The Coven, Part LXXXIV

Read from the beginning.

 

Did Hope look stronger since I’d seem him last, or was it only my imagination? His cheeks were still sunken, his eyes covered in bandages, and his clothes and skin covered in grime. Yet he seemed to stand a little taller, and to be steadier on his feet as Brother Lux led him into the room.

Beside me, Prudence stiffened and clutched my hand, holding me fast in one spot just as I wished to go to him.

“Hope- I am here,” I called.

“Grace,” Hope said. “Oh! Brother, take me to her.”

Before Brother Lux could respond to the request, I dropped Prudence’s hand and went to him. Brother Lux stepped aside, and I took Hope in my arms.

“Each time you come, it is like a dream,” Hope said. “I can hardly believe you are real until I touch you.”

“Then your dreams have been good?” I asked.

Hope laughed. “Oh yes- a free mind can escape any prison or hell. Thank you for teaching me this.”

He drew me nearer and kissed the top of my head.

I would have let myself fall into the bittersweet sensation of his embrace, had I not been keenly aware of Prudence’s presence in the room. I could almost feel her gaze burn into my back as I embraced her former lover- the father of her child- and provided him comfort that she could not.

I took a deep breath and broke the embrace.

“We are not alone,” I said. “I’ve brought a dear friend with me. Her name is Jubilee. She is a sister from del Sol, who has been an invaluable friend and companion to me since I was in seclusion there.”

Having given my line, I stepped back to allow Prudence to come forward.

“I have come to offer prayers of redemption from del Sol,” Prudence said in a trembling voice.

Hope’s mouth formed an “O” of surprise and he stepped forward, feeling for Prudence with his hands outstretched until she stepped forward and took his hands in hers.

“Your name was…”

“Jubilee,” Prudence said. “It is an almost forgotten word for a time of salvation and liberation.”

“Jubilee-“ Hope whispered as though in wonder. Then he cleared his throat and spoke. “You have come to a dismal place, Jubilee. Some may even say it is a dangerous one- for young ladies, I mean.”

“I am not so young- not as young as I once was,” Prudence said. “I have lived in safety and seclusion for too long.”

Though Hope’s blind eyes were covered in bandages, and Prudence’s face covered with a veil, they stood face to face as though they could look deeply into each other’s eyes. As I watched, my heart trembled with a sensation I could not discern as either joy or pain.

“You are brave to come here,” Hope said. “Is it really worth entering this hell, just to pray for someone as wretched as I?”

“I am a sister of del Sol; it is my duty to bear light into dark places. When I heard of your plight, I could not-“ her voice caught. “I could not stay away.”

“You are kind as well as brave,” Hope said. “But your prayers are wasted on me, for I have been condemned from birth. Could an angel of mercy really forgive someone like me?”

“I do not believe you are beyond forgiveness. We are all sinners- myself more than most, for in my past I have abandoned those that I loved. Yet… I still hope for forgiveness.”

Prudence’s last words were spoken like a question, and her back stiffened slightly, as though she were awaiting judgement. Hope, however, shook his head and clutched Prudence’s hands even tighter.

“I’m certain that someone so kind- so brave- only acted according to necessity. Those you loved should have protected you. I am not an angel or a clergyman- I have no power to forgive the sins of others- but I suspect that you do not require forgiveness.”

“You are too good. I-“ Prudence stopped and took a shaky breath. There must have been tears beneath her veil, but her voice was steady when she spoke again.

“I wish I had more to give, but all I can offer is my prayer. Grace-“

I felt as though I had been watching Hope and Prudence from afar, but when Prudence spoke my name I was called back to earth.

“Please, Grace, join us in prayer,” Prudence said.

She dropped Hope’s right hand and offered her left hand to me. I stepped forward, taking Prudence’s delicate hand in my right, and Hope’s strong, sinewy hand in my left. Something clicked into place as I did, as though by taking my place in the little circle, I had completed a puzzle.

Prudence raised her voice in song, and Hope and I fell into harmony with her.

 

Warmth and sunlight surround you,

      Alleilu. Alleilu.

      Strength of earth beneath your feet,

      Alleilee. Alleilee.

      Luna guide your way to truth,

      No blade cut you, nor cord bind you,

      May this song to heaven lift you,

      Alleilu! Alleilu!

 

      How right it felt, to stand and lift my voices with those I loved most in the world! How the music melted away my petty fears and jealousies! My heart no longer trembled- it danced.

Was this, I wondered, the feeling of magic? No- when the song ended the spell did not break; there was no spell to break. What I felt was real- the warmth of their hands, the strength of their voices, and the knowledge of every battle we had endured and won. What could I possibly have to fear with Hope and Prudence beside me?

Long after the litany’s last note faded, the three of us stood, hand-in-hand, in perfect silence. Then Brother Lux spoke.

“I am sorry, brother. Your time is up.”

Was it my imagination, or did Brother Lux fall back when I looked up at him?

“Hope- the battle begins tomorrow,” I said as though Lux had not spoken. “Is there anything you need me to do in preparation, or any message you wish for me to convey?”

“Give Celeste my love,” he said. “Tell her- tell her I look forward to seeing how much she’s grown.”

“Oh! I will. I will.” I said, and I brought his hand to my lips, kissing it again and again.

“I will meet you on the battlefield, my brave little soldier,” he said to me. Then he turned his face toward Prudence.

“Pray for us, Jubilee.”

“I will, and I will be watching over you.”

“Then I have a warrior to protect me and a guardian angel to watch over me. I am not wretched after all; I am blessed above all men.”

Hope let loose a shaky laugh, and then he pulled both Prudence and I into his arms. The three of us laughed and cried and embraced until the guards pulled Hope away.

 

 

#

 

 

“You acted far too familiar with Lord Frey,” Brother Lux scolded. “We told you to behave as a sister- just to pray and say nothing else. If you are discovered, it will be your own fault.”

“Did you hear something, Grace?” Prudence said, turning her veiled face to me. “I think perhaps the carriage wheels need oil.”

“I didn’t hear anything at all,” I replied.

“Do you forget you are here at my indulgence?” Brother Lux said, his voice dropping into the cadence and timbre reminiscent of Pius. “Give me one reason why I should not send you back to del Sol directly.”

“You’re the only one who really knows the reason I’m here,” Prudence said. “I suspect that the reason hasn’t fully played out, yet.”

“You won’t remain here a minute longer than necessary,” Lux promised.

I was about to retort, but the carriage suddenly jolted as though it had hit a bump in the road.

Brother Lux groaned and rapped the front window. “Slow the carriage; there is no hurry,” he called to the coachman.

There was no response, and the carriage continued as before.

Brother Lux sighed. “I know the pain I’ve caused you, Prudence, and maybe that knowledge has made me too lenient. I promised not to harm you while you were under my protection, but-“

The carriage jolted again.

Brother Lux rapped on the front window once more. “Reign in the horses,” he called.

The carriage, however, rattled harder, and the dim lanterns that were visible through the side window passed with even greater speed.

I stood and went to the front window, pulling the curtain back to see the coachman, slumped over on the box seat with a black arrow jutting out the side of his neck.

“The coachman has been shot,” I said. “The carriage is out of control.”

Brother Lux sat up and turned to look out the window.

“Stop,” he whispered, stretching out his hand, and the carriage jerked to a halt as the horses froze in place.

Brother Lux put his finger to his lips and gestured for Prudence and I to back away, and then he opened the door.

We had stopped on the darkest part of the street, but in the moonlight I could see 5 archers and three swordsmen crowded around the vehicle with their weapons at the ready.

Lux grinned, and the men all collapsed to the ground.

“Damn you,” a man’s voice growled, and I saw a cloaked figure emerge from the alleyway. The cloaked man approached the carriage, stepping over the prone bodies of the attackers. As he passed them they stirred and started to stagger to their feet.

“Damn you, whore of the usurper,” the cloaked man spat at Brother Lux. He tossed his hood back, revealing long, straight hair and a haughty face full of harsh, angular features. The man raised his hand as though to cast a spell.

The archers, now on their feet, drew back their bowstrings, and then let loose a barrage of arrows.

Lux’s eyes flashed white and the arrows stopped abruptly mid-flight- as though they had struck an invisible barrier- and then clattered to the street.

The cloaked man narrowed his eyes in concentration, and the archers nocked another round of arrows. This time, when the archers shot, one arrow got through the invisible barrier and struck the side of the carriage.

Prudence gasped.

Lux’s eyes continued to glow, growing so bright that I could no longer look at them directly. The archers fell to the ground once again, and even the cloaked man fell to his knees. He cried out as though in pain, and clutched an amulet that hung on a cord around his neck.

“So- you reveal yourself,” the man gasped, “Wisdom, the bastard God.”

“And you, angel of…” Lux trailed off and narrowed his eyes at the pendant the man was clutching. “Angel of Reverence, is it? Tell me, has your God awakened?”

The man- the angel- clenched his jaw, but Lux made a gesture and the man spoke again through gritted teeth.

“Not… yet…”

Lux smiled.

“If Reverence does awaken, please be so kind as to give him this message: He is too late.”

The cloaked man collapsed to the ground.

Brother Lux went around to the front of the carriage, where he removed the arrow and healed the driver’s wound. The driver sat up, shook his head as though clearing it of sleep, and took the reins.

“Take us to the house as quickly as the horses will take you,” Lux ordered.

Then he got back into the carriage. As he was closing the door, I caught a glimpse of red hair at the alley entrance.

 

 

#

 

 

 

The carriage seemed to fly the rest of the way home. When we arrived the house was quiet, and Celeste was wrapped in her colorful patchwork quilt, fast asleep.

Mercy sprung to her feet when Prudence burst into the nurse’s room, but upon recognizing us, she dropped her fighting stance and yawned.

“You scared me. I thought you were an intruder.”

“Don’t go back to sleep,” Prudence snapped. “There may be an intruder here already, and you need to stay on guard. Brother Lux is searching the house.”

“We were attacked on the road,” I explained to Mercy. “The attackers had a holy mage with them- a powerful one, from what I understand.”

“He was immensely powerful. He managed to tear at least two holes in Pius’s defenses- two arrows breached the shield and struck the carriage.”

“You seem to have come through the battle unharmed,” Mercy said, eyeing me approvingly.

“I didn’t have a chance to enter the fight. Lux- well, Pius I suppose- took down five archers, three swordsmen, and a holy mage with hardly a gesture.”

“Pius? But I’d thought that Lux was with you,” Mercy said.

“Lux was physically present, but it was Pius’s power,” Prudence explained. “Pius has put us all under his protection. The house and carriages are all surrounded by his- his aura, for lack of a better word.”

“You can see this magic aura?” Mercy asked, her eyebrows raised as though she were impressed.

“I can’t see the magic itself. Instead, I see the boundary between magic and non-magic. I can see distortions in reality where magic is present, and when magic is removed my vision clears. Sometimes I can even see something of the magic’s intent by the way it distorts reality. For instance, the magic that guards this house will wrap any uninvited guest in a fog of confusion, so that they will pass to the other side of the street without even noticing the house is here.”

“I see. That explains why we haven’t been overrun with political malcontents and assassins. I’ll be able to sleep a bit better, now.”

“No- we must not sleep. There are two people who can break through the barrier, and one of them attacked us tonight.”

“I believe that both parties were present during tonight’s attack,” I corrected.

“You mean you saw- damn it!” Prudence swore. “I knew she was dangerous.”

“Who do you mean?” Mercy asked.

“I saw our inept stalker- the redhead,” I told Mercy.

Mercy groaned and put her hand to her head. After a few moments she nodded as though to herself and began to pace the perimeter of the room.

“The attackers may not try to come after us,” I said. “They only seemed interested in Lux.”

“Assume everyone is out to get you,” Mercy said sharply. “You can never be paranoid enough. We should all stay in this room for the night. Celeste is the most vulnerable, and therefore the most likely target for anyone with ill intent.”

Mercy turned to Prudence. “You must watch the magic barrier. Alert Lady Frey and I with this hand signal if you see a breach,” Mercy held up a fist. “Don’t make a sound that may alert the enemy. I will defend Celeste while you and Lady Frey hold off their attacks, you using magic and Lady Frey using physical attacks. I believe you have magic resistance, Lady Frey?”

“Yes, I do. I can break their spells if I concentrate, as well.”

Mercy nodded approvingly. “Concentrate on using defensive spells and maneuvers. The goal is escape. The back nursery door to the servant’s stairwell is the quickest exit.”

After Mercy concluded her orders there was a knock on the door, and Brother Lux entered.

“The house is secure for now,” he said. “Father Pius is sending two inquisitors, Brother Amicus and Brother Julius, to come stand watch. If anything occurs, they will summon him here.”

Mercy folded her arms and glared up at Brother Lux.

“Do you have any objections?” he asked coolly.

“Only that I have to guard against two more threats,” she replied.

“Father Pius could not have sent two brothers who are more honorable, though I don’t expect you to believe me. Regardless, you may take any precautions you deem necessary.”

He turned to Prudence. “Tomorrow, we will discuss how to best guard Celeste during the trial. I will see you in the morning.”

 

 

#

 

 

When Brother Lux had gone, and the two inquisitors had taken their watchposts outside the house, Mercy retreated to the nursery where she could act as a final defense for Celeste while she watched for Prudence’s signal through the peephole.

Prudence and I sat together in the nurse’s room, back to back, with Prudence watching the outside wall for breaches in Pius’s defenses while I watched the inside door. I held her right hand so I would know if she made her signal, but I also drew strength and comfort from her presence.

We were quiet for a time, but our silence no longer marked distance between us. Rather- we were content with each other’s presence. However, as the night wore on, and my eyes grew weary from watching, I was glad when Prudence broke the monotony by speaking.

“It’s strange- I’m no longer afraid of what happens next,” she said.

“Fear is useless. When we must, we will act,” I agreed.

“I’m not just speaking about the trial or our escape, either.”

“I know.”

We were quiet for a little while longer. A pale, purple patch slowly coalesced on the wall opposite the window as the dawn approached.

“No matter who he chooses,” I said, finally putting words to the unspoken thought, “or if he cannot choose, and we must decide-”

“No matter what, you will always have my love,” Prudence said.

“Forever,” I promised.

Prudence and I fell into silence again as the patch of light went from pale purple to pink, and remained so until Mercy emerged from Celeste’s room.

“It’s time to get ready,” she said.

 

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The Coven, Part LXXXIII

      Read from the beginning.

      Dearest Grace,

      Peace is sometimes difficult to maintain, but for now it endures.

 The Abbey del Sol remains a sanctuary from the chaos of the world, and though the Pilgrims have begun to whisper discontent among themselves, they do not often speak their grievances aloud. The sisters continue to work, heal, and pray for the good of all, and few visitors can maintain political strife among such overtures of goodwill.

      The borders of del Sol remain peaceful, as well. The islands continue pristine and untouched, and the merchants and fishermen in the shipyards are most concerned with the practical work their businesses require. Trade is good, and new business ventures are springing up everywhere. In fact, I believe our mutual friend, Mr. Filius, has written to convey news of the enterprise he has entered into with Sir Silas. They plan to use the ships you admired at del Sol to engage in trade with the wildland natives. It is an enterprise that shows much promise, and I believe it will succeed, for the newly-formed company’s equipment and business plans are sound.

      Every day, amidst the signs of impending trouble, I see omens of hope. A child will soon be born at del Sol- an event which is always celebrated as a blessing. The cathedral will be decorated, and we will sing the litanies of life as we did the day you were born.

      Though you are not here with me, you are always in my heart. Please remember me and the sanctuary I keep for you. Though you cannot see me, I have been keeping watch over you in my own way. My prayers are with you, with your husband, and all your friends. May the imprisoned be freed and the sick healed, and may you have the strength to endure until the day of liberation comes.

      All my love,

            Joy

 

 

I looked up from my letter, and saw that Prudence was still reading the letter that had been enclosed in the packet addressed to Sister Jubilee.

She bit her lip as she turned the letter over and continued to read. Then, after a time, she folded the letter again with a sigh.

“I’m certain Abbess Joy is having more problems with the pilgrims than she would ever admit, but at least we can trust that our most important secrets have remained hidden.”

“I would love to know how,” I mused. “Mr. Filius writes that the first airship is complete, and he believes it is ready to undertake the south sea passage to the wildlands. But how could they have tested the Maelstrom without notice?”

Prudence took a stack of paper from my desk and moved closer to the hearth.

“They must have moved the construction project from the north field to the Ancient Temple,” Prudence said as she sat by the hearth and spread the papers around her. “If Trusty paints the canvas black, like he did with the balloon, he should be able to test the airship at night without attracting notice from anyone on shore, and the Ancient temple is far enough from the merchant bay to avoid the notice of any other ships.”

“Then when the ship is the complete, the Ancients will be able to flee immediately. I must send funds as soon as possible.”

I sat near Prudence, carefully avoiding the papers she had stacked around her, and continued. “If the ships are complete before the trial concludes, then perhaps we can use them to flee, too- to take Hope from Pius’s grasp.”

Prudence looked up from her paper as though surprised, but then nodded.

“Yes- we must escape with Hope as soon as we can. It will be difficult to get to del Sol, though. Remember that I spent a decade trying to evade the inquisition on my way there- and I began my journey at Rowan Heights, which is very close. Inquisitors guard the paths to del Sol carefully to prevent fugitives from reaching sanctuary, and the inquisition is even more active than it was when I was running.”

“Perhaps the inquisitors will be distracted,” I said. “There is a lot of civil unrest, and when his plans come to fruition, Pius may need every available inquisitor to keep order in town.”

“Perhaps, but this may just be wishful thinking. Pius has made his plans carefully- he must know we will try to flee.” Prudence sighed and put her paper down, closing her eyes.

“All roads lead to del Sol…” she sighed. “I’ve heard rumors of a hidden path to del Sol, but I was never able to find it. Perhaps we should ask Raven how she traveled here.”

“Does this mean you’ve begun to trust her?” I asked.

“No, but we have few other options.” Prudence said. She picked up her paper once more, wrote a few lines, and then tossed the paper into the flames.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m working on my grimoire. I performed some experiments at del Sol while you and Honest were trying to capture starlight, but I have hardly had time to examine my results, let alone discuss them with you. It’s maddening to turn the results over in my head without my book here to permanently record my ideas. I must write everything down, memorize what I’ve written, and then immediately destroy it.”

“Then that means you are the grimoire,” I said.

Prudence smirked, and then beckoned me closer. “Come here, then, and I will make you a copy. I did promise to share my results, after all.”

I crept closer, though the stacks of paper, and settled down at Prudence’s side. She placed a clean sheet in front of us and began to speak in a careful, authoritative voice, as though imparting a lesson to Celeste.

“My experiments focused on the only physiological difference I was able to find between ancients and humans- the strange cells that reside in our blood, which are star-shaped and silver in humans, and black in ancients. First, I cast a simple spell on the human cells while examining them through a microscope, to see if they would react. I observed a pattern of oscillation in the cells, the frequency of which was proportional to the intensity of the magic performed.”

She sketched a rough chart on the paper in front of us, upon which she traced a standing wave pattern.

“My guess is that the ancient cells did not react to magic,” I said.

“The ancient cells did not react to weak magic,” Prudence confirmed. “They did react to stronger magic, but interference patterns appeared in the oscillations.”

She traced another wave pattern beneath the first, this time with low peaks interspersed throughout.

“I took as long an observation as I could while maintaining the spell, but no reasonable pattern emerged- the interference emerges seemingly at random. This suggests that the ancient cells are not dead, as you first thought- just different.”

I nodded thoughtfully. “This seems consistent with what I’ve discovered about my abilities. I’d be interested to see if I could affect the ancient cells using the techniques I’ve learned.”

“What I wouldn’t give to have a microscope with me,” Prudence sighed, tossing the paper into the flames. She watched, her expression inscrutable as the paper came to life, flailed, and then died.

“Prudence-“ I finally ventured in an attempt to end the unnatural silence.

“I’m sorry. Ask questions- distract me from thoughts of tomorrow. I wish I could close my eyes and open them on the sunrise, but I know sleep will be impossible.”

“I had not thought to ask, but to go to the cathedral now-“

“Please don’t ask. There are a hundred fears regarding the cathedral and what I will see inside that I wish to avoid. Distract me.”

I nodded. “How do you think the cells’ oscillations are connected with magic?”

“I’ve only reached a tentative conclusion; much more testing is needed. My current hypothesis is that the oscillation that human cells demonstrate is a caused by resonance between them, which may provide a medium of communication. Usually, there is a barrier between the blood and the brain, but guild research suggests that sound waves may assist with breaching this barrier- why not the cell’s oscillations, as well? I hypothesize that a mage learns to manipulate the resonance through prayers or spells, and can therefore create illusions that their subjects believe they experience, hypnotize their subjects, read their subjects minds, and otherwise experience the ‘oneness’ I’ve often felt I experienced while performing magic.

“Since the cells reside in our very blood, it is possible that manipulating the cells’ oscillations may cause the cells to manipulate our bodies in turn. This may explain Lux’s healing magic, or Chastity’s supernatural strength. This hypothesis is much more tentative, however- I will need to examine how human cells react to such spells in order to tell.”

“It seems a reasonable hypothesis,” I said, “but in that case, how can magic affect physical objects? Pius, for example, once enchanted a lute to play alone, and it was no illusion- I could hear the lute play until I touched the lute and interfered with the spell.”

“I was able to perform a preliminary experiment to explain such a spell,” Prudence said. “Usually, when manipulating a physical object, the mage will need to either touch the object or draw a sigil on its surface, so I thought that perhaps we were contaminating the objects with the human cells when we did so. To test this, I stole a quill from your room, touching it only with a clean handkerchief, and took several swabs that, when viewed through the microscope, proved to be clean. Then I enchanted the quill to write alone and then took another swab. This sample proved to be full of cells that all resonated with the same frequency as my own blood sample when I cast the spell.”

“Pius did strum the lute before he let it play alone,” I recalled. “Have I ever told you, Prudence, that you are brilliant?”

“Not often enough,” she said with a grin that quickly faded. “My hypotheses may be wrong, however. I have planned a whole course of experiments, but I can’t perform them. It is frustrating to be unable to work so soon after I’ve had a breakthrough, especially considering my work had been stalled for over a decade. I’ve spent enough time assisting others with their research- now I need assistants and subjects of my own. I need to test angels and demons to see if they contain the same cells as humans, and if their cells resonate the same way. I need you to help me generate alternative hypotheses and to test the null hypothesis on your ancient blood. I need-“

Prudence stopped and sighed, tossing the rest of the paper into the flames all at once.

“I need to stop being self-absorbed, when so many of those I love are suffering the worst kind of earthly hell.”

“You aren’t,” I said. “If engaging in your work will help you, then do so. You will still be here in the morning.”

“Maybe, but it still seems a foolish sort of escapism. I can’t distract my problems away.”

“Then tell me-“

“I can’t,” Prudence cut me off. “It’s foolish, but I can’t. I’m afraid I won’t be able to walk through the cathedral doors, tomorrow, even with you by my side. I’m even more afraid that I will be able to walk through them.”

She watched the paper curl into black cinders, and the look in her eye grew far away once more.

I made a few attempts to get her back, to re-engage her in her work, or to reassure her about the next day’s visit, but each time I spoke, she only gave cursory responses and fell back into brooding.

I could provide no more distractions. We sat silently, side by side, as the dawn approached.

 

 

#

 

 

“Remember, Prudence- don’t speak until Lady Frey has introduced you. We must give the prisoners your alias before we surprise them with your voice.”

“Of course,” Prudence said distractedly.

She was staring out of the carriage window, and though she wore her thickest veil, I could tell her mind was as far away as it had been in the early morning hours.

Prudence had come out of her stupor long enough to prepare for our journey, and to attend Celeste. Prudence and I had both watched Celeste carefully for any sign of anxiety. Celeste, however, had not shown a trace of fear for her mother’s return, even when we stood from the breakfast table and put on our wraps. When Brother Lux arrived, she even smiled and wished him a good morning.

I worried about Celeste, who was left alone in the large house with no one to comfort her and only Mercy to protect her. Prudence may have been occupied with the same worries, but I could not tell. Once we’d left Celeste, Prudence had barely spoken.

“The wood does not extend far,” Brother Lux said with a tolerant air as Prudence continued to stare out at the trees. “We will re-emerge on the St. Blanc road, soon.”

Prudence did not respond, and Brother Lux did not speak to her again. As he’d promised, we soon emerged from the wood, and shortly after drew up the Cathedral door.

Prudence exited the carriage on her own, and though she took my hand as we made our way up the cathedral walk, she did not tremble. When Brother Lux left us in the stone room near the dungeon entrance, she continued to clutch my hand and bowed her head as though in prayer.

The awful silence stretched for a long time- even longer, it seemed, than it had the last time I’d visited the Cathedral. Then, finally, the door creaked open, and Brother Lux brought in the first set of prisoners.

 

 

#

 

 

Prudence and I stood to meet them, and Prudence’s hand did tremble briefly before she dropped my hand. Two waiflike creatures entered the room behind him, one significantly taller than the other, but both thin, shorn, and dressed in sackcloth.

The taller prisoner was bound in huge lengths of heavy chains, cuffed to her hands and ankles, that dragged the ground as she walked. Even so, as she entered the room she sighed deeply, and her stooped posture relaxed and straightened as though a weight had been lifted from her.

“Lady Frey! What a relief it is to meet you, here.”

“Chastity,” I went to her and took her hand, and then turned to the other prisoner.

The other prisoner was much smaller than Chastity, but her back was rod-straight as she walked and her eyes contained a look of steel. I had never seen the face bare of makeup, but I knew it at once.

“Lady Willoughby,” I said, taking her hand. “Come and sit with me. I have much to tell you, and I have brought a friend who wishes to offer comfort from del Sol.”

Lady Willoughby opened her mouth as though to speak, but instead of words all she emitted was a hollow cry, half forming words with her lips.

“Maaa- aah-“

“Lady Willoughby cannot answer- I’m sure she means to thank you, as do I,” Chastity said. “I have not seen a friendly face in… I don’t know how many weeks.”

Prudence’s veil brushed my arm as she hovered very near me, and I recalled the line that I must deliver.

“Allow me to introduce my friend. This is Jubilee, a sister from del Sol, who has been an invaluable companion to me during my time of exile. She asked to accompany me today so she could offer prayers of grace from del Sol.”

Lady Willoughby turned to Prudence with a hostile, defiant look in her eyes, but Prudence stepped closer and spoke.

“I am here to offer my friendship- not just the friendship of del Sol. I know the weight of oppression, and when I learned what had happened to all of you, I was deeply moved.”

Lady Willoughby stepped back, her eyes going wide in shock. Chastity, however, came forward and took Prudence’s hands in her own.

“Oh! Bless you- bless you,” she said. “Thank heaven for you.”

Prudence nodded to me, and I took one of Chastity’s hands, and then Prudence and I offered our free hands to Lady Willoughby to close the circle. Lady Willoughby looked to me, and when I nodded she turned and stared at Prudence for a long time, her eyes narrowed as though in concentration.

Then, Lady Willoughby smiled, tears shimmering in her eyes, and took our hands.

We bowed our heads while Prudence sang the litany of redemption. While she sang, I concentrated first on Chastity’s curse of pain, which easily shattered under my will, and then Lady Willoughby’s curse of truth. Even though Lady Willoughby could not speak, I could still feel the curse’s presence resisting my will- black and heavy- oppressing a part of Lady Willoughby I could not see. When I burst through it puffed away like clouds in the wind, allowing the light of liberty in.

It was not only a curse of truth- it was a restriction of her freedom of thought.

Lady Willoughby’s hand tightened, and she let loose a soft gasp, but she did not interrupt the song.

After the song was done, the four of us sat and talked. I gave Chastity and Lady Willoughby information about the case that the attorneys were building, and asked if they could remember anything that we could add. Lady Willoughby tried several times to mouth muffled words before she gave a helpless shrug, but Chastity leaned forward and spoke in a low voice.

“Tell the attorney to ask questions about Brother Domitian. He was recently sent to the Monastery of the Wood to perform penance for…”

Chastity trailed off and looked at Lady Willoughby, who clenched her jaw.

“Brother Domitian is the inquisitor who interrogated Lady and Lord Willoughby,” Chastity continued. “No matter how cruel he was, he never uncovered any sign of witchcraft. He deserves to be punished for what he did, but it seems terribly convenient he will not be able to testify.

“Tell your attorney to question Brother Antonine. Brother Antonine witnessed some of the extreme methods that Brother Domitian employed, and he was forced to intervene a couple of times. I can only hope that, when the bishops learn how brutal Brother Domitian was, they will understand that Lord Willoughby’s current state was caused by trauma instead of guilt.”

Brother Lux cleared his throat and stepped forward.

“Your time is up. Please, say your goodbyes.”

Lady Willoughby stood, her hands clenched into fists. Prudence stood with her, and lay a gentle hand on her shoulder.

“Lady Willoughby, is there anything we may do for you on the outside? A message you would like to send to a friend, perhaps?”

Lady Willoughby shook her head, but she embraced Prudence tightly before she turned to press my hand.

“And you- Chastity?”

“I have a sister, Gentle Browne, who lives with her husband on Steele Row. She has already visited me, and she says she is well, but-“

“I will check on her,” I promised. I took Chastity and Lady Willoughby’s hands in mine.

“The trial begins tomorrow. Please, stay strong until then. I promise that we will do everything we can to free you.”

“Thank you, Lady Frey,” Chastity said, her eyes filling with tears.

Lady Willoughby squeezed my hand, and then Brother Lux and another inquisitor stepped forward to escort them from the room.

As the door closed, Prudence sat down hard.

“Are you alright, Sister Jubilee?” I asked. “Are you fatigued?”

“I am a sister of del Sol; I cannot think of myself when there are others who need my help.”

I sat beside her. “Even so, I will not stop thinking of you.”

Prudence looked up sharply, and I tried to see her expression in the shadows behind her veil. I was unable to make anything out, however, before the door opened again, and two more prisoners were led inside.

“I have nothing to say to you, Lady Frey” Captain Goode said immediately as he entered. “I told Lux I did not wish to see you, but he insisted I come.”

Before I had a chance to respond I heard the tinkling of bells, and my attention was drawn to Lord Willoughby. I could not contain my surprise when I saw him. I had expected him to be dressed in sackcloth like the other prisoners, but instead, it seemed as though he had been dressed solely to add insult to his injury. His shirt and breeches were made of bright red and yellow scraps of cloth sewn together, and bells were strapped around his ankles and wrists that, although he took slow, shuffling steps, still jingled with his every movement. It was the sad parody of a jester or a fool, designed to draw both attention and ridicule to the broken man.

I ignored Captain Goode’s stony gaze and stepped forward, putting my hand on Lord Willoughby’s shoulder. Lord Willoughby shied away at first, and then looked up at me with dull, brown eyes.

“If you don’t wish to speak with me, I understand,” I said. “Stay, at least, to hear sister Jubilee’s prayer, and receive del Sol’s blessings.”

Captain Goode scoffed. “I have no interest in-“

“Please, allow me to provide what little help I can,” Prudence said, the slightest tremor in her voice. “It is my mission to ease the suffering of the oppressed.”

Captain Goode spun to face Prudence, narrowing his eyes. He examined her for a long time, gazing at her as though he were trying to see under her veil. Then he spoke.

“How do I know you aren’t trying to trick me- to try and get me to lower my guard?” he said pointedly.

“I understand your caution,” Prudence said, taking a step toward her brother. “But I ask you for no confessions – the grace of del Sol is given to all with no strings attached.”

“I’ve heard that del Sol is a miraculous place,” Captain Goode said, “but surely, there are limits to its power. It cannot give life to one already condemned.”

      “That is not the case here,” I said. “You will have your chance to defend yourself.”

Captain Goode ignored me, but Lord Willoughby blinked up at me, something lightening in his dark eyes. I took his hands and closed my eyes as though in prayer.

I did not hesitate to fight Lord Willoughby’s curse, despite the danger that he would use his voice to confess. How could I deny someone broken something that may give them hope? Even Pius had not forbidden it.

“If Lord Willoughby speaks in court, his confessors will look like fools for hanging their case on his every nod and gesture,” Pius had said with a laugh.

Lord Willoughby’s breathing quickened as I worked, as though he were afraid, but he did not fight against my will. I recited the litany of redemption as I worked, so that my prayer-like stance would not seem strange, and in the meantime Prudence and Captain Goode continued to speak. Because my attention was so divided, it took me a longer time than usual to find the curse’s resistance and break through.

“Why did you come here? Why seek out condemned prisoners instead of staying safe in the Abbey?” Captain Goode was saying.

“My father used to say that life was motion, and where motion ceased, life also ceased,” Prudence said. “I cannot spend the rest of my life in a sanctuary, no matter how safe and how beautiful that sanctuary may be. I must bring the hope that del Sol gave me to the world.”

“That is still no reason to come here,” Captain Goode said. “You can do good in far less dangerous places.”

“I will not pretend I was not afraid, but I know how to conquer my fears,” Prudence said firmly, “especially when I have the chance to help those I love. Lady Frey befriended me at del Sol, and has earned both my trust and my love, so I did not hesitate to follow her here.”

At that moment, I found the curse cowering in a dark place, and I pushed through. The curse shattered, and Lord Willoughby let loose a whimper.

“Don’t be afraid,” I said softly. “You needn’t speak to me, if you don’t wish, but if there is anything you want to say or ask, you may.”

“Patience” he said in a halting voice. “My dear P-Patience…”

“I just saw her,” I said. “She is strong- amazingly strong- but she cannot do everything alone. We must be her voice now, since she cannot speak for herself.”

“I would do anything to save her,” Lord Willoughby said. “But I’ve failed- failed…”

“Where there is life, there is hope,” I said, “and she is still alive. You must speak for her at the trial, if you are given the chance. You must speak to her innocence, and to your innocence as well. Can you do this?”

“If I could die in her place-“

“Don’t be afraid to defend yourself, as well as your wife,” I said. “Your death will not help her; she needs you.”

“As much as I hate to say it, I agree with Lady Frey,” Captain Goode said. “You must be your wife’s strength, Willoughby. You must endure.”

Lord Willoughby nodded, but did not speak again.

Captain Goode turned back to Prudence. “You say that you love Lady Frey, sister, but allow me to caution you. I believe Lady Frey is part a conspiracy- one that has put my friends and me in this dreadful place. If you knew half of what I knew about her-“

“There’s nothing about me you can tell Sister Jubilee that she does not already know,” I said. “Flaws, virtues, and past alike. There’s very little I could tell Sister Jubilee about myself that she does not know, at this point.”

Captain Goode turned back to Prudence with a look of surprise. “And you still love her?”

“You are wrong about Lady Frey. She has been working tirelessly to assist her husband and friends. I admire Lady Frey’s candor,” Prudence said, “and when I view Lady Frey through the lens of wisdom the years have given me, it is obvious she is still an innocent.”

Captain Goode sighed deeply, as though in frustration. Then he spoke again.

“I cannot join hands with you in prayer,” he said, nodding down at the tattered bandages that were wrapped tightly around the ends of his arms. “But I would still like to hear you sing, sister.”

Prudence nodded and came closer, placing her hand on her brother’s arm. She sang the litany of redemption once more. As Prudence’s voice suffused the stone room with warmth, I saw tears gather briefly in Captain Goode’s eyes before he shut them tightly.

Lord Willoughby gripped my hand tightly.

“Patience loves music,” Lord Willoughby faltered when the song was done. “But she cannot sing anymore.”

“Then we must put a lute in her hands as soon as we can,” I said, squeezing Lord Willoughby’s hand in return.

“It is time- you must go,” Brother Lux interrupted.

“Wait.” I turned to one of the guards, who came forward to grab Lord Willoughby’s arms. “Can’t you remove the bells, and give Lord Willoughby- give everyone- proper clothes?”

“Lord Willoughby is fond of hiding, and we cannot afford to lose him again. He only did this to himself,” the guard replied.

“Please-“ Prudence said to Brother Lux. “Do not torment them any longer.”

“The trial begins tomorrow- their fate will be decided soon,” Brother Lux said shortly.

“Thank you for everything, sister, but do not trouble yourself about us any further,” Captain Goode said. “Live your own life. Seek happiness where you can.”

Captain Goode nodded to the guard, who stepped forward to lead him away.

“Wait here,” Brother Lux instructed Prudence and I, “and I will bring Lord Frey.”

Part LXXXIV

The Coven, Part LXXXII

“Put away your damned instruments,” Father growled at the doctor. “You only make things worse.”

Lady Fairfax, ignoring the commotion my father was causing, drew me aside.

“You say that his affliction was the result of a blood oath he’d broken?” she whispered for the hundredth time that morning.

“He thought he had broken it. I was able to demonstrate that he had not, and he has since improved.”

My explanation seemed to satisfy Lady Fairfax, though in reality it was not even half-true. After I’d broken Hope’s spell, my father and I had argued for some time over whether I could possess free will, and whether the concept of free-will would matter at all with regards to the wording of the oath. In the end, he was not satisfied that anyone without a soul could possess free will, but I convinced him that any alteration in my status relative to the Ancients, who were all bound by contract, would satisfy the blood oath’s wording “free of the enslavement of her race.”

My father did not seem to realize that he had been hypnotized, though he did remember everything that had happened that day. He recalled that Hope had pushed him against the wall in anger, and that Hope had made threats before demanding he leave court. Father did not mention the unnatural glow that had shone in Hope’s eyes, however, or acknowledge that any compulsion had seized him beyond fear.

Father accepted the explanation that his belief in the broken blood oath was the source of his affliction, and he even suggested that revealing my mother’s past had triggered latent guilt. He quickly changed the subject after this admission, however, and refused to speak about my mother or the blood oath any further.

“This will be over much faster if you allow me to examine you,” the old doctor sighed.

“This would be over already if you would leave me alone. I want to get dressed and go to my study- after all this time my affairs must be in shambles.”

“Oh! He wants to go to his study.” Lady Fairfax bustled to my father and threw her arms around his neck.

“Let go of me, you overbearing hag,” he protested. “I told you that I didn’t wish to come here in the first place. Why the devil didn’t you listen to me?”

“Why must you be such a stubborn ass?” she asked, pulling away to dab at her eyes. “We brought you here for your health.”

“Can’t a gentleman have his preferences? The countryside is much more wholesome. Besides, what is the point of coming to town if you won’t take me to the baths?.”

“But you refused to be moved,” Lady Fairfax protested.

“All of this racket is a definite sign of improvement,” a deep voice spoke from the doorway.

A chill went down my spine. The voice was so deep, and had such a cool, detached quality that I was certain Father Pius stood behind me. When I turned around, however, I saw that it was Brother Lux.

Still, they are one in the same, now, I thought.

Indeed, as Brother Lux entered the room I recognized the regal posture that Father Pius usually bore.

“Brother! I’m very glad you’ve come,” Dr. Pearson said. “I would like your opinion. The patient appears to have made an astounding recovery, though he is too stubborn at the moment to allow me to verify.”

“Not too astounding, I think,” Pius said, entering the room. “Diseases of the mind are particularly difficult to assess, and I am glad that my initial prognosis was incorrect.”

My father, who had been squirming away from the doctor’s instruments, went very still.

“Even so, I agree that we should make a thorough examination before declaring him well. Would you consider it a breach of professional etiquette if I request a private interview with the patient?”

“Not at all. Rather, it’s a welcome relief,” Dr. Pearson said. He packed his instruments into his black bag and gave my father a stern look before he turned to go.

I stood to follow Dr. Pearson and Lady Fairfax from the room, but Pius stopped me.

“Lady Fairfax mentioned, in her letter to me, that you were present when the patient recovered,” Pius said. “I wish to interview you as well as your father.”

I sat down again.

When the room was clear and the door shut, Pius sat on the edge of the bed, very close to my father.

“You have made a remarkable recovery; it’s almost like magic.”

My father clenched his jaw. “What are you implying, Brother?”

“Nothing- it was only a remark,” Pius said. “Still, as I told the doctor, a thorough examination is in order.”

I saw a flash of silver, and before I could react Father Pius was holding a knife to my father’s throat.

“Sit down, Lady Frey,” Pius said without turning to look at me. “If you move, my fingers may slip and cause me to cut him.”

“I haven’t moved,” I said. “But- I know you cannot kill him.”

“Usually I would agree, but I’m not feeling at all myself, right now,” Pius said smoothly. “Still, I don’t wish to make a mess. I’m sure we can resolve this matter peacefully as long as you cooperate, Lord Ainsworth.”

“I have no intention of doing otherwise,” my father said. “You have my word of honor.

“Forgive me if I do not trust your honor,” Pius said. “You are a politician through and through, so I will speak in terms you understand. Do you still endorse Prince Hadrian’s claim to the throne?”

“No,” Father replied.

“And the Queen of Santci?”

“Sancti must not rule Aeterna.”

“Would you support a heretic?”

“I support the tide of history.”

“You are a clever man. Can you see where the tide is ebbing?”

My father hesitated a moment, and then sighed deeply before he replied. “The ancient line of the Eagle is the most likely candidate to rule, wherever it may manifest.”

Pius pressed the knife closer against my father’s neck, and I saw a small bead of blood well on the surface. My father’s face went ashen.

“You serpent– you never really supported Prince Hadrian. You have schemed for years, laboring under the impression that your tainted offspring could mother kings.” Pius loosened his grip on the blade and scoffed. “You cannot contain the tides of history. Forces more powerful than you can comprehend are at work in the world, and you are at their mercy.”

My father’s breath caught, but he did not speak.

“If you wish to survive, and if you wish your family to survive, you will not interfere any further. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Father whispered.

“When the true heir has ascended the throne, and the living God reins, you will be rewarded for your obedience.”

Father Pius put the knife away and put his hand to my father’s throat. When he took the hand away, the wound was gone.

“I understand, and will obey,” my Father said, lowering his head.

“Members of your household are watching you,” Pius said. Then he turned to me. “I will see you tonight for your final interview, Lady Frey.”

Pius stood and left the room.

“Doctor, I have examined the patient,” I heard Pius call before the door shut behind him.

Father turned to look at me. “So, are you a spy for Brother Lux?”

“That’s a pointless question,” I said. “If I were a spy, I would not tell you.”

Father grunted in reply, and then stood.

“Ugh- I’ve been in bed too long. Hand me my dressing gown.”

I did so, and then took my Father’s arm to help him around the bed. He was unsteady on his feet, and he moved his legs stiffly, shuffling across the floor, but he did not put much weight on my arm.

“The baths may help to expedite your recovery,” I observed, “but it may not be advisable for you to go into public. You may be recognized as my father, and I’m being targeted by many factions.”

“Hmmm,” my father hummed thoughtfully. He stopped at his shaving mirror and ran a hand over his stubbly chin.

“Tell me- do you wish to be queen?” he asked. He pulled his arm away from mine, steadied himself, and picked up a razor from the commode.

“That is another ridiculous question, considering the fact that my husband is in prison as we speak. His life and his freedom have occupied all of my thoughts,” I said. “And for heaven’s sake, ask Smith to help you shave. Your hands are shaking.”

“I can do this on my own. You are as overbearing as my dear cousin,” he said. He steadied his hand, and pulled the razorblade down his cheek in a smooth motion.

“Your brother-in-law would see you removed,” my father continued. “It’s obvious that he would prefer you be replaced by a woman untainted by your ancestry. Once you have served your purpose, it will be some time before your husband is strong enough to take the reins of his kingdom. The moment of his liberation will be the time of greatest danger to you, I fear.”

“How can you be so certain my husband will ever have the reins of the kingdom? Are you going by the old legends of King Uriel, or perhaps whispers at court?”

“Courtiers love stories,” Father said, wiping his face clean with a towel. “They are especially drawn to tales that give them a place in history. St. Blanc was built on the idea of Aeternan sovereignty, and Aeternan sovereignty cannot be separated from the stories of King Uriel.”

“The accuracy of the tales mean nothing, as long as the tales bind a people as one,” I said.

My father turned to regard me, eyebrows raised. “It took me decades to learn that lesson,” he said. “Perhaps all of the years you spent with your nose in a book were well-spent, after all.”

“Perhaps not- I’ve made many blunders in the real world,” I said.

“You are young,” my father said, shrugging. “You will likely make more mistakes before this is all done; make them with your eyes open. Your husband will thank you for any wisdom you can lend his reign, if you survive.”

“If we survive,” I said. “My husband might have been in a good position to seize power, if he were at court. His present circumstances reduce his chances significantly.”

“He faces a different kind of court- one no less dangerous than St. Blanc,” Father persisted. “The follies of Lord Frey’s accusers and the evidence of Lord Frey’s ancestry will be laid bare in a public trial.”

Evidence such as the Frey writ of condemnation, I thought.

“So many questions; are you really not the spy?”

“I never said I wasn’t the spy,” I said, “but do you have any other suspects for who the spy may be?”

“No one under my employ,” Father said emphatically. “I’m not so sure about those you’ve brought under my roof. Still, the young monk may be bluffing- sowing the seeds of discord in my house.”

“That does sound like a tactic Brother Lux would use,” I conceded.

“Grace,” Father turned back to the mirror and reached for a comb to order his thin wisps of white hair. “You have never asked my advice, but I will give it, anyway: don’t anger Brother Lux. Appease him, let him choose another candidate for the Aeternan Queen, and promise him you have no ambition beyond, perhaps, royal mistress. Brother Lux will not let his family sin be washed away by Ancient blood. It seems he seeks salvation through a new God.”

“I’d worked that out, myself,” I said dryly.

“Even so- Lord Frey is the true heir, so his will is what matters in the end. If you survive until Lord Frey is able to seize his rightful power, your devotion will be rewarded. Ask Lord Frey- no, King Uriel- for Brother Lux’s head, and it is yours.”

“And in the meantime, your head will remain safe,” I said.

Father turned and stared into my eyes for a long time, his expression inscrutable. Then he said, “you have more of your mother in you than I’d thought.”

“I-“

“Nevermind,” my father said gruffly before I could reply. “Brother Lux is a fool to think that he can control Lord Frey indefinitely. After so much time in the inquisitor’s cell, Lord Frey will resent his brother’s scheme. We will emerge on the right side of history.”

My father’s cunning surprised me. He had deduced much of what had taken me months to learn- perhaps he had deduced everything long before I’d arrived at court. I began to fear that I had, indeed, awakened a sleeping serpent.

 

 

#

 

 

Upon further reflection, I was surprised to learn that I did not find it at all tempting to demand Brother Lux’s head as my father had suggested. I had felt the hollowness of vengeance, and I did not wish to experience such a thing again.

However, despite my father’s confidence, I did not believe it would be easy for Hope to stop his brother and Father Pius. If they did intend for Hope to take the Aeternan throne, he would only be a puppet under their tight control. Perhaps that was why they had allowed Hope to be tortured and maimed in the inquisitor’s cell- to break his spirit and take his will.

It was clear that Hope’s exoneration would not be the end of danger. If we could not stop Pius and Lux, we would have to flee.

There was little time to contemplate my next move, however, because Mr. Sutton and Mr. St. Roch were awaiting me when I entered the drawing room.

I gave Mr. St. Roch the statement I’d written about what had occurred the night of the dumb supper, complete with details I’d ‘recalled’ during my interrogations with Father Pius. Mr. St. Roch examined the document for any holes in the tale that the prosecution may exploit, making one or two notes in the margins. Then he leaned back in his seat in satisfaction.

“There does not appear to been much time Lord Frey remained unaccompanied by either you or Brother Lux, which casts much doubt on Mrs. Auber’s accusations. Have you recalled anything else- anything at all- that may confirm your husband’s innocence?”

“No- I will send word if I do,” I said. I pressed my hand to my head. “It is difficult to prove what my husband did not do- the burden of proof is much heavier in our hands than in the inquisition’s.”

“I understand, my Lady. All we can do is allow the inquisitors to try their hardest, and dismantle their case once they’ve made it. I will try to anticipate their moves as best I can. In the meantime, do as you have done; write down everything you remember, and write down any details you are able to gather from the prisoners when you meet them.”

“I will,” I promised.

“By the way- I have something that may make your burden feel a little lighter,” Mr. Sutton interjected. “Here are two letters given to me by a mutual friend- letters from del Sol.”

“Indeed?” I held out my hand eagerly for the preferred letters.

“Indeed,” Mr. Sutton confirmed, his green eyes twinkling. “One of the letters is from Abbess Joy, and one from Mr. Filius. The pilgrim who gave me these letters assured me that del Sol is quiet as ever, and everyone is doing well.”

“I am glad to hear it,” I said. I stood and opened the first letter.

 

Dear Lady,

      I write to you as a very bad friend, for I have little news to convey and much to ask of you. In the first case, I believe you will not blame me, because no news is always good news. In the second case I believe you will forgive me, for you have a generous heart.

      First, I must convey my dearest hopes that you are safe, and that Miss Celeste and Sister Jubilee are safe, as well. I have heard rumors about the chaos in the city, and I sincerely hope that the three of you avoid said chaos as much as possible. Many here at del Sol are praying for your safe return.

let me assure you that all of our mutual friends are well. Del Sol remains the sanctuary it has ever been for everyone, regardless of rank or ancestry. The Abbess has not encountered any obstacles in keeping del Sol secure, and for now, the daily devotions and healings continue unchanged.

      I would convey Abbess Joy’s sincerest wishes, but I believe she will send her own note. Our mutual friends send their best wishes, and they all hope you will return as soon as you are at liberty.

      It is in the spirit of your hoped-for return that I ask my favor. I have entered into a business agreement with our friend Sir Silas, who has finished construction on his first freighter and has begun to build a second. The first ship is well-made, and we have every reason to believe that it is fast and safe enough to survive the journey to the wildlands and return laden with spices and wealth from trade with the natives. Your solicitor, Mr. Sutton, tells me that you are seeking opportunities for investment, and I believe that these ships provide just such an opportunity.

      We have an able crew assembled, and spirits are high. All we lack now is capital. The more funds we acquire, the faster we may embark on our enterprise. Rest assured that I did not write to beg funds, however. We can get along on what we have, so do not feel any obligation to give what you may not have. I only wish for you to have a share of the wealth we hope to earn.

      I sincerely hope that, Gods willing, your husband’s trial will go well, and that you remain well, my Lady. No matter what may come, you have a place at del Sol, and if need be, a place on the Maelstrom.

Give my love to Sister Jubilee and to Celeste, as well. They are both sorely missed. May you all be safe and happy.

Yours, etc.

 

 

      “So- the first ship is complete,” I said aloud. “How I wish I could see it go.”

“I share your wish,” Mr. Sutton said with a broad smile. “The first ship is called the Maelstrom- a rather foreboding name, I think, for an untried ship. Sir Silas, however, endorsed the name in defiance of nautical superstition.”

“I am very interested in the opportunity to invest in such a- a new type of ship,” I said. “I’m afraid there is no time today, but we must work out the details, soon.”

Mr. Sutton nodded his approval.

I knew I could not read Abbess Joy’s note and remain composed, so I placed it in my pocket to read later that night. Before long, Mr. St. Amity had me engrossed in the last-minute details of Hope’s case, and we worked until the sunlight that filtered through the glass faded to soft pink.

 

 

#

 

 

Before Mr. Sutton and Mr. St. Amity had finished their business, the Cathedral carriage pulled to the door, and Brother Amicus came to fetch me.

I bore the ride to the Cathedral in awkward silence. Brother Amicus seemed strangely reluctant to speak, but he gave me several sad, sympathetic smiles, which did little to soothe my nerves.

At the Cathedral, Father Pius met me with a face like thunder. He gestured curtly for me to enter his chamber, and when I’d entered the door slammed shut behind me.

Brother Lux was already present, staring into the blazing fire on the far wall. I could not make out his expression; the interplay of shadow and orange firelight made his face look alien.

“This is quite a disaster,” Brother Lux said without turning away from the flames.

“Father does not realize-“

“He claims not to realize,” Father Pius shouted.

Father Pius’s booming voice was enough to knock me flat, but I remained standing.

“Perhaps if Lady Willoughby were free, she could read father’s mind and verify what he knows,” I said.

Father Pius grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and threw me to my knees. I did not rise to my feet, but I straightened my shoulders and looked up at him.

“I am a God,” Pius said. “There are no powers that are unknown to me. I looked into your father’s mind and saw the layers of ambition and scheming that he has built over the years. I peeled those layers away, and I saw that he remembered Lord Frey’s hypnosis, but did not recognize what it was. Regardless, your father suspects your husband’s power, suspects Lux’s power, and suspects the presence of a coven.”

“Did you see the next move he is planning?”

“He has pinned all of his misguided hopes on you. He would do anything for a place in the new kingdom he sees forming, including unleashing the Ancient curse on the world. The means of his success do not matter, to him.”

“You share that in common,” I said.

“Your father suffers from a common human disease- the disease of empty ambition. Power is a tool like any other, and some who seek that tool do so in order to change something in the world or to change something in themselves. Others seek power as an end in itself; those men are impotent hoarders, who sit on the throne like a dragon who sits on a pile of treasure. A dragon will never invest their treasure in anything worthwhile- they will never buy materials to build houses or roads or goods. Likewise, your father will never use his power to dispense justice or ease affliction.”

“And you believe yourself to be free of this disease?”

“I have paid too heavy a price for my power to forget why I’ve paid it. I’ve taken steps to ensure I never forget.” Father Pius paused and cast a significant glance at Brother Lux. “I’ve inoculated myself against the disease.”

“From where I sit, you are the source of disease, which has spread to infect everyone I love.”

Father Pius looked down at me, wearing the familiar sneer of disgust.

“If only you had the capability to look at yourself, you hypocrite!” he said. “You bear the Ancient phage- the greatest evil to ever grace the world- with perverse pride. You wield the curse of your people, and the power it has given you, without thought to morality or justice. You have freed the mind of the man who raped your mother.

The ugly words, the truth behind the soft lies of blood oaths and false promises, pierced my defenses. The context of Harmony’s life, and the perfectly played coercion by a free man could not be denied. I faltered- my mind filled with fresh regret for my actions even as my eyes filled with tears for what had been done to my mother.

“I do not forgive my father,” I managed to whisper, “but- is it my place to punish him?”

“Perhaps not. Perhaps I should open the doors of all the prisons and allow murderers to walk the streets. After all, who am I to protect their next victim? Whether or not you think that you should have the right to wield power, you still possess it. Therefore, it is your responsibility to wield it justly.”

“I believe I have wielded it responsibly. I thought of everything you’ve said, and still I chose to free my father’s mind.”

“WHY???” Father Pius cried out.

“Because if I don’t wish for murderers to roam the street, I should not allow myself to become one. If I don’t wish for cruelty to exist in the world, I must change the patterns of cruelty that are already present. I did not forgive my father; what I did was compassion.”

Brother Lux turned away from the fireplace and approached me- a shadow backlit by red light.

“I wish compassion had the power you assign to it,” he said softly. “I have not found that to be the case.”

I thought of all the cruelty and evil there was in the world, and I was almost convinced of the truth of Brother Lux’s words. I closed my eyes and wished I could retreat from such cruelty forever.

That was when I remembered.

“Perhaps you did not spend enough time at del Sol,” I said. “I am willing to continue the experiment away from that sacred place, and see if I can replicate Abbess Joy’s results in the greater world.”

“Abbess Joy keeps peace at del Sol because she has the power to cast out those who disobey its laws.”

“And yet, knowing this, Abbess Joy still has the desire to bring del Sol’s light into the world,” I said. “She is bound by the Gods, but the love and compassion she has given me is boundless. I will bring that light with me wherever I go. I am, and I always will be, a pilgrim of del Sol.”

Read from the beginning.

Part LXXXIII

Announcement: Ex Machina Revealed

In order to maintain the focus on fiction on Project DXM, I’ve decided to launch a new website. My new site, Ex Machina Revealed, will contain all of my (ostensibly) non-fiction posts on time travel, astronomy, and rationality.

Hopefully, this will make this site easier to navigate, and for those who enjoy following my serials, there should be fewer interruptions to the regular flow of content.

If you do enjoy my non-fiction ramblings, feel free to follow Ex Machina Revealed.

Thank you for your attention. You may now return to your regularly scheduled reading.

 

The Coven, Part LXXXI

He was so quiet, and his breathing so soft and regular, that it was easy to believe that my father slept. When I looked up from the book, however, I saw that he was sitting up and blinking into the morning light.

I had the means to free my father’s mind. I knew that the spell would break as easily as the curses that had bound Hope and Prudence. But my new ability was dependent on my will, and when I considered breaking the spell, I could feel the shard of ice which had pierced my heart the day Father revealed what he’d done to my mother. The ice imprisoned my will, and I could not act to free him.

Regret for vengeance, it seemed, was not the same as forgiveness.

Still, I had made a promise to Lady Fairfax, so I opened my father’s history and read aloud.

I read mechanically at first, but soon the book’s contents caught my interest. It was a history unlike any I’d ever read- unrelentingly rigorous and full of footnotes and citations. Assumptions other historians had made were deconstructed, and nothing was stated without evidentiary support.

“When I define the dark ages,” I read, “I include much of the Ancient War, for there are few surviving texts from that period in history. Therefore, only the litany can be considered an authoritative source of information on the Ancient War. However, I will humbly summarize the litany’s tale here, and include one or two points of interest I was able to glean from my own research-“

“Folly- empty words and folly,” my father groaned.

“Father,” I looked up. “Are you listening?”

“I’m sorry, Harmony. It is all lies..all lies…”

“I am Grace,” I said firmly. “Look at me.”

“Lies and doom- my doom,” he groaned.

I closed the book. “Tell me the truth, then. Why are you doomed?”

Father did not answer. After a few seconds of silence, I gave up and opened the book again.

“Though no man living has ever seen an Ancient, the litany provides a terrifying description. More beast than man, and without the spark of divinity contained within the heart of all the civilized races, the Ancient-“

“Stop- stop- no more,” my father cried. “Forgive me- forgive me…”

I closed the book. My father’s cries of agony shook me to my icy heart.

“I wish to forgive you,” I muttered, “but I can’t. You took my mother from those who loved her and used her to further your ambition. You never loved her or me-“

“Haven’t I been kind to you, Harmony?” He said, his voice trembling. “Haven’t I given you comfort and wealth? Why won’t you be happy?”

“I’m not-“ I flung the book aside in frustration. “You cannot force a slave to be happy.”

“I couldn’t free you,” he sat forward so quickly I thought he would leap out of bed, but instead he grasped my shoulders, staring at me with a frenzied look in his eye. “You knew I couldn’t free you. I told you I couldn’t free you. I tried to free your child but I couldn’t.”

My blood froze.

“What do you mean, you couldn’t?” I choked.

My father’s fury seemed to ebb away, and he fell back on the bed, staring into the light once more.

“Don’t you dare-” I moved forward and took his head in my hands, forcing him to look me in the eyes. “What do you mean when you say you couldn’t free Harmony’s child?”

“Poison, flintlock, rope- I was too weak to do it. Too weak.”

“You mean… you tried to kill someone?” I whispered.

“The mercy of hell is too good for me…”

“A blood oath,” I said. “You broke a blood oath, and you tried to take your own life.”

“I didn’t know I’d lied. I thought I could free the child.” My father reached a trembling hand out and stroked my hair. “I’m sorry, my love. I’m sorry.”

I grasped my father’s hand. “Do you still have the blood oath? Where is it?”

But my father’s hand went limp in mine, and his eyes went blank again. His tenuous lucidity was gone.

 

 

#

 

 

“Lady Frey- what in the world are you doing?”

Lady Fairfax stood on the threshold of my father’s office, staring at me as I sifted through a pile of documents.

“Lady Fairfax,” I said, standing. “I need your advice.”

“Certainly,” Lady Fairfax said, picking her way through the books, boxes and papers as she entered the room. “What do you need?”

“Does my father own a safe or a lock-box, or some other place he would keep important documents?”

“He never would have kept such things in the house,” Lady Fairfax said. “All of his business contracts are in his vault at the Verdant City bank.”

“Do you know which vault is his, or where I can find his bank book?”

“I have the bank book; his account number and vault numbers are all inside. Why do you…”

Lady Fairfax paused and then came closer, lifting her skirts as she stepped over the books and boxes of loose papers that littered the floor.

“You’ve found something, haven’t you? You’ve found something that may help him.”

“I- I may have. I cannot be certain until…”

“Say no more.” Lady Fairfax went to the desk and removed a false bottom from the top drawer. “Here is his bank book and vault keys. Take whatever avenue you may to free him.”

 

 

#

 

 

I sent for the carriage, and then rushed to my room to ready myself. Prudence, however, intercepted me in the hallway.

“Whatever is the matter?” she asked. “You are flushed. Here- sit down.”

“I cannot. I am going out, and I must be off as soon as I can-“

“Why?” she said gently. “Tell me- what is the matter?”

Prudence took my hands; I had not noticed my hands were trembling until Prudence steadied mine with her own.

“I think that-“ I said before I paused, unsure of how to express my fears.

“Come inside- I will give us privacy,” Prudence said.

I almost relented, but at that moment Mercy stepped around the corner and walked quickly down to hall toward me.

“Have you ordered the carriage?” Mercy asked. “It is waiting at the front door.”

“Thank you, Mercy,” I said.

I turned back to Prudence. “We will talk later. I must go now.”

“Where are you going?” Mercy asked.

“I have an errand at the Verdant City Bank. I won’t be long.”

“I will accompany you,” Mercy said.

“That won’t be necessary, thank you.”

“But-“

“Please, allow me to exercise my liberty while I still have it,” I burst forth.

Mercy raised her eyebrows, but said nothing.

“You don’t mean- are you under suspicion?” Prudence whispered.

“No- nothing like that. It may be nothing, but I must verify. Please…”

“I cannot force you,” Mercy said, “but if you are smart, you will listen to me; the city is crowded with people who are here just to see your husband’s trial, some support you, and some would see you and Lord Frey hung. If you don’t wish to be assaulted, kidnapped, or assassinated, you won’t go out at all. If you must go into public, you will at least wear a veil and take me along to help protect you.”

I turned to Prudence, who nodded in agreement.

“Remember- you aren’t protected by the laws of del Sol, here. Abbess Joy did not wish to tell you- she thought you would feel obligated- but she was forced to expel two would-be assassins during your stay in that peaceful place.”

This gave me pause. “What else would you advise, Mercy, if I must go out?”

“Ask coachman to cover the arms and remove the livery from the carriage, and take a circuitous route to the bank,” Mercy said.

“Very well,” I relented. “I will heed your advice, Mercy. Just- promise that whatever you may see or hear on our journey, you will keep it secret.”

“You have my word of honor,” Mercy said firmly.

 

 

 

#

 

 

While the coachman made the ordered alterations to the livery, I found a length of black crepe to cover my face as though I were in deep mourning. Then Mercy, wearing a very close bonnet, accompanied me in the carriage.

The bank was close to Verdant City’s square, which was almost as crowded as it had been the night we’d arrived. Coachman took a detour through a side road to bypass the crowds, and then pulled up to the side of the bank where Mercy and I disembarked.

I clutched my veil with one hand, and Mercy linked arms with me on the other side before guiding me through the crowds at the door. Once inside, I gave my father’s name in a low voice to a young clerk, who started at the information and then ran to fetch a superior to assist me.

We waited a few tense moments, the crowd pressing in on all sides, before the superior arrived. The superior, Mr. Musgrove, took me into his office to verify my authority to act on my father’s behalf, and then after some small questions about my own account and investments, he escorted me down a long hallway to my father’s vault.

“I do hope that, given your father’s state of ill health,” he said as we went, “that your visit does not indicate…”

“My father’s condition remains unchanged,” I said. “I only thought it best to prepare for the worst.”

“Very wise,” Mr. Musgrove said. He stopped and opened a door, which led into a room filled with locked, metal doors.

“I will open the vault and then give you privacy. I will be just on the other side of the door- knock when you are finished, or if you need any further assistance.

“Oh! My Lady,” Mercy said in an awed whispered. “He isn’t going to lock us in, is he? The room is so small, I can hardly breathe.”

“The door will not be locked,” Mr. Musgrove said with a condescending smile. “I will be just outside to make sure no one disturbs your mistress.”

“Thank you, sir,” Mercy said, bobbing a little curtsy. She stood near the door as Mr. Musgrove located the correct vault and opened the door, and then she curtsied to him again as he left.

As soon as Mr. Musgrove was through the door, she put her ear to the door and slowly turned the handle.

“He did not lock it,” she whispered to me. “I will guard the door. Please hurry.”

The vault was not large, but it was filled to the top with boxes of documents and contracts. I did not stop to read any of them, instead scanning the titles and skimming for any mention of my mother or myself. After an hour of searching, I came across an intricately carved wooden box, which proved to be locked. I tried each of my father’s keys, but none of them fit.

“Come here. I will try to open it,” Mercy said.

I handed her the box, and she took a pin from her cap and fiddled with the lock until, with a grunt of frustration, she struck the box.

I heard a snap, and then she handed the box back to me.

“I couldn’t pick the lock, so I broke the hinges. I hope it was not valuable.”

I accepted the box with a whisper of thanks, and then prized the remains of the lid off. Inside I found a packet of papers tied with a length of twine, which proved to be letters from Father Sauris detailing the conspiracy he’d formed with my father to entrap the Frey family.

I have no doubt that your suspicions regarding the Frey lineage are true, and if so, the family condemnation will forever be a plague upon the true church. Introduction of Ancient blood may prove a solution, at least in the short-term, for a merciful end must be preferable to eternal hellfire. In the long term, however, I fear we must find other ways to ingratiate ourselves to the Frey Family, or else we will be lost.

      “Why were you so afraid of Lord Frey?” I whispered to myself.

The Ancient bride must be freeborn, and here I believe the fancy you’ve taken for that little assassin may prove serendipitous, if you do not object to dirtying your own family line for the greater good.

      I read each letter thoroughly, but none of them contradicted the claim that I would be freeborn. In fact, the last letter I read contained a promise that I would not be placed under a contract, and this letter was signed and sealed by both the young Prince and the High Priest.

Unsatisfied, I felt into the corners of the box and found a small space where I could insert a fingernail. This proved to be a false bottom, and when I removed it I found another folded parchment.

I, Lord Valor Ainsworth, being of sound mind, solemnly swear to the slave Harmony to sire her a daughter free of the enslavement of her race. In exchange, the slave Harmony does likewise swear to leave the protection of del Sol to enter into the service of Lord Valor Ainsworth, and to enter into the covenant of marriage with the same. This is done with the knowledge and consent of the High Priest Sauris, keeper of the Ancient race.

      At the bottom of the page was drawn the seal of the Ainsworth family, spattered with long dried, faded blood.

The words on the contract blurred, and I crumpled it to my chest.

“Lady Frey?” Mercy said quietly.

I quickly dried my eyes. “I have found what I sought- or at least, I have found everything there is to be found, here. Allow me to put everything in order, and then we can go.”

I moved to put the broken box back into the vault, but as I did so I stumbled slightly, and one of the papers slipped from my fingers and onto the floor. Mercy picked it up and, as she handed it to me, her eyes lingered a moment on the words.

“Your mother was…”

She closed her eyes and handed the paper back to me.

“I’m sorry- I didn’t mean to read it,” she continued.

“I’m not ashamed of her, but-“

“It’s dangerous; I know,” Mercy said.

 

 

#

 

 

“Abbess Joy and Sister Jubilee told me that you had gone on some dangerous adventure at del Sol,” Mercy whispered on the carriage ride back. “They didn’t say what you had done but, given your mother’s situation and where she was buried…”

“The less you know, the better,” I said.

“I understand,” she said quietly, but then she sighed and spoke again. “At the bank- were you searching for your own contract? Or has it already been destroyed?”

“I may not have a contract at all,” I said. “Everything I’ve read seems to indicate that I was freeborn, but I will need to speak to my father to confirm it.”

Mercy nodded. “If you ever a contract, destroy it before anyone can see it, and confine the knowledge as best you can. You are lucky, because you were raised as though you were free, and married in the public eye, but if anyone finds out, you will spend the rest of your life in fear.”

Mercy paused and looked out the window.

“Mercy-“

“I saw him- my former master- in the town square when we arrived. I saw him again in the Cathedral courtyard. It was silly to think he’d disappear just because Lord Frey stole and destroyed my contract. I was foolish to think I was really free.”

“Is this the reason you sought to join the coven- to seek freedom?”

“That, and vengeance,” Mercy said with a wry grin. “That’s why I sought training from Miss Chastity. My master was not a kind man.”

“If your former master sees you, and if he seeks to expose you, I will do everything I can to protect you. I will tell any lie necessary to conceal your identity.”

Mercy looked at me for a few moments with a strange expression. Then she took a small, folding knife from her sleeve. She cut her palm, letting blood seep from the wound.

“I swear I will never reveal your secret,” she said simply. “Swear you will do the same.”

“I should tell you that I am resistant to magic, and that resistance extends to blood oaths.”

“Who said anything about magic?”

She handed me the knife, and I cut my palm.

“I swear I will never reveal your secret,” I said.

We put our hands together, and Mercy’s lips stretched into a genuine smile.

 

 

#

 

 

When I returned to Brighton Place, Prudence was waiting for me.

“If you could- please give my father and I some privacy.”

“Say no more,” she said. “As soon as you shut the door, I will make sure no one will hear or disturb you.”

I pressed her hand in gratitude, and then went to my father’s door. He lay in bed where I had left him, but his eyes were closed as though in sleep.

I grabbed his shoulders and shook him. “Wake up- look at me.”

My father opened his eyes, but he did not respond.

“Please- I must know.” I looked into his eyes, and I tried to find the place where magic resisted my will. My will was still not present, however. I only stared into the blank, watery eyes of the father I could not love or forgive.

“Father, please tell me. Am I free?”

He did not answer.

“Did you really break your blood oath? Was Harmony’s daughter enslaved?”

He still did not answer.

I took the blood oath from my pocket and began to read aloud.

“I, Lord Valor Ainsworth, being of sound mind, solemnly swear to the slave Harmony to sire her a daughter free of the enslavement of her race.”

“No- no- please stop,” he whimpered.

“I can’t help you unless you tell me the truth,” I said.

“You- you can help?” He blinked a few times.

“I can help you, but first I must know; does Harmony’s daughter have a contract, or is she free?”

“Contracts, contracts, lies and folly- ink and paper,” he groaned. “Words are nothing.”

“Yes, I know,” I said. “But still, the law can bind us as long as people believe in it.”

“The stories are true.” My father closed his eyes again. “The rose and the thorns.”

“Wake up.” I shook my father again. “Does this mean that I have no contract?”

“I am bound by blood and lies- blood and lies,” my father whispered.

“Then to hell with it all,” I said. I took the contract and tore it in half. “To hell with your blood and your lies.”

“Ah! What are you doing?” My father cried, sitting up.

“I’m doing whatever I like. I am free.” I went to the fireplace and tossed the contract into the flames.

“Oh! Oh! I’m burning. I’m burning in hellfire,” my father said, and he clutched his chest.

“No you aren’t. This is all in your head.”

“Ah-“ he groaned and fell back, breathing in gasps, and trembling violently as he did.

“I- I- I am dying,” he whispered.

“No- you aren’t,” I said, faltering.

I drew closer to my father. His had gone ashen, and as he gasped for air his lips and eyelids were tinged in blue.

“Father,” I touched his hand. “I didn’t mean to-“

“Why- why didn’t you love me?” he gasped.

“I couldn’t love you,” I whispered. “You never loved me.”

“I gave you everything,” he gasped. “Your- child- will- be- a- queen…”

“Father-“

“I’m dying. I’m dy-“

He gasped again, and his whole body convulsed.

“No- I never meant for you to die,” I cried.

The convulsion stilled suddenly, and his gasping ceased.

It was too late, I thought. My hesitation- my inability to forgive had condemned my father. The shard of ice melted away, leaving a gaping, empty hole in its wake.

“I’m sorry,” I cried. “I’m truly sorry for what I did.”

And then I could feel it- the place where will met magic. I pushed through in desperation and the spell shattered.

My father’s body convulsed again, and he let loose a great gasp. He took a deep gulp of air, and then another. In a few more breaths, the color came back to his cheeks.

“You foolish girl- you foolish girl,” he breathed. “Why won’t you understand? You don’t have a contract, but without the soul, there is no free will.”

“You- you know who I am?”

“Of course I know who you are. You’ve been a blasted nuisance these fifteen years, Grace.”

And then, for the first time in my life, my father drew me near and put his arms around me.

Read from the beginning.

Part LXXXII

The Coven, Part LXXX

Hope and I talked a little more before I was obliged to leave. I talked about Hope’s case as much as I dare under the guard’s scrutiny, but Hope quickly steered the topic of conversation away from legal matters. He asked me about my time at del Sol, and I was able to assure him that the sisters had been kind to Celeste and me, that Abbess Joy had been dedicated to our help and protection, and that I had found a mother figure in the Abbess.

Hope spoke a little of the inquisition, though he was reluctant to reveal what he had personally suffered. He told me, in indirect language, that Lady Willoughby had suffered a terrible violation, and I was able to imagine what had happened.

“Lady Willoughby’s strength has surprised all of us,” Hope said, “but what happened to her, combined with how it has affected her husband, may prove too much. Lord Willoughby is a broken man, as you may have heard. The rest of us are powerless to help either of them.”

I closed my eyes and saw the merry smile of the woman who had been so kind to me. A fresh wave of anger washed over me.

“As though the violation were not enough, Lady Willoughby has been maimed, and can no longer speak,” Hope continued. “They have no family to visit or help. Lord Willoughby has no near relation living, and Lady Willoughby’s family disowned her upon her marriage.”

And Lady Willougby’s friends at court have all scattered in fear, I thought.

I turned back to Brother Lux. “May I visit Lady Willoughby? May I see the others?”

“Not today, Lady,” Brother Lux said, stepping forward. “Father Pius will arrive soon with the carriage, and I advise that you go home as soon as possible to rest. You will be allowed one more visit before the trial commences on mid-week.”

“Grace,” Hope squeezed my hand gently. “If my brother advises you to rest, I hope you will. I appreciate everything you’ve done, but look to your own health and safety first. Take care you do not do anything to anger those in authority. Their power is beyond anything you know.”

My eyes filled with tears again. Hope had suffered depravation, torture, and maiming, and yet all of his concern was for me. I took a deep breath to steady my voice and spoke.

“I understand what I face- I discerned its true nature not long ago,” I said, wondering if he would comprehend the deeper meaning of the statement. “I am still determined in my course.”

“Grace-“

“I promise I will sleep,” I said in a stronger voice. “Promise me you will do the same. I daresay you need the sleep far more than I.”

“Oh!” Hope said, as though in sudden understanding. He rose from his seat, and I embraced him again.

“You amaze me, Grace,” Hope said.

“You amaze me,” I said. “Hold on, just a little longer, and I promise I will do everything in my power to free you.”

 

 

#

 

 

“Thank you, Lady Frey, from the bottom of my heart.”

Brother Lux spoke these unexpected words on the carriage ride back from the cathedral.

“For what?” I asked.

“Thank you for what you did for my brother,” Brother Lux said.

“I only gave him words of encouragement. It wasn’t much-“

Brother Lux cut me off with a laugh. “Lady Frey, it’s futile to lie to me. I see with Wisdom’s eyes. I can see the threads of magic that bind the world as clearly as I see you sitting before me. I saw you break my brother’s curse.”

I fought the urge to swear aloud. I’d been hoping to keep my new powers secret for as long as possible, yet I’d been discovered within days of obtaining them.

“Pius saw what you did for Prudence, as well. Don’t be alarmed,” Brother Lux said quickly. “I am glad you’ve done it. Despite our- differences– I have no reason to wish Prudence cursed. In fact, you have reduced her chance of exposure, for the inquisitors have only seen her cursed face.”

Brother Lux reached out, as though to grasp my hands. Then he seemed to remember himself, and he drew back awkwardly.

“Do you think that you could do it again? If I let you see the others, could you break their curses?”

“I will help the others in any way I can,” I said. “I may not be able to do anything for Captain Goode, since you have taken his hands…”

A chill came over me as I spoke- as I fully felt what kind of monster the polite young monk who sat across from me really was.

“I will not do the same for you, Brother Lux. I know very well why I should not.”

“I would not ask you to remove my so-called ‘curse.’” Brother Lux said, leaning back with a derisive grin. “It is all that is shielding me from the mouth of hell. Help the others- that is all I require.”

“I will help the others for their own sakes, not yours,” I said.

The carriage pulled to a stop at Brighton Place, and I descended without looking back at Brother Lux.

 

 

#

 

 

I went straight up to the nursery, where I found Celeste and Prudence still seated at tea, along with Mrs. Equanimous Goode.

“I really must press you to try one of these tarts- they are delightful,” Mrs. Goode was saying to Prudence, who waved the offered tray away. The party seemed oblivious to my presence until Celeste cried aloud.

“Lady Grace! You’re back.” Celeste stood from the table and ran to greet me.

“A Lady does not leave the table without excusing herself,” Mrs. Good chided.

Celeste ignored Mrs. Goode and leaned in for a hug.

“Father Pius was very kind,” Celeste said. “He gave me his absolute promise that no one else would be arrested. Still, I can never be completely easy until you are home again.”

“I’m here now,” I said, “and I will join you for tea, if you will allow me.”

“Of course, please be seated,” Celeste said, gesturing to an empty seat with all the charm of a proper hostess. “And have a tart, they really are good.”

I sat, and Prudence poured a fourth cup of tea while Celeste continued to prattle.

“Father Pius isn’t the ogre I’d thought he was. He said that he would allow my- allow Sister Jubilee to visit Uncle Hope and Uncle Just to offer prayers from del Sol.”

“Did he really say so?” I asked, taking the tea from Prudence.

“Oh yes,” Celeste answered for her mother. “I know he was telling the truth, because there’s just something about the high priest that one has to trust, you know? He said that he must follow the law and remain impar- impartial, but he was sure that once the truth came out, everything would be alright.”

My blood ran cold when I thought of Pius using the force of his charm to influence an innocent young girl, and yet I could not deny that I saw no trace of the anxiety that had plagued Celeste that morning.

“It sounds like Father Pius made quite an impression on you,” I said.

“And why should he not?” Mrs. Goode Sniffed. “We have not had a High Priest who possessed such wisdom in ages. He will purge the church of all its corrupt factions and bring truth to the world.”

Mrs. Goode, having finished her speech, handed me the tray of tarts with a satisfied air, and I accepted one with a murmured, “thank you.”

“You should take a biscuit, as well. I must say you seem exhausted, my dear. You must be, after seeing your husband in such a state. I hope you will not allow his appearance distress you. He is much stronger than he may appear, and the trial will be speedy.”

“Why should Uncle Hope’s appearance be distressing?” Celeste asked.

Mrs. Goode sent Celeste a withering look, but I answered.

“Your Uncle Hope has been kept inside for some time, so he is somewhat pale and thin.”

“Oh yes, and they cut off all his lovely hair- he told me in his letters,” Celeste said. “He isn’t ill from being cooped up, is he? Did he have a cough?”

“No- no cough,” I said. “As your Grandmaman said, he is very strong.”

I could hear Prudence heave a small sigh of relief.

“Is Uncle Just well, too?”

“I was not able to see him, today,” I said. “But I gave your Uncle Hope your love, as I promised, and he sends you his love in return.”

“Thank you- I knew you would,” Celeste said.

Mrs. Goode wiped her mouth and stood. “If you will excuse me, I think I shall depart. I only wished to see my granddaughter and hear how Lord Frey was faring. Don’t get up on my account, Lady Frey. As I’ve told you before, I don’t stand on formality. I will see myself out.”

“It’s no trouble,” I insisted.

I gave Celeste and Prudence an apologetic smile, and then escorted Mrs. Goode to the door. After Mrs. Goode’s comment about Wisdom, I did not feel comfortable allowing her to wander through the house alone, but she went straight to the entrance without dawdling, and did not seem interested in snooping or questioning me.

I returned to the nursery, where Celeste and Prudence were finishing their tea. We spent the rest of the afternoon reading, and after dinner, Celeste seemed restless.

“Do please let me stay up tonight,” Celeste asked. “I’m always asleep by the time you come home.”

“You may stay up a little,” Prudence said. “If you will promise to entertain us.”

“Entertain you?” Celeste asked.

“You have not had a music lesson in some time,” Prudence said. “I know Lord Ainsworth needs to be kept quiet, but the drawing room is very far from the sickroom, and the clavichord has a light tone. I don’t think we will disturb Lord Ainsworth, and I daresay Lady Fairfax will not object.

Lady Fairfax, far from objecting, was delighted with the plan. She sat in her armchair with the air of someone attending a palace concert while Celeste first played a simple air I had taught her at Rowan Heights, and then sang a duet with Prudence.

I had never heard Prudence sing or play, because I always worked with Sister Love while she gave Celeste her music lesson, and when Prudence sang with the choir at del Sol her voice was lost in the chorus. Now I could fully appreciate what I’d missed, for even when Prudence lowered her voice to match Celeste’s, the drawing room seemed hardly able to contain such a full, rich tone.

When the duet was over, Lady Fairfax requested that Prudence sing another song, so Prudence sang an aria, this time giving full reign to her considerable talent, and I accompanied with less skill on the clavichord. Prudence sang an encore, and then I played a solo to allow Prudence the chance to rest her voice.

“A most delightful evening,” Lady Fairfax said. “It is wonderful to have young ladies in the house, to drive away some of gloom of these rainy days. I only wish we had more opportunities to spend the evening together in such a way.”

Celeste had fallen asleep and was snoring softly, with Snowbear curled up in her lap likewise snoring. With a chuckle, Prudence shook Celeste awake and took her upstairs, and when Smith came in to snuff the lanterns, Lady Fairfax drew me aside.

“I understand you were allowed to visit your husband, today. May I ask…”

“He is alive, and his health is as good as one might expect, given his circumstances,” I said.

“How is he faring… mentally?” she said in a breathless tone.

“His spirits are low, but he is rational and in command of his faculties.”

“Yes- Lord Frey always seemed to have great strength of mind. It is an important quality- one too often overlooked in leaders.”

“I don’t anticipate my husband being in such a role soon, given his situation,” I said firmly. “But how is my father faring? Has his mental state improved much?”

“He has been more vocal, but his words make very little sense,” Lady Fairfax said. “I know you haven’t much time, but is there anything else you might do for him- anything you haven’t thought of?”

I hesitated just a moment- long enough for Lady Fairfax to notice. She clutched my hand.

“However painful it may be, please try. I am lost without his guidance.”

 

 

#

 

 

“I’ve experienced few burdens heavier than the obligation of power,” Prudence said gently. “I will not add to that burden.”

Celeste and Lady Fairfax had long gone to sleep, and all the lamps and candles in the house were extinguished. Prudence and I lay together, side by side in the patch of moonlight that fell through the window.

“I can’t ignore those in need, but I still wish you would chide me for my recklessness. I exposed myself without thinking when I broke Hope’s curse. Be the voice of reason that you’ve always been, and warn me from doing it again,” I said.

“How can I, after the good you’ve done?” Prudence said. “Because of your recklessness, Hope can sleep again, free of his visions of hell. How can I advise you to hide such a power away?”

“Yet, you won’t tell me that I must help my father, either?”

“I can’t, Grace. I understand your concerns; your father may remember that Hope cast the spell, and testify against him. Yet I also understand the guilt you carry, and the need to make it right.

“I won’t tell you how to use your power. I wish I could bear this burden for you, but I can’t,” she concluded.

“I’m only asking for your advice-“

“Grace, when my magic caused me pain, you would never have dreamed of advising me to use it, or to refrain from using it to help my friends.”

Tears came to my eyes, and I could not hold them back any longer. Prudence wrapped her arms around me while I cried. I cried for Hope, and I cried for all the wretched prisoners I could not free. I cried for my father and I cried in frustration.

Finally, I was drained. I could cry no more.

“For what it’s worth,” Prudence sniffed, wiping away her own tears, “I trust you.”

“I know,” I said. “That is worth a good deal.”

“Thank you,” Prudence said. “When I think of what I’ve seen Hope suffer on account of his nightmares, I am overwhelmed by relief that they are over. Thank you for my own sake, as well. Knowing that my true face lies under my veil, and not the face of a monster, makes it easier to bear. When this is all over, I will burn that veil and never cover my face again.

“If only he could see…” Prudence trailed off, and then she shook her head before she spoke again. “Father Pius came to tell me that I will visit the others, and coached me to appear as though I were a mere sister offering prayers from del Sol. But I’m afraid to face Hope again. Will he hate me for what I’ve done? Will he even believe it is me? I’m almost afraid that the shock of hearing my voice will provoke Hope to reveal us. Is that Pius’s plan?”

“Hope will not be surprised,” I said. “I’m sorry- I should have asked you, but I could not deny him such a gift; I told him that you are alive.”

“But the guards…”

I took Prudence’s hand and began to trace the letters onto her palm, as I had for Hope.

“Our hands were here by my chest, and my back was to the guards. I might have been stroking his hand to comfort him, but Hope understood. Your voice will confirm my message.”

“So… he already knows. He knows.”

Prudence’s voice drifted into the still night air. Then her eyes closed and her breath rose and fell steadily as she succumbed to sleep. I watched Prudence as the moon rose higher in the city sky, and my fatigue gave way to a rare feeling of peace.

My eyes closed, and I slept in the knowledge that somewhere, where the moonlight could not touch him, Hope slept, too.

Part LXXXI

Read from the beginning.

The Coven, Part LXXIX

You will tell Uncle Hope that I miss him, won’t you? And Uncle Just, too?”

Celeste had asked the same question three times already. She looked as anxious as I felt inside- she had long since given up picking at her breakfast, and was half-standing in her chair as though ready to jump up and leave at any moment.

I took a deliberate bite of scone, and then swallowed before I answered in as calm a voice as I could manage.

“I will certainly convey your message to your Uncle Hope,” I said. “I don’t know if the inquisitors will allow me to see the others, but if they do then I will give Captain Goode your message, as well.”

“I told Grandmaman to give Uncle Just my love, but she didn’t really promise that she would. She didn’t want to talk about Uncle Just at all. Do you think she is angry at him?”

“Your Grandmother isn’t angry at Just,” Prudence said. “She simply doesn’t believe that young ladies should discuss grown-up matters.”

“But we are still family,” Celeste said indignantly. “What does my age have to do with anything?”

“I don’t know,” Prudence said. Then she managed a lopsided grin and said, “I already agree with you, Celeste; you should argue with your Grandmaman, instead of arguing with me.”

For a moment, Celeste looked ready to argue further, but then she sighed, folded her napkin, and went around the table to kiss her mother on the cheek.

“I’m so glad to see your smile, now, that I don’t even mind you’re being difficult.”

Prudence raised her eyebrows, but leaned into the embrace. “I’m being difficult?”

“The world is full of miracles,” Celeste sighed happily, ignoring her mother’s words. “I’m sure that the trial will go well, and we will all be happy together at Rowan Heights again. But- quick! I just heard footsteps. Put on your veil!”

Celeste flung Prudence’s veil back over her face. In a few moments I heard the footsteps Celeste had heard, followed by Snowbear’s barking.

“Oh! That dog- Lady Fairfax will be cross if he isn’t quiet.”

Celeste left Prudence to straighten her veil and ran from the room. She returned a few moments later with Snowbear in her arms.

“Snowbear found an intruder,” Celeste said crossly.

Before I could ask who she meant, Brother Lux entered the nursery.

“Pardon me- I don’t mean to intrude,” he said with a bow toward Celeste. “I have come to escort Lady Frey to the cathedral.”

He turned to me and said, with another bow, “as soon as you are ready, I am at your service.”

Brother Lux spoke to me as he had all week: with a mix of his usual, gentle tone combined with a new air of overcautious formality. I wondered whether he was trying to ease his conscience or soothe my anger after I’d learned that he’d blinded Hope, but neither explanation made much sense to me given his present state of power.

“I am ready,” I said curtly. I brushed a few crumbs from my dress and stood. “Just let me get my things.”

Brother Lux turned to Prudence. “You will need your wrap, as well. It looks like it will rain again.”

Prudence shot up. “You mean- I might see him, too?”

“I’m so sorry; I thought I’d told you. Pius would like a private audience with you, so he’s asked me to take you to his office on our way to see the prisoners.”

Prudence turned her veiled face to me, but did not speak.

“There is no need to hesitate. Pius remembers his vow. He only wishes to speak with you.”

“But, Celeste-“

“I took the liberty of speaking with Miss Mercy. She’s agreed to stay and protect Celeste while you are gone.”

Prudence looked at me again. I could tell that she was making the same calculations as I, though we could not discuss them aloud. What could Pius have to discuss with Prudence? Was he separating us purposely? Finally, with no recourse, Prudence nodded and sighed.

“My things are in the cloakroom.” Prudence said, but before she could move Celeste threw her arms around her waist.

“Please- no. Don’t go.”

“Celeste-“

“It will be like before,” Celeste cried. “The night they took you, or the night they took Uncle Just and Chastity. All of the grownups said it was alright, but it wasn’t.”

Celeste’s eyes were bright, and in between her words she was taking short gasps, as though she could not breathe from fright.

“Darling,” Prudence said gently, putting her arm around Celeste’s shoulders. “What happened to the optimism you had moments ago? Don’t you believe in miracles, anymore?”

“I believe in miracles, but I know that bad things can still happen. I couldn’t stand it if something else went wrong just when- just when- when it seemed like things were going to get better.”

Brother Lux stepped forward. “Breathe, Miss Celeste” he said. “I have no intentions of-“

“I can’t,” Celeste said, gasping harder. “I can’t breathe- if- you- say…”

Brother Lux stepped closer and put his hand on Celeste’s forehead. “Breathe,” he simply said.

Celeste’s breathing slowed a little, and she shut her eyes for a moment.

“Please,” Celeste said heavily. “Don’t take her away.”

“I will not,” Brother Lux said quietly. “With your leave, I will bring Father Pius here, instead.”

Celeste looked up sharply. “You will?”

Brother Lux nodded. “How could I possibly say no when you look at me with those brown eyes. You needn’t worry today. I hope that I will earn your trust in the future.”

Brother Lux lowered his hand and stepped back. “I must still take Lady Frey to the Cathedral. I hope you trust that I will bring her back safely.”

“Lady Frey can fight bandits,” Celeste said, raising her chin a little. “I’m sure she can fight you if she needs to.”

Brother Lux turned his dark eyes to me, and nodded sharply.

“You may be right, Miss Celeste.”

 

 

#

 

 

The carriage ride to the St. Blanc Cathedral was excruciatingly long. It wound through the slick city streets and then onto a muddy path that connected Verdant City with St. Blanc.

The length of the ride made me feel more acutely how long I’d been gone, and the anticipation of what I would see on my return was awful. I knew I would weep, but seven so- I would see Hope again.

When the ride was finally over, the carriage pulled up to the cathedral door where two men stood ready to meet us- Father Pius and an inquisitor I recognized as Brother Amicus.

“The coachman will be ready shortly,” Brother Lux said with a bow to the two men. “He wishes to clean the horse’s hooves, and then you may be off.”

“Of course- thank you,” Brother Amicus said with a smile that was as bright as sunlight breaking through clouds. “We should have plenty of time, but if we are late we can only offer the lady the cart- everything else is being used, at present.”

Brother Amicus turned and looked at me shyly. I quickly assured him the cart would be fine, and he bowed deeply in reply.

I felt a new sympathy for Prudence and Mercy when I watched brother Amicus and Father Pius enter the carriage. I understood how they must have felt when I went to meet Pius alone, and why they always asked so many anxious questions afterward.

Prudence will be alright- remember Pius’s vow. I reminded myself. You must think of Hope.

      Brother Lux offered his hand, but I brushed it aside and picked my way through the puddles to the cathedral door on my own.

Brother Lux did not take me into the dungeons. Instead, he led me downstairs into a small room adjacent to the dungeon entrance. He left me in the company of red-robed inquisitor with a promise that he would return shortly.

I sat in silence for what seemed like hours, but my pocket watch only ticked past a quarter-hour. My red-robed guard did not seem disposed to make conversation, though I attempted to engage him twice before I gave up. I strained my ears to for any sound that would indicate Hope’s approach- the creak of a stair, or the sound of heels on stone- but I heard nothing. Finally, when it seemed as though I would sit in anticipation all night, the door creaked open.

Brother Lux entered first, walking backward as he led his prisoner by the hand. For a moment I could hardly recognize the prisoner he led inside- the prisoner’s hair was closely-shorn, and he was shaven, yet he was covered in grime and filth. His brown robe hung on his frame as though it had been draped on a skeleton.

Then my heart seemed to leap into my throat as I recognized the prisoner’s face. His sunken cheeks had made his cheekbones and his high-bridged nose more prominent. His mouth was dry and cracked, but is was still full and warm as it mouthed his first words.

“Is she here?”

I could not speak, for fear I would cry aloud. The only answer I could make was to rush forward, and to take his free hand in mine.

“Grace!” Hope clutched my hand with surprising strength. “Oh! Speak. Let me hear your voice.”

I swallowed hard and spoke. “I am here.”

Hope was alive. I hadn’t realized how little I truly believed that he was alive until I could see him- touch him. I took him in my arms, gingerly, and allowed my tears to flow.

Hope was with me again, but nothing was the same.

I dried my eyes as soon as I could manage. I had three gifts to give Hope, and two of these gifts would have to be given in secret before the guards’ eyes.

I looked over Hope’s shoulder, and I saw that Brother Lux had backed away and stood against the wall. I leaned closer to Hope, closed my eyes, and concentrated.

I was able to find my new power quickly. It was getting easier with practice, and Hope’s trembling, suppressed sobs helped me to steel my will. I thought of the despair he’d first shown me on Prudence’s death day, and the cries he’d uttered in his sleep every night I’d let go of him. I thought of the false images he’d described- the illusion of hell- and I could feel the place where the curse resisted my will.

My will was like iron. I hardly had to move before I could feel the curse shatter into pieces.

Hope gasped aloud, and then his gasp turned into soft laughter.

“My brother is still here, isn’t he?” Hope said. “He’s trying to be quiet, but I can hear his breath. He’s here with guards, who are waiting for me to betray myself.”

“Brother Lux is still here, and there is one guard with him,” I confirmed. “Never mind them. Here- there is a chair here, and I will sit next to you. There is so much I wish to tell you, and wish to hear.”

“How are you?” He asked as I helped him to sit. “And, please, how is Celeste? Are you both well? Are you both happy?”

I sat beside him and clutched his hand to my heart. Here was the second gift I had to give- one that could be given freely. “Celeste is well, and she has grown considerably since you last saw her. She is almost to my shoulder, now. She has devoured all of the primers, and she is tackling complicated books. She will soon be ahead of me.

“She’s asked me to tell you that she loves you. I am a poor messenger- I cannot convey how much she loves you.”

“No- no, you are perfect. I can hear the truth in your voice. I would trust no one else.”

Hope leaned toward me earnestly, and clutched my hand in both of his.

“What about you, Grace? I’ve been anxious about your health since my brother told me you had been ill at del Sol. I can only imagine what sickness you may have been exposed to, in a place where the ailing flock for healing-“

“I’m perfectly well- please don’t worry about me. I only caught a small cold, and had to stay in bed for a couple of days. I was well over the cold by the time we came to Verdant City.”

“You are quite sure?”

“Perfectly sure,” I place Hope’s hand on my cheek. “My only concern now is that you remain strong, and that your suffering is not beyond what you can endure until you are freed.”

“I can feel how strong you are,” Hope said, stroking my cheek. “I am glad. You must take care of yourself, for there is little chance I will be freed.”

“I do not agree- and I am not only speaking with a wife’s bias. Your solicitors believe that you have a case. Trust me- you have more support in the public than you can possibly realize.”

“That- that is surprising to hear. But there is no point in trying to save me. I am a broken man,” Hope touched the edge of his blindfold with his left hand. “I didn’t wish you to see how broken-“

“It’s ok- I already know.” I kissed Hope’s hand and then held it in front of my heart.

I had sat with my back to the guards on purpose, and I hoped that, from where they stood, it would look like I only stroked Hope’s hand in affection. In reality, I was tracing letters onto Hope’s palm, over and over, with a practiced motion.

 

P-R-U-D-E-N-C-E L-I-V-E-S

 

“I cannot promise the recovery of anything permanently lost,” I said as I traced the letters, “but when I was at del sol I saw how remarkable a recovery people can make from starvation, depravation, and even torture.”

I continued to trace the letters as I spoke. The third time I completed the words, Hope seemed to understand. He gasped and clutched my hand.

“Are you- are you quite sure?” he said. “You are not attempting to give me false hope?”

“You know my character too well to ask,” I said. “You know I always examine all available evidence as carefully as I can before I reach a conclusion, and that I would not make such claims lightly. In this case, there can be no doubt.”

Hope took a deep breath, seeming lost for words. He had received my third and final gift.

My vision blurred for a moment, but I blinked the tears away.

“You are well loved,” I said, hardly able to keep my voice from trembling with emotion. “Many people are fighting for you, and I convey their love as well as my own. I promise that we will not stop fighting for you.”

“I- I believe you,” Hope said breathlessly. “I love you, Grace. Please give Celeste- give everyone my love, as well.”

I leaned forward to kiss Hope. Hope kissed me back, deeply, drinking from my lips as though they were a fountain of life.

Part LXXX

Read from the beginning.