The Coven, Part XXXII

The choir was silent when I entered the cathedral on Hope’s arm, but music swelled all around me. The organ boomed like the vocal chords of an unseen giant, shaking the floor under my feet. Courtiers spoke in excited whispers, creating a low buzz that seemed to counterpoint the giant’s song.

Hope steered me through the crowd to our pew, and then made the sign of order before he sat.

The silent choir sat around the altar, wearing white robes that shone blue, red, and gold in the light from the stained-glass windows. The council of bishops were seated in a row in front of the altar, as stiff and straight as the palace guards. They were all dressed identically, from the gold trim on their robes to their tightly curled wigs.

Atop the altar, a scarlet-cushioned throne stood empty, ready for its next occupant.

The organ music paused, and then the processional began. As we stood with the other courtiers, Hope took my hand and held it tightly, as though to ward him from waking nightmares.

The Prince was the first person to walk down the aisle, followed by the Grand Duchess and, to my surprise, my own father.

“A high honor, indeed, for a viscount,” Hope scoffed in a low voice.

Three young boys dressed in acolyte robes followed, carrying candles of red, gold, and white. Then, at the cathedral entrance, wearing white robes and with his black hair falling down his back like a mantle, Monsignor Pius appeared.

Monsignor Pius walked slowly, with his head bowed in prayer or humility. I noticed that unlike his predecessor, he wore no stole, no gems, and no medallions. Even so, his height and his natural beauty gave him an air of grandeur surpassing even the Prince.

Brother Lux followed, holding the train of Monsignor Pius’s pure white robe. His head was not bowed; he watched his master walk before him with wide, shining eyes. His smile was just wide enough to seem almost disrespectful.

Hope, wearing a similar grin, gave my hand a quick squeeze.

As Monsignor Pius approached the altar, all of the bishops, the choir, and the monks who had been seated rose. The acolytes handed their candles to the three nearest bishops, and then joined the choir.

The coronation ceremony began with a prayer led by the one of the bishops. Then the choir started to sing as Monsignor Pius and the bishop who had led the prayer circumambulated the altar. A circlet was passed from hand to hand before the bishops placed it on Monsignor Pius’s head.

When Monsignor Pius stepped forward to take the throne, I had a sudden feeling of dread, as though the Gods would smite him as he sat. However, Monsignor Pius took the throne as easily as he had sat in his office chair, and I had to suppress a sudden burst of laugher.

I realized that as magnificent as the cathedral was, it was the work of architects and masons. The magnificent pipe organ was being played by human hands, and not a giant’s throat. Human voices swelled in the chorus, and the congregation followed along in the liturgy, which had been printed by human hands. Even the throne where the new High Priest sat had been fashioned by human hands.

Everything in the cathedral was the triumph of man. If there were Gods in the world, they were not here.

My laughter became harder to suppress, and I finally had to hide my face in the crook of Hope’s arm as though I’d been moved to tears.

As flawed as man, as corrupt as man, and working in the interest of those with power- I saw the church clearly for what it was. In that moment, in my heart, I went from sinner and rebel to true heretic.

“Are you well?” Hope whispered.

I took a deep breath, bit my lip, and stood. “I am very well,” I whispered back.

 

#

 

When we returned to our chambers to prepare for the coronation ball, Hope turned to me with a quizzical look.

“Why were you laughing in church?” he asked, removing his gloves.

“I was only thinking of what a fine day this is. The sky is sunny and cloudless, and a mild breeze is coming in from the south. Your friend has been coronated High Priest, and not a single bolt of lightning struck him down.”

“Do you approve of his appointment?”

“Who am I to protest when the Gods are silent?”

Just then the doors opened, and Lady Willoughby entered without ceremony.

“Good Afternoon,” Hope said. “I hope you bring good news.”

“I’m afraid not,” Lady Willougby said, her hands clasped behind her back. “Your wife will like the news I bear even less than you.”

“Then you may as well tell her. She is in a saucy mood, and I cannot make out why. To tell you the truth, it makes me nervous.”

“Poor Lord Frey,” Lady Willoughby laughed. “You are in a very sorry state if you get nervous every time a woman changes mood. Nevermind. Lord Frey, what do you make of this?”

Lady Willoughby produced a small silver dish from behind her back.

Hope stood to examine the dish. “Is this a censer?”

“Yes. I found it in the urn next to your door. There are traces of rose petals and blood thistle in the ash.”

Hope took the dish and cursed. “We should have checked the outside of the room, as well as the inside.”

“Someone tried to drug us with incense?” I said.

“When combined, rose petals and blood thistle create a powerful aphrodisiac,” Lady Willoughby said with a wink.

“Who would have the motive to do such a thing?” Hope asked.

“You can’t guess?” Lady Willoughby said.

Hope groaned. “I can tell you have guessed already, Lady Willoughby, so please tell us.”

“As you know, I’ve been trying to find some way to secure you an audience with the Prince. I took the liberty of speaking with Lord Ainsworth, because he has the Prince’s confidence,” Lady Willoughby said, sitting on the settee and fanning her skirts artfully about her. “I brought you up specifically, Lord Frey, so that he would think of you. I discovered that the Prince is most anxious for a certain happy event, and plans to congratulate you personally when you are able to announce it.”

“By happy event-”

“I mean the fulfillment of your household duty; the arrival of a child.”

“A child- they want me to have a child?” I sat hard on the nearest chair.

“It seems your father and the Prince are both anxious for this,” Lady Willoughby said, “and their anxiety seems to be beyond the usual wish for an heir. Before I could discover why, Sir Montag distracted Lord Ainsworth with talk of war.”

I chided myself for not considering Hope’s curse where it applied to me. He was obliged to produce at least two male heirs, one to carry on the family line, and one to dedicate to the church. He’d never told me what his penalty would be if he did not comply, but I knew it must be formidable enough to compel someone already doomed to hell.

I had been too sanguine in Hope’s promise that there were no strings attached to our marriage.

“Don’t worry, Grace. I swear that I won’t let the Prince or your father pressure you in any way. Don’t forget that my friends and I have power.”

Lady Willoughby looked back to Hope. “I take it that you do not plan to comply with their wishes?”

“And create another doomed soul? I think not.”

Lady Willoughby looked to me.

“I never even thought…”

She sighed and stood.

“Well, there is a ball, tonight, and very little time to prepare. Lady Frey, come with me to the dressing chamber- I am wild to see your new pink silk.”

 

#

 

I emerged from the dressing room later in the afternoon, draped in pink silk, crowned in feathers, and wiser than I’d been when I’d entered with Lady Willoughby.

She had given me good, frank womanly advice, which she realized I had needed for lack of a mother. I could hardly look at Hope without blushing when I remembered the things I had admitted under Lady Willoughby’s gentle questioning.

“Put aside the conflict in your heart regarding your feelings for Lord Frey, and think practically. You don’t know where you heart will lead in the future, but you are too young and too ambitious to risk a child you do not want.”

She told me what I might expect and how I could prepare myself. Whether or not I would need the knowledge, at least I had it.

I wanted to hide myself away to compose myself, but I could not. My brain had been lulled to sleep by the decadence of St. Blanc, but in church it had awakened. Cobwebs had been swept away; I was rejuvenated by discovery and hungry for more.

Unfortunately, the most burning question in my mind was the most frightening, as well.

“Are you fatigued, Grace?” Hope asked me when Lady Willoughby had gone. “You must try for some of your earlier spirit, or you won’t be able to dance all night.”

“My mind has taken me in many directions, today,” I said.

“And what are you thinking of now? I must have at least a hint.”

“Now-” I hesitated, wondering how to frame my concerns in a way he would not dismiss.

“Yes?”

“Now I am thinking of magic and probability.”

“Ah- with regards to Mrs. Auber’s ability?”

“I was not thinking of her. Really- I wish you had not revealed her power or her position in the Coven to me.”

Hope merely shrugged. “There’s nothing to stop me from telling you. In any case, I must admit that magic and probability are two subjects I hardly ever connect, Mrs. Auber’s power notwithstanding.”

“Why?”

“Because magic is unnatural. Why should it be constrained by the same laws as a rubber of casino?”

“Perhaps I should use the term ‘confidence’ instead of ‘probability,’” I said. “Think of it this way; you are a very powerful magician, who can mesmerise most people into behaving how you like. Most of the time, it is easy to tell when your spell has worked, because at your word, the subject of your spell will obey  where they normally would have not obeyed. You might say that you already knew that the subject had a very low probability of obeying your command, and then after the command is issued, and they obey, that is evidence of your power.”

“That is a fair statement.”

“However, there are cases where your power fails- me, for instance.”

“True, but you are a special exception.”

“I am an exception,” I conceded, “but it isn’t likely I am as special as you say. There may well be others such as myself. You can’t have hypnotised enough people to really be sure how rare I am.”

“There have been quite a few.”

“Fewer than a hundred?”

Hope shrugged. “You do know how to make a man humble.”

“I do not mean to insult- truly I don’t. I only mean to put you on your guard. Let us say that you encounter a situation where you hypnotize someone, and they obey. However, you do not have the advance certainty that they would never obey you.”

“And why would I lack that certainty?”

“There are two reasons I can think of-. One- the subject has their own reasons to do as you ask- a case of mutual goals. Two- the subject knows about your power, and wants to keep their ability to resist a secret.”

“Such as the night I tried to hypnotize you after you discovered the coven?”

“Exactly. So, if you come across someone who shares mutual goals with you, and who knows about your power, then you have far less reason to trust their obedience as evidence your spell has worked.”

“I see your point,” Hope said. “I can’t help but think that you mean to put me on my guard for a specific reason. This is not a purely intellectual exercise.”

I turned and paced away. “I’ve thought of another way in which you can test your spell, and that is to use Lady Willoughby’s power. She could read the mind of your subject to see if they are complying honestly. However, if your subject knows about your power, he is likely to know about hers. If he can resist your power, he can likely resist hers. Likewise, if you use Mrs. Auber to determine the probability your spell has succeeded, the prediction she makes may be false.”

“Grace, please be frank with me. Is Father Pius the one you fear?”

“I only wish for you to be careful,” I said.

 

#

 

“I present Lord Hope Uriel Frey, Earl of Coteaux, and his wife, Lady Grace Frey, Countess of Coteaux.”

The court page lowered his scroll and stepped aside with a bow. I stepped across the threshold, and it felt as though I shrank into the immensity of the ballroom.

The ballroom at St. Croix dwarfed the ballroom at Rowan Heights, and yet it still seemed crowded with every member of the court. The room was filled with so many glittering lamps that it seemed almost to be daylight, and I had to squint when I looked upward at the frescoed heavens above. Everything glittered with gold-leaf and crystal, and laughter swelled like music.

Lady Fairfax emerged from the infinite crowd of doll-like courtiers that filled the ballroom.

“My dear, you cannot imagine- I was ever so surprised,” she said, fanning herself frantically. “The Prince means to ask you to lead the first dance with him.”

Me?  Oh no- surely not.”

“It must be in honor of the impending event. Congratulations, my dear.” Lady Fairfax kissed me on each cheek, and before I could ask what she meant, she said, “I must say that you look remarkably well. You are positively glowing. That color suits you and- Oh! Here he comes.”

The crowd around me parted, and all the courtiers bowed so low they may as well have knelt. The Prince, dressed in silk and lace, and wearing his longest and grandest wig, walked through the path they’d formed. He was flanked by my father on one side, and Lord Taris on the other.

I lowered my eyes and curtsied deeply, but the prince took my hand and bade me stand.

“I must impose upon you, Lord Frey,” the Prince said, “for I cannot think of a prettier jewel to grace my person on the dance floor than your bride.”

“The honor is ours, your Highness,” Hope said with a deep bow.

I curtsied again, unable to speak. The Prince led me in a wide promenade around the ballroom before we walked onto the dance floor. Other couples fell into step behind us, and the opening notes to the entree grave played. An unnatural hush fell over the crowd.

The Prince’s usually frail appearance disappeared when the music began, and he danced with every bit of skill he’d been rumored to possess. I exerted every effort to keep up with him and match his elegance of execution. I felt as though I were on a stage- I might as well have been, for the eyes of every single courtier were upon me.

One ,two, one ,two- head high, turn your feet out- you know the steps, and smile a little, I thought to myself as we performed.

The song ended, and the dance was over. The courtiers applauded as the Prince walked with me back to Hope.

The Prince placed my hand back into Hope’s in a slow, measured gesture, and we bowed to him again. He smiled, inclined his head, and moved away.

“Charming- most charming,” Lady Fairfax gushed. “Enjoy this now, my dear. Your dancing days will soon be behind you.”

“Indeed they will be, but she danced well enough tonight,” my father said.

“My wife is in perfect health,” Hope said. “Why do you believe she will no longer dance?”

“She may be light on her feet now, but in a few months that will change,” Lady Fairfax said. “And after the blessed event arrives-”

Hope narrowed his eyes. “Lady Fairfax, I’m sorry to interrupt, but I must correct you. My wife and I are not expecting a ‘blessed event’ at this time. Where did you hear such a thing?”

Lady Fairfax turned to me. “I beg your pardon- perhaps it is too early for me to speak.”

“I am not denying this out of niceness, but simple truth. My wife has given me no indication that I may expect the blessing of a child in the near future,” Hope said firmly.

“Is this true?” my father spat.

“My husband is correct,” I said.

My father stepped forward, his grey eyes glittering angrily. “This is an unworthy trick, girl. If you were still at home, I would-”

Hope stepped swiftly in front of me. “Sir, you forget yourself. My wife does not engage in idle gossip or falsehood. If you were mistaken, she is not to blame.”

“For shame, Ainsworth,” Lady Fairfax chided. “Remember that they have been married only five months, and you know how everyone speculates about newly married couples. Still, I did believe I had this on good authority- please excuse me.”

Hope bowed gallantly to Lady Fairfax, and then took my hand, steering me toward the dance floor.

“When I find out who has involved you in this intrigue,” Hope muttered when we were out of earshot, “I will have his head.”

“Hope,” I said softly.

Hope paused. “Yes, Grace? Are you alright?”

“That was not in your own interest,” I said. “Had you gone along with the rumor-”

“If I had gone along with the rumor, then we would have been obliged to either have a child or concoct another lie. Damn my own interests,” Hope said in a fierce whisper. “I feel more acutely than ever what I have done to you in the name of my own interests, and I won’t suffer that any more be done. After your father spoke to you in such a manner, I would not pander to him for the world.”

“He has the Prince’s ear,” I said, “and I am strong. I can bear much more than slanderous gossip or my father’s wrath.”

“I know your strength. Still, I’d rather you didn’t have to endure it.”

Hope smiled at me and covered my hand with his in a tender gesture. In that moment, something shifted, and a crack ran through the wall I’d built around my heart, allowing sunlight to pour through. I basked the light all night as Hope and I danced together.

 

Part XXXIII

The Resistance is Still On- Link Rundown

Have you been to the EPA website, lately? They do still have one, and quite a few gory details of recent activity are spelled out on the front page. There is a tradeoff to all of the reviews and “reforms” that are in store. It’s worth the effort to honestly consider the cost of what we are losing, and to ask what we will get in return.

epa.gov

There has been enough time since the presidential election shook the collective consciousness of the nation that we’re all settling back into everyday life. I’ve been putting all of my focus on my serial and novella, lately, and I have been neglecting SPQR just a little. However, there are still ways to help. The most pressing is the March for Science which, yes, has gained traction.

March For Science

I do love the idea of marching for something rather than against. If you can’t go to DC or attend a local march, there is a virtual marching option, or you can donate.

 

Also, Here’s something to give you a few laughs, if you need them.

President Supervillain

MST3K The Return

 

Here, also, is a faint ray of hope. It’s time for us to look forward, and build toward the future.

Deep Space Gateway

The Coven- Interlude

In the antechamber of the cathedral at St. Blanc, only an echo of the pomp and circumstance in the sanctuary reached Brother Lux’s ears.

The sound of muffled organ music leaked through the heavy oak door and set the floor beneath his feet vibrating. The voices of the congregation were little more than a hum until the door opened, and the music and voices spilled through before being silenced again.

Brother Lux did not look to see who had come through the door. The only person he could see was Monsignor Pius- soon to be Father Pius, High Priest of the Aeternan Church.

Monsignor Pius stood still and silent in the center of a whirlwind of preparation. One of the monks was adjusting the folds of the Monsignor’s pure white robes, and another combed the shining black hair that spilled down his back. The Monsignor’s head was bare, and his chest and fingers were free from jewels and adornments, yet his eyes sparkled brighter than any gem, and his lips were redder than any ruby. He stood taller than any of the other men, looking as regal as a god.

And someday, Brother Lux thought, his heart swelling with pride, you will be a god.

“The clergy shall assemble shortly. Brother Lux, please stay to attend his Holiness,” Bishop Severus said above the din. “I will return when it’s time for the grand entrance.”

Monsignor Pius nodded silently to the Bishop. At his gesture, the monks and priests assembled and followed the Bishop from the antechamber in two lines.

When the door closed, Monsignor Pius raised his hands and the muffled sounds that leaked through the door ceased.

“We may speak freely for now,” Monsignor Pius said, turning toward Brother Lux.

Brother Lux stared at Monsignor Pius for a moment, too awed to move. Then he flung himself into the Monsignor’s waiting arms.

“In this moment, you look as though you’ve already ascended to godhood,” Brother Lux whispered.

“We are close,” Monsignor Pius said, and then kissed the top of Brother Lux’s head. “Things are moving swiftly. Are you ready? It’s not too late for me to secure you another position in a hospital, or-”

“No.” Brother Lux drew back and looked up into Monsignor Pius’s eyes. “I am ready to serve by your side. I will not budge.”

“Very well.” Monsignor Pius smiled down at Brother Lux, his dark eyes taking on an uncharacteristically gentle expression. “I had wondered if I was being selfish in keeping you so close.”

“Be selfish,” Brother Lux said. “I love fulfilling your whims.”

“I won’t have many whims, now. We must tread carefully until my power is secure. By the way- I have good news. Your brother and his wife came to me last night, and confessed that she had discovered us.”

“This is good news; I need no longer pretend to keep their secret. Will you tell him our plan?”

“I’m afraid not.” Monsignor Pius broke the embrace and paced away, re-adjusting his robes. “I think your brother will play his part better if he does not know- the same as the others. Don’t worry; he will succeed in his task. He is the strongest of our coven.”

“I trust you,” Brother Lux said.

“My gratitude and respect for your brother- as well as consideration for your family makes me mindful of my duty. I will protect his little love-child and Lady Frey.”

“Of course. After all, they are innocent.”

“Is Lady Frey truly innocent? She coerced Lord Frey into violating coven law to keep the secret of her discovery from me. Instead of entering into a blood pact with her, Lord Frey should have brought her to me at once.”

“It was a foolish move,” Brother Frey agreed, “a move that has needlessly condemned Lady Frey.”

“Your brother is prone to rash actions, though his intentions are good. However, this is not my only concern. Lady Frey told you that she took the blood oath to protect her freedom. Freedom is like power; it is the means to an end. What, then, is her true end?”

“I believe Lady Frey is a scholar. I assume her pursuits are academic in nature.”

“Her academic pursuits are dangerous. She toys with radical ideas, much like another girl we once knew.”

“Ah,” Brother Lux looked down at his feet and sighed. “I understand.”

“Worst of all, Lady Frey is resistant to our powers, and her father- our enemy- gave her in marriage to Lord Frey. This cannot be a coincidence; if I know anything about Lord Ainsworth, I know he has a political motive behind his every action.”

Brother Lux was silent for a moment, and then said, “my brother loves her.”

“And she does not love him. But dear Lux- let’s not quarrel, today. Even if I owed Lord Frey nothing, I would protect Lady Frey because you asked me. I would do anything for you.”

Brother Lux nodded. “And what shall happen to Miss Taris once our plan is in motion? She won’t be as capable as the others, yet, and she still needs to learn the craft.”

“Once Miss Taris is initiated she will stay with us. We need her father on our side. Will she be ready to join, soon?”

“Miss Taris can sense that I’m withholding something from her, and her frustration is building. Once she grows desperate, she will seek to join us.”

“Excellent,” Monsignor Pius said. “And now, our time is growing near.”

Brother Lux smiled, and all of his previous worry seemed to melt away from his face. His brow smoothed, and he closed his eyes as he embraced Monsignor Pius once more. Then he straightened Monsignor Pius’s robes and took his station behind him, ready to follow him into the sanctuary.

Part XXXII

The Coven, Part XXXI

Hope and I walked hand in hand onto the starlit lawn, past the glittering fountains and past benches where couples sat huddled together in the early fall wind.

“The weather has been so warm that one forgets it’s so late in the year. You were right to bring your shawl,” Hope said. He slowed his pace and slipped his arm under my shawl and around my waist.

“Hope, please…”

“We must blend in with the other couples,” he said, his mouth twitching into a smile.

I turned away from his maddening smirk but allowed him to continue to hold me. We walked slowly, our feet crunching the gravel path in syncopation. Hope seemed to draw closer and closer with each step, enveloping me in his warmth against the chilly breeze.

I looked up to the stars, which shone bright and sharp as we walked away from the lighted path. I traced the cat’s tail, the pyramid, and the maiden’s bow, which was just rising in the east, but I could not distract myself from my pounding heart.

After a moment, Hope paused in his walk and leaned over to whisper in my ear.

“I must gaze at you just once more before we leave the garden. You look bewitching in the lamplight.”

He turned to face me and gazed at me for a few moments, holding so still it was as though we were frozen in time. Then he leaned down to kiss me, and I had no resistance left. I kissed him back as fiercely as he kissed me, drinking in his warmth.

When he pulled away he wore a triumphant smile on his crimson lips. Then his smile faltered.

“Grace- what is the matter? You’re looking at me as though you’re frightened.”

“I- I don’t know,” I said.

He reached out to touch my cheek, but I flinched away.

“You don’t understand,” I began.

“No, but I’m beginning to understand. When you told me you didn’t know how you felt, I thought you were simply young and naive. I was going to court you, and draw out the budding desires of your heart.”

“I am naive,” I said.

“A little, perhaps, but you are no longer shy. I can see in your eyes the conflict in your heart. You feel something, but you are holding back. Why?”

I began to speak, but little more than a croak left my lips.

“Never mind- I won’t press the matter. I will allow you time to reflect. In the meantime, I will endeavor to deserve you.”

He took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the smeared rouge from my lips. Then he took my hand and we walked together once more into the darkness beyond the park path.

 

#

 

There is a lawn at the palace, which separates the gardens from the park. The lawn is carpeted in lush, green grass, which is so rarely trod upon that I felt almost as though I were trespassing when Hope and I left the garden and stepped onto it.

After walking for some time, we found Monsignor Pius at the center of the empty expanse. He stood behind a sextant made of gleaming copper, which was placed upon a tripod. The sextant appeared to be pointed toward the cat’s tail.

He looked up from the sextant as we approached him, and though it was too dark to see the expression on his face, I could see a faint reflection in his eyes.

“Good Evening,” he said cordially.

Hope dropped my hand and walked toward Monsignor Pius.

“My priest, I have come to confess.”

“Why? You are a free man,” Monsignor Pius said.

“I have kept a secret from you. I have unintentionally revealed our coven to an outsider. I should have told you before.”

“Not to worry, Lord Frey. You are forgiven. I assume that your wife has discovered us, and that you have used your powers to bind her to secrecy.”

“As you may have heard, she is resistant to all of our magic. This resistance is one of the reasons I could not conceal our coven from her. Instead, I have bound her to secrecy through a blood oath.”

I stepped forward. Monsignor Pius’s quick and easy forgiveness, combined with his seeming importance within the coven, caused alarm bells to ring in my mind.

“I must speak on my husband’s behalf,” I said hastily. “The reason he has kept our pact a secret is that I also bound him though our blood oath. I was afraid, and I wanted to confine the knowledge of my discovery as much as possible.”

“Are you no longer afraid?” Monsignor Pius said.

“Getting less so, but I beseech you to keep this secret for me, as well.

Monsignor Pius smiled, his white teeth gleaming in the starlight. “I have no reason to betray you. To do so would only betray myself. But, if it will put your mind at ease, I will submit to Lord Frey’s hypnosis.”

It was all too easy, and Monsignor Pius too ready to comply. My breath quickened as Monsignor Pius and Hope both knelt on the lawn, and Hope put his hands on Monsignor Pius’s shoulders, staring into his eyes. Hope spoke slowly, taking long, deliberate breaths much as he had done when he’d tried to hypnotize me.

“You are safe here- you can relax- relax. Trust me, and trust my wife, who has all of my love and respect.”

Monsignor Pius sat very still, breathing in time with Hope.

“You will trust my wife to keep our coven’s secrets, you will not tell anyone else that Lady Frey has discovered our coven, and you will tell no one of the blood oath Lady Frey and I have taken. When I snap my fingers, that is my command. You will rise and obey.”

Hope snapped his fingers, and Monsignor Pius stood. My eyes had adjusted to the light enough to see Monsignor Pius’s face better, and as soon as I saw his eyes, I knew.

The hypnosis hadn’t worked.

“Well, there now,” Monsignor Pius said. “I hope you feel safe, Lady Frey. I am glad that the two of you have entrusted me with this secret. There must be trust among us, for the world is hostile to our cause.”

Monsignor Pius turned to me. “I hope you are not angry with me for destroying your heretical treatise, but I do have a delicate position to maintain.”

I attempted to swallow, but my mouth was dry.

“I understand,” I finally said in as strong a voice as I could muster.

“If you wouldn’t mind-” Monsignor Pius turned back to Hope. “May I try a small experiment?”

Hope nodded.

Monsignor Pius raised his hand toward me, and I was seized by a sudden, excruciating sensation. I felt as though I were being dragged forward- compelled to go and kiss the hem of Monsignor Pius’s robes, but my muscles all seized up in protest. The tension between my will and the compulsion grew so strong that I felt as though I were being torn apart. I could not scream.

After a time, the sensation ceased, and I fell to the grass in relief.

“Wonderful!” Monsignor Pius said. “Do you see how she resists even my power? I was compelling her to come forward, but she did not budge an inch.”

Hope took my hands to help me to my feet. I trembled, but I stood.

“So,” Monsignor Pius said. “It is all true.”

“Yes,” I said. I dropped Hope’s hands and stood a little taller. Never let them see your weakness.

“Grace, are you alright?” Hope asked.

“Of course,” I said in a stronger voice. “I believe you had another matter to discuss with the Monsignor, so if you will excuse me, I will retire.”

“Will you be safe alone?” Monsignor Pius asked.

“I will keep to the lighted path as much as I can. I am wise enough to avoid danger.”

“Yes,” Monsignor Pius said with a grin. “I am sure you are.”

 

Interlude

Major Announcement

I’ve finished the project I hinted at in the past- a novelization of the first part of The Coven.  It has been rearranged in a chapter format for kindle, and there is new content only available on the kindle version.

The first book of what will be The Coven series, Stellar Visions, is free on kindle this weekend.

The amazon link is available here and below.

 

stellar_visions

 

The Coven, Part XXX

Mr. Filius, in his last letter to me, had advised that I suspend my studies while at St. Blanc. Despite- or perhaps because of my desire to join the guild, I didn’t heed his advice.

I woke early each morning, before the prayer-bells chimed, to follow Mercy at a distance as she crept from the servant’s quarters and into the woods. If she saw me, she never gave any indication. She went purposefully off the path, through the forest thicket behind the Library, and into a far clearing. There she stretched, did simple exercises, and then worked her way through intricate martial forms.

Dressed in my traveling skirt and loose stays, I was able to perform most of the stretches, and I followed the forms as best I could while hidden in a little grove of trees. Most of her moves were too quick or complex for me to follow. I picked a few of the simpler moves and practiced them over and over, trying to match her graceful stance as I performed the short pattern of punches and kicks. I was met with a greater challenge in avoiding the dry leaves underfoot. Their pattern was masked by spots of sunlight that danced with me across the forest floor.

The ritual ended early enough for me to go back into my room, clean myself, and dress. Hope never questioned where I had been, and if I met anyone on the path back, I merely explained I had been taking my morning constitutional.

After prayer, I would spend as much of the day as possible in the library. I was generally left alone to study until the afternoon, when I was obliged to join the other court ladies in the salon. Sometimes, however, I would suffer an interruption. Though the library was an isolated place, I quickly gained a reputation for being studious, so if anyone wanted to find me, they would check the library first.

In the library, I scoured the history books, looking for clues to the oculist guild’s past. I also had books on natural science near at hand. After one instance where Lady Fairfax had cast my books a look of surprise and commented that she knew very few women so interested in the sciences, I added books of poetry to the pile. Once, when Lady Innocence had mistaken my studiousness for piety, I decided to add the litany, as well.

No matter how many books I added to my table, however, I always returned to the strange storybook printed with the picture of an eye. It was presented as a set of morality tales, but I could not tell how much was fiction and how much was suppressed history.

 

The Tale of the Lost King

And the Fallen Six

 

In the dark ages when the beast-men called Ancients roamed the land, the Gods created mankind to bear the light of the Gods into the world.

Among the first men, thirty were honored as the best and brightest of their race. They were given swords to fight the Ancients, and titles to rule the land they conquered. The strongest, bravest, and most beautiful among them was Asmodeus, whom Order decreed would one day be High King

The soulless ancients cowered before the might of the Gods, and rather than fighting with honor, they disguised themselves and infiltrated the ranks of men, sowing whispers of discontent against the Gods.

The whispers reached the ears of six of the honored thirty, corrupting their hearts. They defied the Gods, and refused to raise their swords against the Ancients.

The Gods met in council to decide the punishment of the fallen six. Reverence suggested that they strip the six lords of their titles, and Chastity suggested they take the six lords’ souls. Order, in his wisdom, ruled that the fallen six and their children be cursed to wander hell for all eternity.

Order was saddened to discover that the man he had honored among all others, Asmodeus, had conspired with the fallen six. After Asmodeus’s fall, Order granted the kingship to Asmodeus’s younger brother, Uriel, who dispatched the remaining Ancients with all swiftness.

Asmodeus envied his brother, and hated all of the men who would enter heaven. In his anger, he swore vengeance against man and God alike. Reverence sent an eagle to circle the sky above Asmodeus as he wandered the earth to warn mankind against Asmodeus’s coming vengeance.

 

As I finished reading the tale, the library door swung open, and a clatter of footsteps echoed throughout the cavernous room.

Startled, I shut my book and shoved it to the bottom of my pile. I looked up to see Lady Willoughby walking across the room,  surrounded by a gaggle of court ladies.

Lady Willoughby seemed truly in her element. Her hair was powdered and curled and poufed into a magnificent pompadour, decorated with pearls and flowers. She wore a light cotton summer gown embroidered with fairy roses, but made up for its seeming simplicity with a pannier so wide it seemed hardly able to pass through the library doors.

She stopped walking while still some distance away, and curtsied deeply. The ladies all stopped at once and curtsied in unison as though they were all her puppets on a single string. She stood quite still, blinking down at me expectantly, and it took me some time to realize that she could not approach me first at court.

I almost laughed at the realization that I outranked Lady Willoughby, but I managed to keep a straight face as I stood.

“Lady Willoughby,” I said, moving around my table and walking toward the gaggle of ladies. “It is good to see you again.”

She smiled and curtsied again, and then rushed forward to meet me.

“How good it is to find you here! My serious friend- I knew I would find you in the library. But you mustn’t spend all of your time at St Blanc studying. Come with us, and taste the pleasures of court.

The ladies behind Lady Willoughby all giggled.

“It is a fine day,” I said. “What do you propose?”

“Lady Fairfax has ordered all manner of cakes and sweets to be served in the rose garden, and there will be music, as well. You must come along, and…” Lady Willoughby leaned close to me and whispered, “who is the young lady hiding in the corner?”

“It must be Miss Taris- Lord Taris’s daughter,” I said.

Lady Willoughby turned back to the ladies. “Please excuse us for just one moment- our party needs one more.”

Lady Willoughby took my arm and led me down the row of bookshelves, behind which Miss Taris hid.

When she saw us, Miss Taris started like a frightened deer and dropped her book to the ground. Lady Willoughby stooped down to pick it up, and remained kneeling by Miss Taris’s chair.

“Miss Taris,” Lady Willoughby said gently. “I am Lady Willoughby. We have met before, at your coming out.”

“Yes- I remember,” Miss Taris said.

“You must come with dear Lady Frey and me. Lady Fairfax has arranged a delightful picnic among the roses in the courtyard. I daresay a change of scene and society will do you good.”

Miss Taris looked up at me in supplication.

“If you would rather not-” I began.

“No, she must come.” Lady Willoughby said with quiet firmness. Then she took Miss Taris’s hand.

“I know of your troubles, Miss Taris. Your father is forcing you into marriage against your will. How I know doesn’t matter- please rest assured that this is not general knowledge.”

“Well-” Miss Taris began, and then faltered, looking down at her hands.

“Despite what you think, I can understand how you feel. At one time, my own father tried to force me into such a marriage. I resisted him, and fortunately I was able to marry my true love.”

Miss Taris looked up, hope seeming to light her eyes before they dulled again.

“But you could present your father with an alternative- the honorable Lord Willoughby. I have no-one.”

Lady Willoughby laughed a little. “My task might have been a bit simpler if I’d had no one. My family despised Lord Willoughby’s family. My great-grandfather was killed by the late Lord Willoughby in a duel. Still, I was able to prevail against my father. If you come with me, I will give you what advice I can.”

Lady Willoughby offered her arm to Miss Taris and Miss Taris took, it, standing with her and walking beside her as though they were old friends.

“First of all, I think you should be around others of your own sex,” Lady Willoughby said. “Many of us have suffered as you have.”

Miss Taris stopped walking. “None of them like me. I’d rather just listen to your advice.”

Lady Willoughby sighed. “You need allies, Miss Taris, if you are serious in resisting your father. With my help, you can gain many allies.”

Miss Taris looked at Lady Willoughby with an expression of open mistrust.  “Do you really mean to help me?”

“I do. I promise.”

Miss Taris nodded and took Lady Willoughby’s arm once more.

 

#

 

“You are a miracle worker,” I said later that evening as Lady Willoughby and I returned from the garden. “How did you break through Miss Taris’s reserve? Lady Fairax has been trying for weeks to no avail.”

Lady Willougby laughed, and then turned us off of the main path and toward the library.

“Come with me- I will tell you when we are alone.

Lady Willoughby led me in a wide circle around the fountains, away from the sun, which was setting in the scarlet east, and into the cool woods behind the library.

“We are alone, now, so we may speak quite freely.”

“Are we?” I said, gazing around the woods, which were thick with young pine.

“You can be quite certain we are. I hear people’s thoughts, so if anyone were nearby, listening, I would know.”

“Oh! So that is your power.”

“Yes, and it is the secret to my success. If not for my ability to hear thoughts, along with help from your husband in restraining my tongue, I would have been hung long ago.

“Of course, my ability is far more useful than simply evading difficulties. I can listen to the doubts in people’s minds and find the one thing that will put them at ease. I found Miss Taris’s weakness, and now I shall help her with her troubles, and gain her trust. ”

“I’ve been trying to find some way to be of assistance, but I can’t get near her. Do you really think you can help her?”

“I shall try, as I promised. I cannot lie, as you know. Still, it may be possible for Miss Taris to help herself. She’s stronger than she seems, and if she joins our coven, then she will have even more strength.”

“Then- you wish to recruit her? Oh! I wish you hadn’t told me.”

“Why?”

“Lord Frey is trying to limit my knowledge of the coven members I haven’t already discovered.”

Lady Willoughby sighed and fluttered her fan. “I struggle every day to hold my tongue. I must misdirect and speak half-truths to others. In some cases, I must submit myself to your husband, so he can hypnotize me not to reveal anything. I can lie to you, of course, but I would rather speak openly.”

I nodded. “I understand. Even so, I believe this is a particular point Lord Frey has been trying to keep a secret from me. Every time I mention Miss Taris, he either dismisses or disparages her character.”

“Ah,” Lady Willougby adjusted a rose in her hair and smiled conspiratorially. “As to that-  Lord Frey does not wish for Miss Taris to join us. He thinks that she is too timid, and likely to betray us at the slightest threat from authority. Brother Lux, however, swears that he’s seen a promising magical ability within her. He believes she can overcome her fears with our help.”

“Do you agree?’

“If Miss Taris wishes to join us, I will help her. If she does not join, I will help her, anyway. I believe that Brother Lux is correct. She has the innate ability to sense the emotional state of others. She can even tell when someone is being deceitful, no matter how skillfully they act. It’s no wonder she avoids everyone at court.

“And now that you know about my power,” Lady Willoughby said, “I’m ready for your questions. You must be curious what kinds of secrets I know.”

“Your secrets are safe from my prying, I assure you,” I said.

“Are you certain? You must want to know someone’s secrets.”

I thought of Monsignor Pius, and then of my father, but I bit my tongue before I could ask.

“Lord Frey has fallen for you, you know.”

“Yes- I do believe he has.”

An expectant smile graced Lady Willoughby’s painted lips.

“I can’t! Lady Willoughby, please let us speak of something else.”

“I see. Very well,” she said gently. She took my arm, and we walked together from the forest.

“There is one more thing,” she said as we parted. “I have something for your husband from Mrs. Auber. Will you take it to him?”

“Of course. What is it?”

Lady Willoughby reached into her voluminous sleeve and drew forth a playing card- the Ace of Swords.

“He will know the meaning,” she whispered. “Thank you.”

 

#

 

“This card may mean nothing,” Hope said later that evening, pacing in front of the hearth in our rooms. “Mrs. Auber doesn’t really see the future. She sees probabilities.”

“What does the card mean?”

“In fortune-telling, this is the card of death and war. It is an ill omen.”

“Superstition,” I said quickly. “Even Monsignor Pius admitted to me that omens only hold power because we believe.”

I paused and took a breath.

“Hope- I have another concern I’ve been meaning to discuss with you. Monsignor Pius may suspect that I know something about your coven. I think it would be best if we reveal our blood oath to him.”

Hope spun to face me, letting the card he was holding drop to his side. “But this is good news. You needn’t fear the Monsignor- not as long as he sees you as an ally.

I did not argue, but pressed forward. “Since his coronation is tomorrow, we have very little time.”

“I know where we may find him. I was going to see him tonight, anyway, to discuss the omen.” He put the card in his pocket, and offered his hand to me.

“Will you come with me now?”

I hesitated for only a moment, and then took his hand.

“I will,” I said.

 

Part XXXI

Young Adult Dystopia and You

Featured image- Lelouch from Code Geass

You don’t quite know how it happened, but you’ve ended up in a young adult dystopian novel. You were aware that the political climate had been a little messy of late, but hey- politics are always messy. And sure, there has been a mysterious leap in the level of technology, but you’ve never been one to stand in the way of progress. Nevertheless, when you woke up this morning, you realized that society is highly stratified, children are participating in deathmatches, you are under constant surveillance, and your eyes are watering from all of the darned nanites blowing around in the polluted air.

Now that you’ve “awakened” to your situation, here is a handy guide to help you navigate your new reality.

Step One- Don’t panic. Take the words of Douglas Adams to heart. “Don’t Panic” should actually be your first step for any process, but it’s a bit more difficult to remember when you’re being chased by a cyborg shark cop than when you’re ordering a sandwich.

Step Two- Blend in. This will be hard, because you are special. For example, you might be the only person with more than one personality trait, like in Divergent, or you might be the only person left who reads real books, like in Fahrenheit 451. Either way, unlike the sheep around you, you are starting to question the system, and if you can’t hide this fact you will become a target.

Step Three- Find allies. Ok- I lied. You aren’t really special. There are hundreds, if not thousands, just like you. Unfortunately, like you, they are all trying to blend in. If you want to survive, however, you’ll need their help. To find the other malcontents, search for the nearest attractive and mysterious stranger. This stranger will betray you eventually, but in the meantime they can secure an introduction to the underground resistance.

Step Four- Win over the resistance leaders. Your attractive and mysterious stranger has an admirer, and they will mistrust you on sight. What’s worse, the admirer is one of the resistance leaders. You will need to strike an amazing blow to the government in order to prove yourself.

Step Five- Become the resistance figurehead. Congratulations; whatever you did in step four has completely blown your cover. You really should have been more careful. However, your act of defiance has inspired millions, and now the revolution has begun.

Step Six- Get Captured. Don’t worry- this is the easiest way to confront the true villain. The evil overlord respects you enough to capture and interrogate you personally, and he won’t kill you, because he doesn’t want to create a martyr. However, he will probably destroy a small city or an orphanage if you don’t do as he says.

Step Seven- Make a faustian bargain. The evil overlord will offer you a deal- compromise your ethics and help him to calm the agitated masses in exchange for some freedom for the people and the lives of your friends. You will have to ally yourself with the enemy in order to serve the greater purpose.

Step Eight- Become that which you despise most. Even after the bargain is struck, a rogue resistance soldier will kill the evil overlord. Because you were the resistance figurehead, you will now be the new overlord. You learn that being an overlord is more difficult than you thought, and that sometimes you must do morally grey things that hurt some segments of society in order to keep society functioning.

Congratulations! You have survived the Young- Adult Dystopian novel- unless of course you sacrificed yourself and your second-in-command replaced you. Still, job well done. Now it’s the next generation’s turn to overthrow the regime you’ve put in place.