We found Hope standing near the sparkling bay windows, speaking with Lord Willoughby and two other gentlemen. Lord Willoughby nudged Hope, who turned to see me approaching on the Prince’s arm. Hope’s eyes went wide when he saw me, and he almost dropped his glass of claret wine before he composed himself.
Hope handed off his glass and bowed low. “Your Highness.”
“Lord Frey, I am eager to speak with you and your charming wife. Please, follow Lord Ainsworth to my sanctuary.”
The Prince handed my arm back to Hope and motioned to my father to follow before leading the way to his throne chamber.
The Prince’s chamber was empty when we arrived. There were no courtiers or attendants present, and when my father closed the doors the sound seemed to thunder through the enormous room.
The Prince sat on his throne, haloed in gold by the solar fresco behind him, and beckoned us forward. We approached and kissed the hem of his robe before standing once more.
“I was troubled to learn that the rumors about your happy event were false,” said the Prince, “but I am not angry. You are still very young, and you have time to fulfill your duty.”
“Thank you, your majesty,” Hope said with a bow. Then he turned and cast a calculating glance at my father.
“Yes, you are young,” my father said, “but it has occurred to us that you don’t understand what a valuable gift the Prince and I have given you.”
“If you are referring to my wife, let me assure you that I have the highest regard-”
The Prince laughed an undignified laugh- almost a giggle- cutting off Hope’s words.
“My dear Lord Frey, your wife is not merely pretty and accomplished. She is a true rarity. She is one of the last of her kind.”
“You are too high in your praise,” I said with another curtsey. “I am only-”
“You have no idea what you are,” my father interrupted. “Lord Frey, I have given you my only daughter, whose mother was a full-blooded ancient.”
“Father-” I could not keep my indignance from my voice, “the ancients were destroyed centuries ago.”
“You only know what you have read in books- published books that were approved for public consumption.” My father took a packet of folded paper from his coat pocket and handed it to Hope. “These are her mother’s papers.”
“We have bred the surviving ancients for centuries. They are extremely useful as spies and assassins, because they are impervious to both holy and demonic magic. Generally speaking, they are intelligent enough to carry out complex orders,” the Prince said.
…impervious to both holy and demonic magic. The Prince’s words rung in my ears and filled my head with a strange buzzing. I took the paper from Hope and read it.
“My mother was a slave.” I whispered, but I may as well have shouted in the empty chamber.
“I married her, of course,” my father said. “The High Priest granted special permission. After all, we could not present Lord Frey with a common wife.”
His words sounded muffled, as though he spoke from miles away. I focused my mind, and re-read the paper.
Concerning ownership of the slave named Harmony, born in the third month of the year 837, now 22 years of age:
High Priest Sauris does certify the slave Harmony to be a full-blooded ancient, being the offspring of Sorrow and Benevolence, who are both certified ancients with bloodlines that go back to the Great War.
With the approval of His Royal Highness Prince Hadrian, and High Priest Sauris, and for the sum of 10,000 gold pieces, Harmony is now the property of Lord Valor Ainsworth.
The paper was pure white, and the ink looked fresh. I looked at the bottom of the page and saw the High Priest’s seal, identical to the seal on the Frey family’s writ of condemnation.
“You planned to give her to me from the beginning?” Hope was saying. “But- why?”
“Think of your family’s past, and the condemnation that- stupid girl!” My father stopped and snatched the paper from my hands. “Don’t tear it.”
I let the paper slip through my fingers after my failed attempt.”It can’t be torn. The seal is perfect- binding…”
“Just so,” the Prince agreed. “That document is genuine.”
I looked up and forced the words from my throat. “But the ancients were a beastly race. They were soulless.”
“That is why the ancients are impervious to magic,” the Prince said. He looked up at Hope and smiled.
“Of course, Grace was a bit of an experiment. We weren’t certain whether a half-ancient would have a soul, so when Grace was a small child we brought the abbess of del Sol, who is adept at holy magic, to test her.”
A flash of gold hair, kindly blue eyes, and a maternal embrace filled my mind all at once.
“Abbess Joy,” I whispered.
My father raised his eyebrows. “You remember?”
I closed my eyes. Her face was clearer, now. The old memories of the gold-haired woman combined with the face of the woman I’d met at the oculist guild meeting. I could even hear her gentle voice.
“She would sing to me and read me stories,” I said. “She was very kind.”
“The abbess did not just read stories. She was casting powerful holy spells. You were impervious to every one,” the Prince said.
“So you understand, Lord Frey, that not only is your wife soulless, but her children will be, as well,” My father added.
“They would not be condemned to hell,” Hope said slowly. “If we have children, they will be free from my family’s curse.”
“This is a generous gift,” Hope said. “But why honor me so? I have shown little repentance in my life.”
“Lord Frey, I wish to be King of Aeterna. Aeterna was the nation where the ancient war was fought- the nation where the Gods blessed mankind. It is not right it should be ruled by Sancti- by a heretic Queen,” the Prince said. “To truly establish my right to rule, I need the backing of all the noble families. I need the Frey family to reconcile with the true church.”
“This is why we named her Grace,” my father said. “She is your redemption.”
Hope touched my cheek gently, gazing at me for a moment with his wide, dark eyes as though seeing me for the first time. Then a strange light flashed in his eyes, and he turned back to the Prince.
“You could not have chosen a better gift to solidify my loyalties. Henceforth, I will give you and the church all of the reverence you are due.”
The Prince laughed once more and flung out his arms. “Excellent! Come, my boy, and let me embrace you.”
Hope stepped forward and allowed the Prince to entangle him in his thin, spidery arms. Then he stooped and kissed the hem of the Prince’s robe again with all the grace and dignity of a courtier in his bearing.
“Now- I am fatigued.” The prince said, leaning back on this throne. “Lord Ainsworth, show the lovely couple out through the back door. I wish to rest, and I don’t want to hear the noise of the salon.”
“Yes, your Highness,” my father replied. He bowed so low that his wig almost fell off, and then he turned and led us through the back door and into a narrow hall.
Hope closed the door gently behind us, and then spun and grabbed my father by the throat, pushing him up against the dark-paneled wall. His eyes flashed in anger, shining with an unnatural red light.
“Hope!” I tried to cry out, but my voice came out as a whisper. My hands trembled as I clutched at his arm.
Hope looked at me a moment, and then leaned close to my father’s purple face.
“I would kill you right now with my bare hands,” he growled, “if it were not for the respect I have for my wife. Grace, do you wish your father dead? He deserves it.”
“You see? She isn’t the vengeful type.” Hope loosened his grip a little, and my father took a ragged breath. “You may live today.”
“How dare you- ungrateful- you won’t get away with this,” my father wheezed.
Hope’s red lips stretched into a sadistic grin, and he stared into my father’s bulging eyes.
“Of course I will.”
My father’s face contorted in horror, and then went slack. His eyes relaxed and went blank.
“You will forget everything that has happened today. You will give up your political ambitions, abandon your place at court, and return to Willowbrook. There, you will live out the rest of your days in seclusion.”
Hope turned to me. “Will that suffice?”
I almost said yes, but the words stuck in my throat.
“The papers-” I whispered.
“Of course.” Hope turned back to my father. “You will give Grace her mother’s papers before you go. When I snap my fingers, that is my command.”
Hope released my father- whose breathing was now remarkably steady- and snapped his fingers.
My father turned to me, took the papers from his pocket, and handed them to me in a jerky, mechanical rhythm, as though he were an automaton. Then he spun away from me and left.
When my father had gone, Hope turned to me.
“Grace?” he said, touching my cheek. “You are flushed, but your skin is like ice.”
“Your hands are cold, too. I think you may be going into shock. Come- I will take you to our rooms.”
He was gently massaging my hands, but I snatched them away. I felt as though a shard of ice had pierced my heart. I clutched my mother’s papers to my chest, as though they would warm it again.
“Hope- now is your chance. The Prince is unguarded.”
“To hell with the Prince. To hell with intrigue and deceit and vengeance. You need me, now.”
At these kind words, the ice in my heart seemed to stab deeper, bringing with it a sharp pain. I stood taller and raised my voice a little.
“I want you to do it. Take the Prince’s mind from him. Take his kingdom.”
Hope reached out and pulled me into a fierce embrace.
“I suppose I am the vengeful type,” I said.
“I won’t be long. Can you make it to our rooms alone?”
“Then go. I will fetch my brother when I am done so that he can confirm you are well. In the meantime, wash your face and lie down.”
“I will,” I promised.
I stood in the hallway long enough to watch Hope go back into the Prince’s chambers, and then I turned to go.