I kept my head up as I walked behind Father Pius, determined not to show him my fear. I could hear courtiers hiss as I went past, but I did not acknowledge them.
“Word travels quickly at St. Blanc,” Father Pius remarked, “but the courtiers are fickle. I think you’ll regain popularity soon enough.”
I ignored his taunt, but quickened my pace to keep up with his long strides.
Father Pius led me up the cathedral steps and into his office. When we arrived, I saw that Miss Taris was seated by the hearth near a crackling fire, holding herself and shivering.
She was still dressed in her peasant’s clothes from the previous night, and her spectacles lay on the small table beside her. Even though she was shivering, her forehead was beaded with sweat, and her long hair stuck to her face in wet ropes.
“Miss Taris,” Father Pius said softly. The sneer on his face melted away, replaced by a look of concern. “You are cold.”
“I’m alright,” Miss Taris protested, though she allowed Father Pius to place his white cloak over her shoulders. “You were right- it is easier when I don’t fight the sensation.”
“Yes- just relax. The pain won’t last long, and soon you’ll be able to rest.” Father Pius wiped the sweat away from Miss Taris’s face, and then turned to me.
“Do not touch Miss Taris. Sit here- away from her.” He gestured to a chair in front of his desk.
Miss Taris looked up at me, still clutching the cloak around her shoulders.
“Something is wrong,” she said. “My power is growing, but I still can’t feel Lady Frey.”
“Take no notice of Lady Frey. You might as well try to discern the feelings of this table lamp,” Father Pius said, taking his own seat. “She is not human; she is an abomination.”
Father Pius spared a glance in my direction before looking back to Miss Taris. In that moment, I realized that he knew I was an ancient, and he hated me for it.
As frightened as I was, I took a deep breath and made my move.
“If you really know what I am, then you must know that the blood oath doesn’t bind me. If I chose, I could tell everyone your part in this. I have enough evidence to-”
My words cut off as my lungs squeezed painfully. I couldn’t draw breath, as though my chest were being crushed by an iron vice.
“You have no evidence,” Father Pius said coolly. “What is wrong? Can’t you breathe?”
I couldn’t even choke out a reply.
“I’m compelling you to breathe, but your body is fighting me. You want to obey me, but your will means nothing. You aren’t free- just powerless.”
He smiled down on me as I struggled, and after a time flicked his hand. At his gesture, the vice seemed to fall away and I fell forward, gasping for air.
“A weak mage might not be able to reach you, but a strong and clever mage can use your resistance against you. Even Lord Frey, had he really tried, could have left you brain damaged.”
I kept my eyes on the wood grain of his desk, coughing and trying to take one deep breath after another. Father Pius reached out and grabbed my face with one hand, digging his fingernails into my cheek as he forced me to look up at him. He leaned so close to me that his dark eyes seemed to engulf me.
“If it weren’t for certain promises I’ve made, you would already be dead. Never threaten me again.”
He let go of me and I fell forward.
“I had to at least try- for Hope’s sake,” I said.
“You can make things worse for him, if you keep trying,” Father Pius said. He took a quill and paper from his desk, and continued to speak as he began some work. “In fact, I had meant to thank you. If not for your assistance, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to arrest Lord Frey and the others.”
A feeling of dread washed over me. “What do you mean?”
Father Pius smiled. “Perhaps Lord Frey never told you, but when he took the blood oath and swore to keep your secrets, instead of bringing you to me, it was a violation of our coven’s laws. Everyone who willingly submitted to Lord Frey’s hypnosis, except for Brother Lux, was complicit in this violation. Brother Lux was able to bring the violation to my attention.”
“I-I’m sorry. I didn’t know. Please- it’s my fault; punish me instead.”
“How quickly you go from threats to pleas,” Father Pius said smoothly, “but I have no reason to punish you. You were never bound by our laws, and you’ve helped my cause immensely. You gave Lord Frey the opportunity to put the Prince under my power, and now the coven is out of my way. To thank you, I will allow you to go into seclusion unharmed.”
A thrill of horror ran through me- I had done this- but I didn’t have the luxury to indulge in self-pity. Hope was imprisoned, I was at the mercy of my enemy, and I needed time to think.
I closed my eyes, trying to block out the scratching of Father Pius’s quill, but soon another sound distracted me.
“Oh!” Miss Taris let out a strangled cry, and then went silent again.
“Relax, Miss Taris,” Father Pius said. “Think of something else.”
“Do you think I might help?” I said.
“This isn’t her curse,” Father Pius said quickly. “That will come later. She’s just formed a contract, and her powers are growing rapidly. It’s a painful process, but it will pass. If you go near her, you might interfere.”
“Miss Taris, do you still want this?” I asked.
“Then tell me something to take your mind off the pain. I know you like to read; why don’t you tell me about your favorite book?”
“Why would you help me?” she asked.
“There needn’t be a reason,” I said, “though Lord Aston suggests our altruistic impulses stem from a desire to live in a society where others will behave altruistically toward us. Have you read Lord Aston?”
“Yes, but I don’t agree.”
“Why not?” I asked.
Miss Taris took and deep breath and began to explain her reasons. I argued a few of her finer points, nodded in agreement when appropriate, and did what I could to keep her talking as I half-listened. All the while, another part of my mind was racing.
What do I know, and what do I need to know? I wondered
First, I know that Father Pius isn’t afraid of me at all, even though I know that he is a heretic and a witch. He’s confident that I can’t expose him, and he can kill me before I even try.
But, I thought, if that is the case, then why did he promise to keep me alive? He could kill me without consequence. Everyone at court seems to think I’m a witch, already.
I realized that it would have been easy for the inquisition to kill Hope at the first sign of resistance, but Brother Lux had given Hope the opportunity to surrender and discuss the evidence against him. Father Pius and Brother Lux wanted to imprison the coven, but they wanted them alive for now.
A faint light of hope broke through my dark thoughts. If there really were a trial, then Hope, and perhaps Captain Goode, might be spared since they had produced no male heirs. Nothing but the power of a God could break the High Priest’s seal, so it might override the inquisition’s judgement.
Father Pius knew about the Frey and Goode family curses, so he would have taken them into account. This realization brought me to the second point of importance.
Second, I know that High Priest Pius premeditated his coven’s imprisonment. He’s admitted to me that the blood oath gave him an excuse under coven law to arrest those he’d wanted out of his way. Why would he do so, instead of continuing to use their powers to his ends? Why risk exposing himself when they were tortured, or when they went to trial?
Father Pius’s true goals must be in conflict with the coven’s goals.
“…and so people follow their baser instincts. We are all ultimately selfish,” Miss Taris was saying.
“Perhaps, but cooperation provides us all with long-term advantages, which was Aston’s main argument,” I countered almost automatically.
“You haven’t taken into account-”
“It isn’t your place to judge morality,” Father Pius interrupted. “It’s better to look after your own interests during your short time on this earth. Men with more knowledge and experience than you will solve the larger questions.”
Something about Father Pius’s tone struck me with a new thought.
Did Father Pius really burn my treatise to guard his reputation? If not, then why did he?
I wasn’t able to contemplate this idea any further before the office door opened, and Brother Lux stepped through.
“You are weary,” Father Pius said, looking up at Brother Lux. “I hope your brother didn’t cause you any trouble.”
“No- he is cooperating,” Brother Lux replied. As he spoke, I noticed that his face was drawn, and his eyes bloodshot. “I came here to ask a favor on his behalf. He wants to see Lady Frey.”
“Are you sure that is wise?” Father Pius said.
“I wouldn’t ask you unless I thought it was absolutely necessary,” Brother Lux said.
Father Pius leaned back in his chair and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I don’t mean to question your judgement,” he said quietly. “Do what you need to do, and bring Lady Frey back afterward.”
“Of course.” Brother Lux turned to me and stretched out his hand. “Come with me, Lady Frey. Don’t be afraid.”
I went with him, but did not take his hand.
Brother Lux led me down a winding staircase past the main sanctuary and into a cramped cellar. At the back of the cellar there was an iron grate, beyond which I could see a tunnel lit with flickering torches.
“Lord Frey’s cell is down there,” Brother Lux said, pointing into the tunnel. He took a square of black cloth from his robes. “I’m sorry to ask this, but the inquisition requires that all visitors be led into the tunnels blindfolded.”
I looked down at the blindfold, and then back up at Brother Lux’s bloodshot eyes.
“Please trust me, Lady.”
“I have no reason to trust you,” I said, “but if you wanted to hurt me, you wouldn’t need to take me into a tunnel.”
I allowed Brother Lux to tie the blindfold over my eyes, and then waited alone in darkness as I listened to Brother Lux’s footsteps. Once the Iron grate creaked open, Brother Lux took my hand and led me forward.
I ignored the feeling of his hand- long-fingered and smooth, just like Hope’s- and concentrated on the path. We were moving in a straight line, and the stone surface under our feet was smooth. There was a cold draft of wind on my face, which had a damp, earthy scent, and I surmised that we would be moving further underground.
“Lady, I have a question to ask you before we descend, and I need you to answer honestly. Do you love my brother?”
“Why would you care about our feelings, now?” I asked. My cold words echoed around the empty cave.
“If you love him, Lady, then it’s vital that you tell him- show him– that you do. I cannot tell you why.”
“I do love him,” I said, “and if you won’t tell me why that’s important, then I will guess.”
“Yes. You want to give him hope so he will be able to better withstand torture. Am I right?”
Brother Lux remained silent.
“But you aren’t trying to protect yourself- if Hope gave your name to the inquisition, it would look like a desperate move, and no one would believe him. No- you want him to live long enough to stand trial. I don’t know why, but you’re playing a dangerous game with my husband’s life.”
Some time during the course of the conversation, our steps had begun to curve to the right, though the draft always hit my face. Now Brother Lux stopped, and spun me as though we’d reached a branch in the tunnel. I felt no cross-breeze, however, and when he stopped me, the draft hit my face again.
Keep going forward at the first branch, I thought.
“Lady Frey, I don’t want to give you false hope, but please give him something to live for. He’s been saying some worrying things, and I need him to fight.”
“Even if I didn’t love him, he has Celeste. He will never give up while she’s alive. Will you take me to her, after I’ve seen Hope?”
“Yes. Promise him that you will care for her.”
“I will. Where is she now?”
“She is with her governess, awaiting word of our arrangements. Don’t worry; I’ve assured my niece’s safety.”
After a few more steps, we came to a staircase. I took both of Brother Lux’s hands and silently counted the steps as we descended in a spiral.
“Take your time, my Lady. We are almost there. I need to warn you about my brother’s appearance. He’s been…”
“You have tortured him already, haven’t you?”
“One of the inquisitors beat him. He hasn’t been harmed, though- just bruised.”
My feet hit the final step, and then Brother Lux led me to the right across a flat stone floor. He let go of my hands, and I could hear a door close behind me. Then my blindfold loosened and fell away. There was only a little lamplight, but it burned my eyes as I gazed blearily at the grated cells, which stood in a row before me.
“He is waiting for you in the first cell,” Brother Lux said.