Chapter 19: A Lady of Mystery
Percy rolled his shoulders and studied the fit of his tailored, dark blue dinner jacket critically. Behind him, Russell brushed off a stray bit of dust from its velvet collar. Before the Earl, the large vanity mirror captured his stoic figure and tastefully expensive garments, as well as the two neck scarfs of pale gray and scarlet red that Percy held up indecisively. “I shall be out past dinner. Let the servants eat whenever the chef has something prepared and retire early tonight.”
“Certainly, my Lord. I’m sure the staff would appreciate an afternoon of rest.”
Percy grunted as he passed the gray neck scarf to Russell and tied the red silk around his neck. He turned to study his profile, then pulled off the red scarf with a dissatisfied sigh before adjusting it around his collar once more.
“Permit me, Master,” Russell murmured as he extended his hand.
Percy’s right cheek twitched with irritation, but he relaxed his scowl as he pulled the troublesome fabric free and relinquished it to the butler’s capable hands. A moment later, Russell had the red scarf layered neatly around the Earl’s neck and tucked inside his shirt collar. “And this would be why father called you his most valued treasure,” Percy commented with a nod of approval.
“The former Earl had a unique sense of humor,” Russell replied with a wistful smile. “And you remind me of him more and more every day.”
“Indeed?” Percy murmured with a thoughtful look at his reflection. “How are Gus and Ivy adjusting to their new roles?” The Earl turned his back to the mirror as Russell retrieved his cane and hat from the chair.
“Ivy has been doing a commendable job with her studies. Lord Barclay believes that she has far more education than she lets on.”
“Oh?” Percy flexed his fingers around the cane with a thoughtful smile. “A lady of mystery just like her mistress. Well, the quicker Miss Ivy progresses through her studies, the better for her future. What of Gus?”
“Gus applies himself as best he can, but his stamina and focus are a bit lacking due to his injuries,” Russell answered hesitantly.
Percy scoffed in disbelief. “He is training to be a footman, not working the field or animals like he was under the Turnbells. What sort of work have you assigned to him?”
“We’ve avoided any heavy lifting or strenuous work,” Russell hastily explained. “For now, I have him following Jack about his tasks so he can become familiar with the housework. Yesterday Gus helped polish the silverware. Jack informs me that the boy is rather slow to pick up even simple instructions. I believe his wounds are preventing Gus from sleeping properly, which in turn is affecting his recovery and attentiveness.”
“I have no intention of further pampering a slave that has spent the last two weeks recovering in bed,” Percy said firmly as he headed towards the open bedroom door.
“Yes, of course, Master.”
Percy paused and glanced back at the butler’s worried expression. “Oh, very well,” he sighed, “Have Physician Hayes examine the boy again. If the good doctor says he is healthy enough to work, Gus had better put more effort into learning and earning a footman’s position. I have no use for staff that would let a little thing like pain stand in the way of improving themselves. Nor do I intend to keep a crippled slave who cannot work, no matter what his relationship with Miss Ivy may be.”
“You have been more than generous, Master. I’m sure Gus will try his best to be worthy of your consideration.”
Percy scoffed and left his bedroom with the butler at his heels. “My carriage is ready?”
“Waiting for you outside, my Lord.”
“And the paperwork?” Percy asked as he descended the stairs.
“One moment,” Russell slid past the Earl as they reached the bottom floor and disappeared into a side room where he opened the top cabinet above the butler’s desk. He retrieved a polished leather briefcase and brought it over to Percy, who waited by the front door. “The deed, projected fund estimates, and the other necessary paperwork the lawyers prepared are already inside.”
“Excellent.” Percy pinned his cloak in place and accepted the bag. “Good,” he murmured with a curious smile. ‘Just what sort of expression will you show me this time, Maura?’
The doorbell suddenly rang, the pealing ring echoed through the foyer and silent stairwell. The Earl and butler exchanged a surprised glance before Russell stepped forward and heaved the great door open. The servant’s neutral expression shifted from startled shock to a welcoming smile as he called out, “Lady Serilda! What an unexpected delight!”
The butler stepped back and widened the gap as Percy took in the tall beauty with long auburn chestnut hair and moss green agate eyes. “Cousin?”
“Earl of Hawthorne,” Lady Serilda murmured as the glow of her familiar smile dimmed the haunted shadows which clung to her face. “My apologies for the abrupt visit, but you did say in your letter that Hawthorne Manor was—”
“Of course, you are welcome,” Percy interrupted as he stepped forward and folded his arms around her gently before kissing her cheeks. “I was not expecting you so soon, Seri. I was just on my way to the palace—but I can spare a few minutes to see you properly settled in.”
“Oh, the palace?” Serilda’s smile faltered as her fingers tightened around the fabric of his cloak. “Of course, I wouldn’t want to keep you from our sweet, naive Crown Princess.”
Percy smiled ruefully as he stepped back, then nodded to Russell, who closed the entrance door and slipped past them towards the kitchen. “The business of politics can wait, Marchioness. Come, you must be tired from your journey.”
“Do not treat me like some frail, old invalid, Cousin,” Serilda grumbled though she happily wrapped her hands around his offered arm and leaned against Percy wearily. “I am six years older than you, not twenty. And when did you grow up to be so tall and bloody handsome?”
Percy relaxed beneath her teasing tone as he nodded towards the drawing-room. “You have been away for a long time.”
“Six years,” Serilda replied with a visible shudder. “And all thanks to that treacherous, dear mother of yours.” Her moss green eyes narrowed with a cunning glint as she captured his gaze with one of her enchanting smiles. “Tell me, is the Countess enjoying her early retirement in the countryside. I do so look forward to dropping in on her unexpectedly.”
“Seri,” Percy murmured stiffly with a sharp glance along the hall before he led her inside the drawing-room.
Serilda quickly flashed him an apologetic smile. “Forgive me, sweet Percy. I know I should be grateful that my banishment has finally lifted. It’s just that—for the last six years, I’ve kept my spirits intact dreaming of the day I would push that insidious charlatan off her perch.”
“Do try to keep a low profile for the time being,” Percy advised as he led Serilda to a chair covered in the setting sun’s golden rays. “We don’t want to raise the Dowager’s suspicions before our plans are firmly in place.”
“Another feral hag I would happily—” Serilda cleared her throat as Russell reappeared in the doorway with a tray.
“I seem to recall blackberry tea was your favorite, Lady Serilda,” Russell said as he placed the tray on a table beside her and filled a cup.
“Call me Seri,” Serilda commanded with a pout as she relaxed against the chair’s plush cushions. “I feel as if I am in a dream, so you must indulge me until I wake from it, dear Russell.”
“I shall do my best, Lady Seri.” Russell extended the cup patiently and waited until Serilda had taken her first sip before he straightened, excused himself, and left the room.
“I will steal him away from you one day,” Serilda commented wistfully as she lowered her cup and closed her eyes, savoring the flavor of the cold dark liquid. “Oh, to be back in cultured society once more.”
“If you wish, you are more than welcome to stay here until your estates are in order,” Percy replied as he took the seat opposite her and crossed his legs patiently.
“You will have to wrestle it back from Marquess Borghese first,” Serilda commented acidly as she set down her cup and folded her hands elegantly. “But an empty old house filled with unpleasant memories is not what brought me back.”
Her curious moss green agate eyes brimmed with tempered malice that had waited almost the same lifespan as his own unanswered vengeance.
“No?” Percy replied with a knowing smile as he studied her far too haggard complexion.
Serilda moved with somber grace from her chair to the floor at his feet, and Percy caught her trembling hand as she reached for his face. “Are we really doing this?” she asked breathlessly.
“I would not have taken the Countess down otherwise,” Percy answered as he studied her face. Gone was the vibrant, willful, and carefree girl who had once told a young boy ghost stories in the old treehouse that marked the estate border between Hawthorne and Kensington properties.
“Do you regret it?” Serilda’s dark gaze narrowed as she observed him.
“No,” Percy answered firmly. “I gave Mother every opportunity to change—” his hand moved to her shallow cheek. “But I won’t spoil our reunion with such unpleasant memories. Will you stay at Hawthorne? I’m more than happy to provide you with the comfort you deserve here. You could even have Mother’s old room—if you like.”
“Do you truly wish me to stay?” A teasing smile masked the uncertainty in her voice that Percy quickly dismissed with a chuckle and wry grin.
“I would feel more at ease if I knew you were within the protection of my estate, but I have no wish to imprison you here against your will after—everything you’ve been through.”
Serilda nodded and slid her long slender fingers through his own. “Then I shall stay and go as I please.” She closed her eyes and rested her cheek against his thigh with a sigh. “Perhaps I shall marry Russell and settle down here.”
Percy glanced towards the door, where he was confident the butler stood attentively within earshot. “Don’t tease him, Seri. It’s bad for his heart.”
“I shall endeavor to behave myself,” Serilda returned with a coy smile as she opened her eyes and turned her head to study him attentively. “But tell me, cousin, why did you suddenly rush my return? Are there problems within the three covens? Has that ghoul and her Coven of Crows gotten out of hand?”
“Mercy and her coven are not a problem. The Nocturnem Coven has already given me their full support, although one or two houses remain unconvinced of our goal. Unfortunately, your father’s coven still has lingering attachments to the old bloodline and refuses to commit one way or the other to our cause without their coven leader’s verbal agreement.”
“Which is why you need me to overthrow the Countess and reclaim my seat of power,” Serilda replied with an arched brow and a sigh. “With Constance far away from the capital, now would be the perfect time to get the Twilight Coven in line. But it will take more than a few words of support from you or the other covens for them to accept me as their rightful leader.” Her brow furrowed as she leaned against Percy once more, still holding his hand tightly. “I cannot undo the damage your mother has done while hiding in the shadows, Percy. The moment my return to the capital is made public, the lies and rumors the Countess used to lock me away will resurface and discredit my every move.”
Percy leaned towards her troubled brow and pressed his lips to Serilda’s forehead. “You will have my support every step of the way, Seri. I am much stronger than I was before when Mother threw you to the wolves. The Twilight Coven will welcome you with open arms or live long enough to regret becoming our enemy.”
“When you speak like that—you remind me of my father—and Earl Ethan,” Serilda whispered with a contented smile as she traced the signet ring on Percy’s hand.
Percy straightened and clenched his jaw as he glanced out the window towards the retreating sun. “We must let the Twilight Coven flounder about without their leader for a little while longer. Your return to power is close at hand.” Percy ran a hand gently over her chestnut hair. “In the meantime, there is a favor I would like to ask of you.”
“A favor?” Serilda lifted her gaze to his, intrigued. “I’m all ears, dear cousin.”
“There is a young coven witch who lacks training. Her current position at the palace makes her vulnerable and places her beyond my reach for the time being. However, if a Marchioness were to befriend the lady and pull her away from the palace.”
“Oh, I see,” Serilda replied with mocking gravity. “And which pretty little witch has caught the eye of Hawthorne’s powerful Earl?”
“Seri,” Percy growled lightly.
Serilda offered a coy smile as she rose to her knees and lifted his hand and signet ring to her lips. “If you wish me to take her under my wing, I shall do so happily. I owe you—so much more than any of them.”
“You don’t owe me—I couldn’t stop—”
“But you will help me get my revenge,” Serilda interrupted, her voice laced with barely restrained anticipation as her grip on his hand tightened. “I shall do all within my power to help you unify the old covens behind your throne. And when you become King of Lafeara—I will enjoy drowning that poisonous bitch in her own bile.”
Percy traced her haunted, desperate expression with his eyes and smiled, satisfied. “It is good to have you back, Seri.”
“It is good to be back—I think,” Serilda whispered as she slumped against his lap with a weary sigh. “I have not slept—truly slept—in such a long time.”
Despite his eagerness to leave for the castle and Maura, Percy allowed Serilda this moment of respite. Only when the shadows of the candlelight illuminated her slumbering face did he see once more the fair, sweet cousin who had given a nine-year-old boy her lap to cry upon behind the dressing screen. Percy returned that comfort now as best he could, but he would not delude himself more than this.
Serilda had returned to play the game. Once, she had been King Henri’s secret mistress, a role that had stolen her happiness and freedom and left her mind forever scarred by the Countess’s betrayal. This time she would become his weapon against the Countess and Dowager alike. And as much as Percy would like to think Seri served him willingly, he knew it was her obsession for revenge that guided the Marchioness’ every move.
Still, there was no one the Earl trusted more, nor a more capable witch to train Maura and prepare her for the storm he had already set in motion. With the covens finally united behind him, Percy would shatter the current balance of power and return Lafeara to the witch kingdom it had once been.
Serilda waved from the front door of Hawthorne estate as Percy finally departed in his carriage. He waved back, amused by the simplicity of such a gesture, which brought a strange, comforting warmth to his chest. The house had become far too cold and quiet with his mother gone. Percy had distracted himself for a time with Ivy and Gus, both of whom he compelled to his will easily enough—though Mercy seemed to have cast an enamored spell on Ivy when he wasn’t paying attention. The Earl had carefully maintained his distance until the enchantment wore off—which had been easy enough to do with a tutor to occupy Ivy’s free time.
‘I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Being cooped up in those dark tunnels until the Inquisition passes would test any witch’s patience, and Mercy has always enjoyed stirring up a bit of chaos.’
It would be a relief to have another levelheaded witch in the house—and if it all went according to plan, Serilda would lure Maura closer to him and the future he was preparing for his ice queen.
Percy snapped from his musing with a jolt and tapped his signet finger against the cane’s silver head. A black crow fluttered down from the sky to rest on the open carriage window.
“Tell Mercy I shall have to meet her tomorrow. Inform her that my cousin is staying at Hawthorne, and I will not tolerate any rudeness to Marchioness Serilda Kensington in my absence.”
The crow bobbed its head and fluttered off.
Percy checked his pocket watch and leaned back into his seat with the leather bag placed across his lap. The sway of the carriage and the soft rattle of wheels soon lulled him to sleep. Behind his tired eyes, Percy watched Maura dance upon a frozen lake filled with moonlight—and smiled.