Chapter 49: The Fragrance of Treachery


A simple white envelope was waiting on Carina’s bed when she returned. The note itself had been left unsealed and blank. ‘This is the second time someone has slipped past a locked door into my room,’ Carina observed as she secured the bolt once more, picked up the note, and read the elegantly scribbled instructions.

[The Forbidden Garden. Midnight. Seri.]

‘Serilda wants to meet at the forbidden garden—at midnight?’ Carina exhaled as she slumped down upon the bed and rolled towards the window. Her discussion with Eleanora about the events that had pushed the crown princess into her marriage had drained Carina. She was also confused as to whether to tell Eleanora that Tristan was still alive or not.

‘No. Tristan should be the one to tell her and explain why he’s done nothing over the past two years to reach out and notify her.’

Surely the assassin who had slipped inside the royal palace when Eleanora’s life had been in danger in the past could do the same thing again now—if he wanted to.

‘Even if the Emperor had a reason to keep Eleanora in the dark—what reason does Tristan have for keeping his survival a secret from the girl he supposedly loved.’

Carina sighed, rubbed her closed eyes, and shook her head. “It’s not my place to interfere.”

She opened her eyes and stared out the window at the waxing moon, which offered little light behind a sea of clouds. ‘I suppose sneaking into the garden this late at night wouldn’t be impossible.’ Carina tugged the pendant watch from her dress, confirmed that she had barely ten minutes to spare, and sat up frantically. She used a lit candle to burn the note and then retrieved her cloak from the closet.

The secret exit behind the room’s false east wall concealed a hidden narrow staircase that led to the dining room below. It was undoubtedly Carina’s best option for slipping downstairs unnoticed. The real problem was getting outside of Rose Palace without being spotted by the knights on patrol. The secret tunnel in the servant’s passageway, which led outside the fortress walls, offered no alternate exits inside the palace grounds.

‘I suppose that means Serilda doesn’t know about the tunnel, or she would have asked to meet me outside by the cherry trees?’ Carina mused, somewhat relieved that her secret exit would remain a secret. ‘I could always try going out the servant’s door, which is normally left unguarded since it’s always locked after sundown.’

Her concern for Jade and Benjamin won out against instinctual caution as Carina slipped past the tapestry and quietly entered the dining room. Her empty wine glass had been cleared away, and all the lights long extinguished.

Carina circled the table towards the kitchen, which showed signs of a hasty but thorough cleanup. Only the dying glow of the coals in the kitchen stove illuminated the still drying counters and neatly stacked pots and pans that filled the air with the mingled scent of lemon and burnt wood.

The dinner dishes had all been cleaned, dried, and returned to their respective cupboards. A basket of apples lay on the counter covered by a thin linen cloth in preparations for tomorrow’s breakfast menu. After such a stressful afternoon, Carina did not doubt that most of the staff were fast asleep in the servant’s quarters located behind the palace.

Continuing into the pantry, Carina tested the cellar door and confirmed it was secured. She then moved on to the back-pantry door, which was also locked, but a spare key, tucked inside a crack behind a shelf in the pantry, turned the creaking spring bolts, which released with a dull click. Carina held her breath and listened intently for any sound of disturbance in the palace around her. The buzz of silence filled her ears as she relaxed then pushed the heavy door open.

The palace grounds were draped in long shadows. A narrow patch of grass stretched between the palace garden and perimeter walls. The servants used this obscure space to enter and exit the palace and hang out the washing. Six vacant posts, their clotheslines all but invisible in the dark, marked the path towards the servant’s side door in the palace’s perimeter wall.

Carina shut the pantry door carefully behind her. She pulled up her hood and darted past the first post and then behind the nearest bush as voices approached from around the west corner.

“How long do you reckon the peace will last if things don’t work out between the royal couple?” one of the palace knights muttered grimly as the pair approached the servant’s door and walked on by with only a passing glance.

“About as long as it takes the crown princess to pack up her things and run home to the Emperor,” his comrade replied gruffly.

“What a bloody mess.”

“Aye, and it will be the common folk and soldiers who pay the price if this marriage ends in war.”

“Let’s hope for a miracle then, I suppose.”

“It will take nothing less. I feel sorry for his Majesty, though.”

“An unfortunate match, to be sure. If only the First Prince were still alive, he’d have put that Ventrayna princess in her place by now.”

Carina exhaled softly as the gossipy guards rounded the next corner and headed back to the front of the palace. With swift, silent steps, she slipped back through the bushes and flew across the grounds like a ghost, mindful of the palace windows above her.

She dropped down behind another bush by the side door in the perimeter wall to catch her breath and listen once more for movement. Once confident the knights were well on their way around the front of the palace, Carina pulled out the key she had borrowed from the pantry.

It had long come to Carina’s attention that the palace used duplicate keys for many of the palace doors. For example, all the ladies-in-waiting shared the same door lock and key model, which granted access to their rooms. Another happy coincidence happened to be that the key that unlocked the back pantry-door also opened the side perimeter door. It was an outrageous oversight as far as palace security, but one that presently worked in her favor.

Outside the Rose Palace’s permitter walls, the decorative landscaping between palaces provided more than enough cover for Carina to make her way to the central gardens unseen.

The groomed shrubs and cobble street provided a clear and mostly unobstructed path until a stray cat leaped out from beneath a pear-shaped shrub and nearly gave Carina a heart attack. She clutched her chest and sucked in an angry breath as the yellow creature hissed in her direction before it loped off to continue its nightly hunt.

‘Good to know I’m not the only one sneaking about. Still, this feels a little too easy,’ Carina reflected as she continued towards her destination. ‘And why does Serilda want me to meet her there of all places? Is there another hidden tunnel inside the Dowager’s garden?’

The forbidden garden was the subject of many ghost stories amongst the palace staff. While it was not an uncommon occurrence for a palace maid to run off or disappear with no explanation, over the years, these disappearances—likely the result of some romantic tryst or the guilty fleeing from their misdeeds—had taken on a darker form as these superstitious rumors spread.

The palace gardens were said to be haunted at night by ghosts, and these lost, cursed spirits were rumored to have been witnessed near the forbidden iron door, usually under a full moon.

‘The real question is, who would be out in the garden to see them under a full moon with the palace’s strict curfew?’

Still, as someone who practically lived with a ghost, Carina was less inclined to dismiss such superstitious gossip outright. There was also the unexplained ghost Carina had seen herself the last time when she stood in front of the forbidden garden’s door beside Lady Delphine. A memory that caused Carina to shiver as she wandered through the royal garden’s arched entrance.

A quiet landscape infused with the lingering scent of flowers that swayed and danced beneath the dimly lit night sky greeted her silent approach. No ghosts, eerie wails, or furry bandits leapt out to make her acquaintance, yet a feeling of apprehension soon coated Carina’s skin as she approached the path that led to the gloomy iron gate.

The sensation of being observed by unfriendly eyes made Carina turn sharply, but only the garden, momentarily illuminated beneath the grinning moon, awaited her gaze.

‘Mental note. Tell Serilda to pick a less haunted meeting place in the future.’

With a slow, steady breath to calm her nerves, Carina continued forward and whispered anxiously, “Seri.”

There was no reply, which only made Carina more anxious as she squinted at her pendant watch once more. ‘Only a few minutes late. Did she leave already? Was Serilda spotted by one of the knights?’ Annoyed and just a little bit anxious, Carina continued down the path reluctantly as she searched for the Marchioness, who did not appear behind any of the looming shrubs.

“Seri!” Carina repeated for the fifth time, but no answer came. ‘Well, that’s that. What a waste of effort. Hopefully, I won’t get caught on my way back.’

A soft creak stiffened her spine as Carina’s turned slowly towards the iron door which opened before her. A pair of icy hands wrapped around her fingers and Carina gasped at the small girl who materialized suddenly beside her. A glittering crown of frost adorned the ghostly child’s midnight black hair, which haloed two glowing icy-blue eyes.

Run,” the specter pleaded as her small blue lips trembled with fear. “It’s not safe here!”

The thud of footsteps closing in confirmed the trap Carina had fallen into as she watched the child’s specter fade away with the breeze.

Captain Leo’s smirking face greeted her as the knight pushed through the hedges to block off her escape. “Bit late for an evening stroll, Lady Maura,” he observed with a hint of malice and shook off a few clinging leaves. “Curfew was several hours ago.”

“You were expecting me,” Carina replied as her fingers curled around the edge of her cloak. “How peculiar.”

We were expecting you, child.”

Carina inhaled sharply and turned towards the iron door where the Dowager’s shadowed face awaited her with a sinister smile.

“So pleased you could accept my invitation.” Octavia extended her hand and beckoned patiently. “It’s such a beautiful night tonight, wouldn’t you agree. Why don’t you join me for a stroll, Lady Maura.”

It was not a request. Carina took in another steadying breath and then moved obediently to the Dowager’s side. “Queen Regent,” she greeted with a curtsey.

“You should take care of who you trust your secrets to, sweet child,” Octavia admonished as she stepped forward and lifted Carina to her feet. “Come, it has been some time since I’ve shown my garden to anyone. I think you’ll find it—enlightening.”

Carina could only nod stiffly as she accepted the Dowager’s offered arm.

“Captain Leo, you will await us out here.”

“Yes, your Grace,” Leo responded with a hint of relief.

‘Even the captain knows better than to enter here.’ Carina swallowed and closed her eyes briefly as she followed the Dowager through the foreboding chill of the iron door.

Fear heightened each of her senses as the gate slammed shut. In the comfortless darkness, scent and sound gained sharp supremacy, and yet it was the emptiness of silence that disturbed Carina most. There were no crickets, no birds, barely even the whisper of wind slipped across the vine-covered stone walls that closed in around them.

The heavy scent of roses filled each shallow breath as Carina’s vision adjusted to the darkness. The source of the intense floral fragrance presented itself as the Dowager led Carina around the corner of a hedge wall. Rows of meticulously groomed bushes of violet roses stretched out beneath the midnight sky. Their blooms barely disturbed beneath the hesitant breeze that whispered across the gravel path.

“The Lafearian Rose,” Octavia murmured with the hint of a sneer. “The flower of the monarchy. The forbidden bloom.” She chuckled as she snapped a rose from its stem and turned once more to place it in Carina’s hair. “Do you know what my ancestors called it?”

Carina shook her head silently.

“The Rose of the Usurper.” The Dowager’s voice coiled with contempt as something far sharper than hatred seemed to fill the air between them. Then Octavia laughed so suddenly; Carina flinched. “My child, I don’t know what to do when you stare at me like that.” The Dowager continued to chuckle as she moved forward, pulling Carina along beside her. “I hear things are not going well between my grandson and your mistress.”

Carina didn’t find this hard to believe. The spectacle at dinner was already common gossip among the knights. ‘But how did she know about Serilda’s plans to visit me at midnight?’ Carina had already conceived the possibility that the Dowager had planted that note and not the Marchioness, but—how?

‘Someone, the Dowager’s spy, must have overheard my conversation with Serilda earlier today.’

“It’s not too late for you to reconsider my proposal, my dear,” Octavia said patiently as they approached another archway of stone and vines.

“Your Grace is generous, but surely you already have sufficient eyes and ears inside Rose Palace,” Carina remarked tensely.

The Dowager chuckled and nodded. “But you are unique, are you not, Lady Maura?”

Carina did not know how to respond to that question and so kept silent.

“I remember your skill with flowers in the selection,” the Dowager continued in a casual tone. “But the true flower of Lafeara is not some pretty rose.” She turned and regarded Carina with a knowing smile. “I thought you might appreciate the history of this plant, which crippled a dynasty of kings. Seeing as you took its name for your own.”

Carina glanced sharply from the dowager to the circular garden bed ahead. Even in the darkness, a soft blue glow illuminated the small blooms, which seemed to coat the air in sorrow.

“The Aconitum flower,” Carina whispered. ‘So, Octavia’s spy also heard Serilda drop my alias. But why would the Dowager grow these here?’

“One of this garden’s many secrets,” Octavia replied as she released Carina’s arm, then picked up a woven basket from a stone bench and knelt over the glowing blooms. “A single petal can kill a man or cripple a witch’s power. My garden—” the Dowager smiled as she plucked a bud from its stem “—could cripple all the covens within Lafeara.”

Carina shivered as she glanced towards the path behind her.

“But no power is gained without sacrifice.” Octavia stood and held out the bloom as she turned towards Carina. “Look, the flower’s potency fades quickly once it has been harvested.”

Carina watched as the bud bloomed, its petals trembling as the flickering unnatural glow slowly dimmed. The wind picked up as the vine leaves rustled around them in a frantic whisper of caution. Carina swallowed nervously as the Dowager stepped closer.

“It is an expensive plant to nurture,” Octavia remarked as she offered the bloom to the silent girl.

“It is poison,” Carina whispered as she took a step back.

“Only if eaten,” Octavia corrected with a small laugh. She offered the aconitum once more, and this time, Carina reluctantly accepted it.

Dread pierced through her chest, and the wind died with the sound of a thousand wailing voices as Carina’s fingers wrapped tightly around the blue flower. She shivered violently, then cleared her throat, and asked hesitantly, “Why show me this?”

“Do you know why the palace only accepts pure maidens into court?” Octavia asked as she returned to the flower bed and plucked a few more blooms.

“Because all ladies of the court must be nobles as they can be chosen as concubines by the king,” Carina answered stiffly, still focused on the curious feeling of helplessness that seemed to radiate from the flower.

“But even commoner maids must go through a similar examination,” Octavia replied with an arched brow as she lifted her basket and moved to sit on the bench. “Their virtue is used to determine what jobs they receive.”

Carina frowned as she searched Maura’s memories. “Not all of them.”

Octavia studied her curiously and chuckled. “Ah, I suppose that is true, although the lower-ranked cleaning maids rarely prove virtuous.”

Carina’s jaw stiffened. Then she opened her hand to stare at the curious flower. “It was your spy that left that note on my bed, wasn’t it. But why bring me here?”

Octavia studied her silently as she wiped her fingers with a handkerchief. “Do you know why the Countess suddenly left Hawthorne for the countryside, Lady Maura?”

Carina blinked, caught off guard by the sudden shift in conversation. “The Countess was feeling unwell. I believe that her family doctor recommended rest in the countryside.”

“Yes, a sick noblewoman ought to be resting comfortably with a physician at her side and a dozen maids attending to her every need. Yet the poor Countess finds herself locked away without a servant to care for her, barred from receiving any visitors, and unable to communicate with the outside world.”

Carina scoffed in disbelief, then frowned as she drew in a shaky breath. “Why are you telling me this?”

“As I’ve mentioned already, you are unique,” Octavia replied with a secretive smile. “I have an interest in seeing how far you will go.”

Carina nodded, resigned to the vagueness of that answer, and glanced from the aconitum flowers towards the path behind them. “Then, if that is all—may I leave, your Grace.”

Octavia’s smile twisted in amusement as she rose from her seat and took the flower from Carina’s hand. “Yes. Though I do hope we will speak again, Lady Maura, and soon.”

“Yes—Queen Regent.” Carina curtsied and, with no small amount of relief, turned back the way they had come.

“The body of a virgin,” Octavia called after her. “That is the cost of nurturing these rare, special flowers. Once every full moon, a suitable candidate is chosen. She is given the petal of the aconitum and buried here beneath the flower bed.”

Carina clenched the fabric of her cloak as her feet froze upon the path. Dread filled her stomach as she thought of the two ghosts she had seen before this garden’s door—and wondered if their presence was related to the Dowager’s terrible secret.

“Strangely enough, no matter how many bodies we bury here, even the bones are gone by the time new fertilizer is needed.”

‘Fertilizer?’ Carina half-turned to stare back at the innocent-looking blue flowers. Never before had she been so repulsed by a single plant.

“While palace maids are easy enough to use—” Octavia continued as she twirled the bloom in her fingers “—it is not uncommon for a noble attendant to fall from grace, prove disloyal, or otherwise foolishly interfere in a game that is far above her station, to find her way into my garden.”

‘So—this is a warning?’ Carina exhaled as she turned back and forced her right foot to take a step forward.

“Take care, my child. Lady Serilda is not the harmless, crippled raven she pretends to be. And those who align themselves with my enemies—do not outlive them for very long.”


Feed the Author your comments here!

%d bloggers like this: