the throne is his, he might have more pressing issues to occupy him.”

He did not interrupt her brief silence. They stood side by side, watching the swirl and shift of the glittering party in front of them.

“I am afraid that mercy will override the necessity for action,” Vespasia said at last. “Thomas has never balked from looking at the truth, however harsh, or tragic, or compromised by blame in many places. But he has not previously had to do more than present the evidence. Now he may have to be judge, jury, and even executioner himself. Decisions are not always black-and-white, and yet they must still be made. To whom does he turn for advice, for someone who will reconsider, balance what might be a mistake, find a fact he had not seen, which may well change everything?”

“No one,” Narraway said simply. “Do you think I don’t know that? Do you imagine that I have not lain awake all night staring at the ceiling and wondering if I had done the right thing myself, or perhaps sent a man wholly or partially innocent to his death because I could not afford to hesitate?”

Vespasia studied him carefully: his eyes, his mouth, the deep-etched lines of his face, the gray in his thick shock of black hair.

“I’m sorry,” she said sincerely. “You wear your worries with sufficient grace that I had not seen the burden they’ve created clearly enough.”

He found himself blushing. It was a compliment he had not expected from Vespasia. He was a little alarmed at how much it pleased him. It also made him vulnerable-something he was not used to, except with Charlotte Pitt-and he knew that he must force it to the back of his mind again.

“You must have thought me inhuman,” he replied, then wished he had not been so open.

“Not inhuman,” Vespasia said ruefully. “Just far more certain of yourself than I have ever been. I admired that in you, even if it left me in awe, and kept me at some distance.”

Now he was really surprised. He had not imagined Vespasia in awe of anyone. She had been flattered by emperors, admired by the tsar of all the Russias, and courted by half of Europe.

“Don’t be so silly!” she said sharply, as if reading his thoughts. “Privilege of birth is a duty, not an achievement! I admire those who have mastered themselves in order to be where they are, rather than having been handed it by circumstance.”

“Like Pitt?” he asked.

“I was thinking of you,” she said drily. “But yes, like Thomas.”

“And did you fear for me, when judgment lay in my hands?”

“No, my dear, because you have the steel in your soul. You will survive your mistakes.”

“And Pitt?”

“I hope so. But I fear it will be far harder for him. He is more of an idealist than you ever were, and perhaps more than I. He still has a certain innocence, courage to believe in the best.”

“Was I wrong to recommend him?” Narraway asked.

She would have liked to answer him easily, reassure him, but if she lied now she would leave them isolated from each other when perhaps they might most need to be allied. And she had long ago given up telling lies beyond the trivial ones of courtesy, when the truth served no purpose.

“I don’t know,” she said quietly. “We shall see.”


Two days after the reception, Vespasia received the news that a woman she had known and admired some time in the past, Serafina Montserrat, was ill and confined to her bed.

It is seldom easy to visit those who are not well, but it is far harder when both you and they know that recovery is not possible. What does one say that has any kind of honesty, and yet does not carry with it the breath of despair?

Vespasia had contemplated this while taking a bath perfumed with her favorite mixture of essences: lavender, rosemary, and eucalyptus in bicarbonate of soda crystals, which always invigorated and lifted the spirits. Now she sat in her dressing room before the looking glass while her maid arranged her hair before assisting with the tiny buttons of her dress. Today Vespasia had chosen a gown of indigo-shaded wool, which was both flattering and warm. She firmly believed that one should dress for the sick with as much care as for a party.

Still, she had not made up her mind about what to say; whether to speak of the present, which was so different for Vespasia than for Serafina. Perhaps remembering the past-rich, turbulent, filled with both triumph and disaster-would be a happier choice.

It was also difficult to know what to take as a small gift. In February there were few flowers; those that were available had been forced to grow in artificial circumstances, and seldom lasted long. There was hardly any fruit at all. Vespasia had then remembered that Serafina liked good chocolate, so a box of carefully selected and beautifully wrapped Belgian chocolates with cream centers seemed a good choice.

She had considered a book of memoirs, or foreign travels, but she did not know if Serafina was well enough to read. She still lived in her house in Dorchester Terrace, with her great-niece as a companion, but was there anyone who would read to her with spirit and charm, if she was not well enough to read for herself?

“Thank you, Gwen,” Vespasia said as her maid finished dressing her hair. Kindness required that she make this visit generously and with good spirits. It would be best that she do it quickly, before her anxiety got the better of her mood.

The morning was brisk and cold, but fortunately she did not have far to go. Her carriage was waiting at the door. She gave the footman the Dorchester Terrace address, and accepted his hand to step up. Seating herself as comfortably as possible in the chill, she arranged her skirts around her so as not to crush them more than necessary.

She watched the tall houses pass by, the few people out walking in the windy streets, heads bent against the first spattering of rain, and thought back nearly fifty years to her first meeting with Serafina Montserrat. The world had been in a turmoil of excitement then. The revolutions of ’48 had filled them with hope and the willingness to sacrifice everything, even their lives, for the chance to overthrow the old tyrannies. It was illusory-perhaps it always had been-but for a brief space their ideas were passionately alive, before the barricades were destroyed, the rebels were dispersed, imprisoned, or killed, and everything was put back as before.

Vespasia had come home again, settled into an acceptable marriage, and had children, but never again had she felt so profoundly passionate about anything as she had then. Serafina had also married, more than once, but remained a fighter, both physically and politically.

Their paths had crossed since, many times. Vespasia had traveled all over Europe. She used her beauty and intelligence to effect good where she was able to, but with a degree of discretion. Serafina had never been discreet.

They had chanced across each other in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, occasionally Madrid, Naples in the spring, Provence in the autumn. When they met they had spoken with laughter and grief, and exchanged new hopes and old memories. This might be their last meeting. Vespasia found herself stiff. Her hands were clenched as if she was cold, yet she was well supplied with rugs, and the carriage was not uncomfortable.

They pulled up outside the entrance in Dorchester Terrace and Vespasia’s coachman opened the door for her to alight. She accepted his hand and took from him the ribboned box of chocolates. “Thank you. Please wait for me,” she instructed him, then walked across the pavement and up the steps. It was early for a call, and she was very aware of that, but she wished to see Serafina alone, before any others might come at a more usual hour.

The door opened and she handed her card to the footman.

“Good morning, Lady Vespasia,” he said with only mild surprise. “Please do come in.”

“Good morning,” she replied. “Is Mrs. Montserrat well enough to receive visitors? If the hour is too early, I can return.”

“Not at all, my lady. She will be delighted to see you.” He smiled, closing the door behind her. She thought she detected something more than good manners in his voice, perhaps even a thread of gratitude.

She walked into the wide hall with its beautifully parqueted floor and sweeping staircase. She noticed that there was a very handsome lamp built into the newel post at the bottom.

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