The Coven, Part LXXXV

Read from the beginning.

“I don’t like this.”

The noise of the crowd as people filled the galleries; the noise of bishops as they hurried to and fro, gathering materials and shaking hands of colleagues who sat on the long, elevated bench; and the noise of the noblesse who filed into the seats behind me made it almost impossible to hear Prudence. I could discern what she’d said, however, because I’d anticipated she would say it. I felt the same way.

Brother Amicus had escorted Prudence and I into the courtroom early and placed us in an isolated section, where he stood guard with another inquisitor. Mercy was not present because she guarded Celeste, who had been placed in the Cathedral annex away from the chaos of the crowds.

“I should not have let Lux take her there,” Prudence said. “And yet- where else could she have been guarded? She cannot be exposed to this.”

      Despite our isolated position, the crowd seemed to press in on me. My father and Lady Fairfax nodded in acknowledgment before sitting just behind me, and then a small commotion began and the crowd became even thicker. A man was shouting over the noise of the crowd, trying to push his way through the sudden swarm of inquisitors that surrounded him as he approached me.

“Let me pass- you cannot keep me from my client,” the man growled.

“Mr. St. Roch! Please, Brothers, do let him through,” I said. “It’s alright- he is my attorney. Oh! And Mr. Sutton, too.”

The inquisitor on my right side raised his eyebrows skeptically for a moment, but then he stepped aside and gestured to the other inquisitors to allow the men through.

“This is chaos, Lady Frey,” Mr. St. Roch said as he bustled past the inquisitors. “The crowds are spilling out into the streets and down the block. Two fights have already been broken up. Who knows how dangerous things will get before this is over?”

Mr. Sutton, who had followed, leaned close to whisper to me.

“Strange enough, it was not the inquisitors or the Prince’s guard who broke up the fights.” Mr. Sutton subtly gestured with his head to the rough gallery railing above us, where a row of men dressed in black stood facing the crowd. One of the men turned slightly to view the rest of the courtroom, and I saw a glint of silver on his chest- the symbol of Wisdom.

I looked around and saw several more black-clad men standing at the back of the section reserved for the noblesse. They were less obtrusive than the men in the gallery, but they still stood in a cross-armed pose like guards, watching the crowd as they filed in.

A chill went down my spine when I saw them, but I turned my attention to matters closer at hand.

I whispered to Mr. St. Roch as quickly as I could, telling him everything Chastity had told me about Brother Domitian and Brother Antonine. Then I passed Mr. Sutton two notes I had written that morning- one was a letter instructing him to withdraw funds from my account to assist for the construction of the second airship, and the second was a letter for Chastity’s sister, along with instructions to help her family in whatever way was possible.

Mr. Sutton nodded cheerfully and immediately plunged through the crowd to undertake his commissions. Mr. St. Roch, for his part, wrote down the information I’d given him, and rearranged his notes.

Then silence hit the room like thunder.

The crowd had stopped talking all at once. Even the shuffling of feet and chairs stopped, and all eyes turned to the side door from where Father Pius entered.

Father was dressed in nothing more than his customary white robe, without any jewel or adornment, with his hair unbound. He walked unattended to the front of the room and then ascended a set of white marble steps toward a dais that was raised so high that it was level with the top of the gallery.

When he reached the top of the dais everyone in the crowd rose to their feet as one.

Pius gave the sign of order, and then took the throne-like seat on the dais.

Everyone sat.

“Many blessings upon you on this beautiful spring day,” Father Pius said, smiling benevolently on the crowd. Then he looked down on the bishop’s bench. “Bishop Benedict, please do us the honor of leading the opening prayer.”

A bishop on the far right had already risen as though to give the prayer, but Pius gestured to a bishop in the center, who immediately stood and raised his voice in song.

“Thank you, Benedict. You did very well for your first time to lead,” the bishop on the right said gruffly once Benedict had finished. “Now- I move that our first order of business be to determine whether the entire coven,” he spat the word, “has been arrested. We have five, but isn’t six the traditional number of witches?”

“I assume, Bishop Septimus, that if the charges are true we caught the sixth almost two years ago- Prudence Goode,” Bishop Benedict replied.

“They must have replaced her since she was caught,” Septimus said, waving this aside.

“If I may interrupt,” an old, white-haired bishop wheezed from the far left. “I have done much research on the subject of late, and I have concluded that a coven powerful enough to take down a High Priest must have exactly seven witches. Seven is, numerologically speaking, the most powerful number.”

“Twelve is the most powerful number,” the bishop next to him objected. “It is the number of full moons in a year.”

“No no- my research is quite clear. Seven is the number of archangels.”

“Five is the number of major demons,” Benedict interjected in a calm tone. “It would make more sense that a coven would honor demons than angels. Perhaps we have caught one too many.”

More bishops added their opinions, and the ensuing argument lasted for several minutes- bishops shouting over each other to be heard. I watched in dismay. I didn’t know whether to laugh of cry when I thought of the careful case my attorney and I have been constructing.

“Did you really expect anything but a cadre of fools?” My father asked me when I discussed the scene with him later. “The Bishops have constructed their theology in such a way that they may twist the truth to their own ends at any time. Now they’ve been ensnared by their own trap.”

Pius remained silent on his dais, far above the fray. His eyes glittered maliciously even as he watched the scene with a placid smile. He allowed the argument to go on for some time, and then he finally spoke.

“The inquisitors are still investigating claims that there may be other witches,” Pius said in a clear, strong voice. “If evidence for other witches arises during this trial, then the inquisitors will, of course, take the evidence into consideration. In the meantime, I believe it is best that we examine those already accused.”

The bishops fell silent, and Bishop Septimus nodded in agreement. Then Pius gestured to the bailiff, and the prisoners were led into the courtroom.

A murmur rose in the courtroom as the prisoners entered. The prisoners’ emaciated forms were clearly visible through the sack-cloth they all wore- except Lord Willoughby, who limped in, bent and broken, wearing patchwork and bells. All of the prisoners were chained together at the waist, and their hands and feet were all bound to heavy weights except for Captain Goode, whose arms were tied at the elbow to his waist.

Hope was at the front of the line, and the bailiff held his bound arms as he led him to the box and assisted him in sitting. When Hope faced forward a collective gasp arose. The bandages had been removed from Hope’s face, and two harsh, red gashes crossed his face where his eyes should have been. When Captain Goode faced forward, his bandaged, handless arms were fully visible to the court.

“They have maimed them,” a voice cried from the gallery.

“It’s what they deserve,” a voice replied from the circle of nobles. Then a scream rang out, and one of the ladies sank into a faint.

“Brother Gaius, please assist any ladies who require it,” Pius ordered one of the inquisitors. “Escort them to the antechamber if they are too overcome to stay.”

The inquisitor bowed, and then went amongst the nobles. When he helped the Lady who had fainted to her feet, I heard Prudence gasp slightly beside me.

“Miss Taris,” Prudence whispered.

The lady was indeed Miss Taris, who had returned to court and was dressed not in del Sol’s robes, but in a simple, white gown.

“I will be fine,” Miss Taris said in a trembling voice. “Pass me my salts, if you please. I will stay and witness the Gods’ justice.”

“Such a courageous young woman,” someone near Lady Fairfax whispered.

“Silence, please,” Pius said, though he smiled at Miss Taris. Then he beckoned to Brother Lux, who stood among the other inquisitors.

“Brother- please read the charges,” Pius said.

Brother Lux raised a scroll and read in a clear, high voice. “Lord Tranquil Willoughby, Lady Patience Willoughby, Miss Chastity Evans, Captain Justice Goode, and Lord Hope Uriel Frey; you are all hereby charged with conspiracy against the holy office, willful contract with unclean spirits, the use of unholy magic and the summoning of demons, and the murder of our former High Priest, His Holiness Father Sauris. If you confess to your crimes now, before the council of bishops and His Holiness Father Pius, the Gods may choose to have mercy on your souls.”

The entire courtroom fell silent- each spectator seemed to hold their breath in anticipation. Hope, Captain Goode, and Lady Willoughby all wore expressions of stone. Chastity seemed to sink under the heavy chains that bound her, but she did not speak.

Lord Willoughby raised his bowed head enough to peek out at the crowd, and I shifted in my seat a little, hoping to catch his eye. It worked- his eye fell on me, and I gave him an encouraging smile.

His eyes widened fearfully, but he lowered his head once more and did not speak.

“So be it,” Brother Lux said. “We will hear the evidence against you. The witnesses are as follows: Sister Happiness of the Abbey de Lune- character witness against Lord and Lady Willoughby; Sir Nighthawk, character witness against Captain Goode; Brother Severus, who found evidence of magic during interrogation; Brother Gaius, who searched Rowan Heights and will present evidence against Lord Frey and his servant Miss Evans; Lady Grace Frey, who lived amongst the accused at the time the crimes took place; and Mrs. Charity Auber, the accuser.”

Brother Lux turned to the crowd. “If any assembled have borne witness to any of the alleged events, or know the names of any relevant witnesses, please speak now.”

Mr. St. Roch stood, and the crowd murmured amongst themselves.

“Your Holiness and Brother Lux,” Mr. St. Roch said with a bow. “I humbly request you call Brother Antonine to the stand.”

Bishop Septimus spoke before Pius or Lux could respond. “I have read the inquisitor’s reports; Brother Antonine found no evidence worth examining.”

“If it please the court, I wish to present the evidence that Brother Antonine and his disgraced partner, Brother Domition, did not find,” Mr. St. Roch continued. “Given the methods these men employed in their interrogation, I believe the lack of evidence they gathered is quite relevant.”

“Ridiculous,” Bishop Septimus scoffed. “What is the point of examining evidence not found?”

A scattered laugh rose from the crowd, but Mr. St. Roch stood silently and kept his eyes fixed on Father Pius.

Father Pius gazed back at Mr. St. Roch with unshakable serenity. “Mr…”

“Amity St. Roch at your service,” he said with another bow.

“You wish to advocate for the accused, Mr. St. Roch?”

“I do.”

“This is a matter of sacred truth,” Bishop Septimus said. “Not a matter of technicalities for lawyers to quibble over.”

“I only wish to present evidence that may have otherwise been overlooked. I leave the ultimate judgment of truth in your capable hands.”

“Let ‘em speak,” someone yelled from the gallery.

Bishop Septimus turned to look up at the gallery, as though trying to see who had called out. All of the prisoners, save Hope, looked up as well, wearing expressions of surprise.

“Order in the gallery,” the bailiff called.

“Thank you, bailiff,” Father Pius said. Then he turned back to Mr. St. Roch. “I admit that I am as curious as the crowd must be to hear the evidence Mr. St. Roch has to share. I will call Brother Antonine as a witness. Brother- are you here?”

Pius gazed into the crowd, and a scarlet clad man stepped away from the line of inquisitors who stood guard.

“I am, Your Holiness.”

“Good. Witnesses, come forward to swear your oaths and be subjected to the litany of truth.”

Prudence gave my hand a quick squeeze, and then I stood.

An inquisitor stepped forward and took my arm, navigating me past the crowd of people to the front of the dais. I stood between an elderly Sister in white robes and the scarlet-clad Brother Antonine. Mrs. Auber, all in black, was on Brother Antonine’s other side, and Brother Antonine stood tall with folded arms as though to guard Mrs. Auber from me.

Brother Lux stepped forward and made the symbol of order over our heads, and then Father Pius stood up, looking like a giant upon the platform, and began to sing.

I had often heard Father’s voice raised in anger, but his voice sounded as though it came from another person entirely when it was raised in song. It was, as I would have guessed, powerful enough to fill the entire courtroom, yet there was also a surprising gentleness in its timbre, and an almost sad quality to the way it rose and fell that brought a chill to my spine and tears to my eyes. The song had a profound effect without the assistance of the litany’s magic.

It was obvious from the crowd’s reaction, however, that he had fully used the litany’s magic. I could hear many in the crowd weeping openly. Beside me, Sister Happiness fell to her knees, crying into her hands.

I placed my hand gently on her shoulder. “Sister,” I whispered. “Brother Lux approaches to take our oaths. Can you stand?”

For a few moments she did not respond, but then she took my hand and, trembling, allowed me to help her stand. Brother Lux smiled at me before he turned to the Sister and, gently but firmly, led her through the oath.

The Sister still wept as she spoke, but her voice did not so much as crack, as though she was compelled by an outside force to speak. Then Brother Lux made the sign of Order over her head once more, and turned to me.

I took a deep breath, wiped my eyes, and gave my oath. I had thought my voice would quaver as I spoke the lie, but it did not. It was, I realized, a lie sincerely told.

“I, Lady Grace Frey, Countess of Coteaux, solemnly swear before Order, Chastity, and Reverence, and under the witness of Gods and the witness of men, to speak the truth in my testimony upon the destruction of my mortal soul. So shall it be.”

Brother Lux nodded as though in approval, gave the sign of order, and passed to the next witness.

 

 

#

 

 

The court recessed, the Bishops dispersed, and the prisoners were led away long before Brother Amicus deemed the crowds thin enough to allow Prudence and I to move about safely. He and a fellow inquisitor flanked Prudence and I as we walked out the side door, through the cloisters, and to the Cathedral Annex.

When we arrived, Brother Lux was already awaiting us outside the squat, square building wearing a smile so apologetic that my sense of danger spiked.

“The crowds on the roads all around here are thick, and will remain so as long as the trial continues. It would be pointlessly foolhardy to convey you and Celeste back and forth to Bridon Place.”

Brother Lux turned to Prudence. “I’ve made arrangements for you to stay the night with your charge here in the annex. Do you or Celeste need anything from Bridon place?”

“I-“ Prudence turned her veiled face toward me for a moment, and then turned back. “There is a white trunk in the nursery- it contains all of our important things. Oh! And please bring the patchwork quilt on Celeste’s bed. She cannot sleep without it.”

Brother Lux nodded, and then turned to me expectantly.

I took a few moments to consider. I had a valise under my arm, filled with all of the papers, letters, and documents I had anticipated I would need to present the court. To these I had added any items I may need in an emergency, and a set of spare clothing for Hope. I had even cut a slit into the valise’s lining, and inside I’d placed Pius’s damning love letter to Lux and the rough map I’d made of the Cathedral dungeons. If I was not allowed to return to Bridon Place, the other things I’d placed inside the trunk would be lost. Still, if I could not return to Bridon place, It was probable I would have little need for a heavy trunk.

Finally, I shook my head. “No- I have everything I need.”

“Are you certain?” Brother Lux said, raising his eyebrows in surprise.

I nodded.

“Very well.” He gestured to the inquisitor who held Prudence’s arm.

The inquisitor bowed slightly and left to perform the errand.

“Come with me, Sister. Celeste is waiting inside,” Brother Lux said. “Brother Amicus- if you would be so kind, I believe there is something Lady Frey would like to see before she retires.”

“You are separating us?” Prudence said sharply.

“Not for long. Come-“ Brother Lux said, and before I could I object, he swept Prudence inside.

I moved to follow Prudence, but Brother Amicus stepped swiftly in front of me, blocking the door. He let loose a nervous laugh and rubbed the back of his neck apologetically.

“I’m sorry, but you will be glad you came with me. I promise.”

I could tell that from his uneasy stance and his wiry yet boyish frame that I would be able to best Brother Amicus easily in an altercation. Still, I could not fight every inquisitor in the place to get to Prudence, and I would gain nothing from the attempt. I pushed down my anxieties regarding Prudence and Celeste, reminded myself of Pius’s vow not to harm them, and acquiesced.

Brother Amicus led me back through the cloisters, but instead of taking me through the large doors that led to the courtroom, he led me around the side of the building and down a set of cellar steps.

“Bishop Septimus did not like the way the prisoners appeared,” Brother Amicus explained as we went. “He demanded that they be made well enough to continue the trial, and not further shock the ladies.”

The steps led to a wide, open room lined with neat cots covered in white linens. Brown-robed monks bustled around, attending to the prisoners who were chained to the cots by their feet.

Each prisoner had a tray of gruel and bread propped up in front of them. One of the monks attempted to assist Captain Goode with his dinner, but Mrs. Goode was present, and appeared to be arguing for the right to assist her son herself. Another monk stood beside Hope’s bed, attempting to lend his assistance.

“Leave me. I can manage to get the spoon to my face,” Hope growled angrily.

“Please,” I said, stepping forward. “Allow me.”

The monk, a tall, thin man with a mournful face, shook his head, but I persisted.

“I am Lady Frey- his wife.”

The monk sighed and stepped back, handing me the spoon.

“Grace-“ Hope said. “They allowed you to come. Oh! But you must not look.”

Hope covered the unbandaged scars with his hands, but I put the spoon down and gently prized his hands away from his eyes.

“It is alright- I’ve seen them already. I was in the courtroom.”

Hope sighed and allowed his hands to drop. “I didn’t wish for you to see the scars so closely. There were ladies in the courtroom who fainted at the sight of me.”

I looked closely at the scars, which were angry red gashes that extended all the way from eye to temple. Where his eyes should have been were sockets that seemed to be fused shut into lumps of red and white flesh, but there was no open wound, and no sign of festering or fever.

“It does not look so bad- not frightening at all,” I said. “There is only one lady who fainted, Miss Taris, and she has lately gained a flair for the dramatic. No doubt she was carried away by the- the circus of the courtroom.”

“Miss Taris was present?” Hope said in a tone of surprise.

“The whole of Aeterna was present. Your wife was quite correct to call the proceedings a circus, and we are the main act,” Captain good interjected before turning to his mother. “Please- I do no need to be petted like a child. Let the Brother do his job and assist me.”

Mrs. Goode clucked her tongue impatiently, but she turned to pace among the cots.

I turned back to Hope and placed the spoon, bread, and crockery within his reach and, after guiding his hand to each item to show him where it was, left him to eat on his own.

“Are you alone, Grace?” he asked.

“Yes- Celeste and Sister Jubilee are in the Cathedral annex. It is away from the crowds, and they are with Mercy, so for now they are safe.”

Hope could not see the anxiety in my eyes when I remembered Prudence being swept away from me at the annex, where Celeste and Mercy were waiting alone. I raised my voice in false confidence, and the effect seemed to satisfy Hope, who sighed in relief.

“I am glad you are all safe, for now. I would rather you were all far from this circus, but I imagine you would not go.”

“I cannot- not while you still need my help. I know that Sister Jubilee shares my views.”

“An admirable sentiment,” Mrs. Goode said, pacing toward us. “I am not surprised to find that you are brave; you seem an unusually sturdy and plain-spoken young woman. I am surprised that Sister Jubilee has agreed to stay, however.”

“She is a dedicated Sister from del Sol. Why would this surprise you?” I asked.

“She seems a good sort of woman,” Mrs. Goode said, her voice lingering on the word good. “But she is very shy. She always hides her face behind that thick veil, and she has not spoken aloud to me once.”

“You may have only seen her during times of silent contemplation,” Captain Goode said. “Many sisters observe such rituals, even away from their abbeys.”

“Perhaps,” Mrs. Goode said. “And it is plain that Lady Frey trusts Sister Jubilee. I wonder, however, how much Lady Frey really knows about Sister Jubilee’s past.”

“There are no secrets between us,” I said.

Mrs. Goode shot me one of her searching looks, and I met her gaze unflinchingly. After a few moments, she spoke again.

“Yes- I can see you believe it,” she said. “Whether you’ve been led astray is another matter.”

She shot a significant glance toward Hope, and then turned back to me. “You should have not formed such an intimacy with the Sister, Lady Frey. It is unnatural.”

“Mother!” Captain Goode snapped.

“Never mind. Everything will work out as Wisdom wills.”

Mrs. Goode nodded politely to me and went back to attend her son. I felt my blood chill as I watched her go, and within me grew the conviction that Brother Lux had separated Prudence and me on purpose.

Part LXXXVI

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