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

 

 

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3 thoughts on “The Coven- Part XII

  1. Considering it was only a year ago Celeste’ mother died, and Celeste seems to be at least 7 years old, she and Hope must have been together a long time.

    Like

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