The Coven, Part L

My dearest Grace,

I’ve never received a more welcome surprise than when my brother brought me your letter. I have been left alone in my cell for so long that I’d begun to think nothing could ease my loneliness. Yet, when I read your letter, I could almost hear your sweet voice in my ears.  

I rejoice that you and Celeste have been reunited, and that you are safe. I wish that I could fulfil my duty as husband and father, and protect you both, but circumstance has forced me to rely on the kindness of strangers. Del Sol has a good reputation for providing protection for all who seek sanctuary; still, I urge you to exercise every possible caution. I know that you have reason to love Abbess Joy, but her past and her motivations are shrouded in mystery.

I realize this statement may be fruitless, but do not worry on my behalf. I am not exactly comfortable, but I have not been subjected torture. I am being given the first degree of questioning, which is more tedious than painful. My only real hardship is a lack of sleep, which my troubled state of mind will hardly allow.

But I have found a greater rest than sleep, dear Grace. Instead, I close my eyes and summon your image to my mind. I remember the morning we spent in each other’s arms, the evenings we spent dancing together, and the nights that you showed me the majesty of your beloved stars, and suddenly I am transported to a heavenly realm. Despite my current position, I am a very lucky man. I have a well of happy memories to draw from-  from the memories I’ve made with you and Celeste, to the childhood with my brother as a boy and those golden years that I had Prudence by my side. Though some of my loved ones have passed on, I am blessed with their memories forever. I could not ask for a greater gift.

You must see, my beloved, that there is no need to weep for me. Even though I long for you with every fibre of my being, you are always with me in my mind. Things may be difficult, but you are safe and free, so do not neglect to cultivate your own happy memories.

 

My vision blurred with tears, and I could not read any further. I had read the letter three times already, and had composed my reply, but the power of Hope’s words had not waned in the least. I kissed the paper and pressed it to my aching heart, allowing the tears to fall from my eyes.

Your faith shames me, I thought, as though I could speak to the image of Hope’s smiling face that my mind had conjured. From now on, I will do my best to indulge only in happy memories.

My dreams of Hope had continued since the night I arrived at del Sol. They always began happily, like the dream of flying through the snowy hillside by Hope’s side. But my dreams would inevitably turn dark, and Hope would be torn away from me. How could I continue to complain about such dreams, when Hope literally saw hell every time he slept?

Even so, Hope’s words were still happy, and his thoughts were with me.

How harshly I’ve judged you in the past!  How could I have doubted your virtue? Your character shines through your every word.

.”Excuse me, my Lady,” A soft voice interrupted my reverie.

I sat up quickly, dried my eyes, and put my false spectacles on to hide the tears.

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” the young man continued. His inquisitor’s robes glistened like fresh blood in the light that spilled through the cloisters, but he approached me slowly, as though afraid that I’d shy away.

I stood to meet him, putting the letter in my pocket. “How may I help you, Brother Amicus?” I asked in the strongest voice I could manage.

“Good Afternoon, Lady,” the inquisitor said with a slight bow. “Have you finished your reply to Lord Frey?”

“I have,” I said. I drew the letter from my pocket, and looked it over briefly before handing it to Brother Amicus. “I have yet to affix my seal, but I suppose that doesn’t matter, does it?”

Brother Amicus took the letter, and ducked his head as though in shame. “I am so sorry, Lady Frey. I promise to ensure the letter is treated with the utmost respect-”

“I cannot trust your words, when I’ve so recently been abused and insulted  by your brethren.”

Brother Amicus straightened and stared at me, his innocent eyes wide with shock. “What do you mean, my Lady?”

“I’m referring to my recent correspondence with Brother Gaius- the inquisitor who has made himself at home in my husband’s estate,” I said. “When I inquired about the wellbeing of the estate and tenants, he replied with a letter so vile that I cannot repeat its contents. I’ve since discovered that the tenants are being neglected, and the staff falsely imprisoned.”

“I see,” Brother Amicus sighed. “Lady, please accept my apology on behalf of Brother Lux and the inquisition. Brother Gaius is a remnant of the old order, and we have not yet been able to purge the old order’s corrupt practices. I assure you that, when Lord Frey’s trial begins, we will do a full inquiry into Brother Gaius’s conduct.”

“Why wait until the trial? The tenants and staff are suffering now.”

Brother Amicus’s shut his eyes and bowed his head again. He stayed in this posture some time- motionless, except for the occasional shuddering of his shoulders. Just underneath the breeze that swept through the cloisters, I thought I heard his breath catch.

However, when he raised his head again, his eyes were clear and his expression resolute.

“Believe me- I don’t wish for anyone to suffer. I joined the church to help relieve human suffering, and during my time at the monastery, I was able to work to that end. Under Monsignor Pius, the brothers never strayed from the highest ideals of our faith.

“Since I’ve joined agreed to work with the inquisition, however, I’ve seen such egregious  acts of cruelty and corruption that I nearly resigned. But after many hours in prayer, under the guidance of wisdom, I realized that this would have been a grave error. Brother Lux and Father Pius need my assistance if they are to draw all of the poison out of the church. They are treading carefully because the poison runs very deep.”

“Given Father Pius’s position, why must he tread carefully? His power on this earth is above even princes.”

“Before he can eradicate the corruption, he must find it. If he can gather enough evidence to do a proper, public inquiry, not only will he  uncover all of the misdeeds of Father Sauris’s men, but he will ensure the the public will accept the purge. He must protect not only those who suffer now, but those who may suffer if the corruption is allowed to spread again.”

Brother Amicus came closer and pressed my hand. “In the meantime, my Lady, keep your letter from Brother Gaius safe, along with any other evidence you have against him. I know I speak for my true brothers when I thank you for your strength and sacrifice. Bless you, Lady Frey.”

Brother Amicus smiled, sunlight seeming to glow in his sky blue eyes. He made a sign over my head- not the symbol of order, but the sign I’d seen the strange pilgrims make in the Cathedral. Then he bowed to me and walked away- though the cloisters and out of sight.

 

#

 

All week, del Sol had been subject to unusually warm days followed by nights of bitter cold. Each day, sunlight melted the ice that the evening sleet left thick on the ground, and then when evening prayers began, I would hear the wind whistle outside of the calefactory, and winter clouds would gather in the sky outside.

The evening I received Hope’s letter, Sister Jubilee, Celeste and I sat alone together. Sister Jubilee taught Celeste a complicated stitch while I carefully embroidered a yellow sol flower onto a new, white pilgrim’s robe.

The Pilgrims had collected enough alms for Sister Love to purchase yards of fresh broadcloth in addition to the salt, spices, tallow, lamp oil, and bandages she bought in the Hill Country village. Because of this, we were able to give the pilgrims new robes in addition to housing and caring for them.

Coming to del Sol, I thought, had been like being cast out of heaven and falling to earth. At St. Blanc, all of the work necessary to maintaining the palace was easily hidden in its splendor. At del Sol, however, almost everything we enjoyed was the fruit of our own labor, and even the things that we purchased from town were carefully accounted for.

Seeing need, labor, and reward so closely tied together made me eager to prove myself useful. Despite my hatred of needlework, I had agreed to help with the task when Sister Jubilee requested it. Now, despite the temptation to return to my cell and brood over Hope’s letter,  I was determined to keep my mind on the task. This was a difficult task; the pleasant sounds of teasing and laughter from Sister Jubilee and Celeste proved a jarring contrast to my troubled thoughts.

Brother Amicus seemed sincere,I thought as my mind took a brooding turn. But his kind intentions are useless as long as his loyalty lies with Father Pius. I must continue to rely on myself.

“Loop the thread like this,” Sister Jubilee was saying, “Like a rabbit’s ears.”

“I’ve never seen a rabbit with three ears,” Celeste giggled.

Distracted from my useless thought, I began to stitch once more.

“The fairies’ rabbits have three ears,” Sister Jubilee insisted. “Now, let me see the back.”

“Why does the back matter? No one will see it.”

“You’d be surprised what can show through, if you make enough of a mess,” Sister Jubilee said, taking the embroidery hoop from Celeste.

How much of the inquisition’s corruption is being hidden from me, I thought as my mind wandered once more. If nothing is being done to stop the inquisitors at Rowan Heights, the interrogators are likely being given free reign. Hope said that he is not being tortured, but I have no doubt he’s being treated more cruelly than he admits.

“Here, Celeste. Undo these stitches and try again.”

Celeste sighed and took back her hoop, and Sister Jubilee turned to me.

“Is the design too difficult to follow?” she asked, taking my work to examine. She looked at the design I’d stitched for a long time before going to the fire. Then, with her back to me, she threw back her veil to get a closer look.  

I found myself leaning forward in anticipation, but Sister Jubilee lowered her veil before she turned around again.

“Why did you tell me you had a little experience with embroidery?” she asked in quiet, neutral voice.

I gazed at her, trying to see the disapproval through her veil, but as usual I could see nothing.

“I’m sorry; I did try,” I said. “I have been a little distracted, tonight  Can it be fixed?”

Sister Jubilee came closer and thrust the robe into my hands. “You aren’t at St. Blanc anymore, so there’s no need for false modesty. Your stitching is perfect. This work is exquisite.”

The sincerity in Sister Jubilee’s voice was so warm that I felt my cheeks grow warm in response.

“It isn’t, really,” I protested. “I’ve done better work that my governess made me undo, and this isn’t half as fine as Miss Taris’s-”

“I haven’t seen Miss Taris’s work, Lady Frey; I am speaking of yours. It’s beautiful. Why did you tell me that you could only sew a little?”

“I did not believe that I could do more,” I said.

“I see,” Sister Jubilee said quietly. She sat down beside Celeste. “You have grown a great deal since our first meeting, but some habits don’t die easily. You should learn to trust yourself.”

“Your praise has more weight to me than my governess’s censure,” I said quickly, “but I must have some guidance; no one can honestly judge their own work.”

“I’ve redone my stitches,” Celeste said, handing her own work back to Sister Jubilee. “I did very well.”

“You did,” Sister Jubilee confirmed. She held out the hoop to me. “What do you think, Lady frey?”

I took the hoop and saw a straight row of heart-shaped stitches. The middle one was slightly crooked, and the stitch on the end had uneven sides, but the row was straight and the back was tidy.

“You did very well,” I said. “You’ve improved a great deal.”

Celeste smiled and took back the hoop. “Lady Frey, since I finished my work, may I read my letters, again?

“Your letters?” Sister Jubilee asked.

Celeste nodded. “My uncles wrote back to me. Lady Frey gave me the letters this morning.”

“I see,” Sister Jubilee said. She took her own work from a common basket and threaded a needle. “I am glad they are able to write to you.”

The calefactory door opened, and Celeste ran to greet the sisters who were returning from confession as she left.

Miss Taris came to sit beside me while the others chatted with Celeste at the door. She was just as pale as she had been when we arrived at del Sol, and even her thick spectacles could not hide the dark circles under her eyes.

“Miss Taris,” Sister Jubilee said gently, handing Miss Taris a cup of hot, black tea. “I wish you would allow Abbess Joy to examine you.”

“She already has, as a matter of fact,” Miss Taris said. “There is nothing physically wrong with me- not that she can find. I just need some more time to rest.”

Miss Taris turned to me. “By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask you something. There is an empty cell near yours, on the quiet side of the dormitories. Would you object if I took it?”

“As long as Abbess Joy doesn’t mind, I have no objection,” I said. “Of course, you may not find it very quiet. Mercy…”

I trailed off, struck by a sudden thought.

“Yes?”

“Miss Taris, why don’t you join Mercy and me in our morning exercise? I’m sure it will do you good.”

Miss Taris leaned back in her chair, blinking owlishly behind her spectacles.

“Are you certain?” Sister Jubliee interjected. “The exercise looks very… vigorous, to me.”

“I wasn’t very strong when I began- I could only do stretches and some of the simpler forms. My strength increased very quickly, though.”

“Perhaps your strength increased, but you already had the courage to persevere,” Miss Taris said, looking down at her thin hands. “I’ve always lacked courage of any kind.”

“You have more courage than you think,” I said. “You found the strength to defy your father, after all. What are a few exercises, in comparison?”

“Mercy will never agree,” Miss Taris said. “She views me as her enemy.”

“I will speak to Miss Mercy, if you like.”

Miss Taris bit her lip and looked to Sister Jubilee, as though for help. Sister Jubilee continued to do her needlework, and said nothing.

“You know that I long to grow stronger, but lately it seems as though I’ve reached my limit. If Mercy agrees to teach me, then I will try to learn. If I fail, please don’t think any less of me.”

“I wouldn’t- I promise,” I said. “But I believe that you will surprise yourself.”

“I daresay she will,” Sister Jubilee said. “Most people are capable of more than they believe.”

Sister Jubilee’s hands paused in their work as she spoke, and I imagined that she gave me a knowing smile from behind her veil.

Mercy entered the room, then, with Abbess Joy and Sister Blessing close behind. The room had slowly filled while Miss Taris and I were talking, and now all the sisters were present, working and chatting merrily in the firelight.

I stood and went to meet Mercy. “Good evening.”

Mercy smirked in reply. “You have the air of someone about to ask a favor. What is it?”

“Well- I hate to ask after you’ve done so much for me, but-”

Mercy Laughed. “You really must be more aggressive when you attack. As it happens, I’ve just received a very nice letter from your friend, Mr. Sutton, regarding my wages. Now I’m in a mood to grant you anything you ask.”

“I’m glad Mr. Sutton is acting as he promised,” I said. “But please- don’t think I am trying to bribe you. Everything he offered is your just due.”

Mercy sat down with her back to the hearth. “Hurry and ask, then, before my mood sours.”

“Would you be willing to take another pupil?” I asked.

“Oh! Yes,” Sister Love, who had been sitting on the opposite side of the hearth, picked up her work and came closer. “I’ve enjoyed watching your morning lessons, and I must admit that I’ve tried to do some of your forms on my own.”

“As have I!” Sister Blessing said. “Miss Mercy, if you would just show the beginner’s form a little more slowly, I’m sure I could get it.”

“Perhaps we all should learn,” Sister Purity said quietly.

Really?” Innocence said, letting her own needle slip through her fingers.

“Yes, really,” Sister Purity said, picking up Innocence’s needle. “There are no men present at the Abbey, and most of the pilgrims who come here are old and infirm. The bandits are getting bolder, and it isn’t fair that we all rely on Abbess Joy’s magic to protect us.”

Sister Love nodded in agreement. “Abbess Joy cannot come with us when we go to town for supplies, either.”

Mercy’s lips twitched, as though she were stifling a laugh. “I’m perfectly willing to teach, but would it be proper for holy sisters to practice such a brutish, manly art?”

Abbess Joy, who had been sitting at the center of our circle and watching the conversation with the air of a queen, dropped her work and gave Mercy a sharp look.

“Abbess?” Sister Love said tentatively.

“Miss Mercy, I’ve held my tongue long enough,” Abbess Joy said. “I can tell that you are a skilled martial artist- skilled enough that you should be able to train my sisters how to fall gracefully, to pull their punches, and then return them to me after their lessons without bruises all over their arms and legs.”

Mercy’s cheeks grew red.

“I don’t know what lesson you’ve been trying to teach Lady Frey, but she seems to understand. Nevertheless, I will only allow you to conduct your classes if you promise that Lady Frey will get the same treatment as everyone else.”

“Abbess Joy, I-”

“No, Lady Frey. She’s right,” Mercy interrupted. “I’ve tested your strength, and you passed.”

“You helped forge my strength,” I said.

Abbess Joy took up her needlework again. “I’m going to the south dunes on week’s end, and I will stay for three days. When I return, you may start your lessons.”

“Mercy- will you teach everyone?” I asked.

“Everyone but Celeste- she is too young,” Mercy said.

Miss Taris caught my eye and smiled.

The other sisters began to talk excitedly amoung themselves, and Abbess Joy moved her chair closer to mine.

“I go to the south dunes every year, on Harmony’s death day,” she whispered into my ear. “Will you come with me this year?”

“Oh- may I?” I breathed.

“The south dunes are on the abbey’s sacred ground, though they are on the outskirts. There’s something I there that I wish to show you.”

“I will come. Thank you.”

Abbess Joy pressed her hand against my arm briefly, and then fell silent.

I put my work away and took one more look around the warm, cheerful circle of friends around me. Then I excused myself and went out into the cold winter wind to return to the dormitories, where Hope’s letters awaited me.

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Double Apologies

I’ve been posting these far too often lately.

I hope that I will be able to pick up my posting schedule in the near future. Last week, I had a sore throat and fatigue, and now a middle ear infection has rendered me too tired and dizzy to write much of a coherent nature. My doctor just prescribed some medicine, and the pills are so large and difficult to swallow that I have every confidence they will be effective.

While I recover, please enjoy this picture of a sleepy gorilla.

 

sleepygorilla

Interlude- The Holy Well

Abbess Joy watched from the shadows as two young women descended from the tower. The two women, one veiled and one barefaced, walked so closely that their hands almost touched. The barefaced woman made a remark in a soft voice that Abbess Joy could hardly hear, but the veiled woman laughed loudly and heartily in response.

To say that Abbess Joy was surprised by the friendship the two young women had forged would be an understatement. Abbess Joy hadn’t expected that they would display open hostility- they each guarded their secrets too closely for anything overt- but she had anticipated thick tension and an immovable wall of mistrust between them.

There had been some mistrust between the two at first, but it had been resolved with generous and rational compromise on both sides. The tension that occasionally arose between them would inevitably dissolve into an easy and playful rapport. Sister Jubilee and Lady Grace were intellectually matched, and  both were starved for discourse with an equal mind.

Abbess Joy didn’t know whether to rejoice in their unexpected intimacy or to fear the coming conflict between them more than ever. The two women, whom she loved as her own daughters, were destined enemies.

When the women had gone and the way was clear, Abbess Joy emerged from the shadows and entered the tower. She did not climb up toward the laboratory, but rather down through a trapdoor. She descended a spiral staircase lined with rough-hewn stone, which resembled an ancient well.

The staircase stopped in a stone cavern, which was lit by a ghostly blue light that flickered off of the stone walls and reflected in Abbess Joy’s pale eyes. The light emanated from a screen on the far wall that danced with different shades of blue- a magic mirror.

Abbess Joy stepped into the room, and the ghostly light was instantly washed away by the electric lights overhead. The cavern, now visible, appeared no bigger than Abbess Joy’s office, and was furnished with a desk, chair, and a metal chest of drawers.

Abbess Joy knelt by the desk and opened the bottom drawer, removing a black box. On the front of the box there was a picture of a wild-haired girl, who seemed to look back at Abbess Joy with a fierce, black gaze and strangely gentle smile.

Abbess Joy closed her eyes and heaved a deep sigh as though she were in pain. When she opened her eyes, her usually girlish face seemed to have aged. Her skin was still flawless, and her brow was smooth, but an ageless sorrow dulled her countenance.

She kissed the box gently, and as though the act had been a command the box sprung open. Inside was a stack of pictures and letters tied together with a white ribbon. The pictures were all of the same girl, but while the first few showed the girl with the same fierce eyes and active limbs, blooming with health, the latter ones showed her with red-rimmed eyes and a figure swollen with child.

Abbess Joy blinked, and then deftly caught the tears on her cheeks before they could fall and desecrate the pictures. She laid the pictures carefully aside and untied the letters, sorting them with a businesslike efficiency even as her tears continued to fall.

When she’d completed her task, a soft chime echoed through the room, and Abbess Joy jumped like a child caught in a mischievous act. She put the box’s contents back inside and shoved it into the drawer with a loud clank. Then she scrubbed her eyes clean with her sleeve and went to the magic mirror.

She hesitated for a moment, and then took a deep breath and touched the screen. Instantly, the colored lights vanished and were replaced with the perfect image of Father Pius. His smooth, handsome features and shining black hair were worthy of a portrait, but the mirror showed him with finer detail and clarity than the greatest master could accomplish.

“Good evening,” Father Pius said.  “It is so late that I was worried you would not answer.”

Abbess Joy bowed her head. “I am at your service, my priest. As you know, one of my sisters will usually answer the mirror if I am unable to answer personally.”

Monsignor Pius sighed. “I would rather you answer the mirror, yourself. Even I  did not learn of the existence of holy mirrors until I became monsignor of the brotherhood, and I did not have permission to use one until recently. I dislike that the sisters have ready access to such a holy relic.”

“I understand your concerns. However, the sisters do not have ready access. Only a select few are allowed to come here, and they can only use the mirror with my permission. All of the sisters at del Sol are bound to secrecy and obedience by holy magic.”

“I am glad to hear that you’ve taken such precautions. Are you as careful regarding the pilgrims that you host?”

“You have my word that the pilgrims cannot access the mirror,” Abbess Joy said with another bow.

“Don’t mistake my concern for criticism, Abbess,” Monsignor Pius said. He moved away from the mirror slightly, seeming to lean back into a chair on the other side.”I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting you in person, but you have been very kind to people that I care deeply about, and you’ve done much to help me as I adjust to my new position. I have a great deal of respect for you.”

“Thank you, but my reputation is undeserved. I do what I can to help others, but I am a sinner who seeks forgiveness, just like any other pilgrim at del Sol.”

“I commend your humility, Abbess Joy,” Father Pius said, “ but you and I both know you are more than that.”

Abbess Joy did not reply, and the two gazed at each other with matching, serene expressions.

Father Pius was the first one to move. “In any case, the reason for my call was not social. I wish to warn you of demonic activity.”

Abbess Joy’s serene expression was instantly replaced by one of shock. “Is this related to the recent arrests by the inquisition?”

“Any possible connection to the witches is still under investigation. All I know for certain is that a demon called ‘Raven’ has been attempting to tamper with our holy mirrors. I’m sending you a list of aliases that she uses, but it will be safest if you refuse any calls from users you don’t recognize.”

Abbess Joy nodded and touched the mirror. A small box containing a list of names and rows of numbers appeared near the lower corner of the mirror, which Abbess Joy skimmed briefly before dismissing with a flick of her finger.

“I am impressed at how quickly you’ve adapted to using the mirror,” Abbess Joy said.

Father Pius’s eyes narrowed slightly, but his smile brightened. “Thank you, Abbess. It was not difficult to learn. The mirror is truly a wondrous device; like a good servant, it performs the most difficult tasks for me.”

“The only issue is that it follows directions too exactly, without considering the user’s intent,” Abbess joy remarked. “Thank you for your warning. I will contact you immediately if I receive any strange messages.”

Father Pius bowed just low enough to convey sincere respect while remaining visible in the mirror’s frame. “Thank you for your vigilance, Abbess, and thank you for guarding the pilgrims I’ve sent you.”

“There is no need to thank me; del Sol is open to all. However…” Abbess Joy hesitated, biting her lip.

“Yes?”

“Have you made a decision regarding the favor I asked you?”

Father Pius’s smile faltered. “Abbess Joy, you’ve asked a very difficult thing. The Gods took Lady Frey away from you for a reason. She was destined to marry Lord Frey and end his family’s condemnation.”

“But surely things have changed, now that Lord Frey has been arrested.”

“Lord Frey has not had his trial. We cannot rule out the possibility that there is still hope for him and his family. I am committed to uncovering the truth, and to that end, I may ask that Lady Frey give testimony.”

“I wouldn’t be able to protect Grace if she were to travel to the capital.”

Lady Frey is a grown woman now, and if she wishes to help her husband, she should be allowed,” Father Pius said. His already dark eyes lost some of their glitter, as though a shadow had passed before them.

“I would never seek to keep her here against her will,” Abbess Joy said, raising her delicate chin. “But if her husband is found guilty, what will become of her?”

“If Lord Frey is found guilty, then Lady Frey may stay with you as long as she likes. She may even take orders, if she chooses. You have my word.”

Abbess Joy sighed deeply. “When Grace left me she was a happy, healthy little girl. Now she has returned as Lady Frey- a heartbroken young woman. If I there were a way I could ensure she didn’t get hurt again, I would be content.”

“Abbess, I understand your concern. I feel obligated by my office, however, to warn you; this is a path you have trod before, and it leads to rebellion.”

Abbess Joy clutched her hands before her, bowing her head as though in shame. “My priest, I learned a hard lesson when Grace was taken away from me the first time. You’ve shown a great deal of trust to allow her return. I swear not to betray that trust.”

Father Pius leaned forward, steepling his fingers as though deep in thought. The glittering light returned to his eyes. “I do trust you, Abbess Joy. It is a moral duty to grant the repentant a second chance.”

The Coven- Part XLIX

Around his prey, the eagle flies,

His wing the sail, his sea the skies,

Sharp eyes to view our sins below,

Sharp cries to warn the coming blow.

 

The eagle’s prey, the scarlet rose,

Is crowned with silk, and thorns his clothes,

When thorns and talons clash like steel,

King Uriel they shall reveal.

 

“It’s a strange poem, isn’t it, Lady Grace?” Celeste asked, placing the book on her knee.

“I’ve heard something like it before,” I said, thinking of the book I’d stolen from the palace, and the Tale of the Fallen Six. “Where did you find this book?”

“In the calefactory,” Celeste said, sliding off of her bed to put the book back on her desk.

I had been sitting with Celeste in her cell, reading bedtime stories by lamplight. Celeste had made the room her own, filling the tiny chamber with as many comforts as would fit. A colorful quilt, which she’d sewn with the sisters in the calefactory, covered her cot. A sketch was pinned to the wall- a drawing that Hope had made of the fountains at St. Blanc and had sent to her with one of his letters. On Celeste’s desk, the golden haired doll sat atop a stack of books, wearing a handkerchief on its head like a veil, and on another stack of books was a yellow sol-flower in a cup.

Among these simple comforts Celeste slept as soundly as a queen, and yet it pained me that I could not do more for her. The cell was the same size of her closet in the nursery at Rowan Heights, yet she’d seemed perfectly able to adjust to her surroundings. How many times, I wondered, had she had to make herself comfortable in a new bedroom?

“Who is Uriel?” Celeste asked, turning back from her desk.

“According to some stories, Uriel was the first High King of Aeterna, appointed by the Gods. These tales are only legend; history tells us that the first King of Aeterna was Innocent I.”

“Why do you believe history instead of the tales?” Celeste asked.

“I believe the historians because they have evidence to support their claims. The church has stored Aeterna’s founding documents in their archives, all of which are signed by King Innocent I. The Prince can trace his lineage to Innocent I, which is why he is claiming his right to the Aeternan throne. Also, the Cathedral Lux was built by King Innocent I, and I’ve seen the plaque that he impressed with his handprint in the cathedral antechamber.”

“That makes sense,” Celeste said. “But Uriel might have been King before all of that. Maybe his evidence was lost.”

“Perhaps,” I admitted. “But until more evidence is found, there’s no reason for us to believe that Uriel existed anywhere but in stories.”

Celeste nodded as though satisfied, but I found myself feeling strangely unsatisfied. Something about the poem, the stolen book, and the symbol of the eagle was prompting my mind to venture in odd directions.

“Celeste,” I finally said. “I have something that you may like to see. Wait here.”

I went to my own cell and returned with the silver, eagle-embossed locket. I handed it to Celeste, who opened it eagerly.

“This is very pretty. Who is this girl? Wait- I think I know her…”

Celeste removed her spectacles and squinted at the miniature. “This is wrong, but I can’t tell how it’s wrong. Who is it?”

“This is your mother’s likeness. It was taken when she was a very young girl.”

“It is.”  Celeste said with a sudden smile. “Oh, how pretty she was! But- why did she change?”

Before I could stop her, Celeste opened the door and dashed down the hall. She threw open Sister Jubilee’s door without knocking.

“Sister Jubilee!” she said. “I want to show you something.”

“Celeste, what have I told you about knocking?” Sister Jubilee emerged from her cell, smoothing her veil as though she’d just thrown it on. I followed Celeste, half disappointed that I’d missed seeing Sister Jubilee’s face, and half ashamed of feeling the disappointment. 

“I want to show you this picture. Lady Grace said that this is my mother.”

Sister Jubilee knelt down and opened the locket. She sat silently for a long time, as though trying to make out each detail through the gauzy veil. Then she handed the locket back to Celeste.

“Your mother was very pretty,” she said.

“Can people- can people change a lot as they get older?” Celeste asked.

“Sometimes they can. Time can change the prettiest young girl into an old crone, and if someone goes through many hardships, time has an even greater effect.”

“I see.” Celeste took the locket back and kissed it. “Then I’m glad I got to see this picture.”

Sister Jubilee stood, but did not reply.

“Abbess Joy!” Celeste said suddenly, and she ran to the other end of the hall where Abbess Joy was approaching. “I want to show you my mother, too!”

“Your mother?” Abbess Joy said, blinking down at Celeste in surprise.

Celeste opened the locket and handed it to Abbess Joy. As Abbess Joy was examining the miniature, Sister Jubilee came closer to me.

“Why did you show her?” she asked in a harsh whisper.

“Why wouldn’t I?” I asked. “My own mother died when I was a baby, and I’ve always wished that I could see her likeness more than anything else.”

“Abbess Joy must not have had any hardships,” Celeste said, taking Abbess Joy’s hand and leading her back to Sister Jubilee and me.

“Why do you say that?” Sister Jubilee said.

“Because Sister Love told me that Abbess Joy is very old, but Abbess Joy is still pretty.”

Abbess Joy laughed. “Thank you for the compliment, Celeste. Everyone has their share of hardships, but I hope I’ve borne mine well.”

Sister Jubilee sighed. “Celeste, it is very late, and we have early prayer, tomorrow.”

“I was just on my way to bed,” Celeste said. She kissed Sister Jubilee on the cheek, and then turned to kiss Abbess Joy and I, as well.

“May I keep the locket, for a while?” Celeste asked. “I promise I will be careful.”

“Of course,” I said. “She is your mother, after all.”

 

#

 

Later that evening, when everyone else was asleep, Sister Jubilee knocked quietly on my door and beckoned for me to follow her. We made our way without a lantern up the hill to the old lighthouse and entered silently, as though in reverence.

We went upstairs, stopping at the second story laboratory. Sister Jubilee went straight to the table and started working without a word. She fiddled with some of the devices, which glinted in the electric light, and wrote notes in a battered book that lay open on the table.

After watching Sister Jubilee work for several moments, I turned to examine the nearby shelves, which were full of books of all sizes, shapes, and colors. Sister Jubilee, however, looked up from her work and called me away from the tantalizing books.

“Don’t read those, yet,” she said. “They must be studied in the correct order, or they will make no sense. There- have a seat.”

She gestured to a stool that stood across the table from her, away from the largest instruments. As I sat, she took her own seat and rolled up her voluminous sleeves to the elbow.

“Where shall we begin?” she said in a businesslike manner. “Have you read anything by Lord Tolemus?”

“I’ve read his Treatise on Sacred Geometry, as well as Divine Proofs and The Theorems.”

“Excellent- Lord Tolemus is one of our few contemporaries whose writings are remotely sane.”

“If you feel that way, then you must not have read Lord Aston, Sir Reginald, Sir Boromir, Brother Apollion…”

“I only have a passing familiarity with Sir Boromir, but I wouldn’t really consider him a contemporary. The rest that you mention are brilliant men- giants in their fields- but they are all insane. To be human is to be insane, and it is a long and arduous journey to sanity.”

I leaned my elbows on the table. Fatigue was setting in, though the room’s lights were far too bright to allow for sleepiness.

“I must admit that my experiences over the past few months have led me to question the very definition of sanity,” I said. “I’m ready to re-learn everything I thought I knew.”

“Are you willing to learn even if you must study nights instead of going to the telescope?” Sister asked, putting her own elbows on the table and leaning toward me.

“I fear that sanity may be elusive if I can’t go to the telescope.”

“If you know you must re-learn sanity, then how can you be certain that the telescope will be necessary?”

I closed my eyes to consider my answer. The electric lights were distractingly bright, but I could not block them out. I repeated to myself that they were harmless and then re-ordered my thoughts.

“The stars help me to accept what is, no matter how fantastic,” I said. “They are the most fantastic things there are, yet I can examine them with my own eyes and verify that they follow natural laws.”

Sister Jubilee remained silent for several moments. “I see your point,” she finally said. “In fact, that helps me understand how I’ve kept my own sanity. Don’t smile at me in that manner- I have a tighter grip on sanity than anyone else in this room.”

I bit my lip. “Of course.”

“I have one more question I would ask you before…” Sister Jubilee stopped, sighed, and put her head in her hands. “No- it would be pointless to ask. I’ve already decided.”

“What have you decided?”

Sister Jubilee stood and walked around the table, stopping next to me. She held out her hand.

“Since Mr. Filius won’t return until after Chaosmas, I’ve agreed to take you on as my apprentice. Do you accept?”

I stood as well. “I don’t know- perhaps I should interview you as you have interviewed me, to see if I wish to take you on as a teacher.”

“I should refuse to teach you and ban you from this tower,” she said exasperatedly.

“It’s too late. You’ve already given me the key.”

Sister Jubilee sputtered in protest. I laughed, satisfied that I’d taken the advantage in our verbal sparring for the first time, and took her hand.

“Sister Jubilee, I am intrigued beyond words to learn what you have to teach me. I would be honored to be your apprentice.”

Solar Eclipse 2017

I was lucky enough to witness one of nature’s wonders today- the rare spectacle known as a solar eclipse. I live in Texas, so I was not in the path of totality, but the partial eclipse was still an awesome sight.

I was unable to take photos because I lacked the proper equipment, but I will share my experience as best as I can with words. I used three pieces of equipment to view the eclipse- my smartphone, with help from the NASA livestream, a pair of ISO certified glasses, which I obtained courtesy of my local astronomy association, and a camera obscura (i.e. a card that I tore in half and poked a hole in with a thumbtack.)

eclipse_equip

(Not pictured- my smartphone and the thumbtack.)

I got an early start viewing the solar eclipse from my smartphone, watching the live feed of the eclipse that NASA was streaming from Oregon. When I was able, I went outside to view the eclipse firsthand. I went outside at 12:08pm CDT, and followed the eclipse’s progress until 12:26pm CDT. The view through my eclipse glasses was sharp, and the dark curve of the moon was starkly visible against the sun’s orange crescent. When I began viewing, the coverage was ~15%, and before I went inside again the coverage was ~30%.

I went back outside at 1:00pm CDT. I viewed the eclipse through my glasses, and also decided to try using a little pinhole viewer I’d made. The pinhole viewer worked much better than I’d anticipated. I didn’t have to adjust the angles of the cards very much at all before the eclipse became visible, and though it wasn’t as big and clear as the view through the glasses, I could clearly see a bright little crescent of light on the card. The last time I viewed the eclipse, the coverage was ~50%.

Viewing nature’s wonders was its own reward, but I would be remiss if I didn’t at least attempt to discover any superpowers the eclipse might have unleashed from deep within me. I haven’t tried everything, of course, but here are the possibilities I’ve eliminated.

I cannot stop time.

I’m not indestructible. (I still have a little scab on my chin that hasn’t miraculously healed.)

I cannot pass through solid objects.

I’m not a magical girl. (I tried shouting “moon prism power, make up!” but nothing happened.)

I cannot see the future.

 

It’s too hot for me to attempt to try super strength or super speed, and I haven’t had enough time alone to try to fly. If anyone else has any ideas on superpowers for me to try, leave them in the comments. I assign a very low probability that I received any superpowers at all, but I have nothing to lose, and everything to gain in testing it.

Keep your eyes on the skies, everyone, and happy viewing.

Apologies

Hello, everyone. I hope you are having an enjoyable weekend.

Due to a hectic work situation coupled with a lack of sleep, I was unable to post the latest part of The Coven this past week. I assure you that I will return to my regular posting schedule as soon as possible.

To thank you for your patience and support, here is a picture of a baby elephant.

The Coven, Part XLVIII

 

“Last night’s storms must have been a dream,” Celeste called happily, turning her face toward the sun.

“The sky’s so clear that you must be right,” Sister Jubilee replied. “I think we all met in the dream world, last night.”

Celeste laughed and, as though she could not contain herself anymore, broke into a run, kicking up golden sand behind her.

“Stay where we can watch you,” Mercy called after Celeste. Then she sighed and ran after her.

I let Mercy chase Celeste, but the anxiety I might have felt for Celeste the day before was gone. I felt certain that she was safe on the beach so close to del Sol. The sea was calm; the waves pulsed low and soft against the shore. A winter chill still hung in the air, but there was no wind, and the sunlight melted the cold away as it touched my skin. It felt like the light of dawn that melts away a nightmare.

Sister Jubilee and I stood together and watched Celeste and Mercy run along the shore. After a time, Innocence sidled up to us from the dunes.

“It is a pleasant day,” she said, “though the sea’s beauty can’t compare to the gardens at St. Blanc.”

“I cannot agree,” I said. “Even at court, I’ve never seen such jewels. The sea is sapphire, the sun and the sand are gold, and the waves glitter with a thousand diamonds.”

“Your words are wonderfully poetic, but you can’t sell poetry to feed the hungry or fund a war,” Sister Jubilee said. “The beauty of St. Blanc is directly related to its wealth, and real diamonds are worth far more than glittering water.”

“A diamond’s only worth is in its beauty,” I countered. “You cannot eat a diamond, or use it as a weapon. But you can live off of the sea’s bounty and sail warships on its surface. The sea has the advantage in both poetry and utility.”

“Stop- I can hardly keep up with the two of you,” Innocence pleaded. “I was speaking only of pleasure, not economics or politics. Let jewels and poetry remain useless, so I can properly enjoy them.”

“Miss Innocence, you will make an excellent sister once you learn to tolerate daily prayer. Focus on the abstract, elevate your spirit, and leave the mundane business of reality to Lady Frey and me,” Sister Jubilee laughed, linking her arm with mine.

“I wish I could focus on the abstract,” Innocence said. She held her hand out for me to see. “Look- I’ve been doing useful work every day after prayers, and my hands are covered in blisters. I’ve given up my title, and now I don’t even have a Lady’s hands.”

“I can tell you still have a Lady’s heart,” Sister Jubilee said with a slight note of contempt in her voice.

Innocence only sighed in reply. “I do my best.”

Innocence linked her arm with mine, and the three of us walked together- drifting across the sand like a daisy chain flung toward the sea. When we caught up to Celeste and Mercy the two had tumbled to the ground, and were both laughing without restraint.

When Celeste had caught her breath, she stood, brushed the sand from her robes, and took Sister Jubilee’s hand. “Come with Mercy and me. I want to show you an experiment that I’m conducting.”

“An experiment?”

“Yes. Help me gather stones and driftwood, and I will tell you about it.”

“Would you like me to help, too?” I offered.

Celeste shook her head quickly. “You mustn’t see my experiment until I’ve finished, so you can properly judge the results,” she said in a carefully grown-up voice. Then she tugged on Sister Jubilee’s hand again, and the three made their way up the shore.

When we were left alone, Innocence’s smile faded, and she stared down at her blister-covered fingers.

“I don’t know why I’m here,” she said softly. “I don’t belong.”

“None of us do,” I said. “Del Sol seems to be a place for those who don’t belong.”

“That’s exactly what Sister Purity told me before she left St. Blanc. I’d thought that she wanted me to follow her. That’s why I didn’t stay longer at St. Blanc, I suppose- it’s better to be with a friend who needs you than to watch your own dreams crumble.”

“Do you regret your decision?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t regret it if I knew that Sister Purity truly needed me. When I arrived, she’d already taken her vows, and she is so comfortable that it seems as though she’s lived here for years. She is happy.”

“She may still need you,” I said. “She may be content with your presence.”

“Perhaps.” Innocence picked at the peeling skin around her blisters.

“You should allow Abbess Joy to heal you hands,” I said.

Innocence curled her fingers into fists and dropped them to her sides, like a frightened child hiding a wound. “Why don’t you allow Abbess Joy to heal your bruises?”

“I have. She gave me salve to put on them.”

Innocence furrowed her brow in frustration. “Lady Frey, you know she can do more than apply salve. The fact that you haven’t let her use the litany of healing proves that you feel the same as I- that you have to atone for something.”

Innocence looked up at the dunes, and her smile returned. The sisters were walking single file down to the beach. They were singing, and their song hovered in the still air over the shore.

Sister Jubilee returned to greet the other sisters as Celeste played with Mercy at the water’s edge. Sister Jubilee was the only sister still wearing her veil; all of the others had thrown theirs back as they climbed through the dunes, and were blinking into the afternoon sunshine.

“Good afternoon,” Abbess Joy said as she approached the shore. “You are all welcome to join us for meditation.”

Sister Jubilee readily agreed, and though Innocence seemed about to refuse, she acquiesced when Purity took her arm. Abbess Joy turned to me with a welcoming smile.

“I’m sorry, but I need to go to the pilgrim’s quarters today, before Mr. Sutton leaves,” I said.

Abbess Joy nodded. “That is probably best. Will you be able to find the pilgrim’s quarters on your own?”

“I know where to find it. I passed it with Brother Lux,” I said.

Abbess Joy nodded. “When you have completed your business, go to the nearby infirmary. I’ve made a new batch of salve for your bruises, but I left it in my office. You’ll find it on my desk, in a blue jar.”

“Thank you.”

“Abbess Joy, please help me persuade Lady Frey that the salve isn’t enough,” Innocence said. “She should let you heal her properly, or else quit learning the martial art. A lady in her condition cannot be too careful.”

“Her condition?” Abbess Joy looked back at me sharply.

It took me a few moments to understand what Innocence had meant. “Oh! Miss Innocence, there’s no need…”

“What are you talking about?” Sister Jubilee said.

I looked around at the sisters, who were all looking at me with keen interest, now. I could not control the burning in my cheeks.

“There was a rumor at court, but it was only a rumor,” I said firmly.

“Are you certain? Lady Fairfax said-”

“I’m quite certain.” I said to Innocence. “Lady Fairfax was mistaken. I hoped that the rumor had been put to rest once and for all.”

Abbess Joy pursed her lips in concern.

“Trust me, Abbess Joy, there’s no way that…” I cleared my throat and continued in a stronger voice. “I’m absolutely certain I have no ‘condition’ at present.”

“Very well,” Abbess Joy said. “Still, you should be careful with your health for your own sake, at least.”

“I will be. Mercy only pushes me because I need it. If my health suffers, I will stop practicing.”

“I trust you,” Abbess Joy said. “You were born to be a fighter, and I cannot change that.”

 

#

 

I put up my cowl as I neared the pilgrim’s quarters, letting its loose edge fall far over my face so far that I could hardly see. The main quarters were located in a white, square building lined with a profusion of unadorned columns, and beside it were several low, wooden buildings clustered together.

I walked around the edge of the buildings, watching the groups of pilgrims who walked up and down the paths that led from the cathedral and the carriage house. Abbess Joy had told me that Mr. Sutton was unmistakable- very tall and lean, with a profusion of red hair, and sure enough, I soon spotted pilgrim who appeared to be at least a head taller than any of the others, and whose hair shone like fire in the afternoon sunlight.

I pulled my cowl even further down and approached him. In a swift gesture, I drew Mr. Filius’s card from my sleeve to reveal the picture of the eye.

“Good Afternoon,” Mr Sutton said in a light tone. “It would seem that you and I share secrets.”

“In secrets, there is trust,” I whispered in reply.

“Can I help you with something?” he asked.

“I hope so,” I said. “Do you know a place where we may speak privately?”

“Hmmm… I suppose the old lighthouse is out of the question at this time of day. We wouldn’t want to give the impression that it’s an interesting place. Let’s go to the Cathedral.”

“The Cathedral?” I asked in surprise as Mr. Sutton started back up the path.

“Of course- everyone already knows that the Cathedral is uninteresting, so it is empty as soon as prayers are done.”

I trotted behind Mr. Sutton, feeling very much like a child trying to keep up with an adult, until we arrived at the Cathedral doors. Mr. Sutton opened one door and gestured for me to enter.

The Cathedral seemed even more massive on the inside than it had on the outside, with the arches all pointing toward the high-vaulted ceilings, yet with wide, open space between the unadorned walls and windows. The floor and the pews were all made from the same unfinished wood, and there was a gleaming metal pipe organ behind the low altar.

“You see, there not even a symbol of order to distract us,” Mr. Sutton said. “We may speak here, undisturbed, until everyone is forced to return for evening prayer. How can I help you, Miss…”

I pulled my cowl back. “My name is Lady Grace Frey, and if you  don’t wish to involve yourself in my troubles, I will understand.”

Mr. Sutton drew a sharp breath. I looked into his face, and saw that he was blinking his grass-green eyes in surprise, and his freckled cheeks were growing red. I was tempted to take his reaction as an answer to the plea I had yet to make. Desperation, however, forced me to stay and attempt to persuade him.

After a few moments, he sighed, and the red splotches faded from his cheeks.

“I shouldn’t be surprised,” he said. “I’d guessed that you would seek help from the order, at some point. Please forgive me.”

“There is nothing to forgive- your reaction was natural. You didn’t flee at the sight of me, or call me the ‘devil’s whore,’ which is more than I expected.”

Mr. Sutton shook his head. “I am sorry you have been treated so. I study human behavior, so I’m well acquainted with how quickly people can turn against the innocent- especially when superstition is involved. I hope that one day I will learn how to correct such behavior.”

“I am lucky- I have friends at the abbey who can protect me. However, I cannot leave their protection, so I was hoping that you would agree to help me navigate the outside world.”

I reached into my pocket and drew out the letters I’d written.

“Abbess Joy told me that you have friends in the legal profession. Do you know anyone at all who would be willing to represent my husband at his trial? I am willing to offer double their usual compensation.”

“I know one gentleman who will be willing. His name is Amity St. Roch, and he is one of us.” Mr. Sutton lowered his voice significantly. “He helps me to study human nature, and is as eager as I to correct superstition.”

I let out a deep sigh, as though I’d been holding my breath without realizing it.

“Thank you,” I said. “I’ve written this letter for him, which includes everything about my husband’s case that may be significant. From what I understand, the inquisition’s primary piece of evidence is a forged blood oath.”

Mr. Sutton nodded, taking the letter. “I believe that I speak for my friend when I say that it won’t be necessary to pay more that his usual rate.”

“But he’s involving himself in such a dangerous case- I really must insist.”

Mr. Sutton smiled wryly. “I will tell him what you say, and see how he replies. Keep in mind that he is an attorney, however, and he has yet to lose a case.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I hate to impose further, but there is another favor I would ask. My husband’s estate is being neglected while my husband is imprisoned. I need to find someone who can forward the servant’s wages to their families and take care of my husband’s beneficiaries. If you will give me a name-”

“My name is Merit Sutton, and I would be happy to undertake your charge.”

My vision blurred then- Mr. Sutton became a red smudge against a brown and white background. I removed my false glasses and wiped away my tears.

“Please forgive me,” I said. “I was not expecting such ready kindness from a stranger.”

“Don’t apologize, Lady Frey. To tell you the truth, we are not exactly strangers. I was present the night you made your ill-fated petition to the oculist guild. I see now what a fool Sir Silas was for calling your courage into question.”

I took a shaky breath to compose myself. “I confess I don’t feel particularly brave at present.”

“People rarely sense the courage that is sustaining them,” he said. “And I must confess that I am helping for selfish reasons. Remember that I study people, and you interest me.”

I opened one of my letters- a letter of authorization to my Verdant City account- and filled in Mr. Sutton’s name. Then I handed him the list of beneficiaries and what was owed to them that Mr. Poe had sent me.

“I doubt I will ever be able to fully repay your kindness to me.”

“I don’t require repayment. Just remember what kindness from a stranger can mean.”

The doors to the Cathedral swung open with a loud clang, and footsteps echoed throughout the cavernous room. Mr. Sutton hastily tucked my letters into his robes, and I put up my cowl.

“Good afternoon, pilgrims,” a man’s voice called.

I peeked under my cowl to see a group of white-robed pilgrims approaching. The leader lowered his own cowl and bowed in greeting. Mr. Sutton rose and bowed, as well.

“Good Afternoon,” Mr. Sutton said. “It’s rare to see such devotion among the pilgrims. Most don’t arrive for prayer before the bells ring.”

“We’ve come to make a special petition to the Gods,” the man said. “You are welcome to join our prayers, if you wish.”

“I will, thank you,” he said.

The man nodded. “And you, miss-”

“I need to return to the abbey,” I said. “Excuse me.”

I thanked Mr. Sutton and walked around the pilgrims. At the door, I turned back to see the pilgrims kneel at the pews. They made a gesture I did not recognize in place of the sign of order, and bowed their heads.

“Order, Reverence, and Chastity,” the man said in a voice as confident as a priest’s. “We come to you for wisdom

Mr. Sutton raised his head slightly and winked at me. I bowed low to him, and then turned to leave the cathedral.