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.”
“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.