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.
“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.”
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-”
“- 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.”
“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