The Coven, Part XXV

Dear Lady Frey,

You’ll be glad to know that Miss Milton isnt a terrible dragin. She doesnt know much about maths, and she makes me practis music an hour and ½ every single day, but she never yells and she never uses the strap.

I still miss you. She can’t explane the realy hard books like you. Even thogh she’s nice, she’s still like other grown ups. She dosn’t always understand.

I’m glad Unkle Just is here, to. He takes me riding every day, just like Unkle Hope. Please write to Unkle Just and tell him that I’m not a soljer. Riding is always fun with Unkle Hope, but Unkle Just wants me to ride perfect.

Miss Chastity is always around. I don’t mind. She’s not as nice as Miss Mersy, but she’s always honest. I like that.

Tell me all about the palis when you rite. Is it grand? Is the Prince hansome?



“Reading a letter on such a fine day? It must be from a beaux.”

I looked up from the letter to see Lady Innocence and Lady Purity, who were never far from each other’s company. They’d been catching butterflies in the garden, but had paused to take note of me.

“Not at all- this is a letter from Lord Frey’s ward,” I said. “I’ve been managing her education.”

“How kind of you,” Lady Purity said, absentmindedly toying with her net. She opened the net, and blue butterflies billowed up in a cloud around her before flying free.

“Oh yes, very kind,” Lady Innocence said. “I wouldn’t have any patience with a ward. I would have sent the girl away to school.”

“There have been such scandalous rumors flying about, too. Lord Frey is so handsome that , well, you must worry about his past,” Lady Purity said in a harsh whisper, leaning forward conspiratorially.

“I don’t worry,” I said, folding the letter. “Lord Frey’s past is past.”

“You must love him a great deal, to trust him so completely,” Lady Innocence said.

“Don’t quiz poor Lady Frey,” Lady Fairfax chided, sidling up to us with her fashionable, swaying walk. “She’s still a newlywed.”

The three of us curtsied to Lady Fairfax.

“Lord Ainsworth has been searching for you,” Lady Fairfax said to me. “Lord Fitzwilliam told him that you were in the gardens, so I took the short route to warn you.”

“I- I see.” Fear had risen into my throat and frozen there as a lump, but I tried to swallow it back.

“You might still avoid him if you walk back with me by the fountains.”

Lady Innocence and Lady Purity were listening with keen expressions, and some of Hope’s advice came to mind. “Never let them see your fears.

I straightened my back and shook my head. “I have no reason to avoid him. He is as welcome to speak to me as anyone.”

Lady Fairfax let out a great huff and fluttered her fan. “I should think that man’s tediousness is enough reason to avoid him- but he is your father. Here he comes. Away, ladies, before he bores us all with talk of exports and tariffs.”

Lady Fairfax swept the ladies up the garden path, and soon I could see my own father, limping on his gouty leg up the opposite path.

“Ah! Grace. There you are,” he said. “I’ve searched the whole palace for you. I wish to have a word with you as soon as I can catch my breath. “

He plopped down on a wicker chair opposite me and drew a handkerchief from his pocket. He wiped some sweat from under his wig, coughed a few times, and then leaned back to regard me through his spectacles.

“A word regarding what?” I asked.

“Regarding what? I miss my daughter. After all, I haven’t had a single letter from you since you left Willowbrook. Did you receive my letter?”

“Yes, I did.” Somehow, the courage the ladies had left me with remained. My back stayed straight as I answered the red, panting man across from me. “I didn’t realize your concern for me was genuine.”

My father leaned forward, steepling his hands and smiling. “Ah- I see what has happened. You are truly under your husband’s control, now. Your obedience is to him, instead of me.”

“Believe what you like,” I said. I couldn’t help but smile at the memory of tearing up my father’s letter, and the look of shock on Hope’s face when I’d refused to let him compose a reply.

“I don’t mean to discourage you,” my father continued. “He is your husband now, and it is natural that he should be your master.”

“If that’s the case, then why did you ask me report on my husband?”

My father shrugged, and then shooed a butterfly away from his face. “I’d think that you would welcome any change to speak on your husband’s behalf. Malicious rumors are circulating, and I gave you the opportunity to contradict them.”

“Since I did not reply, you may assume there is nothing to report,” I said. “That should be contradiction enough.”

“And what about the rumors that aren’t so easily dismissed? I’ve heard about his little ward. They say that her mother was worse than a fallen women, and that your husband was intimately involved with her.”

“I’ve heard the rumors about Celeste’s mother, but Celeste is an innocent child. As to Lord Frey- his past is not my business.”

My father laughed out loud- a rough laugh that quickly devolved into coughs.

“Oh yes- I should have remembered.  Jealousy can’t touch an insensible girl like you. Don’t worry about the matter any further. As you said, none of this is your business. Obey your husband, occupy yourself with your books, and you’ll serve your purpose in time.”

My father brushed away the butterfly again, and it flew over to me, landing on my finger. Its tiny feet clung to me with surprising strength, and I left it undisturbed.

“Well, I would be remiss in my filial duties if I didn’t look after you- husband or no. Is there anything that you need or want?” My father said, rising to his feet.

“I want-” my voice faltered, but I swallowed and stood to look him in the eye. The butterfly still clung to my finger as it fell to my side.

“Since my marriage, I’ve missed a mother’s help and advice. Might I have something that belonged to her? Anything small will suffice- her likeness, perhaps, or a letter she wrote.”

Father’s jovial expression melted away, and his voice rang out like a crack of thunder.

Why would you ask a stupid thing like that?”

“It’s only natural-”

“There’s nothing natural about it. Your mother died when you were born. You have no reason to think of her, now.”

Father turned away and walked away swiftly. His gouty limp seemed to have vanished with his fury.

The butterfly let go of my finger and flew up into the blue morning sky.




The Coven- Part XXIV

My first evening at the Palace did not end until well after midnight.

Dinner began at 8:00 in a great hall that was almost as large as the sanctuary at Cathedral Lux. Long after everyone had finished their own repast, the Prince did not seem inclined to retire, and no one dare leave the great hall before him. My party sat over half-eaten jellies as the  Prince drank, told stories that were hardly audible in the front third of the hall, and sometimes called for music from the minstrel’s gallery.

The gallery was in a velvet-draped box at the back of the hall where musicians played with both talent and taste. The Prince, however, seemed a patron without any real appreciation for the art, because just after one or two verses, the Prince would begin another story, and the minstrels were forced to stop playing so as to not drown out his feeble voice.

After his second bottle of wine, the Prince stood, and the courtiers followed suit. I expected that we would be allowed to retire, but instead the Prince gestured toward my table.

“Our new High Priest has arrived at St. Blanc for his coronation,” the Prince said, raising his glass. “A toast to the man who will crown me King.”

The courtiers all raised the glasses and cheered. Hope raised his own glass a second behind the rest, gritting his teeth as he smiled.

Monsignor Pius, however, took the attention in stride. “You do me great honor, my Prince. I am but a servant to the Gods’ will.”




“Unbelieveable!” Hope ejaculated as he paced around our inner-court apartment. “‘The man who will crown me king?’ The Prince acts as though we have already declared war against his mother. We seemed so close to our goals- close enough to taste! I begin to think that we arrived here too late.”

I put my finger to my lips. I was searching the room- behind the heavy velvet curtains, behind the portraits, and in the closet. Hope paused in his pacing to watch me.

“I believe that I’ve made you paranoid,” he said.

“Miss Taris has an apartment in the outer court, and she’s the sole heir of Duke Taris. Our rank alone cannot explain us being quartered so close to the Prince.”

Hope started, and then rushed to examine every place in the room that I had already searched, as well as a few I’d neglected.

“Damn my stupidity,” he said when he was done, sinking onto a sofa. “I didn’t question such an honored position, and I should have. Fortunately, there are no peepholes or trap-doors that I can see. Still, we should keep our voices low.”

“Perhaps we’re here because of my father,” I said. “He seemed surprisingly close to the Prince.”

“Yes- a viscount has the Prince’s ear. I wondered what he’s given the Prince to earn his favor.”

Hope and I silently thought this over, and then I said, “I wish I hadn’t been so cowed by my father when I lived at Willowbrook. I wish I’d paid attention to his business dealings, instead of hiding from him in my library nook.”

“Your curiosity has awakened, since then,” Hope said. “Even Miss Taris’s situation is not beneath your notice.”

“She’s not an unimportant woman. She’s the only heir to a Duke, after all. Besides, she interests me.”

Hope raised an eyebrow. “Indeed? Among all of the roses of the court, Miss Taris has captured your interest?”

I smiled a little to myself and sat beside him. “It is precisely because she is not a flower of the court that she interests me. I suspect that, when I first arrived at Rowan Heights, I resembled Miss Taris very much.”

“You?” Hope scoffed. “You did have many awkward and skittish manners when you arrived, I grant you, but Miss Taris lacks the beauty and intelligence you possess to compensate.”

“I wonder if we are speaking of the same Miss Taris. She is tall, and underneath her ill-fitting clothes I perceive a graceful figure. She doesn’t have someone clever to manage her wardrobe, as I did before I came to Rowan Heights. I am too fat and round-faced to really be considered pretty.”

Hope seemed about to object, but I cut him off.

“She speaks so little that I doubt you’ve had the opportunity to judge her intelligence,” I said. “Perhaps her silence is why you think she is unintelligent. Once you told me that you couldn’t tell if I was shy or stupid.”

“I don’t recall ever saying such a thing.”

“I’m not surprised. You were drunk at the time.”

Hope groaned and put his head to his forehead. “Oh- yes. Well, perhaps what Miss Taris needs is a gentleman to provoke her anger. You’ve blossomed a good deal since our row.”

I felt a stab of resentment run through me. I wanted to retort that my affection and love for Celeste and the terrifying secrets of my new home had all driven me to change myself. Before I could speak, however, Hope sighed deeply.

“We won’t have much opportunity to sleep, here,” he said. “We should rest while we can.”




In daylight or lamplight, a room in the inner court seemed a great honor. My apartment was much bigger than would ever be necessary for the comfort of Hope and me alone. The carpets were thick and deep, and the bed was dressed in the finest silks. A chain of golden angels danced around the crown molding above the intricately printed wallpaper.

When the lamps were extinguished, however, all of these delights disappeared into darkness, and I was left in a vast, empty cavern. Faint shadows flickered on the walls, cast by the light that leaked from under the distant door. The crystal mantle clock, which I had admired in the light, now seemed to tick so loudly that it echoed in my ears.

Beside me, Hope was still and silent, asleep for the first time since we’d stayed the night in the crossroads village. He clung to my hand as he slept, taking peace from my presence as I lay sleepless beside him.

Try as I might, I could not keep my eyes shut for more than a few moments. They would always open, and my vision was drawn to the sliver of light under the door. After a while, the light seemed to flicker, as though a candle were disturbed, and beneath the loud ticking of the clock, I thought I heard the sound of footsteps.

Then the footsteps quieted and the light grew steady. The room was filled with the strong scent of roses.

I sat up, determined to investigate further, but as soon as I slipped my hand from Hope’s  he began to toss in his sleep.

I took his hand again to prevent him from making any noise and listened. The room remained silent, and soon the heavy scent of roses made me feel drowsy.

I lay back and surrendered to the urge to sleep.


Part XXV

The Coven- Part XXIII

The excited murmurs of the courtiers echoed around the salon as Lady Fairfax led Hope and I toward the Prince’s chamber. Lady Fairfax’s steps were quick and purposeful, so we had no time to greet any of the courtiers.

I sighed, remembering Hope’s insistence that we must greet certain courtiers when we arrived. If the courtiers were going to take offence, I thought, at least they would all feel the offence equally.

At the end of the Salon, two young pages opened the double doors to the Prince’s chamber, and Lady Fairfax stepped inside.

Remembering my training, I knelt at the threshold and kept my eyes on the carpet.

“Your Royal Highness,” Lady Fairfax spoke in a resonant voice. “May I present Lady Grace Frey, Countess of Coteaux.”

The room was silent for a time, and then a thin, dry voice spoke in reply. “We are most pleased that you’ve come. You may approach, Lady Frey.”

I stood to curtsy again and saw at the end of a vast, empty chamber a pale, thin man seated on a golden throne. The man was clothed in swaths of silk, ermine, and jewels that seemed to engulf his small frame. He wore a jeweled crown that looked heavy enough to snap his neck. Just behind the throne was an elaborate fresco of the sun, which seemed to halo him in yellow light.

As I curtsied, my eyes were drawn slightly to the side. To my surprise, my own father stood in attendance. He was dressed as a courtier, in a powdered wig and embroidered waistcoat, but his face looked the same as it always had. He smirked at me, as though I had already made some error.

For one terrible moment I felt as though he could see through the rouge- which he’d always forbidden me to wear- to see my sins written on my very face. Then Hope coughed behind me, and the sound of his voice reminded me that I was no longer dependent on my father.

I lifted my chin and approached the throne, kneeling again to kiss the hem of the Prince’s robes.

“Stand. Let me look at you,” the Prince wheezed.

I stood and curtsied again. The prince lifted a jeweled monocle to his eye and examined me.  

“She seems to be a very fine girl,” the Prince finally announced, leaning somewhat toward my father. “She has a good figure, and her cheeks are round and healthy. Yes, she will do nicely. And Lord Frey, how do you like her?”

“Your Royal Highness, Grace has been a valuable addition to my household, and she has brought joy to me, as well. I thank you.”

“Good. I look forward to more joyful tidings from the two of you in the near future, regarding the expansion of your household.”

Then the Prince waved his thin arm, dismissing us.




Lady Fairfax, Hope, and I returned to the salon,  free to fulfill our obligations to the lower ranks of the nobility. Hope was unable to keep his promise to introduce me; Lady Fairfax took me in hand and swept me away from Hope, insisting that we mingle with the ladies alone.

‘You must assert your independence from your husband,” Lady Fairfax said, “or the gentlemen will see you as a mere piece of furniture. We women must climb a higher ladder to power.”

She took me to the western side of the salon, where a group of ladies stood in the sunlight that streamed through the windows. Their gowns shone and their jewelry sparkled in the sunlight, and their laughter sounded like the ringing of bells.

The ladies curtsied to Lady Fairfax as she approached, but their eyes stayed on me as we were introduced. I thought they must be sizing me up, and I was surprised to see no disappointment or derision in their glances.

“I must confess I am quite in awe,” the smallest young lady, Lady Purity St Croix, said while fluttering her fan. “Not only are you quite beautiful, but so refined! Of course, I’d expect nothing less from Lord Frey’s wife.”

“Oh yes,” added Lady Innocence Dupuy, who was nearly a head taller than her companion. “Many hearts were broken when Lord Frey married, but he couldn’t have found a more worthy bride.”

The ladies curtsied to me again, though I caught Lady Innocence cast a significant glance at Lady Purity.

Lady Fairfax nodded to the two ladies, and then took my arm to lead me to her next target.

“Don’t let the names ‘Innocence and Purity’ fool you; there are few gentlemen at court who are safe from those two. Guard your husband. Now- there is Lord Taris’s daughter hiding behind that marble angel. Her father is a tyrant, and she barely speaks a word to anyone, but she is the only heir to a Duke. If anyone can gain her trust, they will have a great deal of influence once her father dies.”

A thin, awkward-looking girl in spectacles and an ill-fitting but expensive gown caught Lady Fairfax’s eye, and then ducked further behind the statue.

Miss Taris,” Lady Fairfax said in a commanding tone, causing the girl to freeze in place. “Lady Frey, I present Miss Constance Taris of Lancaster.”

“How do you do,” I said.

“How- how do you do,” the girl said, bobbing an awkward curtsy. Then she looked off to the side, as though looking for an escape.

“Have you been at court long?” I asked.

The girl blushed and made a reply in a low voice.

“I beg your pardon?”

“I- I’ve been here three months,” she said in an even lower voice that I had to strain to hear in the room’s din.

“Miss Taris, do be a sweet girl and give Lady Russe my regards,” Lady Fairfax said. She nodded to Miss Taris once again, and then led me away.

“Poor Miss Taris- Lord Taris has ruined her with his brutish ways. Ah- now here is Viscount Russel’s wife.”

Lady Fairfax kept me occupied in the salon until evening, but no matter how many great people I met, my eyes were always drawn back to the corner of the room where Miss Taris stood alone.  



The Coven, Part XXII


The carriage seemed to glide the last few miles to St. Blanc. The road, which wound through a lush and primly kept park, was smoothly paved and well-maintained, and generally said to be the best road in the country.

Brother Lux was sleeping. His head rested against Monsignor Pius’s shoulder, and his  hand clutched the edge of Monsignor Pius’s cloak as though in supplication. Monsignor Pius looked down on Brother Lux with a tolerant smile.

Hope read over a letter he had written to Celeste the night before, looking up periodically to view the passing countryside.

Hope eventually broke the silence. “Grace, I have finished my letter to Celeste. Would you like  to add a postscript?”

“No, thank you. I’ve already written my own letter, and I shall include it with yours.”

Hope nodded, and looked at his letter again.

The carriage was passing under an avenue lined with fairy-trees. The trees were in full bloom, and the branches met over the center of the avenue, creating a canopy of pink blossoms.

I gazed at the charming scene, half-distracted from the thoughts that swirled in my head. I’d been thinking about the history of the oculist guild that Mr. Filius had written. The story struck me as so fantastic that I half-wondered if it was another test. In a single lifetime, an uneducated man might start a rebellion, or refine the craft they’d been taught, or codify a new mode of thought, or discover the principles of optics and invent a telescope. To do all of these things would take generations. How could a pair of brothers do so much?

The carriage emerged from the avenue and there was a bend in the road. Then, behind a cluster of star-flower bushes, I could see a crystal clear fishpond crowned with a white footbridge.

I thought that the brothers’ story must have grown as a legend in the Oculist guild. Perhaps the brothers had done a few experiments and codified their scientific methods, but many of the discoveries attributed to them must have been made by succeeding generations. I decided to ask Mr. Filius if any of their original pamphlets survived, though I would probably not be able to view them unless I joined the guild.

I wished more than anything to learn the brothers’ methods, so I might refine my own work. I had told myself that I must be cautious, and think the matter over very thoroughly before I agreed to join, but I knew some small part of me had already decided. My mind was already choosing arguments based on the conclusion that I should join. As the carriage wound around the pond and onto the final stretch of road, I told myself that joining the guild would give me the tools to protect Celeste, rather than putting her guardians in the path of more secrets and more danger.

The road was running straight through an intricate shrubbery, and I could see the tops of the famous St. Blanc fountains. Spouts of water danced and glittered in the sunlight, easily visible from a furlong away. The gleaming white palace lay straight ahead, stretching so high and so wide it that looked like the edge of the world.

The inside of the carriage was as silent as it had been all day, but now Brother Lux was awake, Hope’s letter had been put away, and everyone leaned against the windows to look at the palace grounds. As we drew closer, marble beasts with perpetually open jaws lined the road, seeming to guard the shrubbery. I could hear the fountains tinkling like crystal, now. The air was filled with a heavy scent of roses.

The carriage turned off of the main road and onto a path that ran through the shrubberies and past one of the dancing fountains. We stopped in front of a pair of blue and white pavilions. The coachman, dressed in full livery, opened the carriage door, and I could hear the sounds of harp music drifting in the air like the scent of roses. I stepped out of the carriage and looked around, but I could not see a harper nearby.

“We cannot go into the palace in our traveling clothes,” Hope said as he stepped down behind me. “The ladies’s pavilion is on the left, and the gentlemen’s is on the right.”

Hope turned to Mercy. “Please take Lady Frey’s things to the ladies’ pavilion.”

Mercy jumped down from the box and took my top trunk from the carriage without a word. We all walked to the pavilions together, but soon Hope, Brother Lux, and Monsignor Pius turned right, and I was left to walk to the ladies’ pavilion with Mercy.

I turned to Mercy to make conversation, but Mercy met my smile with a dark gaze.

Yes, my Lady?”

“Ah- nothing.”

I turned back and continued my walk to the pavilion, repeating the phrase Hope had given me to repeat to myself each morning. I am as good as anyone else at court.




An hour later, I pulled back the pavilion’s door-flap and peeked outside, trying to work up the courage to emerge. Suddenly, I felt a rough shove from behind, and I stumbled out into the blinding afternoon sun.

I hadn’t been obliged to speak to any other courtiers in the pavilion, but several handmaidens had swooped down on me like hawks upon prey. They dressed me in my widest pannier and my gold brocade gown, and then set to work on my hair.

They teased the hair at my crown, and then re-curled the length my hair into a set of perfect loops with a pair of curling tongs. They powdered my hair white, pinned and ribboned it into perfection, and then they attacked my face with powder and rouge. When they were done, I could not recognize myself in the looking glass, or even see the natural blush that must have decorated my cheeks.

The handmaids worked with astounding speed, and before I knew what had happened, I was outside again. Though I was dressed more thoroughly than I’d ever been, I felt strangely naked.

“You should hurry, my Lady,” Mercy said, nudging me ever further from the pavilion. “Lord Frey is waiting.”

“I don’t see…” I began, and then paused. A man in a gold silk waistcoat, with an elaborate lace jabot and powdered hair, was walking toward me. As he neared, I could see, under a thin layer of powder and rouge, Hope’s easygoing grin.

“Oh- I…” I stammered, and then turned away. “Don’t look at me.”

“Why not?”

“I look- I don’t know. They painted me. I can’t even stand to look at myself in the glass- how can I face the entire court?”

“Everyone at court wears rouge- it’s the fashion.” Hope took my shoulders and spun me around again. “Look at me. I’m wearing rouge.”

I looked into Hope’s face again. His already pale skin now looked as pale as ice, and his lips were as red as blood. The exaggeration of his natural beauty sent an odd thrill down my spine.

“The rouge suits you better,” I said quietly. “Can’t I wash it off?”

“No one shows their true face at court, Grace,” he said. “This is just another mask we need to wear. Don’t feel self-conscious. You look very pretty- prettier than most of the women at court, I daresay.”

“Don’t tease-”

“Don’t accuse me of empty flattery when I give you a genuine compliment,” Hope said. “If you don’t believe yourself worthy of compliments, you will never discern the former from the latter.”

Hope reached out and tipped my chin up. “You are Lady Grace Frey, wife of the Earl of Coteaux. You will outrank most of the courtiers you meet. When you walk into the Prince’s salon, everyone will know that you belong there, and you must not show any indication that you believe otherwise.

Hope took my arm, and we walked toward the palace entrance, where Monsignor Pius and Brother Lux stood in their most formal raiments next to a pair of footmen.

“We will be led to the outer salon, and we will have some time to mingle with the courtiers before we are called to the Prince’s chamber. No one of lower rank will approach you- we must approach them and speak first. There will be some who will be offended if we don’t speak to them, but you can follow my lead, there. After we’ve mingled, the Grand Duchess will take you to the Prince’s chamber. She will introduce you.

“The Grand Duchess will?” I said in surprise.

“Yes- she’s your cousin. Have you never met her?”

“No, I have not.”

Hope paused to raise an eyebrow.

“I assume you’ve learned the correct way to approach the Prince in his chamber.”

“Yes- I was taught basic court protocol from my dancing master,” I said. “I never knew why.”

“You are a Lady, and you were destined to take your place in society. Even if your father neglected you at home, he did plan for your future.”

I was left to think this statement over as we joined Monsignor Pius and Brother Lux.

The Monsignor, followed closely by Brother Lux and flanked by two liveried footmen, led the way into the palace through the grand vestibule, which was filled with marble columns and a marble floor so polished that it looked like glass. The Monsignor’s scarlet cloak brushed the marble floor, making him look like he was gliding. He seemed to lead our party with all the pomp and circumstance of his upcoming coronation.

We walked quickly toward the salon, and yet the palace was so vast we seemed to move slowly. Everywhere I looked I saw marble statues dedicated to the gods and portraits of past princes and kings framed in gold. Above, on a ceiling so high it seemed to touch the very sky, frescoes of clouds and angels and stars all mingled together in an oddly chaotic representation of cosmic order.

We had hardly stepped foot in the salon when a tall, thin woman in blue silk, draped all over with lace, stepped forward to meet us. The courtiers all stepped aside to make way for her panniers, and curtsied  deeply as she passed.

Monsignor Pius and Hope bowed, as well. Brother Lux and the footmen seemed to have disappeared entirely.

The woman nodded to Monsignor Pius and Hope, and then looked at me. I curtsied deeply, trying not to blush under her appraising gaze.

“This must be my young cousin,” the woman said to Hope.

“Your Grace, may I present my wife, Lady Grace Frey, Countess of Coteaux. Lady Frey, this is Lady Piety Fairfax,  The Grand Duchess of Aeterna.”

The Grand Duchess nodded to me, and I curtsied again.

“His Royal Highness has been waiting. Please, follow me,” the Duchess said. Without any further preamble, she turned and led the way to the Prince’s chamber.