Chapter 21: A Merciless Dawn
Carina entered the Turnbell manor, feeling more specter than living as she glided up the stairwell. Her numb legs lumbered to a stop as she reached the second floor. The familiar dark corridors and the distant snores of the Turnbell family who slumbered further down the hall were but a muffled canvas upon which the trauma of her mind now played.
Carina moved on towards her room. Her hands fumbled with the key as she unlocked the door, slid inside, and shut it firmly behind her.
But she couldn’t shut out her torment or the suffocating, emotionally draining scent that now clung to her disheveled hair and the filth and blood smeared against her clothes.
Carina leaned against the door. When she shut her eyes—Lincoln was there, etched within each vivid memory that flickered and spun inside her mind.
“Mistress?” Ivy’s voice called to her like a beacon in the storm.
But Carina had no strength to respond and couldn’t turn around. Every fiber of her being refused to contaminate the only ray of sunshine in her otherwise bleak existence.
Lincoln was gone. Lincoln was dead and rotting in an alleyway.
She could feel and smell his blood on the bodice of her dress.
His touch, like a ghost, still lingered on her skin.
Again, she saw the blood drip from his pale blue lips. Saw the life die in those once powerful, vicious green eyes. Over and over, she replayed it.
The darkness in her smiled and reveled in his absence.
No, she was smiling. Smiling, spiraling, holding onto this stupid door which was the only thing keeping her upright.
‘What is wrong with me?’
Warm arms wrapped themselves around her, and the scent of Ivy’s hair washed away the terrors in her mind.
“No—your back—you shouldn’t be up,” Carina protested, her voice barely above a whisper.
“You’re hurting,” Ivy whispered, and her fingers tightened against Carina’s arms. “I thought you said you couldn’t feel pain?”
Carina scoffed softly, not because Ivy was wrong, but rather that she was so perceptive of her mistress’s emotions.
“This is a different kind of pain,” Carina whispered.
Ivy hugged her tighter still as if to chase away the cold that wrapped around Maura like a sheet of ice.
‘Don’t pity me. I just murdered someone.’
It wasn’t that she regretted Lincoln’s death. The world could do without one more entitled rapist. Some might even thank her for ridding them of the future pains Lincoln would have pervaded upon the weak and defenseless.
He had undoubtedly thought Maura weak and helpless when he dragged her into that alley.
The bottle of spirits. The way he moved about the shadows like an experienced predator—the maliciousness of his touch.
He had done that to Maura, his half-sister, and Carina knew instinctively that he had done it to others.
She shook her head and gently clasped Ivy’s wrist.
“Miss!” Ivy’s voice was tinged with shock as her arm went rigid. “You’re so—cold.”
Carina withdrew her hand quickly. “Yes, it’s cold outside. And you should be in bed. I will change and then join you.”
“I’ll get another blanket,” Ivy murmured as she let go.
Carina didn’t have the strength to argue with her. In the dim moonlight, she untied her cloak and dropped it on the floor. Then came the dress and petticoat, each stained through with blood.
She stared at the black smear that resembled ink in the moonlight. The image confirmed with equal veracity the two horrors that weighed upon her mind.
Ivy appeared and wordlessly removed the garments.
Carina turned and caught her reflection in the mirror as she headed towards the wardrobe. Her spotted face stared back at her with wide vacant eyes. Her smile was gone, and she could not summon it again.
‘Don’t you dare fall apart now!’
Carina grabbed a nightgown and pulled it over her head. The fabric tangled around her arms, and she hissed in frustration. Ivy’s hands skillfully untangled the garment. The older girl’s gentle touch smoothed out the cotton fabric and tied the simple lace ribbon in the back.
Carina waited in the silence for Ivy to ask the questions that were burning in her dark jade eyes.
“Come to bed, Maura,” Ivy said softly instead. “I will ask the servants to prepare you a bath in the morning.”
Carina would have preferred a bath now, but at this hour, such a request would only raise suspicions. She followed Ivy like a child as she crawled under the sheet and blankets after her.
The traces of Ivy’s warmth in the mattress vanished the moment Carina touched them. She sighed and buried her face in the pillow instead. The fatigue she had been fighting back swept her under like a tide, and she barely felt Ivy roll towards her.
“Are you still cold?”
“Mmm.” With all the magic Carina had unleashed tonight, it would take a while for her body temperature to become normal again. Warm arms wrapped around her once more, and she stiffened.
“It’s okay,” Ivy murmured as she pulled Carina close to her chest. “Just sleep. I’m here.”
A quiver ran through Carina as she pressed her lips together.
The animal that had broken free in the darkness of that alley slipped once more inside her frozen heart.
The same dream tormented Carina when she finally fell asleep. Only this time, it was Lincoln who dragged her onto the scaffold and Ghost, who waited with the executioner’s ax.
The same familiar freezing pain woke her as she grasped the empty bedsheets beside her. “Ivy?”
A thud drew Carina’s attention to the open bay windows. Ivy winced as she leaned against the desk and rubbed her hip.
“Morning, Miss!” Ivy murmured with a hint of pain. “I always bump into this darn thing.”
Carina pushed the blankets back and shook her head as she rose. “What are you doing up?”
“Getting my strength back,” Ivy answered as she bent over to pick up the book knocked from the desk. “I can’t—just stay in bed—when we might be leaving—any day.”
“Okay, that’s enough. Sit down.” Carina gently pulled Ivy to the window nook. “The physician said to take it easy for the next few weeks.”
“But you don’t stay in bed all day,” Ivy grumbled.
“I got hit once, just barely, and—” Carina paused as she noticed the empty bedroom floor. “Ivy—where are the clothes I was wearing last night?”
Ivy’s face brightened with a confident smile as she nodded to the open window. “Gus should be burning them in the back garden right about now. But Miss, I didn’t see your mask?”
Carina stiffened. ‘Her mask?’ She was sure she had put it on before leaving the Fox Den. The only possible answer was that she had lost it in the alley or on the return trip.
“Nevermind, it’s just a mask. I can make another,” Carina said with a weary sigh. “And thank you, you’re always looking out for me.”
“Please, Miss.” Ivy clasped Carina’s hands gently. “After everything you’ve done for us—this little, is all we can do to protect you.” Her expression grew grim as her gaze focused down on Carina’s wrists. “But Miss—what happened to you last night? There was blood on your dress—and these marks?”
Carina stared numbly at the dark bruises around both of her wrists. She hissed with irritation as she pulled her hands away.
“Nevermind that now,” she replied. “You should be focused on packing. It’s time we left this house.”
“Packing?” Ivy echoed.
“Not that we have a lot between us, but it’s probably best we limit our belongings to one bag each,” Carina answered as she moved to the desk and pulled out the jewelry box to retrieve her cosmetics.
Ivy nodded and pulled the chair from the desk over beside the wardrobe, then climbed it to pull down two worn bags. “Miss, did you still want me to fetch a bath?”
“No, just a pitcher of water and some rags will do,” Carina said as she dumped the cosmetics in the garbage bin.
“But—Miss?” Ivy murmured in confusion. “Are you not going to paint your face today?”
For the first time since the distressing events of last night, Carina smiled. “I think it’s time I stopped hiding.”
Ivy nodded with a mixed expression of worry and pride. She quickly brought over a pitcher, some rags, and a basin before she returned to the task of packing.
The cold water embraced her touch as Carina dipped her hands into the basin. She splashed it against her face and then lathered her skin with a heavy dose of cleansing oil. She didn’t stop scrubbing until she felt her skin tingle. Then she dumped the basin, refilled it, and washed out the stench of the alley from her arms and legs with scented oil.
Ivy abandoned her task to help Carina wash her hair and then combed out the tangles.
“Thank you,” Carina said, as Ivy gently towel-dried her damp locks.
“Miss has always had such beautiful hair,” Ivy murmured with a tender smile.
Carina glanced at their reflections in the mirror. Without the blotch of brown spots, the angles and lines of her face were more defined. The eyes she had inherited from Maura’s unknown father now dominated her face with their hypnotic ice-blue depths.
Ivy draped the towel around Maura’s shoulders and left her before the mirror to fetch a dress. “Oh dear,” she murmured as she stared into the sparse wardrobe.
“What is it?” Carina asked, still studying her clean face.
“You’re down to two dresses,” Ivy replied as she brought over one brown and one purple gown.
“It doesn’t matter. I’ll wear the purple one today.”
“Yes, Miss.” Ivy handed the gown to her and packed the other.
After changing into a clean petticoat and the purple dress, Carina brushed the natural flowing waves of her ash-brown hair back and secured it with a simple pearl pin.
After the official notice arrived to announce her candidacy into the selection, Carina and Ivy would be brought to the Countess’ estate. There she would freshen up properly and cast aside these old garments for good.
She helped Ivy change into her maid’s outfit and promised herself she would order the dear girl a dozen new dresses from the Holy Maiden Boutique as soon as the selection was over.
Ivy fussed and fretted as Carina brushed out her beautiful blonde hair.
“Stop fidgeting,” Carina growled as she struggled with the braids in her hands.
“You don’t have to do anything fancy with my hair, Miss,” Ivy protested bashfully.
“We’re leaving today, so it doesn’t matter. And I’ve always wanted to do your hair differently.” Carina studied the birdcage bun, pushed the last hairpin in to secure it, and stepped back to enjoy her work. “There, now you look like an upper-class lady.”
“No!” Ivy turned to the mirror and blushed. “But Miss—”
The sharp sound of hooves clattered through the open window. Carina tensed as her heart sputtered in response. She rushed to the window nook to peer outside. Two knights reigned in their steeds as they reached the manor’s front steps. The men jumped down with haste and approached the door with their usual, overly stiff trained movement.
Carina watched them until they disappeared from view. These were not the court official she had been expecting, but she recognized their uniform. They were knights from the capital, and their arrival was no coincidence.
Carina felt her heart constrict as she pushed the window shut.
Bad news always travels quickly.