Chapter 2: Run Rabbit Run
Maura returned the rabbit mask to the doorman outside and nodded a silent farewell. She could feel the thug’s eyes glued to her back as she turned and headed, not to the bar’s front, but down a side alley street. Her fingers twisted up in the coarse material of her cloak as Maura struggled to repress her frustration. Despite the risks she had taken in meeting with the Master of the Fox Den, she had left far from satisfied. In fact, the Fox Master had been stubbornly determined to dissuade her from seeking out Ghost.
And so, Maura had been forced to play the one card left in her hand. Another risk, but time was not on her side. At least, if that stubborn old fox decided to open and read her letter, he wouldn’t be able to understand its context. Which would force him to deliver her message to Ghost himself—or so she hoped.
The late morning sun provided enough light to guide her through the narrow and cluttered alleyway, towards Canary Lane, where the hansom cab she had rented waited for her.
The sound of footsteps in the alley behind her quickened her pace. Maura cast a glance over her shoulder just in time to catch the two shadows that dipped into a doorway.
‘So the Fox Master means to follow me?’
She lifted her skirts and chose a different route as she bolted through the back door of a shoemaker’s shop.
“Aye!” A startled apprentice looked up from his workbench as Maura breezed past him towards the front of the shop. “What are you—”
Maura slipped past the shoemaker, too busy bartering with his customer to notice her before she zipped through the front door back into the swarming streets. The sounds of protest in the shop behind her confirmed Maura’s shadows had not been shaken that easily.
She turned down another side street, dodging a carriage and two drunken cretins, one of whom caught hold of her arm.
“Where you going, girlie?”
Maura shook him loose as she spun around. This time she caught sight of one of her pursuers. A burly looking man with a cap pulled low over narrowed eyes, a slanted nose, and a toothy grin.
‘Damn it!’ Maura sprinted down the alley. Her boots splattered through the grimy puddles as she extended her left arm behind her and focused on the cold magic within her chest. Her breath glowed white in the air as the magic spread down her arm and tingled at the tips of her fingers.
A thud and a bang echoed in the alley behind her, followed by a muffled curse. Maura paused briefly to smirk at the thug who had slipped upon the fresh patch of ice left in her wake. Then, remembering his companion, she raced through the dark alleyway towards her original destination.
“Here now, watch out!” A middle-aged woman snapped as Maura barreled out into the main street and bumped into her shoulder.
“Sorry,” Maura gasped as she steadied the basket of washing clothes in the woman’s arms. “Sorry about that!”
“You’ll knock someone over running about like a crazy lunatic.” The woman’s gaze narrowed upon the simple black mask which covered the upper half of Maura’s face. “What are you—”
“Excuse me,” Maura apologized. Behind the woman, the figure of the thug Maura had not shaken lingered in the shadows. She cautiously backed away, glanced around the street then, spotting her carriage, ran towards it.
“East Central Station, please!” she called to the driver after she climbed aboard.
The hansom driver whistled sharply in reply. His whip cracked as the one-horse-cab cantered briskly out into the street and headed towards the lower east market.
Maura checked the alley once more as they pulled away, but the shadow of her pursuer was gone—for now, at least.
She paid the driver at the East Central Station, where she switched to another carriage for her return trip home. Once seated within its musty compartment, Maura pulled her mask free and tucked it inside her cloak. The busy capital streets outside the glass window soon faded behind her as the carriage lumbered along the bumpy roads of the countryside.
Maura’s ghost-like reflection stared back at her from the dirty glass windows covered in the shadows of passing oak trees. She pulled back her hood and regarded a young lass of sixteen years with mocking pity. Brown spots decorated her skin like paint splatter. The unsightly blemishes were the reason Maura preferred to keep her face covered, even when she didn’t need a mask.
‘At least dalmatians look cute covered in spots.’
There was nothing of her true identity in this homely child’s reflection. No one would ever suspect that within the frail sixteen-year-old Maura existed the soul of a now thirty-year-old woman named Carina, who had died in another world.
Nine years ago, when Carina had been murdered at Twenty-one years old, she had woken up inside the body of a malnourished seven-year-old girl. Oddly enough, it wasn’t just Maura’s childhood memories that Carina was introduced to—but memories of Maura’s future as well.
The old Maura had lived a bitter and lonely life as the bastard daughter of an all but impoverished noble family. Neglected, abused, and pushed about until she was sent to the palace to work as a cleaning maid. Unfortunately, Maura received little better treatment there and ultimately died at the age of seventeen by public execution.
Carina absorbed the memories of Maura’s life and death as she grew and adjusted to this new world and the dysfunctional Turnsbell family she now found herself tied to.
If Carina’s old life had taught her anything, it was that wealth and power were needed to survive. In an overpopulated world where people were hunted to keep the wealthy alive—Carina had met her end beneath a sharp blade when her still-beating heart had been harvested from her chest.
No, surviving Maura’s previous fate would not be enough. Carina wanted to ensure that she would never know that kind of helpless cruelty again. But in this other world governed by Patriarchy, the only way a woman could attain power was by birth or through wealth and connections.
Carina’s first step to financial stability had been carefully pried from the hands of Maura’s great-aunt, Lady Edith. The aging heiress, who died two years after Carina took over Maura’s identity, had become quite fond of the new Maura’s spirit and sharp wit.
The Turnbell family had been stunned when they discovered that dear Aunt Edith had included the “half-blood”—another word for bastard—in her will. The unexpected blow was made all the more unbearable when they realized that Maura had been granted a significantly larger portion of the old woman’s inheritance.
Also, at Carina’s suggestion, Lady Edith had retained a lawyer to ensure that Maura’s inheritance remained hers and hers alone so that Lord Josiah Turnbell wouldn’t attempt to swindle or outright steal it from her.
Carina had taken that inheritance of 8,000 crescents—which equated to $80,000 in Carina’s world—and invested it into various businesses that she knew would become successful in the future. She also maintained the services of Mr. Bryson, the lawyer Aunt Edith had provided her, and with his advisement, secured her investments and funds under the alias of a Mr. Frost.
Thus, over the past six years, Carina secretly amassed a sizeable income that had earned Mr. Frost the reputation of a reclusive but shrewd investor.
The carriage driver knocked on the window between them to signal they had reached her destination. Carina quickly pulled the cloak’s hood over her face and gathered her thoughts.
As requested, the driver dropped her off outside the gates of Turnbell Manor. Carina paid the man and then stepped back as the carriage turned about briskly to return to the capital. Only when the road was empty did she unclasp and remove her cloak with a sigh of relief.
The sound of approaching hoofs pulled Carina’s attention to the young lad riding towards her on a bay mare from the other side of the iron gates. His sunkissed brown hair and tanned skin glistened from a day of hard labor. The careless ease with which he controlled the mare beneath him without bridle or saddle made him seem more like a wild native than a boy born as a slave.
“Miss!” Gus shouted. “You’re back!”
“Is everything alright?” Carina asked. She hurriedly wrapped the cloak and mask into a bundle as she slipped between the gates.
“Young Master Lincoln came home while you were away,” Gus warned with a hint of panic. His dark ebony eyes pooled with worry and a spark of anger.
“What? But he was supposed to remain at school for another week?”
“I fear he slipped out again,” Gus replied as he held out a hand to her. Carina gripped his strong arm and jumped up towards the mare’s back. Her legs fell short, but Gus quickly pulled her up behind him.
“Let’s hurry back before he creates trouble for Ivy.”
Not that Gus needed a reminder of Maura’s older half-brother’s fondness for creating trouble. The stable boy kicked his heels into the mare’s side, and they galloped up the lane towards the underwhelming and gloomy manor house.
Carina gripped his waist without restraint. Though it was unseemly for a young lady of her position to cling to a mere servant, Carina’s concern for Ivy would always triumph over this world’s archaic rules of etiquette.
As part of her inheritance, Lady Edith had left Maura a young slave girl named Ivy. Now twenty years old, Ivy had adjusted to her young Mistress’s strange requests, secretive nature, and often unusual behavior. Despite the four year age gap between them, Ivy had been Carina’s closest companion and secret confidant in the Turnbell Manor.
Over the years, the harsh realities that awaited Ivy and Carina had forced them to rely upon each other, forming a friendship that surpassed the constraints of a slave and her half-blood Mistress.
It had been Ivy who introduced Gus to Carina when she required a trustworthy messenger to send letters to her lawyer in the capital. Gus, who secretly had a crush on Ivy, had been reluctantly drawn into their secret schemes. Although, more for Ivy’s sake than the ruble that Carina paid him for every letter delivered.
He was a strong lad with a simple mind and a pure, courageous heart that suited Ivy’s quiet yet sweet nature perfectly. But they were both slaves. They could no more wish to be married than they could hope for freedom.
Gus pulled the mare up at the front steps of the manor and helped Carina to dismount.
“Hurry back to the stables and remember to hide my cloak back in the usual spot,” Carina said as she pressed her bundle into his hand.
He nodded tensely, his eyes pinned to the building behind her. As a stable boy, he had never been permitted even one step inside the manor.
“Don’t worry. I’ll protect her,” Carina promised. “Now go—”
Her command was cut short by the sound of a whip cracking through the air.
Carina spun on her heels in an instant. She left the pale Gus and his panicked mare in the dust as she dashed through the front door and down the hall, while Ivy’s cries of pain hounded her every step.