“I’m certain Mrs. Montserrat will wish to see you, but of course I will take the precaution of going up to ask her maid,” he explained. “If you would be good enough to wait in the withdrawing room, where the fire is lit, I shall return in a few moments. Would you care for a cup of tea?”

“Thank you, that would be most welcome. It is inclement weather.” She accepted because it would make him feel less uncomfortable about leaving her, if it should require several moments of assistance before Serafina was ready to receive anyone.

The withdrawing room was warm and elegant in a most unusual manner. The floor carpeting was pale blue, and the walls were papered in the darkest possible green. The somberness of it was brilliantly relieved by furnishings in Indian red and warm amber brocade, with cushions also in amber and green. Thrown carelessly across them were silk blankets with tasseled edges, woven in the same beautiful colors.

The fire was low, but had clearly been lit since early morning, filling the air with the scent of applewood. There were paintings of northern Italian landscapes on the walls: one of Monte Bianco gleaming white in a clear evening sky; another of early morning light on Isola San Giulio, catching the roofs of the monastery, and making shadows in the clear water of Lago d’Orta, where half a dozen small boats lay motionless.

The decor was chaotically eclectic, and full of life, and Vespasia smiled at a score of memories that crowded her mind. She and Serafina had sat at a pavement cafe in Vienna and drunk hot chocolate while they made notes for a political pamphlet. All around them had been excited chatter, laughter at bawdy jokes, voices sharp-edged, a little too loud with the awareness of danger and loss.

They had stood on the shore at Trieste, side by side, the magnificent Austrian buildings behind them and the sweeping Adriatic skies above, high-arched with clouds like mares’ tails fanned out in the evening light. Serafina had cursed the whole Austrian Empire with a violence that twisted her face and made her voice rasp in her throat.

Vespasia returned to the present with a jolt when the tea was brought. She had nearly finished it by the time a young woman came in, closing the door softly behind her. She was in her mid-thirties, dark-haired, but with such unremarkable brows and lashes that the power of her coloring was lost. She was slender and soft-voiced.

“Lady Vespasia. How gracious of you to call,” she said quietly. “My name is Nerissa Freemarsh. My aunt Serafina is so pleased that you have come. As soon as you have finished your tea I shall take you up to see her. I’m afraid you will find her much weaker than you may remember her, and somewhat more absentminded.” She smiled apologetically. “It has been quite some time since you last met. Please be patient with her. She seems rather confused at times. I’m so sorry.”

“Please think nothing of it.” Vespasia rose to her feet, guilty that it had been so long since she had come to see her friend. “I daresay I forget things myself at times.”

“But this is …” Nerissa started. Then she stopped, smiling at her own mistake. “Of course. I know you understand.” She turned and led the way out across the parqueted hall again and up the handsome staircase. She walked a little stiffly, picking up the dark, plain fabric of her skirt in one hand so she did not trip.

Vespasia followed her up and across the landing, and-after a brief knock on the door-into the main bedroom. Inside it was warm and bright, even in the middle of this dark winter day. The fire was excellent; the logs must be applewood here also, from the sweet smell. The walls were painted light terra-cotta, and the curtains were patterned with flowers, as if Serafina wanted to carry the summer with her, regardless of the iron rule of time and season.

Vespasia looked across at the bed and could not keep the shock from her face.

Serafina was propped almost upright by the pillows at her back. Her hair was white and dressed a little carelessly. Her face was devoid of any artificial color, although with her dark eyes and well-marked brows she did not look as ashen as a fairer woman might have. She had never been beautiful-not as Vespasia had been, and still was-but her features were good, and her courage and intelligence had made her extraordinary. Beside her, other women had seemed leached of life, and predictable. Now all that burning energy was gone, leaving a shell behind, recognizable only with effort.

Serafina turned slowly and stared at the intruders in her room.

Vespasia felt her throat tighten until she could barely swallow.

“Lady Vespasia has come to see you, Aunt Serafina,” Nerissa said with forced cheerfulness. “And brought you some Belgian chocolates.” She held up the box with its beautiful ribbons.

Slowly Serafina smiled, but it was only out of courtesy. Her eyes were blank.

“How kind,” she said without expression.

Vespasia moved forward, smiling back with an effort that she knew marred any attempt at sincerity. This was a woman whose mind had been as sharp as her own, whose wit nearly as quick, and she was no more than ten years older than Vespasia. But she looked empty, as if her fire and soul had already left.

“I hope you’ll enjoy them,” Vespasia said, the words hollow as they left her lips. For a moment she wished she had not come. Serafina appeared to have no idea who she was, as if the past had been wiped out and they had not shared the kind of friendship that is never forgotten.

Serafina looked at her with only a slow dawning of light in her eyes, as if shreds of understanding gradually returned to her.

“I am sure you would like to talk for a little while,” Nerissa said gently. “Don’t tire yourself, Aunt Serafina.” The instruction was aimed obliquely at Vespasia. “I’ll put another log on the fire before I leave. If you need anything, the bell is easy to reach and I’ll come straightaway.”

Serafina nodded very slightly, her eyes still fixed on Vespasia.

“Thank you,” Vespasia replied. There was no escape. It would be inexcusable to leave now, however much she wished to.

Nerissa went over to the fire, poked it a little, which sent up a shower of sparks, then carefully placed another log on top. She straightened her back and smiled at Vespasia.

“It is so kind of you to come,” she said. “I’ll return in a little while.” She walked over to the door, opened it, and went out.

Vespasia sat down in the chair next to the bed. What on earth could she say that would make sense? To ask after her friend’s health seemed almost a mockery.

It was Serafina who spoke first.

“Thank you for coming,” she said quietly. “I was afraid that no one would tell you. I have bad days sometimes, and I don’t remember things. I talk too much.”

Vespasia looked at her. Her eyes were not empty anymore, but filled with a deep anxiety. She was desperately searching Vespasia’s face for understanding. It was as if the woman Vespasia knew had returned for a moment.

“The purpose of visiting is to talk,” Vespasia said gently. “The whole pleasure of seeing people is to be able to share ideas, to laugh a little, to recall all the things we have loved in the past. I shall be very disappointed if you don’t talk to me.”

Serafina looked as if she was struggling to find words that eluded her.

Vespasia thought immediately that, without meaning to, she had placed further pressure on Serafina, acting as if she was hoping to be entertained. That was not what she had meant at all. But how could she retrace her steps now without sounding ridiculous?

“Is there something you would particularly care to talk about?” she invited.

“I forget things,” Serafina said very softly. “Sometimes lots of things.”

“So do I,” Vespasia assured her gently. “Most of them don’t matter.”

“Sometimes I muddle the past and the present,” Serafina went on. Now she was watching Vespasia as if from the edge of an abyss in which some horror waited to consume her.

Vespasia tried to think of a reply, but nothing seemed appropriate for what was clearly, at least to Serafina, a matter of intense importance. This was no mere apology for being a little incoherent. She seemed frightened. Perhaps the terror of losing one’s grip on one’s mind was deeper and far more real than most people took time or care to appreciate.

Vespasia put her hand on Serafina’s and felt the thin bones, the flesh far softer than it ever used to be. This was a woman who had ridden horses at a gallop few men dared equal; who had held a sword and fought with it, light flashing on steel as she moved quickly, lethally, and with beautiful grace. It was a hand that so swiftly coordinated with her eye that she was a superb shot with both pistol and rifle.

Now it was slack in Vespasia’s grip.

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