Chapter 58: A Vision of Ghosts
Carina knew she was ill before she opened her eyes the next morning. Her throat was hot and dry while the bed sheets wrapped around her were cold and damp. A headache greeted her the moment she raised her cheek from the pillow and peeled her eyes open. Nauseating vertigo soon followed as she struggled to dress and tidy her hair.
The room still smelled of vomit despite her best efforts to clean late last night. What lingering strength Carina had gained from a few hours of sleep quickly faded by the time she tightened the laces of her first shoe. She promptly abandoned any thought of changing her sheets as she fought back another wave of nausea and pulled on her last shoe.
“Damn it, why now?” Carina grumbled as she grabbed a clean shawl from her closet and stumbled over to the door.
Tilly waited just on the other side and lowered her raised hand quickly. “Oh! Good morning! Mrs. Poppy sent me to—” she trailed off as she focused on Maura’s face and sniffed the air from the room tentatively. “Oh—Oh dear me, Lady Maura!”
A cool hand pressed against Carina’s damp bangs, and she blinked as Tilly retreated further still.
“You had better stay inside,” Tilly whispered worriedly. “You look ready to fall over at any moment as it is. I’ll let Mrs. Poppy know you aren’t feeling well!”
“No, I—” The coarseness of her voice made Carina grimace.
“I’ll bring up some warm honey tea and a light breakfast in just a moment,” Tilly replied, already heading towards the stairs.
Carina left her door slightly ajar with a defeated sigh and—not caring to return to her damp sheets—collapsed into the chair beside her writing desk to wait.
“Lady Maura, what are you doing out of bed?” Mrs. Poppy’s sharp voice jolted her awake as Carina nearly fell off the corner of the desk.
‘Augh—when did I fall asleep?’
“Sorry—what time is it?” Carina mumbled as she rubbed her neck. The heat in her throat seemed to have spread throughout her body. Although the headache from before had faded, a dull ache remained behind her tired eyes that left her vision slightly unfocused. Dark shadows filled the corner of the room and seemed to loom towards her every time Carina raised her gaze from the desk.
“Tilly told me you weren’t feeling well,” Mrs. Poppy replied. “I can see that she was right. Goodness, and your mattress is soaked. This—smell—Tilly!”
Footsteps entered the room as Carina leaned against her hand tiredly, struggling to keep her eyes open.
“Fetch a few more maids. We’ll have to change the mattress. Bring up a mop and bucket as well and an extra privacy pot.”
“Yes, Mrs. Poppy.” Tilly quickly dashed back outside. Carina jumped as the bedroom window slammed open.
“Now is hardly the appropriate time for you to fall ill, Lady Maura,” Mrs. Poppy announced grimly as she circled the room, allowing the cool draft of morning air to fill the space behind her.
‘I know that, thank you.’ Carina cleared her throat and stared at the books on her shelf. The multi-colored spines appeared to waver and slide against one another as her stomach flipped unpleasantly.
“I heard Lady Maura was ill?” Hana’s voice came from the door.
“Best you didn’t enter, Lady Hana!” Poppy said sharply. “Until the doctor has examined her, we can’t be sure it isn’t catching.”
Carina grunted in agreement and sent what she hoped was a reassuring smile towards the door. “I’m fine—it’s just a cold.” Her gaze caught on the strange glow of light that seemed to outline Hana’s figure as the older attendant swept past the housekeeper towards her.
“I’m more resilient to common illness than you know, Mrs. Poppy,” Hana remarked confidently as she leaned over Carina. “You have a fever, Lady Maura. You should be in bed.”
“The bed needs changing. The mattress and sheets are soaked,” Poppy explained with a hint of annoyance.
“Then Lady Maura can rest in my room until a fresh mattress and blankets have been prepared for her,” Hana replied adamantly.
“No—that—” Carina protested, but Hana was already pulling Carina firmly to her feet. Vertigo returned, as did the painful twist in her gut, yet the comforting touch of Hana’s hands soon chased the worst of these symptoms away.
“Lean on me, Maura. That’s right. We’re almost there.”
‘It would seem the physician and patient have switched places,’ Carina thought numbly as she focused on the tilting floorboards before her.
Carina offered no resistance as the older attendant tucked her beneath the lilac-scented blankets. Hana deftly removed the askew pins from Carina’s hair, and the sounds of a lullaby spoken in a language Carina did not know soon had her eyes drifting shut once more.
The deep pull of sleep swept Carina back beneath the ocean’s dark tide, where another one of Maura’s memories waited.
The sparkling palace walls and floors look different from the eyes of a tired maid, who had spent the better part of the early hours scrubbing dried mud from the marble foyer steps and floor. Maura cringed as the sharp clip of Mrs. Poppy’s footsteps came up behind her.
“Are you still not done?” The head housekeeper demanded. “The ladies will be down at any moment, and her Majesty needs to walk past here to leave for her morning ride!”
“I just finished,” Maura answered sullenly as she gathered up the brush and bucket and rose from her protesting knees.
“But the floor is still wet!” Poppy snapped. “Do you expect the other maids to finish your tasks for you? Or are you hoping someone will slip and break their neck coming down the stairs?”
“No, Mrs. Poppy,” Maura murmured as she hung her head and slouched towards her right shoulder, allowing her tangled bangs, damp with sweat, to fall over the scar on her right cheek.
“Then fetch a clean cloth to dry it—and hurry!”
The sharp-pointed shoes turned back towards the kitchen, and Maura hastily followed, flinching as the bucket banged against her throbbing knee and muddy water sloshed down upon the floor.
The Queen’s ladies-in-waiting were just rousing from their beds by the time Maura finished rubbing the last section of the marble floor dry. She exhaled in weary relief and rubbed her aching back as she willed her legs to stand once more.
“Her Majesty said the Earl will make his return at tomorrow night’s ball,” Lady Meredith whispered excitedly as she followed Lady Evelynn downstairs. “Eve, we will finally have an opportunity to catch his eye.”
“Shh!” Evelynn hissed as Maura quickly ducked out of sight behind the stairwell. “Only with their Majesty’s blessing. We must stay on her Majesty’s good side until then.”
“Well, better us than that awful cousin of his. I can’t believe Lady Serilda had the nerve to return to court. Thanks to her, the Hawthorne and Borghese families are practically at war with each other.”
“Anyone can see Queen Eleanora positively loathes the Marchioness. That woman has a terrifying ability to turn men’s heads,” Evelynn agreed with a note of contempt, “Come we should—” She cut off abruptly just as they passed by the corner where Maura was waiting. “You there—servant, are you spying on us?”
Maura blinked and raised her gaze timidly to the violet fan clutched tightly in Evelynn’s hand.
“Oh—her,” Meredith wrinkled her nose. “I thought they finally got rid of that awful creature.”
“I was moved—I clean at night—” Maura stammered.
“Then what are you doing standing about in the daylight?” Evelynn cut in impatiently.
“Mud—on the floors—”
“The floors?” Meredith glanced down with a dismissive snort. “Is that why they looked so tacky?”
“Did you scrub them with those grimy rags you’re wearing?” Evelynn scoffed. “Next time get up earlier and be done with your work before the sun comes up. No one wants to see that awful face of yours—”
“Or smell you, for that matter.”
“—first thing in the morning,” Evelynn finished. “Now go! Shew! Before you make us lose our appetite.”
“Is there a problem, Lady Evelynn?” Hana asked coldly as she glided down the stairs towards them. “Why are you harassing the staff? You were sent to fetch her Majesty’s breakfast.”
“We were—we are—” Evelynn pushed Meredith past Maura towards the kitchen. “This slave got in our way.”
“Maura is not a slave but a palace servant,” Hana corrected with a scornful scowl. “If you have a complaint, take it up with Mrs. Poppy. Do not delay your own tasks.”
“Yes, Lady Hana,” Evelynn replied demurely before she cast a scathing glare in Maura’s direction.
Maura flinched and dropped her rag as the two attendants hurried down the hall towards the kitchen.
“I’m sorry for their behavior, Maura.”
“It’s fine, my Lady,” Maura replied hastily and bent to pick up the fallen cloth. “I am still—grateful to you—for giving me a position here.”
“Are you getting much sleep?” Hana pressed worriedly. “Mrs. Poppy said it was easier for you to clean in the evening, but why are you still awake this early?”
“The Queen returned late from the hunt—muddied the floor. I woke early—there was much to clean.”
“Oh yes, I see.” Hana glanced towards the now clean marble floor. “Well, you’ve done your task admirably, Maura. Now go get some breakfast and then back to bed.”
Maura looked up in surprise as Hana touched her shoulder. As always, the foreign beauty’s gentle touch seemed to pry past her exhaustion and sealed away emotions to fill Maura’s chest with an aching warmth.
“And do let me know if they keep harassing you,” Hana added with a smile that lit up the marble walls around them. “I’ll put them in their place.”
“T-thank you,” Maura whispered back.
She stared after the golden-haired angel long after Hana had left the sun-flooded foyer. As Maura slid back inside the candlelit servant’s tunnel, she touched the silver bracelet of stars Hana had gifted her on Maura’s seventeenth birthday just a week before. It was the only valuable possession Maura owned, and she treasured it. The hunched maid polished the bracelet lovingly as she wandered back towards the end of the passage and shivered as she walked through the dark specter.
The skeletal king’s red eyes flashed over a malicious smile as his gaze followed behind Maura’s limping figure. He vanished beneath the candlelight as Maura opened the side door and headed past the pantry towards the servant’s back exit.
Carina woke disoriented as the familiar canopy of her bed came into view around her. A snore drew her attention to Tilly, collapsed in a chair beneath the now-closed bedroom window. The glass panes glimmered a fiery pink, illuminated by the setting sun. Carina sighed and pushed herself up to sit.
‘A full day gone—what a waste.’
“Oh, I—must have nodded off,” Tilly apologized as she rubbed dry saliva from the corner of her mouth. “How are you feeling, Lady Maura?”
“Better,” Carina admitted with some relief.
“The physician said you were worn out from not enough sleep—and exposure to the cold,” Tilly explained between yawns. “Have you been sleeping with the window open?”
“I—must have,” Carina muttered as she rubbed her rumbling empty stomach.
“Ah, it sounds like you could use that beef and mushroom soup the Chef set aside for you,” Tilly exclaimed with noticeable relief. “My mum always said a healthy appetite is a sure sign you’re on the mend.”
“Be sure to pass the Chef my gratitude. I’ll have whatever Robbi has prepared.”
“Oh, you got a letter and a package while you were sleeping.” Tilly moved towards the writing desk, where she picked up a blue wrapped parcel and an envelope. “As long as you promise to stay in bed, I’ll bring them over to you.”
Carina raised a brow at Tilly’s threatening tone but nodded her agreement. “Alright. Thank you, Tilly.”
“I’ll be right back with your dinner then,” Tilly replied cheerfully as she placed the items on the blanket beside Carina and headed for the door. “Would you like anything particular to drink? There’s still some of that herbal tea Lady Hana prepared downstairs.”
“That should be fine,” Carina sighed as she lay back against the pillows.
The moment the door shut behind Tilly, Carina sat up, ignoring the faint specs that clouded her vision as her tired neck and shoulders protested. She ripped open the blue parcel and found a blue-dyed leather-bound book lay wrapped in twine within. Carina tugged the binds free impatiently and flipped the book open to where a small carved-out cavity held the two silver hairpins wrapped in a strip of leather. She examined the hairpins’ spiraled ends critically, then wrapped and returned them to the book, which she shoved under her pillow. Discarding the blue wrapping, Carina picked up the letter and smiled at the Maylea Flower stamped upon the upper left corner.
A simple note waited inside.
We have arrived and taken lodgings at Rutenberg Inn on Saddleback Street. The rooms are comfortable, if not a bit loud. Feel free to visit at your convenience.
We look forward to showing you our performance and shall await further instructions.
G & L
Carina read the note twice and exhaled in relief as she tucked the letter between the pages of her new book. Then she glanced towards the rose gold horizon just outside her window and resolved not to waste another day.
‘Turns out a day of sleep was just what I needed. The best time to access the secret tunnel and slip outside unnoticed is after nightfall. I’ll just have to wait for Tilly and the rest of the palace to sleep.’
Carina smiled grimly and lay back against her pillows. She absently stroked the curls of her ash-brown hair as she waited for supper and contemplated the demise of Maura’s first victim.