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

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