Chapter 74: The Face of Death
Haemish blinked and quickly masked his surprise as the two half-naked blondes moved back to allow the younger brunette between them to sit comfortably at the edge of the bed.
‘I was wondering why you were not in attendance beside Eleanora at the ball.’
Lady Maura stared back at him. The attendant’s expression masked behind the veil, black like the modest dress she wore, which resembled a mourning gown of all things.
‘Why are you here?’
The familiar expression in Maura’s icy-blue eyes froze the Ambassador in place a moment longer than he cared to admit. Haemish looked away first, his mind moving uneasily to Percy’s earlier warning and obvious favor the Earl had for this attendant.
‘Somehow, I doubt Lord Percy sent her—and I’d rather not find out how he’d react to finding Lady Maura sitting on my bed, between two practically naked prostitutes.’
The shiver that crawled down the Ambassador’s spine loosened his frigid posture as he stepped back and locked the bedroom door behind him. “And to what do I owe this unexpected visit, Lady Maura?”
The twin at Maura’s left ran a hand down the attendant’s arm while the blonde on Maura’s right placed another hand on the lady-in-waiting’s legs. Maura paid the dancers no heed as she raised a single, elegant brow. “You recognize me, Ambassador?”
“Oh, you were brought to my attention long before I crossed Lafeara’s border,” Haemish answered honestly and watched her brows furrow in confusion.
“Before?” Maura echoed with neutral calm. “Please explain, Ambassador.”
‘Is it the Earl’s backing that makes you so fearless?’ Haemish chuckled at her audacity, then paused as he took in the sizeable rose-shaped diamond that sparkled below the veil against the black lace at Maura’s bodice. The Ambassador had limited knowledge and experience with magic runes, but he could sense the magic lurking within the extravagant gem.
“The Emperor’s spies have been watching since you first approached his son,” Haemish explained simply enough.
Maura’s ice-blue eyes narrowed, and her veil trembled with a soft laugh before she nodded in acknowledgment. “I see.” She reached up, unhooked the veil, and offered him a cold smile as she removed it. “And how many of the Emperor’s spies are watching me now?”
“Ah!” Haemish raised a hand to his heart then offered her a modest bow, cringing inwardly as he glared at the floor. “Only I have that pleasure, Lady Maura.”
‘To think a day would come when I would be forced to lower myself to some overreaching little girl.’
Maura’s smile twisted as Haemish lifted his gaze. Her cold blue eyes pierced through the Ambassador as if she could easily read his thoughts.
Haemish blinked and averted his gaze uncomfortably. “And did you—have a particular purpose for visiting me tonight, Lady Maura? I imagine it must have been an urgent matter for a maiden to risk her reputation so recklessly.” He unhooked the three buttons of his outer court robe and slid the silk fabric from his shoulders as he spoke. “Perhaps you might share how it is you entered this room without my guards noticing?” Haemish tossed the robe towards the nearest chair and paid no attention as it slid off and fell to the floor.
‘That’s what servants are for after all.’
The Ambassador took a step closer as he hooked a thumb through the belt around his expanding waistline. “Perhaps you are here to deliver a message from the Earl,” Haemish pressed as the attendant remained silent. The Ambassador slid his fingers towards the ceremonial dagger he wore that had been a gift from the Emperor himself. “Or a bribe perhaps?”
“A bribe?” Maura laughed as she lifted her fingers to caress the cheek of the dancer to her left. “Are they not enough?” She tilted her head mockingly towards the twin on her right. The blonde rose from the bed, presenting Haemish with the full view of her perfect firm breasts and slender waistline. The sheer skirt the prostitute wore rippled around her long legs and teased him with the alluring shadows of her womanly curves.
“Ah yes,” Haemish cleared his throat as the dancer stalked towards him, innocently playing with the braids of her hair. Two bright blue eyes assessed him behind the dark makeup that electrified their vibrant color. ‘Why do they look so familiar?’ Catching himself, Haemish snapped his attention back to Maura as the second dancer left the attendant’s side to join her sister. “Eleanora did mention that it was you who sponsored these two dancers as entertainment for my welcoming banquet.”
The Ambassador tightened his grip on the dagger as one of the twins ran her fingers across the gold beads braided in his beard. Behind him, her sister slid a hand down his spine and firmly grasped his rump. ‘Oh, they would be fun to play with later.’
Haemish strained to hide the tantalizing provocation awakening below his belt as he focused on Maura’s rather curious smile. “But that—does not explain why you are here—unless—you mean to join us, Lady Maura?”
He regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth. ‘Think with your head, not your prick, Haemish!’
Maura laughed as he detangled himself from the dancer’s arms and waved them off. “I heard you preferred blondes, Ambassador.”
“I am as any other man,” Haemish responded with beguiling humility. “And we have an insatiable craving for that which we cannot have.”
‘And yet it goes without saying my life will be forfeit if I so much as touch her.’
Haemish swallowed as Maura crossed her legs and realized, as a jolt ran down his core, that she was—barefoot?
“I also heard you had an odd obsession for small feet?” Maura murmured with a cynical leer as she held up one perfectly sized foot towards him and flexed her slender pale toes. “I wonder—is it the size of the feet or the age that forms them which makes you desire—” her brow rose sharply as disgust filled her gaze “—girls rather than women?”
Haemish pulled his attention from Maura’s delectable toes and offered a ravenous smile of understanding. “I see. So Hana shared her sad little story with you?”
Maura’s smile twisted with visible disgust as the room around them dropped sharply in temperature. “She did.”
The Ambassador’s arm hairs stood on end as a dangerous cold prickled against his skin. He blinked in surprise as his breath formed a cold cloud in the air before him. Understanding followed as the ghostly whisp trailed towards the ceiling, and he stared once more at Maura’s ice-blue eyes.
‘The same color as the Dowager’s! So you’re an ice witch as well!’
Haemish clamped a laugh behind his lips but could not hide the astonishment which filled his widening eyes. ‘Oh, you have no idea the power I could gain if I cut out your little heart and give it to the Emperor—or Empress.’
The still aching grip of the Earl’s strangling hold jolted the Ambassador from his fantasies. Haemish ran a hand down his flushed cheeks and oiled beard, then flinched as the twins slid their wandering, stimulating fingers down his arms, chest, and below his belt.
Haemish growled in frustration as his eager rod awoke and demanded satisfaction. “Back to why we—I mean you—are here?” He shook off the dancers and strode closer to the frigid little temptress, who stopped him in his tracks with a small foot pressed to his stomach.
Hemish caught her frail ankle, momentarily distracted by the cold, smooth texture of her skin. “Eleanora speaks highly of you despite your half-blood status. But even my niece’s support won’t save your reputation should others discover our little rendezvous.”
The Ambassador slid his fingers up the back of the attendant’s calf. One look at Maura’s ice-blue eyes told him she would fight if he went any further, and yet the excitement of subduing this impertinent little witch was already driving Haemish beyond reasonable restraint.
“You are playing with fire, Lady Maura,” Haemish growled. “I am well aware of the fact that you have the Earl of Hawthorne wrapped around your little finger.” He removed her foot from his chest but held onto her ankle firmly. “So, I’ll ask you again. Why are you here?”
Maura leaned slowly back onto her elbows against the bed and offered him a dangerous smile. “I’m so glad you asked, Ambassador,” she replied in a deceptively sweet tone. “I only want one thing.”
Haemish scoffed, his mind already moving to the predictable list of demands for political support, power, or wealth that brought such desperate women to his bed-chamber. And yet never had a woman made such demands wearing such a detestable confident and scornful expression as Maura presented to him now. “And what is it you want, Lady Maura?” he growled.
“I want to watch you die, Ambassador.”
Carina watched with calm satisfaction as Griselda plunged the first poisoned hairpin deep into the Ambassador’s neck. With a vicious twist of her wrist, the dancer expertly snapped off the tip beneath his skin and withdrew.
Haemish spun around with a startled cry, fire magic already burning from his left hand, which he flung after the retreating dancer. Griselda curled into a ball as she rolled beneath the flames and sprang up once more on her toes. The fire crashed against the chair and knocked it onto the floor as flames caught upon the cushion and the Ambassador’s robes.
When the flailing Ambassador refused to let go of her ankle, Carina lifted both of her feet and shoved them against his side. Haemish teetered off-balance as Lilaru pulled a silk pouch from her panties, ripped it open, and blew a cloud of white dust into the Ambassador’s face.
Haemish reeled away, coughing and sputtering. His legs became entangled as he fell—but instead of releasing Carina’s ankle—he dragged the attendant down from the bed onto the floor beside him.
Carina’s elbow and hip struck the floor with a sharp thud. She rolled over, only to find herself pinned between the bed and a furious, panting Ambassador.
“You—” Haemish spat as he climbed on top of Carina. A dagger appeared in his hand and ignited with flames. “What could you possibly have to gain? Why risk everything—because some stupid slave bitch can’t get over being raped?”
The dagger plunged towards Carina’s neck, its flames blocking the Ambassador’s twisted features from view. Carina caught the blade and locked her wrists together as she grunted beneath his overwhelming strength. The dagger’s tip wavered closer to her chest as steam rose and sparked between them. Fire smoldered beneath ice as her magic spread across both blade and her attacker’s hands. Once the flames extinguished, Carina saw Haemish clearly, and a blur of blonde braids and bare skin as arms wrapped around his arm and neck before the dagger yanked back.
Lilaru hooked her hands under Carina’s shoulders and pulled her to safety.
The Ambassador roared as he rose from his knees, lifting the determinedly clinging Griselda along with him. The ice which bound his hands to the dagger melted as flames reignited from his fingers and spread up the Ambassador’s arms. Haemish dropped the blade and grabbed onto Griselda’s arms instead, burning them. Griselda screamed.
Lilaru’s frantic scream joined her sister’s as she hurled herself at the Ambassador, and the three toppled back onto the bed. Carina flung herself across the blankets to grab Haemish’s hands, which still imprisoned Griselda’s arms in their burning gasp.
“Now!” Carina shouted as she flooded the Ambassador and Griselda’s arms in a storm of ice.
Haemish sputtered and balked as Lilaru ripped his already loosened belt free and then yanked down the Ambassador’s pants. Griselda sucked in a whimpered breath. Her seal-blue eyes locked with Carina’s as tears rolled down the dancer’s painted, pale cheeks.
“Ice—Bitch! Get off me!” Haemish snarled as he thrashed beneath Carina. His serpent-like yellow-green eyes flinched while his face went taut, and a feeble grunt of pain slid past his quivering lips. A snap behind Carina confirmed Lilaru had administered the second dose of poison. Haemish’s frantic struggles stilled as he gasped in pain then reached towards his exposed crotch.
Freed from his grasp, Griselda rolled away and fell off the bed onto the floor.
“Careful!” Lilaru shouted as Carina whipped her attention from Griselda’s shaking form towards the Ambassador. His left hand slammed into her lower right cheek, and the room spun as Carina crashed against the pillows and headboard.
A murderous cry from Lilaru filled Carina’s ears as stars swam before her vision.
“Guards!” Haemish’s desperate cry soon rattled through her spinning head. “Someone! Get in here!”
‘I can’t lose focus now. I need to finish this!’ Carina pushed herself away from the perfumed pillows to watch Haemish rise from the edge of the bed, only to fall swiftly onto his face upon the floor, his pants still twisted around his ankles. A small trail of blood ran down his inner thigh to his knee as the Ambassador wheezed.
“Griselda!” Lilaru panted as she rushed past the floundering man towards her sister. The smell of burned flesh filled the room. Carina clenched her shaking teeth together as she took in the dark red finger and palm burn marks against Griselda’s shaking arms.
‘What would have happened if I sent them in alone?’
“I-I’m fine,” Griselda hissed through clenched teeth. “Finish—the job—Lilaru.”
A flicker of fire pulled their attention back to Haemish, who had risen once more, this time with his pants pulled up around his waist as he spun drunkenly towards them.
“Fu—Bich,” Haemish spat as he hurled a sputtering firebolt towards them on the bed.
With a wave of her hand, Carina raised an ice shield and watched as the fire smothered out against the cold barrier.
Haemish growled and summoned another, weaker flame to his clenched fist, but it quickly sputtered out. “Wha—en-ou—” His advance stumbled to a halt as the Ambassador blinked down at his empty hand and shook his head sharply. Hatred and color drained from his face as Haemish raised his right hand towards his throat with slow, awkward movements. “Ou—poin—eh?”
“That’s right,” Carina replied malevolently, already identifying the symptoms that preoccupied the dying Ambassador’s attention. “Your tongue is going numb. That’s why you can barely speak or cry out. That’s the poison in your neck, slowly isolating your brain from the rest of your body—paralyzing you. The powdered drug Lilaru administered will soon—”
Haemish crashed down to his knees with a strangled yelp.
“—well, that answers that, doesn’t it.”
The Ambassador sagged down against his arms, then reached trembling fingers towards the cold lump between his shoulder and neck.
“The reason your guards haven’t responded to any of your cries for help is because Griselda enchanted the door and walls before you arrived,” Carina continued patiently. “No sound can escape this room once the door and windows are closed. So even if you could scream, no one would hear you. After all, everyone must believe you died while enjoying a good time with my friends here.”
Carina glanced towards the twins. Lilaru had lifted her sister to the edge of the bed where the dancer rested. Griselda’s burned arms quivered at her side while she glared at the Ambassador with cold hatred. Lilaru left her twin sister briefly to pick up the dagger Haemish had dropped. She gripped the blade tightly as she returned to Griselda’s side.
“By now, you can no longer feel your hands or feet,” Carina added with an imperious smile. “Your limbs are also getting heavier and harder to control. Your gut is freezing cold. That’s the poison suppressing the flow of blood to your extremities and organs, reversing it all back to your heart. Do you know what happens, Ambassador, when the heart is forced to take in more blood than it can handle?” Carina held her hands close together, creating a mimic of his rapidly beating heart within a cloud of ice.
Haemish’s reddened eyes wavered as they focused on the replica of his straining, engorged heart.
“Poof!” Carina whispered as she swept her hands apart. The struggling heart exploded into a mist that showered down upon the attendant’s black dress.
Haemish, now an odd shade of blue, fumbled back into a seating position as he drew in a weak, ragged breath through purple lips.
“Of course, while the poison is taking effect, your lungs will lose the ability to function. Your brain, not getting the oxygen it needs, will shut down your body and send you into a coma.” Carina sighed as she picked up the broken head of the poisoned hairpin from the bed and gazed at it regretfully. “Unfortunately, there was no way for me to keep you alive and conscious to feel the full effects of the poison. A quick-reacting paralysis was needed to prevent you from harming us more than you already did. You should be grateful, Ambassador. I imagine that sort of end would be quite painful if one were fully conscious to experience it.”
Haemish sputtered something that might have been a curse. His eyes rolled back slowly, and his face dropped down to rest against his beard upon his chest.
“Thank—the Saints,” Griselda whispered between short, painful pants. “That—went better than I expected.”
“I told you we should have drugged him before using the hairpins!” Lilaru hissed reproachfully.
“Haemish would have noticed the drugs and burned away their effects,” Griselda countered weakly as she struggled to rise from the bed. “You know fire witches are notoriously resistant to poison.”
“Then how is Lady Maura’s poison meant to—” Lilaru spun towards the kneeling Ambassador. “Oh no!”
Carina smiled as she took in the sight of the flames that slowly flickered awake and enveloped the kneeling man.
“Maura—he’s purifying the poison from his body!” Griselda called out frantically.
Lilaru’s hands shook as she raised the dagger, then rushed towards Haemish.
“Wait!” Carina caught the dancer’s arm swiftly and held her back.
“But if we wait any longer—”
Haemish opened red-veined eyes. The Ambassador’s yellow-green irises gleamed demonically as he grinned in their direction.
Carina’s smile faded as she held onto Lilaru tightly. “I should thank you, Ambassador, for granting my request. The only way to ensure the poison reached your heart faster—”
Haemish’s body seized, his grin contorting into an expression of painful shock. A trail of yellow foam mixed with blood squirted out from behind his clenched teeth and trailed down his beard to drip onto the carpet.
“—while you’re still awake,” Carina finished as she released Lilaru’s arm and watched Hana’s tormentor slump over onto his side, both eyes wide open in a startled expression of death. “May you burn in whatever hell awaits you.”
“That’s—one more down,” Griselda panted as she crawled up from the bed. She swayed, caught the post, and grimaced as she turned to rest her back against it. “I-I’m—not feeling so great.”
Lilaru hastily returned to her sister’s side while the attendant retrieved the dancers’ cloaks, which she passed to Lilaru. Carina wrapped Griselda’s arms in a sheet of ice as Lilaru covered her shivering, injured sister in the mantle, ensuring that her burns and Griselda’s provocative garments remained well hidden.
“These are court cloaks, so the knights shouldn’t bother you as long as you keep your faces well hidden,” Carina explained hurriedly as she took the dagger from Lilaru’s hand and returned it to the sheath on the dead man’s belt. “Take the hidden passage I entered through to leave the room. Lilaru, if you use the map I left inside your cloak, it will lead you to a servant’s passage away from the ball and direct you to the servant’s exit.”
“Yes—I have it,” Lilaru pulled the parchment from her cloak.
“Harold and—Saul—should be waiting for us by the servant’s gate,” Griselda rasped out as she continued to shiver beneath her cloak. “The carriage—”
“Will take you out the way you came, right through the main gate,” Carina answered. “The Prime Minister’s seal—” she pressed the pass into Lilaru’s hand “—will allow you to return to the capital without being searched. Head directly for your boat and get as far from Lafeara as you can before morning.” She glanced worriedly towards Griselda as the woman swayed unsteadily on her feet.
“I’ll—be fine,” Griselda whispered reassuringly. “We have—medicine for burns—on our boat.” She was smiling victoriously despite the sweat that already coated her forehead and neck.
“The sooner you get her treated, the better,” Carina advised Lilaru as she crossed the room, past Haemish’s body, towards a large dresser on the west wall. Carina heaved the heavy furniture away from the wall, found the hidden lever near the base of the floor, and pressed her heel against it.
A crack in the wall emerged and widened as the secret passage came into view. The same route Carina had used to enter the room and hide under the bed before Haemish’s guards had brought the twins inside.
“Quickly now,” Carina motioned to Lilaru, who held her sister gently around the waist as they joined Carina beside the passage. “Use the map and the seal with care. Make sure to throw them both away once you’re outside the fortress gate.”
“But—” Lilaru clutched the pass uncertainly.
“It’s a copy,” Carina explained with a grin. Mentally thanking Serilda for inspiring the idea. “Probably best if you didn’t hold onto a forgery.”
“Will it work?” Griselda asked uneasily.
“It got you inside the palace,” Carina replied with a shrug. “In my experience, the knights care more about who enters the palace rather than the people leaving it.”
“Ah, right,” Griselda grinned and nodded. “We’ll do as you say, Lady Maura.”
The twins passed through the small gap carefully, and Carina waved after them as they hesitated at the top of the hidden staircase.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come with us, Lady Maura?” Lilaru pressed worriedly. “If things go wrong—”
“They won’t,” Carina interrupted confidently. “The Ambassador died of heart failure. They can hardly hold Lafeara responsible for that.”
Still looking unconvinced, Lilaru slowly nodded and then turned Griselda carefully towards the stairs.
“Be safe,” Carina whispered after them, then pulled the hidden wall closed.
No sooner had she stepped away from the secret door than the dresser slammed into place against the wall. Carina flinched and spun as Percy stepped out from behind the window curtains and fixed her with a glare.
“What—have you done, Maura?” the Earl demanded as his winter-gray eyes trailed from her startled face over to the Ambassador’s dead body.