Chapter 4: Roses at a Funeral
Hana pulled Carina cautiously aside as Percy’s carriage pulled up behind theirs and the footman dismounted to speak with the Earl. “Maura, are you sure you’ll be alright? Do you need money? You’ve only been working at the palace for a week, not that they’re very punctual with payments. At least let me wait here until your escort arrives.”
“I’ll be fine, Hana,” Carina replied with a bemused smile. “What do you imagine could happen while I’m standing in front of my grandfather’s church?”
“Not that the Viscount deserves to be called that,” Hana muttered with a scowl though she released Carina’s arm reluctantly. “Alright then, I will head back since you’re so insistent, but if you are one minute late, Maura, I shall have Eleanora send out a battalion of knights to find you.”
Carina decided not to correct Hana on Eleanora’s limited power when it came to Lafeara’s knights. Until the crown princess was officially coronated queen, she didn’t have much control over anything.
‘Not even enough power to obtain a palace pass for her own attendants apparently.’
She smiled and waved as Malcolm assisted Hana into the carriage and then climbed in beside her. The newly appointed knight seemed kind and considerate. He was certainly fond of dropping by Rose Palace to visit his sister whenever he could. Although Tiffany complained every time he did, it was easy to see they got along well, even when they quarreled.
Percy returned to Carina’s side as the Averly carriage pulled away and departed through the chapel yard gate. “You and Lady Hana seem to have gotten close,” he observed.
“Is there any reason we shouldn’t?” Carina replied curiously, half-tempted to ask what the two of them had been arguing about.
The Earl’s carriage pulled forward, and the footman opened the door.
“Not at all,” Percy replied as he slid his fingers around her hand and raised it to his lips. “I just hope you won’t forget about your other friends.”
“Your coven?” Carina whispered so lightly the syllables of the words were hardly audible at all.
But Percy heard them and smiled. “I’ll introduce you soon enough.” He turned as the footman appeared beside them with a bouquet of roses.
‘Roses at a funeral?’ Carina raised an eyebrow as Percy extended the vivid red blossoms tipped with white towards her. “Your timing for gifts and roses is rather curious, Earl.”
Percy scratched the skin above his collar and smiled as she accepted them. “I suppose I’ll have to raise the bar on the next occasion then. What color do you think goes well with a coup?”
Carina felt the discomforting weight of fear flip in her gut once more as she stared at him. Then she stepped forward, snapped off a bud, and slid the barely bloomed rose into his left lapel. “Let’s avoid any occasion that involves people dying, shall we?”
Percy wolfishly grinned, then slid his fingers through the flyaway curls of her hair and brushed his thumb down her cheek. “Whatever you wish, my dear.”
Carina tried to retreat but found she couldn’t move. She was reminded once more of that moment on the balcony when Percy had gifted her the Winter Rose. She had been completely powerless then. But this was different, a feeling she couldn’t quite name, something that seemed to connect her to the Earl and him to her in a way that made her feel weak and helpless.
‘I am not weak.’
That single thought somehow restored the balance between them, and Carina felt the moment pass as Percy lowered his hand.
“I will see you later tonight, Lady Maura,” he promised, then bowed low before he turned and boarded his carriage.
Carina reached towards the comforting chill of the Winter Rose as she watched the prancing team of speckled horses disappear down the gravel, country road. Around the glen, a flock of crows took to the skies with a flutter of dark wings. Carina eyed them warily as half of the pack broke off and followed the carriage while the rest moved into trees closer to the chapel to stare down at her.
“Damn pests,” Carina muttered under her breath and stifled a yawn as she dropped her hand to the pendant watch pinned to her waist. Sleep was a commodity in very short supply these days, especially when Carina had to wait until midnight to practice using her ice magic. Nothing flashy, just enough to release the uncomfortable pressure that built up inside Carina’s chest if she went too long without expelling the magic from her frozen heart.
Ever since Carina had used her magic to open the secret tunnel beneath Rose Palace, that demanding urge visited her more frequently and with increasing demand. ‘It is worrisome and something I should remember to ask Percy about the next time we meet.’
Carina sighed, and after confirming her ride and escort should be here in a few more minutes, repinned the pendant watch to the waistline of her dress. She heard the chapel door open behind her but did not turn. She had little wish to communicate with anyone here, least of all the people she actually recognized.
“Well, well, well. So the little half-blood is a Baroness now?”
Carina’s finger’s clenched around the tassels of her cloak as she turned slowly to face the familiar voice and visage of one of Lincoln’s old schoolmates. Lord Artemis, or Art, as Lincoln had called him.
Carina folded her arms as she regarded the insufferable young noble with sunken cheeks, a long flared nose, and spectacles that enlarged his eyes and, in Carina’s opinion, made him resemble a sickly camel. A resemblance not improved upon by Art’s fondness for chewing tobacco.
As punctual as a clock, Art spat a wad of yellowish-brown saliva onto the paved stone just inches from the hem of Carina’s dress and offered her a grin. “You’ve grown up, little half-blood.”
“Time has a way of doing that,” Carina replied neutrally as she circled past him towards the church. She knew better than to remain anywhere alone with Lincoln’s friends.
“Hey, hey!” Art caught her right arm and held her fast. “Is this how you greet an old friend? Shouldn’t you be commiserating with me—or at least apologize?”
“Apologize?” Carina echoed, baffled.
Art’s grip tightened as he stepped forward with a sinister leer. “It would seem your rise in station has made you forget your place, half-blood. But as every noble knows, those who rise may yet fall. Don’t forget who will be waiting to reclaim old debts when you do return to the mud.”
“There are no debts between us,” Carina observed calmly. “Now remove your hand.”
“You know—you’ve gotten a lot prettier,” Art observed as he stepped closer still. Carina’s stomach quivered in disgust as she watched him slide a lump of tobacco across his stained teeth to the other side of his mouth. “Why don’t the two of us find a way to resolve our grief and differences together? I could show you a thing or two now that you’re all grown up. I might even be gracious enough to marry you while you’re still—”
“Artemis!” a voice boomed behind them.
Carina shoved the trembling frozen fingers of her left hand into the fabric of her skirt and exhaled a pale breath of icy air as Lord Asher strolled over with a frown on his face.
“Art, your mother is looking for you,” Asher said with a reproachful glower.
“Don’t lie, Asher,” Art growled. Carina attempted to pull away while he was distracted, but the brutish camel only twisted her arm and yanked her firmly back to his side. “Mother knows exactly what I’m doing.”
“All the same, I think you’ve made Lady Maura uncomfortable,” Asher replied as his gaze darkened. “So either rejoin Lady Susan inside or leave.”
“Just what business is this of yours?” Art growled with evident irritation. “I thought you were after the redhead.”
“I’m making it my business,” Asher returned with a casual shrug as he flexed his right shoulder and wrist. “Satisfied?”
Art cackled as he held up Carina’s arm, released it, and promptly smacked her backside. Carina’s lips trembled with rage, but she pressed them silently together. His behavior was nothing new. She had endured similar humiliation at the hands of Lincoln’s other friends before.
“Fine, I’ll play nice, but you can’t marry both of them,” Art mocked as he intentionally brushed shoulders with Asher on his way back to the church. “Though, I suppose you don’t have to go that far for a half-blood.”
A sharp whistle drew Carina’s gaze towards the chapel gate, where a new carriage drawn by two blood-red horses splashed through the rain puddles and turned in their direction. ‘Thank the Saints!’
She pulled up her hood and glanced towards the two nobles just in time to see Asher grab the front of Art’s jacket, drag the protesting camel to the end of the stone walk and hurl him face-first into the mud—directly in the path of the approaching carriage.
The driver reined in sharply and cursed, “Hells Teeth! Watch where you’re fighting!”
The carriage door opened as Stitcher alighted and moved towards Carina with a concerned glance towards the nobles. “You alright?” the physician and double-agent assassin muttered as he toyed with the short blade at his hip.
“Better now that you’re here,” Carina replied with a half-hearted smile.
“Oye, someone better break them up!” the driver called out, exasperated as he struggled to back his spooked team away from Asher, who now knelt on top of Art’s back.
Sophya’s fiancé and future husband smiled as he pressed Art’s face further into the mud. The overpowered noble thrashed beneath him, arms and legs flailing in helpless panic.
“Keep that up, and you’ll kill him,” Stitcher called out nonchalantly.
Asher turned sharply towards them, frowned at Stitcher, and then released the floundering noble as he stood gracefully.
Art yanked his face from the mud and gasped in a painful breath of air. “You—two-faced—Son of a—”
Asher pressed the bottom of his boot against Art’s head and shoved the noble’s still open mouth back down into the mud. “Insult or offend either Lady Sophya or Lady Maura again—and next time, I’ll see you choke on worse than this.”
Art spat out a series of curses and mud as he coughed and clawed his way free from Asher’s boot, then rolled over into a puddle like a dead fish.
“Who is this prince charming?” Stitcher whispered with a cynical smile as Asher wiped his boots against the stone path.
“My half-sister’s fiancé,” Carina replied indifferently. “No one of importance.”
“I apologize if Art offended you, Lady Maura,” Asher said as he crossed over to them.
“There is no need for that,” Carina said calmly. “Thankfully, I will have no further cause to associate with any of Lincoln’s friends in the future.”
“I hope that does not extend to me,” Asher replied with a rueful smile, “since we are about to become family.”
Carina raised her eyebrows and laughed. “If you think marrying Sophya in any way makes us family, you are mistaken, Lord Asher. With Lady Helena dead, Sophya and I are finally free of each other. I want as little to do with her as she does with me.”
‘Honestly, he would have to be blind to not pick up on the way they treated me when he visited Turnbell Manor. Now he suddenly wants to act like my savior?’
“I am sorry to hear it!” Asher called after her as Carina turned to leave. “Regardless of your differences, Sophya could use your help right now.”
“My help?” Carina pulled out her fan as she turned to face him. “Or my money?”
Asher’s lower jaw twitched in response to her question, but he covered it with a quick shake of his head. “Surely your financial position is little better than Sophya’s, Lady Maura. The Winslet family has more than enough wealth to cover what meager debts remain after selling Turnbell Manor.”
The fan stilled in Carina’s hand as she blinked. “Sophya sold Turnbell Manor?”
“Yes, she was uncomfortable living there alone without any servants or family. And it was impractical for her to hold onto it in the face of Josiah’s debts,” Asher explained patiently. “She’s more than comfortable at Winslet Manor, which will be her permanent home soon enough.”
Carina nodded slowly but continued to eye him suspiciously. “If it’s not money, then what sort of help do you expect me to provide?”
“Well,” Asher continued hesitantly. “Sophya was hoping to reunite with her grandfather today, but, as I’m sure you noticed, Viscount Gilwren left rather quickly.”
‘Ah, so that is why you agreed to marry her even after Josiah lost his business.’
“The Viscount seemed to react favorably towards you earlier,” Asher continued in a hopeful tone.
Carina smothered a laugh behind her fan. “I’m afraid you are mistaken, Lord Asher. Viscount Gilwren was only polite on account of the Earl. I believe his first impression of me was far from favorable.”
Asher’s expression hardened for a moment, but then he shrugged as he glanced over to where Art had finally managed to get back to his feet. The muddy noble turned and staggered away from the chapel, presumably in the direction of his carriage.
“Well, in either case, Lady Maura, don’t be a stranger,” Asher said lightly with a bow before he turned and headed back inside the chapel.
Stitcher glanced at her, but Carina merely shook her head as she headed towards the waiting carriage.
‘What a fool you are, Sophya.’ Carina leaned back against the cushion and sighed as she closed her eyes briefly. Stitcher signaled the carriage driver that they were ready to depart, and the dismal chapel quickly disappeared from view.