Chapter 46: A Questionable Alliance
The incessant knocking at her bedroom door tore Carina from the heavy blankets of sleep. She groaned past a parched throat as she detangled herself from the covers and rolled over to sit on the edge of the bed. Harsh daylight awaited her through the glass windowpane.
‘Did I even sleep?’ Carina wondered as she found her feet and stumbled towards the noise at her door.
Tilly waited outside with a pitcher of water. “Ah—sorry to wake you, my Lady, but you have a visitor? She is waiting for you downstairs.”
“She?” Carina echoed groggily as she rubbed her neck and stared at the water meant to wash her face, feeling a bit thirsty.
“The Marchioness Serilda of Berxely,” Tilly recited with a note of awe as she dug into her apron and pulled out a small greeting card, which she handed to Carina. “Should I—tell her to come back later?”
“No, I—” Carina took the card, read Lady Serilda’s name, and sighed as she pressed it against her forehead. “Please, prepare the Marchioness some tea and tell her I’ll be a moment.”
“Yes, my Lady.”
“Wait—” Carina dropped her hand and frowned as she studied the silent hallway. “What time is it?”
“Almost noon, Lady Maura,” Tilly replied with a bemused smile. “Just an hour till lunch.”
“Still out riding. The Crown Princess took Lady Tiffany with her this morning since Lady Evelynn wasn’t feeling well.”
Carina raised a brow. “Lady Tiffany? How long have I been asleep?”
“Since you returned yesterday, my Lady. Her Highness gave strict instructions you were not to be disturbed, but—”
‘A Baroness can’t refuse the visit of a Marchioness.’
Carina smiled and nodded as she took the pitcher from Tilly’s hands. “You did the right thing. Thank you, Tilly. Please let my guest know that I’ll be down in five minutes.”
“Better make it ten, my Lady,” Tilly whispered urgently before she turned and scampered towards the stairs.
Somewhat confused, Carina shut the door and carried the pitcher over to the vanity desk’s water basin. One look at the dark circles under her eyes was all it took to understand the maid’s comment. “Shit—I look awful,” Carina mumbled as she sank into the chair.
A ghostly chuckle filled the room and set Carina’s teeth on edge. She scanned the empty walls and furniture behind her, then dismissed her still invisible stalker and set about washing her face. Once refreshed, Carina changed from her nightgown to a day dress and brushed out her hair. She was far too tired to bother with hairpins and settled for a twisted braid instead with a few scattered ornaments to compliment the simple look.
A quick dusting of rouge hid the paleness of her cheeks, while a thicker dab of powder covered the shadows under her eyes and a bit of makeup helped to blend the foundation against her skin. A thin layer of lip balm returned her lips to their rosy hue, and Carina gave her reflection a satisfied nod of approval. She picked up a shawl and the bedroom key then headed out to meet her guest.
Carina found Lady Serilda in the waiting room, enjoying a cup of tea with Lady Evelynn.
‘I thought she wasn’t feeling well?’ Carina pondered as she approached them.
“Lady Maura,” Serilda greeted as she set down her drink and stood. “I do hope you don’t mind the sudden visit.” Despite the outdated look of her dress, Serilda’s every movement commanded attention with its graceful elegance. They may have shared the same mentor in Countess Constance, but Serilda possessed a dignified grace that Carina could only hope to match.
‘There are a few dress designs I have yet to use that would look amazing with her figure. Serilda is what you’d expect a princess to look and behave like.’
“You are far too gracious, Marchioness,” Carina replied as she dipped a curtsey. “This is not my home. Though I am delighted to see you again.”
“Oh, but you are too humble, my dear.” Serilda’s smile widened as she circled the tea table and grasped Carina’s hands affectionately. “And do call me Seri. My cousin is so fond of you. I want us to be friends, Lady Maura.”
‘Friends?’ Carina forced a smile. ‘I’m still not sure how much I should trust someone who used something like a sleep spell on me. But I suspect Serilda’s intentions were good, even if her actions were questionable.’
Carina glanced over to where Evelynn set her trembling cup down on its saucer with the expression of someone who had tasted bitter milk. “If you wish—Seri,” Carina replied. “I would be honored.”
“Excellent! Then may I call you Maura?”
“It would only be fair and right that you did,” Carina replied with a nod. “But please, Seri, do sit down and get comfortable.”
“Only if you join me, Maura. Lady Evelynn and I were just discussing my cousin’s unexpected trip to the border,” Serilda explained as she sat down on the couch and gestured to the cushioned seat beside her.
Carina obliged her guest’s request and glanced towards Lady Evelynn, who seemed in no particular hurry to leave them alone.
“The Earl is most courageous,” Evelynn gushed as if their conversation hadn’t been interrupted by Carina’s arrival. “I am certain he will return with good news.”
“My cousin is brave, talented, ambitious, and handsome,” Serilda agreed with a knowing smile as she glanced between them. “Though I hardly need to tell you ladies that.”
“He will make a fine Earl,” Evelynn replied eagerly.
“And an excellent husband, when the time comes,” Serilda smirked over her drink as Evelynn blushed and picked up her tea.
Carina folded her hands and raised a brow discreetly at Serilda, curious as to the real purpose behind the marchioness’s visit.
“Oh dear, we need another cup, Lady Evelynn,” Serilda gasped suddenly. “Forgive me, Maura. I did not expect Lady Evelynn to join us, so I only asked the maid for two cups.”
Evelynn glanced from the marchioness to Carina and offered a hesitant smile. “I’ll ring the servants to fetch another—”
“Oh, but you should go yourself,” Serilda replied quickly. “I’m sure the servants are busy preparing for lunch right now.”
“It’s just a cup of tea.” Serilda’s voice deepened, and beneath its husky, rich texture, Evelynn’s expression relaxed as she stared blankly back into the marchioness’s moss-green eyes. “You can make it yourself.”
“Yes, I—” Evelynn stood slowly with her teacup in hand “—I’ll make another cup myself.”
Carina watched in bewildered silence as the dazed attendant left the waiting room and disappeared down the hall.
“There, now we have a moment to speak,” Serilda said with a sigh as she set down her drink.
“What—was that?” Carina whispered anxiously. “Did you—”
“I learned this sort of trick when I was sixteen,” Serilda replied with a dismissive shrug. “A young girl must know how to bend others to her will if she does not wish to be forced onto her knees. Shallow mortals like Lady Evelynn are simple enough to nudge in the right direction.” She inflected the word with a raised brow and a playful smile.
Carina scoffed, equally mystified and more than a little bit concerned. ‘Just how easy is it to use magic to convince others to do what you want? Would I even notice if you tried that on me?’
“Not to worry, my dear, she is unharmed,” Serilda reassured with a mocking chuckle and a dismissive wave. “By the time Lady Evelynn reaches the kitchen, she will have forgotten why she left us.”
“Then, won’t she return?” Carina pressed, confused.
“Mmm, though I expect it will take her a moment to remember that I am here. So, I will say what I came to say quickly,” Serilda interjected as she leaned towards Carina. “I need you to return to Hawthorne Manor as soon as possible.”
“Is something wrong?” Carina whispered as she leaned closer.
“Is something wrong?” Serilda echoed in a flat tone. “You and my dear, beloved cousin left that shabby foreigner and her shrieking babe for me to look after.”
Carina blinked for a moment before realizing her meaning. “Jade and Benjamin?”
“Is that the wretched thing’s name?” Serilda’s mouth twisted with displeasure. “I’m not good with children, Maura. I can’t stand the sight, sound, or smell of them. That woman and her brat smell to high heaven no matter how many baths they take. And the constant crying—” Serilda drew in a slow breath as she reached reflexively for her temples “—its enough to drive a Saint to murder.”
Carina thought back to the calm, cute infant who had blown bubbles in Jade’s arm and wondered how much of this was an exaggeration. ‘Then again, what do I know about babies?’
“Something must be done,” Serilda continued firmly as she lowered her hands. “I have no interest in looking after some wild woman and her possessed child, and as you know, my Cousin is rather busy elsewhere. Since you are the reason Percy brought them to Hawthorne Manor in the first place, it seems only fair that you provide me with a solution to this—inconvenience.”
“I—I’m sorry,” Carina apologized quickly. “I didn’t think they—”
“Oh, of course,” Serilda’s annoyed expression melted away. “I don’t blame you either, my dear. It was quite courageous of you to stand up to those witch hunters. And charitable of you to take in two strangers off the street—even if you passed that responsibility off on my cousin.”
Carina did not miss the hint of accusation in the marchioness’s words. “But the thing is—” she explained hesitantly. “The Crown Prince has forbidden me from leaving the palace.”
“Well,” Serilda’s tone flickered with surprise as she brushed back her chestnut hair and leaned in closer. “Then it’s a good thing I know of more than one way to get in and out of the palace, my dear.”
Carina blinked in surprise. ‘Was it possible Serilda knew about the secret tunnels? She had been the king’s mistress, after all.’
Serilda glanced towards the door as she tucked a strand of Carina’s hair behind her ear and whispered, “Wait for me at midnight.”
“What? Where?” Carina whispered back, just as the crown princess entered the room, still wearing her riding attire.
“Oh. So it is true,” Eleanora remarked coldly as she folded her arms and leaned against the doorframe with an expression of displeasure. “You’re back.”
Confused, Carina rose from her seat while the marchioness stood gracefully beside her. “Your Highness, Lady Serilda was just—”
“Are you not going to welcome me home, dear cousin?” Serilda interrupted as she stepped past Carina towards the crown princess.
“That would depend on the reason for your return?” Eleanora answered cynically. “Does the Dowager know you’ve left your confinement?”
Serilda’s smile faltered as she tilted her head and studied Eleanora’s dusty apparel of a jacket, pants, and muddy boots. “Your tone is most unkind, cousin. I should think you’d be happy to have someone else in your corner who wishes to see the Dowager fall.”
“I’d rather not have such an unstable ally anywhere near my corner,” Eleanora said scornfully as she narrowed her amber eyes. “I think it best you return to whatever shelter the family has provided you with and stayed out of my affairs.”
Serilda lifted a sculpted auburn brow and shook her head. “Very well, I’ll leave if you like. My business here is concluded in any case. But my dear cousin, your apparel—is it not rather undignified for a queen to walk about trailing mud through the palace—not that you are a queen yet.”
Carina could practically feel the blades hidden behind their words as the two women smiled at each other. Not knowing what history there was between them, she decided it best to remain silent.
“Spare me your lessons in fashion,” Eleanora snorted with a confident grin. “I think you’ll find that I set the trends these days as Crown Princess and the Royal Patron of the Holy Maiden Boutique.”
“Then I suppose I am rather fortunate to have become friends with one of Lafeara’s leading fashion designers,” Serilda fired back with a familiar devilish grin. She stepped back and slid her arm around Carina’s before adding with a cunning smile, “Isn’t that right, Lady Aconitum?”
Carina’s mouth dropped as she stared from Serilda’s victorious moss agate eyes to the crown princess’s confused and stunned expression.
“Lady Maura?” Eleanora’s tone rippled with anger. “You—Is this true?”
“Your Highness, before I entered your service—” Carina explained hesitantly “—I did make a living by selling designs under the name Lady Aconitum.”
‘This is not how I wanted you to find out, but it is my fault for delaying it this long.’
“Oh, dear!” Serilda raised a hand to her lips as her eyes rounded innocently. “Oh, forgive me, Maura. I assumed her Highness already knew.”
Carina pressed her lips into a thin smile as she refrained from countering the obvious lie. ‘I should have realized Percy would tell her. For cousins who have been separated for six years, they are certainly very close.’
Eleanora’s gaze narrowed as she glanced sharply between them. “You should see your guest off, Lady Maura, and then return to your room to rest. His Majesty will be dining with me again this evening, so I will need you at your best.” The crown princess spun sharply and left the room; her riding boots thudded softly down the hall, leaving flakes of dried mud in their wake.
“What a little tyrant she has become,” Serilda chuckled as she smoothed out the laces of her dress. “But still as malleable as ever.”
“Did you have to provoke her?” Carina demanded as she moved to the doorway to ensure they were alone. ‘Did you have to use me to do it?’
“You saw how she treated me,” Serilda replied with a note of skepticism. “I won’t tolerate a half-witch looking down on me—just because she imagines herself a queen.”
“What do you mean?” Carina turned as Serilda draped a shawl over her shoulder. ‘Isn’t it in the Hawthorne family’s best interest if Eleanora becomes queen?’
“Oh, only that it is a long road from Crown Princess to Queen.” Serilda gently wrapped her arms around Carina for a quick embrace as she whispered, “Remember—midnight.”