Chapter 97: The Absence of Grief
The morning sun haloed the back of Carina’s ash-brown hair, pulled away from her neck and shoulders into a twisted bun. She rested comfortably upon the sofa beneath the Rose Palace library window with her ankle propped on a pillow, and a sketchbook laid open across her lap. With silent scratches, Carina etched a crown-like pattern along the edge of a bridal veil that flowed behind a mannequin figure. She frowned and sketched a crown atop the silhouette’s head—then, with a frustrated sigh, briskly drew an X through her work.
Carina dropped her charcoal pencil into the sketchbook’s crease and flipped it closed. Tiredness hung like a curtain behind her eyes as she pinched the bridge of her nose, drew in a breath, and breathed out slowly.
‘What am I doing? I should be focusing on the Ambassador’s banquet and my meeting with the Watchmen’s Council, not what Eleanora will wear for Holy Saints Day.’
The sound of a squeaky wheel raised her gaze to the library door as a maid appeared behind a trolly. Carina’s stomach tightened at the sight of freshly buttered bread rolls beside a small bowl of honey and another bowl of fruit. Beside the platter of food, a tea tray rattled faintly as the maid rolled the trolly past Carina, towards the crown princess’s closed office doors and knocked.
‘I should take a break and eat something too,’ Carina decided as she rolled the sketchbook up and twisted the leather straps around it. ‘Not that I’ve been given any tasks to work on today.’
Eleanora and Evelynn had been shut up inside the office all morning, looking over the lists of entertainment suggestions Evelynn prepared for the Ambassador’s banquet—without consulting Carina.
The office door opened, and Evelynn appeared. “The snacks are finally here, your Highness,” she called out as she waved the maid in impatiently, shot Carina a smug look, and then shut the door firmly behind her.
‘She can sink or swim on her own then,’ Carina resolved as she rose carefully from the sofa, mindful of her ankle that still wobbled whenever she put weight on it. ‘Perhaps I should check in on Hana and see if she would like any snacks.’
“Good morning, Lady Maura.”
Carina turned in surprise and smiled as Hana entered the library wrapped in a large white shawl. “Good morning, Lady Hana, are you feeling better?” She glanced down discreetly at Hana’s hands, half-buried beneath the soft wool mantle, and noted with relief that they were not trembling.
“I am feeling much better, thank you,” Hana replied with a grateful smile as she approached. “The valerian tea you made was not only delicious but quite helpful. I slept so well last night that I couldn’t help but get out of bed this morning.”
“I’m happy if it eased your discomfort, but you shouldn’t overexert yourself,” Carina cautioned as she studied Hana’s pale complexion.
“No need to worry on my account,” Hana answered with a dismissive wave. “Lady Evelynn appears to have ingratiated herself with Eleanora during the last few days I’ve been in bed. I hear she’s already taken over and changed most of the arrangements I had prepared for the Ambassador’s visit.”
The note of resentment in Hana’s voice was unmistakable. ‘As I suspected—this won’t go well for Evelynn.’
“I wouldn’t worry about it too much,” Carina replied with a confident smile as she squeezed Hana’s hand gently. “Lady Evelynn may be confident, but she knows nothing about Ventrayna’s culture or the personal tastes of the Ambassador and his family. The Crown Princess will rein her in before she changes anything important.”
Hana grimaced in response. Her fingers trembled faintly as she played with the tassels of her shawl. “I suppose.” She looked down curiously at the sketchbook in Carina’s hand. “What are you working on there, Lady Maura?”
“Oh, just a few dress sketches,” Carina replied with a rueful smile. “But I’m feeling uninspired at the moment. I was about to go to the kitchen for some snacks if you’d care to join me.”
“How strange you are,” Hana murmured with a smile. “We don’t have to go there; the servants can take our order and bring the food to us.”
“Of course, I meant only to stretch my—”
“Do you mind if I look at your sketches?” Hana asked with intent curiosity, still focused on the leather sketchbook.
“I—I suppose it wouldn’t hurt.” Carina untied the leather bindings and flipped back to a few finished designs.
“What beautiful dresses! Are you a designer, Lady Maura?”
‘Only one of the most coveted designers in the capital.’
“I suppose you could call this a hobby,” Carina replied with a faint smile as Hana took the sketchbook and flipped eagerly through its pages. “I wanted to design something special for Holy Saints Day since I haven’t been of much use preparing for the Ambassador’s visit.”
“Only a hobby?” Hana murmured as she examined each of the elegant drawings and settled on one of Carina’s newer sketches. “This dress is quite lovely, and—are those wings?”
“Yes, though they won’t be fully formed. I want to use a sheer material to create the illusion of—”
A knock at the door disrupted their conversation as Mrs. Poppy stepped into the library.
“Sorry to interrupt,” Poppy said in her usual monotone voice. “But a knight is asking to speak to Lady Maura on a—delicate matter.”
‘A Knight?’ Carina frowned while Hana’s eyebrows rose mischievously.
“A delicate matter? Is someone confessing their love to you already?” Hana teased with a sly grin. “I wonder if it’s that handsome giant who carried you during the Selection?”
‘What on earth gave her that idea?’
“I—had better go see who it is and what they want,” Carina muttered as she retrieved her plum-purple shawl from the sofa. “There are a few other finished dresses after that one, Lady Hana,” she said with a nod to the sketchbook in Hana’s hands. “I wanted to prepare one for each lady-in-waiting, so feel free to pick out your favorite.”
“You are as thoughtful as you are talented, Lady Maura,” Hana replied as she untangled the corner of Carina’s shawl. “Now go on,” she added with a playful wink. “Don’t keep him waiting too long.”
Carina grimaced and sighed as she followed Poppy from the library. “Where is this knight?”
“I left him in the courtyard, though if you like, I could take him to the dining room or—”
“No, the courtyard is fine,” Carina asserted briskly. ‘For all I know, it could be Captain Leo sent by the Dowager to harass me.’
Carina paced herself as they approached the courtyard. Poppy did not comment as Carina trailed behind with the occasional hobble in her walk.
The warmth of the sun welcomed Carina as she stepped through the archway door. The nearly completed chess board glinted beneath the morning light. And at the center of the gold and pearl checkered sand tiles stood Captain Beaumont.
The knight captain’s sharp violet eyes focused upon them. He was dressed in the usual knight’s attire, along with that massive bastard sword she had never seen him without, but the worried expression he wore made Carina pause at the edge of the chessboard.
‘Did he always look this—miserable?’
“I’ll inform her Highness,” Poppy murmured behind her.
“Oh, thank you, Mrs. Poppy, but I’m sure this won’t take long,” Carina replied as she composed herself and approached the knight captain.
“My condolences,” Poppy said hastily and withdrew.
Carina’s gaze snapped from the retreating maid to Beaumont’s clouded expression. Then she noticed the black envelope embroidered with gold in his left hand. Her throat tightened as dark foreboding thoughts flew immediately to Ivy.
‘No—that can’t be right—they wouldn’t send a death notice for a slave.’
Carina pressed a trembling hand against her stomach as she continued across the sparkling tiles. She stopped a few feet away and offered a shallow curtsey. “Captain.”
“Lady Maura,” he answered softly. He fumbled with the envelope as his violet eyes dropped to her feet. “Your ankle—is better?”
‘He’s still worried about that?’ Carina’s lips twitched with a quick smile. “It’s much better and should be fully recovered in a week or less.” ‘It will be much better when I can get a proper brace made to support it. Perhaps Stitcher could help with that.’ She shook her head and glanced at the black envelope, then back up at him. “Is that why you asked to speak with me?”
“No,” he admitted somberly. “I came to deliver—to inform—” he sucked in a breath as he walked towards Carina and held out the envelope. “I’m sorry, Lady Maura. This is an official notice of your parents’ death.”
Carina blinked slowly as she stared at the envelope. “It’s what?”
“A Death Notice, Lady Maura,” he repeated and extended the letter towards her.
The silence lingered as Carina studied the golden wolf seal, which glittered against the black parchment held between Beaumont’s strong fingers. A cold thrill ran down her fingertips, through her chest, and into her gut as Carina reluctantly accepted the envelope.
“Sorry—but are you sure you didn’t mean to say—they’re divorced?” She blurted out skeptically.
“Ah—no,” Beaumont answered with a confused expression.
“Just checking,” Carina muttered as she pried the letter open.
And there it was, another altered piece of Maura’s past, laid out in black and white.
‘Knight Commander Quentin regrets to inform you of the death of Lord Josiah Turnbell and Lady Helena Gilwern. Please be assured that their bodies will be handled with the utmost respect and returned to the family with all due haste. If you have any further questions with regards to the ongoing investigation, please feel free to—’
“They’re really dead?” Carina murmured as she lowered the unfinished letter. ‘But why? How? Neither of Maura’s parents had died before her execution. First the divorce, and now two of my closest, biggest hurdles have been removed?’ Carina scanned the cordial but brief invitation to the Knight’s Compound then pressed the letter against her stomach as she stared at the ground.
‘Their death changes nothing—and yet everything.’
Beaumont remained quietly beside her. When Carina raised her gaze again, she noted the continued expression of concern in his violet eyes.
“How did they die?” Carina asked abruptly. “The notice mentions an investigation—what happened?”
Beaumont hesitated for a moment as his gaze shifted away from her across the gold and white sand tiles. “They were at the Sisters’ Chapel yesterday when it—burned down.”
“Burned down?” Carina raised an eyebrow incredulously. “How did it burn down? And what were they doing at a chapel? Lord Josiah and Lady Helena did not attend church—ever!”
‘Josiah had never been welcomed at any church, and Helena stopped attending after rumors of Maura’s birthfather spread.’
“I was told they were—attending your brother’s funeral.”
“Lincoln’s funeral? Oh.” Carina nodded slowly. “I see.”
‘Of course, it’s been—almost a week since I killed him in that alley.’ She laughed sharply. The dark bitter sound startled Carina, and she quickly smothered it with the back of her hand.
“I am sorry for your loss, Lady Maura,” Beaumont said gently. “I lost my mother as well when I was but fifteen—”
“Loss?” Carina chuckled as she dropped her hand and met his gaze. “It was no loss, Captain.” A welcomed sense of relief replaced the weight that had fallen suddenly from her shoulders.
‘Oh Maura, is it possible their deaths might have saved you from your future?’ She shook her head and turned away from the silent knight captain. All that early effort spent creating two aliases to hide her investments, wealth, and designs. All the preparations that had gone into ensuring Carina could survive independently once she turned twenty. ‘It almost seems a waste.’
But her premature liberation did not give Carina any sense of comfort or security.
‘How many times has the timeline changed? First Lincoln’s attack and death? Then Helena and Josiah divorced—and now they’re both dead? Sophya?’
“What about my half-sister, Sophya?” Carina asked sharply.
“Lady Sophya survived the fire unharmed,” Beaumont answered quickly. “I believe she is staying with family friends—I could inquire as to their names and address for you if—”
“No—no, it’s fine.” Carina crossed her arms and took a deep breath. “The less we have to do with each other from now on, the better.”
“Some families are more trying than others,” Beaumont observed with a sympathetic smile. “In any case, his Majesty has granted you reprieve from all duties to attend to any matters related to your parents’ funeral arrangements.”
Carina snorted and raised an amused brow. “I won’t spare a single crescent or thought on their funeral arrangements,” she stated coldly. “Let them rot in a ditch for all I care.”
Surprise flickered across the knight captain’s face, but Beaumont only shook his head and whispered, “I’m sorry.”
“There is nothing to be sorry for,” Carina replied as she folded the letter and returned it to its envelope. “You have delivered happy news, Captain. Thank you.”
Beaumont nodded slowly. His expression remained conflicted as he bowed, stepped back, and turned towards the exit.
As his back turned to her, a sudden unexplained feeling of uncertainty swept over Carina. “Have you ever—questioned—your mother’s love?” She regretted the question the moment it left her lips, and yet when he turned around to face her again, Carina felt oddly relieved.
“No, Lady Maura,” Beaumont answered with a patient smile.
“A mother’s love,” Carina repeated quietly. “I have never known it.”
‘Not in this life as Maura nor my past life as Carina.’
“And you cannot grieve the absence of something you have never known—or wanted.”