A Sister to Butterflies, Prologue

With the lamps dimmed and the remainder of the household settled, the old lady drifted into the nursery to begin her vigil.

She sighed, because while by all meaningful measures she was ageless, she very much thought of herself now as an old lady, and knew better than most that perception was key to the definition of anything — or anyone. Her own personal perception was that each wretched tick of the clock was but another tug of an unyielding current towing her ever further into the fathomless, desolate sea upon which she'd long been helplessly, hopelessly cast.

She chided herself with a small smile. Even after so much time her tendency toward melodrama still enjoyed the company of her penchant for self-pity. The curve of her mouth broadened further as she wondered in the darkness what those who had known her best might have had to say about so mature a notion coming from her; perhaps that this so-called old lady had learned a thing or two after all.

She fixed her gaze upon the ornate bassinet, at the precious bundle swaddled in primrose and sleeping within.

Yes, she'd learned a thing or two.

She reached down, lifted the infant gently to her and eased into the mahogany rocker nearby. As she covered them both with the butter-colored afghan folded neatly across the chair's back, the baby stirred and nuzzled with a tiny sigh against her bosom, drawing plump little hands and feet up tight like a snail curling into its shell. Soft breath drifted across the woman's face, smelling sweetly of milk and lavender.

She hugged the baby closer, to brace against the familiar shudder of remorse as came once more the often overwhelming clamor of faces and voices of everyone and everything that had conveyed her to that moment. More importantly, more painfully than merely seeing or hearing them, she felt them. So much sadness, and so much of it her fault.

She closed her eyes and with solemn effort pushed back against the deluge. Surrendering to it anew would do no one any good.

The old woman traced adoring fingers through the wispy patch of golden curls on the baby's small warm head, then pressed her mouth to one delicate pink petal of an ear.

"This is not the first time you've heard this," she whispered. "Nor, I hope, will it be the last ... "

Somewhere in the depths of the mansion sounded a dull, distant chime, reminding any who might still be awake that midnight fast approached.