The Coven, Part XXXXI

 

Miss Taris came to my room at a quarter to six.

She was properly dressed in a blue silk gown. Her face was clean, her hair turned up modestly, and her eyes were clear behind her shining spectacles.

“I’m glad to see you’ve recovered so quickly,” I said.

“I’m very well, thank you,” she said. “I’m well enough to travel. Brother Lux has sent me to fetch you- he’s awaiting us at the carriage.”

“No one told us that you would be coming, Miss Taris,” Mercy said.

Miss Taris smiled. “I’ve just spoken with my father, and I was able to make him understand my feelings. He agreed to release me from my betrothal, and I am going to del Sol to contemplate taking orders.”

“This is a sudden development. I’m glad you were finally able to persuade your father to release you.”

Miss Taris only smiled and nodded in reply.

“Miss Taris is not going to del Sol to take orders,” Mercy said. “She’s going to del Sol to spy on us for Father Pius.”

“Father Pius is my trusted friend and advisor. I will inform him of everything that happens at del Sol, of course.”

Mercy met Miss Taris’s triumphant gaze, and then reached down, hoisting Hope’s trunk with one arm onto her shoulder.

Miss Taris took a step back in surprise, staring at the heavy trunk, which was effortlessly supported by Mercy’s slight frame.

“Well, I suppose I had better be careful around someone as powerful as you.”

I stepped between Mercy and Miss Taris before the tension could build any further. “Come- the carriage is waiting, and the sun will set, soon.”

 

#

 

As I exited the pavilion dressed in plain traveling clothes, I wished I really were strong enough to fight the Prince’s army, as I had said to Hope. If I were, Mercy and I could defeat the Inquisitors and the guards, and then and storm the dungeons, freeing everyone inside. But even if I were physically strong enough to fight an army, Father Pius would still be able to destroy me.

Perhaps the Coven together had enough magical strength to fight Father Pius, but he had divided and conquered them all. All I could do now was force my steps toward the carriage that would take me away from Hope.

“Celeste is already on her way to del Sol, Lady Frey,” Brother Lux said when I met him at the carriage door. “I’ve sent the Abbess word that you are both coming, and she welcomes your arrival.”

“That is impossible- how could you have sent a letter and received a response so quickly?”

Brother Lux didn’t reply. Instead, he helped Miss Taris into the carriage while Mercy climbed onto the box. Brother Lux turned back to me and offered his hand, but I waved away his help and climbed into the carriage on my own.

“The seats have been warmed, but it is a very cold evening,” Brother Lux said. “Here, Lady Frey. Take this blanket.”

I turned away from him without a word. A tear escaped and rolled down my cheek, and I dare not look back at him so he might see it.

“Brother Lux is going out of his way to be kind to you,” Miss Taris said.

I wiped my face. “Miss Taris, I don’t expect you to understand how I feel, and for your sake I hope you never understand.”

The carriage pulled away from the palace, and though we traveled the same road, the splendor that had greeted me on the way to St. Blanc was gone. The fairy trees that arched over the avenue were bare, their branches reaching out like skeletal fingers. The pond covered in a thin layer of frost, and the swans had all flown away for the winter. All of the real flowers were dead.

The sun lingered just below the cloudline and over the horizon as we drove over the wide, open park, but by the time we reached the public road the sun had set, leaving only a faint twilight. The moon and stars were all veiled by clouds, and soon I was staring out at a sea of darkness.

I could hear Miss Taris and Brother Lux breathing softly as they slept behind me, but I could not rest. Hope’s bruised and battered face was always on my mind, and when I did not actively try to re-direct my thoughts, the gruesome descriptions I’d once read as a young girl of inquisition torture machines filled the rest of my thoughts.

We reached the crossroad village well past midnight. No adventure awaited me in the village like it had the last time I’d stayed. We had a sparse repast in the common room, and then went to rest for a few hours.

Mercy and I watched the Inn door all night. She was convinced that someone in the village might know who I was, and she didn’t trust Brother Lux to protect us from the next room. It didn’t take much persuasion for me to keep watch with her.

 

 

#

 

 

Fatigue from my sleepless night caught up with me the next day, but I forced my sluggish mind to review everything I knew about Father Pius and his plans. At times I would succumb to the temptation to close my eyes, and I would fall into a fitful sleep. Each time, I would dream up plans to defeat Father Pius- each plan more impossible than the last.

We stayed the next night in a cottage just off the road, where I stayed up and kept watch with Mercy again. Then it was another day’s ride before the spire of the Cathedral del Sol appeared over the horizon.

We’d been following a crooked road that wound back and forth through the lowlands. The road grew dustier and whiter as it did the sun sunk lower in the sky.

When the sun touched down on the western horizon, del Sol’s spire reflected the red light so brightly it seemed to catch fire. I couldn’t look directly at the spire, and had to shield my eyes as we approached. The road continued to zigzag, so that the reflection sometimes flared across the right carriage window, and sometimes the left.

The sun set, and though the Spire still shone, it faded until I could look at it directly. It was almost perfectly straight, unembellished, and taller than any spire I’d ever seen- taller even than the spire on the great cathedral in town. It looked silver in the fading light, glinting as though it were made of metal.

The path before us was still crooked, but we we no longer sloping downward. Now we were winding through patches of grass that waved in the cold, salt-scented air. We rolled on and on, but the spire didn’t seem to draw nearer.

“There’s nowhere nearby to stop,” Brother Lux said, yawning as he roused himself, “but cathedral is only a couple of hours away.”

After a few more minutes the spire grew dark, and the stars came out one by one in the cold, clear sky. I tried to rouse my tired mind and shake away the mad dreams I’d been indulging. I would soon be with Celeste, and she would need to be told what had happened calmly and gently. I would need to be in a state to make her feel safe.

I was just rehearsing what I would say to her when the carriage jerked to a halt.

I opened to carriage window and leaned out into the frigid wind see what had happened. The dark outline of the cathedral spire still stood in the distance, blotting out the stars. Just few feet ahead of us,however, there were six men in dark cloaks blocking the road.

Brother Lux opened his door and exited the carriage. “Good evening, travelers.”

One of the cloaked men stepped forward. “Good evening, Friar. We’ve come to relieve you of your burden.”

“My burden?”

A few of the men laughed in reply, but the man who had spoken bowed cordially.

“We provide a public service, you see,” he said in a voice so low it came out almost like a hiss. “It’s a shame for so many pretty ladies to be locked away in that nunnery, so if you have any with you we will gladly take them.”

“We will gladly take any gold you have, as well,” a large, deep voiced brute barked from behind him.

For heaven’s sake,” Mercy said, drawing her quarterstaff from behind the box. “If you’re bandits, just say so.”

Mercy jumped down from the box, quarterstaff spinning, and struck two blows before her feet hit the earth.

Two men fell and the other four rushed at Mercy, the largest one swinging an axe and the leader bearing a staff. Mercy dodged their blows but fell back against the force of their advance. The coachman took a flintlock from under the box and aimed it at the largest man, but then cursed loudly as the weapon jammed. He flung it aside and jumped down to flee.

Two men broke away from the fight with Mercy to persue the coachman, but stopped when they saw Miss Taris and I through the coach window. One of the men wrenched the door open and grabbed Miss Taris, and this action- happening inches from where I sat- seemed to wake me up from my shock. I drew back my fist and hit Mercy’s attacker in the Jaw.

My hand shook with fear, and my strike had been weak. The man stumbled back out of the carriage, however, more from shock than pain. I took the opportunity to jump down from the carriage, and then kicked the second man in the stomach as he reached for me.

This time my blow landed hard, and the second man stumbled back, clutching his stomach in pain. Blood seemed to pound in my ears, my palms were starting to sweat despite the cold, but I followed up with a second blow without thinking.

In the heat of the moment, however, I’d forgotten about the first man, who grabbed me from behind. The man I’d just hit took a wheezing breath and then rallied. I started to slip down out of the first man’s grasp, but I froze when I saw a flash of silver in the moonlight. The second man drew a dagger and pointed it toward my face.

“Not so feisty now, are you, girl?”

Before I could think of my next move, the man dropped his dagger and fell senseless to the ground. Mercy had appeared and hit him from behind with her quarterstaff. I sent my elbow into the first man’s stomach, and as I slipped down out of his grasp, Mercy hit him in the head with her quarterstaff, too.

“They are witches,” he groaned, clutching at his head as he ran away down the road.

“Really? Just because we can fight, we’re witches?” Mercy shook her head, turned to me, and helped me to my feet.

“Congratulations. You’ve survived your first battle.”

“That was a battle?” I said.

“It’s not as glorious as the stories, is it? A battle is really just an exaggerated brawl.”

I turned back to Miss Taris. “Are you alright?”

“I- I’m fine,” she said, though her face was flushed. “I can’t-”

“The attackers have fled,” Brother Lux said, returning with the discarded flintlock in his hand, “except for the ones you have rendered unconscious- and another over here, I see. We should leave before they awaken.”

“What about the coachman?” I asked.

“I can drive,” Mercy said.

“We should try to find him,” I said. “He is not a young man, and the bandits might catch him.”

“Don’t worry. I saw him go through the bushes, there. We will catch up to him when we go around the next bend,” Mercy said.

“Are you certain? Brother Lux asked.

“Certain enough- I’m not going out of my way for a coward.”

“Drive, then,” Brother Lux, said. He climbed back into the carriage and I followed. Mercy climbed back onto the box, and the carriage moved forward again.

“Miss Taris, are you well? You look faint.” Brother Lux put his hand to Miss Taris’s forehead.

“That man- he was disgusting,” she said, and then blanched at the Carriage’s sudden movement. “When he put his hands on me, I could feel what he wanted.”

“It’s alright, Miss Taris,” Brother Lux said. He took her trembling hands and rubbed them for warmth. “You are safe now.”

“No- they’re angry now,” Miss Taris said. “I should have used my new powers to influence their feelings, but I froze. I should have fought back.”

“There’s nothing you could have done,” Brother Lux said.

“But Mercy fought back. Lady Frey even fought back.” Miss Taris pulled away from Brother Lux and turned to me. “Where did you learn to do that?”

“Mercy has been teaching me,” I said. “I’m not very skilled, yet, but-”

The carriage lurched to a stop, and as Mercy had predicted, the coachman darted out from the bushes and jumped back onto the box. I could hear the low rumble of hooves in the distance.

“They’re angry- they’re coming back,” Miss Taris cried.

“They had friends nearby,” Mercy called from the box. “Hold on.”

The carriage lurched forward again, and I opened the carriage window to look back. I couldn’t see the horses yet, but I could see the road smoking behind us from the pounding hooves.

After the next bend the road straightened, and the carriage gained speed as we headed straight for the cathedral. I looked back again, and I could see the horses and riders outlined in crimson moonlight. They were quickly gaining on us.

“Brother Lux- do you still have the pistol?” I asked.

He fumbled in his cloak. “I have it, but I’m afraid I can’t use it.”

“Please try,” I said.

He raised the weapon toward the window, but his hands trembled.

“Here- I will try,” I said.

Brother Lux held out the weapon, but then drew it back hesitantly.

“Please, trust her,” Miss Taris pleaded. “We are all in danger.”

Brother Lux handed me the weapon.

I leaned out the window and saw the riders hot on our heels. I had no time to be afraid- I took a deep breath and held the gun the way I’d seen my father do it when he shot. I cocked the gun and raised it, bracing my shooting hand with the other, and aimed the weapon toward the head rider.

As soon as I squeezed the trigger, both the carriage and the riders behind us clattered to a halt. The motion jostled my arm, and the shot rang out into the grasses beside the road.

An eerie silence fell over everything. Even the horses quieted, and the breeze stilled. I looked forward and saw three robed figures standing on the road ahead. Despite the crimson moonlight, their robes shone a spotless white and their faces were shrouded in white veils.

The middle figure stepped forward, clutching a staff in their right hand. They raised the staff, and Miss Taris and Brother Lux both gasped in unison. The horses behind us reared back and, as though they’d been spooked by a bolt of lighting, they turned and galloped away.

The three robed figures walked forward, approaching the carriage. The figure with the staff reached out and settled the frightened horses, and then came to the carriage door.

Unsure of what else to do, I opened the door.

The veiled figure placed the staff against the carriage door, and then threw back their veil, revealing a familiar, gentle face crowned with golden hair.

Abbess Joy came closer, and then reached out and took me into her arms.

“You’re safe now,” she said. “Welcome to del Sol.”

The Coven, Part XXXX

Anger rose like bile in my throat when I saw what the inquisitors had done to Hope.

Hope’s long, dark hair had been shorn away to the scalp, his warm brown eyes were blindfolded, and his porcelain skin was mottled with dark bruises. He was sitting in a sackcloth robe on a wooden stool, but when the cell door opened he stood and stumbled forward, reaching out blindly with bound hands.

I ran to him and took his outstretched hands. “I am here.”

“Grace!” He clutched my hands. “Brother, please unbind me. You know I won’t try anything foolish while she is here. Let me see her- let me hold her- one last time.”

Brother Lux cast a sidelong glance toward me, and then unwound the cloth from Hope’s eyes.

“I won’t unbind your hands, but I will let you see her,” Brother Lux said. “If you try to hypnotize me, my bond with Father Pius will break the spell- the same as last time.”

Brother Lux’s  had told Father Pius about the blood oath. This revelation inspired a fresh wave of anger, and for  one mad moment, my brain hatched a plan worthy of a storybook. Hope and I could overpower Brother Lux together, steal his clothes, and Hope would escape disguised as his brother. Unfortunately, Hope had been too thoroughly marred to pass as Brother Lux, now.

It was then that I remembered Father Pius’s threat, “…a strong and clever mage can use your resistance against you.” Brother Lux had the ability to heal, so it was possible he could make my body destroy itself if he turned his power against me.

I didn’t know how strong a mage Brother Lux was, or if Father Pius had told him my weakness, but I wasn’t foolish enough to take the risk.

When the bandages were removed, I could see that Hope’s right eye was blackened and swollen. He blinked at me, squinting as though he were trying to look at the sun.

“Hope- I’m sorry,” I said, holding his hands close to my heart. “I pressured you to keep my silence when we took the blood oath. I never dreamed the consequences.”

“You couldn’t have known,” Hope said quickly. “I’m the one to blame. I didn’t consider the laws, and worse, I didn’t put my trust in the right people. I will pay for my foolishness and my crimes.”

Brother Lux walked behind Hope and gave me a significant nod.

“I was told that you will have a trial,” I said. “You must try to fight the charges, if not for your own sake, then for Celeste’s.”

Hope looked down at our entwined hands. “Even if I weren’t guilty, witchcraft trials are a farce. My fate has been decided.”

“What evidence do they have against you?”

“I- I don’t know. They haven’t found anything at Rowan Heights, yet. The Library burned, but the inquisitors are still searching the rest of the estate.” Hope shut his eyes, as though trying to remember. “Lux- you told me that Mrs. Auber made the formal accusation, didn’t you?”

“That’s right,” Brother Lux said slowly. “Mrs. Auber provided one piece of material evidence- a blood oath entered into by you, Captain Goode, Lord and Lady Willoughby, and Miss Chastity. The oath states your intent to murder High Priest Sauris and Prince Hadrian as vengeance for Prudence Goode’s life, and as vengeance for the Frey and Goode family curses. The document states that you intend to use any arts, magical or mundane, to achieve your goal.

“In addition to this, Mrs. Auber is willing to testify that she personally witnessed multiple acts of witchcraft.”

“That’s odd,” Hope said. “I don’t recall ever taking such an oath.”

“Then the document is false, “ I said quickly. “There must be a way to prove that it’s a forgery. I’m willing to provide samples of your handwriting. Perhaps I could hire someone to examine the document while I am gone.”

Hope drew me closer to him, and I embraced him tightly.

“Father Pius is sending me away, but I’m going to Celeste.”

“You are? Will you keep her safe?”

“I swear that I will protect her. I’ve been working in secret- growing stronger in both mind and body. I will fight the whole army, if it will keep her safe.”

Hope cut me off with a kiss deeper and fiercer than any we’d shared before. Even though our bodies were pressed together, I felt as though I couldn’t get close enough.

Hope broke the kiss with a gasp and leaned back to look at me. He reached up and tangled his bound hands in my curls. “If you’re willing to fight, then I can’t do any less.”

Hope leaned down to kiss me again, but Brother Lux pulled him away.

“It’s time for Lady Frey to leave,” Brother Lux said.

“Give us a little more time together, please,” Hope said, turning to his brother.

“No,” Brother Lux said, his usually warm voice hardening like ice. “I told you that you must suffer the consequences of your actions, and that begins now.”

“Hope-” I took his face in my hands and turned him back to face me. “I’m going to Celeste. I promise that when we’re safely together, I’ll contrive some way to send word to you.”

“I love you,” he said. “Tell Celeste that I love her. Tell her to be strong.”

“I will. I wish I had something more to give you than a promise. You already have my love.”

“That’s enough,” Hope said.

Hope continued to look into my eyes until Brother Lux tied the blindfold back into place.

 

 

#

 

 

Brother Lux was silent as he led me out of the dungeon, so I was able to count my steps- re-tracing the mental map I’d made of the tunnels and filling in the gaps in my memory. I listened carefully to the way our footsteps echoed, gleaning an idea of the tunnel’s size. The tunnel’s draft remained steadily at our backs as we ascended.

I continued to concentrate, allowing my tears to soak into the blindfold as I went. A little flame had been kindled inside of me, and it was growing stronger with each step, keeping despair at bay. Brother Lux’s look of pity as he took off my blindfold, the hisses and whispers of the courtiers when we ascended back into the cathedral, and the knowledge that I was being delivered to my greatest enemy only acted as fuel for the flame.

I imagined I could feel the same flame that had burned in Hope when he had committed desperate acts to protect his loved ones. The alchemy of Hope’s love had changed me.

I could hear muffled voices through Father Pius’s door as we approached, but as usual, Brother Lux opened the door without knocking. Mercy was inside, standing in front of Father Pius’s desk with her arms folded.

“I find it insulting that you would even ask me,” she was saying. “I can tell when I’m not wanted; do you think I’m a fool?”

“You should be grateful that I’m still giving you this chance,” Father Pius replied with a look so fierce that I would have shrunk back. Mercy only lifted her chin higher.

“I am grateful,” Mercy said. “I’m so grateful that if you release Lord Frey with a full pardon, and make a public apology, I might consider forgiving you.”

Father Pius blinked as though in astonishment, but did not reply. Brother Lux held a hand to his mouth and gave a strangled cough.

Mercy turned toward us and dropped her stance.

“Lady Frey- did you see Lord Frey? Is he alright?”

“He’s been beaten,” I said. “He has not been tortured, yet.”

“I understand that he-” Mercy nodded toward Father Pius- ”is sending you into exile.”

“I believe that is his intention.”

“When we came to St. Blanc, Lord Frey made me promise that I would protect you if anything happened to him. So- when are we going into exile? Where are we going?”

I blinked away the tears that welled up at this simple show of loyalty. “Thank you, Mercy.”

“Don’t thank me. I’m only following orders.”

“You may not be one of us, but you are still bound to secrecy, Miss Mercy. If you leave my service to follow Lady Frey, you must remain in exile with her,” Father Pius said.

“Leave your service?” Mercy turned sharply back to Father Pius. “I was never your servant to begin with.”

“So be it,” Father Pius said. He turned back to me.

“I have been trying to decide where to send you. You cannot return to Rowan Heights. The estate is still being searched by the inquisitors, and they wouldn’t welcome your interference. Celeste’s grandmother lives in a townhouse in the city- a place that is impossible to secure. Even though he’s under control, I hesitate to send you to your father’s estate-”

“I’ve broken relations with my father, anyway,” I said.

I took a moment to consider my situation, and Mr. Filius’s words came back to my mind. “All roads lead to del Sol.”

Can I trust Abbess Joy? I wondered. She is in league with the oculist guild, but she did test my magic resistance for my father’s benefit. I don’t know where her loyalties truly lie.

But my old memories of the Abbess returned at once, bringing that safe, maternal feeling that overrode all of my doubts.

“I would prefer to go into seclusion at del Sol,” I said.

“Those who seek sanctuary at del Sol are expected to work for their bread,” Father Pius scoffed. “When have you ever done a day’s labor?”

“Keeping Lady Frey at del Sol would probably be best,” Brother Lux suggested. “It’s isolated and secure. She could not interfere with our plans, and no one could interfere with her.”

Father Pius placed his hands on his desk and leaned down, closing his eyes. “I want to preserve del Sol and its Abbess. I suppose that it will be convenient to keep Lady Frey and Miss Goode there, as well.”

I turned to Mercy. “Would del Sol be acceptable to you?”

“Yes.”

“Then it’s settled,” Father Pius said. “I’ve dealt with you enough today, Lady Frey. Gather your things, and Brother Lux will call for you the carriage this afternoon. He can take you to del Sol on his way back to Rowan Heights.”

 

#

 

 

As soon as Mercy and I were left alone in my rooms, I took the nearest sheet of paper and wrote down the mental map I’d made of the dungeon tunnels, annotating the number of steps I’d counted at each turn. I wrote as quickly as I could, before the memories could fade any more, while Mercy watched in silence.

I reviewed the map for any errors, and Mercy spoke. “Lady Frey, we don’t have much time. We need to destroy anything that might implicate Lord Frey and choose what to take with us- we won’t be able to take much.

“I’m sorry- I needed to put this on paper before I forgot. I’m finished; this is accurate as I could make it, under the circumstances. If you will go through Lord Frey’s other things, I will pack whatever I can into this trunk-” I gestured to the trunk with the hidden compartment.

Mercy nodded, and left to search the room while I opened the trunk’s compartment and stowed the map inside. Then I closed the compartment, carefully replaced the trunk’s lining, and filled the rest with the warmest, most serviceable clothes I could find. I packed some of Hope’s clothes as well, so he would have something if he were freed or rescued.

Mercy stoked the fire, feeding letters and books into the flames. “He was careful, so there’s not much,” she said, “but some of his letters contain murmurings against the Prince and church, and some of his books were written by abolitionists. It’s best to be rid of anything that would look bad.”

“We can keep his letters to Celeste, and we will need his bank book if the inquisition leaves anything of his property. Everything else can be destroyed.”

Mercy nodded and stoked the fire further. “I’m glad it’s cold, today. I will help you finish packing when I’m done. Leave all of your silks and fine things behind- I suppose you may keep the necklace Lord Frey gave you, but wear it under your clothes. How much pin money do you have?”

“I have fifty gold coins in my purse- enough to get us to del Sol and give a donation when we arrive.”

Mercy’s eyes went wide. “More than enough, I should say. Here are some clean handkerchiefs, a flintbox, a ball of twine, and some of your sewing things. Don’t look at me like that; I don’t expect you to do embroidery, but this will be useful. Also- Lord Frey’s pocket knife. He only ever carried it when he went hunting, but you should keep it with you.”

She stuffed the other things in my valise, and handed me the mother of pearl handled knife.

“We don’t want to overfill your valise. Is there anything else you can think of?”

“I will change into my traveling clothes in the Pavilion, so I can leave these there, along with this ridiculous pannier. Other than that-”

I turned to my almost empty jewel-case, retrieved my fake spectacles, and put them on.

“I will not say that I am ready to leave, but I can’t think of anything else.”

The Coven, Part XXXIX

I kept my head up as I walked behind Father Pius, determined not to show him my fear. I could hear courtiers hiss as I went past, but I did not acknowledge them. 

“Witch”

“Devil’s whore.”

“Word travels quickly at St. Blanc,” Father Pius remarked. “But the courtiers are fickle. I think you’ll regain popularity soon enough.”

I ignored his taunt, but quickened my pace to keep up with his long strides.

Father Pius led me up the cathedral steps and into his office. When we arrived, Miss Taris was seated next to the hearth near a crackling fire, holding herself and shivering.

She was still dressed in her peasant’s clothes from the previous night, and her spectacles lay on the small table beside her. Even though she was shivering, her forehead was beaded with sweat, and her long hair stuck to her face in wet ropes.

“Miss Taris,” Father Pius said softly. The sneer on his face melted away, replaced by a look of concern. “You are cold.”

“I’m alright,” Miss Taris protested, though she allowed Father Pius to place his white cloak over her shoulders. “You were right- it is easier when I don’t fight the sensation.”

“Yes- just relax. The pain won’t last long, and soon you’ll be able to sleep.” Father Pius wiped the sweat away from Miss Taris’s face, and then turned to me.

“Do not touch Miss Taris. Sit here- away from her.” He gestured to a chair in front of his desk.

Miss Taris looked up at me, still clutching the cloak around her shoulders.

“Something is wrong,” she said. “My power is growing, but I still can’t feel you, Lady Frey.”

“Take no notice of Lady Frey. You might as well try to discern the feelings of this table lamp,” Father Pius said, taking his own seat. “She is inhuman- an abomination.”

Father Pius spared a glance in my direction before looking back to Miss Taris. In that moment, I realized that he knew I was an ancient, and he hated me for it.

As frightened as I was, I took a deep breath and made my move.

“If you really know what I am, then you must know that the blood oath doesn’t bind me. If I chose, I could tell everyone your part in this. I have enough evidence to-”

My words cut off as my lungs squeezed painfully. I couldn’t draw breath, as though my chest were being crushed by an iron vice.

“You have no evidence,” Father Pius said coolly. “What is wrong? Can’t you breathe?”

I couldn’t even choke out a reply.

“I’m compelling you to breathe, but your body is fighting me. You want to obey me, but your will means nothing. You aren’t free- just powerless.”

He smiled down on me as I struggled, and after a time flicked his hand. At his gesture, the vice seemed to fall away and I fell forward, gasping for air.

“A weak mage might not be able to reach you, but a strong and clever mage can use your resistance against you. Even Lord Frey, had he really tried, could have left you brain damaged.”

I kept my eyes on the wood grain of his desk, coughing, and then taking one deep breath after another. Father Pius reached out and grabbed my face with one hand, digging his fingernails into my cheek as he forced me to look up at him. He leaned so close to me that his dark eyes seemed to engulf me.

“If it weren’t for certain promises I’ve made, you would already be dead. Never threaten me again.”

He let go of me and I fell forward.

“I had to at least try- for his sake,” I said.

“You can make things worse for him, if you keep trying,” Father Pius said.  He took a quill and paper from his desk, and continued to speak as he began some work. “In fact, I had meant to thank you. If not for your assistance, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to arrest Lord Frey and the others.”

A feeling of dread washed over me. “What do you mean?”

Father Pius smiled. “Perhaps Lord Frey never told you, but when he took the blood oath instead of bringing you to me, it was a violation of our coven’s laws. Everyone who willingly submitted to Lord Frey’s hypnosis, except for Brother Lux, was complicit in this violation. Brother Lux was able to bring the violation to my attention.”

“I-I’m sorry. I didn’t know. Please- it’s my fault; punish me instead.”

“How quickly you go from threats to pleas,” Father Pius said smoothly, “but I have no reason to punish you. You were never bound by our laws, and you’ve helped my cause immensely. You gave Lord Frey the opportunity to put the Prince under my power, and now the coven is out of my way. To thank you, I will allow you to go into seclusion unharmed.”

A thrill of horror ran through me- I had done this- but I didn’t have the luxury of self-pity. Hope was imprisoned, I was at the mercy of my enemy, and I needed time to think.

I closed my eyes, trying to block out the scratching of Father Pius’s quill, but soon another sound distracted me.

“Oh!” Miss Taris let out a strangled cry, and then went silent again.

“Relax, Miss Taris,” Father Pius said. “Think of something else.”

“Do you think I might help?” I said.

“This isn’t her curse,” Father Pius said quickly. “That will come later. She’s just formed a contract, and her powers are growing rapidly. It’s a painful process, but it will pass. If you go near her, you might interfere.”

“Miss Taris, do you still want this?” I asked.

“I do.”

“Then tell me something to take your mind off the pain. I know you like to read; why don’t you tell me about your favorite book?”

“Why would you help me?” she asked.

“There needn’t be a reason,” I said, “though Lord Aston suggests our altruistic impulses stem from a desire to live in a society where others will behave altruistically toward us. Have you read Lord Aston?”

“Yes, but I don’t agree.”

“Why not?” I asked.

Miss Taris took and deep breath and began to explain her reasons. I argued a few of her finer points, nodded in agreement when appropriate, and did what I could to keep her talking as I half-listened. All the while, another part of my mind was racing.

What do I know, and what do I need to know? I wondered

 

First, I know that Father Pius isn’t afraid of me at all, even though I know that he is a heretic and a witch. He’s confident that I can’t expose him, and he can kill me before I even try.

But, I thought, if that is the case, then why did he promise to keep me alive? He could kill me without consequence. Everyone at court seems to think I’m a witch, already.

I realized that it would have been easy for the inquisition to kill Hope at the first sign or resistance, but Brother Lux had given Hope the opportunity to surrender and discuss the evidence against him. Father Pius and Brother Lux had wanted to imprison the coven, and perhaps make them stand trial, but they wanted them alive for the time being.

A faint light of hope broke through my dark thoughts. If there really were a trial, then Hope, and perhaps Captain Goode, might be spared since they had produced no male heirs. Nothing but the power of a God could break the High Priest’s seal, so it might override the inquisition’s judgement.

Father Pius knew about the Frey and Goode family curses, so he might have taken them into account. This realization brought me to the second point of importance.

Second, I know that High Priest Pius premeditated his Coven’s imprisonment. He’s all but admitted to me that the blood oath gave him an excuse to arrest those he’d wanted out of his way. Why would he do so, instead of continuing to use their powers to his ends? Why risk exposing himself when they were tortured, or when they went to trial?

I couldn’t discern Father Pius’s true goal, but I knew it must be opposed to the Coven’s goals.

“…and so people follow their baser instincts. We are all ultimately selfish,” Miss Taris was saying.

“Perhaps, but cooperation provides us all with long-term advantages, which was Aston’s main argument,” I countered almost automatically.

“You haven’t taken into account-”

“It isn’t your place to judge morality,” Father Pius interrupted. “It’s better to look after your own interests during your short time on this earth.”

Something about Father Pius’s tone struck me with a new thought.

Did Father Pius really burn my treatise to guard his reputation? If not, then why did he?

I wasn’t able to contemplate this idea any further before the office door opened, and Brother Lux stepped through.

“You are weary,” Father Pius said, looking up at Brother Lux. “I hope your brother didn’t cause you any trouble.”

“No- he is cooperating,” Brother Lux replied. As he spoke, I noticed that  his face was drawn, and his eyes bloodshot. “I came here to ask a favor on his behalf. He wants to see Lady Frey.”

I stood.

“Are you sure that is wise?” Father Pius said.

“I wouldn’t ask you unless I thought it was absolutely necessary,” Brother Lux said.

Father Pius leaned back in his chair and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I don’t mean to question your judgement,” he said quietly. “Do what you need to do, and bring Lady Frey back afterward.”

“Of course.” Brother Lux turned to me and stretched out his hand. He spoke gently, as though coaxing a child. “Come with me, Lady Frey. Don’t be afraid.”

I went with him, but did not take his hand.

 

 

#

 

 

Brother Lux led me down a winding staircase past the main cathedral and into a cramped cellar. At the back of the cellar there was an iron grate, beyond which I could make out a tunnel lit with flickering torches.

“Lord Frey’s cell is down there,” Brother Lux said, pointing into the tunnel. He took a square of black cloth from his robes. “I’m sorry to ask this, but the inquisition requires that all visitors be led into the tunnels blindfolded.”

I looked down at the blindfold, and then back to Brother Lux’s bloodshot eyes.

“Please trust me, Lady.”

“I have no reason to trust you,” I said, “but if you wanted to hurt me, you wouldn’t need to take me into a tunnel.”

I allowed Brother Lux to tie the blindfold over my eyes, and then waited alone in darkness as I listened to Brother Lux’s footsteps. Once the Iron grate creaked open, Brother Lux took my hand and led me forward.

I ignored the feeling of his hand- long-fingered and smooth, just like Hope’s- and concentrated on the path. We were moving in a straight line, and the stone surface under our feet was smooth. There was a cold draft of wind on my face, which had a damp, earthy scent, and I surmised that we would be moving further underground.

“Lady, I have a question to ask you before we descend, and I need you to answer honestly. Do you love my brother?”

“Why would you care about our feelings, now?” I asked. My cold words echoed around the empty cave.

“If you love him, Lady, then it’s vital that you tell him- show him– that you do. I cannot tell you why.”

“I do love him,” I said, “and if you won’t tell me why that’s important, then I will guess.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. You want to give him hope so he will be able to better withstand torture. Am I right?”

Brother Lux remained silent.

“But you aren’t trying to protect yourself- if Hope gave your name to the inquisition, it would look like a desperate move, and no one would believe him. No- you want him to live long enough to stand trial. I don’t know why, but you’re playing a dangerous game with my husband’s life.”

Some time during the course of the conversation, our steps had begun to curve to the right, though the draft always hit my face. Now Brother Lux stopped, and spun me as though we’d reached a branch in the tunnel. I felt no cross-breeze, however, and when he stopped me, the draft hit my face again.

Keep going forward at the first branch, I thought.

“Lady Frey, I don’t want to give you false hope, but please give him something to live for. He’s been saying some worrying things, and I need him to fight.”

“Even if I didn’t love him, he has Celeste. He will never give up while she’s alive. Will you take me to her, after I’ve seen Hope?”

“Yes. Promise him that you will protect her.”

“I will. Where is she now?”

“She is with her governess, awaiting word of our arrangements. Don’t worry; I’ve assured my niece’s safety.”

After a few more steps, we came to a staircase. I took both of Brother Lux’s hands and counted the steps as we descended in a spiral.

“Take your time, my Lady. We are almost there. I need to warn you about my brother’s appearance. He’s been…”

“You have tortured him already, haven’t you?”

“One of the inquisitors beat him. He hasn’t been harmed, though- just bruised.”

My feet hit the final step, and then Brother Lux led me to the right across flat stone. He let go of my hands, and I could hear a door close behind me. Then my blindfold loosened and fell away. There was only a little lamplight, but it burned my eyes as I gazed blearily at the grated cells, which stood in a row before me.

“He is waiting for you in the first cell,” Brother Lux said.

Part XXXX

Saturday Link Rundown

I want to read, study, and play video games, but instead I’m falling asleep. I’ve had all the tea that I can stand, I’m warm and comfortable, and there’s a thunderstorm rumbling as it builds outside.

Before I do fall asleep, I need to feel as though I’ve accomplished something., however small. I’ve been stockpiling interesting links, so here they are, in no particular order, for your weekend browsing pleasure.

President Macron’s Twitter

How Many People are in Space?

Be the match for someone who needs bone marrow. 

The Weather Channel has gotten interesting lately.

Stuff in Space

 

 

The Coven, Part XXXVIII

The Tale of the Magi

 

In the kingdom of Excelsior there were two great mages. One was a holy mage, who lived at the top of a mountain, and one was a witch, who lived in a bog. The two mages had been fighting for a hundred years, but neither could defeat the other. The angels would smile on the holy mage when the moon was new, and he would temporarily overpower the witch, but the witch’s powers grew as the moon grew full, and he would soon gain the upper hand.

And so the two mages continued to fight, their powers waxing and waning, until the witch hatched a plan to defeat the holy mage once and for all-

 

-and so Julia was reunited with her lost love, and the two lived happily ever after.

 

I looked between the pages containing Tale of the Magi and Julia’s story, and saw the jagged edge of a torn page near the book’s spine.

I cursed under my breath. A dull ache was forming behind my eyes again- a remnant of the headache I’d suffered that morning. I was paying for my excess on the previous night, but there was too much that needed to be done to give myself time to rest.

I had forced myself to go to the grove early, before Hope returned from the woods. There, Mercy had laughed at my sluggishness and pushed me harder.

“This is your fault for drinking so much,” she’d said.

I shall never do so again, I vowed as I stared down at the torn page. I needed more time to examine the clues in the book, but it was vital that I leave court. I had no time to memorize or copy the text.

I looked around the library carefully, and then slipped the book under my voluminous skirt. Stealing from the palace was a high crime, but it was nothing compared to crimes I’d already committed.

I looked around again, and when I was satisfied I hadn’t been seen, I hurried back to my room.

 

 

#

 

 

“There you are.” Hope entered the room as I was stashing the stolen book away with my mother’s papers. “Mercy will be up soon to pack our trunks, and I am on my way to order the carriage. We leave this afternoon.”

“Thank heavens!” I said, closing the trunk’s compartment. I’d asked Hope if I could add my things to his hidden compartment, and since there had been enough room he’d agreed. Now, in addition to his locket and letters he’d received from coven members, my treatise, my mother’s papers, and my stolen book were hidden in the trunk’s compartment, taking up most of the available space.

“I take it that you’re ready to leave,” Hope said in a bemused voice. I turned to see him leaning against the wall, his arms crossed and his eyes shining in amusement.

“I am ready,” I said. I went over to him and took his hand. “I will come with you to the stables, if that is alright.”

“Of course it is; I haven’t seen you all morning, and I am as eager as you to get home.”

We walked together from the palace and through the courtyard, toward the stables. The courtyard was empty save for a single courtier, who stopped abruptly and turned to walk away away as soon as she saw Hope and me. I was wrapped in a shawl, but it was not nearly enough to shield me from a bitter north wind. The sky was grey, and the few dry leaves rustled and scratched at the gravel path. I leaned closer to Hope, but his added warmth did nothing to keep the wind from whipping my cheeks and stinging my nose.

“Winter has finally come,” Hope said. “Perhaps we will have snow in time for Chaosmas week.”

“Does it snow often in the hill country?”

“Sometimes it snows enough to shut us indoors for days on end. It might be more convenient to get a townhouse in Bridon City for the winter months, but the hill country during a snowstorm is unparalleled for beauty- present company excluded.”

“I am feeling generous, so I will overlook the flattery,” I teased. “I long to see snow at Rowan Heights.”

We were walking through the shrubbery, where red and white roses nestled pristine among the dry leaves and twigs. I reached out a hand absentmindedly to brush the blossoms, and then stopped abruptly.

“Grace, are you alright?”

I gave a startled laugh. “Hope, these roses have been a puzzle to me since I arrived. I’ve watched in amazement as everything else in the gardens have faded and died, but the roses bloom as ever. I thought, at first, that they might be a unique  variety of roses from the wildlands, or that a brilliant horticulturist has devised a method to protect the blossoms from the cold.”

“You’ve just solved the puzzle, haven’t you?”

“Yes, and I am a fool. I shouldn’t invent such complicated explanations before seeking simple ones. Touch the blossom.”

Hope reached out to tenderly caress the blossoms, as though afraid he would bruise it. Then he started and laughed.

“This is silk.”

“Yes- all of the roses are fake. They’ve been sprayed with perfume, I assume, which accounts for their pungent aroma.”

Hope shook his head. “Fake- just like everything else here. Oh Grace, It will be so good to go home.”

He leaned over to kiss me on the forehead, and I sighed and held him close to me for a moment. Then I leaned back, catching sight of something strange over his left shoulder.

Seven figures in red cloaks were approaching us from the palace. Brother Lux led the group, and six inquisitors in red robes fell into step behind him as though they were extensions of his mantle, sweeping the ground behind him. The inquisitor’s swords were sheathed, but their hands were ready at the hilt.

“Hope,” I said.

Hope turned. His eyes grew darker, reflecting the grey, heavy clouds that hung overhead as he watched the group descend on us. Soon, the inquisitors were all around us, hands still at their hilts. Brother Lux stood in front of Hope, wearing a stony expression.

“Good morning, Brother,” Hope said. His eyes remained dark, but his tone was light, as though we’d just met Brother Lux at breakfast.

“Lord Hope Uriel Frey, I hereby place you under arrest in the name of the High Priest and the Holy Church of Aeterna. Come with us; any resistance will be met with violence.”

“What is the charge,” Hope said.

“The charge is witchcraft.”

“No!” The cry rang out in the frigid air, and somehow I didn’t realize I was the one who had cried out until Brother Lux turned his eyes toward me.

“You aren’t implicated in the evidence, Lady Frey- rest assured.”

“What evidence do you have? Who is implicated?” Hope said hotly.

“Come with us, and we will discuss the evidence,” Brother Lux replied. “Lady Frey, I must ask that you go with Father Pius, for now.”

I turned and saw that Father Pius was already standing behind me, and I realized he must have flanked us when we were distracted. I shrank back at his expression; his handsome features were distorted by a sneer of disgust.

“Lord Frey?” Brother Lux said, and at his word, the inquisitors drew closer. They seemed to form a red wall around us, now. I could hear a sword being drawn from its sheath.

“I won’t resist,” Hope said quickly. “Just promise that Lady Frey will be safe.”

“You have my word,” Brother Lux said with a slight bow.

Hope turned back to Father Pius.

“On my honor as your High Priest, I promise that Lady Frey will remain protected.”

Hope turned to me. “Don’t be afraid. I just need to speak to my brother.” He spoke softly, as though to soothe a child. “Go with Father Pius; this misunderstanding will soon be cleared up.”

My throat constricted, and I found that I couldn’t speak.

Hope kissed my forehead and then handed me to Father Pius. The inquisitors seized Hope by the arms, and he smiled at me as he was dragged away through the shrubbery and out of sight.

I felt two tears drip down my cheeks, which were hot despite the cold wind.

“I can’t compel you, but I can hurt you,” Father Pius said when we were alone. “I can hurt you worse than you imagine.”

“I won’t resist,” I said. I wiped the tears from my cheeks and followed Father Pius.

 

The Coven, Part XXXIX

 

The Coven, Part XXXVII

“Take the Prince’s mind from him. Take his kingdom.”

The fateful words played over and over in my head as I walked with Lord Frey to our rooms. Lord and Lady Willoughby followed us, and soon we sat together, drinking glasses of port and chatting as Lady Willoughby strummed her lute.

This is a celebration, I thought. Prince Hadrian has been completely broken, so we are celebrating.

Father Pius was perfectly poised to seize the Prince’s power. The Prince could no longer enjoy what he’d once loved. The coven had taken everything from him, and I had allowed it to happen.

The others were laughing, but I could not.

I still hated the Prince. I remembered the greedy look in his eyes as he’d described me as a ‘true rarity,’ as though my mother and I were dolls to collect. He had conspired with my father and the High Priest to use my mother- who had no choice in the matter- to produce me. He had tried to use me to trap Hope.

Even so, when I thought of his empty eyes as he’d watched the ballet, I could not smile.

“Take a glass,” Lady Willoughby said, pressing a glass of port wine into my hand. “I know you dislike wine, but this is very sweet.”

I accepted the glass, but I hardly noticed the taste as I drank.

…I can’t go home, and if Aeterna falls, I will die.”

My moment of anger had further-reaching consequences than I’d even attempted to predict. I liked Lady Innocence, and I’d inadvertantly hurt her. She was safe at del Sol for now, but how many others were there like her who would suffer?

Fewer than would have suffered in a war. The cold calculation came from the back of my mind.

“Lady Frey, you are a thousand miles away,” Lady Willoughby teased gently.

“I am only a little fatigued,” I said, and perhaps I was fatigued. Earlier that evening I had not been plagued by feelings of guilt. With Hope by my side as we enjoyed the music and dance, I’d thought of little more than pleasure.

“Try to stay up a little longer,” Lady Willoughby said. “It’s only 10:00 now, and we will revel until we meet under the full moon at three. Where shall we meet, again?”

“We meet in the south wood,” Hope said. “Fittingly, it is where the Prince’s hunting accident occurred.”

“May I ask-” I hesitated, even though the others seemed so easy around me.

“Yes?” Hope said.

I looked around, and saw that Lady and Lord Willoughby were wearing the same easygoing grin.

“Do you always meet at the full moon?”

Hope nodded. “Our powers are at their fullest when the moon is full, and it’s easier to contact- to contact those with whom we’ve formed our contracts.”

The demons, I thought.

Lady Willoughby looked sharply up at her husband, who nodded to her.

“Lady Frey,” Lady Willoughby said. “My husband would like a private word with you.”

“Why- yes. Certainly,” I said, taken aback.

I walked with Lord Willoughby into the small dressing area, which was the only private place in our apartment, and we sat apart from each other on a pair of satin-covered footstools.

Lord Willoughby was a sandy-haired gentleman somewhere between youth and middle-age, whose dress and manners had never drawn much attention. He was neither handsome nor plain, too short or too tall, and aside from the occasional twinkle in his eye when his wife teased him, he was always quiet and subdued.

He drew a deep breath, as though bracing himself to make a difficult speech, but all he said was, “good evening, Lady Frey.”

“Good evening,” I replied.

Lord Frey laughed, and took my hand, giving it an affectionate squeeze.

“I- I had been afraid to try speaking to you, Lady Frey. Wasn’t I foolish? When my wife told me that you- that you that you could ease our curses, I convinced myself I would be the exception.” He stopped and took another deep breath.

“I am glad you aren’t the exception,” I said. “You suffer under a curse of silence?”

Lord Willoughby just nodded, and then after a moment said, “Yes. I’m sorry. Now that I have my voice, I don’t know what to do with it.”

“Go slowly, if you need to,” I said. “You must have a lot you wish to express, after all of this time.”

“Not so much. My wife- you know she can hear thoughts, so she can tell others what I mean to say.”

“That is fortunate,” I said. “Still, it must be frustrating not to have your own voice.”

“It was, but I’ve grown used to my situation. My wife and I are one in mind and heart, and she’s the one who likes to talk. I was very fortunate to marry her.”

The sounds of the lute, and Lady Willoughby’s birdlike voice, drifted into the closet.

“Lady Willoughby told me that you struggled to be allowed to marry,” I said. “I could tell that she feels fortunate to have married you, as well.”

Lord Willoughby smiled, looking toward the doorway where the music drifted through. Then, as though he could bear to be away from her no longer, he stood and left without uttering another word.

 

 

#

 

 

Father Pius and Brother Lux had joined Hope and Lady Willougby while Lord Willougby and I were gone. The lamps had been extinguished, and the room was sparsely lit by candles that flickered on the tables and mantle.

Lady Willoughby was filling everyone’s glass with a sparkling golden liquid. “I had this imported from south sancti- it’s the only place where the grapes are grown.”

Hope passed me a glass, and Father Pius stood. The others followed suit, and we stood together in a circle, the candlelight casting flickering shadows across on our faces.

“I propose a toast,” Father Pius said, raising his own glass. “First: to Lord Frey, who has proved the crucial piece in our game not once, but twice.”

“I blundered,” Hope said quietly. “I was not gentle with the Prince’s mind, and I seem to have taken all of his will.”

“He will serve our needs very well as he is,” Father Pius said.

“To Lord Frey,” the others toasted.

“And a toast to us all,” Brother Lux added. “Mrs. Aubert saw our path forward, Lord and Lady Willoughby revealed the Prince’s weakness, and Captain Goode and Miss Chastity have protected us. Most of all, I toast Pius, who has guided us all to the craft, and helped us unlock our powers.”

“Hear! Hear!” the others cried.

Lady Willoughby slapped a hand over her mouth and giggled. “We shouldn’t be too loud.”

“I have sealed the room,” Father Pius said. “No one will hear us, and no one can come in who is not invited.”

Lady Willoughby took my arm. “Lady Frey is invited to stay, of course.”

“Of course,” Father Pius said. “She is no threat to us.”

Something in Father Pius’s tone, or the way his warm voice lingered on the word ‘threat’ sent shivers up my spine. I turned away and took a long drink of the tart, bubbly wine.

“Excellent,” Lady Willoughby said. “Then we shall make three couples. If we move these chairs, I think we will have just enough room to dance.”

“There are only two couples,” I said, “and someone must play.”

Lady Willoughby laughed and took up her lute, handing it to Father Pius.

Father Pius smiled indulgently and gave the lute one long, languid strum. The lute’s mellow tone resonated in the air, and the sound coalesced into melody. He placed the lute on a chair at the side of the room, and it continued to play alone.

“I assume you’ve never danced the triad,” Lady Willoughby said to me. “It’s forbidden in Aeterna. Nevermind- Lord Frey will show you the steps.”

Hope stepped forward, bowed, and offered his hand. “May I have this dance?”

I took his hand, and he led me to our impromptu dance floor. He showed me the steps, which were exceedingly simple and repeated in a three time. I moved my feet to match his, and after two repetitions he took both of my hands.

The dance grew more complex- the steps repeated, but Hope brought our arms to the side, drawing our bodies very close together, then he brought our hands behind my back, and then behind his, so we stayed pressed together. We separated for a short time before he turned me away from him, crossing my arms and holding me tight to him before he spun me back around to face him. He leaned down and brushed his lips against mine before we spun cheek to cheek.

We continued to move and spin, entwining our arms and bodies together in an elaborate pattern. The dance so dizzying I did not think to object when he kissed me again in front of the others. I was too enraptured to remember that anyone else was in the room.

Out of the corner of my eyes, I did see Father Pius and Brother Lux dancing, but the significance of this escaped me. While we danced, Hope was the entire world.

The figure brought Hope and I to the other side of the room, and I accidentally brushed against the enchanted lute. The music slowed, and then went quiet. Our feet stilled, and Hope leaned down to kiss me one last time. I allowed him to kiss me, and then turned away.

“You’re blushing,” Lady Willoughby said. “Now you know why the dance is forbidden.”

“Any dance that is meant to be performed as a pas de deux is forbidden,” I said.

“You are still very innocent, aren’t you?” Lady Willoughby leaned down and purred into my ear. “I look forward to corrupting you.”

“Lady Willoughby,” Hope said warningly.

“Nevermind,” I said to Hope, taking his hand again. “I’ve grown immune to Lady Willoughby’s teasing.”

“Good girl,” Lady Willoughby said with a wink.

There was another round of drinks, and as I drank my body grew warm and comfortable. Hope was with me- loved me. Laughter and music filled the air. All of my earlier guilt, and even my worries about Father Pius, were beginning to feel almost silly.

“Are you sure you want to drink that?” Hope was saying to Brother Lux. “You don’t often indulge.”

I looked at Brother Lux, who was gazing at Hope and I with an unreadable expression. He blinked as though awakened from deep contemplation, and laughed.

“It will be fine just this once,” he said.

Just then there was a knock on the door, and the party went silent.

“Who is that?” Lady Willoughby whispered.

“Someone who was invited,” Father Pius replied. He turned toward the door and called, “enter.”

The door creaked open, and a tall, elegant girl walked into the room. She was wearing a simple, peasant fitted dress, and when she turned to close the door I could see straight, blonde hair that fell loose to her waist. She turned back and walked slowly toward our party, and I was struck by her pale, mournful countenance.

Father Pius stepped forward to greet her. “Good evening, Miss Taris.”

“I’ve made my decision,” she said without preamble. She pushed her hair back and removed her spectacles, revealing a dark bruise blossoming on her porcelain skin.

“I refuse to remain my father’s property. I don’t want to live in fear anymore.”

“You don’t need to live in fear,” Father Pius said. “You have power.”

“Please- teach me to use my power. Help me gain more.”

“To use your power fully and freely, you must join our circle and form a contract with a demon. You would lose any chance of seeing heaven in the next life in exchange for power in this one.”

“At least my soul will still be mine,” Miss Taris said fiercely.

Despite, or perhaps because of my half-intoxicated state, I felt compelled to speak. “Miss Taris-”

“Don’t worry, Lady Frey,” Miss Taris said with a wry smile. She put her spectacles back on. “This is my choice, for better or worse.”

Father Pius took Miss Taris’s hand and led her to the center of the room. “Brothers and sisters of the craft, I present a candidate for initiation: Miss Constance Taris. Miss Taris has demonstrated a clear talent for magic, specifically, the ability to sense the emotions and intentions of others. Will you accept her into the circle?”

My mind was moving sluggishly from the wine. Something in the back of my head was prodding me- he doesn’t care that you’re still here- but I couldn’t understand why that would matter.

Lady Willoughby put down her wineglass and picked up a candle. She brought it to Miss Taris and placed it on the ground near her feet.

“I welcome Miss Taris into our circle.”

Lord Willoughby picked up a candle and followed suit, though he merely bowed to Miss Taris instead of speaking.

Brother Lux picked up a third candle and placed it at Miss Taris’s feet, as well. “Welcome, Miss Taris. I promise we will guide and protect you.”

“There are three who could not make it here, tonight,” Father Pius said. He went to the mantle and took two candles. “I have received word from Captain Goode and Mrs. Auber, and they both welcome you into our coven, as do I.”

Hope stepped forward, his hands empty.

Father Pius arched an eyebrow. “Do you wish to object?”

“I do,” Hope said. “I don’t doubt Miss Taris’s magical talent, but I believe there are other talents that make a great mage, such as courage and perseverance. Miss Mercy has demonstrated both qualities, and yet she remains an acolyte after a year of dedication.”

“We have discussed this,” Father Pius said. “With Miss Mercy’s current level of magical strength, she would be unable to endure a contract.”

“I disagree,” Hope said quietly.

Father Pius nodded. “Duly noted. You aren’t the only one who feels this way- Miss Chastity has also sent me her objection. However, since six of us have voted to accept Miss Taris, the motion to initiate passes.”

Miss Taris stepped around the candles and fell to her knees, clutching Father Pius’s robes.

“I swear by my life to follow your teachings and abide by the coven laws.”

Father Pius offered a hand and helped Miss Taris to her feet.

“Congratulations, Miss Taris. Soon you will form your contract and be one of us by the powers of blood and magic.”

Part XXXVIII

The Coven- Somnium

True to my word, I did not fight the cadence of Hope’s voice. I let his words wash over me as they swelled and rolled like waves on the ocean. I felt at first as though I sank, and then I simply drifted.

In my mind’s eye, I didn’t see darkness or light. An endless grey fog enveloped me. Hope’s voice grew distant, and the waves stilled.  

Everything was silent.

I might have existed in the void for a second or an eternity. I let myself be one with the nothingness until something stirred inside of me. A question rose to the surface of my mind.

“Is this what it is to die?”

A response echoed all around me like a clap of thunder.

“Fear not.”

The voice echoed away, and I was alone in the void once more.

I let myself drift a moment, and then stirred again.

“Be at peace,” the voice around me commanded.

Another question arose in my mind. “How can I feel peace? How can I feel anything if I have no soul?”

“And yet- you do feel,” the voice replied.

The mist around me began to shift and coalesce into patches of darkness and pinpricks of light.

“Then what does a soul do?” I wondered.

The only answer was silence.

“I don’t know what a soul does,” I thought, “but I know that I can reason without one. I have reason to be afraid, so I am afraid.”

“You cannot change what is,” the voice replied, this time like a sigh of wind. “Why not accept your fate?”

“I accept what is so I can change what will be,” I said. “I won’t accept fate. I must become something more.”

As though I’d uttered magic words, the grey and black clouds burst apart like panels of a curtain, revealing a scene more vast, more vibrant, and far more real than anything I’d ever seen in my waking life. I saw world upon world, hung upon an invisible clockwork in an endless sea of night. There were too many worlds to count, and each world circled one of the pinprick stars in the distance.

Yet, when I looked more closely, I could see each world with dazzling clarity. Some worlds had vast blue oceans and white clouds like my own Terra, and some were streaked with bands of green and grey, like Tigris. When I looked even closer, I could see flora and fauna- some like the ones I knew, and some impossible to describe.

My own system of worlds came into view, and I turned my eyes toward my star- the sun.

The sunlight was so intense that it burned. I rubbed my eyes, blinked away the blurriness, and opened them. When I did, I saw Hope lying next to me, watching me closely.

 

 

#

 

 

The  sunlight that filled the room streamed in through the eastern window- so it was sunrise. I had slept all night.

Hope was gazing at me with anxious, bloodshot eyes. He was still holding my hand, and I realized that he had stayed with me all night, lending me his strength as I slept. He smiled a little, and all at once the wall around my heart crumbled away, and the morning light poured in.

Passionate and flawed and beautiful- he was my own, beloved Hope.

Slowly, I reached out to touch Hope’s face. His skin was smooth and delicate under my fingers, and he lay very still, continuing to watch me. Emboldened, I leaned closer and brushed my lips against his.

He kissed me back gently, letting me lead the kiss until I leaned back to look into his eyes once more.

“What a pleasant way to awaken,” he said, still smiling. “I take it that you feel better this morning.”

“I do,” I said.

He touched my forehead. “You have no fever, and the color has returned to your cheeks. Still, you shouldn’t strain yourse-”

I cut him off with another kiss.

“Hope,” I whispered after breaking the second kiss. “Do you think you could still love me, knowing what I am?”

Hope took me into his arms, holding me close to his chest, and I felt foolish for having asked.

“Could I love you? Grace, you are more precious to me than ever.”

“I love you,” I said. I buried my face in his shirt, wondering why tears fell from my eyes when I felt so happy.

Hope lifted my chin and kissed the tears away from my cheeks.

 

 

#

 

 

“I almost wish I were ill,” I complained to Hope as we walked arm in arm through the rose garden.

We had spent the morning together, covering each other in kisses and sweet whispers, and letting our love slowly blossom in our hearts. Unfortunately, we were not allowed much time together, as Hope soon pointed out. Hope needed to verify that the Prince was under the Coven’s control. Therefore, we were obliged to go to the salon, listen to the courtier’s whispers, and play the political game for a little bit longer.

However, it was difficult to focus on our task, so we walked to the salon the long way- across the courtyard- as slowly as our feet would carry us. The chilly fall breeze blew over the gardens, filling my nose with the heady scent of roses. Despite the late season, the roses were still large and full, rustling their red and white petals among the dying leaves.

“Why do you wish you were ill?” Hope asked.

“I hate social obligations,” I said. “I hate making polite, mindless conversation with people I dislike. I feel as though I’ve repeated the same phrases a thousand times since I’ve arrived. ‘The weather is mild this year. I hope your family is well. What a lovely gown you are wearing!’ If a courtier were ever to make an intelligent remark, I would pass out from the shock.”

Hope entwined his fingers with mine. “Then I hope that some courtier dazzles you with their wit, today, so I have an excuse to take you back to our rooms.”

I looked down, too embarrassed to look at Hope’s grin. Hope, however, stopped walking, touched my chin, and tilted my head up.

“I knew there was an innocent, lovestruck girl hidden inside you. I love your blush.”

On impulse, I reached up and kissed the smirk off of his face.

“Grace,” he said hesitantly, his smile fading a little. “You are still very young, but I-”

“You are still young and handsome, as you well know,” I countered.

“I don’t feel it. It seems like a miracle that I should have a second chance at love,” he said. “Grace, is it too early for me to ask you to be my lover, wife, mother to Celeste and mistress of my house? I offer it all to you.”

“It’s not too early. In fact, we are doing this out of order; I am already your wife, but this sounds like a proposal.”

Hope bowed slightly, and then tucked a piece of loose hair behind his ear. I could see a faint blush on his cheeks.

“Well, I suppose it is a proposal of sorts.”

“Then I accept it will all my heart.”

Hope leaned down to kiss my hand. Then he offered me his arm, and we started to walk once again.

“We will return to Rowan Heights very soon- I promise.”

“Within the week?” I asked, anxious to remove Hope from Father Pius’s influence.

“I think that can be arranged,” Hope said. “We should be united in all of our decisions from now on.”

“I agree. We should work together, as well. We have a common goal with regards to the High Priest’s seal; I wish to posthumously free my mother, and we both wish to save Celeste.”

“We will soon have the power to break the seal,” Hope said.

“How can you be so confident? Just yesterday you told me that only the power of a God could break it.”

“Remember- I consider hubris to be a virtue,” Hope said with a laugh. “We’ll gain unimaginable power sooner than you think. In the meantime, I need to ensure Celeste’s safety.”

“Of course. How happy we will be together!” I squeezed Hope’s hand, and then a thought struck me.

“Hope- I know this isn’t really my business, but-”

“It is your business. What is your question?”

“Celeste won’t know me as her mother, just as she doesn’t know you as her father. Why haven’t you acknowledged her as your heir?”

Hope frowned. “I should have thought my motives were obvious. Celeste is my daughter, and I have provided for her security no matter what happens. However, in the unlikely event I fail to lift my family’s curse, I don’t want her to end up in a position where she must either produce an heir or serve the church. Even though she is a girl, if I failed to produce sons the burden might fall to her. When the curse is lifted, I will acknowledge her openly.”

“So you have provided for her freedom. I think I love you all the more for it.”

We walked a little ways further until the silence was broken by the sound of footsteps on the gravel path. I turned to see Lady Innocence, dressed in traveling clothes and carrying a valise, walking down the path from the pavilions.

“Lady Dupuy!” Hope said.

Lady Innocence ignored Hope and, violating court protocol, walked straight to me and threw her arms around my neck.

“Thank you for everything,” she said. “The prince agreed to forgive Purity this morning.”

My face grew a little warm as I remembered that I had promised to speak to the Prince on her behalf.

“If the Prince has forgiven her, then why are you leaving?” I asked.

“I-” Lady Innocence took a deep breath and looked down at her hands. “It is difficult to explain, and you may believe that I’m just imagining things, but the Prince seems altered.”

“In what way?” Hope demanded.

Lady Innocence shot Hope a glare, and then took my arm and pulled me a little ways aside.

“There have been rumors regarding the Prince’s mental state ever since he hit his head in a hunting accident. At that time, everyone thought he was weak, and would try to reconcile with Sancti for his mother’s protection.”

“That would have been around the time you received your father’s letter,” Hope said to me. He had followed us closely, and was listening to Lady Innocence’s story, but she continued to ignore him.

“Well, the Prince recovered, and your father regained his favor. The two continued to pursue their ambition to rule Aeterna. I thought the Prince was perfectly well, but this morning I spoke to him and everything was different.”

“How so?”

Lady Innocence’s eyes grew watery, but she blinked rapidly, sniffed, and regained her composure. “He is quiet now, only speaking when spoken to. He doesn’t smile or laugh at all. His answers are all rational -I don’t believe he’s mad- but I worry he’s lost the will to fight for his kingdom.”

A tear broke loose and fell down Lady Innocence’s cheek, and she hastily scrubbed it away with her sleeve.

“I dare not stay to see if he will recover again. My house and estate are within Sancti’s borders. I came to St Blanc to support the Prince’s cause, and to help rebuild the great kingdom of Aeterna. Aeterna was magnificent in the stories- the nation built on the ruins of the Ancient War- so I thought it should be sovereign. Because I did support the Prince, I can’t go home, and if Aeterna falls, I will die.”

“Oh- Lady Dupuy-”

“Call me Innocence. My title doesn’t mean anything, anymore. I’m going to del Sol to seek refuge and be with Purity.”

Lady Innocence sighed and looked around the grounds. “I will miss St. Blanc- the splendor, the parties, everything. I’m sorry I misjudged you, Lady Frey, and I’m sorry we couldn’t be friends longer. Take care of yourself, and flee if you can. I fear the worst.”

Hope and I watched as Lady Innocence walked away. She made a lonely figure on the splendid garden path.

“What have you done to earn Lady Innocence’s confidence?” he asked.

“I can’t say I’ve earned it- I did nothing to help her in any material way. She’s lost everything.”

“You feel sorry for her,” Hope said. “Remember- she chose to support a repressive regime.”

“You love Lady Innocence as little as she loves you.”

“She certainly gave me the cold shoulder today,” Hope said with a chuckle.

“You deserved no less,” I said. “The way you used her friend, Lady Purity, was despicable. You casually took advantage of a girl, deprived her of her free will, and allowed her to be cast aside while you suffered no consequences.”

“I thought you had forgiven me,” Hope said softly.

“I forgave you, but if Lady Innocence hasn’t then I understand why. I love you, Hope, but I swore that I wouldn’t let my love blind me. If you are at fault for something, I will be honest.”

Hope wound his arms around my waist. “Then I will depend on your wisdom and honesty. Help to make me a better man.”

“I will if you promise to do the same for me,” I said. “Heartlessness is my only virtue.”

 

 

#

 

 

My journey to the salon with Hope was in vain. The Prince never ventured from his chamber, and the courtiers spoke of nothing but their anticipation of that night’s ballet.

Prince Hadrian was a famous patron of the ballet, and there was a royal theatre on the palace grounds where he enjoyed hosting the best dancers in all of Aeterna. The first ballet of the season promised to be a magnificent performance, and that evening every member of the court was in attendance.

Hope and I had a small box, which we shared with Lord and Lady Willoughby and from where we could see the Prince’s box and the stage equally well. We arrived in the theatre before the Prince- just as dissonant, hypnotic sounds began to drift up from the orchestra pit as the musicians prepared to play. The courtiers chattered in low murmurs, muted by the profusion of plush red velvet on the seats, aisles, and tassled curtains.

Both the murmurs and musicians grew silent at once, and the lights dimmed slightly. A spotlight was turned not on the stage, but toward the Prince’s gold-leaf box. He had arrived with Lady Fairfax to his right, and Lord Taris on his left. My father, as expected, was nowhere to be seen.

All of the courtiers stood, and turned toward the Prince’s glittering box seat in anticipation.

The Prince looked out at the  crowd for a moment, and then sat down.

Lady Willoughby giggled as we sat down. “What is wrong, Prince?” she whispered. “No hour-long speech on the superiority of ballet as an art form? No tedious explanation of the ballet’s plot?”

“The Prince seems to have lost his tongue,” Hope said through gritted teeth.

Lord Willoughby only shrugged his shoulders, and then turned to wink at his wife, who laughed in response.

“Your husband is worried over nothing,” Lady Willoughby said. “This Prince will serve very well, I think. By the way- my husband wishes to compliment you. You look stunning this evening, and I must say I agree with him.”

“Thank you,” I said.

Lady Willoughby leaned in and whispered in my ear. “You look happy, Lady Frey. And despite his anxiety, I know that Lord Frey is in heaven, now.”

“Despite everything, my heart has found peace,” I said.

“I’m so happy for you,” she said, and she gave me an airy kiss on the cheek.

Soon the orchestra swelled, and the curtain rose, revealing a stage draped in blue and white gossamer that looked like clouds. Three dancers with glittering wings attached to their backs glided onto the stage.

The music swelled again, the glittered angels danced, and I was in another world far away from court politics and intrigue. In this world, angels and fairies engaged in an almost merry war over the soul of a young girl, enticing her in turn with riches, status, and the hearts of handsome knights.

Sometimes, when there was a lull in the music, I would look up to the Prince’s box. He sat very still as the ballet unfolded before his unblinking eyes. When the music ended, and the dancers took their final bows, the Prince did not applaud. He only stood, turned, and left.

Part XXXVII