“We all forget,” Vespasia said softly. “The young, less so, perhaps. They have so much less to remember, some of them barely anything at all.” She smiled fleetingly. “You and I have seen incredible things: butchers, bakers, and housewives manning the barricades; sunset flaming across the Alps till the snow looked like blood. We’ve danced with emperors and been kissed by princes. I, at least, have been sworn at by a cardinal …”

She saw Serafina smile and move her head in a slight nod of agreement.

“We have fought for what we believed in,” Vespasia went on. “We have both won and lost more than the young today have dreamed of. But I daresay their turn will come.”

Serafina’s eyes were clear for a moment. “We have, haven’t we? That’s what I’m afraid of.”

“What frightens you, my dear?”

“I forget who is real and who is just memory,” Serafina replied. “Sometimes the past seems so vivid that I mistake the trivia of today for the great issues that used to be-and the people we knew.”

“Does that matter?” Vespasia asked her. “Perhaps the past is more interesting?”

The smile touched Serafina’s eyes again. “Infinitely-at least to me.” Then the fear returned, huge and engulfing. Her voice shook. “But I’m so afraid I might mistake some person now for someone else I knew and trusted, and let slip what I shouldn’t! I know terrible things, dangerous things about murder and betrayal. Do you understand?”

Frankly, Vespasia did not. She was aware that Serafina had been an adventurer all her life. She had never let her causes die from her mind. She had married twice, but neither time had been particularly happy, and she had no children. But then she could outride and out-shoot so many men, she was not an easy woman to be comfortable with. She had never learned to keep her own counsel about her political opinions, nor to temper the exercise of her more dangerous skills.

But this was the first time Vespasia had seen fear in her, and that was a shock. It touched her with a pity she could not have imagined feeling for such a proud and fierce woman.

“Are any of those secrets still dangerous now?” she asked doubtfully. It was hard to sound reassuring without also sounding as though she was patronizing Serafina, implying that her knowledge was outdated and no one would still be interested. It was a judgment so easy to mishandle. Vespasia herself would hate to be relegated to the past, as if currently not worth bothering about, even though one day that would assuredly be true. She refused to think of it.

“Of course they are!” Serafina told her, her voice husky with urgency. “Why on earth do you ask? Have you lost all interest in politics? What’s happened to you?” It was almost an accusation. Serafina’s dark eyes were alive now with anger.

Vespasia felt a flash of her own temper, and crushed it immediately. This was not about her vanity.

“Not at all,” she replied. “But I cannot think of anything current that might be affected by most of my knowledge of the past.”

“You never used to be a liar,” Serafina said softly, her mouth a little twisted with unhappiness. “Or at least if you were, you were good enough at it that I did not know.”

Vespasia felt the heat burn up her face. The accusation was just. Of course some of the events she knew, the acutely personal ones, would still be dangerous, if she were to speak of them in the wrong places. She would never do so. But then she always knew exactly where she was, and to whom she was speaking.

“Those sorts of secrets you would keep,” she told Serafina. “You would not mention them, even to the people involved. It would be such awfully bad taste.”

Suddenly Serafina laughed, a rich, throaty sound, taking Vespasia back forty years in the time of a single heartbeat. Vespasia found herself smiling too. She saw them both on the terrace of a villa in Capri. The summer night was heavy with the scent of jasmine. Across the water Vesuvius lifted its double peaks against the skyline. The wine was sweet. Someone had made a joke and laughter was swift and easy.

Then a log burned through and fell in the fireplace with a shower of sparks. Vespasia returned to the present: the warm bright room with its flowered curtains, and the old, frightened woman in the bed so close to her.

“You had better ask Miss Freemarsh to be sure that certain people do not call on you,” Vespasia said with absolute seriousness. “There cannot be so many of them left now. Give her a list, tell her you do not wish to see them. You must have a lady’s maid who would help you?”

“Oh, yes. I still have Tucker,” Serafina said with warmth. “God bless her. She’s almost as old as I am! But what reason shall I give?” She searched Vespasia’s eyes for help.

“No reason at all,” Vespasia told her. “It is not her concern who you will see, or not see. Tell her so if she presses you. Invent something.”

“I shall forget what I said!”

“Then ask her. Say, ‘What did I tell you?’ If she replies by repeating it, then you have your answer. If she says she can’t recall, then you may start again too.”

Serafina lay back on her pillows, smiling, the look in her eyes far away. “That is more like the Vespasia I remember. They were great days, weren’t they?”

“Yes,” Vespasia answered her, firmly and honestly. “They were marvelous. More of life than most people ever see.”

“But dangerous,” Serafina added.

“Oh, yes. And we survived them. You’re here. I’m here.” She smiled at the old woman lying so still in the bed. “We lived, and we can share the memories with each other.”

Serafina’s hand slowly clenched the sheets, and her face became bleak with anxiety again. “That’s what I’m afraid of,” she whispered. “What if I think it’s you, but it’s really someone else? What if my mind takes me back to the days in Vienna, Budapest, or Italy, and I say something dangerous, something from which secrets could be unraveled and understood at last?”

Her frown deepened, her face now intensely troubled. “I know terrible things, Vespasia, things that would have brought down some of the greatest families. I dare not name them, even here in my own bedroom. You see …” She bit her lip. “I know who you are now, but in thirty minutes I might forget. I might think it is the past, and you are someone else entirely, who doesn’t understand as you do. I might …” She swallowed. “I might think I am back in one of the old plots, an old fight with everything to win or lose … and tell you something dangerous … a secret. Do you see?”

Vespasia put her hand on Serafina’s very gently, and felt the bones and the thin, knotted tendons under her fingers. “But, my dear, right now you are here in London, in late February of 1896, and you know exactly who I am. Those old secrets are past. Italy is united, except for the small part in the east still under Austrian rule. Hungary is still lesser in the empire, and getting more so with each year, and the whole Balkan peninsula is still ruled from Vienna. Most of the people we knew are dead. The battle has passed on from us. We don’t even know who is involved anymore.”

You don’t,” Serafina whispered. “I still know secrets that matter-loves and hates from the past that count even now. It wasn’t really so long ago. In politics, perhaps, but not in the memories of those who were betrayed.”

Vespasia struggled for something to say that would comfort this frightened woman.

“Perhaps Miss Freemarsh will see that you are not left alone with anyone, if you ask her?” she suggested. “That would not be unnatural, in the circumstances.”

Serafina smiled bleakly. “Nerissa? She thinks I am fantasizing. She has no idea of the past. To her I am an old woman who enlarges her memories and paints them in brighter colors than they were, in order to draw attention to herself, and to make up for the grayness of today. She is far too polite to say so, but I see it in her eyes.” Serafina looked down at the coverlet. “And she has other things on her mind. I believe she might be in love. I remember what that was like: the excitement, the wondering if he was coming that day or the next, the torment if I thought he favored someone else.” She looked up at Vespasia again, laughter and sadness in her eyes, and questioning.

“Of course,” Vespasia agreed. “One does not forget. Perhaps one only pretends to now and then, because the sweetness of it comes so seldom as one gets older. We remember the pleasure and tend to forget the pain.” She drew her mind back to the present issue. “Does Nerissa have any idea who you are, and what you have accomplished?”

Serafina shook her head. “No. How could she? The world was different then. I knew everybody who mattered in one empire, and you did in the other. We knew too many secrets, and I wonder if perhaps you still do?”

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