Chapter 1: The Fragrance of Sorrow
Sunlight glittered through the break of stormy clouds to illuminate the freshly washed spires and walls of Gilwren Chapel. The persistent summer rain poured down the holy sanctuary’s gutters into the shrubbery as the grass and trees soaked in its resplendent glory.
A crow flighted through the branches and sought refuge in the oak’s bow that provided the Hawthorn carriage and its driver some protection from the harvest blessing. From his dry perch inside the carriage, Percy watched the parade of carriages churn their way through the increasingly muddy road that led up to the chapel steps. After the horse-drawn transports dropped off their prestigious passengers, their drivers pulled away to seek refuge beneath the willows and oaks that surrounded the small glen.
The black crow shook itself dry, then swooped down to perch upon the open carriage window. The winter-grey eyes of the Earl considered the softly squawking bird for a moment before he waved it away to watch the procession of umbrellas, most suitably black and grey, that made their way beneath the parvis to greet the priest at the archway doors.
Percy lifted his cane and tapped the driver’s window. “Keep an eye out. Averly’s Baroness will be arriving shortly.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
The line of carriages continued to wade through the gated chapel entrance. Percy observed the arrival of Baron Winslet’s carriage, which conveyed Lady Florence, Lord Asher, and his rumored soon-to-be fiancé, Lady Sophya Turnbell.
The funeral of the previously disgraced Lady Helena would hardly have sparked such a turnout were it not for the simple but unignorable fact that Viscount Gilwren himself had decided to give his daughter a proper burial in his family’s plot.
Despite their strained relationship since Helena’s elopement, the Viscount was determined to restore his daughter’s dignity by placing her beside the late Viscountess. Perhaps he found justification in Helena’s decision to finally divorce the “good for nothing Coin Hustler.” Helena had returned to her noble maiden name—however briefly—before death, and that restored her place as his child, however wayward her actions in life.
Percy knew all this because Viscount Rykard Gilwren was an old friend and trusted acquaintance of his father, the previous Earl of Hawthorne. Since discovering Rykard’s familial connection to Lady Maura, Percy had reacquainted himself with the reserved Viscount, who was, after all, just another mortal.
Percy had taken meticulous care to prepare the reunion between Lord Rykard and Lady Maura over the past several days. He visited the Viscount under the guise of assisting with the funeral preparations while subtly dropping compliments about Maura’s excellent progress through the Selection and her studies under the Countess.
He had also gifted a new carriage to the recently appointed Baroness of Averly to ensure Lady Maura arrived in style. Then he had informed his cousin, the crown princess, of the time and place for the funeral, trusting that Eleanora would ensure, if not pressure, Lady Maura to attend. Last but not least, Lord Percy had diligently applied for a palace pass to allow Lady Maura permission to leave the royal palace and attend her mother’s funeral—using the Countess’s name, of course.
And yet, as the carriage’s filled the muddy grounds and their gossip-hungry passengers waded inside to exchange what passed for conversation among such minor nobles—there was still no sign of his elusive ice witch.
‘There’s no way a brand-new carriage would have broken down. Could it possibly have gotten stuck in the mud somewhere?’ Percy’s fingers tightened around the cane laid across his lap. The crows had clearly informed him that Lady Maura had left the palace on time. ‘So, where was she?’
The driver’s sharp whistle snapped Percy from his trance. The team of speckled gray horses jostled against each other as they shook off the rain, and the Earl’s carriage bounced unsteadily over the tree roots and back into the mud.
‘She’s here then.’ Percy smiled with relief as he turned sharply to watch the new carriage that pulled through the chapel’s stone gate. The freshly painted crest of Averly, a hare strangled by thorns, flashed before his eyes as his driver settled into position behind the Baroness’s carriage as planned.
Percy relaxed against his seat with a small sigh of relief, then ran a hand through his carefully groomed mahogany-brown hair and adjusted his cuffs. His suit was suitably dark and unadorned, but of the highest quality. His silk necktie a light gray color that matched his winter-gray eyes, and also the handkerchiefs he had carefully prepared—it was a funeral after all.
Immediately after his carriage slowed to a halt, Percy opened the door and dropped down gracefully beside his startled footman. Affixing the black top hat upon his head, Percy stepped briskly towards Maura’s carriage and waved the pesky knight aside as he reached for the door.
He noted with mild curiosity the way his fingers trembled as they wrapped around the cold metal. It had been nearly a week since he’d last laid eyes on Lady Maura, who had become expectedly busy learning her new tasks as the Crown Princess’s lady-in-waiting.
Maura’s startled ice-blue eyes greeted him as Percy swung the door open and bowed. “Lord Percy?”
“I thought I recognized the carriage,” Percy said with an amused smile. “Glad you could make it, Baroness of Averly.”
“And why wouldn’t she make it?” Percy’s gaze shifted towards the familiar blonde beauty who sat across from Maura. The young woman’s turquoise-blue eyes narrowed in on him with an expression of wary disapproval. “It is her mother’s funeral after all,” Lady Hana finished pointedly.
Percy maintained his polite smile with practiced attentiveness as he dipped his head to his cousin’s lover.
‘What is she doing here?’ Her very presence, not to mention attitude, had thrown a wrench into the plans he had prepared for this special day. ‘Never mind, I should be reassured that Maura has won the favor of both Eleanora and her lover already.’
“Lord Percy, this is Lady Hana,” Maura introduced quickly with an uncertain glance between them. “Hana, this is the Earl of Hawthorne.”
“I’ve heard of him,” Hana replied with evident distaste.
‘What in Veles’s breath is her problem?’
Percy ignored the pale blonde temptress and extended his hand to Maura gracefully. “We should probably get inside before the priest begins without us.”
“Yes, of course,” Maura said, with a sigh and expression that seemed to say, ‘Let’s get this over with.’
She laid her fingers lightly against his hand, and Percy noted the scowl on Hana’s face as he stepped forward and supported Maura’s descent from the carriage.
The sunlight caught against the silver chain along Maura’s neckline beneath the tassels of her purple court cloak. Although the Winter Rose remained out of sight beneath the bodice of her shimmering black gown, uneasy delight danced within Percy’s chest to see it adorn her person.
Maura blinked up at the confounding mix of sun and rain that drizzled down upon her fair skin and ash-brown hair, presently brushed into a woven bun and tucked beneath a silk-laced hairnet. “Perfect weather for a funeral,” Maura whispered, so softly, he knew she meant only him to hear it.
“If only I had thought to bring an umbrella,” Percy lamented, not at all disturbed by the damp that clung to his jacket, neck, and hair.
“Not to worry, we came prepared,” Hana announced as the knight who accompanied them opened an umbrella above the carriage door and assisted her down.
“This is Sir Malcolm Clemont, Lady Tiffany’s older brother,” Maura introduced as the knight hastily opened a second umbrella and offered it to her. “Thank you, Sir Malcolm.”
“Greetings, Earl of Hawthorne,” Sir Malcolm greeted with a respectful bow.
Percy smiled and inclined his head briefly in return. ‘The Diamond family. New nobility, politically relatively neutral, and with enough funds to secure both a title and high-ranking positions for both of their charming blonde brats.’
He smirked at the obvious nervousness with which Sir Malcolm studied him. ‘Money might buy a title, but it can’t buy a legacy to match the old families of Lafeara. Still, both Nicholas, Marquess Borghese, and even Eleanora are attempting to pull this rising noble family into their camps.’
His preoccupied thoughts quickly scattered as Maura lifted her umbrella and stepped closer to him.
“You ought to take better care of yourself,” Maura reproached with a worried frown.
Percy resisted the urge to wrap his hand around her delicate fingers, which held the umbrella. He hardly dared to move at all, let alone breathe, afraid that the slightest movement might scare her away. Maura had never willingly stood this close to him before, and he wanted to soak up this moment and memory with care.
‘How ironic that the one who meant to catch a Queen got snared by her instead.’
His winter-grey eyes snapped suddenly over her shoulder towards the Hawthorne footman, who quickly spun on his heels and disappeared from view with the umbrella he had foolishly retrieved from the Earl’s carriage.
“Is everything alright?” Maura asked curiously as she turned to look behind her.
“I am merely touched by your concern, Lady Maura,” Percy replied and held out his hand. “May I?”
She refocused those bewitching blue eyes upon him, smiled like the blessed sun, and handed over the umbrella. “Of course, thank you, Lord Percy.”
He held the umbrella above them both, offered her his right arm, and smiled as they proceeded down the stone gravel pathway towards the chapel.
One day Maura would call his name naturally, fondly, and without pretenses or titles. Until that day, Percy would remain discreetly at her side. His queen’s heart did not thaw quickly, but he was beginning to sense the warmth of spring in her smile.
“Greetings, Earl of Hawthorne.” The parish priest blessed them both with the maiden sword of the Saintess, a relic worn about the holy man’s neck. “And to the noble young lady—”
“Father Barry, this is Lady Maura, Baroness of Averly and my mother’s favored protégé,” Percy supplied loudly enough to reach the gossipers who lurked by the doorway.
Maura’s grip on his arm tightened faintly, but she dipped a respectful curtsy to the priest as she murmured, “Greetings, Father Barry.”
“Delighted my child,” Father Barry answered quickly. “And Saints blessing upon you, Baroness.”
“Has Viscount Gilwren not arrived yet?” Percy asked with feigned curiosity.
“No, but I’m sure he’ll be here soon. Gilwren Manor is only just down the road.”
“Father Barry, this is Lady Hana, Baroness of Oplen, and Sir Malcolm, son of Baron Clemont,” Maura explained. She introduced the pair that shadowed them, which Percy had forgotten about—almost.
“Saints blessing upon you,” Barry repeated his blessing on Hana and Malcolm briskly, then gestured to the open archway door. “Please, do come in. The unfortunate Lady Sophya and Baroness Winslet are waiting in the foyer if you’d care to pass on your prayers and wishes to the young lady.”
“You speak as if Lady Sophya were the only surviving daughter,” Lady Hana interjected with a note of disbelief.
“Ah—oh yes, I heard the rumor there was another, unfortunate offspring,” Barry admitted as he rubbed his chin. “But she appears to have had the good sense to not come to such a public occasion.”
An awkward silence greeted the priest’s benevolent smile. Percy closed the umbrella in his left hand and smiled. “Saint’s blessing upon you, Father. May this chapel never crumble upon your fragile, holy head.”
Father Barry offered an uncertain smile in return.
Maura tugged on Percy’s arm firmly, her face a blank marble slate, though her lips tightened with just a hint of concern. “We should head in, Lord Percy.”
Percy relinquished his anger on her behalf—for now, and led her inside the clustered foyer. The eyes of all those who lingered within turned upon them with curious stares and whispers that Percy surreptitiously gleaned and organized with the help of his father’s ring.
“That is the Earl of Hawthorne.”
“Oh my, does he not resemble his late father?”
“But who is the young woman he’s escorting?”
“Perhaps that is the rumored Lady Evelynn, Viscount Hendrix’s daughter?”
“No, I heard him introduce her as the Baroness of Averly.”
“An Earl escorting a mere Baroness? What absurdity.”
“Does the Countess know who her son is escorting?”
Percy inhaled slowly and tapped an index finger against his cane. Magic curled around the witch oak stick as it struck the floor and muted the gossipers prattling tongues. He glanced discreetly at Maura to see if she had detected his use of magic but found her gaze focused towards the right corner of the foyer where a young woman with vivacious red hair was glaring in their direction.
‘Ah yes, the one that got away.’