Chapter 85: The Trouble with Curses
Eleanora drew in several short, tense breaths as she stormed inside the foyer of Rose Palace, her mind still entranced by the image of Haemish lying dead upon the bed. ‘Was it really true? Had the formidable and ruthless Haemish been murdered?’ Eleanora had heard a few rumors about her uncle over the years, but she could think of no one in Lafeara with such malicious motive against the Ambassador. ‘Then did someone from Ventrayna plan this—so that the blame for Haemish’s death would fall on Lafeara?’
The staircase before the crown princess swayed. Eleanora caught the bottom marble post and clung to it as Tiffany and Maura hastened to her side to support her.
“Your Highness! Should I fetch a doctor?” Tiffany asked worriedly.
“Is there anything we can do to help?” Maura queried as Eleanora shook her head and straightened.
“Yes.” Eleanora grabbed the Baroness’s wrist, drawing some amount of reassurance from the cold vapor of magic that spread beneath the attendant’s fingers. “Lady Maura, I need you to—”
“Be cautious of Lady Maura until you know for certain she is not involved.” Eleanora froze, Lavinia’s warning tightening her chest as her gaze zipped between the two confused faces before her. “I—”
‘I need someone I can trust, but—If only Hana were awake.’ Eleanora rubbed her chest as she turned and walked blindly towards the library. ‘No, there are other people I can rely on.’
She ignored the footsteps of the attendants who followed but noted with relief that they waited outside her office as Eleanora threw open her desk drawers and quickly penned a letter. She scanned the hastily written message, already grimacing at the likely comment on her poor penmanship. After sealing the written request for aid inside an envelope, the crown princess wrote out her mother’s name, Lady Isabella Kensington, upon the surface.
‘Now, who should I ask to deliver it?’ Eleanora glanced towards the office door. Mrs. Poppy stood outside and appeared to be having a conversation with Maura. The crown princess looked down at the already cooling wax seal, made up her mind, and called out, “Lady Tiffany.”
Tiffany quickly slipped past Maura and Mrs. Poppy into the office. “Yes, your Highness.”
“I need you to take a trip out of the palace. Deliver this letter to my mother at the address written here and return with her as soon as possible,” Eleanora instructed urgently.
“Yes, your Highness.” Tiffany took the envelope and glanced at the letter curiously, but one look at Eleanora’s furrowed brows was enough to gauge the crown princess’s impatience. Tiffany hastily dipped a curtsey and then left.
“Mrs. Poppy!” Eleanora pressed a hand against her neck and sighed as she pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve to dab at the sweat that dampened her curls. The housekeeper entered and then curtsied. “My mother will be joining us for supper. Inform the Chef and have him prepare something that will appease her taste.”
“That may—prove difficult,” Mrs. Poppy replied, lowering her voice at the end. “Is everything alright, your Highness?”
“You mean other than my uncle being dead, my marriage presently in jeopardy, and the peace between our kingdoms being at risk?” Eleanora snapped and scowled as she waved the servant from the room.
“Forgive my impertinence, your Highness.” Poppy withdrew and whispered something to Maura, who remained outside the library, waiting patiently.
Eleanora turned her back to the door as she drew in a few steadying breaths.
‘There is no reason to suspect Maura. She lived her whole life in Lafeara as a noble. And as a half-blood, Maura has more reasons to resent the nobility here than she does my uncle.’ Eleanora looked down at the damp embroidered handkerchief in her hand and saw the black silk cord over Haemish’s closed eyes. ‘Lady Maura is the most capable person I have right now, and it is important that I find those dancers quickly.’
“Lady Maura, please come inside and shut the door.”
The attendant’s soft footsteps approached, paused as the door shut, then drew up behind Eleanora. “Yes, your Highness?”
Eleanora turned around and met Maura’s surprisingly serene expression. “Maura—the dancers you hired for the banquet—were you aware that they—attended my uncle last night?”
Carina smiled at Eleanora’s blatant attempt to skirt the reasons Haemish summoned the dancers. “Oh yes, I recall that Mrs. Poppy came to find me yesterday morning to ask how they might be found. I assumed the Ambassador was looking for another dance performance, so I told her the name of the inn where they had been staying.”
Eleanora nodded slowly and pinched the bridge of her nose as she let out a shaky sigh. “I see—but how did you find these particular dancers?” she continued persistently. “They appear to have—vanished somehow—sometime during the night.”
Carina nodded and pretended to miss Eleanora’s implication. “As your Highness will recall from our conversation from last week, I consulted an expert performing artist by the name of Madam Maylea. She trained many of the best dancers and performers who are popular with the royalty and nobility in many kingdoms. She was also one of my instructors while the Countess was training me.
“As it happens, the Madam reached out to me when she heard I had become your Highness’s attendant. So, I sent back an inquiry to see if she had any dancers available for the banquet just in case Lady Evelynn had trouble arranging entertainment for the evening.” Maura shrugged and maintained an air of blissful ignorance as she added. “Madam Maylea wrote back and recommended the twins to me just a week before Evelynn proved unable to complete her task.”
‘Of course, the arrangements were actually made months ago, and Maylea made sure that any other available entertainers were suddenly preoccupied elsewhere so her girls could get inside the palace. But neither Eleanora nor Lady Lavinia need know that I have been preparing for Haemish’s death for the last several years.’
“Did they—do something wrong?” Carina asked as her eyes widened in shock. “Did they steal something?”
“No, they—were the last to see Haemish alive—so Lady Lavinia and I wanted to speak to them regarding my uncle’s last moments,” Eleanora explained, seeming relieved at Carina’s apparent ignorance.
‘Well, if they haven’t detected the poison by now, we should all be in the clear,’ Carina thought as she studied Eleanora, curious as to the nervous agitation that had followed the crown princess back from Lily Palace. ‘Of course, it is very likely that Lady Lavinia suspects foul play given she is a witch and can probably tell Haemish used magic before he died. But from what Stitcher told me, Lavinia has no reason to seek revenge. She might even be as relieved as I am that Haemish is finally dead. I expect she’ll use this opportunity to ensure the future and safety of her youngest son Marco, given the current situation they left behind in Ventrayna.’
“Well, I can certainly reach out to Madam Maylea for more information about them if you like,” Carina continued amicably, “But I imagine they left before the Ambassador’s death since they were only there to dance for him.”
Eleanora blinked at Carina, her expression dumbfounded. “It was more than just a dance, Maura—” the crown princess sighed loudly with strained impatience as she circled her desk and sat down in the chair. “Nevermind that now.”
“Is—something else bothering your Highness?” Carina pressed curiously.
“Yes, but—you must not repeat a word of this to anyone, Lady Maura,” Eleanora said tensely as she glanced over Carina’s shoulder towards the door and motioned for the attendant to step closer. “My aunt has good reason to believe that Lord Haemish—was murdered.”
‘Well—I suppose I can’t be too surprised.’ Carina stared blankly at the crown princess and attempted to appear genuinely shocked. “H—why would she think that?”
“With the help of an ancient trick, predominantly used by fire witches, particularly those who lived under the threat of assassination,” Eleanora explained with a strained sigh as she rubbed her temple. “They call it a Death Mark.”
Carina tensed as an earlier conversation with Percy nudged at her brain.
“A fire witch places a protective enchantment on their skin that, when activated, will mark those who mean to harm them. Usually, this mark is only used if the witch is confident he will capture the assassin—or more likely, knows that he will die.”
Carina nodded as she drew in a slow breath. “So, this enchantment marks their killer?”
‘Percy definitely said something about Haemish leaving a mark on me.’
“Not only that, the enchant becomes a curse when activated—to both parties.” Eleanora moved her fingers from her temple to her mouth as she rubbed her lower lip anxiously. “The assassin marked by this curse will essentially—be burned alive from the inside.”
“The reason it is rarely employed is the witch must capture his assassins to deactivate the spell, usually by killing them, or he will suffer the same fate,” Eleanora mused darkly. “Which means, in a few days, my uncle’s body and that of his murderer will simultaneously combust.”
‘Wonderful.’ Carina struggled to hide a sarcastic smile and instead shook her head at this unpredictable outcome. “Then—how do we find this—assassin?”
“The mark would be visible by now,” Eleanora replied bluntly. “And the afflicted would start to show signs of the curse. Initially, they will experience an increase in body temperature. These symptoms will be accompanied by sweating, itching, followed by muscle weakness and excessive, unquenchable thirst, and then later, unbearable pain, the inability to move at all as their muscles become dehydrated. Generally, they faint and barely remain conscious as their skin starts to melt—which usually means death is usually only a minute away.”
‘Okay, well, no sign of that so far, but—Shit. What about the twins?’ Carina swallowed nervously. “Is there any way to—deactivate the curse now that Haemish is dead?”
“No, only the witch who activated the curse can cancel it.” Eleanora looked up for a moment as she drew a deep breath. “With my uncle’s death, the fate of these assassins is little more than a foregone conclusion. It’s just a matter of days.”
“With mortals, the curse would activate within two-three days. By now, they would show signs of itching, sweating, a fever, perhaps, and by tomorrow, a human torch. With half-witches and coven witches, it could take—perhaps as a week.”
“So—they could be long gone by now.”
“Let’s hope that they are,” Eleanora replied nervously as she dropped her hand. “If the killer is found here in Lafeara and the Emperor catches wind of it—”
Carina closed her eyes and drew in a slow breath. ‘I should be grateful I asked Lilaru and Griselda to leave Lafeara, but—I sincerely hope they were able to avoid this curse.’
“How is Lady Lavinia certain anyone was cursed?” Carina pressed curiously.
“There is a spell which must be used by a blood member of the witch’s family. Since Marco is here, Lavinia was able to use his blood or even his hair to divine the assassin’s location. As Haemish’s wife, she is duty-bound to find the assassins and bring them to justice—not that they can escape punishment now.”
A knock at the door caused Carina to start as Eleanora rose from her seat.
“In any case, it appears one of the assassins is already dead. Lavinia said that one mark disappeared in the middle of the Serpentine River during last night’s thunderstorm.”
‘Disappeared? Then—the twins?’ Carina felt a lump in her throat as she thought of Lilaru’s mischievous laughter and Griselda’s burned arms.
“What concerns me most,” Eleanora continued as she paused beside Carina to take her hand, “Is that another death mark is currently active here in the palace. We need to find them, whoever they are, and—kill them—as quickly and quietly as possible.”
‘It can’t be the twins—there’s no way one of them would have remained behind. But that—’ Carina stood in numb, stunned silence as Eleanora continued to the door and opened it.
“Forgive the interruption, your Highness,” Poppy said calmly. “But his Majesty has arrived.”
“I see, yes, have him wait in the dining room—I need a moment,” Eleanora replied tensely before she shut the door and turned back towards Carina.
“Your Highness, should I accompany—” Carina turned slowly to face Eleanora, who shook her head firmly.
“I will go see what Nicholas wants. I need you to find out how those dancers left Lily Palace and if they are still somewhere inside the royal fortress. Also, I need every single person in Rose Palace checked to ensure none of them have the Death Mark.”
“An excessive search like this is sure to arouse suspicion,” Carina murmured uncertainly.
“Just say you are checking for a fever that has started to spread among the Ambassador’s staff, and we want to be sure it hasn’t spread here.”
Carina nodded, actually impressed at Eleanora’s ability to think up a plausible story to cover their little assassin hunt.
“Haemish would have put the mark somewhere visible most likely, so be suspicious of anyone who has a bandage around their arms, neck, or face. Write down the names of any servants or attendants who are feeling poorly, sweating, or complaining of a fever.”
Carina nodded, already sweating herself at the thought of some hidden death mark on her body. She shivered at the memory of Haemish grabbing her foot and holding onto it grimly as Griselda stabbed his neck.
“How will I know when I see it?” Carina asked distractedly.
“That—” Eleanora frowned “—it will look like a brand, probably in the shape of a flame. Also, whatever limb or area the mark has been placed on will be quite painful and hot to the touch.”
‘There’s no way I would have missed something like that—’ Carina froze as she recalled the very special effect her frozen heart possessed. ‘If I can’t feel pain—could I have—’
“But—what if the mark is hidden under their clothes—”
Eleanora groaned as she yanked the study door open. “I don’t know, Lady Maura. I’ve only seen the aftermath of that curse when it activates, and it’s not pretty. What I do know is that it would be hard to hide the symptoms even if the mark itself is hidden from view, so—go look for it!”
Carina nodded and swiftly left the office. She glanced behind her just once to confirm Eleanora wasn’t looking and ignored the presence of the crown prince and his usual knight standing inside the dining room as she rushed upstairs to check the first and only suspect on her list.
‘Damn it! What the hell am I supposed to do if I’m carrying a Death Mark?’