Chapter 66: A Dance of Assassins
“It’s a wonder that any negotiations will be taking place tomorrow with how much fine wine these nobles have consumed,” Mrs. Poppy observed with a sour note as she poured another bottle of wine into Carina’s pitcher.
The headhouse keeper and attendant stood together beside the open double doors that led into the interior of Rose Palace. The courtyard was abuzz with lively celebration as the royals and nobles finished their meal and raised their fourth or sixth glass of wine in celebration.
“The royal couple is getting along, the Ambassador is sufficiently drunk and happy, and all our other guests are enjoying the efforts we have put into this banquet,” Carina replied with a weary note of victory. “Tomorrow’s problems are not ours.”
Poppy raised a brow and frowned as she finished filling the attendant’s pitcher, then placed the half-empty bottle onto the cart beside her. “Then what was all that fuss about earlier that resulted in you needing to change your gown, Lady Maura?”
“Ahh, that,” Carina murmured as she glanced to the right of the courtyard where Viscount Hendrix and his wife stood on either side of Lord Percy’s seat. The Hendrix’s chatted pleasantly to Marquess Winifred, who was seated to the left of the Earl. Percy remained stoically aloft from their conversation, though his gaze had a habit of roaming the room searching for Carina. “Just a misunderstanding caused by malicious rumors someone has been spreading about me.”
“But what else would these fine ladies have to fill their day aside from gossip?” Poppy asked with a knowing smirk. “Though, if you do decide to even the score—use the Aswan wine, not the Caligo. Cheaper and much more likely to stain.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, Mrs. Poppy,” Carina replied wryly as her gaze drifted to the left side of the banquet where Marquess Borghese was one too many cups into a vineyard. Beside him, the ever imposing Lady Priscilla appeared fixated on Nicholas and Eleanora, who were doing a remarkable job of entertaining the Ambassador while not slitting each other’s throat.
The rich and festive banquet melody the musicians played shifted to a more tranquil tune as the servants cleared away the remnants of the main course.
‘It’s time,’ Carina realized as she waited for the servants to pass by her into the hall before she returned to the task of refilling the noble’s glasses with more Aswan wine. Carina had just filled her first cup when the curtains draped over the back entrance behind the musicians fluttered open as Sedric and Harold appeared. The bodyguards were dressed in midnight blue garments and carried a palanquin with a silk curtain of similar color draped over its dark wooden oak arms.
The musicians rose and moved aside while servants hurriedly cleared a path through the chairs. Sedric and Harold continued forward at a steady pace, undeterred. When a servant didn’t grab one of the chairs fast enough, Sedric kicked it aside.
Carina flinched as the chair clattered against the ground, but the banquet guests appeared more intrigued than offended by the rough display.
The bodyguards set the palanquin down at the edge of the courtyard and bowed towards the banquet tables. Then Sedric lifted his flute, and with a single haunting note, silenced the musicians who moved behind the curtains to retire and refresh until the dancer’s performance was complete.
The sudden, dramatic appearance of the palanquin and Sedric’s flute quickly captured the banquet guests’ attention. With a similar show of powerful confidence, Harold unhooked a set of drums from the arm posts and softly beat out an energetic and rousing rhythm that supported the flute’s soulful tune.
The drum beats soon matched the flute player and drummer’s movements as they marched in a circle around the palanquin once, then a second time, and a third. The resonate beat increased in pace with each revolution until, at the music’s zenith, the drum and flute ceased, and the courtyard fell into silence.
Sedric and Harold turned. Their outstretched hands gripped the curtain which concealed the palanquin’s occupants within its hidden depths.
Across the midnight blue satin cover, a glittering sand-like substance shifted as the fabric moved. Then, as Sedric and Harold flung the curtain out towards the banquet, the glimmering particles showered upon the stunned onlookers and scattered across the flickering candles on the banquet table.
A decadent fragrance soon filled the air. A few mingled gasps of surprise and delight broke the intense silence as the unveiled litter came into view beneath the fluttering drape. Sedric released his corner of the curtain. Harold swiftly pulled and wrapped the material around his arm before casting the satin fabric to the edge of the courtyard.
The dazed eyes of the silent audience remained focused upon the two golden heads bowed together. Two pairs of arms and legs folded about the other as two pairs of startling blue eyes, outlined in black and gold, opened and looked towards the audience.
Sedric lifted his flute once more, and this time a strange, erratic tune shivered through the dark cloaks that surrounded the twin dancers. Their gold-painted arms and legs moved as if captivated by the music, and yet they remained glued to each other, trapped in a tangle of confusion.
Herold’s drum returned, and the music blended into a calm, evocative melody as the dancer’s movement synchronized. They pulled away from each other, separating until only the right and left hand connected the twins. Then the dancers raised their heads and—extending opposing legs over the palanquin’s side—rose and turned to face the royal table.
With neither a word nor the glimmer of a smile, the twins bowed gracefully to the royal family. Their gold-painted hands touched the sun and moon-shaped sapphires that adorned a thin circlet around their braided blonde hair in a gesture of respect.
Carina took in a shallow breath as she glanced towards the Ambassador. Lord Haemish appeared pleased, intrigued, and intently focused upon the performers, a cup half-raised, forgotten in his hand.
Eleanora sat with eyebrows raised, a smile twitching in the corners of her mouth, while Nicholas nervously glanced from the scantily clad dancers towards the Dowager at his left. Octavia felt the crown prince’s gaze and coughed into her handkerchief before the Dowager shot her grandson a look that seemed to express, ‘this is your wife and therefore your problem to deal with.’
Eleanora took one look at Nicholas’s lost expression and then, with a quick evaluation of her uncle’s delighted grin, waved her hand to the dancers and permitted them to begin.
“Well,” Lady Tiffany whispered nervously as she walked up beside Carina. “This will either be a resounding success for you—”
“Or I’ll be packing my bags and leaving first thing tomorrow?” Carina finished with a chuckle.
“If you’re lucky,” Tiffany added with a weak smile.
The twins shed their sheer black cloaks with matching grins, leaving only the skin-tight black laced costumes beneath that accentuated their figures and left very little to the imagination.
“O-on second thought,” Tiffany whispered breathlessly as her eyes widened in shock. “W-we should keep pouring the wine.”
Carina raised a brow curiously.
“If all our guests blackout—w-we can just pretend this was all just a bad dream.” With a focused look of determination, Tiffany returned to her task with one hand raised to shield her eyes from the sensuality on display at the center of the courtyard.
Carina smothered a laugh against the back of her hand and continued around the table to refill every empty glass she saw.
‘The less the guests remember about tonight, the better for the twins and myself.’
A quick assessment of the shocked but mesmerized nobles showed a mixed reaction to the twin’s seductive dance as Lilaru and Griselda twirled, tumbled, and spun around the courtyard floor. Their long gold-painted limbs shimmered in the candlelight while their braided, jewel adorned hair sparkled and danced against their painted cheeks, graceful hands, and enticing smiles.
‘I can’t even tell them apart now,’ Carina realized with a sigh of admiration. She tore her gaze away from the twins once more as a nobleman raised his glass for another refill. ‘I’m losing count, but the pitcher is nearly empty, so that’s a good sign.’
Carina noticed as she reached the corner of the royals table that quite a bit of the glittering dust had made its way onto the royal’s tablecloth, silverware, and even into their wine.
Nicholas appeared to notice as he passed his wine back to Beaumont, who promptly dumped its contents on the floor then signaled to a servant for a new glass. Eleanora laughed at the crown prince’s wastefulness and continued to drink her wine without a care. Haemish too appeared little concerned—or perhaps too drunk to notice. He remained focused on the two blonde beauties as he attempted to drink from his empty glass three times unsuccessfully.
‘I hope that glitter is nothing more than a stage prop, but something tells me it isn’t,’ Carina pondered with sudden anxiety. The lump at the back of her throat sank into her gut with the weight of an anvil as Carina contemplated the sudden reality that her fate and the success of this mission now rested in the hands of the two beautiful assassins before her. She took a deep breath, swallowed down her fear and anxiety, then refocused on pouring the wine.
The hairs on the back of her neck stiffened as she turned from one noblewoman’s filled glass to find Percy standing directly behind her.
“Might I speak with you for a moment, Lady Maura,” the Earl said formally, his winter grey eyes unreadable as he steadied the pitcher in her hand.
Carina edged around him and stepped back. “Forgive me, Earl Hawthorne, but I’m a bit busy right now.” A flicker of movement past his shoulder showed Haemish had finally raised his glass for a refill. “Excuse me,” Carina murmured as she moved to circle past the Earl.
Percy caught her arm and held her fast as he leaned towards her ear. “I just wanted to apologize for the rumors. I will resolve them quickly.”
Carina exhaled sharply as she half turned towards him. “Perhaps, Earl Hawthorne, you should reflect on your actions that have led to such rumors.” She tried to pull her arm free but failed when his grip tightened. She raised her gaze to snap at him but choked beneath the genuine look of hurt painted upon his countenance. With a futile sigh, Carina quickly averted her gaze. “Please, release me.”
“It’s not all false,” Percy replied suddenly.
Carina’s brows furrowed, but she refused to meet his gaze. Percy’s grip relaxed as his fingers glided down towards her wrist.
“They weren’t wrong about my infatuation with you, Lady Maura.”
Carina nearly dropped the pitcher as a jolt of surprise drew a startled gasp from her lips before she could clamp them shut. She turned instinctively to protest—but remembering the many eyes and ears around them—pulled free and fled his presence instead.
‘Damn it. What the hell did he mean?’
Logic and knowledge of the Winter Rose’s secret enchantments echoed the simple reality of her question as Carina’s cheeks flushed and she walked blindly past the Ambassador’s waiting cup.
‘But—what the hell am I supposed to do if Percy is, in fact, infatuated with me?’
She reached the opposite end of the royal table and turned to follow the banquet seats of the nobles back towards the kitchen. A hand shot out, nearly clobbering Carina in the face, and she stared down at a very intoxicated Lady Hendrix, who was saying something that was practically gibberish to a relaxed but smiling Lady Lavinia.
‘Oh, wouldn’t it be an irony if Evelynn ended up marrying Lord Marco and had to leave Lafeara?’
Carina resisted the urge to empty what remained of the wine in her pitcher upon the noblewoman. Instead, she filled the noblewoman’s cup and continued towards the palace doors.
Saul leaned casually against the open entry doors and nodded to the pitcher as Carina approached. “I’ll take what’s left of that if you’re done with it.”
“Are you sure?” Carina asked with a single raised brow. “Some of that glitter got into it.”
Saul sighed disappointedly and shook his head before moving further into the hallway.
‘That reaction. So, there was something in that glitter!’
“What’s in it?” Carina pressed as she followed.
“Just a little something to lighten the mood and leave the nobles with a fuzzy memory of the night’s events,” Saul replied with a knowing wink.
“You—” Carina stepped closer as she backed him against the wall “—did you just drug the entire royal family and the House of Lords?”
Saul scoffed. “Nothing worse than what a night of drinking that fine Caligo wine can do. Its effects are neither grave nor serious, or those poison tasters would have picked up on it by now.”
Carina let out a sharp exhale as she stepped away from him and leaned against the wall instead.
“Maybe you should have a drink yourself? Help you relax a bit,” Saul suggested with a knowing grin. “Either way, we’re both in need of a drink to celebrate tonight’s success.”
“You’re that confident?” Carina asked as she rubbed at the tension in her neck.
“Look at them,” Saul nodded back towards the banquet.
Carina followed his gaze and nearly choked at the sight of one of the twins—Lilaru, if she had to guess—laid out across the royal banquet table while Lord Haemish poured the contents of his refilled wine glass into the dancer’s open, waiting mouth.
‘Well, if that doesn’t get the Ambassador’s attention—’
“Let’s hope you’re right,” Carina whispered as she turned back towards the bodyguard. She stiffened as her gaze flew past him down the hall to where the floating dark specter stared back at her. Maura spread her gruesome mouth in a scream that emitted a single nearly unintelligible word.