Twenty

The three women that stood before Ysabelle were peculiar. They wore dark silk dresses, one with belled sleeves, another with a capelet, and the other with many flowing layers and ruffles that seemed to match the volume of her wild bramble of red hair. They were not servants or staff. Certainly not one of the ascetics that usually skulked about the library.

“You must be the witches Darwyn brought back,” Ysabelle said. “I heard him speak of you.”

“More like we brought him back,” one of them said.

The one with the fiery mane pointed to herself. “Lilith”–and gestured to the other two–“Beatrice and Ophelia.”

“And you,” Ophelia said, wiping her glasses on one of her swooping sleeves, “must be Ysabelle. No one else would be dressed in such fine raiment.”

“I am,” she said, pausing as she waited for them to bow. Instead, the murder of crows stood perfectly still, their eyes wide and empty save for Lilith. Hers held an interest–though faint.

“Impressive bit of brick and mortar you have here,” Lilith finally said. “What do you call it? Highspire?”

Beatrice’s lip curled. “Always with the dreadfully overdone names.”

“I like it,” Lilith said matter-of-factly.

Ophelia’s interest had returned to the book. “Lilith has a taste for the gaudy and ostentatious.”

“I like to think I have a taste for everything,” she clarified. “A real lust for life.” She winked at Ysabelle.

“We were just admiring your collection,” Ophelia said, not looking up. “Vast stores of knowledge here. Most enviable.”

They were admiring your collection and boring me with it,” Lilith explained. Her face lit up suddenly and with a great flourish she plunged toward Ysabelle and took up her arm. The princess normally would have been appalled by a commoner laying hand to her, but her mind was still mostly elsewhere and so she followed as Lilith led her away.

“I’ve had the best idea,” the witch said. “Why don’t we take a walk? You can take me on a tour. Everyone was so wrapped up in preparing for some prince that we were never given a proper greeting or introduction.”

When they neared the door, Ysabelle finally came to her senses and wriggled out of Lilith’s grasp. She turned half-away from it and shrank back as though it frightened her. “I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t want to be seen by anybody right now.”

“Oh!” Lilith swooped towards her again, sensing a hint of salacious gossip in the air as sure as a shark sensed blood in the water. “You’re hiding.” She laughed; it seemed an octave lower than her speaking voice, smooth and sultry. “Care to tell from whom?”

Beatrice leaned out from behind the bookshelf and cut Lilith with a serrated stare. “Stop pestering the heir apparent. Are you trying to be beheaded before we go?”

“They should be so lucky as to have my head.” She turned back to Ysabelle, her face now flat with boredom. “Never mind. You don’t need to tell me.” She sauntered away, her hips swaying, guiding her over to the windows where late-afternoon light slanted through. She played her hands through the sharp beams and smiled as their warmth enveloped her. “I love the light just now,” she said.

“Why’s that?” Ysabelle asked.

Lilith pointed to her slender, exaggerated shadow which cut starkly across the stone floor. It looked as if a small chasm had opened up, a canyon splitting and streaking out from the hem of her dress. “Look how it pulls. Like it’s trying to tear away. But you can’t quite exorcise it.” Her head was cocked to one side as though she’d never seen her shadow before. “Or it can’t quite exorcise you.” A smile drifted across her lips and floated away just as fast, like one of the dust motes in the beams. She quickly turned to look out the window to the city below, the shafts of light still cascading round her.

“That’s a strange thing to say,” Ysabelle remarked.

“What else is there to do here”–Lilith collapsed onto a bench as though drained of energy–“besides say strange things?” She flicked her wrist nonchalantly. “Your turn. Go on. Say something strange.”

“I don’t want to.”

“That so?”

“I…wouldn’t know what to,” Ysabelle admitted.

Lilith propped herself up on an elbow, her posture slack, her dress hanging over the bench like dark moss. Her face held disappointment, but not surprise. “I figured as much.” She flicked her wrist again, this time to dismiss the Princess.

Ysabelle should have taken offense, but she complied, and made her way silently back to the other two. Beatrice had wandered over to a row of shelves that held not tomes but alchemical ingredients the scholars sometimes used for study or reference.

“Your library is impressive, but your store of ingredients leaves much to be desired.”

“Odo has many more in his chamber, I’m sure,” Ysabelle said.

“Odo is the court mage?” Ophelia asked.

Ysabelle nodded.

“Why would your father desire our assistance if he already pays for a wizard’s services?” It sounded like a question she was asking herself, but a moment later she looked up, her eyes boring into Ysabelle.

Ysabelle shook her head. “I don’t know. He doesn’t talk to me about such things.”

“What does he talk to you about?”

The truth was they talked very little. “I’d rather not say.”

“I really love the city,” Lilith remarked loudly, standing again at the window. “So many people. So much noise.” Her voice sounded hollow as it bounced off the stone walls and drifted into the high ceilings.

“Another point of disagreement,” Ophelia said. “Lilith thrives off noise. Chaos. People. She’s afflicted with a terrible, sentimental loneliness. Beatrice and I are much more private. The only people I like are fictional.”

Ysabelle pulled a chair out and sat, running her finger along the filigreed cover of one of the books Ophelia had laid upon the table. “There are constantly people buzzing about when you’re a royal. But people aren’t the cure to loneliness. It’s not hard to be lonely. Just hard to be alone.”

“Now that’s a strange thing to say!” Lilith’s voice was tinged with surprise.

At that moment, the heavy door of the library creaked open, and a set of boots thumped across the stone floors. Ysabelle clutched the table in reflex, and her already pale skin drained of whatever hint of pink it had.

Lilith glided over to the knight in an instant, her dress swirling round her as she did him. “Well, it’s about time they sent somebody to officially welcome us.”

Gerard was stoic and stone-still. “Have you seen Her Highness, Ysabelle?”

Ysabelle shook her head emphatically, though Lilith could not see her. Ophelia held her hand up to calm the princess and then quietly stood and moved out from behind the row of books. “Hello,” she said. “And you would be?”

He ignored her question–“Have you seen Her Highness?”

“To be honest,” Ophelia replied, approaching, “I’ve never met her, and wouldn’t know exactly what she looked like.”

He was unamused. “You would know the princess if you saw her, rest assured.”

“I appreciate your confidence in us.”

Beatrice, too, went to greet Gerard. “I’m sure that we’ve seen only a few balding scholars shuffling about in here with us. They’ve gone now.”

Gerard’s eyes followed Lilith as she slowly circled. “And you? You’ve seen nothing?”

“Cross my heart,” she said, laying her hand delicately on her chest.

“I’m sorry to bother you, then.” He turned and moved toward the door. “If you should see her, please tell her His Majesty wishes a word.”

Lilith waved. “As long as you promise to save us from boredom soon.”

Gerard said nothing but nodded as he left.

Ysabelle peeked out from behind the books. “Thank you.”

The murder dispersed, each returning to their previous perch. “It is a bit rude,” Ophelia said as she resumed her place in the book, “for them not to have sent someone.”

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