Chapter 60: The Arrival at Dawn
The final two days before the Ambassador’s anticipated arrival passed by in a blur of frantic preparation and grim anticipation. Carina rolled over beneath her blanket and glared resentfully at the first rays of morning light as Tilly knocked on her bedroom door.
“Lady Maura, the bath you asked me to prepare is ready,” the maid called through the barrier.
Carina groaned and pushed herself upright, wincing as taunt muscles protested her movements. Another late night of training with Lumi and Viktor in the plane of elemental essence had left her sore and tired before the day began.
After a brief but refreshing soak in the prepared bath, Carina changed into a viridian dress with sheer sleeves and a long overskirt. Then she toweled her still damp hair and teased the curled ends with scented oil. Her rose perfumed hair was still drying as Carina powdered her face, outlined her ice-blue eyes with a thin trace of charcoal eyeliner and muted gray eyeshadow. One final touch of a light pink lipstick to her lips finished the look.
‘Demure but attractive, as a crown princess’s attendant should be,’ Carina reasoned as she analyzed the result. She added a silver pair of earrings to match Viktor’s bracelet, then pushed back the chair before the vanity desk and moved over to the bookshelf.
The Winter Rose felt heavy as it dropped into her waiting palm. ‘Viktor said the enchantment needs about a month to take permanent effect, so wearing it for just a few days should be fine.’
Carina knew the royal family and their attendants would travel through the capital’s public streets to greet the Ambassador on the outskirts of the city.
‘Chances are one of the witch hunters will be keeping an eye on the Ambassador and his army. For this journey, at least, the benefits of the Winter Rose’s protection outweigh any risks or moral dilemma.’
Despite her reasoning, Carina felt uneasy as she latched the chain behind her neck and stared at the eye-catching rose diamond. The jewel glittered against her skin where the sheer ruffled fabric of her shoulders met the sweetheart cut of the satin viridian of her dress.
With a worried sigh, Carina shook her head and pulled a sealed envelope from a book on the second shelf titled Statues and Proceedings of Ennoblement. Carina tucked the envelope under the court robes folded and draped over her left arm and left the room.
Mrs. Poppy was making her rounds on the first floor as Carina descended the stairs.
“Ahh, good, I was just about to look for you. Lady Hana isn’t feeling well this morning,” the head housekeeper said with a mix of frustration and relief as she spun around towards Carina.
“Oh?” Carina frowned, not particularly surprised that Hana’s anxiety and illness would take a sudden turn for the worse given their expected guest’s arrival. “I’ll go check on her then.”
“Do take a tray up as well if you can,” Poppy urged as she spun back towards the library. “Crown Princess Eleanora said that Lady Hana could stay behind to recover, but the rest of you will be leaving for the capital border in an hour!”
“Alright, I’ll head to the kitchen,” Carina relented as she shifted the letter under her cloak. “Could you find Sir Jordan and send him to me. I have a task for him this morning since I am suddenly otherwise occupied.”
“Yes, I’ll have a maid fetch him.”
Satisfied with that response, Carina moved on towards the kitchen, where the alert and attentive kitchen staff was preparing breakfast amid the already started preparations of the banquet that would take place at midday after the Ambassador entered the palace.
“Lady Maura, coming through!” one of the cooks shouted, and a path cleared before her almost instantly.
“I’m just going to make a quick tray for Lady Hana, then I’ll be out of your way,” Carina apologized as she moved past their already splattered and dusted smocks and clothes.
“I got a head start on it for you, Lady Maura!” Robbi called at the end of a kitchen counter. He gestured to a small tray with muffins, two boiled eggs, and two cups of milk tea. “I hope you don’t mind. I figured you’d be eating together on such a busy morning.”
“It looks perfect. Thank you, Chef.”
Mission accomplished, Carina navigated her way through the line of cooks, one of whom sucked in his gut to avoid sullying her dress as she stepped back into the hall with a small sigh of relief.
“Lady Maura!” Sir Jordan jogged up and caught the tray as Carina almost tripped on the hem of her cloak that had slid down her arm. “Alright, got it. Why don’t you let me help with that.”
“Thank you,” Carina muttered as she relinquished the tray and quickly checked her dress for splatter. “That was almost disastrous.”
“Where am I taking this? The dining room?” the knight inquired as he turned back the way he had come.
“Upstairs to Lady Hana’s room,” Carina answered as she refolded her cloak. “Ah—but I need you to deliver a letter for me.” She pulled the envelope from the folds of the mantle as Jordan turned towards her, and they rounded the stairs. Carina barely caught a glimpse of the hand that thrust out suddenly as Evelynn came into view, and the tray left Jordan’s distracted grip.
“Watch where you’re going!” Evelynn shouted even as Jorden reflexively moved between the descending spray of tea and Carina.
The breakfast now upended on the floor; Carina drew in a sharp breath as Jordan hurriedly spun to examine her. “Are you alright?” he asked worriedly.
“My dress is fine, but your trousers are a mess now,” Carina answered after a cursory examination. She refocused on Evelynn, who stepped gingerly around the mess on the floor with a satisfied smirk and then kicked the only intact teacup out of her path. “If you’re not going to help, Lady Evelynn, at least don’t create more problems!”
Evelynn spun around with a vicious glare. “How dare you—”
“What is all the—” Eleanora cut in as she appeared around the stairwell to survey the mess and her two attendants. Sharp amber eyes shot to Evelynn, who had the good sense to lower her gaze. “Can you two please avoid any further drama for the next few days?” Eleanora demanded in exasperation.
“Ah—it was my fault,” Sir Jordan quickly interjected. “I was holding the tray and not looking where I was headed.”
The crown princess focused on him with a frown. “Shouldn’t you be guarding outside the palace, Sir Jordan?”
Jordan nodded, bowed, and stepped back towards Carina with an apologetic, “Sorry that I spilled Lady Hana’s tray, Lady Maura.” His hand slid over her fingers under the cloak and around the letter she held. Grasping his intent, Carina relinquished her grip and watched the knight tuck the envelope inside the sleeve of his jacket.
‘A sharp-witted knight. He will come in handy.’
“Please don’t worry about it. I’ll have the Chef boil a few more eggs,” Carina replied.
Sir Jordan nodded, bowed to the crown princess, and jogged back toward the front doors.
Eleanora shook her head and turned back towards the library. “Lady Maura, come with me, please.”
Carina hesitated. “But—”
“Sir Jordan didn’t dump that tray all by himself,” Eleanora interrupted with another sharp look at the pale Evelynn, who waited with her eyes downcast. “Since you have nothing better to do, Lady Evelynn, do bring Hana a new tray. Then prepare and deliver a breakfast tray to Maura in the library and Lady Tiffany upstairs. After that, you may eat your own breakfast and try to stay out of everyone’s way.”
Carina wasn’t sure how she felt about Evelynn handling her food, or Hana’s, for that matter. Still, she hoped the attendant wasn’t foolish enough to irritate Eleanora again on what was already turning out to be a very stressful day.
“The dancers and musicians you hired,” Eleanora began the moment they entered the library.
“Already settled in at the inn outside the main gate, and they should be entering the palace within the hour.”
“They have entry passes?”
“I had the Prime Minister write letters of entry for both groups. They will be required to stay together and remain under knight escort once inside the palace, but that shouldn’t be an issue.”
“Alright,” Eleanora said with a tense but satisfied sigh. “Hana isn’t feeling—herself this morning.”
“I heard,” Carina murmured sympathetically.
“Everything for the banquet has been perfectly organized, and preparations are already underway, but would you mind checking in on Robbi and the staff between courses—just to put out any fires that may arise?”
“Whatever will help ease your concerns, your Highness,” Carina responded promptly.
“Good, that just leaves—” Eleanora paused as her gaze suddenly settled on the necklace Carina was wearing. “That necklace—” she trailed off, and her expression turned incredulous.
“It was a gift,” Carina answered hesitantly.
“A rather expensive one,” Eleanora retorted with an incredulous scoff. “Mr. Frost must value your designs very highly indeed.”
Carina blinked, momentarily caught off guard by the sudden shift of their conversation, then smiled with an indecisive shrug. She wasn’t sure who would be able to identify the necklace as an heirloom of the Hawthorne house. Still, Carina wasn’t going to go out of her way to correct Eleanora’s inaccurate assumption.
“By the way, my mother, Lady Isabella, was very excited to learn about your other identity,” Eleanora continued as she settled into her chair. “She has great admiration for Lady Aconitum’s designs even if she didn’t originally approve of you as an attendant due to your background as a half-blood. But now that Mother knows you were the source of creative inspiration for my wedding gown and a vast majority of the capital’s shift in fashion, her opinion has drastically changed.” Eleanora’s lips twitched with amusement as she settled into the seat behind her desk and gestured to a letter that waited there. “She has already drawn up a list of demands she hopes Lady Aconitum will be willing to accommodate.”
Carina took one glance at the list and cringed.
“Only when time permits, of course,” Eleanora added with a sympathetic smile. “We have an eventful few days ahead of us.”
‘You have no idea,’ Carina thought ruefully.
An hour later found Eleanora and her attendants standing beside their carriage in the morning breeze as they stared across the plots of farm lands that stretched outwards from the capital into the distance. Two-hundred knights and six-hundred Lafearian soldiers were amassed behind them in a uniform formation as a show of strength for the nervous citizens. The latter watched from over a dozen windows, rooftops, and sideroads.
Carina glanced back towards the distant pale faces of commoners and nobles, soldiers and knights and wondered how many of them would remain alive in the coming weeks and months.
Two other armies remained a day’s march from the capital, but even those forces combined would not be enough to face the horde of coven witches the Ambassador had brought with him.
‘Let us hope Percy’s efforts and the ongoing negotiation will ensure continued peace between Lafeara and Ventrayna—and that I do not tip the scales towards war in the next few days.’
A gust of wind swept Carina’s ash brown hair across her face as a whirlwind danced between the royal carriages and coated the ladies’ dresses in dust. Carina pushed her hair aside and narrowed her eyes as she brushed the dirt from her dress and raised her hand to her nostrils. The dust smelled of fire and sulfur.
A shout came from the knights which surrounded the crown prince’s entourage, positioned at the front to greet their guest. Blinking against the rising wind, Carina squinted at the dark line along the horizon that appeared to be moving towards them.
“Is that them?” Tiffany whispered nervously as Eleanora raised a telescope to her eyes.
“Yes,” the crown princess confirmed, her voice anxious but filled with pride.
As the dark line swelled in size, so did the distant sound of a thousand horses. The Ventrayna army barreled towards them with frightening speed, swarming and merging around trees and knocking over fences as their numbers easily overwhelmed the well-traveled road before them.
“Why aren’t they slowing?” A man’s voice whispered in the ranks beside them. “Are they going to attack?”
Carina stared numbly at the foreboding shadow of the Emperor’s witch army and felt a ripple of fear slither up her gut and wrap around her heart.
‘Is this what I will bring down upon us all?’
The sharp blast of a horn echoed through the morning breeze, and the advancing army slowed to a sudden halt. The wind carried trails of dust over the front ranks of the Ventrayna army across the road and fields towards the tensely waiting Lafearian troops and the capital.
“They stopped,” a Lafearian soldier whispered, his voice coated in hope and dread.
Carina glanced towards Nicholas, who sat on horseback ahead of them at the front of his retinue and army. On either side of him were the Dowager and Prime Minister, each mounted and dressed in ceremonial robes. Captain Beaumont waited a few feet back on his speckled gelding beside Lord Commander General Stryker and Captain Leo, similarly dressed in military uniform and armor. At the back of the crown prince’s formation, accompanied by a few knights in new glistening armor, Knight Commander Quentin sat composed and relaxed as he surveyed the approaching force.
‘For a man whose job will be to ensure no discord breaks out between our Ventrayna guests and the rest of the capital—he demonstrates a remarkable calm.’
Beneath the vanishing clouds of dust, a small formation of about two hundred cavalry appeared and continued down the capital road towards them. As the group approached, General Stryker gave a whispered command to Commander Quentin, who turned his horse around and proceeded back inside the capital.
“So many soldiers,” Tiffany whispered nervously.
“Let us hope they leave on peaceful terms,” Evelynn muttered beneath the hand raised to shield her eyes from the still-rising sun.
The approaching group of Ventrayna soldiers also contained several attendants, a luxurious carriage surrounded by bodyguards, and five very notable figures.
At the front, Marquess Winifred and Earl Percy flanked Ventrayna’s Ambassador. The latter rode a blood-red stallion with a black mane and tail, braided in thick gold threads. The Ambassador himself presented an imposing figure, dressed in the scarlet and gold colors which matched the scorpion banner carried by his retinue. His beard glittered in the sunlight that caught the rubies and gold woven into its braided ends. A silk-rolled hat adorned his head that might have been a crown for all the jewels sewn upon it. Even the Ambassador’s sword and stirrups were forged from gold; his black leather saddle stitched in runes of golden thread, his crimson red cape of a similar fashion.
Carina scoffed silently as the soldiers around them murmured at such an audacious display of wealth. Lord Haemish was a sight that would set the heart of Lafeara’s citizens aflame with resentment to see how their taxes helped maintain the Emperor’s tax collector’s exorbitant lifestyle.
Still, Carina smiled as she affixed her gaze upon the wealthy, powerful, and formidable Ambassador. Finally, she was about to come face to face with the most hated name on Maura’s list. As Lord Haemish reined in his blood-red stallion before Crown Prince Nicholas, Carina reflected that—except for one absent character—all of those against whom Maura bore a grudge, now stood before her beneath the morning sun.
At present, Maura’s enemies were allies, but for all Carina knew, Lafeara would be at war by the time she helped Maura exact her first taste of revenge.