The Coven, Part LXXVII

My vision blurred with fatigue, but there was nothing to observe in the stone room, anyway. There was nothing but the echoing of footsteps on stone as Father Pius paced around me, and the cadence of Father Pius’s voice as he questioned me.

“Did Brother Lux take you to your room when you became ill at the dumb supper?”

“No- my husband escorted me to my room. Brother Lux came to examine me later- shortly before midnight.”

Father Pius nodded as though in approval. “Was Brother Lux alone when he examined you?”

“Yes, he was.”

“Don’t choose this moment to tell the truth,” Pius snapped. “Remember that this leaves your husband unaccounted for.”

I closed my eyes and searched my mind for any inconsistencies another lie may produce. Then I said, “my husband accompanied Brother Lux to my bedroom, and stayed while Brother Lux examined me.”

“What was Brother Lux’s diagnosis?”

“Only fatigue and overindulgence in drink. He said I would be well once I had rested.”

“Very well. After Brother Lux gave his assessment and retired, did your husband leave as well?”

“No- he stayed with me all night.”

“Good,” Father Pius stopped pacing and the clicking of heels on stone stopped, leaving blissful silence in its wake.

“This is your most critical testimony; you mustn’t stumble over a single detail. Let us go over it again- who was present the night of the dumb supper?”

I had only opened my mouth to answer when Pius put a finger to his lips. He stepped away and opened the doors, behind which Brother Lux already stood waiting.

“Good evening, Lady Frey,” Brother Lux said in a measured tone, bowing low to me as he entered. “I am here to lend my assistance and ensure our testimony is concordant.”

“Good evening,” I said distractedly. It was the first time I had seen Pius and Lux together since I’d learned they could exchange bodies and enter each other’s minds. Despite their differences in physical appearance, watching them approach side by side was like seeing double.

At least I know they are both here, I thought. I cannot think of any reason they would change bodies while in the same room, unless they wish to amuse themselves and to revel in my confusion.

      “Pray continue, Lady Frey,” Pius said, returning to his station. “Who was present the night of the dumb supper?”

“My husband and I were present, of course,” I said. “Our guests were Brother Lux, Lady and Lord Willoughby, Mrs. Auber, and Captain Goode-“

“No, Lady Frey,” Brother Lux interrupted. “Captain Goode did not attend.”

“He must have,” I protested. “The meal was held in Prudence’s honor.”

“Recall that Captain Goode had been ordered to return to his regiment the week before. He was not able to attend.”

“Oh! You are right,” I rubbed my eyes and blinked as the blurriness returned. “I had forgotten.”

“You must not forget. Your husband dies if you forget,” Pius said in so fierce a voice that I sat up straight, jolted awake.

“Burn every detail of the story into your mind, Lady Frey,” Father Pius said. “Repeat it to yourself before you go to sleep.”

Brother Lux reached into his robes. “If we are working late tonight, you will need this. I beg you, however, to take my advice and sleep as soon as you are able.”

I took the vial Brother Lux offered, briefly examined the contents, and then poured a drop directly onto my tongue. A pleasant shiver ran up my spine, I sat up straight, and my vision grew sharper.

“You take too much upon yourself, Lady Frey,” Brother Lux said gently, “and you do this because you won’t trust others to help you. I would guess that you stay up all night to conspire with Prudence, trying to guess how Pius and I will betray you. Instead of trusting Pius’s guidance for your testimony, you re-examine every part of if for treachery. You have to think everything over twice, and the result is mental exhaustion.”

I did not speak; I could not think of an adequate reply.

“I know I have wronged you- we have wronged you,” Brother Lux continued. “It does not necessarily follow, however, that our intentions are opposed now. I am willing to wager that our ultimate goals are the same.”

“Even if I believed you, I would still have to think over my testimony twice. You cannot keep track of your own lies, so why would I trust you with mine?”

“Lady Frey-“

“You are quite correct that Prudence and I stay up all night, wondering what you have done or will do. Last night was particularly difficult. Mrs. Goode visited, and she said that she had seen her son.”

Brother Lux stood straighter, but said nothing.

“Prudence barely kept silent until her mother left, and then you can imagine what happened. She was inconsolable- she had heard what you’d done to her brother, and we could imagine what you have done to Hope all too well.”

Brother Lux and Father Pius exchanged a look.

“You don’t deny it; our worst fears are confirmed, then,” I said. “The reason you haven’t given my letter to Hope, and the reason you had to write his letter for him, is because you’ve blinded him.”

“Lady Frey, it was-“

But Brother Lux cut himself off midsentence and looked at Father Pius, who stepped forward.

“You are right; Lux and I have a greater story to write, and too many mistakes have already been made. Help us work out the testimony tonight, and on week’s end we will take you to Lord Frey.

 

 

#

 

 

When I arrived at Brighton Place, the house was dark. A single light flickered in my room, where Prudence awaited.

She sat in bed wrapped in a blanket, with a book propped open on her knees. I climbed into bed beside her and lay still for a moment, watching the flickering shadows on the ceiling. Then I spoke.

“They confirmed what we’d feared.”

Prudence did not speak, but the book slid from her knees and onto the floor. She leaned over and put her arms around me.

“We’ve accomplished so much, and we’ve accomplished nothing,” she said.

“He is still alive,” I said. “I will be with him on week’s end.”

“Grace, we must prepare ourselves for the possibility that-“

“That what?” I whispered.

Prudence heaved a heavy sigh. “There are a hundred small errors a human mind can make, and here is one of them; it’s easy to believe that if something terrible happens, it is punishment for a mistake that you’ve made. But there are perils in the world that simply cannot be overcome. It is possible to make all of the correct moves, and still lose the game.”

“But we’ve done so much already!” I protested. “We’ve defied him in so many ways, and-“

“We’ve barely survived,” Prudence said. “I’m not saying we should stop trying, but we must also prepare for the worst.”

How? I thought. How can I possibly prepare myself for that?

Prudence and I sat in silence for some time. Then the silence was broken by a scratching on the window, followed by a soft screech as the window sash was raised. I held a finger to my lips and crept to the window, dropping into a fighting stance as I waited for the intruder to emerge.

A cloaked figure came through the curtains, and I sprung to action, sweeping their legs before they could get their footing. I put the intruder in a tight hold, which they struggled too weakly to break. The figure under the cloak was small, and so light that I easily hauled them to their feet.

Prudence stood and lifted her candle, peering underneath the intruder’s hood.

“Raven! But… how?” Prudence gasped.

In my surprise, I loosened my grip, and Raven took the opportunity to twist around in my arms. Her hood fell back, and she stared into my eyes- her own eyes flashing bright red.

At once I felt a familiar sensation, as though I were being bound against my will. I tried to move my arms, but the more I struggled, the tighter they seemed to be bound.

Raven smirked and stepped away from me, toward Prudence.

No, I thought. I will not allow you to do this to me.

      I thought of moving, and my limbs did not move. Then I reached out for that feeling, that tightening of the string, that I had found when I converted thought into action. My arms moved a little, and then my legs. Then, all at once, I felt the bonds fall away.

The smirk on Raven’s face also fell away, replaced by a look of shock.

“Damn,” she said. “Pius wrong about how to use magic against you. He said you were Ancient.”

“Half- Ancient, yes, but it was a mistake to use my magic resistance against me,” I said.

I moved to grab her again, but she dodged and ran to the other side of the bed.

“Hey- I was only acting in self-defense,” she said. “You attacked me first.”

“You were stealing into my bedroom,” I said. “The window was supposed to be locked.”

Raven continued to back away. “Locks can’t stop me,” she said. “Anyway, how else was I supposed to get you alone? Every time you go out you are with one of Pius’s lackeys, and I didn’t want anyone but you to see me.”

“I believe everyone in town has seen you, at this point,” I said. “Both Brother Amicus and Mercy watched you follow the carriage from the cathedral.”

“You’re kidding,” Raven said. “I thought I was being so careful…”

Prudence put her finger to her lips, and then went to the door, the walls, and the corners, casting the spell of silence. Then she turned back to Raven.

“Why are you here?”

“A couple of weeks ago, Abbess Joy caught me trying to access her magic mirror. She told me very specifically that I should never access her mirror again, that I should not try to contact you, and that under no circumstances should I ever steal an abandoned ship, whose coordinates she gave me, to come to Earth and find out what father Pius was doing. I assumed she was working with you.”

“Well, yes,” Prudence said. “I wanted to speak with you, but I never imagined that you would come here in person.”

“I’m afraid I’m as lost as you are, with regards to Pius’s actions,” Raven said. She put her hands behind her back and began to pace, though she still glanced at me from time to time. “I had no idea that he was trying to convince people that he was a God.”

“He is a God,” Prudence corrected. “He’s ascended. I’ve seen his new power with my own eyes. Abbess Joy herself could barely stand up to it.”

Raven stopped pacing. “Oh, dear. This might be a problem.”

“It certainly is a problem,” Prudence said hotly. “He has all the resources, power, and allies one could possibly need to take over Aeterna. Considering your past with Pius, can you provide evidence you are not still one of his allies?”

“Don’t be ridiculous- how am I supposed to prove I’m not working for him?” Raven said. “I thought you already knew I wasn’t- why else would you contact me?”

Prudence and Raven stared at each other with near-identical expressions of annoyance. I stepped between them.

“We don’t have the luxury of quarreling amongst ourselves,” I said. “Everything Raven has said so far has proved true. We need her help, Prudence.”

“I only wanted to question her through the mirror, not work with her in person. How can I trust Raven after everything I’ve endured since I formed my contract with her?”

“Excuse me? I gave you a piece of my own power in order to help you. You were warned about the consequences of that power.”

“You didn’t give me the tiniest idea of how bad it would be,” Prudence said. “Even my power felt like a curse. As for the actual curse- it was unendurable.”

An odd thought struck me, then- a thought borne of the desire to test my new-found force of will.

I can do it again, I thought. I know the feeling, now.

      I could not linger on the idea, however. Raven and Prudence continued to argue, their voices raising so much that I wondered if the spell of silence would be enough to contain them.

“Do you have any idea what I went through to get here?” Raven said. “I could have died. Now I spend all of my time dodging inquisitors in the city because I can’t blend in.”

Raven pulled back her cloak and gestured at the dress she wore underneath. It was a shining, blue dress trimmed with a profusion of stiff lace, which was already beginning to unravel at the sleeves.

“Is this the only dress you own?” I asked.

“Yes.”

I gestured to her and led her to the adjacent room, which contained my wardrobe. She and Prudence followed and waited in uncomfortable silence as I searched through my clothes.

“Here- I think this may fit you with a few adjustments,” I said, holding up a plain traveling dress. “It is my plainest dress, except for the pilgrim robes from del Sol, which I daresay would draw far more attention to you.”

“Thank you,” Raven said quietly.

“You may change behind the screen if you like,” I said. “Tell me if you need any assistance.”

“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” Raven said, taking the dress. She went behind the screen I’d indicated, and Prudence stood in front of the screen as though standing guard.

“I learned about Wisdom from a strange man- he said he was Priest of the Cult of Reverence,” Raven said, her voice slightly muffled by rustling fabric. “Is it true- is Pius really the one they call Wisdom?”

“We shouldn’t continue this conversation until Prudence seals this room, as well” I said.

“Don’t worry- I already have,” Raven said. “I can do it without word or gesture.”

“You can? I’ve only met one person who could, before.” Prudence said.

“Yes, and he got his powers from me,” Raven said. “I’ve never contracted with anyone as easily as I did with Hope. How is he, anyway? Have you heard anything?”

“He is alive,” I said. “He is suffering, but he is alive.”

“Damned barbarians- how could Pius resort to their methods?” Raven groaned. “Things are about to get messier, too. I’ve been listening around taverns- all kinds of brawls are breaking out because everyone is taking sides. The followers of Wisdom believe that Hope is innocent, and those loyal to Order believe that he is guilty.”

Raven emerged from the screen, buttoning her short-dress. “This makes no sense to me.”

“You are buttoning it correctly,” Prudence said.

“Not that- why would Wisdom’s followers believe Hope is innocent if Pius is really Wisdom? Pius is the one who arrested Hope.”

“I believe this is part of Pius’s plan,” I said. “I believe he intends to cause civil unrest in order to seize power.”

Raven closed her eyes and sighed. “The cult of Reverence has been trying to awaken Order. As I said- things are about to get messier.”

“The way Pius has done this- it makes it impossible for us to pick one side, doesn’t it?” Prudence said. “How can we fight Pius when he’s behind the church and behind the cult of Wisdom?”

“We can’t rely on cults or factions; we must fight him our own way,” I said.

“Perhaps,” Raven adjusted her skirts with a thoughtful expression. “But maybe I can cause a little chaos on my own. The cult of Reverence is interested in me- maybe I should form an alliance with them. Then I could help Reverence disrupt the cult of Wisdom, and disturb Reverence’s cult, as well.”

“You’re a demon- Reverence knows you will betray him.”

“I’m a very low-ranking demon- a nobody,” Raven said. “Reverence will underestimate me.”

“Maybe you will succeed,” Prudence conceded, “but to what end? Pius is already using both the church and the cult of Wisdom to destabilize Aeterna, and if you cause chaos among both factions, you may only hasten his goals.”

“Chaos is rarely helpful to anyone’s goals,” Raven said. “Pius is not creating chaos; he’s carefully cultivating instability. He is setting the stage for his own rise. Trust me- I intend to find and destroy every platform he’s raising for himself.”

“Why,” I asked. “You know what reason we have to hate and distrust him, but what drives you to stop him?”

“He’s powerful, he’s taking over, and he’s becoming something alien- something whose goals we cannot understand. That makes him inherently dangerous,” Raven said. “Besides- he has betrayed me, too. We were supposed to stop the Gods- not become them.”

Raven threw her cloak over her shoulders, leaving the blue dress behind, and walked briskly across the room. She paused at the window.

“Thank you for the dress. I’ll be in touch soon.”

“Wait- here,” Prudence took a black cap from a hook on the wall and tossed it to Raven. “Cover that ridiculous hair.”

“You’re one to talk, ginger,” Raven said as she caught the cap. She placed the cap on her head, however, threw open the window-sash, and slipped out into the night.

 

Start at the beginning.

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The Coven, Interlude

A young girl sat alone in a crowded inn, nursing a flagon of something brown, foamy, and not quite drinkable.

The girl sat away from the light cast by the peat fire, scooting her stool far into the dark corner as though to avoid notice. She might have succeeded in avoiding notice had her hair not been such an uncanny shade of red, and if the blue satin of her dress had not possessed so unnatural a sheen that it caught what little light that found its way to her corner.

Raven was the most interesting object in the dingy room, and more than one patron paused in their drinking or card-playing to stare at the girl.

      Raven pointedly ignored the stares and put her flagon aside as though she’d given up trying to drink from it. Instead, she gazed into the fire and picked idly at the loose threads on her flounced sleeves.

      Another person sat in the opposite corner of the room, watching the girl with keen, dark eyes. He was much more adept at hiding than she; his hair was short and greying, he wore a plain black cloak, and he held a half-drunk flagon in his own hand.

      After a time, the man stood and made his way across the room, moving naturally from shadow to shadow until he was beside Raven. He sat down and placed his ale on an empty table nearby.

      “Go away, creep. I’m not interested,” Raven grumbled.

      “I have no ill intentions, I assure you. I am a man of the cloth.”

      Raven smirked. “Of course- no churchmen ever break their vows with seedy tavern girls. I’m not an idiot.”

      “You look like an idiot,” The man said, leaning back and picking up his flagon once more. He took a deep drink, and then wiped his mouth, examining Raven from her bright red hair to her shiny blue dress. “Whatever possessed you to come here is such an outfit? If you weren’t a woman, I’d think you were a two-bit player in a traveling circus.”

      “This-“ Raven sat up, opening her mouth as though to protest, and then sad back again.

      “I don’t know what you mean,” she said.

      “You know what I mean. You’ve tried, and failed, to blend in with humans. You have put on a costume and called it a dress. You are not a usual foreigner. From which realm do you hail- angelic or demonic?”

      Raven laughed. “Listen to yourself; you sound like a lunatic. Go bother a doctor or a priest with your delusions. I’m not interested.”

      The man leaned forward and removed a pendant from under his robes. He brushed his hand against the pendant, and for a moment it glowed with a pale blue light before fading back into plain silver. The man tucked the pendant back into his robes, looking around briefly at the other patrons.

      The other patrons continued with their games and conversations as though they had seen nothing unusual. Raven quirked an eyebrow, but she said nothing.

      The man turned back to Raven and leaned forward to whisper. “My name is Clarity St. Anise, priest of the cult of Reverence. For years, my cult has watched over the comings and goings at del Sol, and over the activities of a certain fallen angel who is beloved of Reverence. Any threat to del Sol is the enemy of my God. Any threat to Abbess Joy is worthy of death. You were seen when you fell from the heavens in the desolate fields north of del Sol. You were watched as you traveled here through the backroads to reach Verdant City. If you cannot answer my questions satisfactorily, you will be deemed a threat and I will take your life.”

      Raven’s eyes widened slightly, but she bit her lip as though trying not to laugh. “The Gods really do play on a different level, don’t they? If they want to stalk a pretty girl, they have their own cult to help.”

      “I suggest you take this seriously. Your life is at stake.”

      “Then here’s some serious advice. For your own safety, leave me alone, and for the sake of decency, leave Abbess Joy alone.”

      Clarity reached into his cloak and half-drew a dagger from its hidden sheath. Raven’s eyes flashed red as though they shone in the firelight, and Clarity froze.

      “Sit down,” Raven hissed.

      Clarity sheathed his knife and sat down stiffly.

      “Demon,” Clarity said through gritted teeth, and then he grunted as though he struggled with something unseen. “We will not allow you to hurt the Abbess.”

      “Relax- I’m not here to hurt Abbess Joy,” Raven sighed. “She and I have a common enemy.”

      Clarity blinked in surprise. “You don’t work for Wisdom?”

      “I don’t even know who Wisdom is,” Raven said. “I’m very interested in hearing about him, though. Here- finish my ale and talk quickly. I want to hear everything you know before you get drunk, pass out, and forget all about me.

Part LXXVII

Start at the beginning.

 

 

Time-Travel 1.0: A Post-Mortem

In order to ensure that my second round of experimentation is constructive, it is useful to examine the conclusion of the first run of time-travel experiments in greater detail.

There are several possibilities why my attempts to contact time-travelers failed. The first few have been discussed a great deal already, so I will discuss them briefly.

1.      Alternate timelines: It is possible that when a time-traveler goes into the past, their actions to alter the past create tangential timelines. The original timeline, in which they did not appear to alter events, remains. My main objection to this hypothesis was that my actions, by inviting a time-traveler to come to visit, have already created this chain of events.  In other words, the cause of the time-traveler’s actions- my invitation- remains in timeline A, so it follows that the effect of the invitation would also occur in timeline A instead of timeline B.

There is another, less-often discussed objection to the alternate timelines hypothesis, and that is because time-travelers (from their perspective) have unlimited time in which to meddle, the number if alternate timelines they have the capacity to create is without limit. Only the prime timeline will be free from encounters with time-travelers, and the possibility that we live in that timeline is infinitesimal. Practically speaking, there is no way for me to control for the alternate-timeline possibility experimentally (if I am wrong about this, please let me know.)

 

2.      The temporal prime-directive: In my initial assessment of the temporal prime-directive, I was dismissive due to the fact that rules are not airtight- people, given enough time, find reasons to bend or break rules. A time gate, or a Chronology Protection Agency, will also be broken eventually if created by people- even if these people are godlike. After all, the people trying to break the time gate will likely also be godlike, if this is the case.

 

I assign a higher probability to the idea that nature itself acts as a time gate. The laws of physics appear to have put a hard limit on speed at 186,000 miles per second, and they have surrounded stable singularities with lovely little event horizons, and I think that these types of limits would be far more difficult for people to crack, unless we transform ourselves into specific sub-atomic particles. (It would be really awesome to find a way to communicate with sentient sub-atomic particles. Perhaps we could do this with the clever use of time-crystals? Or maybe we just need to do the same thing we’ve been doing with SETI, and look for pulses of prime numbers amongst radio noise.)

 

3.      Informational noise: The informational noise hypothesis has been less-discussed. Anything that can be communicated, measured, and described in any quantitative or qualitative manner can be considered information, and as long as time and entropy exist, new information will be generated and subsequently lost. The information generated so far is finite, since the age of the universe is finite. But if time-travel happens, then time is no longer finite. From the time-traveler’s perspective, the amount of time that the time-traveler has to gather information is infinite, and the amount of new information that they can generate within their own timeline and by re-visiting and changing the past is infinite.

 

Therefore, the information that the time-traveler has access to and the time in which the time-traveler has to access said information is 1:1.

 

                    <——*———*———-*——>

                    <——*———*———-*——>

 

This remains true whether the timeline branches into a tangent when new information is generated or not.

 

4.      Unimportance: Even if a time-traveler could find the information I’ve generated amongst the noise, they have the whole of time and space to explore. I’m probably not cool enough to warrant a visit. Perhaps even a person we call a giant in our own time, such as Stephen Hawking, is not cool in a cosmic sense. Greater minds are sure to come in the future; even if humanity destroys itself, another more brilliant species will surely replace us, even if we don’t have infinite time to work with. We have a LOT of time to work with, and if a civilization gets access to time-travel, then they can generate people infinitely cooler than anyone I’ve ever known or heard of.

 

5.      Information degradation or sabotage: I dismissed this possibility in my initial conclusion, as well, because there was a window of time in which I could observe my information remain unchanged, and that should be enough time for a time-traveler to access it. However, if time-travel invitations are going to have a better chance of being noticed among all of the informational noise, then the invitation should be available at as many points on the timeline as possible.

 

SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, has been searching for aliens for a very short period of time- a blink of the eye, in the cosmic sense. Yet the question remains; if extraterrestrial intelligence can arise, why haven’t we found aliens, yet? It’s difficult to work out exactly how likely it is for intelligent life to arise, since we only have one example in one place from which to extrapolate, and so we continue to search. Likewise, it’s difficult to work out how likely we are to encounter a time-traveler, or to gain the ability to time-travel, so the only thing to do is keep looking. I’ve conducted my first practical experiment on time-travel, and the results have given me a lot to think about for the next experiment

 

I consider the lack of data on my first time-travel experiment to be invaluable. I’ll see you in the future, better prepared and a little bit wiser.

The Coven, Part LXXVI

After we’d settled my father, Brother Lux made a hasty departure. I’d intended to go straight to the nursery after Brother Lux left, but Mercy intercepted me on the way.

“Mr. Sutton is bringing Mr. St. Roch, soon. Lady Fairfax insists that I dress you properly before you meet anyone.”

I ran my fingers through my hair, which was still loose from the night before. My first instinct was to bristle against being treated like a child, but I sighed and acquiesced. “It was very kind of Lady Fairfax to order clothes for me, and she has been kind to father, so I will not make a fuss.”

I followed Mercy into the bedroom. I removed my clothes behind a screen to conceal my scars, and then emerged to allow Mercy to help fasten the buttons and pins. My new bodices were cut very low in the latest fashion, so I was forced to awkwardly hold my lace in place while Mercy pinned. If Mercy noticed how strange this behavior was, she did not remark on it.

“I am glad your attorneys are willing to meet you here,” she remarked as she pinned up my hair. “The less you go into public, the better.”

When I was dressed, Mercy went to the windows and peeked out between the drawn curtains. I put on my false glasses and arranged my oculist card, debased coin, and a few other trinkets in my pockets, and then I sat back and watched as Mercy went from window to window, peeking through each set of curtains in the same way.

“Have you see our stalker, again?” I asked.

“No, I haven’t,” she said.

“That’s good, I suppose, thought the incident was rather strange,” I said. “You’ve seemed shaken since last night. May I ask what is wrong?”

“Your husband was arrested for witchcraft and you are a target for his enemies. I don’t like having to guard you in a crowded city.”

“I’d have thought you would prefer to watch from the carriage box to see over the crowds, but last night you rode inside the carriage. Why is that?”

“You need to learn tactics,” she grunted. “If I sit on the carriage box I can see everyone in the crowd, but they can also see me. Someone may recognize me as your servant.”

“The carriage livery may give away my identity just as easily,” I said. “So far, we’ve been conveyed either in the Ainsworth carriage or the cathedral’s carriage, and they are both easily recognizable.”

“Traveling post would be just as risky,” Mercy argued, still looking out of the window distractedly. “We would be in the hands of an unfamiliar driver.”

“I only meant to say that the livery would likely give me away before you did,” I said. “Is there anyone in particular that you fear will recognize you?”

Mercy spun back from the window. She opened her mouth and shut it several times, as though trying to decide what to say, and then she spun back to the window as though she had given up.

“You needn’t worry about that,” she finally said. “Focus on Lord Frey’s trial, and leave your security to me.”

“I’ve never seen you like this,” I said gently. “The only time I’ve seen you so frightened was at Rowan Heights, and then you were only pretending. If I can help-“

Mercy spun back. “I depend on you for everything, Lady Frey- from my wages to the freedom of my dearest friends- and you have never seemed to understand the power you hold. How could I possibly rely on your help?”

“If there is any responsibility I haven’t fulfilled, then tell me, and I will make amends,” I protested. “I earnestly wish to help you.”

“You’ve fulfilled all of your responsibilities admirably, because those responsibilities were thrust onto you, but you’ve never taken any responsibilities on yourself. I know everything about your life, but you’ve never asked about mine.”

“I- I never thought…”

“You see?” she said scornfully. “You hold almost complete power over my life, and yet you are intimidated by me. You are a child, and the inquisitors will eat you alive.”

Mercy closed the curtains, and then she turned to go. At the door she paused and said, “I can rely on myself, Lady Frey. Learn to rely on yourself, as well.”

 

 

#

 

 

I didn’t have time to ruminate on Mercy’s words, or to try and uncover the secret she was keeping behind them. Even so, the exchange had made me more determined to do something of use.

As afternoon faded into evening, and sunlight spilled through the lace curtains in the sitting room onto parchment-strewn tables and dregs of cold tea, I continued to work. Mr. Sutton had leaned back to close his eyes in thought, though he hadn’t opened them in quite a while. Mr. St. Roch- a rotund man with sharp, dark eyes- regarded me with an inscrutable expression as I re-read a copy of the blood oath my husband had been accused of signing.

Prudence sat in the corner of the room with a basket of needlework, and though her face was veiled, I could tell by the way the periodically paused in her work, and by the rigid posture in her back and shoulders, that she was listening very carefully.

“This is a very simplistic document,” I said at last. “My husband is generally very careful about his affairs; the idea that he would sign this in blood without any clauses protecting him and his family is ludicrous. Of course, the inquisitors do not know my husband’s character, and will not care if I explain.”

“In her accusation, Mrs. Auber described your husband as being somewhat impulsive. She believed that his desire for vengeance would have provided enough motive to sign the blood oath.

“I’ve already had an expert in writing analyze the original signatures. Aside from the discrepancies in the handwriting, I’m afraid there is little evidence to be found in the blood oath.” Mr. St. Roch took the blood oath from my hands and pushed Mrs. Auber’s statement forward. “Can you spot any inconsistency in the accusation?”

I read for a few moments before I spoke. “Here- Mrs. Auber mentions a party that occurred the day I arrived at Rowan Heights,” I said. “She states that Captain Goode gave my husband a suspicious vial of liquid, which she suspected to be poison.”

“Did you not see such an exchange?”

“I did, but I’m certain that the vial Captain Goode handed my husband was medicine for my husband- he suffers from a sleep disorder.”

Mr. St. Roch nodded. “This part of the accusation made little sense to me, as the High Priest did not die of poison. Do you see anything else?”

I closed my eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. I hadn’t realized how sore my eyes were until they closed, and salt water welled up a little and stung the corners. I took off my false spectacles and hung them on a chain around my neck, and then wiped my eyes.

How would I see the document, I wondered, if I were truly an innocent bystander who believed her husband to be innocent? I took another deep breath, counted to ten, and continued.

“I cannot comment on the first half of the accusation, because the events described took place before I arrived at Rowan Heights. I did attend the dumb supper that is described a little later- the one that was held on Prudence’s death day. As Mrs. Auber said, I become ill and retired before the meal was complete, but Brother Lux was present to witness the remainder of the meal, and can attest that nothing sinister occurred.”

“She states here that Brother Lux left the room shortly after to attend you, and it was then that Lord Frey said that ‘tonight is the night that we will have vengeance.’ This is, indeed, the night that Father Sauris took his own life.”

“Was it?” I said. “I thought that happened the following night. Father Sauris’s death was not announced until the morning of week’s begin.”

“The true date of Father Sauris’s death isn’t common knowledge,” Mr. St. Roch said with a sigh. “This is a damning piece of evidence, I fear.”

An image came to my mind’s eye of the ritual I’d stumbled upon that night- the bonfire on the hillside, and Hope, cloaked and red-eyed, calling upon his demons’ power. I could not stop myself from shuddering.

“There’s a draft,” I said to Mr. Sutton, who’d opened his eyes to look at me with concern. “I will close the window.”

I went to the window on the far side of the room and lowered the sash, but before I shut the curtain a flash of color caught my eye. A girl with bright red hair and a blue satin dress stood beside a tree, watching the building with an intent expression. She raised her hand and waved at me before ducking ungracefully behind the tree.

I closed the curtain and turned back to Mr. St. Roch.

“Brother Lux didn’t come to attend me until well past midnight,” I said. “If the party wasn’t over at this point, then they must have at least retired to the drawing room. Besides, if my husband had uttered such a statement at dinner, it would have defeated the point of a dumb supper.”

“The fact that such an event occurred will not look good to the inquisition,” Mr. Sutton said baldly, standing and stretching his long limbs. “They were honoring the life of a convicted witch.”

“Condemned- not convicted,” I corrected. “Prudence Goode never had a trial. She was Captain Goode’s sister, Celeste’s mother, a dear friend to all who assembled, and beloved of my husband. I didn’t know Prudence, but I could see the regard everyone assembled shared for her. No matter the circumstances of her death, such feelings do not easily die.”

Behind me I could hear a tiny intake of breath. Though I longed to turn around and look at Prudence, I did not dare give her away.

“Your feelings do you credit, Lady Frey,” Mr. St. Roch said, standing to shake my hand. “I hope you can convince the inquisitors to see things the same way. It is getting late, and I have some more documents to review. The other witnesses have made very unconvincing statements, and I hope we can focus attention toward them as much as possible. In the meantime, keep this statement and write down any other inconsistencies you can find.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I know you have risked a lot- far more than I can compensate you for.”

“Perhaps, but perhaps not,” Mr. Sutton said, coming forward to shake my hand as well. “Public opinion is split on the matter, and you have more support than one would have thought. Many whispers are circulating of corruption within the church, and of a plot against the Freys.”

“Public opinion will not matter much,” Mr. St. Roch argued. “The opinion of the inquisitors is what matters. Even so, I have made it my business to defend those who need defending.”

“We shall see how things go,” Mr. Sutton said. “Good evening, Lady Frey, and bless you.”

I stood to see Mr. Sutton and Mr. St. Roch to the door, and then returned to the sitting room.

“What do you say to an early supper?” I asked Prudence, who was still sitting where I’d left her with her basket of work. “My fatigue is starting to catch up with me, and I may retire early-“

“Oh no- you aren’t getting out of this interview so easily,” a sharp voice resounded through the room like a crack.

I spun around to see a middle-aged woman standing in the doorway.

“I am Mrs. Equanimous Goode,” the woman announced, “and you must be the mysterious Lady Grace Frey.”

I stared for a moment at Mrs. Goode, wondering when she had come inside, or how she had followed me to the drawing room unseen. She stepped across the drawing-room threshold and stared back at me.

Mrs. Goode had bright, henna-dyed hair and eyes that twinkled a soft blue behind pince-nez glasses. She was dressed in mourning, but she held her widow’s veil crumpled in her left hand as she extended her right to shake mine.

I overcame my surprise and stepped forward to shake the woman’s hand.

“Good Evening, Mrs. Goode,” I said. “Please forgive me- I was not expecting you, today.”

“Why not? You sent word that you would welcome me, so here I am.” She came into the room and, before being asked, sat on a chair near Prudence.

Before I could say anything, Mrs. Goode extended her hand to Prudence and said, “Sister…”

“I beg your pardon,” I said, stepping forward before Prudence was obliged to speak. “This is Sister Jubilee. She is here to tutor Celeste.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Mrs. Goode said, squeezing Prudence’s outstretched hand.

“Likewise,” Prudence whispered in reply.

“Sister, if you would please ring for more tea-“ I began.

“No- no tea,” Mrs. Goode said quickly. “Do sit down, Lady Frey, so we can get straight to business. I despise making calls, which is why I did not wait until morning. I don’t stand on formality.”

“I understand,” I said, sitting where Mrs. Goode had gestured, as though I were a guest in her sitting room. “Shall I send for Celeste? You must wish to see her.”

“I do, but I mostly came to size you up,” Mrs. Goode said, holding her pince-nez in place with one hand as she looked me up and down thoroughly. “I must say that you look very young. How old are you?”

“I very recently turned twenty,” I said.

“Hmm.” Mrs Goode removed her pince-nez and wiped them with a handkerchief. “When were you and Lord Frey married?”

“We were married just after midsummer,” I replied.

“How did you and Lord Frey meet? Were you out long, before you married?”

Had I not been practicing with Father Pius, I might have been thrown off by the rapidity with which she shot her questions. Fortunately, I was able to answer smoothly.

“My father arranged my marriage. I was not out at all before I married.”

Mrs. Goode finished cleaning her pince-nez and perched them back on her nose. “I made inquiries about you before I came here. Honestly, I’ve been asking everyone one I knew about you since you were married, but no one knew anything. I suppose that’s because there was nothing to find.”

She nodded to herself in a satisfied way. “I knew your father long ago, before he lost all of his sense and became the Prince’s lap-dog. He was a clever man, but he had no way with children. I can imagine that he engaged some hard-nosed governess and told her to keep you out of anyone’s way. I never met your mother, but if she had lived, I daresay you might have had some proper society.”

“I must admit that I do feel my mother’s absence very acutely, at times,” I said quietly.

“Of course you do,” she said, patting my hand. Then she turned to Prudence. “A mother’s influence is so important for a girl, don’t you agree?”

Prudence nodded, and picked up her needlework once more.

Mrs. Goode turned back to me. “Have they allowed you to see your husband yet? When they do, you mustn’t be shocked. I’ve seen my son, Justice- I gather you knew him?”

“Yes, I did,” I said. “Is he-“

“He is in a dreadful state,” Mrs. Goode said fiercely. “He’s nothing but skin and bones, and they’ve taken his hands.”

“His… hands?”

“Yes- they cut them off, you see, at the wrist.” She made a chopping motion on her own wrist. “They had some mad idea that his hands were dangerous. Well, he is a soldier, and we expected one day he would be wounded in battle. Still, my son is strong. Nothing they do will ever break him.”

Prudence dropped her needlework in her lap, and her breathing became very still.

“I won’t hear a word of sympathy,” Mrs. Goode said, cutting me off before I could speak. “You have your own husband to worry about, I’m sure. They are both alive, and that is the important thing. They are innocent, of course, and the truth will come out in the trial.”

“I am glad of your confidence,” I said.

“I know my son. He would never give in to the temptations of witchcraft, no matter the circumstances. His father raised him to be a man of honor and sense, so he would not succumb to superstitious folly. Lord Frey, too, is no fool. Why would men of ability and intelligence resort to whispering charms under the moonlight, like lovestruck girls?”

“You do not believe in witchcraft, then?”

“I know that fools fear witchcraft, and wise men do not. I also know that wise men who are weak try to use others’ fear of witchcraft against them, and that weak fools are the only ones who actually use witchcraft. Doesn’t that tell you all you need to know?”

Mrs. Goode leaned closer, as though to share a confidence, “I think that if anyone in that group is guilty, it is Lord and Lady Willoughby. From what I’ve heard they have indulged far too much in the decadence of court. A place like St. Blanc weakens a nation. We need a leader with strength and fortitude, not a fop in a gilded palace.”

I did not answer, but Mrs. Goode did not seem to expect an answer. She checked her pocket-watch, and then stood.

“It is getting late, my dear. Celeste must have her dinner soon, I suppose, so I will call another day to see her. It was a pleasure to meet you. I hope your father’s health will improve.”

“Thank you,” I said, shaking her hand.

“It was a pleasure to meet you too, Sister… Jubilee, was it?” Mrs. Goode said, turning to Prudence. “By the way, your veil is slipping. Good evening.”

Mrs. Equanimous Goode swept from the room like a whirlwind. Prudence put her hand to her veil, but it was on perfectly straight.

Read from the beginning. 

Interlude

The Coven, Part LXXV

Miriam, Lystra, Terra, Mari, Tigris, Surra, Astra…

      I spoke each word of the mantra under my breath, yet each one seemed so sharp and clear that I felt as though I might have shouted. Once every so often, my awareness would expand, and I would realize how luminous the room was, how calm my heart had become, and how easily my breath cycled. Then I would turn my mind back to the words- not the planets they represented, but just the words. How could something so simple be so powerful? It grew easier and easier focus my mind, until I knew nothing but the words.

This luminous place seemed a thousand miles away from the dark bedroom where I’d been moments before. Prudence and I had spent the night conspiring together, as we always did. We had speculated who the stalker on the road from the cathedral might have been, we had composed letters to Hope’s attorney, to my solicitor, and to Prudence’s mother, and then, as the new day had begun to dawn, we’d talked about Hope.

“Pius still won’t let you see him?”

“No. He says I’m not ready. Hope has altered, and Pius is afraid I wouldn’t be able to handle the alteration.”

Prudence had shuddered and drew her knees to her chest as she gazed at the orange embers that lay dying in the grate. “Oh Hope- Hope. What have they done to you?” she’d whispered.

We had ceased to be any help to each other- we were lost together in the same tumultuous waters of anxiety and grief. We sat side by side, we held each other’s hands, and yet we had no strength between us to share.

Prudence had been first to emerge from our mutual stupor. She stood suddenly and tore back the curtains, letting the dull orange light from the rising sun inside. Then she turned to me with a frown.

“I need to get out of this room. Is there anywhere else we can be alone?”

I had stood slowly, and it had taken a few moments for me to emerge from the darkness enough to speak.

“Come with me- I know a place,” I’d said.

I took Prudence upstairs to the garret, where we sat in my fortress of books. There, Prudence had given me another lesson in meditation as the morning light spilled unfiltered through the skylight.

I was improving, but I was not able to focus on my mantra as long as Prudence could. While Prudence continued to meditate long into the morning, I and allowed my mind to drift, enjoying the clarity of thought the exercise had provided.

I picked up the old collection of fairy tales and puzzled over the Tale of the Magi. The tale that had frustrated me so long ago now seemed simple- the mage’s soul and his strength of will were entwined. Could this be a clue for the nature of the soul, I wondered? Could a person merely will their own soul into existence?

This brought a memory, unbidden, to the front of my mind- a cruel taunt that Pius had used against me. “You want to obey me, but your will means nothing. You aren’t free- just powerless.”

Does Pius really believe I possess no will of my own, or did he only mean to torment me?  I thought. I knew I had a will of my own, but it seemed strange- unfathomable. When I merely think about moving my hand, my hand does not move. The movement only comes when I somehow force it to act. When I considered this, the moment between thought and action seemed as thin as a knife’s edge. What was there? How could I see it?

I thought of reaching out, and then I reached out. I could not see the moment of will. I thought of picking up a book, and then I picked up a book. Still- I could not see- could not feel what had happened. I thought of dropping the book and then I dropped it. That time, I thought I’d felt something akin to the tightening of a string.

Then the garret door swung open, and my thoughts were interrupted by the pattering of feet, followed by laughter.

“I’m sorry- I didn’t know anyone was here,” Celeste said, reaching down to pick up Snowbear. “I couldn’t keep Snowbear quiet any longer, so I brought him up here. He needs to go for his walk, I think.”

“Then we shall take him,” I said, standing. “Do you think he would like to see the avenue?”

Prudence opened her eyes slowly, as though emerging from a deep sleep, but she stood and said, “yes, a walk will do us all good.”

Prudence flung on her veil, and we all went downstairs together. As we were putting on our wraps, however, Mercy rushed out.

“You must not go out alone,” she scolded. She put a very close bonnet over her cap, as though to protect from the sun, and then checked that snowbear’s lead was secure.

“We must stay on the avenue and then come straight back,” Mercy said as she opened the door. “Lady Frey- Lady Fairfax asked me to remind you that you have another obligation this morning.”

“Ah, yes. I remember,” I said.

“It may be best if you stay here with your father. We will be back shortly,” Mercy said, eyeing me from underneath her bonnet.

“I understand,” I said. “I’m sorry, Celeste.”

“That’s alright. Give your father my love,” Celeste said, reaching down to pat Snowbear one more time before they left.

The party left and shut the door behind them, their laughter seeming to echo in the empty foyer behind them.

 

 

 

#

 

 

I went upstairs and found my father alone in his bedroom. He was awake and sitting up in bed, staring blankly out the window at the quiet street below. He did not seem to notice when I sat beside him, and he did not respond when I bid him good morning.

“I brought you the Gazette,” I said as I settled myself in a chair beside him. “You always preferred the Gazette to the Post, did you not? I hope you will forgive me if I skip the lead story.”

The lead story was a rather threadbare article on the upcoming trial, in which the author only offered the opinion that “the Gods’ justice will no doubt be served when the truth comes out,” with no speculation about what the truth may be. The second story, which I read aloud, was about a merchant ship loaded with expensive spices from the wildlands that had been lost at sea. This was followed by slanderous gossip about the behavior of the merchant’s seventeen-year-old daughter, which I skipped in disgust.

With a couple more omissions, I read to the end of the paper without inspiring so much as a twitch from my father. There was noteworthy absence of gossip about the dealings of court or the Prince, though I was almost tempted to invent something with regards to the Prince to see if that would provoke my father to react.

The temptation was fleeting. Instead I reached for one of the books in the stack by father’s bed, a tome titled, Wars of the Piscina Islands, and began to read once more.

I had only read a few pages when there was a soft knock on the door. Before I could answer the knock, Brother Lux opened the door and entered.

“How is my patient?” Lux asked as he entered.

At this greeting, a hot wave of anger washed over me so suddenly that it seemed almost irrational. I turned away and took a few moments to calm myself.

As much as I hated Brother Lux, the hatred was not new or fresh enough to provoke my anger. The new anger that existed was toward myself- Brother Lux had only served as a mirror.

“There has been no change,” I said finally, and I remained in my seat as Brother Lux came into the room. Brother Lux moved around the bed and briefly examined my father, and then he sat in a chair across from me.

“Has your father been sleeping well?”

“I don’t know. You had better ask Lady Fairfax or Mr. Smith.”

“Have you been sleeping well?” Brother Lux asked, turning to me with raised eyebrows. “You seem in a poor mood, this morning.”

“On the contrary; my mind is very clear. It’s only just occurred to me what a hypocrite I’ve been- what hypocrites we all are.”

I put the book aside and folded my hands, looking into Lux’s eyes.

“Why do you continue to care for my father when you know nothing can be done for him, and when his improvement would be against your own interest?”

“Your father is human, and he is suffering,” Brother Lux said. “I know that you don’t believe it, but everything that I have done, and continue to do, is to end suffering on earth.”

“I thought you might say so,” I said. “You believe what you say, too. You are like me, in a way. It’s human nature.”

Brother Lux tilted his head and graced me with a condescending smile. “You are young. I recall how profound everything seemed when I first discovered human nature. It’s easy to let yourself grow cynical.”

“I’m not only being cynical. Remember that I have been to court, and I made friendships that I value quite highly among all of the intrigue. Take Lady Innocence, for example: she is a kind and gentle girl, and a loyal friend, but in her mind life is a story, and she is the heroine.

“Lady Innocence must have earnestly believed the stories she told herself, because she gave up her homeland, her people, and her property to further the plot. Even so, she left her place at court and gave up her new alliances when she saw that the Prince was going to fall. This almost broke her spirit, until she was able to tell herself a new tale, and fit it with the old one. She still sees herself as a lady, even as she toils at del Sol. She is still the heroine of Aeterna and the flower of the court, even though she acted to save herself when it was rational to do so. At del Sol, she can still serve Order, Aeterna, and the greater good.”

“I don’t doubt what you say, but you and I bear very little resemblance to Lady Innocence.”

“Don’t we? Most people are the heroes of their own tales. Most people think that they are ‘good.’ When they act cruelly, they formulate rationalizations to explain away the inconsistency of their character. I have done this myself- I see myself as the victim of the cruel villains around me, and I’ve blinded myself to the villany I’ve committed.

“If I don’t change the pattern of my mind, I will continue to destroy the goodness within myself until nothing remains of me but a story.”

Brother Lux leaned back in his chair, and though he did not break my gaze, he seemed almost to squirm under it until my father cried out, and he was forced to look away.

“It has come for me- the destroyer of souls,” Father cried. “It is here! My fate has come for me.”

“There is nothing here,” Brother Lux said, and he stood to go to my father. “Go to sleep. There are no monsters.”

Brother Lux tried to press my father back against his pillows, but my father fought back, kicking at Brother Lux until his own legs became tangled in the bedclothes. I went to my father’s other side and took his shoulders, but though he was not as strong as I had remembered, he squirmed so much that it took all of Brother Lux’s and my combined effort to subdue him. Finally, Brother Lux placed his hand over my father’s head while I held my father still in a grip of Iron.

“Go to sleep,” I said in frustration.

My father sighed, lay back on the pillow, and closed his eyes.

I wiped the sweat from my brow. Struggling with my father in the close little room had proven far more exhausting than sparring in the cool sea breeze at del Sol. I went to the window and threw open the sash.

“He- he is resting,” Brother Lux stammered. “I think it would be best if we did not disturb him any further, today.”

Part LXXVI

Read from the beginning. 

Time Travel, Part IV

 

               This morning, July 15, 2018, I officially declare my time-traveler experiment complete. Below are the results.

      I have not been contacted by any time-travelers or prognosticators with the results of the dice rolls I made this morning at 8:30 am, CDT.

      1d12- 9

      2d6- 6,4

      2d20- 16,9

      1d30- 8

      1d8- 2

      1d100- 50

      1d6- 6

      1d4- 3

      1d12- 12

      1d12- 7

      1d20- 5

 

      In summation- no paradox-enabled time-travelers met me at the designated meeting place on week one. One person guessed the result of one of my paradox-safe dice rolls on week two, after I had already made the roll, and did not guess any of the other rolls. No one guessed the results of my rolls on week three after I’d offered them a lost sonata written by a singularly unaccomplished musician.

      I had planned to offer ever-increasing incentives until I reached my highest possible bid, and then declare the time-travel experiment closed. Unfortunately, earlier this week I came across the following story.

      Stephen Hawking and the time-traveler party.

      Stephen Hawking had already conducted an experiment similar to mine- he threw a party for time-travelers and sent the invitations out afterward. There was also an open invitation for time-travelers to attend his memorial. According to reports, no time-travelers came.

      I had actively been trying to avoid seeing the results of experiments similar to mine because I didn’t wish to grow discouraged, and that may have been wise. I know that I will never, ever be able to offer a time-traveler anything better than the chance to party with Stephen Hawking, or the chance to pay their respects him. I cannot compete with a giant. Therefore, my experiment is closed.

      Conclusion: Either there is no time-travel, time-travel is guarded by a secure gate or temporal prime directive, there is too much informational noise in the infinity of time for time-travelers to find invitations from the past, or the time-travelers can only reply to Bridgetts in tangential timelines. (Edited to add- someone has let me know that another possible confounder is that someone may tamper with my experiment or dice-roll results in the future. They have, after all, infinite time and opportunity to do so. This is less of a problem because there is a window in which I have already observed the results remain the same.)

      Things I wish I had considered: the possibility of my local starbucks being overrun by an infinite number of time-travelers, the possibility of my blog or twitter being overrun by an infinite number of messages from time-travelers.

The Coven, Part LXXIV

“Answer me honestly, girl. You will go to the gallows with your husband if I discover you’ve lied.”

I was sitting on a short wooden stool in the middle of a massive stone room. Father Pius’s considerable height towered over me as he paced in circles close enough to brush his white robes against me.

“When did you marry Lord Frey?” he snapped.

“I was married to Lord Frey a week after midsummer,” I answered readily.

“How soon after your marriage did you arrive at Rowan Heights?”

“We spent the wedding night at a cottage on his property- on bluebell hill. I moved into the manor the next day.”

“Why didn’t you go straight to the manor?”

“The weather was fine, so we had a picnic on the hill,” I said. “He wanted to show me the view of the stars from the hill, and…”

“And it was there that you consummated your union?”

“I hardly think that is relevant,” I snapped back, my cheeks going hot.

Father Pius sighed and put a hand over his face in exasperation. He stepped away, and I could feel my tight muscles relax a little when he no longer towered over me.

“No no no- you must never show the inquisitors your anger,” he said. “Blush all you like- you may even stammer a little, if they ask you something delicate; it is ladylike. If you show them anger, however, you will appear rebellious.”

When I was told that Father Pius would prepare me to give testimony, I had imagined that he would assist me in putting together a consistent narrative that would withstand scrutiny. Instead, he took to drilling me, examining my responses, and making me repeat them again and again while he did his best to intimidate. We had been working for hours, and fatigue was starting to wear on my mind.

“Would they really ask-“

“The inquisitors will likely ask you more personal questions than this. They will examine not only your answers, but also your attitude and countenance in great detail. If you answer the personal questions too readily, you will appear to lack proper feeling.”

“But I must never show my anger, even if the feeling is just.”

“You must appear meek and obedient to the church,” Father Pius said. “Remember the girl who handed me her treatise early last fall, and then try again.”

My stomach turned when I thought of continuing- of disclosing personal details of my life with Hope to my greatest enemy- but I could not deny that Pius was right. I would soon face the inquisition before Pius and before the whole world, and I could not allow for the slightest inconsistency in my performance.

So I shut my eyes and imagined the stars, as Prudence had instructed. When my mind was clear, and my stomach settled, I opened my eyes.

“Alright- continue,” I said.

Pius stepped forward again and turned the force of his gaze on me. “Did you consummate your marriage at the cottage?”

“I-“ I found myself blushing, despite my determination. “I was very shy when I first married, and Lord Frey is a gentle and considerate husband. He would not press me until I was ready.”

“Better,” Pius said. “A very proper and ladylike answer, and it casts Lord Frey in a good light. When you arrived at Rowan Heights, did you notice anything unusual?”

I remembered the forbidden library, Celeste’s sudden arrival and her warnings that Hope’s friends were ‘strange,’ Chastity’s curt and measured responses to all of my questions, and Hope’s admission that he was a heretic.

“The kitchens seemed inconveniently far from the dining hall,” I said.

“The kitchens…” Father Pius’s stern countenance was replaced with a look of sheer incredulity, and then his mouth twitched, as though he were actually about to laugh.

“If I really did know nothing, what would I say?” I protested.

“Your answer would have been perfect if you were trying to hide knowledge of your husband’s guilt from neighborhood gossips- not the inquisition. You presumably know what information the inquisitors seek.”

“But if I say ’nothing’ too readily…”

“Say it readily. Say that the house was beautiful, your husband was kind, and his friends were welcoming. Remember that you will be subject to the litany of truth, and you are the only witness who will be able to tell a direct lie.”

A jolt of fear hit me, and I sat up in my stool. “Mrs. Auber will testify, though, will she not?”

“Mrs. Auber is still bound by coven law, so she cannot reveal any secret I do not authorize. Still, under the litany of truth, she will not be able to tell a direct lie. You alone can directly deny every charge against your husband. This is why your testimony is vital.”

And why you have agreed to protect me for so long, I thought, but did not say aloud.

“Unfortunately, while I can see into Mrs. Auber’s soul to help guide her responses, you must answer on your own. I urge you to take our rehearsals seriously, Lady Frey.”

“The inquisition knows that the litany of truth cannot break coven contracts and force witches to reveal themselves, which is why so many innocent people go to the gallows,” I thought aloud. “But how will you convince the inquisition that I am innocent of witchcraft without revealing that I can resist the litany of truth? I’ve been called a witch more than once due to my connection with Hope.”

“That was before I, the High Priest, personally interrogated you and cleared your name,” Pius said. “As far as anyone knows, I am subjecting you to torture and high-level holy spells as we speak.”

“If it were so easy, then you could simply ‘interrogate’ everyone in the coven and declare them innocent,” I said.

“But that would not serve my ends,” he said. “The trial must commence, and you must play your part.”

I suppressed a sigh and bit back my retort, unwilling to provoke Father Pius after having ventured so many questions. Instead I sat straighter and said, “alright- I am ready to continue.”

“No- you are fatigued,” Father Pius said.

He gestured for me to follow him, and then led me through the massive, empty stone room and into an adjacent office. The office was similar to the one he’d occupied at the cathedral at St. Blanc- small, but filled with comfortable objects. There was a handsome bronzewood desk, overstuffed chairs, shelves filled with leather-bound books, and a fine porcelain tea set. Pius gestured for me to sit in one of the overstuffed chairs, and then placed a shining brass kettle on the hob.

“You have an able mind,” Father Pius said, measuring herbs into his teapot, “but you have not rested as you should.”

“I have rested enough,” I said.

“Perhaps it was a mistake to bring you to your father’s house. I did not think his condition would affect you, but it has. The added stress may prove detrimental to your mind.”

“I will no longer avoid my father or my responsibility toward him. I cannot take the easy route when I transgress- I cannot pray for forgiveness and wipe away my sins. All I can do is try to make amends for the pain I’ve caused.”

Father Pius looked up from the teapot and regarded me for a long time, his eyebrows raised as though in shock. I turned away and looked into the flames. After hours of interrogation, I felt raw and exposed, and the unfortunate consequence was that Father Pius was the one present to see what lay underneath the open wounds.

After a few moments of silence, the kettle sang, and Father Pius moved around the table to retrieve it.

“Since you cannot defer to divine guidance, you must rely on merely mortal abilities,” Father Pius said. He poured hot water into the teapot, and then sat in the chair across from me to wait for the tea to steep. “Remember your limitations, Lady Frey.”

“I find it strange that you would push me to the brink over and over again, only to remind me of my limitations,” I said.

Father Pius poured the tea and handed me a cup. The scent of the tea was almost metallic, and the color was such a bright shade of crimson that it reminded me of blood. I hesitated, unsure of whether I should trust him enough to drink.

“The tea is made with rose hips and terra root- herbs to calm the mind. I am trying to strengthen you, not break you.”

I took a tentative sip of the tea, which was sweet, but not cloying. I looked at Father Pius over the edge of the cup as I drank, watching as his stark figure wavered slightly through the vapors. The tea was calming as he had promised, and I felt emboldened enough to speak again.

“Am I speaking to Pius now, or to Lux?” I asked. “I thought you were Pius when you interrogated me, but now you seem…”

“Gentler?”

“Well, yes, but I was going to say more grounded – less lofty than usual.”

Pius smirked before drinking his own tea. Then he said, “sometimes, our thoughts grow so entwined that I can no longer distinguish which are my own, and sometimes I can hardly feel his presence in my mind at all. Right now, Lux is performing some tiresome tasks on my behalf, and he is distracted. Still, his influence remains with me.”

Pius put his cup down, and he turned his gaze away from his reveries and toward me. “Do you have any other questions, Lady Frey? Keep in mind that too much curiosity can be a dangerous thing.”

“Just the obvious question- when can I see Hope?”

“You are not ready,” Father Pius said firmly.

“I’ve written him a letter,” I said, pulling a note from my pocket. “If you would allow-“

“There’s no more need for letters- Lord Frey knows you are here, and that he will see you soon. I will take you to his cell when you are stronger.”

“I am perfectly well. I had a trifling cold, which has long passed.”

“I’m not referring to your cold, Lady Frey. I’m referring to your mental state. Lord Frey has endured torture, and he is… altered.”

“How has he altered?”

Pius narrowed his eyes for a long time, as though doing a mental calculation. Then he stood, towering over me once more.

“If you wish to know, then I suggest you take care of yourself. Rest, resolve your family issues, and try harder to focus when I interrogate you. When you are ready, I will allow you to see Lord Frey.”

Then Father Pius went to the door and called into the hallway.

“Brother Amicus, please escort Lady Frey and her servant home.”

 

 

 

#

 

 

 

Brother Amicus led Mercy and I down the long stone hallways and to the entryway, where the giant oak doors were propped open to let the cool evening breeze inside. Brother Amicus leaned out of the doorway to peer outside, and then turned to Mercy and me.

“The crowds from evening prayer have yet to disperse,” Brother Amicus said. “I would rather you not be exposed to harassment, my Lady.”

“I will ask the coachman to bring the carriage to the door,” Mercy offered, stepping forward.

“No, I will go,” Brother Amicus said. “Someone in the crowd may recognize you as Lady Frey’s maid. It is my duty to ensure you remain protected.”

“I am perfectly capable of protecting my Lady and myself,” Mercy said, brushing past Brother Amicus. She went through the doorway and then paused abruptly.

“Although- it is rather late,” Mercy said, backing into the entry once more. “Perhaps you are wise to take precautions, Brother Amicus.”

Brother Amicus smiled and nodded to Mercy before he left to fetch the carriage, but Mercy turned her face away from him.

“Mercy?” I ventured once Brother Amicus had gone.

“Your safety comes before my pride, Lady Frey. I should not leave you alone in this place. I would not have let you alone with Pius, if I’d had a choice.”

Mercy turned to face me. “Did Pius hurt you?”

“No- he only asked questions.”

Mercy continued to gaze at me searchingly, but she did not say anything else until the carriage rolled up to the door.

Mercy normally sat on the box seat, where she kept her keen eyes on our surroundings, but Brother Amicus asked her to sit inside the carriage with us, and she did not object. Once we were all inside, however, she watched out the carriage window, turning once in a while to glare at Brother Amicus.

Brother Amicus only smiled in response to Mercy’s frowns, and he spoke to me in gentle tones.

“Lacy Frey, you must be fatigued. You will be home shortly.”

“I am fine, thank you,” I said.

“Someone is following us,” Mercy interrupted.

Brother Amicus blinked a few times, and then seemed to rally as he turned to Mercy.

“The city has been crowded this season. If there’s a carriage behind us-“

“There is no carriage; our stalker is on foot. They are cloaked, and I suppose they think they are moving stealthily. They are quick and agile enough, but leaping behind post-boxes and bins and then rolling out again is not the best way to remain unseen.”

“They must be quick, indeed, to keep up with our carriage,” I said. I leaned over to look out of the window, but Mercy stopped me.

“No- I don’t want them to see your face if they haven’t already.”

Brother Amicus leaned over to look, instead. “Their cowl slipped down on their last dive- I believe our pursuant is red-headed.”

This comment gave me pause, but only for a moment. I opened the forward window and called to the coachman.

“Take us down the next road, please, and then turn around. I left something at the cathedral.”

Mercy nodded to me in approval before turning back to the window. The carriage turned onto a dark road, and then through a wide alley before moving back onto the main road. We were halfway back to the cathedral when Mercy said.

“Whoever it was, we’ve lost them. I haven’t seen them since the alleyway.”

I turned to the forward window, again. “I’m so sorry- the item was in my purse all along. We can go back to the house.”

The coachman nodded cordially, though I could hear him mutter “women” under his breath before I closed the window again.

When we reached Brighton Place, I was eager to discuss what had occurred with Mercy and with Prudence, but Lady Fairfax met me on the way to my room.

“Oh good- you are home,” Lady Fairfax said. “You have two cards and a letter waiting for you, Lady Frey, and Doctor Pearson wished particularly for me to give you a message on your behalf.”

She took my arm and walked me to my room as she spoke. “The doctor would like for you to sit with your father some time in the mornings- speak to him and try to get him to use his mind. Dr. Pearson thinks you might do it best, since you are Lord Ainsworth’s own daughter.”

“My father and I have never been very close,” I said. “I hardly know what I would say to him.”

“It doesn’t matter- there’s a stack of books next to his bed, so you can simply read aloud if you wish. There must be some paternal feelings there, and it’s possible your presence may activate them. Please, Lady…”

Lady Fairfax paused in her walk and fixed me with her limpid eyes, and I could not refuse.

“Alright, I will try,” I promised.

“Thank you,” she said, and she began to walk once more. “Oh- by the by, I had some clothes ordered for you from Lasalle’s- he is my dressmaker, and he is unmatched in taste and skill. I took your traveling dress in for sizing, but once the clothes arrive try them on to see if they need adjusting.”

“Thank you, Lady Fairfax, but that was really not necessary-“

Of course it was necessary,” Lady Fairfax said with a shocked expression. “My dear child, how can you give testimony if you look like a pauper? You must remind the inquisitors of your station, and of the power you possess as a Lady and a Noble, or else they will crush you.”

This advice was so opposed to Father Pius’s that it gave me pause, and I thought it over as Lady Fairfax led me back to my room.

“Smith has placed the cards in your room, and – Oh! Good evening, Sister.”

Prudence had been standing in the hallway, waiting for me by my door. “Good evening, your ladyship,” she said with a slight bow to Lady Fairfax, and then she turned to me. “Celeste has already had her supper and has fallen asleep. I had thought we might talk, but you may wish to go straight to bed, yourself.”

“You do seem fatigued, Lady Frey,” Lady Fairfax agreed. “Have you had a chance to eat, or shall I send Smith up with something for you?”

“I would like some tea, if it isn’t too much trouble,” I said.

“No trouble at all, my girl. I will ring for your tea at once.” Lady Fairfax patted my hand and went to ring the bell.

“Did Pius hurt you?” Prudence whispered after Lady Fairfax had gone.

“He only made me fatigued with too many questions- he has kept his promises, so far.”

I went into my room and found the calling cards Lady Fairfax had mentioned. I picked up the first card, which was printed so finely I had to squint to read it in the firelight.

“Mrs. Equanimous Goode?” I said.

“Mother!” Prudence whispered harshly as she took the card from my hands. “Why would she call?”

“I’ve never met her,” I said. “I certainly wasn’t expecting the call, but I suppose she would like to see Celeste.”

“There’s a note on the back of the card- ‘I am eager to meet you.’ What is the woman thinking?”

“Do you think I should meet her?” I asked. “She may have more information about the trial and the condition of the prisoners, if they’ve allowed her to see Captain Goode-“

“You’re right- you’re right,” Prudence said distractedly. She handed me the card and paced around me. “Justice was her favorite- he never defied her, and he was not estranged from her before being arrested, so she may be more inclined to believe that he’s innocent.”

Prudence stopped pacing and turned to face me. “You should see her, but please make it very clear that you will continue to care for Celeste.”

We were interrupted then by the arrival of Smith, who wheeled in a tea cart filled with not only tea, but also a tureen of savory soup.

Prudence sat with me while I ate, and then when I was finished she cast the spell of silence once more. We conspired together until the embers burned low in the grate.

Part LXXV

Start from the beginning.