Prudence went to the window and pulled the sash down behind Raven. She lingered by the window for a moment, watching Raven leave, before she pulled the curtains shut.
There was a small crease of worry between Prudence’s eyes, and I felt that familiar urge to smooth her brow and lift her frown into a smile.
“I don’t know what possessed me to quarrel with Raven,” Prudence said, turning back toward the bedroom. “I should have been afraid; she’s powerful.”
“Your fear provoked you,” I said, “but you will overcome your fear. You have the ability to see beyond her power, now.”
“I suppose you are right,” Prudence said. She sat at the foot of the bed and put a hand wearily to her head.
“I- I would like to try…”
Prudence looked up at me and raised her eyebrows. “What is it?”
“I believe I may have discovered a new ability of my own,” I said. “May I use you as my first test subject?”
“What are you testing?”
I hesitated. If I told Prudence what I was testing, and the test failed, I would have raised her hopes and then dashed them for nothing.
“I don’t wish to prejudice your observations,” I said. “Do you trust me?”
“Do what you will. I trust you.” Prudence closed her eyes and waited patiently as I placed my hands hands on her cheeks.
I took one deep breath and then another, clearing my mind as Prudence had taught me. Then I concentrated on Prudence’s face, which was easy to do. I’d already burned each one of her features into my mind.
The next step in my experiment was more difficult, because I could not see the curse that hid those features from the world. I closed my eyes and recalled the picture that Prudence had drawn of the wrinkled, twisted visage that she saw in the mirror. My mind recoiled from the memory, but I forced myself to look at it, and summoned all of my hatred of it.
Destroy that horrible illusion, I told myself. Reach out and smash it.
I thought of reaching out, and then I reached out. I could feel the curse’s resistance as though it were a physical object under my fingers.
Then I tightened my feelings like a fist and smashed through.
Prudence gasped, and I opened my eyes to see her staring at me in shock.
“I felt something,” she said. “What did you do?”
“I’ve learned how my magical resistance works,” I said. “I used to believe that I was immune to magic, and that a talented mage could use my immunity against me. When I thought about the problem more deeply, however, I realized that the explanation doesn’t make sense. Most magic is too weak to breach my defenses, but I’ve been affected by strong magic in the past. When I first met Hope, he attempted to mesmerize me and almost succeeded before I had reason to resist. The night of the dumb supper, the same thing occurred- Hope tried to control my mind and I stopped him of my own free will.”
“Does this mean you are not soulless?” Prudence said.
“I don’t know. If your soul is something that connects you to others, then whatever is inside me is something different- something that’s my own. I used it tonight to break Raven’s spell over me. Now I’ve used it to break another spell.”
“What spell?” Prudence said, and then her eyes went wide with sudden realization. She stood and ran to the mirror that hung over the commode.
She stood still at the mirror for a long time, tracing her face’s contours over and over as though mesmerized. Then she turned to me, tears in her eyes.
“I can’t see it, anymore. I can’t see the cursed face.”
“I destroyed it,” I said.
“We- we shouldn’t get carried away. We need to test this.” She raised her hands in front of her face, and chanted something in a soft voice. Then she nodded to herself as though in satisfaction.
“I can still use magic- good. Now we need to have someone else look at me- someone who is impartial, and someone who wouldn’t usually be able to see past the curse. But who?”
Prudence clutched her trembling hands and began to pace the room as she spoke.
“Has Mercy ever seen your face?”
“No- she came to Rowan Heights long after I’d gone, and at the abbey I kept my face covered around everyone but you and Abbess Joy- and some of the Guild members, of course.”
“Mercy seems like she would be the ideal candidate, but if you show your face to her, she may recognize you. Mercy was Hope’s confidante,” I said, recalling how she had guarded him as he slept in his hidden room. “She may have seen your portrait.”
“If she was really in Hope’s confidence, then I think we should trust her,” Prudence said.
“I agree. She already knows Hope’s other secrets, and I trust she would never tell them. She has the strength of mind to see through Pius’s manipulation; she rejected him to his face. I don’t believe she would betray us.”
Prudence nodded decisively. She took her veil from the chair-back where it had been draped and threw it on.
“Mercy is sleeping in the nurse’s room. Let’s see her at once. I dare not wait until morning.”
Mercy greeted us, bleary-eyed, at the nursery door.
“I suppose,” she yawned, “that this is vengeance for all the times I woke you before dawn.”
“We are sorry to disturb you,” I said, “but-“
“Lady Frey is anxious,” Prudence said, cutting me off. “I’ve told her that she’s being silly, but she will not wait until morning. May we come in?”
“This is your room,” Mercy said, stepping aside to let us pass. She closed the door behind us, and Prudence took her candle and used it to light several more in the room.
“I think that this is enough light,” Prudence said. “We would like your impartial opinion, Mercy. Lady Frey has told me that I look extremely ill, but I feel perfectly fine. What do you think?”
Prudence removed her veil and stepped forward. Her countenance was bathed in candlelight.
“I’m not a doctor- how should I know?” Mercy groaned. She stepped forward, however, and placed her hand on Prudence’s forehead. “You don’t feel feverish. Your cheeks are plump, and your color looks good, but I suppose you may be flushed.”
“I don’t know.” I stepped forward. “Do you not think her eyes look haggard, and her lips dry?”
“If she is haggard it’s because you’re keeping her out of bed,” Mercy said. “But she looks nothing of the sort, to me. There aren’t any bags or circles around her eyes. Her lips look perfectly soft.”
Tears welled in Prudence’s eyes, then, and she sank to her knees.
“What’s wrong?” Mercy said. “Do you feel ill?”
“No- no thank you,” Prudence said. She wiped her eyes, and waved away my attempt to help her stand. “I feel better than I have in years.”
“If you are sure,” Mercy said, moving to the door, “then please excuse me- I should get ready to begin my duties. We will discuss this later.”
Mercy gave me a significant look before she shut the door behind her.
“You did it- you really did,” Prudence said thickly, throwing her arms around me. “I don’t know how I will ever repay you.”
“Please don’t,” I stammered. “I-“
But my words were cut off by a kiss as light and fleeting as a summer wind on my cheek. Then Prudence turned and fled into Celeste’s room, leaving me in a state of confusion. I didn’t know whether to follow and watch the scene of joy unfold, or to leave the moment to the mother and daughter alone.
After a few moments of hesitation, I recalled that one victory did not mean my work was done. I went to my room, giving Prudence and Celeste their privacy, and climbed into bed. I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate, going over my testimony over and over until Brother Lux’s wakefulness potion wore off, and I fell asleep.
My sleep was dark and dreamless, and it seemed like no time at all passed before I opened my eyes again. When I’d closed my eyes, the first rosy tints of dawn har hardly streaked the sky outside, but now the afternoon sunlight poured through the open window, leaving patches of light on my bed.
Mercy was sitting at the end of my bed, watching me with a patient expression.
“How long have you known?” Mercy asked me as I rose.
It took me a few moments to realize what she meant. Then I remembered my prediction that Mercy would recognize Prudence.
“I’ve known ever since we were at del Sol. I discovered her the night I returned with Abbess Joy from my mother’s grave,” I said.
“You still trust her?”
“She’d earned my trust long before I uncovered her secret.”
“How did she earn your trust?”
I sat up further. “I can’t tell you everything. I’m sorry, but some of it involves secrets that aren’t mine to tell. I noticed, very early, her genuine care for Celeste, and the faith that Abbess Joy had placed in her. But the bond of friendship we formed was also a factor. The invaluable assistance she has given me has-“
“She broke his heart,” Mercy interrupted. “She ran off to save herself, and left Lord Frey to his fate.”
“She didn’t just save herself- she saved Celeste,” I said. “It’s not my place to tell her secrets, but please believe me when I tell you that she had good reasons to do what she did.”
Mercy sighed. “And you have your own reasons to trust her- I understand. Nothing I can say will dissuade you, but rest assured that I will continue to watch her even more closely than before.”
“I understand,” I said. “Just- don’t pry too deeply into her secrets.”
“I’ll pry as deeply as necessary to keep you and Celeste safe,” Mercy said. “I’ve been watching everyone we meet, from St. Blanc to the Abbey del Sol.”
“It’s been difficult- I failed at St. Blanc, but I refuse to fail again. The staff here is much easier to manage- it’s far smaller than the staff at a St. Blanc, and the gossip more reliable.”
“Have you learned anything?” I asked. “Is the staff here trustworthy?”
“Some staff members may be trustworthy. They all believe that Lord Frey is innocent- or else they keep their mouths shut. Word is that Lady Fairfax is ready to support any candidate who may take the Prince’s place on the Aeternan throne, and some of them have the mad idea that Lord Frey was arrested to hide a secret claim to the throne.”
“Where would they have heard such a thing?”
“Rumors have been spreading throughout the city- it would be impossible to tell the origin.”
“Do you know if any of the staff members are loyal to the Queen of Sancti?”
“None that I can tell,” Mercy said. “No one would dare admit to being loyalists while there are multiple claims to the Aeternan throne. After the next war, they might lose their heads.”
I shivered slightly.
“I cannot learn anything from Lady Fairfax’s own lips,” Mercy continued. “She’s asked you to take tea with her this afternoon, and I think you should go. Guide the conversation toward politics, but try to appear as neutral as your position allows. Also, try to discern if she has any connection to Pius or the church.
“Lady Fairfax was a powerful figure at court, and it is odd that she left St. Blanc instead of staying to seize power when the Prince grew weak.”
Was it odd? I wondered. I knew that Lady Fairfax was closely related to the Prince, but if she’d tried to stake a claim to a throne he’d failed to take, and name herself successor under a line he’d failed to secure, then her path would have been even more dangerous than the Prince’s.
Still, there was no harm in meeting Lady Fairfax for tea, so I agreed to go.
I peeked into the nursery on my way to the drawing room. Prudence and Celeste sat on the floor, playing a very spirited card gave that involved slapping one card on top of another with great speed. Though the door was ajar, Prudence’s veil was tossed back, and she laughed openly.
I closed the door gently and continued on my way.
When I arrived in the drawing room, the tea things were being laid out, but Lady Fairfax had not yet arrived. She entered the room just as the butler, Smith, had completed the preparations and stepped back from the table. She sat at the table, and Smith assisted her with the chair- the entire event had an air of well-practiced ceremony.
“Please sit,” Lady Fairfax said as Smith pulled out my chair.
“Thank you,” I muttered.
Lady Fairfax gave Smith a glance, and he bowed and swept from the room without another word. Then Lady Fairfax leaned forward and poured the tea.
“Let us assume we’ve said the usual pleasantries,” Lady Fairfax said as she poured. “I am too eager to hear if you’ve marked any improvement in Valor. I have not seen any, but…”
“I’m afraid I don’t have anything to tell,” I said. “My father has not responded at all when I’ve spoken to him. So far, Brother Lux is the only person who has been able to provoke a reaction from my father, for better or worse.”
“I wish I could still irritate Valor as much as I did when we were children,” Lady Fairfax said. “He’s grown used to my ways, I’m afraid. Does he still mistake you for your mother?”
“Yes, he does.”
“You do resemble your mother. My memory is imperfect, and I only met her once, but even I can see the resemblance.”
Lady Fairfax looked at me more closely. “Of course, you have a more open countenance than either your father or mother. Your mother was a woman of some reserve; she never spoke of her past. Before I could learn much about her she became ill and went to del Sol, and Valor found it too painful to speak about her.
“Did you discover anything about your mother’s past while you were at del Sol?”
I took a long drink of tea, preparing myself to tell the lie. “She was orphaned early in life, and was raised in an Abbey,” I said.
“Ah- I thought it might be something like that,” Lady Fairfax said. “The late Lady Ainsworth did not possess many social refinements, and her reserve does seem well-suited to abbey life. Valor had no need to marry for fortune. It was obvious to me, especially when I saw how hard Valor took his young wife’s death, that theirs had been a love match.”
Lady Fairfax set her teacup down on the saucer without clinking the porcelain and regarded my expression with a small, mysterious smile.
“I’m not surprised that you didn’t know,” she continued. “Valor would never speak of his wife, but I know my cousin better than anyone.”
The room darkened briefly as clouds obscured the sun, and less light streamed through the windows. Smith came in, unsummoned, to light the candles.
“Well, you’ve answered my question, even if the answer was not what I wished to hear,” Lady Fairfax sighed. “If you have not been able to reach Valor, then all we can do is pray.”
“I will continue reading to him,” I said tentatively, recalling my new-found power. “Perhaps I will come across something in his books that will reach him.”
“I’ve just had a thought,” Lady Frey said. “Smith, bring Lady Frey his books.”
Smith bowed and left the room. He returned a few moments later bearing three heavy volumes, which he deposited on the table beside my teacup.
“If we can reach nothing else, perhaps we can reach Valor’s pride,” Lady Fairfax said.
I examined the books. They were handsomely bound in brown leather, and the top one bore, in gold letters across the top, A History of Aeterna, Volume I.
I opened the first book, and inside I read, A history written and compiled by Lord Valor Ainsworth.
“I had no idea that he’d written a history,” I said, looking up to Lady Faifax once more.
“It was his life’s work for a great many years. I wonder that you didn’t know; it’ clear that you’ve inherited your scholarly nature from your father. I think it will be good for you to read this work for your own sake, as well as for your father’s. Perhaps you will understand him better once you have.”
Thunder sounded in the distance, and rain began to patter against the windows. Smith entered the room once more and reached for the curtains, but Lady Fairfax stopped him.
“Let the curtains be; I like the sound of rain,” she said.
Smith bowed and left once more, and Lady Fairfax poured another cup of tea.
“Do try the whiteberry tarts, Lady Frey,” she said coolly, as though we had previously been discussing the weather. “Cook is quite proud of them; they are the first whiteberries of the season.”
I closed the book and took a tart from the tray.
“Lady Fairfax,” I said gently. “A dear friend recently gave me wise advice that I could not ignore- that we always must prepare for the worst while acting to achieve our dearest hopes. If the worst should happen, what will you do? Will you remain here in Verdant city, or return to court?”
“I don’t know. I’ve always relied on your father’s advice regarding politics. We have been compatriots for a long time- he directed our political moves at court, and I used my influence and talents to execute them.”
I controlled my expression as best as I could and took a sip of tea to order my thoughts. If they really had been so close, then Lady Fairfax might have known more about my Father’s marriage than she had led me to believe.
Lady Fairfax preempted my next question by stating, “your father staked a lot on his alliance, through your marriage, to the Frey clan. With Lord Frey’s help, he might have been able to rally support from all the noble families to seek independence from Sancti. Now that the Prince is ill, and Lord Frey arrested, all of Valor’s plans have been destroyed. I will not bow to Sancti’s Queen, however- I am not fool enough to do so. I will throw in my lot with anyone who can create a sovereign Aeterna.”
Lady Fairfax dabbed her mouth with her napkin and stood. “Keep fighting, Lady Frey. Fight the corrupt bishops for your husband’s life.”
She left the room, and I stared after her for a few moments, trying to discern truth behind her words.
I went to the window, staring out at the rain as I thought. A melancholy feeling was stealing over me. At one time I might have embraced the melancholy and walked in the rain, wrapped in my own thoughts and allowing sensation to wash away doubt and clear my mind. I had no such indulgence in Verdant City, however. I had stared out at the rain-washed streets only a few moments when the cathedral carriage pulled up to the door, ready to bear me back to father Pius.