The Coven, PartXVI

sunmoon

I didn’t notice the sun rising, nor did I remember extinguishing my desk lamp, but when Hope knocked on my study door, I found that I was seated at the low table by the window, my pencil scratching at rose-tinted paper as I continued my work.

“Come in,” I said absently.

The door creaked open, and Hope entered.

“When you didn’t appear at breakfast, I’d thought that you were sleeping late, but Mercy told me you didn’t go to bed last night.”

“I’m sorry to worry you. I’ve been working.” I stopped writing, reviewed the last few calculations, corrected an error, and continued.

“All night? You are still wearing last night’s gown.”

I finished and leaned back, stretching my tight shoulders. “There! There’s still much to do, but the framework is complete.”

“What have you been working on so diligently?” Hope asked.

I looked up into his innocently puzzled face and almost laughed. It seemed to me as though everyone should already sense the revolution that had taken place- that we weren’t living in the same universe where we’d lived the night before. Unfortunately, Hope didn’t seem to feel it, yet.

I stood and gestured for Hope to take my place, putting my notes before him. “The idea came to me last night, and I had to put it to paper while it was still fresh.”

Hope leaned over the paper, “this is…”

“What do you think?” I interrupted, feeling like an impatient child. “It seems too radical to be true, I know, but if you go over my calculations, you will find that everything fits.”

“…this is complete gibberish, Grace. What do these symbols mean?”

“Those are degrees of arc- oh, never mind. Look!” I took the large parchment containing my diagram, and placed it in front of the calculations. “This is the Sun, and this is Lystra, Miriam, Tigris, and… here, between Miriam and Tigris is our earth.”

“Why did you place the earth here, instead of the center?” Hope asked.

“Because it isn’t in the center. Don’t you see? The wandering stars don’t go around our world. The wandering stars, as well as our world, orbit the sun. We used to think the wandering stars were suspended on little gears called epicycles, which cause them to loop backward. But when the wanderers loop backward in the sky,  it only looks that way because we’ve passed them on our orbit.”

Hope looked up, an astonished expression on his face.

“Tigris, Miriam, and Lystra are other worlds, just like ours. You see- the little stars we found around Tigris are its moons.”

“How did you discover this?”

“My biggest clue was Lystra. Lystra reflects the sun’s light, so when she’s between us and the sun, her near side falls into shadow.”

“I see- this is why Lystra has been diminishing.”

“Exactly. Lystra is going through phases, like the red moon.”

Hope laughed, tossing his black hair out of his eyes. Then he stood and picked me up, spinning me around.

“Grace, you mad, wonderful girl! You’ve thrown the order of the universe on its head. The church will crumble away into nothing when we’ve done with it.”

“I didn’t do anything to the order of the universe; this is how things have always been. We’ve just never seen it before. Besides, this model is simpler than the previous. It’s humbling. We’ve lost our place of privilege among the stars.”

“You must publish. There is a press at the monastery. Will your writings be complete by next week?”

“Oh no- certainly not! I’ll try to arrange what I have here, and I’ll add the other wanderers to my model. It will take me some time to go through all of Boromir’s observations, though. My first model will be based on guesswork.”

“They are better than guesses. You already seem to have a good deal of evidence,” Hope said.

I nodded and went to the window. “I must present enough evidence to convince others without including my telescopic observations. I’ll be able to sway more people if I don’t admit to heresy. There won’t be much time between packing and engaging a governess for Celeste- what in the world is happening?”

Outside, I spied a scene strange enough to distract me from my discovery. On a grassy lawn near the shrubbery, Mercy and Chastity were circling each other, their swift steps kicking the glittering dew into the morning sun.

They were wearing long, loose bloomers, and each one was holding a quarterstaff. Mercy suddenly advanced toward Chastity, attacking with a flurry of blows that Chastity dodged with grace. Then, with a speed so great that I saw little more than blur, Chastity darted forward and struck Mercy with a series of blows. Mercy fell onto the grass.

“We must call for a doctor,” I gasped.

“Why?” Hope asked in a languid voice, coming to stand beside me at the window. “Mercy is quite alright.”

“But-”

Even as I began to protest, Chastity stepped forward and offered Mercy a hand. Mercy waved Chastity’s help away and sprang to her own feet. Then Mercy nodded, and the two began to fight once more.

“You see? Mercy is well. The two often spar before the sun rises, though I suppose they’ve gone late this morning. Only one of them may accompany us to St Blanc, so Chastity will stay to guard Rowan Heights. I think she wished to test Mercy’s strength before we take Mercy away with us.”

“I must congratulate you on your choice of guards,” I said. “I never suspected that Mercy had such strength hidden away, until she had pinned me to the rug.”

“Yes- that’s one of the reasons Mercy is coming with us. She’s a much better actress than Chastity, which will be useful at court. In addition, Chastity is far stronger, so I need her to guard my home and daughter.”

“Have you any ideas for a trustworthy governess?” I asked.

“I have a few, but I worry that I won’t be able to engage them on such short notice. Have you any ideas?”

“Just one. This morning, after I’ve called on Lady Willoughby to thank her, I will see Mr. Filius and ask him to tutor Celeste.”

Hope’s eyebrows shot up in surprise.

“You trust Mr. Filius a great deal more than I. He has no love for the church, I grant you, but he has many secrets of his own. I would advise caution.”

I danced a little away from Hope and then spun to face him once more, delighting in the bemused expression on his regal face. “Oh! But this morning the world has turned upside-down. The earth orbits the sun, maids fight with greater skill than soldiers, and I trust Mr. Filius not because of his candor, but because of his secrets.”

#

I left Hope in my study and went to my rooms to change out of my ballgown. As I was putting my silk gloves away, a slip of paper fluttered from the gloves and onto the floor.

I cursed myself for forgetting. Last night, there had been a golden-haired girl, who’d slipped this paper into my hand before disappearing into the crowd. My scientific discovery had put the incident out of my head. No- actually- if I were to be honest, Hope’s kiss had first put the incident out of my head.

I stooped to pick up the paper, steadfastly ignoring the butterflies that fluttered into my stomach when I thought of the kiss.

Demons kill and angels lie,

Only trust in your own eye.

“My own eye,” I whispered as I read and re-read the message. The word eye triggered something in my mind- Mr Filius? The oculist guild? Mr. Filius had given me a card with the picture of an eye, and had promised that he would tell me a secret when I solved Lystra’s riddle. Now that I had solved it, it seemed  imperative that I meet him.

The note sender seemed to know many secrets, whether it had been Mr. Filius or not. They were warning me about danger from the coven- Demons kill– yet they did not seem loyal to the church, either. They didn’t implore me to trust the note-sender, merely to rely on myself.

It seemed like good advice, I thought, regardless of the note-sender’s intentions. I decided that it was best to continue observing the game around me, and remain cautious. Thankfully, though I had promised to keep Hope’s secrets, I had promised no action.

I took a deep breath, put on my riding cloak, and opened the door. Now was the time to make use of the liberty I’d purchased at the cost of my soul.

 

This week’s clue can be found in Queen Mab by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

There was a little light
That twinkled in the misty distance.
None but a spirit’s eye
Might ken that rolling orb.
None but a spirit’s eye,
And in no other place
But that celestial dwelling, might behold
Each action of this earth’s inhabitants.
But matter, space, and time,
In those aërial mansions cease to act;
And all-prevailing wisdom, when it reaps
The harvest of its excellence, o’erbounds
Those obstacles of which an earthly soul
Fears to attempt the conquest.

 

The Coven, Part XV

“There!” Lady Willoughby said as she cut the last starflower. “There are enough blossoms to cover the table twice over.”

I placed the flower in my basket and stood straight, stretching my back and surveying the disaster we’d made of the greenhouse. There wasn’t a single starflower or dew-rose left on the bush; each one had been sacrificed for tonight’s ball, and only bare branches and disheartened leaves remained.

Lady Willoughby had been unrelentingly particular about every detail of the ball, and I’d learned how much work is required for a girl to “come out.”

Rowan Heights has a stately ballroom, and at first I thought all that would be necessary to do would be to engage the musicians, send the invitations, and light the lanterns.

When I mentioned this to Lady Willoughby, she’d laughed such a shrill laugh that our tea-tray had rattled. Then she’d shoved her teacup aside,  placed paper and pen on the table, and our planning began in earnest.

The invitations were a delicate matter in themselves. Lady Willoughby had explained that we must invite all of the best families in the neighborhood as well as a few more distant but intimate friends. If anyone were to be forgotten, it would be a terrible  slight, and they might be less friendly to Lord Frey in the future. In addition, it was necessary to make certain that we had an exact number of couples for the dance floor. If there were too many gentlemen included, then some young ladies might feel neglected, and if there were too few ladies, the gentlemen might become restless. Everyone who was inclined to dance must have a likely partner, and Lady Willoughby knew from memory everyone who was inclined to dance.

For the guests who did not dance, card tables must be set up- not too near nor too far from the dance floor. The card-players must not disturb the dancers, and yet the card-players would need to see to dance floor to fuel interesting gossip. Chairs must also be set up near the dance floor for resting dancers.

The ballroom itself was ornately designed, with gilt mirrors on the walls, frescoes on the ceiling, and two gigantic crystal chandeliers. All this had to be cleaned, polished, and garlanded with dew-roses before the chairs and tables were even arranged.

Even after all of this, Lady Willoughby had been shocked at the idea of not including dinner. The best meats and jellies were ordered, gallons of white soup prepared, and the table was set with the finest china. Now the star-flowers and the last of the roses stood ready to join the china.

“The seating-cards are already arranged, so all that’s left is your dress,” Lady Willoughby said, taking off her apron and handing the first basket to Chastity.

I turned to Chastity. “Do you need help with the centerpieces?”

Before Chastity could answer, Lady Willoughby laughed. “Didn’t you know? Chastity is quite an artist- her flower arrangements are famous throughout the hill country. You’d only get in her way.”

“Here,” Chastity said, thrusting one of the baskets into my hands. “You may pin these to your dress, My Lady, and …thank you.”

Chastity’s expression was as difficult to read as ever, but I thought I detected some double meaning.

I nodded, thanked her for the flowers, and Lady Willoughby and I returned to my rooms.

 

#

 

“You shall wear the blue satin,” Lady Willoughby said decidedly, spreading the dress out on the chaise to examine.

“Do you think so? I think the gold brocade is much finer.”

Lady Willoughby shook her head decidedly, her tight curls bouncing in agreement. “Oh, no- you must consider how heavy the brocade is. The satin will move much more elegantly when you dance.”

I did not bring up Lady Willoughby’s promise that I would choose my own dress, and she seemed too wrapped up in her plans to listen. Instead, I let her slip the satin over my head and do the lacings. Then she examined my dressing table.

“You have hardly anything in the way of cosmetics, but never mind. It wouldn’t do to cover up your natural bloom. I will dress your hair simply, as well.”

She opened a few drawers, and then turned to me with a frown.

“Where do you keep your jewelry box? Is it locked in a safe, or in your bedroom?”

“I haven’t any jewelry at all. “

Lady Willoughby’s moppet eyes went wider than usual, and she turned to look over my dressing room, which was full of sumptuous gowns, once more.

“Surely you have something- a trifle that belonged to your mother, perhaps?”

“No- I don’t have anything that belonged to Mother.”

“Oh, my darling,” Lady Willoughby said. “I am sorry. Please forgive my careless words.”

“It’s alright, Lady Willoughby- really,” I said. “I never knew her, so it’s not as painful as it might have been.”

Lady Willoughby patted my hand, and led me to the dressing table without another word.

She turned up my hair, artfully arranged star flowers in the stray curls around my face, and then painted my lips with the barest hint of rouge.  As she worked, I let my mind wander.

It had never seemed strange to me that I had none of my mother’s things. My father rarely gave presents- even on Chaosmas eve- and he never spoke about my mother. He had taken pains to engage refined governesses for me, and had given them enough money to dress me well, but I’d never been given any jewels- not even the holy symbol of Order.

Hope had told me, shortly after my marriage, that my dower had been substantial- enough to grant me an affluent independence. But my father had never mentioned that I was entitled to any money until just before my wedding.

Perhaps, I thought, I was growing more paranoid under Hope’s roof. It seemed as though my father were trying to maintain my station in life while actively keeping wealth out of my control. Given what I knew of my father’s manipulations, I could not dismiss the theory lightly.

Lady Willoughby was just putting the finishing touches on my dress when there was a knock on the door.

“Come in, Mercy. You can put Lady Frey’s dance card on the table,” Lady Willoughby said absently.

The door opened, and Hope entered.

“Go away! You aren’t wanted, here,” Lady Willoughby said, shooing Hope back toward the door. Then she caught Hope looking in my direction, and placed her hands over his eyes.

“You mustn’t see Lady Frey until she enters the ballroom, or the effect will be lost.”

“It’s alright,” I said quickly. “I’m nervous enough as it is. I don’t want there to be a fuss about my entrance.”

“I’m afraid that can’t be helped,” Hope said, deftly stepping around Lady Willoughby and then bowing toward me. “You are so lovely tonight that as soon as you enter the ballroom, it will be alive with admiration.”

I could feel my face go hot, and I was about to protest, but Hope put his finger to my lips.

“It’s no good to protest,” he said. “I must, and shall, exercise all of my courtly manners, both in the ballroom and…”

Hope’s voice trailed off, and he looked at Lady Willoughby.

“I suppose you want me to leave you alone?”

“If you would be so kind-”

She sighed, and then threw up her hands. “You’ve already seen her. Mind that her hair and dress don’t become spoiled before she makes her entrance.”

Hope bowed to her, and she left the room in a huff.

When we were alone, he lowered his voice.

“One of our early guests, a Viscount from the lowlands, came here directly from the palace at St. Blanc with a message from Prince Hadrian. The Prince is overjoyed at the news of our marriage, and wishes for you to be presented at court.”

With those words, the little bundle of nerves that had sat in my stomach all afternoon seemed to explode.  

“This is a high honor,” Hope said. “However, I see the danger as clearly as you. The timing of the Prince’s invitation is auspicious. We must be careful to hide our true faces, and play the courtly game.”

I had to swallow twice to make my throat able to speak. “What about Celeste? She cannot go with us.”

“No, she cannot. Fortunately, the negotiations with Sancti are stalled- the new High Priest has not yet arrived at court.” Hope smiled considerably at this. “Therefore, Captain Goode may stay at Rowan Heights to protect her.”

“How long will we stay?”

“It’s impossible to escape the palace before you’ve stayed a month or two,” Hope said. “There are always people you must be presented to, balls you must attend, and lovers you must disappoint. If everything goes to plan, we can return by the equinox.”

I stood and began to pace the room, trying to shake the tremors from my arms and legs. “Hope- how bad is our situation? Can we convince the Prince of our innocence? Can I play my part?”

Hope laughed. “Of course- it will be easy. We’ve already won, Grace. The new High Priest has been elected at last, and he’s one of us. The Prince doesn’t suspect him in the least. All we have to deal with is your father, who is losing favor with the Prince.”

I spun around and stared at Hope. “The new High Priest- he is a witch?”

Hope nodded. “Yes- Monsignor Pius and my brother are meeting us at the monastery, and then we will all go to court together. Once Monsignor Pius is coronated, he will be able to sway the Prince to reconcile with his mother. Our nations will be reunited, and then we will enjoy the same freedoms the citizens of Sancti enjoy.

“But,” Hope cautioned, “you must hold your head high, and show that you are not afraid. There are many who would misinterpret shyness as reserve, and awkwardness as clumsy deceit. I believe in you. You aren’t the same woman as you were in your father’s  house- you’ve blossomed, here.”

I nodded and took a deep breath, steadying my nerves and trying to feel the truth of Hope’s words.

He took a velvet box from his frock coat and presented it to me. I opened the box, and inside was a circle of diamonds and sapphires, clustered like constellations and draped together with bits of silver chain.

“This is just a token of my appreciation,” he said. “Grace, you’ve treated my child as though she were your own, you’ve sworn to keep my secrets, and you’ve listened to me without judgement. Thank you.”

I could not speak to thank him for his kindness. I sat silently and allowed Hope to clasp the necklace around my neck.

Then Hope stood back to look over my dress, and frowned. “Why, Grace- you cannot enter the ballroom with tears in your eyes.”

And then, without knowing why I did it, I threw my arms around Hope’s neck.

 

#

 

As I danced the entree grave and then the allemande  at Hope’s side, I remembered the dream I had about the wandering stars dancing through the night sky. Hope and I orbited like the satellites of Tigris, and made figures with the other dancers through endless, twinkling lights. The music that provided our meter seemed almost celestial. I spun, I laughed, and my feet leapt  from the earth up toward the heavens.

Afterward I danced with Captain Goode, Lord Willoughby, and one or two other men who were introduced to me by Hope. Later, when I was presented to other friends and acquaintances, I was too flushed and happy to feel any shyness. I tried to memorize the faces of those who spoke most familiarly with Hope, and thanked each guest for coming with all of my heart.

“My dear,” Mrs. Aubert said to me as she passed. “I was watching you dance and I must say, I’ve never seen little feet so lively! You and Lord Frey move together most elegantly. I lost three hands to Lord Musgrove, I was so distracted!”

“I hope you are able to recover your losses by the end of the night,” I said, “but I thank you for the compliment.”

“I dare say I will recover – I always lose a few hands on purpose so no one will accuse me of cheating,” Mrs. Aubert said with a wink. “Ah! Here is my niece, Miss Charity Milton. Charity! Come meet Lady Frey.”

After a while, dancing and greeting guests began to pass into a blur, so I stepped out onto the verandah to escape the crowd and clear my head. Unfortunately, this turned out not to be a novel idea, and I found myself stepping away from one crowd and into the midst of another. A few couples, in an apparent attempt at privacy, had even stationed themselves in awkward alcoves behind columns and potted plants, with their petticoats and feathers jutting out at odd angles.

I was about to turn back toward the ballroom when I felt someone take my hand, and a piece of paper was pressed into my palm.

I spun around, but the crowd seemed thicker around me. I thought I saw someone with gold hair pass through the crowd to the other side of the verandah, but I soon lost sight of them.

“Grace, there you are,” Hope called from the ballroom. “Come with me- we can make our escape this way.”

He took my other hand and led me across the ballroom, through the side door, and out into the garden.

A cool breeze hit my hot skin, reviving me almost instantly, and as Hope gazed up at the stars, I took the opportunity to slip the paper into my glove.

Hope continued to gaze upward as he recited:

 

How small we are in heaven’s court!

When we gaze from below,

Yet minds conceive its majesty,

In thought, our spirits grow.

 

“Lord Aston,” I said, “from his work, On Morality. Do you agree with him?”

“I agree with Lord Aston’s premise that man can judge morality for himself,” Hope said. “I don’t need anyone to tell me that the church’s actions are cruel. And you?”

“I don’t know. Lord Aston stated that minds conceive the heavens’ majesty but…”

I stopped and turned to the east, where Tigris was rising.

“Yes?”

“When I looked at the heavens more closely, I found mysteries that even Sir Boromir never attempted to solve. If I could get an even closer look, who knows how many more I would uncover. No one can conceive everything, I think. Morality must be the same- we must always strive to do better.”

“Another hopeless statement,” Hope chided.

“Oh no- I think it’s wonderful. I want to explore as much of the heavens and earth as I can- to unlock more mysteries than I can solve. When I think about it I want to live with such a passion that one lifetime is simply not enough.”

I turned to look at Hope, who was gazing at me with a strange expression.

“Do you not-”

Before I could finish my sentence, Hope pressed his lips against mine in a gentle kiss.

I put my hand to my lips after we parted; they still seemed to burn with his touch.

“Don’t look so shocked,” Hope said. “You are my wife, after all. You are so lovely tonight, and your eyes are glittering with so much life, that I felt you should be kissed.”

Just then the gong rang for dinner, and Hope offered me his arm back to the house.

 

#

 

I could not concentrate on the elaborate meal, nor could I offer anything in the way of conversation to my friends and guests at dinner. I gazed blankly about me, overwhelmed by the sound of chatter, the tinkling of crystal, the scents and the glitter all around me. I needed to think about Hope’s kiss, about our upcoming journey, and about Celeste’s care, but I could not. I could barely keep my eyes open.

My vision blurred a little in the candle-lit room. Lord Willoughby was waving a wine goblet back and forth in time to the music from the gallery, but I couldn’t properly see its outline. All I saw was the reflection of candlelight on its surface growing larger as he moved the behind the candle, and smaller as he moved it to the side, where the candle only illuminated the right side of the goblet’s face, leaving the rest in shadow.

The music continued, and so the goblet continued to sway- growing and diminishing- growing and diminishing…

I stood abruptly.

“Grace? Are you well?” Hope asked.

“Yes, quite well, but please excuse me for just a moment.” I nodded to my other guests, thanked Lady Willoughby, and then made my way out of the dining hall and up the stairs, running as quickly as I could toward my study and my observation book.

I knew, even before I opened the book, that I had solved Lystra’s riddle.  

The Coven, PartXVI

The Coven, Part XIV

After Mr. Filius left, I studied the card for a moment, and then put it away in my purse. It was a puzzle, I knew, and given Mr. Filius’s intelligence and his intimate knowledge of Celeste’s mother, one that was imperative I solve.

Mr. Filius had given me a clue, however, which led me to believe he knew more about astronomy, and about the star Lystra’s behavior, than he was letting on. My first step to solving the puzzle he’d given me was to discover why Lystra behaved in such an odd manner.

Celeste had finished reading her chapter when I returned, and she stayed attentive during arithmetic, so as a reward, I allowed her to spend the last half of her music lesson dancing. While she was practicing the steps to the allemande, Hope entered the drawing room and fell into step with her.

“I’m so glad that  I decided to come to you early,” Hope said after the dance was done. “I had come to ask if I could join you for tea, and then I heard Grace playing our song.”

Celeste curtseyed primly. “Thank you for the dance.”

Hope bowed low to her, and then turned to me with a significant look. “I hope that you will join us for our afternoon ride, as well.”

I closed the clavichord and put away my music, not trusting myself to answer right away. I felt the same way I’d felt on the day of our betrothal; I didn’t know how to speak to him, or what he expected of me. When I looked up at Hope, however, I saw an uncharacteristically sheepish smile on his face. His eyes flickered from me to Celeste and then back again, as though he were also unsure.

“Alright,” I said. “I accept.”

 

#

 

Thankfully, Celeste seemed more than happy to fill the awkward silences at tea, and afterward Hope was too busy supervising the stable master and procuring a mare for me to ride to say anything.

Once saddled and ready, our small party made our way down the winding path that led into the valley. After riding through the valley alongside the brook for a time, we looped around and headed back toward Bluebell Hill.

I reined in my horse a bit, and Hope turned back to me with a questioning glance.

“I thought we might ride up to the cottage,” Hope said. “Is that alright?”

“Yes, that’s alright.”

Hope smiled a little wider, and then turned his horse back toward the hill.

A breeze arose as we ascended the hill, rustling the bluebells whose scent was like cool dew on a fall morning. I closed my eyes and breathed it in, letting the steady rhythm of the horses’ hooves lull me into a peace that supplemented my courage.

Near the crest of the hill, I heard the familiar sound of bells and the bleating of sheep.

“Verity!” Celeste called as she rode up the hill.

The shepherdess called back in her melodic voice, waving to Celeste with one hand while holding a little lamb in the other.

“The new Lamb’s been born,” the shepherdess said to Celeste in a thick country brogue. “Wanna see?”

At that moment the shepherdess seemed to notice Hope and me riding behind, and her already ruddy face turned a brighter red. She dropped into a deep curtsey, struggling to keep a hold of the lamb at the same time.

“Eh! Mi’lady! Mi’lord! Pardon- I din’na know ye’d come.”

“No matter, Verity,” Hope said heartily. “We’re glad to see you’re well. Mind your lamb.”

“Thank ye, Mi’lord,” Verity said, taking the lamb with both hands as she curtseyed again.

Celeste looked back to Hope. “Oh! Uncle Hope, may I see the little lamb?”

“Yes- hitch your pony first. Lady Frey and I are going into the cottage, so be sure to stay nearby.”

“I will. Thank you,” Celeste called.

Hope and I hitched our horses to the tree near Celeste’s pony, and then Hope unlocked the cottage door.

“It’s up to you whether you come inside,” Hope said. “Today, I swear, there are no threats. You will not be harmed.”

I went inside.

Hope flung open the muslin curtains, and motes of dust danced madly in the afternoon sun. Outside, I could see Celeste and Verity seated on the ground, petting the lamb who stood between them.

I sat on a wicker stool near the window, and Hope sat on a stool across from me. He fidgeted restlessly for a moment, and then stood and began to pace.

“I don’t know quite how to begin- with an apology, or with a compliment. I mean both of them sincerely, so you needn’t suspect me of my usual flattery.”

“Either will do. I was expecting neither,” I said.

Hope sat across from me again, though he still fidgeted with his riding gloves, placing them on the wicker table, smoothing them out, and picking them up again. In that moment, I understood in words what had been dawning on me for a time- that Hope’s artful manners did not conceal danger, but vulnerability.

“Well, perhaps the compliment would be best. You impressed me last night, Grace. I never thought that you would act so boldly. I had thought you were a cunning girl, but not brave. The fact that you value your freedom so highly- enough to sacrifice everything to gain- was humbling.”

“Thank you for the compliment, but I must confess that in the light of day, I wonder if taking the blood oath was an act of courage or foolishness.”

“Let me assure you that I don’t mean to put you in danger. I only wish to protect my family and my friends from the inquisition. I’ve been thinking about your situation since last night, and I see now that you father only made you a pawn in his game.”

Hope paused and took a deep breath before he continued. “This brings me to my apology. I behaved abominably, last night. I should never have threatened or intimidated you. Even if my reasons were honorable, my methods were not. When you came to Rowan Heights, I swore to myself that I wouldn’t be a tyrannical husband. Last night, fear corrupted me.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but Hope held up his hand.

“Please, let me continue. I know that you believe my witchcraft has corrupted me, but one of my reasons for bringing you here was to convince you otherwise. “

I couldn’t suppress an ironic smile. “You must understand why I would feel this way.”

“I understand, Grace. You’ve been raised in the faith. Once I tell you my story, though, you may feel differently.”

“I will listen,” I promised.

“I have reasons to hate the Gods and the church, and I have reasons for trying to protect my family from their influence. Last night, when you found me, I was more acutely aware of the Gods’ cruelty than usual, having had another nightmare about it.

“I try to stay awake most nights to avoid the nightmares. Captain Goode makes a potion that can keep me from sleeping.”

“I remember- he gave you a vial on my first day at Rowan Heights.”

Hope nodded. “The potion still isn’t perfect. I must sleep at least once a fortnight,  or I become disoriented. One time, I tried to stay awake for a full month, and experienced hallucinations even more terrifying than the nightmares I was trying to escape.

“What is it that frightens you so?”

“Hell.”

Hope put his gloves away and began to wring his hands, looking down at them with the same expression I’d seen on the day I found him drunk.

Without thinking, I moved to sit beside him and took his hand.

“You’re helping me again,” Hope said. “I can’t imagine why.”

“There doesn’t need to be a reason. Tell me about your dreams.”

“Every time I fall asleep, it’s as though I descend into hell- over and over again. My skin, my flesh, even my bones feel as though they are on fire, and I can see my loved ones- everyone who has died- suffering the most horrible torment. Mother, Father, and even dear Prudence- everyone.

“Don’t pity me,” he said. “I didn’t know it would be this bad, but I did choose to accept the curse. It was the price I paid for my powers- we were all cursed upon our initiation into the coven.

“Many of the curses seem to be connected to the witch’s power, in a odd way. For example, Chastity has been gifted with tremendous physical strength, but she is also in constant pain.”

“If the price for your power was so high, then why did you join the coven?”

“I joined the coven so I could fight the church.” Hope pulled his hand away from mine, curling his fingers into a fist. “I was only 16 when I joined, but I knew I was making the right decision. The church has oppressed its people for generations, and my family has been sorely persecuted by them.”

“Persecuted? How so?”

“My family has been denied salvation by the church. We must still serve, of course- they even require that we send a son to become a monk once each generation. Even so, none of us can receive the sacraments, our prayers are not answered, and all of us are bound for hell.”

My blood seemed to turn to ice in my veins. The expression of hatred on Hope’s face was enough to convince me that his words were true, or-at least- that he believed them.

“And yet-” I said slowly, “the church requires that sons be produced in each generation to serve the monastery- requires that your line continue.”

“Hell must be populated,” Hope said with a dark chuckle. “My father was lucky enough to produce twin boys right away- one boy to continue the line as required, and one boy to join the monastery to which we are tied. I was stupid enough to have an illegitimate daughter, who is now needlessly condemned.”

I looked out the window at the happy child outside, who danced among the bluebells.

“Grace- it’s not just for my own family that I fight. I fight a cruel order that marries women against their will, and that gives men the right to beat their wives and children. I fight an order where the poor are forced to live in ignorance and squalor, and the rich are free to buy slaves from their number.

“The world’s order is not nearly as beautiful as the order of the heavens you admire. It’s dark, cruel, and corrupt.”

“I would be lying if I said I’d never had similar thoughts,” I said. “But what can we do against the power of the entire church, and against the Gods themselves?”

“That’s a rather bleak way to look at the world,” Hope said. “No wonder you seemed so unhappy when we met.”

“My only consolation,” I continued, “was to look at the heavens, and believe I might go there one day.”

“You’ve just discovered the church’s error. When they condemned my family, they gave us nothing to lose.”

“Why was your family condemned?”

“Centuries ago, during the War of the Ancients, my family refused to fight. My ancestors had friends among the Ancients, and would not condone the slaughter of the entire race.”

I looked down at my hands. I could see a thin line of blood, which had seeped through the bandage, and the memory of my oath almost made me smile in satisfaction. After all, how could I accept salvation, knowing that people existed who would never attain it?

“Grace? Please speak. I must know; would you still condemn me?”

“It’s not my place to condemn anyone. After all, I sold my own soul for freedom without a second thought. Your reasons for doing the same were far nobler.”

I could hear Celeste laughing outside. She and the shepherdess were running together through the bluebells with an unbridled joy that only childhood can bestow- the lamb gamboling behind them.

“The Goode family is similarly condemned,” Hope said, “and for the same reason. They were accused of cowardice during the War of the Ancients, and so one male of each generation must serve in the military.

“Our families have always been close, even though the Goode family was not so fortunate to keep their title and land when they were condemned. Still, even though a marriage between our families would have strengthened our cause, Prudence and I were selfish to think we could force the church’s hand. We were selfish to bring a child into the world.”

“If what you say is true, I honestly wish you are able to free Celeste of this condemnation.”

“I thought you might say so,” Hope said. He stood up and offered me his hand.

“If I’m right in believing that I’ve earned your trust, there is something I’d like to show you.”

I stood. “I trust that you’re being honest, and I feel sympathy for your situation- I really do- but the story itself is so fantastic that I must still have some doubt. I’m willing to see any evidence you can show me.”

Hope nodded and led me to the cellar door, turning lock after lock until the door finally swung open. Under the door there was a ladder that descended into a dark tunnel.

“There’s no need for a lantern- you’ll see once we’re inside.”

“How far does it go?”

“Not far- not even half a furlong. Celeste will be safe here, until we return. She often plays on the hill alone, or with Verity.”

“Should we allow her to play on this hill?”

“She’s safer here than anywhere else on my estate. There are invisible protections around this hill- from the valley to the forest on the far side- and they protect against malevolent forces that are magical or mundane.”

I knew that Hope would never willfully put Celeste in danger. The sooner I could see the evidence, I thought, the sooner I could verify his words.

I climbed the ladder after him, grateful that I was dressed in a simple riding frock less cumbersome than my usual wide pannier. The door fell shut over my head as I descended, and it became so dark that when my boots hit the ground it was unexpected. I managed to keep myself from stumbling, and Hope took my hand to help me along.

“It will take some time for the light to appear,” he said. “There!”

In an instant, the hallway flooded with white light.

I looked around, but there was no torch or lantern. Even the best lamp could never cast a light so pure, I thought. Straight above my head, I could see a line of baubles dangling from the ceiling, and they shone so brightly that they hurt my eyes to look at directly.

“Oh, Hope! How…”

“This tunnel was built by the demons centuries ago,” Hope said. “The lights are fueled by their power.”

“Does- does that mean that the demons are here?”

“No- their power flows from a portal on the other side of the hill, and the demons themselves stay in their realm. Don’t be afraid. Even if the demons did appear, they would not hurt you while you are under my protection.”

I nodded, but I did not let go of Hope’s hand as we made our way down the tunnel.

“I must be going mad- or else the world has gone mad,” I said. “I never would have imagined that I could fall so far in just a few days.”

“You haven’t fallen as far as you imagine,” Hope said. “You have agreed to keep my secrets, and you have chosen to hear my case, but your hands are clean. You are still free from sin. I, on the other hand…”

Hope fell silent.

The lights flickered then, and I screamed.

“Don’t be afraid,” Hope repeated. “They sometimes flicker, but they never go out- not until I’m done with them.”

“I wasn’t afraid of the darkness.”

“Grace, even if a demon decided to break the covenant I’ve formed with them by attacking you, there’s nothing they could do. You are impervious to their arts.”

“You mean, just as I am immune to your magic?”

“It’s the same magic- my powers come from the demons,” Hope said. “Not only are you impervious to every power my coven possesses, but you were able to keep my curse at bay just by holding my hand. Your presence banished my nightmares for an entire night.

“After I told the others what had happened, Lady Willoughby- yes, she’s in the coven too- decided to test her own curse. You see, her curse is an inability to tell a falsehood.”

“So that’s why she was so bothersome the day of the star-party,” I said. “She was with me almost constantly, telling me the most ridiculous stories.”

“Yes- such as the angels drawing lines on the sky with pencil; I remember!” Hope laughed so loudly that it echoed through the tunnel.

“I fail to see how the inability to lie is a curse, though. To lie is a sin.”

“Spend some time at court, and you will understand.”

“Do you believe I could help the others?”

“You might grant us a reprieve from our curses.”

Hope slowed, and I looked ahead to see a large, silver door. He touched it, and the door slid open.

“Here we are. I don’t believe I need to remind you that everything you see here must remain a secret.”

“Yes- my life depends on it.”

Hope graced me with a small, sad smile, and then led me inside.

It was a small, clean room, all white and silver, but with few architectural embellishments or decorations. There was a screen on the far wall where colored patterns of light danced as though drawn by an invisible painter.

“Oh! How beautiful!” I said, walking toward the screen.

“Don’t touch it, please,” Hope said. “It’s a magic mirror that we use to contact the demons in their realm. It can also be used to transmit information, letters, do calculations- all manner of miraculous things. However, your power might damage its magic.”

I clasped my hands behind my back.

Hope walked to the other side of the room and opened a silver chest, which had a sigil embossed on the lid- the same sigil Hope had drawn on our contract the night before.

“Here it is. This is my family’s writ of condemnation- you will note the High Priest’s seal at the bottom. We’ve been examining it for possible loopholes.”

Hope handed it to me, his lips pressed together in an anxious grimace.

I read the document while Hope watched. The writ confirmed Hope’s story, and the High Priests’s seal appeared just under the signature of High Priest Domitian I. The parchment, however, seemed new, and the ink was fresh.

“This can’t have been written centuries ago.”

“Then it must be a fake,” Hope said. “Tear it up, crumple it- try to destroy it however you can.”

I looked up at Hope, but he maintained his serious expression, and even nodded encouragingly, so I made my attempt.

I tore at the parchment, but it held together fast. I crumpled the parchment, but it unrolled as smooth and perfect as ever. I was almost frustrated enough to use my teeth, when Hope laughed.

“I suppose I was overly optimistic to think it might burst into flames as soon as you touched it. This is the power of the High Priest’s seal. The writ will remain binding forever- it will never fade, it cannot be destroyed, and despite centuries of effort, my family has found no way to break its power.”

“And you’d hoped that I would be able to?”

Hope shrugged. “You’re able to resist magic, so I thought it would be worth a try. I suppose what you said yesterday was true enough, however. You are still just flesh and blood.”

Hope took the writ back from me, and placed it back the chest. Then he led me out of the room, and back through the tunnel. As soon as we were through, and I stepped onto the ladder to ascend into the cottage, the tunnel went black behind us.

The Coven, Part XV

 

The Coven, Part XIII

“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.

Hope stepped away from the doorway the bookcase had revealed and gestured with an outstretched arm. “After you.”

I shrank back.

“I’m not a brute, Grace, but if I must force you, I will. Better yet- I could call Mercy.”

I winced, and rubbed at my sore shoulder. With some difficulty, I managed to force my steps toward the doorway, reasoning that it was better to walk into the unknown than be dragged.

The doorway opened into a narrow, winding staircase that ended in a tiny room with a single desk and a set of shelves filled with bottles and scrolls. On the far wall was a black curtain with a tasseled pull.

I could hear Hope closing the door at the top of the stairs, sealing us in. Then I heard his heavy footsteps as he came downstairs. He put his hands behind his back, and began to pace the perimeter of the room.

“Why did your father marry you to me?”

“I suppose- I suppose he thought it was a good match. He said that the Prince promoted it-”

“Don’t tell me what you suppose. Tell me what you know.”

“I only know that it was never helpful to question my father’s wishes. He never gave me his reasons for what he did; he only expected my obedience.”

Hope stopped pacing, and then spun to face me.

“And so when he ordered you to spy on me, you obeyed.”

“No- I didn’t. I haven’t sent him a single message.”

“Maybe not, but you said- I don’t remember the exact phrase you used- that he would understand if you didn’t reply. There’s a message in not writing to him.” Hope said through gritted teeth.

“The only message I meant to send was that I would no longer obey.”

Hope came closer and slammed his hand down beside me, trapping me between him and the wall.

“Stop lying to me,” he said. “You refused to cooperate with Captain Goode’s plan to send  information to your father, and now you are snooping around my private sanctuary after I expressly forbade it.  Would you still have me believe you are wholly innocent?”

“I-I swear to you that I only came here because I heard screaming. I wanted to make sure you were safe. As for the false reports- I didn’t wish to become involved in the intrigue between you and my father. Please-you must believe me.”

“Why should I believe you, when all I have is your word? What else do you have to offer me?”

“I have nothing.”

“I’m sorry, Grace, but with the lives of my family and friends at stake, I cannot accept your word alone.”

Hope dropped his hand and turned away from me. I felt despair settle in the pit of my stomach.

“Then what shall become of me?”

“I cannot let you out of the manor, Grace. I must monitor your every move, your every letter, and your every relationship. You will be a prisoner here, unless you can provide me with some guarantee that you will not betray me.”

A prisoner- the words cut me so sharply that I could not breathe. I had been imprisoned in my father’s house-isolated and alone- for my whole life. Now, after having a small taste of freedom, I would be as reliant on Hope as I had been on my father. If Hope decided he did not like the bent of my research, he could cut me off from books and supplies. Worst of all, if the danger I feared came, I wouldn’t have the ability to protect any of my friends.

I shut my eyes, and I heard an echo of the past- “The fates have left you with a unique opportunity; you must decide what to write in the book of your own future.”

I took a deep breath and decided to take my only chance, as dangerous as it was. “If I had told my father half of what I know, he would be here with the bishop already, tearing apart the manor for evidence to substantiate my accusations. At first, I didn’t think he would believe me, but after reading his letter, I think he would.

“Even so, I have remained silent. I cannot see you and your friends burned at the stake, nor could I bear to make Celeste an orphan.”

Hope stepped forward, his red-rimmed eyes wide with panic. “What do you mean?”

“Before I tell you, let me assure you that the reason for my secrecy was to protect Celeste, as well as myself. I know that you do not trust me, and I wished to be able to watch over her without arousing your suspicion. I see now that this is impossible.”

“For Gods’ sake, Grace,” he said, grabbing both of my shoulders. “Tell me.”

“I remember everything,”I whispered, barely able to force the words from my mouth. “The night of the full moon, your attempt to mesmerise me failed. I was so frightened that I could not help but stay silent, and obey your commands. Even so, I remember everything. I saw your ritual. I heard you chanting to the demons.

“I know that you are a witch.”

Hope dropped my shoulders and turned away, seeming to crumple in on himself.

“I’ve already decided not to tell anyone- not unless there is greater danger if I remain silent. If you have any arts to bind me to secrecy-”

“No- you’ve resisted all of our magic. I don’t know what sort of power you have, but it’s stronger than all of us.”

“Me? But I have no power. I’m only flesh and blood…”

Hope looked up just as the idea took root in my mind.

“Would you be willing to take a blood oath?” Hope said, looking at me with challenge written clearly in his dark eyes.

“The oath would have to be carefully worded; I won’t take it lightly,” I said slowly. “If I were to take it, I would be honor-bound to die if I ever violated the oath.”

“Yes- if you betray the oath, you must die by your own hand, foregoing any chance of heaven. If you betray the oath and fail to take your own life, you suffer a fate worse than hell.  Would I be able to trust your honor?”

I nodded. “I wouldn’t betray my word, in any case. If I do take the oath, however, then you must agree to certain conditions. May I trust your honor, as well?”

“I’ve seen hell, and you must trust me when I say I don’t intend to ever see anything worse.” Hope shuddered. “I’m in no hurry to die; you can trust my honor.”

“Then I am willing,” I said.

Hope took some parchment from the desk, and after scribbling for a while, said, “here- these are my terms.”

I looked over the parchment. “I will not tell anyone that you, or anyone in your household or coven, is a witch. I will not tell anyone of any blasphemous acts performed by you or your friends. I will not give any hints to my father, the Prince or court, the Bishop, the High Priest, or anyone else that would arouse their suspicion toward you or your coven, and I will not spread any rumors about blasphemous words or acts that would arouse general suspicion toward anyone in the coven.

“This seems well-worded, but I request that you add a line here stating that I may violate any of these terms if doing so will protect Celeste,  or will prevent a greater number of deaths than I would inflict on my betrayal.”

“A greater number of innocent deaths,” Hope insisted.

“As you say- a greater number of innocent deaths,” I relented.

“What are your terms?”

“Only that I be free to go into society, and conduct my studies and scientific research however I please. Also, I ask that you be similarly bound to keep any of my secrets.”

“That is all?” Hope said dryly, raising one eyebrow.

“If it seems like too much, please remember that I’m risking everything, too,” I said. “It may be that, by entering into a contract with a witch, I am already forfeiting my soul.”

“And yet you haven’t asked for any protection for your own life,” Hope looked up and caught my gaze in his, “only for Celeste and other innocent lives. You’ve chosen your freedom over your soul.”

“It may be that I have,” I said. I looked steadily back into his eyes.  

Hope regarded me with a crooked grin, and then broke our gaze, looking back at the parchment. After adding a few more lines, and arguing over a few more details of language, the agreement was complete.

Hope took a straight-edge and a compass from his desk, and carefully composed a strange sigil at the bottom of the page. It was a diamond, containing a circle, containing a 10 pointed star. Then he took a penknife from his pocket and sliced the flesh on his palm, letting drops of blood fall onto the symbol.

“By my blood and honor, I swear this shall be done.”

He then turned the knife’s mother of pearl handle toward me.

I hesitated, winced, and then steeled my will, sliding the blade swiftly over my palm. The knife was so sharp that I barely felt the sting, and my blood dripped onto the page, mingling with Hope’s.

“By my blood and honor,” I repeated. “I swear this shall be done.”

Hope moved the parchment aside, and then took a handkerchief from his pocket. He moved around the desk and took my hand in his, gently wiping away the blood.

“You cut too deep,” Hope said. “I’m afraid this will leave a scar on that lovely skin of yours.”

“It was my choice to make the cut,” I said. “If anyone asks, I’ll tell them I cut myself with sewing shears.”

Hope chuckled, his laugh rumbling deep and warm in his chest. It was a sound comforting enough to dispel the whole night’s tension.

“If you really mean to keep your vow, you must learn to lie better than this. I’ve never once seen you do needlework.”

“I can do needlework, you know- my governesses saw to that. I must admit that I don’t like it. Oh well- I can truthfully say this was done with a penknife, and let people assume I slipped while trimming a quill.”

“That’s more like it- you’re an apt pupil, indeed.” Hope wound the handkerchief around my hand, and I studied the mark on his own, fine skin. He had cut his hand better than I had mine- the blood was already drying in a fine line across his palm, and there were only a few spots of red on his lace cuffs.

 

#

 

I went to bed with the strange feeling that my vow had made an unalterable mark on the world, but the sun rose as usual the next morning. I dressed, ate breakfast, and heard Celeste’s lessons as though nothing had happened.

Celeste didn’t seem to notice any change in me. She only kissed my bandaged hand to “make it better,” and then opened her litany and began to read aloud. Soon, her high voice and the ticking of the clock lulled me into a feeling of- if not peace- at least normality.

“The clouds shall gather,” Celeste said the book’s ominous lines in a singsong voice. “The armies clash, the women shall weep, and teeth shall gnash. Not since the Ancients have hearts been so black-

“Lady Grace, what are the Ancients?”

“The Ancients are a race of people who lived before the Gods were born.”

“Before the Gods?” Celeste looked up, her eyes widening. “But how can that be? You said that the Gods created men.”

“The Ancients weren’t human. The Ancients were a race of brutes that sprung from earth in the dark days before the Gods. The Gods created humans to defeat the Ancients, and gave us the gift of souls in return.”

“Just so- and according to the tale, the Gods also created beauty as the humans’ reward,” a man’s voice spoke from the doorway.

“Mr. Filius,” Celeste said happily, and jumped up from her chair to meet him. “How did you get here?”

“I’m sorry to walk into a ladies’ sitting room, especially unannounced,” Mr Filius said abashedly. “Your young maid just brought me here, and left without a word.”

“Please excuse her, Mr. Filius. I believe Mercy may be cross with me. Thank you for coming so quickly after I sent my note.”

Mr Filius bowed his head slightly. “The pleasure is all mine, Milady.”

“Mr. Filius, I’m wearing my glasses. See?” Celeste said, tugging his sleeve.

“I do see. I hope that they make your lessons easier.”

“Oh! they do. I like them much more than I thought I would.”

“Celeste,” I said. “Mr Filius is here to fix something for me. While I take him to my study, please  finish the chapter we were reading.”

“Yes, Lady Grace. It was nice to see you again, Mr Filius,” Celeste said before returning to her chair.

 

#

 

Mr Filius went straight to my desk and, without ceremony, took the telescope and started to examine it. He held it up to the window, adjusted the dials, and then looked through it. After a few minutes of fiddling, gazing, and examining the instrument from every angle, he spoke.

“I was surprised to get your note. I spent a lot of time and care on your instrument, and my glasswork is some of the best in the business. Your descriptions of the phenomenon with Lystra intrigued me, though.”

“Could it be the fault of the instrument?” I asked, “or maybe a trick played by the eyes?”

“The collimation of the instrument looks good, and the glass is flawless,” he said. “You said that Lystra looks different every time you view it?”

“Yes. Lord Frey has noticed the same thing.”

“Then I suppose we can rule out your eyes playing tricks on you,” he said. “I congratulate you on thinking to check the instrument. Many people would see a confusing sight, and make up ridiculous explanations before even attempting to try mundane ones.”

I laughed. “Yes, I’ve seen it happen, before. One of my only amusements used to be playing secret tricks on my governess.”

Mr. Filius chuckled as well, and patted my hand in a fatherly way. “Well, I hope that you didn’t give the poor woman too much trouble.”

Mr. Filius finally turned to look at the room. “It’s good to be back here. I see that this room has changed quite a bit since poor Miss Prudence left.”

“Prudence-” the name sparked a memory of Hope’s drunken cries, and I took a guess. “Do you mean Prudence Goode?”

He nodded solemnly. “I hope you aren’t offended that I speak openly about her, but she was a wonderful woman. I’m not the only one who misses her smile.”

“No- you aren’t. May I ask- do you know why she left?”

“No one knows why she left, but I do know why she was killed. She was accused of witchcraft- superstitious nonsense, if you ask me. She died of torture before they could burn her at the stake.”

No,” was all I could manage, feeling sick to my stomach.

“Yes- they killed her and left that poor little girl motherless. Everyone thought that Prudence would marry Lord Frey. When she visited the hill country with her brother, she ruled over this house as though she were mistress already. She wasn’t high-born enough for the Prince, but often the bishop will allow marriage anyway, when the woman is with child and shows repentance.”

“If that’s so, then why-”

“There’s no doubt in my mind that Lord Frey would have married her. I wish I knew why she left.”

Mr. Filius looked down at his boots, then, and fell silent.

“I’m sorry to bring up painful memories,” I said.

“Don’t be. It’s only natural that you were curious, and remembering Prudence Goode is never unpleasant for me.”

Mr. Frey reached into his pocket and took out a card. On the front of the card was a drawing of an eye.

“Here- take this and keep it in your purse. You never know when this sign will come in handy. Also,” he said with a grin, “when you solve the mystery of Lystra’s changes, come see me, and I will tell you a secret.”

Mr. Filius bowed low as I took the card, and then turned and left.

This week’s clue: ‘The High Priest turned upside down, 5317 5317 5317.”

 

The Coven, part XIV