The Coven, Part LXXX

Hope and I talked a little more before I was obliged to leave. I talked about Hope’s case as much as I dare under the guard’s scrutiny, but Hope quickly steered the topic of conversation away from legal matters. He asked me about my time at del Sol, and I was able to assure him that the sisters had been kind to Celeste and me, that Abbess Joy had been dedicated to our help and protection, and that I had found a mother figure in the Abbess.

Hope spoke a little of the inquisition, though he was reluctant to reveal what he had personally suffered. He told me, in indirect language, that Lady Willoughby had suffered a terrible violation, and I was able to imagine what had happened.

“Lady Willoughby’s strength has surprised all of us,” Hope said, “but what happened to her, combined with how it has affected her husband, may prove too much. Lord Willoughby is a broken man, as you may have heard. The rest of us are powerless to help either of them.”

I closed my eyes and saw the merry smile of the woman who had been so kind to me. A fresh wave of anger washed over me.

“As though the violation were not enough, Lady Willoughby has been maimed, and can no longer speak,” Hope continued. “They have no family to visit or help. Lord Willoughby has no near relation living, and Lady Willoughby’s family disowned her upon her marriage.”

And Lady Willougby’s friends at court have all scattered in fear, I thought.

I turned back to Brother Lux. “May I visit Lady Willoughby? May I see the others?”

“Not today, Lady,” Brother Lux said, stepping forward. “Father Pius will arrive soon with the carriage, and I advise that you go home as soon as possible to rest. You will be allowed one more visit before the trial commences on mid-week.”

“Grace,” Hope squeezed my hand gently. “If my brother advises you to rest, I hope you will. I appreciate everything you’ve done, but look to your own health and safety first. Take care you do not do anything to anger those in authority. Their power is beyond anything you know.”

My eyes filled with tears again. Hope had suffered depravation, torture, and maiming, and yet all of his concern was for me. I took a deep breath to steady my voice and spoke.

“I understand what I face- I discerned its true nature not long ago,” I said, wondering if he would comprehend the deeper meaning of the statement. “I am still determined in my course.”

“Grace-“

“I promise I will sleep,” I said in a stronger voice. “Promise me you will do the same. I daresay you need the sleep far more than I.”

“Oh!” Hope said, as though in sudden understanding. He rose from his seat, and I embraced him again.

“You amaze me, Grace,” Hope said.

“You amaze me,” I said. “Hold on, just a little longer, and I promise I will do everything in my power to free you.”

 

 

#

 

 

“Thank you, Lady Frey, from the bottom of my heart.”

Brother Lux spoke these unexpected words on the carriage ride back from the cathedral.

“For what?” I asked.

“Thank you for what you did for my brother,” Brother Lux said.

“I only gave him words of encouragement. It wasn’t much-“

Brother Lux cut me off with a laugh. “Lady Frey, it’s futile to lie to me. I see with Wisdom’s eyes. I can see the threads of magic that bind the world as clearly as I see you sitting before me. I saw you break my brother’s curse.”

I fought the urge to swear aloud. I’d been hoping to keep my new powers secret for as long as possible, yet I’d been discovered within days of obtaining them.

“Pius saw what you did for Prudence, as well. Don’t be alarmed,” Brother Lux said quickly. “I am glad you’ve done it. Despite our- differences– I have no reason to wish Prudence cursed. In fact, you have reduced her chance of exposure, for the inquisitors have only seen her cursed face.”

Brother Lux reached out, as though to grasp my hands. Then he seemed to remember himself, and he drew back awkwardly.

“Do you think that you could do it again? If I let you see the others, could you break their curses?”

“I will help the others in any way I can,” I said. “I may not be able to do anything for Captain Goode, since you have taken his hands…”

A chill came over me as I spoke- as I fully felt what kind of monster the polite young monk who sat across from me really was.

“I will not do the same for you, Brother Lux. I know very well why I should not.”

“I would not ask you to remove my so-called ‘curse.’” Brother Lux said, leaning back with a derisive grin. “It is all that is shielding me from the mouth of hell. Help the others- that is all I require.”

“I will help the others for their own sakes, not yours,” I said.

The carriage pulled to a stop at Brighton Place, and I descended without looking back at Brother Lux.

 

 

#

 

 

I went straight up to the nursery, where I found Celeste and Prudence still seated at tea, along with Mrs. Equanimous Goode.

“I really must press you to try one of these tarts- they are delightful,” Mrs. Goode was saying to Prudence, who waved the offered tray away. The party seemed oblivious to my presence until Celeste cried aloud.

“Lady Grace! You’re back.” Celeste stood from the table and ran to greet me.

“A Lady does not leave the table without excusing herself,” Mrs. Good chided.

Celeste ignored Mrs. Goode and leaned in for a hug.

“Father Pius was very kind,” Celeste said. “He gave me his absolute promise that no one else would be arrested. Still, I can never be completely easy until you are home again.”

“I’m here now,” I said, “and I will join you for tea, if you will allow me.”

“Of course, please be seated,” Celeste said, gesturing to an empty seat with all the charm of a proper hostess. “And have a tart, they really are good.”

I sat, and Prudence poured a fourth cup of tea while Celeste continued to prattle.

“Father Pius isn’t the ogre I’d thought he was. He said that he would allow my- allow Sister Jubilee to visit Uncle Hope and Uncle Just to offer prayers from del Sol.”

“Did he really say so?” I asked, taking the tea from Prudence.

“Oh yes,” Celeste answered for her mother. “I know he was telling the truth, because there’s just something about the high priest that one has to trust, you know? He said that he must follow the law and remain impar- impartial, but he was sure that once the truth came out, everything would be alright.”

My blood ran cold when I thought of Pius using the force of his charm to influence an innocent young girl, and yet I could not deny that I saw no trace of the anxiety that had plagued Celeste that morning.

“It sounds like Father Pius made quite an impression on you,” I said.

“And why should he not?” Mrs. Goode Sniffed. “We have not had a High Priest who possessed such wisdom in ages. He will purge the church of all its corrupt factions and bring truth to the world.”

Mrs. Goode, having finished her speech, handed me the tray of tarts with a satisfied air, and I accepted one with a murmured, “thank you.”

“You should take a biscuit, as well. I must say you seem exhausted, my dear. You must be, after seeing your husband in such a state. I hope you will not allow his appearance distress you. He is much stronger than he may appear, and the trial will be speedy.”

“Why should Uncle Hope’s appearance be distressing?” Celeste asked.

Mrs. Goode sent Celeste a withering look, but I answered.

“Your Uncle Hope has been kept inside for some time, so he is somewhat pale and thin.”

“Oh yes, and they cut off all his lovely hair- he told me in his letters,” Celeste said. “He isn’t ill from being cooped up, is he? Did he have a cough?”

“No- no cough,” I said. “As your Grandmaman said, he is very strong.”

I could hear Prudence heave a small sigh of relief.

“Is Uncle Just well, too?”

“I was not able to see him, today,” I said. “But I gave your Uncle Hope your love, as I promised, and he sends you his love in return.”

“Thank you- I knew you would,” Celeste said.

Mrs. Goode wiped her mouth and stood. “If you will excuse me, I think I shall depart. I only wished to see my granddaughter and hear how Lord Frey was faring. Don’t get up on my account, Lady Frey. As I’ve told you before, I don’t stand on formality. I will see myself out.”

“It’s no trouble,” I insisted.

I gave Celeste and Prudence an apologetic smile, and then escorted Mrs. Goode to the door. After Mrs. Goode’s comment about Wisdom, I did not feel comfortable allowing her to wander through the house alone, but she went straight to the entrance without dawdling, and did not seem interested in snooping or questioning me.

I returned to the nursery, where Celeste and Prudence were finishing their tea. We spent the rest of the afternoon reading, and after dinner, Celeste seemed restless.

“Do please let me stay up tonight,” Celeste asked. “I’m always asleep by the time you come home.”

“You may stay up a little,” Prudence said. “If you will promise to entertain us.”

“Entertain you?” Celeste asked.

“You have not had a music lesson in some time,” Prudence said. “I know Lord Ainsworth needs to be kept quiet, but the drawing room is very far from the sickroom, and the clavichord has a light tone. I don’t think we will disturb Lord Ainsworth, and I daresay Lady Fairfax will not object.

Lady Fairfax, far from objecting, was delighted with the plan. She sat in her armchair with the air of someone attending a palace concert while Celeste first played a simple air I had taught her at Rowan Heights, and then sang a duet with Prudence.

I had never heard Prudence sing or play, because I always worked with Sister Love while she gave Celeste her music lesson, and when Prudence sang with the choir at del Sol her voice was lost in the chorus. Now I could fully appreciate what I’d missed, for even when Prudence lowered her voice to match Celeste’s, the drawing room seemed hardly able to contain such a full, rich tone.

When the duet was over, Lady Fairfax requested that Prudence sing another song, so Prudence sang an aria, this time giving full reign to her considerable talent, and I accompanied with less skill on the clavichord. Prudence sang an encore, and then I played a solo to allow Prudence the chance to rest her voice.

“A most delightful evening,” Lady Fairfax said. “It is wonderful to have young ladies in the house, to drive away some of gloom of these rainy days. I only wish we had more opportunities to spend the evening together in such a way.”

Celeste had fallen asleep and was snoring softly, with Snowbear curled up in her lap likewise snoring. With a chuckle, Prudence shook Celeste awake and took her upstairs, and when Smith came in to snuff the lanterns, Lady Fairfax drew me aside.

“I understand you were allowed to visit your husband, today. May I ask…”

“He is alive, and his health is as good as one might expect, given his circumstances,” I said.

“How is he faring… mentally?” she said in a breathless tone.

“His spirits are low, but he is rational and in command of his faculties.”

“Yes- Lord Frey always seemed to have great strength of mind. It is an important quality- one too often overlooked in leaders.”

“I don’t anticipate my husband being in such a role soon, given his situation,” I said firmly. “But how is my father faring? Has his mental state improved much?”

“He has been more vocal, but his words make very little sense,” Lady Fairfax said. “I know you haven’t much time, but is there anything else you might do for him- anything you haven’t thought of?”

I hesitated just a moment- long enough for Lady Fairfax to notice. She clutched my hand.

“However painful it may be, please try. I am lost without his guidance.”

 

 

#

 

 

“I’ve experienced few burdens heavier than the obligation of power,” Prudence said gently. “I will not add to that burden.”

Celeste and Lady Fairfax had long gone to sleep, and all the lamps and candles in the house were extinguished. Prudence and I lay together, side by side in the patch of moonlight that fell through the window.

“I can’t ignore those in need, but I still wish you would chide me for my recklessness. I exposed myself without thinking when I broke Hope’s curse. Be the voice of reason that you’ve always been, and warn me from doing it again,” I said.

“How can I, after the good you’ve done?” Prudence said. “Because of your recklessness, Hope can sleep again, free of his visions of hell. How can I advise you to hide such a power away?”

“Yet, you won’t tell me that I must help my father, either?”

“I can’t, Grace. I understand your concerns; your father may remember that Hope cast the spell, and testify against him. Yet I also understand the guilt you carry, and the need to make it right.

“I won’t tell you how to use your power. I wish I could bear this burden for you, but I can’t,” she concluded.

“I’m only asking for your advice-“

“Grace, when my magic caused me pain, you would never have dreamed of advising me to use it, or to refrain from using it to help my friends.”

Tears came to my eyes, and I could not hold them back any longer. Prudence wrapped her arms around me while I cried. I cried for Hope, and I cried for all the wretched prisoners I could not free. I cried for my father and I cried in frustration.

Finally, I was drained. I could cry no more.

“For what it’s worth,” Prudence sniffed, wiping away her own tears, “I trust you.”

“I know,” I said. “That is worth a good deal.”

“Thank you,” Prudence said. “When I think of what I’ve seen Hope suffer on account of his nightmares, I am overwhelmed by relief that they are over. Thank you for my own sake, as well. Knowing that my true face lies under my veil, and not the face of a monster, makes it easier to bear. When this is all over, I will burn that veil and never cover my face again.

“If only he could see…” Prudence trailed off, and then she shook her head before she spoke again. “Father Pius came to tell me that I will visit the others, and coached me to appear as though I were a mere sister offering prayers from del Sol. But I’m afraid to face Hope again. Will he hate me for what I’ve done? Will he even believe it is me? I’m almost afraid that the shock of hearing my voice will provoke Hope to reveal us. Is that Pius’s plan?”

“Hope will not be surprised,” I said. “I’m sorry- I should have asked you, but I could not deny him such a gift; I told him that you are alive.”

“But the guards…”

I took Prudence’s hand and began to trace the letters onto her palm, as I had for Hope.

“Our hands were here by my chest, and my back was to the guards. I might have been stroking his hand to comfort him, but Hope understood. Your voice will confirm my message.”

“So… he already knows. He knows.”

Prudence’s voice drifted into the still night air. Then her eyes closed and her breath rose and fell steadily as she succumbed to sleep. I watched Prudence as the moon rose higher in the city sky, and my fatigue gave way to a rare feeling of peace.

My eyes closed, and I slept in the knowledge that somewhere, where the moonlight could not touch him, Hope slept, too.

Part LXXXI

Read from the beginning.

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