Authors: Heather Rose Jones
When they arrived, the baron had been closeted half the morning with his estate manager and couldn’t see them immediately. Margerit thought they would leave a card and return the next day but Aunt Bertrut was more tenacious.
“We can wait on his excellency’s convenience,” she told the apologetic butler. And though he frowned discouragingly, evidently he had no orders to turn them away.
Tea was provided and they were shown into a cozy room opening off the front entryway, a place lined with bookshelves and furnished with a warm fire and a few chairs, ranging from the stiff and practical to a throne of overstuffed comfort that Bertrut instantly commanded. The next time Margerit looked back at her, she had nodded off to sleep.
The baron’s library was a thing of wonder. And these were only the books he felt should grace a house by default, Margerit thought, and those he particularly cared to carry with him from place to place. What must his house in Rotenek hold? She sat at one of the chairs next to a small round table and ran her finger over the red-bound volume that lay open on it. Several ribbons marked places in the text and there were sheets of closely-written paper inserted haphazardly throughout. She carefully marked the place where it had been open and turned to the front to examine the title page.
! Her heart jumped and she leafed through the first pages of the introduction to make sure. For all that she’d read summaries and citations, she’d sometimes wondered if the book were only a legend. Sister Petrunel had discounted the work as idle sophistry but those glimpses had left her hungry for more.
She turned to the first set of inserted papers and spread them out across the table. Someone had been working through a translation, interspersed with commentary and underlined questions. It was the cramped, rapid script of someone writing only for their own reference and Margerit was so engrossed in deciphering it that she didn’t notice the door open and close. A faint but deliberate cough brought her back to the room and she looked up to see Barbara standing close.
“Oh! Is my godfather finished?”
“No, Maisetra, not yet.” There was an awkward pause and then, “I don’t mean to intrude but I came for the book.” She gestured to the open volume.
“Is it yours?” Margerit asked eagerly.
The other woman flinched slightly. “The baron permits me—”
“No, I mean, are these your notes? Is it your translation? My governess only gave me a few extracts and I had more questions when I finished than when I began. But maybe you know.” The armin’s stiffness eased and a wary curiosity sprang up in those pale eyes. Margerit turned the pages quickly but gently back to the section she’d been examining
On the Manifestation of Miracles
. “Sister Petrunel always insisted that all miracles come only from God. That when we celebrate the mysteries of the saints, the saints are only intercessors and have no power of their own to grant what we ask.”
Barbara pulled a second chair up to the table and followed along on the passage in question, her slim muscular hands taking over the task of turning the pages.
Margerit continued, “But Fortunatus makes all these distinctions between the greater miracles and the lesser, between objective miracles and subjective ones, and he seems to claim that some come from God and some from the saints and that some come from the celebrant himself.”
Barbara pointed to a phrase where the glosses in the margins ran several layers thick. “He doesn’t exactly claim that. Remember that he was constantly dodging accusations of heresy, so he wrote in such a way that nothing he said could be pinned onto his own beliefs. Everywhere it’s ‘were this the case’ and ‘it emerges in consequence’ and ‘it would need to be concluded that.’ I think there’s one entire chapter where every single verb is in the subjunctive. But what he says here is that if you observe the nature of miracles and that if logic is applied to those observations, then if it were the case that God’s laws for miraculous events are not capricious and arbitrary and that God has not chosen to garb a capricious and arbitrary world in the garments of law and logic, then certain patterns regarding the nature and manifestation of miracles emerge.”
Margerit puzzled over that for a few moments. “It seems a dreadfully complicated way of saying that’s what he thinks.”
“Dread probably had something to do with it,” Barbara said with dry humor. “We’d be a lot poorer today if he’d been less cautious and more dead.”
It was hard to grasp that level of caution. Thaumaturgy had been an accepted field of theology for centuries. She looked to see if Barbara were teasing her but the armin’s lean face was animated only with interest. Margerit turned a few more pages. “There was a question I had once…about the relationship of miraculous visions and the visual manifestation of mysteries. Sister Petrunel didn’t think it was an important distinction but there was a hint in that bit of Fortunatus she gave me that he—”
Barbara took the heavy volume from her and cradled it easily in one arm, turning to a section marked by one of the scarlet silk ribbons. “This may be what you’re thinking of.” She read a bit of the Latin aloud and then skipped through the next page, summarizing in translation.
“Yes, that was it,” Margerit said. “Because he seems to be saying that a miraculous vision is extrinsic—that it comes from God or the saints and you may see it or not as it pleases them—but that there are some who possess an intrinsic ability to perceive…
…I’m not sure how to describe it. Something that
for everyone but that not everyone can
. Like a sound that some people are deaf to.”
Barbara smiled slightly. “And that’s the sort of thing that got him in trouble: the Mechanistic Heresy. His student Pezzulin did end up getting executed for it. He summed it up that there were Doers and Seers—
—more traditionally, those whose prayers the saints heed and act on and those who could tell which people’s prayers were heeded. And he thought that if only the two could be harnessed together, then in celebrating the right mysteries we could create reliable miracles at will. But it doesn’t much matter whether miracles are unreliable because God works by His own laws or because we have no reliable way to distinguish between the true miracles and the lucky chance of a charlatan.”
Margerit had been watching the other woman closely as she talked. The impassive stillness she had found so daunting at their first meeting was entirely gone. Here was a mind and a curiosity that matched hers step for step. She frowned slightly and sighed. “It just seems so unfair.”
Barbara grinned. “What? That logic alone can’t explain the universe?”
“No, that…that all your learning and philosophy is wasted.” She saw Barbara’s face twist in a frown and scrambled to find words for what she meant. “We might have been sisters when we were born, but fortune has made such a difference between us. Why should you be punished for what your father did?”
Barbara reacted as if she had been struck. “He told you. Everything.” Her tone was flat and expressionless. She stood up to leave, then turned on her angrily. “How dare you think to pity me! The only difference between us is that you will be owned by a husband instead. And what will your philosophy and learning mean then if all he wants you for is to breed his children? Or for the price of your dowry,” she added bitterly. She pulled the book away roughly and closed it with a clap. “I have been given permission to keep this book with me, if you please,” she said stiffly and left before Margerit could answer.
Aunt Bertrut had started awake at the snap of the book and as the door closed she said, “What did that peculiar creature want? I think it’s outrageous the way the baron keeps her. If he wants to have his mistress close, that’s one thing, but to parade her around in breeches—”
“You don’t understand anything,” Margerit said sharply and then hurried out into the hall, quaking at her own impertinence. She was always having to apologize for her quick tongue, which was strange because it seemed as if she rarely had the nerve to answer back at all. She accosted the footman by the front door. “Did you see where Barbara went? I need to speak with her.”
“I’m sure I couldn’t say, Maisetra,” he said, although his eyes darted toward the stairs. Further comment was cut off by the sound of a carriage in the drive. At what he saw from the window beside the door he hastily jerked three times on a bell-pull saying, “Pardon me, Maisetra.” A tone sounded somewhere deep in the house.
The doors were opened just as a fashionable young man was climbing the steps. Margerit stepped back into the shadows by the library door hoping to avoid his notice. How Nikule would envy the cut of that coat! With his dark brooding features and careless manner she recognized here the sort of image for which her cousin strove.
“Is my uncle at home?” the visitor barked at the footman. “What’s that you say? He’s not at home? How convenient for—” Margerit tried not to shrink as his eyes fell on her. “And how curious that he seems to be at home for everyone except me.”
The butler had joined them in the entry hall, no doubt summoned by that distant bell. “I’m afraid the baron is currently engaged with Maistir LeFevre. I expect he will be finished shortly, however there are other visitors before you.” He nodded vaguely in her direction so she had no choice but to step forward and curtsy in greeting.
“But how charming,” the stranger said, shrugging off his greatcoat for the footman to catch and turning toward her. His manner had turned abruptly from temper to an oily smoothness. “My uncle has become quite the connoisseur.” Margerit knew she was being mocked but she also thought she might have been insulted. She let him take her hand and raise it to his lips. “Will no one introduce me to this ravishing creature?” he said to the room at large.
Margerit heard her aunt come out of the library behind her and felt acutely embarrassed to be caught in such a position. From halfway up the stairs came Barbara’s voice, sharp and cold. “She’s your uncle’s goddaughter, Estefen, not a toy for your little games.” Margerit noticed in some puzzlement that Barbara was now wearing her blade. She hadn’t worn it before in the library.
Estefen laughed and pressed her hand with his fingers. “Enchanted! But come, that’s hardly a proper introduction.”
“It’s not my place to make introductions,” Barbara said, descending the rest of the way to the hall. “That wasn’t an introduction, it was a warning.”
Estefen turned to confront her and Margerit managed to pull her hand free and slipped back a few paces. His voice turned ever more silky. “You exceed your mandate, Babs. There’s no threat to the baron here. You can’t slice me open just for being friendly to his guests.”
Barbara pretended to ignore him and addressed her. “The baron has finished with his business and is ready to see you.”
Estefen said, “Ah, then I shall escort her up.” He took her hand again and tucked it under his arm but Barbara blocked his way to the stairs.
shall escort her up,” she said stonily and Estefen laughed as if it had all been a game as he released her arm.
Margerit slipped past Barbara up the stairs and waited for her at the landing. “I wanted to apologize for what I said earlier,” she began, but Barbara wouldn’t meet her eyes.
“There’s nothing for you to be sorry for, Maisetra,” she said flatly. “I spoke too freely. It is I who should apologize.”
When they reached the door of the baron’s chamber, Barbara touched her arm to pause her for a moment. “He finished with LeFevre some time ago. I hoped to let him rest a while, but…” She glanced back toward the stairs and Margerit realized it had been a deliberate rescue and no coincidence. “Don’t stay long today. He’s tired. From arranging business. If he hadn’t commanded it…” The apologetic tone was gone. This was the baron’s armin speaking. Margerit nodded silently.
* * *
He was pale—very pale. And his hand shook slightly when he raised it in greeting. Impulsively, Margerit knelt at his bedside and pressed the chill fingers to her lips.
“You should rest,” she murmured. “I can come another day.” Whatever she might think of his motives, her heart melted at the old man’s condition.
“No, no, stay,” he replied. “There will not be many more days. Come, sit here and talk to me. Tell me about something pleasant.”
She was bewildered but willing and spoke admiringly of his library. It was the pleasantest thing that came immediately to mind. From there, when he urged her to continue, she recounted the discussion with Barbara over the nature of miracles, saving only the quarrel at the end.
“Ha!” he exclaimed. “I thought you might suit each other.” And in the next moment he ordered, “Leave me now. Come back some other day.”
She went to the door, wondering if she should call someone. In the passage, Barbara was waiting and stopped her as she headed for the stairs, but this time she was deferential. “Would you be willing to engage in a small deception?”
Margerit frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“Estefen—the baron’s nephew—is…a stubborn man. But if he thinks you’re still with the baron, he won’t try to press the matter. It will give him a little more time undisturbed. Would you be willing to leave by another way? I’ll have someone fetch your aunt.”
“Of course,” Margerit said hurriedly.
She waited in a back hallway, enduring curious stares from several passing servants until Aunt Bertrut was escorted to her by a distinguished middle-aged man she hadn’t seen before.
“Margerit, what on earth is this about?” she asked sharply. “This…this Mefroi LeFevre only told me to come with him and say nothing.”
Margerit briefly explained the subterfuge.
The man nodded and said, “I do apologize for spoiling your visit. I’m afraid there were business matters that couldn’t wait.”
The estate manager, Margerit concluded, for he looked bookish, with thick spectacles perched in the middle of a round good-natured face. He gazed at her overlong with frank curiosity, as if she were a puzzle he was trying to work out. She felt herself blushing and when he saw that he apologized again. Aunt Bertrut took it amiss, muttering about impertinent clerks who were no better than they should be, and dragged her away before she could wonder further.