The Coven, Part XC

Read from the Beginning

There was a commotion in the crowd, and a voice shouted- “let me through- I have evidence to present.”

Mr. St. Roch strode forward, holding a folder full of papers above his head as though to protect it from the crowd.

“I have reason to believe that the document is a forgery,” Mr. St. Roch said, shouting past the guards who blocked his path. “If you would simply look at my samples…”

“Really, Mr. St. Roch, you’ve made enough of a nuisance of yourself already,” Bishop Septimus snapped.

“I would like to see his evidence,” Bishop Benedict said, “especially considering the mysterious origins of this blood oath.”

Bishop Benedict looked up to Father Pius, who nodded.

The guards stepped aside, and Mr. St. Roch came forward, stopping only briefly to bow to Father Pius and then the Bishops’ bench. Mr. St. Roch and Bishop Septimus argued together, comparing documents, pointing, fidgeting with and trading papers. Finally, all of the papers were laid out on the floor for the bishops to examine.

“You see, this letter- written in Lord Frey’s own hand- was examined by your inquisitors and stamped before it was conveyed to Lady Frey. The signature is clearly distinct from the one on the blood oath. And here- Mrs. Goode supplied letters from her son, Captain Goode, written before his hands were taken. There is also a note supplied by Miss Chastity’s sister-“

“This is all pointless; the hand can alter with time and circumstance,” Bishop Septimus shot back. “A humbled prisoner will not sign with the same pompous flourishes as when he is free and defiant. The lack of a loop here or there hardly signifies-“

“This is not a matter of the odd flourish- the person who wrote the signatures on the oath learned to write in an entirely different school! The prisoners, with the exception of Lady Willoughby, were privately educated, while the person who wrote the oath clearly studied monastic writing-“

Mr. St. Roch cut himself off, and a hush fell over the court.

Bishop Septimus had been kneeling to examine the documents that were laid out on the floor. Now he stood, raising himself to his full height, and cleared his throat.

“What, exactly, are you trying to imply, Mr. St. Roch?”

Mr. St. Roch remained kneeling beside the documents. “Only that the hands do not match, Bishop. Nothing more.”

“It sounded to me as though you meant to implicate a member of the church,” Bishop Septimus said, raising his voice. “And it’s not the first time during these proceedings that you’ve tried to place the Church of Order in a bad light.”

Mr. St. Roch hesitated, and then he stood, looking at Bishop Septimus eye to eye.

“Light illuminates, my friend; only darkness can conceal truth. The purpose of this trial is to illuminate, is it not?”

Bishop Benedict stood and stepped between Bishop Septimus and Mr. St. Roch. He turned to Bishop Septimus with an apologetic smile and shrugged his shoulders.

“I fear there is more heat than light, here. I myself don’t know what to make of all this. Mrs. Auber, can you think of any clue, no matter how small, that may suggest the origin of this blood oath?”

Mrs. Auber shook her head.

“I suggest we examine the documents more closely later, when heads are cooler. For now, if you will be so kind as to take your seat, Mr. St. Roch and Mrs. Auber, we will call the next witness.”

“Very well,” Father Pius said from atop his throne. “Mrs. Auber and Mr. St. Roch, you may both be seated. Lady Grace Frey, please stand.”

 

 

#

 

 

As soon as my name was called, I heard a strange sound. From the gallery high above, and scattered corners behind me, I heard reverent whispers rise.

Lady. Lady…”

      In that moment, I knew that Father Pius had been wrong to advise me to appear meek and humble before the court. Pius had carefully arranged the proceedings of the court, but not to impress the Bishops. The people who supported my husband-the people who believed -expected a queen.

I stood to face the crowd, ignoring the hisses that came from all around me. I had expected the presence of an audience to frighten me, but somehow it had the opposite effect. The very presence of a people helped me slip into the role of Queen. I raised my head and walked toward the dais in deliberate, measured steps.

Bishop Benedict met me with a reassuring smile, and took my hands in prayer, leading me through the litany of truth. I bowed my head and joined in the song, and then repeated my false oath like an actor delivering a line.

“Thank you, Bishop Benedict,” Bishop Septimus said, his hands full of the papers that had littered the floor seconds before. He stowed the papers on the bench where he’d been sitting, and then gazed at me through his spectacles.

“You are Lady Frey?” he said. “You must be very recently married- you can’t be any more than…”

“I am twenty years old,” I said.

“You look much younger,” Bishop Septimus said, as though to contradict. “How old were you when you married Lord Frey?”

“I was nineteen- we were married just after midsummer,” I replied.

“Just in time for you to get entangled in all of this,” Bishop Septimus removed his spectacles and waved them at the courtroom around him. “How long had you known Lord Frey before you were married?”

“I met him a week before our marriage,” I said.

“So soon before?” Bishop Septimus said, raising his eyebrows. “Your father must have been acquainted with Lord Frey beforehand to arrange the match.”

“I believe my father was acquainted with the late Lord Frey,” I said, “but I was not out in society before my marriage.”

“Curious,” Bishop Septimus said. “I have reviewed your marriage contract, and it is signed by Father Sauris himself. Do you know why the High Priest would have had a hand in arranging your marriage, as opposed to the local Bishop?”

“My father’s estate, Willowbrook, is very close to the Cathedral Lux, where Father Sauris kept his office. My father always consulted Father Sauris in spiritual matters, so it did not seem strange to me that Father Sauris helped arrange my marriage.”

Bishop Benedict stepped forward, placing himself between Bishop Sauris and I. He wore his usual gentle smile, but I could see a slight crease in the lines between his eyes.

“I’m afraid we are getting a little off course,” he said lightly. “I think the events leading up to the dumb supper may be more relevant to this case.”

“My questions are perfectly relevant,” Bishop Septimus shot back. “After all, Father Sauris himself sent this girl to Rowan Heights mere weeks before Rowan Heights struck back at him. What was his purpose in doing so? Did he suspect Lord Frey, and send this girl to report to her father?”

Bishop Benedict turned back to me. “Did you father ask you to report on the happenings at Rowan Heights?”

The letter my father had sent to me at Rowan Heights, asking for information, entered my mind briefly. I remembered with relief that I had destroyed it long before inquisitors searched Rowan Heights.

“I did not correspond with my father after my marriage, until I was presented at St. Blanc,” I said.

“Did you correspond with Father Sauris?” Bishop Septimus persisted.

“No- not at all.”

Bishop Septimus began to pace, tapping his spectacles against the palm of his hand.

“Is there is anything you would have reported, anything that frightened you at Rowan Heights…”

Bishop Septimus stopped pacing and turned back to me, his watery eyes filled with fake concern. I lifted my head higher and summoned all the dignity I could to keep my anger in check.

“What could frighten me at Rowan Heights that would compare with the real terror I faced when my husband was arrested? What imagined danger could even touch the real possibility I will lose him forever?”

“I understand that you must have been frightened, but your husband was accused of a heinous crime, and he is being given a fair trial.”

“He was not given a trial before his eyes were cut out. The inquisitors have deprived him of his faculties forever. They have deprived Captain Goode and Lady Willoughby in the same way, without any opportunity to speak on their own behalf.”

Angry mutterings echoed my statement from the gallery.

“Lady Frey!” Bishop Septimus burst forth. “I have been indulgent because of your innocence and your age, but I must remind you that your husband is at the mercy of this court.”

My eyes drifted over to the prisoner’s box, where Hope sat. He was thin, chained, his blind eyes covered in bandages, and yet his countenance was impossibly serene as he sat awaiting his fate.

“You are right, of course,” I said with a slight bow. “I must speak for him, now. Ask me what you will, and I will answer.”

Bishop Benedict stepped forward again, and he gazed at me with a strange, almost fearful expression before he spoke.

The rest of my testimony proceeded precisely how Father Pius had predicted, and I answered without making a single mistake. Bishop Septimus poured over his notes, comparing all of my answers to the letters and statements he had collected, but in the end he was forced to admit there were no inconsistencies.

“Still, you were not at Rowan Heights long,” Bishop Septimus said. “I understand you love your husband, Lady Frey, but there are still many things you do not know.”

Father Pius waved me back to my seat, and I allowed the inquisitors to lead me away.

“Bishops, you have a difficult task ahead of you,” Father Pius said. “The fates of the prisoners are in your hands, and by your souls I charge you not to make an error in your judgement. I will allow you an hour’s recess to review the blood oath and deliberate, and then you must render your verdict.”

 

 

#

 

 

The courtroom vibrated with low voices and the restless shuffling of feet as the excruciating minutes passed. The men in the gallery did not shout, and the separate factions among the nobles, and in the crowd that spilled into the hallway, did not tussle amongst themselves. The leaders of each faction were in check- all actions were held for the moment the side doors opened and the bishops returned to render their verdict.

I looked around the room, and realized with a start that the courtroom had been set up to collapse as soon as chaos broke loose. There were few guards in the gallery, even though it was the most volatile section in the courtroom. Armed inquisitors were concentrated around the noble’s section, closest to the nobles who were most loyal to the Prince. I looked, but I could not find Miss Taris among them. Brother Lux stood unarmed at the front of the cluster of armed inquisitors, poised on the balls of his feet as though he were ready for action. Brother Domitian and Brother Severus, also unarmed, stood close to the bishop’s bench, surrounded by armed inquisitors on all sides.

I looked to the back of the courtroom, where the crowd spilled into the back of the hall. A few of the prince’s guard stood at the bottleneck- far too few to stem the tide once it burst forth.

I looked back to Brother Lux, who caught my eye. He touched his chest briefly, and then gave me a slow nod.

At that moment, the side doors opened.

The Bishops returned.

Father Pius followed the Bishops, but he did not ascend the dais. Instead, he stood at the front of the courtroom where the witnesses had given testimony and turned slowly, looking at each of the seated bishops in turn.

“Bishop Benedict, this trial has been deeply troubling in many ways. Before the verdict is read, please come forward and offer the Litany of Strength.”

Bishop Benedict nodded, and came forward to stand beside Father Pius. As he sang, Bishop Benedict’s voice was gentle, but the effect was like adding kerosene to embers. The crowd grew more restless- the tension crackled with a terrible energy, threatening to burst forth.

“Thank you,” Father Pius said with a humble bow of his head. Then he turned to the Bishop’s bench once more. “Bishop Septimus, please stand.”

Bishop Septimus stood, straightening his robes with an air of importance.

“Bishop Septimus, do you speak for the assembled Bishops.”

“I do, your Holiness. The verdict was not quite unanimous, but there was a very clear majority.” Bishop Septimus shot a glare at Bishop Benedict.

“Very well,” Father Pius said. He turned to the prisoner’s box. “Please stand, and hear what the Bishops have to say.”

The prisoners all stood, their chains rattling against the side of the box. I noticed how very near they stood near the door- how tightly the guards held their chains- and my heart leapt in fear.

“Your Holiness, nobles and gentlemen of the court,” Bishop Septimus said, bowing to each in turn. “The assembled Bishops have found the accused, Lord Hope Uriel Frey, Lord Tranquil Willoughby, Lady Patience Willoughby, Captain Justice Goode, and Miss Chastity Evans, guilty of the charges of conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy against the High Priest, murder of the High Priest, and Witchcraft. For these crimes, they are to be put to death by hanging- may the Gods have mercy upon them.”

Cries of shock and dismay rang out mingled with shouts of anger and even triumph. The sounds seemed to ring in my ears- I was struck numb. Yet, before my head could clear, and the pain could strike with its full force, a call rang out.

“My Priest!” Brother Lux sprang forward and threw himself onto his knees at Father Pius’s feet. “I have remained silent, but I cannot any longer. I was suspicious of my brother- jealous. I have persecuted and wronged him, but I do not believe he is guilty. If there is to be punishment, then punish me- take my life in his stead.”

All around me, voices stilled, and those who had risen took their seats once more. The circus continued; the show was not yet over.

Father Pius placed his hand on Brother Lux’s bowed head. “If you have faith in me, I will be your priest. Confess your sins, and I will show mercy.”

“My brother and his friends truly possess power, but that power is not evil- it is holy,” Lux said. “They did not seek to aggrandize themselves, or to avenge themselves by means of murder. Instead, all their efforts have been to help the oppressed and free the enslaved, and they were willing to sacrifice themselves to this end. I did not understand my brother’s power or the faith that gave him the will to fight. I sought to save him from what I wrongfully perceived as wickedness. In my efforts to save his soul, I scarred him and our friends forever.

“Yet my brother forgave me my sins against him. He gave me this- a symbol of the faith that gave him such power. Last night as I looked at this symbol, it seemed to glow with a holy light, and I was no longer afraid. If the God who gave my brother such faith would forgive me, I would follow that God to eternity.”

Brother Lux reached into his robes and drew forth the symbol of wisdom.

There was a gasp in the courtroom, and all around me people shielded their eyes, as though from a great light.

Father Pius leaned down and kissed Brother Lux’s head, and then helped him to stand.

“You have laid your sins at my feet. Follow me, and I will wipe your sins away.”

Father Pius’s eyes glowed white, and he gazed into Brother Lux’s eyes, which reflected the light.

“Look! The prisoners!” A woman from the gallery cried.

I turned and saw the prisoners- their skins shimmered with white light, and when the light dissipated their bruises and wounds were gone. Captain Goode held up his arms, staring in amazement at his two perfect hands.

Hope pulled the bandages off of his face and opened his eyes.

Wisdom- Wisdom!”

“He is the true God- Freer of the oppressed!”

“It is a miracle!”

      All around me I heard cries of joy. Then, almost as one, the Bishops stood.

“This is blasphemy,” Bishop Septimus screamed. “Chastity, Reverence, and above all- Order! These are the true Gods.”

Pius ignored Bishop Septimus, turning instead to regard the crowd all around him.

“I see those who already know me, and I see those who wish to know me. I have shown you the corruption that has infested the old church- the cruelty and the horror. The old Gods no longer listen to your prayers and no longer heal your suffering.”

Pius raised his arms and smiled benevolently on the crowd. “Give me your prayers, my children, and I will hear them. Give me your sufferings, and I will ease them. I- Wisdom, the newly ascended God- will not abandon you.”

There were a few boos scattered in the crowd behind me, and some cries as though in terror. But then, rising above it, the gallery seemed to cry out as one.

Our prayers for Wisdom! Our lives for Wisdom!”

      Pius turned to Bishop Septimus once more.

“The old order is through.”

 

The Coven, Part XCI

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