The Coven, Part XXXVII

“Take the Prince’s mind from him. Take his kingdom.”

The fateful words played over and over in my head as I walked with Hope to our rooms. Lord and Lady Willoughby followed us, and soon we sat together, drinking glasses of port and chatting as Lady Willoughby strummed her lute.

This is a celebration, I thought. Prince Hadrian has been completely broken, so we are celebrating.

The coven had taken everything from the Prince, and I had allowed it to happen. The others were laughing, but I could not.

Still, I hated the Prince. I remembered the greedy look in his eyes as he’d described me as a ‘true rarity,’ as though my mother and I were dolls to collect. He had conspired with my father and the High Priest to use my mother- who’d had no choice in the matter- to produce me. He had tried to use me to trap Hope.

Even so, when I thought of his empty eyes as he’d watched the ballet, I could not smile.

“Take a glass,” Lady Willoughby said, pressing a glass of port wine into my hand. “I know you dislike wine, but this is very sweet.”

I accepted the glass, but I hardly noticed the taste as I drank.

…I can’t go home, and if Aeterna falls, I will die.”

My moment of anger had further-reaching consequences than I’d even attempted to predict.I had promised to help Lady Innocence, but instead I had hurt her. She was safe at del Sol for now, but how many others like her would suffer?

Fewer than would have suffered in a war. The cold calculation came from the back of my mind.

“Lady Frey, you are a thousand miles away,” Lady Willoughby teased gently.

“I am only a little fatigued,” I said, and then thought perhaps I was fatigued. Earlier that evening I had not been plagued by feelings of guilt. With Hope by my side as we enjoyed the music and dance, I’d thought of little more than pleasure.

“Try to stay up a little longer. It’s only 10:00 now, and we will revel until we meet under the full moon at 3:00.” Lady Willoughby turned to Hope. “Where shall we meet, again?”

“In the south wood,” Hope said. “Fittingly, it is where the Prince’s hunting accident occurred.”

“May I ask-” I hesitated.

“Yes?” Hope said.

I looked around, and saw that Lady and Lord Willoughby were wearing the same easygoing grin as Hope.

“Do you always meet at the full moon?”

Hope nodded. “Our powers are at their fullest when the moon is full, and it’s easier to contact- to contact those with whom we’ve formed our contracts.”

The demons, I thought.

Lady Willoughby looked sharply up at her husband, who nodded to her.

“Lady Frey,” Lady Willoughby said. “My husband would like a private word with you.”

“Why- yes. Certainly,” I said, taken aback.

I walked with Lord Willoughby into the small dressing room, which was the only private place in my apartment, and we sat on a pair of satin-covered footstools.

Lord Willoughby was a sandy-haired gentleman somewhere between youth and middle-age, whose dress and manners had never drawn much attention. He was neither handsome nor plain, too short nor too tall, and aside from the occasional twinkle in his eye when his wife teased him, he was usually quiet and subdued.

He drew a deep breath, as though bracing himself to make a difficult speech, but all he said was, “good evening, Lady Frey.”

“Good evening,” I replied.

Lord Willoughby laughed and took my hand, giving it an affectionate squeeze.

“I- I had been afraid to try speaking to you, Lady Frey. Wasn’t I foolish? When my wife told me that you- that you that you could ease our curses, I convinced myself I would be the exception.” He stopped and took another deep breath.

“I am glad you aren’t the exception,” I said. “You suffer under a curse of silence?”

Lord Willoughby just nodded, and then after a moment said, “Yes. I’m sorry. Now that I have my voice, I don’t know what to do with it.”

“Go slowly, if you need to,” I said. “You must have a lot you wish to express, after all of this time.”

“Not so much. My wife- you know she can hear thoughts. She can tell others what I mean to say.”

“That is fortunate,” I said. “Still, it must be frustrating not to have your own voice.”

“It was, but I’ve grown used to my situation. My wife and I are one in mind and heart, and she’s the one who likes to talk. I was very fortunate to marry her.”

The sounds of the lute and Lady Willoughby’s birdlike voice drifted into the closet.

“Lady Willoughby told me that the two of you struggled to be allowed to marry,” I said. “I could tell that she feels very fortunate to have married you, as well.”

Lord Willoughby smiled, gazing toward the doorway where the music drifted through. Then, as though he could bear to be away from her no longer, he stood and left without uttering another word.

 

 

#

 

 

Father Pius and Brother Lux had joined Hope and Lady Willougby while Lord Willougby and I were gone. The lamps had been extinguished, and the room was sparsely lit by candles that flickered on the tables and mantle.

Lady Willoughby was filling everyone’s glass with a sparkling golden liquid. “I had this imported from south sancti- it’s the only place where the grapes are grown.”

Hope passed me a glass, and Father Pius stood. The others followed suit, and we stood together in a circle, the candlelight casting flickering shadows across on our faces.

“I propose a toast,” Father Pius said, raising his own glass. “First: to Lord Frey, who has proved the crucial piece in our game not once, but twice.”

“I blundered,” Hope said quietly. “I was not gentle with the Prince’s mind, and I seem to have taken all of his will.”

“He will serve our needs very well as he is,” Father Pius said.

“To Lord Frey,” the others toasted.

“And a toast to us all,” Brother Lux added. “Mrs. Aubert saw our path forward, Lord and Lady Willoughby revealed the Prince’s weakness, and Captain Goode and Miss Chastity have protected us. Most of all, I toast Pius, who has guided us all to the craft, and helped us unlock our powers.”

“Hear! Hear!” the others cried.

Lady Willoughby slapped a hand over her mouth and giggled. “We shouldn’t be too loud.”

“I have sealed the room,” Father Pius said. “No one will hear us, and no one can come in who is not invited.”

Lady Willoughby took my arm. “Lady Frey is invited to stay, of course.”

“Of course,” Father Pius said. “She is no threat to us.”

Something in Father Pius’s tone, or the way his warm voice lingered on the word ‘threat’ sent shivers up my spine. I turned away and took a long drink of the tart, bubbly wine.

“Excellent,” Lady Willoughby said. “Then we shall make three couples. If we move these chairs, I think we will have just enough room to dance.”

“There are only two couples,” I said, “and someone must play.”

Lady Willoughby laughed and took up her lute, handing it to Father Pius.

Father Pius smiled indulgently and gave the lute one long, languid strum. The lute’s mellow tone resonated in the air, and the sound coalesced into melody. He placed the lute on a chair at the side of the room, and it continued to play alone.

“I assume you’ve never danced the triad,” Lady Willoughby said to me. “It’s forbidden in Aeterna. Nevermind- Lord Frey will show you the steps.”

Hope stepped forward, bowed, and offered his hand. “May I have this dance?”

I took his hand, and he led me to our impromptu dance floor. He showed me the steps, which were exceedingly simple and repeated in a three time. I moved my feet to match his, and after two repetitions he took both of my hands.

The dance grew more complex. The steps repeated, but Hope brought our arms to the side, drawing our bodies very close together, then he brought our hands behind my back, and then behind his, so we stayed pressed together. We separated for a short time before he turned me away from him, crossing my arms and holding me tight to him before he spun me back around to face him. He leaned down and brushed his lips against mine before we spun cheek to cheek.

We continued to move and spin, entwining our arms and bodies together in an elaborate pattern. The dance was so dizzying I did not think to object when he kissed me again in front of the others. I was too enraptured to remember that anyone else was in the room.

Out of the corner of my eyes, I did see Father Pius and Brother Lux dancing, but the significance of this escaped me. While we danced, Hope was the entire world.

The figure brought Hope and I to the other side of the room, where I accidentally brushed against the enchanted lute. The music slowed, and then went quiet. Our feet stilled, and Hope leaned down to kiss me one last time. I allowed him to kiss me, and then turned away.

“You’re blushing,” Lady Willoughby said. “Now you know why the dance is forbidden.”

“Any dance that is meant to be performed as a pas de deux is forbidden,” I said.

“You are still very innocent, aren’t you?” Lady Willoughby leaned down and purred into my ear. “I look forward to corrupting you.”

“Lady Willoughby,” Hope said warningly.

“Nevermind,” I said to Hope, taking his hand again. “I’ve grown immune to Lady Willoughby’s teasing.”

“Good girl,” Lady Willoughby said with a wink.

There was another round of drinks, and as I drank my body grew warm and comfortable. Hope was with me- loved me. Laughter and music filled the air. All of my earlier guilt, and even my worries about Father Pius, were beginning to feel almost silly.

“Are you sure you want to drink so much?” Hope was saying to Brother Lux. “You don’t often indulge.”

I looked at Brother Lux, who was gazing at Hope and me with an unreadable expression. Brother Lux blinked as though awakened from deep contemplation, and then laughed.

“It will be fine just this once,” he said.

Lady Willoughby turned to Brother Lux with an expression of surprise. “What is the matter? Why don’t you-”

Just then there was a knock on the door, and the party went silent.

“Who is that?” Lady Willoughby whispered.

“Someone who was invited,” Father Pius replied. He turned toward the door and called, “enter.”

The door creaked open, and a tall, elegant girl walked into the room. She was wearing a simple, peasant fitted dress, and when she turned to close the door I could see straight, blonde hair that fell loose to her waist.She turned back and walked slowly toward our party, and I was struck by the pale, mournful countenance behind her spectacles.

Father Pius stepped forward to greet her. “Good evening, Miss Taris.”

“I’ve made my decision,” she said without preamble. She pushed her hair back and removed her spectacles, revealing a dark bruise blossoming on her porcelain skin.

“I refuse to remain my father’s property. I don’t want to live in fear anymore.”

“You don’t need to live in fear,” Father Pius said. “You have power.”

“Please- teach me to use my power. Help me gain more.”

“To use your power fully and freely, you must join our circle and form a contract with a demon. You would lose any chance of seeing heaven in the next life in exchange for power in this one.”

“At least my soul will still be mine,” Miss Taris said fiercely.

Despite, or perhaps because of my half-intoxicated state, I was compelled to speak. “Miss Taris-”

“Don’t worry, Lady Frey,” Miss Taris said with a wry smile. She put her spectacles back on. “This is my choice, for better or worse.”

Father Pius took Miss Taris’s hand and led her to the center of the room. “Brothers and sisters of the craft, I present a candidate for initiation: Miss Constance Taris. Miss Taris has demonstrated a clear talent for magic, specifically, the ability to sense the emotions and intentions of others. Will you accept her into the circle?”

My mind was moving sluggishly from the wine. Something in the back of my head was prodding me- he doesn’t care that you’re still here- but I couldn’t understand why that would matter.

Lady Willoughby put down her wineglass and picked up a candle. She brought it to Miss Taris and placed it on the ground near her feet.

“I welcome Miss Taris into our circle.”

Lord Willoughby picked up a candle and followed suit, though he merely bowed to Miss Taris instead of speaking.

Brother Lux picked up a third candle and placed it at Miss Taris’s feet, as well. “Welcome, Miss Taris. I promise we will guide and protect you.”

“There are three who could not make it here, tonight,” Father Pius said. He went to the mantle and took two candles. “But I have received word from Captain Goode and Mrs. Auber, and they both welcome you into our coven, as do I.”

Hope stepped forward, his hands empty.

Father Pius arched an eyebrow. “Do you wish to object?”

“I do,” Hope said. “I don’t doubt Miss Taris’s magical talent, but I believe there are other talents that make a great mage, such as courage and perseverance. Miss Mercy has demonstrated both qualities, and yet she remains an acolyte after a year of dedication.”

“We have discussed this,” Father Pius said. “With Miss Mercy’s current level of magical strength, she would be unable to endure a contract.”

“I disagree,” Hope said quietly.

Father Pius nodded. “Duly noted. You aren’t the only one who feels this way- Miss Chastity has also sent me her objection. However, since six of us have voted to accept Miss Taris, the motion to initiate passes.”

Miss Taris stepped around the candles and fell to her knees, clutching Father Pius’s robes.

“I swear by my life to follow your teachings and abide by the coven laws.”

Father Pius offered a hand and helped Miss Taris to her feet.

“Congratulations, Miss Taris. Soon you will form your contract and be one of us by the powers of blood and magic.”

Part XXXVIII

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The Coven- Somnium

True to my word, I did not fight the cadence of Hope’s voice. I let his words wash over me as they swelled and rolled like waves on the ocean. I felt at first as though I sank, and then I simply drifted.

In my mind’s eye, I didn’t see darkness or light. An endless grey fog enveloped me. Hope’s voice grew distant, and the waves stilled.  

Everything was silent.

I might have existed in the void for a second or an eternity. I let myself be one with the nothingness until something stirred inside of me. A question rose to the surface of my mind.

“Is this what it is to die?”

A response echoed all around me like a clap of thunder.

“Fear not.”

The voice echoed away, and I was alone in the void once more.

I let myself drift a moment, and then stirred again.

“Be at peace,” the voice around me commanded.

Another question arose in my mind. “How can I feel peace? How can I feel anything if I have no soul?”

“And yet- you do feel,” the voice replied.

The mist around me began to shift and coalesce into patches of darkness and pinpricks of light.

“Then what does a soul do?” I wondered.

The only answer was silence.

“I don’t know what a soul does,” I thought, “but I know that I can reason without one. I have reason to be afraid, so I am afraid.”

“You cannot change what is,” the voice replied, this time like a sigh of wind. “Why not accept your fate?”

“I accept what is so I can change what will be,” I said. “I won’t accept fate. I must become something more.”

As though I’d uttered magic words, the grey and black clouds burst apart like panels of a curtain, revealing a scene more vast, more vibrant, and far more real than anything I’d ever seen in my waking life. I saw world upon world, hung upon an invisible clockwork in an endless sea of night. There were too many worlds to count, and each world circled one of the pinprick stars in the distance.

Yet, when I looked more closely, I could see each world with dazzling clarity. Some worlds had vast blue oceans and white clouds like my own Terra, and some were streaked with bands of green and grey, like Tigris. When I looked even closer, I could see flora and fauna- some like the ones I knew, and others impossible to describe.

My own system of worlds came into view, and I turned my eyes toward my star- the sun.

The sunlight was so intense that it burned. I rubbed my eyes, blinked away the blurriness, and opened them. When I did, I saw Hope lying next to me, watching me closely.

 

 

#

 

 

The  sunlight that filled the room streamed in through the eastern window- so it was sunrise. I had slept all night.

Hope was gazing at me with anxious, bloodshot eyes. He was still holding my hand, and I realized that he had stayed with me all night, lending me his strength as I slept. He smiled a little, and all at once the wall around my heart crumbled away and the morning light poured in.

Passionate and flawed and beautiful- he was my own, beloved Hope.

Slowly, I reached out to touch Hope’s face. His skin was smooth and delicate under my fingers, and he lay very still, continuing to watch me. Emboldened, I leaned closer and brushed my lips against his.

He kissed me back gently, letting me lead the kiss until I leaned back to look into his eyes once more.

“What a pleasant way to awaken,” he said, still smiling. “I take it that you feel better this morning.”

“I do,” I said.

He touched my forehead. “You have no fever, and the color has returned to your cheeks. Still, you shouldn’t strain yourse-”

I cut him off with another kiss.

“Hope,” I whispered after breaking the second kiss. “Do you think you could still love me, knowing what I am?”

Hope took me into his arms, holding me close to his chest, and I felt foolish for having asked.

“Could I love you? Grace, you are more precious to me than ever.”

“I love you,” I said. I buried my face in his shirt, wondering why tears fell from my eyes when I felt so happy.

Hope lifted my chin and kissed the tears away from my cheeks.

 

 

#

 

 

“I almost wish I were ill,” I complained to Hope as we walked arm in arm through the rose garden.

We had spent the morning together, covering each other in kisses and sweet whispers, and letting our love blossom. Unfortunately, we could not hide away together all day, as Hope soon pointed out. Hope needed to verify that the Prince was under the Coven’s control. Therefore, we were obliged to go to the salon, listen to the courtier’s whispers, and play the political game for a little bit longer.

However, it was difficult to focus on our task, so we walked to the salon the long way- across the courtyard- as slowly as our feet would carry us. The chilly fall breeze blew over the gardens, filling my nose with the heady scent of roses. Despite the coming winter, the roses were still large and full, rustling their pink and white petals among the dying leaves.

“Why do you wish you were ill?” Hope asked.

“I hate social obligations,” I said. “I hate making polite, mindless conversation with people I dislike. I feel as though I’ve repeated the same phrases a thousand times since I’ve arrived. ‘The weather is mild this year. I hope your family is well. What a lovely gown you are wearing!’ If a courtier were ever to make an intelligent remark, I would pass out from the shock.”

Hope entwined his fingers with mine. “Then I hope that some courtier dazzles you with their wit, today, so I have an excuse to take you back to our rooms.”

I looked down, too embarrassed to look at Hope’s grin. Hope, however, stopped walking, touched my chin, and tilted my head up.

“I knew there was an innocent, lovestruck girl hidden inside you. I love seeing you blush.”

On impulse, I reached up and kissed the smirk off of his face.

“Grace,” he said hesitantly, his smile fading a little. “You are still very young, but I-”

“You are still young and handsome, as you well know,” I countered.

“I don’t feel it. It seems like a miracle that I should have a second chance at love,” he said. “Grace, is it too early for me to ask you to be my lover, wife, mother to Celeste and mistress of my house? I offer it all to you.”

“It’s not too early. In fact, we are doing this out of order. I am already your wife, but this sounds like a proposal.”

Hope bowed slightly, and then tucked a piece of loose hair behind his ear. I could see a faint blush on his cheeks.

“Well, I suppose it is a proposal of sorts.”

“Then I accept it with all my heart.”

Hope leaned down to kiss my hand. Then he offered me his arm, and we started to walk once again.

“We will return to Rowan Heights very soon- I promise.”

“Within the week?” I asked, anxious to remove Hope from Father Pius’s influence.

“I think that can be arranged,” Hope said. “We should be united in all of our decisions from now on.”

“I agree. We should work together, as well. We share a common goal with regards to the High Priest’s seal; I wish to posthumously free my mother, and we both wish to save Celeste.”

“We will soon have the power to break the seal,” Hope said.

“How can you be so confident? Just yesterday you told me that only the power of a God could break it.”

“Remember- I consider hubris to be a virtue,” Hope said with a laugh. “We’ll gain unimaginable power sooner than you think. In the meantime, I only need to ensure Celeste’s safety.”

“Of course. How happy we will be together!” I squeezed Hope’s hand, and then a thought struck me.

“Hope- I know this isn’t really my business, but-”

“It is your business. What is your question?”

“Celeste won’t know me as her mother, just as she doesn’t know you as her father. Why haven’t you acknowledged her as your heir?”

Hope frowned. “I thought my motives were obvious. Celeste is my daughter, and I have provided for her security no matter what happens. However, in the unlikely event I fail to lift my family’s curse, I don’t want her to end up in a position where she must either produce an heir or serve the church. Even though she is a girl, if I failed to produce sons the burden might fall to her. When the curse is lifted, I will acknowledge her openly.”

“So you have provided for her freedom as well as her financial security. I think I love you all the more for it.”

We walked a little further, until the silence was broken by the sound of footsteps on the gravel path. I turned to see Lady Innocence, dressed in traveling clothes and carrying a valise, walking down the path from the pavilions.

“Lady Dupuy!” Hope said.

Lady Innocence ignored Hope and, violating court protocol, walked straight to me and threw her arms around my neck.

“Thank you for everything,” she said. “The Prince agreed to forgive Purity this morning.”

My face grew a little warm as I remembered that I had promised to speak to the Prince on her behalf.

“If the Prince has forgiven her, then why are you leaving?” I asked.

“I-” Lady Innocence took a deep breath and looked down at her hands. “It is difficult to explain, and you may think that I’m just imagining things, but the Prince seems altered.”

“In what way?” Hope demanded.

Lady Innocence shot Hope a glare, and then took my arm and pulled me a little ways aside.

“There have been rumors regarding the Prince’s mental state ever since he hit his head in a hunting accident. At that time, everyone thought he was weak, and would try to reconcile with Sancti for his mother’s protection.”

“That would have been around the time you received your father’s letter,” Hope said to me. He had followed us closely, and was listening to Lady Innocence’s story, but she continued to ignore him.

“Well, the Prince recovered, your father regained his favor, the two of them continued to pursue their ambition to rule Aeterna. I thought the Prince was completely well, but this morning I spoke to him and everything was different.”

“How so?”

Lady Innocence’s eyes grew watery, but she blinked rapidly, sniffed, and regained her composure. “He is quiet now, only speaking when spoken to. He doesn’t smile or laugh at all. His answers are all rational -I don’t believe he’s mad- but I worry he’s lost the will to fight for his kingdom.”

A tear broke loose and fell down Lady Innocence’s cheek, and she hastily scrubbed it away with her sleeve.

“I dare not stay to see if he will recover again. My house and estate are within Sancti’s borders. I came to St. Blanc to support the Prince’s cause, and to help rebuild the great kingdom of Aeterna. Aeterna was magnificent in the stories- the nation built on the ruins of the Ancient War- so I thought it should be sovereign. Because I did support the Prince, I can’t go home, and if Aeterna falls, I will die.”

“Oh- Lady Dupuy-”

“Call me Innocence. My title doesn’t mean anything, anymore. I’m going to del Sol to seek refuge and to be with Purity.”

Lady Innocence sighed and looked around the grounds. “I will miss St. Blanc- the splendor, the parties, everything. I’m sorry I misjudged you, Lady Frey, and I’m sorry we weren’t friends longer. Take care of yourself, and flee if you can. I fear the worst.”

Hope and I watched as Lady Innocence walked away. She made a lonely figure on the splendid garden path.

“What did you do to earn Lady Innocence’s confidence?” he asked.

“I can’t say I earned it- I did nothing to help her in any material way. She’s lost everything.”

“You feel sorry for her,” Hope observed. “Remember- she chose to support a repressive regime.”

“You love Lady Innocence as little as she loves you.”

“She certainly gave me the cold shoulder today,” Hope said with a chuckle.

“You deserved no less,” I said. “The way you used her friend, Lady Purity, was despicable. You casually took advantage of a girl, deprived her of her free will, and allowed her to be cast aside while you suffered no consequences.”

“I thought you had forgiven me,” Hope said softly.

“I forgave you, but if Lady Innocence hasn’t, I understand why. I love you, Hope, but I swore to myself that I wouldn’t let my love blind me. If you are at fault for something, I will be honest.”

Hope wound his arms around my waist. “Then I will depend on your wisdom and honesty. Help me become a better man.”

“I will if you promise to do the same for me,” I said. “Heartlessness is my only virtue.”

 

 

#

 

 

My journey to the salon with Hope was in vain. The Prince never ventured from his chamber, and the courtiers spoke of nothing but their anticipation of that night’s ballet.

Prince Hadrian was a famous patron of the ballet, and there was a royal theatre on the palace grounds where he enjoyed hosting the best dancers in all of Aeterna. The first ballet of the season promised to be a magnificent performance, and that evening every member of the court was in attendance.

Hope and I had a small box, which we shared with Lord and Lady Willoughby. From our box, we could see the Prince’s box and the stage equally well, and the Prince’s box was wide-set and curtained almost as though it was a stage in its own right. We arrived in the theatre before the Prince- just as dissonant, hypnotic sounds began to drift up from the orchestra pit. The courtiers chattered in low murmurs, their voices muted by the profusion of plush red velvet on the seats, aisles, and curtains.

Both the murmurs and musicians grew silent at once, and the lights dimmed slightly. A spotlight was turned toward the Prince’s gold-leaf box. He had arrived with Lady Fairfax on his right and Lord Taris on his left. My father, as expected, was nowhere to be seen.

All of the courtiers stood, and turned toward the Prince’s glittering box seat in anticipation.

The Prince looked out at the crowd for a moment, and then sat down without a word.

Lady Willoughby giggled as we sat down. “What is wrong, Prince?” she whispered. “No hour-long speech on the superiority of ballet as an art form? No tedious explanation of the ballet’s plot?”

“The Prince seems to have lost his tongue,” Hope said through gritted teeth.

Lord Willoughby only shrugged his shoulders, and then turned to wink at his wife, who laughed in response.

“Your husband is worried over nothing,” Lady Willoughby said to me. “This Prince will serve very well, I think. By the way- my husband wishes to compliment you. You look stunning this evening, and I must say I agree with him.”

“Thank you,” I said.

Lady Willoughby leaned in and whispered in my ear. “You look happy, Lady Frey. And despite his anxiety, I know that Lord Frey is in heaven, now.”

“I am, too. Despite everything, my heart has found peace,” I said.

“I’m so happy for you,” she said, and she gave me an airy kiss on the cheek.

Soon the orchestra swelled and the curtain rose, revealing a stage draped in blue and white gossamer that looked like clouds. Three dancers with glittering wings attached to their backs glided onto the stage.

The music swelled again, the glittered angels danced, and I was in another world far away from court politics and intrigue. In this world, angels and fairies engaged in an almost merry war over the soul of a young girl, enticing her in turn with riches, status, and the hearts of handsome knights.

While the angels danced, Hope took my hand, and the replication of heaven was complete.

Sometimes, when there was a lull in the music, I would look up to the Prince’s box. He sat very still as the ballet unfolded before his unblinking eyes. When the music ended, and the dancers took their final bows, the Prince did not applaud. He only stood, turned, and left.

Part XXXVII

The Coven, Part XXXVI

My senses were oddly acute as I filled the washbasin- the sound of water splashing against porcelain was crisp and sharp in my ears, and the afternoon light glinting off of the water was almost blinding.

I washed my face as Hope had instructed, removing every last bit of makeup until I could see my bare face. My skin seemed much more coarse and brown than I remembered it looking. My lips were pale and chapped.

When I was done washing, I brushed all of the curl and powder out of my hair until it hung dark and heavy to my waist. Then I took off my gown and pannier and put on my plain traveling skirt and light crinolines.

When I was done I sat on the edge of the bed, waiting for Hope.  The clock ticked on the mantle, reverberating off the cold, polished marble, floors and echoing through the massive room.

I shivered.

Soon there came a gentle knocking on the door, and before I could respond, Hope opened it and entered.

“My brother is detained, but he will be here soon. Are you feeling any better?”

I stood and went to Hope.

“Is it done?”

“Yes, it is.”

“Then let’s go home. You’ve accomplished what you intended.”

“I’m sorry, but we can’t- not yet. The Prince’s mind is delicate, and I was so angry that I might have been too-”

He stopped talking as I fell to my knees. A strangled sob escaped my throat.

“Grace- I’m sorry.” Hope knelt beside me and gripped my shoulders. “We only need to stay until I’m sure his mind is stable. Then we can leave him to Father Pius.”

I groaned a little through my tears. In my anger, I had forgotten that Father Pius was likely the author of Hope’s plot. Father Pius was now perfectly poised to seize power, and he was dangerous.

But, a dark voice whispered within me, the Prince was dangerous when he held power. Why worry that you’ve exchanged one dangerous man for another, as long as you have your revenge?

“How does it feel?” I whispered through my tears.

“What do you mean?” Hope said, taking his handkerchief from his sleeve and passing it to me.

I took the handkerchief and wiped the tears from my face. “You once called me heartless- do you remember? It turns out that I’m not only heartless, but soulless.”

“Grace-”

“You must experience things differently than I do. You must feel things more deeply. You have a soul.”

“I have a damned soul,” Hope said. “And really, Grace, you aren’t heartless. I was being an ass when I said that.”

I sniffed, and then looked up into his earnest face.

“Well, yes. You were being an ass.”

I laughed a little, and then I laughed more, feeling as though I couldn’t stop even though the tears still flowed. Eventually even Hope chuckled, and he took me into his arms where I could feel the laughter rumbling deep within his chest.

“Hope,” I said when the laughter and sobs had subsided. “When the others try to use magic on me, I feel nothing. When you or Father Pius try, it almost hurts. How does magic feel to you?”

He held still for a moment, and all I could hear was his deep, steady breathing. Then he said, “Magic is hard to describe. It’s intoxicating, like being in a beautiful dream. Have you ever dreamt that you are flying?”

“Yes.”

“That is the closest thing I know to the feeling of magic. Magic is as close to heaven as I will ever get.”

“I gave up on heaven,” I said. “I had come to terms with hell, I think, but now-”

“Now you are free,” Hope said. “If it’s really true that you’re soulless, then you aren’t bound by the Gods’ laws. You have no heaven to look forward to, but you have no hell to fear. You can’t be cursed, and you can’t be bound by magic.”

“I’m not human, though. I’m a monster.”

“I’m a witch, Grace. I’m hardly in a position to judge you. Even so, you have never seemed monstrous to me, and I’m willing to bet your mother was very much like you, since you don’t resemble your father.”

I pulled away from Hope and stood, going to the bureau where I’d placed my mother’s papers.

“I never knew anything about her, but now, at least, I have her name- Harmony. My father said he’d married her, but she was still enslaved. The marriage, I suppose, could not free her.”

“I expect not,” Hope said, standing. “Her contract was binding.”

“In your research, have you found anything that can break the High Priest’s seal?”

“I’ve only heard of one thing that can break it,” Hope said, “and that is the power of a God.”

Just then there was another knock on the door, and Hope went to answer it as I hastily put away the paper.

Brother Lux, still dressed in his red inquisitor’s mantle, strode into the room.

“Good afternoon, Lady Frey. My brother tells me that you are unwell,” he said.

“I’m feeling a little better. I was just a bit… unsettled after an unpleasant encounter with my father.”

Brother Lux took me gently by the hand and led me to the bed. I allowed him to examine me as he felt my forehead and then placed his fingers on my wrist.

“I hope you didn’t quarrel with your father,” Brother Lux said. He took out a watch and read it as he felt my pulse.

“I suppose I did.”

“Lord Ainsworth is leaving court,” Hope said pointedly. “Before he left, he felt the need to torment his daughter one last time.”

“Did your father strike you?” Brother Lux said softly.

“No.”

Brother Lux lifted my arm a little, and pointed out a fresh bruise on my inner forearm.

“That is from something else. I fell this morning.” I drew my arm back and pulled down my sleeve.

Brother Lux looked back at Hope, who shook his head in bewilderment.

“You must be more careful,” Brother Lux said, turning back to me, “though I suppose this is nothing serious. Your pulse is slightly elevated, and you are a little feverish, so I advise that you go to bed early. I will give you some cooling herbs to take with a glass of watered-down wine. No hot drinks or food until your fever is down.”

Brother Lux procured the herbs and put them into a goblet, along with some wine. I forced the concoction down and then got into bed. Even so, I found I could not rest.  Awful possibilities were racing to the front of my mind.

When Brother Lux had gone, Hope came to me and pressed his hand against my cheek. “You feel very warm. Can I get you some water?”

“I don’t need water; I just need to think.” I sat up and stared down at the silk comforter. “Lately, I’ve seen a thousand ways in which I’ve been a fool. I can’t allow myself any more mistakes.”

“I can’t think of a single instance where you’ve been a fool,” Hope said. “Don’t work yourself into a fever. Rest.”

“I will rest once I’ve thought this through,” I insisted.

“Very well,” Hope said. He sat on the bed next to me. “I will listen, if you need a friendly ear.”

I hesitated, and then spoke. “I’m afraid I might actually be a monster from the ancient stories. I hate the Prince, and now that I’ve overcome my fear of him, I hate my father. I want them to suffer for what they’ve done to my mother, and for what they’ve done to me.”

“Hate is a human emotion,” Hope said gently. “I hated the High Priest for signing Prudence’s writ of execution. I hate the church for persecuting my family. I hate the Gods with all of my heart, and I’ve sought vengeance.”

I twisted the sheets between my hands. “I don’t just hate. My judgement-” I stopped. How could I explain my error to someone who trusted the man I feared?

“Hope,” I began again, “there is no doubt that the Prince and the former High Priest have wronged many- not just you and me. I know that you and your friends mean to right their wrongs. What do you plan to do once your power is secure?”

“You already know that we wish to avoid war, so it is best to re-unite the kingdoms of Sancti and Aeterna. Once we’ve done so, the Queen will declare herself Empress and free the Aeternan slaves as she did with the slaves in Sancti. Without the threat of war, taxes should go down, easing the burden on the poor.”

“Yes- the slaves must be freed. Is this all?”

“It’s a start. Our reforms will have to be put into place slowly. As much as I would love to dissolve the church overnight, the people still believe, and they will resist any sudden changes.”

I nodded. “Is Father Pius High Priest of your coven?”

“Yes- he is.”

“Does Father Pius agree with you on all of these matters? Does he have any separate goal or agenda aside from the peace and liberation you advocate?”

“He’s never given me any indication that he has another agenda.”

I wanted to scream, but I found that I didn’t have the energy.

“Why do you ask?”

I twisted the sheet so hard that my knuckles turned white. The enemy of evil is not always good.

“I’ve been a fool in a thousand ways,” was all I said.

“You are innocent,” Hope said. He reached out and untangled the sheets from my hands. “Please, Grace- you need to stop. Go to sleep.”

“One more thing,” I  said. “Now that the Prince is under your control, what is your next move?”

“I don’t know, Grace- honestly I don’t- but if you trust me at all, trust me when I say we did the right thing.”

There are more than two paths, and often the right choice is the one most hidden.

Why had the wisdom from my books fled me when I needed it the most? Why was it coming back to me now?

“Lie down, Grace. If you will allow me, I will hypnotize you.”

“But you can’t-”

“Not with magic, but I know many techniques of the mind. I’ve tried to use them on you ever since the day we first met, when I sensed your resistance to my magic. I’ve learned that these techniques will only work if you don’t fight me.”

I reached out to grab the sheets again, but he took my hand.

“You’ve given me peace every night since we’ve arrived at St. Blanc. Allow me to give you peace tonight.”

I looked up into Hope’s face, and almost burst into tears again when I saw the pain in his eyes.

“I won’t fight you,” I promised.

The Coven- Somnium

The Coven, Part XXXV

We found Hope standing near the sparkling bay windows, speaking with Lord Willoughby and two other gentlemen. Lord Willoughby nudged Hope, who turned to see me approaching on the Prince’s arm. Hope’s eyes went wide when he saw me, and he he looked like was about to drop his glass of claret wine before he composed himself.

Hope handed off his glass and bowed low. “Your Highness.”

“Lord Frey, I am eager to speak with you and your charming wife. Please, follow Lord Ainsworth to my sanctuary.”

The Prince handed me back to Hope and motioned to my father to follow before leading the way to his throne chamber.

 

#

 

The Prince’s chamber was empty when we arrived. There were no courtiers or attendants present, and when my father closed the doors the sound thundered through the enormous room.

The Prince sat on his throne slowly, as though performing for a room full of courtiers, and then beckoned us forward. We approached and kissed the hem of his robe before standing once more.

“I was troubled to learn that the rumors about your happy event were false,” said the Prince, “but I am not angry. You are still very young, and you have time to fulfill your duty.”

“Thank you, your majesty,” Hope said with a bow. Then he turned and cast a calculating glance at my father.

“Yes, you are young,” my father said, “but it has occurred to us that you don’t understand what a valuable gift the Prince and I have given you.”

“If you are referring to my wife, let me assure you that I have the highest regard-”

The Prince laughed an undignified laugh- almost a giggle- cutting off Hope’s words.

“Your Highness?”

“My dear Lord Frey, your wife is not merely pretty and accomplished. She is a true rarity. She is one of the last of her kind.” The Prince looked back at me with glittering eyes.

“You are too high in your praise,” I said with another curtsey. “I am only-”

“You have no idea what you are,” my father interrupted. “Lord Frey, I have given you my only daughter, whose mother was a full-blooded ancient.”

Father-” I could not keep my indignance from my voice, “the ancients were destroyed centuries ago.”

“You only know what you have read in books- published books that were approved for public consumption.” My father took a packet of folded paper from his coat pocket and handed it to Hope. “These are her mother’s papers.”

“We have bred the surviving ancients for centuries. They are extremely useful as spies and assassins, because they are impervious to both holy and demonic magic. Generally speaking, they are intelligent enough to carry out very complex orders,” the Prince said.

…impervious to both holy and demonic magic. The Prince’s words rung in my ears and filled my head with a strange buzzing. I took the paper from Hope and read it.

“My mother was a slave.” I whispered, but I might as well have shouted in the empty chamber.

“I married her, of course,” my father said. “The High Priest granted special permission. After all, we could not present Lord Frey with a common wife.”

Father’s  words sounded muffled, as though he spoke from miles away. I focused my mind, and re-read the paper.

Concerning ownership of the slave named Harmony, born in the third month of the year 837, now 22 years of age:

High Priest Sauris does certify the slave Harmony to be a full-blooded ancient, being the offspring of Sorrow and Benevolence, who are both certified ancients with bloodlines that go back to the Great War.

With the approval of His Royal Highness Prince Hadrian, and High Priest Sauris, and for the sum of 10,000 gold pieces, Harmony is now the property of Lord Valor Ainsworth.

 

The paper was pure white, and the ink looked fresh. I looked at the bottom of the page and saw the High Priest’s seal, identical to the seal on the Frey family’s writ of condemnation.

“You planned to give her to me from the beginning?” Hope was saying. “But- why?”

“Think of your family’s past, and the condemnation that- stupid girl!” My father stopped and snatched the paper from my hands. “Don’t tear it.”

I let the paper slip through my fingers after my failed attempt. “It can’t be torn. The seal is perfect- binding…”

“Just so,” the Prince agreed. “That document is genuine.”

I looked up and forced the words from my throat. “But the ancients were a beastly race. They were soulless.”

“That is why the ancients are impervious to magic,” the Prince said. He looked up at Hope and smiled.

“Of course, Grace was a bit of an experiment,” my father said. “We weren’t certain whether or not a half-ancient would have a soul, so when Grace was a small child we sent her to the abbess of del Sol, who is adept at holy magic, to test her.”

A flash of gold hair, kindly blue eyes, and a maternal embrace filled my mind all at once.

“Abbess Joy,” I whispered.

My father raised his eyebrows. “You remember?”

I closed my eyes. Her face was clearer, now. The old memories of the gold-haired woman coalesced with the face of the woman I’d met at the oculist guild meeting. I could even hear her gentle voice.

“She would sing to me and read me stories,” I said. “She was very kind.”

“The abbess was not just reading stories; she was casting powerful holy spells. You were impervious to every one,” the Prince said.

“So you understand, Lord Frey, that not only is your wife soulless, but her children will be, as well,” My father added.

“They could not be condemned to hell,” Hope said slowly. “If we have children, they will be free from my family’s curse.”

“Exactly.”

“This is a generous gift,” Hope said, “but why honor me so? I have shown little repentance in my life.”

“Lord Frey, I wish to be King of Aeterna. Aeterna was the nation where the ancient war was fought- the nation where the Gods blessed mankind. It is not right it should be ruled by Sancti- by a heretic Queen,” the Prince said. “To truly establish my right to rule, I need the backing of all the noble families. I need the Frey family to reconcile with the true church.”

“This is why we named her Grace,” my father said. “She is your redemption.”

Hope touched my cheek gently, gazing at me for a moment with his wide, dark eyes as though seeing me for the first time. Then a strange light flashed in his eyes, and he turned back to the Prince.

“You could not have chosen a better gift to solidify my loyalties. Henceforth, I will give you and the church all of the reverence you are due.”

The Prince laughed once more and flung out his arms. “Excellent! Come, my boy, and let me embrace you.”

Hope stepped forward and allowed the Prince to entangle him in his thin, spidery arms. Then he stooped and kissed the hem of the Prince’s robe again with all the grace and dignity of a courtier in his bearing.

“Now- I am fatigued.” The Prince said, leaning back on this throne. “Lord Ainsworth, show the lovely couple out through the back door. I wish to rest, and I don’t want to hear the noise of the salon.”

“Yes, your Highness,” my father replied. He bowed so low that his wig almost fell off, and then he turned and led us through the back door and into a narrow hall.

 

#

 

Hope closed the door gently behind us, and then spun and grabbed my father by the throat, pushing him up against the dark-paneled wall. Hope’s eyes flashed in anger, shining with an unnatural red light.

“Hope!” I tried to cry out, but my voice came out as a whisper. My hands trembled as I clutched at his arm.

Hope looked at me a moment, and then leaned close to my father’s purple face.

“I would kill you right now with my bare hands,” he growled, “if it were not for the respect I have for my wife. Grace, do you wish your father dead? He deserves it.”

“No!”

“You see? She isn’t the vengeful type.” Hope loosened his grip a little, and my father took a ragged breath. “You may live today.”

“How dare you- ungrateful- you won’t get away with this,” my father wheezed.

Hope’s red lips stretched into a sadistic grin, and he stared into my father’s bulging eyes.

“Of course I will.”

My father’s face contorted in horror, and then went slack. His eyes relaxed and went blank.

“You will forget everything that has happened today. You will give up your political ambitions, abandon your place at court, and return to Willowbrook. There, you will live out the rest of your days in seclusion.”

Hope turned to me. “Will that suffice?”

I almost said yes, but the words stuck in my throat.

“The papers-” I whispered.

“Of course.” Hope turned back to my father. “You will give Grace her mother’s papers before you go. When I snap my fingers, that is my command.”

Hope released my father- whose breathing was now remarkably steady- and snapped his fingers.

My father turned to me,  took the papers from his pocket, and handed them to me in a jerky, mechanical rhythm, as though he were an automaton. Then he spun away from me and left.

When my father had gone, Hope turned to me.

“Grace?” he said, touching my cheek. “You are flushed, but your skin is like ice.”

“Is it?”

“Your hands are cold, too. I think you may be going into shock. Come- I will take you to our rooms.”

He was gently massaging my hands, but I snatched them away. I felt as though a shard of ice had pierced my heart. I clutched my mother’s papers to my chest, as though they would warm it again.

“Hope- now is your chance. The Prince is unguarded.”

“To hell with the Prince. To hell with intrigue and deceit and vengeance. You need me, now.”

At these kind words, the ice in my heart seemed to stab deeper, bringing with it a sharp pain. I stood taller and raised my voice a little.

“I want you to do it. Take the Prince’s mind from him. Take his kingdom.”

Hope reached out and pulled me into a fierce embrace.

“I suppose I am the vengeful type,” I said.

“I won’t be long. Can you make it to our rooms alone?”

“Yes.”

“Then go. I will fetch my brother when I am done so that he can confirm you are well. In the meantime, wash your face and lie down.”

“I will,” I promised.

I stood in the hallway long enough to watch Hope go back into the Prince’s chambers, and then I turned to go.

Part XXXVI

The Coven, Part XXXIV

“Where do you go each morning?” Hope chided as we squeezed our way through the crowds at the cathedral. “If you had been dressed sooner, we’d already be in our pew.”

You are the one who is usually tardy for church,” I muttered, but I knew that Hope could not hear me through the din. The crowd seemed even thicker than the crowds at the coronation had been, and we had to force our way through a sea of people to reach our pew near the front.

A tiny note of song, just above my hearing, caught my attention. It hovered in the air above me like the sunlight that danced on motes of dust through the stained glass.

As I drew near the front of the cathedral, the song grew clearer. It seemed to beckon me toward the altar, away from the chaos of the crowd. When we finally reached our pew, the song filled the air all around me.

Brother Lux, dressed in his usual plain, brown robes, was singing the song solo from the second row of the chorus. His song slowed and faded a little, and then the chorus joined in, swelling to a crescendo and raising its voice as one.

The song came to a close, and Father Pius came to the altar dressed in his plain white robes. He motioned for the chorus to be seated.

“I will speak to you plainly,” Father Pius said to the congregation, “without the chorus to drown out my words.

“Lately, there has been too much confusion clouding the order of the universe. Many of  you have whispered questions in your prayers- why did our High Priest abandon us? How can we avoid sin amongst the decadence of our age? Will there be war? I take up the mantle of High Priest in troubled times.

“Your confusion stems from a failure in the clergy. You look to us for spiritual guidance, and yet there is a streak of corruption that has tainted the true church. As your High Priest, I vow to discover the root of this corruption and restore order.”

Father Pius turned and gestured toward the chorus. Brother Lux handed his litany to the monk beside him and descended the risers to stand beside Father Pius on the altar.

“Brother Lux, you have served me faithfully for many years, and I have need of your service once more. Will you accept the position of Grand Inquisitor for the church?”

There was a murmur of voices from the congregation- a mere monk made Grand Inquisitor?

“I humbly accept,” Brother Lux said, bowing low before his High Priest.

At these words, a priest stood and approached with a folded red mantle, which he handed to Father Pius. Father Pius accepted the mantle with a smile, unfolded it, and draped it over Brother Lux’s shoulders.

Brother Lux bowed once more, and then he and Father Pius turned to face the congregation side by side, white and crimson in the morning light.

 

#

 

“You’re pious, and such a good wife,” Lady Innocence simpered. “But even you must admit that the new High Priest is handsome.”

Lady Innocence  had attached herself to my side as soon as I’d entered the salon, plaguing me with questions that seemed designed to provoke. Her latest question, I was amused to observe, had misfired, and Lady Fairfax turned to Lady Innocence with a disapproving glare.

“For shame! Why- that’s almost sacrilege,” Lady Fairfax said.

“It doesn’t seem sacrilegious to admire beauty,” Lady Innocence countered, “as long as you only admire. What is your opinion, Lady Frey?”

“I am hardly qualified to answer,” I said.

“You must have some opinion,” Lady Innocence said with a catlike grin. “After all, you are well-read.”

“It’s because I’m well-read that I cannot answer. Much has been written on the nature of beauty, the sacred and the profane. Each argument is compelling yet flawed in its own way. You must consult your own heart to see where your admiration falls.”

“Lady Frey, I have such a difficult time getting any help from you,” Lady Innocence said.

She curtsied and turned her back to me, moving swiftly away to the back corner of the salon. I sighed and curtsied to Lady Fairfax, determined not to give up on Lady Innocence.

I followed Lady Innocence through the crowd to find the she’d stopped near Miss Taris and Lord Taris. They were speaking to a young man in a red cavalier’s coat, whose hair was tied back in the dragoon style. The young man was nodding politely at Lord Taris’s words, but his eyes never strayed from Miss Taris’s face.

I drew nearer to hear the man say, “give me your hand, Miss Taris. I long to feel your touch for just a moment. I cannot wait for our wedding day.”

Miss Taris shrank back, but her father turned to her and fixed her with a steely gaze. She faltered, and then put out her hand.

The cavalier bowed and kissed her hand, his lithe form moving as though he performed a dance.

“I have something my daughter made for you as a gift,” Lord Taris said, turning back to the cavalier. “She was too shy to give it to you herself.”

Lord Taris drew a delicately embroidered lace handkerchief from his coat pocket. Miss Taris snatched her hand back from the cavalier with an expression of shock on her face.

“Oh, how pretty,” Lady Innocence said, drawing closer. “Miss Taris, I did not know you were so accomplished.”

Miss Taris only shook her head, her eyes brimming with tears.

I stepped forward and took Miss Taris’s arm. “Miss Taris, I do believe you are overcome with joy. Please excuse us, Lord Taris. Lady Dupuy and I wish to congratulate our friend.”

Lady Innocence cast me an odd look, but she took Miss Taris’s other arm and helped me to escort her from the salon.

 

#

 

When we were safely away from the crowd, Miss Taris broke down and sobbed.

“It isn’t his,” she wept. “How could he…”

I knelt down beside her and handed her my handkerchief. “Please, Miss Taris, try to compose yourself.”

Lady Innocence knelt down at Miss Taris’s other side. “What is the matter?”

Miss Taris removed her spectacles and wiped her watery blue eyes. “I didn’t make the handkerchief for Sir Montag. I made it for Lady Willoughby, to thank her for her kindness.”

“Is that all? Lady Willoughby will not mind,” Lady Innocence said.

“Miss Taris,” I said gently, “don’t pay attention to your father’s tricks. You have a voice- use it. Tell Sir Montag how you feel.”

“Sir Montag doesn’t care how I feel. He only plays at love,” Miss Taris said.

“All the more reason you should reject him,” Lady Innocence said with a sniff. “Or, if you like, I will tell him that you don’t like him.”

“Please don’t. I dread what my father will do.”

“If you’re afraid of your father, then I will speak to Lady Fairfax on your behalf. She has the rank and power to keep him in check.”

Miss Taris shook her head. “Lady Fairfax is one of my father’s creditors, so she won’t help. The only way Father will be able to clear his debts is if I marry someone wealthy. Sir Montag has all the money one could want, and if he marries me, he will inherit a title and gain power at court to go with it. Everyone will be happy.”

“Everyone except for you,” I said.

“Lady Frey-”

“Call me Grace; we are all friends here.”

“Grace,” she said slowly, “did you love Lord Frey when you married him?”

“Not at all. We hardly knew each other,” I said.

“Then why did you marry him?”

“I never wished for love, like you do,” I said. “Love was something alien to me. Besides, it wasn’t until after I married that I learned I had my own will, and that my own happiness mattered.”

“So you married Lord Frey because your father commanded it.”

“Both my father and the Prince commanded it, which made it more difficult for me to disobey. But not everyone who obeys ends up as fortunate as I. Only you can decide-”

“I’m not allowed to decide. Anyway- your husband loves you, and that makes all the difference. You are pretty, accomplished, confident- you don’t have to suffer the contempt of your husband.”

“Miss Taris, how little you know of my situation,” I said. “You are every bit as pretty and accomplished as me- more so! If only you would believe that you are.”

“Oh yes- skinny and awkward and bespectacled- I’m a sorry sight at court.”

I took Miss Taris’s spectacles from her hands and put them on. The world became a watery blur around me, but I managed to find the blur shaped like Lady Innocence.

“Lady Dupuy, you have been dying state your real opinion of me, and now you may do so without any social consequences. Compare us- me and Miss Taris- as honestly as you like.”

I took Miss Taris’s arm and helped her to stand.

Lady Innocence hesitated, and then said, “I must say, you look ridiculous in those spectacles.”

“Do I? Before I came to court, I wore spectacles every day.”

Lady Innocence stifled a giggle, which then exploded into an outright laugh. “ Why? I’ve seen you read without them.”

“I like the way they look.”

Lady Innocence continued to laugh. After a time she stopped,  finally wiping the tears from her eyes and standing back to view me critically.

“Well, you are both tall, but Miss Taris is taller, and her figure is-” Lady innocence stepped forward to adjust Miss Taris’s gown, drawing in the waist more tightly.  “Miss Taris, your figure is very elegant.”

Miss Taris began to object. “But Lady Frey-”

“You don’t have all of that fat pinched in by your stays,” Lady Innocence said, and then slapped her hand over her mouth in horror.

I only smiled and nodded. “Please continue.”

“You aren’t fat, Lady Frey. You’re just more… sturdy than Miss Taris. You have pretty hair and fine, dark eyes, but your cheeks are too wide. Miss Taris has a perfect oval face, lovely blue eyes, and a flawless complexion.”

Lady Innocence continued to play with Miss Taris’s skirt, pinning it into place with one or two pins from her own elaborate pompadour. Then Lady Innocence stood back and looked at Miss Taris.

“Very pretty,” she breathed. “With my help, you would be the most sought-after woman in court.”

Miss Taris looked down for a moment, and then she unpinned her dress and took back her glasses.

“If that is true, I would rather stay as I am.”

 

#

 

After seeing Miss Taris back to her room, Lady Innocence and I returned to the salon.

“Will you speak to Lady Fairfax on Miss Taris’s behalf?” I asked.

“Certainly.”

“Thank you. I need to petition my father’s help on behalf of another Lady we know.”

“Oh- Lady Frey, will you really?”

“I can’t make any promises with regard to his answer, but I will try,” I said.

Lady Innocence stopped and squeezed my hand. “Thank you. Look- there is your father, near the Prince. Dare you approach?”

“I dare; I am not afraid. And thank you for your earlier honesty. It is a rare thing, here.”

“It can be, but sometimes you can find true friendship among the nobility,” Lady Innocence said, a gentle smile painting her rosy lips.

I curtsied, and then turned to approach my father.

Ignoring court protocol, I walked across the salon and up to my father, who was speaking to the Prince himself. I curtsied deeply, and spoke.

“Father, I apologize for being so bold. I feel obliged to apologize for our recent misunderstanding. May we speak in private?”

My father stopped speaking and stared at me with a stunned expression. Then he smiled thinly, exchanging glances with the Prince.

The Prince stepped forward, and I curtsied even deeper. He took my hand, bringing me back to my feet.

“How pleased I am to see you,” he said. “I’ve not yet thanked you for our dance.”

“The pleasure was all mine, your Highness,” I said.

The Prince linked my arm in his. “Walk with me, my dear, and we will find your husband. I wish to speak to both of you.”

 

Part XXXV

The Coven, Part XXXIII

There was no time to sleep after the ball, so I dressed and went straight to the grove behind Mercy’s training field to clear my head. As I moved sluggishly through my first martial form, the sunlight that had leaked into my heart still glowed just a little, like the sky before dawn.

I threw three punches into the air in front of me, and then drew a deep breath. “You’re falling in love with him, you fool,” I thought.

The wall I had built to protect my heart had also shielded my mind from certain truths. I’d been afraid to examine Hope’s character too closely, but I’d seen no need to because he was nothing to me.

Now I was forced to remember the day we’d met, when Hope had hypnotized the High Priest and had taken a scroll from him. I remembered the tears of relief Hope had shed when the High Priest committed suicide. Soon afterward, Hope had handed a scroll very like the one he’d taken from the High Priest to Brother Lux.

Hope had confessed to committing foul acts in the service to his demons. It was very likely Hope had murdered the High Priest.

 And yet, I could not believe that Hope was evil. Every evil act he committed was in the service of others. He was willing to sacrifice himself to save his daughter. He had even put aside his own goals to protect me from my father.

“If I fall in love with him, I will not let that blind me,” I vowed. “I will acknowledge the good and evil inside him.”

I’d been a fool in many other ways. My fear and distaste for court intrigue had made me avoid the games around me. If I’d been less blind, I might have some idea who had started the rumors of my pregnancy. It may have been a jealous courtier, like Lady Innocence, or one of her hundred friends whose names I hardly knew.

I thought of Lady Willoughby, who not only knew of the Prince’s eagerness for a Frey heir, but who had been trying to get Hope an audience with the Prince. The kind concern she had shown for me before the ball made her seem a less likely suspect, yet she was clever, talented at intrigue, and able to shroud her inability to lie in half-truths.

I moved with greater speed, trying to match Mercy as she performed her form in the open field.

Worst of all, I had avoided thinking about Monsignor Pius’s power, except to react in fear. He had made it clear to me that he was a threat, and that even though he couldn’t control me, he could hurt me.

I kicked to the front and then the side, trying to match Mercy’s fluidity. My crinolines, as light as they were, tangled around my knees, slowing my movement.

I took a deep breath and re-focused. I couldn’t fight Monsignor Pius now, and without knowing his true intentions I didn’t know if I should fight him. However, there were things I should do quickly. I needed to turn Lady Innocence from enemy to ally, and reconsider whether there was anything I could do to help Lady Purity. I had too few friends at court. Also, I would need to find a way to keep Miss Taris from falling prey to the coven.  

Stop being a fool. Plan and act, I told myself. I focused my determination and sent a flurry of kicks and punches into the air with greater speed than I’d ever managed before.

“Very good,” Mercy called, dropping her form. “I think you are ready to move beyond the preliminary exercises.”

I froze, holding my breath.

“Lady Frey, do you really believe that you’ve been hidden from me? Even if I couldn’t see you, I would be able to hear your clumsy footwork a mile away.”

I emerged from my grove, unable to stifle the blush that burned in my cheeks.

“You will have more room out here than in that grove. Come here-” Mercy said, motioning to the center of the field.

I moved into position as directed.

“Show me your front strike stance,” Mercy said, demonstrating the stance she’d struck at the beginning of her form.

I copied her stance, and she gave me several corrections before we moved on to the next moves. We went slowly at first, and then built speed until I could no longer keep up.

“You’ll need to get this form up to speed before you learn a new one, but you’ve mastered the basics,” Mercy said. “Now, hit me.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Try to kick or punch me. We will spar until you land a hit.” Mercy dropped into a fighting stance and looked at me expectantly.

“Oh no- I couldn’t possibly!”

“Don’t worry.” Mercy tossed her dark hair behind her shoulders. “I’ll go easy on you. You should be able to hit me once before noon.”

I dropped into a fighting stance, feeling impossibly foolish.  I remembered the speed with which Mercy had fought Chastity, and the ease with which she’d sprung to her feet after suffering a series of violent blows.

“Don’t you want revenge for the time I pinned you?”

I set my lips into a determined grimace and sent a punch toward Mercy’s chest, but she sidestepped the blow easily and swept my legs. I went sprawling into the grass.

“That was pathetic. At this rate, even if I hold back, we will be here all night before you land a blow. At least you fall well.”

I rose to my feet. “Mercy, I fear you may have mistaken my intentions. I only wished to learn to defend myself. I don’t wish to strike you.”

“You cannot defend yourself if you cannot strike,” Mercy spat. “If you don’t like this, then you may go back to the palace and stuff yourself with cake until the world collapses into war.”

I slid back into my stance.

“So you do have half a brain. I was beginning to wonder.”

I struck again, and Mercy dodged again. This time, however, I didn’t quit. Mercy blocked two hits with such strength that it felt like I’d been struck, but I managed to keep my balance. Then, after growing bold enough to try a kick, Mercy countered and swept me off my feet again.

“Look how graceful you are! What an elegant lady!”

My face grew warm, and I sprang to my feet. I kicked and punched over and over, moving as quickly as I could. I moved forward, trying to approach Mercy from different angles, but she easily pivoted to counter my every move. Finally, I threw a feint with my right arm and followed with my left, and when she stepped aside to counter my fist, I kicked. She caught my leg easily, but my large toe just touched her stomach.

“Well done- that took less time than I thought,” Mercy said. “Maybe next time I will feel it.”

 

#

 

Though the early morning was very cold, I was hot from sparring and drenched with sweat. According to my watch, the cathedral bells would not chime for another hour, so I walked to the little brook on the far side of the rose garden to cool off.

When I arrived at the brook, I saw Miss Taris sitting on the low, wooden bridge and dangling her feet over the edge. She was facing away from me, staring after the brook as it wound its way toward the horizon.

“Good Morning,” I called to Miss Taris. I hiked up my skirts and waded into the brook near the bridge, stopping when the water touched my knees.

“Lady Frey!” Miss Taris said in a startled voice.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, but the stream looked so cool and inviting after my morning exercise that I could not resist. I thought there would be no harm in wading a little, since there is no one around but us.”

“I suppose not. I was just about to leave, so-”

“Please don’t let me frighten you away,” I said. I cupped some water in my hands to wash the back of my neck. “This is such a pretty morning- just look at the sunrise. Stay and keep me company.”

I looked up at Miss Taris and shivered from the cold water as it dripped down my spine. Miss Taris had one leg back up on the bridge, as though ready to flee, but she hesitated.

“Very well; I will stay a little.”

I smiled at her.  She returned my smile with a quizzical expression, but said nothing.

“Are you often up this early, or did you have trouble sleeping after the ball?” I asked.

“No- yes… not often,” she stammered. She stared down at her swinging feet.

“Oh look! Do you see the spray of water on that little waterfall by the rocks? What pretty rainbows it makes when the light hits it!”

Miss Taris looked up, and quickly looked down again. “Yes- it’s very pretty.”

“I wonder how the light and water create rainbows. It is very strange.

Miss Taris looked up and stared at me openly, as though I’d grown another head. “Why should it be strange? I’ve seen many such rainbows before.”

“As have I. Light follows natural laws. The glass in your spectacles, for example, bends light and focuses it in a way your eyes cannot. When you study the shape of the lens, it’s easy enough to understand the principle behind it. I can’t understand the rainbow at all, though. It’s a puzzle I’d very much like to solve.”

“The poet Revere said that it is folly to try to read the book of nature. Only the Gods have the wisdom to understand it,” Miss Taris said.

“Revere was a great poet,” I replied, “but he had no more knowledge of the Gods than any other mortal, including you and me.”

“Are you trying to turn me against the faith, like the others?” she said quickly.

“No. Don’t trust my words, because I have no special knowledge of the Gods, either. Use your own eyes and your own judgement.”

“I am myopic,” she said. “Everyone at St. Blanc is either a liar or a fool, and my judgement is so bad that I make myself a target.”

“You are too hard on yourself,”I said.

Miss Taris frowned and narrowed her eyes. “I cannot make you out at all. You seem different from the other courtiers.”

“I’m no different,” I said. “Everyone at court is either a liar or a fool, and I have been both.”

“If that’s true, then we’re all lost. The whole world is lost.” Miss Taris looked down at the brook again.

“If the world is lost, then myopic or not, we should try to find it.”

Part XXXIV

Disney Re-imagined

I must apologize for my lack of updates this past week, but I’ve been very busy. I went into space, was accosted by some very hands-y Jawas, took an elevator ride to the fifth dimension, took a limo ride with Aerosmith, went hang-gliding, went into space a couple more times, took a trip around the world, went on a safari, went to the Jurassic to rescue a baby iguanodon, climbed Mount Everest, went on a couple of mine trains, went into space a few more times, went into a haunted house, had dinner with nobility, and had myriad other adventures.

In other words, I very much enjoyed my trip to Disney World!

Of course, now that I’ve returned home, I’m recovering from all of the fun. After spending so much time trying not to say inappropriate things around children, I just had to share some of the alternate endings I’ve imagined for several beloved Disney classics.

Snow White, the alternate ending.  Prince Ferdinand dismounted his horse and stared, captivated, at the maiden who lay before him. He had arrived too late to save her, and yet she looked as though she only slept. She was as beautiful in death as she had been in life.

He leaned down to steal just one kiss from those lifeless lips- to capture just a taste of a love that could never be. As his lips touched hers, he realized his mistake.

 It was too late. The lingering poison was the most deadly ever concocted. Just one drop…

As Prince Ferdinand’s body hit the ground, Doc sighed. “Grab your shovels, boys. We have another grave to dig. Dig dig dig…

Sleeping Beauty, the alternate ending. “The dress should be pink!” Flora insisted, aiming her wand at the obviously happy girl who danced in the distance.

“No- the dress should be blue!” Merryweather snapped back, aiming her own wand. Fury seemed to boil her very blood. She’d put up with Flora’s bossiness for sixteen years, and now it was time for payback.

Merryweather put every ounce of her pent-up anger into the spell; this one would not be so easily undone.

The resulting explosion destroyed the entire kingdom, leaving only a sparkling, blue crater in its place.

The Little Mermaid, the alternate ending. “Eric, stay away from her,” the sea witch croaked miserably, but she knew it was too late. The spell was broken, and Ariel’s beautiful voice was swirling around her, finally settling in Ariel’s swanlike throat. The final haunting notes of Ariel’s song hung in the evening air.

What’s worse, Eric reached Ariel just before the sun dipped below the horizon, kissing her gently, tentatively, on her perfect lips.

“I knew it- it was you all along!” he said.

Bako pari mos daia. Mon bleet!” Ariel replied.

Eric stared at Ariel in shock, and Ursula laughed triumphantly. “You fool!” she cried. “Your precious princess may have her voice back, but she only speaks the language of the merfolk!”

It was true that Triton had forbidden the study of human speech, but Ariel had always been a rebel. She’d been secretly studying human speech for years, and she had a very good teacher.

Ariel took a deep breath, and tried again. “Squawk squawk SQUAAAAAAAAWK! Dinglehopper, squawk!”

Beauty and the Beast, the alternate ending. Gaston was a skilled hunter, and his blade stuck true, plunging deep into the beast’s lung. The beast let loose a roar of pain and flung Gaston off, sending Gaston hurtling into the ravine below.

Belle ran to the beast as he lay dying. She covered him with her cloak to shield him from the rain, but it was a gesture that would only serve to make his dying moments more comfortable. She reassured the beast that everything would be alright, but she could see the truth written in his eyes.

“At least I got to see you one last time,” the beast said. Then he closed his eyes, and he was no more.

Belle collapsed in despair. There had been so little time, and so many things that had gone unsaid.

“Please, don’t die,” Belle pleaded, a tear falling down her cheek. “I love you.”

With those words, a shaft of white light engulfed the beast’s body, and a great wind lifted his huge bulk into the air. His hideous visage twisted and shifted into the elegant face of a young prince.

Belle could hear cries of joy echoing from within the castle as the servants transformed into humans, but her tears continued to fall. On the roof, a beautiful prince lay in a puddle of blood and rain with a knife in his back.

Aladdin, the alternate ending. “Genie, you’re free,” Aladdin said with an affectionate grin.

“Finally!” Genie said as the shackles fell from his wrists. Being a spirit, he could not exactly feel the physical sensation, and yet it still felt as though the weight of millennia had fallen away.  

“I’m going to miss yo-”

“I mean seriously, what is wrong with you mortals? I thought I was going to get to help people when I became a genie- to relieve the suffering that comes with the mortal state. I thought that if I left the wishes up to you, I could give you the help that you really wanted, aligned with your human values.

“So why is it that most of you wish for shiny pieces of metal that you can exchange for other pieces of shiny metal? Never once has anyone said ‘I wish for you to cure cancer,” or ‘please stop war,’ or even ‘I wish everyone had enough to eat.’”

“I didn’t thi-”

“I clearly told you the very few limits on my powers when we met. Nowhere did I state I couldn’t do those things.”

Genie turned away, and with lightning speed, began to pack his bags.

“I am out of here.”