“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.”