The Coven, Part LXIX

“This is your own fault,” Mercy said. “You stayed up all night before you were fully recovered.”

She looked down at me with the same sneer she’d often used after knocking me to the ground. In this case, however, I had already been prone before she came into my cell. I was in bed with a persistent cough, and had skipped my morning training.

“I’ve learned-” a coughing fit cut off my words, and Mercy waited for me to finish while I caught my breath. “I’ve learned my lesson.”

“I certainly hope you have,” she said. Then she leaned down and growled in a low voice. “I hope you will think twice before you decide to do anything else interesting without consulting me- the woman responsible for keeping you safe.”

“What do you mean?

“Don’t play stupid- both Sister Jubilee and Abbess Joy spoke to me after you returned from the southern shrine. They insisted that I guard you from now on, and that I accompany you if you go on any more adventures. Your friends value your safety more than you.”

“Thank you for your concern, but it’s not necessary that you guard me. Keeping Celeste safe is the most important thing.”

“It’s not the only important thing,” Mercy said. “Lord Frey ordered me to keep you both safe.”

“Your lessons have been the most valuable protection you could have given me,” I said. “I cannot keep you with me all the time, nor can I avoid all adventure.”

“Try harder,” she said. “Especially now.”

Then she reached inside her robe’s pocket and retrieved two letters, which she carefully passed to me.

“Brother Lux is here again,” she said in a softer tone, sitting on the foot of my bed. “He asked to see you. I told him that you were resting, and that if he tried to come into the women’s dorms, I would break both of his legs.”

I suppressed a laugh to avoid another coughing fit. “I would have paid to see you threaten the High Inquisitor.”

“High Inquisitor or no, it’s difficult to properly fear someone you once considered a friend. I can hate him, easily enough, but not fear.”

I tore open the first letter, and saw a note written in an exquisite yet unfamiliar hand.

 

My Dear Cousin Lady Frey,

It is with a heavy heart and much regret that I write to you, for the first time, to deliver sad tidings. Your esteemed father has taken ill, and though he is being attended by the best physicians in Verdant City, there is not much hope for his recovery.

In observing your interactions at court, I was much much dismayed by the lack of warmth or affection between Lord Ainsworth and you- his only offspring. I have often wished to see your relationship mended, and I fear this may be my last opportunity to do so. Please come to Verdant City at once, before your father is beyond us. I have asked Father Pius if he would allow you to leave your exile to come, and he has agreed, conditional on your traveling with the High Inquisitor. Brother Lux has kindly agreed to bear my message to you, and to bring you to the city when you are ready. It will be a most convenient arrangement, because your father’s house is close to the Inquisitor’s court where your husband’s trial is to take place.

I am well aware of Lord Ainsworth’s talent for making himself disagreeable, but there are circumstances in his past that may excuse his disposition. Underneath his callous exterior, I have glimpsed a tender heart, and though his situation is his own doing, he is a very lonely man.

I look forward to your arrival.

Yours etc.

Piety Fairfax

 

“What is the matter? Is it Lord Frey?” Mercy asked anxiously.

I shook my head, tossed Lady Farifax’s letter aside, and opened the second letter.

 

Dearest Grace,

I am told that you will be near me soon, and though I will likely face final judgement, I rejoice that we will be together-

I scanned the letter, all the way to the signature, “Your Loving Husband,” several times, and then I stood and ran past Mercy’s objections, with my feet bare and my hair loose, into the Abbey courtyard.

Lux was very near the dormitory doors, and he awaited me with a cool expression at me as I ran frantically toward him.

“What is the meaning of this?” I asked, thrusting the letter toward him.

“Lord Frey’s trial will commence shortly, and you will be required to give testimony-”

“Yes, I read that much for myself,” I said, “but this letter is fraudulent. This is not Lord Frey’s hand.”

I stopped to cough, and as I had brought no handkerchief, I was forced to cough into my sleeve. Brother Lux continued to examine me, from my bare head to my bare feet, and then he took my shoulders, turning me back toward the dormitories.

“Mercy spoke true- you are unwell. Go inside, dress properly, and I will speak to you in the infirmary.”

“I won’t allow you to examine me,” I said, clutching my fabric next to my branded chest.

“Then I insist that Abbess Joy examine you. Go inside and dress.”

“Before I go- tell me. Is my husband still alive?”

“He is,” Brother Lux said, and then clenched his jaw and said no more.

I ran inside, returning to my cell coughing and short of breath. I pulled on my stockings and shoes, braided my hair, and threw on my cloak and cowl, giving Mercy a hurried explanation and a promise that I was only going to the infirmary.

Abbess Joy was already examining another patient when I arrived- a young, pretty girl of about sixteen with golden curls and rouged cheeks and lips. The girl was gazing at the Abbess with an expression of distrust, but submitted to Abbess Joy’s minstrations without a word of protest.

“My apologies- I did not realize you had a patient,” I said, and turned to leave.

“Don’t,” the girl said, sliding down from the table. “I’m done.”

“Thank you, Merry,” Abbess Joy said. “I will show you to the dormitory after I’ve attended to Lady Frey, or-” she looked up as the door opened again. “Oh! Brother Lux, perhaps you can show Miss Merry to the dormitory, now.”

“I’ve been banished from the dormitories,” Brother Lux said as he entered. “I was anxious to see Lady Frey, however. I am concerned about her physical health.”

Abbess Joy nodded and gestured for me to take Merry’s place on the examination table. Then she felt my head for fever, took my pulse- holding my wrist low so that my sleeve would not slip up my arm, and placed her listening instrument on my back, over my robes, as I took deep breaths and coughed.

“The phlegm has not reached your lungs,” Abbess Joy said. “I have some medicine that may suppress your cough, and allow you to rest. If you stay in bed, the cough should clear in a couple of days.”

“Thank you, Abbess,” Brother Lux said before I had the chance. “Lady Frey, before you return to bed-”

“Wait- Abbess Joy is a famous healer,” Merry interrupted, stepping forward. “Why give Lady Frey medicine? Why not use your holy magic?”

“There is no need- it is only a little cough,” I said.

“But I’m anxious to see magic with my own eyes,” Merry said. “It shouldn’t be too difficult to heal a little cough. After all, our Grand Inquisitor healed my brother when he was on the brink of death.”

Merry turned back to Brother Lux with a glare.

“Don’t forget your position, Miss Simmons, or my generosity,” Brother Lux said, fixing her with a fierce gaze.

Merry backed away from him.

“Merry,” Abbess Joy said gently, stepping between her and Brother Lux. “You must be fatigued from your journey. Come with me to the dormitories now, and if you are interested in my healing arts, I will allow you to watch me work, tomorrow.”

“Alright,” the girl said in a low voice, and she allowed Abbess Joy to lead her away.

“You should not have been so hard on the girl,” I said gently when Brother Lux and I were alone. “She is in an unfamiliar place, and it’s only natural she would be curious.”

“I have already shown that girl a great deal of kindness- so much that my loyalty could be called into question. She is an avowed atheist, and by law she should be hung for her impiety and her blasphemy.”

“How shocking- I had no idea her crimes were so severe,” I said, unable to suppress my sarcasm. “After all, even a witch believes the Gods exist.”

“Don’t test my patience, Lady Frey,” Brother Lux said. “You must learn the discretion that girl has not.”

“Then please, ensure we can’t be overheard. I am anxious to speak with you on private matters.”

Brother Lux, however, held up his hand and gave me the terse command to wait. Then, in a few moments, there was a knock on the door.

“Enter.”

The door opened, and Prudence entered the room, shutting the door behind her.

“Lift your veil, Sister Jubilee. Let me see your face,” Brother Lux said.

Prudence did as instructed. Then Brother Lux sighed as though in relief, and cast a spell of silence on the wall.

“The trial begins in three weeks,” Brother Lux said without preamble. “It is soon, but not soon enough to put my mind at ease. Lord Willoughby has betrayed himself, and because of that-”

“This is it, then,” Prudence’s face flushed, and she sat down hard on the nearest chair. “We have lost them.”

“No- not yet,” Brother Lux said. “Lord Willoughby betrayed himself in such a way that it could be blamed on his guard’s incompetence. Don’t forget that Lord Willoughby cannot directly confess.”

“What can I do?” I asked. “How soon can I go to Hope?”

“You must get well before you can do anything,” Brother Lux said. “I will give you three days to rest, and then we will go to Verdant City, where the trial is to take place. Instruct Mercy to prepare for your journey. I will write to Lady Fairfax and ask her to prepare your father’s house for your arrival.”

“No- I will rent a house in the city,” I said.

“Are you certain?” Brother Lux said. “Haven’t you read your Cousin’s letter?”

“I have read it. I just- I can’t. I will make arrangements to stay elsewhere,” I said.

“But all of this planning- what is the point? If there is any evidence of witchcraft at all, people won’t listen to the rationalizations of an attorney. Fear will take over, and the people will call for death,” Prudence said.

Brother Lux knelt next to Prudence, looking up at her with an inscrutable expression in his dark eyes. “You forget what Pius and I have already accomplished, and our positions of power within the church. We would not have received these positions if we lacked the ability to sway others.

“I haven’t forgotten,” Prudence said, and shuddered.

“Sister- how long has it been since I called you that?” Lux continued in a gentle voice. “We have a plan to free your brother, my brother, and all our friends. There is trouble, but it’s nothing we didn’t foresee or take into account. We are feeding Lady Frey’s attorney information in secret, and I will personally coach Lady Frey so she may give the proper testimony. Our family and friends will survive- I promise.”

“How can I trust your word, after everything you’ve done?” Prudence said.

“Don’t trust my word. Come with us to Verdant City and witness the trial with your own eyes.”

Prudence looked up at once, her blue eyes wide and shining. She opened her mouth to speak, but I stopped her before she could accept.

“No- Prudence; you must not leave the safety of the abbey, especially to attend a witch trial.”

Brother Lux ignored me, and took Prudence’s hand.

“You will see Hope again. You still love him, don’t you? Be there for him in his time of need. Help me save the father of your child.”

“We can’t trust Lux,” I urged. “I received a fraudulent letter today, written as though it was from Hope, but in a different hand. Brother Lux has yet to justify why he’s brought me such a blatant forgery.”

Brother Lux sat back and lowered his head, as though in shame. ‘“Lord Frey has been injured during interrogation, and could not hold the pen to write. The words were his; I took his dictation myself.”

“You have imprisoned, tortured, and injured your own brother, and now you ask us to trust you?” I said, rising from the table in anger. “How dare-”

Brother Lux stood and, in a swift motion, gestured toward me with his left hand. I choked on my words, and when I tried to force myself to speak, my throat constricted, as though an unseen hand were throttling me.

“By all means, continue,” Lux said. “Don’t you wish to speak?”

I opened and closed my mouth, but no sound would emerge. My heart pounded in my ears, and I fell back to the table as a miasma of fear and panic washed over me.

Prudence looked up at me, staring at my expression of panic, and then back at Lux.

“You are him, aren’t you,” Prudence said in a hoarse whisper, withdrawing her hand from his. “Oh Gods! You are Pius.”

Lux- no, Pius– shrugged. “I tried to use persuasion, but that didn’t work. Let us see how I fare using fear and, if necessary, force.”

I wanted to scream, but I could not.

Prudence rushed to my side.

“Grace, is he hurting you?” She asked.

I shook my head, tears stinging my eyes. A quiet instinct in the back of my mind told me not to be brave- to let Pius see my tears. He must think that he’s won. He must not know what I’m capable of, and wonder what I’ve done.

“Has your bond become so strong that you can simply- switch?” Prudence was asking.

“Lux and I are one. I can speak through him whenever I wish- take his body when I am in need of it. Don’t look so dismayed- this is really for your own benefit. He is always in my mind, now, acting as my conscience. He has helped me to remember the good in the world, and the reason I began my quest to destroy evil. I will protect the innocent, as long as they remain innocent.”

In that moment I was grateful he had taken my voice, or else I might have called him a liar to his face.

“Then you must understand,” Prudence said in a softer voice “that I have an innocent child of my own to consider. She must remain protected.”

Prudence clutched my hand, and though her voice was steady as she spoke, I could feel her tremble in terror.

“I have not forgotten your child. I will see that she is safe when you come to Verdant City.”

“Lady Frey is ill; she needs to rest,” Prudence continued. “While she is resting, I will decide whether to come with you.”

“You may decide whether to come willingly, or unwillingly,” Pius said.

Why is he so confident he can take someone from del Sol? I thought.

Then I remembered the rebellion, and the conspiracy between the Ancients and the guild that now lay under Pius’s very nose.

Has the final battle come so soon? Was I too late to save my people?

“I will decide quickly,” Prudence was saying to Pius. “Please- before I take Grace to bed, will you release her from the spell?”

“I will release her if she promises to keep her disrespectful tongue in check.”

I nodded.

Pius gazed down at me for a long time through Lux’s eyes. Was I imagining things, or did those eyes look less like Hope’s than they ever had? Lux’s body looked taller than ususal, though that must have been the effect of his confident, regal posture.

Finally, Pius flicked his hand, and my throat relaxed.

“Thank you,” I whispered.

“You know- Lux is here now,” Pius said, tapping his temple with one finger, “and he is laughing at me. I didn’t think that the two of you should meet; I predicted that it would be a distraction- that you would both be consumed by jealousy and unable to cooperate. Yet here you are, caring for each other. How do you do it, Lady Frey? How have you convinced so many people of your humanity, when you obviously lack human feelings?”

“That’s easy- she treats others as though they were human. You should make a more careful study of how she behaves,” Prudence said. Then she took my arm and helped me, slowly, back to my cell.

 

#

 

My encounter with Pius’s magic left my already sore throat raw, and my mind was so full of what had happened that I thought sleep would be impossible. Prudence helped me into bed, and then poured hot water over the herbs Abbess Joy had given me. She watched me as I drank the tea, and then waited until the medicine took effect and my eyelids grew heavy before she spoke.

“Don’t fight the medicine’s effects. Sleep- I will take care of this.”

“But-”

“Abbess Joy is on our side now; don’t underestimate her abilities. I will speak to her, and I’m sure she will know what to do.

And then Prudence sent me to sleep with a light, maternal kiss on my forehead.

I did not dream, and I awoke slowly, like drifting up through murky waters into my dark room.

My fire had died as I slept, and even the embers were fading, but I fixed my gaze on their dull orange glow as though they could anchor my mind to the waking world. Something odd was jolting in my stomach, again and again and again, and it took me a few moments to realize that the jolt was connected to a sound- a knocking on my door.

“I am coming,” I called. I sat up, adjusted my robes, and went to the door.

Prudence was on the other side, lit from behind by the orange glow of a lantern. I squinted into the light, and the shadow that held the lantern coalesced into the familiar form and face of Brother Lux.

“Abbess Joy has requested that we all meet in her office,” Prudence said. “Are you well enough to come?”

I cleared my throat. “I believe I am.”

The man wearing Lux’s form lifted the lamp, and the light shifted until it filled my eyes.

“Perhaps you should have a cup of tea, first,” Prudence said.

“The Abbess can provide tea,” the man said in a sharp voice, and I knew it was Pius.

Fear more bitter than the strongest tea roused me. I turned to my enemy, stared into the light, and spoke.

“I am awake. Let’s not keep Abbess joy waiting.”

The three of us walked together from the dormitory to the office. When we arrived, the profusion of light from the fire and lanterns blinded me once more. I managed to find a seat through squinted eyes, and as I sat my eyes adjusted. The room coalesced into familiar shapes- the desk here, the chairs and their occupants just so, and the fireplace and bookshelf where they always stood. Abbess Joy was sitting behind her desk with the air of a queen on her throne. No tea was offered and no niceties were given. She stared directly at Pius, who sat directly across from her.

“How shall I address you, tonight?” Abbess Joy asked. “I will not pretend that you are Brother Lux. Should I call you Father Pius, or perhaps ‘Wisdom, the Almighty,’ would be better.”

Pius blinked rapidly, as though her direct speech had been surprising. Then he laughed.

“You are far too wise, dear Abbess, to put stock in rumors and wives’ tales.”

“There is no need for deceit,” she replied coolly. “I am guardian of all of the secrets that pass into del Sol. Your followers fill the pilgrims’ quarters, and perform prayers and miracles in the darkened cathedral- I could hardly fail to notice. Plus, now that you are here, I can feel your power. It is a new power- fresh and strong- something I haven’t felt in over a century.”

“So be it- no deceit, then.” Father Pius sat taller in his chair. “If you know my power, then you know what you face if you seek to oppose me.”

Abbess Joy brushed a loose lock of hair away from her face, and continued.

“Furthermore, Wisdom, I know that you have threatened one of my charges-” she gestured to Prudence, who sat on a stool next to her desk, “and used magic against another.” Abbess Joy gestured toward me. “It is well within my rights to expel you from del Sol on those grounds alone.”

“Rights are only a set of rules that those in power agree to keep,” Pius said. “Power is shifting, Joy; your rights may well depend on my indulgence.”

“I have power of my own. You would not be the first God I expelled from del Sol,” Abbess Joy said flatly.

“You could not expel Order when he took confined your power here,” Pius countered.

“No- but Order is different, isn’t he? He is the origin.

I looked toward Prudence. She still wore her veil, so I could see nothing in her expression, but she nodded to me slightly- almost imperceptibly. I looked back to Pius and Abbess Joy, but their gazes were locked together, as though the were engaged in silent combat.

Pius was the first to show signs of yielding- a muscle over his right eye made the smallest twitch, and he spoke.

“You did not bring me here to expel me, or else you would have done so, already.”

“You have acted in bad faith,” Abbess Joy said, “but I believe in second chances. I know you are interested in my Abbey, and in the work I do for the people. You’ve already taken advantage; your followers enjoy the freedom to worship as they wish, and I would never seek to persecute their sincere beliefs. All I wish is for you and your followers to respect the privacy and safety of everyone else at del Sol.”

“You would really protect everyone? Even the followers of an upstart God? Even an Ancient and a Witch?”

“You know the rules of del Sol- healing and forgiveness are given freely to everyone, as long as they do not harm anyone else under my care. I have grown protective of these young women; I see them as my own daughters. Given how you’ve treated them, I am reluctant to hand them into your care to travel to Verdant City.”

Pius spoke- a sadistic smile spreading over his face. “But you did promise you would not interfere if Lady Frey left the Abbey of her own will. If you expel me from del Sol, I’m sure Lady Frey will still follow so that she may testify on her husband’s behalf.”

Abbess Joy shifted back slightly, and her eyes flicked to me. “Be that as it may, while she is here, I will protect her. And even though my magic cannot reach beyond del Sol, my influence still can.”

I shivered at the threat implicit in her words, but Pius chuckled darkly. “I’ve warned you, haven’t I, that your affection for this creature will only lead to another fall. You cannot protect Lady Frey. Order proved this to you fifteen years ago, when he took her from you. Anyone with Ancient blood belongs to the Gods.”

“I belong to no one but myself,” I said.

I had spoken automatically, and I regretted the words as soon as they left my lips. Abbess Joy only turned to me with a smile as bright as the noonday sun.

“That is the spirit of an Ancient,” she said. “Your mother said the same thing to me, many times.”

Abbess Joy turned back to Pius. “Harmony’s spirit is alive in Grace. I fell in love with that spirit long ago, and that love will never die, no matter what tragedies may fall. That love is what you are up against.”

Pius leaned back in his chair and sighed. “Then what do you propose? If seems we have reached an impasse.”

“I propose we exchange oaths. You must swear to protect my girls abroad, and to never interfere with anyone who is under the protection of del Sol. In exchange, I will continue to guard your followers and their secrets.”

“Would you promise to protect my secrets, as well? Would you promise not to awaken the old Gods, and tell them that a new God has awakened?”

“My attempts to awaken Order have already failed- I am willing to make the promise.”

She is willing to pay such a high price for us, I thought. But there is a loophole. Will he see it?

Silence filled the room, and I did my best to keep my expression neutral and my breathing calm. I wished I had worn a veil, like Prudence, to better shroud my thoughts.

“I would never interfere with your pilgrims. They have come to heal and to atone, and their suffering rings out to me-” Pius leaned forward, speaking in an earnest tone. Then he stopped, took a deep breath, and leaned back in his chair. “But I cannot forget the southern shrine that lies within your borders, or the Ancient temple, that is just off of the shore.”

I bit my lip; I could stop myself from speaking, this time, but I could not stop the pounding of my heart. He must hear it.

Abbess Joy leaned forward.

“Why? You have already made it quite clear you don’t wish to use Ancient warriors or assassins. What interest could you have in the temple or the southern shrine, now?”

“The Ancient phage must be contained. It has been allowed to linger on Earth for too long, and now,” he flung his arm toward me in a frantic gesture, “it has even spread into human blood. Generation after generation of wretches are born only to kill and then die. It must stop.”

“And you are willing to encroach on the borders of this territory to stop it?”

“You have proven yourself unwilling to shoulder the responsibility,” Pius said, “and you were unable to stop the phage from spreading into the human realm. You allowed Harmony to be taken from you, and then you allowed Grace to be taken into the world, as well.”

Pius turned to me with a look in his eyes as hard as Iron. “Lady Frey- you are a danger to the world. You were created by men who were so corrupted by greed and the lust for power that they decided they Freys’ sin- consorting with Ancients- would be best cured by tainting the family line with Ancient blood. Order’s grip on the world was so weak that he not only allowed, but encouraged this action in order to regain his influence. Is it any wonder that I am willing to move heaven and Earth to remove the old order?

“I had planned to send Lady Frey back to del Sol after the trial is complete, but there would be no controlling her, then. She should return to her own people and suffer their fate at the Ancient temple.”

All of my plans- my freedom, the freedom of my people, and my only desire- to be with Hope after he was free- were crumbling around me. In that moment, I could only see one path of escape, and I did not hesitate to take it.

“Will you grant me my liberty if I add a promise to Abbess Joy’s oath- the promise that I will never bear a child.”

The words sent a chill through me as I said them aloud, but they could not be unspoken, and I realized I had given something away I would never get back. The tense atmosphere of the room seemed to explode- Abbess Joy and Prudence spoke at once, their words unintelligible. Even Pius turned to me with a shocked expression.

My hands were shaking, but I folded them to keep them from giving me away. I swallowed the lump in my throat, and turned to Prudence first.

“This way, if- when Hope is free, Celeste’s inheritance will be secure,” I said. “You cannot object to that.”

Prudence fell back into her seat. “No- don’t do this for me.”

“I’m not,” I said, and turned to Pius. “Do you see my concession as further proof that I lack feeling? The truth is that I am troubled by the notion of bringing a child into the world who is doomed to die, as well. I am not as concerned with the future as you are- I only wish to ease the suffering that exists in the present.”

I turned back to Abbess Joy, who was looking at me with a pleading expression, and tried to guess her thoughts.

Perhaps she is thinking that I’m throwing away my mother’s gift- that I’m letting her line die out after she gave her life to give birth to me. But surely- Harmony wished for my liberty and the liberty of all the Ancients.

I could not speak these thoughts aloud, so I ignored the sinking feeling in my stomach, smiled, and said, “It will be ok- I promise.”

“You must take responsibility, Abbess,” Pius said. “Lady Frey cannot enter into a magical contract, so you must swear to sterilize her, yourself. In addition, you must guard the Ancients carefully- because if I discover any of them running free in the world at large, I will return with an army to wipe them out at once.”

Something in my stomach lightened, and my breath caught. Please- let her see his mistake. Please, let her not quibble over his chosen words.

“This is-” Abbess Joy covered her face with her hands and shuddered, but when she removed them her expression was controlled. “Forgive me, Pius, but this is a heavy burden, indeed.”

“Better that you guard the temple than someone more cruel,” I said quietly.

Abbess Joy nodded slowly, and then turned to Pius. “I will not compel either Lady Frey or Miss Goode to go with you, but if you swear to protect them, I will not interfere. I suspect that Miss Goode may have some stipulations of her own.”

“I do,” Prudence said in a stronger voice. “I would give almost anything to see Just and Hope again, but I cannot leave my child to do so. If I go, then I will take Celeste, and you must promise to protect her with your very life.”

“I have no intention of seeing the girl come to harm,” Pius said. “I am willing to make this promise.”

“Also, swear that you aren’t planning to use me as evidence against any of my friends.”

Pius nodded. “Is that all?”

“I have a good deal more I would demand of you- but this will have to do for now. If you make these promises, I will come with you.”

Pius stood. “Then the deal is struck.”

Abbess Joy stood as well, but then hesitated and looked at Prudence and I in turn.

“Are you both certain about this? Once I give my oath, I can never take it back.”

“I am, if Lady Frey is certain.”

They both turned to look at me. I stood as tall as I could- so tall that I felt as though my backbone were a rod of Iron, and I spoke.

“Yes, I am certain.”

Abbess Joy turned back to Pius and nodded.

Pius shook his arm, and a silver dagger dropped from his sleeve into his hand, which he handed to Abbess Joy handle first. Abbess Joy examined the blade closely, and frowned.

“This blade has drawn blood before.”

“Yes,” Pius said, “but it has not taken life.”

“No- it hasn’t, but…” Abbess Joy looked up at Pius, tears shimmering in her deep blue eyes.

“Wisdom, I hope that you will become worthy of the power you’ve attained.”

“I will try, my lady,” Pius said with a slight bow.

Abbess Joy lifted the blade, and then sliced the palm of her left hand. Scarlet blood glittered in the firelight as it dripped from her hand and onto the stone floor.

“I, Joy, the daughter of Order, hereby swear to protect the followers of Wisdom who dwell at del Sol. I swear to keep Wisdom’s secrets, and I swear not to attempt to awake the old Gods from their dormant state. I swear to guard the Ancients who dwell at the southern shrine and the Ancient temple, and I swear to administer the sterilis potion to Lady Grace Frey, and ensure it takes effect.”

Abbess Joy turned the blade toward herself, and handed the dagger to Pius.

Pius raised the blade and sliced his own hand. “I, Wisdom, God and High Priest, hereby swear to abide by the laws of del Sol as given by Abbess Joy. I swear not to harm or interfere with anyone under Abbess Joy’s protection, and to protect Lady Grace Frey, Miss Prudence Goode, and Miss Celeste Goode from all harm- from myself or anyone else- from now until I return them to del Sol. I swear I will not expose Miss Prudence Goode to the inquisition, nor use her as evidence against her family or friends.”

Pius and Abbess Joy gazed at each other for a long time, as though examining each other for any treachery, and then they moved closer and clasped their hands together. Their blood mingled, squeezed from between their knuckles into a small puddle beneath them.

“By my blood and magic,” they said together, “I swear this shall be done.”

Prudence gasped aloud and turned away, shielding her eyes as though from a bright light. I could no see no change in the room, however- only a small glint of light in Pius’s eyes, which quickly faded.

Then Abbess Joy and Pius released their hands and stepped apart.

“Lux is bound to this promise, as well as you,” Abbess Joy said in a tone of surprise.

“I did ask his consent,” Pius said, taking a handkerchief from his robes and handing it to Abbess Joy. “I could hardly make such an oath without binding both of us, connected as we are.”

Pius, wiping his own hands clean, turned to Prudence as though he were about to speak. Prudence, however, fell to her knees.

“Prudence, I said, rushing to her. “Are you-”

But Pius had already reached down and helped Prudence to her feet. “There is no reason to fear me- not anymore.”

“I’m not afraid of you,” Prudence said defiantly as she stood. “That was just… unexpected.”

“Ah, I see.” Pius closed his eyes and took a deep breath, and Prudence visibly relaxed.

“Thank you,” she muttered.

Pius turned back to Abbess Joy and bowed deeply to her.

“Abbess Joy, I am relieved that we were able to reach an agreement. Del Sol is a beacon of light and hope to my followers- to the world at large- and I was anxious to preserve it.”

“Don’t forget how much you owe to your followers. Don’t forget the true purpose of power.”

“I will not,” Pius said. Then he turned to Prudence and me.

“It is late. Please, allow me to escort you back to your rooms. From now on, I am responsible for your safety.

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The Coven, Part LXVIII

Though the world’s order had been shaken, everyday tasks and rituals in the Abbey remained simple, harmonius, and unchanging. When I felt well enough to join the sisters again, they still gathered in the cathedral for prayer and devotion, labored to run the Abbey and serve others during the day, and in the evening met for their silent meal.

After dinner, the sisters pulled down their veils, rose as though one, and filed through the back door toward the Abbess’s office for confession.

Then the sisters stopped and turned back to stare at me.

I had risen to follow the sisters, which was strange enough in itself. Stranger still, Prudence- who had been serving the others- stepped forward to follow as well.

“Aren’t you coming back to the calefactory with me?” Celeste’s harsh whisper broke the silence.

Prudence replied with only a gesture toward Mercy, who stepped forward and took Celeste’s hand. Celeste shrugged and followed Mercy through the set of doors at the back of the room. Then Prudence turned back and nodded to Abbess Joy.

Abbess Joy nodded in turn, and gestured for the sisters to continue as before.

The retreat to confession continued in silence but for the footsteps that echoed off of the stone walls. Then we stopped, and the first sister went into the office with Abbess Joy. The other sisters formed a queue outside, heads bowed in prayer.

Pssssst- Lady Frey!”

The sisters looked up at this second interruption, and one of the sisters stepped out of queue and raised her veil, revealing Innocence’s face.

“Lady Frey-” she continued in a loud whisper.

I sighed and gestured for Prudence to wait, and then followed Innocence into a small chamber just off of the hallway.

Innocence shut the door and turned to me with a pout. “Lady Frey, this is really most provoking behavior. If you act piously now, how can I avoid my spiritual duties?”

“I will not make piousness my habit, I assure you. I’ve come to make a special confession. As for your duties, Abbess Joy will not judge you if you refrain from confessing.”

“No, but Sister Purity will.” Innocence leaned forward with a conspiratorial grin, “I can guess why you are here, and you are quite right- Abbess Joy is most understanding. You needn’t worry.”

I took a deep breath to calm my nerves, reminding myself that there was no way Innocence could really know what I had to confess and, if she had, would not likely grin.

“You should not pry into the confessions of others. They are private,” I said as mildly as I could manage.

“I can’t help but notice,” Innocence protested. “You and Sister Jubilee never confess- and now you come together. You must have sinned together. I was so nervous when Purity and I had to confess, but Abbess Joy wasn’t shocked at all. She only said she was glad we had stopped quarreling.”

“If you really have stopped quarreling, I am glad as well,” I said. “I was concerned for you after we spoke before Chaosmas, when you declared that you no longer trusted friendship.”

Innocence’s cheeky smile faded, and she bit her lip a little. “I discovered some things about Purity that made me doubt everything we had shared. Since then, she’s explained why she needed to keep so many secrets, and that we were really on the same side all along. Strange things were happening at St. Blanc- more than you probably know- and Abbess Joy needed information for the sake of the Gods.”

“Then Sister Purity was one of the Abbess’s spies,” I whispered.

“Well- yes, I suppose,” Innocence said. “Purity wasn’t really the Prince’s mistress; nevermind the rumors. She was sent to protect the Prince, though from what, I don’t know. After the rumors about Purity and Lord Frey, though, the Prince didn’t think it was proper to keep her at the Palace anymore, and sent her back to del Sol.”

How much does the Abbess already know? I thought, taking another deep breath to keep my nerves in check. Even before we arrived at del Sol, she must have known that the Coven had targeted the Prince.

“I wouldn’t tell you these secrets, except I thought you should know your husband didn’t betray you. Purity only flirted with Lord Frey so she could discover whether he was a threat to the Prince. When she met Lord Frey behind the library, Purity grew tired and faint, so Lord Frey escorted her back to her rooms so she could rest. She never touched him.”

“I know she didn’t, but thank you for telling me,” I said.

“I am sorry about what happened to Lord Frey. Now that I know the incident was no-one’s fault, I regret that I was always rude to him.”

“I understand” I said. “You were loyal to your friend, of course.”

“You must be very lonely here, without him. I don’t think badly of you for taking comfort elsewhere. Give Sister Jubilee my assurances that I don’t think badly of her, either.”

“What in the world do you mean?”

But Innocence only winked put down her veil, hiding her dimples and her grin, but failing to hide her girlish giggle as she retreated back into the hall.

 

#

 

Despite the distraction that Innocence had provided, I returned to a long and difficult wait for confession. Abbess Joy spent a long time counseling each penitent, and so the queue moved very slowly. How quickly the time had gone, I thought, when I made tea and chatted with Prudence instead!

Each time the door opened and a sister exited, Abbess Joy would peek out to greet the next sister with a warm and welcoming smile. I imagined her warm smile fading away as I spoke- her expression growing heavy with the burden I brought her.

“Abbess Joy will not betray Hope,” Prudence had assured me before we came. “She is bound to protect the secrets of anyone who comes to del Sol. Otherwise, she could not act as confessor.”

But we aren’t simply asking her to lighten the burden of our spirits, I had thought. We are asking her to deliberately deceive the High Priest.

Still, I could not deny that Abbess Joy’s assistance would be necessary to hide the liberated Ancients and the conspiracy with the Oculist Guild, especially since Wisdom’s followers had infiltrated the Pilgrimage. Abbess Joy had helped the guild hide their secrets for years, so it was likely she would willingly hide their rebellion. Even so, I remembered Dare’s reluctance to go to Abbess Joy with the Ancients’ troubles- to tempt her to fall further.

Eventually, the line shortened, and Innocence went into Abbess Joy’s office. Her confession was short, and when she emerged Abbess Joy opened the door wide and drew Prudence and I inside.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said, closing the door behind us. Then she stepped back, still facing the door, and brought her hands together, murmuring a quiet prayer.

“Refrain from touching the outside wall,” she said to me when her prayer was done. “Everything you say to me will be protected by a veil of silence.”

Prudence threw back her veil, and we sat together facing Abbess Joy at her desk. Abbess Joy sat and waited, her expression open, as the fire crackled and popped in the hearth.

“I suppose I should begin,” Prudence said, “though you know much of my story, and have guessed even more. The truth is, I am guilty of the crimes for which I was condemned, and I did not act alone.”

Prudence spoke, relating her family’s history, her affair with Hope, and how they were drawn into witchcraft together. Abbess Joy’s expression remained serene, her eyebrow only raising once when Prudence named Pius the coven leader. Prudence related Pius’s manipulations, her resistance, and the consequence that had led to her arrival at del Sol.

Then Prudence stopped, and I spoke, stumbling a little over my words. The Abbess knew even less of my story than she had Prudence’s, I realized, and I had to go back over my tale- to explain and add more detail to fill in what she had missed.  I closed my eyes to avoid Abbess Joy’s gaze when I confessed that I had used Hope to lash out at my father and the Prince. When I opened my eyes again, however, she was still gazing at me with sympathetic eyes, and she reached out to touch my hand when my eyes filled with tears.

When I explained my deductions about Pius and his plans, and laid out the evidence Prudence and I had gathered, she leaned back again, steepling her hands in thought. She did not betray any surprise, however, until I explained what had happened, “… during the storm, the night after chaosmas.”

Then Abbess Joy leaned forward and gripped the edge of her desk, the tips of her fingers turning white. She gasped aloud when I pulled up my sleeve to show her the brand, but otherwise stayed silent while I finished my tale.

After I was finished, she stood swiftly and went to a small cabinet next to the fireplace, and came back with a small tin.

“Prudence is correct- they are infected. This should help,” she said. She knelt by my chair, opened the tin, and applied liberal amount of ointment to the brand on my arm and my chest. Then, when she had finished, the the tin slipped from her fingers and fell open onto the ground. Abbess Joy looked up at me, her eyes filled with tears.

“We should not have allowed these wounds to fester. I’m ashamed I haven’t done more- that I let my fear of falling further rule me.”

“Please- don’t,” I said. “Your burden was already so great that I didn’t want to add to it. You give so much to everyone who comes to del Sol; I can’t imagine how much worse the world would be if the Gods stripped of your remaining power.”

“This burden should not have fallen to you,” Abbess Joy said firmly. “Bless you, Grace. Bless you for fighting for Harmony’s people.”

Abbess Joy sighed and dropped her head. “I had thought that, if I proved faithful, I could persuade Order to listen to my petitions on the Ancients’ behalf. But Order is dormant; it is natural that he rejects the prayers of a fallen Angel, but the prayers of the faithful have gone unanswered, as well. While I’ve waited, holy magic has faded, and del Sol is one of the last lights left in the world. What’s worse, the church has become so corrupt that its leader-”

Abbess Joy leaned back on her heels and looked up at Prudence and me. “How certain are you of your accusations regarding Father Pius?”

“We are only certain of what we’ve seen,” Prudence said. “His followers believe he is a God. I knew him only as the Priest of our coven, and Raven told Grace that he is a demon. No matter what he really is, though, we can attest to his cruelty and his power.”

“He has aroused my suspicions on more than one occasion,” Abbess Joy said. “If what you say is true- if Pius wishes to take Order’s place- this would be the perfect time to try.”

“Is that what Miss Taris meant when she said ‘we will take the world from the old Gods as they sleep?’”  Prudence asked.

“It is possible.” Abbess Joy stood up in one swift motion and returned to her seat. “Thank you for sharing your burdens with me. It is lighter- much lighter- than the burden of waiting. I will awaken, since Order will not. I will act.

She leaned forward awain, closing her eyes, steepling her hands, and muttered, as though to herself.  “This will be very difficult with Wisdom’s followers in the pilgrimage, yet I cannot turn them away. I will meet with Dare and Sir Silas as soon as I can do so without arousing suspicion, and we will formulate a plan to keep the Ancient temple and the southern shrine hidden from the Pilgrims. In the meantime-”

She looked at Prudence and smiled so widely that the smooth skin around her eyes crinkled ever so slightly. “You had a good thought, Prudence, though I am glad you didn’t act on it. The demon called Raven has been attempting to access church information, and glean secrets from our mirrors. I will allow her access to my mirror, and speak to her directly.”

Prudence’s eyes went wide, and Abbess Joy laughed in reply.

“Please don’t look so surprised- with a demon at the helm of the church, and the Gods sleeping, where else can we turn for answers?” Abbess Joy leaned forward, taking my hand and Prudence’s in each of hers. “You have both endured so much- exploited and used by the sinister forces all around you, and yet you have risen to fight back. Now we may fight together.”

 

#

 

I recognized the look in Abbess Joy’s eye as we made plans- my act of rebellion had sparked something inside her akin to the flame that kindled in my heart when I resolved to fight for Hope. I was glad to see it there, instead of the disappointment or heaviness of burden that I’d anticipated. But when I remembered that Abbess Joy was a fallen Angel whose very soul was perched upon a precipice, I imaged the flame growing until it consumed the entire Abbey.

I could not afford to dwell on such worries when an even greater danger had already manifested, so I decided I would relate my worries to Dare, and trust her to use her temperate influence over Abbess Joy.

Prudence and I continued to work with Abbess Joy until well past ten o’clock, when my cough distracted Abbess Joy from her plans.

“Grace, you should be in bed,” she chided. “You are still recovering from your cold. Rest- we will meet again soon.”

Prudence gazed at the clock with anxious eyes as we stood to go, and when we alone in the hallway, she leaned close and whispered, “you aren’t really going to sleep tonight, are you? You are recovering quickly, and I know you have some vials of wakefulness potion stashed in that trunk of yours.”

“I can stay awake, if you need me. Why do you ask?”

“Don’t you remember your promise? My Chaosmas gift is ready for you- don’t tell me yours isn’t.”

“It isn’t perfect,” I admitted, “but we have given up perfection, haven’t we? Come with me.”

I linked my arm with Prudence’s and walked with her back to the dormitory. When we reached my room, I lit the lantern and several candles to fill the room with light, and dragged the unrolled paper from under my bed.

“Here- I started this the day Celeste had her drawing lesson. It is as good a likeness as I will ever be able to draw, I’m afraid.”

I handed the paper to Prudence, who lifted her veil and stared at the paper. She held it at arms length and drew it closer again, as though she could not understand what she was seeing at all. Then she lowered the paper and stared at me with a bewildered expression.

“Who is this girl?”

“If you can’t recognize her, my artistic skills are far worse than I’d thought. It is you.”

“No- this isn’t me. It looks something like the girl I was at Sixteen, but… different- a woman who has never existed.”

“This is you, now,” I said.

“You really see me this way?” She held up the paper again, and her bluebell eyes misted with tears. “No- you’ve drawn me in a flattering light. This woman is too lovely.”

“You are lovely. I’ve been studying the details of your face- the soft lines here and here- the freckle here- I wouldn’t have included them if I’d meant to flatter. I only wished to produce an accurate record.”

“So, if not for the curse, this would be my face?” she breathed. “Oh Grace, thank you. You have no idea what you’ve given me.”

“I’ve given you nothing- that is your face. If you were to go to the temple, any Ancient would tell you the same.”

Prudence put the paper carefully aside. “You have given me something. You’ve given me a glimpse of who I might be if I were stripped of everything I regret.”

“No- I’m looking through an illusion to see who you truly are. What I see includes your past,” I protested, “flaws and virtues alike. ”

“You don’t really see the flaws, but thank you for believing that you do.”

I bit my lip to prevent myself from groaning aloud in frustration. “I don’t know how to make you listen, but perhaps I’m not listening to you, either. Prudence- when you look in the mirror, what exactly do you see?”

Prudence paused, and then went to the table to find a piece of fresh paper and some leftover charcoal. She sketched a portrait- one as elegant and complete as the one I’d spent weeks perfecting. But though her hands moved deftly, they made all the wrong motions, creating sunken cheeks instead of round ones, beady eyes instead of wide ones, thin lips, and deep lines on top of sagging jowls.

Can’t she even feel her own face with her hands? I wondered. Then I remembered Lux’s rigid hands as he’d groped at the non-existent floor in the cottage. To Lux, the stone floor had been real, and he’d only realized something was amiss when I’d descended into the tunnel through the ‘floor.’

“I have an idea,” I said. I held up my right hand. “Here, put your fingers over mine- lightly- and close your eyes.”

Prudence reached out to touch my fingers as instructed, but narrowed her eyes skeptically for a few moments before she sighed and shut them.

I reached out and, with her fingers still resting over mine, traced the contours of her face. I ran my fingers along her firm jawline and around her smooth, round cheek all the way up to her smooth brow. Then I traced around her closed eyes, down her straight nose, and finally moved my finger over the edges of her plump, wide lips, which parted in shock. Her breath caught, then, and  her eyes flew open as though in sheer reflex.

“I- I see,” she whispered. Then she went back to the portrait I’d drawn and traced the lines with her finger. Though she had her back turned to me, I could see her shoulders tremble a little, and her breath caught again- a trembling gasp that was so soft it was barely audible.

“Prudence-”

“Thank you,” she whispered. Then she wiped her face and turned back, and she was smiling again. Though her eyes shimmered with tears, they crinkled around the edges as though she were about to laugh.

“I expect that your gift is ready, now,” she pointed to the door. “Go- look into Miss Taris’s room.”

“Miss Taris?” I said, but Prudence just shook her head and pointed again. I opened the door and went to Miss Taris’s room, as instructed. The door was slightly ajar, but when I knocked on the doorframe there was no reply from within. I entered the room and found Miss Taris slumped over her book, eyes shut and snoring loudly.

“I don’t understand,” I said turning around. Prudence was standing behind me, holding up a vial of milky white liquid.

“I spent the last few weeks brewing this. I put three drops in her goblet at dinner. She will be asleep for the next eight hours, at least.”

“Prudence! Miss Taris will suspect us, and if she tells Father Pius-”

“She fell asleep before she had a chance to take a wakefulness potion- it can happen. Now you’re free to go to the tower. Honest is eager to show you the work he has done.”

“The work he’s- Oh! Prudence-” I said. “Is it finished?”

Prudence only laughed in reply, and I grabbed her hand, dragging her with me to the tower as quickly as my feet would carry me.

 

When I arrived at the tower, Honest was already there. He ran to me when I entered the door and grasped my hand, a wide smile stretched across his face.

“I must congratulate you,” he said without preamble. “What a blow you have struck to the Church! How I wish I could have fought by your side! But I was working in the tower when Sir Silas came looking for reinforcements, and by the time Mr. Filius found me, Sir Silas had already departed. Still, I mean to join the forces at the temple as soon as I’ve become a journeyman. My treatise is ready- I only lack one thing, with which I hope you will assist.”

“Then I must congratulate you on your treatise,” I said, “and I will lend what assistance I can.”

“The attachment for the spectroscope looks rather shoddy,” He admitted as we climbed the spiral stair together, “but I believe it should be sufficient. The mechanism you designed to attach the spectroscope to the telescope’s eyepiece worked well until I re-sealed the box to prevent light leakage. Now the spectroscope is too heavy, so I had to add another brace.”

Prudence followed Honest and I as we climbed the spiral stair. When we reached the observatory, she turned the crank that split the ceiling, which opened bit by bit like curtains being drawn on a celestial stage. Soon the whole sky was visible, with the stars all in their places like players assembled on a stage.

“I have the spectroscope here,” Honest said, picking the instrument up from the platform. “All you need to do is choose your object and direct the telescope.”

I climbed onto the platform and left the audience behind; the sky stretched out infinitely around me, and I became a player among the stars.

“Lystra has already set,” I muttered. “But here- Lilith is almost at its apex, there at the tip of the crow’s wing. It is the brightest star in the sky, so if we cannot gather enough light from it, we will know that the spectroscope is insufficient. Afterward, if our test works, we may compare the spectral lines to that of Tigris- the second-brightest wanderer.”

“I would also like to test the spectroscope against diminishing magnitudes of stars, so that we can gauge the instrument’s sensitivity,” Honest said. “But I agree we should start with the brightest.”

I nodded, and turned the platform’s cranks until Lilith was in my sights. Then I stepped aside and allowed Honest to remove the eyepiece I had used, and attach the spectroscope.

He adjusted the spectroscope several times, and looked through it for a long while before stepping back with a sigh.

“There isn’t anything. I suppose the instrument isn’t sensitive enough to view starlight, after all.”

My heart sank at his words, but only for a moment. Then my mind rallied. “No- that can’t be so. It performed so well with the dim-light tests. The telescope is a powerful and sensitive instrument, and even the slightest bump can knock the object out of its sights.”

I took hold of the dials and looked through the small alignment scope, adjusting the ascension and the declination, little by little, until the star was perfectly centered. I looked into the spectroscope and saw the elusive rainbow against the velvet black- a spattering of light that wavered with each tiny motion of the scope like ripples on a pool of water.

Then the image blurred entirely, and I had to move away to avoid getting tears on the instrument.

“It is there,” I said. “The spectrum- I saw helium written in its lines, very faint.”

Honest rushed to look, and a laugh escaped his lips. “We have done it! Oh Lady, we have done it!”

He clapped my back as I wiped away my tears, and then we were both laughing, embracing, scrambling for paper to record our finding. Prudence leaned to look into the spectroscope as Honest held aloft a red lamp and recorded the spectral lines- the secret of the star’s composition he’d found hidden in light itself.

It took me a long time to stem my tears so I could look again. There was a dark question that lingered in my heart. How can you celebrate this miracle- you, who have taken human life? You have destroyed minds who might have shared in the joy of discovery, and who never will.

But I did wipe away my tears and smiled, because the answer came to me like a rainbow that danced against the darkness. I celebrate because this is what I have fought for- the freedom to seek these miracles.

I looked into the spectroscope to see the miracle once more.

Part LXIX

The Coven, Part LXVII

The trawler ride back to the shrine passed in silence, except for the pattering of rain.

Four of the trawler’s passengers were silent out of weariness. Swift, Meritt- the tall girl from the temple- an Ancient man who declared that his former name was dead, and I were the only living passengers. Merritt sat at the stern and manned the rudder while Swift, the unnamed ancient, and I huddled nearby.

We were all dressed in pilgrim’s robes that had been discarded by the Guild members when they arrived at the temple. I was impressed how quickly the guild had been able to spring into action with so little planning. The surviving guards had been locked in the armory, which had been raided and the weapons catalogued. The guild members who had medical raining had seen to the wounded, and the rest had donned the fallen guards’ uniforms and searched all of their papers and effects. The guild identified the fallen before they were buried, and set about learning everything they could to help us avoid detection as long as possible.

“We must pose as guards in case inquisitors return,” Sir Silas had stated, pulling on a black coat. “It is lucky that the captain survives- his absence would seem suspicious to anyone who has been here before, so if any inquisitors journey to this island we can force him to speak on our behalf. We will write his letters for him- Mr. Lundt can copy any hand, and we don’t want the captain to give us away by planting any code or signal in his correspondence.”

“This would have been impossible without you,” I said. “Please, accept my thanks-”

“None of that, Lady Frey,” he grunted in reply. “Your courage in all of this has shamed me, and I must own that we have been looking for an opportunity to strike at the inquisition for a long time.”

“Funny- you’ve been against all of my proposals,” Trusty said.

“You young ones are too impetuous. You want to speak out in the streets and call for revolution, which will only get you killed. A stealth operation is much better, and ready-made allies are too valuable to pass up.”

I had tried multiple times to thank Trusty, as well, but he had refused to acknowledge the thanks at all.

 

It was impossible for me to stay and help any further without arousing suspicion, so I’d boarded the trawler with three of the liberated Ancients and headed back to the shrine. Our task was a simple one- to deliver the bodies of the fallen ancients so that they may be buried.

It was right that this burden fall to me.

When we arrived on shore, I took a shovel in hand to help dig the graves. It was a full day’s work, and when the burials were complete we sang in honor to the fallen warriors into the night, while the rained cleared and the red moon rose high into the sky.

Then we sat, silent and fatigued once more, around the fire. Merrit and Dare clutched mugs as they stared into the flames, and Swift closed her eyes and leaned back against the nameless Ancient’s chest as he held her in his arms.

Finally, Dare spoke. “I never imagined this day would come.”

“Very few of us ever did, and we never spoke of it,” Swift murmured. Then she smiled and looked up at me. “It was whispered that the freeborn Ancient would free us all, one day.”

“I- I did so little. Trusty did so much more than me, for the balloon was his, as were the weapons. As for the fighting- you did that yourselves.”

“A leader is much more than her weapons or fighting skills,” Dare said.

The party fell silent again, and the nameless Ancient spoke. “Lady- I have heard that you are half-blooded; how alike are we? Have you ever encountered magic? Are you soulless like us?”

“I have encountered magic, and it does not affect me. I don’t really know what it means to be soulless, though. Have any of you- have you ever felt…”

Merritt shrugged. “I love my father and my sisters, and I cried when my mother died. I still find it painful to kill. I’ve never been in love, but those idiots certainly are-” she gestured to Swift, who had opened her eyes and leaned in for a languid kiss with the nameless Ancient. “I don’t know much about humans, but as far as I know, we don’t lack anything in here.” She placed her hand over her heart.

“You’ve lived among the humans. Have you ever noticed anything?” The nameless Ancient said.

“I don’t know. I don’t believe any two humans feel things the same way. I’ve seen lust, hatred, the thirst for vengeance, love, forgiveness, and betrayal among them, and I’ve personally experienced every one of these feelings. When I came to del Sol, I almost fell into despair, but my friends helped me through it.

“The only sensations that are alien to me are the ones that have been described to me by mages. They speak of a kind of ecstacy- of interconnectedness with nature and communion with spirits. I’ve felt some sort of connection to nature, of course- inspiration when I look up at the stars, calmness when I am near the forests or the sea, or interest for the wild creatures and plants that thrive all around us- but nothing like what has been described to me.”

“Do you envy it?” Swift asked, her voice half-muffled by a yawn.

“I don’t know. I don’t want to die- to be lost forever, but I know there is a price that those with souls pay for immortality. One mage described her experiences not as ecstasy, but as an invasion of self- a type of violation so grotesque it frightened me.”

“I would never wish for a soul,” Merritt said firmly. “When I die, there will be nothing to feel, and no me to regret life. I’m not afraid of death.”

“We are death,” the nameless Ancient said. “Why should we be afraid?”

Swift leaned back to look into the nameless Ancient’s face. “Is that why your name is dead, now?”

“No- my name is dead because I am free. None of us were given names by our parents- the bishop named us the day he wrote some meaningless word on our contracts, and sent them to the High Priest to be sealed. I want a real name- an Ancient name, like the ones from Dare’s stories.”

“Can you really change it? We may have overthrown the guards, but our contracts are still intact,” Merritt objected.

“Don’t worry about the contracts,” I said. “As you say- they are nothing but meaningless words.”

Dare nodded slowly. “We are ancients- why should the High Priest’s magic apply to us? When you rose up and slew the guards, no mystical force prevented you. No- we’ve been bound by fear of our masters and the force of their army.”

Dare stared into the fire for a few moments in thought, and then looked at the nameless Ancient and smiled.

“You value the freedom that was so dearly bought- so I will call you ‘Mars,’ after the founder of the Ancient line, who defied the Gods.”

He nodded grimly. “I am honored.”

Dare looked around, bestowing her strange smile on each of us. “Each of you should have an Ancient name. Swift- you will be Nerio, who heeded Mars’s call and struck the first blow in the Ancient war. Merrit-you will be Victoria, the Ancient general who fatally wounded an Angel.”

She turned to me then- her grey eyes so full of light, and her gaze so intense that she seemed to look within me.

“I cannot give you your Ancient name, because you mother already chose one. Before you were born, as she was dying, she told me that she hoped you would grow to be like Venus, who gathered all of the Ancients together.”

 

#

 

I slept very little that night, and I lingered too long in the morning to say a prolonged goodbye to my new friends. When the sun rose high over the sea, I finally turned to go, knowing that every second I delayed my return would increase Miss Taris’s suspicion.

During my walk along the shore, sun grew hot. I longed to loosen my robes, but I dare not, lest some passerby see my new scars. The scars itched and stung under the thick robes, but I didn’t stop to scratch them. I swallowed hard periodically, trying to rid myself of the itch in my throat that I recognized as the harbinger of a very bad cold.

I reached the abbey well after noon. I was met first by Innocence, who exclaimed that I was far too pale and took my hand to drag me to Abbess Joy. I did not resist, but went to the infirmary, where Abbess Joy felt my forehead and looked at my throat, gave me a strong broth to drink, and ordered me to bed.

I thanked Abbess Joy and obeyed her orders, too tired to protest. Halfway to the dormitory I met Miss Taris, who looked me over with sharp eyes and demanded to know what was wrong.

“Abbess Joy says that it’s just a cold,” I said. “I’m going to bed- you can watch me sleep, if you feel it’s necessary.”

“Where have you been?”

“The southern shrine,” I said, “just as I told you.”

Miss Taris, however, remained unsatisfied until she had watched me climb into bed. I drifted in and out of sleep all day, haunted by vague dreams of gunsmoke and bomb smoke and black jackets stained with scarlet blood. When I opened my eyes, the dark dreams melted into the glow of golden firelight and lamplight.

There was a rustle at my bedside, and I looked up to see Miss Taris, who was placing a pot of tea and a box of fresh handkerchiefs on my table. She paused to examine the titles of some of my books, and then looked over my treatise notes, which were spread out nearby.

I coughed, and Miss Taris jumped.

“I- I didn’t know Ancients could catch an illness like a human,” she said. “But you’ve been snoring and coughing all day, and you are sweating, so I thought you might need these.”

“Thank you,” I said, my voice coming out as a hoarse croak. “I am as prone to illness as anyone else, but Abbess Joy can’t heal me.”

“Then- will you be alright?”

“Certainly- I only caught a chill. It just has to run its course.”

Miss Taris poured a cup of tea and handed it to me after I’d propped myself up. “Are those astrological tables on your desk?”

“Of a sort,” I said. “I’m only charting the wandering stars’ courses.”

“Do the stars tell you what will happen- with the king and Aeterna, I mean.”

“No. If such arts are really possible, they are beyond me.”

Miss Taris sat on the edge of the bed. “I’ve thought about what I said to you- about your mother, I mean, and your grief. Please accept my sincerest apologies. I should not have been so heartless.”

“Why did you say it?” I asked.

“Mostly because I hate you,” she said, “but that is no excuse.”

I laughed, almost dropping my teacup in the process, until the laugh irritated my rough throat and laughter turned into coughing. Miss Taris watched, her elegant brows arched as though in affronted dignity.

“I don’t see why that is funny.”

“Miss Taris, you are the most stubborn young woman I have ever met. You have been as determined to hate me as I have been to befriend you. Even as you apologize, you go out of your way to insult me. I wish, sometimes, I had something like you power to enable me to see inside your head.”

“You don’t need to see inside of my head- I speak my feelings plainly. You are the one who sneaks around, keeps secrets, and hides your feelings. To make it worse, I cannot see inside of your heart, at all. How can I tell if you are trustworthy?”

“You must get to know my character over time. I imagine that it is a more frustrating process than reading people’s feelings, but most of the world manages fairly well.”

“Trust me- the world does not manage well at all,” Miss Taris said.

Just then there was a knock at the door, and Miss Taris and I turned to see a veiled sister enter the room.

“Miss Taris! Abbess Joy said that Lady Frey needed rest,” Prudence scolded. “If you wish to antagonize her, do so when she is well.”

“I didn’t come to antagonize her at all,” Miss Taris sniffed. “I came to apologize. I even brought tea.”

“It’s true,” I said. “And Miss Taris, I do accept your apology.”

Miss Taris stood to go, and Prudence stepped aside to let her pass.

“I didn’t mean to disturb you,” Prudence said when Miss Taris had gone. “I’ve been anxious to see you. Are you…” she paused and then lowered her voice. “Are you alright?”

“Yes, I am. You aren’t disturbing me; I’ve been sleeping all day, and would like some company. Would you like to have a game of ringo?”

Prudence nodded slowly, and while she went to fetch the game board, I took blank paper and and pen from my desk. Prudence returned and set up the game board on a chair, which she dragged next to the bed, and almost sat on the papers I’d hidden in the bedclothes.

She looked up at me through her veil, and I winked.

Did you learn anything while I was gone? I wrote.

Prudence sighed so heavily that she rustled her veil, which she tore off and tossed aside before leaning over to write.

What a question to ask me! Two nights ago, Sir Silas gathered the guild together and told the most outrageous story. Half of the guild left with him that very night. Was there really a battle? Were you involved?

I took the pen from Prudence, who looked ready to toss everything aside and smother me with questions, and wrote as concisely as I could manage.

Trusty and I went to the Ancient temple that night in his balloon. He blew up half of the guards with bombs, while the Ancients and I shot the rest of the guards with the guns Sir Silas provided. Trusty and I are fine, but there were some casualties on the Ancient side. The guild members that Sir Silas brought are posing as guards to keep the incident secret. Oh- and the balloon was destroyed.

Prudence groaned audibly and put a hand to her head. Then she took the pen and wrote furiously.

You could have died. What possessed you to formulate and carry out such a wreckless plan without consulting me at all? Were you wounded? Is that why you are in bed?

Prudence clenched the pen in her fist as she wrote, leaving spots of ink on the page and her fingers. I gently placed my hand over hers, and smiled.

“I’m fine, really,” I whispered.

She relaxed a little, and unclenched her hand to let the pen drop. I took it from her and wrote.

The only wound I received was self-inflicted; the enemy did not touch me.

I pulled down the corner of my robe, revealing the brand, which stood out red and angry against my skin.  

Prudence drew air in between her teeth, making a hissing sound, and leaned closer to examine it. “What in the world…”

I covered the brand, again, and wrote. Pius has branded all of the Ancients with this mark, and has confined them to the Ancient temple. That was why I needed to brand myself- so I could infiltrate the temple unseen. It is also part of the reason the move was necessary; Pius had rounded up the Ancients, branded them, and had begun to kill them. We had to strike as soon as possible, and the storm gave us the perfect cover for the sound of bombs- one of the few advantages we had over the guard’s superior numbers. Now the Ancients and the guild are allied against Pius- the Ancient’s martial training and magical resistance united with the guild’s superior technology. We will build our forces in secret as long as we can, and when Pius plunges the country into anarchy, we will be ready.

Prudence stared at me without speaking for a long time, her expression inscrutable. Then she pulled me into a fierce embrace. After some time, I could feel her shoulders begin to shake, and I could feel hot tears spill onto my back. My own eyes filled with tears, and my nose and eyes dripped onto my hot face. I tried to pull away to get a clean handkerchief from the table, but Prudence held me even more tightly.

“Never again,” she whispered into my ear. “Never frighten me like this again.”

“I will try not to,” I murmured in reply.

Prudence let me go, and I blew my nose and tried to compose myself while she wrote.

The brand looks infected- you see what happens when you act impulsively? Fortunately, Abbess Joy has some ointment which should prevent the infection from getting worse.

I took the pen. Thank you, but I must protest that I did not act impulsively. I acted quickly, but there is a difference. I weighed the risk- it was great, but necessary. I knew it might go horribly wrong- it still may- but it was my one opportunity to help save my people and gain an army to fight Pius in his war. If you can see where I am wrong, please tell me.

“You are improving your game,” Prudence said aloud, clacking the game pieces before she wrote her reply.

You were right to act- more so than you know. I’ve learned much while you were gone, though I daresay my adventure wasn’t as profitable or interesting as yours. The night of the Chaosmas feast, I dressed myself in pilgrim’s robes and unveiled my face- just wearing a cowl. I find my bare face can act as an excellent disguise, because no one ever looks at it directly if they can avoid it.

One of the followers of Wisdom passed out drunk at the feast, and I managed to steal his holy symbol. Then, as the feast was winding down, Miss Taris and the tall, bearded man who once pledged fealty to you- Mr. Wilcox- gathered all of the followers of Wisdom. They led the followers to the empty Cathedral, and I followed, unnoticed.

“Excellent move,” I said aloud, tapping a ringo piece. Then I took the pen. A dangerous move, as well. How can you be sure Miss Taris didn’t recognize your face, or sense your feelings?

I am certain that Miss Taris has never seen me unveiled, Prudence wrote. As for sensing my feelings- I have been in training the last couple of months, just as you have, but for a different sort of battle. In the old days, Hope and the others practiced evading Lady Willoughby’s mind-reading, turning it into a kind of game. Hope developed meditation technique that allowed us to tightly control the direction of our thoughts and feelings. It was a difficult trick to master, because in a moment of distraction recursive thoughts – the type you think when you remind yourself not to think of something- will often creep in, but with time most of us were able to gain very good control.

This, I thought, must have been how Pius and Lux hid their betrayal from Lady Willoughby.

Prudence continued to write. I have been practicing this meditation, in case it would be needed again. I used it last night to suppress my anxiety, my duplicity, and the background feelings that make up my personality, and I believe I was successful. During the meeting, the cultists confirmed everything we suspected.

What did they say? I replied. Please- be as specific as your memory will allow.

Prudence nodded and took the papers, placing them in her lap as she wrote. I fiddled with the game pieces some more, chatting aloud about a make-believe game. After a time, Prudence handed me the papers and took over the board.

“You’ve won. Do you feel up to another game?”

“Yes, please,” I said absently, taking the papers.

The Cathedral doors were shut, and Miss Taris, Mr. Wilcox, and two other cultists joined hands and cast a spell of silence at the doors. The spell was not witchcraft, though. Instead of calling on their own power, or the power of a demon, the spell was in the cast in the manner of a Holy spell, invoking the deity and taking the form of a request. “Wisdom, we beseech you to shroud us in silence. Your will be done.”

When everyone had sat, Mr. Wilcox took the podium as though he were a priest. He led the others in prayer. “Wisdom guide our minds, Wisdom guard our hearts, Wisdom, strengthen our hands, for we are with you, and you are with us.” Then the strangest thing happened- the room was suffused with a glow of light that emanated from all directions. No lantern or candle was lit, and the light cast no shadows- it was everywhere at once. Everyone present laughed and cried and praised it as a miracle.

Mr. Wilcox said that this was to be the first of many miracles. He claimed that Wisdom had ascended, but was guiding them in the guise of a man- the High Priest himself. He said that when the time came, their loyalty was going to be tested, but that they must follow the High Priest wherever he leads.

Afterward, Miss Taris made a passionate speech, calling on the followers of Wisdom to lend their strength in the coming holy war. She said that, if they assisted, then Wisdom would fulfil his promise to ‘take the world from the old Gods as they sleep-” I remember  that line perfectly. Miss Taris, who usually won’t speak three words together unless it is in anger, brought the whole room to their feet, shouting “our lives for Wisdom.” She used her powers to move the audience, and it worked. Even I was moved. If Wisdom had manifested in that very moment and handed me a sword, I would have plunged it into the heart of anyone he labeled our enemy. Thankfully, when I left the meeting the spell was broken, and I was able to recall Pius’s sins against me.

The fact remains that we face calamity. Wisdom’s followers have infested this sanctuary, and I’m afraid that, with the southern shrine and the Ancient temple so close, and Miss Taris’s reports of your defiance to Pius, your recent victory is tenuous. We may need to seek aid to further conceal the Guild’s alliance with the liberated Ancients.

I read Prudence’s words over and over, trying to memorize every detail before it must go into the flames. Then I processed the final line, and a sensation of dread washed over me.

Whose aid do you propose we seek?

Prudence bit her lip, and wrote her reply with a pained expression in her eyes.

We must stop trying to be perfect, and confess everything to Abbess Joy.

 

Part LXVIII

horsie

The Coven, Interlude

The lawn around the cathedral was dark and barren. Night had cast a veil over the cathedral’s splendour, and feeble lanterns that shone on the walkway only seemed to accentuate the oppressive darkness around them. The sparse patches of green that broke through the dead, brown lawn were washed yellow in the lantern light.  

A scarlet-robed man emerged from the cathedral and stepped onto the barren lawn, as unnaturally bright in the gloom as a rose that blooms in frost. He moved slowly, lingering under each circle of lantern light, which to an onlooker might have seemed to burn brighter as he passed.

Brother Lux’s hands were folded in prayer as he walked, and his eyes were blank and meditative, looking within instead of at the world outside. His lips moved- he whispered his mantra aloud.

My Lord, my lover, my God, I am with you,

My Lord, my lover, my God, you are with me.

My mind’s eye beholds you, my thoughts heed you,

My Lord, my Lover, my God…

 

Brother Lux paused just outside of a circle of lamplight and sighed.

“Can I still be your conscience if I do this thing? Will I be able to heal the suffering with hands so bloodied?”

He closed his eyes and sighed.

“Thank you,” he whispered. “Thank you for sparing me this task.”

He opened his eyes again, and they glowed white for a moment before fading again to brown.

He began to walk at a quicker pace. His posture was altered- regal- and his strides were longer and smoother. He seemed to glide the last few feet to the dark stone building that lay beyond the cathedral.

He took a lantern from a black-clad guard that stood by the door, entered the building, and descended the spiral stairs to the dungeons below.

Voices met his entrance to the dungeon floor, echoing and ephemeral.

“Have mercy.”

“Free me- I am innocent.”

“I have children. Please let me go.”

“I will confess- I swear I will confess.”

Brother Lux stopped suddenly and turned toward an iron grate, lifting his lantern to shed light on the wretch within. It was a man, dressed in brown robes and with skin so coated in bruises and filth that he could hardly be discerned from his surroundings, but for the glitter in his watery eyes.

“If you tell the truth, the Gods will have mercy,” Lux said. Then he knelt and touched the man’s trembling, outstretched hand with his own clean, white one. “What is your name?”

“My name is Faith Simmons,” he croaked. “I have a wife, I have children…”

“What was your crime?”

“I spoke blasphemies.”

Brother Lux placed the lantern on the ground and grasped the man’s hand with both of his. “You must be more specific, or I cannot help you.”

“But what I said-”

“You must repeat it, no matter what it was. It is your only salvation.”

The man opened his mouth, but was racked by a  coughing fit so powerful that it shook his whole body. Then, suddenly, his cough stopped, and he took a lungful of air before he spoke.

“I said that Order was a fool who is blind to the chaos in the world. I said that Chastity was his whore. I was drunk, my priest, and I didn’t know what I said…”

Brother Lux leaned closer. “They say that wine can reveal hidden truths. Think about your answer carefully, and then tell me- was it really just the wine, or did you mean what you said?”

The man was silent for a long time, and then he whispered. “I meant it. My youngest son fell ill with a fever, and we had no money to take him to del Sol for healing. After the little one died, my mother sold my younger sister to a rich lord. This was too much for me; my heart rebelled against the Gods’ will.”

“Did anyone else feed your rebellion? Have any of your friends murmured against the gods?”

“My-” the man started and made a strangling sound, as though he would choke on his words.

“I will show them mercy if you give me their name- you have my word.”

“When she was sold, my little sister told me she didn’t believe Order existed,” the man said. “She didn’t think a good God would allow such a thing to happen.”

“What is her name? What is the name of her master? Speak the truth.”

“Her name is Merry Simmons. Her master is Sir  Montag.”

“I have a task I need to complete now, but when I return I will heal your wounds, allow you to bathe and clothe yourself, and then return you to your family. I will ensure that your sister is escorted to del Sol to take orders, and her master will be compensated. Your honesty has saved you.”

“Oh! My priest, thank you.”

The man let out a sob, and he pulled Lux’s hand through the grate and kissed it, leaving muddy tears smeared against the pristine surface.

Brother Lux allowed the man to weep, and then leaned forward and whispered.

“At this moment, I am the avatar of Wisdom. Do not speak of it, but remember that he has saved you.”

When the man looked up, tears of joy shimmered in his eyes and left tracks on his dirty cheeks. Brother Lux only smiled, passed the man a white lace handkerchief, and whispered once more.

“Wait.”

Then he stood and continued down the dungeon path.

He stopped again before a wooden door. No voice cried out from within- there was no plea for mercy. When Brother Lux opened the door, the room seemed empty but for a pile of rags on the floor. Brother Lux raised the lamp and the pile of rags shifted, moved, and morphed into the rough shape of a man.

“Wake up, Lord Frey,” Lux commanded.

The man, Hope, sat up slowly and then stumbled to his feet. His face was covered by a leather mask, which was latched and locked in the back. He groped the empty air blindly as he stood.

“I apologize for the mess,” Hope said, voice muffled, bowing not quite in the direction of his brother. “You see, I was not expecting company. I would order tea, but the guards are so unaccommodating.”

“Think nothing of it,” Brother Lux said dryly. “I have not come for a social visit.”

“Then come to your point quickly, and leave.” Hope’s formal tone dropped away, replaced with a low growl.

Brother Lux did not reply, but removed a key from his robes and stepped forward to unlock the mask.

“You aren’t afraid of what I’ll do?” Hope said.

“You can’t hurt me,” Brother Lux said. He let the mask fall away, revealing a parody of Hope’s face- papery skin pulled tight over delicate bone. Hope raised his hand and shied away from the lantern light as though it burned.

“It will take some time for your eyes to adjust, I expect,” Brother Lux said.

“Why are you here? Why didn’t you send one of your lackeys, as usual?”

“I bring news of a miracle and a disaster,” Lux said. “First, the disaster; Lord Willoughby has betrayed himself. He disappeared in his cell the evening of the incident with Lady Willoughby. The guards could not find him for hours, though they searched his tiny cell thoroughly and then searched the entire dungeon for any breach. Brother Severus was on his way to issue a bounty when Lord Willoughby was found in his cell.

“Lord Willoughby, it seems, has been completely broken. His tongue is still bound by his curse, but his disappearance has been recognized as an act of magic. When he is questioned about it directly, he nods his assent and indicates through gestures his willingness to confess. ”

“I am not surprised in the least,” Hope said. He closed his eyes and stood taller, dropping the hand that shielded his eyes. “Lord Willoughby loves his wife more than anything else in the world. The ‘incident,’ as you so delicately put it, would be enough to break any man.”

“The inquisitor who was responsible has been punished-”

Damn you,” Hope cried, and flung himself at his brother, fists raised to strike. Lux, however, easily sidestepped the attack, and Hope’s fist slammed into the brick wall, leaving a smear of blood where it had struck. Hope cradled his injured hand for just a moment, and then turned to attempt another strike, but froze in place as though bound by an invisible force.

“I never intended for her to be violated in such a manner,” Lux said. “We are purging the practices of the past, but it will take time to change.”

Hope struggled against the magic that bound him, repeatedly raising his fist for another blow and stopping abruptly, as though he’d hit a glass wall.

“Oh yes- you are willing to strip, burn, prick, and whip us, but not violate. You have standards, after all.”

“It will all end- the torture, the prisons, the poverty, and the slavery. I swear on my life, I swear on my magic, and I swear on my power as a God.”

Lux closed his eyes, and when he opened them again they glowed with white light. The light grew brighter and brighter- pulsing and flashing, not only from his eyes, but seeping from his very skin until his entire body was haloed in light.

“You have done it,” Hope breathed. “Pius-”

“Once I was Pius, but now my name is Wisdom. Your brother is acting as my vessel at the moment, but he is still with us, listening.”

“I-” Hope’s words seemed to stick in his throat, and he swallowed hard. He dropped his hand to his side as Wisdom released him.

Hope chuckled darkly, and continued until his soft chuckles had built into hysterical laughter. He laughed until tears fell from his eyes, threw back his head and continued to laugh until he lost his breath.

“Wisdom… you’ve chosen your very name to mock me,” Hope said. “I’ve failed to listen to wisdom every time I’ve heard it spoken. I am a wretched fool; now that I see the patterns I’ve fallen into, it is futile to change. I will ask the questions I should have asked from the beginning, now that it’s too late.”

Wisdom bowed his assent.

“You have gained the power you sought; tell me- has your goal to change the world altered? Can you provide evidence to justify your answer?” Hope asked.

Then Wisdom, still emanating glory- the God in human guise, dropped to his knees before the prisoner in his rags.

Wisdom spoke in a whisper. “I have no evidence to give you. I have nothing to offer but my honesty and my oath. I envision a world at peace, but attaining it will require war. I envision a world of liberty, but attaining it will require imprisonment. I envision a world free from torment, but attaining it will require sacrifice. I did not trust you enough to confide any of this to you, but I was hypocrite enough to condemn you for your lack of trust. I blamed you for your duplicity when I wore a false face.”

“I was guarded,” Hope said, “but far less than I should have been. I realize, now, that Prudence tried to warn me about you many times, but the power you offered me was blinding. When she fled, when she was caught, and when she died, I should have allowed the seed of doubt to flourish.”

“I don’t have the right to ask your forgiveness,” Wisdom continued. “All I can do is fulfill my promise to free your child from her condemnation.”

“Don’t tempt me,” Hope said, the hoarse edge of tears in his voice. “You’ve dragged me through the mud using my dearest wish as your leash. Why torment me with an empty promise now, when you’ve already gained all the power you’ve ever dreamed of?”

Wisdom’s bright aura faded a little, and he bowed his head, clutching his hands before him as though in supplication.

“I mean to fulfil my promise. I am done leading you with lies. The truth is that, to avoid another magical mishap, I require another sacrifice from you. I ask only that you give me a chance to atone. Demand any penance of me that you wish to inflict, and your brother will ensure it is carried out.”

For a moment, the filthy, ragged man looked down at the God who knelt at his feet with a sneer of disgust. Then he cleared his throat, drew himself to his full height, and spoke.

“My first thought is to demand that you suffer. I wish to see you in agony, I wish to hear you scream, and scream, and beg for the pain to stop. But this is rather short-sighted of me, isn’t it? I could watch you suffer a hundred years for each of my friends that you’ve hurt, and it still wouldn’t be enough. Instead, I ask that you undo your most grievous offence- bring Prudence back to life.”

Wisdom looked up at Hope, his eyes wide in shock.

“Surely, that shouldn’t be too difficult for a God. I’m only asking you to resurrect one person. I would prefer that you bring her back along with my parents, Prudence’s father, and every other wretch who has ever died and been cast into hell, but you asked for penance, and as far as I know, Prudence’s death is the only one on your hands.”

Wisdom looked down again and shut his eyes. “Thank you, Lord Frey. Your request has brought me more comfort than you can know. Do you have anything else to ask?”

“Only that you stop hurting the ones I love.”

Wisdom nodded and then leaned forward to kiss the frayed edge of Hope’s tunic. Then he stood.

“Close your eyes. It is time for you to make your final sacrifice.”

Wisdom’s eyes flashed, and his aura grew brighter than the sun at noon. Hope’s eyes shut in reflex, and he stumbled backward.

Wisdom shook the sleeve of his robe, and a silver knife glinted as it fell into his hand. He raised it over his head and lashed out once, then twice.

Blood splashed onto the grey stone floor.

A bloodcurdling scream tore through the air, echoing through the dungeons.

Down the corridor, a caged man heard the scream, but he didn’t pause to wipe away his tears of joy. The screams had become routine, and soon he would leave them behind forever. The dungeons would echo like a nightmare in his past, but he would be wrapped in the loving arms of his family once more.

The Coven, Part LXVII

The Coven, Part LXVI

 

Lightning glowed far away in the cloudy sky.

For just a moment, I could see the dark outline of the pitch-stained balloon against the light blue clouds, and then the light faded and the balloon disappeared, swallowed up in black.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Trusty asked for what seemed the hundredth time that evening. “It will be painful, and the scar may never fade. You skin might be marred forever.”

“I’ve drawn the symbol exactly- all you need do is apply the acid and be ready to rinse it away with the solvent,” I said firmly. “Give me something I can put in my mouth, so I don’t scream.”

Trusty sighed and handed me a rag, which I placed in my mouth. Then I looked back up at the sky, trying to discern the balloon against the black sky.

I didn’t have the words to explain why I was ready to allow myself to be burned, and perhaps permanently scarred, so I gritted my teeth around the rag and fell silent. When the phenol hit my skin, I felt nothing, and then I felt a warmth that turned into a burning, building more and more until I could hardly stand it.

Thunder rumbled in the distance, but I did not flinch, did not move, and did not scream.

Time seemed to slow. I counted the seconds between the flashes of light and the peals of thunder, but the storm was still very distant, and I could not distract myself for long.

“Your arm is done,” Trusty said. “In a few more moments I will remove the acid. In the meantime, stay still.”

I let the rag drop from between my teeth. “While we wait- let’s go over the plan,” I managed to say in a strangled voice.

“It is a simple plan. I wish we’d had more time so we could come up with something better. Still, we could not hope for a more opportune night. The bombs will sound like thunder to everyone on the mainland, and as long as the weather stays to the west, our craft will remain safe.”

“So- you will carry me to the edge of the eastern cliffs, where I will descend into the temple on foot while you proceed to the northeast entrance. I will do my best to stay hidden-” my words cut off and I groaned as a fresh wave of pain swept over me.

“Hopefully, if you are spotted by any guards, these scars and the slave tunic will help you to blend in. You will have to make sure that the bundle of weapons is hidden until you hear my signal.” Trusty stopped and lifted his lantern to view my arm more closely. “It’s ready. I’m sorry- the solvent will sting.”

He poured a pungent liquid on my arm. At first it felt refreshingly cool, and then the burning on my arm intensified. I gritted my teeth, but I could not stop the guttural cry that emerged from my throat.

“Don’t forget,” I whispered, “that I still need the brand on my chest.”

“Lady Frey-”

“It will be kinder if you go quickly,” I said.

Trusty shook his head, but he took the swab he’d used to apply the phenol to my arm, and began to trace the symbol on my chest.

I gritted my teeth again, but did not use the rag. I looked up again into the blackness and blinked away my tears.

This is pain that I have only escaped by circumstance, until now, I thought.

“I will detonate bombs near the northwest entrance to the temple,” Trusty continued. “Hopefully, the noise will draw the guards from inside the temple to the entrance. Then you will be able to distribute the weapons to the Ancients inside, and you can fight your way back out.”

“Are you sure the shooters are simple enough for us to use without training?”

“Yes- they are simpler to use than a flintlock. It’s a metal tube pre-loaded with thirty charges. Pull the lever in the back, and it will fire a projectile at the enemy. Hopefully, with the help of the martial training the Ancients already have, the weapons will level the playing field- at least enough to take care of the guards that avoid the explosions at the entrance.”

“The plan is dangerous,” I said. “Especially for you, since you will be alone at the entrance. In addition, the guards may have a protocol in place to deal with the Ancients in case of an emergency.”

“If there is, we will have to cross that bridge when we come to it,” Trusty said. “Dare told me that there hasn’t been any interference at the temple as long as she can remember, so she doesn’t know how the guards will react.”

Trusty poured the rest of the solvent onto my chest, and while my chest burned, the solvent was cold as it ran down my breasts. I was dressed only in a short grey tunic, which left my arms and my legs bare, and the night was growing colder. Slaves, it seemed, were not dressed to protect from the elements or provide comfort, but rather to differentiate them from everyone else.

The sky lit up again, and the wind rose. Trusty stood and looked around. Then, seeming satisfied, he began to climb into the basket.

“The wind is all from the east- we must hurry if we want to avoid losing the storm,” he said. “Sir Silas is gathering Order members from the pilgrim’s quarters, and he will be reinforcements in the trawler by morning; we need to clear the way for them.”

“Of course,” I said.

It was easier to climb into than I’d anticipated. The tunic, as cold as it was, did not restrict my movement nearly as much as pilgrim’s robes or crinolines.

As my feet his the basket floor thunder rumbled in the distance, and when Trusty cut the tether the wind gusted as though to rush us on. Trusty twisted a knob attached to the gas line and the flame rose in a great whoosh. Then the ground grew distant, and the balloon bore me up, away, into the storm.

 

#

 

For most of the journey, I floated in a sea of darkness.

We drifted without lantern, moon, or star to help guide our way. From time to time, the sky would glow with lightning, and I could see the froth of waves far below and the outline of dark cliffs in the distance. Each time, Trusty would mark the cliffs’ location and adjust our course slightly. With each flash of lightning, the cliffs loomed larger.

The wind was in our favor. Before I could have any second thoughts, we’d been swept to the island where battle awaited me.

Trusty helped me to tie the bundle of weapons to my back while we drifted low over the edge of the cliffs, and then he threw a rope ladder over the edge of the basket. He helped me onto the ladder, and then merely whispered, “good luck.”

I climbed down onto a steep, grassy slope. There was hardly a bush or tree to conceal me, but I could see down into the valley. The ruined temple below glowed with circles of firelight that danced off of uneven rock walls and crumbling columns. I could hear the rope scrape against the balloon’s basket as Trusty drew up the ladder, but I did not stop to watch him. I climbed down the slope, moving as slowly and quietly as I dared in the tall grass. I took a winding path, trying to stay as low as I could while I descended, and each moment fearing I would be spotted.

Everything remained silent below, and I reached the first crumbling temple wall unscathed. The light from the fires was brighter, so I got down on my hands and knees and crawled through a gap in the first wall and toward a second that had been worn so low it seemed little more than a hedge. I looked ahead, and saw no other hiding place but a cluster of pillars that bore the skeletal remains of the temple backbone, beyond which were two circles of firelight. I removed my bundle and hid it behind the low wall, and then crept forward, crawling toward the pillars to get a closer view of the encampment.

I had reached the pillars and stood when I heard a loud voice cry out.

“Stop, girl!”

I froze. I could hear footsteps coming from beyond the circle of firelight, and before I could react someone grabbed me by the back of my tunic and yanked me backward.

“I found another one trying to sneak into the men’s camp,” the man who had grabbed me grunted into my ear.

Another man, dressed in black and bearing a spear, came into view. He leaned close to me and scanned me with glittering eyes, his gaze lingering on my newly-marred chest.

“Getting lonely, are you?” he said. “Maybe you’d like me to keep you company.”

But the first guard yanked on my cloak, pulling me away from the second. “You remember what the High Priest ordered. No touching- he doesn’t want any more of them to deal with.”

The second guard rolled his eyes and turned away, and the first dragged me away from the encampment, and toward another circle of firelight in the distance.

“Stay put- next time we won’t be so forgiving,” he said, tossing me to the ground. Then he walked away to the edge of the firelight, where two other guards were already posted. I pulled myself to my feet.

“What a fool,” I heard a girl behind me mutter. “Whoever he is, girl, he isn’t worth your neck.”

“Let her have her fun,” another scoffed. “We’re all going to die here, anyway.”

I turned around and saw a group of women gathered around the fire. The girl who had spoken walked closer to me. She had dark curly hair like many of the others who gathered around me, and her skin shone like copper in the firelight.

She narrowed her eyes as she approached. “Who are you?” she whispered. “I’ve never seen you before.”

I put a finger to my lips and then leaned in closer to whisper. “I’m a friend of Dare’s. Something is about to happen.”

“Wha-” she backed away, her eyes wide. “You aren’t one of us?”

Several more women turned to stare at me, and I moved closer to the crowd that had already formed to avoid a more visible commotion.

“Swift is right- she’s an outsider,” a tall, skinny woman whispered. “Her brand is still raw.”

“Harmony?” an elderly woman’s voice creaked like an old door in my ear. “You are alive?”

“No- Harmony was my mother,” I said gently. I could hear a sharp intake of breath on my other side. “There’s little time to explain, but Dare has sent me here. I have hidden weapons behind the low wall, and soon we will have allies to help.”

“Help?” the tall woman hissed.

“You mean it’s time to fight back,” the woman called Swift said. “We aren’t going to wait around to die.”

“There’s going to be a distraction soon,” I said. “As soon as the guards are out of the way, we will take the weapons and fight.”

“Where are the weapons?” asked another, drawing near.

“Behind the low wall,” I repeated “Don’t gather here- spread the word through camp.”

Some of the women broke away and started to whisper among the other groups, but the tall girl and Swift drew nearer.

“Who is Harmony? Where do you come from?” the tall girl pressed.

“Dare told me about Harmony,” Swift said. “This girl must be the free-born Ancient.”

“I am; my name is Grace,” I said.

How?” the tall girl said. Then she turned and looked over her shoulder, as though some quiet instinct had warned her about the guards who drew nearer to the circle.

“Go warn the others,” Swift said. “I will explain later.”

The tall girl nodded and drew back, and Swift took my arm as though we were bosom friends and drew me closer to the fire. “What will the distraction be?”

“It will be a clap of thunder- louder than any thunder the storm can produce.”

“Thunder? But-”

As though destiny were listening, a loud bang rang out through the camp, followed by another, and another, and then three more in rapid succession. The guards sprang into action, half of them running toward the sound, and the other half bearing their polearms toward the camp. My heart sank in despair- the guards were better organized than we’d anticipated.

Swift, however, took my arm firmly as she watched the guards disperse. Then she yelled, “Merrit! Lead the first company.”

At her words, the Ancients in the camp leapt to their feet and stormed the guards, fighting with fists against the guard’s spears.

“Show me to the wall,” Swift said urgently.

I looked back toward the path I’d come and saw a gap in the guard’s circle. I took the chance, ducked through the gap and ran at top speed all the way back to the wall. I could hear Swift’s feet pounding the earth behind me.

The bundle was waiting where I had left it, and all of the pre- loaded shooters remained untouched. A split second later Swift was by my side, her hands out ready to accept the weapon.

“Hold it this way,” I said, handing her one. “Pull the lever in the back to discharge it at your enemy. The charges are pre-loaded.”

“How many charges?” she said, holding the weapon securely as though she had held one all her life.

“Thirty.”

“That is enough,” she said. I tied the bundle with half of the weapons to her back, and took the rest in my arms as she ran toward the men’s encampment. I was halfway back to the women’s camp when I was met by the tall woman, who took shooters from my arms and passed them to several more Ancients she had led away from the fray. I demonstrated the correct way to use the shooter as quickly as I could, and then the others scattered, running back to the battle fully armed. Another, very short woman soon found me, and she tossed the weapons to a few struggling fighters until there was only a weapon left for me and her.

The guards seemed to catch on- they turned away from the Ancients who still fought melee and, as though by unspoken command, rushed east where me and the group of newly-armed fighters stood ready.

*pop* *pop* *pop*

Lightning flashed overhead as the first shots were fired, and guards fell to the ground, one by one. The shooter trembled in my hands- I raised the gun but hesitated. One guard looked at me, smirked at my hesitation, and ran toward me.

*pop*

I couldn’t see who had shot, but the guard fell.

My fellow shooters advanced, and I walked with them through clouds of gunsmoke and the fresh smell of blood. I stepped over the bodies of the fallen as I advanced, almost stumbling, the sounds and smell turning my stomach.

I saw, among the bodies, a girl with curly hair in a grey tunic writhing on the ground as she tried to stem the blood flowing from her side. Then my hands moved on their own, raising the shooter and adding my fire to the cloud of bullets that sent the guards, one by one, to the earth.

Lightning flashed again, and the unnatural thunder boomed and cracked in the distance.

Suddenly, the guards broke rank and scattered. Some of them ran northeast toward the entrance, and some fell back, running toward the crumbling walls. Only a few remained with the melee fighters, and were quickly overwhelmed.

“Don’t let them reach the armory!” One of the melee fighters screamed as she plunged a spear into a guard’s back. I heard the sickening crunch before I saw the spear emerge from the guard’s chest.

I turned away from the sickening scene and ran with the others, pursuing the guards who fled toward the wall. We followed to the entrance of a squat, stone building, where we slowed our run, raised our weapons, and fired again.

Most of the guards fell, but more emerged from the building- some covered in black and some half-dressed, but all armed with swords and flintlocks.

Now it was our turn to fall back as the armed guards advanced. We traded fire, and then when we’d all run out of ammunition, the guards charged- swords raised.

*pop* *pop*

The guards fell, their swords clattering to the ground. I turned to the side and saw our reinforcements- the Ancient men, armed with shooters and led by Swift.

The fallen guards were already being stripped, and someone pressed a sword into my hand. The feel of heavy steel seemed to awaken my voice, and I called.

“To the entrance! Everyone- we must pursue the rest northeast.”

I ran toward the entrance, and with a queer feeling I realized that the others were following me- heeding my orders. I raised my sword and let loose a cry as I ran, and the others echoed with a scream of fury.

We ran down a wide path that narrowed slightly before we reached the beach. I was exposed- the path had bottlenecked and left my companions behind me, but the guards were all distracted. Some guards waded into the sea, and some knelt on the sand and shot arrows toward what appeared for all the world to be a great flaming beast, which drifted and flailed on the waves.

Trusty’s balloon had caught fire, and was crashing into the sea.

The Ancient’s swords sliced through the archers, and they shot their remaining charges into the backs on the guards who were wading into the water. I stabbed my own sword into the sand, and dove into the icy waves.

“Trusty” I called. “Please, please don’t die.”

For a time there was no reply, and then the balloon’s basket caught fire. There was a fizzling sound, and then a huge explosion. The whole sea seemed to boil, and the sky was on fire with sparks of red, gold, blue, and white. I could feel the explosion in my chest, hear it ring in my ears, and a wave of water rushed at me, hitting my open mouth and forcing me back into the sea.

I kicked desperately and hit the surface once more. I coughed and choked, and as soon as my lungs filled with air and my eyes blinked away the salt, only tears remained. The balloon was destroyed, and only a few crackling bits of basket drifted, aflame, on the surface.

“Trusty- no,” I whispered, and then coughed again.

“My balloon!” I heard someone behind me cry. I turned to see Trusty swimming toward me.

“Trusty-”

“I jumped before it hit the surface.” He swam to me and grabbed my shoulders. “What are you doing in the water? You’ll freeze. Come on- let’s get to shore.”

There was a final crack of thunder, and then the rain started to fall.

 

Interlude

The Coven, Part LXV

Dare stoked the fire in silence as we waited for the kettle to boil. Colors from the flames danced in her dark eyes and set her grey hair aglow. She sang a mournful tune under her voice as she worked, and she hardly looked at me when she passed me a chipped mug of tea.

I had learned that it was not her way to rush her words, so I accepted the mug in silence. There seemed to be more meaning in the sad tune she hummed than words could express, so I listened closely.

Dare continued to hum as her tea cooled, and then she took a long sip and sighed.

“I have only had one visitor since you last came to this shrine,” she said. “A man dressed in robes as red as blood- an inquisitor named Brother Claudius- came bearing the body of a young girl. He didn’t even tell me her name- just told me to bury her.”

Dare took another long drink of tea and shook her head disapprovingly. “It is such a waste- a girl who has never seen battle, who has never known love, is dead before she’s lived.”

My blood ran cold- a sickening dread that the warmest blanket could not dampen- and I sat as though frozen. Dare drew nearer the flames and shivered as though she felt the very same chill.

“The inquisitor didn’t need to tell me how she died, but he did, anyway. It was his duty to tell me.

“When an ancient refuses an order from their masters, or raises their arms against anyone the church hasn’t ordered them to kill, it is an act of rebellion punishable by death. The ancients are all assembled in the temple, and then the rebel is lead in by Aeternan soldiers. The rebel is forced to kneel to confess their sins and beg forgiveness of the bishop. The bishop never grants forgiveness, of course; we have no soul to forgive. The rebel is then strangled to death with rope, and the bishop recites the litany of the damned-

 

Woe to the soulless, who suffer no fate,

Woe to the beings whose pleas are too late,

The only true death, the fate of the beasts,

The flesh rots, the eyes sink, and worms shall feast.

 

“I’ve seen more executions than I can count,” Dare said. She added another piece of driftwood to the fire, and then sat back as sparks shot up from the flames and into the sky. “Still- I was surprised they killed a girl so young- she couldn’t have been any older than fourteen.”

The poor girl. What could a child her age possibly have done to provoke such a punishment?” I asked.

“That is the strangest part of my tale. The High Priest has ordered that the Ancients all be branded with a mark- visible on the chest and the forearm. The girl refused to take the brand, and that is why she was killed.”

“That is strange,” I agreed. “Why would the High Priest mark a secret race with a visible brand?”

“I don’t know, but the order was absolute. This is why I was surprised you were still free.”

“Then-” I hesitated, and then drew nearer. “Dare- have you been branded, as well?”

“Yes, the inquisitor completed the task when he was here.” Dare lifted her sleeve and raised her forearm into the circle of firelight. There was a scar that shone with an odd sheen in the firelight- the sign of wisdom intersected with an x.

I stood. “Does Abbess Joy know what was done to you? It is her right to protect everyone at del Sol-”

“No girl- sit down. She rebelled against the church once and was punished by the gods. I will not have her do something foolish on account of a little tattoo.”

“This is not just a little tattoo,” I said. “Something is happening, Dare, and I fear that  it’s something that puts everyone in danger.”

Dare only nodded grimly to my revelation. “That much is clear to me, How are we supposed to act as spies and assassins if we can be so easily spotted? But this tattoo is not the only ill sign.

“When the High Priest ordered all of the young ones back to the temple, I’d hoped that it was a sign of peace. Our people are used for one thing- we are weapons, so I’d thought this meant that Aeterna and Sancti would soon reconcile. But the inquisitor let slip that he anticipated a coming war, and when I consider the warning you gave me about the new High Priest, the signs are clear. This is the end of our people. We have been branded so they might find anyone who escapes. I remain because they need me to bury the others, and when they are done, I will join the rest.”

She looked away from the flames, and the light faded from her dark eyes. “You will be the last of our race. You must escape before the High Priest gets to you, so that the ancient line will survive.”

“I can’t be our last hope,” I protested. “How many of us remain? Can’t we fight back?”

Dare chuckled darkly. “You sound like your mother. She often asked me why we don’t rebel together and fight to free ourselves. But we are so few- less than 200, and we would stand against an army of thousands. We are trained to fight with our hands, polearms, and the innocuous tools of the assassin, but the army has rapiers, flintlocks, and cannons. Our one advantage is our resistance to magic, but now there is a high priest who can use magic against us. What do we have to fight with that our enemy lacks?

“I will tell you what I told Harmony- we’ve already  fought for the most important freedom of all, and our physical bondage is nothing in comparison.”

I turned away from Dare and closed my eyes, but the fire was so bright I could still see the shifting colors behind my eyelids.

I had been foolish to think that Pius would wait for me to catch up with him. While I’d tried to unravel his plans, he’d still been acting. Now, because of my hesitation, a young girl was dead.

You have assets, I told myself. The longer you hesitate to use them, the more will die.

“If you had allies and weapons, would you fight? Would the others?”

“I am sure the others see the signs as well as I. We will do whatever it takes to survive.”

I nodded and stood, resolute. “I know where we can find allies- and weapons the army has never even dreamed of.”

 

#

 

The sun had already risen by the time I returned to the south dunes.

I scanned the horizon as I walked, but not a creature stirred on the shore, and hardly a blade of grass stirred in the dunes beyond.

If there had been anyone to witness, my party would not have seemed out of place. A man who wore a grey tunic that marked him as a slave was flanked on either side by cowled pilgrims who might have been his overseers or his masters. No ordinary observer would think the party out of place on the path to the southern shrine, but it was not the eyes of ordinary observers that I feared.

Trusty, whose vision was not hampered by a cowl, scanned the horizon thoroughly as we walked. After a short time he took a deep breath, and his posture relaxed.

“We haven’t been followed,” he said firmly. “No one else was present when you came to us in the field, and we have come across no-one since.”

“How certain are you?” Sir Silas asked, pausing to knock some sand from his boot. “Considering the risk we are taking, your certainty must be very high.”

“I am reasonably certain that Lady Frey was careful when she came to us, and I’ve been watching our surroundings since we left,” Trusty replied. “As to the risk- I must admit that I feel emboldened by Lady Frey’s plan. I’m tired of running and hiding from the inquisitors. We fight to gain knowledge- let us fight to protect it, as well.”

“I hope her plan gives us an advantage, rather than making us targets,” Sir Silas grumbled.

“We are already targets,” Trusty rebutted.

Sir Silas, seeming satisfied with the state of his boot, quickened his pace. “I was surprised to hear you propose such a scheme, Lady Frey- almost as surprised as I was to hear you spin such an outrageous tale. If Trusty had not told me his reasons to believe your story, I might have suspected you’d lost your mind.”

“If you have any other reason to suspect I’ve lost my mind, please tell me,” I said.

Sir Silas chuckled. “Oh no- I will leave that task to Miss Prudence. She is remarkably adept at such things, so I’m sure she has you well at hand. Still, I will verify your evidence as soon as possible.”

We had come to the narrow path into the dunes as we talked. I pointed out the narrow opening, and then led the way into the dunes. A hush fell over the party as we crept through the dunes, which wasn’t broken until we rounded the large dune and saw the ruins.

“Here is your first piece of evidence,” Trusty said, and then he walked ahead, turning to see the columns, the church, and then the gravestones beyond. “My grandfather told stories about this place- a cemetery built on the ruins of an ancient city. I never thought I’d see it with my own eyes.”

“This evidence isn’t so strong,” Mr. Silas countered, taking a closer look at one of the columns. “These are old, but the existence of old ruins is no reason to believe every folk tale. Still, it doesn’t matter whether those buried here are descendents of a mythical race or not. Wherever there is slavery, no matter who is bound, it is our ethical duty to fight.”

“This is where your mother is buried?” Trusty asked.

“Yes,” I said. “I can show you her grave, after we speak to Dare.”

I led the way past the driftwood pit to the church door. Before I had a chance to knock, the door opened and Dare peeked out.

“You were not followed?” she asked.

“No, we weren’t” I said.

She opened the door a little wider, and gestured for us to enter.

Inside, Dare closed the door firmy behind and bade us sit on some of the old wooden pews that stood at the back of the church. She did not sit, but paced up and down the short aisle that ended abruptly at the edge of a wooden table.

“I have fought all my life,” she said as she paced. “I have fought to survive, but the battles were never my own. Now it seems that survival and freedom are the same.”

“We both have a good deal to lose and a great deal to gain,” Sir Silas said. He stood and approached Dare, ducking under a low- hanging beam as he went. “I won’t pretend that the stakes are the same- the guild members freely chose to defy the church, but you are bound by circumstance. If we cannot win, we will flee to preserve our knowledge. Would you be willing to flee to preserve your race?”

“Where would we go?” she asked.

“We will go to the wildlands- we are building ships that can take us there,” Trusty said. He stood as well, but his shorter stature enabled him to walk easily under the beam to stand before her. “The ships are nowhere near ready, though- the first one is only halfway built, and I must know it will work before beginning the others.”

Dare nodded. “I see. What do we do in the meantime? The church has control of everything- weapons and arms and wealth. We only have 200 trained fighters, no money, and no weapons but sticks and arrows.”

“I have weapons that you may use- that we can all use to defend ourselves,” Sir Silas said. “I have made explosives far more powerful than gunpowder, and if we combine that with the gatling gun and the airship-”

“I have no idea how to use such things,” Dare said.

“I will teach you,” Sir Silas said.  “I will put the word out among the guild to gather men and resources. We have known for some time that we may need to fight, soon, and we have the collected wealth of many tradesmen backing the mad experiments of people like me. We will be glad to have allies who are knowledgeable in the fighting arts, to add to our resources.”

“I have no doubt that the guild can prepare,” I interrupted, standing, “but how will we get weapons to the ancients who have been called back to the temple? I assume the temple is guarded, and it must be remote.”

“I can tell you where the temple lies, but it is forbidden for me to speak of it. What guarantee can you give me that you will not tell the authorities about the plan – that you won’t betray my people?”

Sir silas reached into his robes and removed a card that bore the symbol of an eye. Then he took out a pen and wrote the name Sir Earnest Silas on the back.

Can you read, Miss Dare?”

“I can, a little,” she said.

“In secrets, there is trust,” Sir Silas said with a lopsided grin. “I will not betray the other members of the guild, but I can tell you that I have committed crimes against the church. I have written my crimes here- let Trusty and Lady Frey write their crimes beside mine. If we betray you, you can give this card to the authorities and they will arrest us.”

Trusty wrote his name beneath Sir Silas’s, and wrote- literacy, forbidden technology, and sedition against my masters.  Then he moved to pass the pen to me, but Dare stopped him.

“There is no need for Lady Frey to sign- I know she would not betray us.” She tucked the card into her tunic and then knelt on the ground, sketching a rough map of the shoreline into the dirt floor.

“The temple is not far from here,” Dare said. “It is on an island just off the shore that you can reach by trawler. But the temple is surrounded on the east and the south by cliffs, and on the west by a high wall. The only entrance is in the northwest, on the far side of the island, through a narrow and well-guarded path.”

“There may be another way,” Trusty said, rubbing his chin in thought. “I have the prototype for my airship-the small balloon, which is packed in Sir Silas’s cart. Tonight it will be moonless- we could creep in over the cliffs and reach the ancients as soon as the sun sets.”

Dare’s cheeks went scarlet, and she sat down on the nearest pew with a thump.

“So soon- then this is really happening.”

“It must happen soon,” I said, kneeling beside her. “Remember that one has already died, and others will soon follow. We must act.”

Dare nodded mutely, and then looked up at Trusty. “Then we will act tonight.”

 

The Coven, Part LXVI

 

The Coven, Part LXIV

I spent the rest of the advent to Chaos night working tirelessly. Sometimes, Prudence worked by my side. We spent our early evenings in the calefactory conducting research into theurgy, though we only found references to the art in short paragraphs and footnotes in the oldest theological tomes. After the sisters returned from confession, Prudence and I adjourned  to the dormitory to prepare our gift for Celeste. When Prudence went to bed I continued to work alone, and then in the early mornings I slipped away to help Honest build the mechanism we would use to view stellar spectra.

If I had not obtained the wakefulness potion from Brother Lux, I would not have had the ability to keep up with my private affairs or research.

I spent the first half of each night  working on my treatise- plotting the planets on their orbits. I used Sir Boromir’s observations as my guide, which, once I’d verified some of the planetary positions using the large telescope, I realized were stunningly accurate. The planet’s motions unfolded – astounding in their elegance. The sun proved to be at one center of each planet’s ellipse, and the speed with which the planets moved was proportional to their distance from that center. How easy it was to see, now that I examined the clockwork of our worlds!

Around two o’clock I would put my treatise aside and write to Mr. Sutton or Mr. St Roch. Then, when my business was done, I would slide a stack of white paper toward myself.

I had drawn, smudged, and re-drawn the scene I’d started sketching in the calefactory- Prudence looking up at the airship. I’d gotten a little better each time I’d sketched her face. Sometimes, as we worked alone together on Celestes’s gift, I would study her face by firelight. Her face was not really round; it was shaped like a heart, with a narrow chin, a wide brow, and a widow’s peak in her scarlet hair. Her eyes were round but not protruding- they were deep-set under finely curved lids and framed by elegantly arched brows. Her age was only just beginning to show just in the soft brackets around her mouth, which disappeared when she smiled.

I sketched and sketched it again until I was able to bring each newly-discovered feature into the fore. In each iteration her aspect grew larger and took up more of the frame, and the airship was nudged aside. As I finished each sketch I longed to begin the next, because my memory had added another detail which must be added- she had a freckle under her ear, and a dimple near her chin. I allowed myself to become enrapt by the image of her beauty to the extent that I hoped never to complete the work.

 

#

 

I went over a week without sleeping, and the days blurred together. I blinked, and when I opened my eyes, it was Celeste’s birthday.

Mercy did not give a lesson on Celeste’s birthday. Instead, all of the sisters awoke before sunrise and assembled in the refectory to decorate, bake honey cakes, and arrange her gifts in the place where she usually sat. When Celeste was brought in, she gave a start of surprise, and then her eyes filled with tears.

“Is this all for me?” She faltered. Then, when she saw her seat filled with presents, she laughed a little and wiped the tears away. “Oh! How perfectly wonderful!”

For the rest of the morning, Celeste was all smiles. She opened her simple gifts slowly- almost reverently, folding the colored paper wrappings and placing them carefully aside to save for later. Prudence had carefully hidden our gift to Celeste underneath the others, so that it would be the last she opened.

“Look! Here’s one more. There are so many!”

“Don’t be too excited,” Prudence said, an edge of laughter in her voice. “This one is from Lady Grace and myself, and I’m afraid it is only more schoolwork for you to complete.”

“Don’t tease-” she began as she pulled away the paper, and then her breath caught as she looked at the gift.

Prudence and I had known nothing of the art of bookbinding, but with some instruction from Abbess Joy, we’d contrived to create something sturdy. Prudence had seen to the construction of the book, the folding and sewing of the pages, and had contrived to find thin but sturdy boards to reinforce the canvas cover. I had stitched together the cover and embroidered it with the words, The Research of Miss Celeste Goode.

Celeste ran her hand over the stitching in her name, and then flipped through the book, revealing a great deal of clean, blank paper.

“I don’t know what to say,” she breathed.

“Don’t worry what to say,” I said. “Just think of what you will write.”

“Thank you.” Celeste slipped down from the bench and, still holding her book with one arm, tried to hug Prudence and I at once with the other. Then she turned and beamed at the sisters. “Thank you, everyone.”

“Enough of that, child,” Sister Love said, wiping away a tear. “We are glad to do it. It has been too long since we’ve celebrated a child’s birthday, here. Now, let’s hurry before the honey-cakes get cold.”

It was not the Sister’s custom to eat breakfast, but everyone ate together that morning, and they even chatted together during the meal, allowing Celeste to rhapsodize to her heart’s content.

 

#

 

True to my word, I did not leave until Celeste’s birthday was over. I accompanied Celeste and Prudence to the Cathedral to view the day’s services, where I contrived to blend in with the other pilgrims. There was a short period of prayer and meditation, and then Sister Blessing ascended to the pipe organ to play a fugue. It was an unfamiliar fugue- I had never heard it played at the Cathedral Lux- but it was played with as much skill as the famous organist who played at the city’s Cathedral. I closed my eyes, and I could almost see the notes weave together into a rich tapestry of color, touched by the sunlight that filtered through the high windows.

After the long service there was refreshment in the vestibule, followed by the pilgrim’s pageant. I’d been dreading the pageant, but the amateurish enthusiasm in the acting and design was diverting. I laughed along with the audience at all the wrong moments, and in the end the players bowed and laughed along with us good humoredly.

Then the sisters retired to the calefactory for tea, and Celeste insisted that she would stay awake with the rest of us. Within a few minutes, however, she had slumped over in her armchair and was snoring loudly. We let Celeste sleep until we were ready to return to the dormitory, and then we shook her awake.

“Come, Celeste- you are too big to carry,” Prudence said gently.

Celeste groaned, rubbed her eyes, and then stood to walk. She plodded to the dormitory in silence, and then fell into bed without another word.

“I believe her fatigue is the best commendation we can receive,” I said.

“Yes- I’m glad we could give her a satisfactory birthday, at least. She won’t be a child much longer.” Prudence sighed and shut Celeste’s door behind her. “But what a world for her to grow up in!”

“She’s resilient, and she’s brilliant,” I said. “If we manage to prevent the world from being destroyed, she will make it a better place.”

Prudence nodded solemnly, and then stood a little straighter. “Let’s give her something worth improving.

“By the way, do you still plan on leaving tonight, or will you wait until morning?”

“I will leave tonight. Come with me- we may talk while I get ready.”

Prudence followed me to my room, and as I gathered my things she leaned against the doorframe as though she were barring the way from intruders.

“I have a gift for you,” I said. “Since I won’t be here for Chaosmas, and since it isn’t quite ready, may I give it to you when I return?”

“You always make me anticipate your return,” Prudence replied. “But I like your plan- I have a gift for you, as well. Sine my gift is already finished, I will be able to spend tomorrow more profitably- spying on the pilgrims whose tongues have been loosened by wine. In addition to the cult, I have a new mystery to solve.”

“Oh?” I dropped a fresh change of robes into my bundle and looked up. “What sort of mystery?”

“It isn’t unusual for us to receive donations around Chaosmas,” Prudence said, “but the size of our recent donation, along with the fact that it was given anonymously, is suspicious. Pius has expressed an unusual interest in del Sol, so I thought-”

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” I said quickly. “A donation is a good thing, no matter who it’s from. I imagine it was given anonymously so that there would be no strings attached.”

Prudence threw back her veil and narrowed her eyes.

You!”  she exclaimed. “Why didn’t you sign your name, or at least tell Abbess Joy? I know she would want to thank you.”

“She doesn’t owe me thanks- not after everything she’s given me and has suffered for me. I did not want to make her feel obligated,” I said. “Besides- it’s not just for her. All of the sisters have shown me kindness. Like me, most of the pilgrims come here at times of great need. If I can help them, I should.”

“I won’t tell the others, but thank you – on their behalf, as well as my own,” Prudence said.

Then she looked down the hall, sighed, and put her veil down again. “Here comes another person I will watch while you are gone,” she muttered.

A few moments later, Miss Taris appeared at the doorway, scowling.

“I’d heard you were leaving again,” she stated. “Are you going alone, this time?”

“Abbess Joy is too busy with the celebrations to go with me,” I replied.

“Does Mercy go with you?” She asked, her eyes narrowing behind the gold frames of her glasses as though in suspicion.

“No- she must stay behind to ensure Celeste’s safety. I am only going to the south dunes; there is no reason to expect I will need protection.”

“And the guardian of the southern shrine is even stronger than Mercy,” Prudence added.

Miss Taris entered the room, ignoring Prudence as she walked past as though Prudence were only a shadow.

“Brother Lux will not like this- nor will Father Pius.”

“I don’t see why they would object. I will technically still be on the abbey grounds-”

“Be careful- Lady Frey. Father Pius isn’t happy with your behavior. You are too independent- too wild. You fight, you travel unescorted, and you disappear into the northern cliffs every morning- doing Gods know what-”

Prudence signaled to me from behind Miss Taris, and I managed to control my expression.

“I am only stargazing. Brother Lux and Father Pius are both aware that my hobby is astronomy.”

Astronomy? Do you really expect me to believe you are doing something so innocent? And why must you climb all the way to the northern cliffs to stargaze?”

“You may believe what you like,” I said. “Higher altitudes are better suited to stargazing- the atmosphere is thinner, so the viewing is better.”

“You can’t have much of a difference on so low a cliff,” Miss Taris said. “And you are distracting me from the point. I am sure that Father Pius and Brother Lux would not allow you to travel unescorted, and so I must forbid it.”

“I have heard enough,” Prudence said. She moved beside me and placed her hands on her hips, taking a posture suggestive of the one she wore when she scolded Celeste. “Miss Taris, you shall not interfere. You may have forgotten that Lady Frey’s mother is buried at the southern dunes, and so I will overlook your callous disregard of her grief this once. Never let me hear of you behaving in such a way again.”

Miss Taris faltered and took a step back, and then she seemed to remember herself. She stood a little taller, and gave Prudence a severe glare.

“I’m not afraid of you, Sister Jubilee. But you are afraid of me a little, aren’t you, underneath all of your bravado?”

Prudence stood remarkably still in her pose, but I could hear her breath catch, and feel her stiffen beside me.

“Stop it,” I said firmly to Miss Taris, taking Prudence’s arm. As soon as I touched Prudence, she sighed and slid into a more relaxed posture.

“Miss Taris, why must you attack my friends? Why must we be enemies?” I asked.

“We are not enemies,” she said, the sides of her mouth curling into a grin. “You aren’t worth my enmity. As Father Pius said, you are a mere object – an imitation of life. Why should I respect your so-called grief, when we both know you have no feelings? Why should I respect the friendship of a mere automaton?”

I could feel my face flush with heat, and my hand flew up. Thankfully, before I could deliver the slap, my mind reacted. I clenched my open hand into a fist as though I were throttling my own anger, and let it fall to my side.

“If you think so little of me, then I shall return the favor,” I said. “You aren’t worth striking. I am going to to southern dunes tonight, and you can object all you like. Give Father Pius my regards in your letter to him.”

“Don’t worry- I will tell him everything,” she said, and then she turned to leave. On her way out of the room, she almost ran into Abbess Joy, who was entering the room with sister Blessing.

“Oh! I beg your pardon, Miss Taris,” Abbess Joy said kindly before she turned to me. “I am glad I found you before you left. I have some things I would like Dare to have. If it isn’t too much trouble-”

“Oh no-” I said.

Miss Taris was forced to step aside and allow Sister Blessing entrance into the room. Sister Blessing was bearing a basket almost twice as large as the ones we’d given to the abbey’s beneficiaries, which she handed to me.

“There are a few more things that Dare needed, in addition to the gifts,” Abbess Joy explained. “Some warm socks and extra worsted, fishing line, and of course some fresh herbs and vegetables from our greenhouse, because she can grow nothing in that sand except wild onions. Please give her my love, as well.”

“I am happy to take it to her,” I said. Then I turned to Sister Blessing, who had taken the basket back and started to rearrange the contents in order to make it seem lighter.

“Oh no- don’t worry- it is already as balanced as it can be. It’s not too heavy to carry such a short way.”

Abbess Joy took the opportunity, however, to step forward and embrace me tightly.

“I am so proud of you, my daughter. Have a safe journey.”

 

#

 

I was happy to leave behind the chaos of the abbey and step out into the still, silent night. There was little wind, but there was a sharp chill in the air as I walked. The stars were haloed in silver light, a sure sign that we had not yet seen the year’s last frost. Even so, Abbess Joy’s parting words seemed to warm me like a fleece blanket.

“… my daughter.”

Yet, as I drew near the southern shrine, I couldn’t help but feel a sliver of cold guilt penetrate the warm feeling. I longed to call Abbess Joy ‘Mother’ in return, but how could I, when my mother was buried here?

In addition, I had a fresh source of anxiety in Miss Taris’s threats. She knew that I went to the northern cliffs- did she know about the tower, as well? If Father Pius knew learned about the secrets that were hidden in del Sol, I was certain he would not respect Abbess Joy’s rights to keep them, no matter what rights she had been granted by the Gods.

When I arrived at the shrine, I was relieved to find that Dare was not asleep despite the late hour. She sat alone- a dark shadow huddled beside the dancing sparks of a driftwood fire.

“Hello-” I called. “Good morning! it is almost dawn.”

Dare looked up from the fire sharply, and then paused with her hand halfway to her spear.

“Is it really you? Grace!”

“Yes, it is only me, though I come bearing Abbess Joy’s gifts and her love,” I said.

Dare, however, stood and put the offered basked aside, instead wrapping me in a fierce embrace.

“I am so glad- so glad to see you are still well and free,” she said. As she spoke into my ear, I could feel Dare’s tears drip onto my shoulder.“I wish I had glad tidings for you, my dear, but I’m afraid our worst fears are coming to pass.

Part LXV