Chapter 3: The Sting of Gossip
Carina decided that Helena’s eulogy was nice enough. Though how Father Barry turned a short highlight of the noblewoman’s life into a sermon that extolled the gracious mercies of Saint Harmonia was a tad heavy-handed, in her opinion. Still, Viscount Rykard seemed to approve, given the way he nodded somberly along—almost enthusiastically—with the speech that the priest finally wrapped up with a solemn prayer.
“May the grace of Harmonia guide the soul of this dearly departed daughter, mother, and noble sister of the church. For though we must toil through this mortal world until death, these are but the final hours of the flesh. And after the body is committed to the earth, the soul shall be released into the Saints’ loving arms.
May Harmonia bless and guide Lady Helena’s surviving children, who must face the perilous struggles of this world without the loving protection of their parents. May Harmonia favor those who would give charitably to the bereaved from the kindness of their hearts. Let the passing of our esteemed sister remind us all to forgive, to be merciful, and generous to all humankind, who faithfully walk the path of righteousness. Amen.”
“Amen,” the congregation echoed back.
Carina opened her eyes and suppressed a sigh. ‘At least that’s done now.’
Hana’s hand slid over her own once more, and Carina squeezed it gratefully.
“Noble Lords and Ladies,” Father Barry called out from his pulpit. “On behalf of Baroness Winslet, who has taken in Helena’s daughter, Lady Sophya, I have been asked to announce that there will be a luncheon at Winslet Manor for prayer and reflection. All are welcome to join, as Lady Florence wished very much to thank you for attending today.”
He nodded to Lady Florence, who bowed her head in response and made a show of comforting Sophya. “Then, I shall now request that the family of Lady Helena Gilwren be allowed to come forward first to pray and bid farewell to the departed.” Father Barry closed his holy book and moved to stand behind the coffin as he folded his hands in silent prayer while the choir sang a hymn of mourning.
“Would you like to go up?” Hana asked gently as she turned to Carina.
“No, not yet,” Carina replied as she watched Sophya attempt to rise, only to be pulled firmly back into her seat by Florence as the Viscount stood.
The room fell silent as Helena’s father approached the coffin with measured steps. Rykard stared at the pale oak wood for a moment, with his back to the congregation. Then he pulled a necklace with a sparkling sapphire stone from his pocket and placed it carefully into a small square drawer built into the coffin’s lid.
It was a practice Carina had been unfamiliar with until a recent conversation with Lady Tiffany. The living presented the dead with a token by which to identify each other in the next life. It was a way for lovers, friends, children, and parents to be reunited with the souls of their loved ones in whatever form they took upon their rebirth.
A touching tradition and one Carina willingly gave credence to, given her own strange arrival in this world.
The Viscount turned and retrieved his hat and gloves from the pew. His hazel-grey eyes flickered in Carina’s direction as Percy rose from his seat. Rykard looked away first and, without another word, quietly left the chapel.
“Lady Maura,” Percy turned and extended his hand. “It’s our turn.”
Carina raised an eyebrow. ‘In what world would the younger, half-blood daughter go before the eldest, legitimate daughter?’ Her answer came as Florence once more pulled Sophya back into the pew beside her. Carina furrowed her brows and sighed. ‘Let’s just get this over with.’
The invisible pressure of the congregation’s gaze intensified as she accepted Percy’s hand and allowed him to guide her towards Helena’s coffin. Percy touched her hand, now curled around his arm, with firm reassurance as they stopped before the wooden casket outlined in flowers.
Carina stared blankly at the polished paneled surface and silently wished Maura could be here, but the haunted specter remained trapped within the palace’s fortress walls though Carina wondered if the ghost simply refused to leave their premises.
“Did you not bring a parting gift?” Percy asked softly as he leaned towards her.
“I did not know what to bring,” Carina replied with a faint sigh. ‘I have nothing to offer her and want nothing from her.’
Percy nodded and reached into his pocket. He pulled out two small, white seashells and pressed one into Carina’s hands. “Sometimes, it is better for the dead and living to forget.” He tossed his shell into the opening beside the Viscount’s necklace and nodded to her encouragingly.
Carina stared at the small blank shell and felt a weight lift from her shoulders as she gave it a light kiss, then dropped it into the drawer beside Percy’s. “Forget me then.”
‘Forget us both and be a kinder person in your next life.’
Percy’s arm slid away from her hand and wrapped around her protectively. Carina glanced up at him as he leaned down and kissed her forehead. “Remember, you are not alone,” he whispered.
Carina blinked as he straightened, caught off guard and very much aware that many important noble families had witnessed his affectionate gesture. She exhaled sharply as she focused on the coffin before them. “I’d like to leave now,” she whispered.
Percy turned them around and led her down the aisle towards the exit without comment. Hana rose from her seat and quickly followed behind as whispered conversations filled the pews.
“Is that not the half-blood child?”
“I hear they still don’t know who the father is.”
“She was wearing the cloak of a court official when she arrived—does she serve the royal family?”
“I heard the Crown Princess recently chose her as a lady-in-waiting.”
“Is that how she got close to the Earl?”
“Meanwhile, poor Lady Sophya has been left all but destitute by that deplorable father of hers.”
“I hear their poor mother perished in a fire!”
“Is that why they sealed the casket?”
“If you ask me, they’re both better off without such unfortunate parents.”
“They say the eldest is already engaged. Do you think the Winslet’s are after the Viscount’s inheritance?”
“But for a half-blood to become a Baroness?”
“Perhaps she might rise higher still.”
“With a title and property, it won’t be long until someone claims her hand in marriage, but she won’t marry above a Baron with that background, mark my words.”
“No indeed, what noble family would risk the taint of a half-blood.”
The distance to the chapel foyer seemed impossibly long, and yet Carina bore it all with a smile. Percy’s grip upon her elbow remained light, but she could feel the muscles in his arm grow tense against her back as they crossed the threshold.
“Ignore them,” Carina whispered as she turned and offered the loud women in the back row a cynical smile. “Their words have no power over me.”
‘If I wasn’t being pulled in every direction trying to prevent an outbreak of plague, mend the relationship between Eleanora and Nicholas, ensure Hana’s safety, and keep my numerous alias secret—I might give them a taste of what this half-blood’s wealth can do.’
“Sheep should know their place,” Percy growled softly.
Carina glanced up at his stoic, clenched jaw and those winter-grey eyes that held a familiar cold she recognized all too well.
“It stopped raining,” Hana murmured as she circled them and signaled to Sir Malcolm, who jogged over quickly with their cloaks. “Have the carriage brought round, please.”
“Yes, my Lady.” Malcolm bobbed a quick bow and handed Carina the cloaks before heading out beneath the parvis and down the chapel steps.
“Unfortunately, all this rain and carriage wheels have turned the ground into a swamp,” Carina observed as they proceeded down the stone steps. The summer rain had barely left a chill behind as the glistening sun filled the humid air with warmth.
Percy removed his arm as he signaled to his carriage driver. Carina moved away from him as she donned her cloak. “Will you be returning directly to the palace from here, Lady Maura,” the Earl asked as he followed her.
“Not directly, no,” Carina replied and then drew in a breath of fresh air. “I have a few errands to run while I can make use of this.” She pulled the palace pass from her purse, a thin gold bar engraved with two wolf heads facing each other.
Percy blinked at the gold bar in surprise. “Those are passes granted by the King.”
“Are they?” Carina frowned as she examined the token that authorized her departure and return to the palace. “How surprising, I assumed her Highness obtained them for us.”
“What’s the difference, either way?” Hana asked curiously. “They’re not permanent. We have to turn them in once we’ve returned.” She moved between them as she asked, “Are you sure you don’t want me to come along with you, Lady Maura?”
“No, you should go back to the palace and rest. I only agreed to let you come along to dispel those rumors about you being gravely ill,” Carina reminded her pointedly as she wrapped the purple court cloak around her companion’s shoulders. “Let’s not risk a relapse when you’ve been feeling so much better lately.”
“Fine, but you still need a proper escort,” Hana grumbled as she adjusted the cloak and secured its tassel rope bindings in place.
“Why not let me give you a ride in my carriage then, Lady Maura,” Percy suggested quickly. “As it is, there was a matter that I was hoping to discuss with you. An event that I believe would help dear Eleanora gain more favor among the nobles and commoners.”
“Then shouldn’t you discuss it with your cousin, Lord Percy?” Hana replied pointedly as she narrowed her eyes at him.
“Is there anything wrong with discussing my idea with Lady Maura first to get her opinion?” Percy returned with a patient smile.
“I have—other matters I need to address before I’m expected back at dinner,” Carina interjected with an anxious glance between them. “But I would be happy to discuss the idea with you later, Lord Percy.”
His winter-grey eyes turned from Hana towards Carina with a relaxed smile. “Of course, then please tell my cousin I’ll be dropping by for dinner to discuss the matter with both of you.”
“Lord Percy,” Hana hissed as she turned fully to face him. “Might I speak with you for a moment in private?”
Carina glanced from Hana’s angry expression to Percy’s neutral smile with baffled confusion. ‘Why does it feel like they hate each other?’
“Certainly, Lady Hana,” Percy replied smoothly and motioned in the direction of the chapel.
“I’ll be just a moment, Maura,” Hana called over her shoulder confidently as she swept past the Earl and led the way towards the chapel steps.
“What on earth?” Carina mumbled just as the carriage marked with the Averly crest pulled up behind her.
“We were lucky she didn’t get stuck in the mud,” the driver called out as Sir Malcolm used the carriage’s front wheel to navigate from the driver’s seat to the stone-paved walkway.
The agile knight dropped down and offered Carina a boyish grin before his troubled eyes trailed off in the direction of Hana and Percy. “Is something wrong?”
Carina drew in a breath, exhaled disparagingly, and shrugged.
“Are you sure I shouldn’t stay behind to escort you?” Malcolm inquired with a note of worry. “I’m still not confident you should—”
“I have a trusted escort meeting me here who will safeguard my trip until I return,” Carina interrupted with a firm smile. “But thank you for your concern, Sir Malcolm.”
Malcolm scoffed and shrugged. “Tiff said you were stubborn.”
“Stubborn?” Carina echoed with a raised brow.
“Well, ‘remarkably strong-willed’ were the words she used. How is my little sister doing anyway?”
“Lady Tiffany picks up things quickly,” Carina replied honestly as she glanced back towards Percy and Hana, who were still engaged in a heated conversation. “All the more reason you should return so you can spend some time with your sister during lunch. The Rose Palace has an excellent chef.”
“Bribing me with food?” Malcolm scoffed. “That’s a different approach.”
“I’ll be sure to let Tiffany know she ranks lower than food,” Carina returned with a smug grin.
“Looks like they’ve finished,” Malcolm said tensely. “Hope it wasn’t anything serious. I certainly wouldn’t want to be on the Earl’s bad side.”
There was something in his tone that tugged at the uncomfortable unease in Carina’s gut. “What do you mean?”
Malcolm shrugged. “Bad things tend to happen to those who offend the Hawthorne family. Just last week, some herb peddler was found outside his shop with his eyes and tongue missing, and his guts picked clean by crows. And they’re still looking for the daughter that was living with him. Rumor has it the shopkeeper insulted the Earl and a maid of his a few days before.”
‘A maid? Ivy!’ Carina sucked in a breath as Percy brushed past Hana towards them with his usual confident smile in place. Hana glared after the Earl, clearly far from satisfied with their conversation as she followed him back towards the carriage.
“Is everything alright?” Carina asked as she refocused on Percy.
The Earl tilted his head curiously. “Why wouldn’t it be?” he murmured, but the reassuring smile he offered her did not match the turbulence that raged behind his winter-grey eyes.