True to my word, I did not fight the cadence of Hope’s voice. I let his words wash over me as they swelled and rolled like waves on the ocean. I felt at first as though I sank, and then I simply drifted.
In my mind’s eye, I didn’t see darkness or light. An endless grey fog enveloped me. Hope’s voice grew distant, and the waves stilled.
Everything was silent.
I might have existed in the void for a second or an eternity. I let myself be one with the nothingness until something stirred inside of me. A question rose to the surface of my mind.
“Is this what it is to die?”
A response echoed all around me like a clap of thunder.
The voice echoed away, and I was alone in the void once more.
I let myself drift a moment, and then stirred again.
“Be at peace,” the voice around me commanded.
Another question arose in my mind. “How can I feel peace? How can I feel anything if I have no soul?”
“And yet- you do feel,” the voice replied.
The mist around me began to shift and coalesce into patches of darkness and pinpricks of light.
“Then what does a soul do?” I wondered.
The only answer was silence.
“I don’t know what a soul does,” I thought, “but I know that I can reason without one. I have reason to be afraid, so I am afraid.”
“You cannot change what is,” the voice replied, this time like a sigh of wind. “Why not accept your fate?”
“I accept what is so I can change what will be,” I said. “I won’t accept fate. I must become something more.”
As though I’d uttered magic words, the grey and black clouds burst apart like panels of a curtain, revealing a scene more vast, more vibrant, and far more real than anything I’d ever seen in my waking life. I saw world upon world, hung upon an invisible clockwork in an endless sea of night. There were too many worlds to count, and each world circled one of the pinprick stars in the distance.
Yet, when I looked more closely, I could see each world with dazzling clarity. Some worlds had vast blue oceans and white clouds like my own Terra, and some were streaked with bands of green and grey, like Tigris. When I looked even closer, I could see flora and fauna- some like the ones I knew, and some impossible to describe.
My own system of worlds came into view, and I turned my eyes toward my star- the sun.
The sunlight was so intense that it burned. I rubbed my eyes, blinked away the blurriness, and opened them. When I did, I saw Hope lying next to me, watching me closely.
The sunlight that filled the room streamed in through the eastern window- so it was sunrise. I had slept all night.
Hope was gazing at me with anxious, bloodshot eyes. He was still holding my hand, and I realized that he had stayed with me all night, lending me his strength as I slept. He smiled a little, and all at once the wall around my heart crumbled away, and the morning light poured in.
Passionate and flawed and beautiful- he was my own, beloved Hope.
Slowly, I reached out to touch Hope’s face. His skin was smooth and delicate under my fingers, and he lay very still, continuing to watch me. Emboldened, I leaned closer and brushed my lips against his.
He kissed me back gently, letting me lead the kiss until I leaned back to look into his eyes once more.
“What a pleasant way to awaken,” he said, still smiling. “I take it that you feel better this morning.”
“I do,” I said.
He touched my forehead. “You have no fever, and the color has returned to your cheeks. Still, you shouldn’t strain yourse-”
I cut him off with another kiss.
“Hope,” I whispered after breaking the second kiss. “Do you think you could still love me, knowing what I am?”
Hope took me into his arms, holding me close to his chest, and I felt foolish for having asked.
“Could I love you? Grace, you are more precious to me than ever.”
“I love you,” I said. I buried my face in his shirt, wondering why tears fell from my eyes when I felt so happy.
Hope lifted my chin and kissed the tears away from my cheeks.
“I almost wish I were ill,” I complained to Hope as we walked arm in arm through the rose garden.
We had spent the morning together, covering each other in kisses and sweet whispers, and letting our love slowly blossom in our hearts. Unfortunately, we were not allowed much time together, as Hope soon pointed out. Hope needed to verify that the Prince was under the Coven’s control. Therefore, we were obliged to go to the salon, listen to the courtier’s whispers, and play the political game for a little bit longer.
However, it was difficult to focus on our task, so we walked to the salon the long way- across the courtyard- as slowly as our feet would carry us. The chilly fall breeze blew over the gardens, filling my nose with the heady scent of roses. Despite the late season, the roses were still large and full, rustling their red and white petals among the dying leaves.
“Why do you wish you were ill?” Hope asked.
“I hate social obligations,” I said. “I hate making polite, mindless conversation with people I dislike. I feel as though I’ve repeated the same phrases a thousand times since I’ve arrived. ‘The weather is mild this year. I hope your family is well. What a lovely gown you are wearing!’ If a courtier were ever to make an intelligent remark, I would pass out from the shock.”
Hope entwined his fingers with mine. “Then I hope that some courtier dazzles you with their wit, today, so I have an excuse to take you back to our rooms.”
I looked down, too embarrassed to look at Hope’s grin. Hope, however, stopped walking, touched my chin, and tilted my head up.
“I knew there was an innocent, lovestruck girl hidden inside you. I love your blush.”
On impulse, I reached up and kissed the smirk off of his face.
“Grace,” he said hesitantly, his smile fading a little. “You are still very young, but I-”
“You are still young and handsome, as you well know,” I countered.
“I don’t feel it. It seems like a miracle that I should have a second chance at love,” he said. “Grace, is it too early for me to ask you to be my lover, wife, mother to Celeste and mistress of my house? I offer it all to you.”
“It’s not too early. In fact, we are doing this out of order; I am already your wife, but this sounds like a proposal.”
Hope bowed slightly, and then tucked a piece of loose hair behind his ear. I could see a faint blush on his cheeks.
“Well, I suppose it is a proposal of sorts.”
“Then I accept it will all my heart.”
Hope leaned down to kiss my hand. Then he offered me his arm, and we started to walk once again.
“We will return to Rowan Heights very soon- I promise.”
“Within the week?” I asked, anxious to remove Hope from Father Pius’s influence.
“I think that can be arranged,” Hope said. “We should be united in all of our decisions from now on.”
“I agree. We should work together, as well. We have a common goal with regards to the High Priest’s seal; I wish to posthumously free my mother, and we both wish to save Celeste.”
“We will soon have the power to break the seal,” Hope said.
“How can you be so confident? Just yesterday you told me that only the power of a God could break it.”
“Remember- I consider hubris to be a virtue,” Hope said with a laugh. “We’ll gain unimaginable power sooner than you think. In the meantime, I need to ensure Celeste’s safety.”
“Of course. How happy we will be together!” I squeezed Hope’s hand, and then a thought struck me.
“Hope- I know this isn’t really my business, but-”
“It is your business. What is your question?”
“Celeste won’t know me as her mother, just as she doesn’t know you as her father. Why haven’t you acknowledged her as your heir?”
Hope frowned. “I should have thought my motives were obvious. Celeste is my daughter, and I have provided for her security no matter what happens. However, in the unlikely event I fail to lift my family’s curse, I don’t want her to end up in a position where she must either produce an heir or serve the church. Even though she is a girl, if I failed to produce sons the burden might fall to her. When the curse is lifted, I will acknowledge her openly.”
“So you have provided for her freedom. I think I love you all the more for it.”
We walked a little ways further until the silence was broken by the sound of footsteps on the gravel path. I turned to see Lady Innocence, dressed in traveling clothes and carrying a valise, walking down the path from the pavilions.
“Lady Dupuy!” Hope said.
Lady Innocence ignored Hope and, violating court protocol, walked straight to me and threw her arms around my neck.
“Thank you for everything,” she said. “The prince agreed to forgive Purity this morning.”
My face grew a little warm as I remembered that I had promised to speak to the Prince on her behalf.
“If the Prince has forgiven her, then why are you leaving?” I asked.
“I-” Lady Innocence took a deep breath and looked down at her hands. “It is difficult to explain, and you may believe that I’m just imagining things, but the Prince seems altered.”
“In what way?” Hope demanded.
Lady Innocence shot Hope a glare, and then took my arm and pulled me a little ways aside.
“There have been rumors regarding the Prince’s mental state ever since he hit his head in a hunting accident. At that time, everyone thought he was weak, and would try to reconcile with Sancti for his mother’s protection.”
“That would have been around the time you received your father’s letter,” Hope said to me. He had followed us closely, and was listening to Lady Innocence’s story, but she continued to ignore him.
“Well, the Prince recovered, and your father regained his favor. The two continued to pursue their ambition to rule Aeterna. I thought the Prince was perfectly well, but this morning I spoke to him and everything was different.”
Lady Innocence’s eyes grew watery, but she blinked rapidly, sniffed, and regained her composure. “He is quiet now, only speaking when spoken to. He doesn’t smile or laugh at all. His answers are all rational -I don’t believe he’s mad- but I worry he’s lost the will to fight for his kingdom.”
A tear broke loose and fell down Lady Innocence’s cheek, and she hastily scrubbed it away with her sleeve.
“I dare not stay to see if he will recover again. My house and estate are within Sancti’s borders. I came to St Blanc to support the Prince’s cause, and to help rebuild the great kingdom of Aeterna. Aeterna was magnificent in the stories- the nation built on the ruins of the Ancient War- so I thought it should be sovereign. Because I did support the Prince, I can’t go home, and if Aeterna falls, I will die.”
“Oh- Lady Dupuy-”
“Call me Innocence. My title doesn’t mean anything, anymore. I’m going to del Sol to seek refuge and be with Purity.”
Lady Innocence sighed and looked around the grounds. “I will miss St. Blanc- the splendor, the parties, everything. I’m sorry I misjudged you, Lady Frey, and I’m sorry we couldn’t be friends longer. Take care of yourself, and flee if you can. I fear the worst.”
Hope and I watched as Lady Innocence walked away. She made a lonely figure on the splendid garden path.
“What have you done to earn Lady Innocence’s confidence?” he asked.
“I can’t say I’ve earned it- I did nothing to help her in any material way. She’s lost everything.”
“You feel sorry for her,” Hope said. “Remember- she chose to support a repressive regime.”
“You love Lady Innocence as little as she loves you.”
“She certainly gave me the cold shoulder today,” Hope said with a chuckle.
“You deserved no less,” I said. “The way you used her friend, Lady Purity, was despicable. You casually took advantage of a girl, deprived her of her free will, and allowed her to be cast aside while you suffered no consequences.”
“I thought you had forgiven me,” Hope said softly.
“I forgave you, but if Lady Innocence hasn’t then I understand why. I love you, Hope, but I swore that I wouldn’t let my love blind me. If you are at fault for something, I will be honest.”
Hope wound his arms around my waist. “Then I will depend on your wisdom and honesty. Help to make me a better man.”
“I will if you promise to do the same for me,” I said. “Heartlessness is my only virtue.”
My journey to the salon with Hope was in vain. The Prince never ventured from his chamber, and the courtiers spoke of nothing but their anticipation of that night’s ballet.
Prince Hadrian was a famous patron of the ballet, and there was a royal theatre on the palace grounds where he enjoyed hosting the best dancers in all of Aeterna. The first ballet of the season promised to be a magnificent performance, and that evening every member of the court was in attendance.
Hope and I had a small box, which we shared with Lord and Lady Willoughby and from where we could see the Prince’s box and the stage equally well. We arrived in the theatre before the Prince- just as dissonant, hypnotic sounds began to drift up from the orchestra pit as the musicians prepared to play. The courtiers chattered in low murmurs, muted by the profusion of plush red velvet on the seats, aisles, and tassled curtains.
Both the murmurs and musicians grew silent at once, and the lights dimmed slightly. A spotlight was turned not on the stage, but toward the Prince’s gold-leaf box. He had arrived with Lady Fairfax to his right, and Lord Taris on his left. My father, as expected, was nowhere to be seen.
All of the courtiers stood, and turned toward the Prince’s glittering box seat in anticipation.
The Prince looked out at the crowd for a moment, and then sat down.
Lady Willoughby giggled as we sat down. “What is wrong, Prince?” she whispered. “No hour-long speech on the superiority of ballet as an art form? No tedious explanation of the ballet’s plot?”
“The Prince seems to have lost his tongue,” Hope said through gritted teeth.
Lord Willoughby only shrugged his shoulders, and then turned to wink at his wife, who laughed in response.
“Your husband is worried over nothing,” Lady Willoughby said. “This Prince will serve very well, I think. By the way- my husband wishes to compliment you. You look stunning this evening, and I must say I agree with him.”
“Thank you,” I said.
Lady Willoughby leaned in and whispered in my ear. “You look happy, Lady Frey. And despite his anxiety, I know that Lord Frey is in heaven, now.”
“Despite everything, my heart has found peace,” I said.
“I’m so happy for you,” she said, and she gave me an airy kiss on the cheek.
Soon the orchestra swelled, and the curtain rose, revealing a stage draped in blue and white gossamer that looked like clouds. Three dancers with glittering wings attached to their backs glided onto the stage.
The music swelled again, the glittered angels danced, and I was in another world far away from court politics and intrigue. In this world, angels and fairies engaged in an almost merry war over the soul of a young girl, enticing her in turn with riches, status, and the hearts of handsome knights.
Sometimes, when there was a lull in the music, I would look up to the Prince’s box. He sat very still as the ballet unfolded before his unblinking eyes. When the music ended, and the dancers took their final bows, the Prince did not applaud. He only stood, turned, and left.