Chapter 92: A Twist of Betrayal
Carina was grateful for her court cloak’s warm protection as Lieutenant Olund escorted her back to Rose Palace. The Lieutenant wasn’t much of a conversationalist, which suited Carina just fine. Still, as they journeyed back through the drizzle of rain that descended from the cloudy night sky to water the cobblestone streets and iron gated walls, she took note that the Lieutenant was careful to remain at least three feet away from her.
‘There are rather strict regulations about the courtship between the palace knights and attendants, but nothing to this extreme,’ Carina pondered as she studied the quiet knights back.
As eager as the Baroness was to exchange the rain and strangely off-putting knight for dry clothes and her warm bed, a heavy reluctance filled Carina as the Rose Palace’s gate came into view.
The relationship between Eleanora and herself had ultimately shifted beyond the point of repair. This was not something Carina could easily overlook, even if she intended to leave the crown princess’s service as soon as possible. As the future queen’s attendant, Carina had spoken out against her Mistress, questioned her ability to rule as queen, and then been shielded by, of all people, Hana. Eleanora’s secret lover.
‘I very much doubt Eleanora will be happy to see me tomorrow morning.’ Carina sighed heavily, which Lieutenant Olund wholly ignored as he nodded a greeting to the guards on duty outside Rose Palace’s gate. ‘Until Nicholas holds up his end of the agreement, I’ll have to remain here if I want to avoid any formal reproach from the royal family and nobles.’
“Lieutenant Olund, what brings you here this late in the night?” one of the knight’s called out as he held a lantern in their direction.
“I am escorting Lady Maura back at the request of his Majesty,” Olund replied with a somewhat stiff nod at Carina, who moved up beside him to face the two knights on duty, one of which she immediately recognized.
“Lady Maura,” Sir Jordan greeted abruptly, his expression far from pleased.
‘Well, if that isn’t strange.’ Carina shook her head, distracted by thoughts of using her remaining days at Rose Palace to monitor Hana’s progress while the older attendant recovered from her near assassination.
“I trust you can both see her safely inside,” Olund said in a business-like tone as he took a step back and faced toward the direction they had come. “I shall be returning then. Good night.”
“That—” Sir Jordan’s voice sounded oddly conflicted as Carina’s gaze moved from the oddly austere knight to Jordan, who seemed rather worried about something.
“Most certainly, Lieutenant!” The other knight on guard, a man Carina had yet to learn the name of, responded loudly as he placed a firm grip on Jordan’s shoulder.
“Let’s get you inside, Lady Maura,” the unknown knight announced brightly as he released Jordan’s shoulder and turned to unlock the gate.
A prickle of uneasy anticipation ran down Carina’s spine as the gate swung open with a damp creak. She nodded her thanks and stepped inside the Rose Palace grounds.
“Lady Maura, the Crown Princess is waiting for you inside,” Jordan rushed out, his tone thick with concern and apparent worry.
“Oh?” Carina turned and found the other knight now standing uncomfortably close behind, between her and the gate that he quickly slammed shut. She blinked and took a step back as the knight stared down at her with an expression that, while not hostile, was certainly not friendly. “Her Majesty is still awake?”
“Best if you went in out of the rain, Lady Maura,” the knight replied with a single warning glance over his shoulder to Sir Jordan. “I’ll be back. Stay here.”
‘Ah, I’m definitely getting the impression that I’m about to receive a very cold welcome.’ Carina turned towards the palace and folded her hands against her stomach as she steeled her resolve. Her brief meditation was quickly interrupted by the knight’s impatient push against her back.
“Inside, please, my Lady.”
“I am going,” Carina hissed, not caring for his tone or the relaxed manner in which he placed his hand on her back once more. “Keep your hands to yourself, Sir.”
The knight snorted, withdrew his hand, and nodded towards the door with an expression that said, ‘Move it then.’
Carina exhaled as she traced a hand over Viktor’s bracelet and comforted herself with the thought of Lumi pinning this knight to the ground and likely making the man wet himself. She smiled at the thought and lifted her chin as she walked briskly towards the palace step and whatever trouble waited for her inside.
It was Major Garrett himself who greeted Carina as she stepped inside and removed her dripping cloak. He took the garment from her hand and promptly handed it over to Mrs. Poppy, who appeared from the direction of the library. Neither of them bothered to greet her or even speak as Mrs. Poppy promptly carried away Carina’s cloak down the hall towards the linen room.
“The atmosphere is quite strange tonight,” Carina murmured as she turned from the departing housekeeper to the Major. “Where is the Crown Princess? I was led to believe that her Highness is waiting for me?”
“Do you have any weapons on you, Lady Maura?” Garrett asked bluntly as he eyed the damp fabric of her dress around Carina’s thighs. “Is so, please hand them over right now.”
“Why?” Carina replied coolly as she brushed damp curls from her cheek. “Are you suddenly concerned that I am a threat to her Highness?”
The Baroness was suddenly reminded of the fact that Major Garrett had killed many men on the battlefield and crawled back from the clutches of death itself before becoming Eleanora’s personal bodyguard. The lack of emotion in his dark hazel eyes as they lifted from her skirts to Carina’s face made her feel a sudden chill about her neck.
“Perhaps I should clarify my position before we continue,” Garrett remarked as he rested his hand lightly on the hilt of the knight’s blade. “I serve as the Crown Princess’s bodyguard and the head of her Highness’s palace security. Any order that I give, you may take as coming directly from the lips of her Highness. If you choose to disobey such an order, you will be insulting the authority of Crown Princess Eleanora, and I will deal with such disrespect as I see fit. Has my position been made clear to you now, Lady Maura?”
“Perfectly,” Carina replied and offered a cold smile in return. “I have a dagger strapped beneath my dress. I respectfully ask the Major’s permission to remove it in the privacy of the dining room. Mrs. Poppy or one of the maids may observe me while doing so if necessary.”
“Mrs. Poppy,” Garrett turned to where the housekeeper had made a reappearance, this time carrying a folded towel. “Would you assist Lady Maura in removing all weapons she may be carrying on her person?”
“Certainly, Major Garrett,” Poppy replied as she unfurled the towel and draped it around Carina’s wet hair and shoulders. “Though I wouldn’t expect too much. It’s not as if Lady Maura keeps a cannon hidden beneath her skirt.”
The Major appeared to find little humor in Poppy’s attempt to lighten the mood as he walked briskly to the dining room door which he opened before them. “I’ll be leaving the door ajar. Please stay by the south windows where I can see you.”
“So much for privacy,” Carina muttered as she entered the room and glanced from the large bay windows to the kitchen door on the opposite wall. ‘I suppose he’s trying to make sure I don’t run.’
Carina pulled over a dining room chair with a resigned sigh and propped one very wet and slightly muddy boot against it. She kept her back to the door, where the Major observed her every movement, then reached beneath her skirt to remove the dagger strapped around her thigh. She tossed the blade on the table and dropped the hem of her dress and muddy shoe to the floor as the housekeeper stepped forward to claim Iker’s silver dagger.
“I am sorry, Lady Maura. This is all Lady Isabella’s influence,” Poppy whispered as she stepped back and watched the attendant dry off her face, hair, and dress.
“What is Eleanora planning?” Carina whispered as she dragged the towel down her sleeves while keeping her back to the door so the Major would be able to make out her words.
“I don’t know, but I would assume the worst,” Poppy said worriedly as she picked up a linen table cloth from the serving table and wrapped it around Carina’s dagger. “I’ll make sure you get this back later.”
A sharp knock on the dining room door drew their attention to Major Garrett, who cleared his throat, then asked, “Any other blades or weapons, Lady Maura?”
Carina draped the towel over her chair as she turned and walked confidently towards him with her chin raised to meet his gaze. “Would you like to search me personally, Major?”
Garrett’s dark-hazel eyes narrowed as they stared back at her expressionlessly. Then he stepped to the side and motioned towards the greeting room across the foyer, which led to the library. “Her Highness is waiting for you in her study.”
“With her mother?” Carina inquired with a hint of sarcasm.
Garrett’s frowned with a glimmer of displeasure, but the Major remained silent as he stared at her pointedly.
‘Very well, let’s see what sort of games Lady Isabella has in store for me. At worst, I might be leaving Rose Palace sooner than I thought.’ Carina smiled grimly and moved quickly across the foyer, through the greeting room, and then into the library, where she knocked on Eleanora’s office door.
“Come in,” Eleanora’s tired, strained voice commanded.
Carina yanked the door open and blinked in surprise.
Eleanora was seated behind her desk, dressed in a cream-gold nightgown and bed robes. The crown princess leaned against her armrest tiredly but quickly straightened as Carina appeared through the door. Lady Isabella stood behind the tired crown princess, gently messaging her neck. The older woman’s lips twisted into an eager smile as she withdrew her hands and focused her amber eyes on the attendant.
But it was the two women sitting on either side of Eleanora’s desk that made Carina pause as she stepped over the threshold. She met Evelynn’s light green hazel eyes first, not at all surprised by the open hostility she found within them. Opposite her old rival was the familiar face of Lady Meredith, the young noblewoman Carina had won against in the selection to earn this position. The fair-skinned young noblewoman with reddish-brown hair and doe-brown eyes offered Carina a superior smirk as she unfolded her fan and placed it over her lips.
‘I remove one of the Dowager’s spies only to have another take her place. Well played, Octavia.’
Carina suppressed a sigh as she curtsied before the Crown Princess. “You sent for me, your Highness?”
“I did not give you permission to speak!” Eleanora snapped, shattering the awkward tension in the room. “Remain as you are until I give you permission to stand, Lady Maura, or suffer the consequences.”
Carina flinched at the burning anger that coated the crown princess’s words. ‘Where the hell did all this animosity come from?’ She drew in a slow breath as she locked in the muscles in her legs and core and maintained her bowed posture.
A touch of déjà vu washed over her as Carina recalled a similar event when Countess Constance had placed her under a similar order to prepare Carina for the power struggle that would await her in the palace. ‘On my best day, I could hold this position for twenty minutes before my legs gave out. I’m not sure I can last ten minutes on a weak ankle. Let’s hope it doesn’t take that long to figure out what’s going on.’
“Where were you, Lady Maura?” Eleanora demanded in a low, hostile voice. “You left after curfew, without my permission, and are now returning close to midnight! Are you aware of how many palace rules you have broken?”
“I was summoned for a meeting with his Majesty and was escorted there personally by Captain Beaumont,” Carina replied calmly. “Forgive me, your Highness. I believed that Mrs. Poppy would inform you after my departure. She was the one who notified me of the Captain’s arrival and his Majesty’s request.”
“Preposterous!” Lady Isabella snarled as she drew in a sharp breath and rounded the desk to stand between her daughter and Carina. “What business would his Majesty have with a half-blood like you at this time of night?”
“I can think of one,” Meredith snickered quietly behind her fan. Isabella shot the noblewoman a dangerous glare, while Eleanora appeared to have missed the whispered accusation.
“Well, Lady Maura?” the crown princess snapped impatiently.
While there was little point in denying her meeting with the crown prince since only a royal order could pardon an attendant caught breaking curfew, Carina was by no means eager to disclose the topic of her conversation with Nicholas.
“His Majesty wished to discuss my encounter with the Witch Hunters at Averly,” Carina replied smoothly. “As you may recall, your Highness. His Majesty attempted to question me on those matters a few nights ago.”
“I remember perfectly,” Eleanora snapped, “But why at such a late hour? And why would Nicholas need to summon you to his palace? He could have asked such questions here at Rose Palace!” The crown princess’s chair scraped against the carpet as she stood.
“If your meeting with the Crown Prince was for official reasons, then why would you fail to inform her Highness before leaving?” Isabella tacked on cynically. “Even if you received a royal summons, your duty is to the Crown Princess first.”
“I assumed his Majesty had already discussed it with you, your Highness, this afternoon when you were together,” Carina replied hesitantly, playing innocent as best she could. ‘If I had told you, would you have let me leave the palace so easily, especially after the incident at dinner?’
“This cunning little bitch,” Isabella sneered as she reached down and grabbed a fist full of Carina’s damp hair. “I can see the deceptive, manipulative thoughts swirling behind those half-blood eyes of yours. Such a clever little temptress. No wonder you were able to grab the Earl’s attention. Tell me, Lady Maura, how sweetly did you smile at my daughter while you sharpened a knife to stab Eleanora in the back all so you could climb from bed to bed.”
Carina stared grimly into the blazing amber eyes that glared down at her with contempt. “My virtue remains intact,” she responded coldly. “You may ask the sisters of the church to verify this if needs be. I would hate for another malicious rumor to spread so soon after the previous one was proven false.”
“False?” Isabella laughed as she yanked on Carina’s hair and twisted the attendant’s head to the side as she grabbed Carina’s cheeks and jaw tightly between her boney fingers and sharp fingernails. “Do you imagine I am unaware of the draw a woman’s virtue has over men who wish to possess her?”
“No, I imagine you used yours quite well to marry into the Kensington family.”
Isabella’s slap was not altogether unexpected, but it did end the discomfort of maintaining an awkward curtsey. Meredith snickered in amusement as the disheveled attendant landed on the carpeted floor at her feet. Carina ignored the noblewoman as she pushed herself up and knelt on the carpet instead.
‘One way or another, it appears they intend to make me grovel. At least this is slightly less taxing on my ankle.’ Carina raised her gaze past Isabella to Eleanora but found not an ounce of sympathy in the crown princess’s face. ‘Are you so determined to make me your enemy?’
“May I ask what offense I have caused to have earned your Highness’s anger?” Carina inquired boldly as she folded her hands upon her lap gracefully and ignored Isabella, who paced beside the kneeling attendant and shook out her hand with a faint wince. ‘That hurt you more than it hurt me, cunt.’
Eleanora’s eyes narrowed as she leaned against her desk with a mocking chuckle. “I knew you were thick-skinned, Lady Maura, but I never took you for a fool.” She straightened and pushed her loose dark curls over the shoulder of the golden bed robe Lady Aconitum had designed for her. “I gave you a chance to rise, Lady Maura. I ignored your past and made you a Baroness. I gave you more trust and prestige than any of my other ladies and raised you above all except Hana, and in return—you have slighted me at every turn.
“When I gave you a vital mission to perform, you listened to the Earl’s orders instead of mine. You met with the Dowager behind my back, and you even sent Tiffany to her the moment it suited you to betray my efforts to secure a peaceful negotiation between Ventrayna and Lafeara. But the most painful of all your betrayals—was when you poisoned Hana against me.”
Carina raised an incredulous brow but remained silent as the crown princess circled her desk and stepped around Isabella.
“However, it is not your crimes against me but against Lafeara that has forced me to take such drastic actions against you,” Eleanora hissed with an unnerving smile.
“Lady Maura,” Major Garrett announced as he stepped away from the closed office door and approached the kneeling attendant. “A maid reported some suspicious behavior after you left the palace this afternoon. Based on her report and the Ambassador’s sudden and suspicious death, her Highness ordered that I search your room. There we found several books of questionable origins, one of which contained explicit instructions for creating harmful poisons that would be difficult to detect after death.”
Carina turned as a velvet sack was dropped on the floor beside her. Inside it were her books on herbs, poisons, and medicine. She raised her gaze slowly to the Major, annoyed at having her room and private chest ransacked, but again, not at all surprised.
‘I didn’t think Eleanora would be so reckless as to expose me, but it’s not like anyone was poisoned inside Rose Palace. Major Garrett himself was a witness to my location the night the Ambassador died.’
“What suspicious behavior was I reported for exactly?” Carina inquired calmly. “And who reported me?”
“One of the cleaning maids,” Garrett replied without embellishment. “She claims to have seen you sprinkling powder over the candles we used the night his Majesty complained of headaches and was forced to leave early.”
“This maid also claims she saw you sneaking around the kitchen late at night, adding various herbs to the chef’s spices. Strangely enough, it was after these nightly visits that Lady Hana’s health took a turn for the worse.”
Carina scoffed and refrained from rolling her eyes. ‘What maid would be out wandering the palace after curfew? Really, Eleanora.’
“And then there is the matter of the poison found in the cellar,” Eleanora continued with an accusing glare.
Carina narrowed her eyes. “Chef Robbi and I found that poison after the Dowager’s men forced their way into the cellar. I have no reason nor opportunity too—”
“But you sent the chef away to find more servants to help with the search, thus giving you ample time to place the toxic rags about the cellar to convince me to frame the Dowager.”
‘Right, because I carry wet rags laced with poison on my person at all times. It’s a wonder I’m still walking, let alone breathing.’
“This is absurd. Chef Robbi will tell you so himself. We found two suspicious handkerchiefs before I sent him to find gloves and extra servants to help with the search!”
‘And I also warned you not to raise the alarm! It was you who blurted it all out and accused the Dowager in front of Nicholas!’
“Chef Robbi will say whatever I require him to say, Lady Maura,” Eleanora replied coldly as she folded her arms beneath her chest.
The implications of those words told Carina all she needed to hear. The attendant clenched her hands as she stared back into the crown princess’s amber eyes, overwhelmed by the fury she found within them. “Why?”
Carina didn’t bother to list out all the reasons this ridiculous setup would fall apart. ‘Then again, if the crown princess accuses her own attendant of such a crime, who would step forward to defend me?’ Carina was fairly confident Nicholas would try to get her out of trouble. She also doubted that Robbi would go to such lengths to frame an innocent person, even if Eleanora did command him to. ‘But why is Eleanora suddenly so determined to ruin me? Is it because of her mother, Hana, Nicholas—all three?’
“Based on the evidence I see before me, I have no choice but to terminate your services, Lady Maura. You are no longer my lady-in-waiting,” Eleanora continued with the perfect amount of disappointment in her tone. “Thankfully, despite the betrayal of yourself and Lady Tiffany, I was able to find suitable replacements among Lafeara’s other noble families.”
Lady Meredith rose gracefully and stepped forward, treading on the edge of Carina’s dress as she did so, to curtsey before the crown princess. “I am humbled by your praise, your Highness. But for one who has committed such heinous crimes—a simple dismissal does not seem adequate. Don’t you agree, Lady Evelynn?”
A pointed toe kicked sharply against Carina’s spine. She gasped in surprise as Evelynn’s skirt swished past her to stand beside Eleanora.
“Your Highness,” Evelynn said demurely as she curtsied. “It would be best if you did not show leniency nor forgiveness to one who has killed a member of your own family. You have already demonstrated your generosity and benevolence by bestowing such grace and favor to such an ungrateful half-blood. Now is the time to set an example for all those who would contemplate betraying you in the future.”
“You are right, Lady Evelynn,” Eleanora replied, though her cold smile faltered for a moment. “Then I hereby strip Lady Maura of all titles and lands granted by my own hand.” Her amber eyes, ladened with anger and regret, focused on Carina with a cold smile. “You are no longer Lady Maura, Baroness of Averly. You are simply, Maura the half-blood, a mere commoner.”
Carina scoffed again as she straightened her spine. “Is that all?”
“No,” Eleanora answered swiftly, though her face twisted with displeasure at the attendant’s unconcerned expression. “Major Garrett, arrest this half-blood—”
Evelynn gasped in delight while Meredith snorted humorously against her fan. Lady Isabella also nodded to her daughter approvingly and lifted her chin higher as she stared down at Carina.
“—for the crime of poisoning a member of the royal family.”
‘What?’ Carina didn’t have time to contemplate which member of the royal family she stood accused of poisoning as Major Garrett’s heavy hand descended upon her shoulder. Beneath the pressure of his grip, the room blurred and flickered. The carpet beneath her knees transformed into the worn wooden panels of the scaffold as the stained executioner’s block loomed before Carina’s eyes.
The once Baroness, now commoner, swallowed back the suffocating fear and gritted her teeth as Garrett dragged her up on her feet.
“Any last words, L—Maura?” Eleanora demanded as she stepped through the blood-stained nightmare towards the shaking attendant.
Carina raised a brow but remained silent as ice-blue eyes met amber flames once more. This time, it was the crown princess who blinked first.
“I can spare you from such a trial and public spectacle—and the certain death that awaits at the end,” Eleanora murmured tensely. “If—”
“If what?” Carina replied coldly as the crown princess’s hesitated.
“If you agree to remain in my service and marry Earl Percy Hawthorne.”
“Your Highness!” Meredith protested.
Lady Isabella looked less than surprised as she studied Carina’s reaction over her daughter’s shoulder.
The taste of copper and fear burned against Carina’s tongue and teeth as she fought back the laugh howling against her throat.
‘Really? All of this just to place me beside Percy so that you can attempt to control your cousin. How very disappointing, Eleanora.’
“Marriage or prison and possible execution, Maura,” Eleanora growled in Ventrayna as she leaned closer. “That shouldn’t be a difficult choice, even for someone as stubborn as you.”
Carina smiled, pityingly, at her old Mistress as she replied in Ventrayna. “Marriage can be another kind of prison, your Highness, as you already know.” She unclenched her hands with a twisted smile as she glanced from mother to daughter.
‘Have I come so far in such a short amount of time, only to face Maura’s fate sooner?’ Carina focused on the uncertainty and fear which lingered behind Eleanora’s furrowed scowl. ‘No. I am not Maura. I will not cower so easily.’
Carina pressed her wrists together and shrugged as she raised them and turned to face Major Garrett. “Arrest me then. I will prove my own innocence.”