Chapter 67: The Promise of a Reckoning
The frantic thud of the marble floor beneath her heels echoed in Carina’s ears as she raced down the hall towards the foyer. The attendant caught the stairwell’s corner post, spun around it, and sprinted up the stairs at breakneck speed. Her mind felt smothered beneath the weight of panic. The only thing Carina could focus on beyond her feet and sharp panting breaths was Maura’s specter, which glided ahead of her like a dark vapor. The ghost solidified at the end of the hall in front of Hana’s open door and pointed a pale, trembling white finger within.
As Carina slowed down, she heard another sound between her footsteps. Muffled scrapes and bumps that only multiplied her confusion and fear as she crashed into the partially open door—and froze in place the moment Hana’s room came fully into view.
Four men, dressed in dark hooded garments and black masks, stood around the curtained four-poster bed. Hana hung between them, her hands tied behind her back, her neck constricted by a knot made from her own bedsheet. The silk fabric was strung and twisted over the bedpost like a noose, with one end tied around Hana’s neck and the other pulled taut by one of the masked intruders.
Two other masked men pulled on the attendant’s feet as she struggled and kicked against them flutilely. Hana’s strained face turned a dark red and purple hue as she clung to the last strands of life that were rapidly slipping away.
“Lumi!” Carina cried out the scriva’s name in a desperate, strangled gasp, and the men turned. A cold blast swept from the hall into the room as the wolf materialized. A blur of white fur and jagged teeth tore into the man holding the silk noose as the scriva knocked the assassin off the bed and onto the floor.
Sounds distorted as the man’s death shrieks cut off almost as abruptly as they had begun. The three remaining assassins staggered away as Hana fell. The bound attendant’s head thudded loudly against the footboard of the bed before she tumbled out of sight onto the floor.
Lumi lifted its head over the bed. The wolf’s frozen fangs now covered in dark crimson blood as it advanced, snarling at the closest attacker, who hurled a bolt of fire directly into the scriva’s face.
‘Witches?!’ Carina barely registered this blatant show of magic before another man pulled a sword that ignited into flame as he leapt over the bed to pierce it into Lumi’s ribs. The wolf twisted with a pained yelp. Then the scriva ripped the blade free with its fangs, yanking the assassin off balance. The witch hastily scrambled and rolled off the bed away from Lumi’s avenging claws.
The rest of the scriva’s battle was obscured as the other two witch-assassins turned on Carina. The first attacker pulled two swords from beneath his robes and charged towards her as the blades ignited. The second witch sent a bolt of fire over his comrade’s head.
The twisting, howling magic roared as it raced towards Carina, who dropped to her knees and rolled beneath the blazing sword. Her gown tangled about her legs as Carina’s fingers glided across the marble floor. A moment later, a coat of ice quickly engulfed the entire end of the hall.
The sword-wielding witch redirected his swing then stumbled as his footing slipped. The assassin snarled as he twisted his body and stabbed one sword into the floor to regain his balance.
Carina turned her attention to the fire casting witch, then felt a stab of warning spark from her chest. She dove instinctively as one of the witch’s twin blades sailed past her and clattered across the floor towards his comrade, who sidestepped the weapon as he sent a wave of fire magic towards Carina.
A dark shadow appeared at the edge of the stairs beyond the roaring flames as Carina covered herself in a protective sheet of ice seconds before the hellish flames engulfed her.
“Burn the ice witch!” the sword-wielding assassin bellowed in the Ventrayna tongue as the scorching flames around her increased. The destructive magic’s heat licked against Carina’s cheek and arms even as the shield she hastily erected around herself began to waver. Panic filled Carina’s chest as her lips drew in the sizzling thin vapor. The air around her quickly consumed by the witch’s flame. ‘No, no. Stay focused. What did Viktor say? Fire requires oxygen, but if I freeze the air, I can deprive them of it.’
Carina closed her eyes as the frozen heart inside her chest flared with a pulse of blue light. Sharp, jagged frost coated the floor around her and spread towards the Ventrayna witches as the air grew frigid and dense.
Just as the fire began to weaken, a sword clattered to the floor beside Carina. She turned, looked up, and flinched as the witch, who loomed over her with arms raised above his head, coughed up blood that splattered against her cracked ice shield. The twin sword the assassin had flung at Carina moments ago now sprouted from his chest and pierced through the barrier of ice as the man’s knees buckled and he crumbled. His weight shattered the shield as Carina scrambled away. The assassin’s outstretched hand grasped the back of Carina’s dress as he fell and pulled her down onto the frost-covered floor beside him.
A broken shriek followed as the second witch flew past them and slammed against the wall. The man’s amber eyes flickered in surprise as the magic in them died. The assassin’s quivering hands grasped at the long bastard sword that pinned him to the wall then fell limp.
Beaumont strode past Carina and pried his weapon loose. The witch collapsed against the floor like a lifeless doll, leaving a trail of blood upon the wall behind him. The knight captain turned, his violet eyes hovering over Carina for a moment before he quickly strode inside Hana’s bedroom.
A moment later, the sound of shattering glass filled Carina’s ears, accompanied by another distorted scream that seemed to fade away in the distance before it was permanently silenced.
Shaken but still conscious of Hana’s safety, Carina rolled away from the dead witch and yanked her gown from his death grip. The hem of her dress ripped as it pulled free from the blade buried in the man’s back. Carina stared at the torn, blood-soaked hem and staggered back. Then she shook her head and spread shaking hands across the floor as she willed the ice to retreat. Her cold magic evaporated into ghostly wisps of air that filled the hallway as Carina rushed into the room. She noted Lumi’s absence as she circled the bed and avoided looking at the splatter of blood that covered the wall on the other side.
Hana remained unmoving upon the floor. Her pale face buried beneath her disheveled blonde hair. The silk noose still wrapped tightly around her neck.
“Hana!” Carina dropped to her knees beside the unconscious attendant and yanked the knot loose. “Hana!” Shaking hands pulled the noose away and fumbled through the blonde hair that covered Hana’s closed eyes. Hair that was too still as the unconscious woman showed no signs of breathing. “Please—” Carina pressed two fingers against the attendant’s neck and swallowed back a sob of relief at the faint pulse of life she found there.
With careful attention, Carina laid the woman’s limp body across the floor. Then she tilted Hana’s head back, pressed her fingers down upon the woman’s chin, and began CPR. Her hands trembled as she shifted from breathing to compressions.
‘Am I only supposed to do mouth to mouth if she has a pulse? Fuck!’
She pressed her mouth against Hana’s still warm lips and breathed. A frightened whimper slid through Carina’s clenched teeth as she pulled back and tore her eyes from Hana’s pale face to glance around the room.
Not only was Lumi absent, but the fourth assassin and knight captain were also gone, leaving only a shattered, broken windowpane that opened out into the silent night air. Carina forced another breath of air into Hana’s mouth and shifted back to compressions against the woman’s chest, determined to keep Hana’s heart beating.
The single word burned through Carina as she wiped away a tear and breathed into Hana’s lips again. ‘Why would they try to kill her?’
The garments, fire magic, Ventrayna language, and even their accent—the assassins had come for Hana, and Carina could only think of one person bold enough to send them.
“I’m so sorry, Hana—I didn’t see this coming. I should have protected you.”
A tear dropped onto Hana’s cheek as Carina shifted from compressions to mouth breathing. This time she was rewarded by a sudden burst of air as Hana gasped.
“Ahhh—thank the gods, saints—thank you, Hana!” Carina covered her face for a moment as she leaned back and took in a quick breath to steady herself. Then she quickly refocused on the still unconscious woman. “Hana? Hana, please wake up.”
For a moment, Carina thought she saw Hana’s eyes move, but the golden iris that blinked up at her did not match the turquoise-blue eyes that belonged to her friend. Carina rubbed away the tears in her own eyes as she blinked, but Hana’s eyes closed once more—and did not open again.
Footsteps in the hallway sent fear plummeting through her gut as Carina’s eyes whipped towards the door. Numb relief followed as Percy appeared in the doorway. The Earl’s winter grey eyes quickly focused on her. Then he glanced around the room sharply, taking in the blood and broken window before he knelt beside Carina. Whatever words Percy spoke to her then were muffled behind the heavy fatigue that weighted down upon the attendant’s body.
Carina barely registered Sir Jordan as the knight rushed past them towards the bedroom window. A shrill cry pulled her sluggish gaze from the knight to the door just before the maid, Tilly, rushed away.
“Maura, you can let go,” Percy’s voice pierced through the sound of waves that filled Carina’s ears as she drew in a strangled breath. She looked down at his hands that were struggling to detangle her grip on Hana’s shoulder and right hand.
A cold numbness swept over her as Carina relaxed her grip, but the moment the Earl pulled her hands away from Hana, a sudden panic filled her chest. Without thinking, Carina shoved the Earl aside and pulled Hana into her lap. She wrapped her arms around the unconscious woman’s head and shoulders as cold anger ached through every joint in Carina’s body.
Percy shouted something at Sir Jordan, who promptly left the room. The voices around Carina resumed their distorted vagueness as if blocked by a thick sheet of cold glass. Carina ignored them as she closed her eyes and pressed her forehead to Hana’s.
‘I’ll make him pay, Hana. I promise you. I will kill that fucking bastard myself.’
Carina didn’t feel the Earl’s touch as Percy gripped her shoulders gently and brushed his lips against her ear. The whisper that followed was like a calm breeze amid a raging storm. The strange soothing melody filled her ears as Carina’s taut muscles relaxed once more.
The last thing she saw before darkness claimed her entirely was the ruby crown above Eleanora’s stricken face as the crown princess rushed into the room.
Lumi waited for Carina in the cold dark room that reminded her of Viktor’s tomb. The pale snow wolf greeted her as Viktor’s magic built a cold wall of solitude around them. Carina curled up in the scriva’s soft fur and welcomed the numbness of sleep that awaited her there.
All too quickly, the harsh light of day broke through her frozen barrier as a persistent pair of hands dragged Carina back to reality.
“Maura. Maura, wake up! What happened?” Eleanora’s voice was brittle with fear and anger as her hands shook Carina’s shoulder. “Maura, I need you to wake up!”
Carina blinked and groaned as she took in the crown princess’s blurred image surrounded by the bright glare of sunlight.
“Who were they? Why did they attack Hana?” Eleanora repeated impatiently.
“I—I don’t know,” Carina answered groggily as the crown princess’s haggard face came into focus. “Could you—shut the curtains, please.”
A soft snort came from behind Eleanora and Carina saw someone’s shadow move towards the blinding windows. A moment later, the curtains swished shut, and the attendant sighed in relief as she lowered her hands.
‘I didn’t even drink last night, so why do I feel hungover.’
“How did you know Lady Hana was in danger?”
Carina stiffened as she identified the voice of the crown prince. Nicholas soon came into view as he sat down in the chair in front of a familiar writing desk. It was only then Carina realized they were in her bedroom.
Fear and caution snapped Carina fully awake as she took in Eleanora, seated on the edge of the bed. The crown princess wore a purple day dress that sparkled with pearls, which matched the adornments in Eleanora’s pulled-up hair. ‘She’s not wearing black—the color of mourning. That means—Haemish is still alive!’
Carina’s hands tightened into fists around the bedsheets. Hana’s struggling figure as she hung from the make-shift noose pulled tight by the witch assassins flashed behind Carina’s eyes.
“We saw you runoff from the banquet,” Nicholas said, pulling Carina’s attention back towards him and the economics book the crown prince had pulled from her bookshelf. “That’s why Captain Beaumont followed you to make sure everything was all right.”
“The Captain—” Carina cut in quickly “—is he alright?”
Nicholas frowned at the page he was looking at and then shut the book with a sigh. “Just a few scrapes and bruises from jumping through a window. I can’t say the same for the assassin Captain Beaumont landed on, however.”
Carina grimaced. ‘A two-story fall might not have killed him, but if Beaumont landed on top of him.’
“What about Hana?” Carina turned back to Eleanora.
“Hana is—still unconscious but—out of danger,” Eleanora murmured with apparent fear and concern. The crown princess’s red eyes and pale complexion foretold the toll last night’s events had taken on Hana’s secret lover. “According to Captain Beaumont, she’s very lucky to still be alive,” Eleanora added with a brief smile as she took Carina’s hand and held it tightly. “Thanks to you.”
“We were both lucky,” Carina replied with a muted grin. “And I am extremely grateful to Captain Beaumont for his aid. Please tell him so for me, your Majesty?”
For a long moment, Nicholas stared back at Carina without comment. Then the crown prince nodded his head in agreement as he rose and returned the book to the shelf. “But that still doesn’t explain how you knew Lady Hana was in trouble, Lady Maura.”
‘Right. Of course.’
Carina took in a slow breath, keenly aware of the royal couple’s intent gaze, as she exhaled. “It was—a gut instinct, your Majesty.” Carina lifted a hand to her chest and froze as her fingers brushed across the smooth surface of the Winter Rose. “I—just felt that something was wrong. I have no other explanation.” She gripped the jewel tightly as she recalled the Earl’s swift arrival last night and how she had fallen unconscious in his arms.
‘Did Percy put the necklace on me then? But how did he know where I hid it?’
“I suppose that will have to do,” Nicholas replied, clearly unconvinced as he turned towards Eleanora. “We should let Lady Maura rest, your Highness. I’m afraid today’s negotiations cannot wait much longer.”
“Yes—we—must continue our charade,” Eleanora whispered with a bleak smile.
Carina glanced once more at Eleanora’s light purple gown, her earlier realization coming into stark focus. “The Ambassador?” She asked hesitantly. “Was he—disturbed by last night’s events?”
“Fortunately, most of our dinner guests left completely unaware of the attack,” Eleanora explained with a weary sigh. “That would include the Ambassador and his family.”
“Indeed,” Nicholas agreed, “Captain Beaumont and the other knights on duty managed to clean up the broken window without arousing suspicion.”
‘That hardly matters. The one who sent the assassins knows by now that he failed.’
Carina nodded silently as she kneaded her aching forehead with her knuckles.
“You need rest, Lady Maura,” Eleanora murmured as she rose from the bed. “I will send Tilly up later with some breakfast. Please feel free to take the day to rest. Our responsibilities are over, aside from the Royal Ball tonight at Lily Palace.”
“I—should still like to attend—”
“Nonsense, there is no reason for you to push yourself,” Eleanora replied with a tone of finality as she turned and accepted Nicholas’s offered arm.
Carina watched them leave with a weak smile. ‘At least they’re getting better at pretending to be a real couple. Maybe this cooperation will stick—then again, maybe not.’
As soon as the door closed, Carina reached up and pulled off the Winter Rose. She tossed the necklace inside the nightstand, then slumped back against her pillows, exhausted.
A tingle from her bracelet preceded Viktor’s solemn words.
‘The Knight Captain knows you are a witch. He witnessed the magic you used last night as well as Lumi’s presence.’
Carina closed her eyes and exhaled as she digested this new problem. “Then—why didn’t he tell the Crown Prince?”
‘Perhaps you should ask him.’
Carina groaned as she pressed both palms against her closed eyes. “I need to figure out what happened with Lilaru and Griselda. The Ambassador is still alive and—he might try again—” She rolled over and buried a frustrated scream into her pillow.
Creating another opportunity for the twins to snag Haemish’s attention at this point would be next to impossible. ‘I should speak with them first. Perhaps the Ambassador was too drunk and tired from his journey last night.’
She laughed at the idea of the twins’ extra efforts working against them, then pulled the pillow away from her face to stare up at the white ceiling of sculpted clouds filled with crows and the long serpent-like figure of a dragon.
Once more, Carina heard the assassin’s voice, shouting in Ventrayna, “Burn the ice witch!”
Haemish had clearly planned to murder Hana while the rest of the palace staff were distracted by the banquet below. The use of the noose suggested his men were instructed to make it look like suicide. ‘No doubt to avoid arousing any suspicion from Eleanora.’
Carina bit her lip as she sat up slowly.
‘But this didn’t happen in the last timeline. Haemish only tried to drag Hana back to Lafeara when Eleanora’s marriage struggles became apparent. So—why? What possible change could I have—’ Cold fingers flew to Carina’s lips as she thought of Stitcher’s investigation into Hana’s past. ‘Is it possible—could I have—tipped them off?’
Carina’s stomach flipped unpleasantly as her feet found the floor, and she staggered towards the closet.
‘No—I can’t think of that now. I need to focus on finishing this. I will make Lord Hamish pay for what he did to you, Hana. One way or another—that fucking animal won’t survive another night.’