Chapter 6: A Whisper of Malice
The breeze carried the scent of fragile summer romance that lingered in the rose petals scattered on the carriage seat where Maura’s bouquet had once rested. Percy stared at the mess absently. The Earl’s manicured thumb traced the crevices of the raven’s head carved into his cane as Percy contemplated the lecture his cousin’s lover had just given him.
“You should keep your distance from Lady Maura.” Hana’s turquoise eyes flashed with protectiveness as she continued to whisper fiercely. “You are already the subject of unfavorable rumors given your misconduct towards Lady Evelynn.”
“What rumors?” Percy asked sharply.
“That you broke your engagement to Lady Evelynn on account of another woman,” Hana explained in a reproachful tone.
“What?” Percy drew in a sharp breath as he carefully muffled their conversation with another wind barrier.
‘Maura had finally lowered her guard. Where were these ridiculous rumors coming from?’
“I am not—nor have I ever been—engaged to Lady Evelynn, officially or otherwise!” he growled impatiently.
‘How many times do I have to repeat this to make people listen?’
Hana raised a cynical brow as she studied his restrained expression. “Well, only you and Lady Evelynn know the words spoken between you,” she replied without a flicker of sympathy. “But until these rumors are extinguished, do not drag Maura into your mess. She has more than enough adversity to overcome without you tarnishing her reputation.”
“As if that orphaned Zarus slut has any right to judge me or speak Maura’s name so intimately,” Percy muttered as his grip tightened around the cane. ‘But something must be done about these rumors.’
The first person who might benefit from battering Percy’s reputation would be the Dowager. After all, she and the Countess had hoped to weaken Percy’s hold over the witch covens by marrying him to a noble family without a drop of witch blood.
Percy scoffed. ‘As if the House of Hawthorne could be crippled so easily.’
But Percy could not discount Viscount Hendrix or Lady Evelynn either. They had been deluded enough to think they could pressure him into marriage by appealing to the Countess. Perhaps they were desperately hoping that public opinion would force him to accept the Dowager’s will.
‘If I am publically disgraced, my seat at the House of Lord’s will be in jeopardy.’
His mother would never willingly weaken the Hawthorne’s name or reputation. And in any case, Countess Constance was safely locked away in a carefully guarded country estate. According to the latest crow intelligence, she was already suffering a painful withdraw from the aconitum herb.
‘Recovering her powers may be impossible at this point, but Mother deserves to suffer for what she did to Father and the covens.’
And yet, despite the Countess’s sudden trip to the countryside, Percy could not deny that Constance still held considerable influence, especially among the wives of the Aristocratic Lords. The blood and bones of the Aristocratic Party itself, however, had been all too eager to welcome Hawthorne’s male heir as their leader the moment Percy came of age and freed himself from the Countess’s clutches.
Percy crossed his arms and sighed. The answer to this riddle was all too easy to guess. All he had to do was consider who had the most to gain or lose if his engagement fell through, and that was Lady Evelynn herself. Even if the Dowager was secretly providing her with support and encouragement, Lady Evelynn was its likely source.
Judging by the way the detestable girl had thrown herself upon him in front of Eleanora, Evelynn was clearly desperate to keep the engagement intact.
‘But why is she so desperate to link herself to me? I am not the only Earl in Lafeara. The son of a Marquess would raise her status even further. Even the son of a Viscount will be a suitable match if their family is connected to the ruling government.’
Eleanora’s reaction to Lady Evelynn’s public desperation had not helped the situation either. His cousin merely offered Percy an innocent, wide-eyed ‘I saw nothing’ smirk before she turned and walked away, leaving Percy to disentangle himself from her attendant.
The very memory of that awkward, disturbing moment made Percy scrape a thumb across his lips as if to remove the stain. ‘Perhaps it would be worth using words of cunning to convince Lady Evelynn to give up this foolishness.’ The Earl’s lips curved into a dark chuckle, and he shook his head. ‘No, that would be letting the bitch off too easy. The only thing that will squash these rumors is one of greater spectacle—a scandal backed with actual proof.’
Percy leaned forward and whispered the words of summoning. The air crackled along the hairs of his arms and neck as dark whispers echoed from within the black onyx gem of the signet ring that flashed an ominous red.
Two crows fluttered down through the open carriage window. The bird’s small, sharp talons and wings scattered the rose petals as they hopped excitedly on the seat across from him.
“Make sure Mother has had no outside contact,” Percy instructed the first crow. “Tell Sister Tsillah to be extra vigilant. The longer the Countess is out of the public eye, the more the Dowager will notice her absence and grow curious.” The dark messenger bobbed its head as Percy extended his hand to the bird, which hopped upon his finger, pecked Earl’s signet ring in acknowledgment, and then fluttered off through the open window.
Percy watched its flight for a moment before he settled his winter-grey eyes on the last crow. “As for you, tell Mercy I will see her at Hawthorne Manor tonight at midnight. I have a feral cat that needs a cage and a heavy stone to see it properly drowned.”
He extended his hand again with a satisfied smile as a plan unwoven before him in the dark void behind the crow’s pebble-like eyes. The bird flinched away from his touch, then cawed apologetically as it obediently fluttered onto Percy’s hand, where it trembled as the Witch King stroked its black wings thoughtfully.
“I have been patient long enough—tell Mercy, it’s time to begin.”
“I’m beginning to think I should apply for a full-time position as your bodyguard,” Stitcher commented as the carriage pulled back onto less muddy roads.
“And how would you justify leaving the knights with one less capable physician?” Carina replied with an amused smile. “In any case, it’s not as if I will have many occasions to leave the palace in the future. It took a death in the family for me to obtain a gate pass this time.” She held up the golden bar she had been examining.
Stitcher scoffed and nodded. “Condolences on your loss and all, but it’s probably best his Majesty doesn’t know you took advantage of getting one this time. The rules of court are different for men and women. I don’t think those nobles will find it amusing that you used a family funeral as an excuse to attend to other personal matters.”
“I hardly need you to tell me that,” Carina replied with a sigh. “An opportunity to move about in the daylight was too good to pass up.” She dropped the pass inside her purse and tightened the drawstrings. “Which reminds me, have you made contact with your friends in Ventrayna?”
“Yes, and finally received a reply,” Stitcher answered as he flicked a speck of dried mud from his trousers. “You were right on the money with regards to the Ambassador’s bad habits—though they appear to be a bit more dangerous than you originally guessed.”
“Oh?” Carina raised an eyebrow curiously. “What have you discovered?”
“The name you gave me belongs to a noble young girl from old Zarus who died five years ago. Her ashes were burned and scattered by the high priest at the Sacred Temple of Kritanta. However, the other name you gave me did enter the same temple during the same year, and then, two years later, was withdrawn when a high-ranking noble daughter chose her as a maid. That young woman then went on to become Baroness of Oplen and has retained her position beside that same noble daughter, who is now the current Crown Princess of Lafeara.”
Carina nodded as she loosened the cord of her court cloak. “You are telling me what I already knew or guessed. Did you find proof of what happened to the original child, Lady Nesta?”
“Lady Nesta and her family were prisoners of war from old Zarus,” Stitcher conveyed hesitantly. “Her people were not well treated by Arius or any of the witches of Ventrayna. They were enslaved, tortured, and slaughtered for sport.”
“And what happened to Lady Nesta?” Carina pressed even as her stomach turned unpleasantly with the knowledge she already possessed.
“Only her death is recorded, along with that of her family. The reason given was insubordination to Ambassador Haemish. Since they were slaves, there was no investigation into the matter, but—” Stitcher slid a hand through his dark hair before he muttered, “—the records did record Lady Nesta as being fourteen-years-old when she died.”
“And Lady Hana was fourteen-years-old when she entered the temple,” Carina supplied as she ran her fingers across the cloak’s tassels. “Eleanora found her after she turned sixteen and retained Hana as a maid.”
“If your guess is correct, and they are the same person—” Stitcher let out a slow breath “—then Lady Hana is fortunate to be alive. For a slave of Zarus to become a noblewoman of Ventrayna—is an unspeakable crime.”
“Hence my concern and your discreet investigation,” Carina replied softly as her hands stilled. “What else have you learned about the Ambassador?”
“As much as I’d like to impress you, this secret club you mentioned involves some of the most powerful witch patriarchs in Ventrayna,” Stitcher pointed out cautiously. “Dangerous men who share a close relationship with either the Emperor or Empress, as well as a sadistic interest in tormenting men, women, and children.”
Carina exhaled sharply and nodded. “Then—can we do anything with this information?”
“Not without exposing Lady Hana’s origins,” Stitcher replied. “As it is, I don’t see how the Ambassador could have overlooked her identity when she became Eleanora’s maid.”
Carina crossed her arms silently. She had been wondering the same thing. “What about Lord Haemish’s wife, Lady Lavinia? Would she be sympathetic, do you think?”
Stitcher sighed and shook his head. “You have to remember, in Ventrayna, as long as the victim isn’t a coven witch, torture, rape, and murder are not viewed as crimes. Least of all when perpetrated on a lowly slave.”
Carina clenched her teeth and nodded. Perhaps her search into Hana’s past had been but a fool’s errand after all. Hana had disclosed this dark secret to Maura during a time Eleanora had distanced herself from her lover because of toxic rumors spread by Lady Rosamund. It was a secret Hana never revealed to Eleanora, the identity of the man who raped her and left her for dead in a stable when she was fourteen-years-old.
The Winter Rose hummed with cold magic beneath her fingers, and Carina looked down, unaware that she had drawn it free from beneath her dress.
“That’s pretty,” Stitcher observed, breaking the tense silence.
“It was a gift,” Carina murmured as she tucked the diamond beneath the fabric of her bodice.
“Speaking of gifts, my Master sends his regards and asks if you have been to Master Iker’s Blacksmith shop for a scabbard yet.”
Carina rolled her eyes and sighed. “I hope to handle that today. Did your Master say when he’ll be returning?”
“He had only just arrived at Ventrayna according to his letter, so I expect he’ll need time to figure out the current situation there.”
Carina shook her head and let the matter go. According to Maura’s past, Ghost would return to Lafeara when Eleanora needed him most. The trouble was, Carina could not reconcile all of Maura’s memories with the tragic death of the queen and all her attendants.
‘I’m still missing pieces of the puzzle, but what piece or who—and does Maura even hold the answer—remains a mystery.’
But Carina was certain of one thing, Ambassador Haemish’s arrival to Lafeara spelled trouble for Eleanora and Nicholas, and most of all Hana.