Hope led me into the adjacent dressing room, behind the wardrobe where his trunks were stowed. He dragged the bottom trunk forward and undid the latches. When Hope opened the trunk, it appeared empty, but he removed the trunk’s satin lining and then lifted a false bottom, revealing a hidden compartment.
He took out a large silver locket, embossed with an eagle, and held it out to me by its ornate chain.
“Have you ever seen Prudence’s likeness?”
“No- I have not.”
Hope nodded encouragingly, and I pressed the latch to open the locket. Inside, there was a miniature of a woman with blue eyes and a wild tumble of red hair. She was crowned with bluebells, and she he did not sit in the proper posture of a young lady, but leaned forward, seeming almost to laugh.
“She’s beautiful,” I said.
“She was beautiful then,” Hope said, taking the locket back. “When this likeness was taken she was just a girl, and she was still happy. She loved me as I loved her, and that was enough.”
Hope closed the locket and placed it back into the trunk.
“A year after that likeness was taken, our fathers went to the bishop and sought permission for Prudence and I to marry. The bishop denied our petition. At the same time, my brother came to me with his monsignor to offer me a place in the coven. Prudence and I wished to fight the corrupt forces that had damned our families, and who were now keeping us apart, so we both agreed to join. We believed that we had nothing to lose, but we were wrong. There is always a price for power.”
“The curses,” I said.
Hope put a finger on his chin and looked up in thought. “The curse is one price, but there is another. The costliest price of power is the obligation to wield it.”
Hope sat down heavily beside the trunk and placed his chin in his hands, as though in exhaustion. I knelt beside him, my skirts billowing around me like a cushion.
“Prudence found the price too dear?” I prompted him.
Hope nodded, his chin still in his hands. “When Prudence left me, she was no longer the girl in that picture. The curse stole her beauty, and the price- well, I believe that the burden of power stole her smile.”
I wished I could have found words of comfort or wisdom, but I had none. I didn’t understand Hope at all when he spoke about power’s price, and I didn’t know how to ask.
“Prudence and I didn’t quarrel before she left,” Hope said. “She withdrew from the world after she gained her powers, even avoiding her fellows in the coven. She didn’t want to aid us in our spells anymore, but I didn’t care. I brought her to Rowan Heights and promised to marry her, no matter what. I told her that she would always be beautiful in my eyes, and that I wished to protect her. She seemed content. We made love, and the next day she was gone.
“I don’t know why she left. Perhaps she wanted to hide her face since the curse stole her beauty, or perhaps she didn’t believe she could escape her own powers while she remained by my side. I suppose I will never know.”
“I’m sorry-” I began.
“No, Grace, I’m telling you this so that you might understand. This occurred 11 years ago, and even though I still love her- I will always love her- our story has ended. I offered my love to her, but she chose to leave. Of course I wish that we’d been able to marry, and that we could have raised our child together, but I’ve come to terms with what is. Prudence is gone, and I have mourned her.”
Hope leaned forward and took my face in his hands. He kissed me slowly, lips touching lips- wet and soft and real. He broke the kiss and looked into my eyes.
“I’m ready to love again, Grace, if you will allow me.”
I looked down, unable to meet his earnest gaze.
“You once compared me to her. You said I was ugly and spiritless…”
Hope sighed. “Don’t remind me of what I said that day. It was the anniversary of her death. I was grieving and hopelessly drunk. Since that day, I’ve grown to understand who you are. The more I see of you, the more I like.”
Hope was sincere; I could no longer doubt his feelings. There was no artful flattery and no flirtation. He’d laid his heart at my feet. Even so, my habit of flinching away from his honeyed words would not stop.
“Grace? Please look at me. How do you feel?”
I looked up into Hope’s face, again. His beauty was striking, and I was suddenly very aware that I was just an awkward girl in clownish makeup.
“I don’t know how I feel,” I said. “I must have time to think.”
“You don’t think about love, Grace. You either feel it, or you don’t.”
“But I must- I know nothing of love. I don’t understand how I feel at all.”
Hope didn’t say anything. He took me into his arms, resting his cheek on my head, and we sat together in silence until morning.
The next morning, I sat alone in prayer.
I didn’t know to whom I prayed. I was in the still-empty chapel, kneeling in front of an ornate, high-backed pew. My eyes were focused on the massive symbol of Order, which dominated the wall before the altar, but Order was not the god I needed. Reverence seemed more appropriate, but still was not right. Chastity was precisely the god I did not need.
I needed a human god- one who could see into my heart and see where it was malformed.
“Why can’t I let myself love him?” I prayed.
I closed my eyes and, as I could think of no god to petition, sought the answer myself.
When I’d first met Hope, I’d feared him. Later, I condemned him as a sinner and a witch. Now, morally, I was no better than he was. I was damned- I had entered into contract with a witch, promising to keep his secrets. Still, some part of myself- a part I wanted to label a hypocrite- could not respect him even though I desired him.
Hope and I both wished to liberate our world, but I could not ignore the difference in our methods. Hope manipulated people’s minds against their will, and I suspected that he’d killed. These were not things I could condone. I wondered if I could continue to go along with his intrigues and still gain the virtues that would make me worthy to join the Oculist Guild.
Courage, curiosity, and equality- were these virtues I saw in Hope? He was not an evil man. I knew that he committed his evil acts to protect those he loved, and to fight a corrupt power.
I was wise enough to know that if I held out for perfection, I would live a lonely life. The problem was, the happiest moments in my life had all been lonely ones. I realized, with chilling clarity, that I could live alone and be happy in my own way.
I was brought out of my reverie by a creaking door, followed by the sound of footsteps.
“Please,” Miss Taris said in a small, plaintive voice from far behind my pew. “Have you no words of guidance? I depend on you for council.”
The footsteps stopped, and Brother Lux’s warm voice replied.
“Miss Taris, you have no reason for such despair. Sir Montag is a kind-hearted man who can provide you with ample financial support. With your father’s title and Sir Montag’s wealth, you will be secure for the rest of your life.”
“But-” Miss Taris’s voice faltered, and then she seemed to rally. “Isn’t love more important than security?”
“If love provides you comfort, then yes. Are you distressed because you love another?”
“No- there is no one,” Miss Taris said.
“Then you have every reason for joy. Marry Sir Montag now, and love will come later. If you obey your father, the Gods will bless you.”
“I- I think I understand,” Miss Taris said.
“Good girl. Now, dry your eyes, and smile for me.”
“Yes, Brother Lux. Thank you for your council.”
I sat, trapped behind the pew. My cheeks were burning from the embarrassment of having heard such a private conversation, and I dare not stand and expose myself. I held my breath as footsteps retreated, and the door creaked open and shut.
“Thank you for your council,” Miss Taris said in a stronger voice. “But I will never marry Sir Montag.”