Chapter 7: The Weight of Guilt
“There seems to be an increasing number of knights on the streets lately,” Stitcher observed as a group of three mounted Lafearain knights passed outside their carriage window.
“The Ambassador’s arrival is fast approaching,” Carina replied with a tight smile. “And the public opinion of your country is far from positive. The Crown Prince wants to maintain tight control over the capital for public safety reasons and also to ensure a peaceful visit. Ventrayna and Lafeara may be at peace, but the taxes we pay have been a grievous burden on the merchant class and commoners for years. The people here have no love for the Emperor.”
Stitcher snorted and recrossed his legs leisurely. “Then they should be more grateful to her Highness, Eleanora; her marriage will ease the tax burden considerably.”
“Mmm,” Carina murmured as she pulled the curtain over the carriage window. ‘Except Nicholas and the House of Lords plan to take credit for that tax relief as part of their successful negotiations with the Ambassador.’
“Am I allowed to ask who we are meeting this time?”
“Someone you’ve met before: my lawyer, Sir Bryson. Though I will be meeting with him alone,” Carina added quickly as she narrowed her gaze on Stitcher. “I don’t think Sir Bryson will be comfortable meeting any members from the Fox Den.”
“Ahh—understandable,” Stitcher murmured sympathetically, though his expression darkened. “Speaking of which, it would appear the Fox Master is dead.”
“What!?” Carina felt her stomach clench as she studied him intently. “How?”
“You heard about the fire at the capital church?” Stitcher replied as he lifted the curtain to peek out into the street.
“You mean the fire that killed my parents?” Carina asked with a hint of sarcasm. “Wait—were the Foxes involved?”
“Not just the Foxes: a witch hunter, priest, and even—a pure-blood fire witch.”
Carina’s mouth clamped shut. She blinked rapidly as she tried to make sense of this—almost impossible to believe—piece of news. She could feel Stitcher observing her reaction but ignored him as conversations from the funeral echoed through her ears.
“I heard the mother died in a fire.”
“Is that why they sealed the casket.”
Carina sucked in a breath as she pressed a cold hand over her lips. “Why am I only just hearing about this?”
“I’ve been busy, and you’ve been locked away inside the palace where rumors are tightly controlled,” Stitcher murmured sympathetically.
Carina rubbed her fingers in a slow circle between her brows and nodded. She suspected he was holding something back, as always. After all, Ventrayna was considered the birthplace of fire witches. “You’re saying a witch started the fire—at my half-brother’s funeral—that resulted in my parent’s death?”
“Yes, and a few other fires that the knights have kept hidden from the public. But the Sisters Chapel was too close to the capital and visible for miles. There were too many witnesses for even the knights to keep silent. I expect it won’t be long before the whole capital is made aware of the matter—and when that happens.”
‘There will be a witch hunt—or worse—an inquisition.’ Carina gritted her teeth and pressed her knuckles between her brow as she exhaled against her wrist. ‘No, a witch hunter is already involved—so an inquisition is even more likely now.’
“Do we know who the pure-blood is?” Carina asked bitterly as she dropped her hand and focused on the assassin across from her.
“That—is unclear at present,” Stitcher answered as he fiddled with the blade at his belt.
‘So he does know—but he won’t tell me.’
“What about the witch hunter?”
“The witch hunter and his priest appeared to be after you—but now the priest is dead—”
‘Shit! The priest is dead!?’
“—though witnesses claim it was the witch hunter who killed him.”
Carina didn’t know whether to laugh or cheer at that piece of information. Her fingers twisted around the chain of the Winter Rose necklace as she absently chewed her lip.
‘Why did the witch hunter and priest go to Lincoln’s funeral? Does this mean they know my identity? Or perhaps, the pure-blood witch was their target?’
The Winter Rose flared beneath her cold fingers. Carina barely noticed that she held the diamond in her grip once more. ‘I can’t ignore this. They came here to find me—if this becomes an inquisition.’ Carina rubbed the silver chain between her thumb and forefinger and laughed. She knew better than to believe this was just some unlucky coincidence.
“Which is why my Master asks that you maintain a low profile for the time being. With the death of a priest—it’s very likely the Pope will send an inquisition to Lafeara.”
Carina dropped the necklace and bowed her head into her hands. ‘Damn it. Have all my efforts only traded a beheading for a public burning as a witch?’
Carina ignored the concern in his voice as she tried to calm the rising tide of panic in her chest. She only knew of a handful of witch burnings over the last decade of Lafeara’s history. The most notable being the public executions of two years ago when several nobles had dared to insinuate the royal family was behind the death of Crown Prince Tristan. They and their families had all been arrested as witches and burned at the stake before the fortress gate over the course of three days.
It was said that when the last witch burned, King Henri, who watched the executions from the fortress walls, suddenly fell to his death. There were no witnesses to explain how he fell, but many claimed it was the work of an assassin, or a witch—or perhaps even his own guilty conscience.
As to whether Nicholas would continue this barbaric tradition?
Carina shivered as the image of Beaumont holding an ax, his arms, chest, and face splattered in the blood of the attendants he had executed, came unbidden to her mind. She shook the memory away—but Beaumont only returned, this time with the death notice in hand, as his deep voice calmly explained her parents had died in a fire.
There was no way the future king’s personal bodyguard didn’t know that a witch had been involved in the chapels burning. Beaumont had chosen to keep that information from her. Anger quelled the fear clouding her mind, and Carina focused on the edge it provided as she lowered her hands, folded them against her lap, and straightened her back against the carriage seat.
‘What did I expect? I knew his loyalties were with Nicholas after all.’
She turned her narrowed gaze on the assassin, who shifted uncomfortably. “Is there anything else I should be made aware of in regards to the inquisition and my identity as a witch?”
“I’ve learned that Knight Commander Quentin has been assigned to investigate the chapel burning and your parent’s death. It would be wise to prepare yourself in case he should wish to interview you. He has a reputation for uncovering the truth.”
Carina nodded as she pushed the curtain aside and focused on the capital buildings outside the carriage window. ‘Why is it, the closer I get to freeing myself from Maura’s fate, the more dangers I find myself entangled by.’
‘If Lincoln had not followed me that day. If I had not killed him.’
She rejected the thought quickly. Lincoln had sealed his fate the moment he had tried to rape her.
‘But why—he never tried to attack Maura in that way? Was that just because of Maura’s scars?’
Carina closed her eyes and drew in a slow breath as she kneaded the headache forming along the back of her neck. Knight Commander Quentin had a reputation for being thorough, fair in judgment, and loyal to the crown. If he decided to interview the surviving members of the Turnbell family, there was one more person he would likely speak with, Sophya.
‘Judging by our last encounter, Sophya’s feelings towards me have not changed at all. But at least she has no reason to think I am a witch.’
Carina had avoided using magic for the most part while living at Turnbell Manor. She certainly never exposed her powers in front of anyone other than Ivy—up until Lincoln’s death. The last thing she needed was to give Maura’s oldest nemesis an excuse to see her burned at the stake.
Carina had also been careful to keep her ice magic hidden from the Countess, though, after learning Percy’s secret, it seemed a shame to have wasted such a pivotal opportunity to learn more about magic and the other witches of this world.
‘If Percy keeps his promise—it is likely I will have that opportunity soon enough.’
“Lady Maura, we are here?” Stitcher’s voice held a hint of doubt as he looked out the carriage window at the large iron-barred door guarded by two mercenary-like men.
Carina nodded in reply, and Stitcher opened the carriage door before he stepped down onto the sidewalk. The guards fixed their wary eyes upon the assassin and reached reflexively for their blades—but relaxed as Carina stepped down beside him.
“This looks like a bank,” Stitcher muttered under his breath.
“It was a bank,” Carina replied with a shallow smile. “Sir Bryson wanted a more secure location for the office after his unfortunate altercation with the Fox Den.”
Carina had happily provided Bryson with the funds needed to buy, remodel, and move. She had also doubled his fees and so that he could hire additional security—though it seemed an inadequate compensation for the pain her shortsightedness had brought him.
“Lady Maura, here to see Sir Bryson,” Carina announced as she approached the armed guard.
“He is expecting you, Lady Maura,” the guard on the right replied as he turned and banged his fist on the iron bars.
Carina grimaced faintly at the sound of iron bolts unlocking on the other side. Another part of her renegotiated partnership with Bryson required Carina to use Maura’s name. Bryson had made it clear he wanted nothing further to do with Cyberus nor any of Aconitum’s or Frost’s clandestine work. He would only meet with Carina about matters related to her legal name.
“Now that you are an orphan in every sense of the word, your property and fortune can be used freely. For legal purposes, I can act as your guardian in the same way I have acted as your attorney. But there is no reason to hide behind either of your other aliases,” Bryson had insisted.
Carina had reluctantly agreed to reveal her identity as the designer, Lady Aconitum, before the end of the month, but only as a trial run.
“I simply wish to keep Frost’s wealth a secret until I have found a suitable marriage partner,” Carina had reasoned. “I have no wish to be hunted for my wealth just when I have obtained my freedom.”
Bryson had not been happy, but he reluctantly accepted her decision. Carina had quickly implored him to continue handling Frost’s business for at least one more year.
“You’ll be seventeen by the end of the month, Lady Maura. You could easily be engaged or married before you turn eighteen. I believe that you’re more than capable of choosing a husband who can stand beside you while Frost grows his business.”
Carina had agreed, but not without a sense of guilt. A year was more than enough time. Maura had never reached the age of eighteen, after all, let alone been engaged. ‘Bryson would probably turn tail and run if he knew why I still needed Frost’s identity in the future.’
Still, the matter of exposing her identity as Lady Aconitum would likely elicit a reaction from her allies and enemies within the palace—not to mention the secret members of Frost’s organization.
“Should I wait for you outside?” Stitcher asked as he closed the carriage door behind them.
“If you have other matters to attend to, I should be safe enough,” Carina replied as she pulled up her hood.
“Hmm, somehow I’m not so sure,” Stitcher muttered as he toyed with his dagger. “Since I agreed to be your escort, I think it best that I escort you until you return to the palace.” He offered her a grin, then a flourished bow, and straightened. “Besides, you may need my company when you meet with Master Iker.”
“The Blacksmith?” Carina raised a brow curiously but turned towards the bank as the door opened, and the guard motioned for her to enter.
As she stepped inside the dark gray walls of Bryson’s new office, an uneasy chill of gloom rippled down her spine. Perhaps it was because the stone walls, barred windows, and iron doors held an unsettling resemblance to the prison cells below the Knight’s Compound.
Beyond the barred wall that separated the bank’s reception area from its private vaults sat Sir Bryson. The lawyer raised his gaze, weighed heavily by the dense shadows of poor lighting and sleep, from the stack of paperwork before him and the quill that trembled in his bandaged fingers.