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The Coven, Part LXXXIX

Read from the beginning.

Mercy’s motions almost blurred together as she moved, and if I had not already learned the cadence of her fighting style, I would not have been able to follow her motions at all. I had to focus all of my attention on evading her blows, because she was aiming for my most vulnerable spots with all of her strength.

I was injured, and Mercy was armed, but I did not have the Luxury to panic. Fleeing would mean leaving Prudence alone in the hands of our enemies. So I anticipated Mercy’s feints and tried desperately to find an opening to attack.

I don’t have to fully disable her, I realized. Mercy must be hypnotized as well. All I need to do is break the spell.

      Completely breaking a spell, however, required a great deal of concentration, and it took all of my focus just to evade Mercy’s lethal attacks. My ankle, which Mercy must have grabbed to jerk me out of the tree, protested with every movement, and Mercy spotted the weakness quickly. She swept my legs and I fell.

“You don’t want to fight me,” I huffed, rolling away from another blow. “I’m not your enemy.”

“You don’t know know what I want,” Mercy growled.

“This isn’t you- Pius has hypnotized you,” I said.

Though I hadn’t touched her, Mercy fell back and hissed as though in pain.

I took the opportunity to spring to my feet once more and aimed a blow at Mercy, which she evaded.

“Stop trying to trick me,” Mercy growled. “Wisdom has given me power. I’m stronger than all of my enemies, now.”

“’Wisdom’ is your enemy,” I said. “He imprisoned your friends, he imprisoned Chastity- your teacher. He tortured and maimed them.”

Mercy cried out this time, clutching her head. I took a deep breath and reached out to break the spell, but Mercy rallied, and struck another blow to my injured shoulder.

I fell back as Mercy advanced, clutching my injury.

“It hurts when I tell the truth, doesn’t it?” I said. “It hurts when reality is discordant with the spell. You know that Pius is your enemy- the pain you feel now is the proof.”

Mercy fell to her knees and screamed aloud- a primal, animal cry that made me fall back in sheer reflex. I remembered my father as he gasped in bed, in so much pain that he could not breathe. I realized that my father’s pain must have been the same pain that Prudence had once felt for years before she gained the ability to see the illusions of magic for what they were.

Inside me, a feeling started to grow- a hatred for this thing that broke people’s minds and bound them in a prison of illusion. I hated the lies that magic told and its ability to veil the truth of reality. Righteous fury swelled inside me until it burst forth, flooding the starlit field around me.

“Oh!” Mercy gasped. She stood, shaking her head as though to clear it. “Oh- Lady Frey. What have I done? Are you alright?”

“I will be,” I said. “Are you alright?”

“I think so, but- oh! Your shoulder. It may be broken.”

Mercy tossed her staff aside and ran to examine me, and I heard a harsh hushing noise from the window.

“Shhh- be quiet, you two,” Prudence said in a hoarse whisper. “It isn’t safe to speak anymore; come inside, quickly.”

“Do you think you can climb?” Mercy whispered to me.

I rolled my ankle a little to test it. The sharp pain was starting to dissipate, and though it tingled with warmth, I could move it freely. My shoulder, however, would not allow me to raise my arm to reach the branches above me.

“Here- I will climb first and help you,” Mercy said. “I won’t be able to examine your arm properly until we are inside.”

I nodded and allowed Mercy to go first, and then reached for her outstretched hand with my good one. The going was slow, but between the two of us I managed to make it up the tree and through the window.

Prudence helped us through and then embraced me gingerly, whispering “thank you” before she took a lantern and bustled through the side door.

Mercy pulled down my robes and examined my shoulder while we awaited Prudence’s return. “I don’t think it’s broken,” Mercy finally said. “I broke the skin with the first strike, though, and it’s badly bruised. We will need some rags so I can bandage it.”

“There are some linens in the cupboard,” Prudence said as she bustled back into the room. “Celeste is safe, and I’ve recast the security spells that Grace broke, so we may speak freely.”

Mercy went to the cupboard to find the linens, and Prudence took her station at my side. Prudence removed the kettle from the hob and used the hot water to clean my wound, dabbing at it gently with her handkerchief.

“I feel like such a fool,” Prudence said as she worked. “Now that the spell no longer binds me, it all seems so obvious. I should have been able to see past the hypnosis, like I can with any other magic.”

“You’re being too hard on yourself, Prudence. It was a spell cast by a God.”

“You broke the spell easily enough,” Prudence said. “You broke several spells at once.”

“It wasn’t as easy as it may have seemed. I was in pain, and I was angry. I’ve never pushed my way past spells that powerful before.”

I heard a rip of fabric as Mercy shredded the sheets into bandages.

“At least I know Pius’s motives for keeping me safe and bringing me here to Hope. He means to present me to Hope as a miracle, to take credit for resurrecting me, and- with my acquiescence- to help twist Hope’s mind to his will.”

“He promised you the queenship, didn’t he? You were muttering something to that effect before the hypnosis was broken.”

“Yes- he promised I would reign as Queen at Hope’s side.”

I heard a final rip, and then Mercy returned with a bundle of bandages.

“Whether the Prince or Lord Frey, no one is getting the crown in Aeterna without war,” Mercy said bluntly.

“So, then what do we do?” Prudence asked, shuffling backward on her knees to allow Mercy access to my arm.

Mercy lifted my arm a little to position the bandages, and I had to bite my tongue to keep from crying out in pain. We sat in silence for a time, each lost in our own thoughts as the lantern burned dimmer and dimmer.

“We must flee as soon as we can, which will not be easy. The prisoners are all held with chains heavy enough to thwart even Chastity’s strength, and the Cathedral is crawling with guards. It was difficult enough for me to slip away unnoticed,” I said.

Mercy nodded thoughtfully. “We are in a similar position, though without the chains. Pius kept a close watch on us until we had been hypnotized. Prudence, do you have a pin I could use to keep the bandage in place?”

“I don’t think we could make it past his magical protections without Pius noticing,” Prudence added, standing to fetch the pin.

“Perhaps you could if you went with me- I was able to pass through Pius’s protections undetected. I could steal inquisitor’s robes to disguise all of you, and you can flee to del Sol.”

“Celeste’s robes would require hemming,” Prudence said dryly. “The inquisition is not so in need of members that they recruit 11 year olds.”

“Ah- yes. That would be a problem,” I said.

“Besides- once we’ve escaped, how long will it be until we’re caught on the road? Will I be avoiding inquisitors for another decade?” Prudence handed Mercy a pin and then knelt beside her. “Don’t add to your anxiety by trying to plan a fruitless escape, Grace. We are under the thumb of a God, and we have yet to accomplish any of our goals. Hope is still held in chains, facing the gallows, and I have yet to find any information on the underground route to del Sol. I think I should stay where I am, where I can watch our enemies more closely.”

Mercy quirked an eyebrow at Prudence. “What are you going to do- play spy?”

“Why not?” Prudence asked.

“Pius will know that I’ve broken the hypnosis,” I said. “He and Lux can see magic-“

Prudence smiled. “So can I. Let him hypnotize me again. I will be able to see past it, now that I know what I’m looking for. I can keep the spell in place while keeping my mind my own.”

“I can’t,” Mercy said bluntly.

“All Lux asked was that you protect me from Grace,” Prudence said, “and I won’t need such protection.”

Prudence looked back at me, a kind of triumph glittering in her blue eyes that frightened me in its prematurity.

“When I contradicted the hypnosis earlier- before the spell was broken- it caused you pain. My father suffered the same pain before I freed him from his spell.”

“When I was hypnotized, everything felt wrong,” Prudence said. “I loved Lux again as a brother- it was a love I had lost long ago, and was glad to have again. At the same time, something in the back of my mind was screaming at me that this was dangerous- that there was something wrong with the story he’d told me, but I couldn’t see what. You told me where the dissonance was, and the spell pushed back.”

Prudence stood up and offered me her hand. “Now that you’ve shown me- the same way that you showed me my face- I can find the boundary between my true thoughts and the thoughts magic has planted in my mind. I know I can, as surely as I found my true face. Trust me, Grace.”

I took Prudence’s hand and stood.

“And what about Celeste? If you stay-“

“I will protect Celeste,” Mercy interrupted. “You- concentrate on saving Lord Frey.”

As if to shut down any argument I might make, Mercy spun on her heel and walked away, into the next room where Celeste slept.

 

 

#

 

 

I could think of no other argument to dissuade Prudence. Her movements were strong and sure as she helped me down the tree and back into the annex courtyard. When we were steady once more on firm ground, she turned and smiled at me, her face ghostly pale in the moonlight.

“How can I leave you in the power of a madman?” I whispered to her.

Prudence took my hands in hers. “You can leave me because Hope is waiting for you, and he’s in far more danger than I.”

I started to drop her hands, to turn away, and then hesitated- torn between Prudence and Hope once more. Prudence laughed at my hesitation, and then leaned down to kiss me.

Those lips I’d traced over and over again, trying to capture their perfection, touched mine, and before I could memorize how they felt they were gone, leaving the faintest impression in their wake.

“Go back,” Prudence said. She stooped down and picked up the staff Mercy had left on the lawn, and held it in such a natural way she looked ready for any opponent to strike.

“Go to Hope. Free him,” she said.

“I promise I will.”

I turned away and, ignoring every instinct that screamed at me not to leave Prudence, and followed the instinct that drew me back to Hope.

 

 

#

 

“Hurry and ready yourself,” a sharp voice woke me. “We must get to the courtroom before the sun rises.”

It had hardly seemed a second since I’d returned to the infirmary and slipped into the cot beside Hope. I sat up, rubbed my eyes, and peered blearily at the inquisitor before me.

“Where is Brother Amicus?” I asked. “He is my usual escort.”

“Brother Amicus has more important things to do,” the inquisitor snapped. “Do as I say and get ready- today is your day to speak, and you must be presentable.”

I sat up, and Hope stirred.

“Grace- has the sun risen already?” he asked.

“No, but we must go early,” I said.

I went to the washbasin and tried to ignore the heavy presence of the inquisitor, who stood close behind me as I washed my face and combed and pinned my hair.

When I had completed my toilette, the inquisitor stopped me and looked me over from head to toe.

“Your fine dress is wrinkled in the back, and your eyes are red. Good- your fatigue will garner sympathy. Come with me- there is no need to utter goodbyes. You will see your husband in the courtroom soon enough.”

Another inquisitor met us at the Cathedral door and led us to a seat closest to the High Priest’s dais. Even though the courtroom was almost empty, the two inquisitors flanked me very closely where I sat. A line of guards stood together like a gate before the courtroom door, behind which I could hear the rumble of the crowd.

Soon after I’d arrived, Father Pius entered the room- his white cloak sweeping the ground behind him. He did not go to the dais, but went straight to me, brushing aside the inquisitors.

“Miss Celeste, Sister Jubilee, and Miss Mercy are in a carriage, bound for del Sol,” He said in a low voice. “You will not interfere with them again.”

“But you promised- you said they would be under your protection.”

“I do not break my vows,” he scoffed. “My protection extends far beyond the Cathedral grounds. Amicus is with them, and he carries a piece of my power with him.”

The two inquisitors who stood beside me did not react to this statement, but the guards near the door exchanged puzzled glances.

“Perhaps I should thank you,” Pius continued. “This place is no longer safe, and I want Miss Celeste and Sister Jubilee to survive. But when you are on the stand, Lady Frey, remember that they are under my power. Do not disappoint me.”

Then Pius spun on his heel and retreated back through the side door to await his grand entrance.

I cursed under my breath that I had ignored my instincts, and had left Prudence alone. Pius’s words, “I do not break my vows,” seemed to ring in my ears, and I realized too late the first loophole in Pius’s vow- that his promise to protect Prudence only lasted until the time she returned to del Sol.

“Oh, Abbess Joy- protect them when they arrive. Protect them,” I whispered.

I did not have time to indulge in fear or regret. Too soon the cathedral doors opened, and the crowd spilled into the courtroom, pushing and arguing with each other on the way. The doors were left open even after the courtroom was full, and the line of guards remained by the door to keep the crowd outside from pushing through.

In dizzying succession, the bishops filed in, and then the prisoners, and then Pius, who sat on his his throne and called the courtroom to order with a wave of his hand.

“Mrs. Charity Auber,” Bishop Benedict called. “Please rise.”

Mrs. Auber came forward, looking tiny between the two tall inquisitors who assisted her forward. She turned to face the crowd with a serene expression and relaxed posture, as though she stood in a drawing room instead of a courtroom.

Bishop Benedict bade Mrs. Auber repeat her vows, and then graced her with a gentle smile.

“It was very brave of you to come forward, Ma’am,” he said. “I will make this as painless as possible.”

“I am always ready to do my duty,” Mrs. Auber replied with a humble bow of her head. “What will be, will be.”

“How long have you known the accused?” Benedict continued, this time in a voice loud enough to carry though the courtroom.

“I’ve known Lord Frey for a long time- ever since my dear departed husband brought me to Hill Country Village some twenty-five years ago,” Mrs. Auber answered. “The Freys were the most prominent family in the whole country, but they were always kind to my husband, though he was only a country doctor. In those days, the two boys were very young, and Lady Frey would ask my husband’s advice for dealing with the usual childhood ailments. They would often invite us to dine at Rowan Heights, and it was there we met the Goode family and their children.”

“What was your impression of the children as they grew?” Bishop Septimus asked.

“Young Hope- now Lord Frey- was a healthy, vigorous young man. His brother, now named Brother Lux, was a more quiet, sensitive boy. As far as the Goode children are concerned, young Justice was respectful and well behaved, but Prudence was tomboyish and wild, always speaking out of turn and questioning her elders.”

I smiled a little, in spite of myself, at the mental picture of the four friends.

“I did not see any signs of danger, however, until the former Lady Frey died and the former Lord Frey retired, leaving young Hope in charge of the estate. I began to hear grumblings among the young people- discontent with perceived injustices of slavery and inequality. I didn’t think much about it at the time, and the whispers stopped when the poor girl, Prudence Goode, went crazy and ran away.”

“You believed that Prudence Goode had merely gone mad?”

“Everyone thought Miss Goode was mad. She was secretive, paranoid, delusional- half of what she uttered made no sense at all. I am certain she fled because she thought her friends were persecuting her in some way, even though we only wanted to help her. For a decade we searched for her, and then one day we received word she’d been caught by the inquisition and had died in prison.”

“What effect did this news have on her family?”

“I did not have the chance to speak to Mrs. Goode, but her brother, Captain Goode, seemed enraged. He and Lord Frey spent a lot of time together afterward, shutting themselves away in so secretive a matter that it seemed more than grief- it seemed that they were plotting.”

“Other than their secretiveness, did you notice anything else odd?”

“Oh- yes,” Mrs. Auber said. “Lord Frey and Captain Goode, despite their grief, seemed to flourish at this time. I thought it strange, but they met more and more often with the Willoughbys, attending parties and dinners, making connections with the wealthy and powerful, and finding success in almost everything they did. Young Mr. Goode was promoted to Captain. Lord Frey’s Father, who had long since retired, died suddenly, and Lord Frey used his newfound wealth to great advantage- he made several very good investments that gave such returns that he was able to make many improvements to his properties.

“Lord Frey was able to raise his staff’s wages, and Miss Chastity was promoted to head maid after only a couple of years of service. She was in Lord Frey’s confidence more than Mr. Poe, the steward, so of course everyone in the village whispered about the relationship.”

Her only lies have been lies of omission, I thought. Everything she saw happened, but when it comes to witchcraft she only speaks of rumors.

      Bishop Benedict held up his hand, halting Mrs. Auber’s soliloquy. “When did you first see evidence of witchcraft?” he asked.

“I’d say that was the night of the dumb supper that was held the night of the full moon- the one-year anniversary of poor Prudence’s death.”

Mrs. Auber paused and took a deep breath, as though steeling herself for something, before she continued. “I did not think it unseemly to hold a dinner in Miss Goode’s honor. After all, everyone had loved her before she went mad. However, strange things happened that night I could not ignore.”

“Such as?”

“At dinner, Lord Frey very obviously plied his young wife with wine until the girl became ill and had to go to her room. It seemed the act of a cad, but then what young man would want his bride present while he mourned his mistress?”

“When Lady Frey became ill, did someone escort her up the stairs?”

“Yes- she was much too ill to walk. Lord Frey took her upstairs.”

“Lord Frey- but…” Bishop Septimus rifled through some papers, peering closely at them through his spectacles. “In your statement, you said that Brother Lux accompanied Lady Frey, and when Brother Lux had left Lord Frey swore vengeance on Father Sauris.”

“Oh?” Mrs. Auber’s eyes grew unfocused, and she looked up at Father Pius for a few moments with a dazed expression.

“Do your best to remember,” Father Pius said gently.

“I- I think that Lord Frey said something later- or…” Mrs. Auber patted absently at her silver hair, and looked around the courtroom as though in confusion.

“Mrs. Auber?” Bishop Benedict prodded.

“Brother Lux went to attend Lady Frey at some point in the evening- it must have been then…” Mrs. Auber shut her eyes and clutched her hands together as though trying to remember.

“The old Lady is dotty,” someone behind me whispered.

Mrs. Auber’s eyes opened, and she looked in my direction. Her eyes were filled with the same pain I’d seen last night in Prudence’s eyes, as though there were a struggle between the lies that the litany prevented her from telling and the spell that still bound her to the coven.

After a time, Bishop Benedict went to her and placed a hand on her arm. “It’s alright, Ma’am; let’s continue, and we may come back to this incident later.”

“Of course.” Mrs. Auber stood straight and smoothed her clothes.

“Did you see anything else strange- perhaps later in the evening?”

“Later that night, I saw a bonfire on the crest of bluebell hill, which is the second highest point in all of the hill country- I’m sure the light could be seen all over the country. Seeing it made me think of the stories my nurse told me as a girl.” She put her arms around herself and shivered.

“What stories were those?” Bishop Benedict asked.

“Stories of the witches’ sabbath, of course. In the tales the witches would gather around bonfires, under the full moon.”

There was some muttering throughout the courtroom, which faded when Bishop Septimus stood and spoke.

“Mrs. Auber, I have in my possession a document you submitted.” Bishop Septimus lifted a sheet of paper for everyone to see. “It is a blood oath, entered into by the accused, swearing vengeance against Father Sauris for the life of Prudence Goode, whom he had ordered arrested for witchcraft. On this document each of defendants swear, in blood, to take vengeance by whatever means necessary- even by dark magic. How did this document come to your possession?”

“That was the strangest occurrence of all,” Mrs. Auber said. “One day, when I came home from church, it was waiting on my desk. There was no note, no envelope, and no card to indicate who might have left it. When I questioned my staff, no one had any idea where it had come from.”

There was a commotion in the crowd, and a voice shouted- “let me through- I have evidence to present.”

The Coven, Part LXXXVIII

Read from the beginning.

 

“All hail the Eagle! All Hail the rightful king!”

The last cry was drowned out by a chorus of boos and hisses from the Nobles nearest Miss Taris. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead, and her expression became more strained.

The Inquisitors and the Prince’s guard sprung into action, forming themselves into a wall that separated the shouting factions.

“We must go,” Brother Amicus whispered to me. Two inquisitors came forward to flank me.

I stepped away from the inquisitors, however, looking wildly around me. The Prisoner’s box was already empty, and the last of the prisoner’s escort were filing through the courtroom’s side door. Prudence’s guards were leading Prudence through the opposite door.

Lady Frey,” Brother Amicus said urgently.

I waited until Prudence was through the door, and then I stepped back and allowed the guards to escort me away.

The guards took me around the edge of the courtroom, away from the fringes of the agitated crowds, and through the same door the prisoners had used. As I stepped through, I heard a crash in the courtroom behind me- the sound of wood breaking- and the roar of the crowd amplified before the door shut and muffled it.

 

 

#

 

 

Inside the infirmary, the air was filled with the sound of rattling chains.

Lady Willoughby and Chastity both sat very tall, watching the others, as they fussed with the chains that bound their feet. Captain Goode was pacing in a small half-circle around his bedpost, which was as far as his chains would allow him to walk. Lord Willoughby slapped his chains against his cot, as though slapping reigns against a horse’s back to urge it forward.

Hope was the only prisoner that sat still. His hands were folded in his lap, and his posture was reminiscent of the pose the Sisters at del Sol assumed when in deep meditation.

Captain Goode paused in his pacing and narrowed his eyes at Hope. “What do you make of this madness, Frey,” he demanded. “Why would those fools in the gallery rally around a damned soul?”

Hope took a deep breath before he responded. “It seems that the people still believe the old stories,” he said.

“How long have you known?” I asked quietly. “In your letter…”

Hope sat a little taller, and his lips twitched into a half-grin.

“I’ve learned the tales since I was a boy, though I had no idea at the time the implications of what I was hearing. My father raised my brother and me on the old stories of Uriel and Asmodeus. In retrospect, I think the tales gave him a sort of misguided hope that perhaps we had been descended from the good brother instead of the evil, and that the tales of the eagle and the rose foretold our family’s vindication.”

“I spent enough time in your family’s home, and I never heard your father speak of such things,” Captain Goode said.

“My father told the tales when we were alone- huddled together on a dark winter’s evening. Father said that the tales were meant for my brother and I, because Uriel and Asmodeus were identical twins, like us. Lux and I would sometimes switch places to amuse ourselves- what if Asmodeus had done the same thing? Were they so talented that they could fool the gods themselves?”

“Oh- I remember hearing a story like that,” Chastity said suddenly. “My mother told my sister and I the tale.”

Hope nodded, and then began to speak, his voice taking on a soothing cadence as he recited.

“Once upon a time, at the dawn of man, two boys were born of the same woman- the first twins. These boys were beautiful, strong, and blessed beyond all other children. The first twin to be born was named Asmodeus, and the second Uriel. Uriel was a kind and gentle soul, able to charm animals with his voice, and Asmodeus was clever and skilled at fighting. The two boys worked together to tame the most free and noble of all creatures- the eagle. Thus, they were able to use the eagle’s sharp eyes to watch their enemies, and the eagle’s wings to bear messages to heaven.

“Order received the messages that the two boys sent, and their words moved him. As the boys grew, Order grew to love them beyond all other humans. He watched their accomplishments and rewarded them with arms, land, and men to lead. Uriel’s gentleness won his men’s hearts, and Asmodeus’s strength and wisdom won his men’s respect. Order elevated Asmodeus above all the other chieftains, making him leader among leaders- the first high king.

“Asmodeus’s rule was marked by prosperity and peace, but this peace was interrupted when the Ancients rose up and waged war against the Gods. Order charged Asmodeus with the task of leading men in the Ancient war, but in spite of all of his wisdom and strength, Asmodeus lost battle after battle.

“Order looked into Asmodeus’s heart, and he saw that Asmodeus had grown prideful. Asmodeus believed he was as great as the Gods themselves, and he was resentful of Order’s commands. Because of this resentment, Asmodeus had lost the will to fight for Order’s glory.”

“In the version I heard, Asmodeus stopped fighting because he’d fallen in love with an Ancient woman,” Chastity said.

Hope smirked a little, and reached out for my hand. I took it, and he continued.

“As punishment, Order stripped Asmodeus of his crown and his salvation, giving both to Uriel in his stead. Then Order banished Asmodeus from the kingdom, leaving him to wander the earth alone.

“Asmodeus, ashamed at how far he’d fallen, took great pains to avoid they scornful eyes of his fellow humans. As he wandered, he would send his eagle ahead of him to warn him of any people or settlements he may accidentally encounter. One day, the eagle spotted Uriel walking through the hillside, speaking to the wild beasts.

“On Asmodeus’s orders, the eagle descended to meet Uriel, crying, ‘your brother asks for mercy! Your brother asks for mercy!’

“’Oh, how I wish I could grant my brother mercy! But I cannot defy Order,’ Uriel replied. ‘I have prayed for Asmodeus’s soul, but Order will not relent.’

“’If you cannot persuade Order, will you give your brother what you can?’ The eagle persisted.

“’I will give my brother all I can,’ Uriel promised.

“So the eagle flew away, and returned again on Asmodeus’s shoulder.

“Uriel cried tears of joy at their reunion, and tears of sadness at his brother’s fallen state. He presented his brother with food and wine, and he removed his own cloak and used it to cover his brother’s nakedness.

“’Your kindness has moved me, brother,’ Asmodeus said. ‘I repent that I ever defied Order’s will. Will you pray to Order on behalf of my soul?’

“’I swear to pray to Order on your soul’s behalf,’ Uriel said.

“’I have suffered in the wilderness without food or water. Will you promise to help restore my comfort?’

“’I swear that I will do everything I can to restore your comfort,’ Uriel promised.

“’I have been away from my people for so long that my heart breaks for them. Will you swear, upon your crown, to do everything in your power to restore me to my people?’

“’I swear, upon my crown, that I will do everything I can to restore you to your people.’

“As Uriel removed his crown to swear upon it, and as soon as the oath was spoken, Asmodeus snatched the crown and placed it on his own head. The eagle swept Asmodeus up in his talons and carried him away to the palace, leaving Uriel alone in the hills. Uriel could not expose his brother, or steal back the crown, because he had already given his oath to restore Asmodeus. Thus, Uriel made his home in the hills, and Asmodeus returned to the palace to rule under Uriel’s name.”

The clattering of chains had ceased while Hope told the tale, and as his voice drifted off, the room filled with a heavy silence. Then Lord Willoughby spoke.

“I heard something like that story at court,” he said, “but it was only told in whispers when the Prince suffered his accident, and the whispers stopped when he recovered.”

“The tale is told openly among the common folk,” Chastity said. “I’ve heard the story since I was a girl. Such stories are taken more seriously among us than among the learned men and their histories.”

“So the nobles support the Prince while he has strength, and the people look elsewhere for leadership,” Captain Goode said. Then he turned to one of the silent monks.

“What about you, Friar? Where does the clergy stand in all of this?”

“We leave politics to the laity. No king reins but by Order’s will, and the High Priest is Order’s voice on Earth,” the monk muttered.

“Then the scales are tipped,” Hope whispered in so low a voice I could barely hear him.

At that moment the door opened, and Brother Amicus stepped through.

“All is well, for now. The soldiers have separated the rabble-rousers and prevented violence.”

“For now-“ Captain Goode said, raising a skeptical brow.

“We will see what happens. Father Pius remains steadfast in his belief that the public has the right to witness this trial,” Brother Amicus said.

Captain Goode scoffed and returned to pacing.

“Father Pius offers his assurance that you will remain safe from the crowds. His protection is upon you.”

“He has protected us so well,” Captain Goode said, raising his handless arms.

Hope held my hand tight, but he did not repeat his desire that I leave for my own safety, and for this I was grateful.

Brother Amicus went to Captain Goode, speaking placating words that only seemed to agitate Captain Goode further. While they argued, I slipped Prudence’s note from my pocket and read.

I cannot write a long note, but be assured that we are well. Tonight, I will sit by my window and watch Lystra set, and I will think of you.

      The intended message was immediately clear. It was not a secure message- anyone who had intercepted the note might be able to discern that she’d asked me to meet her. However, I was one of the very few who could bypass the magical protection Pius had placed on the annex to reach her.

I placed the note back in my pocket and kissed Hope’s hand. Then I dropped his hand and stood as though to stretch, and paced to the room’s only window. Through the pane of warped glass, I could make out a patch of soft purple sky. The sun was setting, and it would be a moonless night. I stepped closer to the window and examined its immediate surroundings. The window was high, but because the infirmary was in the cathedral’s basement level, the window was level with the grassy lawn outside. There were shrubs on either side, which partly shielded it from view.

A plan began to formulate in my mind. I paced a bit more, stretching my arms casually before I returned to Hope’s bedside. Hope’s expression betrayed intense concentration- he was listening to everything around him- but he said nothing when I sat and took his hand once more.

“You have the right to your anger,” Amicus was conceding. “But- don’t let it cloud your judgement. The time is coming-”

“My judgement won’t be clouded by your pretty words,” Captain Goode interrupted. “I can protect myself.”

Brother Amicus bowed slightly and turned to go.

 

 

 

#

 

 

I waited with bated breath while the agitation in the room rose and then died down again. At last, the chains ceased rattling, and one by one the prisoners fell asleep. I watched closely as the monks dispersed, my heart sinking just a little when I saw one tuck the keys to the prisoners’ chains in his pocket and exit through the front door. One monk remained in the room, but after extinguishing the lights he sat in the corner, head nodding over his chest.

I briefly considered an alternate plan to the one I’d concocted. I could disable the monk before he made a sound, search for a way to break everyone’s chains, sneak them through the window…

The chains were my biggest obstacle, and no matter how long I sat in thought no idea came for how I could break them. The keys were gone, and I did not know how to pick locks. The chains were thick and heavy enough to thwart Chastity’s supernatural strength, so my strength alone would be useless. I could perhaps disassemble the beds where the chains were attached, but if the prisoners were still wearing the chains when they made their escape, the rattling noise would soon give them away.

One small, quiet person may be able to slip past the guards, but not five chained escapees.

“The sun has set,” I whispered to Hope. “I must go, but I will return shortly.”

“Go- where?” Hope whispered, clutching my hand tightly.

“I’m going to her,” I said simply.

Hope’s grip immediately relaxed, and he sighed. “Oh! Tell her-“

“I will,” I whispered, pressing a kiss against his lips before I let go of his hand.

I moved quietly past the monk to the interior door, which opened as it had on my last midnight outing. I moved swiftly down the hallway to the laundry, where I found what I sought- bundles of scarlet inquisitor’s robes.

I found a set of robes short enough not to hinder me, rolled them up, and placed them under my arm. Then I went swiftly back to the infirmary, where I changed behind a section of curtain near the window.

I climbed up on a table and opened the window as quietly as I could. I stopped when I heard someone stirring behind me, but the stirring soon ceased, and when nothing else happened, I hauled myself out onto the grass outside and then closed the window, leaving it open just a crack. Then I peeked out from behind the bushes, waiting until the nearest guards’ backs were turned before I emerged.

I folded my hands and bowed my head as though I prayed, but I walked to the annex quickly, striding with purpose. My hair was loose, and I let it fall forward to hide my face. I walked unnoticed to the annex, where I turned sharply and went to the western wall of the annex.

As I rounded the corner I heard a rich, warm voice call my name.

“Grace- I’m up here!”

I spun around and saw Prudence in the upstairs window, framed by the ornate windowsill and haloed in lamp light.

“Prudence,” I whispered, going to stand underneath.

“What in the world are you wearing?” She laughed. “I thought you were a guard.”

“I had to find some way to get past the guards,” I whispered hoarsely.

“Don’t strain your voice- we won’t be overheard,” Prudence said with a wink. “Come closer.”

I looked around and spotted a tree that grew near the open window. I had never climbed much in my youth, but the branches were low and strong, so I hiked up my robes, stepped up on the low crotch of the tree and hoisted myself onto the first branch. I continued to climb until I perched on a limb that nearly touched the window.

“Celeste would be proud,” Prudence said.

“How is Celeste? Where is she?” I asked, peering into the room behind Prudence. In the soft lantern glow, I could see a small, sparsely furnished room with a single bed, table, and a grate with glowing embers, but no sign of any other occupant.

“She is asleep now,” Prudence said. “I wanted to ensure we were alone. I have so much to tell you, but not much time. Do you trust me?”

“Of course,” I said.

Prudence leaned forward, her eyes glittering in the starlight. “Lux didn’t want me to speak to you. He’d said it would be fruitless but- oh, I must tell you everything I’ve learned. Everything is going to be alright in the end, Grace.”

I tested the branch’s strength, and then cautiously scooted closer to Prudence. “What have you learned?”

“I will start with the obvious. Lux and Pius are controlling everything- the trial, the witnesses, and the political happenings on the council of bishops.”

“Yes, that has been obvious,” I said with a sigh.

“They are powerful, Grace. Everything is proceeding according to plan, and I have Lux’s assurance that the prisoners will live!”

“This is nothing new,” I said. “We know that Pius plans to use Hope to help him seize power. Even I the trial goes well, though, Pius will still be a threat.”

“I thought you would say so,” Prudence said. She shut her eyes for a second and sighed. “This will be difficult to explain; how can I convey what I know to someone who has no soul?”

“Just tell me how you feel.”

“This goes beyond mere feeling,” Prudence said, “though it is something like awe- like feeling the crack of thunder, or the roar of the ocean. It’s a power beyond anything.”

“Did Pius threaten you?” I asked. “Did he frighten you?”

“No- it’s nothing like that at all. Pius wouldn’t try to hurt me, now.” Prudence sighed. “Lux said you wouldn’t understand.”

“Then make me understand,” I reached out and found I was close enough to touch her hand. “Did Pius give you a reason to trust him?”

“Pius saved me, Grace. We thought Lux had only healed me, but the truth is that I died in prison. Pius resurrected me.”

“How do you know?”

Prudence blinked, and then sharply pulled her hand away from mine. “What do you mean?”

“I only ask a question you’ve asked me a hundred times- how do you know what you know? You were in suffering in prison, you fell unconscious, and when you woke you were healed. Either Lux healed you after you passed out, or you died and Pius resurrected you. If you are unconscious, you have no way to tell the difference, but you know which one is more probable. What evidence did Pius give you to convince you otherwise?”

“He told me-“ Prudence said, and clutched her head.

“Pius and Lux are the ones who betrayed you. Even if you did die, and Pius resurrected you, he was still responsible for your death.”

“No- it was my fault for betraying Pius, but he forgave me,” Prudence whispered. “Pius will bring Hope back to me. I will be Hope’s guide- I will guide him to the crown…”

“That’s the reason Pius brought you here, isn’t it?” I said. “He wants you help him win Hope’s loyalty.”

Prudence dropped her hands and looked up. The glitter in her eyes died away from a moment, leaving a familiar, blank expression.

I reached out for Prudence’s hand again. “He’s hypnotized you, Prudence. I can help you. Give me your hand.”

“Stop! You’re hurting me.” Prudence shrieked and shied away from the window. I tried to climb closer, but something caught my foot, and I slipped from the tree branch.

My first lessons with Mercy flashed through my mind as I fell. She had tripped and pushed me to the ground over and over until I was covered in bruises. Now I hardly had to think as I hit the ground- my body dispersed the weight evenly, and I rolled to absorb the shock automatically. Still, it was a long fall, and it hurt. Badly.

I was barely able to roll away from the butt of Mercy’s staff in time.

“Prudence told you that you’re hurting her,” Mercy spat. “Leave now and don’t come near her again.”

“I was just trying-“

Before I could finish my defense, Mercy’s staff spun again. This time, it clipped my shoulder as I rolled away. It stung, but the pain was bearable, and I managed to stumble to my feet.

“So be it,” Mercy said.

Then Mercy attacked me with the full extent of her fury.

Part LXXXIX

The Coven- Anti-Update

Good Morning, and Happy Holidays.

I hope everyone is enjoying the season. I certainly have been, so much so that I left town for a bit and haven’t been able to update The Coven. Now I’m desperately behind on Christmas obligations, so I probably won’t update again until the holidays are over.

Here’s to holiday cheer and holiday stress.

The Coven, Part LXXXVII

Read from the beginning.

 

As the night grew old and the young morning stirred, Hope’s heartbeat seemed to grow louder and stronger, until it seemed like a drumbeat on the battlefield. I grew too restless to sleep, and slipped out of the bed.

I crept through the infirmary, looking for some way of escape. I dare not try the front entrance to the infirmary again, knowing that if the guard caught me again I may be punished. Instead, I went to the back and found the brown door the monks used to access the rest of the cathedral.

The monks were dozing, and the door was unlocked. I opened the door and found myself in a narrow hallway, which fed into a wider hallway in short order. The wider hallway was made from rough-hewn grey stone, and was plain but for two rough wooden doors on the far side, and a set of double doors on the end.

I opened the two rough doors, but found nothing more interesting than a broom closet and the laundry. I almost opened the double doors with the same abandon, but I hesitated, and leaned cautiously forward to place my ear against the door. I heard muffled voices- the other side, it seemed, was guarded. My uninteresting adventure came to an abrupt end, and I hurried back to the infirmary before I could be discovered.

When I returned to the infirmary very little time had passed, and everyone was still asleep- or at least appeared to be asleep. There was a small patch of pale, purple light on the far side of the room, under a high window where the pre-dawn light filtered through the dirty glass. I stood under the patch of light and, turning my back to the room, pulled Miss Taris’s handkerchief from my pocket.

The handkerchief was embroidered with the symbol of del Sol, delicately worked in Miss Taris’s elegant style. When I unfolded the handkerchief, I discovered a silver pendant bearing the symbol of Wisdom.

 

 

#

 

 

“How long have you worked with Brother Domitian” Bishop Septimus asked, pacing the floor in front of the Bishop’s bench.

I was back in the courtroom, and the aside from the current witness, the scene was so much the same as the day before that is was as though no time had passed. The crowd pressed around me and my attorneys, and only Brother Amicus stood to guard me. Prudence had come in late again, and she stood in her former place across the courtroom, flanked by inquisitors.

Behind me, my Father sat with only a footman to guard him. I had spoken to my father before the court reconvened, and he’d assured me that he’d seen Lady Fairfax off safely before the sun rose.

Bishop Septimus had been verbally sparring with the latest witness, Brother Antonine, since court had reconvened. Brother Antonine, a strong-jawed inquisitor approaching middle-age, seemed to be reveling in the experience. The more agitated Bishop Septimus became, the more affable and relaxed Brother Antonine was.

“What do you mean?” Brother Antonine said smoothly. “How long did I work with him as an inquisitor, or how long have I worked with him in all?”

“Both!” Bishop Septimus ground out through clenched teeth.

“Well, in that case- I worked with Brother Domitian ten years ago at the Monastery of the Wood. Four years ago, Brother Antonine left the monastery to join the inquisition, and one year ago, I joined him as a fellow inquisitor. If you need time to work through the figures, I will wait,” he added with a smile.

“That is quite sufficient, thank you,” Bishop Septimus said.

“Brother Antonine,” Bishop Benedict interrupted in a mild voice. “With Brother Domitian’s assistance, were you able to able to extract a confession from any of the prisoners present today?”

“Brother Domitian and I only interrogated Lord and Lady Willoughby,” Brother Antonine said. “But no- we were not.”

“Did you see any evidence of magic?”

“No, but I believe Brother Severus did. Perhaps you should question him, instead.”

Titters rose from the Noble’s section behind me.

“Your Holiness, this line of questioning is getting us nowhere.” Brother Septimus said, sitting back on the bishops’ bench with a thud.

      “Mr. St. Roch,” Pius said, looking into the crowd toward us. “As this is your witness, perhaps it would be best if you questioned him.”

“Thank you, Your Holiness,” Mr. St. Roch said. He gathered his papers and pushed through the crowd until he stood next to the Bishop’s bench. The old Bishop on the end of the bench, who had been snoring, sat up, looking around in momentary confusion before he turned an incredulous eye on the commoner who’d had the temerity to come forward and stand beside him.

“If it please the bishops-” Mr. St. Roch said with with a deferential bow toward the bench. Then he turned to Brother Antonine, who stood under the dais. “Brother Antonine, in the course of your interrogations, were you ever obliged to protect the prisoners from excess damage inflicted by Brother Domitian?”

Brother Antonine stood in silence for a time. Then he lifted his head and fixed Mr. St. Roch with a withering glare.

“I do not think such a question is relevant. Brother Domitian is not on trial.”

“Indulge us, Brother Antonine,” Pius said.

Brother Antonine took a deep breath and swallowed, as though he were trying to force the words down. Then he said, “Yes.”

“How often?”

“I was forced to stop him from excessively damaging the prisoners twice,” Brother Antonine said shortly, and then clenched his jaw.

“Can you describe the instances for us?”

“The first time, Brother Domitian held Lord Willoughby’s head under water for an excessive amount of time. I stopped him because we were ordered not to kill the prisoners, and I was afraid Lord Willoughby would drown. On the second occasion Brother Domitian had tired of beating Lady Willougby, and he went toward her with a dagger, as though he meant to stab her in the lungs. I grabbed Brother Domitian from behind and disarmed him before he could.”

“Are you certain he was going to stab Lady Willoughby?” Bishop Septimus asked. “Is it possible he was only trying to frighten her into using her powers?”

“Lady Willoughby was facing away from Brother Domitian, and so could not see him approach with the blade. Brother Domitian, however, later explained that he thought the demon would be able to see the blade, even if she could not.”

Mr. St. Roch remained silent for a long time, standing like a statue even as everyone present leaned forward in anticipation. Then he spoke again.

“Were those the only instances you were forced to restrain Brother Domitian?”

Brother Antonine looked up to the dais, and Father Pius gave him a slight nod.

“I once left Brother Domitian to interrogate the Willoughbys alone, and he-“ Brother Antonine’s breath hitched, but he cleared his throat and continued. “He violated the sacred vows of the brotherhood, and forced himself on Lady Willoughby. When I returned and discovered what was happening, I had to intervene.”

“But earlier, you said there were only two instances where you had to intervene,” Mr. St. Roch said with a frown.

“You asked me if I had to intervene to protect the prisoners from ‘excess damage.’ In that respect, I only had to intervene twice. The only damage done to Lady Willoughby on this occasion was to her virtue, and a witch has no virtue worth protecting.”

Lady Willoughby’s face flushed, but she sat still and silent. Lord Willoughby reach around to take her hand once more.

“The point, however, is that Brother Domitian’s attack on Lady Willoughby was part of a pattern of excessive violence and disregard for duty.”

Brother Antonine rolled his eyes. “To my knowledge, Brother Domitian had never violated his vows before. Lady Willoughby must have used her magic to charm him.”

Up in the gallery, someone hissed.

“Where is Brother Domitian, now?” Mr. St. Roch asked.

“Brother Domitian is in the Monastery of the Woods, serving penance for violating his vows.”

“If he is serving penance,” Mr. St. Roch said slowly, “then it would seem that Brother Domitian’s superiors did not believe that he had been charmed, but rather that the sin was his.”

Bishop Septimus stood from the bench once more, and shouted, “who are you to question the motives of superiors in the church? Really, I cannot abide this pointless questioning any further.”

“Very well,” Father Pius said. “Brother Antonine, Mr. St. Roch, you may both be seated. Bishop Benedict, please see me for five minutes’ conference before we call the next witness.”

 

 

#

 

 

As Mr. St. Roch made his way back to his seat, Pius descended from his dais, and Bishop Benedict followed him through a door at the side of the room. In a matter of seconds, Bishop Benedict emerged again and gestured for Brother Lux and Bishop Septimus to follow him back into the antechamber. Soon the door shut behind all four, and whispers swept the courtroom.

The crowd pressed, shifted, and parted behind me. My father emerged from the crowd and approached me, pressing my hand with uncharacteristic tenderness.

“My daughter, that exchange must have been difficult for you to hear.”

“Yes- of course. It would be difficult to hear such things had been done to any woman, and in this case it’s even more difficult. Lady Willoughby has always been so kind to me.”

My father took his hand away, leaving a folded piece of paper pressed against my palm.

“Thank you- very much,” I said, clutching the paper.

Father leaned closer and whispered in my ear. “Mark my words; Pius will emerge from that room and announce an independent inquiry into the inquisition’s activities. I’d bet money that Bishop Benedict will lead the inquiry- he is the obvious new favorite.”

Father put a finger to the side of his nose, and then went back to his seat.

Soon the four emerged from the antechamber, and Brother Lux, instead of returning to where he’d stood between the Bishops’ bench and the dais, went to stand with the bulk of the inquisitors at the side of the courtroom. Pius ascended to the dais and spoke to the assembly.

“In light of these disturbing revelations, I am ordering an independent inquiry into the conduct of the inquisition, led jointly by Bishop Benedict and Bishop Septimus. The inquisition exists to protect the nation from sin and corruption; if we allow it to remain corrupt, there is little hope for the rest of us.”

He paused as the whispers in the courtroom died down, and then put up a hand as though to halt them.

“However, as Brother Antonine rightfully stated, such matters have no influence on whether the accused are innocent or guilty. Let us proceed with our inquiry into the truth of that matter, and not allow these troubling revelations to prejudice our judgement.”

Father Pius sat and gestured to Brother Benedict, who called Brother Severus forward.

 

 

#

 

 

“I’m not sure I understand,” Bishop Benedict said patiently. “Lord Willoughby confessed to the crime of witchcraft, but he never spoke?”

Brother Severus was a pale, thin young man, who fiddled with the edge of his crimson robe as he stood under the dais.

“Lord Willoughby was mute,” Brother Severus said. “He only communicated to the inquisitors through gestures.”

A murmur rose through the courtroom.

“I’m sorry,” Bishop Benedict said. “You are subject to the litany of truth, so you must believe what you say is true, but surely you, like everyone else, heard Lord Willoughby speak yesterday.”

Brother Severus looked out at the crowd, pulling a loose thread on his sleeve.

“I am as confused as you are,” Brother Severus said. “At least- I was when I heard Lord Willoughby speak to his wife. He never spoke to any of the inquisitors or his fellow prisoners. I made inquiries among some courtiers, and they confirmed he never spoke at St. Blanc, either.”

“Even so- you got a confession?”

Brother Severus dropped his frayed sleeve and stood a little taller. “I am certain he meant to confess. He nodded very plainly when I asked if he was guilty.”

Bishop Benedict paced slowly to the prisoner’s box.

“Lord Willoughby, if you meant to confess, why didn’t you speak?”

“If I did not speak, then you must assume I did not mean to confess,” Lord Willoughby said without hesitation. He had not let go of Lady Willoughby’s hand since Brother Domitian’s testimony, even though Chastity had been obliged to lean back and pull against he chains to give them room. His eyes had taken on some of the steel that had been in Lady Willoughby’s eyes, and he looked at Bishop Benedict unflinchingly as he answered.

“Then why did you gesture as though you did?”

“I hardly knew what was happening at the time. I was distressed by what had happened to my wife, and I hated myself for not being able to save her. I was almost consumed by that self-loathing.”

“Why didn’t you ever speak?”

“Why would I speak when anyone might twist my words against me? It is better to remain silent- the same rule applies in prison and at court.”

A small laugh rose from the crowd, which both Bishop Benedict and Lord Willoughby ignored.

“Why do you speak, now?”

“Circumstance has forced me to break my silence. Brother Lux performed a final act of violation against my wife; he cut out her tongue. Now I must speak for her.”

A horrified gasp rose from the crowd.

Bishop Benedict spun back to Brother Severus, his white robe sweeping the stone floor.

“Why was Lady Willoughby’s tongue cut out?”

“We did so to protect the inquisitors and guards. We had evidence that Lady Willoughby could see into people’s hearts, and charm them with her tongue,” Brother Severus replied. “It’s the same reason we cut out Lord Frey’s eyes- we knew he could charm people with his gaze. Captain Goode can curse people with his hands, and Lord Willoughby-“

“Yes?” Bishop Benedict said shortly, his patience seeming to wear thin. “Lord Willoughby seems to have been left unscathed.”

“We attached bells to him because he can make himself disappear. This was the evidence I found that led to his confession. After his wife- after the incident- he went missing. I searched for hours- I had all the other inquisitors search every corner and crevice for him- but none could find him. Then, just as though nothing had happened, he was in his cell once more.

“This was evidence enough that he and the others posed a real danger to the guards, so Brother Lux took precautions.”

“I see.”

Bishop Benedict turned and paced back to the Bishop’s bench. “Do any of you have questions for our witness?”

Bishop Septimus stood. “How many men assisted in your search for Lord Willoughby.”

“Four- and -twenty,” Brother Severus replied.

“I have no further questions,” Bishop Septimus said.

 

 

#

 

 

The hands on my watch ticked their way toward five o’clock, and I shifted uncomfortably in my seat as I replaced it in my pocket, tired and cramped from sitting, but there was no time to recess for tea. The crowd behind me seemed to be growing restless- rustling and mumbling amongst themselves. I could not make out the crowd’s words, but they felt dark, like the rumble of thunder in the evening air.

“Brother Gaius, please come forward,” Bishop Benedict directed.

Brother Gaius came forward and stood under the dais. He was tall and wizened, with a beard that was so long that his girdle had been tied around it. He did not look at the crowd, but he nodded to Bishop Septimus as he came forward, who nodded cordially in return.

“It is good to see you again, old friend,” Bishop Septimus said. “How have you been?”

“I am in good health, thank you,” Brother Gaius replied.

“I am glad to hear it,” Bishop Benedict gently interrupted the conversation. “Please, let us get to the business at hand. State your name for the Bishops.”

“I am Gaius, inquisitor first class and Brother of the Circle of Order.”

“That is an impressive title,” Bishop Benedict said. “You must have been an inquisitor for many years.”

“I have been an inquisitor for twenty years. I might have been given the title of Grand Inquisitor if our former High Priest had not met his untimely end at the hands of these villains.” Brother Gaius looked over to the Prisoner’s box.

Father Pius lifted his eyebrows, but otherwise did not react to Brother Gaius’s grumblings against his choice of Grand Inquisitor.

“What is your current role in the inquisition?”

“I am an investigator. While the young pups flex their muscles, trying to extract confessions by brute force, I collect clues and search for hard evidence of witchcraft. For the last couple of months, I have been combing the Frey estate and Willoughby Lodge for evidence.”

“What evidence have you found?” Bishop Septimus asked, sitting forward with an eager light in his small, watery eyes.

“From the time I entered Rowan Heights, which is the Frey estate, it was obvious that the house was a den of demonic activity. Captain Goode and Miss Chastity Evans, who were residing in the house at the time, attempted to keep out the inquisitors, and Miss Evans herself- a woman!- fought several inquisitors single-handedly with an unnatural strength. During the fight the library combusted, and its contents were destroyed before any of my men could examine them. The library’s destruction occurred at an auspicious time, and I regard it as highly suspicious.

“Still, I was able to find documents in Lord Frey’s study that show a connection between Lord Frey and the forces of darkness.”

“Please, come forward and present them,” Brother Septimus said, taking a pair of spectacles from his robes. Brother Gaius went to him, opening his satchel.

“The first is a stack of letters, each addressed to Lord Frey and signed by Prudence Goode. While nothing heretical is written in the letters, they demonstrate a very strong attachment between Lord Frey and a woman who was later condemned as a witch. The language contained the letters is intimate, confirming the rumors that Lord Frey had taken the witch as his mistress.”

“I wish to object,” Mr. St. Roch said, standing. “It is true that Prudence Goode was arrested for witchcraft, but she was not condemned as such. She died in custody before coming to trial.”

“Then the Gods themselves have condemned her,” Brother Gaius said with a sneer.

“I have one piece of evidence I would like to submit, as well,” Mr. St. Roch said, ignoring Brother Gaius. He stepped forward and bowed low first to Father Pius, and then to Bishop Benedict. “It is a piece of evidence that will be useful to you in your inquiry into the inquisition’s activities.”

Mr. St. Roch looked around, as though to see if anyone would stop him. When it was clear no one would, he presented the letter Brother Gaius had written to me. “Upon hearing how her husband’s estate was being managed, and how the staff and tenants were being treated, Lady Frey wrote directly to Brother Gaius to inquire about the estate. The letter she received in return was an insult to Lady Frey’s station and her honor. Brother Gaius states very plainly that, though he was using the servant’s labor, he would not assist their families in any way, nor pay their wages. Lady Frey offered to pay the servant’s wages herself, but Brother Gaius refused Lady Frey access to her husband’s assets, leaving the poor tenants, who relied on the Frey’s charity, without any assistance.

“Even so,” he pulled out a second letter, “Brother Gaius continued to collect rent and tax in Lord Frey’s stead. This is a letter from the steward of Rowan Heights, Mr. Poe, detailing the situation.”

“I have never heard such nonsense,” Brother Gaius said. “Would you have me pay the servants of a witch for the privilege of being interrogated? I am not in the business of providing charity; I am an agent of justice.”

Brother Gaius turned to Bishop Benedict. “Have this lawyer removed from the courtroom.”

Bishop Benedict, however, did not reply. He read the first note with a grave expression, and then passed it to Bishop Septimus. Bishop Septimus glanced at the note, and then tossed it aside.

“I see nothing so insulting in this letter,” Bishop Septimus said. “I see nothing untoward in Brother Gaius’s handling of the Frey estate, either. It is perfectly legal to freeze an imprisoned man’s assets.”

Bishop Benedict picked up the letters and placed them in his pocket. Then he nodded to Mr. St. Roch, who returned to his seat.

“Let us return to the matter at hand,” Bishop Septimus said. “What other evidence have you gathered against Lord Frey, Brother Gaius?”

“This is the most damning evidence of all,” Brother Gaius said. Gingerly, he drew forth a sheet of snow-white paper. “I have in my possession a document bearing the High Priest’s seal, and though it is an ancient decree, it has remained unaltered through the centuries.”

“What is it?” Bishop Septimus asked, standing to see. The other Bishops rose from the bench, and gathered around to look as well.

“It is the Frey family’s darkest secret. According to this document, signed by High Priest Domitian I, the Frey family line has been condemned to hell since the time of the Ancient War. There is no path for redemption; only eternal servitude to the true church. One son must produce at least two heirs, and one son must dedicate himself to the brotherhood each generation. No one tainted by Frey blood can ever ascend to heaven. This is the punishment decreed by the Gods themselves because the first Frey would not fight against the Ancients.”

He pulled a second paper out of the satchel, and I thought perhaps Brother Gaius was going to present the Goode family condemnation, as well. I was unable to hear his next words, however, because the crowd in the gallery began shouting.

“Confirmed! It is confirmed!”

“Lord Frey was born a witch.”

“He is one of the fallen six- he is the son of Asmodius.”

“Can it be- someone born from the Eagle’s line?”

“It is!“ someone else cried. “Lord Frey is the heir of Uriel!”

I glanced around the Noble’s section. All around people were standing up, muttering among themselves, and looking around in confusion- everyone except Miss Taris, whose eyes were shut, and whose lips moved as though in silent prayer.

Then, all at once, a deafening cheer boomed from the Gallery. “All hail the Eagle! All Hail the rightful king!”

Part LXXXVIII

The Coven, Part LXXXVI

 

Read from the beginning.

 

Hope and I talked in whispers until his voice dropped, and from the rhythm of his breathing I could tell he had fallen asleep. I had been holding his hand as we spoke, and though every instinct I had screamed in protest of the act, I slipped my hand from his, taking care not to wake him.

He shifted a little, and then his breath fell back into its steady rhythm. I watched him sleep until tears came to my eyes and blurred my vision. Here it was- real evidence that I had in some way changed his fate. At least one spell had been broken.

I wiped my tears away and kissed his cheek. I turned away from him then, feeling as though I were being pulled in two directions at once. I knew I must stay with Hope, who was battle-scarred yet still facing his biggest fight yet, and yet I knew I must go to Prudence and Celeste, to make certain that Pius and Lux had not broken their oath.

Circumstance resolved my conflict, in the end. I managed to sneak past the guards who stood around the entrance to the infirmary, but when I reached the annex the guards were many, and an iron portcullis had been drawn down, barring the door. I could find no way inside, and was obliged to return to the infirmary. When I arrived, the inquisitor who guarded the entrance spotted me, and pushed me back inside with a curt order not to leave without permission again.

 

 

#

 

 

“Lady Frey, how good it is to meet you again!”

Miss Taris’s unnaturally bright voice interrupted my reverie as I scanned the courtroom, looking for Prudence.

I had been roused before the sun and taken from the infirmary so that the inquisitors could prepare their prisoners for the courtroom, and though I’d asked Brother Amicus to take me to the annex, he’s insisted that it would be much more convenient to bring me to the courtroom before the crowds gathered. People had already begun to gather, though the crowd was much thinner than it had been the night before, but there was no sign of Prudence.

“Lady Frey, are you well?”

I turned reluctantly away from the doors to see Miss Taris, standing before me in her snowy white gown and looking radiant. She had lost all of the pallor she’d shown at del Sol- her cheeks and lips bloomed with pink, and her blue eyes sparkled as though with dew.

“I am,” I said. “And you seem to have recovered since yesterday; I have never seen you look so well as you do now.”

“I am remarkably well,” she said, and she leaned down to grace both of my cheeks with a kiss as though we were old friends reunited.

As she straightened I could see that her reed-like figure had lost all of its awkwardness. She moved her formerly stiff limbs with an easy grace. She no longer wore her spectacles, but her sparkling eyes showed no sign of fatigue or strain.

“I come bearing good will from del Sol. Abbess Joy sends you her love, and the sisters all send their well-wishes.”

“I do miss them. Was everyone well when you left del Sol?”

“Oh yes- del Sol continues as peacefully as ever. I was grieved to leave, but I have decided against taking orders. I believe I may do more good for the world elsewhere.”

She turned and smiled significantly at Brother Amicus, who stood guard nearby, and then turned back to me.

“The sisters miss Celeste, and of course Sister Jubilee. Where is Sister Jubilee, by the way?”

“Sister Jubilee is with Celeste, now,” I said. “I came early because…”

Before I could formulate an excuse, I caught sight of my father, who was making his way up the aisle with Lady Fairfax. Miss Taris followed my gaze.

“Oh of course- you needed to speak with your father. Pray do not let me interrupt. I only wanted to give you this for luck.”

She pressed an embroidered handkerchief into my hand, and then leaned forward to whisper in my ear.

“All of Wisdom’s people stand behind your husband; he will be free.”

The she straightened again and turned, nodding briefly to my father before gliding past to her seat.

Father approached me. As I slipped the handkerchief into my pocket, I could feel something hard tucked inside of it.

“Well, Grace- I hope you are sufficiently prepared,” Father said gruffly. “What a circus this is! The crowds are backed up all the way to 2nd street, and all the events that occur are shouted from pressman to pressman in a chain until they take on the most outrageous character. Some have said that young Miss Taris died of fright when she saw the ‘witches,’ and still others say that Bishop Septimus has put all the prisoners to the rack before our very eyes, trying to extract a public confession.”

“The rumors will only agitate the crowds,” I said. “I wish you would both go to Willowbrook for your safety.”

“I wouldn’t miss the conclusion of this for the world. I must not rely on any witness but my own,” Father said. “But, Lady Fairfax, perhaps you should go. Smith can travel with you, you know- there is no one more trustworthy- and I will tell you everything that has happened when the trial is over.”

Lady Fairfax faltered, looking from my father to raised dais at the front of the courtroom and back again.

“If the trial as important as you say, then I hate to go,” she said.

“The importance of this trial is where the danger lies,” I said, lowering my voice. “The crowds will only grow more restless, and when the verdict is delivered, no matter which way it goes, conflict may erupt.”

“Then hadn’t I better go home to Winter Estates?”

My father shook his head. “Your estate lies too close to Sancti’s borders, and I think Sancti will join the conflict soon enough. Willowbrook is outside the lines of conflict, now that Bridon City is no longer the capital. Plus, if the need arises, you can take sanctuary in the Cathedral Lux, which is the most well-fortified place in the country.”

Lady Fairfax’s eyes went wide. “Do you really believe it will become so dangerous?”

My father only shrugged. “I don’t know. If I’m estimating the scale of powers properly, the conflict should be brief but intense.”

Lady Fairfax shuddered.

“I would not recommend going back out today,” Father continued. “Stay to witness the trial today, and set out early tomorrow from Bridon place, traveling along the avenue to the south. Take Smith and Greene- the footman- with you, and travel post-“

“Post!” Lady Fairfax said, as though shocked.

“Your carriage will draw too much attention,” Father said. “My servants will be ready to receive you at Willowbrook, Lady Fairfax, so do not fear. Wait there until I return for you.”

Lady Fairfax nodded, her face white with fear. I stepped forward and took her hand, speaking gently.

“I do agree with my father that you should go, but don’t let his rough way of speaking frighten you. Things may not be as bad as he states; this is really a precaution more than anything else.”

Lady Fairfax nodded. “Thank you for everything you’ve done, dear Grace, and may the Gods protect you and your husband. When I think of everything you’ve done for your father, I am quite ashamed of how I behaved at court.”

      “What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean all the scheming I went through to repair your relationship with your father, of course. I was so dismayed when I saw the coldness- even hostility- between you. I knew, of course, that your father was eager for a grandchild, so I thought that if you were to give him one, everything would be well between you.”

I sighed. “Lady Fairfax, did you start the rumors at court?”

Lady Fairfax’s cheeks colored a little under her powder. “Your husband seemed so much in love, and you were so lately married, that I didn’t see any reason why the rumor wouldn’t soon be made true, if it wasn’t already. What was the harm in reaping the benefits of the happy event as soon as possible? What was the harm in trying to help things along?”

“You were the one who placed the drugged incense outside our rooms, weren’t you?”

“The incense was perfectly harmless, I assure you. It is a recipe my grandmother concocted- like the witchbane potion. Please forgive me. I only had the good of the family in mind.”

Lady Fairfax hung her head, looking so uncharacteristically humble that my anger melted entirely.

“I know your intentions were good. I forgive you. In the future, come and speak to father and I about our problems, instead of using deceit to solve them.”

“I will,” she said. Then she gave me a quick kiss on the cheek, and sat beside Father.

The crowd was growing thicker, and I was soon joined by Mr. St. Roch and Mr. Sutton, the latter of whom happily relayed that he’d completed his commissions from the day before. He had found Chastity’s sister as well as reported, and he had taken the opportunity of being amongst the crowds to gauge where public support lay. I listened to his report, still scanning the crowds but seeing no sign of Prudence.

The Bishops assembled, Bishop Benedict led the opening prayer once more, and then the prisoners were led into the courtroom.

The prisoners appeared quite different from the previous day, though it was due much more to their new, white robes than the effect of a single decent meal and sleep in an infirmary cot. The robes were loose enough to hide their emaciated frames, and the sleeves were long enough to hide Captain Goode’s handless arms. Even Lord Willoughby had been dressed in the plain white robes, though bells still hung around his neck and clanked against his heavy chains. Hope’s eyes had been wrapped in fresh bandages, and Lady Willoughby wore a white cap, as though a woman’s shorn head had been deemed just as unseemly.

Captain Goode looked sharply at me and then leaned in to whisper something to Hope, turning his gaze to the opposite side of the room. I followed Captain Goode’s gaze and saw Prudence seated at the far end of the noblesse section flanked by two inquisitors. She gave me a short wave, which I returned before the court was called back to order.

“Sister Happiness, please stand before the court,” Father Pius said.

Sister Happiness came forward, and Brother Lux bade her stand under the Dais, facing the assembled Bishops. As she repeated her oath from the previous day, I took out a pencil and two sheets of paper, dedicating the top sheet to notes on the proceedings and the second to a letter for Prudence.

I finished the note to Prudence in short order and folded it into a tight square. Then I turned my attention back to Sister Happiness. The Sister looked very small under the dias. She wrung her hands together, and her eyes darted here and there among the crowd.

“State your name for the bishops,” Brother Lux said.

“I am Happiness, Sister of the Abbey de Lune,” she said in clear, steady voice.

“What is your relationship to the accused?” Brother Lux continued.

“I was Lady Willoughby’s teacher when she was a young girl. At the time she still went by the name Miss Patience Fairchild.”

“How long did you tutor young Miss Fairchild?”

“Lord Fairchild brought her to be raised at the abbey when she was five years old- shortly after her mother died. She stayed with us until she was fifteen.”

Bishop Septimus waved his hand, as though he were trying to brush Brother Lux aside, and then he spoke. “How would you characterize Miss Fairchild, Sister? Was she a good pupil?”

“She was an indolent and defiant child. I was obliged to use the strap on her almost daily, and she still would not attend her studies. The only subject she excelled in was music, though she was often saucy toward her music instructress. As Miss Fairchild grew older, she exhibited a voluptuous nature, so I wrote to her father to advise he get her a husband as soon as possible.”

“When you say ‘voluptuous nature,’ what precisely do you mean?” the old Bishop wheezed from the end of the bench.

“Miss Fairchild was only interested in earthly pleasures- music, dance, food, and wine. She did not attend her prayers, and was more apt to read novels than books of an instructive nature. Her healthy appetite assisted her precocious growth, and she grew so strong that she quite disregarded the sting of the strap, or even the cane. When I wrote to Lord Fairchild, I advised him that she would need a husband with a strong hand manage her.”

Sister Happiness seemed to have lost all of her nervousness as she spoke. Her voice took on a hard, authoritarian tone, and she turned a grim eye toward the prisoner’s box more than once.

“Did you ever meet Lord Willoughby?” Bishop Benedict asked.

“I met Lord Willoughby twice. The first time I met him was when he brought his petition to marry Miss Fairchild to the bishop of the Cathedral Lune- the now late Bishop Julian. Lord Fairchild forbade the match, so the petition was denied. Then, a year later, Lord and Lady Willoughby were married at the Cathedral de Lune, and I attended.”

“Within that year, I take it, Lord Fairchild had relented?”      Bishop Benedict continued.

“He had,” Sister Happiness said, “though I believe he was not in his right mind when he did so. He was ailing, and he seemed somewhat addled. His daughter, under the auspices of caring for him, dictated everything to Lord Fairchild. I am convinced that Lady Willoughby took advantage of her father’s poor health to trick him into signing the marriage contract.”

“What lead you to believe that Lady Willougby had tricked her father?” Bishop Benedict asked.

“How could I believe otherwise?” Sister Happiness snapped back. “How could anyone who had seen Lord Fairchild the year before believe otherwise? Lord Fairchild’s contempt for Lord Willoughby’s weak and decadent nature would have been enough reason in itself to forbid the match, but there was a long-standing enmity between the Fairchild and Willoughby families that allowed for no possibility he would ever lend his consent to the marriage.”

Sister Happiness’s voice rose almost to a shout, but then her pale cheeks colored slightly, and she lowered her voice again.

“Not that- not that enmity is something to be encouraged. But in this case…”

A low murmur rose in the gallery. Bishop Septimus rose from the bench and cleared his throat, as though to silence the crowd.

“Do you have any idea what sort of ‘trick’ Lady Willoughby used to manipulate her father?” he asked.

“It must have been something dark and unnatural,” Sister Happiness said, her voice dropping dramatically. “Lord Fairchild’s health was good and his will was like iron when he forbade the match. I believe nothing short of a demonic influence could have overcome him.”

The murmurs grew louder, and people eventually began to shout over each other, some calling out “lies! Lies!” while still others called “hang the witch!”

“Silence, please.” Father Pius hardly seemed to raise his voice, and yet it carried over the noise. “Justice will be served. The trial has only just begun.”

When the crowd quieted he turned to Sister Happiness. “Many strong men have been felled by illness, poison, or vice. Why so you think that demonic influence was so necessary to overcome Lord Fairchild?”

“Lord Fairchild showed no signs of illness when he forbade his daughter’s marriage. He was a pious man, and in full command of his household- all except her.” Sister Happiness turned from Father Pius to Lady Willoughby, an ugly sneer twisting her lips.

“Defiant, slatternly, and voluptuous- sin is in that girl’s very nature.” Sister Happiness took a step toward Lady Willoughby, whose face grew red. “I’ve heard rumors of her dealings at St. Blanc- how she has descended into decadence and degeneracy, behaving like a whore. Everyone knows what kind of woman she is. Everyone feels sorry for her milk-sop of a husband. Her association with this coven only confirms what I’ve always suspected. She belongs to the demons, and the demons may have her.

“Lady Willoughby is a witch.”

Sister Happiness thrust her finger at Lady Willoughby as the last notes from her rant echoed through the courtroom.

The crowd was silent, many of them staring at the scene with hungry eyes. Lady Willoughby’s composure had broken. Tears were visible on her red cheeks before she turned her face away from the crowd.

Then, through the rapt silence there came the tinkling of bells.

Lord Willoughby lifted his head to look at Sister Happiness, not with an expression of fear or bewilderment, but with unmistakable anger. He leaned forward, reaching around Chastity who was chained next to him, to take Lady Willoughby’s hand.

Lady Willoughby turned back, looking at her husband with wide eyes as she clutched his hand.

“My dear Patience,” Lord Willoughby said in a low, clear voice, “pay no attention to this bitter old woman.”

 

 

#

 

 

“Sir Nighthawk’s testimony was a bit underwhelming, wasn’t it?” Hope whispered later that evening.

I was sitting beside him in the infirmary, strangely exhausted after the day’s events, even though I had only sat and watched the proceedings. In my hands I held a tightly folded piece of paper- a note that Prudence had passed back to me shortly before the court recessed and the inquisitors had led her back to the annex.

I clutched the note like a talisman, as though its presence could ensure me of its author’s safety. Thus warded, I was able to keep my tone optimistic- even cheerful- when I spoke to Hope.

“Sir Nighthawk was certainly not credible,” I said.

When Sir Nighthawk came forward, it was clear that he had prepared to testify that he had not seen Captain Goode at camp the night of Father Sauris’s death. Upon questioning, however, Sir Nighthawk immediately conceded that he had confused the date, and that he actually had seen Captain Goode briefly at dinner the night of the full moon. He went on to inform the bishops that he was suspicious of Captain Goode because Captain Goode rarely drank with the other officers in taverns, and that he had been promoted too early for Sir Nighthawk’s liking.

“He sounded like nothing more than a jealous fool. I wonder why he was called to testify at all?” Hope said.

“Sir Nighthawk probably sounded more credible before he was put to the litany of truth,” Captain Goode, who was listening nearby, replied. “He does not have much ability on the battlefield, but Sir Nighthawk is usually well-spoken and sensible.”

“The litany does more than prevent lies,” Lord Willoughby said in a tone so soft it commanded everyone’s attention. “It brings forth the things most people hide. Sister Happiness wears a meek, humble face in public, but today she showed us all the viciousness she usually reserves for her pupils.”

Lady Willoughby nodded firmly in agreement.

“Lady Willoughby, I am awed at how well you comported yourself today under such slander,” I said. “To anyone with discernment, your dignity was far more impressive than all Sister Happiness’s vicious noise.”

“I agree. Now we must hope that those who sit in judgement have any discernment,” Chastity added.

“I have yet to see any evidence that they do,” Captain Goode said.

“I wonder what we would learn if my brother were subjected to the litany of truth,” Hope whispered in a voice so low that only I seemed to hear.

 

 

#

 

 

The night wore on, and the room grew quiet as, one by one, the occupants fell asleep. The lights were all dimmed but for a single lantern, by which I poured over Prudence’s note.

The note was written hastily, and yet the handwriting was unmistakably Prudence’s. The words, however, seemed not to be entirely hers, as though some if it had been dictated to her.

 

Dearest Grace,

      I am sorry I could not sit with you today, but when I arrived in the courtroom the crowd was already so thick that I was forced to find seating wherever I could. Rest assured I am well, and though Celeste is bored, she is as healthy as ever and is very well protected. The inquisitors that guard us are all loyal to Pius, and they seem ready to guard us with their very lives, just as Pius promised while we were at del Sol.

      I am still filled with anxiety, of course, but I have faith that the trial will go well, and we will all be reunited in the end-

     

      There was the sentence that filled me with such anxiety. Faith had never been a favorite word for Prudence. She had always put more stock in evidence, in analysis, and in action. Perhaps, I thought, this was a time of such suspense, and where so little could be done, that faith was the only thing she had to sustain her. As the letter continued, it was clear that Prudence was still very much herself in other ways.

 

      If not for your absence, I would be quite content with our arrangements in the annex. But your absence is not a trifle, however many books or cups of tea or warm rugs we are given. It has been only one night, yet I already miss your conversation. I have the strangest longing to start an argument with you, the subject of which does not matter in the least. I need a foil to make me feel as though I can still struggle against something.

      The last line was so thoroughly Prudence that it brought a smile to my lips. I finished the letter, re-read it, and then folded it again, mulling over the contents.

As the paper rustled, Hope stirred a little and sat up.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I did not mean to wake you.”

“You are still awake, Grace?” he asked. “But- you often used to stay up nights, didn’t you?”

“My habit has only grown worse over time,” I admitted. “I was just reading a note from Pr- from Sister Jubilee. She and Celeste are safe and well, if a bit restless. They send their love.”

“When you get the chance, convey my love, as well,” he said. “Grace…”

“Yes?”

“Stay up with me. Tell me- tell me everything you can. Not about the trial or the estate, but about… life.”

      I folded the letter and placed it back into my pocket. Then I slipped into the cot beside him. Hope’s body was ice cold, though the room was warm and close, so I pressed our bodies together, took his hand, and began to talk.

I told him about the seashore at del sol, where the air was filled with the sound of crashing waves and the call of gulls. I told him about the tide pools where Celeste had discovered a tiny, populated world. I told him about Celeste’s discovery of the strange phenomenon of the tides, and her journey to uncover its mystery. I told him about warm evenings by the fireside in the calefactory, where Prudence and I had read books over tea, connected in our silence. I told him about the journey from del Sol, and the hampers that Abbess Joy had laden on us for our journey so filled with bounty from the sea that it had gone half-uneaten.

I whispered for a long time, uninterrupted, into the still night. When I spoke of the attic at Bridon Place, and the kingdom of books I’d discovered in my youth, Hope’s hand went slack in mine. His breath grew soft and steady in sleep.

I leaned close and pressed my head against his chest. His breast bone jutted through his robe, and his ribs were hard ridges against me, but though he felt so light and fragile, I could hear his heartbeat, strong and steady in my ear. That primal sound, more sacred than the most powerful liturgy, held me fast. I barely dared to breathe, lest I miss a single beat.

 

Part LXXXVII