Chapter 77: The Trouble with Ghosts
The cold, quiet night air wrapped around Carina like a damp cloak as she leaned against Lumi’s shoulders. The invisible layer of magic that concealed scriva and ice witch from sight left her feeling displaced from the world. Even when the royal knights patrolled past them, she couldn’t seem to care that they were inches away from detection.
The clammy, tainted feel of Haemish’s death, along with her anger at Percy for his manipulation and deception, all seemed to wash away with the rain that poured down her wet hair, face, and neck.
When the rain finally ceased, Carina shook herself awake and sighed ruefully at her drenched state. Lumi had wandered up to the fortress wall at some point. The scriva walked across the parapet to avoid patrols with the death-defying agility of a mountain goat. Carina stared down at the dark grounds below. The cherry blossom trees barely illuminated by the brazier fire pits lit around the fortress’s exterior for extra visibility and protection.
‘If Lumi jumped—It would be that easy to leave.’ Her gaze rose towards the roofscape of candlelit windows before her. The capital’s main streets flooded with the lights of lanterns that were kept lit so the knight’s patrol could enforce curfew. Above the city, the night sky was filled with elongated dark clouds that stretched towards a thin, fading line of imperial blue tinged with a peach glow over the distant western planes.
‘The Wolf Thorn mountains are in that direction. I’ve never been that far south. I wonder if I’ll ever be free to explore more of this strange world.’
Lumi whined softly, and Carina looked down to where her hands curled tightly into the scriva’s fur.
“Lumi, we seem to be a little lost,” Carina admonished as she relaxed her grip. “Return to Rose Palace.”
The scriva’s ears flicked back as if in disapproval, then the wolf turned its glass eyes towards the southwest. Another patrol of guards approached them yet again, but the scriva paid them no mind. Carina watched in amusement as the four men shivered and muttered about the cold as they walked past the invisible witch and her elemental.
“Lumi. We need to return to the crown princess’s palace,” Carina hissed. ‘I have no idea how long we’ve been aimlessly wandering. I need to get back and make an appearance so I have a solid alibi.’
Lumi turned to look over her shoulder with a wolfish grin.
“Why are you—”
Carina slammed her teeth together a moment later as the scriva leapt over the wall and descended towards the palace streets below. She braced herself for impact, but as always, the elemental seemed to defy the laws of science. Its frozen paws barely touched the ground before it bounded forward in a mad dash that hurtled them through the deserted palace streets like a cold storm.
Carina was panting for air by the time Lumi leapt over the palace walls to land on the damp grass of Rose Palace’s backyard.
“Alright, that was impressively fast, Lumi,” Carina whispered as she dropped over the scriva’s neck. The wolf’s ears perked in delight at the praise as it lifted its head towards her.
‘Does she want me to pet her or something?’
Carina shook her head doubtfully, “I still need to get inside without being noticed. Do you think you can fly me up to my bedroom window?”
‘Fly. No. Difficult. Jump. Yes.’
The simplistic communication sent back through the bracelet’s magical connection made Carina smile. “That’s fine, just jump to the ledge. I can climb down to the window from there.”
‘Dangerous.’ Was Lumi’s immediate reply.
“You can always catch me if I slip.”
Carina smothered a laugh as she leaned down to wrap her arms around the scriva’s cold, furry neck. “I believe in you. Have a little faith in me.”
Sharp white ears twitched back as the wolf whined. Then it crouched low to the ground, its taut muscles all the warning Carina needed. She grabbed on tightly to its fur once more as the scriva leapt up towards the roof.
The Rose Palace roof curved down towards the windows of the second floor. The rise of mortar provided enough natural resistance for Carina to stand as she lowered herself down from Lumi’s back.
“Alright,” she murmured, then unlopped the black silk-rope belt from her waist. “If you’ll hold onto this end?”
Lumi stepped forward and gingerly took the knotted end between her sharp teeth.
“Don’t bite down too hard,” Carina warned as she examined the scriva’s fangs worriedly. ‘The window ledge is just eight feet down from here. It will be fine.’
Even with Lumi’s invisibility, walking past the six palace knights on guard at the front due to the crown prince’s visit didn’t seem like a good idea. The back door was locked and guarded by another three. Thanks to the rain, the roof was slick beneath Carina’s knees and arms as she lowered herself onto her belly and slowly descended over the edge.
Her ice mist made it easy enough to gauge where the window lay below. After a moment’s thought, Carina coated the rope in ice to guard the silk threads against the roof’s edge and Lumi’s sharp teeth. Then she eased her hips over the edge and let her weight test the rope.
Lumi growled worriedly. The scriva’s clear eyes shone with a pale blue light as they focused on Carina’s slowly descending figure.
“I’ll be fine,” Carina murmured aloud, as much to reassure the wolf as herself before Lumi disappeared from view. “Okay, slow and easy.”
She pressed the soles of her bare feet against the wall for balance and frowned as an immediate and unanticipated problem presented itself. Carina’s right ankle was going numb. While not feeling any pain was normal for her, the complete loss of sensation and touch was new and disorienting.
‘What? Why now? Is it because of the rain or cold?’
She paused her descent to stare down at her right foot. The sensation of prickling ants crawling their way up her calf followed by no sensation at all worried her, but now wasn’t the time or place to do a proper examination.
‘Danger?’ Lumi inquired anxiously through the bracelet.
“No—it’s nothing—I just needed to get my bearings.” Carina drew in a deep breath and rotated her gaze from the rope to her right foot as her feet slowly reached the top of the window. ‘Almost there. Just a few feet more.’
A full view of her drenched, disheveled state soon appeared in her bedroom window’s reflection. Carina ignored her visual state as she stared at the narrow outer ledge of the window frame. ‘Right. Balance might be an issue.’
She quickly extended her hand and pushed the unlocked window open. Finding no knights or guards waiting to arrest her inside, Carina let out a sigh of relief as she swung her left leg over the ledge and pulled herself inside. “Alright, safe—” she swung her right foot towards the floor and belatedly remembered its recent peculiarity as it bungled the landing and sent her crashing to the floor. “Shit!”
Carina rolled off her right hip, sat up with a groan, and glared down at the treacherous limb. “Okay, seriously. What is wrong with you?” She rubbed her hands furiously over the numb joint, hoping to restimulate the blood flow, and froze as her gaze focused in on several small circular bruises forming against her skin. ‘Finger marks?’
Lumi appeared in the window, the silk rope belt dangling from the wolf’s teeth as it tilted its head inquiringly at Carina.
“I—must have twisted my ankle again or something,” Carina replied as she pulled the damp skirt over her foot. “Could you help me get up, please, Lumi?”
The scriva dropped the rope, shrinking slightly in size as it bounded inside the room and slid its damp head under the attendant’s arm. Carina held on as the wolf easily hoisted her to her feet.
“I need to change and clean up so I can make an appearance,” Carina muttered as she scratched behind the wolf’s ear appreciatively.
“Yes, I need to dry off as well,” Carina lamented and hopped her way over to the wardrobe where her nightgown and robe hung from a hanger.
A good ten minutes later found Carina changed for bed with her hair mostly dry. She brushed it out quickly and wound the damp locks up in a bun before attempting to dry Lumi.
The scriva snorted as it pulled the towel from Carina’s hands and flung it to the floor. ‘Unnecessary. I. Return. You. Safe.’
“Alright, yes. I’m safe enough now,” Carina responded with a rueful smile.
“I will certainly do my best,” Carina replied reassuringly as she scratched the scriva’s damp ears once more. She wasn’t sure if Lumi liked it until the wolf leaned its head against her hand. The elemental creature shimmered and slowly faded from view as Carina dropped her hand with a tired sigh.
A rush of relief flooded through her, followed by a sudden trembling at the knees. Carina sank down onto the edge of the bed as she folded her arms around her waist.
‘Haemish is dead.’ It was a costly victory, and yet Carina couldn’t help but feel giddy and strangely alive. ‘I’m surprised Maura isn’t here to sing my praises.’ She shook her head and refocused on completing the act that would buy her immunity from suspicion—as long as the poison remained undetected. ‘I just need to make a public appearance in front of the staff, and then I can get some sleep—’ her stomach rumbled ‘—and also something to eat.’
Carina dragged her slippers onto her feet and tried once more to rub her rebellious right foot awake. ‘I guess I’ll try walking it off?’ She attempted to move as naturally as possible while she gathered the key from her desk drawer with a frustrated sigh and headed to the bedroom door.
Carina was so distracted by the bizarre lack of feeling in her foot that she overlooked Major Garrett, who stood outside Eleanora’s room, until after she had shut the door behind her.
“Oh, right. I guess he would have to be on guard,” Carina whispered under her breath as she locked the door. ‘Well, Eleanora finally got what she wanted. Hopefully, that will keep her happy for a while.’ She nodded to Garrett, satisfied to have such a high-ranking member of the crown princess’s staff as a witness. “Evening, Major Garret. I was just on my way to the kitchen for a snack. Do you need anything?”
“No. Thank you, Lady Maura,” Garrett replied. “I’ll be relieved in a few more hours.”
Carina nodded and headed down the steps, taking her time as she got used to the lack of sensation in her right foot. As she descended, Carina took in the numerous candles left burning along the hall and side rooms. ‘I suppose the servants forgot to blow them out after the Dowager and Lady Lavinia left, or they were kept lit for better visibility and security.’ She shuddered at the idea of the awkward couple sharing their first intimate night together with the Dowager of all people watching at the foot of the bed.
The sound of dishes being cleaned reached Carina’s ears as she passed the closed dining room door and drew closer to the kitchen. Her stomach rumbled in approval as the scent of freshly made bacon and eggs wafted through the entryway.
‘Seems odd to be this hungry—after killing someone.’
Carina shook her head and knocked on the kitchen door as she entered.
“Ah, Lady Maura!” Chef Robbi greeted as he scraped a batch of bacon from the pan. “I’m relieved to see you up and about. I trust you’re feeling better?” His worried gaze dissolved at the sound of her eager stomach. “Perfect timing if you’re interested in a late-night breakfast.”
“Yes! If it’s not too much trouble,” Carina replied with a bashful smile. “I missed dinner early and am suddenly feeling quite ravenous.”
“Ravenous?” Robbi snorted as Carina hobbled towards the dinnerware cabinets. “You two are lucky I had to stay so late to prepare breakfast for the crown prince.” He flipped a towel over his shoulder and turned back to the bacon and eggs cooking on the stove. “It’s not every day I get to serve a future king breakfast after all.”
“Didn’t you serve the Emperor of Ventrayna?” Carina asked quizzically as she hobbled over to the dinnerware cabinet.
“Ahh yes—but only the one time—and I wasn’t the only chef,” Robbi explained modestly. “As lavish as royal banquets can be in Ventrayna’s royal palace—I can’t say for certain if the Witch Emperor tasted my cooking or not.”
“Well, I have, and your cooking is divine,” Carina reassured him as she set two plates on the counter beside the stove.
“And this is why you’re my favorite Lafearian.”
Carina snorted. “I’ll take that as a compliment. Who else are you cooking for?”
“The knight captain waiting in the dining room for his share.”
Carina’s hand froze over the silverware drawer handle. ‘Of course. I should have known. If Nicholas is here, Beaumont will be close by.’ She sighed and selected two sets of silverware already wrapped in blue napkins.
“There we are,” Robbi expertly divided the eggs and bacon up between the two plates. “As ravenous as you might be feeling, Lady Maura, I suggest giving this larger portion to the Captain,” the chef teased as he nudged the almost overflowing plate towards her. “Now, there are some leftover rolls in the bread box and a few cranberry cookies as well if the giant requires more sustenance.” He clapped his hands together with a determined look as he faced her. “As you know, I have my own work to finish up before I head to bed, Lady Maura, so help yourselves.”
With that, the chef turned towards the sink to watch his hands, then picked up a roll of parchment and returned to the pantry to check his supplies.
“I suppose I’ll serve the Captain then,” Carina muttered as she picked up both plates and turned towards the partially open dining room door. She adjusted her grip quickly as a large chunk of scrambled egg on Beaumont’s plate threatened to roll off the greasy bacon and onto the floor.
‘It wouldn’t do to let my third witness go hungry.’
With the plates precariously balanced against one another, Carina bumped the door open with her hip and offered the startled knight captain a greeting smile.
“I hope you don’t mind if I join you, Captain Beaumont?”
Beaumont quickly rose in response and took the larger plate from Carina’s hand as her footing wobbled.
“Ahh, thank you!” Carina smiled her relief as she set her plate down in front of a chair. It was then she noticed an untouched glass of wine that sat in front of Beaumont’s place. ‘Does he not like the wine—or is he not allowed to drink while on duty?’
Beaumont followed her gaze silently and raised a brow.
“I hope you’re hungry,” Carina rushed out quickly. “Chef Robbi made a healthy amount, as you can see.” ‘Shit, am I babbling?’ She pulled her chair out awkwardly as she navigated it around her right foot.
“I didn’t realize anyone else was still awake,” Beaumont replied softly as his gaze dropped to her feet. “Are you—”
“I forgot the bread rolls!” Carina sprang up clumsily and quickly darted through the kitchen door. ‘Shit! Get it together, Carina. Calm and natural!’ She found the bread box, filled another plate with the still warm rolls, and hobbled back through the partitioning door once more. “Here we are!”
Beaumont raised a brow as Carina dropped the plate off beside his already overloaded breakfast. “Thank you, Lady Maura.”
Carina nodded and paused as he pulled out her chair. “Oh—Thank you.” She cringed at the repetitiveness of their conversation. ‘Nevermind. I should make use of this opportunity to thank him for saving Hana and myself from those assassins.’
Beaumont’s chair scraped softly against the floor as he sat down beside her. His violet eyes darted towards her as Carina unwound the napkin from her silverware. He followed suit and once again waited, glancing in her direction silently.
‘What’s his deal?’ Carina grumbled internally as she slid her fork under a wad of greasy eggs and lifted it to her mouth. The salty-sweet flavor of egg and bacon distracted her as she sighed in contentment.
Beaumont silently lifted his own fork and began eating.
‘Wait—was he waiting for me to eat first? Does he think the food is poisoned or something!?’ Carina coughed as a piece of egg caught in the back of her throat.
Beaumont’s chair scraped again as he rose and moments later placed a cup of wine in front of her.
“Thank—you,” Carina mumbled out and swallowed down the bittersweet red wine. Beaumont said nothing as he returned to his seat and resumed eating. ‘Oh, this is going well.’
Carina cleared her throat, then set down the glass, picked up her fork, and toyed with it uneasily. “I’m—glad we have this opportunity to speak,” she began with forced casualness. “I wanted to thank you personally for coming to my rescue yesterday. You no doubt saved me from a rather painful death—and Lady Hana as well.”
Beaumont chewed slowly and swallowed. “I’m glad that I happened to be nearby and able to help. Although—I do wish you would not put yourself in danger, Lady Maura.”
‘You make it sound like I did that on purpose.’
“Danger has a habit of finding me, not the other way around,” Carina corrected as she lifted another fork of eggs. ‘Most of the time.’
Beaumont nodded as he maintained a neutral expression. “His Majesty is still looking into the identity of those assassins. We don’t know how they snuck inside the palace or attacked Lady Hana, but the crown prince has assigned a few extra knights to bolster Rose Palace’s defenses.”
‘The assassins were obviously from Ventrayna, but I can understand why Nicholas would want to investigate thoroughly before making any formal accusations.’
Carina ate another bite as she observed the knight captain thoughtfully. While still a bastard, Beaumont had clearly been brought up with a noble’s education. Despite his rather domineering size and appearance, the knight captain’s movements contained a surprising amount of control and grace, even when handling such delicate silverware.
The quiet, stoic pose immediately shattered when Beaumont’s elbow accidentally grazed her arm. The knight captain half-choked on his food as he bobbed a silent, awkward apology and edged his chair further away. Carina smothered a laugh as she pushed his untouched glass of wine closer and watched him lift it to take a quick drink.
‘I wonder why it is I don’t hate you anymore?’ With a shake of her head, Carina cut a bacon strip between her knife and fork and chewed thoughtfully. ‘More importantly, why haven’t you told anyone about Lumi?’
The silence stretched on as Carina finished a quarter of her plate while Beaumont managed to devour his meal with expert military efficiency along with a second glass of wine.
‘So much for being averse to drinking. I guess that means Beaumont’s not on duty. And here I thought he shadowed Nicholas day and night.’
Carina blinked as the knight captain’s violet eyes turned boldly towards her.
“Thank you for the food,” Beaumont said as he wiped his lips with a napkin, then folded the cloth and laid it across his plate. “I should be getting back.”
“Of course,” Carina murmured, internally conflicted if she should voice the question nagging at the back of her mind. ‘Perhaps Viktor was mistaken. Lumi should be able to control when mortals can see her after all.’
“The wolf,” Beaumont said suddenly as he hesitated by the corner of the table. “You should keep it out of sight.” Seemingly satisfied with this warning, the knight captain continued on his way.
Carina quickly left her seat. “Wait!”
Beaumont frowned as he turned back towards her. His gaze appeared focused on the floor by the kitchen door. Carina watched tensely as he circled the table and bent down to pick up something. She nearly choked on embarrassment as he held up her right slipper.
“Oh—that’s—mine,” Carina observed with a glare at her numb right foot. ‘Seriously, could this be any more annoying?’
Beaumont sighed as he returned to his seat and motioned for Carina to sit down. When she reluctantly complied, Beaumont knelt and slid the slipper back onto her right foot.
It was an oddly touching gesture that made Carina feel even more conflicted about her previous assumptions concerning this troublesome knight captain.
“You want to know why I haven’t told anyone—about your scriva?” Beaumont lowered the numb foot as he looked up at her. His violet eyes had a strangely calming effect on Carina’s tense nerves, though she quickly looked away from them. “I told you before, Lady Maura, I have no desire to see you hurt.”
‘Not now but—’ Carina sucked in her lip and sighed. “You say that even though you know that—”
“Just because you’re a witch doesn’t make you evil or dangerous,” Beaumont replied as if he had heard her unfinished question.
‘Dangerous?’ Carina gripped the back of her chair as she studied him. ‘Is he underestimating my abilities or just ignorant of my intentions? No, either way, he’s shielding a witch—if others found out—’
“There is something that clings to you, Lady Maura,” Beaumont continued solemnly. “A specter you brought to the palace that does appear to bear ill will towards the royal family.”
“What—” Carina croaked out, completely caught off guard. ‘Was he talking about—Maura?’
“You ought to be careful of this specter, Lady Maura,” Beaumont continued with a stern gaze. “The dead have no allegiance to the living because they are not bound to this physical plane. They only linger to sate unfulfilled desires. The more obsessed they become with obtaining mortal satisfaction, the more chaos they leave in their wake.”
“Why are we suddenly talking about ghosts?” Carina deflected, her voice cracking despite her best efforts to appear disinterested.
Beaumont stared back at her for a long, unnerving moment, then looked down at her foot. “Because you are marked by one. You also appear to have lost the necklace which guarded you against such malevolent spirits.”
‘Wait, what?’ A quick reflection reminded Carina she had been wearing the necklace the day she bumped into the knight captain at the blacksmith’s shop. ‘But why would Beaumont know anything about enchantments—then again, how does he know what a scriva is?’
“Did you—lose your necklace?” Beaumont pressed with a hint of curiosity as he rose slowly to his feet.
“I—didn’t like it—so I threw it away,” Carina muttered distractedly.
“You threw away a priceless enchanted heirloom?” Beaumont echoed as his violet eyes widened in surprise. “I see.” He pulled the sword gloves from his belt and slid them on with a curious smile.
“What did you mean before, about a specter following me?”
Beaumont scratched his chin thoughtfully, drawing Carina’s attention to the pale blond stubble that formed along his square jaw. “Most specters lack the will or energy to affect anything in the physical realm. It takes a great deal of wrath and vengeance to give them any power.”
‘Wrath and vengeance—that does sound like Maura.’
“The longer they linger, the more twisted and spiteful their nature becomes,” Beaumont continued grimly. “They can be a danger even to those they once loved. A cursed soul capable of killing without remorse. Ultimately they might even lose sight of their original goal once they get a taste for killing.”
‘That—doesn’t sound good.’
“Fortunately, negative energy alone has a limited duration. If the ghost doesn’t find a host to drain negative emotions from, their consciousness will eventually run dry, and they will fade into the underworld.”
“A host?” Carina echoed in a worried whisper.
“A powerful ghost can temporarily possess a host whose will and sense of morality have been compromised. Usually, the host is a member of the specters family,” Beaumont explained carefully. “A ghost must drain life from the living to resist the pull of the underworld. The longer they remain here, the more energy is required. Usually, sticking to one host will provide them all they need, especially if that host is a witch. Witches tend to have extra energy to burn since they naturally pull energy from the elements around them. However—”
“However?” Carina echoed as she leaned forward with an uneasy sense of dread.
“—If the witch gives the ghost permission to use their magic, a ghost can drain them to the point of death. Mortals, on the other hand,” Beaumont shook his head. “Don’t live for very long once a ghost has attached itself to them.”
‘So, I’m safe—as long as I don’t let Maura use my magic? Her magic? That’s a bit—’
“If I were you,” Beaumont continued as he glanced towards the ceiling above them. “The next time this ghost drops by to suck up more of your energy, encourage her to let go of any past grudges and depart to the underworld where she belongs.”
Carina held back a scoff. ‘You have no idea the kind of grudge Maura is holding. And I have no right to ask her to leave.’
“The longer she remains here, the less likely her soul will reincarnate,” Beaumont pressed as if sensing her reluctance. “There are some fates worse than death.”
‘What the hell does that mean? Wait a minute—she?’ Carina blinked, and half rose from her chair as Beaumont once more headed towards the door. As she stood, Carina realized sensation had returned to her right foot and took a few steps forward to confirm. ‘This night just keeps getting weirder.’
With a confused shake of her head, Carina gathered the dishes and carried them to the kitchen, distracted by the thought of Beaumont’s warning—and the chaos that would follow when the Ambassador was found dead the following morning.
‘Well—at least Haemish’s ghost isn’t following me around.’ Carina shuddered at the thought as she climbed the stairs and quickly returned to her room.