The Coven, Part LXXXIII

      Read from the beginning.

      Dearest Grace,

      Peace is sometimes difficult to maintain, but for now it endures.

 The Abbey del Sol remains a sanctuary from the chaos of the world, and though the Pilgrims have begun to whisper discontent among themselves, they do not often speak their grievances aloud. The sisters continue to work, heal, and pray for the good of all, and few visitors can maintain political strife among such overtures of goodwill.

      The borders of del Sol remain peaceful, as well. The islands continue pristine and untouched, and the merchants and fishermen in the shipyards are most concerned with the practical work their businesses require. Trade is good, and new business ventures are springing up everywhere. In fact, I believe our mutual friend, Mr. Filius, has written to convey news of the enterprise he has entered into with Sir Silas. They plan to use the ships you admired at del Sol to engage in trade with the wildland natives. It is an enterprise that shows much promise, and I believe it will succeed, for the newly-formed company’s equipment and business plans are sound.

      Every day, amidst the signs of impending trouble, I see omens of hope. A child will soon be born at del Sol- an event which is always celebrated as a blessing. The cathedral will be decorated, and we will sing the litanies of life as we did the day you were born.

      Though you are not here with me, you are always in my heart. Please remember me and the sanctuary I keep for you. Though you cannot see me, I have been keeping watch over you in my own way. My prayers are with you, with your husband, and all your friends. May the imprisoned be freed and the sick healed, and may you have the strength to endure until the day of liberation comes.

      All my love,

            Joy

 

 

I looked up from my letter, and saw that Prudence was still reading the letter that had been enclosed in the packet addressed to Sister Jubilee.

She bit her lip as she turned the letter over and continued to read. Then, after a time, she folded the letter again with a sigh.

“I’m certain Abbess Joy is having more problems with the pilgrims than she would ever admit, but at least we can trust that our most important secrets have remained hidden.”

“I would love to know how,” I mused. “Mr. Filius writes that the first airship is complete, and he believes it is ready to undertake the south sea passage to the wildlands. But how could they have tested the Maelstrom without notice?”

Prudence took a stack of paper from my desk and moved closer to the hearth.

“They must have moved the construction project from the north field to the Ancient Temple,” Prudence said as she sat by the hearth and spread the papers around her. “If Trusty paints the canvas black, like he did with the balloon, he should be able to test the airship at night without attracting notice from anyone on shore, and the Ancient temple is far enough from the merchant bay to avoid the notice of any other ships.”

“Then when the ship is the complete, the Ancients will be able to flee immediately. I must send funds as soon as possible.”

I sat near Prudence, carefully avoiding the papers she had stacked around her, and continued. “If the ships are complete before the trial concludes, then perhaps we can use them to flee, too- to take Hope from Pius’s grasp.”

Prudence looked up from her paper as though surprised, but then nodded.

“Yes- we must escape with Hope as soon as we can. It will be difficult to get to del Sol, though. Remember that I spent a decade trying to evade the inquisition on my way there- and I began my journey at Rowan Heights, which is very close. Inquisitors guard the paths to del Sol carefully to prevent fugitives from reaching sanctuary, and the inquisition is even more active than it was when I was running.”

“Perhaps the inquisitors will be distracted,” I said. “There is a lot of civil unrest, and when his plans come to fruition, Pius may need every available inquisitor to keep order in town.”

“Perhaps, but this may just be wishful thinking. Pius has made his plans carefully- he must know we will try to flee.” Prudence sighed and put her paper down, closing her eyes.

“All roads lead to del Sol…” she sighed. “I’ve heard rumors of a hidden path to del Sol, but I was never able to find it. Perhaps we should ask Raven how she traveled here.”

“Does this mean you’ve begun to trust her?” I asked.

“No, but we have few other options.” Prudence said. She picked up her paper once more, wrote a few lines, and then tossed the paper into the flames.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m working on my grimoire. I performed some experiments at del Sol while you and Honest were trying to capture starlight, but I have hardly had time to examine my results, let alone discuss them with you. It’s maddening to turn the results over in my head without my book here to permanently record my ideas. I must write everything down, memorize what I’ve written, and then immediately destroy it.”

“Then that means you are the grimoire,” I said.

Prudence smirked, and then beckoned me closer. “Come here, then, and I will make you a copy. I did promise to share my results, after all.”

I crept closer, though the stacks of paper, and settled down at Prudence’s side. She placed a clean sheet in front of us and began to speak in a careful, authoritative voice, as though imparting a lesson to Celeste.

“My experiments focused on the only physiological difference I was able to find between ancients and humans- the strange cells that reside in our blood, which are star-shaped and silver in humans, and black in ancients. First, I cast a simple spell on the human cells while examining them through a microscope, to see if they would react. I observed a pattern of oscillation in the cells, the frequency of which was proportional to the intensity of the magic performed.”

She sketched a rough chart on the paper in front of us, upon which she traced a standing wave pattern.

“My guess is that the ancient cells did not react to magic,” I said.

“The ancient cells did not react to weak magic,” Prudence confirmed. “They did react to stronger magic, but interference patterns appeared in the oscillations.”

She traced another wave pattern beneath the first, this time with low peaks interspersed throughout.

“I took as long an observation as I could while maintaining the spell, but no reasonable pattern emerged- the interference emerges seemingly at random. This suggests that the ancient cells are not dead, as you first thought- just different.”

I nodded thoughtfully. “This seems consistent with what I’ve discovered about my abilities. I’d be interested to see if I could affect the ancient cells using the techniques I’ve learned.”

“What I wouldn’t give to have a microscope with me,” Prudence sighed, tossing the paper into the flames. She watched, her expression inscrutable as the paper came to life, flailed, and then died.

“Prudence-“ I finally ventured in an attempt to end the unnatural silence.

“I’m sorry. Ask questions- distract me from thoughts of tomorrow. I wish I could close my eyes and open them on the sunrise, but I know sleep will be impossible.”

“I had not thought to ask, but to go to the cathedral now-“

“Please don’t ask. There are a hundred fears regarding the cathedral and what I will see inside that I wish to avoid. Distract me.”

I nodded. “How do you think the cells’ oscillations are connected with magic?”

“I’ve only reached a tentative conclusion; much more testing is needed. My current hypothesis is that the oscillation that human cells demonstrate is a caused by resonance between them, which may provide a medium of communication. Usually, there is a barrier between the blood and the brain, but guild research suggests that sound waves may assist with breaching this barrier- why not the cell’s oscillations, as well? I hypothesize that a mage learns to manipulate the resonance through prayers or spells, and can therefore create illusions that their subjects believe they experience, hypnotize their subjects, read their subjects minds, and otherwise experience the ‘oneness’ I’ve often felt I experienced while performing magic.

“Since the cells reside in our very blood, it is possible that manipulating the cells’ oscillations may cause the cells to manipulate our bodies in turn. This may explain Lux’s healing magic, or Chastity’s supernatural strength. This hypothesis is much more tentative, however- I will need to examine how human cells react to such spells in order to tell.”

“It seems a reasonable hypothesis,” I said, “but in that case, how can magic affect physical objects? Pius, for example, once enchanted a lute to play alone, and it was no illusion- I could hear the lute play until I touched the lute and interfered with the spell.”

“I was able to perform a preliminary experiment to explain such a spell,” Prudence said. “Usually, when manipulating a physical object, the mage will need to either touch the object or draw a sigil on its surface, so I thought that perhaps we were contaminating the objects with the human cells when we did so. To test this, I stole a quill from your room, touching it only with a clean handkerchief, and took several swabs that, when viewed through the microscope, proved to be clean. Then I enchanted the quill to write alone and then took another swab. This sample proved to be full of cells that all resonated with the same frequency as my own blood sample when I cast the spell.”

“Pius did strum the lute before he let it play alone,” I recalled. “Have I ever told you, Prudence, that you are brilliant?”

“Not often enough,” she said with a grin that quickly faded. “My hypotheses may be wrong, however. I have planned a whole course of experiments, but I can’t perform them. It is frustrating to be unable to work so soon after I’ve had a breakthrough, especially considering my work had been stalled for over a decade. I’ve spent enough time assisting others with their research- now I need assistants and subjects of my own. I need to test angels and demons to see if they contain the same cells as humans, and if their cells resonate the same way. I need you to help me generate alternative hypotheses and to test the null hypothesis on your ancient blood. I need-“

Prudence stopped and sighed, tossing the rest of the paper into the flames all at once.

“I need to stop being self-absorbed, when so many of those I love are suffering the worst kind of earthly hell.”

“You aren’t,” I said. “If engaging in your work will help you, then do so. You will still be here in the morning.”

“Maybe, but it still seems a foolish sort of escapism. I can’t distract my problems away.”

“Then tell me-“

“I can’t,” Prudence cut me off. “It’s foolish, but I can’t. I’m afraid I won’t be able to walk through the cathedral doors, tomorrow, even with you by my side. I’m even more afraid that I will be able to walk through them.”

She watched the paper curl into black cinders, and the look in her eye grew far away once more.

I made a few attempts to get her back, to re-engage her in her work, or to reassure her about the next day’s visit, but each time I spoke, she only gave cursory responses and fell back into brooding.

I could provide no more distractions. We sat silently, side by side, as the dawn approached.

 

 

#

 

 

“Remember, Prudence- don’t speak until Lady Frey has introduced you. We must give the prisoners your alias before we surprise them with your voice.”

“Of course,” Prudence said distractedly.

She was staring out of the carriage window, and though she wore her thickest veil, I could tell her mind was as far away as it had been in the early morning hours.

Prudence had come out of her stupor long enough to prepare for our journey, and to attend Celeste. Prudence and I had both watched Celeste carefully for any sign of anxiety. Celeste, however, had not shown a trace of fear for her mother’s return, even when we stood from the breakfast table and put on our wraps. When Brother Lux arrived, she even smiled and wished him a good morning.

I worried about Celeste, who was left alone in the large house with no one to comfort her and only Mercy to protect her. Prudence may have been occupied with the same worries, but I could not tell. Once we’d left Celeste, Prudence had barely spoken.

“The wood does not extend far,” Brother Lux said with a tolerant air as Prudence continued to stare out at the trees. “We will re-emerge on the St. Blanc road, soon.”

Prudence did not respond, and Brother Lux did not speak to her again. As he’d promised, we soon emerged from the wood, and shortly after drew up the Cathedral door.

Prudence exited the carriage on her own, and though she took my hand as we made our way up the cathedral walk, she did not tremble. When Brother Lux left us in the stone room near the dungeon entrance, she continued to clutch my hand and bowed her head as though in prayer.

The awful silence stretched for a long time- even longer, it seemed, than it had the last time I’d visited the Cathedral. Then, finally, the door creaked open, and Brother Lux brought in the first set of prisoners.

 

 

#

 

 

Prudence and I stood to meet them, and Prudence’s hand did tremble briefly before she dropped my hand. Two waiflike creatures entered the room behind him, one significantly taller than the other, but both thin, shorn, and dressed in sackcloth.

The taller prisoner was bound in huge lengths of heavy chains, cuffed to her hands and ankles, that dragged the ground as she walked. Even so, as she entered the room she sighed deeply, and her stooped posture relaxed and straightened as though a weight had been lifted from her.

“Lady Frey! What a relief it is to meet you, here.”

“Chastity,” I went to her and took her hand, and then turned to the other prisoner.

The other prisoner was much smaller than Chastity, but her back was rod-straight as she walked and her eyes contained a look of steel. I had never seen the face bare of makeup, but I knew it at once.

“Lady Willoughby,” I said, taking her hand. “Come and sit with me. I have much to tell you, and I have brought a friend who wishes to offer comfort from del Sol.”

Lady Willoughby opened her mouth as though to speak, but instead of words all she emitted was a hollow cry, half forming words with her lips.

“Maaa- aah-“

“Lady Willoughby cannot answer- I’m sure she means to thank you, as do I,” Chastity said. “I have not seen a friendly face in… I don’t know how many weeks.”

Prudence’s veil brushed my arm as she hovered very near me, and I recalled the line that I must deliver.

“Allow me to introduce my friend. This is Jubilee, a sister from del Sol, who has been an invaluable companion to me during my time of exile. She asked to accompany me today so she could offer prayers of grace from del Sol.”

Lady Willoughby turned to Prudence with a hostile, defiant look in her eyes, but Prudence stepped closer and spoke.

“I am here to offer my friendship- not just the friendship of del Sol. I know the weight of oppression, and when I learned what had happened to all of you, I was deeply moved.”

Lady Willoughby stepped back, her eyes going wide in shock. Chastity, however, came forward and took Prudence’s hands in her own.

“Oh! Bless you- bless you,” she said. “Thank heaven for you.”

Prudence nodded to me, and I took one of Chastity’s hands, and then Prudence and I offered our free hands to Lady Willoughby to close the circle. Lady Willoughby looked to me, and when I nodded she turned and stared at Prudence for a long time, her eyes narrowed as though in concentration.

Then, Lady Willoughby smiled, tears shimmering in her eyes, and took our hands.

We bowed our heads while Prudence sang the litany of redemption. While she sang, I concentrated first on Chastity’s curse of pain, which easily shattered under my will, and then Lady Willoughby’s curse of truth. Even though Lady Willoughby could not speak, I could still feel the curse’s presence resisting my will- black and heavy- oppressing a part of Lady Willoughby I could not see. When I burst through it puffed away like clouds in the wind, allowing the light of liberty in.

It was not only a curse of truth- it was a restriction of her freedom of thought.

Lady Willoughby’s hand tightened, and she let loose a soft gasp, but she did not interrupt the song.

After the song was done, the four of us sat and talked. I gave Chastity and Lady Willoughby information about the case that the attorneys were building, and asked if they could remember anything that we could add. Lady Willoughby tried several times to mouth muffled words before she gave a helpless shrug, but Chastity leaned forward and spoke in a low voice.

“Tell the attorney to ask questions about Brother Domitian. He was recently sent to the Monastery of the Wood to perform penance for…”

Chastity trailed off and looked at Lady Willoughby, who clenched her jaw.

“Brother Domitian is the inquisitor who interrogated Lady and Lord Willoughby,” Chastity continued. “No matter how cruel he was, he never uncovered any sign of witchcraft. He deserves to be punished for what he did, but it seems terribly convenient he will not be able to testify.

“Tell your attorney to question Brother Antonine. Brother Antonine witnessed some of the extreme methods that Brother Domitian employed, and he was forced to intervene a couple of times. I can only hope that, when the bishops learn how brutal Brother Domitian was, they will understand that Lord Willoughby’s current state was caused by trauma instead of guilt.”

Brother Lux cleared his throat and stepped forward.

“Your time is up. Please, say your goodbyes.”

Lady Willoughby stood, her hands clenched into fists. Prudence stood with her, and lay a gentle hand on her shoulder.

“Lady Willoughby, is there anything we may do for you on the outside? A message you would like to send to a friend, perhaps?”

Lady Willoughby shook her head, but she embraced Prudence tightly before she turned to press my hand.

“And you- Chastity?”

“I have a sister, Gentle Browne, who lives with her husband on Steele Row. She has already visited me, and she says she is well, but-“

“I will check on her,” I promised. I took Chastity and Lady Willoughby’s hands in mine.

“The trial begins tomorrow. Please, stay strong until then. I promise that we will do everything we can to free you.”

“Thank you, Lady Frey,” Chastity said, her eyes filling with tears.

Lady Willoughby squeezed my hand, and then Brother Lux and another inquisitor stepped forward to escort them from the room.

As the door closed, Prudence sat down hard.

“Are you alright, Sister Jubilee?” I asked. “Are you fatigued?”

“I am a sister of del Sol; I cannot think of myself when there are others who need my help.”

I sat beside her. “Even so, I will not stop thinking of you.”

Prudence looked up sharply, and I tried to see her expression in the shadows behind her veil. I was unable to make anything out, however, before the door opened again, and two more prisoners were led inside.

“I have nothing to say to you, Lady Frey” Captain Goode said immediately as he entered. “I told Lux I did not wish to see you, but he insisted I come.”

Before I had a chance to respond I heard the tinkling of bells, and my attention was drawn to Lord Willoughby. I could not contain my surprise when I saw him. I had expected him to be dressed in sackcloth like the other prisoners, but instead, it seemed as though he had been dressed solely to add insult to his injury. His shirt and breeches were made of bright red and yellow scraps of cloth sewn together, and bells were strapped around his ankles and wrists that, although he took slow, shuffling steps, still jingled with his every movement. It was the sad parody of a jester or a fool, designed to draw both attention and ridicule to the broken man.

I ignored Captain Goode’s stony gaze and stepped forward, putting my hand on Lord Willoughby’s shoulder. Lord Willoughby shied away at first, and then looked up at me with dull, brown eyes.

“If you don’t wish to speak with me, I understand,” I said. “Stay, at least, to hear sister Jubilee’s prayer, and receive del Sol’s blessings.”

Captain Goode scoffed. “I have no interest in-“

“Please, allow me to provide what little help I can,” Prudence said, the slightest tremor in her voice. “It is my mission to ease the suffering of the oppressed.”

Captain Goode spun to face Prudence, narrowing his eyes. He examined her for a long time, gazing at her as though he were trying to see under her veil. Then he spoke.

“How do I know you aren’t trying to trick me- to try and get me to lower my guard?” he said pointedly.

“I understand your caution,” Prudence said, taking a step toward her brother. “But I ask you for no confessions – the grace of del Sol is given to all with no strings attached.”

“I’ve heard that del Sol is a miraculous place,” Captain Goode said, “but surely, there are limits to its power. It cannot give life to one already condemned.”

      “That is not the case here,” I said. “You will have your chance to defend yourself.”

Captain Goode ignored me, but Lord Willoughby blinked up at me, something lightening in his dark eyes. I took his hands and closed my eyes as though in prayer.

I did not hesitate to fight Lord Willoughby’s curse, despite the danger that he would use his voice to confess. How could I deny someone broken something that may give them hope? Even Pius had not forbidden it.

“If Lord Willoughby speaks in court, his confessors will look like fools for hanging their case on his every nod and gesture,” Pius had said with a laugh.

Lord Willoughby’s breathing quickened as I worked, as though he were afraid, but he did not fight against my will. I recited the litany of redemption as I worked, so that my prayer-like stance would not seem strange, and in the meantime Prudence and Captain Goode continued to speak. Because my attention was so divided, it took me a longer time than usual to find the curse’s resistance and break through.

“Why did you come here? Why seek out condemned prisoners instead of staying safe in the Abbey?” Captain Goode was saying.

“My father used to say that life was motion, and where motion ceased, life also ceased,” Prudence said. “I cannot spend the rest of my life in a sanctuary, no matter how safe and how beautiful that sanctuary may be. I must bring the hope that del Sol gave me to the world.”

“That is still no reason to come here,” Captain Goode said. “You can do good in far less dangerous places.”

“I will not pretend I was not afraid, but I know how to conquer my fears,” Prudence said firmly, “especially when I have the chance to help those I love. Lady Frey befriended me at del Sol, and has earned both my trust and my love, so I did not hesitate to follow her here.”

At that moment, I found the curse cowering in a dark place, and I pushed through. The curse shattered, and Lord Willoughby let loose a whimper.

“Don’t be afraid,” I said softly. “You needn’t speak to me, if you don’t wish, but if there is anything you want to say or ask, you may.”

“Patience” he said in a halting voice. “My dear P-Patience…”

“I just saw her,” I said. “She is strong- amazingly strong- but she cannot do everything alone. We must be her voice now, since she cannot speak for herself.”

“I would do anything to save her,” Lord Willoughby said. “But I’ve failed- failed…”

“Where there is life, there is hope,” I said, “and she is still alive. You must speak for her at the trial, if you are given the chance. You must speak to her innocence, and to your innocence as well. Can you do this?”

“If I could die in her place-“

“Don’t be afraid to defend yourself, as well as your wife,” I said. “Your death will not help her; she needs you.”

“As much as I hate to say it, I agree with Lady Frey,” Captain Goode said. “You must be your wife’s strength, Willoughby. You must endure.”

Lord Willoughby nodded, but did not speak again.

Captain Goode turned back to Prudence. “You say that you love Lady Frey, sister, but allow me to caution you. I believe Lady Frey is part a conspiracy- one that has put my friends and me in this dreadful place. If you knew half of what I knew about her-“

“There’s nothing about me you can tell Sister Jubilee that she does not already know,” I said. “Flaws, virtues, and past alike. There’s very little I could tell Sister Jubilee about myself that she does not know, at this point.”

Captain Goode turned back to Prudence with a look of surprise. “And you still love her?”

“You are wrong about Lady Frey. She has been working tirelessly to assist her husband and friends. I admire Lady Frey’s candor,” Prudence said, “and when I view Lady Frey through the lens of wisdom the years have given me, it is obvious she is still an innocent.”

Captain Goode sighed deeply, as though in frustration. Then he spoke again.

“I cannot join hands with you in prayer,” he said, nodding down at the tattered bandages that were wrapped tightly around the ends of his arms. “But I would still like to hear you sing, sister.”

Prudence nodded and came closer, placing her hand on her brother’s arm. She sang the litany of redemption once more. As Prudence’s voice suffused the stone room with warmth, I saw tears gather briefly in Captain Goode’s eyes before he shut them tightly.

Lord Willoughby gripped my hand tightly.

“Patience loves music,” Lord Willoughby faltered when the song was done. “But she cannot sing anymore.”

“Then we must put a lute in her hands as soon as we can,” I said, squeezing Lord Willoughby’s hand in return.

“It is time- you must go,” Brother Lux interrupted.

“Wait.” I turned to one of the guards, who came forward to grab Lord Willoughby’s arms. “Can’t you remove the bells, and give Lord Willoughby- give everyone- proper clothes?”

“Lord Willoughby is fond of hiding, and we cannot afford to lose him again. He only did this to himself,” the guard replied.

“Please-“ Prudence said to Brother Lux. “Do not torment them any longer.”

“The trial begins tomorrow- their fate will be decided soon,” Brother Lux said shortly.

“Thank you for everything, sister, but do not trouble yourself about us any further,” Captain Goode said. “Live your own life. Seek happiness where you can.”

Captain Goode nodded to the guard, who stepped forward to lead him away.

“Wait here,” Brother Lux instructed Prudence and I, “and I will bring Lord Frey.”

Part LXXXIV

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