There was no time to sleep after the ball, so I dressed and went straight to the grove behind Mercy’s training field to clear my head. As I moved sluggishly through my first martial form, the sunlight that had leaked into my heart still glowed just a little, like the sky before dawn.
I threw three punches into the air in front of me, and then drew a deep breath. “You’re falling in love with him, you fool,” I thought.
The wall I had built to protect my heart had also shielded my mind from certain truths. I’d been afraid to examine Hope’s character too closely, but I’d seen no need to because he was nothing to me.
Now I was forced to remember the day we’d met, when Hope had hypnotized the High Priest and had taken a scroll from him. I remembered the tears of relief Hope had shed when the High Priest committed suicide. Soon afterward, Hope had handed a scroll very like the one he’d taken from the High Priest to Brother Lux.
Hope had confessed to committing foul acts in the service to his demons. It was very likely Hope had murdered the High Priest.
And yet, I could not believe that Hope was evil. Every evil act he committed was in the service of others. He was willing to sacrifice himself to save his daughter. He had even put aside his own goals to protect me from my father.
“If I fall in love with him, I will not let that blind me,” I vowed. “I will acknowledge the good and evil inside him.”
I’d been a fool in many other ways. My fear and distaste for court intrigue had made me avoid the games around me. If I’d been less blind, I might have some idea who had started the rumors of my pregnancy. It may have been a jealous courtier, like Lady Innocence, or one of her hundred friends whose names I hardly knew.
I thought of Lady Willoughby, who not only knew of the Prince’s eagerness for a Frey heir, but who had been trying to get Hope an audience with the Prince. The kind concern she had shown for me before the ball made her seem a less likely suspect, yet she was clever, talented at intrigue, and able to shroud her inability to lie in half-truths.
I moved with greater speed, trying to match Mercy as she performed her form in the open field.
Worst of all, I had avoided thinking about Monsignor Pius’s power, except to react in fear. He had made it clear to me that he was a threat, and that even though he couldn’t control me, he could hurt me.
I kicked to the front and then the side, trying to match Mercy’s fluidity. My crinolines, as light as they were, tangled around my knees, slowing my movement.
I took a deep breath and re-focused. I couldn’t fight Monsignor Pius now, and without knowing his true intentions I didn’t know if I should fight him. However, there were things I should do quickly. I needed to turn Lady Innocence from enemy to ally, and reconsider whether there was anything I could do to help Lady Purity. I had too few friends at court. Also, I would need to find a way to keep Miss Taris from falling prey to the coven.
Stop being a fool. Plan and act, I told myself. I focused my determination and sent a flurry of kicks and punches into the air with greater speed than I’d ever managed before.
“Very good,” Mercy called, dropping her form. “I think you are ready to move beyond the preliminary exercises.”
I froze, holding my breath.
“Lady Frey, do you really believe that you’ve been hidden from me? Even if I couldn’t see you, I would be able to hear your clumsy footwork a mile away.”
I emerged from my grove, unable to stifle the blush that burned in my cheeks.
“You will have more room out here than in that grove. Come here-” Mercy said, motioning to the center of the field.
I moved into position as directed.
“Show me your front strike stance,” Mercy said, demonstrating the stance she’d struck at the beginning of her form.
I copied her stance, and she gave me several corrections before we moved on to the next moves. We went slowly at first, and then built speed until I could no longer keep up.
“You’ll need to get this form up to speed before you learn a new one, but you’ve mastered the basics,” Mercy said. “Now, hit me.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Try to kick or punch me. We will spar until you land a hit.” Mercy dropped into a fighting stance and looked at me expectantly.
“Oh no- I couldn’t possibly!”
“Don’t worry.” Mercy tossed her dark hair behind her shoulders. “I’ll go easy on you. You should be able to hit me once before noon.”
I dropped into a fighting stance, feeling impossibly foolish. I remembered the speed with which Mercy had fought Chastity, and the ease with which she’d sprung to her feet after suffering a series of violent blows.
“Don’t you want revenge for the time I pinned you?”
I set my lips into a determined grimace and sent a punch toward Mercy’s chest, but she sidestepped the blow easily and swept my legs. I went sprawling into the grass.
“That was pathetic. At this rate, even if I hold back, we will be here all night before you land a blow. At least you fall well.”
I rose to my feet. “Mercy, I fear you may have mistaken my intentions. I only wished to learn to defend myself. I don’t wish to strike you.”
“You cannot defend yourself if you cannot strike,” Mercy spat. “If you don’t like this, then you may go back to the palace and stuff yourself with cake until the world collapses into war.”
I slid back into my stance.
“So you do have half a brain. I was beginning to wonder.”
I struck again, and Mercy dodged again. This time, however, I didn’t quit. Mercy blocked two hits with such strength that it felt like I’d been struck, but I managed to keep my balance. Then, after growing bold enough to try a kick, Mercy countered and swept me off my feet again.
“Look how graceful you are! What an elegant lady!”
My face grew warm, and I sprang to my feet. I kicked and punched over and over, moving as quickly as I could. I moved forward, trying to approach Mercy from different angles, but she easily pivoted to counter my every move. Finally, I threw a feint with my right arm and followed with my left, and when she stepped aside to counter my fist, I kicked. She caught my leg easily, but my large toe just touched her stomach.
“Well done- that took less time than I thought,” Mercy said. “Maybe next time I will feel it.”
Though the early morning was very cold, I was hot from sparring and drenched with sweat. According to my watch, the cathedral bells would not chime for another hour, so I walked to the little brook on the far side of the rose garden to cool off.
When I arrived at the brook, I saw Miss Taris sitting on the low, wooden bridge and dangling her feet over the edge. She was facing away from me, staring after the brook as it wound its way toward the horizon.
“Good Morning,” I called to Miss Taris. I hiked up my skirts and waded into the brook near the bridge, stopping when the water touched my knees.
“Lady Frey!” Miss Taris said in a startled voice.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, but the stream looked so cool and inviting after my morning exercise that I could not resist. I thought there would be no harm in wading a little, since there is no one around but us.”
“I suppose not. I was just about to leave, so-”
“Please don’t let me frighten you away,” I said. I cupped some water in my hands to wash the back of my neck. “This is such a pretty morning- just look at the sunrise. Stay and keep me company.”
I looked up at Miss Taris and shivered from the cold water as it dripped down my spine. Miss Taris had one leg back up on the bridge, as though ready to flee, but she hesitated.
“Very well; I will stay a little.”
I smiled at her. She returned my smile with a quizzical expression, but said nothing.
“Are you often up this early, or did you have trouble sleeping after the ball?” I asked.
“No- yes… not often,” she stammered. She stared down at her swinging feet.
“Oh look! Do you see the spray of water on that little waterfall by the rocks? What pretty rainbows it makes when the light hits it!”
Miss Taris looked up, and quickly looked down again. “Yes- it’s very pretty.”
“I wonder how the light and water create rainbows. It is very strange.
Miss Taris looked up and stared at me openly, as though I’d grown another head. “Why should it be strange? I’ve seen many such rainbows before.”
“As have I. Light follows natural laws. The glass in your spectacles, for example, bends light and focuses it in a way your eyes cannot. When you study the shape of the lens, it’s easy enough to understand the principle behind it. I can’t understand the rainbow at all, though. It’s a puzzle I’d very much like to solve.”
“The poet Revere said that it is folly to try to read the book of nature. Only the Gods have the wisdom to understand it,” Miss Taris said.
“Revere was a great poet,” I replied, “but he had no more knowledge of the Gods than any other mortal, including you and me.”
“Are you trying to turn me against the faith, like the others?” she said quickly.
“No. Don’t trust my words, because I have no special knowledge of the Gods, either. Use your own eyes and your own judgement.”
“I am myopic,” she said. “Everyone at St. Blanc is either a liar or a fool, and my judgement is so bad that I make myself a target.”
“You are too hard on yourself,”I said.
Miss Taris frowned and narrowed her eyes. “I cannot make you out at all. You seem different from the other courtiers.”
“I’m no different,” I said. “Everyone at court is either a liar or a fool, and I have been both.”
“If that’s true, then we’re all lost. The whole world is lost.” Miss Taris looked down at the brook again.
“If the world is lost, then myopic or not, we should try to find it.”