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.