Chapter 76: The Specter’s Twisted Vendetta
The rain was but a passing illusion to Maura, who felt neither the damp nor the chill as the persistent downpour passed through her spectral figure. After Carina’s dramatic departure, Maura remained to watch Percy as the Earl rose stiffly to his feet, a now scarlet handkerchief pressed against his bleeding nose as he staggered towards the drainpipe where Carina had tossed the Winter Star.
Maura hovered closer. The rain wavered slightly as the ghost’s form solidified, and she stretched out a hand towards the Earl’s back.
‘Look at you, completely unaware of my existence. I haven’t forgotten what you did to me. If you were not an air witch, I’d give you a good push and watch your head splatter like a melon on the street below. One day, Percy Hawthorne, you will know what it feels like to be powerless.’
The rain solidified and pelted on the roof relentlessly as the specter blurred, her mouth twisted with rueful displeasure.
The drainpipe creaked as Percy rested his foot against it and sighed, unable to locate the necklace that had fallen far below the street level below. “Damn it,” he hissed.
Maura smiled and leaned in closer. “Poor little Earl with a twisted black heart. Your one-sided love was doomed from the start!”
Percy’s eyes narrowed, then his head turned sharply to search the night rain. His winter grey eyes ran over Maura without detection, but she retreated all the same. The emotionally detached expression they held reminded Maura of a memory she little cared to remember—let alone share with Carina.
With a scowl, Percy turned to examine the empty road below, then jumped down. His damp mahogany curls and jacket barely fluttered as he dropped from view. A moment later, Percy landed deftly, tucked the soiled rag in his trouser pocket, and straightened his cuffs. The puddles of water beneath his boots were barely disturbed as the Earl turned and strode briskly back towards Lily palace where his carriage waited.
“May your rest be long, deep, and filled with endless misery,” Maura whispered bitterly as the rain soon obscured him from her sight. She threw back her head abruptly and laughed, a shrill, broken tune of bubbled-up rage, madness, and obsession.
The laugh followed like a distorted echo as Maura slithered down the pipe, her figure transformed into a cold, pale mist that delved into the darkness below in search of the jewel Carina had so thoughtlessly discarded.
“What’s mine is yours. Therefore, what’s yours should also be mine,” Maura hummed as the mist formed a pale arm, hand, and then fingers, which reached towards the sparkling necklace snagged on the ragged edge of the pipe.
A cold flare of magic pulsed from the diamond and forced the specter to recoil as she hissed in pain. Maura’s arm dissolved into mist as her twisted face appeared. She snarled and tried again with even less success to grab the resistant jewel. Her third attempt resulted in a bright white flash from the Winter Heart that slammed into the ghost like an invisible blow.
“Why?!” Maura trembled as she gazed down at her translucent hand, the ghostly skin singed and cracked by the enchantments backlash. “She threw it away. She is no longer the owner—It should be mine!” The specter glared at the still sparkling jewel. “Well—if I can’t have it—”
Pale hands grabbed the nearest sturdy piece of branch and flung it at the necklace. The chain dislodged as the jewel dropped into the sludge-like filth below. The weight broke the surface of the rain-flooded sewage, and the necklace floated away sluggishly down the tunnel that would lead it under the capital and towards Serpentine River.
Satisfied with this small victory, Maura flew back into the rain-filled sky to return to Rose Palace. Though unaffected by the damp rain, she still shook herself off like a dog outside Hana’s window before sliding through the physical barriers to stand on the carpet at the edge of the unconscious attendant’s bed.
“You will wake soon,” Maura crooned softly as she floated over the bed to touch a blonde lock of Hana’s hair. “And your heart will break when you see how Eleanora has betrayed you again.”
The specter’s black eyes flared an ugly red as they stared through the walls into the Crown Princess’s bed-chamber, where the royal couple slept awkwardly after resolving their delayed marriage obligations.
“That slut doesn’t deserve you,” Maura seethed. “In this life or the next.” She continued stroking Hana’s hair, softly humming like a mother to their child, until a mischievous smile crept across her pale grey lips. The specter pulled her hand away and giggled against her curled fingers manically. “I wish you could have seen Carina send Lord Haemish off to the underworld. That filthy dog died with quite the comical expression on his face.”
Lightning flashed behind the curtains, and for a moment, the mirror reflected the ghastly image of the haunting specter. Maura took no notice of her reflection. Her dark gaze focused on the heartbeats of Major Garrett and Captain Beaumont, who stood on guard outside the crown princess’s bed-chamber. With an impish smile, she flew over the bed and slide through the door into the hall.
Neither knights reacted to Maura’s presence as they shifted their weight and avoided the other’s gaze with silent sighs of two men who would rather be sleeping than standing outside the doors of an all but recently married couple.
Maura crept closer to Beaumont, drawn to the curious color of her executioner’s heart as she envisioned her hand wrapped around the pulsating purple organ. Her pale fingers twitched, eager to squeeze the life from this proud knight and watch him fall to his knees before her.
“It is not the dog but his master who deserves my wrath,” Maura reflected with a twisted smile. The specter’s malevolent gaze slid up from the steadily beating heart towards the knight’s expressionless face. Beaumont’s violet eyes dropped, and Maura flinched as they focused upon her face with an expression that sent a shiver of terror through her spectral form.
A jolt of panic sent Maura hurtling through the door into Eleanora’s room. She waited on the other side, her form quivering as it faded further from view. When the knight captain did not give chase, the specter laughed darkly at her own foolishness and focused on the residents of the bed-chamber she had entered.
Nicholas slept deeply. His fatigue owing more to the physical and mental strain of the past several weeks of poor sleep rather than any recent marital performance.
Maura had enjoyed the awkward, uncomfortable start to the royal bedding ceremony until she had been forced to leave to catch the tail end of Haemish’s demise. Watching the foul coven witch struggle to reverse the poison Carina had prepared for him, only to ensure it ruptured the witch’s heart while he was still conscious, was a memory Maura planned to relive endlessly.
‘Carina is finally coming through for me. I was worried after Lincoln that she had lost her nerve.’ Maura’s fanged smile spread further still as she drifted around the bed to Nicholas’s side. The specter smirked as she lifted the corner of the blanket from Nicholas’s lower torso and snorted derisively at his shrunken manhood. “Pathetic.” She dropped the blanket and narrowed her gaze at the young woman’s licorice black curls as Eleanora stirred. Like a cold shadow, the specter glided across the crown prince towards his less than satisfied wife, who lay stiffly beside him, barely asleep.
“Not what you were expecting after Tristan, was it, Eleanora?” Maura whispered as she floated down to the floor until her gaze was level to Eleanora’s closed eyes. “You don’t deserve a prince—or Hana. You’re not a real princess afterall. For all your bravado and speeches, the moment your life was threatened, you turned tail and abandoned us all to save your own skin. But you can’t run away from who you are—no one can. You, the granddaughter of a slave, and will never be Lafeara’s true queen.”
Eleanora shivered beneath her blanket. The crown princess’s dark eyebrows furrowed as she pulled the blankets higher.
“Don’t worry. You will lose it all soon enough. I look forward to watching you fall to pieces once Carina removes Hana from your side.”
The crown princess pressed her lips together in a grimace, then rolled over with a sigh to face Nicholas. Her hand flinched away as it grazed his shoulder. Eleanora opened one eye long enough to confirm her husband slept.
Maura grinned as she slid beneath the covers beside the crown princess and pressed a cold, ghostly hand against Eleanora’s bare stomach. “May your cursed womb never bear fruit,” the specter whispered into the dark curls over the troubled young woman’s ear. “And may you live long enough to see Nicholas take another Queen and have many children that will never be yours to love. You don’t deserve a quick death—not this time. I want to see you break beneath the humiliation, betrayal, and fear you made Hana go through.”
Eleanora shuddered, but Maura frowned as the cold magic which connected her to Carina refused to yield to her command—yet again.
“Why? Why, why, why!?” Maura floated up through the bed canopy and crashed soundlessly against the ceiling as her form dissolved into a cloud of mist. “Why Carina and not me? Why does Carina deserve more than me?”
Black veins spread around Maura’s dark eyes as she glared down through the bed curtains. Nicholas rolled over and draped an arm around Eleanora’s waist. The gesture startled the crown princess from her uneasy sleep. Eleanora glanced from Nicholas’s arm to his slack open mouth, sighed, and closed her eyes again.
“It’s not fair!” Maura muttered as her rage and jealousy burned. “Neither of them deserves a moment of happiness. How much longer will Carina make me wait!”
Black eyes turned, reflecting the glow of the tall candlestick at the foot of the bed near the vacated chairs left behind by the Dowager and Lady Lavinia.
The trembling mist stilled, then pooled towards the floor behind the chairs where the specter regained her form. Maura glided towards the flickering candle wicks and pushed the wooden candelabra towards the bed in a single fluid motion.
The bronze shaft caught on the footboard. The wick flames sputtered and jumped towards the delicate sheer veil that offered the illusion of privacy. Melted wax dripped upon the curtain and wooden bed frame as the fire spread hungrily beneath rising wisps of smoke.
“Stupid bitch!” Maura chuckled and grinned as the fire crawled up towards the canopy.
Eleanora stirred, then her amber eyes shot awake as she twisted beneath the covers towards the flames looming at the foot of her bed. “Nicholas!”
The crown prince grunted painfully as Eleanora nearly shoved him off the bed with her foot.
“Nicholas, wake up. There’s a fire!”
The word fire and the smoke which already filled the room quickly snapped the crown prince from his sleep. Nicholas rolled over and jolted upright, accidentally smacking Eleanora’s face with his hip as he lumbered to stand up on the bed.
“Eleanora, my sword!”
Eleanora hissed as she released her cheek and reached across the bed to where Nicholas’s sword rested. She grabbed it by the sheath and tossed the blade up to her naked husband, who quickly drew the sword free and severed one burning stretch of the bed canopy, which he hastily flung towards the floor.
Eleanora left the bed, grabbed her bed robe, and hastily pulled it on. Only after she had modestly clothed herself did Nicholas boom out, “Beaumont, get in here!”
A muffled protest came from the other side of the bedroom door, which offered only a moment of reprieve before the barrier shattered inwards. Beaumont stepped inside, took one look at the spreading blaze and the prince slashing away at the burning canopy, and drew his sword.
Maura watched with bitter disappointment as the knight hacked through the remaining veil and curtains effortlessly. The giant kicked and wound the burning cloth into a wad before unceremonially tossing the charred bundle inside the chamber’s fireplace. Major Garrett finally appeared with a bucket of water the knight hastily dumped over the smoking bulge of fabric.
“Well,” Nicholas hissed as he lowered his sword and dropped down to sit on the foot of the disheveled bed. “Perhaps we should make other arrangements for the rest of the night.” He caught the pillow tossed to him by Eleanora and draped it over his lap before blowing against his singed fingers gingerly.
“Your Majesty, you’re injured,” Garrett observed tensely.
“Here,” Beaumont pulled a small vial from his belt as he moved to the crown prince’s side. Nicholas held out his hand and hissed as the knight poured a herbal ointment over the reddened skin.
Eleanora scoffed as the giant leaned down and gently blew against Nicholas’s hand.
“My knight likes to come prepared,” Nicholas responded with a casual shrug to Eleanora’s stare.
“It is but a small burn,” Eleanora observed crisply, then shook her head with a resigned sigh. “And as to other arrangements—there are no other open rooms available. Unless you want to use one of my lady’s rooms to sleep in—or return to Peony Palace.”
Nicholas frowned and waved Beaumont away with a sigh. “Never mind, forget I said anything.”
Garrett noted the fallen candelabra and picked it up. “I believe this is what started the fire, your Majesty.”
“Yes, so it would appear,” Nicholas grumbled. “How careless of the servants to place it so close to the royal bed. Kindly take that outside with you, Major, and have the staff send up some herbal tea to help me relax. Beaumont, thank you. Now go get some rest. Your replacement should have arrived by now.”
Garrett bowed, careful not to look in Eleanora’s direction as he left the room with the condemned candlestick in hand. The crown princess circled the bed to stare at the damp wad of ruined fabric with an unsettled expression.
“Unlucky, I know,” Nicholas murmured when he observed her focus. “On the positive side, it will help spread the news that you and I spent the night together. Nothing like a fire to get the servants talking.” He pulled on his trousers before plopping back down on the pillows and sheets. “You should try to get some rest—we’ll need whatever sleep we can get to keep up appearances tomorrow.”
“Perhaps I can send up a maid to—clean away the mess,” Beaumont suggested as he hefted the largest section of the broken door from the floor.
“Yes, the smell is rather foul,” Nicholas agreed. “Have them bring up a sheet to cover the doorway as well. For now, you can open a window.”
Beaumont nodded and propped the piece of timber against the door frame, then moved to the nearest chamber window. His violet eyes drifted up the wall to focus once more on Maura, who remained in her corner of the ceiling like a spider.
“Interesting,” Maura’s lips curled even as she faded from the room to hover above the palace ceiling. “So the bastard knight can see me?” The specter’s grin faded as she sensed Carina and the scriva’s return. “Playtime is over—what a pity.”