Chapter 28: The Value of Virtue
Carina watched the black-iron perimeter gates roll past as the carriage drew closer to the front entrance of Hawthorne Manor. She glanced discreetly across the earl’s carriage to Percy, who sat across from her beside Acheron.
Intuitively he glanced up to meet her gaze, and Carina looked away. A part of her wanted to thank him for crippling Josiah, but each time she formed the words, unease settled over her. A wariness that flickered awake every time she found herself in his presence.
The carriage slowed, and Carina looked up at the front steps of the massive estate. Compared to the Turnbell home, Hawthorne Manor could be called a palace. The Hawthorne’s were arguably the most powerful noble family in Lafeara despite their distinct lack of bloodline connecting to the royal family. An unspoken rule forbade such a union, despite its obvious political benefits, and had remained unbroken until the marriage between Princess Eleanora and Crown Prince Nicholas.
Carina watched a crow fly down to peck along the ledge of a window on the second floor above the grand entrance. The doors swung open, and two servants moved swiftly to greet the carriage.
“I’ll see the ladies inside then return,” Percy said to Acheron as he rose from his seat, opened the door, and stepped down. He turned immediately and held his hand towards Carina.
Carina glanced at his offered hand and saw the cane spiral down before it snapped on impact, crushing Josiah’s hand against the floor.
“Lady Maura,” Percy urged gently. “You must be tired. Come, the countess is waiting.”
“Miss?” Ivy murmured worriedly beside her.
Carina turned and registered the look of discomfort on the maid’s pale face. The carriage ride had not been gentle on the raw wounds along Ivy’s back.
“Thank you again, Lord Acheron, and good afternoon,” Carina said with a head bow in the official’s direction.
“Think nothing of it, Lady Maura. I will see you tomorrow morning,” Acheron replied with a half-smile.
Carina accepted Percy’s hand and released it the moment her feet touched the smooth white gravel. “I think Physician Hayes should have a look at Ivy’s injuries as soon as possible.”
“Of course,” Percy replied as he assisted the maid down from the carriage. He turned to the two footmen. “Inform the countess of our arrival and have someone fetch Hayes immediately.”
“Yes, my Lord.” The footmen scattered.
Percy stepped towards her, but Carina moved nimbly past him and slid her arm around Ivy’s waist. “Let’s get you inside so you can rest.”
They began their slow ascent up the stone-gray stairs as Ivy’s grip around Carina’s arm tightened. A butler and three maids greeted them as they entered the foyer.
“Welcome back to Hawthorne, Lady Maura,” the butler, Russell, greeted with a polite smile and bow. “Young Master, I trust your trip was uneventful.”
“Tell Mother I will return a little late for dinner,” Percy replied with a wry smile. “And Russell, Lady Maura and her maid are exhausted and injured. I’ve already sent for Hayes. See to it he gives them the care they need.
“Of course, Master, these maids will escort Miss Ivy to her new rooms.” Russell nodded to the servants beside him. “However, Lady Maura, the countess asked that you be brought to her immediately upon your arrival.”
“Very well,” Carina replied as the three maids gently took Ivy from Carina’s arms and led her down the hall. “Where is she?”
“The countess is waiting for you in the bathhouse,” Russell answered as he bowed his head once more. “If you’ll follow me.”
“Just remember, if Mother asks too much—you can refuse her,” Percy cautioned softly.
Russell escorted Maura through the estate to the outdoor bathhouse at the back of the Hawthorn Manor. The interior was immaculate and tastefully decorated with only the most dignified artwork and practical furnishings. Countess Constance had no need for “wasteful displays of wealth.”
“If it serves no purpose, then it holds no value,” was her motto.
Constance had been a kind and supportive mentor. Still, Carina had always understood, that her value to the countess extended only as long as Maura served her purpose.
“Lady Maura.” Two maids bowed at the entrance of the bathhouse doors. “The countess is waiting for you inside. Do you require any assistance?”
“No,” Carina replied as she brushed her disheveled hair behind her ears.
“Then I shall take my leave, my Lady,” Russell said with another respectful bow. “But if you should have need of anything.” He snapped his finger, and a maid presented Carina with a small bell attached to a ribbon. “Simply give that a ring.”
“Thank you,” Carina murmured as the maids opened the glass doors. A tide of steam rolled out onto the lawn as she entered the bathhouse.
The vapor clouds inside created a dense curtain over everything. Only the glass dome ceiling with its vents was clearly visible above. Beneath Carina’s feet, the marble floor gave no indication as to direction, but her memory and the occasional pillar provided her some aid.
The mist cleared as Carina reached the dark teal waters of the bath. She quickly spotted two figures across the oval-shaped pool. A female servant waved a fan over Constance, who lay reclined in a chair wrapped in a towel with a dark mask of herbs painted over her face.
“I see you’re still using the detox mask,” Carina called out as she circled the pool.
The countess turned in the direction of her voice but did not smile. “Yes, your herbal masks do wonders to reverse what time has taken from me. Hence why I pay such a hefty price to retain their secrets.”
“You’d make far more if you sold the recipes to the Merchants Guild,” Carina reminded her.
“I prefer to mystify the other nobles with my restored youth,” Constance snickered.
Carina curtsied before the chair. “Are you not at all worried your enemies might spread rumors that you’re a witch?”
Constance laughed. The face mask cracked around her mouth and topaz-blue eyes as she waved for Carina to rise. “I heard your departure from the Turnbells was less than pleasant.”
“I had hoped Josiah would be absent when I left—but we made it out in one piece,” Carina answered wearily.
“And your brother’s sudden death?” Constance asked as she sat up and adjusted the towel around her chest.
Carina offered no witty retort as she brushed her fingers along her wrist.
Constance watched her movements with wary eyes. “Misha, begone. See that we are not disturbed,” she ordered abruptly. The maid curtsied and left as Constance rose from her seat. “Tell me then, Maura, are you connected in any way to your brother’s death?”
“I—” Carina’s voice died as she met the countess’s penetrating gaze. “Yes.”
Constance inhaled sharply as she seized Carina’s wrist and examined the bruise. Then she flipped back Carina’s hair and pulled down the collar of her dress to expose the bruise forming around her neck. “Tsk, tsk. Remove your dress, child.”
With reluctance, Carina unbuttoned the back of her gown as far as she could reach then squirmed free. Standing in her corset petticoat, stockings, and shoes, she focused on the calm surface of the pool as the countess circled her and eyed Maura’s exposed skin.
Constance lifted the hem of the petticoat and, for a long torturous moment, stared at the finger bruises along Carina’s thigh. “Are you still intact?” The older woman’s voice quivered in anger as she dropped the skirt and waited for Carina’s answer.
“I am,” Carina replied as she met the countess’s gaze.
“Good that he’s dead then,” Constance observed dryly. “But if you are lying, Maura, they will find out when you are examined at the palace.”
“I would not lie to you, Countess. And I have always been aware that a virginal examination would be part of the selection process.”
“Even so, these marks,” Constance lifted Carina’s hand to examine her wrist. “Your virtue might remain intact, but these prove a man has touched you.” She sighed, released Carina, and gestured to the bath. “Strip and get in. I will have the servants bring you herbs to ease the pain and ointment to help diminish the bruising. We shall have to rely on makeup to cover the rest.”
“As you wish,” Carina lowered her eyes and untied her petticoat.
The Countess snatched her chin roughly and yanked Carina’s gaze towards hers. “I heard your brother died in the slums, which begs the question—what were you doing there?”
Carina held her gaze steady as she answered, “Preparing for the future.”
Constance snorted and released her with a sigh. “There will be an investigation. I will look into the matter and squash it quickly. But this is the last time I will be able to shield you, Maura. You must learn to move cautiously. In the palace, my power holds little weight. Enjoy the bath. The servants will be in shortly to attend to you.”