The Tale of the Magi
In the kingdom of Excelsior there were two great mages. One was a holy mage, who lived at the top of a mountain, and one was a witch, who lived in a bog. The two mages had been fighting for a hundred years, but neither could defeat the other. The angels would smile on the holy mage when the moon was new, and he would temporarily overpower the witch, but the witch’s powers grew as the moon grew full, and he would soon gain the upper hand.
And so the two mages continued to fight, their powers waxing and waning, until one day the witch hatched a plan to defeat the holy mage once and for all-
– Julia was reunited with her lost love, and the two lived happily ever after.
I looked between the pages containing Tale of the Magi and Julia’s story and saw the jagged edge of a torn page near the book’s spine.
I cursed under my breath. A dull ache was forming behind my eyes again- a remnant of the headache I’d suffered earlier that morning. I was paying for my excess on the previous night, but there was too much that needed to be done to give myself time to rest.
I had forced myself to go to the grove early, before Hope returned from the woods. There, Mercy had laughed at my sluggishness and pushed me harder in our practice.
“This is your fault for drinking too much,” she’d said.
I shall never do so again, I vowed as I stared down at the torn page. I needed more time to examine the clues in the book, but Hope and I would return home, soon. I had no time to memorize or copy the text.
I looked around the library carefully, and then slipped the book under my voluminous skirt. Stealing from the palace was a high crime, but it was nothing compared to crimes I’d already committed.
I looked around again, and when I was satisfied I hadn’t been seen, I hurried back to my room.
“There you are.” Hope entered the room as I was putting the stolen book away with my mother’s papers. “Mercy will be up soon to pack our trunks, and I am on my way to order the carriage. We leave this afternoon.”
“Thank heavens!” I said, closing the trunk’s compartment. I’d asked Hope if I could add my things to his hidden compartment, and since there had been enough room he’d agreed. Now, in addition to his locket and letters he’d received from coven members, I’d added my treatise, my mother’s papers, and my stolen book, taking up most of the available space.
“I take it that you’re ready to leave,” Hope said in a bemused voice. I turned to see him leaning against the wall, his arms crossed and his eyes shining in amusement.
“I am ready,” I said. I went over to him and took his hand. “I will come with you to the stables, if that is alright.”
“Of course it is; I haven’t seen you all morning.”
We walked together from the palace and through the courtyard, toward the stables. The courtyard was empty save for a single courtier, who stopped abruptly and turned to walk away as soon as she saw Hope and me. I was wrapped in a shawl, but it was not nearly enough to shield me from a bitter north wind. The sky was grey, and the few dry leaves rustled and scratched at the gravel path. I leaned closer to Hope, but his added warmth did nothing to keep the wind from whipping my cheeks and stinging my nose.
“Winter has finally come,” Hope said. “Perhaps we will have snow in time for Chaosmas week.”
“Does it snow often in the hill country?”
“Sometimes it snows enough to shut us indoors for days on end. It might be more convenient to get a townhouse in Bridon City for the winter months, but the hill country during a snowstorm is unparalleled for beauty- present company excluded.”
“I am feeling generous, so I will overlook the flattery,” I teased. “I long to see snow at Rowan Heights.”
We were walking through the shrubbery, where pink and white roses nestled pristine among the dry leaves and twigs. I reached out a hand absentmindedly to brush the blossoms, and then stopped abruptly.
“Grace, are you alright?”
I gave a startled laugh. “Hope, these roses have been a puzzle to me since I arrived. I’ve watched in amazement as everything else in the gardens have faded and died, but the roses bloom as ever. I thought, at first, that they might be a unique variety of roses from the wildlands, or that a brilliant horticulturist has devised a method to protect the blossoms from the cold.”
“You’ve just solved the puzzle, haven’t you?”
“Yes, and I am a fool. I shouldn’t invent such complicated explanations before seeking simple ones. Touch the blossom.”
Hope reached out to tenderly caress the blossoms, as though afraid he would bruise it. Then he started and laughed.
“This is silk.”
“Yes- all of the roses are fake. They’ve been sprayed with perfume, I assume, which accounts for their pungent aroma.”
Hope shook his head. “Fake- just like everything else here. Oh Grace, It will be so good to go home.”
He leaned over to kiss me on the forehead, and I sighed and held him close to me for a moment. Then I leaned back, catching sight of something strange over his left shoulder.
Seven figures in red cloaks were approaching us from the palace. Brother Lux led the group, and six inquisitors in red robes fell into step behind him as though they were extensions of his mantle, sweeping the ground behind him. The inquisitor’s swords were sheathed, but their hands were ready at the hilt.
“Hope,” I said.
Hope turned. His eyes grew darker, reflecting the heavy clouds that hung overhead, as he watched the group descend on us. Soon, the inquisitors were all around us, hands still at their hilts. Brother Lux stood in front of Hope, wearing a stony expression.
“Good morning, Brother,” Hope said. His eyes remained dark, but his tone was light, as though we’d just met Brother Lux at breakfast.
“Lord Hope Uriel Frey, I hereby place you under arrest in the name of the High Priest and the Holy Church of Aeterna. Come with us; any resistance will be met with violence.”
“What is the charge,” Hope said.
“The charge is witchcraft.”
“No!” The cry rang out in the frigid air. Somehow, I didn’t realize I was the one who had cried out until Brother Lux turned his eyes toward me.
“You aren’t implicated in the evidence, Lady Frey- rest assured.”
“What evidence do you have? Who is implicated?” Hope said hotly.
“Come with us, and we will discuss the evidence,” Brother Lux replied. “Lady Frey, I must ask that you go with Father Pius, for now.”
I turned and saw that Father Pius was already standing behind me, and I realized he must have flanked us when we were distracted. I shrank back at his expression; his handsome features were distorted by a sneer of disgust.
“Lord Frey?” Brother Lux said, and at his word, the inquisitors drew closer. They seemed to form a red wall around us, now. I could hear a sword being drawn from its sheath.
“I won’t resist,” Hope said quickly. “Just promise that Lady Frey will be safe.”
“You have my word,” Brother Lux said with a slight bow.
Hope turned back to Father Pius.
“On my honor as your High Priest, I promise that Lady Frey will remain protected.”
Hope turned to me. “Don’t be afraid. I just need to speak to my brother.” He spoke softly, as though to soothe a child. “Go with Father Pius; this misunderstanding will soon be cleared up.”
My throat constricted, and I found that I couldn’t speak.
Hope kissed my forehead and then handed me to Father Pius. The inquisitors seized Hope by the arms, and he smiled at me as he was dragged away through the shrubbery and out of sight.
I felt two tears drip down my cheeks, which were hot despite the cold wind.
“I can’t compel you, but I can hurt you,” Father Pius said when we were alone. “I can hurt you worse than you imagine.”
“I won’t resist,” I said. I wiped the tears from my cheeks and followed Father Pius.