The Coven, Part XXXXII

Abbess Joy and her attendants led our carriage to the end of the moonlit road, where the cathedral stood stark and white against the black sky.

“The abbey is behind the cathedral, near the dunes,” Abbess Joy said, pointing into the dark distance. “The path through the dunes is narrow, so we must go by foot.”

“I’ve never been as far as the abbey,” Brother Lux said. “Is the walk difficult? Miss Taris is unwell.”

“I’m well,” Miss Taris contradicted. Brother Lux had helped her out of the carriage, but as soon as she was on the ground she had snatched her hand back and stood on her own.

Mercy jumped down from the box and stood beside me, and coachman turned away from the conversation to tend to his horses. Abbess Joy gazed at our party with a calculating light in her bright eyes.

“I would usually call it an easy walk- pleasant, even, as there is a lovely view and a sea breeze that sweeps up from the bay. However, it’s dark now, and the wind is very cold. Sister Blessing,” she turned to the tallest of her attendants, who stepped forward. “Please help Miss Taris. Sister Love can lead the way.”

Miss Taris heaved a heavy sigh, but allowed Sister Blessing to take her arm while Sister Love lifted a lantern to light the way. Brother Lux and Mercy fell into step behind them, and Abbess Joy and I followed.

We walked on a gravel path around the side of the cathedral, past a row of stained glass that glittered on the cathedral wall. Behind the cathedral there was a small courtyard, where I could hear a fountain tinkling in the darkness. There were no lamps in the courtyard, but the gibbous moon lit the dying shrubs and dry grasses.

We passed through a creaking courtyard gate and onto a sandy path that wound through a tangle of grass and brambles. As we walked, there were fewer and fewer brambles and more and more sand, and soon the path took us between mounds of sand crowned in pink moonlight. Beyond the dunes I could see the churning, dark sea that seemed to stretch out forever.

“Have you ever seen the ocean?” Abbess Joy asked in a low voice.

Abbess Joy and I slowed our steps, allowing the party to go ahead of us a little as we talked.

“No- well, yes. I think I saw it, long ago, but it may have been a dream.”

“You did see it,” she whispered. “Try to remember.”

“It was warm,” I said. I pulled my pelisse tighter around me against the frigid salt air. “I was running my fingers through the sand. Someone was with me.”

I looked up to Abbess Joy, who was watching me intently through the darkness.

“I have many dim memories from my early childhood,” I said carefully. “I may need help to bring them into harmony with one another.”

Abbess Joy smiled and nodded. ”I will help in any way I can.”

We fell silent and quickened our steps to catch up to the others.

“The abbey is close,” Sister Love said, her voice slightly muffled by her veil. She pointed to a set of low buildings that were clustered together behind the dune’s soft shadows.

The path sloped back uphill, and soft sand gave way to gravel that crunched underfoot. The buildings jutted out at odd angles from each other, like sunrays that led to a central point.

“Sisters, please take Miss Taris and Miss Mercy to the dormitory so they can get settled. Lady Frey, Brother Lux, and I will meet you in the refectory soon.”

“I’m staying with Lady Frey until I’m certain she’s safe,” Mercy said firmly.

“Very well. Please follow me.”

The party separated, and Abbess Joy led Brother Lux, Mercy and me up a short set of steps to the first building in the starburst.

“This is the Abbot’s hall, and if you follow the buildings clockwise you will find the kitchen, refectory, library, dormitory, and infirmary. The calefactory is in the center. The work house and stables are at the pilgrim’s cloister on the other side of the cathedral.”

Abbess Joy opened the door to the first building, and then led us down a hallway lined with lamps that glared off of the black and white tiled floor. At the end of the hallway was a door, where Abbess Joy stopped and knocked.

In a few moments, a veiled sister opened the door.

“Good evening, Sister Jubilee,” Abbess Joy said. “Lady Frey and Brother Lux have arrived.”

The sister started back, and then turned her veiled face toward me in silence. After a few moments, she stood aside to let us in.

As soon as my feet hit the threshold, I saw Celeste. She was sitting on a stone hearth at the back of the room, clutching her golden-haired doll to her chest. She looked up, and when she saw me she dropped the doll to the ground and ran to me. I knelt down, and she threw herself into my waiting arms.

“Aunt Grace- you’re here at last,” she said, squeezing my neck with her skinny arms. “Miss Milton told me the most awful things. She said that Uncle Hope and Uncle Just and all of their friends have been taken away, just like Mother was. Soldiers came to Rowan Heights, and I had to go away. Miss Morton said that Uncle Hope would probably-”

Celeste let out a choked sob, and said nothing more.

“You’re safe, darling,” I said, holding her tighter. “I’m here, now. Listen, I spoke to your Uncle Hope just before I left.”

She sniffed and leaned back to look at me. “You saw him?”

“Yes, I did. He is strong, and we’re doing everything we can to free him.” I took a handkerchief from my pocket, removed Celeste’s spectacles, and dried her eyes. “He wanted me to tell you that he loves you very much, and that he wants you to be brave. Can you be brave for him?”

“Yes. I love him, too.” She pulled away from me and turned to Brother Lux. “Are you going to help, too? Can you tell Uncle Hope and Uncle Just that I love them?”

Brother Lux hesitated, shrinking a little from his niece’s innocent, pleading gaze. Then he smiled and nodded.

“Lady Frey means to send a letter back to Lord Frey. so if you wish to include letters to your Uncle and Godfather, then I will convey them all personally.”

“Thank you,” Celeste said with a small curtsey.

Brother Lux bowed in return, and then spun and quickly left the room.

Celeste gestured to me, and I cleaned closer. She cupped her hand over my ear and whispered. “I can be brave because I’ve just learned that miracles are for real.”

Celeste stood straight and put her finger to her lips before I could ask what she meant.

“Lady Grace,” she said. “I’m glad you are still wearing your spectacles.” She took her own spectacles from me and put them back on, and then turned to Sister Jubilee.

“I told you she would remember, didn’t I, Sister Jubilee?”

“I wouldn’t forget,” I said. “A promise is a promise.”

Celeste threw her arms around my neck, again. “If only Uncle Hope could have come with you! I miss him so much.”

Tears stung my eyes, and I blinked them away before Celeste could see. “He misses you too, darling,” I said thickly.

I held Celeste for a moment in silence, and then Abbess Joy stepped forward.

“Miss Celeste, I’m sure you must be tired and hungry. Let’s all go to the refectory together.”

Celeste nodded and took my hand, and then she turned and offered her other hand to Sister Jubilee. Sister Jubilee stepped forward at once and took her hand.

“I couldn’t go without her,” Celeste explained. “Sister Jubilee is like my guardian angel.”

 

 

#

 

 

A simple repast of bread, cheese, and vegetable stew awaited us in the refectory, which proved far more satisfying than the cakes and jellies I had eaten at the palace. For the first time in days, I had an appetite- possibly from the physical exertion of fighting the bandits.

The refectory was largely empty, since most of the sisters had already retired. Our small party sat at one end of a massive wood table that took up most of the room. There were fires blazing in the two great fireplaces set into the rough stone wall, filling the room with warmth and comfort.

Sister Love, Sister Blessing, and Abbess Joy removed their veils to eat. Sister Jubilee, who sat on the other side of Celeste, kept her veil on and refused all offers of food. Miss Taris barely touched her own food, though Abbess Joy pressed her.

“Just drink the broth, Miss Taris. It will help.”

“No- I just want to sleep,” Miss Taris said.

“You’ve had too much excitement today,” said Brother Lux, who had been awaiting us in the refectory when we’d arrived.“I wouldn’t advise that you take any tea- just water mixed with a little wine so you can sleep.”

“I’m glad to hear you speak like a physician,” Abbess Joy said. “I was under the impression that you had given up the vocation.”

“I will always be a healer,” Brother Lux replied. “But right now, the High Priest has another use for me.”

“And you would never refuse him?”

“No- never,” Brother Lux said resolutely.

“Please excuse me,” Miss Taris said, standing. “I shan’t have any more. Goodnight, and thank you, Abbess Joy.”

Miss Taris curtsied and turned to go, almost colliding with another sister on her way.

“I beg your pardon,” the sister said in a soft voice, and then bowed to Miss Taris as she departed. The sister turned to Abbess Joy and removed a folded paper from the sleeve of her robe.

“Abbess, we’ve received a message from Father Pius. It’s for Brother Lux. May I…”

“Of course,” Abbess Joy said.

The Sister turned to Brother Lux, bowed, and held out the paper, which Brother Lux took.

“Thank you,” he said.

“You’re welcome,” the Sister said.

Something in the sweet, high tone of the voice spurred my memory. “Lady St. Croix, is it you?”

“I am Sister Purity,” she corrected before departing.

Brother Lux broke the seal on his letter and read.

“Abbess, would it be possible for me to be quartered near Lady Frey and Miss Celeste?” Mercy asked.

“Certainly,” Abbess Joy said. “I’ve prepared the cells in the dormitory’s new wing for your arrival. There is plenty of room.”

“How did you know to prepare the rooms?” Mercy asked. “We didn’t know we would come until two days ago, and there was no time to send word ahead of us.”

“To be honest, I had prepared a place for Lady Frey when I learned she was going to St. Blanc.” Abbess Joy turned to me. “I know your father, Lady Frey, and I feared that, in his ambition, he would seek to exploit you in some way. I-”

Abbess Joy’s voice hitched, but she took a deep breath and smiled, regaining her composure.

“I’m glad you’ve found your way to del Sol, Lady Frey.”

“I can’t thank you enough,” I replied, “for helping us on the road, and for giving us a place here-”

“Please do not thank me. This is a sanctuary open to all who are troubled, and you- you must think of this as your home.”

“Lady Frey,” Brother Lux interrupted. “Before you settle here, I have a favor to ask.”

“A favor?” I repeated, taken aback.

“This is a delicate matter; may we discuss it in private?”

For a moment no one spoke. Celeste dropped her spoon and looked back and forth between the adults, as though sensing the tension.

Finally, Abbess Joy spoke. “Can it wait until morning?”

“I’m afraid not,” Brother Lux said. “This is of vital importance.”

“If Lady Frey agrees to speak with you, I will give you the use of my private study. I will be close by, however,” Abbess Joy added with a severe look at Brother Lux.

“Mercy, will you stay with Celeste? I won’t be long,” I said.

“Be careful,” Mercy said, and then she held out her hand to Celeste.

“Come Celeste- If you get ready for bed, I will tell you about the bandits we fought on the road.”

“Mercy! No,” I protested.

Celeste’s attention, however, was already captured. “Bandits? What bandits?”

“There were six of them, just up the road,” Mercy said. “Lady Grace fought two of them at once.”

“Don’t tease me. I’m too old to fall for silly stories,” Celeste said. She held her free hand out to Sister Jubilee, who took it and followed Celeste and Mercy from the table.

“It’s the truth…”

“Don’t worry,” Abbess Joy said gently as I watched the three of them go. “Celeste could not be in safer hands than Sister Jubilee’s. She has been my assistant for almost two years, and even before that I had intimate knowledge of her character.”

“I trust you,” I said.

 

 

 

#

 

 

Abbess Joy escorted Brother Lux and I back to the Abbott’s hall, to the same office where I’d been reunited with Celeste.

“I will wait here, outside the door,” she said with a warning glance toward Brother Lux.

“I’m sure I needn’t remind you of your obligation to remain neutral,” Brother Lux said, meeting her gaze.

“I have the right to protect my sanctuary and everyone within,” she replied.

Abbess Joy left the room and shut the door behind her. Brother Lux turned toward the door and raised his hand.

“Silence,” he said. Then he turned away from the door and paced toward the great stone fireplace.

“You need only touch the door to break my spell,” he said, warming his hands. Then he turned to me and took a packet of paper from inside his robes. “I need your help, Lady Frey. Our plans have hit a roadblock, and your assistance is vital to Lord Frey’s safety.”

“His safety?” I said incredulously.

“Yes. As an act of good faith, I will tell you two secrets before I ask my favor. First, the deductions you have made are correct- I do not intend for my brother to die. I won’t tell you how or why, but Father Pius and I are manipulating the trial.”

“This is madness,” I said. “If you wish him to live, then set him free.”

“Everything has already been set in motion, Lady Frey. Even so, everything Father Pius and I are doing is for the greater good. I don’t expect you to understand, but please believe that I love my brother, and I wouldn’t sentence him to death for anything.”

“How can I believe you, after what you’ve done?”

The papers in Brother Lux’s hands were tied with a leather strap, and Brother Lux’s fingers fumbled a bit as he untied the knot. He handed me a letter from the top of the stack.

“If I’m lying, then you may use this weapon to destroy me.”

I took the letter and opened it. It was written in an unfamiliar, spidery script.

“My Dearest Lux,” I read. “It has been too long since we’ve been alone together. I long to feel your arms around me, to feel your lips against mine, to feel your-”

My face grew hot, and I was unable to read the next words aloud.

“I am sorry to show a letter of such a personal nature to a Lady,” Brother Lux said, “but it is the best evidence to use against us.”

I skimmed the letter, and at the bottom I saw the signature.

 

Forever Yours,

Pius

 

My cheeks still burned, and for a time I didn’t know what to say. I had only skimmed the letter, but that was enough.

“You and Father Pius-”

“-are lovers, yes. We’re even more than lovers, truth be told.”

“But you are both men.”

Brother Lux put a hand to his face, trembling. He was silent for a moment, and then he let out a short bark of laughter, followed by another, and another. He dropped his hand, and I understood he had not been trembling at all, but shaking with laughter.

“How could you laugh at a time like this?” I demanded. “If you just came here to laugh at me, then I will go.”

“No wait- please. I don’t mean to jest. This is nervous laughter, more than anything. I had prepared myself for your disgust and condemnation. I was ready to counter your threats and negotiate our next move. I forgot how young you are, and how sheltered you have been.

“You see, Lady Frey, common sins are shouted down from the pulpit, but some sins are only whispered about behind closed doors, and never spoken of in polite company. My sin with Father Pius is one of the latter.”

“Why?”

“Who can explain the Gods’ laws?” Brother Lux said with a shrug. “They are absolute. The fact that I’ve broken my vows to take a lover is bad enough, but the fact that my lover is a man is a sin worthy of death.”

I folded the letter. “If your sin is so grave, then why did you give this to me? I could use this evidence to blackmail or destroy you.”

“That’s more like it,” Brother Lux said with a lopsided grin so reminiscent of Hope’s that I had to turn away. “I gave you this letter to force a stalemate. If you use this letter to remove Pius and I from power now, then the inquisition will kill your husband without so much as a trial, like they have acted under prior High Priests. If I fail and allow your husband to die, then you will have nothing to stop you from using that letter to destroy me.”

I closed my eyes to block out distractions, but it only reminded me of how tired and sore my eyes were. I was too exhausted to think clearly, but I knew Brother Lux wouldn’t grant me the luxury of a night’s sleep before we continued. Despite his gentleness, Brother Lux was proving to be as difficult an opponent as Father Pius.

“What do you want from me?” I asked.

“There is a document that my inquisitors were searching for at Rowan Heights- a document that might save your husband’s life- but they were unable to find it. I suspect that it may be hidden in a tunnel under bluebell hill, but it’s a tunnel the inquisitors must not find. Unfortunately, my brother placed a magic seal on the tunnel’s entrance, and I don’t know how to break it.”

“You want me to break the seal for you,” I said. “The document you’re searching for is the Frey writ of condemnation, isn’t it?”

“Yes. My brother told you about our curse?”

“He showed me the writ himself. He’d thought that I might be able to break the High Priest’s seal, but I couldn’t. I may not be able to break the seal on the tunnel.”

“You can- it’s not like the High Priest’s seal. It’s only an advanced magic sigil.”

“I need to think,” I said. I turned and began to pace the room.

“This must be done soon- before the inquisitors venture to the cottage. We must not be seen.”

I closed my eyes again and thought.

Father Pius’s love note might have been a forgery, and yet I had noticed before a strong affection between Father Pius and Brother Lux that seemed beyond friendship. I remembered that I had seen them dance together the night of the coven’s revelry.

“Show me where it is written that your love is worthy of death,” I said.

I turned back to Brother Lux, who nodded. He went to a heavy, giantwood bookcase that stood beside the fireplace and removed a large leather tome.

“Volume 2 of the unabridged Litany,” he said, handing me the book. “It’s in the book of natural order, cadence 3, verse 12.”

I opened the book, flipped to the verse, and read aloud.

 

Beyond man’s hubris are other sins,

Against the nature bound within,

Eros between women, between men,

The stain of death shall lie therein.

 

I closed the book. “If I go with you, then how long will we be away?”

“It’s only a few hours by carriage to the hill country from here. I know a shortcut that runs through the valley. If all goes well, we should be back by noon tomorrow.”

I sighed deeply, and then turned to hand the book back to Brother Lux.

“I have a bad habit of overestimating my own abilities, and I regret all of the clever plans I’ve made so far. But you have forced my hand. Please don’t make me regret helping you.”

Part XXXXIII

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