The Coven, Part XXI

White-robed pilgrims began to move around the room’s periphery, extinguishing the glittering lanterns one by one. The room’s glimmer faded slowly into darkness.

Mr. Filius gestured for me to follow him up the stairs, but I held up a hesitant finger, and then sought the golden-haired pilgrim, who was reaching overhead with a silver candle-snuffer.

“Excuse me, Miss-”

“If we must use titles,” the woman said, “then call me ‘Abbess.’ It is not a title I deserve, but it is still one I hold.”

“Abbess,” I corrected myself. “I wanted to thank you for speaking on my behalf.”

The Abbess snuffed a candle, and the corner where we stood was shrouded by sudden darkness. All I could see was an occasional glitter as her hair caught a still-shining lamp from far away.

“You owe me no thanks. I must speak the truth as I understand it- that is all.”

The room went dark as the last lamp was extinguished, and I stood in the darkness and silence for a moment, but then another light flickered to life behind me, and the Abbess’s face was illuminated by the halo of light.

“We should go,” Mr Filius, who had brought the lamp, spoke. “Mr. Thisbe is anxious to close his shop.”

I nodded and almost turned to go, but I found that I couldn’t take my eyes off of the Abbess’s angelic face. As I gazed at her, there was such a strong pang of familiarity that I spoke again.

“Abbess…”

“Abbess Joy,” she said.

“Abbess Joy,” I ventured. “Pardon me, but you seem so familiar, yet I can’t recall when we’ve met.’

The Abbess grinned; her white teeth were pearls in the lamplight. “We have not been formally introduced. When I attended your ball, I skipped the receiving line.”

“Oh!” I remembered the glint of golden hair I’d seen through the crowd after someone pressed the note into my hand.

The Abbess winked, and then said, “you had better leave, as Mr. Filius said. I am glad I was able to see you again, my Lady.”

“I hope we meet again,” I said.

#

Mr Filius escorted me down the Alley until we reached the alcove where we’d met.

“I’m sorry that we must part,” he said. “There’s so much I need to tell you. I knew that our time here would be short, however. Read this, and we will discuss the contents when we next meet.”

He took a sealed letter from his overcoat pocket.

“I will read it, and thank you. I must confess that I’ve had a much more interesting night than I’d anticipated.”

Mr. Filius laughed, and then said, “be careful on your way to the Inn. I will watch, to make sure no one harasses you. The Inn is safe- I am on very good terms with the innkeeper.”

“Don’t trouble yourself about my safety too much- I intend to learn to defend myself. I will need to, if I plan on having more interesting evenings.”

“Very good,” Mr Filius said with an approving nod. “Add it to your list of studies. Until we meet again.”

He touched his cap, and then disappeared into the alley’s shadows.

#

My room at the Inn was silent and empty when I returned. I shut the trap-door and moved the bed back on top of it, and then returned to the table with a lantern to read Mr. Filius’s note.

Dear Lady Frey,

First I must convey my congratulations on your recent triumph. You have been invited to join an order that is dedicated to changing the world in a much more substantial way than the litany of politics, war, and kings could ever accomplish. As I am writing this, my only concern is that you might hesitate to accept your invitation to join the Oculist Guild. If this is the case, perhaps learning the Guild’s history will help you understand our mission.

I sighed, not sure whether to smile or shake my head at Mr. Filius’s misplaced optimism.

The Oculist Guild was founded fifty years ago by two brothers, Service and Fervor Smith, who worked as tradesmen in Giroux city. Service was an oculist and glassmaker, and Fervor was a barber and surgeon.

Service and Fervor were each educated in the techniques of their trades, as fitting their station in life. The church had codified their surgical requirements at the same time the liturgy was written, and though glassmaking techniques were developed by artisans over the millennia, the church had put limits on the uses for these techniques, and the art of glassmaking had grown stagnant. Tradesmen were given just enough education to read the liturgy and perform their trade, and the practice continues to this day.

Service Smith, however, was curious by nature, and meticulous in his observations. He spent years refining and improving the glassmaking process to remove imperfections in the glass, and he quickly gained a reputation as the best glassmaker in the country. He gained a great deal of wealth selling his spectacles, and he taught his apprentices his glassmaking techniques, which freed up much of his time for tinkering with lenses and recording his observations.

He spent a lot of time both making and looking through concave and convex lenses, and so discovered many of the principles of light. In doing so, he made two inventions that would change everything- the telescope for seeing great distances, and the microscope for seeing the infinitesimal. He shared his discovery with his brother, who used the latter to analyze the tissues of his patients, and who found a world as fantastic and unexpected as the world discovered by the telescope.

Service and Fervor threw themselves into their work, codifying the discoveries the instruments had made. Service saw that Fervor was prone to over excitement in his  discoveries which lead him to imposing his own suppositions on what he saw. Because of this, Service developed a method of having a third party look through the microscope to describe what they see, without being told what to expect. Thus, the original and third-party observations could be compared, and an accurate observation could be made.

Over time, the brothers codified not only their observations, but a method of experimentation, hypothesizing, and testing every possible hypothesis before reaching conclusions. Their testing began to yield important results, and as such, they contacted a member of the clergy to review their work.

They had naively expected praise for uncovering natural laws that proved that the church was right- that there is a consistent set of natural laws that demonstrates an ordered universe, and that there is a well-ordered method for observing. Instead of praise, they received censure. They were told that they had overstepped their station in life by delving into topics reserved for the clergy. They were told that their works and methods were hubris- that no man should seek to understand the deeper mysteries of the gods.  Their treatises were burned, their instruments broken, and they were put under house arrest.

Service’s health went into sharp decline at this time, but Fervor saw the church as a group of hypocrites, and would not accept defeat. He began to publish pamphlets in secret, written by hand and distributed by his most loyal servant to trustworthy and curious tradesmen, many of whom were eager to gain the secrets of Service’s success. The front of each pamphlet was stamped with our symbol of the eye.

Over time, the movement grew beyond distributing information to making experiments and building on the brothers’ work, using their methods. This, as you may guess, must be done in secret.  If the Guild were ever betrayed, the church would kill us  and, worse, destroy our work. Our work, especially in medicine, has the potential to save millions of lives.

I have had my eye on you, Lady Frey, ever since Lord Frey ordered your telescope. (Lord Frey is not a friend of the Oculist Guild, but his late Lady was, and so he knew that I would be able to make one.) I have watched the way you approach mysteries, and you have surpassed my wildest expectations. If you join the Oculist Guild, you will be able to do a great service to humanity. I know that you will continue your work whether you join or not, but the Guild, should you join, will be able to preserve and distribute your work away from the eyes of the church.

I was both pleased and alarmed to learn that you were going to the palace at St. Blanc. I was pleased because the Oculist Guild will often meet at the crossroads of Del Sol and St. Blanc, and so I could take the opportunity to introduce you to the Guild. However, St. Blanc is a pit of vipers, filled with those loyal to the church and eager to turn rivals over to the inquisition so that they might elevate themselves. Keep your secrets well, suspend your work, and if anything goes wrong, remember that the Abbess at Del Sol will always give  sanctuary to you. The church does not suspect her true alliance with the Oculist Guild, and Del Sol is a sacred place few would breach with violence for any reason.

Stay safe, and destroy this letter as soon as you finish reading it.

Yours, etc.

I read and re-read the letter, trying to commit every detail to memory despite my fatigued mind’s refusal to cooperate. After my third read, there was a light knock on the door.

I stood and tossed the letter into the fire. “One moment,” I called.

The Inn door opened, however, and Hope entered.

“I’m sorry to disturb you so late. I was delayed-”

Hope cut off as he caught sight of the letter, which danced in the flames before curling up onto the dying embers.

“Yes, that’s quite alright,” I said. “As you see, I am still awake.”

“Indeed,” he said in a distracted tone, and then he looked at me. “I don’t suppose you would tell me-”

“Did you enjoy your card game?”

Hope shook his head and sighed. “Yes, I suppose it’s only fair we both keep our secrets. I just wanted to let you know that I am safe. I’ll leave you to sleep.”

“Don’t be silly; of course you will stay.” I held out my hand. “You must be fatigued from your travels, and you can rest quietly as long as you’re with me.”

Hope hesitated for a moment, and then smiled and came forward to take my hand.

 

Part XXII

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