Chapter 56: The Path of Failure
Carina returned to the palace with a list of potential entertainers provided by Butler Russel and a burdened mind. She stopped by the capital post office, where she paid for parchment and envelopes to write off a quick round of letters that she paid to be delivered no later than the end of the day.
The postmaster was a little annoyed initially, as it was already approaching the end of business hours. Still, when Carina doubled the delivery payment, he assured her he could find some reliable messenger boys to fulfill her request.
One of Carina’s letters was addressed to Sir Everly, warning him that Cerberus may have been exposed and asking that he ensured all members maintained a low profile for the next few weeks. Her second letter was addressed to Physician Samael, asking him to stop by the palace the following morning to see if her ankle could come out of its brace. She needed him to double back and check for new details from his friends in Ventrayna about the Ambassador’s early arrival.
Carina considered stopping by the jewelry store as it passed by her carriage window but decided that the bracelet Viktor had crafted her was more than suitable. She stared at the bracelet frequently, in awe of the powerful elemental creature that such a simple ornament held.
Carina shifted her gaze from the bracelet and stifled a tired yawn as the carriage pulled up before her final stop, an apothecary owned by Mr. Frost. “I just need to grab a few herbs to help me sleep,” she explained to Sir Jordan as she opened the carriage door.
The grumpy knight sighed and nodded. He looked like he could use a little help sleeping himself. The longer the day stretched, the more agitated and sore he appeared. ‘Perhaps he hurt himself training with the knights on his off days.’
“You can wait in the carriage if you like,” Carina suggested, entirely open to the idea of leaving her tail behind while she picked up the items waiting for her inside.
“You already disappeared on me once today,” Jordan grumbled as he stubbornly followed her down from the carriage. “If something happens to you under my watch, that bastard will break my legs,” he added under his breath.
Carina frowned as she caught his muttered comment. “Who will break your legs?”
Jordan shrugged and moved on ahead to open the apothecary door for an elderly woman, who thanked him with an appreciative, “Oh my, what a handsome knight. Thank you.”
Jordan’s tired expression brightened a bit before he turned and nodded for Carina to enter first.
Mr. Lambert was just leaving his apprentice to assist another customer that had entered before them when Carina stepped inside. He bustled over and bobbed his head politely, his motions stiffening slightly as he noticed Sir Jordan.
“Ah—How may I assist you today, my Lady?”
“I have come to pick up a special order,” Carina explained as she walked past him towards the counter, hoping to put some distance between herself and Jordan in the process. Fortunately, the knight seemed rather intrigued by the trays of prebagged herbs organized by color and labeled with the contained herb’s useful properties.
“A special order?” Lambert’s voice showed surprise even as he studied Carina with a sense of familiarity.
“The order would be under the name Lady Aconitum,” Carina replied in a lowered voice as she turned towards him.
Mr. Lambert looked momentarily confused, then realization set in, and he hastily stooped to offer her another bow.
“Please don’t,” Carina hissed sharply with a glance to Jordan, who was sniffing a purple bag of Feather Mint.
“Oh—apologies,” Lambert nodded his understanding quickly. “It will just take a moment, my Lady. Special orders are kept in the back of the shop.”
“And some herbs to help with sleep as well—wrapped separately,” Carina added with another glance towards the knight.
“Of course, that won’t be an issue, Lady—” he caught himself.
“Lady Anne,” Carina answered with a quick smile of relief as he turned and disappeared into the back of the shop. As far as Lambert was concerned, Lady Aconitum was someone who shared a trusted business relationship with Frost. Carina would rather not give her real name in case the herbs she had come here to acquire failed to neutralize their intended target.
While she waited, Sir Jordan wandered over with a purple and green bag in hand. “This one says it will cure sore muscles. And this one can reduce scarring?”
“Pepper Hen is good for sore muscles if brewed as a tea or boiled into a salve,” Carina amended absently. “Opal Flowers can be crushed, brewed, mixed with beeswax, and applied to scarring. The effect and time to heal are determined by the size and age of the scar. New scars tend to heal quicker.”
Jordan blinked down at her in silence, then exhaled as he stared down at the bags in his hand. “You should have been a healer, Lady Maura.”
Carina smiled. She had wanted to become a nurse in her old life after all. But here, female physicians were called healers, not doctors or physicians. Unfortunately, female healers would never hold equal status to their male counterparts and were generally sought out for their herbal concoctions rather than physical treatment. As such, they were often labeled by the church and the ungrateful as herb witches.
“I merely studied herbs and their remedies as a hobby,” Carina replied dismissively. “You can also cook Pepper Hen into strips of meat to eat after training. The effect is somewhat diminished but if taken daily will achieve the same result.”
“Oh?” Jordan grinned. “That I can do. My mother taught me how to survive in a kitchen before I became a knight. I’ll get two bags of these then and share some with the other men.”
‘It seems he’s grown to trust me,’ Carina mused as Jordan wandered off, and Lambert returned with four bags of herbs. ‘That’s just as well, I suppose. I may need to rely on him in the future.’
“Now these three, as I’m sure you know, Lady Anne, ought to be kept separate and handled with care,” Lambert explained as he handed over the three small black bags. “Ah, and this blue bag has Dusk Ferns, already crushed.” He indicated the blue bag. “Add them to some warm vanilla tea, and you will slip right off to sleep.”
“Excellent,” Carina reached into her purse and pulled out three strings of crescents; each string contained one-hundred crescent coins.
“Ah—no need, Lady Anne. Please tell Mr. Frost I am most grateful for this position and the work. Also, my brother’s family are grateful beyond measure for the house he provided them in the country.”
Carina smiled as she slid two of the strings back into her purse. Lambert’s brother’s family lived in one of four safe havens Carina had set up around the capital. Beneath the pantry floorboards of the country cottage, a hidden chest of clothes, money, and prearranged documents for passage to Strugna waited—in the event that she and Hana were forced to flee Lafeara.
With that comforting thought in mind, Carina offered the remaining string of coins to the apothecary shopkeeper. “These are for his purchases.” Carina nodded to the knight approaching them. “As well as your discretion,” she added somberly and pressed the coins into Lambert’s waiting palm.
“Of course, my Lady,” Lambert replied with a firm nod and a slight wink.
Sir Jordan grumbled about Carina buying his herbs but seemed relieved they were finally returning to the palace. The sun was setting behind the morose fortress walls, and the number of knights on duty appeared to have tripled. It took quite a while for their carriage to reach the gates for inspection, but the prime minister’s pass got them inside quickly enough and without interrogation.
‘I’ll need to make arrangements for Madam Maylea’s dancers. Otherwise, they’ll be turned away in a heartbeat,’ Carina quietly contemplated as the darkness of the tunnel closed in around them. She thought of the impression Serilda had made of the prime minister’s gate pass and quickly devised a plan.
Once back at Rose Palace, Carina dismissed Jordan to get some rest and supper, then bypassed an impatient Mrs. Poppy as she headed up the stairs with her purchases.
“You realize it is supper time?” The head housekeeper announced with a huff as Carina swept past her. “The Crown Princess does not wait on you to eat!”
“I just need to change and freshen up, Mrs. Poppy,” Carina called over her shoulder. “Her Highness is free to start without me.” She hurried to her bedroom and was about to unlock the door when she realized that someone else had entered in her absence.
Carina always left a thin layer of ice inside the door’s keyhole, which served as a means of detection. The ice had been broken, which meant someone else had used their key to enter her room. ‘Just as I bring a very deadly poison into the palace.’ She exhaled softly, inserted her key, and opened the door.
The room was empty and, at first glance, appeared undisturbed.
‘The maids have no reason to enter our rooms and know better than to do so without permission.’ Carina shut the door behind her and slid the lock in place as she critically surveyed her bed-chamber.
The bed had been disturbed, the corner at the end untucked as if someone had searched beneath her mattress. ‘No maid would have left such a telltale mistake.’
Carina moved to her desk, where the blank letter parchment was fanned out evenly. Another mistake, given that Carina had left the third and fifth page intentionally out of place. And, just like the door, the transparent sheet of ice was missing from the lock of her chest, where Carina’s special books and other items were secured. However, a quick check confirmed that the ice hidden along the lid’s seam had not been broken.
‘Not a professional who can pick locks then,’ Carina observed with a sigh of relief as she continued her search.
Three books on the bookshelf had been returned out of order, and Carina hastily moved a stack to her desk to check the secret compartment. The Winter Rose dropped down into her left hand, and Carina sank into the desk chair with a sigh of relief. She leaned upon her right hand as she studied the enchanted diamond.
‘To think I would be so worried about losing a jewel enchanted by a love spell.’ Carina brushed a finger over the diamond and set the necklace down on the desk. She pulled the four bags of herbs from her purse and left the blue bag beside the Winter Rose. The three black bags she carried over to her chest. After a few minutes restacking the books on poisons, flowers, and herbs onto the floor, Carina opened the false bottom and tucked the poisonous bags of herbs inside next to another six additional colored bags of red, yellow, black, and purple.
With the false bottom hidden beneath stacks of books once more, Carina sealed the chest’s lock and lid with another transparent layer of ice magic. Then she changed her dress, tidied her hair, returned the Winter Rose to its secret compartment, and left the room. Before Carina turned towards the staircase, she grazed her thumb over the keyhole and left another layer of transparent ice inside it once more.
‘They didn’t find anything useful this time—but that doesn’t mean they won’t come back.’
The range of suspects who could have accessed her bedroom waited for Carina in the dining room below. Mrs. Poppy had a spare key to every room in Rose Palace. Lady Tiffany and Lady Hana both had duplicate keys that could open Carina’s room, as did Lady Evelynn, who sat pale but composed, at the end of the table in Carina’s usual seat beside Lady Hana.
“Ah, you’re back,” Eleanor greeted her with a smile. “Your new seat is here, Lady Maura.” She gestured to Evelynn’s old seat beside her at the head of the table while Hana hid a satisfied grin behind her iced tea.
“Thank you, your Highness,” Carina replied politely as she took her seat. “My apologies for being late. The capital has become quite hectic to navigate through.”
“You went to the capital?” Tiffany asked in surprise. Evelynn glanced over but said nothing as her stiff expression soured.
“Lady Maura went to the Hawthorne estate to find suitable entertainment for the Ambassador and our guests at the banquet,” Hana explained as she set her glass beside a plate of quail eggs salad. The rest of the dinner plates held an entirely different menu of cooked salmon.
“Ah,” Eleanora said as she observed Carina’s gaze. “Thanks to Lady Evelynn’s thoughtfulness, we seem to have a lot of fish in storage. I’d rather not let it go to waste—Although I prefer venison myself.” She gestured to the dear meat on her plate.
“Of course,” Carina replied as she reached for her fork. A spark from the bracelet stilled her hand as she dug into the fish and, after a moment’s pause, Carina set down the bite of undercooked salmon and picked up her glass of white wine instead. “Your Highness, among the Countess’ known entertainers, I managed to find a group of exotic dancers. I was wondering if I might prepare a letter of admittance so they can drop by the palace for an interview with you before the banquet.”
“Exotic dancers?” Eleanora raised a brow while her lips twitched with amusement. “That would certainly suit my uncle’s taste, but what about the other guests.”
“I also secured some musicians from a local noble family who are friends of the Hawthornes,” Carina explained, leaving out the fact that it was Lady Serilda who had agreed to use the Earl’s influence to guarantee the musicians for the welcome feast. Carina had tentatively offered to invite Serilda to the banquet in return, but the marchioness had declined with a laugh.
“I have not yet had a chance to update my wardrobe, so social occasions will have to wait,” had been Serilda’s somewhat embarrassed explanation.
Carina replied that she would send in a request to Sir Everly to fashion a wardrobe of dresses for Lady Serilda in return. ‘It was the least I could do. I did promise to help the Marchioness get caught up on the capital’s fashion trend, after all.’
“Excellent,” Eleanora raised her glass in a toast. “Then, as we are pressed for time, I will trust your judgment on this, Lady Maura. Though you are free to pass them by Lady Hana if you would like a second opinion.”
Evelynn’s fork screaked painfully against her plate as she stared down at the undercooked salmon that even Tiffany was reluctant to touch.
“Ah, it seems it will take Chef Robbi a bit of practice to get the fish right,” Eleanora observed with an apologetic smile. “Mrs. Poppy. I think a few more plates of salad and quail egg would better suit my lady’s stomachs.”
Tiffany let out a sigh of relief as the kitchen maids removed the offending plates and returned with fresh greens, cook quail eggs, soft bread rolls, and a side bowl of sweet vinaigrette dressing.
‘They already had this prepared—so Eleanora and Hana are simply rubbing Evelynn’s face further into her failure.’
“Thank the Saint’s,” Tiffany murmured beside Carina. “Can you imagine if we had served that fish at the banquet?” Her comment was intentionally loud enough to catch Evelynn’s ear. The pale noblewoman’s hand trembled as she reached for her previously used fork, then knocked it off the table as one of the maids passed by with a pitcher of tea.
“Don’t you see I require a new fork!” Evelynn hissed as the maid hurriedly passed the pitcher to another servant and knelt to retrieve the fallen utensil.
Carina chewed her quail egg silently as her gaze trailed from the apologizing maid to the furious and trembling Evelynn, over to the duo of smiling victors, Hana and Eleanora.
‘Failure always rolls downhill.’
Carina focused on her meal, knowing she would need all her energy for tonight when her training with Viktor began.