The Coven- Part XX

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

As tired and dull-witted as I was, I stood puzzling over the note, certain that it was another riddle, before I even considered taking the obvious step of shoving the rough inn mattress away from the wall.

I slid the bed along the floor quietly enough, I hoped, to avoid waking Mercy. Underneath, I saw the outline of a trapdoor, hinged on one side with leather straps and with a loop of rope as its handle.

I pulled the door open with little effort and looked down into a tiny space, lit with a single, glittering lamp.

There was only a rope ladder, which proved difficult to climb in my crinolines. I removed the crinolines, tucked up my skirt, and clambered down the rope ladder and into a room no bigger than a closet.

I picked up the lantern from atop a three-legged stool. The lantern light fell steadily on one corner of the room, where there lay a bucket and mop, and on the other side of the room the lantern shone a pattern of spots over a door.

Something about the pattern caught my attention, and I looked back at the lantern. One side of the lantern, the side which had shone on the corner, was open, but the other side had a pattern of holes worn into the tin, outlining the shape of the widow’s veil constellation.

I checked my pocket watch. It was close to midnight, and at this time of year I knew that the widow’s veil would soon rise in the southeast. I started toward the side door, and then paused.

There was only one thing that drove me to follow Mr. Filius’s clues and step out into danger- one piece of knowledge that I craved more than anything else. I climbed up the rope ladder again and took my black valise, which contained my heretical notes in its side pocket. Then I descended the rope ladder again, pulled down my skirts, and opened the side-door.

The door led into an alleyway, and when I looked down the lefthand side of the alley, I could see the widow’s veil rising between two buildings. I turned left and walked toward it, taking deep breaths to slow the pounding of my heart. I could hear music coming from inside the Inn, as well as the sounds of men’s laughter from a building down the street. A dog barked nearby, causing me to jump.  I stopped, took another breath to steady my nerves, and continued to walk.

As I neared the end of the alley, a man in white robes stepped into my path.

“You and I share secrets,” the man said, “and in secrets, there is trust.”

“Mr. Filius-”

“Shhh, the walls have ears,” the man said. “Come with me, and we can speak freely. Do you trust me?”

“I will follow,” I said.

Mr. Filius’s lips stretched into a thin smile. Then he gestured to me, and we continued down the alley.

Mr. Filius took some keys from his pocket and unlocked a small bookshop at the end of the street. We entered the shop, which was dark and silent, and he led me down a narrow hallway that led to a cellar door.

Mr. Filius rapped three times on the cellar door, and then it opened a crack.

“You and I share secrets,” a man’s muffled voice spoke from the cellar.

“In secrets, there is trust,” Mr Filius replied. He took a card from his pocket, on which there was the picture of an eye, and slipped it through the crack.

The door shut, and we sat in the darkness for a tense moment. Then the cellar door opened all the way, and Mr Filius climbed down the cellar stairs, gesturing for me to follow.

#

Instead of a simple cellar, I found myself descending into a wide, open room. Hundreds of assorted candles and lanterns glittered from the shelves built into the periphery of the room, and several more lanterns swung overhead.  A round, wooden table with a large black eye painted on its surface took up most of the room’s center. Around the edge of the table sat several white-robed pilgrims, well-dressed gentlemen, and a slave, who seemed to be arguing with one of the gentlemen.

“I replicated your experiment down to the last detail,” the slave was saying, pounding his hand on the table, “but I’m telling you that the results-”

The slave stopped talking as he caught sight of me. His face went red, and he knelt in haste.

“Forgive my impudence, Lady. I-”

“Don’t fret, Trusty- she’s with me,” Mr Filius said.

The gentleman Trusty had been arguing with stood.  He was dressed in the manner of a country squire, in a well-made woolen great coat and scuffed leather boots. He turned to Mr. Filius and gazed at him with keen, dark eyes.

 “Filius, you try my patience even more than usual. It’s bad enough that you took a second apprentice without permission, but you neglected to tell us that she was a woman.”

“Time was of the essence, Sir Silas. If I hadn’t taken this young Lady as my apprentice, she might have uncovered all of our secret knowledge by the end of the month. She’s hungry, and she devours puzzles quickly.”

Trusty and Sir Silas both sat back at the table, Sir Silas scoffing as he sat.

“I recently received a message from my other apprentice, Honor. He wrote that the Lady had already passed the test that I set for her,” Mr Filius said confidently, taking a place at the table.

“Oh! No,” I said, hesitating to sit beside him as I hadn’t been invited. “I haven’t passed your test, after all. I made an error.”

“Is that so? Show me- you have brought your notes, I presume,” he said, nodding at my valise.

“Yes but- what I’ve written is heretical. You may not wish to read it.”

The room erupted in laughter at this.

“No need to be afraid,” Mr. Filius said. “Everyone in this room is a heretic. We trust each other because we all share dangerous secrets. If Sir Silas here were to send me to the gallows, he would soon follow.”

I smiled a little to myself, remembering my words to Hope- I trust Mr. Filius not because of his candor, but because of his secrets.”

I opened my valise and handed the papers to Mr. Filius.

“The finished work was destroyed, but my notes are more complete, anyway,” I said.

Mr Filius balanced a pair of spectacles on his nose and looked over the papers. The room was silent but for the occasional cough and the rustle of paper as Mr. Filius turned the pages.

Then Mr. Filius spoke. “Where did you make your error?”

“I don’t know. Everything seemed correct- all of the evidence fit, and Sir Boromir’s observations fit my new model when I plotted the wandering stars in their courses.”

“Everything seemed correct because it is correct. The wandering stars and our earth- a world we have dubbed Terra- orbit the sun. You’ve passed your test, Lady Frey. Congratulations.”

I felt almost numb with shock- much as I had the day before, when Monsignor Pius tossed my treatise into the fire. I looked around the round table, and no one seemed ready to contradict Mr. Filius.

“I was told that Sir Boromir denounced the sun-centered model.”

“Sir Boromir published a retraction of his sun-centered model under the threat of torture,” one of the white-robed pilgrims said. “The church burned almost every copy of his original treatise. Our guild only managed to save one copy.”

“Why would the church do such a thing?”

Sir Silas laughed. “You’ve really rushed this project, haven’t you, Filius? Does this girl know nothing about the Church’s true history, or the history of the Oculist Guild?”

“I couldn’t tell her, Sir Silas. Such knowledge would have affected the results of her test. She figured out the truth about the universal order without knowing about its suppression. Because she passed this test alone, I hereby nominate her for full initiation into the Oculist Guild.”

Excited murmurs flowed around the table, and then Mr. Filius stood again, speaking in a more formal tone.

“This girl has only been taught loyalty to the church, and she’s remained sheltered from heretical ideas- I know her father too well to doubt otherwise. Even so, she is bold enough to look at the stars and ask why.  She sought this test on her own, and she passed it before I could offer any help. Furthermore, I believe her character represents the values the Oculist Guild promotes- courage, curiosity, and equality. Not only is she curious enough to seek truth, but she treats her inferiors as her equals, and she values the well-being of her fellow humans more than she values the Law of Order.”

“But what about the first value- courage?” Sir Silas said. He turned to fix me with his sharp gaze.

“I believe I’ve worked out your character, Lady. You discovered an interesting puzzle and happily solved it, like any intelligent child would. Then, like a child, you ran off to tell someone, expecting praise. When you informed a learned cleric about your discovery, and he told you it was an error, you assumed he was right and you were wrong- even though you’d seen the evidence with your own eyes. Am I correct?”

I could feel my face burn with shame. “Yes, you are correct.”

Sir Silas continued. “You’re  not kind to your inferiors because you value them as equals, but because you don’t have the confidence to acknowledge your own worth. You may be sweet, and you may possess a unique genius, but you lack the strength to fight the forces of oppression.”

Sir Silas stood and turned to Mr. Filius. “This is why women don’t belong here. You have nominated Lady Frey to be initiated, and I vote nay.”

“I second her nomination,” a soft soprano spoke. I looked across the table as one of the robed pilgrims stood and lifted their cowl, revealing a beautiful woman who was crowned with hair of shining gold.

The rest of the room seemed to fade away as I stared at the woman- her porcelain face and the strangely sad expression in her blue eyes tugged at some memory buried deep in my mind.

The woman smiled at me briefly, and then turned to Sir Silas. “Really, Sir, she wouldn’t be the first woman to join our guild.”

“You are different,” he replied gruffly.

“Am I? Did any of us join the order with our characters perfectly formed? Do any among us still lack flaws? You were happy to accept me: a fallen abbess. You were happy to accept Trusty: a slave whose masters had beaten him into almost complete submission. You were willing to see that we had the potential to be something more. I believe Lady Frey has the same potential.”

“Maybe, but she isn’t ready,” Sir Silas said.

“I willingly came here, even though I knew it might be dangerous,” I said, unable to hold my silence any more. “I was afraid to defy the church when I got my telescope, but I looked through it, anyway.  That must count for something.”

“Why did you come here? Why did you look through your telescope? What drives you?” Trust asked.

“I- I don’t know. If you had asked me the same question last week I might have said that the desire for freedom drives me, but I think it would be more accurate to say that I want to be able to rely on myself. If I can see the universe for what it really is, instead of only seeing the lies that others tell, I might be able to see a way to make things better.”

Trusty nodded, and stood. “I say aye to Lady Frey’s nomination.”

One by one, the others stood and cast their votes. In the end, the room was evenly split between the ayes and the nays.

Sir Silas sighed and rubbed his eyes. “To keep us from arguing all night, I propose a compromise, Filius. Continue to teach and guide Lady Frey, and when your other apprentice has passed his test,  we will consider both of them for initiation.”

Mr. Filius frowned, but nodded. “Is this acceptable to you, Lady Frey?”

“I would like to know more about the Guild before I join, in any case. I accept the compromise.”

 

Part XXI

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