Chapter 28: The Guilt of Providence
Jade huddled in the corner of the carriage and clung to her baby as if someone might approach and snatch the child away at any moment. Carina sat beside her and covertly stole glances at the rosy cheeks of the brown-eyed infant that had, thankfully, calmed down and now stared back at her in silent curiosity.
‘A boy if I remember correctly,’ Carina mused with an affectionate smile. A thousand questions filled her mind as she studied both the child and Jade. ‘What happened to you after we were abducted that day at the traffic light? How long have you been in Lafeara? How is it you still look the same? How did you escape with your baby? Those men came looking for us because of the father of that child, so why—how?’
Carina repressed these questions behind taut lips and a tightening chest as her fingers trailed absently over the embossed silver thread that ran down Percy’s cloak, which he had given to her before their journey to Hawthorne Manor.
The Earl sat across from her now with folded arms. His gaze occasionally shifted from Carina to Jade and the infant with a neutral expression that did not hide the befuddled glint in his eye. Carina could not fault Percy for his confusion, not when he had so graciously agreed to her request to provide Jade with a safe place to stay until Carina had a chance to set up something more suitable and long term.
While Carina had made Jade a citizen of Averly, she had reasoned it unwise to leave her old friend behind that town alone while the witch hunters remained a threat.
And poor Jade, she looked beyond haggard and miserable. Carina could only imagine what ordeals her friend had been through since arriving in Lafeara. Those familiar green eyes, overshadowed with worry, fear, and exhaustion, only seemed to light up when she looked at her child.
Jade glanced up to find Carina observing her and quickly offered a half-hearted smile. The sort of timid smile one gives when they don’t want to offend, even if they have done nothing to cause offense—the smile of someone terrified of being cast aside.
Carina swallowed the reassurance that galloped to the tip of her tongue. ‘Not here. Not now. I will let her know I am Carina later.’
“How old is he?” Carina asked conversationally with a nod and smile to the babe, who was now distracted, forming tiny bubbles between his small pink lips.
“Hmm? Oh, he’s five months old—Baroness.”
“There is no need for titles,” Carina replied awkwardly. “Lady Maura will suffice. So tell me, what’s his name?”
“Benjamin,” Jade answered with the ghost of a smile.
“Benjamin,” Carina repeated curiously. It was not a name they had discussed before when Jade decided to keep the surrogate baby. A dozen new and old questions battled behind Carina’s confused expression before she quickly shook her head.
“It’s a lovely name,” Carina said instead and watched in silent fascination as Benjamin drooled silently from the corner of his mouth. ‘He’s cute—for a baby—I guess. However, he doesn’t resemble Jade much. I suppose that means he takes after his dad.’
“You mentioned that your home was far from here, Miss Jade,” Percy interjected from his seat across the carriage. “Where is that exactly?”
“It’s—Not a place you’ve heard of,” Jade answered uneasily.
‘Of course, it’s not.’ Carina smiled ruefully. ‘You’re from a completely different world.’
“If you could provide me with a bit more information, perhaps I could arrange for your return,” Percy continued with a generous smile that did not quite meet his eyes. “I’m sure you have a family—possibly a husband—wondering where you are?”
“No—husband, and I believe that would be impossible,” Jade returned with a hint of anger. “Unless you can use magic.”
Carina stiffened and watched as Percy’s smile soured. There was something about the way he studied Jade that made Carina uneasy and even a bit—afraid.
“Lady Jade has been through enough interrogation for one day,” Carina hastily interjected as she placed a hand on Jade’s arm. “We should allow her to rest and leave such questions for another time.” She met Percy’s sharp gaze with a raised eyebrow. The Earl relaxed his shoulders and smiled as he offered her a single nod.
“There’s no need to call me Lady,” Jade muttered under her breath. “I own the clothes I’m wearing and nothing else.” She swallowed as her voice thickened with emotion. “I am—very grateful to you, Lady Maura—for taking us in.”
“There is no need for thanks,” Carina replied with a flush of embarrassment. ‘I still don’t understand how you came to Lafeara, but I could never leave you out in the cold on your own.’ “And it is the Earl who has agreed to provide you a place to stay while I arrange for more permanent housing and comfort.”
“Did you hear that, Benjamin?” Jade whispered to the infant, who fussed as he suckled on his closed fist. “The Baroness and Earl are giving us a safe place to stay.”
Carina smiled and removed her hand. The amount of dirt and grime on Jade’s clothes and skin seemed to suggest she had gone without decent lodgings and a bath for a few days.
‘But these are not clothes from our world. Perhaps someone gave them to her?’ Carina sighed and tightened her hand around the edge of her cloak. ‘There will be time enough to ask her questions later. Jade will trust me once she knows I am Carina. Since I still have knowledge of our homeworld, it should be simple enough to convince her.’
She glanced towards Percy, who observed her over a hand pressed to his lips. Though Carina couldn’t explain why she felt guilty for the enormous favor she had asked of him. Although Percy had agreed readily enough, it was not without a moment’s hesitation. ‘It’s reasonable for him to hesitate. Inviting strangers to live in his estate isn’t something most nobles would willingly do. Let alone those like the Earl who are hiding their witch ancestry.’
Carina turned her gaze from the Earl to the window as she pulled Percy’s cloak over her blood-splattered dress. An uneasy thought had been growing in the back of her mind since before they left Averly. ‘Does Jade being here somehow affect the future—and if so, how will it change now?’
For the life of him, Percy couldn’t figure it out. Lady Maura had always been cautious by nature. Prone to the occasional bouts of emotionally based decisions, certainly, but even then, she still had a plan in place by which to retreat.
And yet Maura recklessly challenged the witch hunters and the church because of this foreigner and her baby.
‘Was this some form of female empathy?’
Maura certainly looked quite intrigued by the baby, but it was the woman, Jade, whom she seemed most focused upon.
‘What is that desperation I see in her eyes? Who is this woman that Maura would show this much concern?’
His gaze dropped to the collar of Maura’s dress and the tall tale smears of blood. ‘Too close. If she had gone a bit further—she might have been crushed on those church steps.’ His grip tightened around the cane that twisted into the wooden floorboards of the carriage.
Maura glanced at him, and Percy relaxed his grip as he smiled. Her ice-blue eyes shifted back to the window while the faint blush on her cheeks gave away her embarrassment. She also looked tired, and he wondered if she still suffered from nightmares.
Percy glanced towards Jade and her dirty child, neither of which were witches. ‘And yet she conveniently turned up at the chapel among the witches Mercy left behind.’
Percy didn’t believe in coincidences. Even the actions of a simpleton could be controlled by those who hid in the shadows of this world. And the crows had witnessed a specter of sorts walking amongst Avverly’s mortals. There one moment, her attention fixed on Maura, and gone the next.
‘If the other gods have started meddling, this is more than some curious coincidence.’
Jade glanced over at him and offered an uncertain smile. Percy’s returning smile was enough to make her cower and drop those jade-green eyes to her babe once more. ‘No matter, since Maura has placed you in my care, I have plenty of time to ferret out who is pulling your strings.’
To Butler Russell’s credit, he did not show an ounce of surprise when he opened the door to find Percy accompanied by Lady Maura in a blood-splattered dress, with Jade and her wailing baby behind them.
“Welcome back, Master. Baroness,” Russell said with a modest bow to Maura.
“Thank you for the welcome, Russell,” Maura replied with a brief smile before her attention returned once more to the child. “Perhaps we should summon a physician to examine him?”
“He’s just hungry,” Jade answered numbly as she rocked and shushed the angry child. “As am I, we—haven’t eaten since—” She trailed off, but her words had their intended effect as Maura turned her beseeching gaze to Percy.
‘Not a complete simpleton then.’
“Russell, have the kitchen prepare an extra place for lunch. And have the staff arrange a room and tray for Miss Jade to enjoy at her leisure while she and her child get some rest,” Percy said quickly, just as eager to spare his sensitive ears from the wailing demon.
“What is this awful racket?” Serilda appeared behind the railing above them and gazed down at the screaming infant with disdain. “And whose noisy bastard is that?”
“Excuse me?” Jade replied sharply.
Percy shot his cousin a warning look as he took Maura’s hand and led the distracted girl towards the stairs. “Lady Serilda, this is Lady Maura, my mother’s protégée.”
“Oh?” Serilda frowned as she glanced between Maura and Percy, her hands still pressed against her ears.
“Lady Maura, this is Lady Serilda, my dear cousin, who has been away in the country for some years,” Percy continued with a reassuring smile. “She can offer you a dress to change into for your return to the palace—” his gaze shifted back to Serilda “—and the Crown Princess.”
“Ohh!” Serilda’s moss-agate eyes brightened in realization as she dropped her hands. “So, you’re that Lady Maura!” Her smile widened with outright glee as she glided down the steps to steal Maura’s hand from Percy’s grip. “My goodness, what a fright you must have had. Is that blood—tsk! I have just the dress that will suit your complexion, though you are a couple of inches shorter than I, and—I’m embarrassed to admit—the few dresses I own are a several years behind the latest fashion. I plan on completely renovating my wardrobe before the holidays—at the Earl’s expense, of course.”
Serilda turned and sent Percy a coy smile as if daring him to refute her claims, but the Earl merely nodded his head in acceptance. Serilda beamed victoriously as she slid Maura’s arm around her own. “As you are a lady-in-waiting to the Crown Princess, I’m sure you must know all the latest trends in the capital, Lady Maura. You must advise me as to the changes I will need to make.”
“I—suppose. Thank you, Lady Serilda,” Maura murmured with a distracted glance towards Jade.
“Go and change, Lady Maura,” Percy urged with a reassuring smile. “Miss Jade will be given a room close to Miss Ivy. I intend to ask your former servant to look after the woman and her child during their brief stay. I hope that will offer you some peace of mind.”
There was no mistaking the look of relief on Maura’s face as Serilda led her up the stairs to the second floor and out of sight. Percy clutched the decorative railing as he breathed in the scent of Jasmine and frost that followed her—now tainted by the stench of blood. He sighed silently.
‘I must do better to ensure she does not encounter those witch hunters again. If Ripper had seen her—’ He grimaced as the child wailed unhappily behind him.
Jade wilted as the Earl turned around and focused his attention upon them.
“No need to be so afraid,” Percy replied with a mocking smile as he glanced down the hall to see if the servants were coming. “Tell me, Miss Jade, have you ever heard of or met Lady Maura before today?”
Her jade green eyes, eerily similar to Ivy’s, drifted around the foyer floor as she avoided his gaze.
Unlike Ivy, Jade’s thoughts were not easily read. In that way, she reminded him of Maura. As if she had spent her entire life learning to mask her true feelings.
‘And yet she smells of deceit.’
“No, I—never—before today,” Jade mumbled behind the infuriating curtain of her child’s wails.
But Percy’s trained ears quickly picked up the erratic fluctuation of Jade’s heartbeat as well as the distinct shift in pitch of her words. ‘Mask your face all you like. You can’t hide a lie from me.’
The Earl cringed as the child’s screams tore through the magic around them. With an irritated twitch of his finger, he deftly muffled the air around the woman and her child—who smelled keenly of gutter and filth. Russell returned with two maids, who hurriedly swept Jade and her noisy brat towards the servant’s quarters.
“Have them bathed as soon as possible and some new clothes provided. Burn the rags they brought and see some powder is spread about for lice,” Percy instructed Russell. “Also, ask Miss Ivy to see to their comfort and care between her lessons. Inform her that they are guests of Lady Maura.” The butler nodded and trailed behind the maids and their newest unexpected guest.
Percy’s fingers danced over his cane. The air around him channeled and thickened until the quiet of Hawthorne Manor was once more, blissfully restored. He breathed a sigh of relief then frowned in the direction of his study. “What a curious nuisance they both are,” he murmured and headed towards the office door.
Percy was not surprised to find Mercy waiting for him inside, seated behind the Earl’s desk—but he was far from pleased.