My first evening at the Palace did not end until well after midnight.
Dinner began at 8:00 in a great hall that was almost as large as the sanctuary at Cathedral Lux. Long after everyone had finished their own repast, the Prince did not seem inclined to retire, and no one dare leave the great hall before him. My party sat over half-eaten jellies as the Prince drank, told stories that were hardly audible in the front third of the hall, and sometimes called for music from the minstrel’s gallery.
The gallery was in a velvet-draped box at the back of the hall where musicians played with both talent and taste. The Prince, however, seemed a patron without any real appreciation for the art, because just after one or two verses, the Prince would begin another story, and the minstrels were forced to stop playing so as to not drown out his feeble voice.
After his second bottle of wine, the Prince stood, and the courtiers followed suit. I expected that we would be allowed to retire, but instead the Prince gestured toward my table.
“Our new High Priest has arrived at St. Blanc for his coronation,” the Prince said, raising his glass. “A toast to the man who will crown me King.”
The courtiers all raised the glasses and cheered. Hope raised his own glass a second behind the rest, gritting his teeth as he smiled.
Monsignor Pius, however, took the attention in stride. “You do me great honor, my Prince. I am but a servant to the Gods’ will.”
“Unbelieveable!” Hope ejaculated as he paced around our inner-court apartment. “‘The man who will crown me king?’ The Prince acts as though we have already declared war against his mother. We seemed so close to our goals- close enough to taste! I begin to think that we arrived here too late.”
I put my finger to my lips. I was searching the room- behind the heavy velvet curtains, behind the portraits, and in the closet. Hope paused in his pacing to watch me.
“I believe that I’ve made you paranoid,” he said.
“Miss Taris has an apartment in the outer court, and she’s the sole heir of Duke Taris. Our rank alone cannot explain us being quartered so close to the Prince.”
Hope started, and then rushed to examine every place in the room that I had already searched, as well as a few I’d neglected.
“Damn my stupidity,” he said when he was done, sinking onto a sofa. “I didn’t question such an honored position, and I should have. Fortunately, there are no peepholes or trap-doors that I can see. Still, we should keep our voices low.”
“Perhaps we’re here because of my father,” I said. “He seemed surprisingly close to the Prince.”
“Yes- a viscount has the Prince’s ear. I wondered what he’s given the Prince to earn his favor.”
Hope and I silently thought this over, and then I said, “I wish I hadn’t been so cowed by my father when I lived at Willowbrook. I wish I’d paid attention to his business dealings, instead of hiding from him in my library nook.”
“Your curiosity has awakened, since then,” Hope said. “Even Miss Taris’s situation is not beneath your notice.”
“She’s not an unimportant woman. She’s the only heir to a Duke, after all. Besides, she interests me.”
Hope raised an eyebrow. “Indeed? Among all of the roses of the court, Miss Taris has captured your interest?”
I smiled a little to myself and sat beside him. “It is precisely because she is not a flower of the court that she interests me. I suspect that, when I first arrived at Rowan Heights, I resembled Miss Taris very much.”
“You?” Hope scoffed. “You did have many awkward and skittish manners when you arrived, I grant you, but Miss Taris lacks the beauty and intelligence you possess to compensate.”
“I wonder if we are speaking of the same Miss Taris. She is tall, and underneath her ill-fitting clothes I perceive a graceful figure. She doesn’t have someone clever to manage her wardrobe, as I did before I came to Rowan Heights. I am too fat and round-faced to really be considered pretty.”
Hope seemed about to object, but I cut him off.
“She speaks so little that I doubt you’ve had the opportunity to judge her intelligence,” I said. “Perhaps her silence is why you think she is unintelligent. Once you told me that you couldn’t tell if I was shy or stupid.”
“I don’t recall ever saying such a thing.”
“I’m not surprised. You were drunk at the time.”
Hope groaned and put his head to his forehead. “Oh- yes. Well, perhaps what Miss Taris needs is a gentleman to provoke her anger. You’ve blossomed a good deal since our row.”
I felt a stab of resentment run through me. I wanted to retort that my affection and love for Celeste and the terrifying secrets of my new home had all driven me to change myself. Before I could speak, however, Hope sighed deeply.
“We won’t have much opportunity to sleep, here,” he said. “We should rest while we can.”
In daylight or lamplight, a room in the inner court seemed a great honor. My apartment was much bigger than would ever be necessary for the comfort of Hope and me alone. The carpets were thick and deep, and the bed was dressed in the finest silks. A chain of golden angels danced around the crown molding above the intricately printed wallpaper.
When the lamps were extinguished, however, all of these delights disappeared into darkness, and I was left in a vast, empty cavern. Faint shadows flickered on the walls, cast by the light that leaked from under the distant door. The crystal mantle clock, which I had admired in the light, now seemed to tick so loudly that it echoed in my ears.
Beside me, Hope was still and silent, asleep for the first time since we’d stayed the night in the crossroads village. He clung to my hand as he slept, taking peace from my presence as I lay sleepless beside him.
Try as I might, I could not keep my eyes shut for more than a few moments. They would always open, and my vision was drawn to the sliver of light under the door. After a while, the light seemed to flicker, as though a candle were disturbed, and beneath the loud ticking of the clock, I thought I heard the sound of footsteps.
Then the footsteps quieted and the light grew steady. The room was filled with the strong scent of roses.
I sat up, determined to investigate further, but as soon as I slipped my hand from Hope’s he began to toss in his sleep.
I took his hand again to prevent him from making any noise and listened. The room remained silent, and soon the heavy scent of roses made me feel drowsy.
I lay back and surrendered to the urge to sleep.