My senses were oddly acute as I filled the washbasin- the sound of water splashing against porcelain was crisp and sharp in my ears, and the afternoon light glinting off of the water was almost blinding.
I washed my face as Hope had instructed, removing every last bit of makeup until I could see my bare face. My skin seemed much more coarse and brown than I remembered it looking. My lips were pale and chapped.
When I was done washing, I brushed all of the curl and powder out of my hair until it hung dark and heavy to my waist. Then I took off my gown and pannier and put on my plain traveling skirt and light crinolines.
When I was done I sat on the edge of the bed, waiting for Hope. The clock ticked on the mantle, reverberating off the cold, polished marble, floors and echoing through the massive room.
Soon there came a gentle knocking on the door, and before I could respond, Hope opened it and entered.
“My brother is detained, but he will be here soon. Are you feeling any better?”
I stood and went to Hope.
“Is it done?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Then let’s go home. You’ve accomplished what you intended.”
“I’m sorry, but we can’t- not yet. The Prince’s mind is delicate, and I was so angry that I might have been too-”
He stopped talking as I fell to my knees. A strangled sob escaped my throat.
“Grace- I’m sorry.” Hope knelt beside me and gripped my shoulders. “We only need to stay until I’m sure his mind is stable. Then we can leave him to Father Pius.”
I groaned a little through my tears. In my anger, I had forgotten that Father Pius was likely the author of Hope’s plot. Father Pius was now perfectly poised to seize power, and he was dangerous.
But, a dark voice whispered within me, the Prince was dangerous when he held power. Why worry that you’ve exchanged one dangerous man for another, as long as you have your revenge?
“How does it feel?” I whispered through my tears.
“What do you mean?” Hope said, taking his handkerchief from his sleeve and passing it to me.
I took the handkerchief and wiped the tears from my face. “You once called me heartless- do you remember? It turns out that I’m not only heartless, but soulless.”
“You must experience things differently than I do. You must feel things more deeply. You have a soul.”
“I have a damned soul,” Hope said. “And really, Grace, you aren’t heartless. I was being an ass when I said that.”
I sniffed a little, and then looked up into his earnest face.
“Well, yes. You were being an ass.”
I laughed a little, and then I laughed more, feeling as though I couldn’t stop even though the tears still flowed. Eventually even Hope chuckled a little, and he took me into his arms where I could feel the laughter rumbling deep within his chest.
“Hope,” I said when the laughter and sobs had subsided. “When the others try to use magic on me, I feel nothing. When you or Father Pius try, it almost hurts. How does magic feel to you?”
He held still for a moment, and all I could hear was his deep, steady breathing. Then he said, “Magic is hard to describe. It’s intoxicating, like being in a beautiful dream. Have you ever dreamt that you are flying?”
“That is the closest thing I know to the feeling of magic. Magic is as close to heaven as I will ever get.”
“I gave up on heaven,” I said. “I had come to terms with hell, I think, but now-”
“Now you are free,” Hope said. “If it’s really true that you’re soulless, then you aren’t bound by the Gods. You have no heaven to look forward to, but you have no hell to fear. You can’t be cursed, and you can’t be bound by magic.”
“I’m not human, though. I’m a monster.”
“I’m a witch, Grace. I’m hardly in a position to judge you. Even so, you have never seemed monstrous to me, and I’m willing to bet your mother was very much like you, since you don’t resemble your father.”
I pulled away from Hope and stood, going to the bureau where I’d placed my mother’s papers.
“I never knew anything about her, but now, at least, I have her name- Harmony. My father said he’d married her, but she was still enslaved. The marriage, I suppose, could not free her.”
“I expect not,” Hope said, standing. “Her contract was binding.”
“In your research, have you found anything that can break the High Priest’s seal?”
“I’ve only heard of one thing that can break it,” Hope said, “and that is the power of a God.”
Just then there was another knock on the door, and Hope went to answer it as I hastily put away the paper.
Brother Lux, still dressed in his red inquisitor’s mantle, strode into the room.
“Good afternoon, Lady Frey. My brother tells me that you are unwell,” he said.
“I’m feeling a little better. I was just a bit… unsettled after an unpleasant encounter with my father.”
Brother Lux took me gently by the hand and led me to the bed. I allowed him to examine me as he felt my forehead and then placed his fingers on my wrist.
“I hope you didn’t quarrel with your father,” Brother Lux said. He took out a watch and read it as he felt my pulse.
“I suppose I did.”
“Her father is leaving court,” Hope said pointedly. “Before he left, he felt the need to torment his daughter one last time.”
“Did your father strike you?” Brother Lux said softly.
Brother Lux lifted my arm a little, and pointed out a fresh bruise on my inner forearm.
“That is from something different. I fell this morning.” I drew my arm back and pulled down my sleeve.
Brother Lux looked back at Hope, who shook his head in bewilderment.
“You must be more careful,” Brother Lux said, turning back to me, “though I suppose this is nothing serious. Your pulse is slightly elevated, and you are a little feverish, so I advise that you go to bed early. I will give you some cooling herbs to take with a glass of watered-down wine. No hot drinks or food until your fever is down.”
Brother Lux procured the herbs and put them into a goblet, along with some wine. I forced the concoction down and then got into bed. Even so, I found I could not rest. Awful possibilities were racing to the front of my mind.
When Brother Lux had gone, Hope came to me and pressed his hand against my cheek. “You feel very warm. Can I get you some water?”
“I don’t need water; I just need to think.” I sat up and stared down at the silk comforter. “Lately, I’ve seen a thousand ways I’ve been a fool. I can’t allow myself any more mistakes.”
“I can’t think of a single instance where you’ve been a fool,” Hope said. “Don’t work yourself into a fever. Rest.”
“I will rest once I’ve thought this through,” I insisted.
“Very well,” Hope said. He sat on the bed next to me. “I will help you, if you need a friendly ear.”
I hesitated, and then spoke. “I’m afraid I might be the monster from the ancient stories. I hate the Prince, and now that I’ve overcome my fear of him, I hate my father. I want them to suffer for what they’ve done to my mother, and for what they’ve done to me.”
“Hate is a human emotion,” Hope said gently. “I hated the High Priest for signing Prudence’s writ of execution. I hate the church for persecuting my family. I hate the gods with all of my heart, and I’ve sought vengeance.”
I twisted the sheets between my hands. “I don’t just hate. My judgement-” I stopped. How could I explain my error to someone who trusted the man I feared?
“Hope-” I began again, “there is no doubt that the Prince and the former High Priest have wronged many- not just you and me. I know that you and your friends mean to right their wrongs. What do you plan to do once your power is secure?”
“You already know that we wish to avoid war, so it is best to re-unite the kingdoms of Sancti and Aeterna. Once we’ve done so, the Queen will declare herself Empress and free the Aeternan slaves as she did with the slaves in Sancti. Without the threat of war, taxes should go down, easing the burden on the poor.”
“Yes- the slaves must be freed. Is this all?”
“It’s a start. Our reforms will have to be put into place slowly. As much as I would love to dissolve the church overnight, the people still believe, and they will resist any sudden changes.”
I nodded. “Is Father Pius High Priest of your coven?”
“Yes- he is.”
“Does Father Pius agree with you on all of these matters? Does he have any separate goal or agenda outside of the peace and liberation you advocate?”
“He’s never given me any indication that he has another agenda.”
I wanted to scream, but I found that I didn’t have the energy.
“Why do you ask?”
I twisted the sheet so hard that my knuckles turned white. The enemy of evil is not always good.
“I’ve been a fool in a thousand ways,” was all I said.
“You are innocent,” Hope said. He reached out and untangled the sheets from my hands. “Please, Grace- you need to stop. Go to sleep.”
“One more thing,” I said. “Now that the Prince is under your control, what is your next move?”
“I don’t know, Grace- honestly I don’t- but if you trust me at all, trust me when I say we did the right thing.”
There are more than two paths, and often the right choice is the one most hidden.
Why had the wisdom from my books fled me when I needed it the most? Why was it coming back to me now?
“Lie down, Grace. If you will allow me, I will hypnotize you.”
“But you can’t-”
“Not with magic, but I know many techniques of the mind. I’ve tried to use them on you ever since the day we first met, when I sensed your resistance to my magic. I’ve learned that these techniques will only work if you don’t fight me.”
I reached out to grab the sheets again, but he took my hand.
“You’ve given me peace every night since we’ve arrived at St. Blanc. Allow me to give you peace tonight.”
I looked up into Hope’s face, and almost burst into tears again when I saw the pain in his eyes.
“I won’t fight you,” I promised.