~ (Continued) Vijfday, 19th of Prima, 11831 ~
A touch, a slight of hand: he shuffled the deck in such a way that a card cut into his finger. He placed aside the whole pack. Gesturing for Lizzy to remain seated by the bed, he used the same hand to pass her tea, now with an extra drop of blood.
He folded his hands together to hide any black stain.
“Thank you, Pierre.”
“Of course, Lizzy.”
She took a drink and did not notice. He did nothing but smiled as she complimented the tea and placed it on the saucer for a time. They resumed their conversation as if nothing amiss had happened.
“Now, my dear,” Pierre said. “I would like you to come with me to the feast.”
“Me, Pierre? I have earned no such spot at the royal table.”
He would be entirely well in three more days, if his estimate about the moon was correct, and by that point, the roi and reine would be home as well. There was to be a royal family dinner staged for their return and Pierre’s departure for Piques. He had insisted on the date even though some wished he would still stay in bed.
“You call my uncle with familial terms, and you have become close to me. It will be in two days. This is not an order, my dear, but a request. Do think about it, please?”
“I shall; I will.”
She left shortly after this, and Pierre was allowed to give her a kiss on the cheek. This time, when his heart fluttered, he was sure it was because of her. Trying to be patient, he waited until the moment the door closed before he snapped his fingers and captured her soul.
If he wished, with another movement, he could place her in an unnatural sleep, never to wake by any medical procedure or prayer. He could end her life, forcing her into a land of the dead. He could take her to, and bring her back, from those edges.
He moved his fingers as if fiddling with a coin. Hers was a gentle soul, and he longed for it.
He flicked his fingers to release his hold. Still, for the next three days he could grasp her soul without much effort, despite distance as long as she remained in the realm. In the back of his self, he felt the humming of her spirit alongside the links that tied him to Pluta, Wolfram, and would to anyone else that had been made to ingest his blood. Her spirit comforted him as much as her physical presence had, and he felt more at peace.
Until the crescendo of his headache overwhelmed him. He hid his face in the pillow and whimpered. He had hoped the pain would lessen when he used cræft, but it did not seem the case. It was one of the many prices one paid to know this magic.
~ Hexday, 20th of Prima, 11831 ~
“You are leaving the day after tomorrow as well, yes?” he asked Elizabeth the the next day, placing down the Seven of Wands to lose against the Knave of Pentacles in a game of War. She was sitting on the far edge of his bed to better play the game, legs dangling near the corpse that still lay hidden.
“Yes. Brother is certain his child will be born by then, and as you are leaving yourself that day, Mother insists I return.”
“And if you were to have other plans?”
“Like?” She seemed curious but unaware this was a suggestion. She won the next hand as well, picking up the Ace of Swords and his Queen of Cups.
“I am leaving for Piques, as you know, which my brother is in his last year of governing. I have finished my studies a year early, and he too wishes I know how to properly run ‘his’ duchy. I would like you to be there as well.”
She was already blushing. “Your Grace—”
“Elizabeth,” he interrupted. He placed his hand over hers and squeezed when she looked down. “I wish the company of a friend. You have proven a dear companion. Perhaps you shall learn how to run a whole duchy?”
“I am the younger child, a daughter, of a comte. I shall have no need to learn how to take care of an entire duchy.”
Pierre smiled gently. “You are the beloved companion of a duc,” he told her. He raised her hand to kiss it and tugged her toward him, catching her in his arms. When she looked up, he kissed her.
For a moment, neither was certain of what to do, but his arms wrapped around her, a hand tangled in her hair, and she shivered in his arms and pressed herself ever closer.
They pulled apart after several moments, Lizzy sitting back and touching her kiss-swollen lips.
Pierre seemed almost surprised by his own actions. “Lady Elizabeth, I—”
“I accept your invitation to spend the start of spring with you, Duc Piques. Dear Pierre. Though I shall need to ask and be granted permission by my family.”
“Of course,” he said. He brushed back some curls that had come loose from her hairstyle and kissed her gently once more.
~ Siwenday, 21st of Prima, 11831 ~
Her mother was delighted that she had been formally invited to stay with the duc at his estate. Such arrangements were not uncommon for ladies if the men of their affection were of a more distant land. The household would know to treat the lady guest with respect, as a probable future lady, and there would be no lack of chaperons.
The pigeon with Lady Eichel’s message returned the morning of Springfinding, granting permission and also mentioning that Eglė’s time seemed to be upon her, the comtesse having just received another letter from home (she was still traveling). The lord physician was riding ahead to try to make it in time (though her mother did not think it possible even with a good horse, they were still a few days away). With any luck, another message would be sent soon about the child.
The royal family dinner was to begin at moonrise. The roi and reine returned to court in the late afternoon, visiting Pierre for a short while to be assured of his improving health. He had taken to sitting at his desk, bored with lying in bed, but was still forced to nap during the hours of high sun. The spirits had dispersed enough so that his journal was unreadable except for the sections about daily life and his legal education.
“I am fine, Maman,” he assured the reine when she asked why he was up, hugging her. “Here, feel my forehead.”
Wolfram was keeping him company at that time, and Pierre introduced him as his own student. He had decided to bring Wolfram along to Piques as well, stealing him from Ophion.
“And Eichel’s daughter?” the roi prompted. He scratched at his auburn beard. “I do not see the girl who has become the topic of gossip and praise among my staff.”
“She will be my guest tonight, Father.”
“I look forward to meeting her.”
Pierre had not seen her all that day, but Wolfram assured him that the lady was merely busy with tonight and the departure tomorrow.
“Well then, perhaps I should be busy as well. Help me pick out my attire.”
Washed, dressed, and feeling healthy for the first time in a week, Pierre left his room without trying to hide from the guards or his doctors. Elizabeth had sent a note that she would be waiting by the east entrance to the dining hall, and he made his way there alone. Even Pluta stayed behind, with Wolfram, who wished to try to see if he could feel his love’s soul with the limited knowledge he had.
Turning the corner, Pierre stopped and had to actually support himself with the cane. Lady Elizabeth Anne stood off to the side, wearing a very similar blue gown to what she had worn at the last party, but this time, her sleeves were quite short, and she wore long white gloves to compensate. Her hair was loose, some of it over her shoulder, displaying sapphire earrings. She twisted a cream fan nervously in her palms but stopped and opened it to check whether she had damaged it. Pressed upon the parchment was the larkspur he had given her that night.
“Oh, Lizzy…” Seized with desire, he did not announce himself, striding over to her while she was still occupied with the fan and kissing her before she could fully realize what was going on. One arm wrapped around her waist, and the other held her hand and the fan so it would not fall and be damaged.
“You are the most beautiful creature,” he told her between kisses to her lips, her cheek, and brow. “Do not fret, for no one can feel ill will towards such a lovely being as you.”
They entered the dining hall several minutes later after stealing several more kisses and composing themselves.
“News, Your Majesties!” A courier entered the dining hall before dessert when everyone was seated more informally, some exchanging their glasses of wine for cups of tea. “From Eichel. Lady Eglė has born a son this Springfinding; Gwythyr Été.”
“Named after summer,” Hélaïse, Aimé’s wife, said softly. “What a wonderful name. Though it is springtime.”
“But Summerfinding was nine months ago,” Pierre replied, and there was quiet laughter at the understanding.
Aimé raised his glass. “To Gwythyr Été!”
Pierre’s glass touched Elizabeth’s, and he whispered to her congratulations for the new addition to her family. He took a deep drink of his dessert wine and immediately tasted something wrong. The wine was bitter and a familiar burning coated his throat.
Whether deadly, and if so how quickly fatal, he had no idea, but the lord wasted no time, curious though he was about the effects. He tugged at Pluta’s soul to gain her attention from his rooms and bid her hurry. He thought it better not to bite the inside of his cheek and give the unknown substance access to his bloodstream.
As the courier left, his cat entered, and with a wave, he made it known it was all right.
“A family dinner without Pluta, whatever was I thinking,” he said. Elizabeth had not turned back to her food and made to hold Pierre’s hand underneath the table.
“Are you alright?”
“Yes, fine. Just a spell.”
Pluta dashed to her master. Pierre bent as if to give her some food from the hand that Lizzy did not hold, and she bit him. He gasped, taking his left hand back and placing the gloved finger in his mouth. He could taste the blood on the fabric.
“Pluta,” he scolded her gently aloud. “Be more careful next time. Take just the fish, not my whole hand.”
Before he could do anything else, Lizzy had leaned over and pressed a handkerchief to the bite.
“I … thank you,” he replied softly. His right hand stayed in her lap, and their fingers twined together.
Conversation began again. The prince discussed the duchy and the kingdom, and the duc offered his opinions while manipulating the spirits. Playing with Lizzy’s fingers was just the motion that they responded to as well.
His unease slowly left. Whatever poison had started to attack his body became void. He did not drink or eat anything for the rest of the night, but did not stop thinking about what had happened. He neither spoke up, however, nor alerted anyone except to make sure no one else drank what he left. To say something would be to delay his trip, to cause worry, and begin an investigation. He was still far more curious than fearful about who wanted to take his life.
“Did you do this?” he asked Mora, feeling her presence in the room that night. Another headache from using his cræft had begun as well, though not too terribly painful compared to the usual.
“The poison or how you feel now?”
“Whichever one you were involved in.”
“More the latter,” she said. She stroked at his bangs and shooed away the pain. “I did not warn you about the poison, but it was not me who put it there.”
“And do you know who it was, my Lady?”
No answer, just the feeling of a kiss on his forehead.
~ Iunday, 22nd of Prima, 11831 ~
It was not a coffin, but as she was not staying dead, perhaps it was more fitting. Pierre laid the girl in an elaborate trunk, legs tucked up so that she would fit. Her nightgown was different from the one she had died in. Pluta had for good measure consumed that as well, but it was thought immodest to leave her without dress. Wolfram made certain his love’s body was well kept, her head even rested on a pillow, and he hid her underneath a pile of silk. She would not decay as long as Pierre willed it.
“Thank you again, Your Grace,” the young suitor said. The trunk was locked, and Wolfram given the key. “She really does seem just asleep.”
“We shall find you an animal to become your familiar after we arrive. Lessons shall be sparse at first. You are certain you wish to be the one to bring her back?”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“Very well then.”
The servants were called in to gather up luggage, and Pierre made his way to the carriages. He had heard that Lizzy was already seated in hers and reading.
He found the one with elaborate gold acorns on the side and knocked on the door with his cane.
“May I be allowed in?” he asked. She smiled and opened the door while he climbed in before a footman could move to help.
“Pierre,” she greeted informally, and he pulled the small curtain to the window before he kissed her.
“Lizzy, darling. I have something for you.” He took out a rectangular jewelry box from his coat pocket and opened it so that she could see: a gold pendant in the shape of a larkspur stem, with amethysts to accentuate the petals.
“Pierre, I—” He silenced her with another quick kiss and hooked the clasp behind her neck. The pendant rested in the hollow of her throat.
“I will finish monitoring everyone getting ready and return soon, darling. Wolfram and Pluta shall be our company; I wished this to be done privately.”
“Thank you, Your Grace.” She fell back into formal speech when unable to think of anything to say. He smiled to her, kissed her cheek, and went to finish checking the cortège.
Elizabeth smiled so widely that her cheeks hurt. She tried to continue reading but had to stop every few sentences to look again at the pendant. It was beautiful and the first piece of jewelry that she had ever received from a suitor.
Something caught in her throat. The lady pulled out a handkerchief (one of Pierre’s dark ones) and coughed. She did not taste or see the drops of blood that were left behind.