“There!” Lady Willoughby said as she cut the last starflower. “There are enough blossoms to cover the table twice over.”
I placed the flower in my basket and stood straight, stretching my back and surveying the disaster we’d made of the greenhouse. There wasn’t a single starflower or dew-rose left on the bush; each one had been sacrificed for tonight’s ball, and only bare branches and disheartened leaves remained.
Lady Willoughby had been unrelentingly particular about every detail of the ball, and I’d learned how much work is required for a girl to “come out.”
Rowan Heights has a stately ballroom, and at first I thought all that would be necessary to do would be to engage the musicians, send the invitations, and light the lanterns.
When I mentioned this to Lady Willoughby, she’d laughed such a shrill laugh that our tea-tray had rattled. Then she’d shoved her teacup aside, placed paper and pen on the table, and our planning began in earnest.
The invitations were a delicate matter in themselves. Lady Willoughby had explained that we must invite all of the best families in the neighborhood as well as a few more distant but intimate friends. If anyone were to be forgotten, it would be a terrible slight, and they might be less friendly to Lord Frey in the future. In addition, it was necessary to make certain that we had an exact number of couples for the dance floor. If there were too many gentlemen included, then some young ladies might feel neglected, and if there were too few ladies, the gentlemen might become restless. Everyone who was inclined to dance must have a likely partner, and Lady Willoughby knew from memory everyone who was inclined to dance.
For the guests who did not dance, card tables must be set up- not too near nor too far from the dance floor. The card-players must not disturb the dancers, and yet the card-players would need to see to dance floor to fuel interesting gossip. Chairs must also be set up near the dance floor for resting dancers.
The ballroom itself was ornately designed, with gilt mirrors on the walls, frescoes on the ceiling, and two gigantic crystal chandeliers. All this had to be cleaned, polished, and garlanded with dew-roses before the chairs and tables were even arranged.
Even after all of this, Lady Willoughby had been shocked at the idea of not including dinner. The best meats and jellies were ordered, gallons of white soup prepared, and the table was set with the finest china. Now the star-flowers and the last of the roses stood ready to join the china.
“The seating-cards are already arranged, so all that’s left is your dress,” Lady Willoughby said, taking off her apron and handing the first basket to Chastity.
I turned to Chastity. “Do you need help with the centerpieces?”
Before Chastity could answer, Lady Willoughby laughed. “Didn’t you know? Chastity is quite an artist- her flower arrangements are famous throughout the hill country. You’d only get in her way.”
“Here,” Chastity said, thrusting one of the baskets into my hands. “You may pin these to your dress, My Lady, and …thank you.”
Chastity’s expression was as difficult to read as ever, but I thought I detected some double meaning.
I nodded, thanked her for the flowers, and Lady Willoughby and I returned to my rooms.
“You shall wear the blue satin,” Lady Willoughby said decidedly, spreading the dress out on the chaise to examine.
“Do you think so? I think the gold brocade is much finer.”
Lady Willoughby shook her head decidedly, her tight curls bouncing in agreement. “Oh, no- you must consider how heavy the brocade is. The satin will move much more elegantly when you dance.”
I did not bring up Lady Willoughby’s promise that I would choose my own dress, and she seemed too wrapped up in her plans to listen. Instead, I let her slip the satin over my head and do the lacings. Then she examined my dressing table.
“You have hardly anything in the way of cosmetics, but never mind. It wouldn’t do to cover up your natural bloom. I will dress your hair simply, as well.”
She opened a few drawers, and then turned to me with a frown.
“Where do you keep your jewelry box? Is it locked in a safe, or in your bedroom?”
“I haven’t any jewelry at all. “
Lady Willoughby’s moppet eyes went wider than usual, and she turned to look over my dressing room, which was full of sumptuous gowns, once more.
“Surely you have something- a trifle that belonged to your mother, perhaps?”
“No- I don’t have anything that belonged to Mother.”
“Oh, my darling,” Lady Willoughby said. “I am sorry. Please forgive my careless words.”
“It’s alright, Lady Willoughby- really,” I said. “I never knew her, so it’s not as painful as it might have been.”
Lady Willoughby patted my hand, and led me to the dressing table without another word.
She turned up my hair, artfully arranged star flowers in the stray curls around my face, and then painted my lips with the barest hint of rouge. As she worked, I let my mind wander.
It had never seemed strange to me that I had none of my mother’s things. My father rarely gave presents- even on Chaosmas eve- and he never spoke about my mother. He had taken pains to engage refined governesses for me, and had given them enough money to dress me well, but I’d never been given any jewels- not even the holy symbol of Order.
Hope had told me, shortly after my marriage, that my dower had been substantial- enough to grant me an affluent independence. But my father had never mentioned that I was entitled to any money until just before my wedding.
Perhaps, I thought, I was growing more paranoid under Hope’s roof. It seemed as though my father were trying to maintain my station in life while actively keeping wealth out of my control. Given what I knew of my father’s manipulations, I could not dismiss the theory lightly.
Lady Willoughby was just putting the finishing touches on my dress when there was a knock on the door.
“Come in, Mercy. You can put Lady Frey’s dance card on the table,” Lady Willoughby said absently.
The door opened, and Hope entered.
“Go away! You aren’t wanted, here,” Lady Willoughby said, shooing Hope back toward the door. Then she caught Hope looking in my direction, and placed her hands over his eyes.
“You mustn’t see Lady Frey until she enters the ballroom, or the effect will be lost.”
“It’s alright,” I said quickly. “I’m nervous enough as it is. I don’t want there to be a fuss about my entrance.”
“I’m afraid that can’t be helped,” Hope said, deftly stepping around Lady Willoughby and then bowing toward me. “You are so lovely tonight that as soon as you enter the ballroom, it will be alive with admiration.”
I could feel my face go hot, and I was about to protest, but Hope put his finger to my lips.
“It’s no good to protest,” he said. “I must, and shall, exercise all of my courtly manners, both in the ballroom and…”
Hope’s voice trailed off, and he looked at Lady Willoughby.
“I suppose you want me to leave you alone?”
“If you would be so kind-”
She sighed, and then threw up her hands. “You’ve already seen her. Mind that her hair and dress don’t become spoiled before she makes her entrance.”
Hope bowed to her, and she left the room in a huff.
When we were alone, he lowered his voice.
“One of our early guests, a Viscount from the lowlands, came here directly from the palace at St. Blanc with a message from Prince Hadrian. The Prince is overjoyed at the news of our marriage, and wishes for you to be presented at court.”
With those words, the little bundle of nerves that had sat in my stomach all afternoon seemed to explode.
“This is a high honor,” Hope said. “However, I see the danger as clearly as you. The timing of the Prince’s invitation is auspicious. We must be careful to hide our true faces, and play the courtly game.”
I had to swallow twice to make my throat able to speak. “What about Celeste? She cannot go with us.”
“No, she cannot. Fortunately, the negotiations with Sancti are stalled- the new High Priest has not yet arrived at court.” Hope smiled considerably at this. “Therefore, Captain Goode may stay at Rowan Heights to protect her.”
“How long will we stay?”
“It’s impossible to escape the palace before you’ve stayed a month or two,” Hope said. “There are always people you must be presented to, balls you must attend, and lovers you must disappoint. If everything goes to plan, we can return by the equinox.”
I stood and began to pace the room, trying to shake the tremors from my arms and legs. “Hope- how bad is our situation? Can we convince the Prince of our innocence? Can I play my part?”
Hope laughed. “Of course- it will be easy. We’ve already won, Grace. The new High Priest has been elected at last, and he’s one of us. The Prince doesn’t suspect him in the least. All we have to deal with is your father, who is losing favor with the Prince.”
I spun around and stared at Hope. “The new High Priest- he is a witch?”
Hope nodded. “Yes- Monsignor Pius and my brother are meeting us at the monastery, and then we will all go to court together. Once Monsignor Pius is coronated, he will be able to sway the Prince to reconcile with his mother. Our nations will be reunited, and then we will enjoy the same freedoms the citizens of Sancti enjoy.
“But,” Hope cautioned, “you must hold your head high, and show that you are not afraid. There are many who would misinterpret shyness as reserve, and awkwardness as clumsy deceit. I believe in you. You aren’t the same woman as you were in your father’s house- you’ve blossomed, here.”
I nodded and took a deep breath, steadying my nerves and trying to feel the truth of Hope’s words.
He took a velvet box from his frock coat and presented it to me. I opened the box, and inside was a circle of diamonds and sapphires, clustered like constellations and draped together with bits of silver chain.
“This is just a token of my appreciation,” he said. “Grace, you’ve treated my child as though she were your own, you’ve sworn to keep my secrets, and you’ve listened to me without judgement. Thank you.”
I could not speak to thank him for his kindness. I sat silently and allowed Hope to clasp the necklace around my neck.
Then Hope stood back to look over my dress, and frowned. “Why, Grace- you cannot enter the ballroom with tears in your eyes.”
And then, without knowing why I did it, I threw my arms around Hope’s neck.
As I danced the entree grave and then the allemande at Hope’s side, I remembered the dream I had about the wandering stars dancing through the night sky. Hope and I orbited like the satellites of Tigris, and made figures with the other dancers through endless, twinkling lights. The music that provided our meter seemed almost celestial. I spun, I laughed, and my feet leapt from the earth up toward the heavens.
Afterward I danced with Captain Goode, Lord Willoughby, and one or two other men who were introduced to me by Hope. Later, when I was presented to other friends and acquaintances, I was too flushed and happy to feel any shyness. I tried to memorize the faces of those who spoke most familiarly with Hope, and thanked each guest for coming with all of my heart.
“My dear,” Mrs. Aubert said to me as she passed. “I was watching you dance and I must say, I’ve never seen little feet so lively! You and Lord Frey move together most elegantly. I lost three hands to Lord Musgrove, I was so distracted!”
“I hope you are able to recover your losses by the end of the night,” I said, “but I thank you for the compliment.”
“I dare say I will recover – I always lose a few hands on purpose so no one will accuse me of cheating,” Mrs. Aubert said with a wink. “Ah! Here is my niece, Miss Charity Milton. Charity! Come meet Lady Frey.”
After a while, dancing and greeting guests began to pass into a blur, so I stepped out onto the verandah to escape the crowd and clear my head. Unfortunately, this turned out not to be a novel idea, and I found myself stepping away from one crowd and into the midst of another. A few couples, in an apparent attempt at privacy, had even stationed themselves in awkward alcoves behind columns and potted plants, with their petticoats and feathers jutting out at odd angles.
I was about to turn back toward the ballroom when I felt someone take my hand, and a piece of paper was pressed into my palm.
I spun around, but the crowd seemed thicker around me. I thought I saw someone with gold hair pass through the crowd to the other side of the verandah, but I soon lost sight of them.
“Grace, there you are,” Hope called from the ballroom. “Come with me- we can make our escape this way.”
He took my other hand and led me across the ballroom, through the side door, and out into the garden.
A cool breeze hit my hot skin, reviving me almost instantly, and as Hope gazed up at the stars, I took the opportunity to slip the paper into my glove.
Hope continued to gaze upward as he recited:
How small we are in heaven’s court!
When we gaze from below,
Yet minds conceive its majesty,
In thought, our spirits grow.
“Lord Aston,” I said, “from his work, On Morality. Do you agree with him?”
“I agree with Lord Aston’s premise that man can judge morality for himself,” Hope said. “I don’t need anyone to tell me that the church’s actions are cruel. And you?”
“I don’t know. Lord Aston stated that minds conceive the heavens’ majesty but…”
I stopped and turned to the east, where Tigris was rising.
“When I looked at the heavens more closely, I found mysteries that even Sir Boromir never attempted to solve. If I could get an even closer look, who knows how many more I would uncover. No one can conceive everything, I think. Morality must be the same- we must always strive to do better.”
“Another hopeless statement,” Hope chided.
“Oh no- I think it’s wonderful. I want to explore as much of the heavens and earth as I can- to unlock more mysteries than I can solve. When I think about it I want to live with such a passion that one lifetime is simply not enough.”
I turned to look at Hope, who was gazing at me with a strange expression.
“Do you not-”
Before I could finish my sentence, Hope pressed his lips against mine in a gentle kiss.
I put my hand to my lips after we parted; they still seemed to burn with his touch.
“Don’t look so shocked,” Hope said. “You are my wife, after all. You are so lovely tonight, and your eyes are glittering with so much life, that I felt you should be kissed.”
Just then the gong rang for dinner, and Hope offered me his arm back to the house.
I could not concentrate on the elaborate meal, nor could I offer anything in the way of conversation to my friends and guests at dinner. I gazed blankly about me, overwhelmed by the sound of chatter, the tinkling of crystal, the scents and the glitter all around me. I needed to think about Hope’s kiss, about our upcoming journey, and about Celeste’s care, but I could not. I could barely keep my eyes open.
My vision blurred a little in the candle-lit room. Lord Willoughby was waving a wine goblet back and forth in time to the music from the gallery, but I couldn’t properly see its outline. All I saw was the reflection of candlelight on its surface growing larger as he moved the behind the candle, and smaller as he moved it to the side, where the candle only illuminated the right side of the goblet’s face, leaving the rest in shadow.
The music continued, and so the goblet continued to sway- growing and diminishing- growing and diminishing…
I stood abruptly.
“Grace? Are you well?” Hope asked.
“Yes, quite well, but please excuse me for just a moment.” I nodded to my other guests, thanked Lady Willoughby, and then made my way out of the dining hall and up the stairs, running as quickly as I could toward my study and my observation book.
I knew, even before I opened the book, that I had solved Lystra’s riddle.