Santa Claus Begins New Reign of Terror

The infamous dictator, Santa Claus, was spotted yesterday morning on 34th street, New York, riding an elaborate carriage. The carriage was surrounded by the usual pomp that precedes his annual Reign of Terror.

Today, many citizens are staying indoors as Claus’s followers fill the streets, shops, and malls with riots and mayhem. This tradition, dubbed with the dreadful moniker “Black Friday,’ is feared by many- even those who take part in the mayhem. The yearly ritual is filled with physical violence and often leads to financial ruin.

“Last year, I was bitten by two children and a middle-aged schoolteacher over a half-priced Xbox One,” Judy Smith, a retail worker, told Planetside news. “I have to work the early shift again this year- can you believe it?”

Black Friday, however, is just the beginning of Claus’s reign of terror. Each year, Claus’s propaganda machine springs to life, filling television, billboards, and the internet with advertisements. Public spaces are decorated in red and green, the colors that represent Claus’s party, and so-called “christmas trees” are erected as monuments.

“What disturbs me most is the constant music,” stated an anonymous source. “Everywhere you go, you can hear it- ‘he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.’”

This threat of constant surveillance is another way Claus maintains totalitarian control during his reign. He also sends his minions, known as elves, into the public and even into people’s homes. These elves sit on shelves and keep a constant lookout for those who break Claus’s strict rules.

Claus’s reign reaches its terrifying crescendo on December 24th, when Claus drives a herd of flying mutant ruminants around the world in an awesome display of power. He then enters the homes of his followers to collect tribute in the form of calorie-dense foods, and leaves gifts behind to solidify their loyalty. In the homes of those he has placed on the “naughty” list for their transgressions, he leaves lumps of coal, reminding everyone how easily he could have destroyed their homes.

As one would imagine, the season of Claus’s reign has become a time of great divisiveness. Claus’s followers label dissidents with the name “Grinch,” and spread stories about their allegedly cold, bleak hearts. Those who do not follow Claus spend a majority of the season avoiding public places, but during Claus’s Reign of Terror, there is little escape.

As usual, citizens are advised to remain calm and remember that the Reign of Terror will end January 1st. Also, please monitor your bank account and credit card balances, which are prone to sudden and unexpected activity during this season.

Stay Vigilant;

The Department of Santa-Related Affairs.

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The Coven, Part XIX

This part is a bit shorter than usual,  but since Pokemon Sun and Moon just came out, I’m afraid it can’t be helped. Thank you for your understanding. 

 

codex

 

“Do you weep still, Grace? I wish you would smile.” Hope said.

“I’m not weeping,” I said truthfully. My eyes were dry as I sat on the edge of a cot and stared out of the window at the village below.

We’d stopped in a pretty village at the crossroads of the Rue de Blanc and the Rue de Soleil. I watched the bustle on the cobblestone street below- couriers with arms full of parcels, ladies in colorful frocks, and liveried carriages seemed to dance together below. In my cramped room at the Inn, the sunset scene outside inspired nothing. I felt as numb as I had the day before, when Monsignor Pius had burned my treatise.

“Perhaps if we let Monsignor Pius into our secret, you can present him with your telescopic evidence,” Hope said eagerly.

I turned to glare at him.

“I’m sorry- I know my motives are obvious,” Hope said. “Even so, I’m glad you can recognize them. I’m glad that you’ve never been moved by flattery. I think you will do well at court.”

“My telescopic evidence doesn’t matter, now,” I said. “Sir Boromir was the greatest astronomer of our age. If he says my theory is nonsense-”

I stopped and stood, pacing the room. “If only Monsignor Pius would let me see Sir Boromir’s critique, I would be satisfied. I must know where I went wrong.”

Hope smiled. “As long as you pursue this, I won’t worry. This is the Grace I have come to know and admire.”

I spun to face him. “Admire?”

“Don’t allow Monsignor Pius to frighten you away from your puzzle, either,” Hope continued as though I hadn’t spoken.  “He must appear loyal to the church, as long as he suspects that you are.”

Hope’s certainty did nothing to alleviate my fears, but I said nothing. I took Hope’s offered arm, and accompanied him down to the Inn’s tavern.

#

Dinner at the Inn was a novel experience, though I knew I was the only member of my party who thought so.

Dinner was served in the tavern- a large common room where men and women of all classes mingled, but for a small group of slaves who ate behind a folding partition. The tavern’s air was thick with the scent of peat smoke and ale, but our table was laden with cold ham, salad, and local fruit, as one might eat at a summer picnic. There was also bread that smelled like the tavern ale, a stale meat pie, and cheese so ripe it seemed to be moving, which I didn’t try.

Hope and Brother Lux were swapping childhood stories between bursts of merry laughter, but their low, refined voices did not carry well in the crowd, and I did not hear half of their words. Instead, a woman at a nearby table who complained of her daughter’s behavior in shrill tones, and a nearby adventurer who was reenacting a sword battle with wild gestures, competed for my attention.

“The little slut grows more like her father every day. I swear, if she doesn’t shut her stupid mouth, one of these days I’ll-”

“-pierce my blade right through the rascal’s throat, the next time we meet! Like so; heave-ho!”

“I told the girl to be respectful, but-”

“The coward ran away. I’ll track him down, if it’s the last thing I do.”

Monsignor Pius leaned across the table, toward me, putting his wine goblet down with a loud clink.

“I can tell what you are thinking, Lady Frey,” Monsignor Pius said in a whisper so rich I could hear it clearly through the din. “You are thinking that must be little love or kindness in the wider world.”

“Oh no- I wasn’t. It’s just that the cruelty seems a bit louder. Hope and Brother Lux’s affection is plain enough, but you must strain to hear.”

Monsignor Pius leaned back again, and picked up his goblet. “It can be dangerous to seek those isolated moments of happiness. I’ve been blessed with a haven at the monastery for the past ten years. It will be difficult for me to face the world, again. Why do you smile, Lady Grace?”

“I’m sorry.” My cheeks burned again, and I regretted that I could not control my expression. “It’s just that you seem so confident and so commanding that I am surprised to hear you suffer from fear.”

“You shouldn’t be. We are all part of the brotherhood of man.”

“Or woman,” I amended. I took another sip of wine, and when I looked up again, the tavern door opened.

Several white-robed figures entered the tavern, each one carrying a large brown pack on their backs. I blinked in astonishment when I recognized that the lead figure was Mr. Filius, but the man winked at me and put a finger to his lips. Hope’s voice suddenly stopped, but then he continued speaking again in his low voice.

Monsignor Pius turned to follow my gaze, and then smiled. “A party of pilgrims has joined us. Welcome, brothers! Come, let me give you a blessing.”

Mr. Filius led the pilgrims to our table, with his head bowed in reverence. “Monsignor! This is a blessing, indeed. Well-met at the crossroads.”

“Well-met, pilgrim.” Monsignor Pius stood and made the sign of order over the pilgrims’ heads. “May peace be upon you on the road to del Sol, and may you be blessed by Order, Chastity, and Reverence.”

Monsignor Pius made the sign of order again, and then sat.

“Thank you, Monsignor,” Mr. Filius said with a bow. Then he took a small wooden bowl from his robes. “Would anyone be willing to give alms to del Sol?”

“Of course,” I said. I took a gold coin from my purse and placed it into the alms bowl.

“Thank you,” he said. He reached into his bag and took out a flower, which was folded out of yellow paper. “This is all I have to give in return, I’m afraid. The terra flower is a symbol of del Sol.”

“Thank you,” I said, accepting the flower. I placed it in my purse, and Mr. Filius went to the next table with his alms bowl.

“It’s good to see the old traditions continue, isn’t it, Lady,” Monsignor Pius said.

“Oh, yes,” I said, still staring after Mr. Filius in puzzlement. I’d never known Mr. Filius to be a religious man, and yet here he was, making a difficult pilgrimage. When his assistant had given me Mr. Filius’s message about del Sol, I’d suspected it to be a clue to Lystra’s puzzle. Now, however, I saw that was not the case.

#

Hope escorted me back to our room after dinner, and then closed the door carefully.

“I’ve been told to lie to you, and make some excuse for leaving you here with Mercy. Can we assume I’ve done so?”

“I suppose. If someone inquires, where should I say you’ve gone?”

Hope put a hand to his chin. “Well, there are several lovely tavern girls downstairs-”

“Do be serious. What husband would tell his wife that particular lie?”

Hope laughed. “True- I should lie to conceal my dalliances with tavern girls, under usual circumstances. Choose a lie for me, then; you need the practice.”

I sighed. “You want to have a hand at cards, and you know I despise gaming.”

“Do you really?”

“Yes- I do. I will stay here and read while you go.”

“Thank you,” Hope said with a small bow and a wink. “I will be in the woods with my brother and the Monsignor. Mercy is in the next room- she’s quite unhappy with me at the moment, so try not to disturb her unless it is an emergency.”

Hope pointed to the wall furthest from the mattress and window.

I nodded, and Hope departed.

I lit the lantern and took it to the table with a book- a collection of romantic verse I’d chosen to take my mind off of my recent disappointment. I’d reached the climax of verse one during the carriage ride, when the brave knight was to battle with a hideous beast to save the princess, but the tale failed to engage me. I found myself looking away from the book, back toward the purse I’d thrown carelessly on the rough Inn mattress.

Mr. Filius, I suddenly realized, had presented me with another puzzle. He had put his fingers to his lips, as though signalling that I should show no sign of recognition, and he had shown no other sign that he recognized me. If he was really been taking a pilgrimage, why would he insist on such a charade before Monsignor Pius? And I knew Mr. Filius was acquainted with Hope, as well, but Hope had barely looked at him.

I took the paper flower from my purse and examined it closely in the lamplight. It was folded and twisted in an intricate shape, and the paper was thin enough that, when I looked closely, I could see some black markings showing through in one or two places.

I unfolded the flower, and flattened out the paper. Inside was a note written in elegant script.

Move your bed aside and open the door.  On the other side, you will find the light of knowledge.

 

The Coven- Part XX

The Coven, Part XVIII

The sun was setting behind the treeline just as our carriage reached the edge of a thick wood.

“Stop!” Hope rapped on the carriage window with his cane, and then pulled the window open. “Coachman- stop the carriage!”

The carriage jerked to a stop, and Hope opened his door and jumped down.

As Hope’s feet touched the ground I could already see Mercy in front of him, having already jumped from the box. She crouched in a catlike stance as though ready to strike, and then she stood and sighed, shaking her head at the scene before her.

I exited the carriage as Hope ran ahead.  A monk stood further down the road, wearing a smile identical to Hope’s.

“Brother! It is good to see you so well,” Hope cried.

“I am well, now that I can see your joy,” Brother Lux replied. His cowl was tossed back from the force of his brother’s embrace. “And I have nothing but good tidings for you. I was sent ahead to guide you to the monastery. The woods are thick, and the path is overgrown.”

“Can the carriage make the journey?” Hope asked.

“The path is too narrow, I’m afraid. We will have to continue on foot. There is a nearby stable- I will give your coachman directions.”

Brother Lux went to the coach, and Mercy began to follow the party down the path, but Hope stopped her.

“Go with Coachman for now- don’t worry. These woods are quite safe, and my brother is strong enough to guard us. I wish to speak to my brother.”

Hope turned to Brother Lux as Mercy left, and whispered. “You may speak quite freely before Lady Frey, I assure you.”

Brother Lux turned to me sharply, but said nothing.

The three of us started down a footpath that wound first into the woods, and then back toward the road before looping in again. A light drizzle started filtering through the trees as we walked, and Brother Lux put up his cowl once more.

“Aside from Monsignor Pius and myself, all of the monks here are earnest in their faith and loyal to the old church,” Brother Lux said after we’d walked for a time. “Fortunately, we’re far from the main path, so we may speak freely.”

“Thank you,” Hope said. “I’m sorry to ask this of you, but I must hypnotize you after we speak to ensure this remains secret- even from Monsignor Pius.”

Brother Lux laughed. “No apologies are needed; I trust your judgement. I gather that this has to do with your lovely bride?”

“Yes.” Hope turned back to me. “Lady Frey knows that we are witches, but she’s no danger. She’s taken a blood oath to guard our secrets.”

Brother Lux stopped walking abruptly and sucked in a sharp breath. He turned to cast a dark look on his brother, and then looked at me.

“Please don’t be afraid to tell me the truth, child. Did my brother pressure you in any way to take the oath?”

“He said that I must remain a prisoner in his home, otherwise. I took the blood oath to ensure my freedom.”

Brother Lux slowly walked toward me, and then took both of my hands in his, bowing his head as though in prayer. His cowl shaded his expression, but I could feel his touch tremble.

“On behalf of my family and my coven, I apologize for what has been done to you.”

“It was a necessary measure,” Hope began, “to protect-”

“We’ve sinned against the wicked in the name of the greater good,” Brother Lux’s voice rang out, fierce and strong, “but we have never condemned an innocent soul. You’ve inflicted our curse on this poor girl.”

Hope shrank back in surprise.

To hear my condemnation confirmed by a man of the cloth- even a fallen one- made my blood run cold.

“I wasn’t certain,” I whispered, “but I suspected that the cost of entering a pact with a witch would be my soul. I don’t excuse Hope’s actions, but I know his reasons for acting. I’ve already heard his apology, and I forgive him. Since I knowingly risked eternity to gain liberty in this fleeting life, I cannot call myself ‘innocent.’”

Brother Lux turned back to me and tilted his head in puzzlement. “May I ask why you chose this path? My brother and I had nothing to lose, but you-”

“I’ve thought about it- about why losing my liberty in this life frightened me more than damnation. Even now, after careful reflection, I do not regret my actions. I know that if I’d waited for heaven, I’d be kept safe and happy forever. I don’t want to be kept safe and happy. Free in this life, I can act on my own to pursue my goals. That, to me, is true liberty.

“I’m afraid that this makes little sense.”

“No, I believe I understand,” Brother Lux said slowly. “None of this absolves my brother of his wrongdoing.”

“I feel my guilt more deeply than you know,” Hope said. “Yet I can’t deny I would commit any sin to protect my daughter.”

“And I don’t fault you,” I said. “I value Celeste’s protection, too. It was one of the goals I had in mind when I sought my liberty.”

“In that case, all of this seems like it was unnecessary. This is what comes of acting rashly,” Brother Lux said. “Unfortunately, Lady Frey, I see no way out of your current predicament. If you ever regret taking the blood oath, your only recourse will be to petition the Gods for forgiveness.”

Hope walked over to his brother and placed his hand on his head, staring into his eyes.

“You know as well as I do that the Gods do not forgive.” Hope said. “Brother- you will not tell anyone about the blood pact I’ve made with Lady Grace Frey, and you will tell no one that Lady Frey knows about our coven- not even the other witches. You are bound to keep all of Grace’s secrets.”

Brother Lux’s eyes went glassy, and then he swayed slightly and turned to continue down the path.

#

I had expected Monsignor Pius to be venerable, like the former High Priest- wrinkled and respectable-looking enough to fool anyone who did not know he was a witch. In actuality, Monsignor Pius was beautiful.

He was tall- far taller than Hope- with shining black hair that fell to his waist, and a perfect, dusky complexion. He had eyes that sparkled like jet, and lips like two rose petals. I’d often thought that Hope was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen, but compared to him, Monsignor Pius was an angel. When he greeted us, his height, his beauty, and his commanding voice gave him an overwhelming presence.

I stammered my way through our introductions. Under Monsignor Pius’s gaze, I felt like the awkward girl who had first come to Rowan Heights. After the introductions were over, he invited Hope to his office with Brother Lux to talk, and instructed a novice monk to conduct me to the sanctuary for prayers.

“We have many political matters to discuss; I’m afraid you would find it all very dull, my Lady,” Monsignor Pius said.

“If you would go ahead, I have one or two things I would like to discuss with my wife. We will catch up,” Hope interjected.

Monsignor Pius nodded, and the three men walked down the hall ahead of us.

“You have met the Monsignor- must we maintain our silence?” Hope whispered into my ear.

“Meeting him isn’t the same as knowing him,” I whispered back.

Hope pulled me even closer and kissed me deeply, his tongue briefly brushing mine. The kiss was over before my mind cleared, and I realized he’d kissed me for the benefit of Monsignor Pius, so the monsignor would assume our whispers had been a lovers’ tete a tete.

When we caught up to the others, Hope followed Monsignor Pius and Brother Lux into the Monsignor’s study, and I followed the monk further on.

I hadn’t been told the monk’s name, and he did not speak to me. Our footsteps echoed through the silent monastery and off of the bare stone walls around us. After a time, a chorus of voices joined the sound of our footsteps, echoing in a way that made the voices seem to come from all around us.

We neared the end of the hall where two heavy oak doors stood, and then the monk pulled the doors open, revealing the sanctuary. Voices burst through, and my ears were filled with the chorus, who chanted the litany of temperance. Their sweet tones carried with them a taste of the paradise I had forfeited.

A slow tingle crept up my spine.

I followed the monk into the sanctuary, and knelt by his side at a pew near the back. There were few monks kneeling in the pews; most were standing along each side of the sanctuary, lending their voices to the chorus. When I looked ahead, I saw there was no altar- only a wall where the symbol of Order had been carved into the rough stone.

I lifted my eyes to the symbol and prayed.

I will not ask forgiveness. I do not intend to betray Hope, and I do not deserve redemption. All I ask is, if there is any way to save everyone, please grant me the wisdom to find it.

#

Halfway through prayer Monsignor Pius arrived, followed closely by Brother Lux and Hope. Hope knelt beside me and winked at me before folding his hands and facing the front, where Monsignor Pius went to stand.

“My brothers, I thank you for your prayers, and I will miss you all dearly. You have been my family these many years, but tomorrow I must leave you in service to the gods. I am both honored and humbled by my appointment, and as your prayers have elevated me, so my prayers will remain with you.”

The monks offered another song, and then filed out of the sanctuary two by two. I took Hope’s arm and, to my surprise, he took me back down the same hallway to Monsignor Pius’s study.

“Ah, Lady Frey,” Monsignor Pius said, his face reflecting the same surprise that I’d felt. “How may I be of service?”

“My wife is something of an astronomer,” Hope answered eagerly. “She’s written a rather fascinating treatise that you may find to your liking. We were hoping to use your press to print a small number of copies, and distribute in a way you shall, of course, direct.”

I looked up at Hope, a spark of anger kindling in my stomach.  I kept my silence, however, maintaining the facade of an obedient wife until I could have words with Hope alone.

You shall not use my work to your own ends. I will distribute my treatise as I see fit, I vowed.

“Indeed? I happen to be an avid stargazer, myself,” Monsignor Pius said with a paternal smile. “Have you drawn up some pretty star-chart?”

I reached into the inner pocket of my pelisse, and took out the little book I’d written.

Monsignor pius took the book from me and read, his expression stony except for a raised brow.

“Clever. I imagine you had your husband’s help with the trigonometry?”

“I was never very good with figures. The work is entirely my wife’s.”

Monsignor Pius nodded, and then stood, flipping through the pages as he paced the room. “Where did you hear of such notions, Lady Frey?”

“The thought came to me when I was explaining retrograde motion to my husband,” I said, telling my carefully rehearsed lie. “I wondered if the wandering stars might move retrograde because we pass them in orbit. The systems works itself out in a much more elegant fashion than the construction of epicycles-”

Monsignor Pius stopped pacing in front of his fireplace, and tossed my book into the flames.

“Monsignor!” I cried in dismay.

“I am sorry, Lady, but your idea is not original in the least. Many men have toyed with the notion of a heliocentric universe, but the greatest scientific minds have proven the notion wrong. Sir Boromir, whom you reference in your work, called the whole idea madness.”

“Did he? I have read all of Sir Boromir’s books, and I never read such a statement.”

Monsignor Pius fixed me with a severe gaze as he sat behind his desk. “The heliocentric model is now considered so erroneous that it is forbidden to discuss the idea publicly. Have you shown anyone else your treatise?”

“Only Lord Frey.”

Monsignor Pius smiled then, his severe gaze melting away. “Good. You were right to consult your husband, and to bring the matter to me. Your book was a work of heresy, Lady Frey, but I believe your error to be one of simple ignorance. I will forgive you.”

I nodded, feeling almost numb. I looked to Hope, who wore an expression as shocked as mine must have been.

“I’ve heard that you enjoy caring for your ward, Lady Frey. In the future, concentrate on teaching her ladylike subjects, and leave science to the men of the church. Being too free with your ideas can be dangerous, especially for a Lady.”

“Thank you,” I said quietly, as my throat was swollen with unshed tears. I allowed Hope to take my arm, and we talked together to the cloisters.

The Coven, Part XIX

 

Part XVII

pastoral

I could still hear Celeste’s voice echoing over the hills as our carriage rattled down into the valley.

“Goodbye, Uncle Hope. Goodbye, Aunt Grace. Promise to come back soon.”

When I’d said goodbye to Celeste at the carriage door, she’d called me Aunt Grace for the first time. She had often called Hope ‘Uncle Hope’ out of affection, and though I’d never resented the title she had given me, ‘Lady Grace,’ I’d often hoped she’d feel comfortable enough to give me a less formal title. I had supposed it was natural that she felt closer to Hope. As far as she knew, he was her godfather, and while I acted as her teacher, Hope was most often a playmate to her.

Today, however, she’d called me Aunt Grace, and threw her arms around my neck, holding me as long as tightly as she had held Hope. I was unable to keep my cheeks dry for a long time afterward.

Even here, in the carriage, I was still blotting my cheeks with a handkerchief and telling myself, over and over, that Celeste was safe.

Chastity and Captain Goode had remained at Rowan Heights with Celeste. I’d seen Chastity’s inhuman strength with my own eyes- there was no doubt she could stop an entire regiment, if need be. Captain Goode was knowledgeable with both weapons and tactics, and would no doubt have the ability to keep the house well guarded and Celeste hidden and safe. Both Captain Goode and Hope had assured me that it was unlikely that Captain Goode would be called to the front for a long time yet.

There was only person in the house I did not know- Miss Charity Milton, Mrs. Auber’s niece, who was to act as Celeste’s governess.

I’d been unable to engage Mr. Filius, whom I’d hoped would teach Celeste science and mathematics in my absence. When I’d gone to the oculist shop the previous week, I was greeted by a very young, sandy-haired man.

“Good Afternoon, Lady. How may I help you?” the man said with a bright, eager grin.

“Good Afternoon. Is Mr. Filius available?”

The young man’s face fell, but he rallied. “My master has gone on a pilgrimage, and won’t return for several weeks. I’m Mr. Filius’s apprentice, and I can take any orders you may have. “

“Thank you, but I came to speak with him about a personal matter. If he’s not available, I will be on my way.”

I turned to go, but the young man called, “wait- are you Lady Frey?”

I turned back, “yes, I am. Did he leave a message for me?”

“Oh yes- he said you might ask for him. To be honest, I was expecting someone a bit older. I’m only 16, and I’m sure you can’t be any older than me.”

“I’m 19, but I suppose I’ll find that sort of talk flattering when I’m old,” I laughed.

“I’m glad I thought to ask who you are. My master wanted you to know that he is traveling to the Cathedral del Sol, and that if you were ever in trouble, to seek refuge at the Cathedral abbey. He said that all paths lead to del Sol.”

I put my hand up quickly to stifle a laugh.

“My Lady?”

“I’m sorry- I’m not laughing at you. It’s just that I understand his hint, but it’s completely unnecessary, now.”

The young man laughed, too. Then he held up a card, so quickly that I barely saw the picture of the eye before he placed it back in his pocket. “So he was testing you, was he?”

I nodded, and then on impulse, I pulled my own card from my purse, showed it to him, and put it away as quickly. “I believe that I’ve passed his test. It’s a shame he isn’t here to hear my answer, because I am leaving. I may not return for some time.”

“That is a shame. I’ve been trying to pass my test for over a year, and I’m no closer to the answer than when I started. I’d love to hear how you did it.”

“It was mostly luck, I assure you.” I reached over the counter to shake the young man’s hand. “Goodbye, and good luck.”

#

After my meeting with Mr. Filius’s apprentice, I returned to Rowan Heights to find Hope waiting at the entrance.

“Grace- may I speak to you in private?” he said urgently.

I turned away from him to place my parasol on the umbrella stand and to hide my expression of panic. I was certain that he wished to discuss our kiss, but I was completely unsure of what to say.

“We can speak, if you like,” I said. I took a deep breath and turned toward him.

He pulled me into a quiet alcove behind a brocade curtain and leaned to whisper in my ear.

“Our pact has put me into a difficult situation,” he said. “I’m bound by my coven’s laws not to reveal any of our secrets, and though you discovered us on your own, I’ve offered more information than I should have. Your oath keeps our secrets safe, but I would feel better if the others knew what I’d told you, and that you can’t betray us.”

Hope’s heavy whisper, and the way he pressed his warm body close to mine in that narrow alcove, made my head spin. It took me some time to process his words, and I wondered if he was attempting to use hypnosis on me, again.

“I see,” I whispered in kind, looking at the curtain to avoid his eyes. “And you cannot tell your coven without my permission because you are bound to keep my secrets, too.”

“Yes.”

I traced the loops of blue thread in the curtain’s brocade, which formed little clouds and rivers in the rich fabric. My mind cleared and focused.  

Hope’s friends, I knew, could not betray me without revealing their own guilt. However, though I trusted that Hope’s friends were prudent, I also knew there were other witches outside his immediate circle, such as Monsignor Pius, whom I’d never even met. The unknown witches, I knew, presented more danger.

I pushed Hope away from me so that I could stand straighter. “We must confine the knowledge of our blood oath as much as possible,” I said. “We should tell the witches I’ve already discovered, since their identities have been betrayed. Swear them to secrecy using whatever arts you possess. As for the others- I will remain ignorant of their identity, and they will remain ignorant of our pact.”

Hope sighed, still close enough that his breath was heavy in my ear. “Whose identities have you discovered?”

“I could see Chastity, Brother Lux, and you the night of the full moon, but everyone else’s faces were obscured by their hoods. You gave away Lady Willoughby when you told me of her curse-”

Hope groaned.

“- and I’ve guessed that Captain Goode joined the coven to avenge his family’s curse, just as you have. That is all.”

I could see Hope mull this over, and then he nodded. “Very well, we will confine the news to Chastity, my brother, Captain Goode, and Lady Willoughby. After we tell them, I will bind them to secrecy with my powers.”

“Even so- I don’t like this, Hope. Secrecy grows weaker the more people you tell.”

“I know. I can only promise I will do anything in my power to ensure our pact is not broken. And now-Captain Goode is awaiting me in the Library. Will you come with me?”

“Yes- if you will allow it.”

Hope offered me his arm, and we walked together to the Library.

When we reached the heavy doors, Hope pulled the right one open and gestured for me to enter. Inside was a dark room with heavy oak bookshelves crowded closely together. Each bookshelf was filled with a haphazard jumble of books and scrolls. Captain Goode sat at a rough wooden table, which was squeezed between two bookcases. He was studying a map of Aeterna, which he held flat by two lanterns.

“I’m afraid the library isn’t as interesting as you’d imagined it. If the house is ever searched by the inquisition, these books must be destroyed.” Hope gestured to a large kerosene jug that hung precariously over the center of the room. “This room is shielded with asbestos, to keep the house safe, but there was no point in decorating it.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear that you’ve gotten over your silly qualms about endangering Lady Frey, but I can hardly approve spilling all of our secrets to her,” Captain Good said. His chair scraped against the rough floor as he stood.

“It’s too late for that- Grace already knows. My attempts to hypnotize her the night of our esbat failed.”

Captain Goode strode over to us. “She hasn’t told her father, has she?”

“No- I haven’t told anyone your secret. I’ve sworn a blood oath not to.”

Captain Goode looked up at Hope.

“It’s true. Our suspicions were correct- Grace is unusually resistant to magic. She isn’t a spy for her father, though. She agreed to take the blood oath readily.”

Captain Goode turned to gaze at me, looking me over with his cold grey eyes.

“I was quite careful with the oath’s wording,” Hope said.

“Why did you agree?” Captain Goode asked me.

“Hope said that I must be a prisoner here, otherwise. I wanted to be free- to continue my studies and my research.”

Captain Goode nodded sharply, and then clasped his hands behind his back, pacing back and forth across the library floor. “If you value your freedom, then that is a good sign. The church is the enemy of freedom. But Lady Frey, you are young and naive, and you are about to be thrown into a pit of tigers.”

“Tigers?”

“He means the palace at St. Blanc,” Hope said.

“You may mean well, but courtiers are constantly competing for the ear of the Prince. They will take any pains to trick you, pressure you, or use any other allurements to make you reveal dangerous secrets.”

“Captain Goode is correct,” Hope said, “but Lady Willoughby will be at court for a season, as usual. She can help you navigate the court and reveal people’s true intentions. Until she arrives, stay by my side.”

I nodded. “You said this would be easy- that you’ve already won.”

Captain Goode put his head in his gloved palm. “Lord Frey, you must learn to stop being so heedless. We have the High Priest, yes, but please remember that the Prince is still loyal to the old church.”

“The High Priest is the seat of power as long as the Prince remains loyal,” Hope pointed out.

“-As long as he doesn’t learn our secret, and create another schism.” Captain Goode turned to me. “I don’t blame you- I can see that you have been used, and that your intentions are good. Just- remain on your guard.”

“I will, and thank you,” I said. “There is one more thing. Lord Frey believes that because of my resistance to magic, I might be able to relieve some of the torment that all of you face.”

Captain Goode smiled. An unexpected dimple appeared on his left cheek, making his usually severe face seem much more youthful. “Clever of you to bring this up now- after your revelation. It seems like less of a bribe. Perhaps you will survive court.”

“I didn’t intend to-”

“No- I’m sure you didn’t,” he said. He unbuttoned one of his gloves, and tugged it off. “My curse is in my hands. When I touch anyone, it causes excruciating pain and sometimes boils and lesions on my skin and the skin of those I touch.”

He held his hand out. “It’s your risk to take.”

I reached out and shook his hand. His hand was strong and calloused- a soldier’s hand- but I didn’t feel any pain.

#

The carriage rolled along the valley toward the lowlands, and Rowan Heights drifted further and further behind. I took my hastily-written treatise from my valise to read over.

On the Motions of Wanderers

With Sir Boromir’s observations to supplement my own, I’d placed each wanderer on its own path around the sun- in an ellipse with the sun at one point. Even without my telescopic observations the model worked so elegantly that I’d wondered why no-one had published a similar treatise before. Sir Boromir’s observations were young, but the church seemed to have every reason to seek a model such as mine. There had been some heretics, all since burned at the stake, who’d used the epicycle model of planets’ motions to argue against the order of nature.

I had been warned against trusting the church, but in this instance, I was certain they would be my allies. Hope wished to wield the truth as a weapon against his enemies, twisting it in the process. Mr. Filius and the oculist guild hid the truth from the world. Perhaps, I thought, the church would at least fulfil its stated purpose to bring the light of truth to the world, as well as keeping its order.

“I’m sure your notes are perfect,” Hope said, moving to sit beside me. “Enjoy the journey with me. Look- there’s a picturesque scene.”

Outside the window I could see a small pond, with a bevy of swans gliding across the still waters. Too soon, Hope eclipsed the scene, pressing his face against mine in a kiss.  

I pushed him away. “Do please be serious.”

He laughed. “Why? You’re a pretty girl, it is a lovely day, and I enjoy kissing you. Don’t you enjoy kissing me?”

“That is beside the point.”

“Then- what is the point?”

I sighed, and frowned. Yes, Hope’s features were pleasing, and his manners were pleasing, but the sensation of his lips against mine made my heart leap in a dizzying way, just when I needed to keep myself grounded.

“Your heart still belongs to another,” I said, “but my heart is unattached. What would happen if I grew attached to you?”

“Do you think that is likely to happen?”

“I don’t know. When we met, you promised that you would free me of this marriage if it were in your power. If that’s still your intention, then we shouldn’t complicate matters between us.”

“Very sensible,” he said, though his eyes were sparkling with mischief. “But as someone older than you, and a little wiser, let me offer some advice. It’s not good to be too sensible, too young. You must allow yourself to live a little.”

I took up my treatise once more, and began to read. “I intend to, Lord Frey.”

This blue-eyed hag was hither brought with child
And here was left by the sailors. Thou, my slave,
As thou report’st thyself, wast then her servant;
And, for thou wast a spirit too delicate
To act her earthy and abhorr’d commands,
Refusing her grand hests, she did confine thee,
By help of her more potent ministers
And in her most unmitigable rage,
Into a cloven pine; within which rift
Imprison’d thou didst painfully remain
A dozen years;
~Shakespeare, “The Tempest”

 

 

The Coven, Part XVIII