Chapter 59: The Trouble with Twins
The last step of the secret staircase behind the dining room wall creaked like an old man’s bones as Carina reached the bottom. She drew in a quick breath, listened to the silence for a moment, and then opened the false wall behind the tapestry which hung in the dining room.
Once more, she skirted from shadow to shadow until she reached the servant’s door beneath the stairwell in the foyer and entered the hidden hallway. The rose tiles glowed blue under the frost of her magic, and Carina descended into the dark passageway as her candlestick sputtered, its dim light dancing along the cave-like tunnel.
The increased number of knights patrolling outside the fortress walls and along the capital streets provided another challenge altogether. In preparation for the Ambassador’s arrival, a new curfew had been implemented, which prohibited carriages on the streets after the ninth bell. With no alternative other than traveling by foot, Carina headed towards her destination that lay some distance from the border of cherry trees surrounding the royal castle.
Saddleback Street was located just east of the slums, not far from the Serpentine River. As a result, numerous bars and inns had been erected along the district that accommodated visiting sailors, merchants, and other travelers.
The knights increased presence offered some security against mugging and other nefarious activity that often took place this close to the slums. The capital’s peacekeepers also made a point to interrogate anyone they caught outside after curfew and encouraged citizens to remain indoors to avoid unnecessary trouble.
Carina avoided the knights as best she could. The torches they carried certainly made them easy enough to spot long before they caught sight of her. She was also grateful for her small stature, although being able to hide behind barrels of waste and trash wasn’t exactly something worth celebrating.
Just in case she was detained, Carina had chosen a simple dark cloak and her old Lady Aconitum mask for this trip. The silver knives from Master Iker and the bracelet that connected her to Lumi and Viktor provided additional comfort as she approached Rutenberg Inn, her feet and nerves more than a little worn out from the long, tense journey.
A thick coating of stale ale and something that smelled like aged cheese mingled with the pungent aroma of dirty socks and body odor that nearly took Carina off her feet as she entered the Inn. Crushed nutshells, hardened grime, and unidentifiable puddles of what might have once been consumed ale lined the crowded floor before her.
A few men at the door glanced in her direction with surprised and curious eyes, but most of the barroom occupants remained focused on the small square platform at the opposite end of the establishment. A blonde woman commanded the room with her magnetic smile, sultry blue eyes, and evocative garments that appeared little more than satin scarfs sewn together. Carina watched as the entertainer twisted her lithe body into a sensual dance that soon had the masked attendant averting her gaze back to the crowded room.
‘So—that’s what passes for exotic dancing here.’
Although Madam Maylea had shown Carina something similar during their practice sessions, this dancer appeared to have passed the advanced course with flying colors.
Aware of the attention drifting in her direction the longer she stood by the door, Carina skirted the tables of sailors, merchants, and one or two nobles, who tried to blend in with the local riffraff. She headed towards the establishment’s owner located behind the bar.
“Now look here,” the barman grunted as soon as he caught sight of her. “I don’t know what foolishness brought a young lady like you out after dark, but I won’t be held responsible for your wellbeing. Now back out the way you came, quick like. Find the nearest knight—there’s more than plenty of them about these days—and get back to your nursemaid and crib.”
“I’m expected,” Carina replied with a tired smile. “A friend of Madam Maylea referred me to this place.”
“What? Maylea?” The bar owner cocked his head at her and sighed through the stained clouds of his once magnificent beard. “Then you better wait in the back out of sight. Lilaru’s almost finished her number. It wouldn’t do to spoil the lad’s fun prematurely.”
“Alright, thank you,” Carina quickly agreed, aware of the pointed gaze some of the men were giving her. One fellow in particular, who looked vaguely familiar through the haze of pipe smoke, lingered at the corner of the bar studying her with his one good eye.
“Follow me then. Spit! Take over here for a moment, would you!”
Carina was relieved to find the back rooms were better maintained. Each contained a simple wooden bed, threadbare mattress, and patched-up blanket for those too encumbered by the Inn’s fine ale to make it back home safely. They were also available for temporary rent, but very few who could afford the coin would choose to sleep here while they remained sober.
“I’ll let Griselda know you’re here. She wasn’t feeling up to dancing for the boys tonight, not that it mattered. Lilaru’s more than enough for this crowd,” the innkeeper said conversationally as he handed over a key. “Don’t let any gentlemen in—or anyone other than Lilaru and Griselda for that matter. I’d rather stay on Maylea’s good side if you know what I mean.”
“I appreciate your assistance,” Carina replied with a quick smile as she offered four crescents for the room.
The innkeeper hesitated but accepted the coins, then nodded politely before he turned and shut the door behind him.
‘Much nicer than Alex, but then he only has to get rough when his customers get unruly.’
The bar’s boisterous noise continued for a time, then eventually rose to a crescendo of applause. The sound of a flute filled the gaps between as echoing whistles splintered the air, and the cheers faded. Then the capital bell tower boomed out ten solemn gongs, and the barkeeper issued a last call for drinks.
Carina touched the leather pouch at her side and pulled out the box with the two silver hairpins she had special ordered. She sighed, checked the pendant watch at her waist nervously, then jumped as a faint knock came from her door.
“Lady M?” a female voice whispered.
“Who are you?” Carina answered as she returned the box to the pouch and rose.
“Madam Maylea sent us. Please may we come in?”
With a touch to the strap of the dagger tucked in her sleeve, Carina unlocked the door and opened it to find two matching pairs of seal-blue eyes, blonde hair, and relieved smiles waiting for her. She motioned the dancers inside the small room before noticing the large man, dressed in leather armor, who lurked in the hallway behind them. The man nodded to her curtly before he turned to watch the hall.
“That is Sedric, our flute player and bodyguard,” one of the women explained as they slid past her. “He will keep watch, yes?”
Carina nodded, focused on the accent of their voice, which was neither Ventrayna nor Lafearian.
“You are younger than we expected,” observed one dancer.
“Still, Madam Maylea spoke highly of you and assured us that you could be trusted.”
“She said you might even match us in skill one day—with the right training.”
“I—ah,” Carina glanced between them, distracted by their perfectly matching faces. They were somewhere in their early twenties. “Sorry, who—”
“I am Lilaru,” replied the blonde to her left.
“Griselda,” replied the other to her right.
‘How the hell do people tell you apart?’ Carina shook the distracting thought from her mind. “You are aware of why I asked the Madame for your services?”
Lilaru smiled and held out Carina’s pouch in her hand. “The answer is in here, no?”
Carina touched her belt where the pouch had been. “How did you—”
“That is not fair, Lilaru,” Griselda protested. “Lady M is our client, and she hardly seems capable of keeping herself upright.”
“I am fine. Just recovering from a fever—” Carina cut in, surprised they had noticed her fatigue. “How did you get my bag?”
“Mmm, you were so distracted by our faces,” Lilaru said with a teasing laugh. “That you were not paying attention to our hands.”
‘So you’re pickpockets.’ Carina scoffed and then hesitantly checked her wrist for Viktor’s bracelet.
“And now you have shown us something you value far more than whatever secrets this bag holds,” Griselda admonished as she folded her arms and shook her head. “You should be more aware of your actions, Lady M. They will betray your intentions.”
“It is a pretty bracelet.” Lilaru held out the bag, but Carina quickly stepped back. “Ah, but how unlucky, it is enchanted to prevent its removal.”
Carina raised a brow at that; she hadn’t actually tried removing the bracelet up till now. ‘I really need to learn to identify enchants so I can avoid being surprised by them.’ She cleared her throat as she focused on her guests. “Might we discuss the reason I summoned you—both of you—here?”
“Not inside this room,” Griselda spoke up quickly. “Too many eyes noticed your arrival. Too many ears are no doubt pressed to these thin walls to discover what you are seeking.”
Carina frowned and glanced towards the walls. The more she studied them, the more she noted a few peepholes around the thin wooden beams. ‘That’s—disturbing.’ She accepted the bag from Lilaru and followed the twins as they opened the bedroom door. A second bodyguard had joined Sedric outside and nodded as Griselda—or so Carina guessed—spoke to him softly in a foreign language.
“Harold will return your key to the innkeeper,” Griselda explained as she motioned to the man carrying a harp and a sizeable blunt staff. “Though he will delay a bit to give us a head start.”
Their natural wariness suited Carina just fine. Madame Maylea had behaved the same way when Carina initially retained her services to learn the different cultural dances of this world—and gain the Spymaster’s trust.
Maylea had been intrigued by the half-blood who had gained the support of a Countess and quite disappointed when she failed to recruit Carina into her secret information-gathering organization. Despite training with her for several months, Carina was still uncertain who Maylea reported to if Maylea even had a Master. Over the years, she had repaid the Spymaster’s friendship and advice as she built Frost’s business and prepared for this moment.
The twins covered themselves in cloaks offered by Sedric, who led the way down the darkened streets towards the Serpentine River’s glittering black border. Upon the riverbank mixed with pebbles, soil, and sand, a large canopy tent was erected beside the silent humming waves. A third bodyguard stood before it with a large curved blade and stepped forward to greet them.
“This is Saul,” Griselda introduced with a single nod before opening the tent flap to enter.
“Do come inside, Lady M,” Lilaru encouraged with a mischievous smile.
Carina frowned as she followed but soon found her forward momentum halted, if only for the briefest moment, by an invisible force. ‘An enchantment?’
“Yes,” Viktor hummed through the bracelet.
“An enchantment that keeps out unwanted visitors,” Lilaru explained with a pleased smile. “Had you been an imposter, that barrier would have felt like an immovable wall.”
“And Saul would have run you through before tossing you into the river,” Griselda added with casual deference as she sank into a quilted bed.
Carina glanced towards Saul as he shut the tent flap behind them and tried to shake off that disturbing image. “What a clever enchantment. Are you—witches?”
Lilaru laughed and titled her head. “Shouldn’t you be able to tell if we were?” Her smile faltered for a moment when Carina continued to look confused. The twin glanced over at Griselda.
“Madame Maylea informed us that you wish to assassinate the Ventrayna Ambassador,” Griselda announced as she removed her cloak and set it aside.
“That is correct. And Lord Haemish will be arriving in the next two days,” Carina confirmed.
“How will we get to him?”
“You are performers. The Crown Princess will be hosting a banquet for her uncle on the day he arrives.”
“So we dance for him, seduce him, and then what?” Griselda pressed.
Carina reached inside her bag, pulled out the box, and frowned when she found it empty.
“Lilaru,” Griselda admonished quickly. “I apologize, Lady M., despite her twenty-four years, she behaves like a child more often than not.”
“I was only admiring them,” Lilaru said shyly as she pulled the twin hairpins from her blonde hair. “What are the tips made of?”
“Frozen glass and a very deadly poison,” Carina answered bluntly.
Griselda muttered something unintelligible while Lilaru’s blue eyes widened for a moment as she studied one of the tips intently.
“May I demonstrate?” Carina inquired as she held out a hand.
“Please do. Lilaru!” Griselda admonished with a slight threatening growl in her voice.
Lilaru pouted but gracefully danced over to Carina and held out the matching hairpins.
“The tip is fragile,” Carina explained as she lifted one from the dancer’s palm. “It is meant to strike directly into the target’s bloodstream, a major artery preferably. You then snap the bottom half off, leaving the frozen glass in place. The poisoned tip will dissolve once inside the body, and the subject will fall into a coma within a matter of minutes. Between six to eight hours later, he will stop breathing for good. Within two to four hours, the tip will have dissolved inside his body, and the wound will begin to heal—leaving only a cut and small bruise in its wake.”
Lilaru said something then, but Carina had never heard the language she used.
Griselda nodded slowly in approval. “You want the Ambassador’s death to appear—natural?”
“An assassination while the Ambassador is a guest of the royal family would lead to certain severe consequences that I would prefer to avoid,” Carina confirmed gravely.
“Surely his entourage and bodyguards will be suspicious,” Griselda continued persistently. “I hear his wife is traveling with him and a son, no?”
“Why not kill him while he travels back to Ventrayna? Or before he even arrives?” Lilaru interrupted.
“Because as long as Lady Lavinia reaches Lafeara, she will have authority to complete the negotiations in her husband’s stead,” Carina replied. “Also, as his wife and a highly ranked noble, Lady Lavinia will have the legal authority to rule his death an accident—and have his body cremated.”
“Ah—“ Lilaru muttered something unintelligible than continued in Lafearian, “—the wife will be happy with him gone, no?”
“She is an accomplice?” Griselda pressed curiously.
“No—but it would be to her benefit to let the matter rest—as long as we leave no suspicious evidence behind,” Carina explained as she glanced between them.
Lilaru said something unintelligible to her sister, then turned to Carina and added, “We stab, twist, and it is done. Yes?”
“Yes. Obviously, it will have to be done in private where there are no witnesses,” Carina added with a glance between them. “The Ambassador has a fondness for dancers and especially—young blonde women.”
“It is too easy—unintelligible—we will be successful, have no doubt,” Lilaru replied with a grin.
“And our escape route?” Griselda pressed cautiously. “Should we succeed or fail—we must have a way out of that fortress they call a castle.”
“I have a way in and out. There are many secret passages in the royal palaces, one of which will get you out of the Ambassador’s room unseen when your task is done.” Carina smiled grimly. “As long as you kill the Ambassador without raising any alarm, I can ensure a safe trip back to the Serpentine River. From here, your escape and destination will be up to you.”
Griselda studied Carina silently. It was then Carina noticed the subtle difference between them. Rather than any physical anomaly, it was their gaze. Griselda’s blue eyes were assertive, steady, and cautious, while Lilaru’s seemed to dance with some unspoken eagerness and a cunning intuition.
“Your mask,” Griselda said calmly. “Is it necessary?”
“Oh? No—” Carina pulled the velvet fabric free “—No. You should know my face so we can work together inside the palace.”
“But we will not know each other.”
“Outside of this meeting, you are just performers I hired through the Hawthorne name to entertain the crown princess’s guests,” Carina confirmed. “I will have a letter of approval waiting for you at the gate. Mention my name and that you are here for the banquet—that is—if you both agree to undergo this dangerous mission.”
“Lord Haemish Emerson is a man that deserves death,” Griselda responded grimly. “With the Saint’s blessing, our task will prove successful.” The dancer stood swiftly and held out her hand to Carina. “One way or another—he will die. That much, I promise you.”
The steadiness of those words and Griselda’s confidence eased the anxious knot in Carina’s stomach as she offered the second hairpin to the dancer instead of her hand. “Keep these out of the sun and away from any excessive heat. And please treat them with care. They are meant to be fragile but should still stab deep enough to enter an artery before they break.”
“I will trust you on this,” Griselda replied with a faint shrub. “But if your way doesn’t work, we have our own methods that will ensure the Ambassador departs from this world.”
Carina nodded. One way or another, Lord Haemish would die—she would deal with the ramifications of his death once it was all over.
Lilaru draped an arm around Griselda’s shoulder as they watched Sedric escort Lady M to the capital’s safer streets.
“What do you think?” Lilaru pressed curiously in their native tongue, the all but archaic language of old Zarus nobility.
“She can get us in and out, and these,” Griselda held out the hairpin and sniffed it curiously. “Might prove effective. If we can remove the Ambassador here without detection, our plans in Ventrayna can continue without restraint.”
“Are they magic?” Lilaru murmured, still studying the glass-like tip of the hairpin she held.
“Magic, enchantment, or poison—” Griselda shrugged, “—we will give it a try. But if it fails—” Griselda passed the hairpin to Lilaru, who tucked it into her blonde curls once more. “We should prepare a magic nullifying poison just to be safe.”
“I like her,” Lilaru declared with a sudden grin. “Why didn’t Madame recruit her?”
“She tried.” Griselda shrugged. “Someone beat her to it, I think. Either way, Maylea trusts this Lady M. That’s good enough for me.”
“But dying in one’s sleep,” Lilaru pouted as Griselda pulled away and walked towards the campfire lit beside the river. “Doesn’t it seem far too easy for him?”
Griselda ignored the comment as her eyes narrowed towards two shadows beside their tent. “Who did you find, Saul?”
The dark-skinned bodyguard dragged over a rough-looking Lafearian with a bandaged eye. “This one came sniffing after you and the lady,” Saul growled as he kicked the bound man face down into the sand.
“And who do you work for?” Griselda asked unsympathetically as the man struggled to rise.
“None of your business, slut,” the one-eyed man hissed.
Griselda’s opened her mouth in protest as she spun but missed Lilaru’s arm as the dancer leaped forward and jabbed Carina’s hairpin into the man’s neck. A giddy smile split across the blonde’s pretty face as she snapped the bottom half of the hair ornament free from the startled man’s flesh.
Saul raised a brow but kept his mouth shut as the man roared in pain, lashing out with his feet. He managed to rise and stumbled back away from them a few steps before he toppled over with a strangled groan.
Griselda lowered her arm as she approached the panting man, who struggled to breathe as he rolled about on the river bank. The Lafearian let out a sharp cry of pain as the muscles in his chest and arms flexed and strained. Then his body curved as his spine arched against the ground. Spasms rocked through the pathetic man as foam trickled from the corner of his mouth, then his single good eye rolled back, and he slumped against the ground. A few twitches later, the Lafearian was utterly still. Only the slow rise and fall of his chest gave evidence that he was alive.
Griselda wiped the foam from his cheek with a handkerchief and then checked his pulse. It was faintly erratic, certainly odd for someone who appeared to be sleeping deeply, but Griselda very much doubted the man would ever wake—not that he would be given the opportunity.
She tossed the handkerchief onto his chest and growled out, “Lilaru,” as she stood.
“What? We had to test it,” her twin replied neutrally as she knelt and placed a finger beneath the man’s nose. “Look, he’s still breathing. Let’s wait and see how long the poison takes.”
“It would have helped to know why he was following us before you put him in a coma,” Griselda snapped as she rubbed blond bangs away from her forehead.
“Oh?” Lilaru tilted her head, then yanked the unconscious man’s jacket open, grabbed his linen shirt, and ripped the fabric away from his neckline. “This should help.”
The tattoo of a snarling red wolf stared back at them. Griselda blinked twice before she snatched a knife from Saul’s belt and plunged it into the unconscious man’s throat. The unfortunate Lafearian didn’t even twitch as the dancer pulled the blade free, watched him bleed out, and then tore out the already shattered tip of the poisoned hairpin.
“Tie him to something heavy and toss him in the river,” Griselda whispered sharply to Saul. The bodyguard grunted and moved off to perform his task. “And you—” Griselda whirled around to Lilaru but stopped as her twin caught the wrist which held Saul’s dagger.
“You’re all bloody,” Lilaru murmured as she wiped the scarlet drops from Griselda’s cheek.
“Lilaru, it took a lot of effort for me to convince Madame to give us this job. Do you have any idea what she—”
“Are you angry with me?” Lilaru whispered with an ominous haunted stare.
“I just—want you to be more careful,” Griselda whispered back with strained patience. “We only get one shot at this.”
“I am ready,” Lilaru replied confidently as she twined their fingers together. “One way or another—we kill him.”
“I would prefer a way that lets us leave Lafeara in one piece,” Griselda muttered, then cast a sharp glance towards the dark buildings that lined the capital border. “No more reckless decisions without my approval, yes?”
“I will listen to you, Sister. I always do.”
A defeated sigh was the only answer Griselda could give as she studied the dead man beside them and prayed that his comrades in the Burning Blade would not notice his absence—or at the very least not connect his death to them.