The Coven, Part LXXII

Lady Fairfax had been sitting in a high-backed chair by the fire, and she stood as the party entered. I curtsied deeply and murmured a greeting, but Lady Fairfax did not reply. She approached me slowly, almost tentatively, taking a wine goblet from the nearest table as she went. Then she stopped before me, raised the goblet, and dashed the contents into my face.

I stood, unable to do anything but sputter as cold, bitter-smelling wine dripped down my face and onto my clothes. Then Lady Fairfax stepped forward and pulled me into an embrace, throwing my composure even more off-balance.

“Oh! My dear, I am sorry, but I had to make sure of your innocence. These are dangerous times; even family is suspect.”

Brother Lux took the empty cup from Lady Fairfax and smelled the dregs. “Witchbane?”

“It’s an herb that will cause any witch to break out in boils from head to foot; my Grandmother swore by it,” Lady Fairfax said stoutly. “Far be it from me to question his holiness, but I believe your inquisition would run a lot more smoothly if you still used the old methods. Your new-fangled torture machines aren’t worth the lumber they are built from.”

“On that count, your Ladyship, we are in agreement,” Brother Lux said with a bow.

At that moment, the party was interrupted by a small bark, followed by the padding of feet on the floor. A small white dog let itself into the drawing room and ran in excited circles around the guests.

“Oh! How sweet!” Celeste, unable to stand like a lady any longer, dropped to the ground and took the small dog in her arms.

“Snowbear- be quiet!” Lady Fairfax scolded the dog, and then spoke to Celeste. “You are Miss Goode, I presume?”

“Yes, Lady Fairfax,” Celeste said, standing to give an awkward curtsey while the dog wiggled in her arms.

“Mind Snowbear for me, Miss Goode. He is a sweet-tempered dog, but his barking will bother Lord Ainsworth.”

I stepped forward, but before I could make proper introductions, Lady Fairfax spoke to Prudence.

“You are the child’s nurse, are you not, Sister? Well, Kingsley will show you to the nursery- ring the bell when the child is ready for supper.”

Lady Fairfax gestured to the footman. I shot Prudence an apologetic glance as she was led from the room.

“Sister Jubilee is not only Celeste’s governess; she is also an invaluable companion to me,” I said mildly when Prudence had gone.

“Indeed?” Lady Fairfax said, gesturing for me and Brother Lux to sit. “She must be from a genteel family, if she is so well-educated. I would guess that she is a plain woman underneath her veil, since she could not make an advantageous marriage.”

“There are those who are called to serve the church,” Brother Lux remarked. “No everyone who joins the sisterhood, or the brotherhood for that matter, is forced to by circumstance.”

“We are all forced by circumstance, whatever we do,” Lady Faifax said with a haughty air. “Some of us manage to convince ourselves that we chose our fate after the fact.”

“Lady Fairfax,” I interrupted quietly, “the letter you sent touched me- I could tell that your concern for my father is genuine. Please tell me; what is his condition now? Has it grown much worse since you wrote?”

Lady Fairfax sighed and sat back a little in her chair, as though greatly fatigued.

“Dr. Miller will come to examine Lord Ainsworth tomorrow- perhaps he can answer your question. I can make nothing of Valor’s condition. I only know that my poor cousin has altered so greatly that I hardly recognize him.”

“How has he altered?” I asked.

“I had expected that the Prince’s decline would frustrate Valor,” Lady Fairfax said. “He’d staked everything on the Prince’s rise to power, and now all of those ambitions are dashed. They say that the Prince is worse than mad.”

Lady Fairfax sat up again and leaned forward, lowering her voice. “They say that the Prince never had any rightful claim to the throne at all, and that he altered his own horoscope so that it would appear he could rule. Everyone is saying that, after being corrected, the horoscope actually spells out doom for the Prince’s reign. Those of us who once supported the Prince are lost- where should our loyalties lie? Normally, I would consult your father on such matters, but he is no help at all in his state.”

I swallowed hard. “Do you believe that my father is just suffering from disappointment?”

Lady Fairfax shook her head. “After your husband’s arrest, I followed Valor to Willowbrook. When I arrived, I found an empty shell of a man- there were no plans, no schemes, and he did not retreat into his research. I have seen Valor disappointed before, and he usually gets angry and rallies himself. Valor seemed too- too empty to rally himself this time. He would pace around his library for hours on end without touching a book. I couldn’t get him to speak to me. Some days he would be completely silent, and other days he would rant to no one.”

Brother Lux’s eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly at this. “What did he say during his rants?”

“Oh- complete nonsense,” Lady Fairfax said with a wave her hand. “He would talk of fairy tales we’d read as children- the most ridiculous things. The doctor could detect no fever, so he decided that Valor’s condition was the product of mental stress. The doctor said that the baths at Verdant Springs would be just the thing to soothe Valor’s mind.

“As soon as we left Willowbrook, Valor’s condition grew worse. He said he was being punished for something dreadful he’d done, and that if we stayed in Verdant City he would surely die. He won’t go to the baths. He’s taken to his bed, and he just lies there, groaning and whispering that he will soon die.”

I could ask no more questions. My mouth had grown dry, and there was a lump in my throat.

“Have any of the doctors in Verdant City been able to discover the source of Lord Ainsworth’s affliction?”

“No- as far as the new doctors can tell, there is nothing wrong with Valor other than a mild case of the gout, which we already knew. I’m at my wit’s end.”

“I have some medical training,” Brother Lux said with a humble bow of his head. “I will examine Lord Ainsworth, if you would like a second opinion.”

“Would you? Oh, but you must have so many demands on your time.”

“Never so many that I would ignore those in need; this was my vow when I took orders,” Brother Lux said.

Tears shimmered in Lady Fairfax’s hazel eyes, and she pressed Brother Lux’s hand.

“Bless you,” she said. Then she wiped the tears away and turned to me.

“Lady Frey, you look fatigued. I will ring for tea.”

 

 

#

 

 

After tea, Brother Lux took his leave. I followed him to his carriage.

“How soon can I see Hope?” I asked.

“That depends on you,” Brother Lux said. “We must prepare you, first. This will not be easy.”

“I will do whatever I can,” I said.

“Will you be able?” Brother Lux asked, raising his eyebrows skeptically. “Your father’s illness has affected you more that I would have guessed. You are pale, and when Lady Fairfax spoke, you trembled.”

“I am only fatigued,” I said. “I will deal with this.”

“Go to sleep tonight, Lady Frey- don’t stay up all night, as I know you are wont to do. I will see you tomorrow morning,” Brother Lux said before he left.

 

 

#

 

 

The last time I was at Brighton Place, I’d slept in the nursery. Now, however, the room was occupied by Celeste, and since I’d swept past Lady Fairfax’s footman in order to follow Brother Lux to his carriage, I was left alone to find my room.

There were quite a few empty bedrooms upstairs, and I thought it would be just as well to chose one at random to stay the night. Mercy however, wearing a fresh cap and apron, found me as I wandered the hallway.

“Your trunk has already been placed in your rooms. Please come with me, my Lady,” she said in a meek voice that I hadn’t heard since we were in Rowan Heights

“Thank you, Mercy,” I said much more awkwardly, and I followed her down the hall. Mercy led me to a suite of rooms draped and carpeted in blue- rooms I’d once admired as a child. She showed me wardrobe where she’d stowed the few clothes I’d brought with me, and then helped me to remove my gown and loosen my stays.

“Is there anything else you need, my Lady?” she asked when she had finished.

“N- no. Thank you,” I stammered.

Mercy curtseyed once more, and then left me alone.

I locked the door behind Mercy and extinguished the lamps, leaving the room almost completely dark but for the dull orange glow in the fireplace. I was ready to fall into bed and succumb to exhaustion, but as I reached for the bedcurtains they rustled, as though moved from within.

I took a fighting stance and flung back the curtains. Then I dropped my stance and heaved a sigh of relief.

“Goodness- you frightened me,” I whispered.

Prudence, who had been kneeling on the bed on the other side of the curtains, put a finger to her lips. She continued combing through the curtains on the section that lie against the bedroom wall, and then got down on the floor and looked under the bed.

“What are you doing?” I asked, and a second later I felt foolish. I recalled that I had done the exact same thing when I’d arrived in my stately room at St. Blanc.

“Light the lantern, will you? It’s difficult to do this by feel alone. The bed is clear, as well as the portraits along the back wall. Check the wardrobe while I finish here,” she said.

Lit the lantern once more, and then went through the wardrobe and the commode, but I found no peepholes, trap doors, or false backs. There was a small shelf set into the wall behind the window-curtains, but inside I found nothing but a packet of old laundry lists.

Prudence returned to the bedroom, having searched the small sitting room on the other side of the suite.

“Your rooms are clear. The nurseries were clear too, except for a peephole in my room. The peephole looks into Celeste’s room, however, so it must have been used for minding children.”

“We ought to check the hallways,” I whispered. “Someone tried to drug me when I was at St. Blanc; there was an incense burner hidden in a vase in the hallway, and the smoke drifted under through a crack in the door.”

Prudence nodded, and then briskly went to the outside door and peered out. After a few moments she slipped into the hall, and then returned a few moments later.

“The hallway is clear,” she said. “Now- I’m about to do something that may alarm you. Please promise that you will not panic or try to stop me.”

“I trust you,” I said.

Prudence faced the outside wall and made a familiar gesture with her hands, muttering under her breath. “By Raven, by the five, by my soul- silence, silence, silence…”

She repeated the task at each wall, and then each corner of the room. Then she stepped back toward the center of the room and removed her veil.

“I’ve done it- I’ve truly done it!” she said, her blue eyes sparkling with excitement. “We needn’t play any more late-night games of ringo.”

“You cast the spell of silence,” I said. “But- are you okay? I know you find magic unpleasant, and I understand that the silence spell is difficult.”

“I’ve been avoiding magic for a long time,” she conceded. “But watching you spar with Mercy and then return from the sparring covered in bruises made me feel like a coward. I have an ability to hone- so what if it’s painful?

“Still, it wasn’t easy for me to practice magic after so many years. I struggled through incredible pain to do the simplest spells until the night you gave me my Chaosmas gift- the portrait of my face. When you traced my face with your fingers, it felt as though I were experiencing a double-reality; your reality and mine. And then, just like that, something clicked, and I understood why magic was such a burden for me.”

“Why is that?”

Prudence smirked and then fell back on the bed, stretching out with catlike ease.

“My research has shown me that there are several types of magic, all of which depend on different mechanisms to make it work. The largest category is the magic of illusion. After I learned about your resistance, I deduced why illusion magic cannot be detected by the soulless. You see, it is predicated on a shared reality that exists only in the shared consciousness of those who have souls. I have a soul, so I can see this shared illusion.

“However, the training in rational thought that I’d been given by the oculists made it difficult for me to simply accept an illusion. By the time I joined the coven, I’d already been training myself to reject bias- which is really an illusion the mind creates- in search of a reality that can be independently verified. Every time I used magic, I got a feeling that something was wrong; that I was being invaded by something unnatural. Applying the scientific method to magic itself made the dissonance worse.”

“I see,” I sat beside Prudence on the bed. “So, when I helped you glimpse the reality that I see, the world of the concrete, you were able to discern the difference between the two.”

“Exactly. Now I can see the boundary between illusion magic and the real world. The day after you traced my face with your fingers, I went to the looking glass and saw my own face. It was difficult at first- like the first time you see past an optical illusion. Pretty soon, however, I was able to flip back and forth with ease- there is the young lady, and there is the crone.”

She propped herself up on an elbow and looked up at me.

“My discovery was a breakthrough on its own, but my new ability will do wonders for my research. I meant what I told you that one, glorious morning. I mean to reach the stars; I will surpass even Father Pius.”

“I don’t doubt it,” I laughed, and then lay back so that we were lying side by side- gazing at each other face to face. “You are brilliant, and even though I can’t fully understand your research, its importance is plain.

“As far as surpassing Father Pius is concerned, I believe you can triumph- you’re the only person with enough gall to challenge a God. I will never forget the look on Brother Lux’s face when you demanded he give up his powers in exchange for abandoning your research.”

“I knew he would never do it.” The glitter in Prudence’s eyes transmuted from laughter to hatred. “How could I possibly have believed him capable of a decent act after he uttered such a transparently bald lie?”

“What lie to you mean?”

Prudence narrowed her eyes, as though gazing into the past in disgust. “You were there- Brother Lux told me that he kept my escape from death a secret from Hope because he believed my madness could not be cured. Obviously, this was a lie, because Brother Lux had sent you to del Sol hoping that I would assist you.”

“Perhaps he thought the assistance of a madwoman would hold me back,” I said. “He is my enemy, after all. Or, perhaps, he was lying when he said that he sent me to del Sol so that we would find each other.”

“Either way, we cannot trust a single word from his mouth. No- his actions must guide us, and all of his actions have been reprehensible. Do you have any idea of the true reason why Brother Lux kept my escape secret from Hope?”

“Only the obvious ideas,” I admitted. “If Hope had known you lived, he would have gone straight to del Sol to find you. You might have given Hope evidence of Brother Lux’s betrayal once you were reunited.”

“Why would Brother Lux fear such a thing? I came to del Sol with nothing.”

“You came to del Sol with nothing but a decade’s worth of knowledge,” I pointed out. “You might have learned something that could not be dismissed as madness- something that Hope could independently verify.”

Prudence nodded slowly. “I see your point. Pius might have been too arrogant to see me as a threat, but Lux is generally more careful.”

“My second idea is that Pius may have found it easier to manipulate Hope’s actions while he still grieved your loss. When I met Hope, he was desperate for vengeance. Hope had other motives of course- he longed to free Celeste from the family condemnation, and he sought the higher ideals of universal liberty- but these other motives did not blind him in the way his grief did.”

Prudence rolled over once more, staring up at the ceiling with an inscrutable expression. “I had no idea that Hope still cared for me that much.”

“He still does,” I said. “I know he does.”

“Grace- I’ve read the accusations against the coven. The papers say that they committed murder against the High Priest. Perhaps the church is making these accusations to save face. After all, the High Priest took his own life, which means their greatest leader fell from grace.”

I rolled onto my back to stare at the ceiling, too. A heavy, blue and beige patterned tapestry was stretched across the ceiling so that patches of spring flowers were visible between long, wooden beams. The tapestry sagged just a little between each beam, giving it the look of festoons.

Prudence stirred a little beside me, and then spoke again.

“You may contradict me,” Prudence said. “I wish to believe the best of Hope, but…”

“I’m afraid I know very little of the matter,” I said. “When Father Sauris died, I was not in Hope’s confidence. Any evidence of Hope’s guilt that I saw during that time might have only been a product of my mind- I was frightened of him, when we first married.”

“That means you have some reason to believe that Hope is guilty of murder, but you don’t wish to say it aloud,” Prudence said.

“Please remember that I am guilty of murder, too,” I said. “You will protest that I killed in the heat of battle, and that I fought to liberate my people. Still, I started the battle of my own will, just like raising a gun to shoot is an act of will. If Hope did kill the High Priest, it was not a less noble act. The High Priest was the enslaver of my people and the enslaver of the minds of our nation. Father Sauris had killed countless people with his inquisition, and he was complicit in your families’ damnation. The spiritual battle Hope fought was really no different than the earthly battle I fought at the temple.”

“I don’t mean to condemn either of you,” Prudence said. “I am troubled by nothing more than the naiveté I thought I put aside long ago. When I joined the Oculist Guild, I believed that a bloodless war was possible- that I could liberate everyone using nothing more than the power of science. I was a child- I now realize that the same method that produces medicine also produces bombs.”

“We choose how to use the method,” I said. I reached out and took Prudence’s hand. “Don’t give up. You- no, we– may still find a way to save everyone.”

I heard Prudence sniff, but when she sat up and looked at me, her eyes were dry.

“I have been so self-absorbed, tonight. Forgive me; I’d yet to ask about your father.”

“His mind is broken,” I said. “I haven’t seen him yet, but the symptoms that Lady Fairfax described are…”

I stopped and took a deep breath, and then I sat up to look at Prudence. Her expression was far from judgmental. Her eyes were wide with compassion.

“I’ve learned a hard lesson about vengeance,” I said. “It’s a hollow thing; once you’ve had it you no longer want it.”

“You are more tender-hearted than most,” Prudence said. “I’ve seen many others who revel in their enemies’ pain.”

“I’ve never thought of myself as tender-hearted,” I said. “Once, Hope called me heartless- he said it was my only virtue. I know he was only teasing me at the time, but I’ve often wondered if he was right. I don’t feel the way I should- I feel neither love nor compassion nor righteous condemnation toward my father.”

“You’ve tied your mind into knots over him- I’d hardly say you lacked feeling.”

“What you’ve said is correct. I’ve tied my mind into knots, not my heart. I always consult my mind before my heart.”

Prudence shrugged. “You’ve said before that you are your mind. If that’s the case, then why try to make the distinction between your mind and heart? You feel all the same, don’t you?”

Prudence laughed at me as I gaped, unable to answer.

“You’re just tired and worried. Lie down, close your eyes, and clear your mind. Save these thoughts for the morning.”

Prudence bid me lie beside her, and I found that I was too tired to protest. I closed my eyes as she instructed, and I tried to clear my mind. There were many layers to clear away, from Brother Lux’s insistence I be tutored before I could see Hope, to my father’s condition, to the happenings at del Sol and all of my worries for the future. Once these thoughts had calmed still other, unimportant ones crept up. I was acutely aware of Prudence’s presence- the sound of her breath, her warmth, and the slight rustling sound she made every time she moved. Then, beneath this were the thoughts that instructed me to strip these other thoughts away.

Just when I thought I’d succeeded, I realized that I’d thought I’d succeeded.

“You said you had a method for ridding yourself of recursive thoughts,” I sighed. “If you could share that with me, it would be most helpful.”

I opened my eyes and saw that Prudence was biting her lip, as though to keep from laughing.

“It was unfair of me to expect you to use such an advanced method right away, especially in your frame of mind. I’m sorry. The secret to battling recursive thoughts is misdirection- you must distract your mind with something else. This time, close your eyes and think of the stars.”

I closed my eyes again, and I pictured the summer sky. I saw Lystra, setting in the west, and then I expanded my view to see the cat, the widow’s veil, and the hunter’s bow above me.

“The sky is dark,” Prudence said in a low, soft voice. “The bright stars are steady, and the dim ones glitter. Everything is silent. The world is turning slowly, and the stars are rising and setting, rising and setting…”

I watched the stars in my mind, until the cadence of Prudence’s voice faded away. Then even the stars faded, my mind grew still, and I fell asleep.

Advertisements

The Coven, Part LXXI

I left del Sol laden with new riches.

My pocket was heavy with tokens of goodbye from the other sisters. An embroidered handkerchief, a strand of colorful prayer beads, and a paper terra flower covered in signatures and well-wishes were among the treasures I carried in the pocket under my black traveling skirt. Abbess Joy had added to these tokens a heavy hamper, filled with provisions for the journey.

“I wish I had more to give,” Abbess Joy whispered as he handed it to me.

“You’ve given me so much already,” I replied thickly.

Mercy took the hamper from me. “The sun is rising, Lady Frey. We must go,” she said softly.

I waved a last goodbye to everyone and climbed into the carriage, where Celeste, Prudence, and Brother Lux were waiting.

I counted Prudence among the treasures I took from del Sol. When I had arrived at the abbey, I’d believed that Prudence Goode was long dead, but the woman I met and befriended was full of life- warm, brilliant, and unafraid to tell me when I was being a fool.

Prudence had only escaped the hangman’s noose by faking her death, so she kept her face and identity veiled. I alone could glimpse beneath the veil to see her true beauty- a curse had rendered her face grotesque to anyone without Ancient blood. To the world, Prudence was Jubilee- Sister from del Sol and governess to Miss Celeste Goode.

Celeste was the greatest treasure I took away from del Sol with me. She was safe, well, and growing so quickly that her long legs stuck out from under her traveling skirt, even though we’d let down her hems twice.

I had experienced some misgivings about allowing Celeste to accompany us away from the safety of del Sol, but after having been reunited, Prudence could not bear to part with Celeste again. Celeste would have Mercy’s protection, and Brother Lux and Father Pius had sworn a blood oath to protect Celeste

Even so, I felt a chill when I saw Brother Lux sitting inches away from Celeste. Brother Lux had betrayed and imprisoned my husband, and he shared an incomprehensible power with Father Pius, who had ascended to godhood and now sought to take the world. Everyone I loved was trapped under Pius and Lux’s power.

I shuddered a little as the carriage pulled away from the Abbey. The Sisters followed the carriage a little way, waving white handkerchiefs in the orange light of sunrise. Celeste sat up on her knees and looked out of the back window to wave back to them, and then looked up at the shining Cathedral spire with a sigh of longing.

I turned to look back at the cathedral with Celeste, though I did not sigh aloud. I thought of the fragile new conspiracy that I had formed between my mother’s people, the Ancients, and the Oculist Guild. I’d brought the two groups together to liberate the Ancients from Father Pius’s guards. Abbess Joy was guarding the Ancients and the Oculist guild now, keeping them safe behind the spire, but I wondered how long they would remain safe.

“…you must guard the Ancients carefully- because if I discover any of them running free in the world at large, I will return with an army to wipe them out at once.”

I resisted the urge to touch the modest lace I’d tucked around my neck, which concealed the scar that marred my chest- the brand Pius had placed on my people after he’d rounded them up like cattle. The scar was a constant reminder of the danger I still faced.

I brought a final treasure away from del Sol with me. It would not be considered a treasure by many- it was a debased coin, minted during the reign of King Luminous II during a currency crisis. I’d been presented the coin two nights before, at my initiation into the Oculist Guild.

After I’d defended my treatise and Honest had defended his, we’d been subjected to rounds of questions and a final vote. Even though they’d both voted against me on my last attempt, Sir Silas and Prudence both raised their hands to accept me into the guild.

I didn’t have to count the hands to see I had a clear majority. Honest and I had both passed.

“So,” I turned to Prudence in my relief. “Does this mean you’ve changed your mind about my impulsiveness?”

“Oh no- you are more impulsive than you’ve ever been,” Prudence laughed. “You are completely out of control. The only difference is that I’ve learned to trust your impulses. They are becoming finely-honed by practice.”

“Tell me,” Mr. Filius, my mentor, had asked me when he’d handed me the coin. “What would you have done if we’d rejected your petition to join the guild?”

“I would have continued my work, regardless,” I said. “I can work on my own if I must, but I’m sure my friends would still collaborate with me if I asked.”

Mr. Filius laughed. “Then you know the secret- the title we’ve given you, journeyman, is worth as much as this coin.”

Everyone laughed at this, and I laughed along in good-humor even though I knew what Mr. Filius said was false. After all of the work I’d done, the title and acceptance meant everything.

 

 

#

 

 

Thump Thump Thump

“Celeste, please don’t kick the seat,” Prudence said with a sigh.

“I can’t help it; my legs are too long to tuck under me, but they are still too short to rest on the floor,” Celeste protested.

The carriage had left the Abbey grounds and was winding through the soft hills that rose toward the midlands. We had been traveling for less than half an hour, but Celeste was already restless.

“You must try to behave in a more ladylike manner,” Prudence chided gently. “We will be staying in Lord Ainsworth’s townhouse- you won’t have much opportunity to play outside like you have in the countryside, and Lord Ainsworth is too ill to bear much noise.”

“Is he ill? I’m sorry- I didn’t know. I will try to be quiet.” Celeste crossed her ankles and folded her hands, as though she were already sitting in a drawing-room. “But- if he is so ill, then why doesn’t he go to del Sol? I’m sure Abbess Joy can heal him.”

“The Gods have placed limits on Abbess Joy’s powers,” Brother Lux said, peering at Celeste over the edge of his book. “She can cure most ailments, but she cannot reverse the effects of aging. Many elderly patients seek relief in the hot springs at Verdant city, instead- the waters have healing properties.”

Celeste unfolded her hands and sat forward with an interested expression.

“Can the springs make people young again?” Celeste asked.

“Unfortunately, no. Bathing in the waters can relieve pain, and drinking the waters can improve digestion, but that is all.”

“Oh, I see,” Celeste said. She sat back and looked out of the window once more.

“Do you think that the bandits will attack again, Lady Grace?” Celeste asked. She put her hands around herself and shivered as though in fear, but her eyes shone in excitement.

“You needn’t worry, Miss Celeste,” Brother Lux said. “Inquisitors have recently set up checkpoints along this road, and the leaders of each of the bandit clans have been arrested. The roads are as safe as can be.”

“I see,” Celeste said, and then she narrowed her eyes at Brother Lux in sudden anger. “I’m sorry I’d forgotten, but I am not speaking to you at the moment, Brother Lux. I will be your friend again when Uncle Hope is free.”

“Ah- I understand. Thank you for the incentive, Miss Celeste,” Brother Lux said softly. Then he raised his book and began to read once more.

It was not long until we came to one of the checkpoints Brother Lux had spoken of- there was one bend in the road, then another, and then a red and white pavilion became visible over the next hill. As we approached, I saw that the pavilion was next to a makeshift gate that had been stretched across the road. The carriage stopped at the gate, and two armed guards appeared, followed closely by a red-cloaked inquisitor.

“Good morning,” Brother Lux said cheerfully, descending from the carriage to greet the inquisitor.

“Good morning, Brother,” the inquisitor said with a low bow. “I trust your time at del Sol was pleasant.”

“It was, as usual. I have brought Lady Frey, her ward Miss Goode, and two of her servants- the governess Sister Jubilee, and the handmaid Miss Mercy.”

Brother Lux turned and called to Mercy, who sat on the box. “Mercy, please unlatch all of the luggage for these men.”

“There’s no need to conduct a search,” the inquisitor said quickly. “If the ladies are traveling with you…”

“I insist. We must set an example for the laity, after all.”

The inquisitor bowed again, and then gestured to the guards, who stepped forward to help Mercy unload our trunks from the carriage. My heart pounded as I watched. I had purged my trunk of any secret items that were not strictly necessary; my treatise and the book I’d stolen from St. Blanc both had a new home in the old lighthouse- a secret guild stronghold we referred to as ‘the tower.’ I’d given my mother’s contract to Abbess Joy, and the blood oath I’d made with Hope long ago had fed the flames in my small grate on the second day I’d spent at del Sol.

Even so, I still carried dangerous items in the secret compartment in my trunk- items I thought I may need. I had made a map of the dungeons where Hope was kept, and I’d brought it in case I ever found an opportunity to free him. I also held a love letter Pius had written to Lux, and though Pius was now too powerful for the church to destroy, I still thought I might be able to leverage the contents to loosen Pius and Lux’s political hold on the nation. Hope’s bank records, the letters from my solicitor and Hope’s attorney, and the letter I kept from Brother Gaius did not contain any compromising information, but they were still sensitive and private, and I did not like the idea of anyone reading the contents.

Prudence shrank back from the carriage window as the guards approached, holding her veil down with one hand. I cursed myself that I hadn’t asked if she needed help hiding any of her possessions.

My fears, however, proved to be for nothing. The inquisitor hardly peered into each trunk before ordering them to be shut and loaded back onto the carriage. Brother Lux thanked the inquisitor, blessed him, and climbed back into his seat.

The guards opened the gate and waved the carriage through.

“Congratulations on the reforms you’ve accomplished since taking command of the inquisition,” Prudence said to Lux after we’d passed through. “You have implemented the appearance of fairness, which is much better than actual fairness.”

“I’ve missed that sharp tongue of yours,” Brother Lux replied.

We passed another two checkpoints before we reached Crossroads Village, and at each checkpoint, the searches were conducted in the same way; the inquisitor would attempt to wave the carriage through, Brother Lux would insist that he be searched the same as any other traveler, and the inquisitor would barely glance at the contents of our luggage before declaring us clear to pass. We made excellent time until we passed the crossroads. Then the skies grew dark, and after half a day’s journey the heavens opened up and drenched the roads with rain.

The roads soon became flooded, and we were forced to spend the afternoon under the pavilion at the forth checkpoint while we waited for the rain to stop. The rain did eventually stop, but the roads were so muddy that we had to stay the night.

I was relieved when the roads dried and we were able to continue our journey. I gazed out of the carriage window, eagerly awaiting the fork in the road that led to St. Blanc on the left and Verdant City on the right.

“Lady Grace, I was wondering if you could explain something,” Celeste said, sitting up to peer past me to the scene outside. “I read that Bridon City was the capital of Aeterna, but Brother Lux said that Verdant City was the capital. Which is it?”

“Bridon City used to be the capital, but the Prince recently moved the capital to Verdant City so it would be near St. Blanc,” I said.

“It was an excellent strategic move to consolidate his power with that of the Church,” Brother Lux said. “He might have succeeded in becoming king.”

“You don’t think the Prince will become king?” Celeste said, turning back to Brother Lux.

Brother Lux smirked in reply. “Why- I thought you weren’t speaking to me, Miss Celeste.”

“I- I’m not,” Celeste said. Her cheeks went red, and she turned resolutely back to the window.

The sun was setting when we passed through the city gates. The lamplighters were hard at work bringing light to the twilit city. I could hardly see a bare patch of cobblestone beneath us- the streets were crowded with carriages, horses, and a sea of pedestrians dressed in everything from rags to silks.

One woman was dressed strangely enough to catch my eye despite the varied crowd. She wore a pale blue dress that shone with an odd sheen in the lamplight, and which was trimmed with a profusion of very stiff looking lace. Her hair was bright red, and it fell just to her shoulders in soft layers.

I couldn’t stop myself- I gasped aloud in surprise.

“Lady Frey? Is something the matter?” Brother Lux asked.

I looked back into the crowd, but the girl had gone, lost in the throng of people.

“I thought that I saw someone I knew, but I must have been mistaken,” I said.

“It is quite a large crowd for so late in the season,” Brother Lux said, leaning forward to peer out of the window. “It would be difficult to find anyone in this madness.”

“Get comfortable, Ladies- we may be here a while,” The coachman called through the front window. “The road to Brighton Place is all blocked.”

“We may be able to turn down Ferryman St. and then get to Brighton Place by way of the avenue,” I said. “I only came here once as a girl, but I remember that the traffic was always much lighter on Ferryman, though the way is longer.”

Brother Lux nodded and tapped the window to get the coachman’s attention once more. “Take us down Ferryman.”

“You’ve had a season in Verdant City?” Prudence asked. “You once told me that you were never out before your marriage.”

“I didn’t come here to attend balls- I was younger than Celeste at the time,” I said. “We came to visit my ailing grandfather. Once he passed away, I spent every winter at Willowbrook.”

“Is Brighton Place pretty?” Celeste asked. “It has a very grand-sounding name.”

“It’s a very comfortable townhouse,” I said. “There will be plenty of room for all of us.”

“The late Lord Frey had a home at Brighton Place,” Prudence told Celeste. “From what I recall, Brighton Place is very grand, indeed.”

True to my prediction, Ferryman St. was far less crowded than the main street, and the avenue was almost empty but for a few couples who walked, arm-in-arm, under the budding fairy-trees. I had to turn away from the window- the way the lovers gazed at each other as they walked brought to mind how Hope and I had walked together at St. Blanc.

The carriage rolled away from the avenue and onto a wide cobblestone road, which was lined with young spear-trees. The lamps were all lit; they shone merrily off the rain-washed cobblestone. The carriage rolled to a stop in front the white house at the end of the row. I opened the door and descended the carriage, staring up at the broad, white building full of sparkling windows.

Brother Lux escorted me up the walkway, and Prudence and Celeste fell behind us. It felt strange for me to lead the party; the last time I had been to Brighton place I had walked at the back of the party with my governess, who surreptitiously yanked my hair every time it looked like I would step out of line.

You’ve faced inquisitors and soldiers and even a God without trembling. I told myself. It would be ridiculous for you to tremble, now.

      I pulled the bell, and the doorman appeared with his tray in hand. I felt oddly ashamed that I had no card to present, but I raised my head, cleared my throat, and gave the doorman my name.

“Her Ladyship has been expecting you,” the doorman said with a slight bow. “Please follow me.”

As I entered the foyer, two servants stepped forward to take my coat and hat, and two more stepped outside to assist Mercy and the Coachman. I flinched away from the first servant for just a moment before I remembered where I was, and that the self-sufficiency I’d enjoyed at del Sol was gone. The realization felt oddly restraining- like putting on my stays after wearing loose pilgrim’s robes for so long.

The doorman led the party down a hall and to the drawing room. The doors were already open, and as I entered a wave of memories flooded my mind. I’d only been in the drawing room a few times, when no company of any importance had been present. Everything was how I remembered it-the scarlet rugs and rose-printed paper on the walls were the same as ever, and the comfortable sofas and reading-chairs, lamps, and tables, which had been strewn around with the appearance of carelessness, did not seem to have moved an inch.

Lady Fairfax had been sitting in a high-backed chair by the fire, and she stood as the party entered. I curtsied deeply and murmured a greeting, but Lady Fairfax did not reply. She approached me slowly, almost tentatively, taking a wine goblet from the nearest table as she went. Then she stopped before me, raised the goblet, and dashed the contents into my face.

Part LXXII

Book 3 of The Coven is Out

Book Three of  The Coven novelization series is available on Amazon now. As usual, this novelization does include content not available in the serial. 

 

Solar Spectrum

Click here or above to purchase.

 

There is a sanctuary from the chaos that reigns in Aeterna.

After her husband’s arrest, Lady Grace Frey is sent into exile at del Sol, which is an abbey, pilgrimage, and hospital for the ill and broken. At del Sol, Lady Frey finds solace and support in the motherly attentions of Abbess Joy.
Grace also finds allies among the oppressed and the broken at del Sol, especially in the friendship of the mysterious Sister Jubilee. Grace soon learns, however, that Sister Jubilee hides a terrible secret under her veil that may tear their friendship apart.

The Solar Spectrum is the third novel in The Coven series, based on the web serial by Bridgett Kay.

The Coven, Part LXX

A light breeze rustled the new grass under my feet and shook my loose curls, sending shivers up my spine. I stepped out of the circle of lamplight near Abbess Joy’s office and looked up into the sky, exchanging yellow lamplight for pink moonlight. I took a deep breath; my throat was clear, and physically I felt better than I had all week.

“Grace?” Prudence said in a tentative voice, looking back at me as I fell behind.

“The cat is rising- it isn’t as late as I’d thought,” I said, pointing to the east.

“We came for you just after confession,” Lux’s voice spoke.

I looked down and saw the man who wore Lux’s body standing near Prudence, his face half-illuminated in lamplight. His regal posture had faded away- his shoulders slumped more naturally, and he shifted his weight between his feet as though in discomfort.

“Lux- am I speaking to Lux, now?”

He nodded. “I asked Wisdom to allow me to speak with you both privately.”

“You say ‘privately,’ but Wisdom can still hear us, can’t he?” Prudence said.

“Yes, he can. Our minds are permanently linked, now- that is how he can control my body.”

Lux turned to me. “Wisdom was surprised by your concession, Lady Frey. We both were.”

“You will never understand what you made her give up,” Prudence said.

“Perhaps not,” Lux said humbly. “When I entered the brotherhood, the loss of a family was not so difficult for me to bear- I had never anticipated that I would have children. Still, Lady Frey-”

“I won’t pretend that this doesn’t hurt,” I said, looking back at the sky. “I don’t desire children now- how could I, with everything that is happening? But to take the option from my future self – to kill that glimmer of hope is almost too much for me to bear. But I have grown used to sacrifice. I have had to fight every barrier you put in the way of my liberty, and this price was just the latest toll.”

“I’ve been collecting atonements,” Lux said. “When the world we envision comes to be, I’m afraid all of the miracles we have planned will not be enough to undo the pain we’ve caused, now. But Lady Frey, if there is anything we can do-”

“You will never build a world worth anything on a foundation of atrocities,” Prudence interrupted. “Your greatest miracles will be nothing but filthy rags.”

“I would not have expected you to utter such a naive statement,” Lux replied. “When we made our plans and gained our powers, Wisdom said there would be a price. Didn’t you believe him?”

Our plans?” Prudence said incredulously. “You mean your plans- no one asked me what my goals were when I accepted my powers, or how I planned to attain my goals. Even so, I’m the one who has paid in torture and exile while you’ve gained everything you desired.”

Lux motioned for me to move back into the circle of lamplight and cast a spell of silence at the boundary between light and darkness. Then he turned back to Prudence – his hands clasped as though pleading.

“This- this is not what I wanted. I intended to save you.”

“Save me? From what?”

“I was worried for you after you gained your powers- we all were, Prudence. You hadn’t only changed physically. You stopped eating and sleeping, you locked yourself away for days at a time, engaged in some secret work you wouldn’t discuss with anyone. You stopped trusting your friends- you would hardly speak to us. My brother was hurt by your behavior, though he always was ready with an excuse for you. Imagine how alarmed I felt when I discovered the nature of your work.”

“At the first ritual our coven performed, magic showed me something of your souls,” Prudence replied. “I knew that there was someone among you whom I could not trust, but I couldn’t discern who it was. I felt terrified and I felt betrayed- betrayed that someone among my closest friends contained such darkness within them.”

I felt trapped. I knew that if I left, I would disturb the circle of silence that Lux had cast over us, yet I knew this conversation was too private for my ears. Still, I could not reach Prudence and Brother Lux; they were trapped together in a gulf of hurt over a decade wide.

Lux stepped closer to Prudence, his hand clutching the robes over his chest. “You felt betrayed? Imagine the betrayal I felt when I learned that you were feeding our circle’s most intimate secrets to strangers. But I still thought of you as my sister, so I was willing to make excuses. I told myself that you were not in your right mind, and I was willing to attribute your actions to madness.”

“I never betrayed the coven’s secrets- I never revealed anything but my private research,” Prudence said, tossing her head. “You were the real traitor. You put your trust in Pius before your own family. You let him convince you I was mad-”

“Pius didn’t convince me of anything- I could see you were mad with my own eyes. Even my brother, besotted as he was, could see what magic had done to you. I tried to convince him to bring you to del Sol, but he insisted you would fare better at home. He was blind- anyone could see you were not improving, and that your proximity to our magic caused you to suffer.”

“So you decided that the best option was to turn me over to the inquisition, so they could torture the madness out of me,” Prudence scoffed.

“We planned to use the inquisition’s threat to force my brother to let you go. The plan was to spirit you away to del Sol under the guise of helping your escape. The plan failed- you got my warning too soon, and instead of waiting for us to help you, you escaped on your own. I had no idea how resourceful you would be, or how powerful your friends were. For almost ten years we sought you, and unfortunately, the inquisition got you first.

“I was forced to risk my position by rescuing you from the inquisitors before they could kill you. I staged your death so the inquisitors would no longer pursue you, and then I brought you to del Sol.”

“Brother Lux,” I said quietly, and he stopped and looked at me as though startled by my presence. “Why didn’t you tell Hope that Prudence lived?”

Prudence threw back her veil and fixed Lux with a defiant gaze. Lux flinched at first, and then approached her gingerly, as though he approached a wild, injured creature.

“After the torture she had endured, I thought she would never recover her sanity. I see that I was wrong- that del Sol has performed the miracle I prayed it would- but if Prudence had not recovered, my brother wouldn’t have been able to let her go. I thought it would be kinder to let him believe she’d died.”

“How dare you, you liar,” Prudence said in a voice little louder than a whisper. “How dare you impose your will on us, again and again. It isn’t your place to decide what is good for us.”

“I- I won’t try to defend my actions; you are right, Prudence. I hurt you both more than you know. Still, I was right to send you to del Sol- you have recovered. Promise me that you will avoid magic in the future, Prudence. Promise me that you won’t perform any more experiments.”

“I will make that promise if you give up all of your power and hand yourself over to the inquisition,” Prudence said.

Lux’s eyes flew open in surprise, but he said nothing.

“We have nothing more to say to each other.” Prudence flipped down her veil, took my arm, and we left the circle of light together.

 

#

 

 

“I wish we had more time to allow for your recovery,” Abbess Joy said. “The pain will be worse than your normal courses, and you will be fatigued.”

We were alone together in the infirmary, and I sat on the examination table as Abbess Joy fussed with a syringe of pale blue liquid, as though unsure of what to do with it.

“I wonder if it isn’t better to suffer a fate worse than death, rather than betray-”

“You betray nothing,” I said firmly. “I will win freedom for myself and the Ancients- this will not stop me.”

I pulled back my sleeve, revealing the healed scar that stood stark and white against my brown skin.

Abbess Joy looked into my eyes for a long time, as though trying to discern my thoughts beneath. Then she wiped my arm with a cool, wet cloth, stabbed the needle into my arm, and pushed the plunger down. There was a sting, warmth, and then I felt nothing.

It was done.

“This is a cost you shouldn’t have to bear,” Abbess Joy said, bandaging the pinprick with more care than was necessary. “This is due to my failure in negotiations-”

“Abbess Joy- you were brilliant! I never could have negotiated so well against someone like him. You obtained exactly what we need.”

A small smile tugged at the corner of Abbess Joy’s lips, and she put up a finger, as though for silence.

“I see a little of myself in you, sometimes,” she said. “You have a generous spirit, and you give parts of yourself away without a second thought. It is good to give to others, but you should always feel that you have gained something in your spirit in return. Remember- if you begin to feel hollow, if your heart feels worn, stop giving and replenish yourself.”

“I will remember,” I said. “I am not giving up so much of myself as you would think. You have shown me that motherhood is not simply blood. Thank you for caring for me- thank you for being my mother.”

Abbess Joy cut me off with a fierce embrace, and she held me in silence only broken by the occasional *sniff* as we fought back tears. Then she broke the embrace and sat down, drawing her stool nearer to me.

“I wish I had been able to raise you- to help you over the threshold of womanhood. Your father knew me by sight very well, so I could only send others to watch over you while you lived with him. When you went to Rowan Heights, however, and I’d heard you were giving a ball, I could not resist going to see you.

“How relieved I was to see you so well and happy! You danced with such vigor that I knew you must be well. I was a little alarmed when I saw how Lord Frey looked at you- I suspected his involvement in some treachery, then, and did not wish you involved. Still, you seemed friendly but indifferent toward him, so I was convinced that he was kind to you, but your hearts were not attached.”

“That was the nature of our relationship at that time,” I said. “Our feelings did not develop until we were at St. Blanc.”

I paused, recalling the events that had occurred the night of the ball- the dancing, the kiss, the revelation, and the note…

“Someone passed me a riddle at the ball. I didn’t see their face, but I think it was someone with golden hair.”

Abbess Joy smiled wryly. “I wanted to warn you about Lord Frey, but not cause undue alarm. I thought if I wrote a riddle, you would understand the meaning only if you already had misgivings about Lord Frey. I also wished to make it clear that you could trust Mr. Filius.”

I nodded. “I thought as much. Oh- but how I wish we could have spoken that night! It’s a shame the ball was so busy and so crowded.”

Abbess Joy laughed. “That is the point of a ball, I expect. Still, I wish I had acted more boldly that night. I wish I acted more boldly, in general.”

“I understand why you do not- del Sol is precious, and it must be preserved.” I took a deep breath and stretched my limbs. “I can feel the influence of this place in my bones- its peace and friendship and good air. I don’t believe I would have survived without del Sol.”

“I wish you were healthier, Grace. I hate letting you go so soon after you’ve been ill. Do you believe you will be well enough to travel in two days?”

“I am perfectly well- well enough to travel now, if I wanted.” I frowned. “My biggest worry is how I will make the necessary arrangements with so little time. I’m sure the inns will be full when we arrive, and I doubt I will have time to get a house.”

“Brother Lux said that Lady Fairfax asked you to stay at your father’s house.”

“Well, yes.” I looked down at my hands, which started twisting my loose robes into knots.

“I will not ask you to forgive- I know that in many cases, forgiveness is impossible- but have you settled your relationship with your father to your satisfaction?”

I let go of my robes, but I did not look up.

I hadn’t seen my father since the day he’d told me about my mother- the day I allowed Hope to take my father’s will away from him. Father had exploited my mother and me, and I had exacted vengeance. Logically, our relationship was closed. I had vowed never to speak to him again.

But then I thought of Lady Fairfax’s letter, and some odd feeling twisted in my stomach- a feeling akin to what I’d felt when I saw the Prince watch his ballet with a blank expression on his face.

“If there is anything left unsaid between you, this may be your last opportunity to rectify that,” Abbess Joy said gently.

“You may be right, but I have no idea what I should say.”

“Perhaps if you listen first, the words will come.”

 

#

 

 

The stomach pains Abbess Joy had warned me of happened within a few hours, but I worked all day, and that evening I took my tea as strong as Prudence could make it.

I sat in the calefactory as the others came in from confession, drinking my tea and pouring over Sir Reginald’s Lost Mechanics. I read until the fire grew low and the other sisters, one by one, retired to their cells. When Prudence took Celeste’s hand to take her to bed I moved to go with her, but Prudence shook her head and held up one finger, and then left without a word.

I sat and took up my book once more, but the fire had burned too low for me to see well by its light. The only people who remained in the calefactory were Miss Taris, Merry, and Abbess Joy, who was demonstrating a complicated stitch for Merry.

“We use this stitch in the design on all of our robes,” Abbess Joy said, gesturing to the sleeve of her own robe, “as well as some of the goods that we make here. It is just through, around, around, and back- do you see?”

Abbess Joy had to demonstrate the stitch several times, because Merry’s eyes would often wander away from the needlework and focus on Miss Taris’s face. Then, after Merry had tried the same stitch several times on her own, she let the work fall into her lap and stared at Miss Taris openly.

Miss Taris jabbed her needle into her work at a rapid pace, ignoring Merry’s gaze until she had finished two full rows of stitches. Then she sighed, dropped her work, and looked up.

“Yes, Miss Merry?”

“You are Miss Constance Taris, aren’t you?”

“I am.”

Merry blinked up at Miss Taris a few more moments, her expression inscrutable, and then she said, “you are very beautiful.”

Miss Taris rolled her eyes and took up her work once more.

“You are lucky to have escaped your marriage.”

Miss Taris looked up sharply. “Who are you, and what do you know of my engagement?”

Merry shrugged. “I’m nobody- just a common heretic. Sir Montag was my master.”

“Ah,” Miss Taris said. “I see. In that case, I believe you are the one who made the lucky escape.”

An uncomfortable silence reigned in the calefactory until the door opened, and Brother Lux entered.

“I am sorry to intrude,” he said with a slight bow. “I was hoping you would allow me to borrow from your library, Abbess. You have, if I recall correctly, a rare tome illuminated by St. Agnus.”

“You are welcome to it,” Abbess Joy said, gesturing toward the bookshelves.

Brother Lux thanked Abbess Joy and made his way to the bookshelves. On his way, he paused and shot Merry a stern glare. Merry seemed to wither under the force of the glare.

“I am tired,” Merry said quietly. “Good night, and thanks, Abbess Joy.”

“Good night, Merry,” Abbess Joy said as Merry fled.

Miss Taris put away her work when Merry had gone. “How did you make that girl afraid of you?” she asked Brother Lux. “She seemed as bold as brass.”

“The circumstance of our first meeting was unfortunate,” Brother Lux answered from atop his ladder. He ran his finger along the spines of each book carefully as he spoke. “Merry’s brother had been imprisoned for heresy, but since his crime was so minor- mere blustering in a tavern- his confession and a name was all I needed to free him. Merry was the name he gave me. Unfortunately, since she was the heretical influence, and because she was unrepentant, the inquisitors who arrested her told her that she would be hanged.

“Merry had been sold into slavery by her mother several months before her arrest, so her life ultimately belonged to her master. I purchased Merry’s contract and sent her here so that she might be spared.”

“That was a convenient loophole,” Miss Taris said with a nod. “Soon you will have the authority to use more discretion.

I closed my book, holding my place with my finger. “You call slavery a convenient loophole?”

“In this case- yes, it was,” she said unabashedly. “Servitude is better than death.”

Before I could respond, the calefactory door opened, and Prudence returned.

“I put Celeste to bed,” she said, sitting next to me. “I have just one piece of work I’d like your help with, Grace, before we retire.”

“Don’t stay up too late,” Brother Lux said, climbing down the ladder while holding a heavy book under his elbow. “You will need rest before we begin our journey. Miss Taris, if you would please join me-“

“May I join you, as well?” Abbess Joy said abruptly. “If you are going to conduct a service in the cathedral tonight, I would like to attend.”

Brother Lux froze- his foot halfway from the ladder to the floor- with a look of surprise on his face. Beside me, Prudence gave a soft snort of laughter.

“The cathedral is yours- of course you are welcome,” Brother Lux said, recovering his footing. “Are you certain you wish to attend?”

“Oh yes- I would like to hear your message very much.”

“Then you may join us,” Brother Lux said.

Abbess Joy winked at Prudence and me before lowering her veil over her face. Then she followed Brother Lux and Prudence from the room.

“I knew Abbess Joy would think of something,” Prudence said when we were alone. “Wait a few minutes with me, and then we will go back to the dormitories.”

“Why wait?”

“I don’t wish to arouse any suspicions. Of course, after you collect your treatise, we will have to leave by the south entrance…” She tapped her finger against her veil, over her cheek, in thought.

“If we are going to the tower, why not use the north exit?”

“We aren’t going to the tower.”

 

 

 

#

 

 

 

I trembled more from anticipation than from cold as I walked, with Prudence by my side, along the shore to the southern shrine. I held my treatise tightly to my chest and wrapped my cloak around it, as though to protect it from the elements. The night was dry and clear, but the wind was fierce. The full moon illuminated the sea, whose waves frothed like horses straining at the bit, rolling and crashing as though breaking free from an unseen harness.

“The sea is restless, tonight,” Prudence observed, “as restless as the principalities must be. It looks quite ready to dash warships against the rocks.”

Prudence slowed her walk, and she lay her hand on my shoulder to slow my pace, as well. “Let’s not get swept away, Grace. Slow down- talk with me before we meet the others.”

I slowed my pace, but I clutched my treatise even tighter under my cloak.

The treatise is still incomplete. Will it ever be complete?

      “I’m afraid,” Prudence said in a low voice. “I’m not afraid of journeying outside of the del Sol’s protection, or of seeing Just and Hope after a decade has passed. I’m afraid that we will never defeat Pius, especially since we’ve lost Abbess Joy to the vow she made.”

“We haven’t lost Abbess Joy,” I said. “She can still help us; her plan was carefully made. There are two loopholes in the vow- one was placed there by Abbess Joy on purpose, and one was left by Pius’s carelessness.”

Prudence took a deep breath. If I hadn’t been so attuned to Prudence’s manners, the breath would have been drowned out by the wind. Prudence’s veil, however, had trained me to listen closely to her- to learn her every sigh by heart. I would have been able to pick up her smallest murmur beneath all the conversation in the Prince’s noisy salon.

“I think I see the first loophole,” Prudence said slowly. “Abbess Joy promised not to awaken the old Gods, and she promised not to reveal Wisdom’s secrets, but she had already given up on Order’s help. Raven is the ally she seeks, now.”

“Yes. Raven already suspects Pius’s game, so Abbess Joy needn’t reveal any secrets to her,” I said. “When Abbess Joy contacts Raven, Raven will know why.”

“I’m afraid I can’t see the second,” Prudence said.

“Think about the inadequacy of language,” I said, “and you will.”

“Do you mean Pius’s insistence that Abbess Joy ‘guard’ the Ancients?”

“Yes. To Pius, a ‘guard’ is someone who stands at a prison cell, keeping a prisoner confined. But to Abbess Joy, a ‘guard’ is a protector. I’m certain she saw the difference in their meanings right away, and so she feigned reluctance to comply with that request.”

“You even encouraged it,” Prudence said with a sudden laugh. “‘Better that you guard the temple than someone who is more cruel.’”

“Exactly. You see? Our situation is not as dire as you’d thought. Still, this will be difficult. We are leaving del Sol under the protection of our enemy.”

We turned onto the path that led to the southern shrine. As we wound through the dunes on our path the wind calmed, and Prudence, who had been holding her veil in place with one hand on the shore, removed the veil entirely.

The moonlight was barely enough to light the path, and we stumbled down it almost blindly until a light appeared ahead.

Dare stood on the path before us, holding a torch aloft in her right hand.

“Foolish girl,” she said to me as she approached. She wore a stern look on her lined face, but her dark eyes danced with laughter. “I should scold you for telling Abbess Joy what’s happened, but I can’t blame you. We wouldn’t have been able to keep this secret from the Abbess long.”

Dare kissed my cheek, and then turned to Prudence. “This is your partner in crime?”

“Yes- this is my friend, Miss Prudence Goode.”

Dare smiled and patted Prudence’s cheek warmly with her left hand. “I have heard of you, child. You are welcome to the southern shrine.”

Dare turned and lifted the torch even higher to lead us down the path. Prudence put her hand to her own cheek, as though astonished by the friendly touch.

When we rounded the dune that lay before the shrine, I was greeted first by the chatter of voices, and then by waves of heat and a burst of light. There was a bonfire roaring at the center of the broken columns, and it was surrounded by people- shadows that moved in concert in front of the bright orange flames. Just outside the circle of firelight other, less animated figures stood together quietly like spectators watching shadow-puppets.

I followed Dare into the outer circle, where I was stopped by a multitude of greetings.

“Venus!” Neiro, whom I’d once known as Swift, stepped forward with Mars by her side. “I am so glad you came- so glad I can say goodbye before you leave.”

“It may be ‘goodbye,’ but it is not ‘farewell,’” I promised.

Neiro kissed my cheeks, and then Mars clasped my hand in earnest silence.

“Be careful among the humans,” Victoria said as she stepped forward. She looked from Prudence to the figures who sat in the firelight with a look of distrust.

Then two more people came forward to greet me- Mr. Filius and Honest.

“Aren’t you surprised?” Honest said with a nervous laugh. He was holding his own treatise, and he flipped the pages without looking before closing it again. “Mr. Filius brought me here so suddenly that I don’t feel at all prepared.”

“I’m not nearly as surprised as I was my first time,” I said.

“You are both ready,” Mr. Filius said firmly.

“They are,” Prudence said. She pressed my hand, however, and whispered “good luck” before she turned to walk into the firelight.

Mr. Filius nodded to us, winked, and followed Prudence.

I moved to follow, but Honest grabbed my arm.

“I’m- I’m not sure I can do this,” Honest said in a hoarse whisper.

“You can,” I urged. “You are brilliant, and you have already earned your place.”

Honest took a deep breath and turned to me, a smile stretching slowly across his face. Then he squeezed my hand and we stepped into the circle of firelight together.

The shadowy figures coalesced, their faces and forms now fully illuminated. Prudence and Mr. Filius were sitting next to Sir Silas and Trusty, who turned to greet me. Other faces grew clear- faces that belonged to guild members who had come to reinforce the ancient temple.

The circle grew quiet, the voices died down, and soon all I could hear was the roar of the fire and the roar of the sea far beyond the dunes. Then Mr. Filius stood and gestured toward Honest and me.

“I nominate two candidates, Mr. Honest Teris, and Lady Grace Frey, for full membership in the oculist guild.”

The then the silence broke apart, and I was flooded by questions. My true initiation, my trial by fire, had begun.

 

Part LXXI

 

This will be the last update for the next couple of weeks. If you have been paying attention, you know what comes next. 

The Coven, Part LXIX

“This is your own fault,” Mercy said. “You stayed up all night before you had fully recovered.”

She looked down at me with the same sneer she’d often used after knocking me to the ground. In this case, however, I had already been prone before she came into my cell. I was in bed with a persistent cough, and I had skipped my morning training.

“I’ve learned-” a coughing fit cut off my words, and Mercy waited for me to finish while I caught my breath. “I’ve learned my lesson.”

“I certainly hope you have,” she said. Then she leaned down and growled in a low voice. “I hope you will think twice before you decide to do anything else interesting without consulting me- the woman responsible for keeping you safe.”

“What do you mean?

“Don’t play stupid- both Sister Jubilee and Abbess Joy spoke to me after you returned from the southern shrine. They didn’t tell me exactly what happened, but they insisted that I guard you from now on, and that I accompany you if you go on any more adventures. Your friends value your safety more than you do.”

“Thank you for your concern, but it’s not necessary that you guard me. Celeste’s safety is the most important thing.”

“It’s not the only important thing,” Mercy said. “Lord Frey ordered me to keep you both safe.”

“Your lessons have been the most valuable protection you could have given me,” I said. “I cannot keep you with me all the time, nor can I avoid all adventure.”

“Try harder,” she said. “Especially now.”

Then she reached inside her robe’s pocket and retrieved two letters, which she carefully passed to me.

“Brother Lux is here again,” she said in a softer tone, sitting on the foot of my bed. “He asked to see you. I told him that you were resting, and that if he tried to come into the women’s dorms, I would break both of his legs.”

I suppressed a laugh to avoid another coughing fit. “I would have paid to watch you threaten the High Inquisitor.”

“High Inquisitor or no, it’s difficult to properly fear someone you once considered a friend. I can hate him easily enough, but not fear.”

I tore open the first letter, and saw a note written in an exquisite yet unfamiliar hand.

 

My Dear Cousin Lady Frey,

It is with a heavy heart and much regret that I write to you, for the first time, to deliver sad tidings. Your esteemed father has taken ill, and though he is being attended by the best physicians in Verdant City, there is not much hope for his recovery.

While observing your interactions at court, I was much dismayed by the lack of warmth or affection between Lord Ainsworth and you- his only offspring. I have often wished to see your relationship mended, and I fear this may be my last opportunity to do so. Please come to Verdant City at once, before your father is beyond us. I have asked Father Pius if he would allow you to leave your exile to come, and he has agreed, conditional on your traveling with the High Inquisitor. Brother Lux has kindly agreed to bear my message to you, and to bring you to the city when you are ready. It will be a most convenient arrangement, because your father’s house is close to the Inquisitor’s court where your husband’s trial is to take place.

I am well aware of Lord Ainsworth’s talent for making himself disagreeable, but there are circumstances in his past that may excuse his disposition. Underneath his callous exterior, I have glimpsed a tender heart, and though his situation is his own doing, he is still a very lonely man.

I look forward to your arrival.

Yours etc.

Piety Fairfax

 

“What is the matter? Is it Lord Frey?” Mercy asked anxiously.

I shook my head, tossed Lady Farifax’s letter aside, and opened the second letter.

 

Dearest Grace,

I am told that you will be near me soon, and though I will likely face final judgement, I rejoice that we will be together-

   

I scanned the letter, all the way to the signature, “Your Loving Husband,” several times. Then I stood and ran past Mercy’s objections- with my feet bare and my hair loose- into the Abbey courtyard.

Lux was very near the dormitory doors, and he awaited me with a cool expression at me as I ran frantically toward him.

“What is the meaning of this?” I asked, thrusting the letter toward him.

“Lord Frey’s trial will commence shortly, and you will be required to give testimony-”

“Yes, I read that much for myself,” I said, “but this letter is fraudulent. This is not Lord Frey’s hand.”

I stopped to cough, and as I had brought no handkerchief, I was forced to cough into my sleeve. Brother Lux continued to examine me, from my bare head to my bare feet, and then he took my shoulders, turning me back toward the dormitories.

“Mercy spoke true- you are unwell. Go inside, dress properly, and I will speak to you in the infirmary.”

“I won’t allow you to examine me,” I said, clutching the fabric next to my branded chest.

“Then I insist that Abbess Joy examine you. Go inside and dress.”

“Before I go- tell me. Is my husband still alive?”

“He is,” Brother Lux said, and then clenched his jaw and said no more.

I ran inside, returning to my cell coughing and short of breath. I pulled on my stockings and shoes, braided my hair, and threw on my cloak and cowl, giving Mercy a hurried explanation and a promise that I was only going to the infirmary.

Abbess Joy was already examining another patient when I arrived- a young, pretty girl of about sixteen with golden curls and rouged cheeks and lips. The girl was gazing at the Abbess with an expression of distrust, but she submitted to Abbess Joy’s ministrations without a word of protest.

“My apologies- I did not realize you had a patient,” I said, and I turned to leave.

“Don’t,” the girl said, sliding down from the table. “I’m done.”

“You are in excellent health, Merry,” Abbess Joy said. “I will show you to the dormitories after I’ve attended to Lady Frey, or-” she looked up as the door opened again. “Oh! Brother Lux, perhaps you can show Miss Merry to the dormitories, now.”

“I’ve been banished from the dormitories,” Brother Lux said as he entered. “I was anxious to see Lady Frey, however. I am concerned about her physical health.”

Abbess Joy nodded and gestured for me to take Merry’s place on the examination table. Then she felt my head for fever, took my pulse- holding my wrist low so that my sleeve would not slip up my arm- and placed her listening instrument on my back, over my robes, as I took deep breaths and coughed.

“The phlegm has not reached your lungs,” Abbess Joy said. “I have some medicine that may suppress your cough and allow you to rest. If you stay in bed, the cough should clear in a couple of days.”

“Thank you, Abbess,” Brother Lux said before I had the chance. “Lady Frey, before you return to bed-”

“Wait- Abbess Joy is a famous healer,” Merry interrupted, stepping forward. “Why give Lady Frey medicine? Why not use your holy magic?”

“There is no need- it is only a little cough,” I said.

“But I’m anxious to see magic with my own eyes,” Merry said. “It shouldn’t be too difficult to heal a little cough. After all, our Grand Inquisitor claims that he healed my brother when he was on the brink of death.”

Merry turned back to Brother Lux with a glare.

“Don’t forget your position, Miss Simmons, or my generosity,” Brother Lux said, fixing her with a fierce gaze.

Merry quelled a little under his gaze, and then backed away from him.

“Merry,” Abbess Joy said gently, stepping between Merry and Brother Lux. “You must be fatigued from your journey. Come with me to the dormitories, and if you are interested in my healing arts, I will allow you to watch me work, tomorrow.”

“Alright,” the girl said in a low voice, and she allowed Abbess Joy to lead her away.

“You should not have been so hard on the girl,” I said gently when Brother Lux and I were alone. “She is in an unfamiliar place, and it’s only natural she would be curious.”

“I have already shown that girl a great deal of kindness- so much that my loyalty could be called into question. She is an avowed atheist, and by law she should be hung for her impiety and her blasphemy.”

“How shocking- I had no idea her crimes were so severe,” I said, unable to suppress my sarcasm. “After all, even a witch believes the Gods exist.”

“Don’t test my patience, Lady Frey,” Brother Lux said. “You must learn the discretion that girl has not.”

“Then please, ensure we can’t be overheard. I am anxious to speak with you on private matters.”

Brother Lux, however, held up his hand and gave me the terse command to wait. Then, in a few moments, there was a knock on the door.

“Enter.”

The door opened, and Prudence entered the room, shutting the door behind her.

“Lift your veil, Sister Jubilee. Let me see your face,” Brother Lux said.

Prudence did as instructed. Then Brother Lux sighed as though in relief and cast a spell of silence on the wall.

“The trial begins in three weeks,” Brother Lux said without preamble. “It is soon, but not soon enough to put my mind at ease. Lord Willoughby has betrayed himself, and because of that-”

“This is it, then,” Prudence’s face flushed, and she sat down hard on the nearest chair. “We have lost them.”

“No- not yet,” Brother Lux said. “Lord Willoughby betrayed himself in such a way that it could be plausibly blamed on his guard’s incompetence. Don’t forget that Lord Willoughby cannot directly confess.”

“What can I do?” I asked. “How soon can I go to Hope?”

“You must get well before you can do anything,” Brother Lux said. “I will give you three days to rest, and then we will go to Verdant City, where the trial is to take place. Instruct Mercy to prepare for your journey. I will write to Lady Fairfax and ask her to prepare your father’s house for your arrival.”

“No- I will rent a house in the city,” I said.

“Are you certain?” Brother Lux said. “Haven’t you read your cousin’s letter?”

“I have read it. I just- I can’t. I will make arrangements to stay elsewhere,” I said.

“But all of this planning- what is the point? If there is any evidence of witchcraft at all, people won’t listen to the rationalizations of an attorney. Fear will take over, and the people will call for death,” Prudence said.

Brother Lux knelt next to Prudence, looking up at her with an inscrutable expression in his dark eyes. “You forget what Pius and I have already accomplished, and our positions of power within the church. We would not have received these positions if we lacked the ability to sway others.

“I haven’t forgotten,” Prudence said, and shuddered.

“Sister- how long has it been since I called you that?” Lux continued in a gentle voice. “We have a plan to free your brother, my brother, and all our friends. There is trouble, but it’s nothing we didn’t foresee or take into account. We are feeding Lady Frey’s attorney information in secret, and I will personally coach Lady Frey so she may give the proper testimony. Our family and friends will survive- I promise.”

“How can I trust your word, after everything you’ve done?” Prudence said.

“Don’t trust my word. Come with us to Verdant City and witness the trial with your own eyes.”

Prudence looked up at once, her blue eyes wide and shining. She opened her mouth to speak, but I stopped her before she could accept.

“No- Prudence; you must not leave the safety of the abbey, especially to attend a witch trial.”

Brother Lux ignored me and took Prudence’s hand.

“You will see Hope again. You still love him, don’t you? Be there for him in his time of need. Help me save the father of your child.”

“We can’t trust Lux,” I urged. “I received a fraudulent letter today, written as though it was from Hope, but in a different hand. Brother Lux has yet to justify why he’s brought me such a blatant forgery.”

Brother Lux sat back and lowered his head, as though in shame. ‘“Lord Frey has been injured during interrogation, and he could not hold the pen to write. The words were his; I took his dictation myself.”

“You have imprisoned, tortured, and injured your own brother, and now you ask us to trust you?” I said, rising from the table in anger. “How dare-”

Brother Lux stood and, in a swift motion, gestured toward me with his left hand. I choked on my words, and when I tried to force myself to speak, my throat constricted, as though an unseen hand were throttling me.

“By all means, continue,” Lux said. “Don’t you wish to speak?”

I opened and closed my mouth, but no sound would emerge. My heart pounded in my ears, and I fell back onto the examination table as a miasma of fear and panic washed over me.

Prudence looked up at me, staring at my expression of panic, and then back at Lux.

“You are him, aren’t you,” Prudence said in a hoarse whisper. “Oh Gods! You are Pius.”

Lux- no, Pius– shrugged. “I tried to use persuasion, but that didn’t work. Let us see how I fare using fear and, if necessary, force.”

I wanted to scream, but I could not.

Prudence rushed to my side.

“Grace, is he hurting you?” She asked.

I shook my head, tears stinging my eyes. A quiet instinct in the back of my mind told me not to be brave- to let Pius see my tears. He must think that he’s won. He must not know what I’m capable of, and wonder what I’ve done.

“Has your bond become so strong that you can simply- switch bodies?” Prudence was asking Pius.

“Lux and I are one. I can speak through him whenever I wish- take his body when I am in need of it. Don’t look so dismayed- this is really for your own benefit. He is always in my mind, now, acting as my conscience. He has helped me to remember the good in the world, and the reason I began my quest to destroy evil. I will protect the innocent, as long as they remain innocent.”

In that moment I was grateful he had taken my voice, or else I might have called him a liar to his face.

“Then you must understand,” Prudence said in a softer voice “that I have an innocent child of my own to consider. She must remain protected.”

Prudence clutched my hand, and though her voice was steady as she spoke, I could feel her trembling in terror.

“I have not forgotten your child. I will see that she is safe when you come to Verdant City.”

“Lady Frey is ill; she needs to rest,” Prudence continued. “While she is resting, I will decide whether to come with you.”

“You may decide whether to come willingly, or unwillingly,” Pius said.

Why is he so confident he can take someone from del Sol? I thought.

Then I remembered the rebellion, and I realized that the conspiracy between the Ancients and the guild now lay under Pius’s nose.

Has the final battle come so soon? Am I too late to save my people?

“I will decide quickly,” Prudence was saying to Pius. “Please- before I take Grace to bed, will you release her from the spell?”

“I will release her if she promises to keep her disrespectful tongue in check.”

I nodded.

Pius gazed down at me for a long time through Lux’s eyes. Was I imagining things, or did those eyes look less like Hope’s than they ever had? Lux’s body looked taller than usual, though that must have been the effect of his confident, regal posture.

Finally, Pius flicked his hand, and my throat relaxed.

“Thank you,” I whispered.

“You know- Lux is here now,” Pius said, tapping his temple with one finger, “and he is laughing at me. I didn’t think that the two of you should meet; I predicted that it would be a distraction- that you would both be consumed by jealousy and unable to cooperate. Yet here you are, caring for each other. How do you do it, Lady Frey? How have you convinced so many people of your humanity, when you obviously lack human feelings?”

“That’s easy- she treats others as though they were human. You should make a more careful study of how she behaves,” Prudence said. Then she took my arm and helped me, slowly, back to my cell.

 

#

 

My encounter with Pius’s magic left my already sore throat raw, and my mind was so full of what had happened that I thought sleep would be impossible. Prudence helped me into bed, and then poured hot water over the herbs Abbess Joy had given me. She watched me as I drank the tea, and she waited until the medicine took effect and my eyelids grew heavy before she spoke.

“Don’t fight the medicine’s effects. Sleep- I will take care of this.”

“But-”

“Abbess Joy is on our side now; don’t underestimate her abilities. I will speak to her, and I’m sure she will know what to do.

And then Prudence sent me to sleep with a light, maternal kiss on my forehead.

I did not dream as I slept, and I awoke slowly, like I was drifting up through murky waters into my dark room.

My fire had died as I slept, and even the embers were fading, but I fixed my gaze on their dull orange glow as though they could anchor my mind to the waking world. Something odd was jolting in my stomach, again and again and again, and it took me a few moments to realize that the jolt was connected to a sound- a knocking on my door.

“I am coming,” I called. I sat up, adjusted my robes, and went to the door.

Prudence was on the other side, lit from behind by the orange glow of a lantern. I squinted into the light, and the shadow that held the lantern coalesced into the familiar form and face of Brother Lux.

“Abbess Joy has requested that we all meet in her office,” Prudence said. “Are you well enough to come?”

I cleared my throat. “I believe I am.”

The man wearing Lux’s form lifted the lamp, and the light shifted until it filled my eyes.

“Perhaps you should have a cup of tea, first,” Prudence said.

“The Abbess can provide tea,” the man said in a sharp voice, and I knew it was Pius.

Fear more bitter than the strongest tea roused me. I turned to my enemy, stared into the light, and spoke.

“I am awake. Let’s not keep Abbess joy waiting.”

The three of us walked together from the dormitory to the office. When we arrived, the profusion of light from the fire and lanterns blinded me once more. I managed to find a seat through squinted eyes, and as I sat my eyes adjusted. The room coalesced into familiar shapes- the desk here, the chairs and their occupants just so, and the fireplace and bookshelf where they always stood. Abbess Joy sat behind her desk with the air of a queen on her throne. No tea was offered and no niceties were given. She stared at Pius, who sat directly across from her.

“How shall I address you, tonight?” Abbess Joy asked. “I will not pretend that you are Brother Lux. Should I call you Father Pius, or would ‘Wisdom, the Almighty,’ be better?”

Pius blinked rapidly, as though her direct speech had been surprising. Then he laughed.

“You are far too wise, dear Abbess, to put stock in such rumors.”

“There is no need for deceit,” she replied coolly. “I am the guardian of all of the secrets that pass into del Sol. Your followers fill the pilgrims’ quarters and perform prayers and miracles in the darkened cathedral- I could hardly fail to notice. Plus, now that you are here, I can feel your power. It is a new power- fresh and strong- something I haven’t felt in over a century.”

“So be it- no deceit, then.” Father Pius sat taller in his chair. “If you know my power, then you know what you face if you seek to oppose me.”

Abbess Joy brushed a loose lock of hair away from her face and continued as though Pius had not spoken.

“Furthermore, Wisdom, I know that you have threatened one of my charges-” she gestured to Prudence, who sat on a stool next to her desk, “and used magic against another.” Abbess Joy gestured toward me. “It is well within my rights to expel you from del Sol on those grounds alone.”

“Rights are only a set of rules that those in power agree to keep,” Pius said. “Power is shifting, Joy; your rights may well depend on my indulgence.”

“I have power of my own. You would not be the first God I expelled from del Sol,” Abbess Joy said flatly.

“You could not expel Order when he confined your power here,” Pius countered.

“No- but Order is different, isn’t he? He is the origin.

I looked toward Prudence. She still wore her veil, so I could see nothing in her expression, but she nodded to me slightly- almost imperceptibly. I looked back to Pius and Abbess Joy, but their gazes were locked together, as though they were engaged in silent combat.

Pius was the first to show any sign of yielding- a muscle over his right eye made the smallest twitch, and he spoke.

“You did not bring me here to expel me, or else you would have done so, already.”

“You have acted in bad faith,” Abbess Joy said, “but I believe in second chances. I know you are interested in my Abbey, and in the work that I do for the people. You’ve already taken advantage; your followers enjoy the freedom to worship as they wish, and I would never seek to persecute their sincere beliefs. All I wish is for you and your followers to respect the privacy and safety of everyone else at del Sol.”

“You would really protect everyone? Even the followers of an upstart God? Even an Ancient and a Witch?”

“You know the rules of del Sol- healing and forgiveness are given freely to everyone, as long as they do not harm anyone else under my care. I have grown protective of these young women; I see them as my own daughters. Given how you’ve treated them, I am reluctant to hand them into your care to travel to Verdant City.”

Pius spoke- a sadistic smile spreading over his face. “But you did promise that you would not interfere if Lady Frey left the Abbey of her own will. If you expel me from del Sol, I’m sure Lady Frey will still follow me so that she may testify on her husband’s behalf.”

Abbess Joy shifted back slightly, and her eyes flicked to me. “Be that as it may, while she is here, I will protect her. And even though my magic cannot reach beyond del Sol, my influence still can.”

I shivered at the threat implicit in her words, but Pius chuckled darkly. “I’ve warned you, haven’t I, that your affection for this creature will only lead to another fall. You cannot protect Lady Frey; Order proved this to you fifteen years ago, when he took her from you. Anyone with Ancient blood belongs to the Gods.”

“I belong to no one but myself,” I said.

I had spoken automatically, and I regretted the words as soon as they left my lips, but Abbess Joy turned to me with a smile as bright as the noonday sun.

“That is the spirit of an Ancient,” she said. “Your mother said the same thing many times, Grace.”

Abbess Joy turned back to Pius. “Harmony’s spirit is alive in Grace. I fell in love with that spirit long ago, and that love will never die, no matter what tragedies may fall. That love is what you are up against.”

Pius leaned back in his chair and sighed. “Then what do you propose? If seems we have reached an impasse.”

“I propose we exchange oaths. You must swear to protect my girls abroad, and to never interfere with anyone who is under the protection of del Sol. In exchange, I will continue to guard your followers and their secrets.”

“Would you promise to protect my secrets, as well? Would you promise not to awaken the old Gods and tell them that a new God has emerged?”

“My attempts to awaken Order have already failed- I am willing to make the promise.”

She is willing to pay such a high price for us, I thought. But there is a loophole. Will he see it?

Silence filled the room, and I did my best to keep my expression neutral and my breathing calm. I wished I had worn a veil, like Prudence, to better shroud my thoughts.

“I would never interfere with your pilgrims. They have come to heal and to atone, and their suffering rings out to me-” Pius leaned forward, speaking in an earnest tone. Then he stopped, took a deep breath, and leaned back in his chair. “But I cannot forget the southern shrine that lies within your borders, or the Ancient temple that is just off of the shore.”

I bit my lip. I could stop myself from speaking, this time, but I could not stop the pounding of my heart. He must hear it.

Abbess Joy leaned forward.

“Why? You have already made it quite clear you don’t wish to use Ancient warriors or assassins. What interest could you have in the temple or the southern shrine, now?”

“The Ancient phage must be contained. It has been allowed to linger on Earth for too long, and now,” he flung his arm toward me in a frantic gesture, “it has even spread into human blood. Generation after generation of wretches are born only to kill and then die. It must stop.”

“You are willing to encroach on the borders of my territory to stop it?”

“You have proven yourself unwilling to shoulder the responsibility,” Pius said, “and you were unable to stop the phage from spreading into the human realm. You allowed Harmony to be taken from you, and then you allowed Grace to be taken into the world, as well.”

Pius turned to me with a look in his eyes as hard as Iron. “Lady Frey, you are a danger to the world. You were created by men who were so corrupted by greed and the lust for power that they decided the Freys’ sin- consorting with Ancients- would be best cured by tainting the family line with Ancient blood. Order’s grip on the world was so weak that he not only allowed, but encouraged this action in order to regain his influence. Is it any wonder that I am willing to move heaven and Earth to remove the old order?

“I had planned to send Lady Frey back to del Sol after the trial is complete, but there would be no controlling her, then. She should return to her own people and suffer their fate at the Ancient temple.”

All of my plans- my freedom, the freedom of my people, and my only desire- to be with Hope after he was free- were crumbling around me. In that moment, I could only see one path of escape, and I did not hesitate to take it.

“Will you grant me my liberty if I add a promise to Abbess Joy’s oath- the promise that I will never bear a child?”

The words sent a chill through me as I said them aloud, but they could not be unspoken, and I realized I had given something away I would never get back. The tense atmosphere of the room seemed to explode- Abbess Joy and Prudence spoke at once, their words unintelligible. Even Pius turned to me with a shocked expression.

My hands were shaking, but I folded them to keep them from giving me away. I swallowed the lump in my throat and turned to Prudence first.

“This way, if- when Hope is free, Celeste’s inheritance will be secure,” I said. “You cannot object to that.”

Prudence fell back into her seat. “No- don’t do this for me.”

“I’m not,” I said, and turned to Pius. “Do you see my concession as further proof that I lack feeling? The truth is that I am troubled by the notion of bringing a child into the world who is doomed to die, as well. I only wish to ease the suffering that exists in the present.”

I turned back to Abbess Joy, who was looking at me with a pleading expression, and tried to guess her thoughts.

Perhaps she thinks that I’m throwing away my mother’s gift- that I’m letting Harmony’s line die out after she gave her life to give birth to me. But surely- Harmony wished for my liberty and the liberty of all the Ancients more than anything else.

I could not speak these thoughts aloud, so I ignored the sinking feeling in my stomach, smiled, and said, “It will be ok- I promise.”

“You must take responsibility, Abbess,” Pius said. “Lady Frey cannot enter into a magical contract, so you must swear to sterilize her, yourself. In addition, you must guard the Ancients carefully- because if I discover any of them running free in the world at large, I will return with an army to wipe them out at once.”

Something in my stomach lightened, and my breath caught. Please, Abbess Joy, see his mistake. Please, don’t quibble over his chosen words.

“This is-” Abbess Joy covered her face with her hands and shuddered, but when she removed them her expression was controlled. “Forgive me, Pius, but this is a heavy burden, indeed.”

“Better that you guard the temple than someone more cruel,” I said quietly.

Abbess Joy nodded slowly and then turned to Pius. “I will not compel either Lady Frey or Miss Goode to go with you, but if you swear to protect them, I will not interfere. I suspect that Miss Goode may have some stipulations of her own.”

“I do,” Prudence said in a stronger voice. “I would give almost anything to see Just and Hope again, but I cannot leave my child to do so. If I go, then I will take Celeste with me, and you must promise to protect her with your very life.”

“I have no intention of seeing the girl come to harm,” Pius said. “I am willing to make this promise.”

“Also, you must swear that you aren’t planning to use me as evidence against any of my friends.”

Pius nodded. “Is that all?”

“I have a good deal more I would demand of you- but this will have to do for now. If you make these promises, I will come with you.”

Pius stood. “Then the deal is struck.”

Abbess Joy stood as well, but then hesitated and looked at Prudence and I in turn.

“Are you both certain about this? Once I give my oath, I can never take it back.”

“I am, if Lady Frey is certain.”

They both turned to look at me. I stood as tall as I could- so tall that I felt as though my backbone were a rod of Iron, and I spoke.

“Yes, I am certain.”

Abbess Joy turned back to Pius and nodded.

Pius shook his arm, and a silver dagger dropped from his sleeve into his hand. He handed the dagger to Abbess Joy handle first. Abbess Joy examined the blade closely, and frowned.

“This blade has drawn blood before.”

“Yes,” Pius said, “but it has not taken life.”

“No- it hasn’t, but…” Abbess Joy looked up at Pius, tears shimmering in her deep blue eyes.

“Wisdom, I pray that you will become worthy of the power you’ve attained.”

“I will try, my lady,” Pius said with a slight bow.

Abbess Joy lifted the blade, and then sliced the palm of her left hand. Scarlet blood glittered in the firelight as it dripped from her hand and onto the stone floor.

“I, Joy, the daughter of Order, hereby swear to protect the followers of Wisdom who dwell at del Sol. I swear to keep Wisdom’s secrets, and I swear not to awaken the old Gods from their dormant state. I swear to guard the Ancients who dwell at the southern shrine and the Ancient temple, and I swear to administer the sterilis potion to Lady Grace Frey, and ensure it takes effect.”

Abbess Joy turned the blade toward herself, and handed the dagger to Pius.

Pius raised the blade and sliced his own hand. “I, Wisdom, God and High Priest, hereby swear to abide by the laws of del Sol as given by Abbess Joy. I swear not to harm or interfere with anyone under Abbess Joy’s protection, and to protect Lady Grace Frey, Miss Prudence Goode, and Miss Celeste Goode from all harm- from myself or anyone else- from now until I return them to del Sol. I swear I will not expose Miss Prudence Goode to the inquisition, nor use her as evidence against her family or friends.”

Pius and Abbess Joy gazed at each other for a long time, as though examining each other for any treachery, and then they moved closer and clasped their hands together. Their blood mingled, squeezed from between their knuckles into a small puddle on the floor beneath them.

“By my blood and magic,” they said together, “I swear this shall be done.”

Prudence gasped aloud and turned away, shielding her eyes as though from a bright light. I could see no change in the room, however- just a small glint of light in Pius’s eyes, which quickly faded.

Then Abbess Joy and Pius released their hands and stepped apart.

“Lux is bound to this promise, as well as you,” Abbess Joy said in a tone of surprise.

“I did ask his consent,” Pius said, taking a handkerchief from his robes and handing it to Abbess Joy. “I could hardly make such an oath without binding both of us, connected as we are.”

Pius, wiping his own hands clean, turned to Prudence as though he were about to speak. Prudence, however, fell to her knees.

“Prudence, I said, rushing to her. “Are you-”

But Pius had already reached down and helped Prudence to her feet. “There is no reason to fear me- not anymore.”

“I’m not afraid of you,” Prudence said defiantly as she stood. “That was just… unexpected.”

“Ah, I see.” Pius closed his eyes and took a deep breath, and Prudence visibly relaxed.

“Thank you,” she muttered.

Pius turned back to Abbess Joy and bowed deeply to her.

“Abbess Joy, I am relieved that we were able to reach an agreement. Del Sol is a beacon of light and hope to my followers- to the world at large- and I was anxious to preserve it.”

“Don’t forget how much you owe to your followers. Don’t forget the true purpose of power,” Abbess Joy said.

“I will not,” Pius said. Then he turned to Prudence and me.

“It is late. Please, allow me to escort you back to your rooms. From now on, I am responsible for your safety.

Part LXX

The Coven, Part LXVIII

Though the world’s order had been shaken, everyday life in the Abbey remained simple, harmonious, and unchanging. When I felt well enough to join the sisters again, I saw that they still gathered in the cathedral for prayer and devotion, labored to run the Abbey and serve others during the day, and in the evening met for their silent meal.

After dinner, the sisters pulled down their veils, rose as though one, and filed through the back door toward the Abbess’s office for confession.

Then the sisters stopped and turned back to stare at me.

I had risen to follow the sisters, which was strange enough in itself. Stranger still, Prudence- who had been serving the others as they ate- stepped forward to follow as well.

“Aren’t you coming back to the calefactory with me?” Celeste’s harsh whisper broke the silence.

Prudence replied with only a gesture toward Mercy, who stepped forward and took Celeste’s hand. Celeste shrugged and followed Mercy through the set of doors at the back of the room. Then Prudence turned back and nodded to Abbess Joy.

Abbess Joy nodded in turn, and gestured for the sisters to continue as before.

The retreat to confession continued in silence except for the footsteps that echoed off of the stone walls. Then we stopped, and the first sister went into the office with Abbess Joy. The other sisters formed a queue outside, heads bowed in prayer.

Pssssst- Lady Frey!”

The sisters looked up at this second interruption, and one of the sisters stepped out of queue and raised her veil, revealing Innocence’s face.

“Lady Frey-” she continued in a loud whisper, beckoning me to follow with her right hand.

I sighed and gestured for Prudence to wait, and then followed Innocence into a small chamber just off of the hallway.

Innocence shut the door and turned to me with a pout. “Lady Frey, this is really most provoking behavior. If you act piously now, how can I hope to avoid my spiritual duties?”

“I will not make piousness my habit, I assure you. I’ve come to make a special confession. As for your duties- Abbess Joy will not judge you if you refrain from confessing.”

“No, but Sister Purity will.” Innocence leaned forward with a conspiratorial grin, “I can guess why you are here, and you are quite right- Abbess Joy is most understanding. You needn’t worry.”

I took a deep breath to calm my nerves, reminding myself that there was no way Innocence could really know what I had to confess and, if she had, would not likely grin.

“You should not pry into the confessions of others. They are private,” I said as mildly as I could manage.

“I can’t help but notice,” Innocence protested. “You and Sister Jubilee never confess- and now you come together. You must have sinned together. I was so nervous when Purity and I had to confess, but Abbess Joy wasn’t shocked at all. She only said she was glad we had stopped quarreling.”

“If you really have stopped quarreling, I am glad as well,” I said. “I was concerned for you after we spoke before Chaosmas, when you declared that you no longer trusted friendship.”

Innocence’s cheeky smile faded, and she bit her lip. “I discovered some things about Purity that made me doubt everything we had shared. Since then, she’s explained why she needed to keep so many secrets, and that we were really on the same side all along. Strange things were happening at St. Blanc- more than you probably know- and Abbess Joy needed information for the sake of the Gods.”

“Then Sister Purity was one of the Abbess’s spies,” I whispered.

“Well- yes, I suppose,” Innocence said. “Purity wasn’t really the Prince’s mistress; nevermind the rumors. She was sent to protect the Prince, though from what, I don’t know. After the rumors about Purity and Lord Frey, the Prince didn’t think it was proper to keep her at the Palace anymore, and he sent her back to del Sol.”

How much does the Abbess already know? I thought, taking another deep breath to keep my nerves in check. Even before we arrived at del Sol, she must have known that the Coven had targeted the Prince.

“I wouldn’t tell you these secrets, except I thought you should know your husband didn’t betray you. Purity only flirted with Lord Frey so she could discover whether he was a threat to the Prince. When she met Lord Frey behind the library, Purity grew tired and faint, so Lord Frey escorted her back to her rooms so she could rest. She never touched him.”

“I know she didn’t, but thank you for telling me,” I said.

“I am sorry about what happened to Lord Frey. Now that I know the incident was no-one’s fault, I regret that I was always rude to him.”

“I understand” I said. “You were loyal to your friend, of course.”

“You must be very lonely here, without him. I don’t think badly of you for taking comfort elsewhere. Give Sister Jubilee my assurances that I don’t think badly of her, either.”

“What in the world do you mean?”

But Innocence only winked put down her veil, hiding her dimples and her grin, but failing to hide her girlish giggle as she retreated back into the hall.

 

#

 

Despite the distraction that Innocence had provided, I returned to a long and difficult wait for confession. Abbess Joy scrupulously counseled each penitent, and so the queue moved very slowly. How quickly the time had gone, I thought, when I made tea and chatted with Prudence instead!

Each time the door opened and a sister exited, Abbess Joy would peek out to greet the next sister with a warm and welcoming smile. I imagined Abbess Joy’s warm smile fading away as I spoke- her expression growing heavy with the burden I brought her.

“Abbess Joy will not betray Hope,” Prudence had assured me before we came. “She is bound to protect the secrets of anyone who comes to del Sol. Otherwise, she could not act as confessor.”

But we aren’t simply asking her to lighten the burden of our spirits, I had thought. We are asking her to deliberately deceive the High Priest.

Still, I could not deny that Abbess Joy’s assistance would be necessary to hide the liberated Ancients and the conspiracy with the Oculist Guild, especially since Wisdom’s followers had infiltrated the Pilgrimage. Abbess Joy had helped the guild hide their secrets for years, so it was likely she would willingly hide their rebellion. Even so, I remembered Dare’s reluctance to go to Abbess Joy with the Ancients’ troubles- to tempt her to fall further.

Eventually, the line shortened and Innocence went into Abbess Joy’s office. Her confession was short, and after she emerged Abbess Joy opened the door wide and drew Prudence and I inside.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” Abbess Joy said, closing the door behind us. Then she stepped back, still facing the door, and brought her hands together, murmuring a quiet prayer.

“Refrain from touching the outside wall,” she said to me when her prayer was done. “Everything you say to me will be protected by a veil of silence.”

Prudence threw back her veil, and we sat together facing Abbess Joy at her desk. Abbess Joy sat and waited, her expression open. The fire crackled and popped in the hearth, filling the silence that stretched between us.

“I suppose I should begin,” Prudence said, “though you know much of my story, Abbess, and have guessed even more. The truth is, I am guilty of the crimes for which I was condemned, and I did not act alone.”

Prudence continued, relating her family’s history, her affair with Hope, and how she had been drawn into witchcraft. Abbess Joy’s expression remained serene, her eyebrow only raising once when Prudence named Pius the coven leader. Prudence related Pius’s manipulations, her own resistance, and the consequence that had led to her arrival at del Sol.

Then Prudence stopped and I spoke, stumbling a little over my words. The Abbess knew even less of my story than she had Prudence’s, I realized, and I had to go back over my tale- to explain and add more detail to fill in what she had missed.  I closed my eyes to avoid Abbess Joy’s gaze when I confessed that I had used Hope to lash out at my father and the Prince. When I opened my eyes again, however, she was still gazing at me with sympathetic eyes, and she reached out to touch my hand when my eyes filled with tears.

When I explained my deductions about Pius and his plans, and I laid out the evidence Prudence and I had gathered, Abbess Joy leaned back again, steepling her hands in thought. She did not betray any surprise, however, until I explained what had happened, “… during the storm, the night after Chaosmas.”

Then Abbess Joy leaned forward and gripped the edge of her desk, the tips of her fingers turning white. She gasped aloud when I pulled up my sleeve to show her the brand, but otherwise stayed silent while I finished my tale.

After I had finished, she stood swiftly and went to a small cabinet next to the fireplace, and came back with a small tin.

“Prudence is correct- the scars are infected. This should help,” she said. She knelt by my chair, opened the tin, and applied liberal amount of ointment to the brand on my arm and my chest. Then, when she had finished, the tin slipped from her fingers and fell open onto the ground. Abbess Joy looked up at me, her eyes filled with tears.

“We should not have allowed these wounds to fester. I’m ashamed I haven’t done more- that I let my fear of falling further rule me.”

“Please- don’t,” I said. “Your burden was already so great that I didn’t want to add to it. You give so much to everyone who comes to del Sol; I can’t imagine how much worse the world would be if the Gods stripped you of your remaining power.”

“This burden should not have fallen to you,” Abbess Joy said firmly. “Bless you, Grace. Bless you for fighting for Harmony’s people.

“I had thought that, if I proved faithful, I could persuade Order to listen to my petitions on the Ancients’ behalf. But Order is dormant; it is natural that he rejects the prayers of a fallen Angel, but the prayers of the faithful have gone unanswered, as well. While I’ve waited, holy magic has faded, and del Sol is one of the last lights left in the world. What’s worse, the church has become so corrupt that its leader-”

Abbess Joy leaned back on her heels and looked up at Prudence and me. “How certain are you of your accusations regarding Father Pius?”

“We are only certain of what we’ve seen,” Prudence said. “His followers believe he is a God. I knew him only as the Priest of our coven, and Raven told Grace that he is a demon. No matter what he really is, though, we can attest to his cruelty and his power.”

“He has aroused my suspicions on more than one occasion,” Abbess Joy said. “If what you say is true- if Pius wishes to take Order’s place- this would be the perfect time to try.”

“Is that what Miss Taris meant when she said ‘we will take the world from the old Gods as they sleep?’”  Prudence asked.

“It is possible.” Abbess Joy stood up in one swift motion and returned to her seat. “Thank you for sharing your burdens with me. It is lighter- much lighter- than the burden of waiting. Since Order will not awaken, then I shall.”

Abbess Joy leaned forward again, closing her eyes and steepling her hands.  “This will be very difficult with Wisdom’s followers in the pilgrimage, yet I cannot turn them away. I will meet with Dare and Sir Silas as soon as I can do so without arousing suspicion, and we will formulate a plan to keep the Ancient temple and the southern shrine hidden from the Pilgrims. In the meantime-”

Abbess Joy opened her eyes and smiled so widely that the smooth skin around her eyes crinkled ever so slightly. “You had a good thought, Prudence, though I am glad you didn’t act on it. The demon called Raven has been attempting to access church information, and to glean secrets from our mirrors. I will allow her access to my mirror and speak to her directly.”

Prudence’s eyes went wide, and Abbess Joy laughed in reply.

“Please don’t look so surprised- with a demon at the helm of the church, and with the Gods sleeping, where else can we turn for answers?” Abbess Joy leaned forward, taking my hand and Prudence’s in each of hers. “You have both endured so much- exploited and used by the sinister forces all around you- and yet you have risen to fight back. Now we may fight together.”

 

#

 

I recognized the look in Abbess Joy’s eye as she made plans- my act of rebellion had sparked something inside of her akin to the flame that had kindled in my heart when I resolved to fight for Hope. I was glad to see the spark there, instead of the disappointment or heaviness of burden that I’d anticipated. But when I remembered that Abbess Joy was a fallen Angel whose very soul was perched upon a precipice, I imaged the flame growing until it consumed the entire Abbey.

I could not afford to dwell on such worries when an even greater danger had already manifested, so I decided I would relate my worries to Dare, and trust that she would use her temperate influence over Abbess Joy.

Prudence and I continued to work with Abbess Joy until well past ten o’clock, when my cough distracted Abbess Joy from her plans.

“Grace, you should be in bed,” she chided. “You are still recovering from your cold. Rest- we will meet again soon.”

Prudence gazed at the clock with anxious eyes as we stood to go, and when we were alone in the hallway, she leaned close and whispered, “you aren’t really going to sleep tonight, are you? You are recovering quickly, and I know you have some vials of wakefulness potion stashed in that trunk of yours.”

“I can stay awake, if you need me. Why do you ask?”

“Don’t you remember your promise? My Chaosmas gift is ready for you- don’t tell me yours isn’t ready yet.”

“It isn’t perfect,” I admitted, “but we have given up perfection, haven’t we? Come with me.”

I linked my arm with Prudence’s and walked with her back to the dormitory. When we reached my room, I lit the lantern and several candles to fill the room with light. Then I dragged the unrolled paper containing my latest drawing from under my bed.

“Here- I started this the day Celeste had her drawing lesson. It is as good a likeness as I will ever be able to draw, I’m afraid.”

I handed the paper to Prudence, who lifted her veil and stared at the paper. She held it at arm’s length and then drew it closer again, as though she could not understand what she was seeing at all. Then she lowered the paper and stared at me with a bewildered expression.

“Who is this girl?”

“If you can’t recognize her, my artistic skills are far worse than I’d thought. It is you.”

“No- this isn’t me. It looks something like the girl I was at Sixteen, but different- a woman who has never existed.”

“This is you, now,” I said.

“You really see me this way?” She held up the paper again, and her bluebell eyes misted with tears. “No- you’ve drawn me in a flattering light. This woman is too lovely.”

“You are lovely. I’ve been studying the details of your face- the soft lines here and here- the freckle here- I wouldn’t have included them if I’d meant to flatter. I only wished to produce an accurate record.”

“So, if not for the curse, this would be my face?” she breathed. “Oh Grace, thank you. You have no idea what you’ve given me.”

“I’ve given you nothing- that is your face. If you were to go to the temple, any Ancient would tell you the same.”

Prudence put the paper carefully aside. “You have given me something. You’ve given me a glimpse of who I might be if I were stripped of everything I regret.”

“No- I’m looking through an illusion to see who you truly are. What I see includes your past,” I protested, “flaws and virtues alike.”

“You don’t really see the flaws, but thank you for believing that you do.”

I bit my lip to prevent myself from groaning aloud in frustration. “I don’t know how to make you listen to me, but perhaps I’m not listening to you, either. Prudence- when you look in the mirror, what exactly do you see?”

Prudence paused, and then she went to the table to find a piece of fresh paper and some leftover charcoal. She sketched a portrait- one as elegant and complete as the one I’d spent weeks perfecting. But though her hands moved deftly, they made all the wrong motions, creating sunken cheeks instead of round ones, beady eyes instead of wide ones, thin lips, and deep lines on top of sagging jowls.

Can’t she even feel her own face with her hands? I wondered. Then I remembered Lux’s rigid hands as he’d groped at the non-existent floor in the cottage. To Lux, the stone floor had been real, and he’d only realized something was amiss when I’d descended into the tunnel through the ‘floor.’

“I have an idea,” I said. I held up my right hand. “Here, put your fingers over mine- lightly- and close your eyes.”

Prudence reached out to touch my fingers as instructed, but she narrowed her eyes skeptically for a few moments before she shut them.

I reached out and, with her fingers still resting over mine, traced the contours of her face. I ran my fingers along her firm jawline and around her smooth, round cheek all the way up to her smooth brow. Then I traced around her closed eyes, down her straight nose, and finally moved my finger over the edges of her plump, wide lips, which parted in shock. Her breath caught, and her eyes flew open as though in sheer reflex.

“I- I see,” she whispered. She slipped her fingers away from mine, and then turned back to the portrait I’d drawn. She traced the lines of the portrait with her finger, mirroring the motions I’d made moments before on her face.

Though she had her back turned to me, I could see her shoulders tremble a little, and her breath caught again- a trembling gasp that was so soft it was barely audible.

“Prudence-”

“Thank you,” she whispered. Then she wiped her face and turned back, and she was smiling again. Though her eyes shimmered with tears, they crinkled around the edges as though she were about to laugh.

“I expect that your gift is ready, now.” She pointed to the door. “Go- look into Miss Taris’s room.”

“Miss Taris?” I said, but Prudence just shook her head and pointed again. I opened the door and went to Miss Taris’s room, as instructed. The door was slightly ajar, but when I knocked on the doorframe there was no reply from within. I entered the room and found Miss Taris slumped over her book, eyes shut and snoring loudly.

“I don’t understand,” I said turning around. Prudence was standing behind me, holding up a vial of milky white liquid.

“I spent the last two weeks brewing this. I put three drops in her goblet at dinner. She will be asleep for the next eight hours, at least.”

“Prudence! Miss Taris will suspect us, and if she tells Father Pius-”

“She fell asleep before she had the chance to take a wakefulness potion- it can happen to anyone. Now you’re free to go to the tower. Honest is eager to show you the work he has done.”

“The work he’s- Oh! Prudence-” I said. “Is it finished?”

Prudence only laughed in reply, and I grabbed her hand, dragging her with me to the tower as quickly as my feet would carry me.

 

 

 

#

 

 

When I arrived at the tower, Honest was waiting for me. He ran to me when I entered and grasped my hand, a wide smile stretched across his face.

“I must congratulate you,” he said without preamble. “What a blow you have struck to the Church! How I wish I could have fought by your side! But I was working in the tower when Sir Silas came looking for reinforcements, and by the time Mr. Filius found me, Sir Silas had already departed. Still, I mean to join the forces at the temple as soon as I’ve become a journeyman. My treatise is ready- I only lack one thing, with which I hope you will assist.”

“Then I must congratulate you on your treatise,” I said, “and I will lend what assistance I can.”

“The attachment for the spectroscope looks rather shoddy,” He admitted as we climbed the spiral stair together, “but I believe it should be sufficient. The mechanism you designed to attach the spectroscope to the telescope’s eyepiece worked well enough until I re-sealed the box to prevent light leakage. Now the spectroscope is too heavy, so I had to add another brace.”

Prudence followed Honest and I as we climbed the spiral stair. When we reached the observatory, she turned the crank that split the ceiling, which opened bit by bit like curtains being drawn on a celestial stage. Soon the sky was visible, with the stars all in their places like players assembled on a stage.

“I have the spectroscope here,” Honest said, picking the instrument up from the platform. “All you need to do is choose your object and direct the telescope.”

I climbed onto the platform and left the audience behind; the sky stretched out infinitely around me, and I became a player among the stars.

“Lystra has already set,” I muttered. “But here- Lilith is almost at its apex, there at the tip of the crow’s wing. It is the brightest star in the sky, so if we cannot gather enough light from it, we will know that the spectroscope is insufficient. Afterward, if our test works, we may compare the spectral lines to that of Tigris- the second-brightest wanderer.”

“I would also like to test the spectroscope against diminishing magnitudes of stars, so that we can gauge the instrument’s sensitivity,” Honest said. “But I agree we should start with the brightest.”

I nodded and turned the platform’s cranks until Lilith was in my sights. Then I stepped aside and allowed Honest to remove the eyepiece I had used, and to attach the spectroscope.

He adjusted the spectroscope several times, and then he looked through it for a long while before stepping back with a sigh.

“There isn’t anything. I suppose the instrument isn’t sensitive enough to view starlight, after all.”

My heart sank at his words, but only for a moment. Then my mind rallied. “No- that can’t be so. It performed well with the dim-light tests. The telescope is a powerful and sensitive instrument, and even the slightest bump can knock the object out of its sights.”

I took hold of the dials and looked through the small alignment scope, adjusting the ascension and the declination, little by little, until the star was perfectly centered.

I looked into the spectroscope and saw the elusive rainbow against the velvet black- a spattering of light that wavered with each tiny motion of the scope like ripples on a pool of water.

Then the image blurred entirely, and I had to move away to avoid getting tears on the instrument.

“It is there,” I said. “The spectrum- I saw helium written in its lines, very faint.”

Honest rushed to look, and a laugh escaped his lips. “We have done it! Oh Lady, we have done it!”

He clapped my back as I wiped away my tears, and then we were both laughing, embracing, scrambling for paper to record our finding. Prudence leaned to look into the spectroscope as Honest held aloft a red lamp and recorded the spectral lines- the secret of the star’s composition he’d found hidden in light itself.

It took me a long time to stem my tears so I could look again. There was a dark question that lingered in my heart. How can you celebrate this miracle- you, who have taken human life- you, who have destroyed minds who might have shared in the joy of discovery, and now never will.

But I did wipe away my tears and smiled, because the answer came to me like a rainbow that danced against the darkness. I celebrate because this is what I have fought for- the freedom to seek these miracles.

I looked into the spectroscope to see the miracle once more.

Part LXIX

The Coven, Part LXVII

The trawler ride back to the shrine passed in silence, except for the pattering of rain.

Four of the trawler’s passengers were silent out of weariness. Swift, Meritt- the tall girl from the temple- an Ancient man who declared that his former name was dead, and I were the only living passengers. Merritt sat at the stern and manned the rudder while Swift, the unnamed ancient, and I huddled nearby.

We were all dressed in the pilgrim’s robes that had been discarded by the Guild members when they arrived at the temple. I was impressed how quickly the guild had been able to spring into action with so little planning. The surviving guards had been locked in the armory, which had been raided and the weapons catalogued. The guild members who possessed medical training had seen to the wounded, and the rest had donned the fallen guards’ uniforms and searched all of their papers and effects. The guild identified the fallen before they were buried, and then set about learning everything they could to help us avoid detection as long as possible.

“We must pose as guards in case inquisitors return,” Sir Silas had stated, pulling on a black coat. “It is lucky that the Captain survives- his absence would seem suspicious to anyone who has been here before, so if any inquisitors journey to this island we can force him to speak on our behalf. We will write his letters for him- Mr. Lundt can copy any hand- and we don’t want the Captain to give us away by planting a code or signal in his correspondence.”

“This would have been impossible without you,” I said. “Please, accept my thanks-”

“None of that, Lady Frey,” he grunted in reply. “Your courage throughout all of this has shamed me, and I must own that we have been looking for an opportunity to strike at the inquisition for a long time.”

“Funny- you’ve been against all of my proposals to strike at the inquisition,” Trusty said.

“You young ones are too impetuous. You want to speak out in the streets and call for revolution, which will only get you killed. A stealth operation is much better, and these ready-made allies are too valuable to pass up.”

I had tried multiple times to thank Trusty, but he had refused to acknowledge the thanks at all.

 

 

 

#

 

 

 

It was impossible for me to stay and help the Guild any longer without arousing suspicion, so I’d boarded the trawler with three of the liberated Ancients and headed back to the shrine. Our task was a simple one- to deliver the bodies of the fallen Ancients so that they may be buried.

It was right that this burden fall to me.

As soon as we arrived on shore, I took a shovel in hand to help dig the graves. Digging the graves was a full day’s work, and when the burials were complete we sang in honor to the fallen warriors into the night. Meanwhile, the rain cleared and the red moon rose high into the sky.

Then we sat, silent and fatigued, around the fire. Merrit and Dare clutched their mugs as they stared into the flames, and Swift closed her eyes and leaned back against the nameless Ancient’s chest as he held her in his arms.

Finally, Dare spoke. “I never imagined this day would come.”

“Very few of us did, and we hardly ever spoke of it,” Swift murmured. Then she smiled and looked up at me. “It was whispered that the freeborn Ancient would free us all, one day.”

“I- I did so little. Trusty did so much more than me, for the balloon was his, as were the weapons. As for the fighting- you did that yourselves.”

“A leader is much more than weapons or fighting skills,” Dare said.

The party fell silent again, and then the nameless Ancient spoke. “Lady- I have heard that you are half-blooded; how alike are we? Have you ever encountered magic? Are you soulless like us?”

“I have encountered magic, but it does not affect me. I don’t really know what it means to be soulless, though. Have any of you- have you ever felt…”

Merritt shrugged. “I love my father and my sisters, and I cried when my mother died. I still find it painful to kill. I’ve never been in love, but those idiots certainly are-” she gestured to Swift, who had opened her eyes and leaned in for a languid kiss with the nameless Ancient. “I don’t know much about humans, but as far as I know, we Ancients don’t lack anything in here.” She placed her hand over her heart.

“You’ve lived among the humans. Have you ever noticed anything?” The nameless Ancient said.

“I don’t know. I don’t believe any two humans feel things the same way. I’ve seen lust, hatred, the thirst for vengeance, love, forgiveness, compassion, and betrayal among them, and I’ve personally experienced every one of these feelings. When I came to del Sol, I almost fell into despair, but my friends helped me through it.

“The only sensations that are alien to me are the ones that have been described to me by mages. They speak of a kind of ecstasy- of interconnectedness with nature and communion with spirits. I’ve felt some sort of connection to nature, of course- inspiration when I look up at the stars, calmness when I am near the forests or the sea, or interest for the wild creatures and plants that thrive all around us- but nothing like what has been described to me.”

“Do you envy it?” Swift asked, her voice half-muffled by a yawn.

“I don’t know. I don’t want to die- to be lost forever- but there is a price that those with souls pay for immortality. One mage described her experiences to me not as ecstasy, but as an invasion of self- a type of violation so grotesque that it frightened me.”

“I would never wish for a soul,” Merritt said firmly. “When I die, there will be nothing to feel, and no me to regret life. I’m not afraid of death.”

“We are death,” the nameless Ancient said. “Why should we be afraid?”

Swift leaned back to look into the nameless Ancient’s face. “Is that why your name is dead, now?”

“No- my name is dead because I am free. None of us were given names by our parents. The bishop named us the day he wrote some meaningless word on our contracts and sent them to the High Priest to be sealed. I want a real name- an Ancient name, like the ones from Dare’s stories.”

“Can you really change your name? We may have overthrown the guards, but our contracts are still intact,” Merritt objected.

“Don’t worry about the contracts,” I said. “As you say- they are nothing but meaningless words.”

Dare nodded slowly. “We are Ancients- why should the High Priest’s magic apply to us? When you rose up and slew the guards, no mystical force prevented you. No- we’ve been bound by nothing more than fear of our masters and the force of their army.”

Dare stared into the fire for a few moments in thought, and then looked at the nameless Ancient and smiled.

“You value the freedom that was so dearly bought by our ancestors,so I will call you ‘Mars’ after the founder of the Ancient line who defied the Gods.”

He nodded grimly. “I am honored.”

Dare looked around, bestowing her strange smile on each of us. “Each of you should have an Ancient name. Swift- you will be Nerio, who heeded Mars’s call and struck the first blow in the Ancient war. Merrit-you will be Victoria, the Ancient general who was so powerful that she fatally wounded an Angel.”

Dare turned to me then- her grey eyes so full of light, and her gaze so intense that she seemed to look within me.

“I cannot give you your Ancient name, because your mother already chose one. Before you were born, as she was dying, Harmony told me that she hoped you would grow to be like Venus, who gathered all of the Ancients together.”

 

#

 

I slept very little that night, and I lingered too long in the morning to say a prolonged goodbye to my new friends. When the sun rose high over the sea, I finally turned to go, knowing that every second I delayed my return would increase Miss Taris’s suspicion.

During my walk along the shore, the sun grew hot. I longed to loosen my robes, but I dare not, lest some passerby see my new scars. The scars itched and stung under my thick robes, but I didn’t stop to scratch them. I swallowed hard periodically, trying to rid myself of the itch in my throat that I recognized as the harbinger of a very bad cold.

I reached the abbey well after noon. I was met first by Innocence, who exclaimed that I was far too pale and took my hand to drag me to the infirmary. I did not resist, but went to the infirmary, where Abbess Joy felt my forehead and looked at my throat, gave me a strong broth to drink, and ordered me to bed.

I thanked Abbess Joy and obeyed her orders, too tired to protest. Halfway to the dormitory I met Miss Taris, who looked me over with sharp eyes and demanded to know what was wrong.

“Abbess Joy says that it’s just a cold,” I said. “I’m going to bed- you can watch me sleep, if you feel it’s necessary.”

“Where have you been?”

“The southern shrine,” I said, “just as I told you.”

Miss Taris, however, remained unsatisfied until she had watched me climb into bed and go to sleep.

I drifted in and out of sleep all day, haunted by dreams of gun smoke and bomb smoke and black jackets stained with scarlet blood. When I opened my eyes, the dark dreams melted away in the glow of golden firelight and lamplight.

There was a rustle at my bedside, and I looked up to see Miss Taris, who was placing a pot of tea and a box of fresh handkerchiefs on my table. She paused to examine the titles of some of my books, and then she looked over my treatise notes, which were spread out nearby.

I coughed, and Miss Taris jumped.

“I- I didn’t know an Ancient could catch an illness like a human,” she said. “But you’ve been snoring and coughing all day, and you are sweating, so I thought you might need these.”

“Thank you,” I said, my voice coming out as a hoarse croak. “I am as prone to illness as anyone else, but Abbess Joy can’t heal me.”

“Then- will you be alright?”

“Certainly- I only caught a chill. It just has to run its course.”

Miss Taris poured a cup of tea and handed it to me after I’d propped myself up to a sitting position. “Are the papers on your desk astrological tables?”

“Of a sort,” I said. “I’m only charting the wandering stars’ courses.”

“Do the stars tell you what will happen- with the king and Aeterna, I mean.”

“No. If such arts are really possible, they are beyond me.”

Miss Taris sat on the edge of the bed. “I’ve thought about what I said to you- about your mother, I mean, and your grief. Please accept my sincerest apologies. I should not have been so heartless.”

“Why did you say it?” I asked.

“Mostly because I hate you,” she said, “but that is no excuse.”

I laughed- almost dropping my teacup in the process- until the laugh irritated my rough throat and laughter turned into coughing. Miss Taris watched, her elegant brows arched as though in affronted dignity.

“I don’t see why that is funny.”

“Miss Taris, you are the most stubborn young woman I have ever met. You have been as determined to hate me as I have been to befriend you. Even as you apologize, you go out of your way to insult me. I wish I had something like your power to enable me to see inside your head.”

“You don’t need to see inside of my head- I speak my feelings plainly. You are the one who sneaks around, keeps secrets, and hides your feelings. To make matters worse, I cannot see inside of your heart at all. How could I possibly trust you?”

“You must get to know my character over time. I imagine that it is a more frustrating process than reading people’s feelings, but most of the world manages fairly well.”

“Trust me- the world does not manage well at all,” Miss Taris said.

Just then there was a knock at the door, and Miss Taris and I turned to see a veiled sister enter the room.

“Miss Taris! Abbess Joy told us that Lady Frey needed rest,” Prudence scolded. “If you wish to antagonize her, do so when she is well.”

“I didn’t come to antagonize Lady Frey at all,” Miss Taris sniffed. “I came to apologize. I even brought tea.”

“It’s true,” I said. “And Miss Taris, I do accept your apology.”

Miss Taris stood to go, and Prudence stepped aside to let her pass.

“I didn’t mean to disturb you,” Prudence said when Miss Taris had gone. “I’ve been anxious to see you. Are you…” she paused and then lowered her voice. “Are you alright?”

“Yes, I am. You aren’t disturbing me; I’ve been sleeping all day, and I would like some company. Would you like to have a game of ringo?”

Prudence nodded slowly, and while she went to fetch the game board, I took blank paper and a pen from my desk. Prudence returned and set up the game board on a chair, which she dragged next to the bed, and then she almost sat on the papers I’d hidden in the bedclothes.

She looked up at me through her veil, and I winked.

Did you learn anything while I was gone? I wrote.

Prudence sighed so heavily that she rustled her veil, which she tore off and tossed aside before leaning over to write.

What a question to ask me! Two nights ago, Sir Silas gathered the guild together and told the most outrageous story. Half of the guild left with him that very night. Was there really a battle? Were you involved?

I took the pen from Prudence, who looked ready to toss everything aside and smother me with questions, and wrote as concisely as I could manage.

Trusty and I went to the Ancient temple that night in his balloon in order to liberate the Ancient slaves. Trusty blew up half of the guards with bombs, while the Ancients and I shot the rest of the guards with the guns Sir Silas provided. Trusty and I are fine, but there were some casualties on the Ancient side. The guild members that Sir Silas brought are posing as guards to keep the incident secret. Oh- and the balloon was destroyed.

Prudence groaned audibly and put a hand to her head. Then she took the pen and wrote furiously.

You could have died. What possessed you to formulate and carry out such a reckless plan without consulting me at all? Were you wounded? Is that why you are in bed?

Prudence clenched the pen in her fist as she wrote, leaving spots of ink on the page and her fingers. I gently placed my hand over hers and smiled.

“I’m fine, really,” I whispered.

She relaxed a little and unclenched her hand to let the pen drop. I took the pen from her and wrote.

The only wound I received was self-inflicted; the enemy did not touch me.

I pulled down the corner of my robe, revealing the brand, which stood out red and angry against my skin.

Prudence drew air in between her teeth, making a hissing sound, and leaned closer to examine it. “What in the world…”

I covered the brand again and wrote. Pius has branded all of the Ancients with this mark, and has confined them to the Ancient temple. That was why I needed to brand myself- so I could infiltrate the temple unseen. It is also part of the reason the move was necessary; Pius had rounded up the Ancients, branded them, and had begun to kill them. We had to strike as soon as possible, and the storm gave us the perfect cover for the sound of bombs- one of the few advantages we had over the guard’s superior numbers. Now the Ancients and the guild are allied against Pius- the Ancient’s martial training and magical resistance united with the guild’s superior technology. We will build our forces in secret as long as we can, and when Pius plunges the country into anarchy, we will be ready.

Prudence stared at me without speaking for a long time, her expression inscrutable. Then she pulled me into a fierce embrace. After some time, I could feel her shoulders begin to shake, and I could feel hot tears spill onto my back. My own eyes filled with tears, and my nose and eyes dripped onto my hot face. I tried to pull away to get a clean handkerchief from the table, but Prudence held me even more tightly.

“Never again,” she whispered into my ear. “Never frighten me like this again.”

“I will try not to,” I murmured in reply.

Prudence let me go, and I blew my nose and tried to compose myself while she wrote.

The brand looks infected- you see what happens when you act impulsively? Fortunately, Abbess Joy has some ointment which should prevent the infection from getting worse.

I took the pen. Thank you, but I must protest that I did not act impulsively. I acted quickly, but there is a difference. I weighed the risk- it was great, but necessary. I knew it might go horribly wrong- it still may- but it was my one opportunity to help save my people and gain an army to fight Pius in his war. If you can see where I am wrong, please tell me.

“You are improving your game,” Prudence said aloud, clacking the game pieces before she wrote her reply.

You were right to act- more so than you know. I’ve learned much while you were gone, though I daresay my adventure wasn’t as profitable or interesting as yours. The night of the Chaosmas feast, I dressed myself in pilgrim’s robes and unveiled my face- just wearing a cowl. I find my bare face can act as an excellent disguise, because no one ever looks at it directly if they can avoid it.

One of the followers of Wisdom passed out drunk at the feast, and I managed to steal his holy symbol. Then, as the feast was winding down, Miss Taris and a tall bearded man- Mr. Wilcox- gathered all of the followers of Wisdom. They led the followers to the empty Cathedral, and I followed, unnoticed.

“Excellent move,” I said aloud, tapping a ringo piece. Then I took the pen. A dangerous move, as well. How can you be sure Miss Taris didn’t recognize your face, or sense your feelings?

I am certain that Miss Taris has never seen me unveiled, Prudence wrote. As for sensing my feelings- I have been in training the last couple of months, just as you have, but for a different sort of battle. In the old days, Hope and the others practiced evading Lady Willoughby’s mind-reading ability, turning it into a kind of game. Hope developed a meditation technique that allowed us to tightly control the direction of our thoughts and feelings. It was a difficult trick to master, because in a moment of distraction recursive thoughts – the type you think when you remind yourself not to think of something- would often creep in. Even so, with time most of us were able to gain very good control.

This, I thought, must have been how Pius and Lux hid their betrayal from Lady Willoughby.

Prudence continued to write. I have been practicing this meditation, in case it would be needed again. I used it last night to suppress my anxiety, my duplicity, and the background feelings that make up my personality, and I believe I was successful. During the meeting, the cultists confirmed everything we suspected.

What did they say? I replied. Please- be as specific as your memory will allow.

Prudence nodded and took the papers, placing them in her lap as she wrote. I fiddled with the game pieces some more, chatting aloud about a make-believe game. After a time, Prudence handed me the papers and took over the board.

“You’ve won. Do you feel up to another game?”

“Yes, please,” I said absently, taking the papers.

The Cathedral doors were shut, and Miss Taris, Mr. Wilcox, and two other cultists joined hands and cast a spell of silence at the doors. The spell was not witchcraft, though. Instead of calling on their own power, or the power of a demon, the spell was in the cast in the manner of a Holy spell, invoking a deity and taking the form of a request. “Wisdom, we beseech you to shroud us in silence. Your will be done.”

When everyone had sat, Mr. Wilcox took the podium as though he were a priest. He led the others in prayer. “Wisdom guide our minds, Wisdom guard our hearts, Wisdom, strengthen our hands, for we are with you, and you are with us.” Then the strangest thing happened- the room was suffused with a glow of light that emanated from all directions. No lantern or candle was lit, and the light cast no shadows- it was everywhere at once. Everyone present laughed and cried and praised it as a miracle.

Mr. Wilcox said that this was to be the first of many miracles. He claimed that Wisdom had ascended to godhood, but he was guiding them in the guise of a man- the High Priest himself. Mr. Wilcox said that when the time came, their loyalty was going to be tested, but that they must follow the High Priest wherever he leads.

Afterward, Miss Taris made a passionate speech, calling on the followers of Wisdom to lend their strength in the coming holy war. She said that Wisdom would fulfil his promise to ‘take the world from the old Gods as they sleep-” I remember that line perfectly. Miss Taris, who usually won’t speak three words together unless it is in anger, brought the whole room to their feet, shouting “our lives for Wisdom.” I’m certain she used her powers to move the audience, and it worked. Even I was moved. If Wisdom had manifested in that very moment and handed me a sword, I would have plunged it into the heart of anyone he labeled our enemy. Thankfully, when I left the meeting the spell was broken, and I was able to recall Pius’s sins against me.

When I came to my senses, I realized what a calamity this is. Wisdom’s followers have infested this sanctuary, and I’m afraid that, with the southern shrine and the Ancient temple so close, and Miss Taris’s reports of your defiance to Pius, your recent victory is tenuous. We may need to seek aid to further conceal the Guild’s alliance with the liberated Ancients.

I read Prudence’s words over and over, trying to memorize every detail before tossing them into the flames. Then I processed the final line, and a sensation of dread washed over me.

Whose aid do you propose we seek?

Prudence bit her lip and wrote her reply with a pained expression in her eyes.

We must stop trying to be perfect, and confess everything to Abbess Joy.

 

Part LXVIII

horsie