In life, Prudence was even more beautiful than she’d appeared in miniature. Her cheeks were flushed, her full lips were parted in an expression of shock, and her eyes- the exact color of the bluebells that grew on Rowan Heights- grew wide as she stared at me.
Then Prudence blinked, seeming to snap out of a trance, and stood so abruptly that her stool fell over with a clatter.
“Why would you call me by that name?” she said. “Prudence Goode is dead.”
“A part of me already knew,” I said, “and now that I see you, there’s no denying it. Hope’s miniature was a near-perfect likeness.”
“No.” Prudence took my shoulders and pulled me up to face her. “Look at me. What could you possibly see in this face that resembles the miniature?”
“Everything- your red hair, your bright blue eyes, your complexion-”
Prudence pushed past me and went to one of the glass instruments, gazing at her reflection in its shining surface. After a few moments she turned back to face me.
“Why would you tell such lies? I don’t look like the miniature- I am as grotesque as I have been for years.”
Her expression of resentment was so close to the one Celeste had directed at Hope on Prudence’s death day that the rest of the puzzle fell into place.
”-my mother wasn’t a bit pretty. Her eyes were dull and gray.”
“-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.”
“-Oh, how pretty she was! But- why did she change?”
“You’ve inadvertently revealed your secret to me,” I said. “I owe you my secret in return, as I promised.”
“What do you mean?”
“My mother was an ancient, so curses and magic have no effect on me. That’s why I can see your true face.”
“Ridiculous! You’re piling lies on top of lies,” Prudence said. “The ancients were all killed centuries ago.”
“I can provide ample evidence,” I said. “Ancients have been bred in secret as slaves for centuries, and I possess my mother’s contract, which is bound by the high priest’s seal. Also, Abbess Joy can verify my story; she knew my mother intimately.”
Prudence turned to pace the circumference of the room, wringing her thin hands. “Abbess Joy assured me that it was impossible for you to be a witch, but wouldn’t tell me why.”
“Abbess Joy tested me when I was a child, and she verified that I possess the same magical resistance as a full-blooded ancient. It would be impossible for me to wield magic.”
Prudence stopped pacing and spun back to face me.
“Hold out your hand,” she said.
I did as she bid, and Prudence stepped forward slowly, as though frightened of me. She reached out, took my hand, and stared directly into my eyes.
We stood together in silence as the seconds passed. Prudence’s gaze grew more and more intense, and it took all of my will not to quell under her gaze.
After some time, she frowned. “Do you feel anything?”
“I find your expression rather intimidating,” I admitted. “Mostly, I’m uncertain how to convince you of the truth, or what you expect of me.”
Prudence drew closer, her eyes darkening. “But do you feel any heat? Any desire? Don’t you wish to be closer to me?”
I dropped her hand and backed away in astonishment. “What are you saying?”
She sighed and shook her head. “Nevermind- that was a test, and you’ve passed. It was an ill-performed test, but I will perform better ones in time.”
“Did you attempt to use magic against me?”
“I did. I made an honest attempt, but the spell’s failure may be my fault; my power has waned from neglect. Even so, I can feel the magic I’ve used. You should have reacted.”
Prudence wiped her hand across her pale brow. “You said that a part of you already knew my identity. How?”
“I wasn’t certain, but there were many small clues that seemed to fit. Your connection to Celeste was the largest clue, but your connection with Mr. Filius was another. He’d once told me he was very fond of you. Your familiarity with my situation might have been explained any number of ways, and the interest you’ve taken in me might have merely been friendship. However, on the first night you brought me here, you said you liked me against your will, which seemed very strange.
“The hints all coalesced when I suggested a possible connection between you and the Frey or Goode family, which you were desperate to silence.”
“I must learn to govern my responses as much as you must govern your tongue,” Prudence groaned.
“I didn’t examine these clues too closely,” I continued. “I was afraid I would lose your friendship if I uncovered your identity without your consent. Instead, I wished to earn your trust- to form a deeper alliance.”
“Why? With all of my deceit, you had no reason to trust me.” She looked up at me tentatively, as though awaiting some judgement.
“I had ample reason to trust you,” I protested. “When Celeste called you her guardian angel, and when Abbess Joy gave such a warm account of your character, how could I help but see you as a friend?”
“All of this is evidence against your claim,” Prudence said. “How could a soulless being feel trust, faith, or love?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t been aware of my ancestry for very long, and I’m still discovering what it means to lack a soul. After all- I cannot miss what I never had. All I can do is baldly assert that I have no soul, and yet I feel.”
Prudence put her finger to her lips for a moment in thought, and then went to the bookcase, where she opened a little door that was set into the wall. She drew forth a battered, black book, which she dropped onto the table. Then she sat down with pen in hand and scratched notes onto a blank page with a steady, efficient hand.
“The subject claims to be of ancient descent,” she muttered as she wrote. “May be soulless… verify ancestral claims and perform the following tests…”
“I had worried you would react in horror when I told you I was an ancient,” I said. “I didn’t expect to be made a test subject.”
“Shush- I’m thinking,” she said. “The subject shows complete range of emotional behavior. A preliminary test indicates magical resistance…”
She continued to write for a few more moments and then stopped, looked upward while tapping her fingers together as though doing a mental calculation, and added another line. Then she tossed her pen back onto the table and leaned forward on her elbows.
“I cannot teach you,” she said. She leaned her chin on her hand as she regarded me, and her inky fingers left black smudges on her flushed cheeks.
“Because of who I am?”
She smiled a little, and her eyes glittered in the clean electric light. “Tonight, my intended lesson lacked impact without the weight of my curse. You were supposed to look at me in horror when you saw my face, not immediately unravel all of my secrets. Just when I think I have the advantage of age and experience, you rush ahead. No- I’ve decided; If we work together, it must be as equals.”