The carriage seemed to glide the last few miles to St. Blanc. The road, which wound through a lush and primly kept park, was smoothly paved and well-maintained, and generally said to be the best road in the country.
Brother Lux was sleeping. His head rested against Monsignor Pius’s shoulder, and his hand clutched the edge of Monsignor Pius’s cloak as though in supplication. Monsignor Pius looked down on Brother Lux with a tolerant smile.
Hope read over a letter he had written to Celeste the night before, looking up periodically to view the passing countryside.
Hope eventually broke the silence. “Grace, I have finished my letter to Celeste. Would you like to add a postscript?”
“No, thank you. I’ve already written my own letter, and I shall include it with yours.”
Hope nodded, and looked at his letter again.
The carriage was passing under an avenue lined with fairy-trees. The trees were in full bloom, and the branches met over the center of the avenue, creating a canopy of pink blossoms.
I gazed at the charming scene, half-distracted from the thoughts that swirled in my head. I’d been thinking about the history of the oculist guild that Mr. Filius had written. The story struck me as so fantastic that I half-wondered if it was another test. In a single lifetime, an uneducated man might start a rebellion, or refine the craft they’d been taught, or codify a new mode of thought, or discover the principles of optics and invent a telescope. To do all of these things would take generations. How could a pair of brothers do so much?
The carriage emerged from the avenue and there was a bend in the road. Then, behind a cluster of star-flower bushes, I could see a crystal clear fishpond crowned with a white footbridge.
I thought that the brothers’ story must have grown as a legend in the Oculist guild. Perhaps the brothers had done a few experiments and codified their scientific methods, but many of the discoveries attributed to them must have been made by succeeding generations. I decided to ask Mr. Filius if any of their original pamphlets survived, though I would probably not be able to view them unless I joined the guild.
I wished more than anything to learn the brothers’ methods, so I might refine my own work. I had told myself that I must be cautious, and think the matter over very thoroughly before I agreed to join, but I knew some small part of me had already decided. My mind was already choosing arguments based on the conclusion that I should join. As the carriage wound around the pond and onto the final stretch of road, I told myself that joining the guild would give me the tools to protect Celeste, rather than putting her guardians in the path of more secrets and more danger.
The road was running straight through an intricate shrubbery, and I could see the tops of the famous St. Blanc fountains. Spouts of water danced and glittered in the sunlight, easily visible from a furlong away. The gleaming white palace lay straight ahead, stretching so high and so wide it that looked like the edge of the world.
The inside of the carriage was as silent as it had been all day, but now Brother Lux was awake, Hope’s letter had been put away, and everyone leaned against the windows to look at the palace grounds. As we drew closer, marble beasts with perpetually open jaws lined the road, seeming to guard the shrubbery. I could hear the fountains tinkling like crystal, now. The air was filled with a heavy scent of roses.
The carriage turned off of the main road and onto a path that ran through the shrubberies and past one of the dancing fountains. We stopped in front of a pair of blue and white pavilions. The coachman, dressed in full livery, opened the carriage door, and I could hear the sounds of harp music drifting in the air like the scent of roses. I stepped out of the carriage and looked around, but I could not see a harper nearby.
“We cannot go into the palace in our traveling clothes,” Hope said as he stepped down behind me. “The ladies’s pavilion is on the left, and the gentlemen’s is on the right.”
Hope turned to Mercy. “Please take Lady Frey’s things to the ladies’ pavilion.”
Mercy jumped down from the box and took my top trunk from the carriage without a word. We all walked to the pavilions together, but soon Hope, Brother Lux, and Monsignor Pius turned right, and I was left to walk to the ladies’ pavilion with Mercy.
I turned to Mercy to make conversation, but Mercy met my smile with a dark gaze.
“Yes, my Lady?”
I turned back and continued my walk to the pavilion, repeating the phrase Hope had given me to repeat to myself each morning. I am as good as anyone else at court.
An hour later, I pulled back the pavilion’s door-flap and peeked outside, trying to work up the courage to emerge. Suddenly, I felt a rough shove from behind, and I stumbled out into the blinding afternoon sun.
I hadn’t been obliged to speak to any other courtiers in the pavilion, but several handmaidens had swooped down on me like hawks upon prey. They dressed me in my widest pannier and my gold brocade gown, and then set to work on my hair.
They teased the hair at my crown, and then re-curled the length my hair into a set of perfect loops with a pair of curling tongs. They powdered my hair white, pinned and ribboned it into perfection, and then they attacked my face with powder and rouge. When they were done, I could not recognize myself in the looking glass, or even see the natural blush that must have decorated my cheeks.
The handmaids worked with astounding speed, and before I knew what had happened, I was outside again. Though I was dressed more thoroughly than I’d ever been, I felt strangely naked.
“You should hurry, my Lady,” Mercy said, nudging me ever further from the pavilion. “Lord Frey is waiting.”
“I don’t see…” I began, and then paused. A man in a gold silk waistcoat, with an elaborate lace jabot and powdered hair, was walking toward me. As he neared, I could see, under a thin layer of powder and rouge, Hope’s easygoing grin.
“Oh- I…” I stammered, and then turned away. “Don’t look at me.”
“I look- I don’t know. They painted me. I can’t even stand to look at myself in the glass- how can I face the entire court?”
“Everyone at court wears rouge- it’s the fashion.” Hope took my shoulders and spun me around again. “Look at me. I’m wearing rouge.”
I looked into Hope’s face again. His already pale skin now looked as pale as ice, and his lips were as red as blood. The exaggeration of his natural beauty sent an odd thrill down my spine.
“The rouge suits you better,” I said quietly. “Can’t I wash it off?”
“No one shows their true face at court, Grace,” he said. “This is just another mask we need to wear. Don’t feel self-conscious. You look very pretty- prettier than most of the women at court, I daresay.”
“Don’t accuse me of empty flattery when I give you a genuine compliment,” Hope said. “If you don’t believe yourself worthy of compliments, you will never discern the former from the latter.”
Hope reached out and tipped my chin up. “You are Lady Grace Frey, wife of the Earl of Coteaux. You will outrank most of the courtiers you meet. When you walk into the Prince’s salon, everyone will know that you belong there, and you must not show any indication that you believe otherwise.
Hope took my arm, and we walked toward the palace entrance, where Monsignor Pius and Brother Lux stood in their most formal raiments next to a pair of footmen.
“We will be led to the outer salon, and we will have some time to mingle with the courtiers before we are called to the Prince’s chamber. No one of lower rank will approach you- we must approach them and speak first. There will be some who will be offended if we don’t speak to them, but you can follow my lead, there. After we’ve mingled, the Grand Duchess will take you to the Prince’s chamber. She will introduce you.
“The Grand Duchess will?” I said in surprise.
“Yes- she’s your cousin. Have you never met her?”
“No, I have not.”
Hope paused to raise an eyebrow.
“I assume you’ve learned the correct way to approach the Prince in his chamber.”
“Yes- I was taught basic court protocol from my dancing master,” I said. “I never knew why.”
“You are a Lady, and you were destined to take your place in society. Even if your father neglected you at home, he did plan for your future.”
I was left to think this statement over as we joined Monsignor Pius and Brother Lux.
The Monsignor, followed closely by Brother Lux and flanked by two liveried footmen, led the way into the palace through the grand vestibule, which was filled with marble columns and a marble floor so polished that it looked like glass. The Monsignor’s scarlet cloak brushed the marble floor, making him look like he was gliding. He seemed to lead our party with all the pomp and circumstance of his upcoming coronation.
We walked quickly toward the salon, and yet the palace was so vast we seemed to move slowly. Everywhere I looked I saw marble statues dedicated to the gods and portraits of past princes and kings framed in gold. Above, on a ceiling so high it seemed to touch the very sky, frescoes of clouds and angels and stars all mingled together in an oddly chaotic representation of cosmic order.
We had hardly stepped foot in the salon when a tall, thin woman in blue silk, draped all over with lace, stepped forward to meet us. The courtiers all stepped aside to make way for her panniers, and curtsied deeply as she passed.
Monsignor Pius and Hope bowed, as well. Brother Lux and the footmen seemed to have disappeared entirely.
The woman nodded to Monsignor Pius and Hope, and then looked at me. I curtsied deeply, trying not to blush under her appraising gaze.
“This must be my young cousin,” the woman said to Hope.
“Your Grace, may I present my wife, Lady Grace Frey, Countess of Coteaux. Lady Frey, this is Lady Piety Fairfax, The Grand Duchess of Aeterna.”
The Grand Duchess nodded to me, and I curtsied again.
“His Royal Highness has been waiting. Please, follow me,” the Duchess said. Without any further preamble, she turned and led the way to the Prince’s chamber.