They are Going to Burn me as a Witch

Day 1

 

The stone steps were rough and frigid against my bare feet as I climbed down into the dungeon. The damp, stagnant air clung to my naked skin.

I’d been stripped, doused in cold water, and pricked with needles. The worst part, however, hadn’t been the cold or the pain, or even the humiliation as my naked skin had been examined, inch by inch, for any marks. No- the worst part had been the night before, when they’d found me, dragged me from my home, and torn my child from my arms.

My baby’s cries seemed to echo, ghostlike, in the silent dungeon around me.

They hadn’t bothered to give me any clothes after my examination. They’d merely clapped an iron around my neck and handed the chain to an old woman. She didn’t speak- she’d only pulled on the chain and led me to my cell.

By the time we reached the bottom step, all light had faded. The old woman didn’t stop to light a torch or a candle. She continued to lead me, sure footed and steady, into the darkness.

Soon we stopped, and I heard the clinking of iron, followed by the creak of a door. The old woman thrust me into the room.

There was just a little light now- a candle’s light was flickering in an adjacent cell, and it shone through the bars on the narrow window. There was no candle in my cell, however, and nowhere to put it. There was only a small bed of straw on the floor, and some strange markings on the wall before me.

I stared at the wall as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, and soon I could make out a small spot, within a circle, within a larger oval- a drawing of a huge eye was staring at me.

The old woman coughed and then spoke- her voice was the same pitch as the creaky cell door.

“Tell me, girl; do you wish to die?”

“Of course not,” I said hotly.

The old woman only laughed in reply, and then she shuffled away, slamming the cell door behind her.

Day 2

 

I didn’t sleep at all the night before. Instead, I’d sat in my cell, cold and numb, staring at the eye on the wall, which stared at me in return.

Soon after the sun rose the old woman returned for me, and took me back up the stairs. There I met the inquisitor, who introduced himself by branding my skin with a hot iron. It had already been determined that I am a witch- the inquisitor just wanted names, and he seemed ready to supply some if I couldn’t think of any. I didn’t speak. All I could do was think of my child, and weep.

That night, the old woman took me back to my cell. Before she left me, she turned to me and said, “do you wish to die?”

This time, I couldn’t say anything.

The old woman laughed again, and shut the door to the cell, leaving me alone with the eye.

Day 3

The next day, no one came for me.

I sat in my cell, staring at the eye until I couldn’t stand it any longer. I turned away from it and tried to sleep, but I could feel the eye staring at me. As I grew drowsier, the sensation grew stronger- the eye seemed to burn into my bare skin, like the eye of the inquisitor searching for any mark or stain on my soul.

The closer it looked, the more it burned.

I was wakened at sunset, when the old woman came and opened my cell. She put a bowl of gruel on the floor for me, and watched as I drank it down.

There was so little gruel, and it was so thin, that it only moistened my dry throat a little.

“Do you wish to die?” she repeated.

“No, I don’t. I wish to go home. I wish to see my child,” I said roughly.

The old woman just stared at me, and then left.

 

Day 10

 

They haven’t brought me any food since the day the thumb screws were applied, and I couldn’t use my hands to eat. The inquisitor put the bowl of gruel on the floor, and he and the guard laughed at me while I drank from the bowl like a dog.

Ever since, I’ve been left alone in my cell.

Today the old woman took me up into the courtyard and there I could see the pyre they’ve built for me. Then she led me back into my cell, where the eye waited- ever watchful. The old woman waited while I collapsed onto my straw mat, and then she spoke.

“Do you wish to die?”

For a time I couldn’t speak, and then I managed to croak, “I just want this to be over.”

“What would you give to get your wish?”

“Anything.”

Then the old woman pressed a wooden bowl into my hands.

I drank. The bowl was filled with putrid water, but I didn’t care. I drank long and deep, until there was no drop left. Then I let the bowl drop from my aching hands.

I could hear the old woman’s laugh echoing in the cell- echoing in my head. I looked up at the watchful eye even as my vision blurred.

And then, everything went black.

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The Coven- Interlude

 

At times, when my mind is clear, I can feel a rhythm and a pattern to the world.

 

One rainy afternoon, I felt it as never before. The pitter-patter of rain on the window syncopated with my heartbeat. The distant thunder rumbled in my stomach. My pencil tapped the paper in time with the ticking clock.

 

My eyes drooped, but my hands were working through my chart almost automatically as I plotted the stars I’d been tracking, checking my redundant work against Sir Boromir’s observations even as I traced my new ones. The real work was done, the calculations complete, and now I merely followed the patterns to their conclusion.

The latest wonder I’d uncovered were two small stars that attended the wandering star, Tigris. The small lights had moved around and around Tigris, never straying, and never breaking formation. When I closed my eyes, I could still see them dancing- dancing…

I could see all of the stars now- clearly in my mind as they spun on their epicycles across the crystal spheres. Some were fast, some slow, but all connected. Their speed, their size, and the sphere to which they clung all held some secret meaning, if only I could grasp it. I reached out toward the stars, and they grew closer and closer until they looked like giant spheres – spinning and whirling, inexplicably collapsing and growing, and rushing through a great, black sea as they pulled smaller stars in their wake.

“Lady Grace!  Don’t fall asleep.”

I opened my eyes to see Celeste’s impatient face inches from my own. I straightened at my table and yawned.

“Uncle Just was playing with me,” Celeste said with a pout, “but now he’s gone riding.”

“In the rain?”

“Yes- he said that the rain was nothing, to a good soldier. Uncle Hope is busy writing a letter, but if your work is dull enough to put you to sleep, perhaps you’d better play with me?”

I nodded and put my notes aside. “If you like, you may practice the new song I taught you. Or I could help you review your arithmetic.”

“No- Lady Grace, don’t tease. We’ve already finished lessons for the day. Don’t you know any games?”

“I’m afraid I don’t,” I said. “I never had any brothers or sisters to play with. Perhaps you can find a book to occupy you.”

Grace sighed and threw herself onto a sofa. “Oh Lady Grace, the books you gave me are lovely, but I can’t read all day. I need to move about, or I’ll go mad.”

Hope, who’d been sitting near the sitting-room window, laughed and closed his writing desk.

“Miss Celeste, you’re in luck. I did grow up with a brother, and I’ve just finished my note to him this very moment. However- looking back, I must admit we never played any games that were appropriate for young ladies, or to be played indoors, either. I propose that you have an afternoon lesson, today.”

“Oh Uncle, no!”

“I haven’t finished,” Hope threw his arm over the back of his chair and turned to face Celeste- his eyes glittering with mischief. “I was about to propose a dancing lesson. You’ve never had one, have you?”

“Dancing? But how can I? If Lady Grace taught me to dance, then there would be no-one to play music for us.”

“Nonsense- if Lady Grace will agree to provide the music, then I shall be both your dancing master and your partner.”

All at once, Celeste jumped up from the couch and clapped her hands. “Oh please, Lady Grace. Please play for us.”

“Of course I will, Celeste.”

Hope called for Chastity, who entered the room alone and- without sending for any footmen- cleared away the tables and chairs, lifted the entire couch with one arm, and single-handedly rolled back the heavy carpet as though it were nothing.

Then Chastity turned back, bowed, and left.

“Here we are, my angel- we should have plenty of room to dance, now,” Hope said to Celeste.

Celeste, staring wide-eyed at where Chastity had exited, said nothing.

“Let us start with the allemande. Stand just here, across from me, and try to match my movements. Grace- let’s hear a few bars of the music.”

I opened the clavichord and played, and then Hope began to dance while Celeste attempted to follow along. He stopped me after a time, and then performed the dance more slowly, counting along to his movements.

Hope’s grace or patience won out after a time, and Celeste caught on, dancing and laughing as they performed the steps together. She eventually was able to make a figure across the floor with him, along with some imaginary couples.

“Excellent-excellent,” Lady Willoughby’s voice called from the doorway. “I haven’t seen such splendid dancing in ages.”

Celeste turned to Lady Willoughby and curtseyed.

“Good afternoon, Lady Willoughby,” Hope said with a bow of his own. “To what do we owe the pleasure on such a dismal afternoon?”

“The pleasure is all mine. I do hope you don’t mind my intrusion. I come bearing a message for you, from my husband.” Lady Willoughby turned to me with a saucy smile. “Though now that I arrive, I recall a promise I made to Lady Frey.”

“A promise?” Hope said.

Lady Willoughby nodded, thrust a letter to Hope, and then came to the clavichord and sat on the bench beside me. “You must remember, Lady Frey.”

I looked at the impromptu dance floor, and then my cheeks burned as I remembered Lady Willoughby’s former threat to arrange a ball.

“Surely, you don’t think that we were practicing for anything in particular,” I said. “It’s only that Celeste was bored, and-”

Lady Willoughby cut me off with a laugh. “I thought that you had overcome your shyness. Don’t tell me you cannot dance!”

“I am able to dance, Lady Willoughby, but-”

“Then there is no reason to make a fuss. I will arrange everything- all I shall require of you is that you make up a list of everyone you would like to invite. I shall leave your dress up to you, as well- you always dress so nicely.”

I looked over at Hope, who was watching with an amused expression.

“I am all for this little plan.” Hope said. “I’ve just read Lord Willoughby’s note, and it contains very good news. I’m in the mood to celebrate.”

Lady Willoughby stood, her painted lips fixed in unusually firm expression. “Now is the hour of our triumph, and we should show the world.”

“Your triumph? What triumph?” Celeste asked.

Hope laughed, “why- that you and Lady Grace have come to live with us, of course. How happy I am, now that you’re here!”

Hope picked Celeste up and spun her around.

Celeste giggled, and then said, “does this mean I may go to the ball?”

“I’m afraid you are too young now, but it won’t be long until-” Hope’s words seemed to choke him then, and he held Celeste more tightly. “It won’t be long until you come of age, and I give a ball in your honor.”

 

#

 

Lady Willoughby stayed at the manor until dinner, going over plans for the ball, and I wasn’t able to work again until late. After Celeste was put to bed, I went up to my study, and worked until well past midnight.

I didn’t pause in my work until there was a timid knock on the door, and Mercy entered with a candle.

“Excuse me, Lady, but it’s getting quite late. Shall I turn your bed down?”

“Don’t trouble yourself, Mercy. I will likely stay up all night.”

“If you’ll pardon me, you really should get your rest.”

“I can sleep in a little tomorrow.”

Mercy nodded, but then she inched further into the room and shut the door, still clutching the candlestick.

“Will you need the candle, or oil for your lamp?”

“I have both candles and oil, thank you. Is something the matter?”

Mercy fussed with the candle some more, and then placed it on the table.

“Lady- it’s so very dark and late, that I thought you might like some company.”

I smiled a little- Mercy was obviously frightened, and needed the company more than I did. Then the smile faded. Hope had been reluctant to leave me alone lately, and he’d sent Mercy to guard me once before, the night of the full moon. Perhaps, I thought, he’d sent her go guard me again.

“Thank you, Mercy. I am tired. Let me finish this line, and then we’ll retire.”

I blotted my notes and closed my books, and then turned out the lamp.

The hallways were drafty, and Mercy had to walk carefully, shielding the candle as she went. The light flickered and danced madly on the dark walls, casting weird shadows. As we neared the stairwell, I heard a scream that send chills down my spine.

“Oh Lady, please don’t stop. I can hardly stand it,” Mercy said.

“Shh,” I said- “The screams are coming from downstairs.”

“I thought I heard it come from down the hall,” Mercy argued. “It must be poor little Celeste. I will go to her once you’re settled.”

“No, it can’t be Celeste. Her room is in the opposite direction.” I went down the stairs a little ways “I’m certain- the sound is coming from downstairs.”

“Oh Lady- it isn’t a ghost, is it?”

“Of course it isn’t. Someone may need us- we must go to them. Take my hand, and you won’t be afraid.”

“You’re too good, my Lady,” Mercy said as she took my hand in her own thin, shaking one. “But really, you should go to bed.”

I ignored her objections, and we made our way down the stairs and through another hall that ended in a bookcase.

“Lady- there’s no one here. We should go back,” Mercy said.

“I was sure it came from here.” I checked the two side doors, but they opened to a broom closet and a linen closet. I was about to turn back as Mercy had suggested when the scream rang out again- bright and clear. It seemed to come from behind the bookcase.

I let go of Mercy’s hand and examined the bookcase. The books were smooth and clean- their spines perfectly uncreased.

“Please Lady, I’m scared.”

“Don’t be frightened. I think the sound is coming from behind the bookcase.”

The bookcase looked sturdy, and I knew I would need to lessen the weight to move it. I reached out and began to remove books.

One of the books seemed to catch on something, and then there was a loud click. The bookcase swung open, revealing a hidden passage.

A loud chime sounded in the hallway.

“Lord Frey gave me clear orders; no one is to go into the basement. Not even you may pass, Lady Frey.”

I turned to face Mercy. Her frightened look was gone, replaced by fierce determination.

“Can’t you hear the screaming? Even now, it continues. Damn Lord Frey’s orders.”

Mercy put the candle on a nearby stand and pulled the cap from her head. Long, raven waves of hair tumbled down over her shoulders, contrasting handsomely with her sparkling blue eyes.

“You are a Lady,” she said, “so you have no idea what it feels like to be a servant. You have no idea what it’s like to be powerless under the disgusting men who call themselves your ma”sters. Lord Frey is the only one who ever kept a respectful distance.”

“He may be the one who is screaming.”

“He may be, but his orders still stand. I will respect him as he has respected me.”

Mercy circled around and blocked my path, holding her hands in front of her with cat-like grace.

“He might not have foreseen-”

“He would have,” Mercy said. “He’s wiser than you know.”

The chime rang out again, louder than before.

I moved toward the door, but Mercy was faster than me. Her feet hardly seemed to shift as she closed the distance between us. Before I knew it, I was on the floor, and Mercy had me expertly pinned.

She applied pressure on my arm, and I felt a sharp pain.

“That’s enough, Mercy. You can let her up.”

“She’s determined, Lord Frey. I had no choice.”

“Yes- I can well imagine. Still, she’s found my sanctuary. The damage has already been done.”

Mercy let go of my arm, and I stood slowly, rubbing the sore spot.

“You have surprising talent, Mercy,” I said, not certain if I should feel frightened, angry, or simply impressed.

Mercy bowed in acknowledgement. “I owe my training as a maid to Miss Chastity, of course.”

“Leave us, Mercy. I would speak to my bride alone.”

“Yes, Lord Frey.”

I looked up at Hope as Mercy’s steps echoed in retreat down the hall. His shirt was rumpled, and his hair hung in limp ropes over his haggard face.

“You once accused me of being artful and scheming, Grace. I think it’s time we both do away with masks, and reveal our true faces.”

 

This week’s clue:

The eye sees good judgement where the blood does not,

the mind to thrive, and the flesh to rot. 

The Coven, Part XIII

The Coven- Part XII

celestial

Lady and Lord Willoughby joined Mrs. Auber at her house in town, so Hope, Celeste and I were left  to return home alone. We had tea in the rose garden, and then I sat and read while Hope pushed Celeste on the swing.

I was lost in Lord Aston’s compelling verse as much as I was trying to make sense of my current situation, searching each line for a clue to help me, when Celeste cried out.

“Oh! It’s Uncle Just- I recognize his horse. He is back.”

And before Hope could stop her, she had jumped from the swing and was running toward the gate to meet the newcomer.

Hope and I followed, and found Coachman leading a black horse toward the stables. Captain Goode was standing nearby, holding Celeste in his arms.

“Good day, Lord Frey- Lady Frey,” Captain Goode said, putting Celeste back down. “My regiment will move to the border in a little over a month. In the meantime, I’m at liberty.”

“You are welcome, as always,” Hope said.

“Are you going to Sancti?” Celeste asked, tugging at Captain Goode’s sleeve.

“I will, if the Prince orders me,” Captain Goode said.

“I don’t want you to go to war,” Celeste said, still holding Captain Goode’s gloved hand as we walked into the house. “Why are we fighting Sancti?”

“We fight Sancti because their Queen is a heretic,” Hope said.

“True, but now we must wait to see if the new High Priest can reconcile with Sancti. If not, the Prince will declare himself King and order us to war,” Captain Goode added.

“If we can reconcile,” I said, “then Aeterna and Sancti will reunite once again.”

Celeste released Captain Goode’s hand and scratched her nose, seeming to mull this over.

When we reached the drawing-room door, we were greeted by Mercy.

“Welcome back my Lord, my Lady, Captain Goode,” she said, and then turned to Celeste. “There you are, Miss Celeste. Where have you been? It’s an hour past your nap time.”

“I’m too old for naps,” Celeste protested.

Captain Goode knelt down to gaze at his niece. “Celeste, remember what we discussed before we came to Rowan Heights. I want you to be a good, obedient girl.”

Celeste’s cheeks went red.

“Celeste has been a delight,” Hope said, stepping in. “She hasn’t given us a bit of trouble.”

“Yes, it’s just been a trying week, I’m afraid,” I said. “Celeste, I’m sure you’re tired. Go with Mercy, and when you wake, your uncle will still be here.”

“You promise?” she said.

I turned to Captain Goode, who nodded.

Celeste, satisfied, went with Mercy, and Captain Goode stood and sighed.

“It really won’t do if the two of you spoil her,” Captain Goode said. “She will need to be strong.”

“She is strong- as strong as her mother. I’d rather indulge her a little than break her spirit,” Hope said.

Captain Goode turned away sharply, and then coughed. “I have some rather disconcerting news. Is there a place we may speak privately?”

“Certainly. Come with me to the library.” Hope said. “If you will excuse us, Lady-”

“Actually, what I have to say concerns the Lady as well.” Captain Goode turned back to gaze at me with a steely eye. “I bring a message from your father.”

 

#

 

I felt a strange sense of satisfaction as I sat at the desk in my study, with Hope and Captain Goode seated across from me. I remembered all of the times I faced my father in his study, awaiting a scolding as he sat on his desk chair like a throne. Now, seated on a throne of my own, I could not help myself from bestowing a benevolent smile on my guests.

Captain Goode took an envelope from his pocket and placed it on the desk. I recognized the family crest on the seal- an ornate letter A with a chimera, in this case a serpent with a man’s face, coiled around the A’s feet. I noticed that the seal had been pulled away from the envelope’s lower half.

I looked up at Captain Goode, who was watching me expectantly.

“Forgive me, Lady Frey, but I did open the letter. I did not mean to pry into your personal affairs. By a strange coincidence, I found this letter in the possession of a highwayman whom I apprehended in the course of my duties. The man told me that your father had hired him to convey this letter to you in secret. When I read the letter, I only had your safety in mind.”

“If this is true, then I thank you,” I said, carefully unfolding the letter.

“Is the letter written in your father’s hand? The fact that it was in the hands of a bandit, as well the letter’s contents, suggest a larger plot. I suspect that it is a forgery.”

“No- this is my father’s hand. There is no mistaking it.”

Dear Grace,

I owe you many apologies, it seems. Since your marriage, I have had reasons to regret that the hasty match that was made, even with the consent of the Prince and High Priest. I do not doubt the wisdom of these men, but I believe that you were not of sufficient importance for them to look into your situation very closely.

You are still very young, and have not been introduced into society- as your excellent governess has pointed out to me on several occasions. It may have been premature to entrust you to the Earl of Coteaux, making you Countess of that fair country. I’m afraid that the duties the position entails will be trying for such a simple, immature girl.

I could feel my cheeks grow warm as I read. I’d lived without my father’s criticisms for just a few weeks, but I’d forgotten how they stung. Somehow, as far removed from my father as I was, his words hurt far more than Hope’s drunken rant had.

The second reason for my regret is that I’ve heard several reports of a scandalous nature- that Lord Frey has a natural child, and that he’s actually taken the girl into his home. I am sure that you must feel the shame of the connection. Everyone in the best society has been talking about it, and pitying you.

He meant to shame me, but this time I didn’t feel the sting. His insult toward an innocent child, one who needed me and looked up to me, only inspired my indignation.

As I recognized my father’s error, I felt a familiar sensation- one I’d last felt the night of the full moon when Hope had whispered “you can trust me.” A spell was broken.

I read on.

The rumors surrounding Lord Frey’s natural child are not the most troubling that I’ve heard, but I shall not cause you undue alarm by repeating accusations of a grotesque nature-especially as I have no proof. However, as your father, I am still interested in your safety. If you see anything unusual, or hear any strange or alarming whispers at Rowan Heights, I trust that you will write to me immediately. You may write as long and tiresome a letter as you please; include every detail, even if it seems insignificant.

In the course of a human life, many strange things may occur. It may be that a girl as unimportant as yourself is able to do a great service for her Prince and her country.

Your loving father,

Lord Valor Ainsworth

 

“Are you quite sure,” said Captain Goode as I folded the letter, “that this is your father’s writing.”

I hesitated; Captain Goode had read the letter, and knew what my father had asked. Should I lie? Did I want to protect my father and risk Celeste and myself, should Hope see through the lie?

“If this is a forgery, then the culprit must know my father intimately,” I said. “Not only is the hand his, but the writing style, execution, and the manner of addressing me is his, as well. There can be little doubt he wrote this.”

“And shall you answer?” Captain Goode asked.

Hope raised his eyebrows and looked between Captain Goode and myself. “I feel as though I’m missing out on something quite fascinating.”

Before I could say anything, Captain Goode spoke.

“Her Father has asked her to send reports regarding what happens at Rowan Heights. No doubt, he suspects you of some wrongdoing.”

Hope paled for a moment, and then he uttered a forced laugh. “Lord Ainsworth is just as my father described him- always looking to ruin others and elevate his own position. It does not matter. I’m sure Lady Frey has no desire to play spy for her father.”

“On the contrary; I think Lady Frey should fulfill her filial duty, and answer the letter.”

Hope stood in surprise. “My friend, surely you don’t-”

“I’m certain,” Captain Goode interrupted with a smile, “that the Lady has not seen anything to alarm her here. She seems quite comfortable. I admire this little library exceedingly.”

Captain Goode looked around the study, and then nodded in satisfaction. “There is enough material here to keep you very busy, my Lady, in addition to your lessons with  Celeste. You seem like the type of woman who prefers intellectual pursuits to the intrigues of the court.  If you have no taste for intrigue, then Hope and I can assist you in composing your letter to your father.”

“If I weren’t able to compose my own letters, I would make a very poor teacher to Celeste.”

Hope sat down hard and exchanged nods with Captain Goode, and then he put a hand on my cheek, as though in affection.

“You shouldn’t worry about this,” Hope said, gazing into my eyes. “Relax- we can take care of you. Relax… relax… and trust-”

Riiiiiiiiiiip

Hope broke his gaze to look down at the torn paper in my hands.

Time seemed to freeze in place. No one spoke, or even seemed to breathe, as both Hope and Captain Goode stared at the ripped paper.

This, I thought, will teach you that I won’t be used in your game. I won’t be pushed between you and my father,like a billiard ball.

“I’m afraid your plan would not succeed,” I said. “My father has as little reason to trust me as I have to love him. If I don’t answer his letters, he will understand why.”

 

#

 

The evening air was cool and still, and the dusky sky stretched out all around me, interrupted just near the horizon by low, false turrets on the tower’s wall. Between the turrets, I could see the hills like ocean waves far below.

The twilight should have been silent and peaceful, but I was plagued by laughter and conversation, instead.

I had invited Celeste to the tower for an astronomy lesson, who in turn told Hope about our plan. Hope, who had been following me like a shadow ever since I’d torn up my father’s letter, expressed a desire to join us, and Lady Willoughby, overhearing this, had suggested we make a party of it.

“After all, none of Lord Frey’s true friends would betray your little secret,” Lady Willoughby had said with a wink.

And so the entire party, seated on folding chairs on the tower’s roof, talked and laughed while I labored to set up the telescope, and continued as I waited for the air to cool, and the sun to set.

While there was still light, I showed Celeste my star atlas, and attempted to explain to her about declination and right ascension. To my pupil’s credit, she assumed a serious air and studied the chart through her new, gold-rimmed spectacles. Unfortunately, every time I tried to answer Celeste’s questions, I suffered an interruption.

“No, Celeste; you won’t see lines like this through the telescope. They are only imaginary-”

“Oh no, of course the lines are real, Lady Frey. The angels just drew them in very fine pencil on the sky.”

“Lady Willoughby,” Celeste said indignantly. “I am too old for stories. I am here to learn science.”

The whole company laughed loud and long at this.

“Do we have to do this in front of all these people?” Celeste whispered to me.

“Do be kind, Celeste,” I said. “Lord and Lady Willoughby would very much like to see the telescope; your uncle and godfather would like to see it, as well.”

“I’m surprised that you are allowing Celeste to look through the forbidden instrument,” Hope said, still laughing. “You should set a better example.”

“It’s your right to forbid her from doing anything improper; you are her godfather,” I said. “However, the instrument’s maker told me that the telescope operates on principles of light so simple and universal that we may as well call it hubris to look into a mirror, or forbid people to see rainbows.”

“You should write to the High Priest, when we get one, to explain,” Hope said. “You seem to hold the maker in high regard.”

“Yes, I do. He’s well educated- especially for a man of his station. He puts me to shame.”

Celeste tugged at my sleeve. “What is hubris?”

“Hubris is when people try to do what only angels can do.”

“Oh. But why is that so wrong? I thought that it was good to work hard.”

Hope smiled. “Those are my sentiments, as well.”

After a few moments, the sun dipped below the hills, and I turned my telescope back toward Lystra, which still lingered above the horizon.

I took the fake spectacles from my eyes and let them dangle on the chain that held them around my neck. Then I adjusted the telescope minutely to find and focus Lystra’s image.

“What’s this?” I said aloud. “How can this be?”

“What is it? May I see?” Celeste said.

“In a moment. First- Hope. You saw Lystra through the telescope the last time I viewed; can you look now, and describe what you see?”

Hope nodded and walked over to the telescope. “This may be my imagination, but the star seems…well, diminished. It’s as though it collapsed a little on one side.”

“Yes- I saw the same thing. Captain Goode, can you bring me the red glass lamp? The light is fading quickly, and I would like to update my observation book.”

Captain Goode brought the lamp, as well as a stool for Celeste. Celeste stood on the stool, and went into raptures at the sight as I recorded my observation.

After a moment, Celeste called over her shoulder. “I promise I didn’t touch it- just a little to focus- but Lystra is going away.

“Lystra is setting- remember what I said about right ascension? I will adjust the telescope for the next viewer.”

Celeste nodded and hopped down, and then Lady and Lord Willingham viewed.

“I say- is that all the fuss is about?” Lady Willingham said. “I thought the telescope would make the stars appear much larger than that.”

“You must take into account how far the stars are,” Captain Goode Countered. “This is quite a good view, considering. I wish my men had an instrument like this for scouting missions.”

Lady Willoughby laughed, and then turned to regard me. “Hope, your wife is working tirelessly on her little book, with her charts all around her. I’m afraid she may find the party quite tiresome, but she is too sweet to say so.”

“Yes. I’m afraid my dear Lady Frey is very sweet, as well as diligent, obedient, and patient. I can forgive these sins, however. Her one virtue, which makes up for it all, is that she can be heartless.”

I opened my mouth to protest, but Lady Willoughby spoke first. “I’ve never heard a speech so shocking in my life! How can you call your poor wife heartless?”

“I only say that she can be heartless, which is a virtue. Battles are not won, nor empires forged, with sentiment.”

Hope turned back to me, and made a little bow. “If you had been born a man, Grace, I believe you would hold all of Aeterna in your grasp within a fortnight.”

“I have little desire for conquest,” I said. “Not with the red moon rising- just there in the east. Why should I care about mere earth?”

“Of course,” Hope said with a smile. “The world is not enough for you- the universe is the true prize, and I can think of few with a more worthy ambition.”

And then Hope turned to the east. Already, the horns of the red moon could be seen over the hills.

 

 

 

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Power comes at a price,

Torment, cowardice, truth, silence, shame, infection, ugliness

The Coven- Interlude

 

 

The Coven, Part XI

highpriest

Passing through the gates at Rowan Heights felt like entering a prison cell.

I was glad that Celeste had fallen asleep on the carriage ride home, so she could not see my involuntary shudder as I gazed up at the manor on the hill above us. While Celeste and I were in town, I had considered taking Celeste straight to my father and the high priest, and telling them everything I had seen the night before. I didn’t like the idea of sending my own husband to prison, but Celeste’s safety was paramount.

Fortunately, common sense had stopped me before I’d tried anything so hasty. No one would take my word over my husband’s, especially with such a fantastic story, and I had no evidence to present against him. Indeed, when I remembered the events of the night before, I began to doubt my own sanity. However, Hope’s confession to me that he was a heretic, and his previous attempts at mesmerizing me, kept me from dismissing last night’s events as a dream.

The carriage hit a bump, and Celeste yawned and shifted on her seat.

I thought again about the nasty rumors I’d heard about Hope and his treatment of Celeste’s mother. I had to admit that Hope seemed to genuinely care for Celeste. He didn’t treat his ward with the courtly gallantry he bestowed on me- rather, he showed true affection. He had gone out of his way to please her on multiple occasions, and when he looked at her, his smiles actually reached his warm brown eyes.

The carriage rattled onto the gravel path that led to the manor doors.

Perhaps, I reasoned, I should appeal to the goodness that lay within Hope- the part of him that loved Celeste. Maybe, if I tried, I could open his eyes to the danger he was putting in Celeste’s way. In the meantime, in case he could not be convinced, I would have to gather evidence of…

The carriage slowed and stopped at the manor door.

I sighed to myself and opened the carriage. Why did my mind flinch away from the word? The horror would be real whether I shut my eyes or gazed upon it. Hope was practicing dark magic. He and his friends were witches.

My blood ran cold as I realized that if I did present the High Priest with evidence against Hope, Hope would not be imprisoned. He would be tortured until he gave up his fellow witches’ names, and then they would all be burned at the stake. Hope, Brother Lux, Chastity, and the other dark robed figures- whom I strongly suspected were Hope’s other friends- would die.

 

#

 

After putting Celeste down for a nap, I instructed Mercy to unpack the parcels we’d brought back from town, and then I went up to my study. I opened a book and placed it on the desk in front of me, in case anyone came in, and I continued to think.

I would collect evidence, I decided. Even if I was reluctant to use it, I thought it might eventually be the saving of me. Unfortunately, Hope might still be watching me for signs his hypnosis hadn’t worked, so I would have to avoid the library, the cellar, and the cottage for the time being. I had often wondered if the high tower of the manor’s east wing would be a good viewing spot, so I might request that my telescope be moved to the manor from the cottage without suspicion.

I wondered, as I flipped my book’s pages idly back and forth, if Hope had given me the telescope in order to tempt me away from the faith. But no, I thought with a bitter sigh. Hope didn’t care about me enough to tempt me. He had merely amused himself by giving an inappropriate gift to a sheltered girl, and laughed at her conflict in receiving it.

I didn’t care. The red moon was still in its gibbous phase, and I felt I must view its mysteries before it waned.

“Selfish girl,” I muttered to myself.

Just then there was a sharp knock on the door, and Chastity entered before I could answer.

“I beg your pardon, Lady Frey,” Chastity said with a curtsey. “I’m in need of your assistance.”

I stood. “Is Celeste already awake?”

“No- the young lady is resting quietly. Rather, I need your help with Lord Frey.”

“With Lord Frey?”

“Indeed. He is in a terrible state, and I don’t believe I can persuade him to be rational. I need you to speak to him.”

“But, I don’t think I could…” I trailed off as I remembered Hope’s power. Chastity knew that I could resist it.

“Don’t worry, my Lady. I believe that your gentle ways may soothe him better than my rough manners. Come with me.”

I nodded and followed Chastity back downstairs.

As we passed the drawing room, I was surprised to hear Lady Willoughby’s Lute, accompanied by her sweet voice and punctuated here and there with general laughter. The sounds of music and merriment provided a stark contrast to the somber atmosphere the night before.

Just underneath the music, though, I could hear a low, mournful cry. It echoed down the hall, and grew stronger as Chastity and I walked down the hall.

Chastity opened the door to the morning room and frowned. “Oh no- he’s fallen asleep.”

I looked into the room and saw Hope lying on a sofa, cradling an empty bottle of wine to his chest. His eyes were closed, but his body rocked slightly back as forth as he groaned.

“No- no please, not Prudence. Please, please…” he groaned before his voice broke off into unintelligible cries.

Chastity bustled across the room and bent down, taking the bottle from him and brushing his hair away from his sweat-drenched face.

“Wake up,” she demanded in a voice that thundered through the room.

Hope jerked up and opened his eyes, and then he pushed at Chastity with feeble arms. “Leave me- I don’t want you,” he mumbled, laying down again.

“I won’t leave you in such a state,” Chastity said firmly. “You know it’s worse when you drink.”

Hope laughed dryly, and then turned away from her. “Save your compassion for someone who deserves it. I won’t pretend, today. I can’t pretend.”

Chastity beckoned me into the room with one hand, and shook Hope’s shoulder with the other.

Hope lay still for a few moments, seemingly unmoved, and then he stood up swiftly and put his hand on Chastity’s head, staring into her eyes.

Without thinking I stepped between them and took Hope’s other hand. “Please, Hope- please listen to her.”

Hope cut me off with another rough laugh and turned away. “Of course you would bring her, just when she is least wanted.”

“Hope, I know you don’t like me, but-”

“Yes, well spotted,” he said scathingly. He stumbled back to the couch and half-collapsed onto it. “Just when I’m comfortable in my loneliness, they punish me with a beautiful wife. And now my own servant won’t allow me to suffer. Go away. Go away, all of you.”

His voice boomed around the room, almost as loudly as Chastity’s had, and I nearly fled the room in fear. But then Hope seemed to collapse in on himself, and I couldn’t bear the sight.

“Think of Celeste,” I said. “She would not wish for you to suffer.”

“She would if she knew-”

“She needs you.” I interrupted.

Hope looked up at me. His eyes seemed blank and unseeing, as though he were blinded by pain. Then he turned to Chastity.

“One night won’t kill me, you know. I just want to feel this pain for one night. Tomorrow I will wake and life will continue.”

Chastity opened her mouth as though to answer, but at that moment, Mercy burst into the room.

“Oh, Miss, I’ve been looking everywhere. Coach has gotten into a fight with Mr. Poe, and Mr. Poe says that he will leave his place, and-”

“Very well, Mercy, I’ll be there shortly. Lady Frey-” Chastity said, turning to me. “I leave this to you.”

And without another word, Chastity turned and left.

Hope stumbled over to me and placed his hands on my shoulders. He leaned so close to me that could feel his breath on my face- hot and stinking of bitter wine.

“Dear Grace, don’t you hate me? Don’t you wish for me to suffer?”

“Why would I?” I asked.

“I don’t love you,” he whispered. “I’m your husband, and I don’t love you at all.”

“That’s fine. I don’t love you.”

Hope put his head heavily on my shoulder, as though he could no longer support it on his own. “That’s a relief. I thought you were using Celeste to impress me.”

“Oh, no. I really love Celeste. But it doesn’t follow that I love you.”

“I hold you in contempt, you know. I compare you to Celeste’s mother every day, and you are insipid and ugly and spiritless compared to her. Sometimes I can’t tell if you are shy or just stupid. Now, do you hate me?”

“I hold you in contempt, as well.” The words I wouldn’t normally have dared tp speak tumbled out, fueled by a flush of anger. “You are artful and scheming. You hide your true face behind vapid flattery.”

Hope stood upright, and looked at me in triumph.

“Even so, you’ve always treated me with kindness, so I cannot hate you and-” I shut my eyes so I wouldn’t see his triumphant face.

“And you won’t give me the satisfaction.”

I sighed.

Hope put his head back on my shoulder. “Remind me to behave like a brute to you, tomorrow. I don’t have the energy, today.”

I laughed, then, so hard that I almost doubled over. I was sweating, and my arms and legs were trembling as though with exertion, but the knot of dread that had sat in my stomach all day had loosened. Quarreling with Hope had dispelled some of my fear.

“Come, let me take you upstairs, at least. You should rest,” I said.

Hope laughed, too. “Yes, take me to bed. I want to sleep.”

I supported Hope’s weight as best as I could as we made our way back down the hallway, and then stopped at the stairs.

“You’re stronger than you look,” he said.

“You’re lighter than you look,” I countered. “I cannot bear all of your weight, though, so do take the bannister.”

“As you wis-wish,” Hope slurred, and he took the bannister as he stumbled up the stairs. I supported his other arm, but I thought I would be little help, as small as I am, if he were to fall.

We made it up the stairs and into the master bedroom, and he fell onto the gold brocade bedspread without letting go of my arm. I attempted to maneuver him under the covers, but his body remained still, and when I heard his soft snores, I decided to let him be.

I was unable to extract my hand from his, so I sat on the bed beside him and stared out the sweeping, westward window. There was a view of the valley and the brook that wound between the hills, which glimmered in the golden evening light. After a time, the sky grew rosier, and I could hear the gentle calls of the shepherdess as she led her sheep downhill. Then, the sun sank behind the hills.

Hope had relaxed his grip on my arm, and I was able to pull my hand away. I crept to the door and opened it carefully, trying to keep the hinges from squeaking.

“No- no please. Help me- help me,” I heard Hope moan behind me.

I rushed back to the bed and saw that Hope was tossing and crying out in his sleep once more.

“Hope,” I whispered, and took his hand.

Hope quieted, became still, and his breathing settled again.

I sat back on the bed and placed a pillow behind my back. I watched Hope’s face as it relaxed- his forehead smoothed, his lips opened slightly, and his eyelashes fluttered against his pale cheeks.

My own eyelids grew heavy, and I leaned back against the pillow and let them close.

 

#

 

When I awoke, the sky through the western window was soft pink, and the room was quiet and still. I couldn’t hear Hope’s snoring, and I no longer held his hand. A shiver ran up my spine, and the hairs on the back of my neck prickled. I had the strange sensation of being watched.

I sat up and turned to see Hope, who was standing beside the bed in a fresh suit of clothes. He was regarding me intently, as though he meant to take my likeness.

“I beg your pardon- I didn’t meant to-”

“You stayed with me all night,” he said.

“I was going to leave you, but as soon as I got up you became restless.”

“So you came back, held my hand, and my nightmares went away,” he said.

I nodded.

“Why would you help me after the terrible things I said?”

“You were drunk,” I said. “And I said terrible things, as well.”

“You have no idea what you did for me,” Hope said. “I haven’t slept peacefully in ten years.”

I slid off of the bed and stood up. “Why not?”

“I’ve been plagued by nightmares ever since-” he took a deep breath, “ever since Celeste’s mother left. I failed to keep her safe, but I loved her. I really did love her.”

“I believe you. None of the gossips who claim otherwise have seen you with Celeste, or witnessed your pain.”

“The dumb supper the other night was for her; it’s been one year since she died.I went to bed last night intending to suffer through the nightmares, but I woke up to find grace.”

I pressed his hand again, and turned to go. “May the Gods bless you.”

“Wait- don’t go. Is there anything I can do for you- anything at all?”

“There is one thing I meant to ask. Could you have my telescope brought to the manor? I wish to try the view from the east tower.”

“An excellent idea, but is that all? Surely, I can do more for you.”

“If you would-” I hesitated. Was it too soon?

“Yes? Anything.”

“I know you dislike it, but I believe Celeste would benefit from proper religious instruction. As this is the morning of week’s begin-”

“You would like us all to go to to church? Your favors are not well-chosen. I was going to attend this morning, anyway.”

“You will attend? Truly?” I could not suppress my smile.

Home smirked in reply. “Nothing could keep me away from the cathedral, today.”

 

#

 

A party as merry as the one from the previous afternoon- inappropriately merry- made their way to the Cathedral Tenebris that morning.

The hill-country cathedral wasn’t half as grand as the Cathedral Lux. It was built in an old style of architecture and made from rough-hewn stone from the nearby quarry. There were a few archways and no columns, and a single, crumbling angel guarded the oak door.

Brother Lux led our party into the cathedral dressed in somber vestments, and with his head bowed in respect. He ignored Lady Willoughby and Mrs. Auber’s idle gossip, and Hope and Celeste’s happy chatter. Lord Willoughby, who walked by me in silence, had a sparkle in his eye and a spring in his step.

After we entered the cathedral, and Brother Lux parted with us to join the clergy in the front, everyone still smiled far too much. Celeste swung Hope’s hand as she skipped up the aisle, and as Lady and Lord Willoughby parted with us to find their family’s pew, I could hear Lady Willoughby giggle.

There were some whispers as Hope walked up the aisle hand in hand with Celeste, but otherwise, the Cathedral was quiet. After we’d been seated, a grey-bearded priest entered wearing plain black robes, free of all jewels and adornments. The choir, similarly robed, remained seated.

“This morning, we are a shepherdless flock. There is no one protect us from the darkness, and no one to guide us toward the light.”

The priest paused and looked out over his congregation with a grave expression, seeming to frown at every individual in turn, before he continued.

“Yesterday morning, the former High Priest, Father Sauris ,was found dead. His name will be struck from the annals, and he will not be buried with honors, because his last act was to defy the will of the gods, and take his life with his own hands.”

The crowd seemed to explode all at once. There was yelling, crying, and frightened babble all around me. The priest made no move to restore order. Instead, he continued to stare gravely at the crowd.

Hope had taken Celeste in his arms. “Oh, my darling, it’s over. The worst is over.”

Celeste shot me a frightened look.

Across the aisle, Lady and Lord Willoughby were also embracing, but then there were many embracing in the crowd. Mrs. Auber, sitting with a group of ladies all dressed in black, wept openly.

I hardly knew when the crowd settled, and barely heard the prayer the priest offered when the weeping was done. Before I could properly think about what had happened, I was outside again, walking with Hope and Celeste to the carriage.

“Brother!”

I turned around, and saw that Brother Lux was running to catch up with us.

“I shan’t accompany you home,” he said. “I’ve just received orders to travel to return to the Monastery. My master, Monsignor Pius, is a candidate to replace the High Priest.”

Hope embraced his brother, and then took a brown scroll-case from his pocket.

“Just as we expected,” he said, pressing the scroll into his brother’s hands. “Here are the papers you will need. Good luck.”

I stared at the scroll, and I found my mind returning to the day I’d met Hope. Was that scroll the same object I’d seen him take from Father Sauris? It seemed to be, but I could hardly trust my own memory, in that moment.

I looked back at Hope, who was smiling at his brother as he waved farewell, and I found myself torn between suspicion and the fragile friendship we’d begun to forge.

 

\*% *(&* [](%|\ $(%|. Translated: The high priest dies.

The Coven, Part XII

The Coven, Part X

“Good Morning, Ma’am,” Mercy’s voice greeted me as the sun rose. “I hope you’re feeling better.”

I opened my eyes a crack and suppressed a groan. I had slept very little the night before, and I hadn’t really been asleep when Mercy woke me. My head still ached from the night before, and I had been trying to block the piercing morning light from my eyes, in an attempt to relieve the pain.

Now, however, it seemed there was no escape. I opened my eyes fully, and the light seemed to stab through my eyes and into my brain. Gingerly, I sat up, yawned, and smiled.  

“I am very well, thank you,” I said, remembering Hope’s command to wake feeling happy and refreshed.

Mercy heaved a heavy sigh. “Thank goodness. I was so worried that… well- nevermind. Will you be taking your breakfast downstairs, or in the nursery with Celeste?”

Celeste! I’d been so stupid and so selfish in my fear that I had forgotten that there was a child in the manor under Hope’s protection. I dressed as quickly as I dare under Mercy’s watchful gaze- the whole house was now suspect- and then hurried to the nursery.

Celeste was sitting at her nursery table, wearing a black frock and a melancholy expression.

“Good Morning, Lady Grace. I suppose we must leave soon after breakfast.”

The businesslike tone in her high voice almost made me smile in spite of myself. It took me a moment to remember what Celeste meant.

“Yes, we’re visiting the oculist in the village, today. I told the coachman to have the carriage waiting at 8:00 sharp.”

Celeste sighed. “If we must go, it might as well be today. I’m glad to have some business to take my mind off of things.”

Now I did smile as I sat. “Poor Celeste- are your lessons so very tiresome?”

“Oh no- you’re as nice a governess a girl could want. But you can’t replace…”

Then Celeste fell silent, propped her head in her hands, and sighed again.

I regarded the girl as she kicked her feet under the table, and it occurred to me that she must miss her grandmother. I was trying to work out the gentlest way to ask Celeste if she was homesick when the nursery door opened, and Chastity entered with the breakfast tray. Hope entered behind Chastity, still dressed in black.

I stood and, without thinking, moved closer to Celeste.

Hope ignored me, however, and went to kneel by Celeste’s side. “Good morning, my angel. How did you sleep?”

“As well as can be expected,” she said. “If you are going to eat with us,  eat quickly.  Lady Grace and I must leave soon.”

“You’re leaving?” Hope turned and looked at me sharply.

“Surely, you remember,” I said, sitting. “Celeste has an appointment with the oculist.”

“Oh. Oh! Yes, I remember.” Hope sat next to me and took a cup of tea. “Of course- we must take care of those pretty eyes.”

He stared into his cup distractedly, and then took a sip.

“Are you well, my Lord?” I asked.

“Of course- just trouble sleeping,” he said.

“Uncle Hope, did you know my mother?” Celeste said suddenly.

Hope looked up from his tea and smiled. “Yes, I did.”

“I’m not allowed to go to the place where she’s buried,” Celeste said. “I don’t know why. Grandmother said it was a bad place.”

“Did she?” Hope said, gripping his teacup a little harder. His voice stayed gentle, however. “Well, your grandmother is mistaken- your mother is resting under a big, beautiful oak. I have to agree, though, that the cemetery is no place for children.

“Well- if I can’t go, will you do something for me?”

“Anything.”

Celeste nodded and jumped down from her chair, running into her bedroom. In a few moments, she returned, carrying a huge bouquet of wildflowers.

“I picked these yesterday, on the east side of the hill. Will you give these to her, Uncle Hope?”

“I will- I promise,” Hope said, taking the bouquet. “Bluebells- these were your mother’s favorite flowers.”

“Oh- were they?” Celeste said breathlessly.

“Yes- they were the same color as her beautiful eyes.”

Celeste’s face fell, and two angry spots of red appeared on her round cheeks. Hope didn’t seem to notice the change in Celeste’s expression, however. He finished his tea, wished us both a good morning, and then left the room, carrying the wildflowers. When he was gone I sighed, suddenly aware of the tension I’d been holding in my chest the whole time.

Celeste watched Hope as he left.

“Lady Grace, why do grownups lie?”

“Lie?” I said.

“Yes- my mother wasn’t a bit pretty. Her eyes were dull and gray.” Celeste turned and stared calmly at my shocked expression. “Don’t be cross- I loved my mother. I didn’t care how she looked.”

“Sometimes,” I said, “grownups tell little lies to make people feel better. Sometimes we even lie to ourselves.”

“Do you really? But isn’t it a sin to lie?”

“Yes, but sometimes we can’t help it. I remember my own mother with long, golden hair. She died when I was a baby, and it’s impossible that I really remember how she looked, but I can still see that pretty, gold hair in my mind. I think I miss her so much that I made up how she looked.”

Celeste bit her lip in thought. “Do you think Uncle Hope is doing the same thing, because he misses my mother?”

“It’s possible.”

Celeste nodded, and sat back at the table. “I suppose I will have to forgive him, then.”

 

#

 

Later that morning, Celeste sat on a stool in the middle of a darkened room, surrounded by a circle of candlelight. The oculist, a grey-haired gentleman named Mr. Filius, gazed intently at her eyes as he moved the candle close to Celeste’s eyes, then far away, then up, and then down. Celeste followed the candle with her eyes, so far up that I could see only the whites, and then down to the floor. Mr. Filius held her chin still as he moved, muttering to himself.

“Good dilation, clear whites, follows movement,” he said in a dull, hypnotic tone. As I watched the pair, my heart began to pound, and in my mind’s eye, I saw not white candlelight, but red moonlight.

“There!” Mr. Filius said and then stood. He blew out the candle, leaving us in utter darkness. Then the heavy curtains opened, and the room was flooded with light once more.

“Well my dear,” Mr Filius said, “you have very pretty eyes, indeed. Tell me, do you like picture books?”

“I like the grown-up kind of picture books.” Celeste said with a haughty sniff.

Mr Filius laughed. “Well, I have a very grown-up book full of pictures- all animals and plants from the wildlands across the sea. Would you like to see?”

“Yes, thank you,” Celeste said.

“I’ll be back with the book, and I’ll show you how funny the pictures look through different spectacles. Lady Frey, may I have a word?”

“Yes, of course.  Behave while we’re gone, Celeste.”

“I always behave,” Celeste replied.

I followed Mr. Filius through a door and into a room lined with cubbyholes, each one filled with a jumble of brown boxes and scrolls. In the center of the room stood a table covered in various tools and equipment, pieces of glass, and bits of wire. As soon as the door shut behind us, Mr. Filius began to laugh.

“She’s a funny little thing, isn’t she? For a moment, I thought I was examining the Grand Duchess instead of a little girl.”

“Please excuse her,” I said. “She’s still getting used to her situation. She only recently became Lord Frey’s ward.”

“Oh yes, I know her history. I’m glad to see she’s so strong willed, after hearing about her sad past.”

I nodded in agreement.

“That little girl isn’t the only odd newcomer to the hill country. If you’ll pardon my frankness, my Lady, not many countesses would trouble themselves with a new ward so soon after being married. A lady of your stature would usually send the child with her governess.”

“I made a promise to her,” I said.

Mr. Filius smiled and went to the cubbyholes, pulling out boxes and piling them on the table.

“You tolerate my tongue fairly well. The last noblewoman I met boxed my ears for my impertinence.”

I didn’t know what to say to this, so I went to the corner cubbyholes, where there were several books, and searched for the picture book Mr. Filius had described.

“Celeste’s eyes appear to be healthy. Some vision degradation in young children isn’t at all uncommon. I’ll have her try some lenses, and then I’ll make frames to fit a child’s face.”

“Could you make a larger pair with frames to match?” I asked. “My vision is sharp, so I will only need plain glass, but I had to promise Celeste I would get a pair of spectacles to match in order to persuade her to come.”

Mr Filius looked through the boxes he’d put on the table, and then began to stack them in his arms. “My father would have persuaded me with a hickory stick.”

“Yes- my father used the same methods.”

Mr Filius laughed again, a robust sound that filled the tiny room. “I’ve been very anxious to meet you, my Lady. When Lord Frey put in his order for your wedding gift-”

“Oh! Did you make the instrument?”

Mr Filius smiled and put a finger to his lips. “Now, don’t start any rumors about me, Lady. I am a respectable oculist.”

“I don’t have the words to thank you,” I said. “The instrument- it’s truly a miracle.”

“Your husband gave me thanks enough in the form of gold,” Mr Filius said. “If you wish to show your gratitude, then keep my secret. Common men like me have been led to the gallows for lesser sins.”

“I swear; I will never tell a soul,” I said. “Can you tell me how the instrument works?”

Mr. Filius raised a grey, bushy eyebrow. “You’d have to join the oculist guild to gain those secrets. Or-” he gestured to his table with his free hand, “you can play with my lenses until you discover the secret yourself. I can tell you that light obeys nature’s laws in its own particular way. The forbidden instrument is no more miraculous than a cart’s wheel or a clock.

“Now, I think these lenses are enough to start with. Ah- I see that you’ve found the book.” Mr Filius shifted the boxes in his arms and somehow opened the door. “After you, my Lady.”

 

#

 

After Celeste’s examination was complete, I paid Mr. Filius and left an advance for the spectacles, which he promised to deliver to the manor within a week.

When Celeste was settled in the carriage, I discovered I had left my purse inside the shop. I left Celeste in coachman’s care, and dashed inside to retrieve it.

“…in Lord Frey’s barouche outside. Such a pretty child,” a woman’s voice was whispering as I neared the door.

Yes, such a shame. Let us hope her mother’s sins don’t affect her.” another woman said in reply.

“Well, that can scarcely be avoided. I blame the child’s father, whoever he is. If he had married the woman, she wouldn’t have been found guilty and executed.”

“You mustn’t speak like that,” the second woman hissed. “After all, they say the father was Lord Frey. He could hardly marry a common slag.”

I stopped by the door, my heart pounding, until the women’s conversation paused. Then I took a deep breath, held my head high, and walked into the shop as though I’d hadn’t heard a thing.