The Coven, Part LXXXII

“Put away your damned instruments,” Father growled at the doctor. “You only make things worse.”

Lady Fairfax, ignoring the commotion my father was causing, drew me aside.

“You say that his affliction was the result of a blood oath he’d broken?” she whispered for the hundredth time that morning.

“He thought he had broken it. I was able to demonstrate that he had not, and he has since improved.”

My explanation seemed to satisfy Lady Fairfax, though in reality it was not even half-true. After I’d broken Hope’s spell, my father and I had argued for some time over whether I could possess free will, and whether the concept of free-will would matter at all with regards to the wording of the oath. In the end, he was not satisfied that anyone without a soul could possess free will, but I convinced him that any alteration in my status relative to the Ancients, who were all bound by contract, would satisfy the blood oath’s wording “free of the enslavement of her race.”

My father did not seem to realize that he had been hypnotized, though he did remember everything that had happened that day. He recalled that Hope had pushed him against the wall in anger, and that Hope had made threats before demanding he leave court. Father did not mention the unnatural glow that had shone in Hope’s eyes, however, or acknowledge that any compulsion had seized him beyond fear.

Father accepted the explanation that his belief in the broken blood oath was the source of his affliction, and he even suggested that revealing my mother’s past had triggered latent guilt. He quickly changed the subject after this admission, however, and refused to speak about my mother or the blood oath any further.

“This will be over much faster if you allow me to examine you,” the old doctor sighed.

“This would be over already if you would leave me alone. I want to get dressed and go to my study- after all this time my affairs must be in shambles.”

“Oh! He wants to go to his study.” Lady Fairfax bustled to my father and threw her arms around his neck.

“Let go of me, you overbearing hag,” he protested. “I told you that I didn’t wish to come here in the first place. Why the devil didn’t you listen to me?”

“Why must you be such a stubborn ass?” she asked, pulling away to dab at her eyes. “We brought you here for your health.”

“Can’t a gentleman have his preferences? The countryside is much more wholesome. Besides, what is the point of coming to town if you won’t take me to the baths?.”

“But you refused to be moved,” Lady Fairfax protested.

“All of this racket is a definite sign of improvement,” a deep voice spoke from the doorway.

A chill went down my spine. The voice was so deep, and had such a cool, detached quality that I was certain Father Pius stood behind me. When I turned around, however, I saw that it was Brother Lux.

Still, they are one in the same, now, I thought.

Indeed, as Brother Lux entered the room I recognized the regal posture that Father Pius usually bore.

“Brother! I’m very glad you’ve come,” Dr. Pearson said. “I would like your opinion. The patient appears to have made an astounding recovery, though he is too stubborn at the moment to allow me to verify.”

“Not too astounding, I think,” Pius said, entering the room. “Diseases of the mind are particularly difficult to assess, and I am glad that my initial prognosis was incorrect.”

My father, who had been squirming away from the doctor’s instruments, went very still.

“Even so, I agree that we should make a thorough examination before declaring him well. Would you consider it a breach of professional etiquette if I request a private interview with the patient?”

“Not at all. Rather, it’s a welcome relief,” Dr. Pearson said. He packed his instruments into his black bag and gave my father a stern look before he turned to go.

I stood to follow Dr. Pearson and Lady Fairfax from the room, but Pius stopped me.

“Lady Fairfax mentioned, in her letter to me, that you were present when the patient recovered,” Pius said. “I wish to interview you as well as your father.”

I sat down again.

When the room was clear and the door shut, Pius sat on the edge of the bed, very close to my father.

“You have made a remarkable recovery; it’s almost like magic.”

My father clenched his jaw. “What are you implying, Brother?”

“Nothing- it was only a remark,” Pius said. “Still, as I told the doctor, a thorough examination is in order.”

I saw a flash of silver, and before I could react Father Pius was holding a knife to my father’s throat.

“Sit down, Lady Frey,” Pius said without turning to look at me. “If you move, my fingers may slip and cause me to cut him.”

“I haven’t moved,” I said. “But- I know you cannot kill him.”

“Usually I would agree, but I’m not feeling at all myself, right now,” Pius said smoothly. “Still, I don’t wish to make a mess. I’m sure we can resolve this matter peacefully as long as you cooperate, Lord Ainsworth.”

“I have no intention of doing otherwise,” my father said. “You have my word of honor.

“Forgive me if I do not trust your honor,” Pius said. “You are a politician through and through, so I will speak in terms you understand. Do you still endorse Prince Hadrian’s claim to the throne?”

“No,” Father replied.

“And the Queen of Santci?”

“Sancti must not rule Aeterna.”

“Would you support a heretic?”

“I support the tide of history.”

“You are a clever man. Can you see where the tide is ebbing?”

My father hesitated a moment, and then sighed deeply before he replied. “The ancient line of the Eagle is the most likely candidate to rule, wherever it may manifest.”

Pius pressed the knife closer against my father’s neck, and I saw a small bead of blood well on the surface. My father’s face went ashen.

“You serpent– you never really supported Prince Hadrian. You have schemed for years, laboring under the impression that your tainted offspring could mother kings.” Pius loosened his grip on the blade and scoffed. “You cannot contain the tides of history. Forces more powerful than you can comprehend are at work in the world, and you are at their mercy.”

My father’s breath caught, but he did not speak.

“If you wish to survive, and if you wish your family to survive, you will not interfere any further. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Father whispered.

“When the true heir has ascended the throne, and the living God reins, you will be rewarded for your obedience.”

Father Pius put the knife away and put his hand to my father’s throat. When he took the hand away, the wound was gone.

“I understand, and will obey,” my Father said, lowering his head.

“Members of your household are watching you,” Pius said. Then he turned to me. “I will see you tonight for your final interview, Lady Frey.”

Pius stood and left the room.

“Doctor, I have examined the patient,” I heard Pius call before the door shut behind him.

Father turned to look at me. “So, are you a spy for Brother Lux?”

“That’s a pointless question,” I said. “If I were a spy, I would not tell you.”

Father grunted in reply, and then stood.

“Ugh- I’ve been in bed too long. Hand me my dressing gown.”

I did so, and then took my Father’s arm to help him around the bed. He was unsteady on his feet, and he moved his legs stiffly, shuffling across the floor, but he did not put much weight on my arm.

“The baths may help to expedite your recovery,” I observed, “but it may not be advisable for you to go into public. You may be recognized as my father, and I’m being targeted by many factions.”

“Hmmm,” my father hummed thoughtfully. He stopped at his shaving mirror and ran a hand over his stubbly chin.

“Tell me- do you wish to be queen?” he asked. He pulled his arm away from mine, steadied himself, and picked up a razor from the commode.

“That is another ridiculous question, considering the fact that my husband is in prison as we speak. His life and his freedom have occupied all of my thoughts,” I said. “And for heaven’s sake, ask Smith to help you shave. Your hands are shaking.”

“I can do this on my own. You are as overbearing as my dear cousin,” he said. He steadied his hand, and pulled the razorblade down his cheek in a smooth motion.

“Your brother-in-law would see you removed,” my father continued. “It’s obvious that he would prefer you be replaced by a woman untainted by your ancestry. Once you have served your purpose, it will be some time before your husband is strong enough to take the reins of his kingdom. The moment of his liberation will be the time of greatest danger to you, I fear.”

“How can you be so certain my husband will ever have the reins of the kingdom? Are you going by the old legends of King Uriel, or perhaps whispers at court?”

“Courtiers love stories,” Father said, wiping his face clean with a towel. “They are especially drawn to tales that give them a place in history. St. Blanc was built on the idea of Aeternan sovereignty, and Aeternan sovereignty cannot be separated from the stories of King Uriel.”

“The accuracy of the tales mean nothing, as long as the tales bind a people as one,” I said.

My father turned to regard me, eyebrows raised. “It took me decades to learn that lesson,” he said. “Perhaps all of the years you spent with your nose in a book were well-spent, after all.”

“Perhaps not- I’ve made many blunders in the real world,” I said.

“You are young,” my father said, shrugging. “You will likely make more mistakes before this is all done; make them with your eyes open. Your husband will thank you for any wisdom you can lend his reign, if you survive.”

“If we survive,” I said. “My husband might have been in a good position to seize power, if he were at court. His present circumstances reduce his chances significantly.”

“He faces a different kind of court- one no less dangerous than St. Blanc,” Father persisted. “The follies of Lord Frey’s accusers and the evidence of Lord Frey’s ancestry will be laid bare in a public trial.”

Evidence such as the Frey writ of condemnation, I thought.

“So many questions; are you really not the spy?”

“I never said I wasn’t the spy,” I said, “but do you have any other suspects for who the spy may be?”

“No one under my employ,” Father said emphatically. “I’m not so sure about those you’ve brought under my roof. Still, the young monk may be bluffing- sowing the seeds of discord in my house.”

“That does sound like a tactic Brother Lux would use,” I conceded.

“Grace,” Father turned back to the mirror and reached for a comb to order his thin wisps of white hair. “You have never asked my advice, but I will give it, anyway: don’t anger Brother Lux. Appease him, let him choose another candidate for the Aeternan Queen, and promise him you have no ambition beyond, perhaps, royal mistress. Brother Lux will not let his family sin be washed away by Ancient blood. It seems he seeks salvation through a new God.”

“I’d worked that out, myself,” I said dryly.

“Even so- Lord Frey is the true heir, so his will is what matters in the end. If you survive until Lord Frey is able to seize his rightful power, your devotion will be rewarded. Ask Lord Frey- no, King Uriel- for Brother Lux’s head, and it is yours.”

“And in the meantime, your head will remain safe,” I said.

Father turned and stared into my eyes for a long time, his expression inscrutable. Then he said, “you have more of your mother in you than I’d thought.”

“I-“

“Nevermind,” my father said gruffly before I could reply. “Brother Lux is a fool to think that he can control Lord Frey indefinitely. After so much time in the inquisitor’s cell, Lord Frey will resent his brother’s scheme. We will emerge on the right side of history.”

My father’s cunning surprised me. He had deduced much of what had taken me months to learn- perhaps he had deduced everything long before I’d arrived at court. I began to fear that I had, indeed, awakened a sleeping serpent.

 

 

#

 

 

Upon further reflection, I was surprised to learn that I did not find it at all tempting to demand Brother Lux’s head as my father had suggested. I had felt the hollowness of vengeance, and I did not wish to experience such a thing again.

However, despite my father’s confidence, I did not believe it would be easy for Hope to stop his brother and Father Pius. If they did intend for Hope to take the Aeternan throne, he would only be a puppet under their tight control. Perhaps that was why they had allowed Hope to be tortured and maimed in the inquisitor’s cell- to break his spirit and take his will.

It was clear that Hope’s exoneration would not be the end of danger. If we could not stop Pius and Lux, we would have to flee.

There was little time to contemplate my next move, however, because Mr. Sutton and Mr. St. Roch were awaiting me when I entered the drawing room.

I gave Mr. St. Roch the statement I’d written about what had occurred the night of the dumb supper, complete with details I’d ‘recalled’ during my interrogations with Father Pius. Mr. St. Roch examined the document for any holes in the tale that the prosecution may exploit, making one or two notes in the margins. Then he leaned back in his seat in satisfaction.

“There does not appear to been much time Lord Frey remained unaccompanied by either you or Brother Lux, which casts much doubt on Mrs. Auber’s accusations. Have you recalled anything else- anything at all- that may confirm your husband’s innocence?”

“No- I will send word if I do,” I said. I pressed my hand to my head. “It is difficult to prove what my husband did not do- the burden of proof is much heavier in our hands than in the inquisition’s.”

“I understand, my Lady. All we can do is allow the inquisitors to try their hardest, and dismantle their case once they’ve made it. I will try to anticipate their moves as best I can. In the meantime, do as you have done; write down everything you remember, and write down any details you are able to gather from the prisoners when you meet them.”

“I will,” I promised.

“By the way- I have something that may make your burden feel a little lighter,” Mr. Sutton interjected. “Here are two letters given to me by a mutual friend- letters from del Sol.”

“Indeed?” I held out my hand eagerly for the preferred letters.

“Indeed,” Mr. Sutton confirmed, his green eyes twinkling. “One of the letters is from Abbess Joy, and one from Mr. Filius. The pilgrim who gave me these letters assured me that del Sol is quiet as ever, and everyone is doing well.”

“I am glad to hear it,” I said. I stood and opened the first letter.

 

Dear Lady,

      I write to you as a very bad friend, for I have little news to convey and much to ask of you. In the first case, I believe you will not blame me, because no news is always good news. In the second case I believe you will forgive me, for you have a generous heart.

      First, I must convey my dearest hopes that you are safe, and that Miss Celeste and Sister Jubilee are safe, as well. I have heard rumors about the chaos in the city, and I sincerely hope that the three of you avoid said chaos as much as possible. Many here at del Sol are praying for your safe return.

let me assure you that all of our mutual friends are well. Del Sol remains the sanctuary it has ever been for everyone, regardless of rank or ancestry. The Abbess has not encountered any obstacles in keeping del Sol secure, and for now, the daily devotions and healings continue unchanged.

      I would convey Abbess Joy’s sincerest wishes, but I believe she will send her own note. Our mutual friends send their best wishes, and they all hope you will return as soon as you are at liberty.

      It is in the spirit of your hoped-for return that I ask my favor. I have entered into a business agreement with our friend Sir Silas, who has finished construction on his first freighter and has begun to build a second. The first ship is well-made, and we have every reason to believe that it is fast and safe enough to survive the journey to the wildlands and return laden with spices and wealth from trade with the natives. Your solicitor, Mr. Sutton, tells me that you are seeking opportunities for investment, and I believe that these ships provide just such an opportunity.

      We have an able crew assembled, and spirits are high. All we lack now is capital. The more funds we acquire, the faster we may embark on our enterprise. Rest assured that I did not write to beg funds, however. We can get along on what we have, so do not feel any obligation to give what you may not have. I only wish for you to have a share of the wealth we hope to earn.

      I sincerely hope that, Gods willing, your husband’s trial will go well, and that you remain well, my Lady. No matter what may come, you have a place at del Sol, and if need be, a place on the Maelstrom.

Give my love to Sister Jubilee and to Celeste, as well. They are both sorely missed. May you all be safe and happy.

Yours, etc.

 

 

      “So- the first ship is complete,” I said aloud. “How I wish I could see it go.”

“I share your wish,” Mr. Sutton said with a broad smile. “The first ship is called the Maelstrom- a rather foreboding name, I think, for an untried ship. Sir Silas, however, endorsed the name in defiance of nautical superstition.”

“I am very interested in the opportunity to invest in such a- a new type of ship,” I said. “I’m afraid there is no time today, but we must work out the details, soon.”

Mr. Sutton nodded his approval.

I knew I could not read Abbess Joy’s note and remain composed, so I placed it in my pocket to read later that night. Before long, Mr. St. Amity had me engrossed in the last-minute details of Hope’s case, and we worked until the sunlight that filtered through the glass faded to soft pink.

 

 

#

 

 

Before Mr. Sutton and Mr. St. Amity had finished their business, the Cathedral carriage pulled to the door, and Brother Amicus came to fetch me.

I bore the ride to the Cathedral in awkward silence. Brother Amicus seemed strangely reluctant to speak, but he gave me several sad, sympathetic smiles, which did little to soothe my nerves.

At the Cathedral, Father Pius met me with a face like thunder. He gestured curtly for me to enter his chamber, and when I’d entered the door slammed shut behind me.

Brother Lux was already present, staring into the blazing fire on the far wall. I could not make out his expression; the interplay of shadow and orange firelight made his face look alien.

“This is quite a disaster,” Brother Lux said without turning away from the flames.

“Father does not realize-“

“He claims not to realize,” Father Pius shouted.

Father Pius’s booming voice was enough to knock me flat, but I remained standing.

“Perhaps if Lady Willoughby were free, she could read father’s mind and verify what he knows,” I said.

Father Pius grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and threw me to my knees. I did not rise to my feet, but I straightened my shoulders and looked up at him.

“I am a God,” Pius said. “There are no powers that are unknown to me. I looked into your father’s mind and saw the layers of ambition and scheming that he has built over the years. I peeled those layers away, and I saw that he remembered Lord Frey’s hypnosis, but did not recognize what it was. Regardless, your father suspects your husband’s power, suspects Lux’s power, and suspects the presence of a coven.”

“Did you see the next move he is planning?”

“He has pinned all of his misguided hopes on you. He would do anything for a place in the new kingdom he sees forming, including unleashing the Ancient curse on the world. The means of his success do not matter, to him.”

“You share that in common,” I said.

“Your father suffers from a common human disease- the disease of empty ambition. Power is a tool like any other, and some who seek that tool do so in order to change something in the world or to change something in themselves. Others seek power as an end in itself; those men are impotent hoarders, who sit on the throne like a dragon who sits on a pile of treasure. A dragon will never invest their treasure in anything worthwhile- they will never buy materials to build houses or roads or goods. Likewise, your father will never use his power to dispense justice or ease affliction.”

“And you believe yourself to be free of this disease?”

“I have paid too heavy a price for my power to forget why I’ve paid it. I’ve taken steps to ensure I never forget.” Father Pius paused and cast a significant glance at Brother Lux. “I’ve inoculated myself against the disease.”

“From where I sit, you are the source of disease, which has spread to infect everyone I love.”

Father Pius looked down at me, wearing the familiar sneer of disgust.

“If only you had the capability to look at yourself, you hypocrite!” he said. “You bear the Ancient phage- the greatest evil to ever grace the world- with perverse pride. You wield the curse of your people, and the power it has given you, without thought to morality or justice. You have freed the mind of the man who raped your mother.

The ugly words, the truth behind the soft lies of blood oaths and false promises, pierced my defenses. The context of Harmony’s life, and the perfectly played coercion by a free man could not be denied. I faltered- my mind filled with fresh regret for my actions even as my eyes filled with tears for what had been done to my mother.

“I do not forgive my father,” I managed to whisper, “but- is it my place to punish him?”

“Perhaps not. Perhaps I should open the doors of all the prisons and allow murderers to walk the streets. After all, who am I to protect their next victim? Whether or not you think that you should have the right to wield power, you still possess it. Therefore, it is your responsibility to wield it justly.”

“I believe I have wielded it responsibly. I thought of everything you’ve said, and still I chose to free my father’s mind.”

“WHY???” Father Pius cried out.

“Because if I don’t wish for murderers to roam the street, I should not allow myself to become one. If I don’t wish for cruelty to exist in the world, I must change the patterns of cruelty that are already present. I did not forgive my father; what I did was compassion.”

Brother Lux turned away from the fireplace and approached me- a shadow backlit by red light.

“I wish compassion had the power you assign to it,” he said softly. “I have not found that to be the case.”

I thought of all the cruelty and evil there was in the world, and I was almost convinced of the truth of Brother Lux’s words. I closed my eyes and wished I could retreat from such cruelty forever.

That was when I remembered.

“Perhaps you did not spend enough time at del Sol,” I said. “I am willing to continue the experiment away from that sacred place, and see if I can replicate Abbess Joy’s results in the greater world.”

“Abbess Joy keeps peace at del Sol because she has the power to cast out those who disobey its laws.”

“And yet, knowing this, Abbess Joy still has the desire to bring del Sol’s light into the world,” I said. “She is bound by the Gods, but the love and compassion she has given me is boundless. I will bring that light with me wherever I go. I am, and I always will be, a pilgrim of del Sol.”

Read from the beginning.

Part LXXXIII

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