“Where do you go each morning?” Hope chided as we squeezed our way through the crowds at the cathedral. “If you had been dressed sooner, we’d already be in our pew.”
“You are the one who is usually tardy for church,” I muttered, but I knew that Hope could not hear me through the din. The crowd seemed even thicker than the crowds at the coronation had been, and we had to force our way through a sea of people to reach our pew near the front.
A tiny note of song, just above my hearing, caught my attention. It hovered in the air above me like the sunlight that danced on motes of dust through the stained glass.
As I drew near the front of the cathedral, the song grew clearer. It seemed to beckon me toward the altar, away from the chaos of the crowd. When we finally reached our pew, the song filled the air all around me.
Brother Lux, dressed in his usual plain, brown robes, was singing the song solo from the second row of the chorus. His song slowed and faded a little, and then the chorus joined in, swelling to a crescendo and raising its voice as one.
The song came to a close, and Father Pius came to the altar dressed in his plain white robes. He motioned for the chorus to be seated.
“I will speak to you plainly,” Father Pius said to the congregation, “without the chorus to drown out my words.
“Lately, there has been too much confusion clouding the order of the universe. Many of you have whispered questions in your prayers- why did our High Priest abandon us? How can we avoid sin amongst the decadence of our age? Will there be war? I take up the mantle of High Priest in troubled times.
“Your confusion stems from a failure in the clergy. You look to us for spiritual guidance, and yet there is a streak of corruption that has tainted the true church. As your High Priest, I vow to discover the root of this corruption and restore order.”
Father Pius turned and gestured toward the chorus. Brother Lux handed his litany to the monk beside him and descended the risers to stand beside Father Pius on the altar.
“Brother Lux, you have served me faithfully for many years, and I have need of your service once more. Will you accept the position of Grand Inquisitor for the church?”
There was a murmur of voices from the congregation- a mere monk made Grand Inquisitor?
“I humbly accept,” Brother Lux said, bowing low before his High Priest.
At these words, a priest stood and approached with a folded red mantle, which he handed to Father Pius. Father Pius accepted the mantle with a smile, unfolded it, and draped it over Brother Lux’s shoulders.
Brother Lux bowed once more, and then he and Father Pius turned to face the congregation side by side, white and crimson in the morning light.
“You’re pious, and such a good wife,” Lady Innocence simpered. “But even you must admit that the new High Priest is handsome.”
Lady Innocence had attached herself to my side as soon as I’d entered the salon, plaguing me with questions that seemed designed to provoke. Her latest question, I was amused to observe, had misfired, and Lady Fairfax turned to Lady Innocence with a disapproving glare.
“For shame! Why- that’s almost sacrilege,” Lady Fairfax said.
“It doesn’t seem sacrilegious to admire beauty,” Lady Innocence countered, “as long as you only admire. What is your opinion, Lady Frey?”
“I am hardly qualified to answer,” I said.
“You must have some opinion,” Lady Innocence said with a catlike grin. “After all, you are well-read.”
“It’s because I’m well-read that I cannot answer. Much has been written on the nature of beauty, the sacred and the profane. Each argument is compelling yet flawed in its own way. You must consult your own heart to see where your admiration falls.”
“Lady Frey, I have such a difficult time getting any help from you,” Lady Innocence said.
She curtsied and turned her back to me, moving swiftly away to the back corner of the salon. I sighed and curtsied to Lady Fairfax, determined not to give up on Lady Innocence.
I followed Lady Innocence through the crowd to find the she’d stopped near Miss Taris and Lord Taris. They were speaking to a young man in a red cavalier’s coat, whose hair was tied back in the dragoon style. The young man was nodding politely at Lord Taris’s words, but his eyes never strayed from Miss Taris’s face.
I drew nearer to hear the man say, “give me your hand, Miss Taris. I long to feel your touch for just a moment. I cannot wait for our wedding day.”
Miss Taris shrank back, but her father turned to her and fixed her with a steely gaze. She faltered, and then put out her hand.
The cavalier bowed and kissed her hand, his lithe form moving as though he performed a dance.
“I have something my daughter made for you as a gift,” Lord Taris said, turning back to the cavalier. “She was too shy to give it to you herself.”
Lord Taris drew a delicately embroidered lace handkerchief from his coat pocket. Miss Taris snatched her hand back from the cavalier with an expression of shock on her face.
“Oh, how pretty,” Lady Innocence said, drawing closer. “Miss Taris, I did not know you were so accomplished.”
Miss Taris only shook her head, her eyes brimming with tears.
I stepped forward and took Miss Taris’s arm. “Miss Taris, I do believe you are overcome with joy. Please excuse us, Lord Taris. Lady Dupuy and I wish to congratulate our friend.”
Lady Innocence cast me an odd look, but she took Miss Taris’s other arm and helped me to escort her from the salon.
When we were safely away from the crowd, Miss Taris broke down and sobbed.
“It isn’t his,” she wept. “How could he…”
I knelt down beside her and handed her my handkerchief. “Please, Miss Taris, try to compose yourself.”
Lady Innocence knelt down at Miss Taris’s other side. “What is the matter?”
Miss Taris removed her spectacles and wiped her watery blue eyes. “I didn’t make the handkerchief for Sir Montag. I made it for Lady Willoughby, to thank her for her kindness.”
“Is that all? Lady Willoughby will not mind,” Lady Innocence said.
“Miss Taris,” I said gently, “don’t pay attention to your father’s tricks. You have a voice- use it. Tell Sir Montag how you feel.”
“Sir Montag doesn’t care how I feel. He only plays at love,” Miss Taris said.
“All the more reason you should reject him,” Lady Innocence said with a sniff. “Or, if you like, I will tell him that you don’t like him.”
“Please don’t. I dread what my father will do.”
“If you’re afraid of your father, then I will speak to Lady Fairfax on your behalf. She has the rank and power to keep him in check.”
Miss Taris shook her head. “Lady Fairfax is one of my father’s creditors, so she won’t help. The only way Father will be able to clear his debts is if I marry someone wealthy. Sir Montag has all the money one could want, and if he marries me, he will inherit a title and gain power at court to go with it. Everyone will be happy.”
“Everyone except for you,” I said.
“Call me Grace; we are all friends here.”
“Grace,” she said slowly, “did you love Lord Frey when you married him?”
“Not at all. We hardly knew each other,” I said.
“Then why did you marry him?”
“I never wished for love, like you do,” I said. “Love was something alien to me. Besides, it wasn’t until after I married that I learned I had my own will, and that my own happiness mattered.”
“So you married Lord Frey because your father commanded it.”
“Both my father and the Prince commanded it, which made it more difficult for me to disobey. But not everyone who obeys ends up as fortunate as I. Only you can decide-”
“I’m not allowed to decide. Anyway- your husband loves you, and that makes all the difference. You are pretty, accomplished, confident- you don’t have to suffer the contempt of your husband.”
“Miss Taris, how little you know of my situation,” I said. “You are every bit as pretty and accomplished as me- more so! If only you would believe that you are.”
“Oh yes- skinny and awkward and bespectacled- I’m a sorry sight at court.”
I took Miss Taris’s spectacles from her hands and put them on. The world became a watery blur around me, but I managed to find the blur shaped like Lady Innocence.
“Lady Dupuy, you have been dying state your real opinion of me, and now you may do so without any social consequences. Compare us- me and Miss Taris- as honestly as you like.”
I took Miss Taris’s arm and helped her to stand.
Lady Innocence hesitated, and then said, “I must say, you look ridiculous in those spectacles.”
“Do I? Before I came to court, I wore spectacles every day.”
Lady Innocence stifled a giggle, which then exploded into an outright laugh. “ Why? I’ve seen you read without them.”
“I like the way they look.”
Lady Innocence continued to laugh. After a time she stopped, finally wiping the tears from her eyes and standing back to view me critically.
“Well, you are both tall, but Miss Taris is taller, and her figure is-” Lady innocence stepped forward to adjust Miss Taris’s gown, drawing in the waist more tightly. “Miss Taris, your figure is very elegant.”
Miss Taris began to object. “But Lady Frey-”
“You don’t have all of that fat pinched in by your stays,” Lady Innocence said, and then slapped her hand over her mouth in horror.
I only smiled and nodded. “Please continue.”
“You aren’t fat, Lady Frey. You’re just more… sturdy than Miss Taris. You have pretty hair and fine, dark eyes, but your cheeks are too wide. Miss Taris has a perfect oval face, lovely blue eyes, and a flawless complexion.”
Lady Innocence continued to play with Miss Taris’s skirt, pinning it into place with one or two pins from her own elaborate pompadour. Then Lady Innocence stood back and looked at Miss Taris.
“Very pretty,” she breathed. “With my help, you would be the most sought-after woman in court.”
Miss Taris looked down for a moment, and then she unpinned her dress and took back her glasses.
“If that is true, I would rather stay as I am.”
After seeing Miss Taris back to her room, Lady Innocence and I returned to the salon.
“Will you speak to Lady Fairfax on Miss Taris’s behalf?” I asked.
“Thank you. I need to petition my father’s help on behalf of another Lady we know.”
“Oh- Lady Frey, will you really?”
“I can’t make any promises with regard to his answer, but I will try,” I said.
Lady Innocence stopped and squeezed my hand. “Thank you. Look- there is your father, near the Prince. Dare you approach?”
“I dare; I am not afraid. And thank you for your earlier honesty. It is a rare thing, here.”
“It can be, but sometimes you can find true friendship among the nobility,” Lady Innocence said, a gentle smile painting her rosy lips.
I curtsied, and then turned to approach my father.
Ignoring court protocol, I walked across the salon and up to my father, who was speaking to the Prince himself. I curtsied deeply, and spoke.
“Father, I apologize for being so bold. I feel obliged to apologize for our recent misunderstanding. May we speak in private?”
My father stopped speaking and stared at me with a stunned expression. Then he smiled thinly, exchanging glances with the Prince.
The Prince stepped forward, and I curtsied even deeper. He took my hand, bringing me back to my feet.
“How pleased I am to see you,” he said. “I’ve not yet thanked you for our dance.”
“The pleasure was all mine, your Highness,” I said.
The Prince linked my arm in his. “Walk with me, my dear, and we will find your husband. I wish to speak to both of you.”