphold his end of the deal. Still, no one can say I didn’t try.’
After three weeks of palace life, primarily spent attending to Hana’s recovering health, Carina had realized that protecting the attendant and securing their future did not necessarily require that they remain inside the palace. While convincing Hana to leave Eleanora’s side still remained a problem—for now, the other major obstacle in Carina’s path was getting royal permission to depart from service, or more specifically, permission from the ruling Monarch.
‘I just have to turn an old enemy—into an ally. That shouldn’t be too complicated—right?’
Carina stood on unsteady legs as she gathered the discarded drafts that had since been revised. She carried the original documents to the library where the maid, Tilly, had lit a fire at Carina’s request. After tossing the scrawl of notes and lists provided by Stitcher into the flame, Carina pulled the rope cord outside the office door and then returned to Eleanora’s desk.
She wrapped the two stacks of edited documents in parchment and tied the first with a purple bow from the desk drawer. The second stack Carina bound with a blue ribbon she had brought down from her room. Then she sealed both ribbons with melted wax and the crown princess’s royal seal.
“Purple for Eleanora and blue for Nicholas.”
Mrs. Poppy appeared in the open doorway with a startled expression. “Oh, Lady Maura? I thought—did you need something?”
“Please see that Eleanora gets these documents immediately,” Carina requested as she lifted the stack with its purple ribbon and carried it over to the housekeeper. “Tell her this is the Earl’s plan for the Charity event and that she should read it in private before deciding who to share it with.”
Mrs. Poppy accepted the sealed documents with an uneasy expression but quickly nodded. “I’ll take it up to her Highness with the morning tray then.”
“Thank you. And please have the Chef prepare a breakfast tray for me as well. I’ll drop by the kitchen after I run a quick errand,” Carina explained as she picked up the ivory-cream shawl from the desk’s chair and wrapped it around her shoulders.
“Lady Maura—the sun isn’t even fully awake—and it looks as if you’ve been up all night. Perhaps you should get some sleep?” Mrs. Poppy suggested with what might have been a hint of concern.
“Sleep can wait a little bit longer. I have to drop these documents off at Peony Palace,” Carina replied as she picked up the second batch with its blue ribbon and made her way past the housekeeper and through the library.
The morning air greeted her cheeks with a cold kiss that snapped Carina fully awake as two tired, surprised knights turned and greeted her with a formal bow. Carina counted herself lucky that Sir Jordan was not among them, or at least, had not yet arrived for his day shift. The last thing she needed was someone tailing behind her, asking questions. She continued out through the palace gate uncontested and headed northwest towards the king’s palace.
Truth be told, Percy’s suggestion for the orphanage had provided Carina with the perfect opening to bring Marquess Borghese’s detestable actions before the public eye. The Marquess could be linked to several of the nobles caught up in Knight Commander Quentin’s investigation. As Carina was already well aware, scandal was the one weakness all nobles were equally susceptible to.
While Knight Commander Quentin might not be fully aware of the Marquess’s involvement, he was a sharp and diligent man. Tristan had been feeding him information over the years but incriminating the Marquess directly had proven difficult. The only person in Lafeara who could convict a man of Borghese’s rank without the burden of proof or a court’s verdict was the king.
The documents which Stitcher had provided showed a clear connection between the growth of Borghese’s private army and the illegal trading of children both within Lafeara and across the border to her neighboring kingdoms.
Even more horrifying were the sales records Ghost had recovered, which indicated the slave merchants had priced these children based on their blood heritage. Half-witches were sold in secret to the church for a thousand crescents, while suspected witches were sold to Ventrayna’s Emperor for five thousand crescents. Meanwhile, children born without a drop of witch blood were sold as sex slaves at a sickeningly reduced price of one hundred crescents each to those nobles who had an appetite for such detestable lechery.
Ghost had succeeded in crippling the Marquess’s slave trade by targeting the nobles who held the slaves until they were set to be shipped. However, Tristan had yet to discover how Borghese moved his more lucrative cargo throughout the capital unnoticed and even across the border.
‘The best way to go unnoticed would be to move underground, but I doubt Borghese has access to Anthraticus—unless he was given access by one of the covens Percy mentioned.’
Despite the setback of losing a few nobles and several dozen slave children, Borghese’s underground operations continued to thrive. The man was like a reptile, capable of regrowing lost limbs, and there never seemed to be a lack of unwanted children.
All the children Ghost had helped the capital knights recover were being housed amongst at chapels located in the provinces connected to the capital. The same chapels, Carina quickly realized, that were likely now under the control of witch hunters. Unfortunately, that meant these children were at even greater risk of returning to the street while the church continued its inquisition.
There was a clear demand for permanent, safe housing that an orphanage established by the royal family would provide. Carina had outlined both the need and benefits in the brief she now carried to Rose Palace. Her determination to resolve the precarious situation and ensure the safety of these children was more than a match for the numb fatigue that clung to her stumbling limbs as she marched determinedly forward through the faint morning fog.
‘No matter what it takes, I must make Nicholas acknowledge the risk he unwittingly put these children in and take responsibility as their king.’
The golden gates of Peony Palace came into view as the sun breached the distant fortress walls. Three knights stood before the entrance, the tallest of which wasn’t difficult to recognize as Beaumont turned in Carina’s direction with an expression of surprise.
The knight captain left the gate and approached her with a quizzical stare at her dress. “Lady Maura, good morning. Is everything all right?”
“Yes. Perfectly,” Carina replied, somewhat breathless from her journey. “I just—have something to deliver to his Majesty—on the Crown Princess’s behalf.” She held up the packet of documents with Eleanora’s seal and extended it to him. “I had meant to leave it at the gate—but if I could beg a favor of you, Captain. Could you deliver them to the Crown Prince personally?”
“I—” Beaumont glanced from the package to Carina’s face and accepted it with an uncertain smile. “This is rather irregular, Lady Maura, but as it appears to be important, I will present it to his Majesty first thing.”
“Thank you,” Carina smiled with relief as she pushed back the strands of her hair and suddenly aware of the ink stains on her palms and what a mess she must look. She tucked her hands behind her skirt and offered him a quick curtsey. “Thank you. Then I shall return and deliver the good news to her Highness.”
“Lady Maura,” Beaumont stepped towards her quickly as he held the documents against his chest. “You should take care. It is probably best not to leave Rose Palace for the next few days. There are—rather unkind rumors circulating—regarding you and the Earl of Hawthorne.”
‘I had almost forgotten about that.’ Carina sighed loudly and offered a single nod. “Thank you, Captain. I am aware of the rumors.”
“I’m sure the Earl will put this misunderstanding to bed upon his return,” Beaumont added with an edged tone that conflicted with the concern in his eyes as he studied her. “Forgive me for overstepping—but you should be wary of him, Lady Maura.”
“Funny, that’s what my dreams tell me about you,” Carina muttered defensively as she rubbed her temple to stem the headache forming behind her tired eyes. Her fingers froze, and her chest tightened as Carina realized what she had just spoken aloud.
“Your dreams—Lady Maura?” Beaumont stared at her, his violet eyes widening with evident surprise while his cheeks flushed a cherry-pink hue.
“Nightmares. Not dreams. Not the way you’re thinking—wait, not that I mean—” Carina blurted out incoherently. “You kill me in them. And I—” She clasped her throat as if to choke off the words betraying her. “Forgive me. Ignore everything I just said. Please. I haven’t slept—I should go.” She glanced up at his face once more, and the visible pain in Beaumont’s shadowed eyes only made her feel more guilty. Carina turned hastily and walked briskly towards the Rose Palace, hoping to sleep, and wake, and find this was all just another horrible dream.
Nicholas and his attendant jumped as the bedroom door banged open, and Beaumont stomped in, looking flushed and altogether not himself.
“Good morning, Captain?” Nicholas greeted with a scowl. “Do mind the noise—my head is still a bit of a mess from drinking last night.”
“Your Highness,” the attendant murmured as he held out Nicholas’s dress jacket.
Nicholas slid his arm through the sleeves and straightened his posture as the attendant adjusted the tassels and pins. The crown prince glanced over at the silent giant, who had not moved since entering the room but stared at a thick bundle of documents in his hand.
“What is that?” Nicholas asked curiously, noting the blue ribbon.
“A delivery from Rose Palace,” Beaumont answered through clenched teeth.
“Oh,” Nicholas muttered dully and immediately lost interest.
“You should read it before your morning appointments, your Majesty.”
“Should I?” Nicholas replied with a sarcastic smirk. “Is it something that can’t wait?”
“It’s something Lady Maura spent the entire night preparing—to avoid dreaming about me killing her.”
The frustration and even more worrying the hint of rage in his Captain’s voice did not escape Nicholas’s notice.
“Charles, we’ll finish up later. I need a moment,” Nicholas said dismissively. “Have the chef send breakfast on ahead to my study.”
“Yes, your Majesty.” The attendant bowed and gave Beaumont a wide birth as he left the room and shut the door behind him.
“Alright, what’s this nonsense about you killing Lady Maura in her dreams?” Nicholas demanded as he approached Beaumont and looked up into the knight’s stormy expression. “Did she tell you that?”
Beaumont pushed the parcel of documents against Nicholas’s chest, nearly knocking the crown prince off his feet, and shook his head. “Just read this.”
“Not until you tell me what’s going on,” Nicholas growled as he steadied himself.
“I don’t know!” Beaumont strangled shout rippled through the room. “When I know—I’ll tell you then, so please.”
Nicholas sighed in exasperation and glanced from the parcel of documents to the captain’s flushed face. “I don’t like that she’s messing with your head.”
“I’m more worried that someone else is—” Beaumont clenched his jaw and shook his head. “Your Majesty, can I have the morning off? There’s someone I need to speak to.”
“You’re asking for time off!?” Nicholas repeated incredulously, then sighed again as he dragged a hand through his hair. “Alright, but when will you be back?”
“It shouldn’t take more than a day,” Beaumont returned dully with evident distaste.
“Go, just go.” Nicholas waved towards the door. “Check in with me the moment you get back. I’ll have your usual replacement stand-in until then.” The crown prince raised the packet with a wry smile. “I’ll let you know what I find when you return.”
“Thank you, your Majesty.” Beaumont bowed and turned hastily to the bedroom door that he opened and closed with a bit more restraint.
“Damn it,” Nicholas hissed as he turned towards his office and yanked the bell-rope on his way through. “Fucking women.” He dropped the packet on his desk, removed his jacket, and set about breaking the seal with a small dagger that served as a letter opener.
A cover letter with the Rose Palace emblem and Eleanora’s seal waited for him. He noted the lack of Eleanora’s signature with a scoff and quickly flipped to the first page. The next document titled ‘Endangered Children’ contained a list of over thirty names, each marked with an age ranging from fourteen to six-years-old.
Nicholas sat up in his chair as he recalled the sex slave ring the Knight Commander Quentin had discovered after the murder of a minor noble and the burning of his estate. He quickly flipped to the next page, which confirmed his suspicions as the names of the nobles involved were listed out along with the alias they had used to operate.
The following page included the locations the recovered children had been sent to—all chapels located in provinces that connected to the capital.
‘All places currently under inquisition lockdown—Damn it!’
“Your Majesty,” the attendant Charles called out as he entered with the royal breakfast tray.
Nicholas gestured sharply to his desk as he continued to read. A blueprint of a modest size house had been notated with red ink to mark adjustments and modifications to accommodate all thirty children. Each renovation was meticulously accounted for with an estimated cost for materials and labor fees.
A roster followed that outlined the necessary staff required to run the orphanage, each position’s title, their estimated wages were listed beside a few blanks for names. Some blanks had already been filled in, including a Miss Ivy Koresh, who had been recommended to run the establishment as its matron.
As Charles poured the tea and prepared the crown prince’s plate of food, Nicholas was reading individual files on the nobles arrested or murdered, all of which could be connected back to the Royal Party led by the Dowager and Marquess Borghese.
‘Where the hell did Lady Maura get this information?’
By the time the crown prince finished reading the packet, his barely touched breakfast still lay before him. Nicholas reorganized the documents as he lifted his gaze to Charles, who waited patiently and silently by the study door.
“Send word to Knight Commander Quentin,” Nicholas ordered. “I want to speak to him immediately.”
The attendant bowed and departed.
Nicholas clasped his hands behind his neck and stared down at the document containing the list of names for these thirty children. His attention was drawn to the bottom of the page, where a curious impression stood out against the otherwise unblemished and high-quality material. Narrowing his eyes, Nicholas stood and carried the document over to the study window. There against the rays of the morning sun, the ghostly form of the letter F surrounded by snowflakes woven into a familiar wreath came fully into view.
“But this is—” Nicholas returned to his desk and tested a few more pages from the packet, but none of the others contained the secret letter. “Ha!” Nicholas sat down and stared at the page in his hand as he rubbed his unshaven jawline. “That girl continues to surprise me.” He set the page down and traced the already fading outline of the letter F. “Just what is her connection to you, Frost? And why are you both so determined to help Eleanora?”