The Coven, Part II

 

When I returned home to Willowbrook, I was still shaken by my encounter with Lord Frey. The scene I had witnessed was obviously not meant for my eyes, and I knew it should be forgotten. However, something about the scene had seemed so unnatural that I could not forget.

In my agitated state, I hardly knew where my feet were taking me, but my feet knew. In times of trouble, my feet always remembered to seek the quiet comfort of our well-stocked library.

I settled onto my favorite velvet cushion at the window in the corner nook, between two steady oak bookcases, and was just opening a satisfactorily large book when the door was flung open.

I sank back into my alcove, hoping to avoid notice, but to no avail.

“Grace!” Father called out. “I know you are here; the library is in disorder.”

I sighed and stood. “I’m here, father.”

“Yes, I can see that.” He shut the door behind him and began to gather my pile of books in his arms. “You can only read one at once, you silly girl, and why would you even need the star atlas at this time of day?”

“It’s to reference while I read Sir Boromir’s celestial observations, as is the geometry book.”

“You always have your head in the sky. Attend to your duties on earth, and you’ll get on much better,” he said. “Where does this one go? Surely you don’t need to reference Lord Aston’s On Morality when reading about stars.”

“Oh no, but we’ve nowhere to put that book. It’s from the circulating library.”

“You must return it at once. We have plenty of books, here. No- you stupid thing, not now,” he said as I got up to obey. “I wish to speak with you, now.”

I sat down on the cushion once more, and my father clasped his hands behind his back and started to pace.

My father was a middle aged man, short and rotund, and not aging at all well. At 50, his hair grey and wispy, and though he was not bald, plenty of scalp showed through in patches when he did not wear his long, powdered wig. The skin on his face was thin and fragile, and his spectacles pinched the delicate skin on the bridge of his nose and on his temples. The spectacles flashed in the morning light, reminiscent of the old priest from that morning.

“Did I, or did I not, tell you to come straight to my study when you arrived at home?” He said without pausing in his pacing.

“I don’t believe you did.”

Father sighed. “You must stop being so absent-minded. It’s no matter, though. You will soon be someone else’s problem.  Tell me, how did you like Lord Frey? I saw you speak to him at church.”

This was such a non-sequitur that I didn’t know how to respond.

“Lord Frey and Father Sauris will join us for dinner, this evening. The reason for their visit is to arrange a marriage between you and Lord Frey.”

“I- me? Marry Lord Frey?” I said. My book slipped from my fingers as I tried to process the news.

“Don’t throw the book on the floor,” my father said testily, stooping to pick it up. “Yes- you will marry Lord Frey. It’s all been settled. All that is wanting to is arrange your dower and sign the contract. Prince Hadrian is determined that Lord Frey should marry, now that he’s inherited his father’s estate, and Father Sauris thinks you are the most suitable match. You are of age, your rank and fortune are suitable, and as foolish as you are, you are still a respectable young woman.”

“Me… marry Lord Frey,” I said again. I remembered the kind man I’d spoken to in church, and the frightening man I’d seen outside.

“I hope you don’t act like such an idiot this evening,” Father said. “I’m sure you remember Lord Frey, and you know what marriage is.”

Father carried my books to the case. “Don’t stay inside straining your eyes with these books. Go outside, ride your horse, and get some exercise. Make sure you are home before three, so that Miss Wilcox can dress you. This is her last chance to turn you into a lady, it seems.”

“And the library book?”

“Oh, take it to your room,” Father said. “You can return it later.”

 

 

#

 

 

I found myself glad that I’d taken my father’s advice to get exercise, because after I returned to the house I was bathed, and then forced to sit still in a chair for two hours while Miss Wilcox curled and pinned my hair. She tried at least four different styles before she was satisfied with the result, and then she powdered and rouged my face before removing most of the makeup with a handkerchief. The end result was me, looking very much like I had when I returned from my ride, but in a maroon gown and with hothouse roses in my curly, dark hair.

“Remember to keep your voice low,” Miss Wilcox said as she laced me into my stays. “A lady does not shout or raise her voice. Smile at Lord Frey, but not too much. You must not appear too eager. Pretend to be sweet instead of silly, and shy instead of awkward.”

“Is there really so much of a difference?” I said.

Miss Wilcox stopped lacing me in and groaned. “Perhaps it would be best if you spoke as little as possible. You may act as ridiculous as you please once you are married, but it wouldn’t do to scare him off, now.”

“It won’t matter if I scare him,” I said. “Both the Prince and the High Priest wish us to marry.”

But, I recollected, Lord Frey might be able to defy them both. The unnatural scene I’d witnessed from that morning came to mind once more, and my stomach started to tremble.

“Miss Wilcox, what if- what if Lord Frey is…” I stopped, unable to put my fears into words.

“If he has a vicious temper, you must simply do your best to appease him. Don’t think about such things, though. He’s a handsome man, and he’s wealthy. He’s as good a match as you could have ever wanted. It’s better to suffer an occasional beating than to die an old maid.”

“Miss Wilcox!”

“Well, it’s the truth. I won’t sugar coat the married state. Still, no one wants to be alone. There- you look very pretty, so Lord Frey won’t have any reason to complain, tonight.”

 

 

#

 

 

My crinolines rustled as I walked downstairs to dinner, though I desperately wished them to be silent- to not announce my arrival. I wanted more than ever to disappear.

The conservatory was empty when I made it to the bottom of the stairs, but when I entered the drawing room, three men stood from their seats, and came to greet me. I was instantly the center of attention.

My father came forward and presented me to Lord Frey. Father took my hand as he led me forward, so I couldn’t run away. Even though I wanted to avert my eyes in terror, I couldn’t help but stare at Lord Frey. He was just as handsome, as dark and elegant, as he had appeared earlier. He fixed me with the same kind, indulgent smile he had that morning.

His looks and expression seemed too perfect- like a mask.

My father placed my hand in Lord Frey’s, and I stood, transfixed, as my hand trembled in his.

Lord Frey leaned over to kiss my trembling hand.

“Charming,” Father Sauris exclaimed in the same warm, booming voice he used in his sermon. “I knew this would be a perfect match. They seem made for each other- don’t you think, Lord Ainsworth?”

“I quite agree,” My father replied. “Well, my son, I wish you both joy. I have drawn up the necessary papers for dear Grace’s dower. I will go up to my office, and bring them down directly. Father Sauris, would you be so kind to look the papers over with me? I want your assurance that it’s all in order.”

“Of course,” Father Sauris replied. I heard footsteps, and then the drawing room door’s creak, but I only saw Lord Ainsworth’s dark eyes, which stared into my own.

“They have made their excuses to leave us together,” he said. “The paperwork is all complete, Miss Ainsworth. Our fate is sealed.”

“Is it alright- for us to be alone, I mean.”

Lord Frey, still holding my hand in his own, led me to the sofa. “We are engaged now, Miss Ainsworth, and our wedding is only a week away. This is all right and proper. Besides- I’d hardly say we are alone.”

Lord Frey cast a significant glance at two footmen, who stood by the door as silent and still as a pair of lamps.

“Miss Ainsworth, how do you feel about this marriage? I promise I won’t be angry if you say you dislike the idea.”

At that moment, my shyness overcame my odd fixation on his eyes, and I tore my gaze away from him to stare at my hands.

“Miss Ainsworth?” he ventured after a few more moments of silence.

“I- that is to say I…”

Lord Frey sighed. “You don’t wish to marry me, do you? Do you have any prior attachments?”

“Prior attachments?”

“Do you have a lover?”

I laughed then- an awkward, shrill giggle I couldn’t contain. “A lover? Me? Who would want me?”

“I don’t mean to sound as though I’m passing judgement,” he said. “I only want to know if there is any way I can help you.”

“I think you mistake me, Lord Frey. I don’t dislike you. I only- I don’t know how to say it.”

Lord Frey put his hand under my chin and tilted my face up once more, so that I was looking into his dark eyes. I could see my own reflection staring back at me in his eyes- a strange golden reflection in evening light. The golden light seemed to envelop me in warmth- the warmth of a crackling fire in a winter hearth- and I could feel myself grow drowsy.

“I am afraid,” I heard myself murmur, as though talking in my sleep. “I don’t know anything about marriage. I don’t know what will be expected of me. I don’t know if I can-“

I snapped out of my stupor, then, in time to stop myself from saying, “I don’t know if I can trust you.”

“Will you be homesick?” He asked again, patiently.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

Lord Frey nodded, and stood.

He went to the fireplace and leaned against the mantelpiece, gazing into the flames for a few moments before he spoke again.

“Miss Ainsworth, I fear you and I are in the same predicament. I don’t know what is expected of me, either.”

Lord Frey turned back to look at me again.

“For now, between the Prince, the High Priest, and your father, we are compelled to consent to this match. I welcome you into my home, but I won’t put any pressure or expectations on you. If we find ourselves unable to live together, we will find the power to defy those who compel us now. We will live the lives that we wish to live.

“I swear, Miss Ainsworth, that I will do what I can to gain that power, for myself and for you.”

Before I could reply, my father and Father Sauris returned with the paperwork for Lord Frey to sign, and then the bell rang, announcing dinner. Father and the High priest were engrossed in conversation throughout dinner, and Lord Frey attempted to engross me in conversation, as well.

Lord Frey smiled charmingly, and asked me about my interests in such a sincere way that I found myself almost overcoming my awkwardness. For a moment, I was so charmed by his manners that I forgot Miss Wilcox’s advice, but when I exclaimed in a loud voice how much I enjoyed stargazing, Lord Frey looked at me with so much surprise that I stopped speaking, and looked down at the soup- my cheeks burning.

Lord Frey, I realized in that moment, was a refined gentleman, possessing each and every social grace I lacked. He made me feel comfortable, not because of sincere interest in my person, but because of his ability to fake interest when it was necessary. He was so skilled that, even after my embarrassment, he was able to draw me out again, and I spoke just as warmly about my books and my sextant and the rare, balmy summer nights I was allowed to take them out to the treeless plain on the east side of the manor. Even though I caught his indulgent smile- the type of smile a grown-up might give to a clever, enthusiastic child- I couldn’t stop from telling him my love of losing myself in the black velvet dome of the night sky, studying the intricate, clockwork dance of the glittering spheres above.

When dinner drew to a close, and he stood to go, he leaned over to kiss my hand once more.

“The next time I see you will be in church, on our wedding day,” he said. “Until then, I’ll be preparing my home, Rowan Heights, for your arrival.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“Good night, Miss Ainsworth.”

“Grace,” I said.

“Excuse me?”

“Call me Grace, please. We are to be married,” I ventured.

He smiled. “Good night, Grace.”

 

The Coven, Part III

The Coven, Part I

The Three Gods

 

 

On the morning of week’s end, on the first day of summer, destiny put me on the path to darkness.

I was attending church that morning. There is a great cathedral on the edge of the city, The cathedral Lux, which my family has attended daily since I was born. The Cathedral Lux is the largest cathedral in the world, built by the first King of Aeterna, King Innocent I. It hardly seems like a building at all when one is inside, since it’s so large and so full of windows. Every morning the whole cathedral is flooded with light, which illuminates row after row of gleaming wood pews and, ahead, the white marble altar. My family sits above the main floor in a balcony reserved for the noble class, in a special section near the front.

This morning, I looked at the section next to us, which is usually empty, and saw a man sitting there alone. He had long brown hair, which obscured his face as he examined the liturgy in his hands.

I turned back to the marble altar, and to the old priest who stood on top.  The altar was surrounded on all sides by a chorus of musicians, whose voices rose and fell as he spoke, accentuating all of the most important words in his sermon. I often wondered how long they needed to practice, to make everything work so perfectly.

“The Three Gods, whom we serve,” he was saying, “are vital to us. Likewise, our service to them is vital to maintaining harmony in our kingdom, our world, and the entire cosmos.”

At the word ‘cosmos,’ the choir’s voices swelled in a dramatic forte.

“The first God is named Reverence, who reminds us to give honor and respect not only to the Gods, but to our mortal masters here on earth. Children, revere your parents; wives, revere your husbands; peasants, revere your lords, and slaves, revere your masters. In such reverence, you will find security and guidance.”

The choir’s tone mellowed, then- sweet and relaxing.

“The second God is named Chastity, who reminds us to give up our earthly desires and selfish passions, and to serve our church and our masters with all our hearts. Be humble, work hard, and resist the temptations of pleasure.”

The priest paused here, adjusting his spectacles, which flashed in the morning sunlight more brightly than even the gems on his vestments, though not as brightly as his bald head.

“The last God is named Order, and he is above all others. Through service to him we are able to progress peacefully from one generation to the next, without any change. Change is instability, and instability is chaos. Trust in the order the gods have created, and we will all live lives of prosperity and peace.”

The choir swelled again, this time so powerfully that the seats rumbled.

The man in the next section looked up from his liturgy, and tossed a wave of dark hair over his shoulder. I could see his face, now. He was young- he could not be more than 30. His skin was fair and his eyes dark. He had high cheekbones and a high brow- everything elegant and regal. He smirked at the priest for just a moment, and then leaned over his liturgy once more.

I could feel my face grow hot. The smirk had seemed very bold-almost blasphemous- but I quickly remembered myself. Who was I to judge his behavior when I, a girl and possibly his inferior in rank, wasn’t paying proper attention?

I turned back to the priest, and under my breath I uttered a small prayer for forgiveness.

The priest gestured for the congregation to rise, and I took my liturgy from under my seat to join the chorus. I could still see the strange man over my father’s head. He, too, stood with his liturgy, but he did not sing.

My father jabbed me sharply in the ribs, and I quickly turned my eyes away from the strange man and back to my liturgy.

#

 

 

When the service was done, my father fixed me with a stern look, which was just as frightening now that I stood an inch taller than him than it had been when I was a small girl.

“I expect you to pay closer attention to tomorrow’s service. Go to the carriage and wait for me; I have some business to discuss with the priest.”

“Yes, father.”

My father sped away from me with much more agility than one would expect from a man his age, and as soon as I saw him disappear into the dissipating crowd, I let out a heavy sigh.

“Pardon me, Miss Ainsworth.”

I spun around and saw the dark haired man standing behind me. He held out a small book bound in black leather.

“You left your litany on the pew,” he continued.

“Oh! Thank you, Mr…”

“I beg your pardon; I am Lord Frey. I am an acquaintance of your father’s.  I’ve not had a chance to speak with Lord Ainsworth in person, but my father was acquainted with Lord Ainsworth, and I seem to have inherited my father’s acquaintance along with his house and property.”

I felt my lips twitch upward, but I quickly stopped myself from smiling. “Please accept my condolences for your loss,” I said.

Lord Frey bowed slightly in acknowledgement. “But, Miss Ainsworth, you have no escort. I see that your father has left you.”

“My governess is waiting for me below, but thank you anyway- for your concern, I mean,” I stammered.

“Aren’t you a little old for a governess?”

I silently agreed with him, but I couldn’t find a way to answer him without complaining about my father’s treatment of me. I curtsied, and Lord Frey fixed me with a bemused smile, which I found myself blushing fiercely under. I finally turned away and hurried downstairs to my governess.

 

#

 

“Hurry Miss- you don’t want to keep your father waiting,” my governess, Miss Wilcox, said as soon as she saw me.

She was a young woman, not much older than me, whom my father had hired shortly after my last governess left us to marry. Miss Wilcox was not well educated, and she had nothing to teach me about music, language, philosophy, religion, or history that I didn’t already know. She was, however, very pretty and very exacting about deportment. She tried in vain to turn me into a lady, attempting to overcome my shyness with constant scolding. The only success she had was in dressing my hair and clothing me like a doll, though I had to admit I admired her taste in clothes.

Just this morning, for example, I was dressed in a full-skirted gown of soft, black lace, edged in cream roses, which Miss Wilcox brushed imaginary lint from as soon as she saw me.  She then smoothed my hair and straightened my bonnet before scolding me to the carriage, which was waiting at the end of the street, conveniently away from the crowd outside.

“Your father is still not here,” she said as the footman helped me into the carriage.

“I believe he had some business with the priest,” I replied.

“Well, you wait here, and I will see how long your father will be,” she said. She hurried away as the footman shut the carriage door.

I leaned against the door and stared at Miss Wilcox’s retreating form until her cream gown disappeared through a crowd of vested monks, who stood like a brown wall between the carriage and the crowd of churchgoers. I amused myself in watching them as they stood clustered on the lawn, whispering to each other gravely, until I grew drowsy and bored.

Minutes came and went. The sun had risen higher in the sky, its light glancing off the high, golden spire of the cathedral, and still there was no sign of my father or Miss Wilcox. Finally, the whispering monks parted to let someone through, and I sat up in anticipation, gazing more anxiously out of the carriage window.

I saw the old priest, still dressed in his jeweled vestments, emerge from the crowd, but my father did not appear. Instead, I saw the man from the cathedral, Lord Frey, walking behind him.

The two men appeared to be arguing. Lord Frey was walking in long strides, as though to catch up to the older man, and his cloak was half thrown off his shoulder as it swept the ground behind him. His eyes were narrowed in anger, and though I couldn’t make out his words, he seemed to be almost shouting.

The priest turned back to Lord Frey and smiled. They stopped quite close to my carriage, and I could see both men’s faces as they faced each other. The priest was smiling a cold, fishy smile- a triumphant light seemed to gleam in his eyes.

Just then, Lord Frey raised his right hand, and for a moment I was afraid he would strike the priest. However, he merely touched the priest’s forehead, and the priest slumped forward, closing his eyes as though he had fallen asleep where he stood. Then, slowly, Lord Frey raised his hand, and the priest looked forward once more with a glazed expression.

The priest took something from his robe’s deep pocket and handed it to Lord Frey. Lord Frey then pointed, and the priest turned away slowly, and walked back to the cathedral.

I fell back against the seat, my heart pounding, though I couldn’t quite explain why. Lord Frey was no doubt an important man, but even a noble could not defy the church. Nevertheless, he’d just stood up to a priest- a high priest of all people, and he had won.

 

The Coven, Part II