Chapter 23: The Winds of Change
Ivy shivered as she retreated up the stairwell. The shocked cries and wails of Helena and Sophya filled the walls of the manor behind her. Thankfully, no one had noticed her change in hairstyle, but then again, as a slave, she was used to not being seen. Lady Helena, Lady Sophya, and the rest of the servants had been too focused on the dashing knights and subsequently stunned by the grim news they had come to deliver.
Young Master Lincoln—was dead.
Ivy clutched a hand against her trembling heart. Once she had cleared the last step, she found the nearest corner and slid down the wall as she smothered a bitter laugh into the sleeve of her dress.
‘If mother could see me now, she would surely think me wicked.’
She could still remember those cold hard pews. The monotonous sermon of the priest and the harsh pinches she earned from her mother any time her gaze strayed from the pulpit. But that was nothing compared to the punishment she received at home if she showed the slightest hint of a “rebellious spirit.”
Her mother believed their family fortune was tied to the blessing of the Saints and their good deeds. Ivy had tried to be good if only to save her back, arms, and legs from the lash of her mother’s rod.
But then her father died, and her mother sold Ivy off as a slave to pay their debts. She had been but ten years old the day she had become Lady Edith’s property. Old enough to understand what was happening and why, but still young enough to feel the sting of betrayal and abandonment.
‘Which was the greater sin? To hate one’s mother or to sell one’s child?’
Ivy wiped a tear from her cheek and forced herself back to her feet. It had been years since she’d thought of her mother. The Saints and Lady Edith had sent her here to this house and Lady Maura. A kind mistress who treated her more like a sister than a slave and restored Ivy’s faith in the power of prayer—who had returned home last night with blood on her clothes, bruises on her wrists, and terror in her eyes.
And now, Young Master Lincoln was dead.
Ivy knew what it meant, and she was glad Lincoln was dead. None of the servants in this household would shed a tear on his account. Instead, they whispered ominously in the corners of the manor, hurriedly finished their tasks, and made themselves scarce.
They may have loathed Lincoln, but they feared his father even more. The thought of how Lord Josiah would react to the news of Lincoln’s death was enough to make Ivy’s blood run cold.
She knocked on Maura’s bedroom door and whispered, “Miss, I have returned!”
Maura opened the door with a sharp glance down the hall as she let Ivy in. “What did the knights want?”
“They came to deliver a death notice,” Ivy answered honestly. “For Young Master Lincoln.”
Maura didn’t appear surprised by this news. She locked the door and crossed her arms, but Ivy saw the way her hands trembled before she tucked them around her ribs. “What exactly did they say?”
“That the Lafeara Knights would investigate his death, and the family should expect an investigator to drop by later today or tomorrow.”
Maura nodded and returned to the window.
“Miss?” Ivy followed her. She’d never seen Maura this anxious. Her mistress was always confident, always ready with an answer or solution to a problem. Maura’s ability to outwit, outmaneuver the Turnbell family was a skill Ivy had witnessed firsthand on multiple occasions over the last six years. She knew her mistress better than anyone, and at this moment, Maura seemed—lost.
“I suppose it’s out of my hands,” Maura said softly, as she touched the window glass. “What will come will come.”
Bewildered, Ivy stood silently beside her mistress. She knew Maura was waiting for someone or something. Their bags were packed. Her mistress had finally washed the blotch of spots from her face. A change was coming, but Ivy could not yet tell if that change was for good or ill.
Ivy reached down and slid her fingers around Maura’s slightly smaller hand. Sometimes she forgot the age difference between them. When was the last time she had looked at her proud, fiery mistress and seen only a younger girl? Then again, when had the Turnbells ever allowed Maura to be just a child?
Maura looked over at Ivy’s hand and smiled softly. She squeezed her fingers around Ivy’s and did not pull away as her gaze returned to the window.
Then Maura’s smile twisted with triumph, and a confident gleam returned to those ice-blue eyes as she pointed towards the carriage that approached the manor.
Lord Percy flinched as the anguished wails poured through the open front door. His sharp gaze quickly fell upon the household’s butler, who stared up at him in numb surprise. The servant promptly offered the Earl a humble bow.
“Lord Percy, forgive this servant’s rudeness, but the family have just received the most tragic news and are unable to welcome visitors,” the butler explained. The howls behind him almost drowned out the servant’s words.
“What happened?” Lord Percy demanded as he stepped into the foyer.
“The Young Master of the house was found dead this morning,” the butler explained as he glanced towards the young nobleman who entered behind Percy. “The knights from the capital just delivered the death notice a short while ago.”
“That is distressful news indeed,” said Percy’s companion.
“This is Lord Acheron,” Percy explained as he gestured to the court official beside him. “A member of the House of Lords. He is here to speak with Lady Maura.”
The butler snapped his gaze to the floor and bowed once more courteously. “Forgive my ignorance, Noble Lord, I shall inform the ladies at once.”
Lord Acheron watched the butler’s hasty retreat and turned his steel-blue gaze to Percy. “Is the countess certain about this? They appear little better than peasants here.”
“If my mother’s approval and recommendations are not enough, then you may add my own to the mix.”
“Is that why you insisted on coming along?” Acheron returned with a sly smile. “Or do you have other interests in this Lady Maura?”
“I am only here as a precaution,” Percy answered with a sharp glance at his comrade.
“A precaution against what?” Acheron inquired curiously as he removed his hat from his cinnamon-brown curls.
“My Lords!” Helena approached. The grieving woman’s appearance startled both noblemen. Her brown-hazel eyes were swollen with tears that had smeared her make up down her cheeks in an unbecoming manner. Her pale hands tightly gripped a black envelope, the traditional form of a death notice in Lafeara.
Acheron quickly recovered as he passed his hat to Percy, pulled a lace handkerchief from his sleeve, and stepped forward to offer it to the grieving woman.
“We have just heard the unfortunate news,” Acheron said with enthusiastic sympathy. “Forgive my crudeness. To have intruded upon a mother grieving the loss of her child. I am ashamed.”
Percy watched his friend’s remarkable shift in personality without comment as he passed both his hat and Acheron’s to the butler.
“Yes—my poor, dear, innocent boy!” Helena sobbed into the handkerchief.
Acheron patted her back gently, but the hint of annoyance betrayed his sympathetic features as he glanced about the foyer. “Madam, your daughters?”
Helena looked up, and Acheron’s concerned expression beamed down upon her with tenderness once more.
“My Sophya is—composing herself right now. She was so attached to her older brother. She—” The woman resumed her sobs, and Acheron turned his tired gaze towards Percy with a notable plea for help.
Percy smirked but cleared his throat and stepped forward. “Lady Helena, we are here to speak to your youngest daughter, Lady Maura.”
“W-What?” Helena slowly raised her head, her pale cheeks less smeared but still running with tears as she stared at Percy in confusion. “Maura?”
“Yes, that’s the one,” Acheron crooned. “Though I’m certain both your daughters are devastated right now, I’m afraid I must insist on speaking to Lady Maura as soon as possible.”
“What in Heaven’s Mercy for?” Helena demanded. Her gaze sharpened, and her tone hardened as she stepped away from Acheron. “What could two noble lords such as yourself possibly want with that child?”
Acheron’s gentle expression remained intact, though his steel-blue eyes narrowed. “I would be happy to explain my official reasons for being here once the young lady has been brought before me.”
“Lord Percy?” Sophya appeared, her cheeks freshly washed, but her eyes still red with grief. “Mother, you should have invited our guests to the drawing-room.” She flashed a timid smile to Acheron as she slid her arms around Helena to offer support. “Forgive our lack of manners. We are not ourselves—my tender, sweet brother—was murdered!”
Sophya sobbed into Helena’s shoulder. Her mother was quick to console her.
Acheron shot a raised eyebrow to Percy, who shook his head silently.
‘No, this one is not Lady Maura.’
“Lady Sophya, we are here to see your sister, Lady Maura,” Percy explained with a casual glance towards the stairwell that led to the second floor.
Sophya stopped crying with effort as she dabbed her remarkably dry eyes and turned her surprised expression towards Percy. “The half-blood?”
Acheron’s left eye twitched as he stepped back from mother and daughter and turned slowly towards Lord Percy with an incredulous expression.
“The what?” Acheron hissed.