The Coven, Part LXXV

Miriam, Lystra, Terra, Mari, Tigris, Surra, Astra…

      I spoke each word of the mantra under my breath, yet each one seemed so sharp and clear that I felt as though I might have shouted. Once every so often, my awareness would expand, and I would realize how luminous the room was, how calm my heart had become, and how easily my breath cycled. Then I would turn my mind back to the words- not the planets they represented, but just the words. How could something so simple be so powerful? It grew easier and easier focus my mind, until I knew nothing but the words.

This luminous place seemed a thousand miles away from the dark bedroom where I’d been moments before. Prudence and I had spent the night conspiring together, as we always did. We had speculated who the stalker on the road from the cathedral might have been, we had composed letters to Hope’s attorney, to my solicitor, and to Prudence’s mother, and then, as the new day had begun to dawn, we’d talked about Hope.

“Pius still won’t let you see him?”

“No. He says I’m not ready. Hope has altered, and Pius is afraid I wouldn’t be able to handle the alteration.”

Prudence had shuddered and drew her knees to her chest as she gazed at the orange embers that lay dying in the grate. “Oh Hope- Hope. What have they done to you?” she’d whispered.

We had ceased to be any help to each other- we were lost together in the same tumultuous waters of anxiety and grief. We sat side by side, we held each other’s hands, and yet we had no strength between us to share.

Prudence had been first to emerge from our mutual stupor. She stood suddenly and tore back the curtains, letting the dull orange light from the rising sun inside. Then she turned to me with a frown.

“I need to get out of this room. Is there anywhere else we can be alone?”

I had stood slowly, and it had taken a few moments for me to emerge from the darkness enough to speak.

“Come with me- I know a place,” I’d said.

I took Prudence upstairs to the garret, where we sat in my fortress of books. There, Prudence had given me another lesson in meditation as the morning light spilled unfiltered through the skylight.

I was improving, but I was not able to focus on my mantra as long as Prudence could. While Prudence continued to meditate long into the morning, I and allowed my mind to drift, enjoying the clarity of thought the exercise had provided.

I picked up the old collection of fairy tales and puzzled over the Tale of the Magi. The tale that had frustrated me so long ago now seemed simple- the mage’s soul and his strength of will were entwined. Could this be a clue for the nature of the soul, I wondered? Could a person merely will their own soul into existence?

This brought a memory, unbidden, to the front of my mind- a cruel taunt that Pius had used against me. “You want to obey me, but your will means nothing. You aren’t free- just powerless.”

Does Pius really believe I possess no will of my own, or did he only mean to torment me?  I thought. I knew I had a will of my own, but it seemed strange- unfathomable. When I merely think about moving my hand, my hand does not move. The movement only comes when I somehow force it to act. When I considered this, the moment between thought and action seemed as thin as a knife’s edge. What was there? How could I see it?

I thought of reaching out, and then I reached out. I could not see the moment of will. I thought of picking up a book, and then I picked up a book. Still- I could not see- could not feel what had happened. I thought of dropping the book and then I dropped it. That time, I thought I’d felt something akin to the tightening of a string.

Then the garret door swung open, and my thoughts were interrupted by the pattering of feet, followed by laughter.

“I’m sorry- I didn’t know anyone was here,” Celeste said, reaching down to pick up Snowbear. “I couldn’t keep Snowbear quiet any longer, so I brought him up here. He needs to go for his walk, I think.”

“Then we shall take him,” I said, standing. “Do you think he would like to see the avenue?”

Prudence opened her eyes slowly, as though emerging from a deep sleep, but she stood and said, “yes, a walk will do us all good.”

Prudence flung on her veil, and we all went downstairs together. As we were putting on our wraps, however, Mercy rushed out.

“You must not go out alone,” she scolded. She put a very close bonnet over her cap, as though to protect from the sun, and then checked that snowbear’s lead was secure.

“We must stay on the avenue and then come straight back,” Mercy said as she opened the door. “Lady Frey- Lady Fairfax asked me to remind you that you have another obligation this morning.”

“Ah, yes. I remember,” I said.

“It may be best if you stay here with your father. We will be back shortly,” Mercy said, eyeing me from underneath her bonnet.

“I understand,” I said. “I’m sorry, Celeste.”

“That’s alright. Give your father my love,” Celeste said, reaching down to pat Snowbear one more time before they left.

The party left and shut the door behind them, their laughter seeming to echo in the empty foyer behind them.

 

 

 

#

 

 

I went upstairs and found my father alone in his bedroom. He was awake and sitting up in bed, staring blankly out the window at the quiet street below. He did not seem to notice when I sat beside him, and he did not respond when I bid him good morning.

“I brought you the Gazette,” I said as I settled myself in a chair beside him. “You always preferred the Gazette to the Post, did you not? I hope you will forgive me if I skip the lead story.”

The lead story was a rather threadbare article on the upcoming trial, in which the author only offered the opinion that “the Gods’ justice will no doubt be served when the truth comes out,” with no speculation about what the truth may be. The second story, which I read aloud, was about a merchant ship loaded with expensive spices from the wildlands that had been lost at sea. This was followed by slanderous gossip about the behavior of the merchant’s seventeen-year-old daughter, which I skipped in disgust.

With a couple more omissions, I read to the end of the paper without inspiring so much as a twitch from my father. There was noteworthy absence of gossip about the dealings of court or the Prince, though I was almost tempted to invent something with regards to the Prince to see if that would provoke my father to react.

The temptation was fleeting. Instead I reached for one of the books in the stack by father’s bed, a tome titled, Wars of the Piscina Islands, and began to read once more.

I had only read a few pages when there was a soft knock on the door. Before I could answer the knock, Brother Lux opened the door and entered.

“How is my patient?” Lux asked as he entered.

At this greeting, a hot wave of anger washed over me so suddenly that it seemed almost irrational. I turned away and took a few moments to calm myself.

As much as I hated Brother Lux, the hatred was not new or fresh enough to provoke my anger. The new anger that existed was toward myself- Brother Lux had only served as a mirror.

“There has been no change,” I said finally, and I remained in my seat as Brother Lux came into the room. Brother Lux moved around the bed and briefly examined my father, and then he sat in a chair across from me.

“Has your father been sleeping well?”

“I don’t know. You had better ask Lady Fairfax or Mr. Smith.”

“Have you been sleeping well?” Brother Lux asked, turning to me with raised eyebrows. “You seem in a poor mood, this morning.”

“On the contrary; my mind is very clear. It’s only just occurred to me what a hypocrite I’ve been- what hypocrites we all are.”

I put the book aside and folded my hands, looking into Lux’s eyes.

“Why do you continue to care for my father when you know nothing can be done for him, and when his improvement would be against your own interest?”

“Your father is human, and he is suffering,” Brother Lux said. “I know that you don’t believe it, but everything that I have done, and continue to do, is to end suffering on earth.”

“I thought you might say so,” I said. “You believe what you say, too. You are like me, in a way. It’s human nature.”

Brother Lux tilted his head and graced me with a condescending smile. “You are young. I recall how profound everything seemed when I first discovered human nature. It’s easy to let yourself grow cynical.”

“I’m not only being cynical. Remember that I have been to court, and I made friendships that I value quite highly among all of the intrigue. Take Lady Innocence, for example: she is a kind and gentle girl, and a loyal friend, but in her mind life is a story, and she is the heroine.

“Lady Innocence must have earnestly believed the stories she told herself, because she gave up her homeland, her people, and her property to further the plot. Even so, she left her place at court and gave up her new alliances when she saw that the Prince was going to fall. This almost broke her spirit, until she was able to tell herself a new tale, and fit it with the old one. She still sees herself as a lady, even as she toils at del Sol. She is still the heroine of Aeterna and the flower of the court, even though she acted to save herself when it was rational to do so. At del Sol, she can still serve Order, Aeterna, and the greater good.”

“I don’t doubt what you say, but you and I bear very little resemblance to Lady Innocence.”

“Don’t we? Most people are the heroes of their own tales. Most people think that they are ‘good.’ When they act cruelly, they formulate rationalizations to explain away the inconsistency of their character. I have done this myself- I see myself as the victim of the cruel villains around me, and I’ve blinded myself to the villany I’ve committed.

“If I don’t change the pattern of my mind, I will continue to destroy the goodness within myself until nothing remains of me but a story.”

Brother Lux leaned back in his chair, and though he did not break my gaze, he seemed almost to squirm under it until my father cried out, and he was forced to look away.

“It has come for me- the destroyer of souls,” Father cried. “It is here! My fate has come for me.”

“There is nothing here,” Brother Lux said, and he stood to go to my father. “Go to sleep. There are no monsters.”

Brother Lux tried to press my father back against his pillows, but my father fought back, kicking at Brother Lux until his own legs became tangled in the bedclothes. I went to my father’s other side and took his shoulders, but though he was not as strong as I had remembered, he squirmed so much that it took all of Brother Lux’s and my combined effort to subdue him. Finally, Brother Lux placed his hand over my father’s head while I held my father still in a grip of Iron.

“Go to sleep,” I said in frustration.

My father sighed, lay back on the pillow, and closed his eyes.

I wiped the sweat from my brow. Struggling with my father in the close little room had proven far more exhausting than sparring in the cool sea breeze at del Sol. I went to the window and threw open the sash.

“He- he is resting,” Brother Lux stammered. “I think it would be best if we did not disturb him any further, today.”

Read from the beginning.

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Time Travel, Part IV

 

               This morning, July 15, 2018, I officially declare my time-traveler experiment complete. Below are the results.

      I have not been contacted by any time-travelers or prognosticators with the results of the dice rolls I made this morning at 8:30 am, CDT.

      1d12- 9

      2d6- 6,4

      2d20- 16,9

      1d30- 8

      1d8- 2

      1d100- 50

      1d6- 6

      1d4- 3

      1d12- 12

      1d12- 7

      1d20- 5

 

      In summation- no paradox-enabled time-travelers met me at the designated meeting place on week one. One person guessed the result of one of my paradox-safe dice rolls on week two, after I had already made the roll, and did not guess any of the other rolls. No one guessed the results of my rolls on week three after I’d offered them a lost sonata written by a singularly unaccomplished musician.

      I had planned to offer ever-increasing incentives until I reached my highest possible bid, and then declare the time-travel experiment closed. Unfortunately, earlier this week I came across the following story.

      Stephen Hawking and the time-traveler party.

      Stephen Hawking had already conducted an experiment similar to mine- he threw a party for time-travelers and sent the invitations out afterward. There was also an open invitation for time-travelers to attend his memorial. According to reports, no time-travelers came.

      I had actively been trying to avoid seeing the results of experiments similar to mine because I didn’t wish to grow discouraged, and that may have been wise. I know that I will never, ever be able to offer a time-traveler anything better than the chance to party with Stephen Hawking, or the chance to pay their respects him. I cannot compete with a giant. Therefore, my experiment is closed.

      Conclusion: Either there is no time-travel, time-travel is guarded by a secure gate or temporal prime directive, there is too much informational noise in the infinity of time for time-travelers to find invitations from the past, or the time-travelers can only reply to Bridgetts in tangential timelines. (Edited to add- someone has let me know that another possible confounder is that someone may tamper with my experiment or dice-roll results in the future. They have, after all, infinite time and opportunity to do so. This is less of a problem because there is a window in which I have already observed the results remain the same.)

      Things I wish I had considered: the possibility of my local starbucks being overrun by an infinite number of time-travelers, the possibility of my blog or twitter being overrun by an infinite number of messages from time-travelers.

The Coven, Part LXXIV

“Answer me honestly, girl. You will go to the gallows with your husband if I discover you’ve lied.”

I was sitting on a short wooden stool in the middle of a massive stone room. Father Pius’s considerable height towered over me as he paced in circles close enough to brush his white robes against me.

“When did you marry Lord Frey?” he snapped.

“I was married to Lord Frey a week after midsummer,” I answered readily.

“How soon after your marriage did you arrive at Rowan Heights?”

“We spent the wedding night at a cottage on his property- on bluebell hill. I moved into the manor the next day.”

“Why didn’t you go straight to the manor?”

“The weather was fine, so we had a picnic on the hill,” I said. “He wanted to show me the view of the stars from the hill, and…”

“And it was there that you consummated your union?”

“I hardly think that is relevant,” I snapped back, my cheeks going hot.

Father Pius sighed and put a hand over his face in exasperation. He stepped away, and I could feel my tight muscles relax a little when he no longer towered over me.

“No no no- you must never show the inquisitors your anger,” he said. “Blush all you like- you may even stammer a little, if they ask you something delicate; it is ladylike. If you show them anger, however, you will appear rebellious.”

When I was told that Father Pius would prepare me to give testimony, I had imagined that he would assist me in putting together a consistent narrative that would withstand scrutiny. Instead, he took to drilling me, examining my responses, and making me repeat them again and again while he did his best to intimidate. We had been working for hours, and fatigue was starting to wear on my mind.

“Would they really ask-“

“The inquisitors will likely ask you more personal questions than this. They will examine not only your answers, but also your attitude and countenance in great detail. If you answer the personal questions too readily, you will appear to lack proper feeling.”

“But I must never show my anger, even if the feeling is just.”

“You must appear meek and obedient to the church,” Father Pius said. “Remember the girl who handed me her treatise early last fall, and then try again.”

My stomach turned when I thought of continuing- of disclosing personal details of my life with Hope to my greatest enemy- but I could not deny that Pius was right. I would soon face the inquisition before Pius and before the whole world, and I could not allow for the slightest inconsistency in my performance.

So I shut my eyes and imagined the stars, as Prudence had instructed. When my mind was clear, and my stomach settled, I opened my eyes.

“Alright- continue,” I said.

Pius stepped forward again and turned the force of his gaze on me. “Did you consummate your marriage at the cottage?”

“I-“ I found myself blushing, despite my determination. “I was very shy when I first married, and Lord Frey is a gentle and considerate husband. He would not press me until I was ready.”

“Better,” Pius said. “A very proper and ladylike answer, and it casts Lord Frey in a good light. When you arrived at Rowan Heights, did you notice anything unusual?”

I remembered the forbidden library, Celeste’s sudden arrival and her warnings that Hope’s friends were ‘strange,’ Chastity’s curt and measured responses to all of my questions, and Hope’s admission that he was a heretic.

“The kitchens seemed inconveniently far from the dining hall,” I said.

“The kitchens…” Father Pius’s stern countenance was replaced with a look of sheer incredulity, and then his mouth twitched, as though he were actually about to laugh.

“If I really did know nothing, what would I say?” I protested.

“Your answer would have been perfect if you were trying to hide knowledge of your husband’s guilt from neighborhood gossips- not the inquisition. You presumably know what information the inquisitors seek.”

“But if I say ’nothing’ too readily…”

“Say it readily. Say that the house was beautiful, your husband was kind, and his friends were welcoming. Remember that you will be subject to the litany of truth, and you are the only witness who will be able to tell a direct lie.”

A jolt of fear hit me, and I sat up in my stool. “Mrs. Auber will testify, though, will she not?”

“Mrs. Auber is still bound by coven law, so she cannot reveal any secret I do not authorize. Still, under the litany of truth, she will not be able to tell a direct lie. You alone can directly deny every charge against your husband. This is why your testimony is vital.”

And why you have agreed to protect me for so long, I thought, but did not say aloud.

“Unfortunately, while I can see into Mrs. Auber’s soul to help guide her responses, you must answer on your own. I urge you to take our rehearsals seriously, Lady Frey.”

“The inquisition knows that the litany of truth cannot break coven contracts and force witches to reveal themselves, which is why so many innocent people go to the gallows,” I thought aloud. “But how will you convince the inquisition that I am innocent of witchcraft without revealing that I can resist the litany of truth? I’ve been called a witch more than once due to my connection with Hope.”

“That was before I, the High Priest, personally interrogated you and cleared your name,” Pius said. “As far as anyone knows, I am subjecting you to torture and high-level holy spells as we speak.”

“If it were so easy, then you could simply ‘interrogate’ everyone in the coven and declare them innocent,” I said.

“But that would not serve my ends,” he said. “The trial must commence, and you must play your part.”

I suppressed a sigh and bit back my retort, unwilling to provoke Father Pius after having ventured so many questions. Instead I sat straighter and said, “alright- I am ready to continue.”

“No- you are fatigued,” Father Pius said.

He gestured for me to follow him, and then led me through the massive, empty stone room and into an adjacent office. The office was similar to the one he’d occupied at the cathedral at St. Blanc- small, but filled with comfortable objects. There was a handsome bronzewood desk, overstuffed chairs, shelves filled with leather-bound books, and a fine porcelain tea set. Pius gestured for me to sit in one of the overstuffed chairs, and then placed a shining brass kettle on the hob.

“You have an able mind,” Father Pius said, measuring herbs into his teapot, “but you have not rested as you should.”

“I have rested enough,” I said.

“Perhaps it was a mistake to bring you to your father’s house. I did not think his condition would affect you, but it has. The added stress may prove detrimental to your mind.”

“I will no longer avoid my father or my responsibility toward him. I cannot take the easy route when I transgress- I cannot pray for forgiveness and wipe away my sins. All I can do is try to make amends for the pain I’ve caused.”

Father Pius looked up from the teapot and regarded me for a long time, his eyebrows raised as though in shock. I turned away and looked into the flames. After hours of interrogation, I felt raw and exposed, and the unfortunate consequence was that Father Pius was the one present to see what lay underneath the open wounds.

After a few moments of silence, the kettle sang, and Father Pius moved around the table to retrieve it.

“Since you cannot defer to divine guidance, you must rely on merely mortal abilities,” Father Pius said. He poured hot water into the teapot, and then sat in the chair across from me to wait for the tea to steep. “Remember your limitations, Lady Frey.”

“I find it strange that you would push me to the brink over and over again, only to remind me of my limitations,” I said.

Father Pius poured the tea and handed me a cup. The scent of the tea was almost metallic, and the color was such a bright shade of crimson that it reminded me of blood. I hesitated, unsure of whether I should trust him enough to drink.

“The tea is made with rose hips and terra root- herbs to calm the mind. I am trying to strengthen you, not break you.”

I took a tentative sip of the tea, which was sweet, but not cloying. I looked at Father Pius over the edge of the cup as I drank, watching as his stark figure wavered slightly through the vapors. The tea was calming as he had promised, and I felt emboldened enough to speak again.

“Am I speaking to Pius now, or to Lux?” I asked. “I thought you were Pius when you interrogated me, but now you seem…”

“Gentler?”

“Well, yes, but I was going to say more grounded – less lofty than usual.”

Pius smirked before drinking his own tea. Then he said, “sometimes, our thoughts grow so entwined that I can no longer distinguish which are my own, and sometimes I can hardly feel his presence in my mind at all. Right now, Lux is performing some tiresome tasks on my behalf, and he is distracted. Still, his influence remains with me.”

Pius put his cup down, and he turned his gaze away from his reveries and toward me. “Do you have any other questions, Lady Frey? Keep in mind that too much curiosity can be a dangerous thing.”

“Just the obvious question- when can I see Hope?”

“You are not ready,” Father Pius said firmly.

“I’ve written him a letter,” I said, pulling a note from my pocket. “If you would allow-“

“There’s no more need for letters- Lord Frey knows you are here, and that he will see you soon. I will take you to his cell when you are stronger.”

“I am perfectly well. I had a trifling cold, which has long passed.”

“I’m not referring to your cold, Lady Frey. I’m referring to your mental state. Lord Frey has endured torture, and he is… altered.”

“How has he altered?”

Pius narrowed his eyes for a long time, as though doing a mental calculation. Then he stood, towering over me once more.

“If you wish to know, then I suggest you take care of yourself. Rest, resolve your family issues, and try harder to focus when I interrogate you. When you are ready, I will allow you to see Lord Frey.”

Then Father Pius went to the door and called into the hallway.

“Brother Amicus, please escort Lady Frey and her servant home.”

 

 

 

#

 

 

 

Brother Amicus led Mercy and I down the long stone hallways and to the entryway, where the giant oak doors were propped open to let the cool evening breeze inside. Brother Amicus leaned out of the doorway to peer outside, and then turned to Mercy and me.

“The crowds from evening prayer have yet to disperse,” Brother Amicus said. “I would rather you not be exposed to harassment, my Lady.”

“I will ask the coachman to bring the carriage to the door,” Mercy offered, stepping forward.

“No, I will go,” Brother Amicus said. “Someone in the crowd may recognize you as Lady Frey’s maid. It is my duty to ensure you remain protected.”

“I am perfectly capable of protecting my Lady and myself,” Mercy said, brushing past Brother Amicus. She went through the doorway and then paused abruptly.

“Although- it is rather late,” Mercy said, backing into the entry once more. “Perhaps you are wise to take precautions, Brother Amicus.”

Brother Amicus smiled and nodded to Mercy before he left to fetch the carriage, but Mercy turned her face away from him.

“Mercy?” I ventured once Brother Amicus had gone.

“Your safety comes before my pride, Lady Frey. I should not leave you alone in this place. I would not have let you alone with Pius, if I’d had a choice.”

Mercy turned to face me. “Did Pius hurt you?”

“No- he only asked questions.”

Mercy continued to gaze at me searchingly, but she did not say anything else until the carriage rolled up to the door.

Mercy normally sat on the box seat, where she kept her keen eyes on our surroundings, but Brother Amicus asked her to sit inside the carriage with us, and she did not object. Once we were all inside, however, she watched out the carriage window, turning once in a while to glare at Brother Amicus.

Brother Amicus only smiled in response to Mercy’s frowns, and he spoke to me in gentle tones.

“Lacy Frey, you must be fatigued. You will be home shortly.”

“I am fine, thank you,” I said.

“Someone is following us,” Mercy interrupted.

Brother Amicus blinked a few times, and then seemed to rally as he turned to Mercy.

“The city has been crowded this season. If there’s a carriage behind us-“

“There is no carriage; our stalker is on foot. They are cloaked, and I suppose they think they are moving stealthily. They are quick and agile enough, but leaping behind post-boxes and bins and then rolling out again is not the best way to remain unseen.”

“They must be quick, indeed, to keep up with our carriage,” I said. I leaned over to look out of the window, but Mercy stopped me.

“No- I don’t want them to see your face if they haven’t already.”

Brother Amicus leaned over to look, instead. “Their cowl slipped down on their last dive- I believe our pursuant is red-headed.”

This comment gave me pause, but only for a moment. I opened the forward window and called to the coachman.

“Take us down the next road, please, and then turn around. I left something at the cathedral.”

Mercy nodded to me in approval before turning back to the window. The carriage turned onto a dark road, and then through a wide alley before moving back onto the main road. We were halfway back to the cathedral when Mercy said.

“Whoever it was, we’ve lost them. I haven’t seen them since the alleyway.”

I turned to the forward window, again. “I’m so sorry- the item was in my purse all along. We can go back to the house.”

The coachman nodded cordially, though I could hear him mutter “women” under his breath before I closed the window again.

When we reached Brighton Place, I was eager to discuss what had occurred with Mercy and with Prudence, but Lady Fairfax met me on the way to my room.

“Oh good- you are home,” Lady Fairfax said. “You have two cards and a letter waiting for you, Lady Frey, and Doctor Pearson wished particularly for me to give you a message on your behalf.”

She took my arm and walked me to my room as she spoke. “The doctor would like for you to sit with your father some time in the mornings- speak to him and try to get him to use his mind. Dr. Pearson thinks you might do it best, since you are Lord Ainsworth’s own daughter.”

“My father and I have never been very close,” I said. “I hardly know what I would say to him.”

“It doesn’t matter- there’s a stack of books next to his bed, so you can simply read aloud if you wish. There must be some paternal feelings there, and it’s possible your presence may activate them. Please, Lady…”

Lady Fairfax paused in her walk and fixed me with her limpid eyes, and I could not refuse.

“Alright, I will try,” I promised.

“Thank you,” she said, and she began to walk once more. “Oh- by the by, I had some clothes ordered for you from Lasalle’s- he is my dressmaker, and he is unmatched in taste and skill. I took your traveling dress in for sizing, but once the clothes arrive try them on to see if they need adjusting.”

“Thank you, Lady Fairfax, but that was really not necessary-“

Of course it was necessary,” Lady Fairfax said with a shocked expression. “My dear child, how can you give testimony if you look like a pauper? You must remind the inquisitors of your station, and of the power you possess as a Lady and a Noble, or else they will crush you.”

This advice was so opposed to Father Pius’s that it gave me pause, and I thought it over as Lady Fairfax led me back to my room.

“Smith has placed the cards in your room, and – Oh! Good evening, Sister.”

Prudence had been standing in the hallway, waiting for me by my door. “Good evening, your ladyship,” she said with a slight bow to Lady Fairfax, and then she turned to me. “Celeste has already had her supper and has fallen asleep. I had thought we might talk, but you may wish to go straight to bed, yourself.”

“You do seem fatigued, Lady Frey,” Lady Fairfax agreed. “Have you had a chance to eat, or shall I send Smith up with something for you?”

“I would like some tea, if it isn’t too much trouble,” I said.

“No trouble at all, my girl. I will ring for your tea at once.” Lady Fairfax patted my hand and went to ring the bell.

“Did Pius hurt you?” Prudence whispered after Lady Fairfax had gone.

“He only made me fatigued with too many questions- he has kept his promises, so far.”

I went into my room and found the calling cards Lady Fairfax had mentioned. I picked up the first card, which was printed so finely I had to squint to read it in the firelight.

“Mrs. Equanimous Goode?” I said.

“Mother!” Prudence whispered harshly as she took the card from my hands. “Why would she call?”

“I’ve never met her,” I said. “I certainly wasn’t expecting the call, but I suppose she would like to see Celeste.”

“There’s a note on the back of the card- ‘I am eager to meet you.’ What is the woman thinking?”

“Do you think I should meet her?” I asked. “She may have more information about the trial and the condition of the prisoners, if they’ve allowed her to see Captain Goode-“

“You’re right- you’re right,” Prudence said distractedly. She handed me the card and paced around me. “Justice was her favorite- he never defied her, and he was not estranged from her before being arrested, so she may be more inclined to believe that he’s innocent.”

Prudence stopped pacing and turned to face me. “You should see her, but please make it very clear that you will continue to care for Celeste.”

We were interrupted then by the arrival of Smith, who wheeled in a tea cart filled with not only tea, but also a tureen of savory soup.

Prudence sat with me while I ate, and then when I was finished she cast the spell of silence once more. We conspired together until the embers burned low in the grate.

Part LXXV

Start from the beginning.

Time Travel Part III

Last week, I issued a challenge to time-travelers (as well as any prognosticators who may be reading) to foretell the results of a series of dice rolls I was to make today, 07/08/2018 at 9:30 AM CDT. I promised to post the results of the rolls no matter the outcome of the experiment, in order to avoid any potential paradox. The results of the dice rolls are as follows.

1 d10- 5

1 d20- 18

3 d6- 6,2,2

3 d6- 5,2,5

1 d100- 73

1 d20- 13

1 d4- 4

1 d4- 4

1 d12- 1

1 d6- 4

2 d20- 2,8

Result: 1 person guessed 1 dice roll- the 1d20 (18) during a d6 dice roll. I assign a probability so low that it is negligible that this person is a time traveler. I hereby conclude that this experiment is a successful failure.

The person who made the guess has expressed to me the doubt that 1) a time-traveler would ever see my posts, considering the infinite informational noise contained within time. Even if time-travelers have infinite time to find your posts, they say, more information is being added in the meantime. To a time-traveler with unlimited time, I am infinitely unimportant.

I have no way to combat this effect experimentally, except to say to myself that an infinite subset of infinity seems to approach one, instead of “undefined” as they say (I’m not able to do the math as of yet- this is intuitive.) However, I cannot deny I my cosmic unimportance does approach infinity.

I only have one incentive to offer any time-travelers, and it is a mere trifle. I am going under the assumption that some time-travelers will become collectors of sorts, and seek out lost treasures in the time stream. To that end I am willing to offer any time-travelers a quaint little sonata I wrote when I was in college. I never wrote down or recorded the sonata, and it only exists in my brain. If and when I go, the sonata goes, too. If any time-travelers would like a copy of the sonata, send me the result of next-week’s dice rolls. I will roll early next Sunday, 07/15/2018, at 8:30 AM.

The Coven, Part LXXIII

Bright rays of morning light leaked past my eyelids, stirred my mind, and enticed me back to the world.

The sun had risen high enough to reflect off of the paved roads and brick buildings, filling my room with the city’s white glare. I opened my eyes to see the glare mingling with the dust that danced in the seldom-opened window. My eyes followed the beam of light from the window to the pillow beside me, where it was caught in a web of scarlet curls.

Prudence was still asleep, though her eyes were squeezed tight as though to protest the invading light. I could not bear to reach out to wake her- to be the one who caused her eyes to squint open, and her mouth to frown.

Then a loud thumping at the door caused me to jump up, and my heart to thump in response.

Prudence continued to sleep as though she had heard nothing.

There was a strange discord in the air- the morning light contrasted sharply with the dark shadows the lie behind the curtains. There was a second thump at the door, and at that moment a cloud fell across the sun, blotting the glare away. A dark premonition fell over me, and I could not silence the voice in my mind that said danger.

I reached out and shook Prudence. “Wake up- put on your veil. Someone is knocking.”

Prudence groaned and sat up, but she put on the veil so I could not see her frown. Then I got up and unlocked the door, and I saw Mercy on the other side.

“Good Morning, my Lady,” Mercy said with just a bit of annoyance at the edge of her sweet voice. “Do you need me to help you dress? Brother Lux will arrive soon to examine your father.”

“Of course- thank you,” I said.

Prudence rushed past us, muttering that she would wake Celeste.

 

 

#

 

 

My father sat stiffly against plush velvet cushions, dressed in a satin dressing gown that hung off of his thin shoulders. He hadn’t moved since the moment I arrived, except to sit up when directed by Dr. Pearson, and to swallow a spoonful of medicine. Now he was staring blankly into a bright beam of sunlight without even blinking or squinting his eyes.

I went to the window and drew the curtains shut.

“I had hoped that your presence would reach him,” Dr. Pearson, said sadly. “You are Lord Ainsworth’s closest relation. Perhaps if you speak to him-“

Just then the door opened, and Brother Lux entered the room.

All at once, my father’s countenance changed. His eyes went wide with fear, and he pressed back against his cushions as though trying to escape.

“Don’t come closer,” he whimpered. “Don’t touch me.”

Brother Lux shut the door, and then sat on a stool near the bed.

“I will not touch you, my Lord- not until you give me leave,” he said in a low, soft voice. “For now, I just wish to speak with you.”

My father stared at Brother Lux for a long time as though bewildered. Dr. Pearson moved away from the bed and nodded to Brother Lux, as though giving him leave to question the patient.

“I went to Willowbrook- I did,” Father finally ventured in a hoarse croak. “They brought me here.”

“It’s alright, Verdant City is a place of healing,” Brother Lux said gently. “Your loved ones only wish to see you well.”

“No no-“ Father fell against his pillows again and stared up at the ceiling. “They want me to burn. They all want me to burn. Hell is too good a place- a worse fate awaits me. It is all over.”

Father sighed deeply, and then looked up at Brother Lux. “You are the eagle- but you can have the rose. I will not stop you if you take the rose. Just please- don’t take me yet.”

Brother Lux turned to me. “Do his words make any sense to you?”

It was not difficult to maintain an expression of dull confusion, though I felt a chill run up my spine as Brother Lux watched me.

“He’s speaking of a fairy tale, like Lady Fairfax said last night.”

Brother Lux regarded me a few moments more, and then he stood and turned to my father.

“I will not touch you until you give me leave, my Lord,” Brother Lux said, “but I will not go until I’ve examined you.”

“I will not stop you- I cannot stop you,” Father said. “Just take the rose.”

My father let out a groan from so deep inside it seemed to rattle his chest, and I stepped backward in terror. But then my father went quiet, and his breathing became even. It was as though he had fallen asleep- his chest still rose and fell rhythmically.

“Lady Frey, come here. I need your assistance,” Brother Lux said as he approached my father. “Do what you can to keep your father quiet while I examine him.”

Unsure of what else to do, I gingerly took my father’s hand. It was the first time I’d ever held my father’s hand. It wasn’t much larger than my own, and though his skin was covered in age spots, it was not overly thin or wrinkled. I squeezed his hand, but he did not respond; his hand hung passively as I held it.

Father groaned a little, but he did not otherwise protest as Brother Lux took his pulse, felt his glands, and looked into his mouth and eyes. Then Brother Lux placed his hand over my father’s head, as though to feel for a fever, and left it there as he spoke.

“Answer my questions as best you can, my Lord” Brother Lux said. “How old are you?”

“I- I was 35. I was 35.” My father said in an agitated voice.

“When is your birthday?”

“It was too long ago.”

“What is your daughter’s name?”

My father moved, then, pulling his hand away from mine. “Joy has the child. Joy will not give her back.”

“Father- I am here,” I said quietly.

My father turned to look at me, then. He knitted his brow as he stared at me, and he struggled to sit up again.

“No, Harmony- you shouldn’t be in the city. You will get ill again. Go to the country, ride your horse, get exercise and fresh air.”

“Not Harmony, Father; I’m Grace, and I am perfectly well.”

He fell back against his pillows and groaned. “Doctor- doctor, advise my wife. Take her back to the country. She can’t be confined in the city. She will get ill…”

“No- it’s me.” I protested. “Look at me.”

Brother Lux looked at me and shook his head, silencing my protests.

“It’s alright. We will make sure Harmony is well,” Brother Lux said soothingly, placing his hand over my father’s head once more. “Close your eyes, now. Rest.”

Father fell back against the pillows, shut his eyes, and became still.

Then Brother Lux gestured for Dr. Pearson and me to follow, and we went to the next room, where Brother Lux shut the door.

I found myself in a study, which despite being a good-sized room, seemed smaller for the profusion of books. The bookshelves were overstuffed and books spilled onto every table, tumbled onto all of the chairs, and there was not a square-inch visible on the large desk. Brother Lux cleared a stack of books from the desk chair and sat down.

“You have a remarkable method with patients, Brother,” Dr Pearson said, perching his slight frame on a stack of very large volumes that stood near the desk. “I haven’t gotten an answer from Lord Ainsworth for weeks.”

“I have seen such cases, before,” Brother Lux said. “In my opinion-“

Brother Lux’s words were cut short, however, when the hall door opened and Lady Fairfax entered.

“Brother,” she said, and she took Brother Lux’s offered hand as he stood to greet her. “I do hope that you were able to learn something about my dear cousin’s condition.”

“I was, Lady,” Brother Lux said.

Lady Fairfax nodded, and deftly stepped around Brother Lux to take the desk chair from him. Brother Lux nodded to her humbly as she passed, and took the smaller chair across the desk.

“As I was just mentioning to Dr. Pearson, I’ve seen cases like Lord Ainsworth’s before. In older patients, mental faculties can sometimes go into sharp decline. Lord Ainsworth’s anxiety, confusion, and his inability to recognize his loved ones and surroundings are all indicative of dementia.”

“Doctor?” Lady Fairfax turned to Dr. Pearson beseechingly, as though seeking a contradiction.

Dr. Pearson, however, stroked his long, white whiskers with a thoughtful expression. “Well, yes, that diagnosis does seem to fit all of the symptoms. He seemed to be raving, at first, but since your conversation it’s clear that he’s merely confused.”

“Then- is there something that may be done for him?” Lady Fairfax asked.

Dr. Pearson fell silent.

Brother Lux rose and went to Lady Fairfax, taking her hand in his. At this gesture, Lady Fairfax’s regal bearing seemed to crumble away, and her eyes filled with tears.

“I promise, my Lady, that we will do everything we can to keep Lord Ainsworth quiet and comfortable. With enough care, we may be able to relieve his worst symptoms.”

Lady Fairfax nodded meekly, even as tears dripped from her face onto the books below. Her tear had fallen on a worn, paper dust jacket, and where it spattered, ink smudged and ran.

I then the entire scene smudged, and my breath caught. The guilt I’d been nursing swelled inside of me until I could not breathe.

“Please excuse me,” I whispered before I rose and fled the room.

My vision was so blurred with tears that I hardly knew where I was going, but I felt myself climbing staircase after staircase, and when I blinked my tears away I saw where I had gone.

In times of trouble, my feet always remember to seek the quiet comfort of a library.

      The library was in a dusty, forgotten corner of the house. In my childhood, I had called the room the ‘accidental library’ because it was obvious the room was built to be a garret. Over the years, however, rough shelves had been built into the walls, filling the high wall at the back of the room, the crooked walls where the ceiling sloped downward, and even squeezed into the side where the ceiling hung so low that an adult could not stand. There were also two mismatched free-standing bookcases that stood where they just touched the vaulted ceiling, creating a tiny room behind them.

There was no desk, table, or chair in the room, but there were a number of worn, velvet cushions where I had often sat. Now I fell into one of the cushions and allowed myself to weep.

I wept until my tears ran dry, and then I looked around the room once more. The library was almost entirely unchanged, except a little more dust had settled in the corners, and the skylight seemed a little dirtier, making dark smudges across the patch of sunlight on the stained wood floor. A memory, as dusty as the room itself, filtered into my mind.

 

A young girl ran into the dusty garret and slammed the door behind her.

      The girl was long limbed and skinny- a little tall for her nine years, though she was far from finished growing. Her white pinafore was only half-pinned, and a tangle of dark curls fell into her eyes. The girl pulled her hair back and leaned against the door, listening for the growl of the monster that pursued her.

      “Where the devil is Miss Sutton? I can’t get anything done with THAT DAMN GIRL underfoot.”

      The girl stiffened against the door as footsteps echoed up the stairwell, but then the footsteps paused, and finally retreated. The girl pressed her ear against the door and held her breath until the footsteps faded completely into the distance.

      Then she heaved a heavy sigh, relaxed, and stepped into the room.

      All around her, shelves of books towered up to the ceiling, frustratingly out of touch without stair or ladder to reach them. She looked up at the books, the ceiling, and the skylight, turning around and around to look until she felt dizzy.

      Then footsteps echoed up the stairs once more. “I don’t know where the girl is. I was trying to dress her when the threw a tantrum.”

      The girl froze, and then reached up to touch her tumbled hair. Her governess, Miss Sutton, had been in a foul mood that morning, and had pulled and yanked her curls until she thought her scalp would be pulled clean off. The girl had screamed and run, and that had been when she encountered the monster.

      Recalling the danger, the girl ran again, ducking behind the bookcases.

      Then the girl grew a deep breath, and a smile tugged at her lips. She had found herself in a little room that was entirely made of books- there were books on all the walls, books stacked in piles on the floor, and even old book covers that papered the low ceiling. A small footpath between stacks of books led to a low-backed chair, which itself was surrounded by stacks of books.

      “It’s a fortress- a fortress of stories,” the little girl whispered reverently. “Nothing can ever find me, here.”

      The girl pinned her own pinafore, ran her fingers through her hair, and grabbed the nearest book. She would stay in her little fortress, safe from the monsters, until the storm of anger had stilled outside and it was safe to emerge for tea.

      The little girl sat down, opened the book, and read,

 

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.

 

 

I awakened from my reverie and stood. I had thought I was a different person than the little girl who had hidden from her father and her governess over a decade hence, yet I found myself in the same position- hiding in a fortress of stories from the frightening reality below.

Had my memories played tricks on me? The recollection of my first journey to the library had seemed very clear, but I thought my mind must have substituted the Tale of the Magi- the story from my stolen book that had been torn out and lost- for whatever I had actually read on that morning so long ago.

I walked through the opening in the bookcases and ducked into the little room behind them. I was too tall to stand upright in the little room, now. I had to stoop down until I reached the low-backed chair and was able to sit. Then I looked around, searching for a familiar book cover.

A faded blue cover in the pile near the chair caught my eye, and I reached out and opened the book.

 

Folk Tales of the Midlands, as told by the Vole Brothers

Book III

 

I turned another page, and there I saw the story.

 

The Tale of the Magi

 

How had I forgotten the tale? As I read, the story unfolded itself in my memory. Two mages, a holy mage and a witch, had battled each other for a hundred years. Unable to get the better of the holy mage, the witch sent spies to watch the holy mage carefully in the hopes that he would unlock the secret of his enemy’s power.

Eventually, the witch learned that the mage possessed a magic mirror, which he guarded most carefully. The mirror always showed the mage’s face, whether the mage looked into the mirror or not.

The witch, guessing that the mirror was the secret to the mage’s power, cast a spell of sleep over the mage’s palace, and sent his servant in to steal the mage’s mirror. When the mage awakened and found the mirror was gone, he fell into despair, for the mirror had been a phylactery that contained the mage’s very soul.

The mage could not perform magic without the mirror, so he was forced to travel by foot through the witch’s bog, facing one dangerous adventure after another, until he finally reached the witch’s lair. There, he found the witch guarding the mirror. The witch laughed at the mage as he approached, mocking his powerlessness.

This is how the mage replied:

“I have journeyed long through the dark and misty bog in search of my soul. You have sent trial after trial to stop me, but with each trial I surpassed, my will has grown stronger. I no longer need the soul that is contained in the mirror, for I’ve found the strength to create a soul of my own.”

With these words, the mage unleashed a holy spell so powerful that the witch was destroyed forever.

 

 

 

I put the book aside.

No wonder I could not remember this story, I thought. The books contained here were my fortress when they should have been my guide.  

      I stood, smoothed my dress, and combed my fingers through my hair.

Then I opened the door and descended the garret steps into my father’s house.

Part LXXIV

Start from the beginning.

 

Time Travel, Part II

Putting my latte where my mouth is

 

A few days ago, I issued an open invitation over twitter to time-travelers.

“… I’m willing to test my theory. If there are any time travelers out there in the future, please meet me. I’ll know it’s you because you will already know the time, place, and password.”

I am writing this at the appointed meeting place, at the appointed time, and so far, no one has approached me with the password. There is a thirty-minute window, and after the window closes, I can officially call this experiment a successful failure, and enjoy my latte in peace.

It occurs to me, however, that my first time-travel experiment has invoked a paradox. By demanding that the time-traveler know the time and place of the meeting as evidence of their ability to time-travel, I’m creating a situation where the time-traveler will have already have had to met me in order to tell their past selves where to meet me, creating a closed loop. If the universe is hostile to such paradoxes, I will need to construct a paradox-free time travel test… if such a thing is even possible.

Time, it seems, creates enough paradoxes on its own.

However, I am willing to try to minimize potential paradoxes. Next Sunday, at 9:30 am, I will make a series of dice rolls and post the results to my blog, whether anyone replies to this post or not. If anyone from the future is reading this, please post a reply to this post with the dice-roll results before 9:30am on Sunday, July 08, 2018 either in the comments, or on twitter @bkkawaii.

I realize that one needn’t be a time-traveler per se to pass this test. One could be a prognosticator with either a type of “time telescope” that allows one to see into the future, or they may own a computer that can model the state of the physical world to such detail that it can predict how events will play out. Even seemingly random events, like dice rolls, follow predictable physical laws, after all. Such an ability is impressive enough in itself for me to entertain.

It is also possible that anyone who passes this test will have just gotten lucky. Even if it is really improbable that anyone will guess the dice rolls by random chance, this may still be more probable than time travel. I’ve already declared time-travel to be impossible, so it’s difficult for me to work out a number of dice-rolls to satisfy my standards of evidence. I figure I’ll just subject anyone who passes this test to further dice-roll challenges until I get bored with rolling dice, and then interrogate the subject further about their means.

In either case, the experiment continues. If it fails, I’ll be able to congratulate myself on a successful prediction, and if it is a success, I am bound for an awesome adventure. Either way, I probably look like a lunatic, which I am becoming more and more comfortable with.

Update: It is now 10:01 and no one has approached me with the password. The first experiment was not only a successful failure, but the experiment’s paradox did not destroy the universe. To my knowledge.

Time Travel (Sorry, but we never get it.)

Let’s not worry about physics, right now. Instead, let’s discuss how humans work and fail to work.

Humans fight, and when the stakes are high we use our intelligence to weaponize the tools that are available. This strategy worked very well for our ancestors on an individual or tribal level, because it is extremely difficult to destroy the world with a sharpened stick.

With time travel, however, the destruction of existence is guaranteed.

At first, everyone involved with time travel research may have nothing but the best of intentions. However, it’s just a matter of time before a serious conflict breaks out, and side A- desperate in a struggle to survive- decides to go back in time to fix the outcome of a battle.

Perhaps side A goes back in time to assassinate side B’s brilliant young general while he is in the bath, or perhaps they travel to the future to steal weapons from a more advanced age. If side A really wants to win, they will do both. Afterward, side B either sends their spies into side A’s camp and steals the secret of time travel, or side B gets the secret of time-travel from their descendants, who gained the secret of time travel during a period of peace with side A and then decided that peace was boring.

Either way, side B manages to retaliate against side A by going further back in time, fixing battles in their own favor, and bringing their past-selves technology- including time-travel technology. Side B’s past selves go backward to do the same thing, whose past selves also go backward, and on, and on, etc.

The best-kept secrets will be spilled, and the most important rules will be broken- including the temporal prime-directive. Given enough time, there will inevitably come a point when this seems necessary. Due to the way time war is waged, destruction and death will spread throughout the timeline, until there is nothing left.

In the beginning, Man destroyed the universe.

A universe with time-travel is fundamentally unstable. We exist, and therefore we do not ever get the ability to travel through time.

The first objection to this reasoning that I’ve thought of is that we may transform into some post-human species that is more enlightened than we, and can better resist the temptation to misuse time-travel. In such a case, I can only assert that given enough time (and with time-travel availability, time is no longer a limited resource) it is most probable that the technology will either fall into the hands of a less-enlightened species due to sheer accident, or that post-human enlightenment will evolve into post-post-human barbarity. Thus, no matter what species holds time-travel technology, instability is guaranteed.

The second objection I’ve anticipated is that perhaps, instead of looping into the same timeline when we time-travel, we create alternate branches of reality that fall apart when touched by time travel without tainting the main timeline. In other words, if side A travels back in time to fix the outcome of a battle, the future they return to is an alternate timeline where they win, and the original timeline continues untarnished. My response is that, in going back to fix the outcome of the battle, side A creates a paradox. Side A would only go back in time to fix the outcome of a battle if they originally lost or felt they had a poor chance of winning, and when they tamper with the timeline they destroy the conditions of them going back to fix the outcome of the battle to begin with. Thus, time travelers who originally lose the battle are transported to the timeline where they win, and the versions of themselves who win are duplicates of the versions of themselves who saw no reason to travel, and therefore stayed where they are. One of the timelines must be erased by the time-traveler’s actions; otherwise, multiple timelines are filled with time-duplicates, which creates its own sort of instability.

In either case, I suppose I don’t need my time-clone password anymore, which I created to recognize messages from my future self. My password wasn’t secure, anyway, because it exists somewhere in time and space.timewarp