Chapter 29: A Nest of Secrets
As always, the countess was true to her word. Maids appeared and poured buckets of healing herbs into the water around Carina, who scrubbed her skin, nails, and scalp with vigor. The medicinal aroma and the warmth of the bath slowly eased the tension in her tired muscles and washed away the lingering stench of the alley.
The maids gathered her old garments and shoes before laying out a towel beside her bell. Carina felt their eyes linger on the whip mark and her bruises. “You may go,” she commanded.
They flinched beneath her harsh tone, curtsied, and quickly departed. Carina rubbed her tired neck and sighed. She had not meant to frighten them. The disparity of treatment between the countess’s servants and those of the Turnbell Manor was somewhat jarring no matter how many times she had visited Hawthorne.
She trailed her fingers through the stems and petals that floated in the pool around her. Then stretched out across the water and rolled onto her back to float. The tendrils of vapor did little to obscure the clouds and azure sky beyond the glass dome.
This was as close to peace and paradise as Carina had ever come since dying and being reborn, and tomorrow she would leave it for another battlefield, albeit one of her choosing. After a few moments repose, she rolled over, held her breath, and plunged below the warm, green water.
At the bottom of the pool, Carina exhaled. Bubbles chortled past her eyes, ears, and cheeks as her ash-brown hair floated and stretched through the water around her. With circular motions, she balanced herself above the bottom of the pool until the waters still. Then Carina crossed her legs and pressed a hand against her chest. The cold, steady drum filled her ears as her lungs gradually tightened.
Carina waited numbly, not bothering to count, as the pressure on her lungs increased while her heart rate remained stable. The pool around her darkened, and for a moment, her heart rate flickered—then she heard Jade’s voice.
“You can’t hide forever. What’s the point of living if you can’t be yourself?”
Her throat constricted as Carina resisted her body’s instinct to breathe and focused on the heavy weight of darkness around her. In it, Jade’s image flickered like an old movie reel without sound.
Something broke through the surface of the water. Carina’s eyes snapped open as she watched the small bell sink slowly towards her. She caught it in her hand, pushed against the bottom of the pool, and swam towards the surface.
The empty bathhouse of wandering vapor ghosts awaited. Carina wiped hair and water from her face. She turned slowly. Instinct more than senses told her that she was not alone.
A flutter of movement came from her right. A black crow swooped through the mist, glided over the pool, and landed on the ledge opposite Carina. She watched the bird with mixed relief as it tilted its head and black eyes to gape at her tauntingly.
“Stupid bird,” Carina muttered and swam to the edge of the pool where the chair and her towel waited.
It wasn’t uncommon for birds to fly into the bathhouse, though usually, they were of the smaller variety who entered through the vents in the ceiling.
Carina dried her hair and wrapped herself within the soft towel. She traced the bruise along her neck as she studied her reflection in the pool, mildly irritated by the black bird that cawed and danced towards her.
“If you can’t figure out how to escape, then you shouldn’t have bothered coming in.” The crow cawed louder, and Carina groaned as she turned to pick up her bell from the chair—only to find it gone. “Stupid bird!”
She turned back to the thieving pest but found it had also disappeared. A flutter of wings pulled her gaze back across the pool, where she saw a woman dressed in a black glittering gown and cloak. Midnight black hair draped the stranger’s shoulders. A ruby necklace adorned her neck and matched the scarlet lips that smirked beneath the shadow of her hood as she stared silently back.
Carina felt a chill run up her spine. The hairs along her scalp prickled with warning as the taste of copper filled her mouth.
The crow fluttered down to land on the mysterious woman’s shoulder, where it danced down her extended arm and dropped the missing bell into the stranger’s outstretched palm.
Carina’s hands tightened into fists. “Who are you?”
The woman did not answer, but around the bathhouse, laughter echoed as dark shapes flew through the swirling mist. Carina’s ears picked up the distinct sound of wings, and she grit her teeth.
‘Just how many birds does this woman have, and how did they get in here?’
Frost spread across the marble floor at Carina’s feet. The sudden shift in temperature filled the air around her with sparkling mist. She pressed her right hand against her back, out of view, and formed an ice dagger.
“Who are you?” Carina repeated firmly. “What do you want?”
The mocking laughter faded, and the woman turned her back on Carina and the pool. As Carina hesitated, the vapors churned, swirled, and swallowed the woman. With a hiss of irritation, Carina dashed around the pool and stopped where the woman had appeared.
The bell lay on the marble floor beside a black crow feather. Carina ignored it as she searched the fog, her dagger pressed against the towel at her side.
‘Fuck. Who is playing games with me now?’
Carina kept her gaze on the deceptive mist as she bent down to pick up the bell. Her thumb ran across its cool surface and felt an odd deformity. She glanced down and blinked as she took in the word that had not been there before.
A clatter of wings snapped Carina’s attention back to the mist as a swarm of crows crashed into her and sent her stumbling, off-balance back into the pool.
The water rushed overhead, drowning out the birds taunting cries as they circled above. Carina flipped the dagger around in her hand, pressed her feet against the bottom, and kicked back up to the surface.
Her towel floated away across the pool as Carina spun, dagger at the ready, only to find the pool and bathhouse empty once more.
“You say there was a woman?” Constance repeated as she rose from her desk.
“Yes, a woman in black and some crows,” Carina answered as she gripped the bell in her hand tightly. She was dressed in a robe the maids had brought after fetching her fresh towels. They had also pampered her skin with oil, her hair with rose-scented perfume, and her bruises with ointment before her meeting with the countess. Carina might have enjoyed her mini-spa—if her nerves weren’t on edge after being attacked by a murder of crows.
Her mentor stared past Carina towards the window, where the sun-kissed the edge of the horizon. “It was probably a guest,” Constance said after a long moment. “One of those my son chooses to associate himself with.” Her topaz-blue eyes, so dissimilar to Percy’s, settled upon Carina firmly. “One of the many reasons I have cautioned you about keeping your distance from the earl.”
“Did she say anything to you?”
“Not a word,” Carina answered. “But—” she held out the bell, “—she gave me this.”
Constance stepped forward swiftly and snatched the bell from Carina’s startled grip. The countess took one look at the word scrawled across the bell and snickered darkly. Then she turned to face the study’s hearth and flung her hand towards the crackling fire. The bell’s ribbon fluttered briefly before the flames engulfed its tiny metal form.
Carina lowered her hand and pressed her lips together.
“Pay it no mind,” Constance said as she wiped her hands together as if to rid them of something foul. “Those sorts of pranksters have nothing better to do than play tricks on others. I will speak to my son. Whatever his association, they should not be allowed to roam free on our estate and pester my guests.”
Carina took in the dark expression on her mentor’s face and kept her silence. Whatever disagreement existed between mother and son, she knew better than to involve herself in another family drama.
“Come!” Constance said with a bright smile as she slid her hand around Carina’s arm. “I have dresses for you, more than enough to get you through the selection and a few weeks of palace life. They are from that Holy Maiden Boutique everyone in the capital is praising. I expect you’ll be among the best dressed in the selection.”
“You didn’t have to,” Carina protested. “You know I own half the shop.”
“An investment,” Constance replied with a dismissive wave. “Besides, you’re my chosen candidate. The least I can do is make sure none of those snobbish noble brats find fault with your looks.” She smiled and winked as she tapped Carina’s nose. “Who knows, we may even find you a suitable husband while we’re at it now that you’re done hiding that pretty face of yours.”
Carina felt her smile tighten, but she nodded and focused on the hallway around them. A flutter of wings drew her attention to the windows as a black bird launched itself into the quickly darkening sky.