Chapter 93: A History of Treachery
‘And so it begins,’ Carina thought wearily as Garrett led her back into the foyer, where he took a cord of rope from a waiting knight and used it to bind her hands together. Carina stared down blankly at her hands that had finally gone still after the vision that had shaken her in Eleanora’s office.
A faint snicker drew Carina’s attention up the stairs, where she found Maura waving over the balcony with an almost mocking smile.
‘What are you so happy about? You do realize I can’t watch over Hana from prison, don’t you?’
“Right, that should be tight enough,” Garrett said gruffly as he finished tying the knot and turned Carina towards the door. The brutish knight, who had escorted Carina in earlier, held the door open before them. “You might as well come with us, Sir Elroy. I’ll need you to keep an eye on the prisoner while I speak to the officer on duty at the Garrison tonight.”
“Happy to help, Major,” Elroy replied smugly as he followed behind. “Should I escort the prisoner for you, Major?”
“No,” Garrett replied firmly. “I can manage—”
“Just a moment,” Mrs. Poppy called after them as she rushed through the door carrying a servant’s cloak, which she wrapped tightly around Carina’s shoulders. “Good luck, Lady Maura.”
“What are you doing?” Evelynn demanded from the doorway behind them. Carina glanced over just as Meredith arrived behind the disgruntled attendant and shook her head.
“Let her,” Meredith replied with a snort as she pulled Evelynn back. “The half-blood will need it where she’s going. I doubt they even provide blankets to those accused of harming the royal family.”
“Do you know what the charges are for the false arrest and imprisonment of nobility?” Carina asked calmly as Poppy finished tying the cloak into place and pulled up the hood.
“You’re not a noble anymore, half-blood,” Meredith reminded her with a sarcastic smirk. “No one will even care if you are dead tomorrow.”
‘You’re wrong,’ Carina thought as Major Garrett led her down the palace steps into the rain. Sir Elroy followed close behind. ‘There are quite a few people who will miss me. Ivy, Hana, Lord Percy, members of Cerberus, and perhaps even Captain Beaumont.’
The bracelet on Carina’s wrist flashed with sudden cold against the ropes which bound her. A rush of relief and safety filled Carina’s stomach that she knew was coming from Viktor. The half-blood smiled as she turned away from her tormentors and waved farewell to Poppy before Garrett pulled her firmly towards the gate.
Her shoes splashed through a puddle of rain as Carina walked forward, suddenly faced with the challenge of keeping up with the Major’s long, brisk strides. Sir Jordan opened the gate ahead of them, his expression a mixture of worry and anger, but he clamped his mouth shut and dropped his eyes as Major Garrett walked past, dragging the half-blood along behind him.
“It’s a long walk to the garrison,” Carina observed as they turned in that direction. “Are you going to take responsibility if I catch a cold in this downpour, Major?”
Garrett glanced back at her and chuckled. “Have you ever been to the lower prisons of the Knight Garrison?” he asked bluntly. “The cold will be the least of your concerns.”
‘Right. Nobility is kept in the upper prisons, but now that I’m a commoner—I’ll likely be placed in the same cells where Maura spent her last days.’
The smell of filth, sickness, sweat, and fear filled Carina’s senses before she pushed it away with a dark laugh. At her wrist, Lumi bulked against the barrier that kept the elemental subdued. The scriva’s bloodthirst prickled up the half-blood’s arm even as Carina’s feet grew tired of the brutal pace the Major maintained.
‘It’s fine. I’m fine. By tomorrow, the Crown Prince will have heard and will likely put precautions in place to have me freed. Nicholas wouldn’t want to lose his connection to Frost just when he’s found it. And if Percy finds out, he probably won’t stand quietly by either—’ she frowned, annoyed at the idea of having to rely on the Earl again. ‘Well, it’s not like I can get myself out unless I let Lumi loose on them, which doesn’t seem fair considering the real culprit to this mess is Eleanora and her mother.’
A grim thought settled itself over Carina’s racing thoughts. ‘If they can fake a witness, they can also fake evidence. Should poison be discovered in my room while I’m in prison—it will be harder to prove my innocence, especially if Major Garret refuses to testify as my alibi.’
The half-blood clenched her teeth at the likelihood of that reality playing out. When it came to Lady Isabella’s determination to protect her daughter, Carina very much doubted that forging evidence was out of the question. It was also clear that Isabella was very familiar with herbs or at least had access to an experienced apothecary who could brew up poison from one of Carina’s books.
Frustration, resentment, and anger clouded her vision and slowed the half-blood’s pace just enough for the rope to yank. Carina stumbled and hissed as she scrambled to keep from falling on her face.
Major Garrett glanced back at her but said nothing, though he slowed his pace slightly.
‘Okay, so if I can’t guarantee that I will be able to prove my innocence—should I make my escape now? If I use magic—’ Carina scowled as rain slid down beneath the cloak and her blouse, the hood having slid back when she corrected her stumble. ‘—If I do that, I will have to flee Lafeara and leave Hana and Ivy behind. Forget running from accusations of being a witch, if the wrong people find out I’m an ice-witch—’ the half-blood swallowed back a lump of fear as she shook her head and blinked rain away from her eyes. ‘Is facing death really a better alternative to marrying Lord Percy?’
Carina tried to touch the bracelet on her wrist to find comfort and possibly answers in Viktor’s reassurance, but the cord of rope restricted her movements. She sighed and awkwardly tugged up her hood instead, then closed her eyes and focused on the cold power inside her that seemed to be growing stronger with every step.
“Become what you are destined to be.” The immortal god’s words rippled gently past her ears like a breeze.
Carina gasped and opened her eyes when she suddenly walked blindly into Major Garret, who was no longer moving. She frowned as she stepped back, then stiffened as the Major reached for the hilt of his sword.
‘Is he—Is he going to kill me?’
“Captain,” Sir Elroy inquired nervously.
The sound of a carriage and horses pulled Carina’s attention away from the Major’s hand. She blinked and stepped to the side to view past her captor and beheld an entourage of knights before a royal carriage headed down the cobbled streets directly towards them.
“What is she—” Garrett quickly grabbed Carina’s arm and pulled the half-blood from the road onto the narrow strip of grass which grew beside the palace wall. “Sir Elroy, get out of the way!”
Sir Elroy hastily joined them in the grass, cursing as the mud clung to the bottom of his boots. Carina narrowed her eyes as she recognized the knight at the front of the procession that quickly reached them. Captain Leo reigned in his horse even as he steered the wet animal off the road and onto the grass beside them. The half-blood blinked in surprise as Leo tipped his knight’s helmet towards her and offered one of his usual charming smiles.
“Lady Maura, we meet again.”
“What is the meaning of this, Captain?” Garrett demanded, the grip on his sword tightening as his eyes darted amongst the other five knights and the carriage that pulled up beside them.
“We are here to escort Lady Maura to Lily Palace at the Dowager’s request,” Leo replied as he slid down from his saddle, his boots striking the damp grass with a faint splash as the waterlogged soil below gave way.
“That will not be possible,” Garrett remarked sharply. “Lady Maura is under arrest. I am following orders from her Highness to escort the prisoner to the Knight’s Garrison and—”
“I don’t care, old man,” Leo replied with a dismissive wave. “You can hand her over to us and take the matter up with Knight Commander Quentin, assuming you still have ample evidence to place Lady Maura behind bars come morning light when the Commander is awake.”
“What?” Garrett narrowed his eyes. “You can’t—”
Leo drew his sword so swiftly and casually that Carina barely had time to blink. Major Garrett froze, his sword half removed from his sheath, and glowered as Leo’s steel blade tapped against his collar.
“Rusty,” Leo commented critically. “Then again, you never did fully recover from your previous failure to protect the First Prince.”
The veins in Garrett’s forehead looked ready to explode as he glared back at the Captain, but then the Major released the hilt of his blade and stepped back.
“See how easy that was?” Leo mocked as he reached forward, grabbed Carina’s bound wrists, and pulled her towards the carriage. “Now, on your way back to the barbarian princess like the good dogs you are.”
Garrett drew in a deep breath as his gaze shifted from Leo to Carina. “I will be informing the Knight Commander of Lady Maura’s crimes. One way or another, you will have to hand her over.”
“As hard as it may be for you to endure another permanent failure on your record, Major,” Leo countered with a taunting smile as he sheathed his blade. “I’m willing to bet my position that things won’t go the way your princess wants.”
“I have my orders,” Garrett growled.
“And I have mine. Good night, Major,” Leo replied impassively and remained where he stood as Garrett and Elroy exchanged glances, then continued past the carriage in the direction of the Knight’s Garrison.
Carina eyed the knight who held her bound wrists suspiciously as Leo turned his fierce brown eyes towards her and then offered another charming smile. “Apologies for the delay. Allow me, Lady Maura.” He tugged at the knot in the cord while a woman cleared her throat impatiently from within the carriage.
“Captain Leo, please get Lady Maura out of the rain. Do you want the poor child to catch her death out here?”
“A moment, Lady Delphine,” Leo replied, then gave a satisfied grunt as the damp rope untangled and fell away from Carina’s wrists. “There we are, this way, my Lady.” He took Carina’s hand gently and led her towards the carriage. The door opened promptly as Lady Delphine held out her hand.
“Come in, come in, Lady Maura!” Delphine urged with a worried frown. “The sooner we get back to Lily Palace, the sooner we can have you dry and warm again.”
“Thank you?” Carina murmured, still trying to come to terms with this rather unexpected turn of events. Of all the people she had considered potential allies, the Dowager and Captain Leo had surprisingly not made the list. She sat down on the carriage seat and removed the drenched servant’s cloak as Delphine offered her a new one. Leo promptly shut the door and returned to his horse before the Dowager’s carriage moved forward.
“I—don’t understand,” Carina said cautiously, shivering as she rubbed her wrists. “Why is the Dowager helping me?”
“Well, my dear,” Delphine replied with an amused smile. “That is a question the Dowager can answer better than I. But rest assured, my Mistress means you no harm.”
Lady Tiffany was among the rush of servants that greeted Carina as soon as Captain Leo opened the front doors of the impressively large Lily Palace. Tiffany led Carina up the sparkling marble and gold staircase into a luxurious guest room where a fire waited behind a shimmering gold-trimmed iron hearth.
‘Goodness, who knew the Dowager lived better than the queen?’ Carina mused with a faint laugh.
Lady Delphine left to give a report to the Dowager while Tiffany and two maids helped strip away the half-blood’s damp clothes. Towels were provided, along with a change of undergarments that fit surprisingly well and a woolen nightgown, which was warm for this time of year but perfect for helping Carina replace her lost body heat. As Tiffany towel-dried the half-blood’s damp hair, Carina told the blonde attendant about the events that had followed her earlier departure.
“Eleanora was going to have you arrested?” Tiffany blurted out as her hands stilled around the ends of Carina’s hair.
“Seemed more like it was her mother’s idea,” Carina replied tiredly, leaving out the belated offer to avoid prison if she married the Earl.
“That hateful woman.” Tiffany huffed as she finished drying the last section of the half-blood’s hair. “She slapped me as well, all because I dared to enter the carriage before her! My family might be new-bloods among the nobles, but we were never slaves—” she caught herself, with a worried glance at Carina, then laughed nervously. “In any case, the Dowager has offered me a place here. She also agreed to speak with my parents and push for Leo’s inheritance so we can get married. I’m ever so grateful to you, Maura. I would never have been brave enough to attempt such a risk on my own.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Carina replied with a dismissive shrug, then rubbed her tired head. “In any case, I may still be arrested in the morning, so I had better get some sleep now while I have the luxury of a bed.”
“Yes, of course!” Tiffany followed her to the bed and then leaned against the post as Carina crawled towards the pillows. “Though I wouldn’t worry about prison too much, Lady Maura. The Dowager appeared quite confident when she sent Captain Leo to go and fetch you.”
Carina frowned as she slid beneath the covers. “Did the Dowager already know about my arrest before she sent the Captain?”
Tiffany looked troubled for a moment before she quickly nodded.
“Who told her?”
“I don’t know,” Tiffany replied with a shrug. “I know you thought I was the Dowager’s spy, Maura, but truthfully, she only asked me to watch over you and observe how you fit in at Rose Palace.”
“Me?” Carina replied, baffled.
“Yes, I did gather that she had someone else observing her Highness, but—” Tiffany cut herself off with a timid smile. “Perhaps you should ask the Dowager about it tomorrow morning after getting some sleep.”
Carina grunted and waved after the blonde attendant, who left a single lit candlestick on the nightstand before leaving the weary half-blood in silence. Carina sighed as she gazed around the large room still illuminated by the warmth of the fire.
‘So the Dowager wasn’t just watching Eleanora—but why would she bother keeping tabs on me?’ Carina pondered as she slumped down onto the pillows and stretched her tired legs. ‘She did try to recruit me almost immediately. But—what possible use would she have for me now that Eleanora has tossed me out? I can’t serve as a spy….’
The half-blood’s ice-blue eyes narrowed as Carina traced the white roses stitched into the red cover of the pillow beneath her head. ‘Perhaps I shouldn’t let my guard down just yet. Of all the people in the palace, I’ve always considered Octavia the most dangerous. It’s possible she may use my arrest and the crown princess’s accusations against me for some purpose I’ve yet to realize….’
Carina rolled over with a frustrated sigh and tried for several unsuccessful hours to push the worries of tomorrow from her mind and sleep.
The sharp chill of darkness woke Carina. Her eyes snapped open, and she blinked at the pale breath of air that loomed above her stiff, frozen pillow.
Alarm and confusion set her mind reeling as her body sat up on its own. A strange sensation crawled over every inch of the half-blood’s skin, like a thousand tiny spiders racing up and down her body. Carina tried to shake her head—to shake herself free, but her hand moved instead to toss the blankets aside as her body rose from the bed to stand on the carpet floor.
“Kirsi!” a haunting voice whispered from the shadows as Carina’s body glided towards the still glowing embers of the hearth. “You have returned, Kirsi.”
‘What is this? A dream? Am I sleepwalking? But—I feel like I’m awake—why can’t I control my body!?’
Carina’s left hand moved towards the marble statue of a wolf built into the side of the hearth. Her thumb and forefinger pressed against the wolf’s eyes, and the wall before her cracked then opened to reveal a hidden door.
‘Okay…If this is a dream—I’m going to check that when I wake up.’
The half-blood’s body continued forward into the dark. ‘Oww!’ A cold prickle of pain stabbed at Carina’s arms and side as if icy fingers were digging into her flesh and attempting to rip it away. Carina’s right hand extended as a voice—her voice—whispered, “Sanguis eius sit potential.”
From within the half-blood’s chest, Carina’s heart burned like a cold flame, its light blazing brightly about the narrow tunnel as ghostly figures turned and fled through the walls of a passage coated in frost. ‘Ghosts?’ Carina looked down at her arm and shivered at the purple fingerprints left against her skin, then her focus shifted towards the passage that led one flight down and straight ahead. ‘A servant’s passage?’
Her body continued forward until it found a locked door. Once more, the half-blood’s body spoke with words that were not Carina’s as a seal beside the door flashed blue and the lock released. When she stepped through, a large room filled with oddly shaped objects hidden beneath drapes of white cloth appeared. ‘A storage room?’
The half-blood’s body wove among the concealed items towards the tallest object that waited at the center of the room. Carina’s left hand reached up to grip the dusty, cold cloth and then yanked it down savagely.
A king of stone stood before her, his cold gaze, chiseled features, and stern frown focused on some long-dead sculptor. Upon his head, a familiar crown of crystal shards glimmered in the shadows. His robes, adornments, and jewels were of little interest to Carina, whose attention was pulled to the scepter in his outstretched hand. The head of the scepter was a sigil of diamonds crafted into the shadow of an intricate snowflake that glittered with unsettling familiarity.
It was the same intricate snowflake design Carina had chosen as Frost’s sigil.
“Long has Winter been lost. Our Coven was slaughtered to the edge of extinction. Yet here stands before me, the First and Last Queen of Winter.”
A dull crack split the statue’s face as a specter of cold darkness emerged and floated down to stand before Carina. Like Maura, his phantom figure seemed to hover upon some unseen breeze. And unlike the calm gaze of the statue behind him, this specter’s eyes burned with a bloodthirsty red that filled Carina with dread as their malicious glow illuminated a skeletal face with long gray hair that twisted into what remained of a pale beard.
The towering crown of thorns the specter wore stretched towards the ceiling and emanated cold darkness that seemed to cut through her. Carina watched that darkness expand like a mist, twisting and consuming the other cloaked objects around her. From the shadowy depths, the gargled shrieks, wails, and curses echoed as if summoned from across a vast distance.
“King Mamon,” a voice that was Carina’s responded without a flicker of fear. “You have something that belongs to me.”
The specter seemed to shrink in size as if subdued by the commanding voice, which silenced the lamenting shadows.
“I give it to you willingly, my Queen. I only ask that you destroy the Havardur bloodline—and that you remain wary of Viktor. What was granted can be taken back, but only if the soul is willing to be sacrificed. Know yourself, Kirsi. Your fate is tied to the return of the Saint and the rise of Minerva’s heir.”
‘Kirsi?’ Carina might have gasped if she had any control over her body. ‘Wait—is Kirsi controlling my body?’
“I have no time for the prophecies of dead ghosts,” Carina’s voice snarled. “Nor do I make deals with souls trapped in Arachne’s Dead Sea. I ask only for what is mine. Thwart me—if you dare.”
“Merciful Queen—I am and always will be your subject. I asked for revenge because I will not be able to achieve it once I return the ring you bestowed upon me. Please, bless me with another life, my Immortal Queen. I would happily serve you until the world burns in ice and fire.”
“You’ve had your chance at revenge, King Mammon. Now your soul has become tainted by Arachnid’s poison. I can only offer you the peace that has been denied to me. As for the Havardur kings—their time is drawing to a close.”
‘What the hell?’ Carina watched as her hand stretched towards the specter, which in turn extended his own pale, boney hand towards the half-blood.
“I return what was given to its rightful owner. My throne, my powers, and my divine right to rule to Kirsi, the First and Last of the Isbrand Queens.”
A ring of solid black diamond dropped suddenly into Carina’s palm. In the same instant, the king’s red eyes flickered out as his form disintegrated, wrappings of smoke and bones collapsing and falling to the floor without a sound. The king’s remains quickly vanished as the shadows in the room withdrew.
Carina’s hand closed around the ring tightly, then her body turned sharply and headed through the same door through which she had entered. Kirsi returned through the passage to the guest room where the half-blood had awoken. For a brief moment Carina hoped the dream would end, but then her body continued to the bedroom door that Kirsi swung open before turning sharply to the left.
‘Where are we going now?’ Carina wondered, nausea filling her stomach as the sensation of being inside her body while having no control over it steadily wore upon her sanity. ‘If this is a dream, I’d really like to wake up now. Please?’
A flicker of light up ahead drew Carina’s attention to a door with two armed knights on either side. ‘Oh—shit. Tell me that’s not—oh, this can’t be happening!’ Unable to close her eyes or even look away, Carina watched in disbelief as Kirsi strode past the knights, who barely registered her presence as the ice witch flung open the great oak door.
Another bedroom appeared before a startled and confused Carina. An equally startled Dowager rose from her bed and stared across her blankets in disbelief. “Lady Maura—”
“It has been a long time, Octavia Valda,” Kirsi replied with a note of amusement. The half-blood opened her palm, held up the specter’s black diamond ring that immediately grabbed the Dowager’s attention, and then slid it onto the ring finger of her right hand. “Are you not happy to see me, goddaughter?”
“Kirsi,” Octavia whispered in a tone Carina had never heard before. And if the aged monarch’s lonely, aching voice wasn’t hard enough to comprehend, the tears that suddenly welled up in Octavia’s eyes convinced Carina that she must be suffering from some fevered dream. The Dowager stepped forward and knelt reverently at Kirsi’s feet. “Your Majesty, I wasn’t sure at first—but I am overjoyed by your return.”
“Yes,” Kirsi’s cold voice responded as the ice witch lowered her hand to the Dowager, who eagerly kissed her ring. “It is time to reclaim the Isbrand throne and put Viktor out of his misery. But first—” the half-bloods gaze shifted to the ring as Kirsi turned Carina’s right hand towards the ice witch’s chest, “—I must deal with this imposter.”
Viktor’s heart blazed inside Carina’s chest once more blinding her to everything else. Beneath the cold, white fury, she could feel Kirsi’s fingers digging towards her heart—Viktor’s heart. The magic of the immortal’s lost powers rushed out like a howling storm and crashed against Kirsi’s savage touch.
Trapped between the two unshakable wills Carina felt as if she had been lit on fire. She could feel herself becoming smaller as she wilted like a petal beneath the flame. The magic was burning her away—it was beyond terrifying—and it hurt more than any form of pain Carina had ever experienced before.