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.

 

 

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