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.
“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?”
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.”