“I’ll leave it up to you.” His hand felt warm against my forehead. Safe. “It’s your choice.”

I was half asleep already, sinking fast beneath the weight of the exhaustion that so often struck me after meltdowns. “My choice…”

He bent his head to mine again, and when he spoke it stirred my hair and sang within my ears above the restful rhythm of his heartbeat. “Always.”

Chapter 37

The king of the world sits in his hall, and hears of his people’s flight.

—Macpherson, “Carthon”

Rome

April 22, 1732

It proved to be a difficult decision, choosing what to wear to meet the king. She knew it was ridiculous, with all she had encountered and endured, that such a silly detail now should hold her all but paralyzed, yet in the days they’d been in Rome it had become a problem. Both her winter gowns from Paris were too warm for such a climate, where by afternoon the hotness of the sun even so early in the season kept most people shuttered in their rooms and houses, and the scents of sun-warmed stone and brick and plaster fought the drifting perfumes of the hanging flowers, and the carriage horses by midafternoon stood drowsy-eyed in harness in the shade cast by the ancient buildings of the many squares—called by the people here piazzas—that were set like little beads within a lacy web of narrow, twisting streets.

Their piazza had a fountain, and a very ancient structure called the Pantheon, or sometimes the Rotunda, built to honor all the gods that had been prayed to in the old Rome of the Caesars, with a dome that Mary marveled at, so perfectly constructed that it stood without the benefit of buttresses. It had become a church now and there was but one God honored there, but Mary felt the weight of all the old forgotten gods still pressing round her in the shadows when she entered in that building, where the daylight and the moonlight shone by turns from a great open circle at the very center of the dome. She had a good view of the massive pillars of its portico and front from the tall window of their room in the hotel, where she was wont to lean each morning and again at evening, simply listening to all the splendid sounds of Rome and drinking in the sights.

And she was at that window now when Effie called to her.

Frisque barked, and Mary shushed him, lest the other guests of their hotel complain about the noise. Frisque had been out of sorts since their arrival here, and Mary had at first blamed it upon the warmer weather, but she’d seen him pacing round the room at night as if in search of something, and she now believed it was because he had grown used to having Hugh close by, and missed him. As did she.

Since the name Symonds had so clearly been discovered at Marseilles, their names had changed again, with papers Hugh had drawn from a compartment in his gun case before burning all the others. She was back to being Mr. Thomson’s sister, with their surname being… Well, it hardly mattered, Mary thought, for it would surely change again.

“Come try your gown,” said Effie from the cool and airily high-ceilinged room they shared. The room that Hugh and Thomson had was over theirs, up one more pair of stairs, and while she often heard them walking round she rarely saw them but at meals. She found it hard, having grown used to sharing nearly all her hours with Hugh, to have him now so separate from her, and to see him only in the company of others where she could not draw him into conversation nor enjoy his calm companionship without another person intervening.

With a sigh she turned and went to Effie.

“Now,” the older woman said, “I’ve done my best with it, but I’m no seamstress.”

They had found the gown by sheer good fortune, having gone in search of a mantua maker and stumbled upon one not many streets distant who had been about to reuse parts of this one in making another. It was somewhat plainer than her Paris gowns—not a new robe volant but a simply cut bodice set over a closed skirt, and it had been torn at the seams in three places and missing its laces, but made of light silk in a pale frosted blue Mary found very calming.

A fine trade, she thought, for the plum-colored gown. And with Effie’s repairs and a length of new ivory silk ribbon to thread through the sides of the bodice across the plain stomacher, matching the trimmings of ivory lace showing around the low neckline and under the gathered sleeves from her fine linen chemise, Mary thought the effect very pretty.

“You’re sure you won’t come?” she asked Effie.

“I’ve seen the king often enough in my time. And who else would look after this bundle of mischief?” She nodded to Frisque. “He would ruin the room if ye left him alone in it. There now, that’s done. Not too tight at the elbows? Good. Then all ye need is your cap. Here, I’ve finished that too.”

She had crafted a new cap from one of her own, adding small bows she’d fashioned from scraps of silk ribbon that matched the frost blue of the gown.

Mary, keeping her head still while Effie adjusted the pins through the lace of the cap, felt a twinge of uncertainty. “What is he like, the king?”

Effie appeared to be sorting through words to describe him and settled on: “Kind.”

It wasn’t what Mary expected, but it eased her worries a little since she hoped to ask his assistance in finding her father. She’d thought, when they’d first arrived, she might just find him—that he would be easy to locate, but Rome was a crowded place, and while they’d waited for King James to make his reply to the letter that Thomson had sent to acquaint him with their arrival, she had not been at liberty to ask around in her own name, to learn where her father might lodge.

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