The Coven, Part CIV

 Read from the beginning.

      The crowd backed away and gave Brother Lux room. He knelt down to press a cloth against the assassin’s open wound, blood staining his white robes.

      “Lady Frey- go.” He repeated.

“I will not leave my husband’s side,” I said. My voice sounded like it was far away.

      “Go with her, my King, if you must,” Lux said to Hope as he worked. “Make sure she is calm before she returns.”

      I scanned the crowd for any other sign of danger, and then looked back to the boy who lay bleeding in Lux’s lap. My heart would not stop pounding- my nerves were on fire with anger and fear.

      Why didn’t Brother Lux heal the boy, like he had the other soldiers?

      Hope reined back his horse and reached out to me with his free hand. “Grace?”

      Then I realized.

      I pulled back on the reins, turned, and spurred my horse to a gallop. I rode as fast as I could, away from the crowd and the smells of gunpowder and the boy who lay bleeding to death. My wicked heart continued to pound inside of my chest as the horse’s hooves pounded the dust underneath.

      I was on the other side of the river, near the road that wound toward the hill-country, before my heart stopped pounding. I took a deep breath, and then another, but my nerves still burned just under my skin.

      “Grace,” Hope said, dismounting his own horse and coming to stand beside me. “Are you alright?”

      “You were wrong about me,” I babbled as Hope helped me dismount. “You were wrong. I am a monster. I am death.”

      “Grace, you protected me,” Hope said. “I owe you my life, yet again.”

      “I had disarmed him- there was no need to follow through,” I gasped. “And then- Lux was trying to heal the boy, and he couldn’t because of me. Because I was so frightened and angry- I could not reign in my feelings to let him do his work. It was my will that interfered, don’t you see? It was my will that the boy die.”

      “It’s alright,” Hope clutched my hands in his. “Look at me- this is a power like any other. It can be dangerous, but you can learn to control it.”

      I looked up into his warm, brown eyes, and then they blurred out of sight as tears formed in my own.

      “You can control it,” Hope repeated. He sat on the grass, and brought me down to sit beside him. “Close your eyes. Clear your mind. Let yourself be calm.”

      I closed my eyes, summoning the image of the stars I had used so long ago to clear my mind. This time, however, the stars seemed impossibly distant, and I felt impossibly small beneath them.

      I breathed in time to his instruction. After a few, deep breaths, he asked.

      “What do you see?”

      “I see the stars, and I see…” I stopped and sighed. “I don’t know. I cannot think.”

      “That’s ok,” Hope said. “If you cannot think, just breathe.”

      He came closer, and his voice took on a familiar, hypnotic cadence.

“It’s alright,” Hope repeated. “Listen to my voice. You are safe, here. You can trust me. Be calm. Breathe. Be calm.”

      I could not focus on his words, or let myself slip into that pleasant calm I had so long ago. All I could do was breathe mechanically, in and out.

      We sat together as the sun rose high in the summer sky. Sweat gathered under the collar of my greatcoat, and I longed to remove it and allow the slight breeze to cool my skin. I could not trust myself to move, however, so I merely sat and breathed.

      Long after my heart stopped pounding, and my nerves stopped humming, I heard the pounding of hooves in the distance. Two horses drew near; Miss Taris rode one, and Brother Lux rode the horse my father had taken to the Cathedral.

      I shied away when I saw Brother Lux approach. His white robes were still covered in blood, and he fixed me with a grave look as he approached. Hope, however, held my hand with such strength and steadiness that it felt like an anchor.

      Brother Lux and Miss Taris dismounted, and approached Hope and I by foot. Hope and I did not stand to meet them. I continued to breathe, in and out, as the others talked.

      “The boy is alive,” Lux said. “I was able to heal him as soon as you had passed the first bend.”

      “I examined everyone else in the crowd,” Miss Taris added. “Two more false converts were found and imprisoned. It is safe, now, if you wish to return to the Cathedral.”

      A strange sensation stole over me- a feeling that something was wrong with these words- but I could not think clearly enough to discern what.

      Hope was gazing at his brother with an inscrutable expression. “You went to a lot of trouble to heal an assassin and a traitor. Are you really trying to stage a deathless revolution?”

      “I am responsible for the outcome of the war on both sides,” Brother Lux said. He came and knelt on the grass, near where Hope and I sat hand-in-hand.

      “A schism is a dangerous time for the souls of men,” Lux continued. “And I would not add to the people’s distress. I drew a line in the sand where the suffering would end, and that line has been passed. This should be a time of joy.”

      And you are the final arbiter of when we should feel pain or joy? I might have said these words had I spoken to Lux the day before. Now the sentiment felt so hypocritical that the words tasted like poison in my throat.

      “I had intended to make you hurt the next time I saw you, Brother,” Hope said. “Now that you are here, I realize I haven’t thought of any punishment I am capable of inflicting that would serve justice.”

      “When you are ready, name your punishment; I will suffer it,” Lux said, bowing his head.

      “How humble you are,” Hope said, an edge of sarcasm creeping into his voice. “So sincere in your efforts to help others. You quite astound me.”

      Miss Taris started to laugh so hard that she doubled over, clutching her stomach.

      “Are you serious, Lord Frey?” she gasped. “You pledged your soul to the demons, murdered the High Priest, broke the Prince’s mind, ruined a lady’s position and reputation at court- and these are just the sins I know! Of course, you did it all for the greater good. You should have known that others were just as willing as you to dirty their hands. At least we seek redemption instead of vengeance.”

      Hope looked coldly up at Miss Taris. “You know nothing about me.”

      “I know that you’ve lost sight of the greater good entirely. Wisdom is healing the world as we speak, and you refuse to join him. You refuse to use his power to do something good for the world, instead of just lashing out at it.”

      “Even if-” I started to speak, and then my voice failed.

      “Yes, Lady Frey?” Miss Taris said, arching a brow.

      I shook my head and took another deep breath.

      Miss Taris knelt beside me, cocking her head curiously. “You were going to argue with me, weren’t you? I’m used to the lash of your sharp tongue; do not worry about sparing my feelings now.”

      I am the only one here with no chance at the redemption Miss Taris spoke of, I thought.

      “It is nothing,” I whispered.

      “Grace,” Hope said, drawing nearer. “It is alright. The boy is alive.”

      I turned to Lux. “Thank you for saving him. I’m sorry I…”

      My voice failed me again.

      “My brother is alive,” Lux said. “I am grateful that you acted.”

      “I almost-”

      “Your powers are growing,” Brother Lux said. “Remember how you felt, today. If it happens again, get away from people- as far as you can- until you regain control.”

      I nodded, swallowing back tears.

      “You’re frightening her,” Hope hissed at his brother.

      “Good. She should be frightened,” Lux said evenly. “If she does not learn to control her power, someone could die.”

      I shuddered. “Might it not be best if I- if I traveled alone? I don’t wish to accidentally hurt anyone.”

      “No- it will be safer if they can watch you,” Lux said. “It will be a small party from now on- just you, my brother, Miss Taris, and her companion.”

      “Are we going to del Sol?” Hope asked.

      “Yes- eventually,” Miss Taris said quietly. “Celeste and Prudence are waiting for you there.”

      “They made it?” I said. “Is Mercy safe, as well? Is Brother Amicus still with them? Can we still communicate with them?”

      “Yes, but not until we reach Rowan Heights,” Miss Taris said quietly. She looked at Hope. “I’m told you are familiar with the last length of tunnel. It goes through your land.”

      “I am,” Hope said sharply. “How soon can we go?”

      Miss Taris stood and scanned the horizon. “In just a moment.”

      Soon, we could see another figure approach the party. It was a woman, wearing white pilgrim’s robes, with loose hair that shone like bronze in the sunlight.

      “Mirth- Mirth!” Miss Taris called, waving her arm. Then she broke into a run to meet the woman in the field as she walked.

      The two embraced and laughed together with such obvious affection that I felt I was intruding on their private joy, and I had to turn my face away.

      Soon, Miss Taris returned with the woman, arm in arm.

      “I am free to join you,” the woman said. Her face, like Miss Taris’s, was flushed with joy, but her expression was sheepish, and she looked down at her feet as though struck with sudden shyness.

      “Sir Beaumont? Is it you?” Hope said, standing.

      “Call me Mirth,” she replied. “I’ve lost my title. The dragoons have decided to choose another leader. I’d hoped they would accept me but… well, perhaps that was too optimistic. I’ve changed.”

      “They are fools to cast aside such a capable leader,” Hope remarked.

      “Thank you,” Mirth said, smiling at Hope. As she looked up, I saw that she had changed only a little. Her face was rounder, and she seemed a little smaller in the loose robes she wore, but her eyes and her smile looked the same as always.

      “It is alright,” Mirth continued. “I promised Miss Taris that I would guard her, and I intend to keep my promise.”

      Mirth gestured to the polearm that was strapped to her back.

      Miss Taris squeezed Mirth’s hand, and then turned back to Lux.

“Will you come with us? The battle is over, and Brother Fortune is capable of administering what little healing is still needed.”

      “I must stay behind, for now,” Brother Lux said. “Wisdom still needs me to help secure and reorganize the Cathedral. I will join you later at del Sol.”

      “So- it’s just the four of us, then?” Mirth looked from Hope to me.

      “Yes,” Brother Lux answered for us. He stood to go, and then turned back to Hope and me. “Lady Frey, I will make sure your father and cousin remain safe at Willowbrook. Brother- until we meet again.”

      I watched Brother Lux lead the horses back toward the Cathedral, and when he was out of earshot, I turned to Mirth.

“Do you…” I took another breath to steady my nerves before I spoke again. “Do you feel capable of fighting, Mirth, or are you still fatigued from battle?”

      “I don’t feel the least fatigued,” Mirth said. “Wisdom’s miracle not only changed my body; it renewed my health and vitality. I’m not sure if I will fight as well as I once did. I have not had the chance to try, yet. I will do my best.”

      “I’m sure you will do well,” I said, “but let’s hope you won’t need to try.”

I doubted I would be able to draw my sword if we encountered trouble again, but I lifted my chin, summoned all the false self-confidence I could, and told Hope I was ready.

 

 

#

 

 

      The party followed an exposed path through the plains to the rolling hills, beyond. Two times, Miss Taris hissed at the party to hide, and we lay down in the grasses while dark figures passed in the distance- men who moved like shadows against the bright horizon.

      “They are opportunists,” Miss Taris whispered as the last group disappeared into the west. “Their feelings are repugnant- like the bandits we met before, Lady Frey. They will flee like rats when Wisdom’s soldiers march east.”

      The rest of our walk passed uneventfully, and we reached the hills as the sun was beginning to dip below the horizon behind us. We stopped at an old, crumbling well that jutted off the side of the lowest hill. I looked into the well, but the setting sun cast shadows so deep I could not see more than a few feet within.

      “I can sense the seal- it is all the way at the bottom,” Miss Taris said, peering into the well. “How in the world do we get inside?”

      Hope gazed evenly at Miss Taris as she searched for a way to climb inside. Then, after it was clear she’d given up, he spoke.

      “Technically, we have arrived at Rowan Heights,” he said. “This hill is part of my property. Let me speak with Prudence now, and I will show you the way into the tunnel.”

      Miss Taris narrowed her eyes. “You are trying to deceive me. It won’t work. I will let you speak with Prudence once we are inside the house, and not a second before.”

      “You tried to deceive me first,” Hope said, fixing Miss Taris with a look of steel. “I will not invite you into my home until I know the truth.”

      “We are exposed, here,” Mirth interjected, scanning the horizon. “Can we continue this discussion inside the tunnel?”

      “No- we cannot,” Hope said. “If Miss Taris won’t cooperate, I will continue on foot through the hills to del Sol, never mind the tunnel. Del Sol isn’t far, after all.”

      “Oh yes, del Sol is very close,” Miss Taris laughed. “-just a few miles through the bandit-infested midlands, or else through the narrow valley, which is guarded by inquisitors. Remember that Prudence was unable to get through, even with all her cleverness, and was diverted for ten years.”

      “In that case, our endeavor is hopeless, anyway. The tunnel goes to the cottage on bluebell hill, and not beyond. You can’t guarantee safe passage to del Sol through the tunnel.”

      “If you submit to Wisdom’s will, you will reach del Sol safely,” Miss Taris promised. “If you run now, you risk never seeing your child or your mistress again.”

      Hope stared at Miss Taris for a few more seconds, and then he smiled. “Ah- good. We have the truth at last.”

      “I don’t know what you mean,” Miss Taris sputtered indignantly.

      “I sealed this tunnel myself. I can sense that it’s been changed. Only two people I know could break my seal. The first,” he said, gesturing to me, “has been with us the whole time, and cannot create another seal. Wisdom himself must have changed the seals on the tunnel, and once I am lured inside, I won’t be able to escape. Wisdom is at Rowan Heights, waiting to meet me so he can make me submit to him. The trap is set.”

      Miss Taris gaped at Hope, who nodded as though in satisfaction.

      “Good- I was hoping the trap would be sprung soon.” He walked around the well and then stopped, pushing one of the loose bricks back into place. There was the sound of shifting stone, and then a ladder sprung out from the side of the well.

      “Don’t dawdle. Wisdom is waiting for us,” Hope said cheerfully.

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The Coven, Part CIII

   Read from the beginning.

      I stood at the window of my old room, staring out onto the lawn.

      Hope and I had done our best to distract Lady Fairfax, but she’d continually complained of her nerves, and she would not settle herself to sleep no matter how many lulling songs we’d played on the clavichord. Finally, she accepted a glass of brandy, and then went to bed just as the sun began to rise over the hills.

      I could not follow either Lady Farifax’s example or Hope’s advice that I go to sleep. Instead, I kept watch, and after some time came to the conclusion that neither Miss Taris nor the dragoons had stayed to patrol the grounds. They were likely further in the distance, behind the veil of gunpowder that hung over the horizon to the north.

      The tip of the Cathedral’s spire shone above the haze, reflecting the sunlight like a torch. The sounds of cannon fire had begun to slow- it was no longer like a continuous sound of thunder, but rather an occasional, disjointed pop. The soldiers who still patrolled the lawn seemed to relax their postures, and marched more slowly. They had caught no enemy near Willowbrook in the night.

      As I watched, I heard a knock on the door behind me, followed by a soft creak as the door opened.

      “You cannot sleep?” Hope said across the threshold.

      “I haven’t tried, and I don’t plan to try,” I said, beckoning him inside.

      Hope entered and closed the door behind himself, coming to stand beside me at the window. He had changed into my father’s old clothes, and for the first time since he was arrested he was dressed like a gentleman.

      “It’s a strange sort of anxiety, isn’t it, when you await the outcome of a battle between your foes,” he said.

      I nodded. “The sounds of battle are growing quiet, but none of Sancti’s troops have made their way to Willowbrook. Either Wisdom is winning, or Sancti does not know you are hidden here.”

      “Or Sancti knows, and does not care,” Hope said. “But I don’t believe that Sancti would let me slip away, no matter how inconsequential Pride believes me to be.”

      “Even if Pride underestimates you, the Queen of Sancti surely knows the power of symbols. The people wouldn’t not accept her reign while you-” I shivered, unable to finish the thought.

      Hope stepped a little closer to the window and drew back a curtain a little further. “The dragoons are nowhere to be seen. They must have joined the battle.”

      “Yes. Things must have proven more difficult than Wisdom anticipated, to leave his king so unguarded. I don’t think that Miss Taris lied when she said they planned to guard us last night.”

      “No,” Hope growled in a low voice. “Miss Taris had no motive to lie. She certainly did not mean to reassure Lady Fairfax. On the contrary- Miss Taris seemed to take great delight in tormenting her.”

      Hope flung the curtain shut and turned away from the scene.

      “Wisdom will be weakened, perhaps, after such a difficult battle,” he said. “This would be the best time to strike against him. Have you tried to sing the litany, yet?”

      “No- I will try now, while we are alone. If I sing it before the others, it will look strange.”

      I closed my eyes and began to sing.

      The song was not difficult to remember. The tune and lyrics were as simple as any other litany. I sang the song once, just to make sure I remembered all of it, and then I sang through again. This time, I concentrated on the lyrics, the feeling of the tune, and any other piece of the song that might provide a clue to the spell’s intent.

      I sang a third time, going a little deeper into my feelings so I might find the place where magic resisted will, but I felt nothing.

      Finally, I stopped and sighed. “It’s more difficult than I’d anticipated,” I said. “It might help if I knew the song’s purpose.”

      Hope sat on the edge of my bed and closed his eyes. “Sing it more slowly, this time. Linger on the notes- let them resonate inside you. I will try to examine the spell.”

      I nodded and sang again. This time, however, I could not concentrate. The song echoed through the room in an ominous way, off of the dark, bare walls that had been stripped of everything I loved when I’d gone to Rowan Heights. I wondered if anything I’d taken to Rowan Heights had remained, or if the inquisition had taken it all. I wondered if they’d taken everything I’d left at St. Blanc and Verdant city when I’d fled those places, too.

      I stopped singing, feeling as bare as the room around me. I could not continue to sing Wisdom’s praises.

      “There- at the end, I thought I caught something,” Hope said. “It was fleeting, though.”

      “I cannot actually cast a spell, only counter it with my will,” I said. “Perhaps if you sing it instead-”

      “No. Prudence was right to warn me against singing it. If I did, I might accidentally lend Wisdom some part of my own power, or perhaps bind myself to him, depending on the purpose of the litany.”

      “- which we don’t know.” I sat down beside Hope and rubbed my forehead. “I dislike these vicious cycles.”

      “Oh yes, I know,” Hope said with a fond smile. “Perhaps we could approach this puzzle another way.”

Hope pressed a finger to his lips, and then he stood and went to my writing desk, pulling out an old sheet of paper and a bottle of ink I’d left unopened.

      He made quick work of trimming an old quill, and then sat down and wrote out the litany’s lyrics in a neat series of couplets.

     

For a better future- sing

to the blessings Wisdom brings.

 

Peace on Earth and Heaven’s song,

Echo winter, summer long.

     

Angel, God, and Human child,

Join in spring and autumn mild.

 

Peace on earth eternal, sing!

Pray to Wisdom, let joy ring.

 

      “The meter is not at all unusual for a litany,” Hope said, leaning back in the chair to examine the page. “The structure is similar to the Litany of Order. The God’s name is invoked at the beginning and the end; the first couplet promises the God’s blessings, and the last couplet implores the singer to pray.”

      Hope circled the first and last stanzas, and then underlined Wisdom’s name.

      “The middle stanzas puzzle me,” Hope continued. “There are references to time- the seasons- leading to a promise of eternal peace. I would almost think this was a spell for immortality, if not for the fact that Pius was already immortal as a demon.”

      “The line that references Angels, Gods, and Humans puzzles me, as well,” I said. “Do you think that Wisdom expects the other Gods to join him?”

      Hope put aside the quill and sighed. “There is a possibility I had not anticipated- especially since he is at war with Reverence as we speak. Perhaps it’s best not to borrow trouble. Could you hum the song for me once, without words? There may be some clues isolated in the tune.”

      I agreed, and Hope closed his eyes while I hummed the litany’s tune.

      “It is a simple tune; it just follows the major scale down and up, down and up. It is almost hypnotic,” he said. “But I always feel just an edge of frustration, because the cadence is wrong. It goes up at the end without resolving back to the root. Strange.”

      Just then there was a sharp rap on the door, and I waited for Hope to take flint and tinder to the paper before I answered.

      “Your father and Miss Taris have returned,” Mrs. Ellis, father’s old housekeeper, said as soon as I opened the door. Then she cast a glance toward Hope, bobbed and curtsey, and fled as though frightened.

      I turned back to Hope. “It will take me a few moments to get ready, and then we can go downstairs to meet them together.”

 

 

#

 

 

      “My King!” My father’s voice boomed through the sitting room as soon as we entered. My father swept past me without a glance, his arms raised theatrically. Then he fell to his knees before Hope, reached out, and kissed the hem of the coat Hope wore, which happened to be father’s own.

      “Sir-” Hope began.

      “My Lord, you have my full support, and the support of my household,” my father continued, standing. “Your enemies are my enemies, now and forever.”

      “I know not what to say to such a declaration,” Hope said. “Do you mean to count yourself among your enemies? I have had reason to hate you, and I thought you hated me in return.”

      “You aren’t the first man to threaten, or even to throttle me. It is all water under the bridge,” my father said, brushing this aside.

      “I also recall that, after threatening your life, I made a very firm request that you retire from politics,” Hope continued.

      “There’s no escaping politics in this world, wouldn’t you agree my de-” Father gazed at me, for the first time, and froze.

      “What the devil are you wearing, girl?” he sputtered.

      I looked down at my dress, which I had also borrowed from my father’s closet. I wore a plain, serviceable pair of breeches that father had once worn when surveying the grounds at Willowbrook, but had not worn for years to my knowledge. I had paired this with an old shirt, waistcoat, and a greatcoat loose enough to provide easy access to my sword.

      “I did not think you would mind if I borrowed these,” I said coolly. “You were never very fond of these clothes.”

      “Go back upstairs and dress yourself like a lady,” Father said. “What if someone sees you in such a getup?”

      “It is too late,” Miss Taris said. “Plenty of Wisdom’s men in Verdant City saw her dressed like that, fighting with a sword. People everywhere are whispering about the warrior-queen who liberated the future King from his shackles.”

      Father looked at Miss Taris in surprise, and then turned back to me, examining me with a critical eye.

      “Are they, really? I had wondered what had become of her, when she abandoned me to my fate in the courtroom. Don’t worry, Grace- you chose the right man to save. I lived.”

      He raised cane like a sword and moved to strike. I drew my own sword just in time to parry the blow, and we continued for a few more moments, trading elementary strikes and parries until my father stepped back and nodded as though in satisfaction.

      “I see what you mean, Miss Taris,” he finally said. “She isn’t a great beauty. She doesn’t have a remarkable story tied to her name, or rumors of some great destiny. She will need to be singular to attract any attention at all, let alone gain public support.”

      “I do not fight to get attention,” I said, re-sheathing my sword. “I only fight so that I, and those I love, may survive.”

      “I know it- and there is nothing more attractive than sincerity,” my father said with a nod.

      Miss Taris stepped forward. “I’ve returned to let you know that the battle is through, and Brother Lux wishes to see you both. I met Lord Ainsworth on the road and he… invited himself along.”

      “This is my home, and I shall do as I please,” Father said. He turned to the footman who stood nearby. “Faith- go tell the groom to get the horses ready- my hunter and the three mares. I want the hunter brushed and fitted rather splendidly.”

      He turned back to Hope. “The king must look the part when he appears to survey the battlefield.”

 

 

#

 

 

      Hope and I argued with Father and Miss Taris for some time whether it would be wise for Hope to ride into a recent warzone, but in the end we were persuaded. Miss Taris said she had important news regarding Celeste and Prudence, but she would only reveal it once we were at the Cathedral Lux.

      As we rode down the lane the air grew dustier, and the scent of gunpowder that lingered triggered memories of battle so powerful that I had to pause to steady myself.

      The Cathedral lawn was filled with men who stood in dirty, battered coats. A few men sat in rows, bound in chains, their faces worn with fatigue. As tired and worn as all of the men looked, however, all of them were alive and whole. Not a single body lay on the lawn, and not a single wound, bandaged or unbandaged, could be seen. The scene was so different from the aftermath at the ancient temple that I could hardly imagine a battle had taken place.

      “Can you believe that there are still men who will not kneel to Wisdom, even after he brought them back from the brink of death?” Miss Taris said, gesturing to the men who sat in chains.

      “It is surprising,” my father grunted in reply. “Wisdom healed or brought back every single person his men felled in Verdant City. Afterward, everyone pledged their faith in him. One would have to be an uncommon fool to stand against such power.”

      Father spurred his horse to catch up with Hope, whose shining, black steed cantered proudly at the fore.

      “This is the birth of your reign, my King,” father said, gesturing toward the field. “The world has never witnessed such a revolution.”

      At that moment, everyone on the field turned to look at Hope.

      For a time, they all stood silently, and I could almost see the image they beheld reflected in their awestruck gazes. Even the inquisitors paused in their ministries and turned to gaze at the man who rode, upright and elegant, into the crowd of battle-fatigued soldiers. The Cathedral doors opened, and still more men came outside to gaze up at Hope.

      “It is Uriel!” one man cried. “It is our King!”

      “Long live the King!” echoed through the crowd.

      Some men fell to their knees, but still more came forward, arms upraised as though beseeching benediction.

      Then Miss Taris cried. “Look out!”

      I saw a flash of silver in one of the upraised hands; a knife was clasped in a fist, ready to stab at the man who would be king.

      Before I could think, I acted.

      I drew my sword and lashed out once, knocking the dagger from the upraised hand. Then I followed through, and my sword sank into flesh- into the stomach of the would-be assassin.

      The assassin let out a horrid groan, and he fell to the ground in a pool of crimson blood.

      The crowd fell back, and I could see the assassin’s face. He was a young man, nowhere near 20. His lips were blue as he gasped his final breaths.

      Then I heard a voice cry out. “Make way! Let me through.”

      The crowd parted, and Brother Lux appeared. He was not wearing crimson robes, but a robe of pure white. He spun to look at me, his eyes glowing in the noonday sun.

      “Get away from him, Lady Frey. Go as far as you can, or he will die.”

Part CIV

The Coven, Part CII

Read from the beginning.

“Grace?” Hope said gently under the barrack’s chatter.

      I dropped my spoon, which I’d been using to push my dinner uselessly around my tray, and looked up.

“Are you sure you are quite well?” Hope asked. He had long since cleaned his own tray and pushed it aside. Now he leaned forward on his elbows, gazing at me with a look of concern.

“I am,” I said. I swallowed the lump of guilt that had swelled in my throat, and forced down another bite of stew.

Hope took my free hand. “I don’t mean to rush you, but when you have finished, I wish to speak with you alone.”

I nodded and pushed my own tray aside, abandoning any pretense of eating. Hope looked around the table. Most of the others had already put their trays away and wandered toward the bunks, and only a few dragoons still lingered over tea and conversation.

Hope stood and led me past the bunks and to the door that led to the tunnel outside. Miss Taris stood near the door, but she made no move to stop us. We were allowed to pass out of the barracks and into the empty tunnel, unimpeded.

We walked a little way down the tunnel, side by side, and then Hope stopped and turned to me.

“We are quite alone here,” he said. “Tell me, what is wrong? You have seemed out of sorts all evening, and you hardly touched your dinner. Did something Miss Taris said upset you? Or perhaps- did Sir Beaumont’s revelation surprise you?”

“I was surprised, of course, but not-” I stopped and sighed. “Are you certain no one else can hear us, here?”

“I have cast silence. No one can hear us,” he said.

I nodded. “We must be careful; Sir Beaumont has much more to fear than ‘unkindness.’ When I was a young girl, I read one of my grandfather’s old medical texts. There was a case described in the book, which sounded very much like Sir Beaumont’s. In this case, the doctor prescribed a course of treatment to ‘cure’ his patient so severe that the patient died from it. Afterward, the doctor was still censured by the church for not turning his patient over to the inquisition straight away.”

Hope drew a breath. “Oh, hell.”

“Indeed. She showed us a great deal of trust when she shared her secret.”

“I only hope that Wisdom will abide by his promises, at least in this case,” Hope muttered. Then he looked up and smirked. “Speaking of which, what do you suppose that last message from Prudence meant? I would have thought that Prudence was referring to the messages she’d put in her note, but with Miss Taris conveying the messages, we can’t really trust them, can we?”

“Oh! You mean the last statement where she teased me to ‘practice my dreadful singing?’” I said, remembering the conversation I’d half-listened to. “No, but…”

Though no one was present, and Hope had assured me that silence was cast, I stepped closer, using Hope’s body to shield my face from any hidden eyes in the tunnel. “Prudence’s statements bring to mind a discovery Prudence made about magic. What I am about to tell you is a profound secret but- I’m sure Prudence wishes you to know, considering the hints that she’s given.

“Your secrets are safe with me- I swear it,” Hope said.

I smiled, despite myself. “You needn’t swear- I trust you completely.”

Hope smiled as well, but I ducked my head, unable to gaze into his earnest eyes- his lovely face.

“There are things- we call them animalcules- which are hidden in the blood, too small for the human eye to see unaided. They exist in both human and ancient blood, but they look and behave differently in each race.”

“How so?” Hope asked. “And what does this have to do with the litany?”

“Well, in Human blood the animalcules look whole- healthy. They react to magic by vibrating in a predictable pattern. In ancient blood, however-” my voice dropped to a whisper. “In ancient blood, the animalcules look strange- twisted and black. They do not react to magic up to a certain threshold, and then they resonate in a waveform counter to the Human’s.”

Hope leaned against the wall, closing his eyes in thought.

“So- you were thinking that the resonance performed by these animalcules…”

“Might this have something to do with the litanies?” I said. “After all, a string vibrates when you pluck it, and your chest, throat, and sinuses vibrate when you sing. All of music- all of sound- is vibration.”

Hope nodded. “In magic, we chant or speak. When I create sigils, I add my blood to the ink, and hum just under my breath when I charge the sigils with my magical intent. When I cast wordless magic…”

“Yes, there may be a problem, there,” I said.

“Not necessarily,” Hope said. “The secret to wordless magic is to say the words in your head, and to let the resonance fill your mind. If you have done the spell correctly, you will feel your whole body vibrate with it.”

I nodded. “That means that the litany may be a type of holy magic.”

“-and if you’ve gained the ability to break spells,” Hope said slowly, “then perhaps you can break the power of a litany’s spell. Prudence must want you to try.”

 

 

#

 

 

We reached the end of the rail the next day. There, we disembarked from the train and walked the rest of the tunnel to the Cathedral Lux. The inquisitors and dragoons sang as we went, and I listened carefully, memorizing the words and tune to the Litany of Wisdom.

After just a couple of hours, we came to the end of the tunnel. Sir Beaumont went through the portal first, and after a few moments she returned, her face tight with worry.

“The tunnel leads to a cellar in the Cathedral annex,” she said to Miss Taris. “The cellar is clear, but I fear there may be danger outside. I heard something like cannon fire in the distance.”

Brother Fortune came forward. “It has been a rainy season. Are you certain the sound you heard was not thunder?”

“It may have been thunder, but I doubt it. Sancti’s auxiliary forces will be far stronger than the summer-soldiers we faced in Rogue Village. The battle may last some time.”

Miss Taris went pale, but she stood a little straighter and set her jaw.

“Wisdom is with us,” she said. “I am not afraid. Sir Beaumont, please lead the way, and we will try to find a safe path to the cathedral. Brother Lux promised to meet us there. I will stay close by to assist you with magic.”

Sir Beaumont nodded and turned to the party. “Brother Fortune, take the rear with Lieutenant Hawley. Lady Frey, do not leave the King’s side, no matter what happens. Be ready.”

We crept up the ladder and emerged through a rough wooden door, into a cellar cramped with crates and barrels. The dragoons and I all drew our weapons, though we were forced to carry them awkwardly over our heads as we maneuvered through the narrow spaces.

We waited in silent anticipation as Sir Beaumont opened the cellar door and peered outside. Then she returned and gestured for us to follow her up the dirty, stone steps. We followed, and emerged into a plain, stone building.

We made our way outside the same way- Sir Beaumont would go first, peeking around corners and through doorways, and then gesture for us to follow. We did come across two monks as we made our escape, but they only smiled and flashed the symbol of Wisdom to us before they passed.

Finally, we opened the front door and emerged from the annex into a clear evening. I could hear something rumble like thunder in the distance, and the sky around the Cathedral hung hazy and low.

“We are exposed, here,” Miss Taris said. “No one is immediately present, but-”

“There is the Cathedral,” Sir Beaumont said, pointing to the familiar tower in the distance.

“One moment- I will try to contact Lux,” Miss Taris said. She closed her eyes and hummed a little to herself, then she spoke. “There is great danger. Sancti has brought far greater numbers through the mountain pass than we’d anticipated. We face not auxiliary forces, but a full army.”

Miss Taris opened her eyes, which were now milky white. “Wisdom has the battle well in hand; our first priority is to protect the future king. We must escort Lord Frey to Willowbrook, and await Wisdom’s orders there.”

“Which direction is Willowbrook?” Sir Beaumont asked.

“It is south,” I said. “It’s only a couple of miles along the avenue.”

I pointed to the south, where a thin tangle of moth-trees veiled the road behind.

“Watch the trees carefully,” Sir Beaumont said. “Miss Taris, do you sense anyone’s presence?”

“No-one. The way is clear,” Miss Taris said.

Sir Beaumont nodded. “Then let’s go.”

There was no song or dance now as we walked, and the road to my former home seemed to stretch further than it ever had before. The sun set and the twilight faded before the avenue opened up on the emerald lawn that surrounded stately Willowbrook.

 

 

#

 

 

Two armed inquisitors stood guard at the end of the avenue. They bowed slightly to Miss Taris, and then bowed more deeply to Hope as we passed onto the lawn. On the lawn we passed a few more inquisitors and soldiers, some of whom had the symbol of Wisdom painted messily onto their shields. They would stop, examine us, and then salute briefly before returning to their patrol.

My father’s old doormen, Perkins and Taylor, stood at their stations by the door as always, but their livery was partially covered by iron breastplates, and they each held a polearm awkwardly in their right hand.

“It is good to have you home, my Lady,” Perkins whispered to me.

I glanced up at the old towers as we entered, almost expecting to see arches at their stations as there had been in centuries past. If any archers were present, however, I could not see them in the pale moonlight.

“Dear Grace! And Miss Taris, too!” My cousin’s voice echoed through the foyer, punctuated by Snowbear’s agitated barking. “It is so good to see friendly faces. I could not bear the suspense alone.”

Then, as she drew nearer to the party, Lady Fairfax fell silent. Even Snowbear seemed to sense his mistress’s awe, and stopped barking.

“So- it is as they say,” Lady Fairfax whispered, staring into Hope’s face. “I saw your disfigurement with my own eyes, my Lord, in the courtroom. I saw those deep, red scars where your eyes should have been. Now they are perfect- whole.”

“Yes, Lady,” Hope said with a courtly bow.

Lady Fairfax fell to her knees on the old, rust-colored carpet, her skirts billowing about her. She took the worn and dirty hem of Hope’s robes, and kissed it.

“I am sorry I ever doubted Wisdom’s power,” she said. “I am sorry I ever doubted you. You are the rightful king.”

“Please, Lady-” Hope stammered. He reached out to help Lady Fairfax to her feet.

“Oh! But it isn’t safe here,” Lady Farifax said, smoothing her skirts. “Wisdom’s men met me on the road and escorted me here, and now they patrol the grounds. They said that Sancti’s troops were approaching, and that there would soon be a battle, so they must protect Willowbrook.”

Sir Beaumont stepped forward and bowed low to Lady Fairfax. “Sancti’s troops are attempting to take the Cathedral Lux, but you have nothing to fear, my Lady. I have seen Wisdom’s power on the battlefield. I have seen Wisdom’s enemies flee before his angels’ power. I have seen the aftermath of the battle of Rogue Village with my own eyes- not a single casualty was had on either side.

“The soldiers who patrol here are only a precaution. Wisdom’s forces will easily overcome the armies of the sleeping Gods.”

Lady Fairfax nodded, though she paled slightly. I stepped forward and took her arm.

“Don’t worry, Cousin. This old fortress has stood through far worse battles. We will be safe, here.”

Lady Fairfax nodded again, and then she drew back, seeming to notice the sword on my belt.

“But then- Lady Frey, why are you armed?”

“How silly of me,” I said. “I did not mean to alarm you. In truth, the journey here has been so dull that the dragoons taught me a little bit of swordplay- something to keep me occupied. I must have forgotten to put my sword away after my last lesson.”

“That is a very strange hobby for a young lady,” Lady Fairfax said, narrowing her eyes. “Though, it does seem like something your mother would do. She was very wild, riding and even shooting every chance she got. Well, you can put the sword away and join me in the sitting room, and I’m sure you will be glad to change out of those robes.”

Lady Fairfax turned back to Miss Taris. “Miss Taris, you must wish to change out of those-” she gestured vaguely to Miss Taris’s crimson robes. “You may find something that will fit among Lady Frey’s old things.”

“There is no need,” Miss Taris said. “I am going out with the dragoons to patrol the grounds.”

“Patrol the-” Lady Frey stammered. “Now, Miss Taris this is entirely too much. Has everyone gone completely wild, or have I-”

Miss Taris stepped closer to Lady Fairfax, whose pale eyes went as wide as saucers. Then Lady Fairfax fell to her knees again, shielding her eyes as though Miss Taris were too bright to face directly.

“Oh no, Lady Fairfax.” Miss Taris flashed a smug grin, bit her lip, and then affected a more sober expression. “You must never kneel to an angel.”

“An angel!” Lady Fairfax gasped.

Miss Taris reached out to help Lady Fairfax to her feet. “I followed Wisdom as he ascended, and he rewarded me for my faith. I am no longer that pathetic girl you knew at court.”

Miss Taris smiled, this time benevolently, as lady Fairfax continued to gape. Then she linked arms with Sir Beaumont, and the two strode back onto the lawn together.

“I knew strange things were happening, but I never imagined how strange,” Lady Fairfax said in a faltering voice.

I stepped forward again, taking Lady Fairfax’s arm. “Come to the drawing room, and Lord Frey will entertain you while I change clothes. I believe some music may help calm your nerves, and would like to practice my singing.”

Part CIII

The Coven, Part CI

Read from the beginning.

Night passed, then morning drills, and then a long, cramped ride in the train. And then another night passed.

      Time seemed arbitrary in the tunnels. The electric lights were controlled by a human schedule marked by a clock. We did one thing, and then we did another, not because of the rhythm of the earth and sky, but simply because we must.

      Another train ride passed, and Hope seemed to bear the movement much easier, this time. When we disembarked, Miss Taris winked and gestured for Hope and I to follow her. Sir Beaumont, ever at Miss Taris’s side, walked alongside the party, and the four of us moved together down the tunnel, leaving the train and the barracks far behind us.

      “I will get accustomed to walking again, soon,” Miss Taris said after a time. “After we pass the Cathedral Lux, must continue on foot for at least a day before we reach-” she looked back at Hope and I and stopped speaking abruptly.

      “It is a shame that the tracks and tunnels were never completed,” Sir Beaumont said breezily. “Reverence really should have finished them for the Pilgrim’s sake, if not for Abbess Joy’s, but it’s clear he never thought of them. I read Reverence’s historical records through the magic mirror, and that caused me to lose the last of my respect for him.”

      “You lost Reverence in more ways than one,” I said.

I regretted the terrible pun as soon as I’d made it; Sir Beaumont and Miss Taris turned and looked at me with looks so incredulous I could feel myself blush.

      I coughed a little and started again. “My apologies; I did not mean to make light of your situation.”

      “Oh no- it is quite alright,” Sir Beaumont said quickly. “My situation is a bit odd, I must admit, but my story really isn’t too different from many of Widsom’s other followers. The old Gods played cruel tricks on our lives and then abandoned us. Can you really blame me for looking to a new God for salvation?”

      Sir Beaumont turned toward me again, this time with a pleading look so earnest I could not help but say, “no- I do not blame you in the slightest.”

      Miss Taris turned back and quirked one elegant brow. “You aren’t going to advise Sir Beaumont to fight the Gods alone with mortal strength, Lady Frey? You’ve always seemed to believe such feats were easy.”

      “Not easy- no. But we should always attend to our own feelings before consulting a moral authority. Most often, the gift of strength comes with the price of servitude.”

      “Pay no attention to her,” Miss Taris said with a longsuffering sigh. “It is mere cynicism, and not true wisdom, that guides her thoughts.”

      “It’s alright,” Sir Beaumont said. “I can understand why, after being burned so often, one may flinch away from the sunlight.”

      Sir Beaumont turned back to me, walking backward as easily as forward with nothing to block our path. “I’ve learned a lot about Reverence from the records stored in the mirrors, and let me assure you, Lady Frey, it was best that you escaped quickly. You are not safe around Reverence or his followers.”

      “How so?” I asked. “I know that Reverence loved Joy, and abandoned the tunnels when he learned that she did not love him, but Pride swore that he would still protect me for Joy’s sake.”

      Sir Beaumont’s expression turned grave. “There is much more to the story, I’m afraid. But you are Harmony’s daughter, and as such, I believe you have the right to hear it.

      “Reverence did love Abbess Joy, and had for eons past, and the two were considered as betrothed by the Gods. However, Abbess Joy continually put off the day when she would join Reverence, and she focused all her attentions on her work to ease the earthly suffering that the Gods had begun to neglect. I don’t know if she feared losing her purpose if she ascended to join Reverence, or if she simply never loved him, but she often treated Reverence with indifference. Reverence was intentionally blind to her indifference, believing in vain that she would eventually accept him.

      “He began these tunnels not only to convince her that the Gods could still do good, but also to keep Abbess Joy safe. He asked the High Priest to assign an Ancient warrior to protect Abbess Joy only as a temporary measure, while the tunnels were completed. When rumors reached Reverence that Abbess Joy loved Harmony, he did not think anything of it. When Abbess Joy prayed for the liberation of the Ancients, he considered it just another act of compassion- misguided, but the result of a tender heart, and nothing more.

      “But when Reverence went to del Sol himself, and saw the real affection that Joy and Harmony shared, he knew he had lost Abbess Joy’s heart entirely. He was filled with rage, and he lashed out.”

      Sir Beaumont paused, and I shivered in the silence.

      “What happened?” I asked.

      “Pride, luckily, was with Reverence at del Sol. Pride tried to make Reverence see reason, reminding Reverence that Harmony was mortal, and as such their love was a fleeting thing. Reverence was so far beyond reason, however, that he decided to expedite the end of Harmony’s mortal life.

      “He sought Harmony when she was alone on the shore, at the site of the Ancient ruins. There he let loose his rage, and the very earth shook, causing the ancient structure to crumble and fall. Harmony fought valiantly, but she could not get the best of a God.

      “Just as Reverence was about to land the killing blow, Pride intervened, shielding Harmony with his own body. Pride, being an angel, was able to withstand the blow, and though he was badly injured, he did not die. When Reverence saw what he’d done to his truest friend, his anger fled him. Pride had expected to fall for defying his God, but instead, Reverence forgave him.”

      “I wish I had known what Pride did for my mother,” I said quietly.

      Sir Beaumont shrugged. “Pride would not have cared for your thanks. In any case, though Reverence forgave Pride, Abbess Joy did not forgive Reverence. It was written that her fury rivalled Reverence himself when she learned what had happened. She was powerful enough in her anger to do what no one would have thought possible- she cast Reverence out of del Sol.”

      I bit my lip in thought. “This all occurred before my mother left del Sol, and was sold to my father in marriage?”

      Sir Beaumont nodded. “Yes. It is surprising that Abbess Joy allowed Harmony to travel outside of del Sol, with Reverence still loose in the world. But Pride had sworn to keep Reverence and his followers under control, and Reverence himself had begun to grow reclusive. Abbess Joy was not aware that the High Priest of Order also had designs for Harmony.”

      “Abbess Joy would never control or confine someone against their will,” I said. “Even an Ancient.”

      Sir Beaumont tripped slightly over an uneven patch of floor, and then steadied, still walking backward. “Even so, it seems that Abbess Joy later regretted the fact that she’d let Harmony go. She stood up to Order himself in her attempt to keep you at del Sol as a child.”

      “Yes, and Abbess Joy fell, though I was not worth the sacrifice,” I muttered.

      Miss Taris turned back wearing a look of surprise, but said nothing.

      Hope squeezed my hand. He did not speak either, but he gave me a look that fiercely contradicted my self-deprecating words.

      I fell silent for a moment, my mind filled with the past and present. I could easily believe Reverence’s treachery, but I was surprised by the revelation that Pride had protected my mother- enough to question whether Sir Beaumont may still be loyal to Pride. Then I remembered how Pride had spoken of my mother – had praised her spirit – and I was unsure.

      “May I ask a personal question?” I asked Sir Beaumont. “You needn’t answer if I’ve overstepped the mark.”

      “You may ask anything you like,” Sir Beaumont said breezily.

      “Aside from your disillusion with Reverence, did you have a personal reason to join Wisdom?”

      “You don’t need to answer her,” Miss Taris said quickly. “We hold every advantage.”

      “No- it’s alright,” Sir Beaumont said, and then took a deep breath. “I’ve discussed the matter with Lady Frey before, actually. I would very much like to add a woman to the dragoon’s ranks, and Wisdom has agreed to help me do so.”

      “Really?” I asked, my curiosity piqued. “Did you have a particular woman in mind?”

      “Yes- myself.”

      Before I could think of a response to this extraordinary remark, Miss Taris spoke.

      “Here is the room- we will have some privacy. Please Lord and Lady Frey, follow me.”

      “I will guard you, my Angel,” Sir Beaumont said with a low bow to Miss Taris.

 

 

#

 

 

 

Miss Taris led Hope and I into another small room, which contained a magic mirror. She watched carefully as the door shut behind us, and then spun and drew herself to her full height.

      “Sir Beaumont has shown you a great deal of trust, Lord and Lady Frey,” she said with a formal air. “Please be kind, and don’t tell anyone else her secret.”

      “I- I would hardly know what to tell,” Hope said. “Sir Beaumont is really a woman in disguise, or…?”

      “The situation is complicated.” Miss Taris looked down at her delicate hands, which she rung together. “From birth, she has had a masculine body. However, there is a great discord between her body and her feelings- her sense of herself. I’m not sure how to explain it, though I can feel the discord myself when I am around her. I can see the truth of who she is as clearly as you see me stand before you.”

      Miss Taris looked up, her eyes wide and pleading. “I know others can sense the discord a little, because they are not kind. Even the dragoons, whose loyalty she has earned, and to whom her abilities have been proven time and time again, still cajole her for being too effeminate for their tastes. You must have witnessed this during your drills, Lady Frey.”

      “I have,” I said quietly.

      “There won’t be any need for secrecy once we’ve reached the Cathedral Lux,” Miss Taris said. “Wisdom has promised to use his power to transform her body and heal the discord. In the meantime, please don’t say anything to the others, and please do not be unkind.”

      “I swear it, Miss Taris,” I said without hesitation.

      Miss Taris turned to Hope, biting her lip.

      “I would never betray such a confidence,” Hope said. “You have my oath, as well.”

      “I can tell that you are in earnest. Thank you,” Miss Taris sighed deeply. Then she blinked, as though remembering herself. “I brought you here to speak with Miss Goode, but it is so late. One moment- I will ask if she is still awake.”

      Miss Taris walked over to one of the metal chairs, sat, and closed her eyes. Then she opened her eyes again, and they shone dull white like moonstones.

      “Miss Goode is awake. She’s been waiting for us,” Miss Taris said, turning her blank eyes to Hope. “Ask whatever question you wish.”

      Hope opened his mouth and then hesitated, turning toward me instead. “Perhaps we should take this in turns. Have you any questions you may ask her?”

      I nodded and stepped forward. I had planned on asking ‘how did we communicate secret information at del Sol?’ because I was certain it would annoy Miss Taris to learn we’d been passing secret information to each other while playing Ringo in the very next room. When I looked at Miss Taris’s glassy eyes, however, this no longer seemed wise. I found myself asking a different question entirely.

      “What was my Chaosmas gift to Prudence?” I said.

      For a moment, the edges of Miss Taris’s plump mouth tugged downward as though she were deep in thought. Then she spoke.

      “Prudence says that you didn’t choose your question very well. Brother Amicus already knows the answer.”

      “How does he know?” I asked.

      “Prudence still has the portrait that you drew of her. She looks at it often.”

“She does? But surely, it would be best to keep the portrait hidden,” I said.  

“Prudence doesn’t think it makes any difference, since she already carries her true face under her veil. She says she can still recall how it felt the night you gave her the portrait, and then showed her her true face through just the touch of your fingertips. It is a pleasant memory that helps her endure the separation.”

      I felt an intense warmth spread through my chest as I recalled how, after nights spent trying to trace it on paper, I’d finally placed my fingers over hers and traced the outlines of her smooth brow, her round cheeks, her soft lips…

      “Grace- is this correct?” Hope said.

      I started. I hadn’t realized I was slipping into a reverie until Hope’s voice interrupted it. “Yes- yes. This is all true. I gave her the portrait of her true face, and then I helped her see the real one by tracing it with my fingers.”

      Miss Taris looked at me through her inscrutable eyes, and then smiled a little. “Lady Frey, are you quite well? You are flushed.”

      “Am I?” I said. I placed my hands to my face, and felt the heat underneath my fingers.

      “You are flushed. Perhaps you should lie down,” Hope said.

      “No! I am alright,” I said. I tried to compose myself, but the little whisper in the back of my mind, which I had been trying to ignore, was screaming at me.

      I could make out the voice, now, as it cried Prudence! Prudence!

      “Are you sure you are well?” Hope said, his brown eyes full of concern.

      “Yes- perfectly well,” I said, turning away. I was wretched. I was tormented by my unfaithful heart. But I was well.

I could hardly hear Hope as he continued to speak to Mercy, asking how Prudence and Celeste were, and giving them his love. I was wrapped in my own thoughts, compelled by revelation.

       I had never questioned my feelings; I merely put off thinking about what I did at all. But I could not put off my thoughts, anymore. I recalled every time I’d given myself wholly to Prudence, as though my feelings had been completely innocent. I remembered each time we’d whispered our secrets to each other in the night, and each time we’d engaged in thrilling exchanges of wit. I recalled night we’d sworn that we would love each other forever, and the last night we’d been together, and she’d all-too-briefly pressed her lips against mine.

      No- it had not been innocent in the slightest.

     I had known the truth before, but now I acknowledged it to myself. I was in love with Prudence as deeply and as fully as I was with Hope. Even if the war ended, we defeated Wisdom, and were reunited, nothing could ever go back to how it was.

Part CII

The Coven- Interlude

Read from the beginning.

      Miss Constance Taris was far less confident than she appeared.

      Ever since she’d ascended, she’d held her head high and repeated to herself, over and over, that she no longer had any reason to be afraid. She was an angel, now, and Wisdom was with her.

      In her heart, she knew that all of this was true, but she could not help but feel like one of the pretenders at court whom she had once viewed with contempt.

      Just now, for example, she was standing next to a row of bunks with no idea what she should do. In her new, angelic form, she did not require sleep, but soon the lights would be extinguished and she would have nothing to do but lie down and wait while the others slept.

      This had not been a problem during the first part of Miss Taris’s journey. She had been travelling like a proper lady then, in a carriage accompanied by two ladies, a maid, and a trusted friend who was as gentle a man as she’d ever known. When Wisdom had asked her to leave the party to lead the King and his men through the tunnels, Miss Taris had been eager to prove herself worthy to lead.

      Now she was alone below ground in the company of an entire platoon of strange men. Even the inquisitors, all followers of Wisdom, were strangers, and though she sensed no ill intentions from them at present, they had already betrayed one God. She had every magical advantage, but though her body was perfectly well, it still was not very strong.

      Miss Taris glanced over at the only other lady who was present. Even though Miss Taris had never liked her, Lady Frey had once seemed a sympathetic person, and would probably allow her to stay close while the others slept if Miss Taris swallowed her pride and asked.

Even so, Miss Taris hesitated to approach. Lady Frey looked so wild now, with her hand resting on the hilt of her sword and a hard look in her dark eyes, that she seemed almost as dangerous as all of the strange men. Even with Miss Taris’s increased powers, Lady Frey’s feelings were undetectable. She seemed cold, distant, and almost inhuman.

      Miss Taris shuddered and turned away, and in doing so almost collided with Sir Beaumont.

      “Oh- I beg your pardon, Miss Taris,” Sir Beaumont said with a courtly bow.

      “Please- the fault was mine,” Miss Taris stammered. Then she looked up into Sir Beaumont’s warm, brown eyes and she immediately relaxed.

      From the instant they’d met, Miss Taris had known that Sir Beaumont was trustworthy. Sincerity was infused in every word- every gesture- when Sir Beaumont had promised to protect Miss Taris. Here was a person whose heart was as open as Lady Frey’s was closed.

      And Miss Taris could not help but be moved by it.

      “I was just going to fetch myself a cup of tea,” Sir Beaumont said. “Would you like anything?”

      “Is it wise to drink tea so soon before bed?” Miss Taris remarked.

      “Well- I wasn’t going to sleep, actually,” Sir Beaumont replied, ears going slightly red.

      Miss Taris felt a strange, warm sensation in her heart when she realized- Sir Beaumont had planned to stay up all night to ensure she was safe.

      She reached out to take Sir Beaumont’s hand, and she spoke in a rush before her awkwardness could halt her tongue. “I am restless; come walk with me. I know there is nowhere to go but- just up and down the tunnel outside should be fine.”

      “Are you sure? We have a long day’s travel ahead of us.”

      “I need to stretch my legs after sitting in the train for so long. Come.”

      Sir Beaumont looked around at the chatting dragoons, the silent inquisitors, and Lord and Lady Frey, who were speaking quietly in a corner. Then Sir Beaumont turned back, nodding in acquiescence, and followed Miss Taris from the room.

      Miss Taris and Sir Beaumont walked a little way down the tunnel, arm in arm, with quiet footsteps. Then Miss Taris stopped, and a mischievous grin spread over her face.

      “These grey walls really are quite dreary,” she said. “Come- let’s go into the Cathedral.”

      “Would that be alright?” Sir Beaumont asked, eyebrows raised. “Pride always said that the cathedrals were only to be used in service to the Gods.”

      “Wisdom would not mind, I’m sure, and these are his tunnels now,” Miss Taris said. “What harm could it do?”

      Sir Beaumont smiled and relented, and Miss Taris put her hand against the wall, revealing the opening to the second cathedral.

      The cathedral was empty as expected, the lights were on, and the walls and high ceiling were the same, dingy grey as the tunnels outside. Miss Taris put her hand to the floor, and the grey walls blurred out of view. Suddenly, they were standing in a moonlit garden with deep green grasses as high as their waists, and daffodils and fairy-roses that towered over their heads, as tall as trees.

      “Oh! I’m messed up the scale, somehow. I will try to fix it,” Miss Taris said.

      “No- wait,” Sir Beaumont looked around at the grasses, which shimmered with dewdrops the size of marbles. Giant fireflies spun and danced in the air above, alighting on blossoms that were as large and soft as velvet sofas.

      “This is what it must be like to be a fairy, hidden among the leaves. I think, if we listen hard enough, we will hear the Lily Queen’s song.”

      Miss Taris stood up, and the two held their breaths, listening in the silent night.

      “No- no song. Still, I am content here,” Sir Beaumont said.

      “Are you?” Miss Taris turned to look around, frowning. “Everything towers above me; nothing seems safe. I would rather be the giant.”

      Miss Taris knelt down and moved her hands along the ground once more, and everything began to shrink. The grasses receded until they were but a carpet under their feet, the flowers shrunk into the ground, and soon the whole garden was a small patch on a checkerboard of green. Small wisps of cloud drifted below their knees, and stars twinkled, sharp and clear, all around them.

      “Here! Higher than the clouds, I can see everything. Nothing can touch me, up here.”

      Sir Beaumont stepped closer to Miss Taris. “Don’t you feel exposed, here?”

      “Why should that matter?” Miss Taris laughed. “No one can hurt a giant. I will suffer the slings and arrows of everyone beneath me without a scratch.”

      Sir Beaumont turned and looked at Miss Taris so intently that, despite all her newfound confidence, she blushed once more. Then Sir Beaumont smiled and reached out tentatively, tucking a stray strand of gold-spun hair back behind Miss Taris’s ear.

      “It seems you and I cannot agree- a fairy of the garden and a giant of the air. Where can we meet?”

      Miss Taris turned away, knelt down, and moved her hands once more. The clouds climbed high above them, the small patches of ground expanded, the flowers grew until they were knee high, and the green carpet of grass remained underfoot.

      “I suppose we must meet here, in the middle, as our human selves,” Miss Taris said.

      “I am happy to meet you here, though you are not really human, are you?” Sir Beaumont said, voice full of awe.

      “I- I was human, and I haven’t changed as much as I thought I would when I became an angel,” Miss Taris said. “I am healthy now, and Wisdom’s holy magic courses through me, but I am still myself.”

      Sir Beaumont nodded thoughtfully. “I know it won’t be the same, because I won’t be an angel, but I hope my change will be as easy when Wisdom grants it.”

      “I’m sure it will be,” Miss Taris said firmly, as though determination alone could make it so. “We will take the Cathedral Lux, and then Wisdom will bless you.”

      “Will it really happen so soon?” Sir Beaumont said. “The first battle I saw, at the edge of Rouge Forest, went so quickly and so bloodlessly that it hardly seemed necessary for me to be there at all. Sometimes I fear that this is all too good to be true, and that there is a sacrifice that I still must pay for the victory and liberation I seek.”

      “The only thing Wisdom requires of you is your faith,” Miss Taris said. “Or, if faith does not come easily for you, only wait and judge the results with your own senses.”

Miss Taris turned away from Sir Beaumont’s intense gaze and began to pace through the garden, stepping lightly on the cobblestone path that wound between beds of starflowers and roses. “The hero’s reward always seems more satisfying after seeing him pass through difficult trials, but reality is different from storybooks or plays. Sometimes people win power justly, and sometimes not. Sometimes the clever may dominate the strong. Sometimes things fall into place by sheer luck.

      “In my own case, I believe luck was on my side. My father was trying to force me into a marriage I did not want- a marriage to a monster who wore a courtier’s face. I was too weak to fight him. I was too weak, even, to accept the crumbs of help some of the court ladies flung my way. How I hated them for trying! Their advice amounted to telling a drowning man how to swim while his hands were bound. Only one person was willing or able to actually give me strength. He did not save me- he gave me the ability to save myself.

      “And yet-” Miss Taris paused and laughed. “Yet it was so easy to undo my chains once I had the key. All I had to do is reach out and accept it. Daily, I am surrounded by fools who are unwilling to do the same. They think that they haven’t earned their salvation, yet. They think that forgiveness or redemption is something that has to be earned. They think that some promises are too good to be true. They have dwelt in darkness so long, they fear the light.”

      Miss Taris turned back to Sir Beaumont, her eyes shining like twin stars. “You have true courage, Sir Beaumont.”

      “Please, call me by my given name- Mirth.”

      Miss Taris nodded. “I will, if you will call me Connie in return.” She laughed suddenly. “This will be the first intimacy I’ve entered into so willingly. This is another chain, which is falling away.”

      Sir Beaumont bowed deeply. “Then I am honored to be of service.”

      Miss Taris smiled even wider and stepped forward, taking Sir Beaumont’s hand. “You have true courage, Mirth, because you have accepted the key despite your worries. You will be rewarded in due time. I promise.”

      “I am glad that you’ve found the strength you needed. Still- I wish I had been there to defend you, my lady.”

      “Connie,” Miss Taris corrected. “You aren’t like the others. I can tell that you are sincere. Thank you.”

      “I am here now,” Sir Beaumont continued. “I will protect you until we are at the Cathedral Lux.”

      Miss Taris leaned a bit closer to Sir Beaumont, sighing in contentment. Then she stopped abruptly and looked up.

      “What do you plan to do after the Cathedral Lux- after you change? Will you stay with the party, or will you leave us?”

      “I had planned to take vows at del Sol, but,” Sir Beaumont leaned forward and whispered, “if I can, I will stay and protect you as long as you want me. You may not want me, anymore, after I’ve changed. I may lose my ability to fight. You may not find me as agreeable.”

      Miss Taris leaned her head onto Sir Beaumont’s shoulder and frowned. “Please don’t be offended, but…” she paused, and then said, “the way you are now, I cannot imagine you will be very different after Wisdom gives you his gift.”

      “It will be a greater change than you know. Right now, I don’t feel as though I fit, and the dragoons can tell that I don’t quite fit among them. I hope, after it is done, I will be complete- whole. I cannot explain it, other than there is something inside me that whispers that the Gods did not properly fit soul to body when I was born.”

      Miss Taris did not reply for some time. She remained where she was, still and quiet, her head resting against Sir Beaumont’s shoulder as though she had fallen asleep there. But her eyes were open and watchful.

      Finally, she stood straight and reached her arm out, pulling the ribbon from Sir Beaumont’s hair. It fell loose from its dragoon tail in loose, auburn waves.

      “I have the power to see inside of people. I know you. I will know you, no matter what outward form you take.”

      The two stood face to face in the fairy-garden, until the illusory sun rose over the distant hills and blotted out the imaginary stars.  

 Part CI

     

 

     

 

The Coven, Part C

Read from the beginning.  

      The sun was high in the sky, but the wind was cool as it blew over the verdant fields outside of Rogue Village.

      Hope and I walked between rows of barley, which grew straight and tall, without the slightest trace of blight. In front of us walked a group of dragoons, who swapped stories and laughter as though they were on a holiday.

      Behind us was a small group of inquisitors led by Miss Taris, who still wore her red robes. Hope kept his eyes fixed ahead of him as we went, his jaw clenched.

      “Stop- the entrance to the tunnel is just ahead,” Miss Taris called. She ran forward, and Hope squeezed his eyes shut for just a moment as she passed.

      “Are you alright?” I whispered to Hope.

      “The sight of those robes makes me feel a bit ill.” Hope took a deep breath, and then smiled. “But it is nothing; it will pass.”

      I squeezed Hope’s hand, and then we continued to the end of the field.

      We caught up to Miss Taris who stood at the edge of a grassy mound, next to a low fence that shielded a boarded storm-cellar door. Two dragoons came forward to pry away the boards and open the doors, and then Miss Taris turned to address the party.

      “With the help of Sir Beaumont, Wisdom has taken Reverence’s tunnels,” she said. “The lights, the mirrors- everything inside is under his control, now. Even the seals on the tunnels have been changed, so that no one will be able to follow us. There is a door inside here that leads to the next section of tunnel to del Sol, and I must go first to open the seal.”

      Miss Taris turned to Sir Beaumont and lowered her voice. “Keep watch as I descend.”

      Sir Beaumont returned a salute, and with a gesture, his dragoons were back in formation, weapons at the ready.

      “We’ve found the culprit behind the light issues,” I muttered. “Sir Beaumont must have undone the seals, and then the glitches began as Wisdom accessed the tunnel’s functions.”

      “Then your fight with Sir Beaumont was fair, after all,” Hope muttered in reply. “His defeat was all his own fault.”

      The dragoons remained in their stations while the inquisitors filed though the storm cellar and into the tunnel. Brother Fortune turned and gestured for Hope and I to follow.

      There was a small hatch-door on the cellar’s dirt floor, on the other side of which was a section of tunnel much like the one we’d already left. The walls were the same shade of unadorned gray, and the same electric lights hung with regularity overhead. However, the current section of tunnel was much wider than the first, and a long metal rod, embedded in the floor, ran through the center of the tunnel as far as the eye could see.

      When the rest of the inquisitors and the dragoons had climbed down into the tunnel, Miss Taris instructed everyone to stand against the walls. Once the center of the tunnel was clear, she pressed her hand against a bare section of wall, which lit up momentarily as though in response.

      “We must hurry to Cathedral Lux, and luckily, the pilgrim train was completed in this part of the tunnel. It was originally meant to carry pilgrims who were too ill or infirm to walk these tunnels unaided. Unfortunately, the track was never finished, but it will be able to bear us most of the way to Cathedral Lux.”

      There was a loud screeching sound, and the section of wall behind the tunnel entrance split down the middle and opened. A series of carts emerged from the opening and rolled along the metal track without a horse or mule to pull them. The sides of each cart opened, and small ramps extended to the ground, as though the carts were welcoming us to climb inside.

      “Get in- don’t be afraid,” Brother Fortune urged the others. “The carts are quite safe. Oh!” he stopped me abruptly and turned to Miss Taris. “The Ancient can’t disable the carts, can she?”

      “Apparently not,” Miss Taris said.

      Brother Fortune nodded as though to himself, and then gestured for me to enter the train.

      I stepped up the ramp and sat down on a wide, cushioned bench with Hope just beside me. When everyone was seated, the carts jerked forward, and then we were sailing through the tunnel, far faster than I’d ever traveled by horse.

      I heard gasps in the carts behind me, and in the cart just in front, Miss Taris and Sir Beaumont laughed with delight. I gripped the side of the cart, almost giddy enough to laugh myself, but Hope swallowed heavily, his face green in the pale electric light.

      “Are you alright?” I asked.

      Hope clenched his jaw, but he nodded in response.

      Though the train did not slow, the sensation of motion in my stomach, and the giddiness that had accompanied it, soon faded away. If not for the blur of the lights overhead, I might have thought I was sitting still. Hope, however, leaned forward slightly, clutching his stomach.

      I turned to face forward and saw that Miss Taris and Sir Beaumont were just as animated with delight as they had been when we started off. I could not hear what they said over the sound of the carts on the tracks, but I could tell from their smiles that the conversation was pleasing. They laughed a great deal, and they would stop periodically to point at something outside the tracks as though they were admiring the scenery on a summer’s ride through the country, instead of traveling through a bleak, grey tunnel.

      The first portion of our ride was not long. There was a loud squeak as the carts ground to a halt, and then we found ourselves near a section of wall painted with the black letters C2.

      The doors opened, the ramps extended, and we climbed down from the train on wobbly legs. Hope stood for a moment on firm ground, and then he took a deep breath.

      “That is almost as bad as being on board ship,” he muttered.

      “Brother Virgil, please lead the party to the nearby barracks,” Brother Fortune said to one of his fellow inquisitors. “Miss Taris and I must visit the Cathedral before we join you.”

      “Will you need a guard?” Sir Beaumont asked Miss Taris.

      “Oh, I will be fine- I will have an Ancient warrior with me, after all,” Miss Taris said. She turned to Hope, “and you too, Lord Frey. There is someone who wishes to speak with you.”

      Hope stood a little straighter, his expression lightening, and he bowed his acquiescence.

      “I will await you just outside the door,” Sir Beaumont insisted. Miss Taris did not contradict him, but blushed and curtsied in thanks.

     

 

#

 

 

      Miss Taris, Brother Fortune, Hope, and I walked slowly through the empty Cathedral. Then Miss Taris stepped away from the small party, her heels clicking with quick importance, and she knelt down to touch the slick, black floor with one hand.

      For a few moments nothing happened, and then there was a flash of light on the grey wall on the far side of the room, followed by three flashes above like lightning. Then random squares of colored light flashed and faded on the floor beneath us, the walls around us, the ceiling above us, more and more until the room was filled with squares of light that flashed and faded away again. The lights coalesced, focused, and we were in a sunlit field of wildflowers. A heatless sun hung far above our heads, and small, white clouds drifted through a windless sky.

      I turned slowly, and behind us, I saw a white-robed figure approaching.

      “Brother,” Hope breathed.

      Brother Lux stopped and stood before us, face to face with his brother. The two men were as different now as night and day. Hope’s shorn hair had begun to grow back in brown sprigs that covered his head like a cap- shorter than even a soldier’s hair. His features were angular and hard, and his black-rimmed eyes were so wide they seemed almost all-seeing.

      On the other hand, Brother Lux’s features were only prominent enough to add elegance to softness. His hair was long and thick and luxuriant, and his dark eyes seemed to contain depths untold. The two men who stared at each other, one with hate and the other with concern and pity, seemed no longer to be brothers at all, let alone twins.

      Hope moved first, clenching his hand into a fist and striking out at his brother. His fist, however, merely passed through Lux’s visage as though he were a ghost.

      “You may strike me later, though I doubt it will give you much satisfaction,” Lux said. He moved his hands, gesturing at his own body. “I am not present, now. This is only an illusion.”  

      Hope dropped his fist, but did not reply. Brother Lux sighed and turned toward Miss Taris.

      “Sir Beaumont’s false reports have proved to be most helpful. I’ve received word that Sancti has moved its main forces away from the northern passage, and instead are focusing their troops on the western straights, where we are already well-fortified. The longer we can keep Sancti away from the eastern shores, the better.”

      “Would they really go to the eastern shore- so near a sanctuary like del Sol?” I asked aloud.

      Brother Lux shook his head sadly. “There is no real sanctuary in war, Lady Frey. Churches, hospitals, schools… none of these things are sacred in a game where the stakes are survival- especially in the eyes of a hardened general.”

      “If Sancti is really allied with the cult of Reverence, I’m sure they will try to take del Sol eventually,” Miss Taris added.

      I remembered all of the tricks Mercy had played on me when we trained, and how she laughed at me for complaining. I felt foolish for not realizing the same rules would apply on a larger game board.

      “There is still danger at the Cathedral Lux, but not nearly so much as there might have been otherwise. We have, thankfully, enough healers at Rouge Village to assist if that battle gets out of hand, but your healing ability will be needed at Cathedral lux, Brother Fortune. Please hurry; I will meet you there.”

      Brother Fortune bowed. “With Wisdom’s help, may the war be bloodless. May peace reign,” he said.

      “Do you know where Pride is, now?” Miss Taris asked. “Did he hurt you before you got rid of him?”

      Lux laughed. “Oh no- he did not hurt me. When it became apparent that he could not harm me, he vanished. I expect he is gathering the scattered remains of his troops in Rouge Forest.”

      Lux turned back to Hope. “You have been uncharacteristically silent, brother. If you have any questions, I will do my best to answer them honestly.”

      “You will ‘do your best’ to be honest?” Hope said, quirking an eyebrow. “This is an interesting turn of phrase, considering how honest you’ve been in the recent past.”

      Lux hesitated, and then quietly said, “you would not have listened to the truth if I had shared it with you. You did not understand what was at stake.”

      “I knew very well that all of Aeterna- the lives and souls of all her inhabitants- was at stake. If you had but asked, I would have willingly endured the pain, the humiliation, and the torture, just for the chance to build a better world. Instead, you denied me that choice and forced your will on me. You kept me in the darkness, both literally and figuratively, and left me in a place without any hope for the future.”

      “Would you really have done it for Aeterna’s sake?” Brother Lux said. “I was watching you at court. I watched as you fell in love with an Ancient girl and forgot the woman you’d sworn to love forever. I watched, again and again, as you attended to the feelings of a soulless creature before you attended to the simple plan we’d crafted to get the Prince on our side. I watched you lose sight of everything that is important because you cannot see beyond the people closest to you.”

      “And you, apparently, cannot see suffering when it’s under your very nose,” Hope shot back.

      Brother Lux clenched his fists as though in frustration and turned away from his brother to pace. As he walked, the grasses rustled against his calves, as though only the incorporeal could affect the incorporeal in this place.

      “I know suffering, brother. My mind is filled with the voices of the suffering every day, echoing endlessly. I have joined my mind to that of a God, and as a result I hear the desperate prayers of thousands. Each voice belongs to a person as unique, as loved, as real as the cherished few you would die for.”

      “I know that-” Hope began.

      “You know that there is suffering in the world,” Brother Lux interrupted. “You have felt the pinnacle of suffering, yourself. But you can’t understand the scale of the problem. Your mind possesses enough empathy to feel the suffering of a few; if you felt the suffering of thousands of your own beloved, it would kill you.”

      Hope’s eyes narrowed and he watched his brother pace. “How dare you claim to understand suffering, when I watched you turn a blind eye to the suffering of the prisoners under the hands of your inquisitors.”

      “If I had tried to liberate the prisoners too soon, they would have all been hanged without trial. You and the rest of the prisoners are free because I arranged the dungeon’s liberation- or did Lady Frey forget to mention that fact?”

      Hope scoffed. “A cryptic gesture in a disordered courtroom is hardly an ironclad plan. We happened to escape, and you are happy to take credit.”

      “An army of my men stormed the dungeons to liberate them. The men did this because I told them to be ready for the event. I also, through my cryptic gesture on top of weeks of preparation, made sure that Lady Frey could be with you.”

      “How kind of you, after you stole Prudence away!”

      “I am keeping Prudence safe, in fulfillment of my oath,” Brother Lux stopped pacing and spun to face his brother once more.

      “And why I should trust that you are keeping her safe, after everything she suffered because of your plots? Damn you- when I think of what I suffered in the dungeons, and know that she suffered the same…” Hope’s voice cracked, and he seemed lost for words.

      “That was a mistake,” Brother Lux said in a lower voice. “I got her out as soon as I could- healed her wounds…”

      “There are some wounds you cannot heal,” Hope said.

      The two men had been staring at each other in anger, their breaths coming in short gasps as the Miss Taris, Brother Fortune and I watched the argument in stunned silence. Now Brother Lux seemed to relent, took a step back, and lowered his head a little as though in penitence.

      “Fine- I will grant you this. I cannot heal the worst wound- cannot undo the most atrocious of my sins. The question now is- what you will do? Will you attempt to undo my wicked deeds, and build a better world? Will you try to understand what is at stake, and bring peace to Aeterna as her king?”

      “You mean as your puppet?”

      “No- as my sovereign,” Lux said.

      Hope stepped forward, closing the gap Lux had made when he’d stepped back.

      “Tell me the truth, for once. What is your goal?”

      “My goal hasn’t changed. I seek peace, freedom for people to love as they choose, the liberation of the slaves-“

“Not all of the slaves,” I whispered.

 Brother Lux continued as though he hadn’t heard me. “I seek the end of sickness and poverty. I wish to undo the damage that Order has done to this world.”

      Hope and Lux stood together, as still as two statues. Then Hope turned away.

      “I will see you at the Cathedral Lux,” he said.

Interlude

The Coven, Part XCIX

Read from the beginning.

Miss Taris reached into her robes and drew forth a white envelope, sealed in red wax and bearing on its seal the symbol of del Sol.

      “I traveled with Miss Goode until we reached the third checkpoint,” Miss Taris said. “There, I left her in the care of Brother Amicus, but before I departed, she gave me this letter.”

      Hope reached out to take the letter, but Miss Taris held it out of his reach.

      “Before you take the letter and run away, listen to my offer. You see, I no longer need to use letters to communicate with those I love. I pray to Wisdom, he hears me, and he speaks to his other Angels on my behalf- including Brother Amicus, who has recently ascended. With my help, you could speak to Miss Goode or Miss Celeste through Brother Amicus any time you wish.”

      “How would I know that you’re really speaking to her?” Hope said.

      Miss Taris arched her elegant brow. “The easiest way would be for you to pray to Wisdom, and to allow him to communicate the truth of my words straight to your heart. But if you are still not ready to accept Wisdom as your God, you may ask questions only Miss Goode would know, and I will answer until you are satisfied that I really am communicating with her.”

      “That way, you get to hear our secrets,” I said.

      “It’s a small price to pay for the assurance that Miss Goode and Celeste are safe. If you stay with me, you will be able to monitor their safety until they arrive at del Sol.” Miss Taris stepped past Hope and handed me the letter. “Consider this an act of good faith.”

      She bit her lip as though to suppress a smile as I accepted the letter. Then she turned to Hope.

      “You are free to stay or go. Let me know when you’ve decided.”

      Miss Taris brushed past us, and walked toward the festivities in the square.

     

 

#

 

 

      The alley did not reconnect to a main street on its far side, but rather, it ended in a small alcove containing a small, algae-encrusted fountain. Hope and I sat together on a dirty bench by the fountain, leaned our heads together, and read as the sounds of festivities echoed off of the stone walls.

     

      My Dearest Hope and Grace,

      Miss Taris has offered to convey this message to you, and though I long to communicate with you, I also wish that you would remain out of her grasp, and therefore never read it. If you do receive this note, know that Miss Taris plans to use me as bait to catch you. Do not listen to her offers and flee her grasp as soon as you can. Celeste and I are well-protected, and we are on our way to the safest place on Terra. You, however, are in constant danger from Wisdom’s manipulations.

      I fear that, despite all the efforts of Prince Hadrian, the Aeternan church, and even Sancti’s army, Wisdom’s conquest will be easy. Wisdom’s powers grow by the day, and everywhere I go I hear the unconquered already singing his litany. Wisdom has given the downtrodden something that Order has denied for centuries; hope for a better life. Many of Wisdom’s followers may try to get you to sing his litanies, and I would not recommend that you not do so, even to pacify them (though, I must admit, I have a great curiosity to hear the litany sung in Grace’s unique voice.)

      I don’t have much time to write, but I have several more messages to convey. First, Mercy has asked me to tell you that we have not encountered any danger so far in our journey, and that she has all the strength she needs to protect us if we do. Celeste has asked me to tell you that she loves you both, and hopes that she will see you soon. I find I can convey her feelings better than my own; for now, know that my greatest wish is that you both to remain free from Wisdom’s grasp.

      Remain safe. All my love,

            Jubilee

 

      Hope and I looked up from the letter at the same time, and I handed it to him, reflecting on its contents as he carefully folded it.

      “I would recognize her hand anywhere- this couldn’t have been forged,” Hope said.

      “She seems just as strong as she did when I left her,” I said. “But…”

      “I know. She could be wearing a brave face,” Hope finished my thought.

     

      “She has given us a puzzle in this letter,” I remarked. “When she wrote of Wisdom’s litany, I got the impression that she knows some secret about it.”

      “The power of Wisdom’s litany was apparent when I heard it on the road,” Hope said. “Her advice not to sing it was sound.”

      “Yes, but her statement that she would like to hear it sung in my ‘unique voice’ was puzzling. There is nothing special about my voice.”

      “I happen to like your voice,” Hope said. “It is very nice.”

      “It’s not unique,” I said, waving aside his gallantry. “I have a voice that was trained by easily frustrated governesses, and nothing more. I am unique in other ways.”

      Hope knitted his brow as though he began to see the puzzle. He took my hand and kissed it, and then he gently pushed back my sleeve, revealing the scar that remained there, pale white against my skin.

      “There is a puzzle in this sigil,” Hope whispered. “Wisdom’s symbol, and the mark he’s placed over it, is imbued with magical meaning. This is indeed a mark of death.”

      “Remember that magic can’t bind us,” I said, pulling my sleeve down to cover the mark once more. “He can try to bind my people with contracts, or sigils, or any other magic he chooses, but there is always the hope we may escape. In that respect, at least, we are free.”

      Hope nodded, but the concern in his dark eyes deepened.

      “Wisdom possesses military power, so there is still real danger to your people- and not only your people, but the world,” he said. “I don’t believe Wisdom will stop his conquest at Aeterna’s borders. Ultimately, there may be nowhere to run.”

      Hope stood and dipped his hand in the fountain, allowing the water to drip off his fingers into the wide stone basin. He watched the water flow in silent contemplation, and then he turned back to me, his eyes filled with resolution.

      “Wisdom is using my own child and the woman I’d lost to entrap me, but this time, at least, I will enter the trap with my eyes open. If he plans to glean my secrets, perhaps I can glean his in turn. Perhaps by keeping my enemy close, I will discover the means to fight him.”

      I hesitated, torn between keeping Hope safe and keeping Prudence and Celeste close. Finally, I spoke. “I wish to fight him too, but is knowingly entering a trap the wisest course of action?”

      “I was never afraid to fight Order. Why should I be run away now, when Wisdom’s rise is so much more my responsibility?”

      “I don’t believe you are responsible,” I said. “But that won’t sway you, will it?”

      “I won’t abandon Celeste and Prudence to an evil God when I might still save them.” Hope dried his hand and held it out to me. “Will you stay with me, Grace? I will not press you, if your conscience leads you elsewhere.”

      This time, there was no hesitation. I stood and took Hope’s hand. “I will follow you, and I will fight.”

 

 

#

 

 

      Miss Taris was standing near the alley entrance as we emerged, hand-in-hand. She smiled knowingly and gestured for us to follow.

      She led us into the alley and back to the alcove, where she sat on the bench as tall and elegant as a queen.

      She closed her eyes and hummed a little prayer to herself. When she opened her eyes, they glowed soft white.

      “I am ready,” she said. “Ask any question you wish.”

      Hope stepped forward and cleared his throat. “I stole something when I was thirteen years old. Prudence caught me, but she swore she would keep it a secret. I release her from her oath. What did I steal, and what did I give her in return for her silence?”

      Miss Taris closed her eyes again and sat in serene silence for a time. Then she opened her eyes and laughed.

      “I- I’m sorry. I’m not laughing at you, but-” she suppressed her smile. “When you were thirteen there was a farmer near Hill Country Village, Mr. Alder, who grew a rare variety of golden apples. One day you climbed his orchard fence and stole a basketful of the apples, even though Mr. Alder had already whipped three other boys for committing the same act. You hid in the cottage on bluebell hill to eat them, but Prudence- who had run to the cottage to cry after a fight with her mother- found you.”

      Hope’s expression was stony, but his eyes grew red as he listened.

      “Prudence was still angry from the fight, so she scolded you for stealing the apples, and threatened to tell. You offered her an apple in exchange for her silence, but Prudence claimed another prize- your first kiss. You gave Prudence the kiss, and afterward you shared your apples with her, anyway.”

      Hope turned his face away from us. His voice was hoarse when he said, “it is really Prudence.”

      “Prudence would also like to add that Celeste heard everything when she told the story to Brother Amicus, and now Celeste won’t stop giggling. She asks that from now on, you ensure your questions are appropriate to be answered within the hearing of a young lady.”

      “Of course,” Hope replied. “Grace, is there- is there anything you would like to ask?”

      I felt something familiar when I heard the emotion in Hope’s voice- something I could not discern as either joy or pain. It was the same feeling I’d experienced the day I sang by Hope’s and Prudence’s side.

      I reached out to caress Hope’s shoulder for just a moment, and then turned back to Miss Taris.

      “I trust my husband’s judgement- I believe it is Prudence. Are she and Celeste well? Are they safe?”

      Miss Taris smirked. “Prudence says that she has been guarded more closely than the crown jewels, and that you are a pair of fools for staying with me instead of fleeing.”

      “Tell Prudence that I’m sure that she is right- that we are fools- but I’m still grateful that she can tell me so.”

      “Prudence reluctantly admits that she’s grateful to be in contact with you, as well.”

      Miss Taris leaned back and sighed deeply. “This is fatiguing; is there anything you would like to add before I break the connection?”

      “Please convey my love to Prudence and Celeste- and my gratitude to Mercy for guarding them,” I said

      Miss Taris turned to Hope. “And you, Lord Frey?”

      Hope smoothed his robes and turned around once more. His eyes were red, but dry.

      “My love and gratitude as well, if you please. Oh, and tell Prudence-” He paused, and then smiled a little. “Tell Prudence that it was good to remember.”

 

 

 

#

 

 

      The crowds in the square had grown while we’d hidden in the alleyway. As soon as we emerged, we were surrounded by revelers, who crowned us in flower garlands and swept us into a circle of dancers.

      It was easy to dance with Hope, now- easier than it would have seemed before we’d communicated with Prudence. Though Hope and I found ourselves caught in another trap, Prudence and Celeste were alive, and that was reason enough to celebrate.

      Hope wore a wistful expression in his dark eyes as we danced, and knowing the expression’s origin inspired that strange feeling to swell in my heart. I puzzled over the feeling just a little; if the emotion was jealousy, then it was nothing like the jealousy that was described in books.

      A tiny voice in the back of my mind spoke, telling me that if I would just look a little closer at the feeling, I would see something I’d overlooked, and everything would be clear. Therefore, I ignored the little voice and the feeling, and simply danced.

      I had not danced with Hope since the ill-fated revelry at St. Blanc. The present dance was just as intoxicating, just as ill-advised, and just as wonderful as the last one.

      While the people danced and sang around the square, the men in the center continued to work. Soon, a voice cried out “the monument is complete- look!”

      Music grew silent, feet grew still, and everyone looked up to the monument, which now bore the small alterations that changed the symbol of Order to the symbol of Wisdom.

      “This symbol will endure,” the tallest workman called out to the crowd, placing his hand on top of his handiwork. “This symbol will remain here, untouched, because this is a new era of peace.”

      “Hear hear!” the crowd responded with a cheer.

      “I still recall how afraid I was yesterday,” the man continued. “What a fool I was! We were struggling then- hungry and unsure of the future because our crops had all been struck by the red blight. Even so, I stood by my brother and my father, bearing arms I didn’t know how to use, ready to lay down my life for a sleeping God.

“When I saw the red robes of the inquisitors, and the legions of men who marched behind them, I was certain that this was my last day on this earth. How surprised I was when I advanced on soldiers who did not attack in kind! How puzzled I was when they deflected all of my blows and did not attempt to land a single blow on me. And then, when Wisdom appeared-”

      The man stopped speaking, seeming too overcome by emotion to continue. The workman behind him, a reedy youth, stepped forward and put a hand on the man’s shoulder.

      “We were all renewed- filled with miraculous strength. My bad eye,” he gestured to his bright, perfect left eye, “which had been fused shut since I was born, opened, and I saw the most beautiful sight I’d ever beheld. Wisdom was radiant- it almost burned like sunlight to look at him- but everything the light touched healed. My father’s rheumatic joints were made well. The scars on my brother’s arms disappeared. Then the rain began, and it washed away the red blight. The fields were filled with grain, and the trees with fruit.

      “I can’t remember the last time Order answered even my most faithful prayers. But yesterday, Wisdom gave his miracles to the sinners who stood against him- I have never known such mercy. I dropped my arms, knelt, and pledged my faith to my sworn enemy on the battlefield.”

      “We have all pledged our faith,” the third workman said in a low, gruff voice. “What else can we give him in return?”

      I heard shouts of joy and praise, and in the crowd around me people began to speak, each telling the tale of the miracles they had experienced. The celebration continued through the night and after the sun rose again.

The Coven, Part C