Anger rose like bile in my throat when I saw what the inquisitors had done to Hope.
Hope’s long, dark hair had been shorn away to the scalp, his porcelain skin was mottled with dark bruises, and his warm brown eyes were blindfolded. He was sitting in a sackcloth robe on a wooden stool, but when the cell door opened he stood and stumbled forward, reaching out blindly with bound hands.
I ran to him and took his outstretched hands. “I am here.”
“Grace!” He clutched my hands. “Brother, please unbind me. You know I won’t try anything foolish while she is here. Let me see her- let me hold her- one last time.”
Brother Lux cast a sidelong glance toward me, and then unwound the cloth from Hope’s eyes.
“I won’t unbind your hands, but I will let you see her,” Brother Lux said. “If you try to hypnotize me, my bond with Father Pius will break the spell- the same as last time.”
Brother Lux’s casual admission of his betrayal- that he had brought knowledge of the blood oath to Father Pius- inspired a fresh wave of anger, and for one mad moment, my brain hatched a plan worthy of a storybook. Hope and I could overpower Brother Lux together, steal his clothes, and Hope would escape disguised as his brother. Unfortunately, Hope had been too thoroughly marred to pass as Brother Lux, now.
It was then that I remembered Father Pius’s threat, “…a strong and clever mage can use your resistance against you.” Brother Lux had the ability to heal, so it was possible he could make my body destroy itself if he turned his power against me.
I didn’t know how strong a mage Brother Lux was, or if Father Pius had told him my weakness, but I wasn’t foolish enough to take the risk.
When the bandages were removed, I could see that Hope’s right eye was blackened and swollen. He blinked at me, squinting as though he were trying to look at the sun.
“Hope- I’m sorry,” I said, holding his hands close to my heart. “I pressured you to keep my silence when we took the blood oath. I never dreamed the consequences.”
“You couldn’t have known,” Hope said quickly. “I’m the one to blame. I didn’t consider the laws, and worse, I didn’t put my trust in the right people. I will pay for my foolishness and my crimes.”
Brother Lux walked behind Hope and gave me a significant nod.
“I was told that you will have a trial,” I said. “You must try to fight the charges, if not for your own sake, then for Celeste’s.”
Hope looked down at our entwined hands. “Even if I weren’t guilty, witchcraft trials are a farce. My fate has been decided.”
“What evidence do they have against you?”
“I- I don’t know. They haven’t found anything at Rowan Heights, yet. The Library burned, but the inquisitors are still searching the rest of the estate.” Hope shut his eyes, as though trying to remember. “Lux- you told me that Mrs. Auber made the formal accusation, didn’t you?”
“That’s right,” Brother Lux said slowly. “Mrs. Auber provided one piece of material evidence- a blood oath entered into by you, Captain Goode, Lord and Lady Willoughby, and Miss Chastity. The oath states your intent to murder High Priest Sauris and Prince Hadrian as vengeance for Prudence Goode’s death, and as vengeance for the Frey and Goode family curses. The document states that you intend to use any arts, magical or mundane, to achieve your goal.
“In addition to this, Mrs. Auber is willing to testify that she personally witnessed multiple acts of witchcraft.”
“That’s odd,” Hope said. “I don’t recall ever taking such an oath.”
“Then the document is false, “ I said quickly. “There must be a way to prove that it’s a forgery. I’m willing to provide samples of your handwriting. Perhaps I could hire someone to examine the document while I am gone.”
“Gone?” Hope drew me closer to him, and I embraced him tightly.
“Father Pius is sending me away, but I’m going to Celeste.”
“You are? Will you keep her safe?”
“I swear that I will protect her. I’ve been working in secret- growing stronger in both mind and body. I will fight the whole army, if it will keep her safe.”
Hope cut me off with a kiss deeper and fiercer than any we’d shared before. Even though our bodies were pressed together, I felt as though I couldn’t get close enough.
Hope broke the kiss with a gasp and leaned back to look at me. He reached up and tangled his bound hands in my curls. “If you’re willing to fight, then I can’t do any less.”
Hope leaned down to kiss me again, but Brother Lux pulled him away.
“It’s time for Lady Frey to leave,” Brother Lux said.
“Give us a little more time together, please,” Hope said, turning to his brother.
“No,” Brother Lux said, his usually warm voice hardening like ice. “I told you that you must suffer the consequences of your actions, and that begins now.”
“Hope-” I took his face in my hands and turned him back to face me. “I’m going to Celeste. I promise that when we’re safely together, I’ll contrive some way to send word to you.”
“I love you,” he said. “Tell Celeste that I love her. Tell her to be strong.”
“I will. I wish I had something more to give you than a promise. You already have my love.”
“That’s enough,” Hope said.
Hope continued to look into my eyes until Brother Lux tied the blindfold back into place.
Brother Lux was silent as he led me out of the dungeon, so I was able to count my steps- re-tracing the mental map I’d made of the tunnels and filling in the gaps in my memory. I listened carefully to the way our footsteps echoed, gleaning an idea of the tunnel’s size. The tunnel’s draft remained at our backs as we ascended.
I continued to concentrate, and ignored my tears as they soaked into the blindfold. A little flame had been kindled inside of me, and it was growing stronger with each step, keeping despair at bay. Brother Lux’s look of pity as he took off my blindfold, the hisses and whispers of the courtiers when we ascended back into the cathedral, and the knowledge that I was being delivered to my greatest enemy only acted as fuel for the flame.
I imagined I could feel the same flame that had burned in Hope when he had committed desperate acts to protect his loved ones. The alchemy of Hope’s love had changed me.
I could hear muffled voices through Father Pius’s door as we approached, but as usual, Brother Lux opened the door without knocking. Mercy was inside, standing in front of Father Pius’s desk with her arms folded.
“I find it insulting that you would even ask me,” she was saying. “I can tell when I’m not wanted; do you think I’m a fool?”
“You should be grateful that I’m still giving you this chance,” Father Pius replied with a look so fierce that I would have shrunk back. Mercy only lifted her chin higher.
“I am grateful,” Mercy said. “I’m so grateful that if you release Lord Frey with a full pardon, and make a public apology, I might consider forgiving you.”
Father Pius blinked as though in astonishment, but did not reply. Brother Lux held a hand to his mouth and gave a strangled cough.
Mercy turned toward us and dropped her stance.
“Lady Frey- did you see Lord Frey? Is he alright?”
“He’s been beaten,” I said. “He has not been tortured, yet.”
“I understand that he,” Mercy nodded toward Father Pius, ”is sending you into exile.”
“I believe that is his intention.”
“When we came to St. Blanc, Lord Frey made me promise that I would protect you if anything happened to him. So when are we going into exile? Where are we going?”
I blinked away the tears that welled up at this simple show of loyalty. “Thank you, Mercy.”
“Don’t thank me. I’m only following orders.”
“You may not be one of us, but you are still bound to secrecy, Miss Mercy. If you leave my service to follow Lady Frey, you must remain in exile with her,” Father Pius said.
“Leave your service?” Mercy turned sharply back to Father Pius. “I was never your servant to begin with.”
“So be it,” Father Pius said. He turned back to me.
“I have been trying to decide where to send you. You cannot return to Rowan Heights. The estate is still being searched by the inquisitors, and they wouldn’t welcome your interference. Celeste’s grandmother lives in a townhouse in the city- a place that is impossible to secure. Even though he’s under control, I hesitate to send you to your father’s estate-”
“I’ve broken relations with my father, anyway,” I said.
I took a moment to consider my situation, and Mr. Filius’s words came back to my mind. “All roads lead to del Sol.”
Can I trust Abbess Joy? I wondered. She is in league with the oculist guild, but she did test my magic resistance for my father’s benefit. I don’t know where her loyalties truly lie.
But my old memories of the Abbess returned at once, bringing that safe, maternal feeling that overrode all of my doubts.
“I would prefer to go into seclusion at del Sol,” I said.
“Those who seek sanctuary at del Sol are expected to work for their bread,” Father Pius scoffed. “When have you ever done a day’s labor?”
“Keeping Lady Frey at del Sol would probably be best,” Brother Lux suggested. “It’s well-protected. She could not interfere with our plans, and no one could interfere with her.”
Father Pius placed his hands on his desk and leaned down, closing his eyes. “I want to preserve del Sol and its Abbess, so I suppose that it will be convenient to keep Lady Frey and Miss Goode there, as well.”
I turned to Mercy. “Would del Sol be acceptable to you?”
“Then it’s settled,” Father Pius said. “I’ve dealt with you enough today, Lady Frey. Gather your things, and Brother Lux will call for you the carriage this afternoon. He can take you to del Sol on his way back to Rowan Heights.”
As soon as Mercy and I were left alone in my rooms, I took the nearest sheet of paper and wrote down the mental map I’d made of the dungeon tunnels, annotating the number of steps I’d counted at each turn. I wrote as quickly as I could, before the memories could fade any more, while Mercy watched in silence.
I reviewed the map for any errors, and Mercy spoke. “Lady Frey, we don’t have much time. We need to destroy anything that might implicate Lord Frey and choose what to take with us- we won’t be able to take much.
“I’m sorry- I needed to put this on paper before I forgot. I’m finished; this is as accurate as I could make it, under the circumstances. If you will go through Lord Frey’s other things, I will pack whatever I can into this trunk-” I gestured to the trunk with the hidden compartment.
Mercy nodded and left to search the room while I opened the trunk’s compartment and stowed the map inside. Then I closed the compartment, carefully replaced the trunk’s lining, and filled the rest of the trunk with the warmest, most serviceable clothes I could find. I packed Hope’s clothes as well as my own, so he would have something if he were freed or rescued.
Mercy stoked the fire, feeding letters and books into the flames. “He was careful, so there’s not much,” she said, “but some of his letters contain murmurings against the Prince and church, and some of his books were written by abolitionists. It’s best to be rid of anything that would look bad.”
“We can keep his letters to Celeste, and we will need his bank book if the inquisition leaves anything of his property. Everything else should be destroyed.”
Mercy nodded and stoked the fire further. “I’m glad it’s cold today; a large blaze is not out of place. I will help you finish packing when I’m done. Leave all of your silks and fine things behind-take only what will be useful. I suppose you may keep the necklace Lord Frey gave you, but wear it under your clothes. How much pin money do you have?”
“I have fifty gold coins in my purse- enough to get us to del Sol and to give a donation when we arrive.”
Mercy’s eyes went wide. “More than enough, I should say. Here are some clean handkerchiefs, a tinderbox, a ball of twine, and some of your sewing things. Don’t look at me like that; I don’t expect you to do embroidery, but this will be useful. Also,here is Lord Frey’s pocket knife. He only ever carried it when he went hunting, but you should keep it with you.”
She stuffed the other things into my valise and handed me the mother-of-pearl handled knife.
“We don’t want to overfill your valise. Is there anything else you can think of?”
“I will change into my traveling clothes in the Pavilion, so I can leave these clothes there, along with this ridiculous pannier. Other than that-”
I turned to my almost empty jewel-case, retrieved my fake spectacles, and put them on.
“I will not say that I am ready to leave, but I can’t think of anything else.”