The Coven, Part CIII

   Read from the beginning.

      I stood at the window of my old room, staring out onto the lawn.

      Hope and I had done our best to distract Lady Fairfax, but she’d continually complained of her nerves, and she would not settle herself to sleep no matter how many lulling songs we’d played on the clavichord. Finally, she accepted a glass of brandy, and then went to bed just as the sun began to rise over the hills.

      I could not follow either Lady Farifax’s example or Hope’s advice that I go to sleep. Instead, I kept watch, and after some time came to the conclusion that neither Miss Taris nor the dragoons had stayed to patrol the grounds. They were likely further in the distance, behind the veil of gunpowder that hung over the horizon to the north.

      The tip of the Cathedral’s spire shone above the haze, reflecting the sunlight like a torch. The sounds of cannon fire had begun to slow- it was no longer like a continuous sound of thunder, but rather an occasional, disjointed pop. The soldiers who still patrolled the lawn seemed to relax their postures, and marched more slowly. They had caught no enemy near Willowbrook in the night.

      As I watched, I heard a knock on the door behind me, followed by a soft creak as the door opened.

      “You cannot sleep?” Hope said across the threshold.

      “I haven’t tried, and I don’t plan to try,” I said, beckoning him inside.

      Hope entered and closed the door behind himself, coming to stand beside me at the window. He had changed into my father’s old clothes, and for the first time since he was arrested he was dressed like a gentleman.

      “It’s a strange sort of anxiety, isn’t it, when you await the outcome of a battle between your foes,” he said.

      I nodded. “The sounds of battle are growing quiet, but none of Sancti’s troops have made their way to Willowbrook. Either Wisdom is winning, or Sancti does not know you are hidden here.”

      “Or Sancti knows, and does not care,” Hope said. “But I don’t believe that Sancti would let me slip away, no matter how inconsequential Pride believes me to be.”

      “Even if Pride underestimates you, the Queen of Sancti surely knows the power of symbols. The people wouldn’t not accept her reign while you-” I shivered, unable to finish the thought.

      Hope stepped a little closer to the window and drew back a curtain a little further. “The dragoons are nowhere to be seen. They must have joined the battle.”

      “Yes. Things must have proven more difficult than Wisdom anticipated, to leave his king so unguarded. I don’t think that Miss Taris lied when she said they planned to guard us last night.”

      “No,” Hope growled in a low voice. “Miss Taris had no motive to lie. She certainly did not mean to reassure Lady Fairfax. On the contrary- Miss Taris seemed to take great delight in tormenting her.”

      Hope flung the curtain shut and turned away from the scene.

      “Wisdom will be weakened, perhaps, after such a difficult battle,” he said. “This would be the best time to strike against him. Have you tried to sing the litany, yet?”

      “No- I will try now, while we are alone. If I sing it before the others, it will look strange.”

      I closed my eyes and began to sing.

      The song was not difficult to remember. The tune and lyrics were as simple as any other litany. I sang the song once, just to make sure I remembered all of it, and then I sang through again. This time, I concentrated on the lyrics, the feeling of the tune, and any other piece of the song that might provide a clue to the spell’s intent.

      I sang a third time, going a little deeper into my feelings so I might find the place where magic resisted will, but I felt nothing.

      Finally, I stopped and sighed. “It’s more difficult than I’d anticipated,” I said. “It might help if I knew the song’s purpose.”

      Hope sat on the edge of my bed and closed his eyes. “Sing it more slowly, this time. Linger on the notes- let them resonate inside you. I will try to examine the spell.”

      I nodded and sang again. This time, however, I could not concentrate. The song echoed through the room in an ominous way, off of the dark, bare walls that had been stripped of everything I loved when I’d gone to Rowan Heights. I wondered if anything I’d taken to Rowan Heights had remained, or if the inquisition had taken it all. I wondered if they’d taken everything I’d left at St. Blanc and Verdant city when I’d fled those places, too.

      I stopped singing, feeling as bare as the room around me. I could not continue to sing Wisdom’s praises.

      “There- at the end, I thought I caught something,” Hope said. “It was fleeting, though.”

      “I cannot actually cast a spell, only counter it with my will,” I said. “Perhaps if you sing it instead-”

      “No. Prudence was right to warn me against singing it. If I did, I might accidentally lend Wisdom some part of my own power, or perhaps bind myself to him, depending on the purpose of the litany.”

      “- which we don’t know.” I sat down beside Hope and rubbed my forehead. “I dislike these vicious cycles.”

      “Oh yes, I know,” Hope said with a fond smile. “Perhaps we could approach this puzzle another way.”

Hope pressed a finger to his lips, and then he stood and went to my writing desk, pulling out an old sheet of paper and a bottle of ink I’d left unopened.

      He made quick work of trimming an old quill, and then sat down and wrote out the litany’s lyrics in a neat series of couplets.

     

For a better future- sing

to the blessings Wisdom brings.

 

Peace on Earth and Heaven’s song,

Echo winter, summer long.

     

Angel, God, and Human child,

Join in spring and autumn mild.

 

Peace on earth eternal, sing!

Pray to Wisdom, let joy ring.

 

      “The meter is not at all unusual for a litany,” Hope said, leaning back in the chair to examine the page. “The structure is similar to the Litany of Order. The God’s name is invoked at the beginning and the end; the first couplet promises the God’s blessings, and the last couplet implores the singer to pray.”

      Hope circled the first and last stanzas, and then underlined Wisdom’s name.

      “The middle stanzas puzzle me,” Hope continued. “There are references to time- the seasons- leading to a promise of eternal peace. I would almost think this was a spell for immortality, if not for the fact that Pius was already immortal as a demon.”

      “The line that references Angels, Gods, and Humans puzzles me, as well,” I said. “Do you think that Wisdom expects the other Gods to join him?”

      Hope put aside the quill and sighed. “There is a possibility I had not anticipated- especially since he is at war with Reverence as we speak. Perhaps it’s best not to borrow trouble. Could you hum the song for me once, without words? There may be some clues isolated in the tune.”

      I agreed, and Hope closed his eyes while I hummed the litany’s tune.

      “It is a simple tune; it just follows the major scale down and up, down and up. It is almost hypnotic,” he said. “But I always feel just an edge of frustration, because the cadence is wrong. It goes up at the end without resolving back to the root. Strange.”

      Just then there was a sharp rap on the door, and I waited for Hope to take flint and tinder to the paper before I answered.

      “Your father and Miss Taris have returned,” Mrs. Ellis, father’s old housekeeper, said as soon as I opened the door. Then she cast a glance toward Hope, bobbed and curtsey, and fled as though frightened.

      I turned back to Hope. “It will take me a few moments to get ready, and then we can go downstairs to meet them together.”

 

 

#

 

 

      “My King!” My father’s voice boomed through the sitting room as soon as we entered. My father swept past me without a glance, his arms raised theatrically. Then he fell to his knees before Hope, reached out, and kissed the hem of the coat Hope wore, which happened to be father’s own.

      “Sir-” Hope began.

      “My Lord, you have my full support, and the support of my household,” my father continued, standing. “Your enemies are my enemies, now and forever.”

      “I know not what to say to such a declaration,” Hope said. “Do you mean to count yourself among your enemies? I have had reason to hate you, and I thought you hated me in return.”

      “You aren’t the first man to threaten, or even to throttle me. It is all water under the bridge,” my father said, brushing this aside.

      “I also recall that, after threatening your life, I made a very firm request that you retire from politics,” Hope continued.

      “There’s no escaping politics in this world, wouldn’t you agree my de-” Father gazed at me, for the first time, and froze.

      “What the devil are you wearing, girl?” he sputtered.

      I looked down at my dress, which I had also borrowed from my father’s closet. I wore a plain, serviceable pair of breeches that father had once worn when surveying the grounds at Willowbrook, but had not worn for years to my knowledge. I had paired this with an old shirt, waistcoat, and a greatcoat loose enough to provide easy access to my sword.

      “I did not think you would mind if I borrowed these,” I said coolly. “You were never very fond of these clothes.”

      “Go back upstairs and dress yourself like a lady,” Father said. “What if someone sees you in such a getup?”

      “It is too late,” Miss Taris said. “Plenty of Wisdom’s men in Verdant City saw her dressed like that, fighting with a sword. People everywhere are whispering about the warrior-queen who liberated the future King from his shackles.”

      Father looked at Miss Taris in surprise, and then turned back to me, examining me with a critical eye.

      “Are they, really? I had wondered what had become of her, when she abandoned me to my fate in the courtroom. Don’t worry, Grace- you chose the right man to save. I lived.”

      He raised cane like a sword and moved to strike. I drew my own sword just in time to parry the blow, and we continued for a few more moments, trading elementary strikes and parries until my father stepped back and nodded as though in satisfaction.

      “I see what you mean, Miss Taris,” he finally said. “She isn’t a great beauty. She doesn’t have a remarkable story tied to her name, or rumors of some great destiny. She will need to be singular to attract any attention at all, let alone gain public support.”

      “I do not fight to get attention,” I said, re-sheathing my sword. “I only fight so that I, and those I love, may survive.”

      “I know it- and there is nothing more attractive than sincerity,” my father said with a nod.

      Miss Taris stepped forward. “I’ve returned to let you know that the battle is through, and Brother Lux wishes to see you both. I met Lord Ainsworth on the road and he… invited himself along.”

      “This is my home, and I shall do as I please,” Father said. He turned to the footman who stood nearby. “Faith- go tell the groom to get the horses ready- my hunter and the three mares. I want the hunter brushed and fitted rather splendidly.”

      He turned back to Hope. “The king must look the part when he appears to survey the battlefield.”

 

 

#

 

 

      Hope and I argued with Father and Miss Taris for some time whether it would be wise for Hope to ride into a recent warzone, but in the end we were persuaded. Miss Taris said she had important news regarding Celeste and Prudence, but she would only reveal it once we were at the Cathedral Lux.

      As we rode down the lane the air grew dustier, and the scent of gunpowder that lingered triggered memories of battle so powerful that I had to pause to steady myself.

      The Cathedral lawn was filled with men who stood in dirty, battered coats. A few men sat in rows, bound in chains, their faces worn with fatigue. As tired and worn as all of the men looked, however, all of them were alive and whole. Not a single body lay on the lawn, and not a single wound, bandaged or unbandaged, could be seen. The scene was so different from the aftermath at the ancient temple that I could hardly imagine a battle had taken place.

      “Can you believe that there are still men who will not kneel to Wisdom, even after he brought them back from the brink of death?” Miss Taris said, gesturing to the men who sat in chains.

      “It is surprising,” my father grunted in reply. “Wisdom healed or brought back every single person his men felled in Verdant City. Afterward, everyone pledged their faith in him. One would have to be an uncommon fool to stand against such power.”

      Father spurred his horse to catch up with Hope, whose shining, black steed cantered proudly at the fore.

      “This is the birth of your reign, my King,” father said, gesturing toward the field. “The world has never witnessed such a revolution.”

      At that moment, everyone on the field turned to look at Hope.

      For a time, they all stood silently, and I could almost see the image they beheld reflected in their awestruck gazes. Even the inquisitors paused in their ministries and turned to gaze at the man who rode, upright and elegant, into the crowd of battle-fatigued soldiers. The Cathedral doors opened, and still more men came outside to gaze up at Hope.

      “It is Uriel!” one man cried. “It is our King!”

      “Long live the King!” echoed through the crowd.

      Some men fell to their knees, but still more came forward, arms upraised as though beseeching benediction.

      Then Miss Taris cried. “Look out!”

      I saw a flash of silver in one of the upraised hands; a knife was clasped in a fist, ready to stab at the man who would be king.

      Before I could think, I acted.

      I drew my sword and lashed out once, knocking the dagger from the upraised hand. Then I followed through, and my sword sank into flesh- into the stomach of the would-be assassin.

      The assassin let out a horrid groan, and he fell to the ground in a pool of crimson blood.

      The crowd fell back, and I could see the assassin’s face. He was a young man, nowhere near 20. His lips were blue as he gasped his final breaths.

      Then I heard a voice cry out. “Make way! Let me through.”

      The crowd parted, and Brother Lux appeared. He was not wearing crimson robes, but a robe of pure white. He spun to look at me, his eyes glowing in the noonday sun.

      “Get away from him, Lady Frey. Go as far as you can, or he will die.”

Part CIV

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