Chapter 83: A Lover’s Cursed Fate
Eleanora scanned the contents of the Dowager’s invitation and then motioned for Carina to sit beside her at the vanity desk.
“You are limping again, Lady Maura,” Eleanora commented as Evelynn brushed through her hair. Beside them, Tiffany prepared a set of amethyst gemstone earrings and necklace to go with the dark wine-purple taffeta dress Eleanora now wore. “I think it would be best you remained behind to rest.”
Carina didn’t miss the victorious smirk on Evelynn’s face and suspected some conversation had gone into this decision. “As you wish, your Highness.”
‘Better for me anyway to avoid the Dowager a little while longer. Out of sight, out of mind.’
“Still, while you are resting here, there is a favor I would like to ask of you,” Eleanora continued as she accepted the earrings from Tiffany and slid them into place.
“Yes, your Highness?”
“Would you keep Lady Hana company for me? She is beginning to mend, but I would feel more at ease with someone I trust beside her while I am away.”
“Of course.” Carina blinked, surprised to be considered someone trusted so quickly. ‘And what about Mrs. Poppy?’
Still, it was an opportunity Carina was only too eager to seize, though she was careful to remain calm on the surface. If she was to save Hana for Maura, winning the young woman’s trust was paramount, and time was already running dangerously close to Hana’s first brush with death.
“Excellent, are we done, Lady Evelynn?” Eleanora’s amber gaze flashed with a hint of restrained impatience as she stared into the mirror at the woman, who struggled to tame the Crown Princess’s luxuriant black hair.
“Ah—just about—umm.” Evelynn’s focused expression shifted from a scowl to panic as the diamond hair clasps, meant to pin Eleanora’s hair up into a voluminous bun, repeatedly popped open one after another, until the neatly styled hair had begun to resemble a disheveled bird’s nest.
“Your Highness, perhaps I should—take over?” Carina offered as she rose from her seat.
“If it gets this mess tidied up faster, please do,” Eleanora replied with a note of relief. “Once you’ve finished, I’ll take you upstairs to meet Lady Hana.”
Carina nodded as she moved into the spot behind the crown princess, which Evelynn relinquished with a deflated expression as she returned the hair clips to the open desk drawer.
A quick removal of more than half the pins Evelynn had left behind, a light brush, and a few deft twists, settled Eleanora’s wild hair into a simple yet refined curled braid. Tiffany supplied a woven black-pearl band to tie at the end and a few pearl hairpin ornaments, which Carina slid into Eleanora’s mane to finish her work.
“So, the Countess taught you Ventrayna hairstyles as well?” Eleanora observed as her lips twitched between a laugh and a smile of approval. “I shall have to thank my aunt for choosing such an excellent protégé when next we meet.”
A strange sense of anticipation prickled along Carina’s skin as she followed Eleanora down the hallway to the door that waited across from her own room.
“Hana,” Eleanora called out gently as she knocked. A muffled response answered, and Eleanora quickly opened the bedroom door. “Wait here for a moment, Lady Maura.”
Carina nodded and remained outside the threshold as Eleanora half closed the door behind her.
“Elly?” Hana’s faint voice slipped through the opening. The sound of glass and other objects being moved aside filled the growing silence.
“I have to leave Rose Palace for a while, Hana,” Eleanora’s voice explained. “The Dowager has dragged me out to another one of her tea parties. Lady Maura, would you come in please.”
Carina pushed the door fully open and entered. The bedroom mirrored hers in nearly every way as far as size and orientation, though the drapes and furnishings had a distinct foreign look to them that was not quite Ventrayna. Carina focused her attention on the young woman, only two years her senior, who lay against the pillows with a pale, confused expression.
“Lady Maura is going to look after you while I’m gone,” Eleanora said reassuringly as she sat upon the bed and took her lover’s hand. “Do try to eat something in the meanwhile.”
Hana’s eyes closed for a moment as her hand wrapped tightly around Eleanora’s. A shadow of pain flickered across her features before she opened her weary turquoise-blue eyes and nodded. “Please—don’t worry about me,” she whispered. “You should—be wary of the Dowager.”
“I am more worried about you than that old wolf,” Eleanora replied as she brushed away the damp light-golden locks of Hana’s hair from her forehead.
“You are making a big fuss out of nothing—again,” Hana reproached wearily. She turned toward Carina and offered a ghost of a smile. “It is simply my moon cycle that makes me fatigue too easily. It will pass in a few days.”
Carina nodded and offered a sympathetic smile, aware of Maura’s specter that lurked in the doorway behind her.
“Do you mind if I inquire as to what medicine Lady Hana has been taking for her condition?” Carina asked as she turned towards the table across from the foot of the bed, where an assortment of herbal teas, a porcelain pestle, and a few untouched plates of food lay in plain view. Beside the pestle, a fresh pile of daisy-like flowers lay sprawled across a wooden board, a few plucked petals scattered about the floor.
‘Feverfew, she must be getting headaches.’
“Lady Maura is familiar with medicine?” Hana murmured with a hint of worry.
“Lady Maura has many useful talents,” Eleanora affirmed. “My aunt has been training her with great care since she was young.” She sighed as she glanced at the clock on a nightstand. “I must go now, or I’ll be late for tea with grandmother.” She leaned over, kissed Hana’s forehead lightly, and rose. “Please see to it she eats something.”
“Of course, your Highness,” Carina replied as she kept her gaze discreet.
“I’ll check in on you when I get back,” Eleanora promised. “Do you want me to fetch you anything while I’m out?”
“Just be careful,” Hana murmured.
Carina turned as Eleanora headed towards the door with a confident grin. “I’m sure I’ll have an entertaining story to tell you when I get back.” The crown princess waved, shut the door—and then they were alone.
Carina glanced towards the ghost, who floated over to the bedpost to stare longingly at Hana. ‘Stalker much, Maura?’
“I’m sorry,” Hana said with a sigh as she turned towards Carina with an apologetic smile. “You probably would have preferred going to a tea party over babysitting me.”
“Not at all,” Carina replied with a wry smile as she circled the bed and cleared a chair nearby of books. “How frequent have your headaches been?” she asked as she stacked the novels neatly beside the nightstand.
Hana blinked and followed Carina’s movements as she cleared away the half-finished cup of cold tea. “I suppose you really do know medicine.”
“I’m not a physician by any means, but I have taken an interest in herbs and common illnesses. Would you mind if I made you a different tea? Something a bit more specific to your needs?”
Hana grimaced as she pushed herself up against the pillows. “It’s not that I don’t believe you, Lady Maura.”
“It’s quite alright,” Carina replied quickly as she settled into the chair. “We are strangers, after all.” She cast a covert glance towards Maura just as the ghost faded from view. “Then, would you mind if I had the maids fetch us some water and lemon cakes later.”
“Of course,” Hana laughed self-consciously. “Please feel free to order whatever you need.”
“You must eat something as well,” Carina urged and reexamined the stack of books beside her. “And perhaps I could read to you while we wait?”
“I suppose that would help to pass the time,” Hana murmured as she rubbed her neck wearily. The sleeves of her gown slid down and Carina’s gaze fell upon the long bruises that ran across Hana’s arm. The marks were yellow-green and almost faded from view.
‘So it wasn’t just a headache or her moon cycle.’
“Let’s see what we have here then.” She knelt beside the chair as she sorted through the stack of books. “The Night Wind’s Sorrow, A Lover’s Lament, The Willow’s Secret…” She pushed the bed skirt aside as she read the titles aloud—and stopped when she found the neatly wrapped pile of rope.
The chill that washed over Carina as she quickly dropped the bed skirt back into place was not from magic—but horror and empathy for Hana.
“Any of those will do, though I should warn you, they do not have happy endings,” Hana said above her as the bed shifted.
“I’ll let you decide then,” Carina replied as she placed three of the books on the bed beside her and stood. “Do you mind if I open the windows for more light.”
Hana shrugged as she reached for a book. “I don’t see why not.”
Carina nodded and moved to the windows. Sure enough, the heavy ropes used to bind the thick curtains were missing. ‘So they hadn’t been prepared for Hana’s condition to reoccur here and improvised.’ Carina pulled half the curtains aside and tucked them behind a chair without comment.
She checked Hana’s reaction as the sunlight spilled over the foot of the bed. The young woman grimaced and shielded her eyes for a moment but appeared otherwise unaffected.
‘Not a serious headache then.’ Carina smiled as she returned to the chair beside the bed.
“I just realized,” Hana said as she flipped through the book in her lap. “These are written in Vetrayna. Can you read them, Lady Maura?”
“Yes, the Countess of Hawthorne had me learn to read, write, and speak Vetrayna early on in my education,” Carina responded in Hana’s native tongue.
“That woman does like to be prepared,” Hana observed with a wry smile. “Very well, The Lover’s Lament.” She gestured to the smaller of the two volumes.
“A tragedy?” Carina asked curiously.
“Mmm,” Hana mumbled as she lay back against her pillows. “I’ve never really cared for happy love stories. They’re too—unrealistic.”
‘I couldn’t agree with you more.’
“Then Lover’s Lament it is.” Carina picked up the book, slid the blue vellum cover open, and flipped to the first page. It took her a moment to adjust to the devilishly fancy script of the Vetrayna language. As she glanced over the book’s opening line, which already foreshadowed the doom that awaited the unfortunate characters of the story, Carina noticed a tremor in Hana’s hand as the young woman combed back her disheveled hair.
Hana stilled for a moment and took in a slow, steady breath. Then she tucked her arm beneath the blanket and closed her eyes. “Read as much as you like, Lady Maura.”
Carina nodded as she refocused on the first paragraph and cleared her throat, “Not all lovers meet by fate, and often lovers meet too late.”