“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.”