The excited murmurs of the courtiers echoed around the salon as Lady Fairfax led Hope and I toward the Prince’s chamber. Lady Fairfax’s steps were quick and purposeful, so we had no time to greet any of the courtiers.
I sighed, remembering Hope’s insistence that we must greet certain courtiers when we arrived. If the courtiers were going to take offence, I thought, at least they would all feel the offence equally.
At the end of the Salon, two young pages opened the double doors to the Prince’s chamber, and Lady Fairfax stepped inside.
Remembering my training, I knelt at the threshold and kept my eyes on the carpet.
“Your Royal Highness,” Lady Fairfax spoke in a resonant voice. “May I present Lady Grace Frey, Countess of Coteaux.”
The room was silent for a time, and then a thin, dry voice spoke in reply. “We are most pleased that you’ve come. You may approach, Lady Frey.”
I stood to curtsy again and saw at the end of a vast, empty chamber a pale, thin man seated on a golden throne. The man was clothed in swaths of silk, ermine, and jewels that seemed to engulf his small frame. He wore a jeweled crown that looked heavy enough to snap his neck. Just behind the throne was an elaborate fresco of the sun, which seemed to halo him in yellow light.
As I curtsied, my eyes were drawn slightly to the side. To my surprise, my own father stood in attendance. He was dressed as a courtier, in a powdered wig and embroidered waistcoat, but his face looked the same as it always had. He smirked at me, as though I had already made some error.
For one terrible moment I felt as though he could see through the rouge- which he’d always forbidden me to wear- to see my sins written on my very face. Then Hope coughed behind me, and the sound of his voice reminded me that I was no longer dependent on my father.
I lifted my chin and approached the throne, kneeling again to kiss the hem of the Prince’s robes.
“Stand. Let me look at you,” the Prince wheezed.
I stood and curtsied again. The prince lifted a jeweled monocle to his eye and examined me.
“She seems to be a very fine girl,” the Prince finally announced, leaning somewhat toward my father. “She has a good figure, and her cheeks are round and healthy. Yes, she will do nicely. And Lord Frey, how do you like her?”
“Your Royal Highness, Grace has been a valuable addition to my household, and she has brought joy to me, as well. I thank you.”
“Good. I look forward to more joyful tidings from the two of you in the near future, regarding the expansion of your household.”
Then the Prince waved his thin arm, dismissing us.
Lady Fairfax, Hope, and I returned to the salon, free to fulfill our obligations to the lower ranks of the nobility. Hope was unable to keep his promise to introduce me; Lady Fairfax took me in hand and swept me away from Hope, insisting that we mingle with the ladies alone.
‘You must assert your independence from your husband,” Lady Fairfax said, “or the gentlemen will see you as a mere piece of furniture. We women must climb a higher ladder to power.”
She took me to the western side of the salon, where a group of ladies stood in the sunlight that streamed through the windows. Their gowns shone and their jewelry sparkled in the sunlight, and their laughter sounded like the ringing of bells.
The ladies curtsied to Lady Fairfax as she approached, but their eyes stayed on me as we were introduced. I thought they must be sizing me up, and I was surprised to see no disappointment or derision in their glances.
“I must confess I am quite in awe,” the smallest young lady, Lady Purity St Croix, said while fluttering her fan. “Not only are you quite beautiful, but so refined! Of course, I’d expect nothing less from Lord Frey’s wife.”
“Oh yes,” added Lady Innocence Dupuy, who was nearly a head taller than her companion. “Many hearts were broken when Lord Frey married, but he couldn’t have found a more worthy bride.”
The ladies curtsied to me again, though I caught Lady Innocence cast a significant glance at Lady Purity.
Lady Fairfax nodded to the two ladies, and then took my arm to lead me to her next target.
“Don’t let the names ‘Innocence and Purity’ fool you; there are few gentlemen at court who are safe from those two. Guard your husband. Now- there is Lord Taris’s daughter hiding behind that marble angel. Her father is a tyrant, and she barely speaks a word to anyone, but she is the only heir to a Duke. If anyone can gain her trust, they will have a great deal of influence once her father dies.”
A thin, awkward-looking girl in spectacles and an ill-fitting but expensive gown caught Lady Fairfax’s eye, and then ducked further behind the statue.
“Miss Taris,” Lady Fairfax said in a commanding tone, causing the girl to freeze in place. “Lady Frey, I present Miss Constance Taris of Lancaster.”
“How do you do,” I said.
“How- how do you do,” the girl said, bobbing an awkward curtsy. Then she looked off to the side, as though looking for an escape.
“Have you been at court long?” I asked.
The girl blushed and made a reply in a low voice.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I- I’ve been here three months,” she said in an even lower voice that I had to strain to hear in the room’s din.
“Miss Taris, do be a sweet girl and give Lady Russe my regards,” Lady Fairfax said. She nodded to Miss Taris once again, and then led me away.
“Poor Miss Taris- Lord Taris has ruined her with his brutish ways. Ah- now here is Viscount Russel’s wife.”
Lady Fairfax kept me occupied in the salon until evening, but no matter how many great people I met, my eyes were always drawn back to the corner of the room where Miss Taris stood alone.