Chapter 96: Blood Stains and Visions
“I don’t understand. What do you mean Maura wasn’t arrested!” Eleanora demanded furiously as Lady Evelynn attempted to correct the streak of eyeliner that had gone awry as the crown princess snapped her head towards Major Garrett. “Didn’t you send over the evidence this morning?”
“We did, your Highness,” Garrett responded plainly. “And I left one of our knights there to report back when Knight Commander Quentin made the arrest, as you instructed. The Knight Commander did leave for Iris Palace but returned without Lady Maura. An officer then informed our knight that the matter was being taken before the crown prince due to Lady Maura’s elevated status.”
“Elevated—status?” Eleanora nearly choked on the words as she waved aside Evelynn retouches and rose from her chair. “Maura is a commoner now, not a court attendant, noble, or even a lady! What sort of status could she possibly lay claim to?”
“I do not know, your Highness. The officer would not say,” Garrett replied somberly.
“Your Highness,” Evelynn whispered as she set aside the charcoal stick for rouge powder. “We need to finish preparing for—”
“Yes, yes!” Eleanora snapped as she turned her glare from Garrett to the mirror. “If you don’t have an answer, Major, then go find out!” She gestured sharply towards the door and exhaled her frustration as she sank into the chair. “Must I do everything?”
Eleanora shook her head as Garrett withdrew, and Evelynn finished her makeup for this morning’s meeting with the House of Lords. “I didn’t think about this before, but Lavinia possesses full authority to ensure and even enforce my coronation. I should speak to her before the negotiations resume—or begin this morning.” She exhaled nervously and turned her head from side to side with a nod of approval at the black and gold makeup and the matching hairpins which adorned her tightly wrapped curls.
‘Gold is the color shared between Lafeara and Ventrayna. Gold represents power, sovereignty, and prestige. If I am to become queen, I might as well act the part.’
The radiant, confident woman in the mirror narrowed her eyes as her thoughts returned once more to the troublesome half-blood who was proving difficult to be rid of.
‘Perhaps Maura was the Dowager’s spy all along? But why would the Countess support her if that was the case? Or did Maura perhaps change sides after entering the palace?’ Eleanora groaned and massaged her temples, still fatigued from the little sleep she had gotten the previous night. ‘But what could the Dowager possibly gain by protecting her now?’
A knock at the door preceded Lady Meredith’s arrival as she carried in a letter with Nicholas’s royal seal. “This just arrived for you, your Highness.”
Eleanora exhaled nervously as she picked up the unexpected letter and broke the seal. Her eyes flashed with disbelief, followed quickly by anger as she read part of the brief message aloud.
“Negotiations have already concluded. There is no need for you to attend this morning’s council meeting—Concluded?” Eleanora growled as the letter trembled in her hand. “When did they—”
‘Lavinia, what did you do? Why would you leave me in the dark like this?’
Eleanora slowly lowered the letter into her lap as the parchment crumpled between her tightly clenched fingers.
‘No one takes my position here seriously. Even as Lafeara’s future queen, I’m still nothing more than a pawn for my family to move about as they please!’ The crown princess scoffed and set the letter aside as she rose once more from her chair. “There’s no need to prepare for this morning’s audience,” Eleanora announced to her worried ladies. “Instead, we should focus on preparing for the Ambassador’s funeral this afternoon. Knowing my aunt, every high-ranking noble in Lafeara will have been invited and expected to attend.”
‘How did Lavinia and Nicholas reach such a quick agreement when the Dowager is blocking Tiffany’s engagement to Marco?’
“Your Highness,” Evelynn whispered uncertainly as Meredith returned to the closet to find another suitable black dress. “What about Lady—what about Maura?”
Eleanora scoffed as she rubbed her forehead, then frowned at the moist sweat she found there. She wiped her fingers against the back of her chair, then gripped it with a frustrated sigh. “What does it matter at this point? I’ve removed the half-blood from my palace. Let the Dowager do what she wants with her little spy. Maura won’t dare show herself in front of me in the future.”
‘As long as I can keep her away from Hana, that’s all that matters.’
“Has Lady Hana woken up yet?” Eleanora inquired with a sharp look between her attendants.
“No, your Highness. The medicine Lady Isabella gave her last night appears to have been—stronger than anticipated,” Meredith replied with an uncertain shrug.
“I see,” Eleanora twisted around to face the mirror and scowled at her reflection as guilt twisted in her stomach.
‘No. It was necessary. As quickly as Hana went to Maura’s defense at dinner yesterday—there’s no way she would have remained uninvolved while I had Maura arrested.’ The crown princess looked down at the pale knuckles of her hand wrapped around the chair’s back and sighed as she unclenched her fingers.
“Finish preparations and then have breakfast sent up to Hana’s room. I’m going to sit with her for a while,” Eleanora announced as she headed towards the door.
“Oh—very well, your Highness,” Meredith replied.
There was something in the attendant’s disapproving tone and expression that caught Eleanora’s suspicious gaze, but she dismissed it quickly. ‘If either of them dare to create further problems, then I’ll get rid of them the same way I got rid of Maura.’
Eleanora pulled the spare key off the hook inside her bedroom, then crossed the hall, and unlocked Hana’s door. Inside, as predicted, the slumbering blonde attendant did not stir as the crown princess shut the door and crossed the room to sit on the side of the bed.
“I’m so glad you’re alright,” Eleanora whispered as she scooped up Hana’s hand and kissed the back of it tenderly. “I promised to keep you safe, so let me do that, Hana.”
The sleeping woman gave no reply. Hana’s chest continued to rise and fall with silent shallow breaths while her golden lashes barely stirred. Eleanora brushed away the loose strands of blonde hair that caressed her sleeping lover’s lips, then leaned in towards them for a reassuring kiss.
A book toppled off the nightstand behind her. Eleanora hovered above Hana’s face, then turned to regard the book on the floor with confusion. The title The Lover’s Lament stared up at her with mocking scrutiny. The crown princess kissed Hana’s forehead lightly, then rose from the bed and picked up the fallen book and the paper marker that had dropped from its pages.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Eleanora stiffened at the bizarre sound, then turned sharply towards the bedroom window. Warm morning sunlight poured through the clear glass panes with not a single waving branch in sight. The crown princess scoffed at her own nervousness, shut the marker inside the book, which she then returned to the stack of books on the dresser.
‘Such an odd sound. For a moment, I thought someone was tapping on the window. It was probably a bird or—’ Eleanora turned away from the dresser and froze as her gaze caught upon the full-size mirror in the corner of the room, mostly hidden behind a cream-colored blanket. Beneath the covering, a pair of chilling black eyes stared back at the crown princess as a pale gray hand reached through the mirror and grasped the blanket with curled fingernails that resembled an animal’s claws.
Eleanora hissed sharply as she started and turned to find The Lover’s Lament lying on the floor once more. She whirled back to the mirror but found no specter lurking there, though the edge of the frame appeared smudged with a black mold while the glass had clouded with age.
‘W-was that a ghost?’ Eleanora backed towards the bed, her eyes glued to the mirror as she reached for the familiar, reassuring warmth of Hana’s hand.
Ice-cold fingers seized her wrist, and Eleanora let out a strangled scream as she turned to find the dark specter crouched over Hana’s body. The vengeful ghost hovered like a dark spiny cloud. Its face and body were barely human beneath the prickly black quills that covered nearly every inch of the specter’s skin. At the center of those piercing spikes, two red eyes focused upon the crown princess with suffocating malice that made Eleanora turn cold with dread.
The crown princess ripped her hand away and, without a second thought, bolted towards the bedroom door.
“That’s right, Eleanora, run! Run away and save your own skin. You never had the courage to protect any of us in the end! You’re nothing but a charlatan. A queen with only empty words and an empty crown, sitting on an empty throne controlled like a puppet by your own fears and insecurities.”
The accusing words hissed against Eleanora’s ears as she yanked the door open. Two cold hands slammed against the crown princess’s back as she crossed the threshold and then fell, tripping over the hem of her golden dress to sprawl across the hall carpet. Eleanora flinched as Hana’s door slammed shut behind her. The sound of the lock sliding into place beneath those cold dead hands sent a shiver through the crown princess as Eleanora rolled over and backed away from the door.
“Your Highness!” Garrett’s voice and accompanying footsteps quickly reached the crown princess’s side as the Major knelt beside her worriedly. “Your Highness, are you alright?”
“I—I think I saw—a ghost—” Eleanora panted as the Major gently took her arm and assisted the trembling crown princess to her feet. “In—in Hana’s room.”
“A ghost?” Garrett repeated, his brows narrowing in apparent confusion.
“Ahh—” Eleanora winced as her right hand brushed against her dress. ‘It doesn’t make sense—but for a moment—I thought that ghost looked just like Maura—’ She hissed at the pain that burned down her back.
“Your Highness,” Garrett’s voice dropped, but the tension in it did not escape Eleanora’s notice as she gritted her trembling teeth and clutched her throbbing hand.
“What is it?”
“Your back—there’s blood on your dress—and your hand. Are you injured?”
“Blood—” Eleanora stared down at her right hand in disbelief. The sunlight reflected off the dark wet dripping crimson fluid that covered her hands, nails, and fingers. “How did I—”
The crown princess lifted her palm higher still to inspect the tiny holes below her wrist that bled freely. A memory stirred at the back of her mind. The flickering scene of a dark tunnel. Shadows masked Maura’s familiar ice-blue eyes as the half-blood, now dressed as a maid, stared down at Eleanora from behind a hidden door, which slowly shut between them. Choking desperation filled the back of the crown princess’s throat as she stretched her injured hand towards the closing barrier.
“Long live the Queen.” Maura smiled grotesquely against the burned scar on the right side of her face as the door to a secret tunnel slammed shut, sealing Eleanora outside as another door broke open to the young queen’s right, and pain exploded from the cross bolt that pierced her shoulder.
“Your Highness!” Garrett’s voice raised with alarm even as it was buried behind a torrent of whispers that resounded behind Eleanora’s ears as her knees gave way.
She stared down at the golden dress she wore, recognizing it from the dream—no, the horribly detailed and chilling nightmare that felt inexplicably familiar—in which she died as Lafeara’s queen.
Kirsi returned to what was now the half-blood’s permanent room inside Iris palace. Behind the ice witch, two maids Octavia had assigned to assist her trailed behind with curious expressions.
“You will both wait out here. I shall rest a while and write a few letters,” Kirsi said as she turned to face them before the door. “You may knock if anything important should arise, but do not enter without my permission. Is that clear?”
“Yes, my Lady.”
Kirsi nodded, quickly entered the bedroom, and shut the door firmly behind her. A glimmer of discomfort crossed her face as she reached for her chest and scowled. “Alright, I get it, Carina—just give me a minute to—” The Scarlet Witch stumbled towards the vanity desk, sank into the chair, and faced the mirror with a frustrated sigh.
The reflection frowned, ash-brown brows furrowing in concentration as the ice witch leaned towards the mirror and shuddered for a moment before straightening in her seat.
Carina raised her hand and tentatively pinched her cheek. With a quick sigh of relief, she faced the mirror in angry protest. “The Dowager is my—our godmother? Really? Can we trust her?”
“First of all, I used to be her godmother. Octavia Valda comes from an old, proud ice witch family that dedicated their lives to protecting the last of the Isbrand witches.”
Carina glanced down at the black diamond ring upon her right hand as Kirsi’s answer echoed through her mind. “So, what you’re saying is that Octavia has been protecting me all along because she thought that I might be an Isbrand witch myself? How would she even know?”
“I can see that I’ll have to teach you how to smell a witch’s scent. It’s a skill all witches and even half-witches possess. A trace of our unique power exists as an aura around us, even when we don’t use magic. However, it becomes more potent when a witch uses their powers. You’ll need to pick up this skill quickly if you want to survive. Now that I’m awake, Arachne and Veles are certain to become more aggressive in their attempts to convince you to die on Viktor’s behalf.”
“I see,” Carina replied as she rose from the chair to pace behind it. “Well, having the Dowager’s protection does solve the immediate problem of being arrested. Eleanora will find it difficult to blackmail or threaten me now.”
‘But it still feels weird, trusting Octavia.’
“I think you’ll find the benefits could potentially go much further than merely avoiding false imprisonment,” Kirsi countered with a hint of amusement. “But enough of that. The biggest hurdle before us is repairing the rift between our souls.”
“What do you mean?” Carina asked as she nervously rubbed her chest.
“I mean, existing as separate entities possessing the same body doesn’t make any sense. We need to become a single soul again. We may have been reunited, but it’s still not enough. If we were to merge back into one soul, we should be able to unlock the true power of an immortal—”
“But what happens when we—merge?” Carina interrupted critically. “How would we do it, and—what would that mean for our separate identities?”
“We would still exist, but as one person,” Kirsi replied confidently. “You would gain my knowledge and experience, and I would gain a repaired soul that can better harness Viktor’s power.”
“But—would I still be me?”
“I don’t know, Carina. Perhaps—we would become who we were always meant to be before Arachne interfered.”
Carina shook her head silently. Earlier, when Kirsi had first woken up, the Scarlet Witch had tried to kill her. The memory of being smothered—as if her soul were being erased from existence by Kirsi’s superior power—wasn’t one she’d soon forget. Even now, when Kirsi took over Maura’s body, it felt like the stronger Scarlet Witch was pushing Carina further and further below a cold surface of magic—as if she were trying to lock Carina away.
“As to how we would do it,” Kirsi continued patiently. “That should happen naturally on its own given time. However, if we wanted to speed the process along, I believe a bit of internal meditation to connect our souls would help.”
“I’ll—think about it,” Carina murmured and moved to the bedroom window with a restless sigh. “I have other matters to worry about at present.”
“Like your deal with the Crown Prince?”
Carina didn’t miss the hint of scorn in Kirsi’s voice. “What about it?”
“I’m just curious what you hope to gain by allying with a Havardur King? Especially one that became a tyrant in our host’s previous life.”
“The Crown Prince I’ve met isn’t that tyrant Maura remembers,” Carina replied as she pushed aside the curtains to study the stately courtyard of roses below. “A lot of things have changed from Maura’s past. I know I can’t depend on her memories for everything. I’m trying to change the future, and that means allowing others the possibility to change in this timeframe.”
“Situations and events may change, but who people are to their core rarely does.”
Carina scoffed and turned back to face the room. “You’re like the more cynical version of me.”
“Also, stronger, wiser, and prettier.”
“We’re sharing the same body!” Carina protested with a confused scowl.
“Speaking of which,” Kirsi replied without amusement. “We need to get rid of this body’s ghost.”
“Was that her name? Well, I suppose you’d know. Yes, Maura. We need to send her to the underworld where she belongs.”
“But—” Carina felt a familiar prickle of guilt run through her core. “Why?”
“You really are the nicer, more naive version of me,” Kirsi observed cynically. “To be blunt, that ghost—Maura—is dangerous. The longer a spirit lingers after death, the more malignant it becomes to whatever living soul it’s become attached to.”
“Is Maura attached to me then?”
“In a way, though certainly not to the extent she could harm you. It’s her old life that Maura is attached to. That’s why she can’t follow you now that you’re in Lily Palace. She never set foot inside this place herself while she was alive. Maura’s memories are what’s keeping her attached to this world, but they will deteriorate the longer she remains, as will her ability to reason to empathize with the living.”
“How does that make her dangerous?”
“You probably haven’t noticed because you’ve been too busy feeling sorry for her, but ghosts can’t remain in this world without drawing life force from someone. Mortals are the easiest source from which to feed. Even more so if they happen to be the ghost’s family members.”
“Their family?” Carina paused by her bed and turned to sit down. “How would you be able to tell if someone was—being drained by a ghost?”
“In the case of a normal haunting, the signs would be abnormal fatigue, irritability, and disinterest in people or things they would normally care about. However, a malignant ghost doesn’t just take; it infects its victims with its own negative energy. For example, a normally violent person would become even more physically abusive and cruel. An insecure individual becomes more prone to jealousy and paranoia. A malignant ghost makes its victims destructive to themselves and those around them.”
Carina wrapped her arms around her chest as certain memories from her childhood in the Turnbell family resurfaced. “Would it be possible for all that negative energy to focus on just one person rather than everyone the ghost’s victims were around?”
“It’s entirely possible. Especially if it’s someone the ghost feels a heavy sense of resentment towards.”
Carina shivered and then turned towards the door as the sound of someone knocking pulled her attention. “Come in.”
A smiling Tiffany appeared dressed entirely in black. “The Dowager asked me to help you prepare for the funeral. It seems she intends to present you as her goddaughter to the nobles there.”
“Ah, yes, thank you,” Carina replied as she stood up from the bed. “You look—lovely, by the way.”
Despite the gloomy black dress and veil which Tiffany had folded back over a small black hat to which it was sewn, the blonde attendant was practically glowing. She sailed into the room with a confident smile as she made her way to the wardrobe.
“Thank you! I probably shouldn’t be this happy on a day the Ambassador’s family is burning his body, but—” Tiffany pulled a glittering black dress from the wardrobe and turned around with a broad smile and glistening eyes “—it would be impossible for me to hide how happy I am.”
“She could try hiding it under a veil,” Kirsi remarked with a hint of cynicism.
“Why don’t you share the good news,” Carina suggested as she moved to shut the bedroom door.
Tiffany laughed and nodded eagerly as she carried Carina’s dress over and whispered into the ice witch’s ear, “Captain Leo proposed!”
Carina feigned a smile of surprise. “Really? That’s—I assume you accepted?”
Tiffany beamed and nodded enthusiastically. “Yes! Although—I’m still waiting for Father to grant his permission,” Tiffany explained hesitantly, her happiness not at all muted. “But I have no doubt the Captain will convince him. Leo is escorting me home this afternoon, after the funeral, to present his proposal to my parents properly, and the Dowager has written a letter on our behalf as well.”
‘I don’t really see how they could refuse the Dowager.’
Carina smiled, and although they were not close enough to embrace or call each other friends, she felt a moment of happy relief for Tiffany, who would not have to become the traitor the half-blood always feared she would be.
‘Still, how strange the way some aspects of Maura’s past continue forward as if nothing has changed.’ Carina shook her head and took the dress from Tiffany’s trembling hands with a smile. “Well, I wish you both a wonderful marriage and all the happiness you deserve!”
“Thank you, Lady Maura,” Tiffany murmured and sniffed as she reached for her handkerchief. “And I hope you will come—to our wedding—when the happy day arrives.”
‘I’m probably overthinking it—I’ve had far too much on my mind of late.’
“I would be delighted,” Carina replied, though she wasn’t sure how Captain Leo would feel about the invitation. “But first, we have a funeral to get through.”
“Yes, let’s get you changed. I promised the Dowager I would make you look like a princess!” Tiffany declared with a glint of determination. “Let’s see if Lady Meredith and Lady Evelynn dare turn their noses up at us now that we have the Dowager’s backing.”
‘Someone’s grown out of their shell,’ Carina observed with a faint smile as she turned so that Tiffany could undo the buttons at the back of her dress. ‘But the person I really want to see is Hana. I’m starting to wonder if leaving her behind with Maura was a mistake.’