Had it been any other day, she would not have seen him die. Instead, Vesper would have been summoned to William’s offices by frantic servants and informed of the tragedy along the way. On a normal day, she would not have sought him out. Vesper thought it was a small, frightened love that could not bear to be apart from its object and accordingly, she and William spent most of their days busy about their separate tasks. Even when the day’s work was done, they often entertained guests and were not alone together until it was very late, though Vesper preferred the nights when they could walk together in the gardens after supper and early to bed.
On the day her beloved died, she could not wait until the supper tables had been cleared, the songs sung and the household prepared to retire before giving him her news. By the time Fina appeared at the doorway to inform her the solicitor had gone, Vesper felt she had waited more than long enough. In her haste, she sprang up before putting her embroidery down and was forced to disentangle herself as a spool rolled down her skirts and bounced across the room, trailing crimson thread in its wake.
At last! The solicitor was the last in a string of appointments William had that day and she knew he would now be alone, writing. She could not wait another minute to see him… to give him the gift that had simmered in her breast for days, harbored there until she could be certain. Now that certainty had come, Vesper felt sure that if she did not share her joy with him, it would burst out of her chest and she might never be able to gather it all in again.
“Thank you Fina,” she said and swept past her into the hall, making no attempt to temper the radiance of her smile. As she neared William’s office she relished every step that led her toward him – toward the sunrise on his features when he heard the long awaited news.
The door to the office opened as Vesper approached and she faltered slightly when an unfamiliar servant emerged carrying an empty tray. The girl nodded respectfully as she passed and for a fleeting moment, something inside Vesper turned inexplicably cold. The girl’s glance, connecting with her own for only a hair’s breadth, seemed not to glide over her as it passed, but to slither.
As quickly as it had come, the feeling was gone. Vesper paused and called to the girl — presumably the cook’s daughter, whom they had agreed to employ for the winter. The servant turned and Vesper saw no hint of mischief in her gaze as it settled on her once again.
“Is his lordship in?” Vesper asked.
“Yes my lady. Only, he has a terrible headache.” She gestured to the empty tray. “He called for a draught of wine and hellebore to relieve it.”
Of course. Poor William was frequently afflicted with unbearable pain, especially on the days the solicitor visited. There was nothing at all unusual about his calling for a pain draught in the late afternoon, yet Vesper found herself in the sudden grip of wild, irrational fear. She dismissed the servant and turned toward the heavy door of William’s office. Surely her racing heart was only nerves, she told herself, brought on by the day’s anxiety.
Slowly, Vesper opened the door. There he was — her William, the sunlight of her days, seated with his back to her, bowed over the account books as if engrossed in a particularly troublesome sum. There was no relief in the sight. She took in everything at once; the tension in his body, his hands clutched to his stomach, the unnatural pallor on his face, where beads of sweat had formed. She saw the cup, drained and placed back on the table, perfectly mundane, perfectly innocent. She saw the bile, soaking into the rug near his feet. This, at least, gave her a shred of hope.
“William!” She rushed into the room, falling to her knees at his side. “William,” she cried again. “Can you hear me, my love?” She put her hands on his face, turning it toward her own. His eyes were clouded with pain, his skin feverish and slick with sweat, as though his body sought to expel the poison through every pore. Perhaps if she could induce him to vomit again or empty his bowels, the poison would not have time to seep into his veins.
William’s eyes seemed to clear for a moment and he saw her at last. He offered a rueful smile and reached to touch her face. She thought he meant to caress her cheek, or hair, as he was often wont to do, but his fingers only grazed her skin before his head fell forward and he retched fruitlessly.
“Fina!” Vesper screamed. She knew her lady’s maid was not in this part of the house, but surely her scream would draw someone to help. “Help! Fina! ”
There was no answer. No hurried approach of footsteps in the hall.
“Get up William,” she commanded. He cried out as she lifted his arm and placed it around her shoulders, wrapping her own around his waist. Vesper pushed her bodyweight into him, forcing him to stand. “Get up!” She was frantic now.
No help, it seemed, was coming.
She could run and find a servant in only a few moments, but her heart warned her that to leave him for even a moment would be to leave him forever.
She could think of nothing else but to take him with her — perhaps the walking would loosen his stomach and help rid his body of the deadly tonic. They stumbled together into the hall. Vesper paused, looking frantically around as if she had never seen the castle halls before.
Why were they so empty? So silent?
“Come, my love,” she said. “Only a few steps. Come with me, my heart, my William, only a few steps more,” she had begun to babble, urging him on as if her words alone could hold him upright.
“Vesper,” he whispered, but she would not hear him.
“It’ll be alright,” she told him, now all but dragging him down the hall. “It will be alright, it will be alright, you only need a draught of bryony and you will be alright…”
She stopped this time, turning to look at him. It wasn’t the pain or fear in his expression that would haunt her in the new, dark world she would inhabit before night fell, but the apology. As if he was failing her and that knowledge, rather than the poison, was killing him.
William reached for her again and this time she caught his hand before it could falter, brought it to her face and kissed his palm through salty tears. He held her gaze a moment longer, then lurched forward. With a cry, Vesper caught him, lowering him gently to the floor.
“I’m sorry, dearest,” he said. She shook her head, begging him not to be sorry, not to go at all, but not to be sorry for what he could not prevent.
His face was ghostly white, his beard wet with sweat and bile, but as he smiled again, Vesper kissed his hand, his forehead, his eyes, his mouth. She felt his muscles relax beneath her fingers and as she drew back, she watched the sun set in his eyes, until at last no light was left in them. Those eyes, once so humorous, once so soft as he caressed her face and laughed, had emptied out til they became something else. Something that was nothing. A void.
Then the rest of the world began to grow dim,
It seemed only right that all the light in the room should follow her beloved’s soul wherever it should go, as if the void that filled him was spreading — reaching out with dark tentacles to pull the whole earth into itself. As the darkness embraced them both, Vesper felt, for the first time, the flutter of movement within her womb.
Vesper has known since the day she arrived that something is wrong. Some vital element is absent from the place she has made her listless home, though her room lacks no luxury. The carpets are lush and strewn with meadowsweet, the air is warm, undisturbed by drafts. The steam from her baths is scented with oils. She reclines on soft couches, wrapped in soft furs, attended by sweet music, savory food and strong wine.
It was not until she awakened from her faint some time after William’s death that she understood it had not been the light in the halls that had fled with William, but her own sight. The doctors attributed her sudden blindness to shock, assuring her that sight would return with time, but the darkness has remained with her since then.
When news of the tragedy reached the surrounding countryside, she had found herself compelled to greet and entertain a steady stream of well-wishers who came to mourn with her and offer their aid, but far more who came to walk in her gardens, fill themselves at her table and rest in the castle’s luxurious suites.
Vesper had borne their company graciously but grew more fatigued every day. The flutters of the little one inside her brought some comfort, but also a different kind of grief. So it was that when Fina delivered a letter from the widow of a wealthy duke inviting Vesper to rest at her country castle until the child’s arrival, she accepted without hesitation. Vesper had only met Lady Watho once or twice, since the duchess’ castle was inconveniently far away in the desolate moors. Of course there were the rumors — whispers of other reasons Lady Watho might avoid society, but Vesper had never been one for gossip and the offer of solitude awakened, for the first time, some hope of comfort to her aching soul.
The day after the letter’s arrival, Vesper had begun her journey to the place she would never see, but has since come to think of as her home while her child grows. Lady Watho, kindly, leaves her mostly to herself, visiting only now and then to make sure Vesper’s needs are met and occasionally to read her a story when the silence becomes too oppressive. The stories are always sad, but Vesper thinks that is appropriate. Occasionally, Vesper joins Watho in the dining hall, but since she cannot see, rarely leaves her room for any other reason. Falca, Watho’s aging lady’s maid, attends to her comforts, brings most of her meals and summons musicians to fill the darkness with sweet, sorrowful hymns.
She knows that something is missing, but the knowing is a butterfly’s wings beating against a window; persistent — urgent, even — but faint. Like everything else, it lies beneath a shroud of grief.
Once it would have mattered. Vesper’s mind was once curious and animated, but that time is long past. The world is dark and Vesper is alone. In the shadow of such towering grief, no butterfly spending its strength against the unyielding window pane can be of any consequence.
Watho is brooding.
She sits in her window seat, gazing out over the gardens, which are pleasant during the day, but take on an entirely different kind of splendour in the pale moonlight. Not that she cares for splendour.
It has been days since Felnys made an appearance and Watho can feel his absence in the straightness of her shoulders, the ease with which she moves. She finds that she stands taller when he is gone, as if simply being near him robs her of her natural poise. That his presence has the power to affect Watho at all annoys her, but that she has no real control over his comings and goings annoys her even more.
Unless you have power over him, he has power over you, her father’s voice echoes in her head. He was a great believer in power. The lessons he taught on the subject still linger, like the ghost of bruises on her arms.
Sometimes Felnys reminds her of him.
No, that’s not right. She dismisses the thought with an irritable shake of her head. Felnys may be a puzzle — unpredictable at times, even worrisome — but he’s a puzzle of her own choosing. Her feelings about him may conflict from time to time, but Watho does not allow herself to be ruled by feelings. She chose him and she can dismiss him at will. She is the one in control.
She glances down at the book in her lap. The margin is thick with notes and spells overlapping with the charts and constellations on the page. She’s been studying the movements of the stars for weeks – how they might be used to thwart the plans of mortals, or make them succeed. It matters little which, the important thing is to see what they can do. What she can make them do.
She snaps the book closed and tosses it aside, unable to shake her restlessness. She catches a glimpse of herself in the looking glass across the room and smiles grimly. Watho knows she is beautiful, but there is no vanity in the acknowledgement. She is still dressed in the green satin with gold lace trim that she wore to dinner with Vesper, rich red hair piled in intricate coils atop her head and her black eyes glitter with cold calculation.
Her mind wanders as she examines her reflection dispassionately. The pieces of the experiment are nearly all assembled. Vesper is settled in her comfortable, if crypt-like room deep in the castle’s bowels. Tomorrow, Aurora will arrive and Watho will station her in the balcony rooms overlooking the garden and the hunting plains.
The groundwork is more tedious than she likes, but if the experiment succeeds, the payoff will be well worth it. She will have proved what she has long suspected and what her father never knew: that true and lasting power is achieved not by violence but by manipulation. People, she posits, can be designed like art and cultivated like flowers. When a person is so fully in another’s power that they believe it is their natural state, that is a power no sword can rival.
“I see your machinations are proceeding as planned,” a low voice growls, mimicking her thoughts.
Watho’s smile widens, infused now with a touch of genuine pleasure. She turns slowly toward the fireplace, where an enormous wolf has appeared and now stands facing her. His thick, brown fur shines in the firelight, rippling with the movement of powerful muscles as he begins to slowly pace. Felnys’ dark eyes mirror her own.
“Back from your wanderings, are you?” she asks. “What have you been doing all this time?” Distantly, she is aware that her shoulders have already begun to sag, as if the very air in the room is weighed down by his arrival.
“I’m always about my mistress’ business. You know that.” His voice sounds like velvet.
Watho dislikes such comments. The more respectfully Felnys speaks, the more mockery she hears behind the words. She opens her mouth to rebuke him but thinks better of it. She will not be baited.
“When I send an invitation,” she probes, “I usually expect the messenger to return before I receive its acceptance.”
“Indeed,” the wolf says and curls up comfortably on the hearth rug.
Watho wants to press the issue. She does not like to go unanswered, but she likes even less the thought of appearing to need him too much. She shrugs and turns back to the window.
“The plan is proceeding smoothly, yes. Aurora will arrive tomorrow.”
Felnys snorts but says nothing.
"Tell me,” Watho says, “Why you felt it necessary to kill the young lord?”
“You think I should not have?”
“His life means nothing to me either way.”
“Then why does it trouble you?” Even without looking at him, Watho can hear his derisive smile.
“It doesn’t trouble me,” she snaps, irked with herself for feeling defensive. “I ask to satisfy my curiosity. You know as well as I do he would have been called away to war with all the rest. So why kill him, unless you just enjoy dressing up as a house maid?”
“You could never have made her blindness last while he lived. As it is now, she will not resist the magic. She prefers the darkness.”
This is why she endures the uneasiness of Felnys’ presence. Somehow, he understands how her magic works and anticipates exactly what she needs, sometimes before she herself knows. There is something eerie about this prescience. She can identify any other witch she meets by the way their magic feels, as though each one has a unique scent. Felnys, though… he’s different. His magic is as familiar as her own. Perhaps it’s different with wolves, Watho muses. She’s never met a wolf with his own magic before, but perhaps they are not so easily identifiable. Whatever the reason, having Felnys’ power at her disposal is both fascinating and useful enough to quell her objections to his impertinence.
As Watho turns back toward the window, her eyes slide past her reflection again. She’s a little surprised to see how deeply her shoulders are now hunched. It’s as if a monstrous weight — the weight of the wolf himself — has settled onto them. She consciously straightens her back and looks away.
The morning after Felnys’ return, Watho visits the tower after breakfast. The castle has several towers, but this one is the highest, affording a spectacular view of the heavens and the countryside. The tower is home to her most prized possession: a large, shining obsidian telescope, surrounded by a dizzying array of golden knobs and switches. It is the only one of its kind anywhere to be found.
Watho makes the arduous climb to the telescope’s station several times every week. She could ease the climb with magic, but she prefers to store up her power for emergencies. Anyway, expending magic only results in a different kind of fatigue. In fact, she has become uncomfortably aware that even simple spells take more of a toll than they did only a few years ago. She tells herself it must be the result of so many continuous strands deployed to keep the castle running, but still Watho is uneasy.
After a brief pause to catch her breath, she peers through the telescope’s eyepiece, adjusting the angle and fiddling with the dials and wheels until she can see far beyond her castle’s valley, into the surrounding forests. After a few more adjustments, a horse-drawn coach comes into focus, bouncing along on the forest trails. Watho is pleased to see only one coach and two soldiers on horseback riding behind it.
Good. The silly woman is not bringing her entire household.
Another tweak or two and now Watho can see inside the coach, where a young woman sits gazing dreamily out the window. Aurora has deep blue eyes and fair hair that looks as though it wants very much to escape its prison of pins and fasteners. She is dressed sensibly in a periwinkle gown with a light gray traveling cloak.
One gloved hand holds an open book, temporarily forgotten, while the other rests on her rounded belly. As Watho watches, the hand begins to move softly, absentmindedly, over the bump and a misty smile haunts the young woman’s lips.
Watho watches her contemplatively for a while and then begins to make adjustments again. She has to make quite a few of them, but in a few moments another view comes into focus. This time, she is looking not across the valleys and forests, but deep into the mountainside beneath her. The lower reaches of the castle were dug out long before Watho came to live there and some of the ancient passages and chambers buried at the heart of the mountain remain a mystery to her. A number of these unexplored or long forgotten rooms pass under her eye before it settles at last on the room which Vesper now occupies.
Vesper, like Aurora, is beautiful, but is otherwise as unlike her as any woman could be. She is tall and delicate, with skin like dark satin and black hair that cascades loosely down her back. Vesper’s eyes are black and, as always, lowered in restless grief.
Vesper paces slowly, barefoot, on carpets so soft she could easily throw herself down on them without injury. Sometimes she looks as though she wants to do just that, but instead she wanders, dreaming, Watho supposes, of brighter days. With a minor tweak of the telescope’s controls, Watho can hear her faintly humming to her unborn child; a sweet, sad song, that the soft carpets and couches soak up into themselves so that it is barely audible.
Watho realizes that Felnys has joined her on the roof only when he speaks. The wolf enjoys coming and going in silence, keeping her always on guard.
“Are you satisfied with what you see?” he asks.
Watho bristles. She hates the amused tenor of his voice, as if she were a small child playing with her toys. Stepping back from the beloved telescope, she turns slowly and fixes him with a withering gaze, which leaves him entirely unruffled.
There is not another wolf in the country that can match Felnys for size and strength. When both the witch and the wolf stand facing each other, he is more than half her height. They each possess the power to strike fear into the hearts of men with only a look, but neither ever seems able to frighten the other. She studies him, wondering why she’s never noticed the faint auburn tint to his sleek coat, which is evident in the morning light.
“I feel your guest approaching,” Felnys says at last. His voice is low and hungry and Watho feels his hunger reflected in herself.
“Yes. She’ll be here before nightfall.” She smiles, triumphant. “Once she is here, you must only be seen in human form, or not at all. Come, let’s walk in the gardens together, until then. You’ll have little enough opportunity to stretch your legs soon.”
The wolf bows his head in acquiescence and follows her silently out of the tower.
Aurora sets her needlework down atop her ever-expanding belly and laughs at it. She is prone to laugh at most things, but she always finds the use of her belly as a makeshift table especially amusing. She takes a sip of wine before resuming the needlework, her fingers working swiftly as she gazes out the window.
At times, Aurora misses the trees that grow so plentifully around her own manor and the bustle of servants and stewards and nobles coming and going. She even misses the smells of the city — sometimes putrid, sometimes sweet, always pungent — and the shouts of the merchants, chambermaids, cooks, and children. The longer she stays in this quiet castle on the moors, however, the more infrequent those pangs of homesickness become. Everything here is so bright that it has taken Aurora some time to adjust. Her rooms face east and feature the largest windows she has ever seen, so that there is no corner of her quarters that escape the morning sunlight. The moors beyond the castle are likewise shadowless, golden, so warmly lit that Aurora sometimes thinks they look like an extension of the sun itself, or a cape, trailing behind her as she races across the sky.
Aurora is, by nature, a creature who thrives in warmth and light, so as time passes and the strangeness of being away from home subsides, she is learning more and more to rejoice in the brightness of her rooms and view. Every day, the chambermaid brings new assortments of morgunn, hemera, and zinia and Aurora delights in the way the flowers lean toward the window, glorying in the light.
She thinks now, as she mindlessly works her needle and watches the hunting party racing across the plain below, in pursuit of what she cannot tell, that she is glad she came. When she first received the invitation from Lady Watho to come and stay with her, Aurora had been inclined to refuse. Her husband had been called away to war, but she could not know how long he would be gone and she was loath to be found absent upon his return.
As the conflict dragged on and showed no signs of conclusion, however, her resolve began to waver. Eventually, it was not his absence that drove her to accept Lady Watho’s invitation, but an increasing concern about her ability to provide her husband with a son when he returned. They had been married only a few weeks when he was called away, yet the earl (she still cannot think of him as Hugh and likely never will; Sir Hugh, perhaps, but never Hugh) had left with serene confidence that his son was growing in her belly. He had postponed their wedding night for three days after the actual wedding ceremony, waiting for the most auspicious alignment of the stars. The very next morning he had announced that she was pregnant with a son and had immediately written a letter to his uncle the Duke of Alton, to inform him of the happy news.
Aurora does not share her husband’s confidence in the power of the heavens to ensure a male progeny. The few pieces of correspondence she has received from the front have primarily concerned the earl’s plans for the boy’s education and future, such that Aurora has grown steadily more fearful of his anger should she fail to produce the expected heir.
Lady Watho had sent her invitation so soon after the earl’s departure that Aurora wondered if she had known of the war before the king himself did. She remembered later that the eccentric duchess was rumored to do a little magic. Aurora had always dismissed these rumors, but as she felt the quickening of the child in her womb, they came again to her mind. If Watho could do magic, she had reasoned, perhaps she could set Aurora’s mind at ease – give her some potion or teach her what to eat to ensure the child would be born a boy. At the very least, the duchess could definitively predict the child’s sex and bring an end to her uncertainty.
Thus Aurora had arrived, with five months left of her pregnancy, to avail herself of Lady Watho’s hospitality. In the months since then, she has come to love the little castle, reclusive though it is. She finds peace in its quiet isolation and often feels a pang of guilt that she does not look forward to her husband’s safe return with joy.
Watho visits her often in the afternoons and the two of them bask together in the sunlight that pours in through the airy windows, reading to one another and laughing, or writing letters in companionable silence. Every afternoon, a chambermaid brings them wine, sugared almonds, cheese and bread, then timidly curtseys and flees the room as if a wild animal is on her heels. Aurora watches her bemusedly sometimes, wondering if she has done something to frighten the girl, but a joke from Lady Watho usually drives these thoughts away.
Still, for all her host’s charm, Aurora cannot bring herself to ask the question she has come to ask. She does not want to offend the duchess by accusing her of witchcraft if the rumors are false and thus finds the subject difficult to broach.
She finds, when she considers it, that despite the duchess’ hospitality and easy grace, there is something unsettling about her, something ever so slightly wolfish behind her friend’s eyes. On the few occasions when Aurora almost decided to ask the question that brought her here, she looked up to find Lady Watho looking at her in a penetrating way that was not at all pleasant. Very soon after Watho’s nightly departure, Aurora usually begins to feel unbearably tired and is often sound asleep within an hour. She had realized within a week of arriving that the chambermaid was putting a sleeping agent in the afternoon wine. By this point her pregnancy has become uncomfortable and her anxiety about the earl increases daily, so she has decided to consider this a mercy.
Surely, a voice inside her occasionally whispers, it is a sinister hostess who gives her guests a sleeping draught without their knowledge.
On the contrary, another voice counters, that’s just what a courteous hostess would do to ease her visitor’s discomfort without having to be asked.
Watho’s visits have begun to come earlier in recent weeks and Aurora nods off to sleep well before the setting of the sun. The first voice returns from time to time, asking her if she really ought to ignore this, but usually the second voice chides the first until it quiets down.
As much as she loves the brilliant sunlight in which she is ensconced at Astarsaga Castle, Aurora finds relief for her turbulent mind in the darkness of sleep and is thankful that the drug keeps any anxious dreams at bay.
Now, as the door behind her opens to admit the duchess, Aurora takes a deep breath. Today, she tells herself firmly, she must make her inquiry.
Lady Watho favors Aurora with a warm smile as she enters, wearing a white gown of light, gauzy material that seems to float when she moves. Her striking red hair is swept up into a loose coiffure that allows wispy tendrils to escape.
“Have you decided to ask me at last?” she asks, seating herself casually on a chaise lounge and taking up her own needlework.
Aurora stares, forgetting courtesy. Watho looks amused, but says nothing.
“Have you known all this time?” Aurora asks at last.
“Is that not why you came to me? Surely you wouldn’t ask a person to predict your child’s future who could not also predict the question.” She glances up from her needlework to wink at her guest.
Relief floods Aurora. “Then you do know the answer? Please, Watho, I am so afraid.” She has never given voice to her fear before and finds she is ashamed of it.
Watho’s fingers still and she is quiet for a moment. Her smile remains, but she appears to be struggling with herself. Aurora feels her fear sharpen, but the possibility of bearing a girl into his lordship’s arms no longer seems to be its focal point. Perhaps there is some terrible ritual that will need to be endured before she can know the answer. Aurora knows very little about witchcraft. She forces herself to wait.
At last, Watho seems to make her decision and meets Aurora’s eye. Aurora is startled to find her hostess’ black eyes more disconcerting than ever.
“The child in your womb is a boy,” Watho says. Before Aurora can respond, her hostess rises abruptly although she’s only been sitting for a moment and this time her smile is all cheer. “I apologize my dear, I won’t be able to stay this evening. I’ve forgotten an appointment I must keep.”
Watho has delivered the news Aurora has been waiting so anxiously to hear, but as she watches the door close behind the duchess, she finds her foreboding has only increased.
One thing she understands with terrifying certainty: her friend has not told her everything.
At the first tightening of her belly, Vesper wakes and lies breathing quietly as she counts the minutes until the next.
The contractions come ten minutes apart at first and she monitors them drowsily, drifting in and out of sleep. Eventually she rises and begins to pace the length of the fur rug, humming softly to herself. Vesper has no need of light and rarely lights the lamp which Falca tells her hangs from the ceiling of her room.
In her months of blindness she has, however, become familiar enough with her quarters that she can light it with little trouble and she does so now to prepare for the midwives when the time comes to summon them.
She sings softly to her little one, feeling for the first time in months the warm glow of love unmixed with grief. Soon she will hold her little one in her arms. Later, she knows, the grief will come again as she aches to share her joy with her William, to hand his child to him, to see his glowing face doting over its little hands and feet and nose. Later, but not tonight. For now, all her love is focused on the little one, who will, Vesper is determined, be welcomed into its mother’s warmth and kindness, if not the light of her former life.
The pains begin to increase and the spaces between them grow shorter. Vesper at last rings the bell for aid. In a few moments, she hears the door open and Falca’s familiar footsteps approach.
“It’s time,” Vesper says, a little breathless, but smiling. “She’s coming today.”
“What makes you so sure it’s a girl?” Falca asks, in her typically direct manner and foregoing as usual the formal address Vesper’s rank merits.
Vesper only smiles again. “I feel it in my bones,” she says simply. “Send for the midwife.”
Hours later, the scents of meadowsweet and incense and the midwives’ ointment thick in the air, Vesper feels the first twinge of uncertainty. Everything seems to be going smoothly and lady Watho, who arrived at some point, assures her that the time is short, but some nagging sense — the one that has plagued her since she arrived — tugs at her concentration.
It’s a butterfly she thinks, incoherently, trying to get in through the window.
The pain must be confusing her thoughts.
At the midwife’s urging, Vesper begins to push and something wrenches cruelly inside her. Vesper cries out in shock and pain as she feels blood begin to flow down her thighs and the midwife’s hands grasping her daughter from between her legs, hears her rubbing the baby’s body, working to draw forth breath.
“What does it want?” Vesper gasps.
“What does who want?” Falca demands.
“The butterfly at the window.”
Suddenly, she understands what has been bothering her about her rooms. She understands and almost laughs — it is such a small thing, after all — but she feels only horror. In her blindness Vesper has learned every inch of the room she inhabits; the couches, the beds, the tapestries, the tables, the vanity, the rugs, the vases, the lamp and the useless mirror. The realization settles on her now, with suffocating certainty, that she has never once in all her months of pacing, encountered a window.
Her room, which before had always seemed so spacious, now feels like being buried alive. She must be underground, deep in the belly of the castle. The weight of it threatens to crush her now and Vesper feels a desperate urgency to get the baby above ground, as if the whole castle might cave in on them at any second.
She feels hands pressing on her belly and shoulders to make her lie back, hears the urgent whispers of her attendants, feels the sheets soaking up the life that leaves her body. She hears the midwife patting the baby’s back and hears the little lungs take in their first gasp of air.
At the moment that William’s daughter opens her eyes on the world, Vesper herself passes into the next.