The Coven, Part LXXII

Lady Fairfax had been sitting in a high-backed chair by the fire, and she stood as the party entered. I curtsied deeply and murmured a greeting, but Lady Fairfax did not reply. She approached me slowly, almost tentatively, taking a wine goblet from the nearest table as she went. Then she stopped before me, raised the goblet, and dashed the contents into my face.

I stood, unable to do anything but sputter as cold, bitter-smelling wine dripped down my face and onto my clothes. Then Lady Fairfax stepped forward and pulled me into an embrace, throwing my composure even more off-balance.

“Oh! My dear, I am sorry, but I had to make sure of your innocence. These are dangerous times; even family is suspect.”

Brother Lux took the empty cup from Lady Fairfax and smelled the dregs. “Witchbane?”

“It’s an herb that will cause any witch to break out in boils from head to foot; my Grandmother swore by it,” Lady Fairfax said stoutly. “Far be it from me to question his holiness, but I believe your inquisition would run a lot more smoothly if you still used the old methods. Your new-fangled torture machines aren’t worth the lumber they are built from.”

“On that count, your Ladyship, we are in agreement,” Brother Lux said with a bow.

At that moment, the party was interrupted by a small bark, followed by the padding of feet on the floor. A small white dog let itself into the drawing room and ran in excited circles around the guests.

“Oh! How sweet!” Celeste, unable to stand like a lady any longer, dropped to the ground and took the small dog in her arms.

“Snowbear- be quiet!” Lady Fairfax scolded the dog, and then spoke to Celeste. “You are Miss Goode, I presume?”

“Yes, Lady Fairfax,” Celeste said, standing to give an awkward curtsey while the dog wiggled in her arms.

“Mind Snowbear for me, Miss Goode. He is a sweet-tempered dog, but his barking will bother Lord Ainsworth.”

I stepped forward, but before I could make proper introductions, Lady Fairfax spoke to Prudence.

“You are the child’s nurse, are you not, Sister? Well, Kingsley will show you to the nursery- ring the bell when the child is ready for supper.”

Lady Fairfax gestured to the footman. I shot Prudence an apologetic glance as she was led from the room.

“Sister Jubilee is not only Celeste’s governess; she is also an invaluable companion to me,” I said mildly when Prudence had gone.

“Indeed?” Lady Fairfax said, gesturing for me and Brother Lux to sit. “She must be from a genteel family, if she is so well-educated. I would guess that she is a plain woman underneath her veil, since she could not make an advantageous marriage.”

“There are those who are called to serve the church,” Brother Lux remarked. “No everyone who joins the sisterhood, or the brotherhood for that matter, is forced to by circumstance.”

“We are all forced by circumstance, whatever we do,” Lady Faifax said with a haughty air. “Some of us manage to convince ourselves that we chose our fate after the fact.”

“Lady Fairfax,” I interrupted quietly, “the letter you sent touched me- I could tell that your concern for my father is genuine. Please tell me; what is his condition now? Has it grown much worse since you wrote?”

Lady Fairfax sighed and sat back a little in her chair, as though greatly fatigued.

“Dr. Pearson will come to examine Lord Ainsworth tomorrow- perhaps he can answer your question. I can make nothing of Valor’s condition. I only know that my poor cousin has altered so greatly that I hardly recognize him.”

“How has he altered?” I asked.

“I had expected that the Prince’s decline would frustrate Valor,” Lady Fairfax said. “He’d staked everything on the Prince’s rise to power, and now all of those ambitions are dashed. They say that the Prince is worse than mad.”

Lady Fairfax sat up again and leaned forward, lowering her voice. “They say that the Prince never had any rightful claim to the throne at all, and that he altered his own horoscope so that it would appear he could rule. Everyone is saying that, after being corrected, the horoscope actually spells out doom for the Prince’s reign. Those of us who once supported the Prince are lost- where should our loyalties lie? Normally, I would consult your father on such matters, but he is no help at all in his state.”

I swallowed hard. “Do you believe that my father is just suffering from disappointment?”

Lady Fairfax shook her head. “After your husband’s arrest, I followed Valor to Willowbrook. When I arrived, I found an empty shell of a man- there were no plans, no schemes, and he did not retreat into his research. I have seen Valor disappointed before, and he usually gets angry and rallies himself. Valor seemed too- too empty to rally himself this time. He would pace around his library for hours on end without touching a book. I couldn’t get him to speak to me. Some days he would be completely silent, and other days he would rant to no one.”

Brother Lux’s eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly at this. “What did he say during his rants?”

“Oh- complete nonsense,” Lady Fairfax said with a wave her hand. “He would talk of fairy tales we’d read as children- the most ridiculous things. The doctor could detect no fever, so he decided that Valor’s condition was the product of mental stress. The doctor said that the baths at Verdant Springs would be just the thing to soothe Valor’s mind.

“As soon as we left Willowbrook, Valor’s condition grew worse. He said he was being punished for something dreadful he’d done, and that if we stayed in Verdant City he would surely die. He won’t go to the baths. He’s taken to his bed, and he just lies there, groaning and whispering that he will soon die.”

I could ask no more questions. My mouth had grown dry, and there was a lump in my throat.

“Have any of the doctors in Verdant City been able to discover the source of Lord Ainsworth’s affliction?”

“No- as far as the new doctors can tell, there is nothing wrong with Valor other than a mild case of the gout, which we already knew. I’m at my wit’s end.”

“I have some medical training,” Brother Lux said with a humble bow of his head. “I will examine Lord Ainsworth, if you would like a second opinion.”

“Would you? Oh, but you must have so many demands on your time.”

“Never so many that I would ignore those in need; this was my vow when I took orders,” Brother Lux said.

Tears shimmered in Lady Fairfax’s hazel eyes, and she pressed Brother Lux’s hand.

“Bless you,” she said. Then she wiped the tears away and turned to me.

“Lady Frey, you look fatigued. I will ring for tea.”

 

 

#

 

 

After tea, Brother Lux took his leave. I followed him to his carriage.

“How soon can I see Hope?” I asked.

“That depends on you,” Brother Lux said. “We must prepare you, first. This will not be easy.”

“I will do whatever I can,” I said.

“Will you be able?” Brother Lux asked, raising his eyebrows skeptically. “Your father’s illness has affected you more that I would have guessed. You are pale, and when Lady Fairfax spoke, you trembled.”

“I am only fatigued,” I said. “I will deal with this.”

“Go to sleep tonight, Lady Frey- don’t stay up all night, as I know you are wont to do. I will see you tomorrow morning,” Brother Lux said before he left.

 

 

#

 

 

The last time I was at Brighton Place, I’d slept in the nursery. Now, however, the room was occupied by Celeste, and since I’d swept past Lady Fairfax’s footman in order to follow Brother Lux to his carriage, I was left alone to find my room.

There were quite a few empty bedrooms upstairs, and I thought it would be just as well to chose one at random to stay the night. Mercy however, wearing a fresh cap and apron, found me as I wandered the hallway.

“Your trunk has already been placed in your rooms. Please come with me, my Lady,” she said in a meek voice that I hadn’t heard since we were in Rowan Heights

“Thank you, Mercy,” I said much more awkwardly, and I followed her down the hall. Mercy led me to a suite of rooms draped and carpeted in blue- rooms I’d once admired as a child. She showed me wardrobe where she’d stowed the few clothes I’d brought with me, and then helped me to remove my gown and loosen my stays.

“Is there anything else you need, my Lady?” she asked when she had finished.

“N- no. Thank you,” I stammered.

Mercy curtseyed once more, and then left me alone.

I locked the door behind Mercy and extinguished the lamps, leaving the room almost completely dark but for the dull orange glow in the fireplace. I was ready to fall into bed and succumb to exhaustion, but as I reached for the bedcurtains they rustled, as though moved from within.

I took a fighting stance and flung back the curtains. Then I dropped my stance and heaved a sigh of relief.

“Goodness- you frightened me,” I whispered.

Prudence, who had been kneeling on the bed on the other side of the curtains, put a finger to her lips. She continued combing through the curtains on the section that lie against the bedroom wall, and then got down on the floor and looked under the bed.

“What are you doing?” I asked, and a second later I felt foolish. I recalled that I had done the exact same thing when I’d arrived in my stately room at St. Blanc.

“Light the lantern, will you? It’s difficult to do this by feel alone. The bed is clear, as well as the portraits along the back wall. Check the wardrobe while I finish here,” she said.

Lit the lantern once more, and then went through the wardrobe and the commode, but I found no peepholes, trap doors, or false backs. There was a small shelf set into the wall behind the window-curtains, but inside I found nothing but a packet of old laundry lists.

Prudence returned to the bedroom, having searched the small sitting room on the other side of the suite.

“Your rooms are clear. The nurseries were clear too, except for a peephole in my room. The peephole looks into Celeste’s room, however, so it must have been used for minding children.”

“We ought to check the hallways,” I whispered. “Someone tried to drug me when I was at St. Blanc; there was an incense burner hidden in a vase in the hallway, and the smoke drifted under through a crack in the door.”

Prudence nodded, and then briskly went to the outside door and peered out. After a few moments she slipped into the hall, and then returned a few moments later.

“The hallway is clear,” she said. “Now- I’m about to do something that may alarm you. Please promise that you will not panic or try to stop me.”

“I trust you,” I said.

Prudence faced the outside wall and made a familiar gesture with her hands, muttering under her breath. “By Raven, by the five, by my soul- silence, silence, silence…”

She repeated the task at each wall, and then each corner of the room. Then she stepped back toward the center of the room and removed her veil.

“I’ve done it- I’ve truly done it!” she said, her blue eyes sparkling with excitement. “We needn’t play any more late-night games of ringo.”

“You cast the spell of silence,” I said. “But- are you okay? I know you find magic unpleasant, and I understand that the silence spell is difficult.”

“I’ve been avoiding magic for a long time,” she conceded. “But watching you spar with Mercy and then return from the sparring covered in bruises made me feel like a coward. I have an ability to hone- so what if it’s painful?

“Still, it wasn’t easy for me to practice magic after so many years. I struggled through incredible pain to do the simplest spells until the night you gave me my Chaosmas gift- the portrait of my face. When you traced my face with your fingers, it felt as though I were experiencing a double-reality; your reality and mine. And then, just like that, something clicked, and I understood why magic was such a burden for me.”

“Why is that?”

Prudence smirked and then fell back on the bed, stretching out with catlike ease.

“My research has shown me that there are several types of magic, all of which depend on different mechanisms to make it work. The largest category is the magic of illusion. After I learned about your resistance, I deduced why illusion magic cannot be detected by the soulless. You see, it is predicated on a shared reality that exists only in the shared consciousness of those who have souls. I have a soul, so I can see this shared illusion.

“However, the training in rational thought that I’d been given by the oculists made it difficult for me to simply accept an illusion. By the time I joined the coven, I’d already been training myself to reject bias- which is really an illusion the mind creates- in search of a reality that can be independently verified. Every time I used magic, I got a feeling that something was wrong; that I was being invaded by something unnatural. Applying the scientific method to magic itself made the dissonance worse.”

“I see,” I sat beside Prudence on the bed. “So, when I helped you glimpse the reality that I see, the world of the concrete, you were able to discern the difference between the two.”

“Exactly. Now I can see the boundary between illusion magic and the real world. The day after you traced my face with your fingers, I went to the looking glass and saw my own face. It was difficult at first- like the first time you see past an optical illusion. Pretty soon, however, I was able to flip back and forth with ease- there is the young lady, and there is the crone.”

She propped herself up on an elbow and looked up at me.

“My discovery was a breakthrough on its own, but my new ability will do wonders for my research. I meant what I told you that one, glorious morning. I mean to reach the stars; I will surpass even Father Pius.”

“I don’t doubt it,” I laughed, and then lay back so that we were lying side by side- gazing at each other face to face. “You are brilliant, and even though I can’t fully understand your research, its importance is plain.

“As far as surpassing Father Pius is concerned, I believe you can triumph- you’re the only person with enough gall to challenge a God. I will never forget the look on Brother Lux’s face when you demanded he give up his powers in exchange for abandoning your research.”

“I knew he would never do it.” The glitter in Prudence’s eyes transmuted from laughter to hatred. “How could I possibly have believed him capable of a decent act after he uttered such a transparently bald lie?”

“What lie to you mean?”

Prudence narrowed her eyes, as though gazing into the past in disgust. “You were there- Brother Lux told me that he kept my escape from death a secret from Hope because he believed my madness could not be cured. Obviously, this was a lie, because Brother Lux had sent you to del Sol hoping that I would assist you.”

“Perhaps he thought the assistance of a madwoman would hold me back,” I said. “He is my enemy, after all. Or, perhaps, he was lying when he said that he sent me to del Sol so that we would find each other.”

“Either way, we cannot trust a single word from his mouth. No- his actions must guide us, and all of his actions have been reprehensible. Do you have any idea of the true reason why Brother Lux kept my escape secret from Hope?”

“Only the obvious ideas,” I admitted. “If Hope had known you lived, he would have gone straight to del Sol to find you. You might have given Hope evidence of Brother Lux’s betrayal once you were reunited.”

“Why would Brother Lux fear such a thing? I came to del Sol with nothing.”

“You came to del Sol with nothing but a decade’s worth of knowledge,” I pointed out. “You might have learned something that could not be dismissed as madness- something that Hope could independently verify.”

Prudence nodded slowly. “I see your point. Pius might have been too arrogant to see me as a threat, but Lux is generally more careful.”

“My second idea is that Pius may have found it easier to manipulate Hope’s actions while he still grieved your loss. When I met Hope, he was desperate for vengeance. Hope had other motives of course- he longed to free Celeste from the family condemnation, and he sought the higher ideals of universal liberty- but these other motives did not blind him in the way his grief did.”

Prudence rolled over once more, staring up at the ceiling with an inscrutable expression. “I had no idea that Hope still cared for me that much.”

“He still does,” I said. “I know he does.”

“Grace- I’ve read the accusations against the coven. The papers say that they committed murder against the High Priest. Perhaps the church is making these accusations to save face. After all, the High Priest took his own life, which means their greatest leader fell from grace.”

I rolled onto my back to stare at the ceiling, too. A heavy, blue and beige patterned tapestry was stretched across the ceiling so that patches of spring flowers were visible between long, wooden beams. The tapestry sagged just a little between each beam, giving it the look of festoons.

Prudence stirred a little beside me, and then spoke again.

“You may contradict me,” Prudence said. “I wish to believe the best of Hope, but…”

“I’m afraid I know very little of the matter,” I said. “When Father Sauris died, I was not in Hope’s confidence. Any evidence of Hope’s guilt that I saw during that time might have only been a product of my mind- I was frightened of him, when we first married.”

“That means you have some reason to believe that Hope is guilty of murder, but you don’t wish to say it aloud,” Prudence said.

“Please remember that I am guilty of murder, too,” I said. “You will protest that I killed in the heat of battle, and that I fought to liberate my people. Still, I started the battle of my own will, just like raising a gun to shoot is an act of will. If Hope did kill the High Priest, it was not a less noble act. The High Priest was the enslaver of my people and the enslaver of the minds of our nation. Father Sauris had killed countless people with his inquisition, and he was complicit in your families’ damnation. The spiritual battle Hope fought was really no different than the earthly battle I fought at the temple.”

“I don’t mean to condemn either of you,” Prudence said. “I am troubled by nothing more than the naiveté I thought I put aside long ago. When I joined the Oculist Guild, I believed that a bloodless war was possible- that I could liberate everyone using nothing more than the power of science. I was a child- I now realize that the same method that produces medicine also produces bombs.”

“We choose how to use the method,” I said. I reached out and took Prudence’s hand. “Don’t give up. You- no, we– may still find a way to save everyone.”

I heard Prudence sniff, but when she sat up and looked at me, her eyes were dry.

“I have been so self-absorbed, tonight. Forgive me; I’d yet to ask about your father.”

“His mind is broken,” I said. “I haven’t seen him yet, but the symptoms that Lady Fairfax described are…”

I stopped and took a deep breath, and then I sat up to look at Prudence. Her expression was far from judgmental. Her eyes were wide with compassion.

“I’ve learned a hard lesson about vengeance,” I said. “It’s a hollow thing; once you’ve had it you no longer want it.”

“You are more tender-hearted than most,” Prudence said. “I’ve seen many others who revel in their enemies’ pain.”

“I’ve never thought of myself as tender-hearted,” I said. “Once, Hope called me heartless- he said it was my only virtue. I know he was only teasing me at the time, but I’ve often wondered if he was right. I don’t feel the way I should- I feel neither love nor compassion nor righteous condemnation toward my father.”

“You’ve tied your mind into knots over him- I’d hardly say you lacked feeling.”

“What you’ve said is correct. I’ve tied my mind into knots, not my heart. I always consult my mind before my heart.”

Prudence shrugged. “You’ve said before that you are your mind. If that’s the case, then why try to make the distinction between your mind and heart? You feel all the same, don’t you?”

Prudence laughed at me as I gaped, unable to answer.

“You’re just tired and worried. Lie down, close your eyes, and clear your mind. Save these thoughts for the morning.”

Prudence bid me lie beside her, and I found that I was too tired to protest. I closed my eyes as she instructed, and I tried to clear my mind. There were many layers to clear away, from Brother Lux’s insistence I be tutored before I could see Hope, to my father’s condition, to the happenings at del Sol and all of my worries for the future. Once these thoughts had calmed still other, unimportant ones crept up. I was acutely aware of Prudence’s presence- the sound of her breath, her warmth, and the slight rustling sound she made every time she moved. Then, beneath this were the thoughts that instructed me to strip these other thoughts away.

Just when I thought I’d succeeded, I realized that I’d thought I’d succeeded.

“You said you had a method for ridding yourself of recursive thoughts,” I sighed. “If you could share that with me, it would be most helpful.”

I opened my eyes and saw that Prudence was biting her lip, as though to keep from laughing.

“It was unfair of me to expect you to use such an advanced method right away, especially in your frame of mind. I’m sorry. The secret to battling recursive thoughts is misdirection- you must distract your mind with something else. This time, close your eyes and think of the stars.”

I closed my eyes again, and I pictured the summer sky. I saw Lystra, setting in the west, and then I expanded my view to see the cat, the widow’s veil, and the hunter’s bow above me.

“The sky is dark,” Prudence said in a low, soft voice. “The bright stars are steady, and the dim ones glitter. Everything is silent. The world is turning slowly, and the stars are rising and setting, rising and setting…”

I watched the stars in my mind, until the cadence of Prudence’s voice faded away. Then even the stars faded, my mind grew still, and I fell asleep.

Part LXXIII

Start from the beginning.

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