2.36 ~ Cold Iron
~ (Continued) Dvoday, 11th of Maius, 11831 ~
That night there would be a formal dinner. The table was set with a level of caliber that had been absent on Pierre’s first night, or even the second when it was deemed more appropriate to have a welcoming dinner after such a long journey. Perhaps the staff were merely trying to outdo themselves as the prince had returned, or they thought it expected. The duc did not mind, far more interested in just conversing with his brother again and being able to do something.
Given the formality of the affair Pierre played official host and guided Lady Maiolaine to the dinner room on his arm, she being the woman of highest rank at this gathering. His advisors followed, along with a few of the prince’s entourage. Last walked in Prince Aimé with Elizabeth on his arm.
Pierre seated Lady Maiolaine at the highest seat on the left and then sat at the head of the table himself. The prince sat at his right, Elizabeth seated beside Lady Maiolaine.
The advisors found their seats, also along the right hand side, with Vivien across from Elizabeth and Wolfram the very last before the prince’s men. Beside Lizzy was Perdita, Salome, and then Síofra, across from Renaud rather than closer to the head of the table, though she should have been at Lizzy’s side— but that was her doing as she had nudged the other women ahead. Cordelia still refused to leave her quarters, and while Perdita had wanted to stay with her, both her lady and her cousins insisted she attend the meal. Delia would rest and be brought her own dinner later.
Aimé handed his gloves over to a servant who put them aside and the duc shook his head when offered the same. He knew it to be rude, but it was something he had not done in years. It was easier to keep away questions if his hands were always in satin and his scars unseen. He took off his gloves only for bed, cræft, and surgery. Neither the staff at home nor his brother cared, and if in this formal setting his advisors did, they said nothing.
The dinnerware was ornate this evening, heavy and another kind than had been used previously. Darker in color. He picked up a knife and found it quite heavy and almost warm. Was there a custom of warming utensils here that he did not know of?
The first course was served, a vegetable soup, and the guests all waited until Prince Aimé ate his first bite before before beginning to eat as well. Small conversations between the guests new and old started up around the long table.
“Did you have any time with Lady Elizabeth yesterday to speak of cræft before His Highness arrived?” Pierre asked Vivien.
“Oui, we had a short lesson.”
“Lady Elizabeth wishes to be a mage?” the prince asked, interested.
“I am a blancwitch,” Lizzy said, blushing slightly at repeating this so often, but truly liking the new status. “His Grace has been so kind as to make certain my education is not lacking, and the Lord Steward is a blancmage. It is certainly not the same as what His Grace and my brother were taught, but I find it fascinating. I aided with the surgery His Grace performed and it did wonders.”
“Good, next time I am feeling unwell I will come to you, my lady. I trust your delicate hands over Pierre’s already. Why, when I was—”
“This is an important story. As your prince, be quiet. Now, this was perhaps eight years ago. I was ill. I was to spend the day with my lovely betrothed at the time, Hélaïse and I were newly engaged, but Maman did not wish to let me go and honestly I was too ill. The Royal Physician was away and I was told to wait until this passed. It took three or four days in most cases and well, I simply did not wish to wait, but did not dare ask her to see me as I was.
“Pierre, who had been studying very hard under Ophion for quite a few years, told me he could make me better in an hour. He brought me a tea of.. Some kind. He will not tell me what was in it still. I drank it and… Well, I was quite a bit more ill, for about a whole hour. I think the guards were wondering if Pierre was trying to assassinate me. But true to his word, an hour after drinking that damned tea I was cured.”
“Well then, Your Highness, it worked did it not?”
“It did. I chewed a handful of mint leaves and went out for a lovely stroll with Lady Hélaïse.”
Vivien could not hide a grin, and Maiolaine giggled.
“Then I caught it,” Pierre added, pointing with his spoon. He had not started to eat yet. “And I was sick the full three days.” His illness, of course, had been from the cræft he had used to cure his brother, though to keep up appearances Ophion had given him a similar purging tea. It had not helped.
“Eat,” the older brother replied. “Your food will be cold.”
Pierre managed not to stick his tongue out and did as he was told.
Pierre dropped the spoon in shock, and with as much dignity as he could spat the food into a serviette. It was as if the soup had been boiling, but Aimé’s dish seemed fine. In fact most of the guests had already started their dinner.
“What in Death’s— are you alright, brother?”
“I do—” He stopped trying to speak and shook his head. Boils already forming on his tongue and inside of his cheeks. Maiolaine moved her iced drink over to Pierre who nodded his thanks but did not imbibe.
Elizabeth, pale, picked up her spoon, wiped it clean, and examined it closer. “This is cold iron,” she said softly, looking to Aimé before glaring to the men lined alongside the prince. “Whomever set this table for His Grace should have been acutely aware of his humors, and known that iron is to be avoided.”
Aimé’s face darkened as he understood what had been done. He put down his own spoon and pushed his bowl away from himself, finished with dinner.
“Do you have, or know how to make, a healing honey?” Lizzy asked loudly over to Wolfram. Even if she had whispered the entire room would have heard. The levity at the old childhood story was gone just as quickly as it had come.
“Oui,” the boy said. He was already walking over to His Grace. “We made another batch just yesterday.”
“Bring it to His Grace’s quarters, please.”
“Oui.” He spun on his heel and out of a side door at the order.
Lizzy stood and walked around Maiolaine to stand beside Pierre. She placed her hand over his, still pressed to his mouth.
“Sh, don’t speak,” she said softly, “it may make it worse. Try not to swallow.”
By now the servants had come in and had begun to take up the offending dinnerware away. Pierre remained seated, silent on her order, but looking at every advisor for quite a long time. Most were pale that something like this had happened.
“Gold,” Vivien said suddenly. “You—”
“I remember our lesson, Lord Vivien, merci,” Elizabeth said. She gave a small smile to him. “If I am unsure of anything I will ask.”
“Come, Brother.” Aimé motioned for his food to be taken back as well and got up with Pierre and Elizabeth, not turning to look at the remaining men and women at the table. “Lord Vivien I want everyone involved with this meal and this château in the main hall in half an hour. Do you understand?”
“Oui, Your Highness.”
Síofra watched with wide eyes as her cutlery were gathered up. She had not realized it was iron and she should have. The spirits always warned her if she was anywhere close to the metal, and at this close she should have felt weak or had a headache. She had thankfully not picked up her spoon yet.
“One moment,” she asked, as Renaud’s cutlery was being taken. She slowly extended her hand until the very tip of her finger touched the knife handle. It did not burn, but was instead as any other knife’s handle, and left no mark.
His whole mouth felt as if it had been scalded. The blisters were painful and throbbing. He had never had this reaction to iron before in his life. Ophion’s tools were never iron, Eglė would have been ill, but after living in the castle— or had the reine gotten rid of the iron for him? Had he merely never been exposed before? The surgical tools at university were steel, but surely someone had an old iron set?
Elizabeth and he walked to his rooms, while Aimé escorted them to the doors before telling them he would return very soon. Lizzy thanked His Highness and sat Pierre on his bed.
She brushed her fingers along his lips, worried brows creased. “Wolfram will be here in a moment with some of the honey. Do you have a headache?”
Pierre shook his head. He looked up to her with love in his eyes and moved his hand away enough to show her a small smile. ‘I appreciate what you are doing,’ he said without words. ‘Thank you, dear.’
Lizzy took a deep breath, blinking back tears. She may have understood the grief and distrust of those in the château, but to let it go this far!
“I do not know if it is good that you have those blasted gloves of yours, dear. A wound on the hand would be less painful than your mouth—”
Pierre started to try and speak again and she shushed him by pressing her hand to his mouth. He stilled and she realized that that likely gave him some relief with her blancræft. Before she could talk herself out of the idea she leaned forward and cupped his cheek, kissing him gently. After a moment she deepened the kiss and Pierre reached up to encourage her, opening his lips and trusting.
“How do you feel?” she asked weakly, sitting back, flushed, and heat twisted up through her.
“I love you,” Pierre said. “My… dear, darling, Elizabeth, merci.” He swallowed and thankfully there was only a lingering dull ache left in his mouth. The boils had disappeared almost as soon as they had appeared because of the iron. “If we ever find a spare moment, my love, let us try and write an article about blancræft and if intimate touch or love has any affect on the outcome.”
Wolfram came in a moment later with a small jar of the healing honey. Boiled with lavender, orange peel, and chamomile, strained, and let cool in moonlight, it was a good oral medicine that could be put in tea or taken alone that settled humors. They had made more because Cordelia was drinking little but tea with this honey for days.
Elizabeth took from her ear a piece of gold jewelry and placed it in the honey before putting it on Pierre’s desk.
“Gold helps heal injuries caused by iron, so wait a quarter hour for it to absorb the spirits and eat it then. Keep it in your mouth a half minute before you swallow at least.”
“Thank you,” Pierre whispered. Her kiss had healed most of the problems, he would have refused extra aid if it wasn’t those dear to him insisting. He also did not know enough magical ailments to assess whether this was needed.
“You were only touched so you’ll heal in a day, I hope.”
“I see spending time with Vivien is making you a gifted healer.”
“How is he?” the prince asked when Lizzy left the room. She curtsied before answering, though kept her eyes downcast (her cheeks were still rosy from their kissing).
“He shall be well, Your Highness. I do believe that since he is in Piques, a land closer to Faery, his person will be more affected by the magic of his kin than when he was elsewhere. He has also publicly embraced being fay and that may have been permission for the spirits.”
“Would those of Piques not know this? Why put out the iron utensils?”
She looked up at the thought, having not realized before. “Of course they would know,” she agreed. “It was done on purpose then, Your Highness! To shame him, perhaps. And with you here to witness.”
“But if Piques is closer—”
“Your Highness, if I may interrupt, from what I know of Hearts… Cœurs is not often a land that sees and knows fay. They distrust, I do not say they are welcome with open arms, but their dislike is more subtle. I am sure Pierre would assume any odd behavior was more about his birth title rather than bestia. In Trèfles and here it is easier to hate something you know, and there are more supporters of outright action against fay.”
“Eichel,” Lizzy said, “is one of the few counties where the fay and fée are not so harshly looked upon, no doubt why Eglė moved there and fell in love with Brother. The other lands, as here, are less kind.”
“Thank you, Lady Elizabeth,” Aimé said. “I will be speaking with the servants who set the table.” His tone made it know there would be more than talking going on.
“Was Your Highness not aware?” she dared to ask, eyes still downcast.
He sighed. “No, Lady Elizabeth, I was not. Truthfully much of the land was governed by Vivien in most day to day activities. I was more on a vacation myself rather than in a position of power. Perhaps they rebel because the true master has returned.”
They bid each other well and Aimé left to have words with his former staff.
The staff, from the cup-bearers to the advisors, were gathered in the formal ballroom so as to contain everyone. Beside Lady Cordelia, a few of the younger servants, and an ill woman, all who lived and worked in the château were there.
“How did this happen?” Aimé demanded. He need not specify, the entire estate was aware of what transpired.
“It is… Complicated,” Renaud began, but the prince held up his hand.
“I do not know whether to shout at you, imprison you, or spank you like I would a misbehaving child. Someone in this room conspired to harm the duc and succeeded! What if it were poison in the dish?”
“There was not,” the head chef replied. “I myself tried the dish before sending it out and watched the server until it was placed before His Grace.”
“And yet you did not see that the utensils were made of iron?”
“I… I did. But cold iron has been the standard dinnerware here for almost a century. While Your Highness was here we used it often. I believe we already used it once several weeks ago and it did not seem to bother His Grace then.
“Your Highness, with the utmost respect, I must say this: I have been with this home and family my entire life, and I will soon be ninety years of age. I was child myself when the graceful Félicien was snatched from us. I grew up serving Their Graces Valère and Cunégonde. The fée and their magic were not tolerated for what they had done. When Félicien returned to us he had been corrupted by the spirits and humors of that plane. We served him though as best we could, and yet he abandoned us almost as quickly as he came. He was duc for half a decade and it was his dear wife that ran the duchy more than he. Pierre he abandoned as well, and I thank God that the roi himself took in the boy. Yet here he returns, having lived his entire life in this plane, and already fée are returned and gaining positions of power. The hospital staff has been decimated and the chief doctor hanged himself. He saved a girl, yes, but at what cost? How many other patients have been ill cared for because the chief is gone and dozens of doctors no longer have jobs? And now the iron is affecting His Grace when before it did not!”
“We are all to blame,” Aimé said after a long pause, absorbing the words and the fact that most of the staff seemed to agree with this rant. “That is the only reason I do not do something that I would perhaps regret later—it is my fault as well as yours. But this will end or the entire château will be purged like that hospital. We have servants to spare at the castle who know Pierre and treat him well. You are dismissed—begone.”
She sat in her rooms, playing with the necklace he had bought for her. Wearing the clothes he had commissioned for her. Her hair piled atop her head with dozens of pins, caught in a net of gold, giving her a headache, but kept that way because the fashion of the day said it was proper. Everything felt tight and restrictive, from her wrists up to her throat. It felt hard to breathe even if she had worn this all evening without difficultly until this moment.
Renaud and the other staff were meeting with the prince about the iron dinnerware. That His Grace had been harmed was a matter that could not be ignored and only piled onto the problems that were taking place in Spadille. She worried for Pierre, and was glad that her parents had not attended.
What troubled her now was that she was not hurt. Touching the iron had had no effect on her. It should have.
Renaud had smiled when she had touched it. There had been too much commotion, and she in too much shock, to say anything. Was he happy she was unharmed?
She had gone to her rooms while the prince asked everyone important to stay behind. Perhaps she had been included in that, she was after all the margrave’s daughter and heir, dear friend to Lady Elizabeth, and relative to the injured party, but all she had wanted was to hide.
She began to take off her clothes, at first gently so as not to damage them, and then with more frantic motions. As she tried to undo a clasp that should require the aid of another she tore at the fabric. The remains of it clung to her, like hands, like claws. She threw her golden snood on the ground and shook her head and pulled out pins. When her outer layers were on the floor she took off her underthings and similarly threw them down.
She stood gasping, naked, her hair a tangled mess of a few remaining pins and wild locks. The only thing she still wore was Renaud’s necklace. Her hand shook when she grabbed it and as much as she wished it, she could not bring herself to tear the chain and smash the bauble. She crawled into her bed without any nightclothes on, still holding the necklace, stroking it with her thumb and looking at the flakes of silver.