Chapter 5: Tortured and Twisted Grief
It was a sight to warm any maiden’s heart, and yet Sophya had never hated Maura more than when she watched Asher step forward gallantly to defend the half-blood from Lord Artemis’s repulsive advances.
Sophya seethed silently. Ragged nails that she was forever fretfully biting, snagged on the curtain and yanked her tender skin painfully. Her sharp exhale of pain briefly coated the window before her in a ghostly mist. She laughed bitterly as she flung the curtain between herself and the image of Asher sitting on top of Artemis, while another strange man joined Maura’s side protectively.
‘How does she always find someone willing to protect her?’ Sophya wrapped her trembling hands around her waist and glanced anxiously over her shoulder towards the private parlor door.
Sophya had taken refuge from the crowd of nobles outside after giving Lady Florence the excuse that she felt faint. She had also managed to bump into Lady Susan, Artemis’s mother, on her way over and let slip her half-sister’s recent rise in status. “A title granted by the Crown Princess herself, and a bountiful province to go along with it. If only Maura had a suitable husband to help her govern it.”
Lady Susan’s eyes lit up instantly. Artemis was twenty after all—the same age Lincoln had been—and of marriageable age, but as the second son, he could not hope to inherit land nor title from his father. He was also a coward who refused to enlist and far from suited to take on holy robes.
Artemis’s dismal reputation for being less than a gentleman had made marrying him off to any suitable heiress all but impossible. But a half-blood, who happened to have a title of her own—well, Lady Susan had not hesitated to set her son upon this task.
“Tsk!” Sophya muttered as she fiddled with the lace of her gloomy, shabby mourning dress. ‘If only Asher hadn’t interfered.’
The right husband or even a sullied reputation would surely be enough to see Maura knocked down from her recent position.
‘What right does she have to come here and flaunt her title, connections, and wealth? While I’m stranded, grasping at whatever charity my future mother-in-law will grant me and waiting for my engagement to Asher to be officially announced.’
Not that Lady Florence could back out now, Helena had been smart enough to get a legal agreement drawn up and signed before Lincoln’s funeral. Florence had agreed, provided that Sophya sign away whatever marital property or inheritance she possessed, excluding her dowry, to Asher as her lawful husband.
‘Not that I have any inheritance of which to speak. I was forced to sell Turnbell Manor at rock bottom price to cover Josiah’s immediate debts.’
Even the mourning dress Sophya wore was two years old, a smidge too tight, and shockingly close to revealing her ankles. It had been fashionable enough for the funeral of a friend’s family member two years back, but now it hardly passed for more than scraps. Asher had offered to buy her a new one, but Florence had promptly refused.
“The dress is suitable enough. We are already providing Sophya with a safe place to stay. Any more would be inappropriate until after your engagement is official,” the Baroness of Winslet had argued practically.
‘It would be official already if you would just announce it!’ Sophya raised a trembling hand to her lips, and finding the thumbnail too worn down to offer any comfort, moved on to another nail to grind between her teeth. She turned back to the window to check if Asher had returned but found him still speaking to Maura.
The half-blood laughed flirtatiously behind her fan, and Sophya felt her cheeks flush with rage as her throbbing heart spiked with jealousy.
‘She’s making me look like such a fool! Flirting with my fiancé? Does she imagine that I will let her get away with this?’
First Percy, then Acheron, and now Asher and even this goon dressed like some sort of mercenary. ‘I can only imagine how she wraps them around her little witch finger.’
Sophya smiled scornfully, then darted from the window with a gasp as the goon turned suddenly in her direction. ‘Did he—see me?’
Sophya took a moment to catch her breath. She was about to peek through the window again when a sharp rap came from the doorway behind her.
“What on earth are you doing hiding here, child?” Florence asked impatiently. “And do stop biting your nails!”
“Just—resting, Lady Florence.”
Florence sighed and laid the cloaks she carried over the back of a chair. “It’s time you and my son returned to the Manor.”
“Oh?” Sophya felt equally relieved and suffocated. At least here in front of the other nobles, Florence was less strict and vocally disapproving.
Florence narrowed her eyes impatiently. “Well? Don’t stand there like some niddy-nobody. Go find Asher!”
“Yes, Lady Florence.” Sophya dipped around the Baroness towards the door.
“Take the cloaks with you! Honestly, is your head even attached to your shoulders?”
Sophya bit her tongue as she grabbed the cloaks and rushed back into the foyer. Since entering the Winslet household, Florence had taken to using Sophya more like a servant—and used her more often than the resident’s maids to perform simple household tasks.
“She’s just trying to get closer to you,” Asher had insisted. “And this is a good opportunity for you to learn how the Manor is run.”
Her footsteps dragged as Sophya drew closer to the chapel door. She didn’t want to see Asher right now, smiling—or flirting—with Maura.
The archway door opened before her as Asher stepped inside with a distracted expression. “Ahh, is it time to go back already?”
“Y-yes,” Sophya mumbled and quickly handed over his cloak.
“You look upset. Is Mother giving you a hard time?” Asher asked gently as he retreated through the door and offered her his arm.
Sophya hurriedly pulled on her cloak, anything to hide the ugly dress she wore that could not compare to the sparkling black dress Maura had shown up wearing. “Not at all.” She glanced towards the end of the path and was relieved to see Maura’s carriage pulling away.
“There you are, Asher,” Florence called out behind them.
Sophya cringed as Asher turned back to the doorway. “Yes, Mother?”
“Take Sophya back and see to it the chef and kitchen staff prepare enough food for twenty,” Florence said briskly.
“Are you not returning with us, Mother?”
“No, I shall be riding back with Viscountess Hendrix,” Florence answered with a note of smugness. “Sophya, since the funeral is over, could you change into something—a little less depressing.”
“Mother,” Asher growled softly.
“And you should see about setting her up with a maid,” Florence muttered as she turned in the doorway. “She’s practically helpless without proper supervision.”
“Mother, Sophya is grieving,” Asher replied tersely. “Of course, she needs us to look after her—but a maid wouldn’t be a bad idea either.”
“Hmph, a week is plenty of time to grieve.” Florence waved her hand dismissively as she returned to the crowd of chattering nobles inside.
“Don’t mind Mother too much,” Asher said with a sigh as he turned and led Sophya down the walkway. “Father’s illness hasn’t improved, and though she doesn’t like to show weakness, his declining health has affected her mood.”
“Of course,” Sophya mumbled and twisted her trembling hand around the cloak’s fabric.
Asher pulled off his glove and whistled sharply to signal their driver.
“Your trousers are muddy,” Sophya commented, her tone forcefully casual as her grip on his arm tightened.
“Just a bit of backsplash from one of the carriages,” Asher replied distractedly.
‘I suppose I would prefer to hear a lie rather than you admitting that you got dirty fighting on Maura’s behalf.’
And yet, as her hands released his arm on their own accord, Sophya couldn’t squash the fear that slithered down her spine and coiled in her gut. One glimpse of her muted reflection in a muddy puddle at the end of the path told Sophya all she needed to know.
‘I look like a common peasant in this dress—while Maura—’
Sophya touched the curls of her once vibrant red hair and fought against the tears that burned behind her forest-green eyes. She couldn’t look at her reflection without missing Lincoln, the only person who had always taken her side no matter how wrong or unagreeable she behaved.
She missed her brother so much it physically hurt, like acid burning in her chest while her stomach felt forever empty. She even missed his dark, foul moods when he abused the house servants to vent his anger. Sophya hadn’t realized how much Lincoln had meant to her until there was no one left beside her.
“My princess deserves the very best.” Lincoln was forever telling her that. But where was he now—and Josiah? They were both dead and gone, just like Helena, just like Turnbell Manor, just like her old carefree life.
The tears slid down her cheeks unchecked as she smothered a sob behind her closed fist.
“Sophya,” Asher murmured softly as he pulled her hand away. “Don’t let Mother see you are biting your nails again. You know that upsets her.”
Sophya stared up at him with trembling lips as familiar anger flared awake inside her. “Can’t you see I’m the one that’s upset?” she demanded and ripped her hand free.
Asher blinked down at her in surprise, and Sophya recoiled.
‘No, I can’t let him see this side of me. I’m not this pathetic, useless person. I am Sophya Turnbell, future Viscountess of Gilwren. I am destined for greatness Maura will never achieve.’
“You are tired,” Asher said patiently as he wrapped an arm around her shoulders and offered his handkerchief. “If you want to cry, then cry, Sophya. You have every right to be upset, but don’t take it out on your beautiful hands.”
His reassuring, adoring gaze calmed the rising panic in her chest as Sophya leaned into him willingly and accepted his handkerchief.
“Let’s head back, so you have time to rest before Mother’s guests arrive.”
“Do you think the Baroness will let me eat something, now that the funeral is over?” Sophya pouted as they approached the waiting carriage.
Asher chuckled. “She was hardly starving you, Sophya. You know it’s customary to fast while grieving.”
‘Try fasting for a week and see how you feel about it then,’ Sophya almost grumbled aloud.
The weight of her sudden change in circumstances washed over Sophya anew. Lincoln’s death, followed by Maura’s remarkable transformation before the half-blood left Turnbell for the palace. Helena and Josiah’s shocking divorce. Florence’s sudden acceptance of Sophya and Asher’s engagement. And then Lincoln’s funeral—and the awful, horrible nightmares that had plagued Sophya since that day.
The only good thing to come from that fire was the death of Judith and Josiah’s unborn bastard. ‘Imagine being related to the offspring of a slave?’
Sophya shuddered at the thought and rested her head against Asher’s shoulder as the lumbering carriage gently lulled her into a restless sleep and another uneasy dream where dark crows flocked in a circle about her rotting corpse.