I never completed my journey to the drawing room. I was met halfway by Hope, who was leading Captain Goode, along with a small party, back out toward the garden.
“Grace, here you are,” Hope said jovially. “Friends, may I present my bride, Lady Grace Frey.”
I was unable to curtsey, or engage in any other formalities. The party barely paused in their walk to mutter “how do you do,” and I was swept up in their merry pace to the garden.
When we reached the garden door, I looked back down the hall to see that Chastity had taken Celeste’s hand, and was leading the little girl upstairs. I muttered an excuse to Hope, and hastened back to Chastity.
“Excuse me, but may I ask which room you’ll be giving to Celeste?”
“I will put her in the old nursery, which is quite near your room. Mercy has already taken Miss Goode’s valise there.”
I winced at the mention of a single valise. Had Captain Goode really brought her to stay here with so little?
“If Celeste needs anything tonight, look in my green trunk. It’s full of my childhood things, and there must be some books and clothes that will suit a girl her age.”
I leaned in and whispered, “there’s also a doll with gold hair, in very good condition, that she may like.”
“Yes, Lady,” Chastity said.
“Make a list of everything she still wants, and I’ll look over it tomorrow.”
Chastity made a small curtsey. “Thank you, my Lady.”
Celeste looked imploringly up at me as she was led away, and I felt stab of guilt when I thought of Celeste all alone in a strange home. I was unable to do more, though, because Hope had followed me back down the hall. He smiled, offered his arm, and led me back toward the garden- now I was compelled by duty to play hostess to his guests.
The party had seated themselves in wicker chairs in the shade of the acacias. Beside Captain Goode was a beautiful woman of about thirty, with long black curls she wore loose around her shoulders as though she were a little girl, and whose face was painted heavily with powder and rouge. She stared at me with wide expressionless eyes, which gave her the aspect of a porcelain doll.
A man, just as finely dressed as the woman, sat nearby. His eyes sparkled as he bowed to me. I curtseyed back to him, and then my eyes were drawn to the elderly woman who sat closest to the tree, dressed all in black. I guessed that she was the dowager Mrs. Auber, whom Celeste had said ‘knew things.’
“Welcome to our little circle,” the old lady said.
The trees rustled in the breeze, and the sound was joined by the lilting tones of music. The painted Lady had placed a lute on her knee, and she was idly strumming it.
“My Lady, may I present Mrs. Auber,” Hope gestured to the old woman, “and Lord and Lady Willoughby. These are some of my dearest and oldest friends.”
The Smiling man and the painted Lady nodded their heads to me as they were introduced, though the Lady did not pause in her strumming.
“Well, Frey, you have a charming bride,” Captain Goode said, mopping sweat from his brow with a handkerchief. “I wish you all the best for the future.”
“Speaking of the future,” Lady Willoughby said in a low voice, “Mrs. Auber, you must tell the bride her fortune. New brides are often anxious about the future.”
“Oh, I shouldn’t. My father doesn’t approve-” I cut myself off, my cheeks burning with embarrassment, when the others burst out laughing.
“You are a woman, now. You needn’t worry about your father, as long as your husband doesn’t object.” Lady Willoughby stopped strumming and leaned toward me. “And you shouldn’t listen to your husband’s objections, if you don’t feel like it. Men can be fools.”
“Lady Frey is free to do as she likes,” Hope added, “though I must admit, I’m as curious about our future as she must be.”
All eyes turned to me, and I nodded, ready to agree to anything.
The air seemed unnaturally still and quiet as Mrs. Auber beckoned me to come near. Since Lady Willoughby’s song had stilled, the breeze seemed to have stilled as well. Captain Goode wiped his forehead again as he stood to offer me the chair closest to Mrs. Auber.
“Give me your hand, child. No- your left one. Let’s see what we have here-”
Mrs. Aubert took my hand in her own thin, wrinkled one and leaned very close to look- her heavy jewels clinking together as she moved.
“Curious,” she said.
She didn’t speak for a long time. She turned my hand over and over, looking at the palm, the wrist, and then turning it to look at the side near my pinky.
“Well? Don’t keep us in suspense,” Lady Willoughby said.
“I’ve never seen a palm like yours, my dear,” Mrs. Auber said at long last. “Your skin is very smooth and fair, like a new sheet of white paper.”
“I could have told you as much,” Hope laughed.
“There’s only one thing to do with a new sheet of paper,” Mrs Auber continued. “The fates have left you with a unique opportunity; you must decide what to write in the book of your own future.”
“Good advice for anyone,” Hope said. “Though I wish the fates would treat the rest of us in a similarly neglectful fashion.”
At that moment, a gong rang out, echoing through the evening air and through the hills around us.
“That is the bell for dinner,” Hope said. He rose and offered me his arm.
The others rose, and Captain Goode stuffed his white handkerchief back into his pocket. “My apologies, old friend, but I cannot stay for dinner. Duty calls me away- I must reach the barracks this evening. I only came to deliver my charge, and to give you this.”
The Captain drew a glass phial from his pocket and handed it to Hope.
“For your sleep problem- two drops with your evening tea should suffice. If this tincture works, write to me, and I will make more.”
“Thank you, my friend.” Hope grasped Captain Goode’s hand earnestly. “Thank you for everything. And- I’m sorry.”
Captain shook his head. “You have no reason to be- seek justice instead of wallowing in guilt. Until we meet again.”
Captain Goode turned back and bowed to the party, and then left.