“Which do you think, love? The pink or the red dress?” Mary asked, standing near two almost identical gowns laid near the foot of her bed.
Clara sighed. “Mother, it’s a quarantine. There’s not going to be any balls for you to attend. Pack whatever you wish.”
Mary clicked her tongue. “It’s Prince Prospero. Of course there will be balls, and I intend to stand out. Why shouldn’t I?”
“Because you’re not his wife.” Clara said simply, standing from her seat near the window to cross the spacious chamber and examine the dresses more closely. “Because you’re a widow, who is still supposed to be in mourning.”
“Clara, darling,” Mary started, “I know how much your father meant to you. He meant a good deal to me too. He was my husband, after all.” When Clara said nothing, Mary took a small step sideways to wrap her arm around Clara’s shoulders. “You can’t grieve forever.”
“A year isn’t forever.”
“It is,” Mary snapped, removing her arm and withdrawing her nurturing efforts, “When life is moving quickly. We must move with it. Or what, would you rather starve, or be left to fester in sickness like the rest of the country?”
Clara rolled her eyes and sighed. “Of course not. Forgive me for suggesting it.”
Mary relaxed and smiled again. “I’ll pack the red for myself, and the pink for you. Mayhap you’ll find pleasant company in it.”
“God willing.” Clara agreed.
“Who needs God to will it when you have ME, and I can make it happen?” The door to their chamber opened to reveal Prospero, in all of his finery. Mary swooned, and she and Clara sunk into a deep curtsy.
“Your Highness.” Clara said, respectfully lowering her gaze. She noted that Prospero was continuing his ridiculously vain habit of stuffing the front of his trousers.
“I see we’re still packing. Tsk tsk, the abbey awaits my dears.” Prospero finished with a wink at Clara, who felt her breakfast churn in her stomach.
“We’d be no less than perfectly prepared, my lord, and that takes time.” Mary emphasized her words carefully, and the prince glowed from the implication of praise. He crossed the room to hold Mary’s elbows gently in his hands.
“Just as long as you remember that the trains can wait for no one, not even my most favorite widow in all of the land.”
Clara smiled bitterly, and thought that her favorite widow would be the princess, after she pushed Prospero out of a window. Or brained him with a poker.
“Of course, my lord. We’ll be ready at the hour you gave.” Mary nodded affirmatively, her dark curls bouncing in a way that Prospero found suggestive.
Prospero’s gaze drifted to the dresses on the bed. “For Clara, I hope. It would be nice to see her in some color for once.”
Mary tensed as she watched Clara’s face freeze in the mask of a courteous smile. She knew what that meant.
“It has been only three months since you last saw me in color, Your Highness. But I’m afraid it will be nine months more before you see it again.”
“Only three months? I don’t recall the occasion.” Prospero waved at the air as he spoke, as though he had the ability to take all intelligent thought away from every lady in his vicinity.
“Surely you must, Your Highness. It was made of golden cloth, and you yourself said it was the finest dress you had ever seen, and that my beauty was a credit to my father and a testament to my mother. I hope I’m not mistaken in recalling the payer of such high compliments as yourself.”
Mary gave Clara a stern look, and Prospero looked as though he wanted nothing more than to give the 17-year-old a good spanking. Clara felt no shame, because she believed that she was right, the sort of right that allowed saints to expire under brutal circumstances while still giving praise to God for the privilege.
Prospero finally broke the silence. “I have things to attend to,” he said, making his way towards the door, “but know that I shall call for you on the third night in the abbey. Be well, ladies.”
Only after the door was shut did Mary speak. “For goodness sakes Clara, it’s almost as though you want us to die.”
“Almost.” Clara said, going back to her seat near the window. “Almost.” She whispered again, so softly Mary didn’t hear her. With a sigh, her mother continued packing the last of their things. Mary looked over Clara one last time in her black travelling clothes. Something between tenderness and annoyance welled up in her throat.
The train ride was uneventful. It was full of hundreds of people all leaving court to join Prospero in the abbey. None had ever been to this property of his before, even though it had been in his possession since his coming of age. When they arrived, even Clara had to be impressed. Their rooms couldn’t have been the finest there, yet they were so fine Clara couldn’t see how anything could surpass it. She smiled wryly as she noted that all of the textiles were the same inky black as her own attire. Mary fretted over this because she hated black. She hated her black hair and wished it were the same dark golden color as Prospero’s. She hated that Clara was cursed with near-black eyes, even if her hair was a cheery shade of red. Mary spent the first three days fussing over Clara to keep her chamber neat, her appearance attractive, and her manners about her. Clara accepted each criticism because she knew her mother would not have time to give any more after their third night.
The invitation arrived, and was surprisingly addressed to both of the ladies. Clara declined each invitation for months, preferring to read alone. After five months in the abbey, she was finally worn down by Mary’s pleas, and accepted an invitation. Clara refused to wear the pink dress her mother brought, although she compromised by wearing grey over her usual black. She borrowed a sapphire necklace and similarly colored fan from her mother, even though dark blues had a tendency to drain the warmth from her coloring. In return, Mary chose her brown silk; still not so appropriate, but much more so than red. The compromise meant that neither woman was very happy, but they were the sort of satisfied that meant that they were open to the evening, whatever it may bring.
The guests were gathered in Prospero’s seven-room imperial suite. Of the thousand residents of the abbey, only fifty were present; it was to be a very intimate affair. The princess was nowhere to be found, a fact which made Clara even more anxious to witness the unspoken words between her mother and the prince. If the other guests found anything objectionable about it, they said nothing.
Clara had to admit that under slightly different circumstances, she might have considered Prince Prospero a handsome and decent man. His build was modest, being neither too tall nor too muscled, his hair was wavy and quite thick, his eyes a pleasant shade of light green. His clothes were well fitted but not overly showy; there was always a gentleman better dressed than he in attendance. Prospero had studied law, foreign creatures and tongues, and human anatomy. He was a good swordsman. He exuded the sort of firm health and strength that her own father, born sickly and crippled in his early childhood, never had.
Clara was so stuck in her daze of Prospero that she did not notice a masked gentleman approach her.
“Generous of him, isn’t it?” The stranger asked. Since the small gathering was not a masque, he was the only one whose face was hidden, yet this was not the strangest thing about him.
“I-I beg your pardon?” Clara stammered, taking a small step back from him.
“Generous of His Highness, to host us all here, isn’t it?” He elaborated. His mouth had a habit of twisting into a perverted sort of smirk whenever he finished speaking.
“I suppose so.” Clara swallowed and began nervously scanning the room for her mother.
The stranger was courteous enough to pretend not to notice Clara’s anxiety. “I suppose any prince would do as much. Do you enjoy a game of cards?”
Clara shook her head violently. “No, sir. I never have.”
“A dance, perhaps?”
Something about the cruel smile snapped Clara out of her fear of this person that seemed off in a way she couldn’t explain. His hair was almost silver, she swore it, but he looked not much older than herself. The green glow of the room they were in meant she could not see the color of his eyes, even though he was looking into hers with much more intensity than the interaction warranted in her mind.
“If you want to make a fool of yourself, by all means, that is your right as a free man. But I will not bring about whispers for being seen interacting with someone like you, good sir.” Clara felt her heart race when she noticed that her speech did nothing to remove the smirk from his face. Still facing him, she backed away even more, until she was on the edge of the green room and the next, which had orange windows and furnishings. Clara was familiar with this room only because her mother had grown so fond of it in the last several months.
The stranger advanced quickly and grabbed hold of the arm that held her fan. It fell to the ground, the sound of its landing drowned out by the band playing two rooms over. With nothing to cover her mouth, Clara knew she looked foolish the way she gaped in surprise, then chastised herself for thinking of her appearance at a time like that.
“Perhaps if I tell you my name, you will understand that you can trust me,” The stranger said, keeping his voice low, “and only me. You’re a brilliant girl, Clara. Tell me, how does a sickness spread? Is body infected, or spirit, or is it just the will of the gods?”
“Of God, you mean?” She asked without thinking.
“I misspoke not.” The gentleman knelt briefly and picked up the fan. He held it out to her, and when she accepted, gave a deep bow. He turned to leave her, walking briskly towards the direction of the purple room.
“My lord?” Clara picked up her skirts to follow him. She found she nearly had to run. For once she didn’t care how this looked to anyone else, although the few present in the green room were not paying any attention.
The gentleman stopped and turned so suddenly that Clara almost collided with him. He was no longer smiling. “Yes?”
“You never told me your name.” Clara hated that she sounded like an insistent child who was promised a gift.
A quick flash of the gross smile. He stared at her for what felt like a lifetime. “Surec.”
Clara looked down at her feet for a moment to steady her breathing. When she looked up, he was gone.
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