in which old houses have leaks
Old wounds, like old feelings, do not entirely heal. They leave scars, memories, traces, ghosts. Even the smallest, most innocent touch of their fragments can reopen them.
Rhema’s illness was an old illness. That’s what the doctors said. An infection had reemerged from one of her previous miscarriages, and the scar tissue reopened. Many feverish nights and disturbed dreams later, she became aware that she had missed the latest session in the House. Thankfully Mayor Randolf, reinvigorated by their discussions, took up the slate for Sever. When she saw his overwhelming enthusiasm and knowledge for the position, she knew that her own short political career was over.
Once she was well enough to get out of bed, Rhema had little to do but shuffle around Westbridge wondering what she could do with the rest of her life. Surely she could not remain at Westbridge forever. No matter what Bastion said, the house was not his, it belonged to the state, and the king’s generosity only extended so far. Once Annette was coronated, Rhema’s reign as the incumbent princess would come to an end. She could, she guessed, move back to the Cottage with her parents. After all, that is what most unmarried women do. The idea lacked the appeal it might have formerly held. She loved the Cottage. She loved its little garden and big green door. She loved Yash and Neha, squabbling in the kitchen. She loved the ducks and the geese and her parents and Roger. But none of it was hers. Not anymore. She could not imagine living there without losing all she had gained by living and working on her own.
But what have I gained?
She could, if she wanted, search for employment elsewhere. Earn a living. Buy a house. Be a proper baroness to Sever. That is what an independent man would do. Why not a woman? Her list of marketable skills was short. Even with what little she knew, she hadn’t the first notion of how one goes about pursuing employment. It had never been something she had to do before. Perhaps the Cartwellers could help her find work. Would a baroness be allowed to work in a shop? Luxury was a crutch. If she went into the world without it, she would begin her new life as a cripple.
Unless she married again.
She shuddered to think of it. There were other men in the world besides Bastion. She had heard of these men. Many of these men were even good men. If she dared to imagine even one romantically, all she could envision was how Bastion would look at her, how his shoulders would bend, how the light in his beautiful eyes would go out. She shuddered again.
“I told you that you were not ready to get out of bed,” said Gwen, who sat with her faithfully since her illness had started. Gwen was not always the most pleasant company, but Rhema got the impression that she was happy to be removed from her home, where Marcus surely goaded her in every way he could.
Rhema shrugged and pulled her needle through her lazy embroidery. A pointless craft it seemed to her, but a relaxing one. Her thoughts focused on nothing when she stitched, except the possibility of poking her finger with the needle. Even that would be a change.
“I suppose you have heard,” said Rhema off-handedly.
“I hear many things, my lady. To which to you refer?” said Gwen carefully.
Rhema looked at her. “About the storm.”
Gwen relaxed into the invitation to gossip. “Adele told me that the Duchess woke up this morning and stepped in an inch of cold water. She gave a shout that roused the whole palace.”
Rhema snickered. “I would like to have seen that.”
“I will tell you what it is. It is disgraceful that the king’s house should have leaky walls. It would never have happened at my home. Mother has it inspected regularly.”
“Shush,” said Rhema. “I have been in every inch of the palace. It is very old and has many openings. Not every architect in the country could account for them.”
The palace at Iderburg was considered to be the best home in Gallia. Its every corner was fortified with buttresses. Its buttresses were fortified with more buttresses. Its buttresses’ buttresses were made of the heaviest material available at the time of its construction. This was why it was particularly unusual that a portion of it had flooded. Even more unusual was the area of the collapse: the east wing at the Princess Suite, precisely where the Duchess slept.
“The servants say that the spirit of Annabelle caused it,” said Gwen lowering her voice to a whisper. “They say her ghost is trying to drive the Duchess out.”
“If Annabelle’s ghost existed, and I am not saying that it does,” said Rhema, getting suddenly angry at her stitching. “Then she doesn’t want any woman living there, it would seem.”
Gwen’s eyes grew larger. “Queen Maye died young. And Dahlia too. Then there was your illnesses.” Gwen dropped her sowing and moved her fingers trying to form a slow connection in her mind. “What if it is not the palace that is cursed, but the prince? What if this is Annabelle’s revenge on the descendants of her brother for making her marry the Freesian king? Or... or... what if her ghost loves Prince Bastion and wants him all to herself?”
“Sarcasm does not suit you, Gwen.”
“What do you mean, Your Highness?”
Rhema sighed. “Please do not go around telling people about curses and ghosts. They will most likely believe you.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Gwen. Rhema knew she would not keep her promise.
“What do you suppose the Duchess will do now?” Gwen said, fumbling with her own embroidery.
“I suppose she can paddle around like a duck.”
Gwen scrunched her face in staunch disapproval of Rhema’s humor. Sometimes it was as if the two of them did not speak the same language. That Gwen was at present the best friend Rhema had never ceased to amaze her.
When Mr. Highwater arrived later on, the visit was hardly unexpected.
“It seems,” he explained, “that the quarters in the east wing will not be suitable to live in for a few weeks. We could find accommodations elsewhere for His Highness and the Duchess, but it would be better for them to remain in town, especially with a coronation pending.”
“You want me to invite them to stay at Westbridge,” Rhema said not as a question, but as a fact. Mr. Highwater took off his glasses and began to polish them against the side of his vest.
“I do not agree that it is the wisest solution, but His Highness made the suggestion.”
“His Highness is always welcome here. After all, it is his home,” said Rhema, her heart ricocheting off the sides of her rib cage.
“And the Duchess?”
“Yes. I suppose she must come as well. They can have the prince’s old quarters. I do not use them anymore.”
Gwen leaned in toward Rhema. “Your Highness, you cannot stay in the same house as the prince. You will be scandalized.”
“There is no scandal in opening my home to friends.”
Gwen’s nose twitched, but she kept silent.