He was so quiet, and his breathing so soft and regular, that it was easy to believe that my father slept. When I looked up from the book, however, I saw that he was sitting up and blinking into the morning light.
I had the means to free my father’s mind. I knew that the spell would break as easily as the curses that had bound Hope and Prudence. But my new ability was dependent on my will, and when I considered breaking the spell, I could feel the shard of ice which had pierced my heart the day Father revealed what he’d done to my mother. The ice imprisoned my will, and I could not act to free him.
Regret for vengeance, it seemed, was not the same as forgiveness.
Still, I had made a promise to Lady Fairfax, so I opened my father’s history and read aloud.
I read mechanically at first, but soon the book’s contents caught my interest. It was a history unlike any I’d ever read- unrelentingly rigorous and full of footnotes and citations. Assumptions other historians had made were deconstructed, and nothing was stated without evidentiary support.
“When I define the dark ages,” I read, “I include much of the Ancient War, for there are few surviving texts from that period in history. Therefore, only the litany can be considered an authoritative source of information on the Ancient War. However, I will humbly summarize the litany’s tale here, and include one or two points of interest I was able to glean from my own research-“
“Folly- empty words and folly,” my father groaned.
“Father,” I looked up. “Are you listening?”
“I’m sorry, Harmony. It is all lies..all lies…”
“I am Grace,” I said firmly. “Look at me.”
“Lies and doom- my doom,” he groaned.
I closed the book. “Tell me the truth, then. Why are you doomed?”
Father did not answer. After a few seconds of silence, I gave up and opened the book again.
“Though no man living has ever seen an Ancient, the litany provides a terrifying description. More beast than man, and without the spark of divinity contained within the heart of all the civilized races, the Ancient-“
“Stop- stop- no more,” my father cried. “Forgive me- forgive me…”
I closed the book. My father’s cries of agony shook me to my icy heart.
“I wish to forgive you,” I muttered, “but I can’t. You took my mother from those who loved her and used her to further your ambition. You never loved her or me-“
“Haven’t I been kind to you, Harmony?” He said, his voice trembling. “Haven’t I given you comfort and wealth? Why won’t you be happy?”
“I’m not-“ I flung the book aside in frustration. “You cannot force a slave to be happy.”
“I couldn’t free you,” he sat forward so quickly I thought he would leap out of bed, but instead he grasped my shoulders, staring at me with a frenzied look in his eye. “You knew I couldn’t free you. I told you I couldn’t free you. I tried to free your child but I couldn’t.”
My blood froze.
“What do you mean, you couldn’t?” I choked.
My father’s fury seemed to ebb away, and he fell back on the bed, staring into the light once more.
“Don’t you dare-” I moved forward and took his head in my hands, forcing him to look me in the eyes. “What do you mean when you say you couldn’t free Harmony’s child?”
“Poison, flintlock, rope- I was too weak to do it. Too weak.”
“You mean… you tried to kill someone?” I whispered.
“The mercy of hell is too good for me…”
“A blood oath,” I said. “You broke a blood oath, and you tried to take your own life.”
“I didn’t know I’d lied. I thought I could free the child.” My father reached a trembling hand out and stroked my hair. “I’m sorry, my love. I’m sorry.”
I grasped my father’s hand. “Do you still have the blood oath? Where is it?”
But my father’s hand went limp in mine, and his eyes went blank again. His tenuous lucidity was gone.
“Lady Frey- what in the world are you doing?”
Lady Fairfax stood on the threshold of my father’s office, staring at me as I sifted through a pile of documents.
“Lady Fairfax,” I said, standing. “I need your advice.”
“Certainly,” Lady Fairfax said, picking her way through the books, boxes and papers as she entered the room. “What do you need?”
“Does my father own a safe or a lock-box, or some other place he would keep important documents?”
“He never would have kept such things in the house,” Lady Fairfax said. “All of his business contracts are in his vault at the Verdant City bank.”
“Do you know which vault is his, or where I can find his bank book?”
“I have the bank book; his account number and vault numbers are all inside. Why do you…”
Lady Fairfax paused and then came closer, lifting her skirts as she stepped over the books and boxes of loose papers that littered the floor.
“You’ve found something, haven’t you? You’ve found something that may help him.”
“I- I may have. I cannot be certain until…”
“Say no more.” Lady Fairfax went to the desk and removed a false bottom from the top drawer. “Here is his bank book and vault keys. Take whatever avenue you may to free him.”
I sent for the carriage, and then rushed to my room to ready myself. Prudence, however, intercepted me in the hallway.
“Whatever is the matter?” she asked. “You are flushed. Here- sit down.”
“I cannot. I am going out, and I must be off as soon as I can-“
“Why?” she said gently. “Tell me- what is the matter?”
Prudence took my hands; I had not noticed my hands were trembling until Prudence steadied mine with her own.
“I think that-“ I said before I paused, unsure of how to express my fears.
“Come inside- I will give us privacy,” Prudence said.
I almost relented, but at that moment Mercy stepped around the corner and walked quickly down to hall toward me.
“Have you ordered the carriage?” Mercy asked. “It is waiting at the front door.”
“Thank you, Mercy,” I said.
I turned back to Prudence. “We will talk later. I must go now.”
“Where are you going?” Mercy asked.
“I have an errand at the Verdant City Bank. I won’t be long.”
“I will accompany you,” Mercy said.
“That won’t be necessary, thank you.”
“Please, allow me to exercise my liberty while I still have it,” I burst forth.
Mercy raised her eyebrows, but said nothing.
“You don’t mean- are you under suspicion?” Prudence whispered.
“No- nothing like that. It may be nothing, but I must verify. Please…”
“I cannot force you,” Mercy said, “but if you are smart, you will listen to me; the city is crowded with people who are here just to see your husband’s trial, some support you, and some would see you and Lord Frey hung. If you don’t wish to be assaulted, kidnapped, or assassinated, you won’t go out at all. If you must go into public, you will at least wear a veil and take me along to help protect you.”
I turned to Prudence, who nodded in agreement.
“Remember- you aren’t protected by the laws of del Sol, here. Abbess Joy did not wish to tell you- she thought you would feel obligated- but she was forced to expel two would-be assassins during your stay in that peaceful place.”
This gave me pause. “What else would you advise, Mercy, if I must go out?”
“Ask coachman to cover the arms and remove the livery from the carriage, and take a circuitous route to the bank,” Mercy said.
“Very well,” I relented. “I will heed your advice, Mercy. Just- promise that whatever you may see or hear on our journey, you will keep it secret.”
“You have my word of honor,” Mercy said firmly.
While the coachman made the ordered alterations to the livery, I found a length of black crepe to cover my face as though I were in deep mourning. Then Mercy, wearing a very close bonnet, accompanied me in the carriage.
The bank was close to Verdant City’s square, which was almost as crowded as it had been the night we’d arrived. Coachman took a detour through a side road to bypass the crowds, and then pulled up to the side of the bank where Mercy and I disembarked.
I clutched my veil with one hand, and Mercy linked arms with me on the other side before guiding me through the crowds at the door. Once inside, I gave my father’s name in a low voice to a young clerk, who started at the information and then ran to fetch a superior to assist me.
We waited a few tense moments, the crowd pressing in on all sides, before the superior arrived. The superior, Mr. Musgrove, took me into his office to verify my authority to act on my father’s behalf, and then after some small questions about my own account and investments, he escorted me down a long hallway to my father’s vault.
“I do hope that, given your father’s state of ill health,” he said as we went, “that your visit does not indicate…”
“My father’s condition remains unchanged,” I said. “I only thought it best to prepare for the worst.”
“Very wise,” Mr. Musgrove said. He stopped and opened a door, which led into a room filled with locked, metal doors.
“I will open the vault and then give you privacy. I will be just on the other side of the door- knock when you are finished, or if you need any further assistance.
“Oh! My Lady,” Mercy said in an awed whispered. “He isn’t going to lock us in, is he? The room is so small, I can hardly breathe.”
“The door will not be locked,” Mr. Musgrove said with a condescending smile. “I will be just outside to make sure no one disturbs your mistress.”
“Thank you, sir,” Mercy said, bobbing a little curtsy. She stood near the door as Mr. Musgrove located the correct vault and opened the door, and then she curtsied to him again as he left.
As soon as Mr. Musgrove was through the door, she put her ear to the door and slowly turned the handle.
“He did not lock it,” she whispered to me. “I will guard the door. Please hurry.”
The vault was not large, but it was filled to the top with boxes of documents and contracts. I did not stop to read any of them, instead scanning the titles and skimming for any mention of my mother or myself. After an hour of searching, I came across an intricately carved wooden box, which proved to be locked. I tried each of my father’s keys, but none of them fit.
“Come here. I will try to open it,” Mercy said.
I handed her the box, and she took a pin from her cap and fiddled with the lock until, with a grunt of frustration, she struck the box.
I heard a snap, and then she handed the box back to me.
“I couldn’t pick the lock, so I broke the hinges. I hope it was not valuable.”
I accepted the box with a whisper of thanks, and then prized the remains of the lid off. Inside I found a packet of papers tied with a length of twine, which proved to be letters from Father Sauris detailing the conspiracy he’d formed with my father to entrap the Frey family.
I have no doubt that your suspicions regarding the Frey lineage are true, and if so, the family condemnation will forever be a plague upon the true church. Introduction of Ancient blood may prove a solution, at least in the short-term, for a merciful end must be preferable to eternal hellfire. In the long term, however, I fear we must find other ways to ingratiate ourselves to the Frey Family, or else we will be lost.
“Why were you so afraid of Lord Frey?” I whispered to myself.
The Ancient bride must be freeborn, and here I believe the fancy you’ve taken for that little assassin may prove serendipitous, if you do not object to dirtying your own family line for the greater good.
I read each letter thoroughly, but none of them contradicted the claim that I would be freeborn. In fact, the last letter I read contained a promise that I would not be placed under a contract, and this letter was signed and sealed by both the young Prince and the High Priest.
Unsatisfied, I felt into the corners of the box and found a small space where I could insert a fingernail. This proved to be a false bottom, and when I removed it I found another folded parchment.
I, Lord Valor Ainsworth, being of sound mind, solemnly swear to the slave Harmony to sire her a daughter free of the enslavement of her race. In exchange, the slave Harmony does likewise swear to leave the protection of del Sol to enter into the service of Lord Valor Ainsworth, and to enter into the covenant of marriage with the same. This is done with the knowledge and consent of the High Priest Sauris, keeper of the Ancient race.
At the bottom of the page was drawn the seal of the Ainsworth family, spattered with long dried, faded blood.
The words on the contract blurred, and I crumpled it to my chest.
“Lady Frey?” Mercy said quietly.
I quickly dried my eyes. “I have found what I sought- or at least, I have found everything there is to be found, here. Allow me to put everything in order, and then we can go.”
I moved to put the broken box back into the vault, but as I did so I stumbled slightly, and one of the papers slipped from my fingers and onto the floor. Mercy picked it up and, as she handed it to me, her eyes lingered a moment on the words.
“Your mother was…”
She closed her eyes and handed the paper back to me.
“I’m sorry- I didn’t mean to read it,” she continued.
“I’m not ashamed of her, but-“
“It’s dangerous; I know,” Mercy said.
“Abbess Joy and Sister Jubilee told me that you had gone on some dangerous adventure at del Sol,” Mercy whispered on the carriage ride back. “They didn’t say what you had done but, given your mother’s situation and where she was buried…”
“The less you know, the better,” I said.
“I understand,” she said quietly, but then she sighed and spoke again. “At the bank- were you searching for your own contract? Or has it already been destroyed?”
“I may not have a contract at all,” I said. “Everything I’ve read seems to indicate that I was freeborn, but I will need to speak to my father to confirm it.”
Mercy nodded. “If you ever a contract, destroy it before anyone can see it, and confine the knowledge as best you can. You are lucky, because you were raised as though you were free, and married in the public eye, but if anyone finds out, you will spend the rest of your life in fear.”
Mercy paused and looked out the window.
“I saw him- my former master- in the town square when we arrived. I saw him again in the Cathedral courtyard. It was silly to think he’d disappear just because Lord Frey stole and destroyed my contract. I was foolish to think I was really free.”
“Is this the reason you sought to join the coven- to seek freedom?”
“That, and vengeance,” Mercy said with a wry grin. “That’s why I sought training from Miss Chastity. My master was not a kind man.”
“If your former master sees you, and if he seeks to expose you, I will do everything I can to protect you. I will tell any lie necessary to conceal your identity.”
Mercy looked at me for a few moments with a strange expression. Then she took a small, folding knife from her sleeve. She cut her palm, letting blood seep from the wound.
“I swear I will never reveal your secret,” she said simply. “Swear you will do the same.”
“I should tell you that I am resistant to magic, and that resistance extends to blood oaths.”
“Who said anything about magic?”
She handed me the knife, and I cut my palm.
“I swear I will never reveal your secret,” I said.
We put our hands together, and Mercy’s lips stretched into a genuine smile.
When I returned to Brighton Place, Prudence was waiting for me.
“If you could- please give my father and I some privacy.”
“Say no more,” she said. “As soon as you shut the door, I will make sure no one will hear or disturb you.”
I pressed her hand in gratitude, and then went to my father’s door. He lay in bed where I had left him, but his eyes were closed as though in sleep.
I grabbed his shoulders and shook him. “Wake up- look at me.”
My father opened his eyes, but he did not respond.
“Please- I must know.” I looked into his eyes, and I tried to find the place where magic resisted my will. My will was still not present, however. I only stared into the blank, watery eyes of the father I could not love or forgive.
“Father, please tell me. Am I free?”
He did not answer.
“Did you really break your blood oath? Was Harmony’s daughter enslaved?”
He still did not answer.
I took the blood oath from my pocket and began to read aloud.
“I, Lord Valor Ainsworth, being of sound mind, solemnly swear to the slave Harmony to sire her a daughter free of the enslavement of her race.”
“No- no- please stop,” he whimpered.
“I can’t help you unless you tell me the truth,” I said.
“You- you can help?” He blinked a few times.
“I can help you, but first I must know; does Harmony’s daughter have a contract, or is she free?”
“Contracts, contracts, lies and folly- ink and paper,” he groaned. “Words are nothing.”
“Yes, I know,” I said. “But still, the law can bind us as long as people believe in it.”
“The stories are true.” My father closed his eyes again. “The rose and the thorns.”
“Wake up.” I shook my father again. “Does this mean that I have no contract?”
“I am bound by blood and lies- blood and lies,” my father whispered.
“Then to hell with it all,” I said. I took the contract and tore it in half. “To hell with your blood and your lies.”
“Ah! What are you doing?” My father cried, sitting up.
“I’m doing whatever I like. I am free.” I went to the fireplace and tossed the contract into the flames.
“Oh! Oh! I’m burning. I’m burning in hellfire,” my father said, and he clutched his chest.
“No you aren’t. This is all in your head.”
“Ah-“ he groaned and fell back, breathing in gasps, and trembling violently as he did.
“I- I- I am dying,” he whispered.
“No- you aren’t,” I said, faltering.
I drew closer to my father. His had gone ashen, and as he gasped for air his lips and eyelids were tinged in blue.
“Father,” I touched his hand. “I didn’t mean to-“
“Why- why didn’t you love me?” he gasped.
“I couldn’t love you,” I whispered. “You never loved me.”
“I gave you everything,” he gasped. “Your- child- will- be- a- queen…”
“I’m dying. I’m dy-“
He gasped again, and his whole body convulsed.
“No- I never meant for you to die,” I cried.
The convulsion stilled suddenly, and his gasping ceased.
It was too late, I thought. My hesitation- my inability to forgive had condemned my father. The shard of ice melted away, leaving a gaping, empty hole in its wake.
“I’m sorry,” I cried. “I’m truly sorry for what I did.”
And then I could feel it- the place where will met magic. I pushed through in desperation and the spell shattered.
My father’s body convulsed again, and he let loose a great gasp. He took a deep gulp of air, and then another. In a few more breaths, the color came back to his cheeks.
“You foolish girl- you foolish girl,” he breathed. “Why won’t you understand? You don’t have a contract, but without the soul, there is no free will.”
“You- you know who I am?”
“Of course I know who you are. You’ve been a blasted nuisance these fifteen years, Grace.”
And then, for the first time in my life, my father drew me near and put his arms around me.