The Coven, Part LXXVII

My vision blurred with fatigue, but there was nothing to observe in the stone room, anyway. There was nothing but the echoing of footsteps on stone as Father Pius paced around me, and the cadence of Father Pius’s voice as he questioned me.

“Did Brother Lux take you to your room when you became ill at the dumb supper?”

“No- my husband escorted me to my room. Brother Lux came to examine me later- shortly before midnight.”

Father Pius nodded as though in approval. “Was Brother Lux alone when he examined you?”

“Yes, he was.”

“Don’t choose this moment to tell the truth,” Pius snapped. “Remember that this leaves your husband unaccounted for.”

I closed my eyes and searched my mind for any inconsistencies another lie may produce. Then I said, “my husband accompanied Brother Lux to my bedroom, and stayed while Brother Lux examined me.”

“What was Brother Lux’s diagnosis?”

“Only fatigue and overindulgence in drink. He said I would be well once I had rested.”

“Very well. After Brother Lux gave his assessment and retired, did your husband leave as well?”

“No- he stayed with me all night.”

“Good,” Father Pius stopped pacing and the clicking of heels on stone stopped, leaving blissful silence in its wake.

“This is your most critical testimony; you mustn’t stumble over a single detail. Let us go over it again- who was present the night of the dumb supper?”

I had only opened my mouth to answer when Pius put a finger to his lips. He stepped away and opened the doors, behind which Brother Lux already stood waiting.

“Good evening, Lady Frey,” Brother Lux said in a measured tone, bowing low to me as he entered. “I am here to lend my assistance and ensure our testimony is concordant.”

“Good evening,” I said distractedly. It was the first time I had seen Pius and Lux together since I’d learned they could exchange bodies and enter each other’s minds. Despite their differences in physical appearance, watching them approach side by side was like seeing double.

At least I know they are both here, I thought. I cannot think of any reason they would change bodies while in the same room, unless they wish to amuse themselves and to revel in my confusion.

      “Pray continue, Lady Frey,” Pius said, returning to his station. “Who was present the night of the dumb supper?”

“My husband and I were present, of course,” I said. “Our guests were Brother Lux, Lady and Lord Willoughby, Mrs. Auber, and Captain Goode-“

“No, Lady Frey,” Brother Lux interrupted. “Captain Goode did not attend.”

“He must have,” I protested. “The meal was held in Prudence’s honor.”

“Recall that Captain Goode had been ordered to return to his regiment the week before. He was not able to attend.”

“Oh! You are right,” I rubbed my eyes and blinked as the blurriness returned. “I had forgotten.”

“You must not forget. Your husband dies if you forget,” Pius said in so fierce a voice that I sat up straight, jolted awake.

“Burn every detail of the story into your mind, Lady Frey,” Father Pius said. “Repeat it to yourself before you go to sleep.”

Brother Lux reached into his robes. “If we are working late tonight, you will need this. I beg you, however, to take my advice and sleep as soon as you are able.”

I took the vial Brother Lux offered, briefly examined the contents, and then poured a drop directly onto my tongue. A pleasant shiver ran up my spine, I sat up straight, and my vision grew sharper.

“You take too much upon yourself, Lady Frey,” Brother Lux said gently, “and you do this because you won’t trust others to help you. I would guess that you stay up all night to conspire with Prudence, trying to guess how Pius and I will betray you. Instead of trusting Pius’s guidance for your testimony, you re-examine every part of if for treachery. You have to think everything over twice, and the result is mental exhaustion.”

I did not speak; I could not think of an adequate reply.

“I know I have wronged you- we have wronged you,” Brother Lux continued. “It does not necessarily follow, however, that our intentions are opposed now. I am willing to wager that our ultimate goals are the same.”

“Even if I believed you, I would still have to think over my testimony twice. You cannot keep track of your own lies, so why would I trust you with mine?”

“Lady Frey-“

“You are quite correct that Prudence and I stay up all night, wondering what you have done or will do. Last night was particularly difficult. Mrs. Goode visited, and she said that she had seen her son.”

Brother Lux stood straighter, but said nothing.

“Prudence barely kept silent until her mother left, and then you can imagine what happened. She was inconsolable- she had heard what you’d done to her brother, and we could imagine what you have done to Hope all too well.”

Brother Lux and Father Pius exchanged a look.

“You don’t deny it; our worst fears are confirmed, then,” I said. “The reason you haven’t given my letter to Hope, and the reason you had to write his letter for him, is because you’ve blinded him.”

“Lady Frey, it was-“

But Brother Lux cut himself off midsentence and looked at Father Pius, who stepped forward.

“You are right; Lux and I have a greater story to write, and too many mistakes have already been made. Help us work out the testimony tonight, and on week’s end we will take you to Lord Frey.

 

 

#

 

 

When I arrived at Brighton Place, the house was dark. A single light flickered in my room, where Prudence awaited.

She sat in bed wrapped in a blanket, with a book propped open on her knees. I climbed into bed beside her and lay still for a moment, watching the flickering shadows on the ceiling. Then I spoke.

“They confirmed what we’d feared.”

Prudence did not speak, but the book slid from her knees and onto the floor. She leaned over and put her arms around me.

“We’ve accomplished so much, and we’ve accomplished nothing,” she said.

“He is still alive,” I said. “I will be with him on week’s end.”

“Grace, we must prepare ourselves for the possibility that-“

“That what?” I whispered.

Prudence heaved a heavy sigh. “There are a hundred small errors a human mind can make, and here is one of them; it’s easy to believe that if something terrible happens, it is punishment for a mistake that you’ve made. But there are perils in the world that simply cannot be overcome. It is possible to make all of the correct moves, and still lose the game.”

“But we’ve done so much already!” I protested. “We’ve defied him in so many ways, and-“

“We’ve barely survived,” Prudence said. “I’m not saying we should stop trying, but we must also prepare for the worst.”

How? I thought. How can I possibly prepare myself for that?

Prudence and I sat in silence for some time. Then the silence was broken by a scratching on the window, followed by a soft screech as the window sash was raised. I held a finger to my lips and crept to the window, dropping into a fighting stance as I waited for the intruder to emerge.

A cloaked figure came through the curtains, and I sprung to action, sweeping their legs before they could get their footing. I put the intruder in a tight hold, which they struggled too weakly to break. The figure under the cloak was small, and so light that I easily hauled them to their feet.

Prudence stood and lifted her candle, peering underneath the intruder’s hood.

“Raven! But… how?” Prudence gasped.

In my surprise, I loosened my grip, and Raven took the opportunity to twist around in my arms. Her hood fell back, and she stared into my eyes- her own eyes flashing bright red.

At once I felt a familiar sensation, as though I were being bound against my will. I tried to move my arms, but the more I struggled, the tighter they seemed to be bound.

Raven smirked and stepped away from me, toward Prudence.

No, I thought. I will not allow you to do this to me.

      I thought of moving, and my limbs did not move. Then I reached out for that feeling, that tightening of the string, that I had found when I converted thought into action. My arms moved a little, and then my legs. Then, all at once, I felt the bonds fall away.

The smirk on Raven’s face also fell away, replaced by a look of shock.

“Damn,” she said. “Pius wrong about how to use magic against you. He said you were Ancient.”

“Half- Ancient, yes, but it was a mistake to use my magic resistance against me,” I said.

I moved to grab her again, but she dodged and ran to the other side of the bed.

“Hey- I was only acting in self-defense,” she said. “You attacked me first.”

“You were stealing into my bedroom,” I said. “The window was supposed to be locked.”

Raven continued to back away. “Locks can’t stop me,” she said. “Anyway, how else was I supposed to get you alone? Every time you go out you are with one of Pius’s lackeys, and I didn’t want anyone but you to see me.”

“I believe everyone in town has seen you, at this point,” I said. “Both Brother Amicus and Mercy watched you follow the carriage from the cathedral.”

“You’re kidding,” Raven said. “I thought I was being so careful…”

Prudence put her finger to her lips, and then went to the door, the walls, and the corners, casting the spell of silence. Then she turned back to Raven.

“Why are you here?”

“A couple of weeks ago, Abbess Joy caught me trying to access her magic mirror. She told me very specifically that I should never access her mirror again, that I should not try to contact you, and that under no circumstances should I ever steal an abandoned ship, whose coordinates she gave me, to come to Earth and find out what father Pius was doing. I assumed she was working with you.”

“Well, yes,” Prudence said. “I wanted to speak with you, but I never imagined that you would come here in person.”

“I’m afraid I’m as lost as you are, with regards to Pius’s actions,” Raven said. She put her hands behind her back and began to pace, though she still glanced at me from time to time. “I had no idea that he was trying to convince people that he was a God.”

“He is a God,” Prudence corrected. “He’s ascended. I’ve seen his new power with my own eyes. Abbess Joy herself could barely stand up to it.”

Raven stopped pacing. “Oh, dear. This might be a problem.”

“It certainly is a problem,” Prudence said hotly. “He has all the resources, power, and allies one could possibly need to take over Aeterna. Considering your past with Pius, can you provide evidence you are not still one of his allies?”

“Don’t be ridiculous- how am I supposed to prove I’m not working for him?” Raven said. “I thought you already knew I wasn’t- why else would you contact me?”

Prudence and Raven stared at each other with near-identical expressions of annoyance. I stepped between them.

“We don’t have the luxury of quarreling amongst ourselves,” I said. “Everything Raven has said so far has proved true. We need her help, Prudence.”

“I only wanted to question her through the mirror, not work with her in person. How can I trust Raven after everything I’ve endured since I formed my contract with her?”

“Excuse me? I gave you a piece of my own power in order to help you. You were warned about the consequences of that power.”

“You didn’t give me the tiniest idea of how bad it would be,” Prudence said. “Even my power felt like a curse. As for the actual curse- it was unendurable.”

An odd thought struck me, then- a thought borne of the desire to test my new-found force of will.

I can do it again, I thought. I know the feeling, now.

      I could not linger on the idea, however. Raven and Prudence continued to argue, their voices raising so much that I wondered if the spell of silence would be enough to contain them.

“Do you have any idea what I went through to get here?” Raven said. “I could have died. Now I spend all of my time dodging inquisitors in the city because I can’t blend in.”

Raven pulled back her cloak and gestured at the dress she wore underneath. It was a shining, blue dress trimmed with a profusion of stiff lace, which was already beginning to unravel at the sleeves.

“Is this the only dress you own?” I asked.

“Yes.”

I gestured to her and led her to the adjacent room, which contained my wardrobe. She and Prudence followed and waited in uncomfortable silence as I searched through my clothes.

“Here- I think this may fit you with a few adjustments,” I said, holding up a plain traveling dress. “It is my plainest dress, except for the pilgrim robes from del Sol, which I daresay would draw far more attention to you.”

“Thank you,” Raven said quietly.

“You may change behind the screen if you like,” I said. “Tell me if you need any assistance.”

“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” Raven said, taking the dress. She went behind the screen I’d indicated, and Prudence stood in front of the screen as though standing guard.

“I learned about Wisdom from a strange man- he said he was Priest of the Cult of Reverence,” Raven said, her voice slightly muffled by rustling fabric. “Is it true- is Pius really the one they call Wisdom?”

“We shouldn’t continue this conversation until Prudence seals this room, as well” I said.

“Don’t worry- I already have,” Raven said. “I can do it without word or gesture.”

“You can? I’ve only met one person who could, before.” Prudence said.

“Yes, and he got his powers from me,” Raven said. “I’ve never contracted with anyone as easily as I did with Hope. How is he, anyway? Have you heard anything?”

“He is alive,” I said. “He is suffering, but he is alive.”

“Damned barbarians- how could Pius resort to their methods?” Raven groaned. “Things are about to get messier, too. I’ve been listening around taverns- all kinds of brawls are breaking out because everyone is taking sides. The followers of Wisdom believe that Hope is innocent, and those loyal to Order believe that he is guilty.”

Raven emerged from the screen, buttoning her short-dress. “This makes no sense to me.”

“You are buttoning it correctly,” Prudence said.

“Not that- why would Wisdom’s followers believe Hope is innocent if Pius is really Wisdom? Pius is the one who arrested Hope.”

“I believe this is part of Pius’s plan,” I said. “I believe he intends to cause civil unrest in order to seize power.”

Raven closed her eyes and sighed. “The cult of Reverence has been trying to awaken Order. As I said- things are about to get messier.”

“The way Pius has done this- it makes it impossible for us to pick one side, doesn’t it?” Prudence said. “How can we fight Pius when he’s behind the church and behind the cult of Wisdom?”

“We can’t rely on cults or factions; we must fight him our own way,” I said.

“Perhaps,” Raven adjusted her skirts with a thoughtful expression. “But maybe I can cause a little chaos on my own. The cult of Reverence is interested in me- maybe I should form an alliance with them. Then I could help Reverence disrupt the cult of Wisdom, and disturb Reverence’s cult, as well.”

“You’re a demon- Reverence knows you will betray him.”

“I’m a very low-ranking demon- a nobody,” Raven said. “Reverence will underestimate me.”

“Maybe you will succeed,” Prudence conceded, “but to what end? Pius is already using both the church and the cult of Wisdom to destabilize Aeterna, and if you cause chaos among both factions, you may only hasten his goals.”

“Chaos is rarely helpful to anyone’s goals,” Raven said. “Pius is not creating chaos; he’s carefully cultivating instability. He is setting the stage for his own rise. Trust me- I intend to find and destroy every platform he’s raising for himself.”

“Why,” I asked. “You know what reason we have to hate and distrust him, but what drives you to stop him?”

“He’s powerful, he’s taking over, and he’s becoming something alien- something whose goals we cannot understand. That makes him inherently dangerous,” Raven said. “Besides- he has betrayed me, too. We were supposed to stop the Gods- not become them.”

Raven threw her cloak over her shoulders, leaving the blue dress behind, and walked briskly across the room. She paused at the window.

“Thank you for the dress. I’ll be in touch soon.”

“Wait- here,” Prudence took a black cap from a hook on the wall and tossed it to Raven. “Cover that ridiculous hair.”

“You’re one to talk, ginger,” Raven said as she caught the cap. She placed the cap on her head, however, threw open the window-sash, and slipped out into the night.

 

Start at the beginning.

Part LXXVIII

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