Chapter 29: A Breath of Deception
“So, tell me, what is my very distant cousin, Eleanora, like? Is she truly as scandalous as they say?” Serilda asked in an amused tone as she led Carina inside a familiar large bedroom with seafoam-colored walls and peacock green curtains.
‘Wait, wasn’t this the Countess’s room?’
“I don’t know—what do they say in the country?” Carina replied hesitantly as the strange but stunningly beautiful woman relinquished her arm. Serilda’s touch left an odd tingling sensation that raised the hairs along her arm. The Marchioness’s voice made Carina feel strangely relaxed, comforted, and yet still somehow uneasy.
“In the country, they say the Crown Princess wears men’s clothes, challenges the Lafeara knights to duels, and tears around the Royal Palace barefoot. Those sorts of rumors,” Serilda replied with an amused smile as she pulled out the chair by the vanity desk and gestured towards it. “Do come and sit, Lady Maura. You look ready to fall over at any moment, though that’s to be expected. Witch burnings are a terrible thing to experience when you’re a sensitive—and you do look rather pale, my dear.”
‘How did she know about the witch burnings?’ Carina pondered as she rubbed a hand across her tired brow. “No—I’m—fine,” she murmured and looked down in confusion as her body voluntarily moved towards the indicated seat. The Winter Rose prickled against her skin, and she stopped just short of the chair. For a moment, Carina could feel a sort of haze weighing down upon her head and shoulders, but it cleared away the moment she focused upon it. “I’m just a little tired, thank you.”
Serilda’s eyebrows raised faintly. “How strange,” the Marchioness murmured with a coy smile. “Ah, yes, a dress, one moment.”
Carina watched the noblewoman curiously. It was challenging to gauge Serilda’s age, given the perfect condition of her skin. She had to be at least in her early twenties, and yet, the haunted expression that lingered in the shadows of the Marchioness’s face made Percy’s cousin feel inexplicably older.
“Here we are, a lovely blue to match your eyes,” Serilda exclaimed as she pulled out a dress. “Such a rare, enchanting color,” the Marchioness added as she handed the gown to Carina and stroked her cheek. “Bewitching and yet—frigid.”
‘Okay?’ Carina cleared her throat and glanced around. “Perhaps I could change in another room?”
“Nonsense. I am more than capable of assisting you, Lady Maura, and that dress will probably need some adjustments with its length,” Serilda replied as she took Carina’s shoulders, spun her about, and lifted her hair. “I had forgotten ladies-in-waiting must make do without servants, but when did they start designing dresses with buttons in the front and not the back?”
“Fairly recently,” Carina replied as she stepped away. “How long have you been away in the country, Lady Serilda?”
The smile upon the Marchioness’s face tightened for a moment before she shrugged. “Oh—a few years.”
“Were you there to recover from an illness?”
“Yes—I suppose you could say that.”
Carina blinked at the warning tone in the Marchioness’s voice and decided not to press Serilda for further information. Instead, she turned away, laid the new gown upon the bed, and then slowly unbuttoned her bodice. Her fingers fumbled around the buttons covered in blood as the scent of the pyre drifted up the fabric. She shivered in relief as the soiled gown dropped to the floor and stepped away from it.
Serilda picked up the discarded dress, slid it onto a hanger, and hung it outside the bedroom door. “The maids will see it cleaned and returned to you.”
“That—isn’t necessary,” Carina protested. “I have plenty of dresses.”
“Oh? Is your family well off, Lady Maura? I didn’t catch the name earlier when Percy introduced you.”
Carina paused as she arranged the skirt of the light blue gown. “I do not share my family’s name, Lady Serilda. I was born a half-blood.”
“Oh! Really?” Serilda sat on the bed across from her with a curious expression. “How deliciously unexpected and mysterious. Then you don’t know who your father is, Lady Maura?”
“No idea, I’m afraid,” Carina replied as she pulled the gown over her head.
“Your mother, then?”
“She—was—Lady Helena Turnbell. Formerly Lady Helena Gilwren before her marriage.”
“Was—? Oh dear.” Serilda pressed her delicate fingers against her lips. “You are saying—that you are a half-blood and an orphan as well?”
Carina did not answer as she focused on settling the dress’s fabric around her waist.
“Oh dear, look at me prattling when I promised to help you.” Serilda slid off the bed and moved behind Carina. “One never knows how valuable maids are until we have to make do on our own,” the Marchioness joked as she straightened the back of the blue dress and then buttoned it up slowly. “You must have many commendable qualities, Lady Maura. To have convinced the proud Countess to take a half-blood under her wing and raise your station.”
Carina turned her head but could not make out Serilda’s expression, though her tone seemed oddly bitter. “I was most fortunate to have received the Countess’s attention and care,” Carina replied as she raised her hair so the Marchioness could reach the buttons along her neck.
“It is far too early to count that as fortunate,” Serilda answered with a hint of cynicism. “I too was under the Countess’s care once—a long time ago.”
Carina turned, surprised.
“Not in the same way you were, I’m sure,” Serilda added with a sarcastic smile. “No, the lessons she taught me were not those of a proper court lady—” she slid her fingers under Carina’s chin and lifted it gently “—but the skills of a king’s mistress.”
Carina’s eyes widened as she took in Serilda’s beauty, the old fashion yet expensive silk of her dresses, and the lavish rooms she had been given in the Earl’s house. “You—are the Marchioness of Brexley!”
Serilda’s smile widened while her moss-agate eyes remained muted with darkness. “Yes, the Countess taught you well, indeed.”
‘Only the Countess told me that the Marchioness of Brexley went mad after King Henri’s death and the miscarriage of their unborn child.’
“What a waste, Lady Maura,” Serilda murmured as she stepped closer and glided her fingers down the ruffled collar of the blue gown. “To hide such a priceless jewel out of sight beneath such old garments.”
Carina blinked in confusion; then her hand moved to where the Winter Rose rested against her chest. “Oh, this—was a gift—”
“From my cousin,” Serilda confirmed with a mischievous wink. “A necklace worthy of a Queen.” She smiled and slid behind Carina once more to loosen the pins in her ash-brown hair. “Why don’t I try something different with your hair before we head down for lunch.”
Seemingly unable to protest or even ponder why she wouldn’t enjoy having the Marchioness brush her hair, Carina nodded mutely. As Serilda smoothed out the curls and tangles of Carina’s ash-brown hair, the heavy feeling of sleep slid over the attendant’s eyes. Carina shook herself, embarrassed to have nodded off. Again the unyielding tiredness returned as the steady strokes of the brush against her scalp and Serilda’s soft humming wrapped Carina into the comforting warmth of an invisible cocoon.
A gentle knock at the door jolted Carina awake once more. “Hold still, Lady Maura,” Serilda soothed as she slid another pin into Carina’s new hairdo. “There, finished. You can come in, Cousin.”
The door opened slightly, and Percy cleared his throat as he remained just out of sight. “I came to inform Lady Maura that I sent a letter ahead to the Palace to explain her delayed return.”
“Thank you, Lord Percy,” Carina replied, a bit breathless and dazed as she rose from her seat. ‘That will at least give me some time to speak with Jade before I have to head back.’
“Then, if you are in no hurry, would you like to join my cousin and I for lunch?” Percy asked as he stepped around the door. He stopped abruptly, his winter-grey eyes widening in surprise as his gaze swept from Carina’s hair to the gown she wore, then shot towards the Marchioness reproachfully.
“Doesn’t she look gorgeous?” Serilda asked as she danced behind Carina. “Much like how I looked when the Countess sent me off to—”
“Seri! You—” Percy’s taut voice caught Carina off guard, and she glanced between the cousins befuddled.
“Is something wrong?” Carina asked as she studied the voluminous updo the Marchioness had brushed her hair into in the mirror’s reflection. It was remarkably old fashioned and not the sort of look Carina would have gone for—but hardly offensive. ‘So then why is Percy so upset?’
Carina turned towards the Earl to voice her question only to blink in confusion as he disappeared before her eyes, and the walls around her swayed. Shrill laugher filled Carina’s ears as a titanic wave of fatigue washed over her and sent her spinning towards the floor.
Percy’s arm caught Carina’s waist, and she gasped as a hairpin fell with sluggish slowness and struck the floor inches from her eyes. A strange distorted ring echoed from the small metal object. The sound rippled into shapes like a thousand bright flashing fireflies that swarmed around her vision. The Marchioness appeared at the dancing lights center, her smile beaming with strange delight as she gently touched Carina’s cheek.
“Oh dear, perhaps you should lay down and rest for a while, Lady Maura,” Serilda murmured as a dark curtain slowly moved closer and swallowed the fireflies one by one. “Maybe a prolonged overnight stay is in order.”
“No—I should—get back—” Carina protested. The air seemed too thin. A high-pitched ringing filled her ears as the Winter Rose burned against her chest and flashed in a warning.
Percy’s muffled voice, filled with anger, echoed through the darkness that rushed towards her as Carina slumped against his arm, and the room simply disappeared.